The road is long, there’s no turning back. On the way to Dover it’s cold but I forget it’s early and I have been thinking about how I don’t have any wet or cold weather clothes. That’s fine I could wait it out or ride it out. If it’s wet you’re going to get wet anyway and there’s no rush to be anywhere.
The bike overheats at the ferry terminal because I’ve been waiting around in security and in a long queue and/or because there could be a fault with the cooling system. I was aware of this before I left but I put it out of my mind because on a run to London it didn’t play up again. There could be a problem with the radiator or something else. A mechanic friend has ridden it around and not had any issues. The bike runs hot anyway. Plus I checked the oil so it’s not that. I don’t know what it is. All I know is I have to keep the thing moving because cold air will keep things to a minimum.
When I park up the bike on the ferry I notice one of the panniers is hanging off slightly because the bracket that it is clipped to has come away from the body of the bike where I I forgot to replace a washer between the screw and the frame. Luckily I have a spare with me and I spend another twenty minutes sorting this out. I’ve already ratcheted the bike to the ferry so I have to undo all this while a bunch of car alarms go off around me. Then it’s done. Panniers back on. Strap the bike down. Walk up to the deck.
Coffee. A tomato biscuit thing my brother in law made. I sit next to a family with a disabled child. He makes clicking sounds kind of like a dolphin and seems pretty happy. He’s eleven? Her looks about 6 or 8. I chat to the woman holding him and ask questions. She’s a friend of his family on holiday with them from Holland. She lives in the uk.
When the family come back and sit down they have another son and daughter with them. They start playing cards and eventually the son becomes irate and starts cussing out his mum. He clearly has some kind of disability or at least learning difficulty too. Poor family but they seem happy enough. Dad is assertive and tolerant. Could probably learn from this.
I borrow a pen of a cashier and writes down some towns and road names. I think about the cooling system thing and that bothers me. Should have got it checked before I left. There’s always something . Should be fine.
I take a water bottle and ask the girl in the cafe to fill it for me. The ferry docks and we all head down. It’s a headache sorting out the gear and a guy comes over and asks if I need a hand. I tell him I’m ok. The I’m out of the ferry on the tarmac and it’s warm and there are lorries everywhere. The traffic on the main road into Dunkirk is bonkers so I pull over on a round about (in the middle) and check Apple Maps. Side roads are useless heading nowhere. I hit the highway and there’s miles of traffic, lots of trucks and I weave in between them. I catch up with a bunch of bikes and they all wait in line refusing to ride outside the area that’s been cordoned. Fuck that shit. I rode up the side of the traffic for about two miles and eventually come to a tiny builder’s van that has broken down. Keep going. Turn off the motorway after about 5 miles. The wind is pretty bad and the front of the bike is all over the place. I’ve had this in northern France before. I pull fed the motorway and check Apple Maps again.
The next hour is steady. Lots of lovely country roads just heading from town to town, checking out the new sights. Not England etc. Then things get complicated. I have to get back on the motorway but it sucks and then it’s like spaghetti junction. I turn off. Get back on. At one point I can’t get back on and end up riding back at least 10 miles looking for a way to get on the motorway again. I end up in an industrial estate stranded. My confidence is down. The bike overheats on a roundabouts while I check my maps. It just doesn’t like sitting. I find my way again and suddenly I’m back in the motorway going the right way knowing which turnoff this time. It is trial and error because the the road numbers on the map aren’t indicated on the road signs. They are just numbered junctions.
I end up outside a supermarket with some fuel pumps so I take a piss and fill up. The indicators on the front of the bike come free again so I sort these out and then head off. I’m hungry . I have to go back down the motorway again. It’s murder, a low point. Then I’m back on track. I stop at a bar for a beer and I get the warmest welcome ever. My spirits rise and I plot a path through the back roads towards Chimay. I leave with some alcohol in my belly and a way I think may work. Two hours later I’m there.
The Air B and B isn’t too bad by a lake with some ducks and a stray cat or two. A pony chews grass nonchalantly and I watch the wind blow over the water. The room is above a restaurant that looks very closed. I take a shower and change my clothes. Not much time before I’m due to eat.
