Ruminations on a folding bike – Final Day

Another grey day
Last night I used the excellent tram system to visit the city centre. Entering the first busy Bistro I encounteted, I enjoyed an excellent burger accompanied by a Barcelona craft beer. It occurred to me as strange that neither cutlery nor glass were provided; looking round I noticed that everybody was eating with their hands and fingers, and drinking straight from the bottle. I also realised that the entire clientele comprised “twenty-something trendies”. I was distinctly out of place! Oh well – try to carry it off with aplomb.
Back to today. I want to see the historic centre in the daylight. The landlady recommends that I take the bike on the tram; no way! I cycle in. It’s turns out to be well worth the visit.

image

Surprise surprise, after pottering about for half an hour, it starts to rain. What to do?
Spend the day in Montpelliar? No – it’s not what I came for.
Return to the hills? No – too far, and not the weather.
I know – let’s head for the Med.
Full waterproofs on, I use my compass to navigate out of the city to the SE, and soon reach Lattes. Guess what? The rain stops. Dare I take the waterproofs off? To he’ll with it, yes!
My luck is obviously now in, because I soon stumble across a marked cycleway all the way to the sea.

image

In what seems like no time, I’m there; here it is obviously- my first glimpse of the Mediterranean in all its glory!

image

Underwhelmed? Just a tadge
But then, as I continue to the East, something amazing happens: the sun crimes out – and the Med turns blue.

image

This particular spot, Le Grau-du-Roi, exudes plenty of character. I must say, however, that much of this part of the Mediterranean I find rather sad: it’s overdeveloped, often with indifferent architecture; it’s often quite charmless; and much of it lacks any beauty. However, what it does have plenty of, is sun, sand and sea. I grab a quick snack in an unpretentious bar.
Continuing on, I stop to chat to two Swiss cycle tourers studying a map. I discover that the woman hails from the same locality as my maternal grandfather, Gotlieb Lang. Also they have cycle all the way from Zurich, taking 18 day’s! Not bad.
Reaching Aigues-Mortes, the sun is now high in the sky. OMG! – it’s only 5 weeks to astronomical midsummer day. A depressing thought.
The fortified town is another gem

image

Continuing eastward, I skirt the Carmague; and yes – I see both the pink flamingos and the “wild” horses. I must say, I find cycling this part of the Med rather disconcerting. The terrain, of course, is flat, but contains many landlocked lagoons separated by narrow isthmuses (or should that be isthmi?) These are often crossed only by busy dual carriageways with no regard for cyclists. Ironically, there is an excellent network of cycleways for tourists to potter. These are of little use if you are actually trying to get somewhere. Seriously disconnected.
It’s time to head back to the Airport. I aim to arrive by 7.00. Guess what? I enter the departure lounge and look at the clock. It reads ….. 7.01
It’s been an excellent and varied day – an excellent and varied trip.
But then, I always say that!

Some final thoughts.
The more that scientists uncover the secrets of the Universe, the more questions they uncover – the deep questions.
Q.  How did the Universe come into existence?
A.  The Big Bang
Yes, but ……..

Q.  What is life?
A.  An inter-connected combination of  organic chemicals.
Yes, but ………

Q.  Why did Home Sapiens evolve to becomes the dominant species on earth (actually , very suddenly, about 70,000 years ago)?
A.  Because of an unusually large brain, oppositional thumb, bipedal development, and the emergence of language
Yes, but …….,..

Etc. etc. etc.

Now, I’m aware that many of you may be unconcerned about these “yes buts”, but I’m afraid I’m not.
Scientists tend brush over these questions; perhaps rightly so because, they extend outside their domain. Don’t misunderstand me – I have huge admiration and respect for scientists, and the work they do. After all, I spent many years teaching it! However, there are boundaries beyond which they cannot go.

Many of you will know that I choose to believe in “God”, partly because of these questions left hanging in the air. Perhaps if I substitute the phrase “Spirit of the Universe”  this may be easier for some of you to relate to.
I’m aware, of course, that logically,I I’m just pushing the questions back. But, at least, they’re all pushed into one box!

