Encore 04/10/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, france, marseille, mountains, pyrenees, spain
Nearly 2,000 km have passed beneath my feet since my last update and all I left behind was wonder.
The roads of southern Spain were a marvel, baked and shimmering under the sun, delivering me to some of the most unbelievable terrain I’ve ever seen in my life. Between blue-green lakes and distant castles I cycled the narrowest of mountain passes, in awe of the world below as much as the sky above.
How it will resonate, I can’t say, but I know the experience defined something within me, something apart from my travels. I’m only sorry that words are all I have to help me share it.
Winding my way up coastal points and down to rocky coves, I crossed the French border in the first days of April. My final descent thrust me through an alpine tunnel, and at the other end were the grind and gravel of the flatlands I know so well.
I got lost in my thoughts for days. Peripignan, Narbonne, Montpellier – they all clicked by and I hardly noticed. It wasn’t until I collided with the limestone heights near Marseille that I realized I was pedalling and stopped wondering why.
People often ask why I left home to do this, and still, after 10 months on the road, the only answer I have is that something was missing. Pouring money or alcohol or people through the cracks only made them wider, more obvious. Yet now, with nothing, I am beginning to feel whole and sometimes all I want to do is rush home to prove it. But in my heart I know it’s too soon, and what scares me is the idea that it always will be.
Enough about that, more about Marseille.
The place is filthy, greasy as the paper in a pizza box, and when I hold it up to the neon lights as I walk the streets, I see all the rich and repulsive flavours that make a city spin.
I passed one-legged skippers and hopeless beggars, Gypsys and gentry and lipstick in the shadows, a soiled drunk who undid his belt a moment too late, ice cream chins and the dreamy song of a carousel, lemon rum ladled from peanut butter jars, fountain cherubs, slick harbours, and, oblivious to it all, there was a puppy chasing a plastic bag through the trash.
It’s been an experience like no other and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it.
Back in the saddle! 03/24/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: andalucia, camping, france, punta umbria, rain, sevilla, spain
1 comment so far
It was two full weeks after settling in Punta Umbria that I finally thought of my bike and realized, with little surprise, that I didn´t miss it one bit.
It sat unnoticed while I wandered up and down the beach, turning over splintered seashells and wondering where my passion for travel had gone.
The idea that I could go on but perhaps didn’t want to worried me. A lot. I knew I wouldn´t feel a failure if I suddenly stopped, if I said “enough” and just walked away from it all. But the thought of restarting my life when everything I own fits on the back of a bicycle was daunting, and probably always will be.
There was nothing to do but wait, take time to relax and let my wants take care of themselves. And, of course, they did.
At first all I missed was the simple pleasure of sleeping outside. The temperature drop at midnight, the symphony of insects humming while the frogs keep time, the first rays of sunshine dripping through my canvas - they´re all like a drug for me and the coming of a beautiful Spring hardly seemed the time to kick the habit.
Then, out of boredom I opened my European road atlas and, as ever, stacked hours upon hours planning imaginary routes for the only dreams I´ve ever made real. There was no going back. It was time to go.
In short order I´d organized my path to France, even using the street view on Google Maps so I could navigate around major cities without getting hopelessly lost. Why I didn´t think of that months ago is beyond me. I set Tuesday, March 16, as my departure date and spent its eve so excited, so positively tingling with electricity, that I hardly slept a wink for fear of missing the morning.
The first days on the road were awkward, but they always are. My shorts didn´t feel right, the bike seemed off balance and shifting was more chore than automatic. That´s what happens after more than a month off the pavement.
But by the time I reached Sevilla – a short day and a half into the ride – I felt supremely confident in the saddle, as though I belonged nowhere but that tiny space between the road´s white line and . . . everything.
The sights of Andalucia were spectacular, and even when I inched my way up a hill, tongue hanging out and sweat pouring down my face, all I could say when I raised my eyes was “wow.”
The now longer days and sunny weather were also having a huge impact on my mileage, which was almost double what it was in the dark days of winter. Call it ego (it is), but the kilometres I travel are wound so tightly around my satisfaction that the two can never be separated. So, to cover 130 km on only my fifth day back on the road felt very good indeed.
They say you have to be lucky to be good, and I’d be tempting fate if I didn´t acknowledge my fortune thus far. One day, after pounding up endless hills in the driving rain, I looked up at the settling night and down to sopping feet. For the next hour I searched olive groves and unplowed fields, even rocky slopes for a place to camp, and all I got was muddy.
I´d almost resigned myself to getting a cheap hotel room when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a decrepit building at the bottom of a small valley. I skidded down a boggy lane and discovered, to my absolute delight, an abandoned railway station with a roof as airtight as the one over my head right now.
It was amazing. I had the place to myself until the rain subsided, and a pair of discarded high heels, peeking white and strapless from the rubble, were enough to fuel my imagination indefinitely.
As I set up camp, I couldn´t help but wonder what the place had been like in its heyday, when men in grey suits and brisk watches leaned over the tracks to watch the train glide into the station, all steam and whistles. I pictured a porter, brass buttons glinting as he hopped onto the open platform to punch tickets for busy men or shoeless women.
But that last train had gone long ago, and now all that was left was me. Mostly. On my second day out of the rain, a red Jeep growled up the platform ramp and three olive pickers billowed out in clouds of cigarette smoke.
At first I thought I was going to get raped and murdered – granted that was a worst case scenario. At the very least, I supposed I was going to get in trouble and be told, in machine gun Spanish, to hit the road.
But much to my surprise, the three visitors were only looking for a way around the muddy road and, what´s more, they considered the idea of biking to Spain from Canada absolutely hilarious.
