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.

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…….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.

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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

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