Day 19, 23 Sep, Paris to Marines.

Since it would take me at least 4 days to reach London, I decided to cut short my Paris stay by 1 day and leave for Dieppe today instead. (Dieppe is on the French coast and one of the ports from where one can take a ferry to England)

It would take me 2 days of riding to reach Dieppe, stay in Dieppe for a day because of the ferry schedule, and another 1 day to ride to London.

I always dread getting out of an unfamiliar city and Paris was no different. But this time I was prepared. I had found, and downloaded ready GPS tracks for Paris to Dieppe, and from Newhaven on the English coast to London from bikely.com and mapmyride.com, and it was now ready for use with my Garmin.

The campsite was already on the outskirts of the city so that was less one problem. 10 minutes later, I encountered the first discrepancy – the original 2-yr old tracks were actually from Dieppe to Paris, and I was simply following it in reverse. The first waypoint was for a pedestrian/cyclist bridge to cross the Seine to get to St. Cloud on the other side.

Problem was, they’d closed the gangway for cyclists to ride, or push up, and across the bridge. Now, you could only walk up the stairs. A fully loaded tourer was definitely out of the question so I had to ride further down the road until I finally found a proper bridge.

As I entered the district of St. Cloud (say Saint Clood), I ascended the first uphill of the day. Little did I know that from here on it would wind up and down all the way to Dieppe; not severe (except for 1 little nasty hill at Triel sur Seine) – just gently rolling inclines … but it was bad enough, considering my load. France, it would seem, is not as flat as the other countries I’ve visited; it’s a country of rolling-meadows terrain.

Looking for another way to St Cloud on the other side of the Seine.

The first hill of the day, in St Cloud. You can just make out Eiffel Tower in the foggy distance.

The first detour of the day was a pleasant surprise – the St.Cloud park – the leaves of the magnificent trees were all turning a warm amber colour.

It was a serene piece of painting that made you slow down just to enjoy nature’s handiwork.

Coming out at the other end of the park.

...and through these doors into the town of ...

...Marnes la Coquette

From here, I would ride through some secluded woods

I stopped for a break among a stack of cut timber and took a shot of the Surly against this unique background.

As the day wore on, I passed through countless villages, but those with charming old houses were the best, like this ivy-covered house. They were exactly what I’d imagined it would be when I was following the live coverage of Tour de France, seeing them from the helicopter’s point of view. And now I was here cycling through them, on my very own Tour de France. It felt great.

I would even ride under quaint little tunnels that barely allowed a car to pass through without scraping the roof off.

Nope, I hadn't taken a wrong turn and ended up in Sumatra, it's still France.

Country roads meant that traffic was light.

Crossing the Seine towards the town of Triel Sur Seine (Triel on the Seine)

I didn't know it then but this quaint turn off from the town of Triel sur Seine that began through a short tunnel under a building would turn out to be a monster of a climb -- 2 km of very steep uphill.

A few km out of Trier Sur Seine, the road flattened out, to my relief. From here on, farmland would feature very prominently in the landscape.

You could easily be forgiven for reading the sign as 'US Marines'. It's not. It actually indicating the town of 'Us' and 'Marines'

I’d begun to notice that there weren’t many bicycles on the road. France is unlike Germany, Netherlands and Belgium where people cycle just about anywhere. I guess the terrain has something to do with that. As well, you don’t find too many dedicated cycle paths that connected villages, towns and cities in these countries.

I was making painfully slow progress … I needed to cover at least 90 km of the total 189 km to Dieppe today. Having got lost a few times (in spite of the GPS tracks), and slowed down by the never-ending gentle up-and-down roads, I knew I would be in deficit by the end of the day.

At best, I reckoned I should be able to make the town (actually a village) of Marines and hunker down for the night somewhere. I had no idea if it actually offered any kind of lodging at all.

As the sun began to dip into the horizon (as did the temperature), I felt a little apprehensive. This was really off the beaten track and there were very little cars, let alone bicycles. As was my usual practice, I did the next best thing —  pray. I felt no worry at all. At worst, I would just stealth-camp somewhere behind a copse of trees, and there were plenty dotting the landscape.

30 seconds later, a young man on an antiquated racer rode up from behind and wished me a pleasant ‘Bon Jour’. I bon joured back and he asked me where I was going. I asked if Marines was near and he replied yes, only about 4 km. Great, I thought. ‘Are there any campsites or B&Bs there?’ I asked hopefully.

His reply took me completely by surprise. ‘You can stay with me if you like’ he said cheerfully. ‘If I like?’ Are you kidding me? Of course, I mucho like, and all I could say was ‘Hallelujah, thank you Lord!’

