by Kathleen Hawthorne
After five years of planning to take a sabbatical riding my bike through France, it finally came to reality. There were many "strange" occurrences and coincidences that happened on this trip, enough for me to wonder if there wasnt another "power" involved.
Several of my friends had done a tour of the "Tour de France" and it seemed like a good way to start my trip. Rich Anderson from MVV also wanted to do the same tour, so it made my decision easier to do this particular tour. I arrived in Paris on July 24th and made my way to the hotel to meet the tour group. I met up with Rich there and met the rest of the guests. It was an incredible feeling being in France to "do the Tour".
We left Paris and took the TGV (bullet train) to Albertville, in the French Alps, to hook up with the "Tour". I have to warn anyone who is susceptible to motion sickness to be careful when deciding to take this train. I had to get up and move around to keep from getting sick. We reached Albertville and went on our first group ride. The scenery was just stunning. Chateaus up on the hills, small "French" villages just like you would imagine with the locals yelling "Allez, Allez" as we rode by.
The next day we did our first ride on the race route. It was raining as we left the small town to climb Col De Telegraphe (12km of climbing), a small 5km descent down into La Valloire and then a 20km climb up to Col De Galibier. I did not make it up to the top of Galibier; I fell about 2.5km short. Rich was on his way down after reaching the top and I decided to go down with him and a few others, as it was freezing cold, raining and windy. They close the roads, even to bicycles two hours before the racers come through, so you are stuck where you are if you dont plan. We rode back down to La Valloire and watched the riders come by from there. It was absolutely incredible!!!! They came screaming by, with their team cars right behind them, everyone going at a break neck speed. If you stuck your head out too far into traffic, it would have easily been taken off. Nothing stops the "Tour". That was the day the rider I wanted to win (Marco Pantani from Italy) took the lead and held it to the finish.
This was pretty much how things went the rest of the Tour de France tour. Lots of hard riding, eat dinner, go to bed and start it again in the morning.
The first of the strange occurrences happened on this tour. I met one of the group leaders (his name is Mitch) who happened to be from Menlo Park. One of the days when we were driving back from a race finish, I happened to sit up in front of the van while he was driving. Up until that time I was always in the back, next to a window with the wind blowing in my face to ward off car sickness (wimp, I know). We started talking about a whole variety of things and found that we had a lot in common. After a lot of flirting and a dinner together in Paris, we decided we wanted to see eachother when I got back to the States (in another six weeks). The rest is history. We have been seeing each other exclusively since and are both quite captivated with one another. Who would have thought I would have to go half way around the world to meet someone special who only lives five miles away?
I spent a few days in Paris with Rich and his wife, Janelle going to museums and eating our way through the city. I finally left Paris on my touring bike for northern France (Normandie). It was very hard the first couple of days. The weather was extremely hot (high 90s), the road signs are not like anything we have seen here and it is almost impossible to find a cold drink anywhere. That part kind of got to be an obsession for a while. The countryside was unbelievably beautiful and quiet. The French drivers are courteous to a fault. They make it a point to give you a very wide berth when passing. If another car is coming the other way, they will slow down behind you until the car has passed and then go around you. All of this without honking the horn, gnashing of teeth or swearing. Very refreshing and civilized!
I road up to Utah beach, the site of the United States D-Day landing in World War II. I went to the cemetery and walked through the grounds. It is hard for all of my generation to understand the magnitude of that war and especially of that particular battle. Ten thousand American lives alone died on that beach and the surrounding area for the freedom of Europe and quite possibly the freedom of the United States. The people of France to this day are still very grateful to the United States for what they did, particularly in Normandie. I then continued south, stopping along the way to bungee jump (what a rush) skirting along Eastern Brittany. When I reached Fougeres, I was feeling quite a bit homesick. I was tired and I had only 15 more pages in my book left to read with an English bookstore still two days ride away. This was where the second of the "strange occurrences" happened. An older man road into the campground on a touring bike where I was camped. He came over to talk to me and I found out that he was a retired Irish police officer who was riding down to Lourdes to meet up with another group. We were both riding to the same place the following day, so we decided to ride together. I hadnt spoken English in days with anyone but myself, so I was looking forward to the companionship. The next day we left and as we were chattering along, he mentioned that the year before he had ridden his bike from Whitehorse to Calgary in Canada. At that point he had met up with the same group as he was meeting this summer. He mentioned that he had spent a couple of lovely days in Penticton just before the Ironman competition. I had actually seen him and his group just outside Penticton riding along. There were a whole bunch of them in yellow jerseys riding along the road as I was driving in from Seattle. Very strange to see him one year out in the middle of nowhere in British Columbia and then to meet again in the middle of nowhere in France. Unbelievable coincidence!!!
I saw lots of the small roads and countryside in France that most tourists dont see. I went to quite a few Chateaus in the Loire Valley, Cheneceau and Chambord being the most spectacular. I road in heat, ferocious headwinds and rain but most of the time the weather was very nice. The people throughout France, including Paris, were exceptionally nice and helpful. I was especially grateful considering that I murdered the language at every given opportunity. I at least tried to speak French and I believe that is why the people were so accommodating.
I ended up riding just about 1,700 miles in the seven weeks that I was there. I didnt get to see everything that I wanted, but I saw and experienced lots of things most people would ever experience in a lifetime. I pretty much spent the last five weeks in the country by myself and learned quite a lot about myself. Patience being the main thing. When you are out on a touring bike, by yourself, tired, wet and in a headwind, there is virtually nothing you can do about wanting to get to your final destination any faster than you are capable of. When you get there, you get there. You cant call a cab. You also cant get food like we can get it here in the States. On Sundays, and after 7:00pm weekdays, stores are pretty much shut down everywhere. You need to plan ahead to make sure that you buy food ahead of time. There are no 7-11s on every street corner. As much as I was homesick at times, the weather being miserable at times, the long days in the saddle, I would not have traded this experience for the world. I had an absolutely wonderful time and would love to go back in the future to another extended tour through France and other parts of Europe.
I would encourage anyone, including single women, to do this if they are able. It is entirely different in traveling in Europe by yourself as opposed to the United States.