Existentialism on a bike – Day 5 (continued)

Leaving Cruseilles, still in light rain, I branch onto a minor road heading into the hills. This is more like it! Soon, I reach a fork and make a spontaneous decision to take the minor, minor road- even more uphill! Good decision – after an initial slog of only 100m or so, the terrain settles; good road surface, manageable inclines and no traffic.

After a few blissful miles, another fork. Again I choose the higher road. Bad decision! This lane rises precipitiously through a series of hairpin bends to the hamlet of La Croisette, perched at a height of 1175m on top of the ridge. At the confluence of a number of high level routes, it’s clearly a cyclists’ mecca; a number are gathered enjoying some refreshments.

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Speaking to them I learn that my route continues up the ridge to the summit at the1250m. The view is breath-taking and gives me my first glimpse of Lake Geneva

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So then, if I reject scepticism as an unhealthy basis for a way of life, where does that leave me? I see it like this – I want to believe; and I choose to believe. Why? Because it makes my life immensely richer. Even if the destination proves to be illusory, the sense of direction and purpose enhances my life. To return to an earlier cliche, faith in the destination, although it not the be all and end all, enhances the journey. So there you have it.

I am rapidly approaching the end of this  journey. A breath-taking descent, probably the longest I’ve ever undertaken, brings me once again to the shore of Lake Geneva. The purpose of this trip was to visit my son Alex; the truth is, I don’t need an excuse. I’ve enjoyed the cycling; I’ve enjoyed the opportunity for a few days of solitary introspection; and I’ve enjoyed composing this log. It’s the only writing I ever do.

And what about Daisy, my sole, if inanimate companion? She’s been wonderful! Strava inform me that over the five days we’ve travelled 192 miles, climbed a staggering total of  16,114ft (more than half the height of Everest!) and reached a top speed of 40.7mph. (Somewhere in the hills around Annecy). And not a squeak of complaint from Daisy.

To those of you who read this – thank you. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did, writing it.

This has been my last day ……..until next year!

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Existentialism on a bike – Day 5

It’s been my last day. The old heart of Annecy is a gem …..

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……. but as is so often the case, is enclosed by an industrial sprawl. Scrutinizing the map I decide that the only realistic option for escaping its tentacles is to follow, for the first few miles at least, the old main road to Geneva. Easier said than done. All the roadsigns are designed to lure motorists onto the modern dual-carriageways or the nearby auto-route. Once again my compass comes to the rescue – ignoring all signs I zig-zag through the network of local roads until I emerge onto what I instinctively recognise as the original Geneva route. And it goes uphill …… and up. All roads out of Annecy rise! So I start to think – about the big question. What’s it all about? Why are we here? Is there actually any purpose at all? Or are we simply the inevitable yet unintended debris of a random cosmic game governed only by the rules of science? If so, death brings our bit-part performance in this rather pointless melodrama to an abrupt and permanent end. Yesterday, I posed many questions and came up with few answers. Some would search beyond the realms of the physical to look for any sense of real meaning to all of this. Let’s ask a blunt question – is there a God? Do we as humans have any reality other than the purely physical? For want of a better word, do we have a spirit or soul? For the moment I’ll leave that question hanging! Along the old main road traffic is moderate, but at least without heavy vehicles. (It’s Sunday). A few groups of bikers off out for the day process past. The weather is strange – a few spots of rain but frequent outbreaks of sun. An interesting juxtaposition of rural, urban and ultra modern.

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In this photo, you can probably spot the peage station on the autoroute immediately adjacent to the rural scene. A few miles further along the road rises to cross a stunning gorge.

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At the village of Cruseilles, where I plan to strike off into the hills, I stop for a cup of coffee. The bar is packed entirely with men, mainly elderly. A few minutes later a crowd of women (probably their wives) emerge from the church over the road. Plus ca change! So what about God – does he/she exist? One thing is sure – listen to this carefully: Nobody knows. It’s impossible to prove he does; it’s impossible to prove he doesn’t (sorry Richard Dawkings). So it seems to me we have three choices: we believe: we don’t believe; or we sit on the fence. Notice, I describe these as choices. If you like, a decision to act as a blue-print to guide us through our lives. Let’s consider scepticism first. This is fine as a platform to guide our initial thoughts; but I wouldn’t want to adopt it as a way of life. It’s not a neutral or questioning approach but implies an expectation of being let down. If I’m going to be disappointed I’d prefer it to come as a surprise rather than as something for which I’ve been preparing on the off-chance. Then I can get over it and move on. To be continued. I have a plane to catch.