On the way to Marines where he lived with his Grandpa, Sebastien told me a little about himself. He had cycled across US, Mexico and a few countries in South America and he was constantly a recipient of many a stranger’s hospitality.

He said he knew exactly how I felt and when he offered me a place to stay for the night, he was simply paying it back. How magnificent, I thought and, a prayer answered. It never ceases to amaze me how people would just stop to help you when you need it most.

Sebastien, my wayside saviour.

Outside Sebastien's home in Marines.

As we reached his home (actually it was 2 houses on the same piece of land, fenced in by a 7 foot high concrete wall), I was  quite pleased that I would finally see the inside of a French home.

His friend Alex, was visiting him and was staying the night, and he would be going to Paris on Friday to audition for a part in a Moliere play. (I didn’t miss the fact that this was my 2nd encounter with an aspiring artiste, the other being the Spanish girl I met in a Bonn hostel)

I was to learn later that Grandpa too, ‘traveled the world’ — on Google Earth; he would mark each and every single place that Sebastien visits. (Later, he would make me show him where I lived and he proceeded to mark it as well…how charming)

It was only the 2 of them living in these 2 houses. Grandma had passed away a year ago and Sebastien had decided to come back from his travels and keep him company, staying in the smaller house that belonged to his father. He’d also just started studying law at the local university about 15km away.

Grandpa Pierre's house, and his beautifully tended garden.

Sebastien was usually the chef but today, Alex would be the assistant chef and today, his claim to culinary fame a dish of baked béchamel sauce and bacon. Sebastien also slapped on 2 pieces of steaks on the grill and told me ‘You’re gonna eat a lot tonight’. Well, frankly, I could eat a whole cow tonight.

Grandpa Pierre was a splendid fellow. He made me feel so welcome. By now he was quite used to Sebastien bringing home stray cycle tourers he met on the road. I was no different and he treated me with such warmth.

While his dish was in the oven, Alex would take the opportunity to practice his lines, even allowing me to video him... check it out below:

The warm and homely living/dining room of the Rovens residence.

Appetizers -- sweet melon

'Dinner is served' ... steaks, rice-like grain, and bacon in bechamel sauce ... a tad salty but who cares, I loved it. Anyway, my body was craving for salt.

Sebastien was ever the clown, making me feel at ease and at home.

After dinner, grandpa brought out a whole array of cheese and even opened another bottle of red. I was beginning to feel like a VIP.

I went from nearly camping in the rough to cheering the night with some seriously jolly good fellows. This was the life …this was one of the little priceless perks that came with cycle touring.

Grandpa Pierre insisted that I keep my bike in the shed and personally wheeled it in for me. I was so touched. It was obvious that we shared that special bond only bikers had with each other ...

His old bikes were testament to his love for cycling, and empathy for another biker, especially one who was 10,000km away from home.

Before we tucked in for the night, Sebastien said he had to leave early for classes but that I should take my time so Grandpa then said that I should have breakfast with him before I went off the next day. Brilliant. What more could I ask for?

As laid my tired body down on the futon bed in Sebastien’s father’s big master bedroom, I was still feeling warm and fuzzy. What a great day this had been As I dozed off, I thought how nice if everyday on the road was like this, but that would be asking a bit too much. Still, one can hope, can’t one?

Distance to day:80
Distance to date: 982

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Day 17, 21 Sep, Un temps merveilleux à Paris

‘A wonderful time in Paris’ … that’s what it means in French, not that I speak French, but it seemed appropriate to title it as such (thanks to Google Translate). After all, we are talking about Paris — the City of Romance, where at almost every corner you can see couples locked in passionate embrace, oblivious to the world around them.

I love Paris, and I am certain I will walk its streets again one day. The people are beautiful, although a bit pompous and arrogant at times, but, that’s Paris for you. Love it or loathe it, Paris never lets you go without a twinge of regret.

There are so many are things about Paris (and France) that I love — the cheese,  the wines (which, litre for litre, is cheaper than Coke), even by our standards. I particularly enjoyed sitting on a bench in the park munching on a piece of bread and some cheese while a cold wind blows boisterously. Occasionally, the sun would break out from the clouds and warm up the day, and one’s heart.

I love cycling the streets of Paris, with the sound of my wheels chattering a duet with the cobble-stones. At times, I would be weaving between the neat rows of trees with its golden hued leaves rustling in the autumn breeze, some already carpeting the ground with a honeyed, caramel-coloured layer, reminding one that the seasons are changing.

And wherever you turn, like much of Europe, elegantly crafted Parisian buildings make you stop and wonder at their bourgeoisie-ness, clearly reflected in the ornate embellishments that adorn much of their facades.

