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.

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