Existentialism on a bike – Day 4

It’s been a thoughtful and most exhilarating day. Thoughtful because whilst cycling I’ve been pondering the “big” questions – you know – the ones about life, the universe and everything: the ones that usually start with the word “why”: the ones that often don’t have easy answers. Exhilarating, because the ride has been a near perfect combination of testing ascents and long sweeping descents, separated by a few level sections. And all accompanied by the most wonderful lakeside and mountain scenery. Fantastic! You may remember that yesterday I was uncertain what to do and where to go. Once again serendipidy struck; speaking to the Patron he advised me to stay a second night, explaining that the area is well worth exploring. Porquoi pas? And there’s the added benefit that I have to carry only the most essential items of my luggage. Finding my way to the cycle path on the west shore of the lake (via the tourist office to pick up information) is straightforward. Once again it is dedicated and perfect. Muttering “bonjour” to the first few fellow cyclists I encounter I soon realize this is a futile gesture – I’ve joined a scattered procession of hundreds, maybe thousands, around the lake. It is Saturday morning after all. Many of them seriously have the bit between their teeth; head down, pedals pounding, clearly focusing on their “PB “s – or those of their friends/competitors. I bet they’re into Strava! I can sense their anger and frustration when our progress is temporarily halted by a herd of cows on their way to milking.

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Let’s start with the “Life” questions – particularly human life. Looking back over yesterday’s ramblings (assembled after quoffing a pichet of local red wine) I realize they require a little tightening up. There are some attributes which are clearly and uniquely human: critical self-awareness; the ability to recognise and respond to an accepted social/moral framework (call it conscience if you will); and particularly our access to higher level thinking skills (analysis, comparison, judgement etc.) all of which are are dependent on our amazing capacity for advanced language. Even the most animal-centric scientists begrudgingly concede that these qualities set us hugely apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. In evolutionary biology one expects smooth gradations: here, the differences are nothing short of cataclysmic. The question is, how? – and more importantly, “why”? It has been suggested that at some critical point in our evolutionary history, human beings reached a tipping point: that we were subsequently able to manipulate the world to our unique advantage. But is this really the answer? Homo Sapiens emerged from Africa around 70,000 years ago. Other humanoid primates, for example the Neanderthals in Europe occupied different parts of the world before our onslaught. Did they all share uniquely “human” attributes? It is believed that Homo Sapiens was able to interbreed with other humanoid species; do we all, in fact, share the Neanderthal gene-pool? I’m not convinced. Once again, the jury’s still out. Continuing to the end of the lake I decide to tackle an alpine ascent up to Thones. Pausing at St Ferreol, at the foot of the gorge, I see that it is “only” 17km away. I estimate that, at my speed, this could take up to two hours! But what a wonderful two hours – accompanied by the sound of rushing water and the overwhelming smell of wild garlic.

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Part way up I emerge into a wide hanging valley in the middle of which is the alpine village of Serraval – a beauty. Soon after this I reach the Col du Marais at the relatively modest height of 843m

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However, the snowline doesn’t seem that far away. A sweeping descent to Thones for lunch. And no, it didn’t take me 2 hours! What about the universe? Of course scientists think they’ve answered all the questions. But have they? There’s no doubt that it’s governed by some wonderful, even beautiful laws: the processes of evolution: the intricacies of quantum mechanics: progress towards the single unified theory, etc. These could almost be said to be miraculous! And there’s no doubt that scientists with their restless curiosity deserve all the credit for this. But there are still many unanswered questions – particularly the “why” ones. Where do the laws governing the universe come from? Why are they there? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? If not, why not? (Believe me, they’re busting a gut to find it). Why have they not yet been able to “create” something which is living from something which is not? (They haven’t!). What was there before the big bang? What exists beyond the limits of space? I could go on. The truth is, and I say this with absolutely no disrespect – scientists can only answer scientific questions. An obvious truism. In anthropological terms there are also many things which are difficult to explain: why does philanthropy exist? (The selfish gene); what about love? Why is there beauty in the world? (It serves no scientific purpose). As I said, many questions but fewer answers. In any journey, the best is often left to the last. In my return to Annecy I spontaneously decide to leave the main road for a back lane. What a beauty – it’s hard to know where to start. First, a towering waterfall.

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I think this must be the original “main” road between Thones and Annecy because it links a number of idyllic hamlets. And have you ever seen intricate woodwork like this? (A mail-box)

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When I reach Annecy I feel almost drunk with the beauty of the day. It certainly has been a thoughtful and most exhilarating day. Tomorrow is my last.

