Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bernard Castle, England

Friends: Not much remains of the 74-mile long Hadrian's Wall, only fragments and stubs, so there was no hope it would be a weather barrier, holding back Scotland's rain and cold, providing at least a hint of summer to its south. Here it is, nearly July, and the only indication that these might be the warmer months are the long, long days, with the sky never darkening to pitch dark.

I did shed my tights my first day back in England, but only because they were still sopping wet and frigid cold in the morning. I've set up camp in the rain previously on this trip, but last night was the first night that the rain didn't relent for my last couple of hours on the bike, leaving my feet and legs thoroughly soaked. All it takes is a ten-minute reprieve from the rain, which I am ordinarily granted, for my shorts and tights to dry a bit from my body heat and the breeze. I kept waiting for that reprieve, intending to keep riding until that rain-free window, but it never arrived.

I finally called it a day near nine p.m., as I began a climb up into the white-out of the low-lying clouds, at about the same time a rare patch of unfenced forest turned up in this terrain of rolling moors that is predominantly wide-open and fenced in for sheep. The next morning began with a prolonged climb, so despite the 50-degree temps I quickly warmed up and didn't miss the tights. Not only didn't Hadrian's Wall bring about a climate change, it did not put an end to the long, steep, punishing climbs of Scotland. There were some right alongside Hadrian's Wall, which runs east to west from one side of England to the other, a bit south of the Scottish border.

The Wall dates to 123 AD, built by the order of Roman Emperor Hadrian to keep out the "barbarians" from the North, who would swoop into England looking for things other than under-the-table work. The Wall was an impressive structure of large, uniform-sized stones chiseled into bricks, piled eight feet wide and stacked as high as fifteen feet. At every mile there was a small fort and 16 regularly spaced major forts, garrisoned by approximately 500 soldiers each. Ruins remain of some of these as well. They are part of a National Park. An 84-mile hiking trail follows the remnants of the wall, winding to include some of the forts, which weren't always along side the Wall.

I biked about 16 miles of the road that hugs the southern side of the Wall. Its few remnants greatly dwarf the stone walls that the farmers have constructed to mark their fields. Now that I'm back in England I may have seen the last of the midges, the clouds of smaller-than-gnat-sized bugs that swarmed about me at a couple of my campsites as I hurriedly erected my tent and later took it down while waving and slapping. They are so tiny that when I'd smash the few that would get into my tent, clapping my hands together, they didn't even leave a mark, but they do bite and are pesky. For some they are their strongest memory of Scotland. A popular postcard is one of someone flailing away at a herd of the critters surrounding his head.

England is by contrast the land of rabbits. There have been stretches of miles where I couldn't look down the road without seeing a carcass, some fresh and others of varying pancake thickness depending on how many times they'd been run over. It wasn't unusual to see young 'uns along the road peering at their mangled mother. They are wise enough not to dart out haphazardly into the road, unlike the sheep. There are areas without fences along the road,just occasionally perpendicular to it with a cattle guard providing the final barrier for someone's property, allowing the sheep to roam freely across the road. The sheep mindlessly disregard motorized traffic, but me on my bike spook them into thinking I am there to round them up to be shorn or injected, so they go darting off into any direction, sometimes in front of me across the road.

A fawn ran ahead of me for a couple of miles at 14 mph fearful of cutting across the road and unable to disappear into the brush, contained by an eight foot-high deer-proof fence. I didn't speed up past it fearful it might dart in front of me at any moment. It finally halted in its tracks and doubled back past me. Such incidents will begin to wane as I descend into industrial and densely-populated England. The Tour de France prologue is a week from today. The night before will be the grand opening ceremony introducing each member of the 21 nine-man teams. I'm 350 miles from London. I hope to arrive by Thursday to have a day to rest and orient myself before the three-week 2,000-mile race begins. My hermocrit level and VO2 Max and Lactic Acid tolerance are all where they need to be. I am ready.

Later, George

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Dunbar, Scotland

Friends: After a day of exploring and museuming in Edinburgh, trying to avoid the hail and rain, I had the option of heading south seven miles to Roslin, where the world's first cloned sheep, Dolly, was created in 1999, as well as home to the Rosslyn Chapel, reputed repository of the Holy Grail and site of "The Da Vinci Code" climax, or heading east 25 miles to Dunbar, birthplace of John Muir.

Even though I needed to be heading south to London, there was no debate about which direction I would take. Muir has long been a hero and inspiration. He was a life-long wanderer/explorer and lover of nature and the wilderness, and, above all, god-father of the conservation movement. His stature has only grown over the years since his death in 1914. California elected to put his image on the recently issued quarter representing the state. He has graced a couple of stamps. At the millennium he was named one of history's most influential people. There are countless parks and trails named in his honor, including a Muir Way along the coast here in Dunbar, where he lived from 1838-1849 until his family moved to Wisconsin.

Muir has been acknowledged in several of the museums I have visited here. Quotes from his prolific writings dot Scotland's National Parks. A quote of his is also chiseled into the side of the new Parliament building in Edinburgh. His family's three-story home in Dunbar abounded with them, some even on the window panes. It would be impossible to select a favorite--"Do something for wilderness and make mountains glad...I live only to entice people to look at nature's loveliness...How lavish is nature, ever changing, ever beautiful...Go quietly alone; no harm will befall you."

He was a reluctant writer, bemoaning, "I find the literary business quite irksome." He would have much preferred to be out in nature, but forced himself to write out of his devotion to save the wilderness. He was a luminary in his time, giving speeches, and sought out by his era's titans including Emerson and President Teddy Roosevelt. He and Roosevelt spent four days alone together in Yosemite shortly after Roosevelt assumed the White House. Shortly thereafter Roosevelt launched legislation creating a host of National Parks. Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892 and was its first President. He didn't devote himself to the out-of-doors until he was in his 30s after he suffered an accident that left him temporarily blind. He vowed after that to give up his life to nature and set out on a thousand mile walk from Kentucky to Florida. He planned to continue to South America but contracted malaria. A year later in 1868 he found himself in California and fell in love with Yosemite, making it the center of his attention, eventually establishing it as a National Park.

A class of 12-year olds joined me at his museum. Their assignment was to find their favorite fact about his life. They each clutched a writing pad. One girl said she was up to 14 facts. The museum is only four years old. It was established after a group of American mountaineers made a pilgrimage here and paid for a plaque, at least, to be put on the place of his birth. The museum lauds Muir as a "Conservation pioneer, Scottish hero."

The nine-tiered Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh also paid tribute to Scottish heroes. One floor was Scotland's sports hall of fame. Robert Miller is the only cyclist enshrined so far, tho the bicycle that Graeme O'Bree, recent subject of the movie "The Flying Scotsman," set a world record on was there. Bobby Thomson of baseball fame was one of the original 50 inductees. In the section of Scottish Innovators Alexander Graham Bell was featured. So was John Logie Baird, inventor of the television in 1925. Adam Smith was mentioned and the three great Scot writers--Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburgh's main thoroughfare had a towering monument honoring Scott that one could pay six dollars to climb, who was born in Edinburgh. It was erected in 1846, several years after the 70' high similar monument to Burns in his home town, greatly upstaging it.

Despite its all too many brick and cobbled streets that were hell to bike on, especially descending in the hail, Edinburgh was a most captivating and vibrant city with loads of character. Its too bad its renowned film festival is in late August, overlapping Telluride's. Now its on to Hadrian's Wall, just south of the English/Scottish border.

