I understand now, what it is to cycle.
Today has been my greatest distance so far, ~70 km. Nothing impressive to some. To me? Let me be clear. The only sport I’ve ever played in my life, is chess.
These past few weeks I’ve been cycling between towns & cities in Northern France. Today was my final stretch for this part of the journey. From Beauvais to Paris. Since I’ve began cycling, I’ve been stopping for frequent breaks, usually at every second town to ask someone to fill my water-bottle. Town benches, in particular, I’d began to see as semi-necessary pit stops. I was by no means fit. If a hill was too steep, I would swallow my pride and walk it.
That’s how things began this morning. I had set my tent up in a small forest just outside Beauvais, and I woke early to a frigid and misty morning. Reluctant to face an entire day of cycling, I curled up in my sleeping bag for a good hour before the cold ousted me.
Luckily, I was at a highpoint in the landscape, so when I finally got pedalling I got to sit back feeling relaxed. The mist rolled lowly; this was my first time seeing fog across open landscape, and it’s a sight to behold. The ‘it’ of fog becomes ‘they’; what’s made apparent is that fog is a collection of creeping barrels that slither along fields, rather than just a thick, singular cloud over your vision.
I stopped at the first town I came to to eat my breakfast at a bench. I’d kept half a baguette, some cheese, and frankfurters from the day before, so I threw them together and ate with my head held low. I was ignoring the usual ‘who the fuck is this guy?’ kind-of-stares from the locals. The last time I’d eaten at a quiet town like this, some police pulled over and interviewed me in French for a good ten minutes. The ‘heroic adventurer’ fantasy you have of yourself kind of goes out the window when people stare at you like you’re a freak show in those small towns. I make a point in showing that I’m very normal, and so I refuse to avoid eating those towns. And, for once, that paid off. Until today, the only time I’d been spoken to in one, was by the police. But today? You know what? A jolly old man parked his car nearby.
‘You’re English?’ he asked me.
My favourite question.
‘No’, I answered proudly. I always answer that proudly. Seriously. It’s just my opinion that every country in Europe hates English tourists. By, ‘my opinion’, I mean, everybody hates you, Britain.
‘You travel?’ he asked in French, after some introductions.
‘With that tiny bike?..’
My bike’s not so small… I like my bike… But, ‘Oui’, I answered.
‘With… Those shoes?’. He almost looked disgusted.
I lifted one foot and looked at my footware. They were €20 mensware shoes I’d bought in Lithuania. They looked damned fine, I tell you. They’d be sold at a few hundred pounds in London, I swear it. But… They weren’t exactly designed for long hours of cycling.
We spoke for another five minutes after the shoe thing, but my French gave out and I couldn’t talk any further. He wished me luck and a goodbye. Bonne chance. I’d certainly need it. Five minutes later, I was facing the greatest hill I’d met since the beginning of my journey.
Yes, just a hill. Nothing mighty. But it was steep, and remained steep for a good ten minutes of my slow-paced cycling.
Here came my usual mental war.
If you walk, you’ll conserve energy for the longer trip.
If you cycle, you’ll be proud.
… That’s about it. I never give further reasoning to cycling up hills. I get to keep my pride. Needless to say, I gave up half-way and walked.
Atop the heavy hill was a lumber camp. Is that the name? Lumber camp?.. Well, a few dozen trees had been cut, and their logs had been stacked. Exhausted, I collapsed myself against one of the logs and took out my bar of chocolate.
I’m not sure how long I sat there. I don’t honestly think I was tired for more than ten minutes. Like I said, I’d walked half the way up the hill. Still, I hadn’t slept well and couldn’t bring myself to get up again. This’d happened once before, on my first day with the bike. Back then, I slept on the side of a road (only to be woken by a honking horn, when someone driving by thought I was dead). But this time, the ground was muddy; I couldn’t find a comfortable position to sleep in, so I sat there and talked to the many insects swarming over my backpack.
‘Est-ce vousette Américain?’ I asked a beetle. This was the first piece of French I’d learned from the Pimsleur audio-course.
Repeat after me, the program’s speaker would say. Oui Monsieur, je suis Américain.
‘Non Monsieur, fuck you’, I would say.
But the Beetle gave no such answer. Too bored to continue conversing, I forced myself to my feet. But I’d barely travelled. It’d been two hours, and I’d gotten, at best, ten kilometers? I had such a long way to go… I certainly wasn’t feeling very enthusiastic.
But, predicting this mood was exactly why I stopped at the top of the hill. The speed, I’d hoped, would pick up my mood a little.
This whole way, I hadn’t seen any other cyclists, and the cars were passing awfully close… I dreaded that they all gave me hefty stares, that I’d made some unknown blunder by cycling on this road.
But I was slowly picking up speed. The nervous thoughts were drifting away as the hill sloped downwards, and then…
Him? Him! A cyclist! You! Cyclist!
This was it. I would let me mood suffer no longer. I’d been feeling uncertain, like me being there was a little too bizarre. But now! This man was passing me by, heading the other direction. He was well kitted, with one of those tight cyclist suits, with brand names printed all over it. His shining, sleek bike pushed its way up the slope without the slightest sign of effort being needed. The pros always make it look easy.
But my usual jealousy was absent. Here he was, another cyclist – I wasn’t crazy to be here!
Fuck it, I told myself. Fuck it, nobody every interacts. Nobody ever says things, does things, not even to strangers. Why show a stranger some formal demeanor. We’re never to meet again, cyclist, so fuck it: here’s how I’m feeling.