It’s a long way to the restaurant that serves Chimay Gold on tap one of the only places I’m told apparently and I start walking. I take a road through the woods and I’m dog tired from riding with at least 45 mins ahead of me. I go past a farm with two people standing in a field and an ambulance with its flashing blue lights on. I take some photos of the trees and a road and I keep walking. A herd of mountain bikers cruise past me wearing fluorescent vests. There’s a huge water tower by the side of the road and a dairy farm. I walk and walk hoping for a car to pick we up. I’m gonna be late for my reservation so I start jogging. How ridiculous I think. I’m sweating, unfit these days but I do ok. Eventually I see what looks like an abandoned restaurant with flags outside. But it’s open. I go in and abound I am there. The staff ignore me and the place is pretty empty. Nobody brings me a menu or a drink. Eventually I order my hallowed Chimay Gold and it comes in a dirty glass. It tastes like heaven. I finish it and don’t order another. I eat a cruddy steak, drink a pichet of wine and reflect on the ride that day. Then I pay the bill and leave.
I get stung in the eye by a flying insect on the way home and take some more photos. By the time I get to the woods it’s dark and I can hardly see in front of me. I can hear wildlife everywhere, strange birds and creatures in the undergrowth. I walk past the farms and I get a text from my girlfriend. I make it back to the room, look at my phone and swat a few flies. Then I get some sleep.
Wake around 9 the next day. Load up the bike and get my gear on. Say goodbye to the lake and fire up the cycle. It’s nice to ride through the woods this time not walk and I eventually make it to the nearest town. I stop at a farm to look at my map and a dog comes out and is friendly. I wave at a farmer and set off across the fields of the Ardennes wondering how today will be. I stop in the first town and grab a coffee. The little shop has three men in it drinking beer at 10am. I walk out and look at the bike. When I finish the coffee I go out and grab a coke from the carrefour across the square. I am happy to be alive and on the continent. I curse the UK and Brexit.
I set off across the fields taking back roads that remind me of a set from a WW2 movie until I find the main road. The sun is high already and the heat really bears down. I travel across agricultural territory marvelling at the huge structures that store grain. Some of them are disused with train tracks that lead right up to them. I keep I going till I find a town around lunch time. But I’ve missed the boat so I get a salami sandwich from carrefour and drink a beer. Soon it’s time to set off again so I do and not a lot happens outside of the bike. A lot happens inside the helmet though where my brain ticks over wondering about relationships present and gone and where they may be headed. Certain ideas, obsessions stick, like running themes. Eventually I conclude that on the bike the brain is superfluous to anything other than riding and seeing and that all else just passes like the wind or weather. Like a meditation I guess.
When I arrive near Langres I look for the air B and B and it takes me ages. I get lost several times and by the time I find it I’m exhausted. I park outside a house in a small town by a lake and get my jacket off. I’m ridiculously hot. The proprietor has said she’ll meet me here but hasn’t showed up. I check the time then I decide to try the front door. It opens and I walk into a hallway with the kitchen off to the right. An elderly couple stare open mouthed. They are halfway through dinner and I have walked into their house uninvited. Wrong place.
I restart the bike and find the right house. The proprietors 18 yr old daughter shows up with the keys and welcomes me. I get to put the bike in the garage and I have half the house. I have lucked out. She is also beautiful. I dump my stuff and take a shower. A reservation is made for me at the local auberge. I sit on the bed and gather my thoughts.
After I take a shower I head out looking for the local restaurant. I’m the first on the scene. I’m showed to a wee table and I opt to sit out from under the canvas to the total bemusement of the waitress. The French don’t do this, they play it safe even if there’s not a cloud in the sky. I need the fresh air, it’s pretty muggy and I run hot. The waitress is charming and I have a view out over a huge reservoir with a dam which doubles as a bridge. Nice.
I contemplate food and it’s hard. I’m not desperately hungry. I ask her the local delicacy and she tells me it’s a crepe of some sort. I order this and a salad. It comes soon enough and is delicious. Really very tasty. I wasn’t going to eat anything else but I am spurned on by this and my Martini Rosso and I end up ordering a veal escalope and some chips of some sort. It comes with a wild mushroom cream sauce and a host of other French who all say hello politely. The children are silent and when they misbehave they are taken aside and mend their ways. I drink a pichet of red and order another. I am very happy. I love France and the food is incredible. It is one of the best meals I have ever eaten. The waitress single handedly manages seven or eight tables and is always polite and attentive. Eventually the sun settles and I go downstairs to pay and try and have an in depth conversation in French about something and give her a massive tip. I tell her I will be back. I mean it.