Later, George

Monday, June 25, 2007

Findhorn, Scotland

Friends: Findhorn was one of the mystical, other-worldly places Andre, of "My Dinner With Andre" from 30 years ago, glowingly describes to Wally during their legendary dinner filmed by Louis Malle. It is also featured in "The Secret Life of Plants" and countless other books and publications. Findhorn has long beckoned me, making it a prime objective of my visit to Scotland.
Findhorn rocketed to prominence back in the '60s when a small group of counter-culturalists on the dole began to miraculously grow 20-pound cabbages and other over-sized vegetables in seemingly infertile, sandy soil near the shoreline in a derelict of a trailer park in the far north of Scotland. Their success baffled all conventional experts. Their secret was communing with the plants and nature spirits, abiding by their wishes, including soothing them with classical music. When word spread, Findhorn became a mecca for those freed of mainstream strait-jackets, such as Andre. It has grown into a center for the new-age set and has become a virtual synonym for alternative thinking. Its gift store shop had shelves and shelves of books on the occult and subjects outside the confines of rational science.

The founding member, who had the gift of communing with the nature spirits, is no longer at Findhorn. The plants have returned to normal size, but that does not concern its residents. That was just a means to establish the place, they say. The community of several hundred live in a variety of unique, environmentally friendly dwellings. Few of the original, semi-slum, dilapidated dwellings still stand. The original caravan the three founding members and their three children lived in remains as a shrine of a sort, right beside their miracle gardening plot, still lush with plants, though of normal proportions. Their old caravan, almost as legendary as the bus of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, is presently used as an office.

There is quite an array of original and imaginative living quarters--yurts and bee-hive hexagons and giant whiskey vats. Some have sod roofs and solar panels. Nearly all the community's power is supplied by four mini-windmills. A single full-sized windmill would have sufficed, but the neighboring Royal Air Force base would not allow such a high structure. On the grounds is a uniquely modern theater that seats 300. A cello solo filled it the night before. There are also several buildings and rooms reserved exclusively for meditation. The community offers a wide range of classes and seminars and internships. The members of Findhorn dine communally for lunch and dinner, sharing in cooking and cleaning and gardening and construction.

Being at Findhorn was a superlative way to celebrate my 50th day on the road, just past the half way point of these travels. I've wished to visit Findhorn for years, having heard and read so much about it and having met an occasional person who has spent time there. I was racing to arrive in time for the daily two p.m. tour. I arrived with 20 minutes to spare after coming 52 miles in a non-stop cold drizzle, the temperature not even 50. A couple from Vancouver and another from England and I were led about the premises for two hours by an Australian woman who'd been a resident of Findhorn for four years.

I had camped the night on a wooded hillside overlooking Loch Ness. Trees lined both sides of the road along the loch, preventing me from uninterrupted peering in search of a serpent's head poking out of the water. At the occasional pull-off, there were official signs describing Loch Ness as "The Loch with a Monster" and "A Monster of a Loch." The signs acknowledged that intense search, even with sonar devices, had turned up no evidence of there being a monster. The myth of the monster goes all the way back to the sixth century, then was hyped in 1934 when an Englishman faked the famous picture with the head of a sea serpent peering from the Loch like a periscope.

But people still flock from all over to this lake, so much so that there are regular signs in four
languages reminding motorists to drive on the left side of the road. Loch Ness is the fourth and largest of a string of long, narrow lakes that extend to Inverness, the largest city of the Scottish north. It is 24 miles long and as deep as 750 feet, deeper than the North Sea. It contains more water than all the lakes and reservoirs of England combined. I was warned not to call it a lake, rather a loch. If I did, I might be mistaken as English and could suffer for it.

Both the air and water temperature were much too cold for swimming. It was barely warm enough to be bicycling in shorts. But the waters of the Moray Firth, which lead into Inverness and extend 31 miles out to Findhorn and beyond to the North Sea, are not too cold for the world's northernmost colony of porpoises. Just as at Loch Ness, there are outfitters who cater to tourists who wish to go out on the waters in search of them.

Its another 125 miles north to the tip of Scotland, but I need to turn south to be back to
London by next Thursday with lots to see in between. I have finally begun to see other touring cyclists, and quite a few hostels catering to them, as the run along the four Lochs is the prime route up to John O'Groats, the terminus for those cycling the length of the UK. After a couple of days of non-stop cold rain, I am happy to be heading south. My super deluxe Gore Tex jacket has been put to the test and has kept my torso toasty dry. I have also been able to test the warmth of my damp sleeping bag in 40 degree temperatures, and survived that as well.

Later, George






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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Fort William, Scotland


Friends: It was graduation day yesterday at Glasgow University. The quad of this centuries old
institution was aswarm with graduates, the women draped in a flimsy black cape of a sort and the men clad in kilts and knee-high socks, looking most proud and dignified.


It wasn't until today, though, that I encountered my first bag-piper--a lone gentleman full kitted-out along the road at a scenic overlook. His tunes drew me upward as I climbed in a cold drizzle from the valley up into the mist-shrouded Highlands. I wasn't certain at first if I was actually hearing what I was hearing or if it was the ancient echoes continuing to reverberate in this grand and vast natural amphitheater. But the sound become more distinct and real the higher I climbed. Then, at last, there he was, as authentic as the rugged peaks all around, but
at his feet a blue plastic bucket, a Scottish busker out in the middle of nowhere, posing and playing for the tourists at a summit overlook. An hour later, as I approached a small village
along a lake I heard those Scottish tunes once again. I soon came upon a small church where a wedding was just concluding. A piper in full regalia stood at the door to the church, serenading all as they exited.


Just 25 miles from downtown Glasgow is Loch Lomond National Park. There was so much traffic along the western, most scenic, side of this 22-mile long sliver of a lake, framed by mountains all around, that the traffic heading north was forbidden from turning int the occasional scenic overlooks. There was a serene bike path down below that artery, however, hugging the shore of the lake. It was the old, quite narrow, road that was slowly being swallowed by vegetation. I had it all to myself.


I did pause in Glasgow to give two of its outstanding museums a look--the Hunterian at Glasgow
University and the Kelvington in the sprawling grounds below. Both were housed in castle-like buildings. The Kelvington had a gargantuan building all to itself, while the Hunterian had just several rooms of the main four-story university building.


The Kelvington was constructed for an International Exposition staged in Glasgow in 1901, back when Glasgow was one of the premier cities in the world. It was so prominent and affluent that it hosted a World Exposition in 1888 as well. It is a combination museum/art gallery, celebrating things Scottish as well as from all over the world. It has a Dali of Jesus on the cross seen from above and a life-sized sculpture of "Saint Elvis--King of Rock and Roll," pot-bellied in blue, holding a microphone belting out a tune. A full room was given to French painters with quotes
from many of them high on the walls above their paintings that lent some insight into their
character. "I want to conquer Paris with an apple"--Cezanne.


There was a painting of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, bedecked in a beret, imitating Che. He lived from 1759-1796 and was known as the "Ploughman's Poet," a working class hero and a rebel. Of religion he said, "Of all nonsense, religious nonsense in the most nonsensical." The day before I stopped by his childhood home. It is part of a National Heritage Site which includes a 70' tower erected in his honor in 1823. It overlooks the River Doon and the Brig 'o
Doon (a bridge that dates to 1400) that is featured in his most famous poem Tom O' Shanter. He's also famed for penning the lyrics to Auld lang syne--times gone by.


