Day 18, 22 Sep, Meeting more ‘old’ friends in Paris.

It’s hard to imagine that Paris has a campsite located within minutes of the city; actually, make that 2 — one on the western side and the other on the eastern fringe about 20 minutes from Disneyland Paris. I was at Bois du Bologne, located next to the Bois du Boulogne park, on the edge of the Seine, on the western side. It’s a well-run and very organised campsite and caters primarily to mobile homes. This was also the most expensive of all the campsites I had stayed in.

The reception of Camp Bois de Boulogne

My little cosy corner

Other campers

Most of the campers were young student-looking types but today I would come across a trio of interesting cycle-tourers who hailed from the Ukraine. They weren’t young but their spirits were, and I had nothing but admiration for them.

Every piece of equipment they had in their possession were old, very well-used and had seen better days … probably from the last world war too. Their mess tins were the kidney-shaped type, thoroughly blackened from cooking countless meals.

But what really impressed me was their attitude. Despite their advancing age and their lack of equipment, did they care? Of course not. They never said it but I knew … and it was also a maxim that I subscribe to …

It’s not the about the bike, it’s about the RIDE.

Unfortunately, Alex was the only one who could speak any English at all, and even then we had a hard time trying to understand each other. But it didn’t matter … here we were, 4 kindred spirits living out our own separate dreams. But take a closer look at their faces — these are guys who have truly ‘been there, done that’ … and then some.

I yearned to learn more about them but I had to settle for very sketchy biographies instead. War veterans, all of them … and proud of it. But gone were the glory days, they were just 3 bosom buddies hitting the road to wherever their fancies took them.

The 3 Russian war veterans/cycle-tourers who arrived late in the night. Naturally, I made friends with them the minute I saw them. Here, I'm having a cuppa with them. The picnic table is provided by the camp.

Vasay, 72, and Alex, 71 years of age. Ancient, venerable and dignified.

The oldest boy of the three -- Genady, 74. Take a close look at his bike -- the gearing, the rear rack, the chain, the saddle, the frame -- they were all due for change about 20 years ago.

Old but still going strong ...like their owners.

That the saddle is about to disintegrate to bits doesn't bother Genady, the owner. Check out the other bike's water bottle holder on the seat post.

Alex's rear rack

Alex takes the grand prize for innovation and resourcefulness -- something I believe was borne out of necessity and the lack of roubles. This gem of a rear rack is made out of a discarded seat from the very same type of picnic table we were all sitting on. Go back and take a look again. It was held together by nothing more than cable-ties, pieces of scrap metal, and a lot of faith ... (click to enlarge photo to examine the handiwork)

Alex the proud owner demonstrating how the 'rear rack' unfolds.

Well, what can one say but ...

... sheer genius! Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Lesson to be learned here? Never say 'cannot'. I was so humbled by this experience.

Alex was also quite proud of his home-made metal pannier -- 'It a box for carrying food, and it can also double as a chair' he explained in his halting English.

Admiring a very lucky-to-have-it-all cycle-tourer's bike.

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Today, there is one more very important task I have to complete. It is one of the reasons I came to Paris — to ride the last few kilometres of the Tour de France bike race. Where? Along the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde — a full loop that would see me riding among Parisian traffic 6 cars deep. Suicidal is one of the words to describe this adventure but as usual, good sense never prevails when this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is right here and now. So off we go …

On the way to the Arc de Triomphe

Naturally, I had to stop and had a picture of myself taken...again.

Round the Arc de Triomphe and heading towards Place de la Concorde ...

...where the obstrusive Egyptian obelisk stands. In the real Tour de France, the racers would repeat this going-around for quite a few laps before finally peeling off to a riotous finale at the finish line some distance away from here.

At the Arc de Triomphe, I decided to video my own little Tour de France. Camera in one hand, steadying the bike with the other, I had to stay close to the pavement that ringed the monument so as to avoid being a Parisian roadkill, which I was perilously close to being one, thanks to a bus.

 

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Day 16, Sun 20 Sep, Kortrijk to Roubaix to Paris.

Breakfast was a simple affair. I went to the kitchen for my tray which contained the cutlery, butter, jam and milk. The rest was on the buffet – cereals, apples and oranges, yogurt, bread, ham, cheese, and a choice of hot coffee, tea or chocolate. Not a bad spread for a hostel.

There weren’t too many guests that day so it was a nice relaxing breakfast. I took my time…in fact, I overdid it and was told by Johann that checkout was 10am and it was already close to 10.

As I readied to leave, Johann once again came to my assistance, giving me a small map of the town with directions to get out of it and, a list of towns to tick off on the way to Roubaix. Thanks Johann, you’re a godsend.

My first samaritan of the day ... all colour-coordinated, too.

