(Editor's note: The theme for the upcoming issue of the Maine Cyclist, the magazine put out by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, has to do with travel and the publication's editor offered me the opportunity to submit an article. I hope you enjoy it.)
As cyclists, we’ve all heard of the Tour de France, an event that especially captured most Americans’ attention in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Lance Armstrong supposedly raced to glory for seven straight years.
I, too, have cycled in France, but I never made it to Paris and I certainly didn’t pedal a total of 2,200 miles over three weeks. No, my “short” tour lasted four or five days and covered a distance of nearly 130 miles — from Calais to Dieppe, a part of the coastal Normandy region.
Needless to say, it was a great experience and memorable, for a lot of reasons.
While Lance ended up dethroned years later because of a doping scandal, my tour “troubles” were mostly minor in nature.
It all started with the ferry voyage from England, when my bike and I were dispatched to the bowels of the giant vessel, along with all the tractor-trailers spewing fumes of diesel fuel. Next, upon my arrival in France, I cycled toward the border checkpoint with my passport at the ready. But there was no one there, not a soul. I even turned back after a mile or so and returned to the same darkened booth, thinking surely I’d entered the country illegally. Half expecting to encounter armed guards on my second attempt, I was again surprised to find the entry area vacant of any human activity. So I headed toward Calais.
And don’t even ask me how I slept during my brief French fling. My plan was to camp, but because it was springtime most places weren’t open yet. That first night in Calais I curled up on a park bench, but was woken up by a highly intoxicated individual. On another night, somewhere in the countryside, I was comfortably snoozing when, at around 2 a.m., a pair of policemen shook me awake, only to return to their vehicle muttering to each other, “An American!”
That proclamation was the only English I heard the whole time I was in France, thus causing another problem when it came to obtaining something very important to me — food! My thought process prior to the cycling trip on any language barrier had been “Hey, what’s the big deal? I took two years of French in school.” Well, excusez-moi, because I really messed up and almost went hungry, but not really.
I stopped by a cafe one morning, but it only did a continental breakfast, which made sense considering I was on the Continent. And thank God for pictures on packages, because it made my hunt for familiar foods quite successful at any supermarkets I came across. While today I might be more conscious of what I put in my body while cycling, back then I didn’t care. I just wanted anything that looked appetizing. And obviously, it was easy picking out fruit, even in a foreign land.
But I did actually communicate on one occasion and, wouldn’t you know it, this involved cyclists. I was cruising along a road with little traffic, when all of a sudden I was completely surrounded by a Sunday morning group ride of nearly 50 people. Endless shouts of “Bonjour” were exchanged by everyone, and I felt better for that tiny accomplishment; bonding with others through the international brotherhood of bicycle riding.
So that was my “short” tour of France and some of the little wrinkles I encountered. Besides that, the roads were good, the motorists were mindful, and the scenery was very pleasant indeed.
I ended up taking a ferry back to England, got run over by a truck in London, and while in the hospital met a nurse, who would later become my wife.
But that’s another story.