Existentialism on a bike – Day 3

It’s been a splendid day.

First of all ……it’s not raining! I’m descending out of Belley towards the Rhone … in shorts. Before long, I stop to retrieve my hitherto unused sunglasses from the bottom of the panniers. Don’t get too excited – the sun’s not actually shining: but it’s definitely lurking somewhere behind a relatively thin covering of cloud. I’m happy!

Happiness is a complex, and for some, a distinctly elusive human emotion. At a recent First Friday gathering, down the pub (and after a few pints) we were discussing the essence of happiness. Well actually, we were arguing, but in the nicest possible way! I had suggested that isolated tribes, untouched by the trappings of so called “civilization” were perfectly content, indeed happy with their lot. This met with some derision. How could anyone be happy without the “benefits” of modern society: television; the internet; the plethora of consumer products etc.? If they were, it was simply that they didn’t know any better. I suggested that our dependency on consumerism is a hindrance rather than a help to our pursuit of happiness. Suddenly, and rather surprisingly, we all agreed on one thing: true contentment is attained only when you no longer want anything. I suppose though, that this presupposes that you’re fortunate enough not to need anything. Anyway, I’m happy!

I’m even happier when I discover, along the bank of the Rhone, a cycle-way which goes all the way from Geneva to the Mediterranean! I’m not talking a dirt track – a proper tarmac laid exclusively for bikes.

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I can’t resist this and follow it northward until unexpectedly, after about 10km it is closed for the construction of a new barrage. Oh well – I should have known it was too good to last. In any event, I was starting to miss the hills!

Thinking about happiness leads me to try to unpack the unique essence of humanity. Some possible answers spring immediately to mind: conscience; free will; self and social awareness.

Let’s start with conscience. There’s little doubt that this is not inborn but must be learned and nurtured. Children do not instinctively tell the truth. Why should they? Even as mature adults we know how our view of right and wrong can so easily be moulded to our convenience and will. Plato suggested that justice is the primary function of society. But without a universally agreed framework of morals and ethics underpinned by personal responsiblity how can this ever operate successfully? We know that there will be many who will be either unable or unwilling to conform to society’s norm: anarchists; deviants; those with mental heath problems etc. In these circumstances can we say that the concept of individual conscience even exists as a universal human attribute? I think the jury’s still out.

In any event we should not be too quick to mount our moral high horse. At best we should consider ourselves fortunate to inhabit the social mainstream.

I detour to the village of Coluz. Why? Why not? After all, I’m not trying to get anywhere, I’m just enjoying the ride. And the sun comes out! Waterproof into the panniers and light-weight gillet into action. This is one of my most prized possessions; light enough to stuff into a pocket but technically advanced enough to protect against the wind. Indispensable in the summer on a downhill sweep following a hot sweaty climb.

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What about free will? For me this is the crucial determinator. Nobody would dispute that we have it. And athough it could be argued that some animals are bound by a simple and instinctive set of social norms it would be difficult to suggest that this is driven by any real element of self-determination.

At Seyssel I cross the Rhone and enter the Haute Savoie. Turning south I continue, cycling into the sun for the first time, to the entrance of the Val du Fier. A stunning ascent into the gorge leads up to a gorgeous (excuse the pun) landscape.

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Surprisingly free of traffic I meander to the village of Valloires for a belated light lunch. Suitably sustained I continue to rise across the plateau leading towards Annecy. And for the first time I glimpse snow-clad peaks! I should’t be surprised; only six weeks ago I was skiing no more than forty miles from here as the crow flies.

And a blast from the past. I well remember many years ago when driving in France, the absurdly illogical system of Priorite a Droit. Well it’s still alive and kicking here!

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The Savoyardes have a reputation for being proudly independent and instinctively conservative. Many of them I’m sure still regret the demise of the ancient kingdom of Savoie.

Perhaps I should explain at this point that my route is being monitored (by GPS) on an app called Strava. This is used mainly by keen “sports” cyclists to impress one another. They analyze literally every heartbeat and compare performances. I use it simply to record and store my route. For some strange reason most users, when cycling uphill bust a gut to do it as fast as they can. I, on the other hand, try to do it as slow as I can! This way I preserve energy and maintain my stamina so that I can hopefully get to the top without stopping (which I admit I occasionally do) or, even worse, getting off and walking. Anyway, at almost 66 I think I’m entitled to do it my way.