The Kelvington also honored Mary Queen of Scots, who was beheaded at the age of 44. And it
acknowledged famous Scottish artists the Glasgow Boys and the Colourists. There was a special exhibit on John Quinton Pringle, an optician/painter. One of his paintings was "Repairing the Bicycle" from 1889.


There was an exhibit on mental health care in Glasgow, which acknowledged R. D. Laing, Scottis pop-shrink, who denounced normality and maintained that schizophrenia was "break-through" rather than "break-down." Nearby was an exhibit on sectarianism and another on violence against women. It displayed a bridle from the 1600s used to punish women for nagging or gossiping, preventing them from speaking. In present times a woman is killed very three
days in the UK by a partner or ex-partner. Another women-oriented exhibit was titled, "Woman Adored, Woman Adorned." Another original exhibit was on the Scottish interest in American westerns.


It was an exceptionally well-curated museum that had the usual fossils and vases and stuffed animals and sarcophagus to go along with many pertinent and fascinating subjects. It truly emphasized what a fascinating world we live in, while piquing one's curiosity to learn more. There were quite a few school groups walking through and receiving commentary from teachers and staff. Many exhibits were mounted down low at child's eye level. There were also two sets of railings on the stairways, one for adults and another for children.


The Hunterian was much more modest of a museum, but it was interesting in its own way. It was largely the private collection of a physician who lived from 1718-1783. He collected
over a million objects. This museum opened in 1807 and was Scotland's first public museum.


Tonight I'll sleep along the banks of Loch Ness. I'll have my camera cocked and ready. Tomorrow its on to Findhorn.


Later, George





Thursday, June 21, 2007

Girvan, Scotland

Friends: The ferry from Belfast to Scotland deposited me at the small port of Stranraer, 85 miles south of Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland with an urban sprawl of two million. Most of the passengers and vehicles, however, were headed south to London, 400 miles away, so I had the fabulous coastal road north almost to my self with the bay of Loch Ryan to my left
and wide open grazing land and spots of forest on the hillsides to my right, plenty of breathing room after the comparative density of Ireland.

Ireland appeared to be in a state of rapid growth with construction projects everywhere, both residential and commercial, and baby carriages streaming down the sidewalks, many of which were pushed by teen-aged girls, who didn't look like much like nannies. Pushing a baby carriage is such a national pastime that toddlers freshly graduated from them could be seen tagging along with their mother pushing their own miniature version with a baby doll wrapped in a blanket. A contributing factor may be that abortion is illegal in the Irelands, forcing some 50,000 Irish women to cross to England every year to have one.

Ireland also distinguished itself by offering the best roadside scavenging I've encountered anywhere, perhaps due to the density of population and high rate of alcohol consumption. Bulbous, vein-lined, red noses were as common as pubs and baby carriages. I may have just benefited from a fluke lucky stretch, as 48 hours and 150 miles don't provide data enough for
truly viable conclusions acceptable to the scientific community, but, nonetheless, I did harvest
more worthwhile stuff in my brief visit than I've collected the past four years in France, other than during the Tour de France.

I came upon two pairs of socks, one of thin wool that may prove handy as I proceed to the north of Scotland. I've already had days no warmer than 60. I've been wearing my rain jacket more often for warmth than to keep dry. I also came upon a tin of tuna and a canister of chocolate cookies and also a pink ten euro note. I was back to euros and kilometers in Ireland, but miles and pounds in English-controlled Northern Ireland. There was no indication of the border between the countries other than a sign saying, speed limits were now in miles when I crossed to northern Ireland. Nor was a passport required upon arriving in Ireland via the ferry.

Similar to England and Wales, Ireland was devoid of the picnic and rests areas along the road that are so common in France and are a touring cyclist's delight. But that deprivation has been more than compensated for by the great luxury of town libraries, comparable to those in the US, and open more than a few paltry hours as those of the token, facsimile libraries of France, and with free Internet. Food is much more expensive here, so the Internet savings is most welcome.

The British Isles have also had better town toilets than those of France, and nearly always stocked with toilet paper and soap. The toilets are almost an institution. One English community was in an uproar because there was a threat their town toilet was going to be closed due to budgetary concerts. There were signs and banners all over the town proclaiming, "Save Our
Toilets." Other towns had signs of "Save Our Hospital," another social service under threat.

Now its on to the highlands of Scotland. I can continue north for four days before I need to head
back down to London for the start of the Tour de France. The opening ceremony is two weeks from tomorrow. There is much to see along the way. I'll have to save much of it for another time. Its just nice, as always, to be out on the open road, riding through terrain fresh and new. When its this exceptional, its hard to stop, whether for noteworthy sites or to sleep or eat. It was still light at eleven last night when I finally forced myself to quit riding.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dundalk, Ireland

Friends: Ireland was initially refreshingly flat as I stuck to the coastal road heading north out of Dublin to Belfast, 100 miles away. The traffic was extra thick, as I was swallowed up in the evening rush hour after my three hour 15 minute ferry from Wales. There was a bike lane of a sort, as I swept through the heart of the city, but it was a shared lane with buses, and at this hour it was clogged with battalions of the double-deckered monstrosities, forcing me and the few other cyclists out in the gridlock.

It wasn't a bad time to get a feel for Dublin, as the sidewalks were teeming with its inmates on
temporary furlough from their day-time office imprisonments. Some were hot-footing it, as if they were in pursuit, to the nearest dispenser of Guinness, never more than a few doors away. Others looked more dead than alive, lugging an invisible ball and chain. There were quite a few bikes locked to trees and posts without a bike rack to be seen, or hardly a u-luck, just skimpy cables and chains that would have had a New York bike thief salivating.

I stuck to N1 for 20 miles with its off and on bike lane. Despite a four-lane superhighway
paralleling it, there was more traffic than I'd care to ride with and unrelenting commercial and
residential buildings, so I turned inland for some peace and camping possibilities. Though the traffic instantly evaporated and the scenery turned rural and agricultural, the farms were being crowded out by country estates. If I'd been desperate, I could have slipped into one of those under construction, but they were circled by dirt that was more wet than dry. The potato field I eventually settled for was also muddier than I would have preferred and was even muddier in
the morning after a night-time drizzle. I've had rain just about every night since I crossed the Channel but hardly any during the day-time hours.

Mud tracked onto the highway from construction sites and fields has been a peril all through the
British Isles. I thought I was a goner on a steep descent with a grade in the upper-teens beyond my braking power in England near the Welsh border, when I saw mud covering the road at the bottom of the hill I was descending. I was ready to go splat but luckily found a dry track through the middle of it.

My brakes are only at about two-thirds of their strength after I snapped off the left arm of my front v-brake back in France when riding with Craig and had to replace it with a conventional side-pull brake. Craig, riding ahead of me, came to a sudden stop at an intersection in a small village we were passing through When I slammed on my brakes, the boss protruding from
the fork that the brake was attached to broke off. At first I thought I had broken the cable, but unfortunately it was much more serious than that. The boss is part of the frame and couldn't
be soldered back on.