I walk out over the bridge and take a photo of the lake in the dying light. It looks like Scotland out there but it feels warmer. I walk back over the bridge and back up to the Air B and B. I bed down and it takes me a while to get to sleep. There are insects in the room. I get woken by a crashing sound upstairs but I don’t care.
The next morning I take breakfast and chat to the proprietor. She’s a single mum with two or three kids making a great go of it here. She asks me to sign a British flag so I write ‘god bless you and your family’ and I pay for breakfast and tell her to keep the change. The bike is loaded, it starts, I creep out onto the drive. It’s raining so I go back and ask her for a couple of bin bags. I cover my trumpet with one, cut a hole in the other and put it over my head. Better than any jacket, the water just runs off.
I ride down past the restaurant thinking of the delicious meal and out across the bridge to the other side. It’s going to be wet today and it’s going to stay wet.
When I hit the Route National it’s really coming down. I pull over and phone the girlfriend. She’s in bed in Whitstable. I tell her I’m having a great time, no lie and that I’ll be in touch soon. It’s raining hard. I can only see about 50 yards down the road. I’m still not that wet. French dustbin bags are great. I head out of the pullover chuckling to myself. There was a time when I hated riding in the rain but after a couple of failed relationships a knock back or two and having a child it’s now a holiday. People tear past ridiculously despite the wet. I can’t see shit. I say to myself over and over again about four hundred times, it’s a long road and there’s no turning back. Then the rain appears to stop.
I pull over in a town halfway to Leon. As usual I’m too late for lunch so I drink a beer and eat a rubbish sandwich from carrefour. I don’t care. I’m on a bike, I’m in France and I feel great.
It’s starts raining again. I consider staying put then I get back on the bike. It reminds me of the time I had no choice in the matter when a girl dumped me and I had to go home. This time I do have a choice. I have a way to go and I wanna get there before nightfall so I head out.
At some point I get so sick of the rain I decide to just head for a patch of blue sky no matter what. The rain actually follows me and after I get lost in some large town one way system I start to feel the pressure. I need some sort of miracle to carry on. It stops a little and I keep heading for the blue skies and suddenly I’m into long flowing country with white clouds and clear air. I ride fast and low. And then I come to a great valley with a river, a gorge essentially that reminds me of Buller back in the homelands. It’s a long ride downhill mostly till I find the crossing over the river and then I know I’m close. I pull into a friend’s driveway around 6. I haven’t seen him for a while or this house for many years and I don’t have a lot of friends left at 45. It happens.
You can see the alps from the back garden and there’s a swimming pool and good food. I take a drink and watch him bicker with his partner. For once it’s not me. We head up to the hills to a church with local music and a bar and beer. We laugh a lot, the easy laughter of boyhood you don’t get much anymore. We’ve been friends for twenty five years and that’s a miracle. I go to bed that night and sleep well with some vino rouge in my gut and some good feelings about my trip.
The next day we all go down to a local lake and I sit with the wife and kid while Tom swims 20 miles. We drink sodas and watch the other families. Then we sit down and have lunch like adults and the food is good. I get the bill and that’s nice. Last time I was here I was relatively poor but strangely, now with a child I have more money. Fortune favours the brave I guess. We stay till about 2 am then go home and hit the pool. It’s hot, too hot for me and I take a nap indoors. That evening we eat more food and sit out in the garden watching the stars and satellites go over. Tom talks about work and I listen. His wife goes to bed then we hit the sack, I need to get up early ish tomorrow.
Next morning I have breakfast, load the bike and hit the road. It’s a good ride and the weather is good not too hot not too cool and I get to my mother’s by nightfall. I park the bike I knowing I will not ride it for sometime. But that’s fine because when you take a break it’s all the better when you go back to it.
The rest is history. My girlfriend and child arrive, there are no arguments and we fly back to the uk. I am very depressed for a week or two. I feel Brexshit alright.