Well, that will have to do for now.
Is the answer 42? Well that’s for you to decide

Thanks for your patience – I’ll be back next year

Distance travelled                58.8 miles
Average Speed                          8.6 mph       (a lot of pottering)
Elevation gain                                299 ft
Maximum speed                     19.9 mph

Advertisements

Ruminations on a folding bike – Day 5

It’s raining!
Come close to the Mediterranean in May, and what do you get?!
Note the time on the village clock as I belatedly leave the Hotel

image

The rain eases a tadge, so I strike out of the village on the minor road to Brissac. Yes, you’ve got it – it’s uphill.
Within minutes, the rain turns into a downpour. I head for the first available refuge, sheltering under the eaves of a nearby stone farmhouse, and watch the trickling water form a rivulet heading over the gravel to the nearest escape. A river formation in miniature, before my eyes.
After a few moments the door opens and an elderly woman with weatherworn features, but a smile etched into her face, emerges. My broken French, supported by a good deal of sign-language reassures her that I’m up to no harm. I think perhaps that there’s something in my face that makes people trust me.
After a few more minutes, the rain still teeming, I decide that enough is enough; after all, I’m in no hurry. Back to Gange for more substantial shelter and a grande creme. How long will I stay here? Who knows?
I’m sat right opposite the Hotel de Poste (where I stopped last night) and realise that the entire ground floor, with the exception of a narrow entrance to the Hotel, has been converted to accommodate a variety of other business ventures

image

That explains why, with so many rooms, the entire reception facilities are on the first floor, and rather pokey. It must have been grand in its  heyday.
After 20 minutes I feel chilly, so bolt over the road to the cosy indoor bar and another coffee. An hour later, having written up the blog to this point, I’m still here listening to the idle chatter of a cross-section of locals. To justify my table, I order the Plat du Jour. Excellent!
All good things must come to an end – I can’t sit here all day; a strategy is needed. Definitely not the weather for the mountains. How about aiming for Montpelliar? If the weather improves tomorrow, I can swim in the Med!
Cycling on the main road south I pass through the enchanting (and I suspect, touristy) village of Laroque.

image

Thereafter, I quickly hit the jackpot of cycle touring: a loaded bike; a long uphill climb; heavy rain; and a strong HEADWIND! Every time the rain changes from heavy to torrential, I hastily seek temporary cover wherever I can find it. Not surprisingly my progress is slow, not to say tortuous. When I eventually reach the Col, it feels as though I’ve climbed 3300m rather than 330.

image

But the nightingales are still singing …… and I’m still happy!
To cut a long story, short, after consulting the map I detour onto a minor road, and using my mounted compass always to continue southward, I manage to find a quiet and attractive route into the city.

image

And guess what? THE RAIN STOPS

Oh yes ….. the answers to yesterday’s teasers (though I’m sure they’re not needed)
Three men in the jungle:
If the man at the back sees two white hats, he would know he must be wearing black, and would shout. He doesn’t
The man in the middle therefore knows that his hat and the front man’s hat must be black and black, or black and white. If he sees white on the front man, he would know that his own was black, and would shout. He doesn’t
Therefore, being a logical person, when the front man hears no shout from either behind him, he knows that his own hat must be  …………. BLACK
The breaking of a chocolate bar
Each time any piece is broken, the total number of pieces increases by one. Therefore, to obtain mxn pieces requires (mxn – 1) breaks
Easy, really!

Some friends of mine have suggested this one for you to ponder on.

       If           (Even number x Even number) divided by Even number
gives you an answer which is Odd
What do you know about the numbers?
Keep them coming!