It was 15 miles to the next town with a bike shop but flat most of the way, so having just a rear brake wasn't too hazardous. Two different people we stopped to ask gave us directions to the same Peugeot bike shop. When we reached it at 12:15 it was closed, the proprietor either taking an early lunch or off on vacation. As we peered it, it was hard to tell which. We wandered about the city hoping to find another.

The tourist office luckily was a rare one that didn't close for a lunch break. We learned of three
other shops to try. The nearest was also near a grocery store, so we could do our daily shopping, eat lunch and be there when the bike shop opened after its lunch. The one we chose adjoined a Renault car dealership. It was very well stocked, but it turned out it didn't do repairs. Between Craig's skills and my tools, we figured we could handle the repair ourselves if the shop had a replacement brake. It had two to offer, but one had too short of a reach, and the other too long. But the most helpful proprietor dug out an ancient CLB brake that looked as if it would fit. He had already drilled out the hole in my fork with two different drill bits, as the rear hole had to be slightly bigger than the front one. This brake worked just fine, though we needed to scavenge
an inch or so of housing cable.

The operation took about an hour, as the man helping us hopped back and forth from the phone to check on our progress. He even lent a hand making a final adjustment for the brake. Craig greatly charmed him with his French patter, even testing out a slang expression he had learned from me, that my French friend Yvon had used. He said I was a "crocodile", "an adventurer." The man only wanted five euros, but I gave him a ten and wouldn't take any change. It was great to have taken care of this calamity with such relative ease and expense, but it has reduced my braking power to what it used to be before I acquired this bike a little more than two years and 25,000 miles ago. Once again my wrists turn sore on those long braking descents.

The day of the brake breaking was a day of Craig coming to the rescue of people in distress. A
stopped motorist along the road flagged us down later that day, asking us to call his wife to come rescue him. He was about the only person other than us in all of France without a cell phone. It was ten minutes to a Renault dealership. The man in charge was happy to make the call and offer his tow truck. We had started our day with a woman in a small town in her apron on her bike hailing us as we exited the town cemetery after filling our water bottles and rinsing our bowls and eating utensils. We thought we were in for a reprimand. Craig quickly removed his hat and was prepared to be as polite as possible. She was just wondering if we had seen her husband, who had Parkinson's disease and was on the loose. Craig also was able to direct a couple of guys in a truck to a nearby grocery store in another small town. The French government ought to hire Craig to meander its roads as a service to those in need.

Later, George

Monday, June 18, 2007

Holyhead, Wales


Friends: There was much to like, if not celebrate, at the National Cycle Collection Museum in Llandrindad Wells, Wales, but nothing more than its location. It is housed in what was known as the "Automobile Palace," formerly a giant dealership and showroom for that four-wheeled monster of doom whose time is rapidly coming to a close. Just as one civilization is built on the ruins of another, so here too.


The museum was established ten years ago when three collectors of all things bicycle combined their holdings to share them with the public. One of the collectors is the grandson of the man who built the Automobile Palace, Tom Norton. Norton started out in bicycles, opening a shop in in 1899 in Llandrindad Wells, but he shortly succumbed to greed, forsaking the bicycle for the automobile and its seeming riches. He sold the first Model T Ford in Wales in 1909. But he didn't entirely forsake the bicycle, as he held on to many of the bikes and parts from his early days in the business, which can now be seen at the museum.


There are some 250 bikes on display, making this the most significant bicycle museum in Great Britain The museum also includes a vast array of bicycle memorabilia and components--signs, photos, posters, and a wide variety of lights and bells from cycling's infancy. Special tributes were given to Dunlap, inventor of the pneumatic tube, and Raleigh. There was tribute as
well to The Milk Race, the English national bicycle race, a mini-version of the Tour de France. There were also the usual oddities that never caught on, such as the Simpson Lever Chain from
1895, a five-wheeled Pentacycle from 1882 with wicker baskets fore and aft used by English postal workers for a spell and a 1935 Triumph Molle recumbent with a steering wheel rather than handlebars.


There were no videos nor much of an interest in making it a Hall-of-Fame for English cycling. There was barely mention of Simpson, Boardman, O'Bree or Kelly. Nor was there much on the 850-mile Land's End to John O'Groats cycle route from one end of Britain in Cornwall to the other in Scotland that has captured the imagination of cyclists from the beginning, both
racers and tourers. Nor was any recognition given to H. G. Wells and his considerable writings celebrating the bicycle. Maybe all this will come in time as the museum matures from a hobby to a true commitment.


There was no doubting the thoroughness and passion to the cause championed by the Centre for Alternative Technology--saving the earth. It was fifty miles up the road just beyond Machynlleth on the southern fringe of Snowdonia National Park. The Centre was founded in 1974 by a group of idealistic hippies and determined environmentalists on a seven acre abandoned slate quarry. Their initial goal was to establish a self-sustaining community. Over the years it has grown into a world-renowned advocating agency of wind, solar, and water energy. It had a wide variety of displays demonstrating how to harness renewable energies, construct energy efficient buildings, and how to live reasonably in concert with the environment, rather than destroying it. It has grown into one of the premier tourist attractions in Wales. It also offers dozens of two to five day courses ranging from Building With Hemp and Lime to making your Own Biodiesel. Its offers degrees in environmentalism through its affiliation with the University of East London.


Its too bad Al Gore didn't include a visit to this place in his movie, but its message would no doubt have been too hard for him to swallow. Among its exhibits was the "Treadmill of Happiness" that urges those upon it to "work more, buy more, earn more, need more" with
the promise that "happiness is just around the corner." There was a bamboo couch for those in need of "Retail Therapy," advising them against the "quick fix that cheers you up briefly but leaves you with yet more stuff that you don't need cluttering up your home." It asked, "Are the fruits of past shopping trips lurking unworn in your wardrobe? What's more valuable to you--memories or material things." It concluded with the advice to spend one's money doing
things with friends and traveling and going to the cinema.


A repeated message was not to buy things you don't need, to think before you buy, and to recycle things you don't need--"sell it, share it, swap it, donate it, don't just dump it." Reduce/Reuse/Recycle should be everyone's mantra, and in that order.


There were multiple exhibits on "Mad Car Disease," preaching that the car has us on the road to ruin. They didn't fully demand that people dump their cars in the nearest quarry, but strongly advocated car-sharing, rather than car-owning, to reduce the numbers of cars on the road. It cited the figure that the world's population of six billion people own 551 million cars with 44 million new cars bought each year.


A tee pee structure with a pile of car tires in the middle formed "The Vicious Circle of Car Dependency." One could walk round and round reading the message, "People drive because they think the roads are too dangerous to cycle, this means more traffic, which makes the roads more dangerous, so fewer people want to cycle." Throughout the seven acres there were messages to eat less meat, not to leave the water running while you brush your teeth, to buy from farmer's markets, to compost, but it emphasized that it is in the area of transport that people have the
biggest opportunity to reduce the damage they are doing to the planet, lessening their ecological
footprint, and with the added benefit that bicycling is good for one's health, as cyclists have a fitness of someone ten years younger.


People who bike to the Centre are given a reduced ticket, but unfortunately it was a flat rate and not relative to the distance one had cycled, as I biked over 2,000 miles from Paris to get there. It is less than three weeks now to the Tour to France and my conditioning is just about where it needs to be. Craig helped to accelerate it a bit with his fast pace, at least in the early part of our days together. And the steep, steep hills of Wales have topped it off. Grades of 15% and more have not been unusual My legs were strong enough for them, but all the climbing exhausted me more than I thought when I slept solid from 9:30 to 8:30 after one hard day. Now its on to Ireland. My ferry leaves in less than two hours.


