I don’t think we could have arrived at the Dune du Pyla on the coast of France with more beautiful weather. It was around 20 degrees (unusually warm for March) and not a single rain drop had fallen from the sky for at least a week. But as is often the case when one thing is going right, we found something else to complain about. The wind. It wasn’t blowing in the right direction, not at least for one Australian paraglider hoping to fly the famous white sand dunes.
We instead spent a day riding along the beach, eating fresh oysters and drinking rose with our new friend Rachel who was kind enough to accommodate us, feed us and nod encouragingly at my struggling French. She also put us on the right path… literally. For many days already we had been tossing up which way to go towards Switzerland. One possible plan had us pedalling south towards Toulouse, taking as many flat Eurovelo roads as possible until we hit the inevitable climb into the Alps. The other was to draw a straight line from the Dune du Pyla to Geneva and bully our legs into submission over a few “gentle” col de somethings before the full onslaught of the Alps began. In a fit of foolish confidence (probably during a sip of rose) we agreed on option two. So we waved goodbye to Rachel on and headed towards Bordeaux.
In Bordeaux everyone was out along the Gardonne basking in the sun. It was hot for March in France. We bought a box of six drumstick ice creams, parked the bike, sat on the grass in front of the river and gobbled the whole lot before they melted. The high temperatures continued over the next few days as we made our way through Brive-la-Gaillard toward Clerrmont Ferrand and we repeated our ice cream lunch several times often just plonking down out the front of the local supermarche and unwrapping our icy treats. Each time we did this, little old French ladies would push past us with their shopping trolleys staked with cheese and bread, raise their eyebrows and say “bon appetite”.
Not only was it getting hot but it was getting hilly and the cycle paths that seemed to be everywhere on the coast had vanished. We were now on two lane carriageways with almost no shoulder and we had to pump our legs maniacally to stem the verbal rage flying out the windows of the French truck drivers. When it was finally time to pitch up our tent at 7:30pm at an abandoned farmhouse near Ussel our legs were on fire. We had only the energy to bath ourselves in a chilly mountain stream, cook some pasta and crawl into the tent without muttering a single word to each other.
The next day the terrain was no easier and as though to remind us, every few hundred metres there would be a sign saying “PAIN”. We oscillated between 400 and 1000 metres above sea level for around 70 kilometres, before losing the lot and, with a screeching of brakes, dropped into Clermont-Ferrand where we had arranged to stay with Mika, Pauline (fellow tandem enthusiasts!), Bruno and Annie.
Clermont-Ferrand is in the middle of a 40 kilometre chain of volcanoes. The biggest, the Puy du Dome is a paragliding hot spot and has featured a few times as a stage finish in the Tour de France. But no… we did not cycle up it. Ashley however did climb it on foot with his paraglider only to be disappointed by strong and irregular wind at the top. It was beginning to occur to us that paragliding and cycling were a horrendously difficult match. It was the second disappointing blow in one week for paragliding and dragging those 10 kilos of nylon up and down the mountainous French countryside had been no small feat. I suddenly felt incredibly grateful for having sent my wing to a friend in London for safekeeping several weeks earlier.
Determined to get his feet off the ground, Ashley steered us towards Annecy through Feurs and Lyon. As we pushed red faced up the Col du Chat I heard a gentle swooshing noise beside us and turned my head just in time to see a very slightly built man swaddled in tight blue lycra overtake us. I heard Ashley scowl and punch down harder into his cleats… but it was no use. We were being swarmed, and embarrassingly quickly, by French men whose freshly shaven calves bulged out unproportionately from their tiny limbed masters. I’m still not sure if the look they gave us was one of admiration or pity. It’s really quite hard to tell what anyone’s facial expressions mean when they are climbing a 19 per cent gradient.
With the spell of great weather broken, we arrived in Annecy soaked to our jocks and very glad indeed to have organised a warm shower and a bed for the night in St Jorioz about 10 kilometres out of the city. Once we’d stopped dripping muddy rain water all over their bright white floor and were sitting down to some warm soup, Guillaume and Aline gave us the bad news that it was supposed to rain the next day but perhaps ease off by Friday.
Just as the weather man predicted, we woke to a grey sky and drizzle. Perhaps this set the mood for the day from the outset. As we wandered around the lake and through the old city we did a lot of arguing. Firstly about where that irritating squeaking noise was coming from on the bike, secondly about where we might find a public toilet and then to cap it all off, some dumb kids thought it would be funny to stick a piece of chewed up gum on one of our panniers and Ashley chased them down the street with the festering sticky ball clenched in his fist. At long last the sun came out, we found a toilet, shovelled some burgers and ice creams into our gullets and began to feel better.
For the past several weeks I had been giving my school-girl French a bit of a work out and now in Annecy, our last city before crossing the Swiss border, I was actually feeling pretty confident. I found I could explain to people what we were doing, where we were going and even more complex matters such as whether they thought Sarcozy would win the upcoming election (the resounding answer was always “non” by the way). One night during our stay in Annecy I was trying to explain to Aline why we liked French bread so much.
“Il n’y a pas des préservatives,” I told her, “En Australie le pain a beaucoup des préservatives.”
Her eyes turned to slits as she tried to process what I’d just said. I thought it was pretty straight forward. The only word I hadn’t known for sure was preservatives, and I’d had so much success lately just saying English words with a French accent that I thought surely preservatives was a safe bet. It even sounds French in English! But, alas. I had put my foot in the merde.
« Un préservative, c’est quel que chose pour le sexe, » said Aline, « « condom » en anglais je pense? »
Ashley burst out laughing as he put together enough words to work out the blunder I had just made. I had just told her French bread was better than Australian bread because it didn’t have any condoms in it. Brilliant. (After consulting the dictionary I found the word I was looking for was conservateur.)
The following day was an enormous improvement on all fronts. We were some of the first people up to the top of the Col de la Forclaz and everything fell into place as though perfectly planned. The take off was like a large open golf green. There were no nearby threatening tree obstacles and the wind was coming up the launch straight as a pin. It also wasn’t warm enough yet to be inducing any thermal activity so the air was smooth. Ashley had two blissful flights (the first one with a very nervous forward launch) and we hitch-hiked back to a boulongerie in St Jorioz to pick up some bread and some delicious French patisseries (the variety without condoms of course.)