Distance travelled                 30.6 miles
Average speed                            8.6 mph        (a lot of stopping)
Elevation gain                            1,727 ft
Maximum speed                     24.8 mph

Ruminations on a folding bike – Day 4

The hotel, right in the centre of Ales is only 2 star (what I always aim for) but excellent. Most importantly I’m able to relax in a hot bath! – so much better than a shower after cycling almost 70 miles.
After an “eat as much as you like” breakfast I venture out into the morning sunshine.
The first thing I notice on leaving the town are the relics of its mining history; is it a volcano, or a slag heap?

image

A decision to be made: south, towards Montpelliar and the Mediterranean … or west, back up into the Haute Cevennes? A no-brainer really; I’m well ahead of schedule, having covered so many miles over the last two days. Up the D50 westward towards St Jean du Pin!
This is another green-lined “scenic” route, so I know what to expect. Noticing that the temperature is 23C, I peel off two layers, and enjoy the ride.

image

I cheerily greet two touring cyclists, clearly a couple, coming down the hill towards me, fully loaded with panniers front and aft. The man, leading the descent looks like something out a Tintin cartoon – elderly, wearing a beret and sporting an impressive moustache. His wife (?) 50m or so behind, is more demure. I wonder where they’ve come from, and where they’re going. They certainly have enough gear for the long haul.
I stop to photograph a small bunch of roadside poppies, absolutely my favourite wild flower. While I do so, I listen to a nightingale singing his heart out (only the males sing) on the other side of the road. This perfectly illustrates the heightened sense of “being” from which I derive such pleasure when solo cycling.

image

On the long climb from Anduse towards St Hippolyte-de-Fort I perfect my technique of cycling absolutely as slowly as I can: “Zen and the Art of ultra-slow speed Maintenance”. At one point I foolishly change up to second gear. C’est trop! Back down to first.
It occurs to me that my philosophy of cycling may be derived from Pirsig’s iconic book. Perhaps I’ll re-read it (birthday hint!) and base next year’s cycle blog on it. “Zen and the Art of folding bicycle blogging”. You’ve been warned!
I had thought of perhaps stopping at St Hippolyte – but no, its too early and the village looks too dull. So on towards Ganges. Serendipidy strikes. Attracted by a sign for Grotte des Demoiselles, I detour towards St Bauzil-de-Putois. It’s a dream: a beautiful almost deserted lane through Languedoc vineyards, with nightingales singing from every thicket

image

Arriving at St Bauzil, I discover, perhaps not surprisingly, that the Grotte is 2 miles up the steepest hill I’ve encountered all week. Do I venture forth? You bet I do.

image

Arriving, I decide not to go in. Why not? I had been seeking a moment of “spiritual” solitude. What did I find? A consumerist honeypot. Oh well – c’est la vie. I return downhill, and make my way to the beautifully situated town of Gange. I book into a reasonable but excellent hotel.

As a change from my normal ramblings, a couple of mathematical/logical teasers

1. Three men are captured by canibals. They are given one chance to escape the pot. After being tied to stakes, one behind the other and all facing the same way, they are shown five hats, three black and two white. They are then blindfolded whilst one of the hats is placed on each head. The blindfolds are removed and they are told that if anyone correctly identifies the colour of hat on his own head, they will all be released.
Any mistake will result in immediate death.
After a few moments, the man at the front shouts “I know”
Assuming he’s not a fool, what is the colour of hat on his head? And why?

2. How many steps are required to break an mxn bar of chocolates into single pieces. No tricks (one bit on top of another etc. allowed).

Answers will appear tomorrow – though I’m sure you won’t need them.

Distance travelled                   42.7 miles
Average speed                              8.1 mph          (too fast!)
Elevation gain                               3,272 ft
Maximum speed                        25.7 mph

Ruminations on a folding bike – Day 3

Well, I slept like a log. Whether because of the carafe of red wine, or the arduous cycling I don’t know ….. or care. At breakfast (yes, unusually I booked it) I realise I’m not the only guest. A group of Australian walkers are on the adjacent table. When they struggle to ask for jam, I conjure the word “confiture” from Form 1G French, back in 1958 – don’t ask me how. A conversation ensues mainly about how dangerous Australians believe cycling to be. I’m aware that many Australian car drivers have a deep hatred of any unpowered two-wheeled vehicle. Strange!
Emerging onto the empty street, I shiver with cold. Descending to Langogne, the exposed tips of my fingers start freezing. Glancing at a roadside thermometer I see that it reads 3C!
Ahead of me lies the Ardeches

