When I was a younger man I cycled everywhere – to and from school, to friends and girlfriends, I explored all I could on the bike and loved it. The love affair eventually ended (with my girlfriends and cycling) and the bike gathered dust.
Until just recently.
I had no idea that moving to France would mean I’d be compelled to jump back on the saddle again. But compelled I am because cycling is, to paraphrase a memorable description of another beautiful ‘game’, more than a matter of life and death for Haute-savoyards. Le Tour (the cycling tour of France) is the nation’s sport, a spectacle that seems to visit and then take over every city, town and hamlet for a handful of unforgettable long summer weeks. But it’s my understanding that the Alps region where I live holds a special place for cyclisme – because there are mountains there.
Now, this is wonderful for the enthusiast. There are hills to climb. And then more. Then mountains, even. And when you’re done, there’s the high-speed descent. And all this in glorious Alpine splendour. But for un débutant like me, it is a different matter.
For example: upon leaving my house, there is a slight incline, which, after I’ve navigated my way out of the community gate, is met by another, slightly steeper incline. And so it goes. Until, for me at least, you meet the holy of holies – the ascent from Le Coin to La Croisette, a terrible, forbidding climb up dozens of sharply twisting roads. You’ll know when at the top because you’ll be on a mountain. It is difficult to drive this road, let alone cycle.
The first time I decided to ‘go around the block’, I took out my downhill mountain bike, a disastrously heavy, angular collection of steel, springs and rubber. I went down the hill and rode back (here, I can tell you that ‘the hill’ would, in my native London, be considered something of an understatement). When I got home, delighted that ‘I still had it’, I bent over and put my back out. I still hadn’t it.
Since then, finding a local route has been fun, because I’m out in the country and there’s always a lane or road to explore. The views are inspiring, although it tends to be colder, especially during the descent. This short video shows you a typical bit of road and what I see when I’m out and about.
Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to have a new bike now. My old one – now known as the ‘tractor’ – has a lively rear suspension, so I bounce when I ride it. Quite comical when writing that, less so when it’s happening. I don’t know a great deal about bikes so I played safe and bought a friend who is far more in the know to help me choose. In the absence of thousands of Euros thrown lavishly at a bike I might never use (my wife Jennie joked that at least that way it would never wear out), I was relatively sensible. I ended up with a Decathlon Alu Carbon Competition bike. As the name suggests, it is a mix of aluminium and carbon, keeping it light and strong. But between me and you, it is white, with a bit of yellow and black and the occasional gear. Here it is.
Progress has been unusually speedy. Within only weeks I had improved, and now I occasionally stop thinking about the pain and enjoy the ride (enthusiasts might add that I’m doing it right in this case). Finding a route has been fun. It means getting a little lost, exploring new places, something I always enjoy. At the moment, I generally take my bike around the flatter roads of Salève, the mountain that runs from outside my home, connecting Geneva and Switzerland at one end and Haute-savoie and France at the other.
This doesn’t mean I’m avoiding the hills, just the worst of them. I record all my cycle rides using an iPhone 3G and Runkeeper. The stats it produces tells me that often the climb (which it considers to be a sum of the ascent and descent) goes into the hundreds of metres. I find the stats useful so I can compare my times, try to get better. Bizarrely, I’ve found myself even enjoying the challenge of a hill: as I long as I don’t, like the sun, look it right in the eye.
It sounds corny but riding with the ever-present mountain is inspirational. For me, it is the most brutal of critics, it offers the most tender support. It is a fixed point, solid, impenetrable; it endures – a counterpoint to my dwindling stamina, always reminding me to just keep spinning those legs.
If you want to see more of my photos, my Flickr stream is here.