Later, George



Saturday, June 16, 2007

Hay-on-Wye, Wales


Friends: As I crossed into Wales, I was welcomed to the town of Hay-on-Wye, which announced itself as "Town of Books," in both Welsh and English. Unlike many such self-proclamations this was no exaggeration. If anything, it was an understatement, as this charming, well off-the-beaten-path village of 1500 residents is a veritable book-lover's dreamland of second-hand bookstores almost too perfect to be real. There are nearly 40 of them scattered about the town's narrow windy streets, including several untended huts and rows of bookshelves known as "Honesty Book Stores" open 24 hours for the truly addicted to peruse with a coin box to put 50 pence in for hardbacks and 30 pence for soft backs.


With stores ranging in size from a sprawling warehouse larger than New York's Strand to quaint Victorian cottages of several floors, every room crammed with books, the town has more books per square mile than any place in the world. It also lays claim to having more second-hand bookstores than any city in the world. Its annual 10-day book festival at the end of May just drew over 80,000 bibliophiles from all over the world. There were dozen of authors for this, its 20th edition, including Doris Lessing, David Attenborough, Christohpher Hitchens, Alan Greenspan, and Richard Dawkins. Its vast array of events can be checked out at hayfest.uk.com



I strolled from shop to shop in search of books on cycling, going into nearly every one, bypassing only Mostly Maps, Murder and Mayhem, The Poetry Bookshop and The Children's Bookshop. I feared I might discover a mother lode of such books, which I was prepared to mail home, as I'm carrying too much weight already with three books still to read and hefty guidebooks for France and Great Britain.


But I was told at shop after shop that cycling books are hard to come by. One shop owner said they are as difficult to find as books on canals, at least in the category of transportation. About half the shops did have a few books on cycling, which some filed under sports and others under transportation. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I found no book I had to have. I fully expected to find a biography or two on Tom Simpson, the most distinguished English racer ever, an Olympic champion and Tour de France yellow jersey-wearer, though he is best known for being one of three racers to die in the Tour.

There is a monument to him on Mont Ventoux, a kilometer from the summit, where he died in 1967 from plying himself with drugs. I knew of at least three biographies written on him. I have one of them, "Put Me Back on My Bike," reputedly his last words after collapsing along the road, and would gladly have purchased the others. But the only cycling biography I found was on Marco Pantani, which I'd read.


I could have bought some interesting cycling pamphlets from the 1920s on the early days of the bike, but I'm not a collector of such things. I had to buy something, however, after my hours of search. I settled on a light weight paperback from one of the Honesty Book Stores, "The Harmless People," about the natives of the Kalahari desert, one of my next destinations.


It was no wasted day. Each store had a distinctive character and was a pleasure to meander though. I kept thinking of my book collector friends Helene and Ron and what ecstasy they would be in here. It might actually have been too much for them to handle. I could have spent all day alone in Richard Booth's gigantic three-floored warehouse. Booth is the man who made all this happen. Hay-on-Wye was a dying town. He decided to make it a book town and in 1962 opened the first book store. He bought up old houses and turned them into more book stores, renting them out to dealers. The town became such a mecca for books that students from all over England would come here to buy their books for school. Booth is still alive, but quite an elderly man and more eccentric than ever, I was told.


I saw many books that I have added to my "find at the library" list. The quantity and quality of books made Chicago's annual Printer's Row gathering of book dealers from all over the mid-west look like a paltry garage sale of harlequin novels. Here one could find shelves and shelves not only of Shakespeare but of Shakespeare criticism and Dickens and Napoleon, even presidents of the US. Some stores were the outlets for multiple dealers, who each had their own specialty. One combined Churchill and birds, another devoted a whole room to composers. There were shelves and shelves on rugby and cricket along with a smattering of US sports. Many had quaint signs--"Sssch, I'm Reading," "You are entering the sci-fi zone."


I asked at the tourist office if any of the stores specialized in cycling. They went to an index and found one store that claimed it did. It did have a shelf of books, but mostly how-to books relating to mountain biking and travel routes in various areas. Responding to my interest in cycling, the woman at the tourist office mentioned a bed and breakfast in town that used to cater to touring cyclists called "Rest for the Tyred.". It had a bicycle wheel hanging over its entry. The proprietor said they rarely had touring cyclists any more, though they were its main clientele when it opened more than a century ago.


There was campground just out of town where I was able to get a shower for ten pence. I asked about reserving a camp spot for next year's book festival, but it was already all booked up.


Later, George

Friday, June 15, 2007

Glouester, England


Friends: Stonehenge is just one of many pre-historic clusters of rocks scattered over a vast area of the Salisbury Plain that have baffled researchers and crackpots for centuries seeking an explanation for their placement. The theories concerning Stonehenge run the gamut from being a place of worship to being a fast food outlet. People even think it was an ancient observatory predicting the rise and fall of the sun.

Part of the reason no satisfying explanation has been found is that most theorists concentrate their attention on Stonehenge alone, rather than looking at it as a piece, albeit a crucial one, of all the rocks in the area. They have also been unsuccessful in figuring it out since many of the rocks have disappeared, including more than half of those of Stonehenge, and many of those remaining have toppled or are no longer in their original position.

But studying a mural of what Stonehenge might have been in its original state, I immediately recognized it as a giant Shimano splined bottom bracket, the crux of the bicycle's pedaling mechanism.  After recognizing the bottom bracket, I scanned a map of the other rock formations in the area and discovered pedals, brakes and brake levers, derailleurs, a handlebar, a seat, all the components known to present day man, and also some unknown, necessary to assemble a bike.

Thirty miles away in Avebury, where I camped after my day at Stonehenge, is another World Heritage site some find more awesome than Stonehenge of several hundred rocks in a wide circle, proportionately the size of a bicycle wheel compared to the bottom bracket of Stonehenge. If one draws lines between some of the noteworthy rocks at sites scattered over this area, as one would do to form constellations from the stars, all variety of bikes can be fathomed--tricycles, men's frames, women's, tandems, mountain bikes, recumbents, and others.

It has been theorized that the stones were arranged by celestial beings of an intelligence beyond anything we can conceive, as primitive man had no possible means of transporting and positioning those huge rocks, some of which weigh as much as 55 tons.  Those beings clearly wished to revel to earthlings their salvation lay in the bicycle.  The placement of the rocks was many centuries before man had the technical expertise to fashion metal into a bicycle, so the design may not have been intended as a blueprint for building the bike, but rather a tribute to the bike that would at some point be recognized once it was invented centuries later.  It would come as a giant awakening to mankind that the bicycle was preordained and was something to be worshipped.  That day might have been yesterday and for some reason I was chosen to be the clairvoyant.  That may explain my near insatiable obsession for the bicycle.


Also mystifying all and sundry is that of the two types of rocks that comprise Stonehenge, one radiates an inexplicable heat. That could well be a warning that if man does not acknowledge the message of Stonehenge, that the bicycle is The Answer, not only to man's salvation, but the planet's as well, and should be revered as a holy object and an object of common, everyday use, the doom of perpetual heat, Hell, will be his fate.