And so on to Annecy. I find it a bustling, chic and expensive town, but beautifully situated at the head of the lake. It’s only a day’s bike ride from Geneva, but I have two days until my return flight. Oh well, I’m sure serendipidy will kick in to guide my travel.

So what have I learnt about the essential essence of humanity? Not a lot. But tomorrow is another day. I’ve decided to devote it to the “big” questions. But please don’t expect too many answers

It’s been a splendid day!

Existentialism on a bike – Day 2

It’s been a wet day – but a good one.

I’ve long since come to regard hills as an integral, and often enjoyable part of a day’s cycling – something to be taken in one’s stride. After all, why come to the hinterland of the Alps if you’re not willing to embrace hills with a smile? In the course of these two days I’ve come to regard rain in the same light. The two have many things in common: in particular an eager anticipation of improvement! If you set off downhill things can only get worse; if the start of your journey is blessed with sunshine, only disappointment can lie ahead. By contrast, if you set out in the rain ….. when it stops, and the sun comes out ….. or when the uphill changes to downhill …… wow!

Today will focus on such contrasts, or juxtapositions: uphill/downhill; rain/sunshine; optimism/pessimism: nurture/nature; beauty/ugliness: travel/arrival. You can see that this line of thought was not pre-planned; it was triggered only by this morning’s weather. As with cycling I like my thoughts to develop a will of their own.

I’ve always been an optimist; the outcome will be the same anyway, but a positive outlook makes the journey more enjoyable. It might be raining now, and I may be cycling uphill, but better things lie ahead!

Leaving Cremieu there’s a gentle but sustained hill-climb along a wonderful and typically French minor road. Alex predicted that I would encounter no more than twenty cars: in fact it was five – plus a couple of farm trucks and a tractor. Splendid though the scenery is, the morning’s dominated by sound: nightingales, seemingly in every thicket (even at well over 1000 ft): the mewing of buzzards; the occasional cuckoo (more than can now, unfortunately, be heard in England); and the raucous and insistent croaking of the bullfrog.

Beauty and ugliness? Following this understated, but gorgeous ascent I descend into the valley to immediately encounter (split infinitive!!) a hideous power station

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But who am I to judge beauty and ugliness? To the people who work there – whose livelihoods depend on it – this building is probably a beautiful sight. I personally find the conceptual art of Hurst and Emmin utterly unappealing – many would disagree. For me, a Bach partita is almost the closest thing to heaven – for others it is sheer boredom. If, indeed, beauty exists as an objective reality, where does it come from? I shall return to this question later. I swiftly descend to the mighty Rhone, a constant companion of mine on this trip three years ago.

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A frequent discussion/argument I have with my daughter Anna concerns the interplay, and relative importance of nurture and nature in the development of human personality and behavior. She is doing a Master’s in Psychology and knows all the answers from an academic perspective: I, on the other hand, have a lifetime of experience but no specialist training. I spoke briefly yesterday of the importance of an embedded moral/ethical compass to inform our behavior. Some of us are fortunate enough to have this instilled from an early age. Others are not so lucky.

The awful case of Tia, the schoolgirl recently murdered brings this into sharp focus. After his belated guilty plea, we discover that her step-grandfather was himself the victim of an appallingly deprived upbringing. The son of a prostitute, he was in “care” from a very early age. Does this excuse his behavior? Of course not – but it would take a brave person to claim that the “game of life” is undertaken on a level playing field. In any case, where does the concept of morality come from? For those who believe in God (the subject of the final day) the answer is perhaps straightforward. For others …. ? Some might claim that it derives from a Darwinian imperative; that as social animals humans collectively benefit from what is now regarded as an acceptable moral framework. In any event, the importance of nurture in the development of human behavior is easy to establish.

What about nature? This is, for obvious reasons, politically and culturally very sensitive – but the issue should not be shirked. What is evident is that any agreement on normal and acceptable behaviour has varied throughout history, and still varies across different areas of the world. Of course, this can be explained in terms of nurture as well as nature. But what about perceived differences between social strata? Or, dare I say it, race? Very dangerous territory. We’d better get back to the day’s journey.

Following the Rhone valley for a few miles, serendipidy strikes; I encounter some 3rd century Romano-Gallic remains.

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I decide spontaneously to detour up a side-road and discover the hidden gem of the day – the village of Groslee. With a medieval church tucked beneath a small vineyard (presumably a Cote de Rhone) it’s a real beauty.