image

I know from the map that the whole day will be spent on the D906, a winding yellow road fringed all the way with ….. green. Now, we all know what that means ; scenic? yes; not too busy? yes; but also HILLY! Looking on the bright side, however, the sun comes out. The road from Langogne to La Bastide is, pleasantly and surprisingly, mainly downhill. Can this last? No! The climb up to the col, at 1200m, through a pine forest, with its evocative scents brings me back down to earth. For the first time this trip, I take off my waterproof; I’ve been wearing it not for rain (there’s not been a drop) but to stave off the cold NE wind.
From the col, a long descent brings me to the delightful village of Prevencheres, sitting at 845m (a vertical descent of 355m!) Braking before entering, I still trigger the speed sensor, recording 35km/h in a 30 limit.
Heading towards the medieval village of Garde Guerin I enter the Cevennes

image

Fleetingly, I spot a red-backed shrike at the roadside.
It’s now getting warm; I take off my gillet. At Villefort, I have a decision to make: there is a hotel here, but the next one will be at Ales, another 35 miles. Hang it! It’s only 1.15, much too early to stop.
Following a short brutal ascent, the road confounds my expectations by remaining carved to the contour – winding, yes; extremely beautiful, yes; but hilly? No. This continues for at least 10 miles. Detouring uphill through the hamlet of Concoules I have a brief conversation with a woman at the village well (sounds a bit biblical!) On to Ginolhac and then downhill to Chamborigaud, where I enjoy a giant sausage roll and an Iced Tea. This seems too good to be true. It is!
A long, long ascent follows to the Col de Portes, guarded by its medieval castle.

image

From here, the journey to Ales is uneventful …. apart from the fact that it’s getting hot. I started out this morning, up in the mountains with the temperature at a distinctly chilly 3C. I note here that it’s now 23C! Who knows – perhaps, moving towards the Mediterranean I’ve now entered a different weather zone. Here’s hoping!

Back to the universe: it’s amazing how well it turned out for us. So many variable factors ….. exactly right.
Gravity – not so strong as to collapse the universe;  not so weak as to leave it a scattered void
The conversion of H into He: 0.07% of its mass is converted into energy: a fraction less and no heavy elements would have been produced. A fraction more and prolific bonding would have exhausted the supply of Hydrogen.
And so it goes on.

And what about Planet Earth? Once again, it’s perfect.
Neither too hot nor too cold
Protected by an atmosphere fine-tuned for the job it has to do. And only 190km deep. Compare that to earth’s 8000 mile diameter. It’s a mere veneer. The lowest layer, the troposphere contains enough warmth and oxygen to allow us to function. Its 10km or so is all that separates us from oblivion.

And what about beauty?
The relative size and distance of the moon and the sun allow us to experience the wonder of a total eclipse. Perfect!
The variety and richness of our flora and fauna: the beauty of the red-backed shrike on the road this afternoon. Do you know there are over 10,000 different species of moss?!
I could go on. The earth is a wonderful, wonderful place to inhabit.

We are very lucky.

Distance travelled            68 miles
Average speed                    9.8 mph
Elevation gain                   4170 ft
Maximum speed              34 mph With loaded planners on a folding bike!

Ruminations on a folding bike – Day 2

A somewhat quirky hotel: greeted with a cup of coffee, run by a Chinese gentlemen, me the only guest, a room in the attic, my own (separate) bathroom, all for €40. I leave (after another courtesy cup of coffee) as the village clock strikes nine, surveying the scene as I go: it’s clearly rained overnight (but dry now), the village is deserted and the roads are empty. And the weather? Exactly the same as yesterday; actually, very good for a long day’s cycle. Apparently, today is a public holiday in France. I’m in for a quiet ride.
Over the river, turn R, and once again along the Gorge de la Loire. (I’ve got the gender right today)