 Someone from the dark side, opposed to the bicycle, must have perceived all this a century or so ago and tried to cover it up. The area around Stonehenge for miles is a military zone with limited access to the public with side roads prohibiting "civilian traffic" and signs warning of tank crossings and barracks here and there in the distance. The vested interests of the military-industrial complex and their ilk have long tried to suppress the bicycle and its simplicity,
sanity and independence, perhaps dating to that moment when someone on the wrong side perceived the message of Stonehenge.

The dismantling and destruction of Stonehenge no doubt was the work of agents of the oil and automobile industries, who are as militaristic as any, and others in league with Lucifer, the true commander of the operation, who has manipulated them all in his quest to turn Planet Earth into an inferno. All seems to be going to plan, as average temperatures continue to inch upwards and ice packs are melting everywhere. Mankind seems to be waking up to what's going on, though not to the full story. Only slowly does the world seem to be recognizing the value of the bicycle. There was a time when the bicycle was the rage, until it was supplanted by the automobile, bringing upon planet earth the dark age. Stonehenge and environs offer evidence that the bicycle is the key to man's and the planet's salvation. The world can be grateful that beings of a much higher intelligence than anything we can conceive have foreseen our history and have been looking out for us. The time has come to fully embrace their advice.

Now that I have solved this mystery I can turn to crop circles and the Loch Ness monster when I get further north. I have frequently been camping besides fields of wheat, so one of these nights I expect to see some circles being formed. If I can avoid the hectic A roads here and spend more time on the B and lesser roads, where my thought is free to dwell on matters other than consternation at the all too many automobiles, I could come up with some more answers. Its not always easy to avoid those A roads however. Stonehenge itself is at the elbow of two such roads with traffic so heavy there are plans to divert one of the roads and to put in a couple mile tunnel for the other to restore the sanctimony of this site.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Salisbury, England

Friends: I was prepared to make my introduction to England's roads, and my first hunt for an English campsite, in the twilight of post-sunset, as the ferry from Cherbourg wasn't due to arrive at Poole until 10:15 pm. But I didn't realize that England time is an hour behind France, even though it lays no further west, so 10:15 English time meant pitch dark. At least I didn't have to fret when the ferry took longer to load than anticipated, delaying our departure by half an hour, making our arrival time 10:45, near midnight my body-clock and French time.

The late arrival meant less traffic on the roads, letting me ease into biking on the left side of the road. That was the least of my concerns though, not that I had any to speak of. I've had plenty of experience riding on the opposite side of the road in India, Nepal, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and, most recently, Japan.

I, and better than a hundred vehicles, waited more than an hour, sorted into five or six lanes in the ferry parking lot, to load. I was in the two-wheeled section, which included 11 motorized bikes, and me, the lone pedal bike. I plopped myself down on the tarmac to rest my legs and have a picnic of my remaining bread, pate and cheese. I was feeling great having had a free hot shower at the ferry terminal and making this connection with ease, eager for a new country and its fresh variety of stimuli.

It was all English license plates about me, other than a few of the 18-wheelers with French plates. England has little draw for the French, except for those who can find higher-paying jobs in London than they can find in France. I already felt as if I had crossed the Channel when I picked up a ten pence coin at the entry and check point to the loading area and with the chatter of English all about me. Many of the English were well-tanned from a sojourn in the south of France.

One fellow wandered over with his camera and said, "Pose for the press?" Another commented,"Now that's what I call a relaxed camper." If either had been French they would have given me a 'Bon appetite,' a frequent French aside I hear while sitting just about anywhere, dining on whatever, even a can of cold ravioli.

But I appreciated the English variety of wit, which has continued unabated, even though I've barely been here half a day. A librarian in a small town, whose library's Internet was down, gave me directions to the library in the large city of Salisbury, five miles away. And she insisted that I visit the church there, saying it had the highest spire in England, 404 feet. "I'll be very disappointed if you don't," she said. When I bought a road atlas, complete with all the country's speed camera locations, at the Salisbury tourist office, the woman helping me spiced her dialogue with all sorts of excess, endearing verbiage.

I inadvertently found myself at the small town library following a sign to the town center of what I thought was Salisbury. Earlier in the day I saw a sign indicating Salisbury was 24 kilometers away, a mere 15 miles. After I'd gone 18 miles I feared I'd missed it, which was highly unlikely considering its size. I began wondering if the English road signs could not be trusted, as those in Italy. But as with the time difference, I'd made a fatal miscalculation. That distance of "24" was miles, not kilometers, as England, like the US, is in the small minority of non-metric nations.

Otherwise, the road signs so far have not fooled me nor led me astray. I had no problem last night staying on track, finding my way out of Poole out towards its airport, about 10 miles from the ferry terminal, where the map indicated a forest. Just as the street lights along the highway ended, I came upon a forested area that I could slip into for the night. It seemed ideal until half an hour after I'd slipped into sleep I was awoken by a barking sound, though not that of a dog. It
was a deer, upset that I had usurped her domain, perhaps encroaching upon a nesting area where she had a fawn. The barking was 30 or 40 feet away and growing closer. It stopped after a couple of minutes, and then started up again a bit later from the other side of my tent. It continued off and on all night until daylight, when it was replaced by the roar of traffic.

I could have made my first destination a T. E. Lawrence museum, ten miles west along the coast, rather than the northerly direction I had chosen. I would have surely done so if he had been killed while riding a bicycle, rather than a motorcycle, just several miles from the museum...or if he had tramped about Arabia on a bicycle, rather than a camel. And I would have been curious to learn more about his adventurous life too if I weren't so intent on getting up to the wide open spaces of Scotland and back down to London in just a little more than three weeks for the start of the Tour de France.

Stonehenge is on the way. Its just seven miles north of here. Much as I prefer to avoid sites that attract hoards of tourists, that will be my first destination before I swing over to Wales and its National Cycling Museum.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Coutances, France



Friends: We weren't conducting a seance by any means, but if Louis Bobet, three-time winner of the Tour de France in the 1950s, had a spirit to summon, he would have been hovering above us in glee as Craig and I and a pair of older French couples, who grew up with Bobet as their hero, stood at the foot of his grave in his hometown cemetery of St. Méen-le-Grand in Brittany recalling his life and sharing our mutual passion for the bicycle.

Craig and I and one of the French couples had just spent an hour-and-a-half at the Bobet Museum a couple blocks away. We were all so engrossed searching for every telling detail we could spot in the many photos and articles and artifacts from his illustrious career that the caretaker made no effort to hurry us on our way even though we kept him there well past closing time. There was just too much to see in the three rooms of the museum, though any but the devout could have strolled through in a half hour or less.

The French couple that arrived at the museum at the same time we did used to own a bike shop, and the husband worked for the Tour de France for a spell driving a motorcycle along the race course shepherding race personnel. Even before they told us about themselves, it was obvious they were more than casual fans from the delight shining on their faces as they perused 50-year old magazines and scrapbooks. They apologized for never having visited the museum before, even though they lived less than 100 miles away.

There were only two bikes in the museum, but many jerseys and trophies and mementos, including a 1950 primitive Huret derailleur with Bobet's name on it. Bobet raced in the era when racers had to do their own repairs and carried a spare tubular tire wrapped over their shoulders. They also carried a cylinder that could quickly inflate their tire.