Am I waxing too lyrical? Well, I suppose it’s because I’ve allowed myself to be enchanted by it. But words can only say so much … let the pictures paint an even more beautiful story ……

Cycle paths among the golden-leaved trees

The bridge that leads to The Invalides, and where Napoleon is buried

One of numerous crossings on the Seine

Strictly for pedestrians, these walkways by the Seine are perfect for romantic walks

Architectural excess, or art?

Love is everywhere in Paris

The classy neighbourhood of Parsy where I had to pass through to get to the centre of Paris.

Of course, I had to get myself in some of these photos as well….but not too obstrusive, I hope. It’s a crime to be in the centre of every photo that’s shot during a holiday…you know the type 🙂

Tourist poseur shot at The Lourve

This Filipino couple on their honeymoon (who asked me to take their picture) were so impressed with my adventure that they insisted I took a photo with them. Nice people.

Tourist poseur shot #2

Posing with a couple of cool cats busking by the Seine.

The Seine seems to attract all kinds of buskers and entrepreneurs, like this guy. Sure its free for 10 minutes, but would you time your massage down to the last free second and get up immediately? Very clever, these frenchies.

Le Quartier du Pain is one of Paris' foremost boulangeries, famous for their award-winning baguettes.

How good was their baguette? Well, I finished this Baguette Campagne in one sitting...it's that good.

I wanted to visit this swanky LV store but they wouldn't allow me to bring my precious bicycle in. Too bad, they lost some business that day 🙂

The recumbent is alive and well in Paris; this one is for hire. Very cool. Notice how aerodynamic the roof is.

Not so alive and well for this bicycle.

A visit to Paris would not be complete without a pilgrimage to Notre Dame

The intricate stonework on the entrance of Notre Dame's main entrance.

I didn't bother with going up to the tower, not with a queue this long. Notre Dame is after all, a must-see for tourists.

The imposing interior

inside notre dame

(Click to enlarge pic)

eiffel night

Close-up of Eiffel Tower by night (click to enlarge)

Enchanting Paris by night

Enchanting Paris by night (click to enlarge)

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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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When the leaves turn colour …

The European summer is almost at an end. Most of the tourists will be leaving for home, the crowds are thinning out, the temperature has begun to dip a little — and hopefully, so will prices. All good signs for free and independent cycle-tourers like me embarking on a Tour of Europe.

The plan, as always, is simple 🙂

5 countries, 26 days (4-30 Sep), 1,500km; give or take a couple of hundred kms.

The starting point will be Frankfurt, Germany. From there, I’ll flow with the River Rhine all the way to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, about 500kms to the north.

From Amsterdam, I head south-west to Belgium, crossing into France and then into Paris.

From Paris, it’s a north-westerly ride to Dieppe on the French coast; then a ferry ride across the Channel to Newhaven, England.

The last leg will see me heading north towards London, and then home on an AirAsia flight out of Stansted, 60km to the north.

The first part of the journey will be fully along the cycle paths of the River Rhine. It would be pretty hard to get lost following the river so that’s less one worry. At the end of this leg, Amsterdam should be good for a few days of rest and sightseeing — and of course, blending in with the 700,000 or bicycles that rule the roads of this canal city.

Campsites, or campingplatz as they call it in Germany, are easily found throughout the length of the river so camping is how I intend to overcome the expensive issue of accommodation . Even in big cities like Amsterdam and Paris, there are campsites to be found, right in the heart of it all, and all costing less than 10 Euros.

However, once I reach Belgium, I intend to retrace part of the route that Robert Louis Stevenson (he of Treasure Island fame) took when he sailed from Belgium to France in a sailing canoe. RSL is one of my favourite authors and, without a doubt, one of the finest travel writers of the 19th century.

In his first real book, An Inland Voyage, Stevenson chronicles his travels in a canoe with his good friend, Sir Walter Simpson, along the many canals that define this part of the world. The language may be a bit archaic but if one perseveres, one will be rewarded with the beauty and colour of the land that fairly leap out of the pages.

One of the reasons I’m following in the wake of his inland sailing adventure is that part of the route happens to coincide with that of the other famous French bike race — the Paris-Roubaix Classic — a one-day, 250km race across the countryside. In dozens of stretches along the way, the peloton goes bumpity-bump on some of the most vicious cobblestones that trace back to Roman times (they don’t nick-name this race ‘The Hell of the North‘ for nothing).

At Roubaix, and if allowed, I’m going to ride on the oval timber track of the town’s hallowed velodrome that always plays host to the traditional final km of the race.