You know when you're leaving town.

Just outside Kortrijk, I couldn't help noticing that things got a little automated. Drank = drink, snoep = snack, brood = bread.

Cobbled roads on the French side

From now on, I would be cycling along main roads, although still on designated sections marked for bicycles. It was faster though. It took me only about 2 hours to ride the 30kms or so to Roubaix. Somewhere in between, I’d crossed into France, and the signs had changed abruptly to French.

Another sign that indicated that one had left Belgium was the general cleanliness of the town. Roubaix was scrappy-looking. Rubbish was everywhere, and some of the houses looked drab and rundown…. even the people looked different.

I had just entered Roubaix, and at this particular roundabout over a canal, 2 opposite sections of it could be elevated to allow boats to pass through. Not the most convenient of arrangements, as traffic built up about 100 metres or so.

Not sure of directions, I asked this friendly French boy and he drew me a map to get to the velodrome.

Finally, we're getting somewhere...

I circled around a bit and finally made it to the velodrome. It wasn’t some grand piece of architecture but it was hallowed ground – having been the finishing point for the infamous Paris-Roubaix Race for the last 119 years. 250km and some of it on cobbles that were so bad, people just didn’t use it in normal times.

(Read more about Paris-Roubaix race here)

The main gate was closed but not the side gate, which was strangely open. I saw a group of cyclists already inside. There were Brits, from Cycling Club Hackney, and they were here for the same purpose as I was.

Their leader, a guy by the name of Keir, was a bit apprehensive about us all riding the track and said we’d better not, and that somebody might be watching and all that, because normally velodromes aren’t just open like that. So we just posed a bit at the trackside.

The boys were a bit cheesed off that they didn’t get to ride after coming from so far. As for me, I’d decided that as soon as they were gone, I’d go ahead and ride it anyway. After all, the worst that could happen was probably somebody telling me off, and it would be worth it, too.

I took to the track just as they were leaving and as soon as they saw me on it, they hesitated going off. I could tell the boys were telling him ‘See, it’s alright, let’s do it’. Next thing I knew, 2 of the boys zipped past me ( a fully-loaded tourer is like an elephant lumbering along while the thoroughbreds went past me like lightning).

The sidegate was open, so I went in.

So did this group of pilgrims from Cycling Club Hackney, England.

Happily trespassing and doing a ceremonial lap in the velodrome (see video below)

A giant piece of ‘pave’ at the main entrance to the velodrome

With that crossed out of my things-to-do-list while in Europe, I headed for Lille, about 20 kms away, to take the train for Paris. (I was behind time and I had no choice but to take the train other wise it would be another 3 days on the road and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Paris).

To get to Lille, one simply rides on the Grand Boulevard, an old road that has dedicated tram lines, cycle paths and a dual carriageway, all flanked by beautiful trees the leaves of which were already changing colour, covering the street below with a golden blanket. I rode a little slower to enjoy it.

On the extreme left is the road for cars, followed by trams, then a fast road cars again, then the 2-way cycle path, then another road for cars.

As I was riding along, a cyclist came up to me with the usual ‘Bon jour.’ I bon jour’ed back and we started chatting. His name was Jean Chevalier, he was on his way home from his work as a communications executive with a bicycle manufacturer, and he was another like-minded soul. He started telling me about his ambitious plans for a long cycle tour that would be taking place early next year – India and across Australia.

We chatted almost all the way to Lille and he decided that he would take me to the train station, and help me buy a ticket. I love it when I meet such people on the road. They really do make my day.

Like elsewhere in Europe, bikes inside train stations do not raise any eyebrows.

The picturesque town of Lille.

Lille's main square.

The non-stop train to Paris cost me 64 Euros (ouch), including bike, of course, and it took a mere 1 hour 4 minutes to cover the 220 or kms.

The carriage for cyclists offers a special room to store bikes, hung up by the front wheel (I'd forgotten to take a picture).

A fellow tourer (enroute to Spain) who was on the same train with me.

It felt great to be finally stepping out onto the Parisian streets --- it was busy, noisy, colourful and beautiful.

Enroute to the campsite at Bois du Boulogne on the eastern side of Paris, I stopped to take in the sight of Arc de Triomphe, basking in the warm glow of a setting sun.

Tomorrow, I do the tourist thing, along with the thousands of other visitors from all over the world.

Distance today:: 62
Distance to date:: 878

Playback today’s ride on Garmin Connect (Kortrijk-Lille)
Playback today’s ride on Garmin Connect (Paris train station to Bois du Bologne)

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Day 15, 19 Sep, Brugge to Kortrijk.

Camp Memling is a lovely campsite, especially the park filled with tall and matured trees next to it. Maybe that’s why it was a little colder than usual. Today was time to change direction to Roubaix, France by way of Kortijk,  a small Belgian town almost on the French border where I would certainly have to stop for the night.