After enjoying a light lunch to escape the rain (no, in spite of my optimism it hasn’t stopped!) I continue to Belley, the day’s destination. This involves another splendid climb followed by a wonderful descent.

I’ve cycled 45 miles and conquered (!) a total of 2292ft of hill-climb. And it’s been raining most of the way. It’s only three o’clock but I feel I deserve an early finish.

It’s been a wet day – but a good one.

Existentialism on a bike.

It’s been a long day.

A lone blackbird heralds the coming of dawn, with its rich flutey tones at precisely 4. 21 a.m. At 4. 59 the dawn chorus comes to an abrupt end.
Where do all the birds go? What do they do for the rest of the day? I suppose the answer is – try to procreate and survive; the driving instincts of all creatures from birth to death. Including humans?
On the plane, and for the first time, I ponder possible topics for this year’s trip with Daisy. Note that I say with Daisy (my folding bike) not on her; she’s a companion, not a chunk of metal – and, incidentally going like a dream. I must continue to talk to her nicely!

It’s got to be the big questions – life, the universe and everything. I suppose an alternative title for this journal could be “CE42”. Let me explain. When people ask me what I do, I’m very reluctant to respond “I’m retired”.  “Headteacher (retired)” maybe, but this sounds rather pretentious. I’ve developed the answer “Actually I’m engaged in the CE42 project” OK, even more pretentious, I know! You’ve probably cracked the code: Continuing Exploration of Life, the Universe and Everything. I’m thinking of starting a club for the over-sixty-fives! Conditions of membership would include: regular attendance at the theatre, concerts and the opera; involvement in a book club; inquisitive travel, not necessarily to distant lands; and, for those physically fortunate enough, participation in a sport, the more extreme the better!  More of this later.

The pilot announces the bad news – that it’s raining in Lyons. On arrival I retrieve Daisy and panniers in seemingly record time. Half an hour to assemble and we emerge into the elements – and to think that I was hoping to escape the inclement weather at home. I make a complete pig’s ear of getting away from the airport environs: possibly hampered by the rain, the first half-hour is dominated by dual carriageways, traffic and spray. Then, out of the blue an aural juxtaposition of lorries, distant planes and – the singing of a nightingale! Are you ever overcome by a sudden awareness of the threads of connectivity which weave through time and space? Only four days ago I heard my first nightingale of the summer near Warnham. Was it the same one? Of course not. But the air which I’m breathing comprises the same molecules which were inhaled by the Romans …. and before them, prehistoric man ….. and before that,the dinosaurs …. and ……  The water which I drink, and which comprises ninety percent of my body weight, has been continuously recycled throughout history and across the entire world. It’s as though there’s a universal connectivity forming a backdrop against which we pale into insignificance.

Or perhaps, without human consciousness and understanding the patterns of connectivity themselves become insignificant – indeed, could be said not to exist at all. After all, Descartes mused “cognito ergo sum”; outside and beyond human experience, is there any such thing as reality? Back to the journey.

I discover to my surprise that I’m enjoying the rain: it’s only light; it reduces friction with the road; and it enhances the smells of the early summer countryside. The road verges are decked with wild flowers – including my absolute favourite, the poppy – a flower which I have come to associate so closely with these trips.

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I’m aiming for Cremieu, where Alex is spending the year working as an Assistante in the local Lycee. I’m armed with map and compass – using the former only rarely but the latter frequently. People often ask me whether I plan these trips. The answer is, no. I prefer the spontaneous pleasure of deciding which road to choose only when I get there. Many years ago I was described by my first Headteacher as “the best man with a map and compass I know”. Very flattering! However I have come to recognize that maps encourage adherence to predetermined and often inflexible route planning. A compass, by comparison, or indeed in life more generally, a moral framework, become visceral and intuitive – especially when embedded. They encourage a genuine engagement with the journey. And they reliably lead you where you want to go.

Continuing along only the most attractive country lanes I meander through a succession of rural villages

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An hour later, using the compass as my guide, I find myself unexpectedly outside Alex’s Lycee.
Point proven!

We spend the rest of the day eating, chatting and exploring Cremieu, including, for the first time, Alex(!), Les Rampertes.

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On this day, 15th May, in 1957 Britain exploded its first test H-bomb over the Christmas Islands; Harold McMillan said it was important to have “retribution which was sure, sound and total”. Food for thought.

I’m writing this in the Auberge de la Chaite – unfortunately named when pronounced correctly – and, in light of the above, probably appropriate!

It’s been a long day.