Paris will probably be the longest stop of the trip — doing the tourist stuff, eating the best baguettes in the world, drinking coffee by the Parisian sidewalks and, the icing on the cake — riding the traditional Parisian loop of the Tour de France‘ s final stage along the boulevards of Champs Elysees, the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe.

From France, it’s merely a 2-day ride to the coast and, after a short ferry ride across the English Channel, I shall be in the land of fish-and-chips, steak and kidney pies, stiff upper lips and all …

A simple plan, no?

I can’t wait 🙂

The map below is an approximate route of the area that I will be traversing.

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Tour of Europe, the making of a dream.

As all travellers will tell you, it’s the preparation and planning that make up half the excitement of a journey. Likewise, in preparation of my upcoming Euro tour in September, I’ve been scouring the many travelogues, forums and cycle-touring blogs on the net, notably crazyguyonabike.com — a treasure trove of tales and research material for any would-be cycle tourer.

Inevitably, one comes across many inspiring quotes and catch-phrases, some albeit a bit cliched, but nonetheless, one particular quote resonated with me : ‘It’s risky business travelling alone, but it’s equally risky when dreams remain dreams.’

A few years ago, I had planned to do something any self-respecting, bicycle-racing afficionado dreams of doing — to stand among the crowds along the Champs-Elysees in Paris and cheer on the winners of the final stage of the Tour de France, the greatest bicycle race in the world.

Well, it was a grand dream, and the plan was simple — ride from London to Paris (including a ferry crossing of the English Channel, of course) and then fly home from Paris. But somehow, Europe seemed so far away and the whole thing never quite shifted into higher gear and it remained a dream.

Occasionally, in casual conversations with my boss, SP Lee, the topic of France would crop up (his wife is French) and he would say, ‘Go la, Mike, you’ll love it, especially if you’re cycle touring. It’s hard to find any part of France that’s not nice.’ Well, I can fully attest to that claim, from what I’ve seen following the daily live coverage of Le Tour on the Eurosport channel.

Interestingly, one of the reasons people all over the world tune in to watch the Tour is to see France in all its glorious summer splendour —  the cameras on board the helicopters covering the race would would zoom in on notable landmarks, even circling them to give viewers a proper look — well, at least half the non-bike racing viewers were, if the commentators’ claim are to be believed.

2008 rolled in and still Europe didn’t feature in my touring plans; I had decided to ‘conquer’ Vietnam and Laos instead — 21 days across some of the most massive mountains I had ever ridden. It was a magnificent tour and I finally ticked off the last 2 Indochina countries on my  list that I had yet to set foot on.

In 2009, there was still no sign of Europe in my plans; this time, I had decided that I would take it ‘down under’ — Oz-try-lia!

As usual, the plan was simple — a 1,200km jaunt from Melbourne to Sydney on the south-eastern flank of the Australian continent. Along the way (if I was lucky), I’d get to throw a couple of snowballs in the Snowy Mountains.

I had also timed my arrival at Melbourne to coincide with the annual Around the Bay in a Day cycle ride — a 140km ride around Philip Bay that’s so popular, all places are usually taken up. I had registered but luckily, I hadn’t paid yet.

Then sometime in May this year, my recumbent-riding friend (and ‘No to ISA Freedom Ride‘ buddy) Joseph Koh reported from out of the blue that he’d just come back from a mini Euro tour — 2 weeks in Germany, Czech republic and Austria.

Actually, he had gone there with Jorge (another ‘No to ISA Freedom Ride‘ buddy) to participate in some solar-vehicle challenge in Stuttgart, and he’d taken the opportunity to do a tour while he was there.

Intrigued, I called him up to ask about his trip and in the ensuing conversation, I also told him about my intended Aussie trip. But his reply was, ‘Eh, why you want to do Australia? The scenery is boring la … and it’s pretty much the same all the way!’ Of course, he was speaking from experience, having ridden there before.  It then occurred to me that he might just be right.

I recalled seeing the photographic results when using Googlemap’s street-view feature to visually check out the route, and it really was pretty much the same the entire way — sparse, not very green in some areas but still captivating in its own way. Fortunately too, that I hadn’t succumbed to AirAsia’s incredible early-bird offers to fly with them to Australia yet.

And so, my Tour of Europe dream finally came to the fore. It seemed like now or never. Yes, it could be risky business travelling alone in Europe. German, Dutch, French or Flemish — I did not speak nor understand any of these languages.

Europe is far away. Europe is expensive. But, it would be equally risky if my dream remained a dream…..

Next: Realising my dream, even though July has come and gone and the Tour de France peloton had long crossed the finish line at Champs Elysees …

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