They insisted on a photo, teased me that bikers never get laid, shook my hand and were gone before the mud on their tires even had time to dry.
I suppose that episode best sums of this leg of the trip. Perhaps it´s that I finally have some travel experience, but things that would have ruined my day in the past are now interesting stories or, at worst, annoyances easily remedied by blue skies and friendly faces.
If we all knock on wood together, I might even venture that I´m getting pretty good at this cycle tour thing.
Back on the road and happy to be there – who could ask for more?
The rain in Spain just ain´t the same 12/31/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: basque, bordeaux, border, france, mountains, pyrenees, rain, spain
If the gods were to gather for a winter convention, it would surely be held in Spain. After spitting out buckets of rain in Belgium and freezing my particulars in central France, the Basque region was one of the most welcome changes of the trip.
I´ve been following the northern coastline from the border – nothing but miles of beaches on one side and the velvet green peaks of the Pyrenees on the other. The mountain climbs have been leg-screamers at times, but the descents make them worth the effort. There is nothing like blasting down a winding pass at 60 km/h - you have to enjoy every second because the next might see your guts painted on the highway with a 400-meter brush stroke.
I´m still trying to figure out the Spanish people, which is rather difficult since my vocabulary is limited to ¨I like¨ (I don´t know what I like, but I like), ¨water¨and ¨please¨. So far the folks seem incredibly laid back, kind of like the French without appointment books. But there are definitely two things I don´t like here:
- The Spanish don´t eat soup. I´ve checked every supermarket. No soup.
- Motorists think the frequency of horn blasts is directly proportional to the speed of traffic.
These are just minor annoyances, though, and since the temperature is hovering around 20°C, I´m not about to complain.
Still, I have to admit that a teeny tiny part of me is still in France. I crossed the border just when I started feeling comfortable with the language and culture, and truth be told, I miss it more than I would have ever expected. The cities there were so alive, so vibrant, that sometimes I´d just lean on my bike in the downtown plazas and soak it all up like some blue-eyed sponge, always thirsty for more. Here´s a clip of a random 30 seconds in Bordeaux:
There are so many things I want to experience that I´m starting to realize the only enemy of this trip is time. It´s like a bird overhead, always circling, perched around the bend, and yet never seeing what I see or feeling what I feel. All it counts are these days away.
Freezing my festicles 12/17/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bordeaux, camping, france, holidays, paris, winter
This is the first year that I could recall the exact moment when winter wrestled the sunshine from autumn. I was leaving Bellegarde, heading south, when a frosty gust of wind swept across the road and when I looked up, the blue skies went grey. And that’s the way they’ve stayed for the better part of a week.
Living on the road is an entirely different beast when the weather is difficult, and there have been times when this monster has roared. I’ve had frozen toes, icy food and so much frost on my tent that I’ve had to wiggle free like some kind of freakish Arctic worm. But I’ve also learned a lot – about myself and how to, y’know, not die – so the last few days have been uncomfortable but perfectly tolerable.
Thankfully, my bike is headed in the right direction and I’m nearly in Bordeaux, in the southwest corner of the country. Slowly but surely I’m making my way to Spain, the thought of which is what keeps me going when I’m climbing hill after hill with numb feet. I’m no meteorologist, but I’m certain that it must be warmer there.
It’s a pity that I’m forced to rush for the border because France has been incredible. Far from the snotty French I expected, the people are exceptionally warm and are not only happy, but excited to offer me assistance whenever possible. One couple even filled my water bottle with a litre of cabernet sauvignon – not the best frosty treat, though a nice gift all the same. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is that my French has gone from dismal to slightly coherent. I can’t exactly carry conversations, but I do manage to give them a good nudge. It’s a work in progress.
And what of Paris? Amazing. Biking down Avenue Charles de Gaulle, past the Arc de Triomphe, weaving in and out of the crush of traffic was an experience I will never forget. For awhile I forgot I was even riding my bike – I was just a part of an enormous metropolitan creature, an atom in an artery, and I simply arrived exactly where I was supposed to be. Time got away from me and all I wanted of the lights and flavours and sounds was more, so I criss-crossed the downtown streets until nearly midnight. Magic.
I don’t know when I’ll be near a computer again, so I want to take a quick moment to thank everyone for following my trip. It gets a bit lonely on the road sometimes, but all your kind words have kept me going over the past six months and 9,000 km. To each of you, I wish a Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year. All the best!
A latitude adjustment 12/07/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: belgium, france, rain, vimy, war, winter
1 comment so far
Although this is my first update in a long time, it’s pretty easy to describe the past few weeks. Mud. Lots and lots of mud.
Everything about Belgium was spectacular except the weather. At one point I had nine consecutive days of rain, and with soggy feet and a runny nose, the novelty of biking in a new country quickly disappeared.
Still, I was able to visit all the spots I wanted – Antwerp, Brussels, Gent and especially Ypres. The latter was a vital point in the Great War and it was fascinating to tour the battlefields and cemetaries.
After getting soaked for the last time in Belgium, I happily crossed the border to France and explored the city of Lille. By explore I mean I got lost in Lille for an entire afternoon – very educational.
Then, purely by accident, I happened upon Vimy and ended up camping just below the famous ridge. Sleeping on the top would have been a poor choice indeed, because to this day there are still undetonated explosives littering the plateau, and the battlefield itself is guarded with an electric fence.
But what a place! The monument, a few kilometres from the trenches, is overpowering in its size and significance. Canada has a reputation for being modest, for never celebrating our heroes, but in this case we artfully (and rightly) honoured the memory of our soldiers. Visiting the site was sobering, but also reason to look at our flag with pride.
Tomorrow is Paris, and then it’s south to Spain as fast as my little legs can pedal. It’s getting cold!