Bobet was the second person to win the Tour three times and the first to win it three times in a row, 1953-1955. He has been overshadowed by the five-time winners, beginning with Jacques Anquetil in the '60s. Bobet raced in the same era as the Italian great Coppi, a cycling god who ranks up there with Eddie Merckx. There were many photos of Coppi and Bobet going at it shoulder to shoulder, as they fought seeking to be the premier racer of their time. Bobet was just a cut below. Among his other major wins was the professional road racing World Championship and Paris Roubiax. The museum had a list of the nearly 100 streets and stadiums and schools that have been named for him all over France--in 40 of its 95 departements.

The museum didn't mention his burial site. When we asked the caretaker if he might be buried in the town cemetery, he said yes, and that we would have no problem finding it. He was wrong about that. Fortunately, just as the four of us arrived at the cemetery another couple was arriving to tend to a relative's grave. They took us directly to Bobet's grave. It was in the middle of hundreds of tombstones and had nothing bicycle related adorning it other than a small marble plaque that read "C.C.R. à Louison". They explained that it was a dedication from the Cycling Club Rennes (the nearest large city) that helped pay for the simple grave that Bobet shared with his parents and that had no mention of his bicycling exploits, just the span of his life 1925-1983.

As the six of us chatted, the couple that led us to the grave mentioned that they live in Bobet's childhood home, which at one time adjoined the family bakery. This gentleman was an ardent cyclist as well, occasionally biking to Mont St. Michel and back in a single day, a 110-mile trip. They envied our 650-mile ride from Craig's house to their town. Craig told them he owns a Bobet bike. They were amazed at Craig's fluency and even more so that a couple of Americans cared enough to seek out Bobet's grave. The bike shop couple talked about their tandeming. It was a joyous occasion that went on for nearly half an hour. Bobet would have been most pleased. Everyone gladly huddled together for a photo.

It took a little extra effort to make it to the museum by the time we did, including Craig's first career 100-mile day the day before. I had passed by the museum two years ago, on a Tuesday, the one day of the week that it was closed. I knew that it was only open a few hours in the afternoon. Our 100 mile day left us 70 miles away, so we needed an early start the next day and some determined riding to arrive by mid-afternoon. We arrived on a Sunday. If we hadn't
arrived that day there was the danger that the museum might have changed its closed day to Monday, like most of the rest of the museums around France. But the terrain had leveled a bit and the winds weren't contrary and we had a week's conditioning in our legs, so we were able to knock off those final 70 miles by 3:45, right in the middle of the museum's two p.m.-five p.m. hours. Our visit began with a 20-minute video. It included quite a bit of commentary from his younger brother, who also raced professionally and wrote several books about his brother.

Paying our respects to Bobet could easily be the highlight of our ten-day ride, though when Onni asked Craig what the highlight was the next day when he called her he said it was too early to say.

Later, George


Cherbourg, France


Friends: It took us six tries, our most by far, to find a suitable campsite on our ninth and final night of camping together. The farms were smaller and closer together as we approached Mont St. Michel in this part of Brittany, and the pockets of forests were more lines of trees than clusters.


We were in no panic though, as it was only seven p.m. when we started our search, with more than three hours before dark. It was ironic, as the night before, within a tenth of a mile after we reached our goal of 100 miles for the day, we came upon a field that was just perfect for camping, as had generally been the case our entire time together. The cycling gods evidently didn't wish us to be quitting so early this night.


The first place we attempted was near a pond where someone was fishing. The next was on the fringe of a wheat field that we learned was a walking path. As we were scouting it out, an elderly couple out for an evening stroll came upon us. We tried turning off on a couple of dirt roads a bit later, but one ended abruptly with a sharp drop-off before it had gotten far enough from the main road and the other dead-ended at a field of wheat with no gap for our tents. A nearby pile of manure sent us on our way as well. We tried another slightly overgrown farm road, but some
of its vegetation included the dreaded stinging nettles, making it another no-go.


A few miles later we chose to turn off on a small side road which led to larger fields with more trees and fewer farmhouses. In less than a quarter mile we had our field, and none too early, as for the first time in our time together it started to sprinkle. Craig never got a chance to test his tired, old, leaking poncho, which he had revitalized with a bottle of "water-proofing" spray that had cost him ten euros. Nor did he get to see how easily the rain can penetrate his non-waterproof panniers and the plastic bags he had all his clothes wrapped in. If we'd had rain, better rain gear and panniers would have been at the top of his list of things he'd do differently next time.


He was so well prepared otherwise, he'd probably only make minor adjustments to his gear and set-up. One thing he'll probably add is a kick-stand. Several nights he had no tree to lean his bike against and had to lay it on its side. He also had to restrict his pee stops to places where he could lean his bike. Other times when he had small mechanical problems (a thrown chain, a ripped off hook on his front pannier, debris caught in his spokes or fenders) there hadn't been something to lean his bike against either. I went years without a kickstand until I traveled with someone who did and I saw how much easier it made the touring.


Craig will only bring two shirts, rather than three, next time. As it was, he wore the same shirt, just as I did, the entire time, washing it once or twice a day and letting it dry in the breeze on our backs. He wouldn't start out with as much food. He only ate half of the two pounds of figs and pound of almonds he brought. And he might bring one of Onni's "New Yorkers" for evening reading. It wasn't as easy finding discarded newspapers as he thought it would be. Nor was he interested in reading the year-old paper he found along the road one day.


It was a short 42 miles to Mont St. Michel after our final night of camping. As we neared it, road signs began referring to it as "Le" Mont St. Michel, giving it that honorific "Le" such as precedes Mont Ventoux and Alpe de Huez. It wasn't until we were within three miles of the final straightaway that it suddenly popped up above the trees and we saw it for the first time.
Close to four million people visit it each year, making it France's second biggest tourist attraction after Disney Paris. That's over 10,000 a day, and many more during peak season.



A Monday in early June was probably an average day. The traffic wasn't bad, but the tight confines of the Mont's streets made it seemed mobbed. Most people were hiking up to the Benedictine Abbey at its summit. Few hiked the kilometer around the base of this former island now linked by a high enough road that it rarely is submerged, though the parking lots around it
can be at high tides. The person at the tourist office wasn't recommending the perimeter walk, as there were stretches where we had to cling to a fence if we didn't wish to get our feet wet.


We spent a couple of hours at Mont St. Michel, enjoying one final picnic together. We sat across from a parked loaded touring bike, hoping to meet its rider. Based on his bike and equipment, he was English. I wanted to ask which ferry he might recommend to England. The people at the two nearby tourists offices didn't have much information. I didn't know whether to take the one from St. Malo, about 30 miles to the west, or the one from Cherbourg, 90 miles north. There were too many considerations to go into here, but as you can see from this dateline, I opted for the longer ride up to Cherbourg for the four-hour, rather than the eight-hour ferry.


I was hoping Craig might decide to continue on to England for a few days, as it was only June 11, and Onni wasn't expecting him back until the middle of the month. His translating abilities could probably continue to be helpful on the other side of the Channel, as I accustom myself to their version of English. Plus I was getting used to our shared grapefruit each morning before we set out. And it was nice to have that extra pair of eyes to appreciate all there was to see along the road. The rolling, lush green landscape was never without interest and there were plenty of sights to behold beyond the countless chateaus and cathedrals and medieval farm houses. We'd become adept at spotting the same things, even when we were tightly drafting. When I asked Craig, when he was on my wheel, if he had noticed the upraised thumb from a passing motorist, he said he did and then asked, "Did you see the blond beside him? We should have given him an upraised thumb for his trophy wife."


