Monday, May 10, 2004

Avignon, France

Friends: The temperatures have been cool all along, but when we awoke the other morning and my tent poles were so frigid they were painful to touch, I knew it was finally time to put on my tights. A light rain made it feel even colder, but since we had purposely camped at the bottom of a long climb we could count on the exertion of our climbing to warm us up, the cold rain didn't have us shivering yet. We've had a lot of rain, but never for long.

The climb was longer than we realized and soon the falling moisture was trying to make up its mind between being rain and snow. That wasn't all bad, as the fledgling flakes didn't soak in, nor did they gather on the road. Rather than cursing our circumstances, I was delighted at the novelty of this, biking in the snow in May in France. I've biked along side snow and glaciers on many of my trips in Alaska and New Zealand and Norway and Bolivia, and have biked in veritable blizzards as a messenger, but I'd never actually biked in falling snow when touring. Such a new, unlikely experience almost had me whooping in delight. I knew snow was a possibility in the Alps and Pyrenees this time of the year, but I didn't realize the Massif Central in the heart of France rose to such altitudes that it too could offer snow in late spring.

I've been rather enjoying these cooler temperatures, as I know come July, and maybe even
June, I'll be sweltering. I appreciate the luxury of being able to buy a liter of orange juice in a cardboard carton for 41 centimes, a great bargain, and pour it into my water bottle and have it last all day. Not only is it a pleasure to have such a flavorful, cold, nutritious drink at hand, it's nice to be sweating so little and not having to drink all the time. I'll be drinking liters and liters all too soon and not at very cool temperatures.

The OJ isn't the only bargain to be found in the supermarkets. A couple days ago we found a supermarket with an eight-pack of quiches for four and a half euros. Usually we pay one euro a piece for them in the bakeries. I asked Jesse if he'd like to split a pack, but he had already grabbed one for himself. He's learning to keep plenty of food on hand and to eat at every opportunity and still he's losing weight, which he isn't all that unhappy about. As I browse the supermarkets, I'm always on the alert for sale items. I haven't even been spending ten dollars a day on food, my only expense other than the Internet. France has been much cheaper than I anticipated. I won't have to plunder my money market funds to finance this trip as I feared. This won't be as cheap as Southeast Asia, but much cheaper than Iceland and Scandinavia.

Friends who rely on a single crop for their livelihood abide by the words, 'The plants come first.' The touring cyclist's axiom is, 'The legs come first.' In all that the touring cyclist does he has to think of nurturing and sustaining his legs, giving them ample and timely and good fuel and rest whenever it can be found. If he has any ambitions of riding more than 40 or 50 miles a day, he must be prepared to make many sacrifices in the name of keeping his legs happy and hopping. Jesse is learning this lesson and his legs are responding. He even had his first one hundred mile day on our seventh day out of Paris when we were making a concerted effort to reach Craig's house before dark. When we set out that morning we knew that it was over a hundred miles away and over terrain that included considerable climbing. We did not know if we could make it. We knew we had to keep our breaks to a minimum. This was a day where dilly-dallying had to be forsaken.

We were lucky when after twenty miles we found a bakery in a small town that also had a small cafe attached to it, so we could sit inside out of the cold for our first break. We each had a piece of pizza before we returned to the cold. Twenty miles later it was a hot chocolate and a couple of our quiches. By 3:15 we had knocked off 62 miles and dipped down in altitude where it was warm enough in the sun to sit outside and eat. We were in a gorge that we had to climb out of. We allowed ourselves a 45-minute break and fueled up for the big climb. We had five-and-a-half hours of light to ride the last 43 miles, though the last twenty appeared to be down hill. It took us three hours to climb 2500 feet in 22 miles on a narrow, virtually traffic-free byway. The bulk of the traffic was motor bikes enjoying the scenic, winding road that took them to Mount Aigoual. At 4500 feet it is the highest peak around. There is a weather station at its summit, one of only two in all of France. From there it is sixty miles to the Mediterranean.

Within a couple of miles of the summit snow began falling. The higher we got, the harder it came down and the bigger were the flakes. Before long it began accumulating on the road. It was almost picturesque, at least until we reached the summit and had to descend. At speed the light, fluffy flakes turned nasty, stinging the exposed flesh of our faces. As we descended the snow turned to sleet, pelting us harder. I could even feel the sting of the sleet in my legs through my tights. This had turned into a horror, almost a survival situation. We couldn't stop as we were soaked and shivering and would only get colder. We had to get down and fast, but we had to go slow as the road was horribly slippery. Our hands were barely functioning, yet we had to brake with all our strength at every turn. If we went too fast, we'd wipe out.

This went on for an hour. I was growing increasingly hypothermic, shivering uncontrollably. That and my flexing hands were my only movement. I was so intent on squeezing the brakes and trying to stay upright, I neglected to periodically spin my legs, as one should on any descent, to keep the blood flowing and preventing the legs from stiffening . After having been in the same locked position all that time, my knees had virtually seized up. I could barely pedal when the road at last somewhat leveled. I felt as if all my joints were creaking as I tried to move them. We were moaning and groaning when we came upon the turn to Craig's village. Luckily it was a mile-and-a-half climb, enabling us to warm up enough so that Craig didn't have to immediately bundle us up in blankets and set us in front of his fireplace.

We didn't have an address for his house, only that it was the house with blue shutters, and that he was the only American in town that anyone could direct us to. As we rolled up to a house with blue shutters, out popped Craig on his way to his basement for more wood to feed his stove. I had only spoken to Craig over the phone and corresponded with him, so this was our first meeting. It was a miracle though that we had never met in Chicago as we share many friends,
some of whom are close, close friends. We both hang out at the same one-man bike shop in our neighborhood and have a great fondness for its owner, Joe, who had visited Craig here in France. But for the past ten years, Craig has spent six months in Chicago and six months in France, and since I spend six months or more a year traveling my self, it was only now that the fates deemed we could meet. We knew a lot about each other, and now we truly discovered that we are genuine kindred spirits, and beyond the brotherhood of the bike.

After our long, hard day, I didn't want to stay up as late as we did with Florence, but once again we lost all track of time as we feasted on the multi-course banquet Craig had for us and suddenly it was two a.m. again. It was sad Cannes couldn't wait for us, and allow us to linger, but we had to be off the next day. Craig led us out of his isolated little valley up a nine-mile climb on a barely one-lane wide road that passes right in front of his house. His favorite pastime is to lay in wait of cyclists riding up the road and to chase after them. The majority of French cyclists dress up in racing regalia. Craig wears jeans with rubber bands around his ankles and a straw hat atop his head. He delights in rocketing past the pseudo-racers in his Farmer John get-up.

From Craig's it was on to Avignon, about 90 miles away, to visit Jesse's former French teacher at Carnegie-Mellon. Once again it was a race against dark, and again we succeeded. We are glad that tonight we don't have a specific destination to reach and we can camp along the road. But the movies start at Cannes at noon on Wednesday in exactly 48 hours. It is 150 miles a way,
so I must be off.

Later, George

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