image

A fantastic start to the day – though these hills are now getting steeper, higher and longer. Stopping for a pain au chocolat at Voray, I continue southward.
Passing the village of Lavoute I, once again, ignore a Route Barree on the gorge road. The scenery is now spectacular ……

image

……. and I’m cycling in splendid solitude – worryingly so! After several miles I start wondering whether the road may indeed be impassable. But then I encounter another cyclist …… coming towards me. Huzzah!
A second cyclist, all the gear, whizzes past me; his greeting wave comprises an arm vertically down with hand outwards at right angles.
Is this intended to minimise air resistance? Obviously a Strava afficionado.
This may be an opportune moment to explain what, for me, is the attraction of solo cycling. All the senses are heightened and somehow I acquire what I can only describe as a sixth: a spirit of “being”. Our lives are so busy we often lose our appreciation of the moment – that roadside flower; the snail laboriously crossing it; the scent of wild garlic. A human “being” is so often swamped by a human “doing”. It’s a bit like the contrast between a movie/video and a still photo. In the former, everything is ephemeral – the detail is missed, lost or forgotten. In the latter, detail is frozen in time – waiting to be appreciated from the first instant to eternity. Enough of that!
I arrive in Le Puy, with its magnificent setting

image

I find a suitable cafe to enjoy a grande creme and a croissant.
Leaving Le Puy I realise it’s getting colder, with a strengthening NE wind. A roadside thermometer reads 10C; colder than in Horsham?
I start a long ascent towards Arsac, fortunately with the wind on my back. Feeling hungry, I raid my emergency rations – a “protein bar” (yuk!) and some Kendal Mint Cake (fantastic!) Whoosh! I’m off with renewed vigour. A series of long ascents and, all too short descents follow. This is how it is; you have to enjoy hill climbs. If you don’t – don’t cycle in this part of France.
The final ascent to St Paul de Tartas (to over 4,000 ft)  is a thing of magic and wonder. The road is now akin to a country lane and devoid of traffic as it winds its way between steep banks, profuse with wild flowers, and over myriad streams. I drop my pace to the slowest I can manage without falling off, and, with my heart-rate and breathing barely above normal, drink in the solitude and beauty. Fantastic!
St Paul de Tartas boasts a largely Roman church

image

The final descent to Pradelle is fast and furious. I arrive at 6pm local time and the first hotel I encounter is …….. open!
Huzzah!

So, on to the Universe. The universe is big beyond big …… and, every second, getting bigger. And yet, unbelievably, every gramme of the existing universe  was contained within the “big bang” singularity” – a point so small that is impossible to ascribe it with dimensions. This event must have been cataclysmic beyond cataclysmic. And, of course, there was no space beyond the singularity, and no time prior to it. The Big Bang defined  both space and time.
And yet, why did it happen? Where did it come from. To these deep questions we have no (scientific) answers
Following a single blinding pulse, a universe a million billion miles across, containing 98% of the matter that exists, or ever will exist, along with all the forces we know from physics was produced within 3 minutes. Amazing!  Unbelievable?
And in all this vastness, planet earth is, to the best of our knowledge, the only  minute oasis of life. And no – for all their endeavours, scientists have so far failed to organise inanimate atoms and molecules into living matter.
So many questions and so few answers. Perhaps, counter-intuitively, it is only by asking questions which lead to more questions that we ever approach any answers
And so, dear reader, for the moment, over to you!

Distance travelled                   58 miles
Average speed                            8 mph    (but see below)
Elevation gain                          5,273 ft  !!!!
Maximum speed                       30.2 mph

Ruminations on a folding bike – is the answer 42?

