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!

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