It was a late start for me today, taking my time packing up, talking to fellow campers ….

After relocating to the tents-only site.

Yes, that is a mini coffee press on the table:) Little luxuries like can help start the day on the right note

These 4 French boys were quite hilarious...using pet-food bowls to eat their cereals.

I wasn't about to pass this up ... plucking an apple from the tree next to my tent.

The day before I had also been talking to another cycle-tourer at the campsite, Luc, who was on the last leg of his tour which started in Denmark. His home is in Kortijk and fortunately for me, he had a proper cycling map of the area. He was kind enough to write out the numbers of the cycling path points for me, all the way to just outside Kortijk where he lived in a town called Bissingen.

At first I had asked Luc if I could ride with him but according to him, ‘I’m a lonely rider…I go, I stop, I like that’. Ok, I get the point. In fact, I know just how he feels. No wonder he was so quick to give me the numbers.

It was the shortest route to Kortrijk and the scenery was downright boring, bland and uninspiring. It was also hot (almost like in Malaysia), and there was no cool wind either. Farms, farms, farms and more farms – mostly corn, except for a lovely break from yellow to purple when I passed a lavender field. The ride itself is only worth this paragraph. But…I did see a couple of interesting things.

My first 2 angels of the day...putting me on the right track to ...

no. 70, the first of a series of numbers I had to follow to get to Kortrijk.

It started out pleasant enough

I even came across an ancient mobile home...check out the chimney.

Numbers galore ... now we're getting somewhere.

Riding through a very posh neighbourhood

Then the rest of the day was riding past farms, a lot of it yellow fields of corn

Except for this brief break of purple lavendar.

The first of 2 weddings I would pass that day.

This one was a wedding for a fireman. The wedding party immediately struck a pose when I took out my camera.

Another church later, I saw this antique bus dressed up for another wedding.

Luc’s numbered cycling paths ended at Bissingen and from there I decided to follow the main roads (in Belgium and France, you are allowed to ride on main roads, except highways, of course. Don’t even think of it in the Netherlands). When I reached Kortrijk, I set about looking for a youth hostel, as there were no campsites in this town. Here, I was surprised by the helpful, friendly nature of the Belgians.

First, it was this friendly Belgian driving a van. He stopped his vehicle and got down to help me with directions,

then it was a bus driver who shouted instructions for getting to the centre of town as he slowly passed me,

then it was this lady who sensed that I was looking for the hostel and called out to me while pointing in the direction of the hostel, ‘Sleeping? There, there.’Then she said, ‘You follow me.’ It was only a short distance but she led me there anyway. Then she told me, as we stopped there in the middle of the street, that she had adopted 8 Vietnamese children! I guess my Asian features aroused her motherly instincts and made her want to help me.

It never stops amazing me … all these wonderful people who helped a stranger in their land. I also learnt that if you stopped in your tracks and look at a map long enough, someone will eventually ask if they could help you.

I was also surprised at the size of the hostel. This was no Lonely Planet type of hostel. This was more like YMCA. I decided to take a room instead of a bed in an 8-bed dorm since it was only 9 Euros more, and I craved peace and privacy. It was a lovely room – small, spartan but clean, and most of all, the windows opened up to a lovely view of trees, not buildings.

Johann, the manager there, was just so helpful, checking me in, explaining to me where to go for dinner, explaining to me where to get the tray for the included breakfast, where the breakfast was served (in a huge multipurpose hall complete with a bar), and after I checked in, locking up my bike and things I didn't need to use, in the store-room.

The spacious multi-purpose hall also served as a cafeteria for breakfast.

Tonight, I would have a good night’s sleep and tomorrow, I head for Roubaix, France and the Velodrome Roubaix, where the Hell of the North race finishes.

I’m so excited 🙂

Distance today:: 77km
Distance to date:: 816km

Day 11, 15 Sep, Exploring Delft

Delft is another one of many charming towns in Netherlands. Most of the buildings here date a back a few hundred years. Even the house that Bee Suan is staying in is more than a hundred years old. They may be old but most of them are kept in good condition and still command a considerable sum on the open market.

Besides staying another day to explore the town, I would also be shopping around for a proper map, one that can take me all the way to Bruges in Belgium. Bee Suan took me to a specialist travel shop and I finally settled on a cycling map of Northern Netherlands. It wasn’t detailed but it featured all the numbered cycling paths as well as major ones like The North Sea Cycle Route which I intend to follow until I turned off at the town of Sluis on the Dutch/Belgian border. It was good enough that I wouldn’t get lost so easily.

The rest of the day I spent exploring the lovely town of Delft ..

 

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Another lovely dinner prepared by Bee Suan.


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