Day 1. L’Haute Loire
After weeks struggling for a theme for my annual cycling blog I am unusually stymied. So, there’s only one solution – think big. It has to be ……… Life, the Universe and Everything. At least that should give me plenty of scope. But more of that later.
On the plane from Gatwick I find myself sitting next to an irritating child who spends the entire flight stabbing a finger furiously at moving characters on a screen. No doubt good for hand eye coordination …. but what about the brain? What sort of dystopian world are we bringing the younger generation up into?  But then, with my “Big Seven O” rapidly (too rapidly!) approaching I am definitely a citizen of the “grumpy old man” kingdom.
Arriving at Lyons I start unusually – a taxi to Part-Dieu station and a train to St Etienne. Cheating perhaps, but an excellent springboard to launch my hilly journey (Mary will cringe at my use of that word!) southward through the Cevennes to Montpelliar and the Mediterranean. Oh yes – I forgot to say, that’s where I’m heading.
So, bike assebled (once again arriving in perfect condition, courtesy of EasyJet) I’m off.
And the weather? Exactly the same as at Gatwick; dull, breezy … but dry. Strange – 500 miles south but “plus ca change”
Escaping St Etienne proves to be a bit of a trial; set between a somewhat chaotic pattern of hills, the roads can’t just go anywhere. Relying solely on my compass (the best approach – you know you’re going the right way without knowing where you’re going!) and aiming WSW I am constantly thwarted by the contours. After half-an-hour or so I find myself on the D3088 heading towards Firminy. To my surprise, having done little planning for this trip, I soon find myself entering the Gorge du (de?) Loire.

image

…….and not a chateau or vineyard in sight! Amazingly, this far upstream, the Loire is still a significant river, maybe 80m wide – and still very beautiful. Its watershed must be so close to that of the Rhone; where does it rise? I’ll have to find out.
Through Aurac and on to Bas-en-Baset. I stop for lunch (a grande creme with some frites). While enjoying these, a car of friendly youths pulls up to order kebabs. A surreal conversation ensues (their English being as bad as my French). We do, however, manage to establish that: France is good, England is good, cycling is good, but Brexit and Trump are bad. And all in 5 minutes! It’s amazing how much communication can be achieved with do little. With a cheery wave, we continue our separate ways.
Arriving at Beauze a road block announces a village fete. Undeterred, and (of course!) ignoring it, I pass through. Throngs of people and a brass band are celebrating ….. I don’t know what.

image

Stopping briefly to speak to a marshall we touch on today’s election. When he mentions Macron I dredge out the phrase “J’espere”; the smile on his face, accompanied by thumbs-up tell me all that I need. The locals here are so unfailing friendly.
A long ascent followed by an all to brief (but fast) descent brings me to the small town of Retournac. It’s 6.30 – time to stop. Passing two hotels clearly closed, I encounter an intriguing one which appears to be open. It is …. and I book in.

So let’s start with Life: why is it that a myriad of lifeless atoms (which neither know nor care what they are collectively doing, conspire to form something do complex, so amazing, and, in many ways so beautiful as us?  And, as far as we know, this is the only place in the entire universe (we’ll come on to that later) where this happens. To quote Bill Bryson (if you haven’t read him, you must): “the only thing special about the atoms that make you is …. that they make you”. This is the miracle of life. And the evolutionary trail which has led to Homo Sapiens was so utterly precarious, indeed, improbable. Add to this your personal lineage – all your ancestors over perhaps 4 million years, survived. You amazingly lucky beast! And that’s not even considering the awesome statistics of numbers of sperm etc. Don’t worry, we won’t go there. The fact is that the only sequence of hereditary factors that could possibly result in you …… happened. Amazing!
When you think about it, humans are pretty helpless: to survive it must be not too hot, not too cold; exactly the right combination of gases in the atmosphere; hopeless underwater; how on earth have we survived? Probably a number of key factors.
We’re on the right sort of planet orbiting the right sort of star. I could go on at length about this: distance from the sun; the tilt of the earth producing the seasons; the size and distance the moon; the tectonic plates within the earth; the right elements in the right proportions; a magnetic field that protects us from dangerous cosmic radiation; sufficient, but not too much evolutionary and environmental challenge;and, so far at least, the absence of any cataclysmic event to wipe us out.
All in all, it’s pretty remarkable we’re here!
And with that thought, I’m going to bed.

Distance travelled:        36 miles (only a half-day really)
Average speed:                9.2 mph (a lot of map checking)
Maximum speed:           31.1 mph
Elevation gain:                 2,683 ft