Before we set out Craig wasn't sure if he would take a train home or possibly bike. At 135 euros the train would cost more than twice as much as he spent in his ten days of biking. When we parted, he was headed to the train station 40 miles away in Rennes, but I was hoping he would be so infected with the joy of being on his bike he would just keep on riding all the way back to Notre Dame de Riviere.


Regardless, I continued on feeling Mission Accomplished! I'd had a great ten days with Craig and I had at last given him a good taste of the incomparable joy and ease of touring France by bicycle. It is almost criminal that he has spent six months or more the past twelve years in France and never ranged further than 25 or 30 miles from his home on his bike despite his great passion for riding.

He has ten bikes hanging in his French basement and another three back in Chicago. For years he has told me about his many biking friends in Chicago, some of whom have become friends of mine, who vow every year to come visit Craig and bike around France. But every year they find a reason to postpone, promising next year will be the year. Maybe now that Craig has done it himself, his enthusiasm will finally inspire them. Its a shame so few are enjoying the fabulous French byways on their bikes.


On to Great Britain, George

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Cognac, France


Friends: Cognac is another of the many French towns that have gained international renown thanks to a drink or food or condiment that originated there, along with Dijon, Roquefort, Chablis, Champange, Bordeaux, Beaujolis, Brie, to name a few. This city of 20,000, about 50 miles northeast of Bordeaux and 25 miles east of the Atlantic, has several dozen distilleries, many of which give tours and tastings of the double-distilled, extra-potent wine known as
Cognac, a label that can only apply to the officially sanctioned distilleries of this region.


Rather than a distillery, we opted for the Cognac Museum and its sister Art Museum, a two-for-one deal. The Cognac Museum moved into its new location, a former chateau, just three years ago. It was a rare museum with English translations on most of its displays and headsets offering English translation for its several videos. The English provide the biggest market for the drink, and the region attracts many English tourists. Cognac is aged anywhere from two to fifty years, losing about two percent of its volume to evaporation each year, "the angel's share." One of the more interesting videos showed the construction of the oak barrels that the cognac is aged in. An entire room was devoted to the exotic glass bottles it is sold in, contributing to its glamour and prestige. Another room was a library of books that mention cognac with the page marked. "The DaVinci Code" was one of the books.


If we cared to we could have wild-camped in any of the many vineyards in the area last night. It would have maintained our theme of camping among agriculture indigenous to the region. Maybe tonight, though vineyards with their low height don't provide as much privacy as I

prefer. They can do, however, if they are over a rise and out of range of anyone out strolling looking down the well-manicured rows.


Last night's campsite was on the fringe of a waist-high field of wheat in rolling terrain framed by
a small forest along a stream, maybe our best yet. Wheat ranks second to grapes as the most grown product of this region. The night before we camped in a forest of chestnut trees, the ground thick with spiny chestnut carcasses. A walnut orchard along the Dordogne River was another campsite. We also camped in a field thick with slugs, something the French don't eat despite their kinship to snails.

We have woken to a handful of slugs clinging to our rain flies most mornings, but that one campsite, on the fringe of a small garden tucked beside an overgrown meadow, was an extreme case. Our tents were speckled with more slugs than a boulangerie has baguettes. It took no effort, just some time, to flick each off. Fortunately, they made no noise as they crawled up the side of our tents, at least discernible to our ears, otherwise we would have had a truly sleepless night. As it was, there were plenty of other violators of the silence that night, making it by far our least quiet campsite. The quiet was broken by the tinkle of bells around the necks of sheep on a nearby hillside, the hourly chime of the church clock not far enough away, the toot of the trains as they entered a tunnel not far from us, car horns warning of their approach to the one-lane wide underpass just below us beneath the train tracks, and jets above landing and taking off from a regional airport.


Still, it was fine camping, and no complaints from Craig, who hasn't been in a tent in years. He's
proving a natural to this hobo-style of travel, having no qualms about bathing and washing his gear in the cold Dordogne River and under cemetery spigots, dining on bread and cheese at roadside picnic tables and village soccer fields and in his tent at night. His French fluency has come in handy asking directions and just being plain friendly with the locals. It is not unusual for people to express shock that he is American. He hardly looks it, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat as he pedals along on a bike with a mismatched set of scavenged panniers.


Having spent six months a year in France since buying his house in the Cevennes twelve years ago, he knows well the culture. He finds things in the grocery stores that I am blind to--bags of bargain-priced croissants, hunks of cheese at spectacularly low prices, figs and assorted fruits.
I didn't need to indulge in quiche, one of my staples, the first couple of days, as he thought to
bring along a dozen hard-boiled eggs. He nearly brought them fresh from his local Saturday farmer's market the day we left, but Onni warned him that fresh eggs don't peel very well, so he purchased the eggs at the supermarket.


The cycling world's attention will be focused on Cognac in a month-and-a-half, when it hosts stage 19 of The Tour on Saturday, July 28, the final time trial of the race. The town does not yet have banners and posters up promoting the event, though the gardens outside the town hall have a flower display with a bicycle and another of a map of France with the Tour route marketed by flowers. The stage will take the riders 55.5 kilometers to Angouleme, due east of here. I'll be at the finish line cheering for Levi Leiphiemier, this year's American hope, trying to make it nine years straight for an American.


Later, George

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Lalinde, France


Friends: Day four of travels with Craig. We've come over 250 miles. This is now Craig's longest tour, exceeding his Detroit to Niagara Falls trip of 30 years ago. Our rhythms are coalescing more and more, as we become a single touring organism, riding wheel-to-wheel taking turns drafting, sharing food, pointing out and observing different sites along the way, needing similar amounts of sleep and food before continuing on our way. We've 500 miles to go to Mont St. Michel up on the English Channel before Craig returns to his summer residence in southern France, our starting point. After Mont St. Michel I will cross the English Channel and continue on to Scotland.


The two bike museums in small towns in the Dordogne region that were our original destinations are no longer in existence. Like many small museums scattered about France they come and go. There is a several year old postal museum just outside of Craig's village that moved there from another small town in France. Few people go out of there way to come to it in its new location, so its days are numbered as well.


Though we were sorry not to have old bikes to gaze upon, the regions that lured us were no disappointment. If we hadn't come the way we had, we wouldn't have stumbled upon a copy of the Rosetta Stone in Figeac, home town of the Jean-Francois Champollion, the man who deciphered it nearly 200 years ago. A replica over 30-feet long, eight times the size of the original, lay embedded in the courtyard beside his childhood home, which is now a museum. The stone dates to 196 BC and was encrypted in three languages--Greek, hieroglyphics and Egyptian demotic. The original was discovered by forces of Napoleon in 1799.


It's been a pleasure to introduce Craig to wild-camping. Our first night we had a palatial forest all to ourselves, up on a hill down a dirt road with a sign warning not to "penetrate," as it was a military firing range. It obviously wasn't in use, nor could it be too dangerous as there was no fence around it. Nor were there any recent tire tracks in the dirt road, nor evidence of any firing having been done in the vicinity. Our campsite had multiple piles of deer droppings. It was a quiet, tranquil night.


Time up on computer, George