‘YAAAEEAAAAAAAAAAAAA!’ I roared at the top of my lungs. I wildly pumped one hand into the air as I passed by with my victory cheer.
(Side note, I am mentally incapable of forcing a shout, so this actually sounded a good deal more like a mumbly ‘jeeaaaauff’.)
He passed me by laughing, and that was that. Job done. 70 kms to Paris? Bah! Here I come.
The next town, I stopped at a busy bar. It was 12 pm, so I’m really not sure why it was busy, but whatever, people are strange. I entered with my empty water bottle.
‘Eau, s’il vous plait?’
The whole bar stopped dead. It was like I’d entered from a western. Nearly a dozen men stared me down while the woman behind the counter filled my bottle.
What, did they think I was weird?
IT WAS 12 PM, SO I REALLY WASN’T SURE WHY IT WAS SO BUSY. BUT WHATEVER. YOU. PEOPLE. ARE. STRANGE.
I stepped outside, and made my way to my collapsed bike.
‘Where are you from?’ I heard.
I turned, and behind me on the road…
Was the fucking cyclist. The one I’d yelled at. He was speaking in English.
What, was it some subtly in my tanning? My ridiculous looking hat, or my bag? The yelling, wasn’t it. My yelling sounded English. This man was psychic.
‘Ireland’, I answered.
‘Where are you going?’
He laughed, and looked me up and down.
‘With those shoes?’
I tell you, these shoes are stylish are fashion-incarnate. Everyone’s talking about the shoes. Haven’t you heard of those crazy shoe things everyone’s talking about?
‘Come, come’, he said with a wave of his hand. I got on the bike, and I followed.
The man’s name was Thomas. He was born near Paris, but his family had immigrated from East Africa during his mother’s pregnancy. Like I said, his outfit was covered with brand names, so I quickly asked him if he competes. Indeed, the upcoming Monday was his next competition. He was out practising.
I nodded. ‘Are you good’, I asked? He was clearly going out of his way to slow himself to my pace.
He laughed, and answered ambiguously:
‘It’s my passion’, he said.
It’s an inefficient means of fucking transport, I thought.
But things are bizarre like that.
To be honest, I’d grown some distaste towards cycling. Who was it that said exercise makes you feel good? John, was that you? Fuck you John. It was tiresome, painful, and slow. At the end of any of my cycling days, I’d feel uncomfortable, tired, I’d have contributed nothing to writing, and had done nothing to improve my French.
Thomas, on the other hand… Voluntarily, cycled 90 – 100 kms every day. He’d just returned from cycling the entirety of Iraq. I asked to check, but there was no doubt about it: he had cycled across France multiple times.
And he was 55.
Seriously, fifty-five. I’d have pinned him at, maybe, 38 at an absolute maximum? He peddled, and peddled endlessly. The man was a fucking machine.
We soon passed our first town and bench. I stared longingly as we passed, but Thomas spoke to me the whole time through. The conversation had quickly shifted towards politics, and Thomas had a lot to say.
I realised… I was going to pass the bench, wasn’t I?
I passed the bench.
70 km… 70 km… 70.
Soon came the pains. The intense burning in my upper legs. My bag weighed immensely upon my left shoulder. I would have stopped to re-adjust. I would have stopped to wipe my brow. I would have stopped to chug down some water.
But we were discussing Congo, and Lumumba’s assassination (look it up, really, please do).
And there we continued. Through each dirt road, each eye-filled town. Two cyclists, speaking in English, on the subject of Imperialism. I remember exactly the look some stranger gave us when he announced, ‘Without stealing from Africa, France’s economy would have been nothing’. I guess the stranger understood that part.
Hours passed… Days.
No, wait, the first one.
I grew uncomfortable, so on downward slopes, I stood on my pedals. I grew tired, so on straights I’d let my wheels roll and I’d sit up straight to catch my breath. My legs burned, oh they burned, but I’d forget about that as soon as I reached the top of any slope.
Thomas slowed for me, indeed. To him this was nothing. But to me? I’d finally understood. Cycling, I’d believed, was walking – but quicker. Simply, you were converting your footsteps into wheeling.
Thomas knew better. No, there were no footsteps to convert.
Thomas knew. On a bike, there is no step, because there’s nothing to step on. The ground becomes distant. The world drifts away, like our endless numbered days. Earth is a thing for children, it’s where the stomp on Autumn leaves. Thomas, and on those moments, me… Had no earth. We had the bike. The bike, had become one. We, had become the bike. An entity, rolling rounds, made firm.
‘15 kms‘ to Paris, was the next thing Thomas said to me. ‘But this is my house’.
He stuck out his arm to indicate left.
‘Come for tea?’
We headed inside, I was privileged to biscuits, orange juice, black tea – and once I asked he permitted me to use his shower.
Soon his brother arrived for a visit, and as he pulled in with his jeep, Thomas exclaimed, ‘Ah! He can take you the rest of the way to Paris. The bike will fit in the boot’.
The brother, Mathis, stepped out and greeted Thomas. Frankly, I was eager at this point to be getting a lift. I shook hands with the brother and wore a polite smile.
‘This is Nate’, Thomas said in French. Mathis spoke no English.
‘He is a cyclist; I met him on the way – he came 60 km with that bag of his. Hey, could you take him to Paris a little later?’
The man looked me over.
‘Yeah no problem’, he nodded.
Thomas looked to me with a smile. ‘Good!’ he said to me. He always seemed to announce his switches to English with the word ‘good’.
‘But’, Mathis said in French. We both looked back to him.
‘What’s with those shoes?’