Friday, September 02, 2011

The London to Paris cycle ride, part three

Day Three: Arras to Compiegne
Ahh, I love the smell of Ralgex in the mornings...
The early morning air hung heavy with the aroma of embrocations and unguents, along with the post-storm smell of the earth. We were getting ready  to set off again, and I stared blearily up the road.
I hadn't had a decent night's sleep. Strawberry lager, proper lager, Chartreuse and Gin and Tonic were not entirely conducive to nestling gently into the arms of Morpheus. However, I would probably have managed more if it hadn't been for the fact that my room mate was a heavy snorer - or, to be perfectly honest, a heavier snorer than me. He sawed away from about half three to about five, and I finally managed to get a little sleep before the wake up call at 6.10. God, my legs hurt. I stretched one leg out of the bed, reached for the ibuprofen and tried to find a cool spot on the pillow.
'Stretching your legs?' asked my room mate.
'No, hangover'.
Well, it could have been worse. I could have had Glen's Chartreuse and Cognac hangover.
Once again, Sabrina, Kev and I rode out into the day, and once again, it was a cool start, but now promising to get warm sooner rather than later. And my God, it hurt to start off. Ow.Ow.Ow.Ow., went my legs as they pedalled around, but after a few kilometres they got into their stride, and on we went. Glen was somewhere to the back, and we were joined by Dave and Ross as we cycled. The land undulated, the vistas opened up, and suddenly we were in a landscape of tranquil bucolic charm, a scene entirely unrecognisable to someone who'd stood there some 95 years ago.
The valleys that had been fought over, inch by bloody inch, by imperial forces during the First World War. The sky remained grey and the mood among us remained quiet, sombre even, as though this was a place that should be either flitted through with the minimum of fuss and attention seeking, or should be processed through at a funereal pace. Here and there, as we turned a corner, along with the small roadside chapels, there would be a cemetery, neatly tended, its gravestones serried and white, inscribed with the names of boys who'd been sent off to die a long time ago. The whole landscape, despite its sleepy charm, seemed to me to carry a terrible song of sadness. Every building, every stand of trees, every little hillock, every stump, each single little thing had been fought over and had witnessed mechanised, industrialised mass death. We spoke almost quietly, discussing what we were seeing, what we remembered of WW1, what we knew of these wars. I described my Great-Uncle Charlie, who had been in the first push over the top at the Somme Offensive, who got shot and spent three days in the mud before being taken prisoner. I talked about Karen having served in Iraq, and Ross mentioned a friend of his who was in the SBS, and who had been in both Iraq and Afghanistan.On we went, the land climbed, the smooth road unrolled underneath us, more wind turbines appeared, and suddenly we were in the Somme Valley, and approaching our first stop of the day, at the Thiepval Memorial.

I don't want to say much at this juncture - if you've been there, you'll know exactly how it feels. If you haven't, go. The number of names of people who haven't even been found is staggering. I found it deeply upsetting. One of the other cyclists sat quietly in one corner of the monument, red-eyed. We walked quietly around the monument and its superbly-tended grounds, visited the information centre, then getting our fill of bananas and oaty snacks. After nearly an hour there, we saddled up again and climbed upwards, and the sun came out, and seemingly, all of a sudden, this:
look at that view! Not Glen, the green stuff behind him.

look at that view! Not the green stuff, my complete absence of beer gut!

that's what we're heading to - next stop, downhiiiillll!

...and the day just exploded into a joyous one of cycling. I was still aching a bit, but the road and the weather and the company worked together to make it everything not just endurable but utterly enjoyable. We were far more relaxed, I think, and this made it far easier to ride. The land remained ridiculously pretty, and on one stretch I noticed a 2CV shooting along a poplar-lined road. I should also point out that I had spotted not one, but several, discarded packs of Gauloises, so I was doing quite well with my stereotypes bingo. The pace, while still vigorous, was distinctly more chilled out, and people rode sometimes ahead, sometimes behind. I found myself riding by myself for a while, totally absorbed into the Flow - not the flow, but the one with the capital: the same place you find yourself when writing after a certain amount of time, that point of almost effortless effort where there is only the Now, the Here, where you feel you can continue for mile after mile, hour after hour. My legs smoothly pedalled the bike with seemingly the minimum of work, the road held the tyres in a kiss of kilometres, and the landscape flowed from beautiful moment to beautiful moment. By now,  our mini-peloton consisted of me, Sabrina, Kev, Dave, Ross, Glen and Carol, the indefatigable 73-year-old. She's quite a fascinating person, not because of doing such an event, but because she is one of those rare humans who can lob a simple question and then you end up compelled to speak without even noticing it - she's a natural listener, a person with a touch of the Jane Marple about her. We'd asked her earlier about why she was doing this.
'well, I decided to do all those things that I'd never done once I reached 60, and keep looking for challenges. I've forgotten how many marathons I've done, now'.
She'd certainly done well in this ride - she was by no means at the back of the pack.
Lunch was in some kind of picnic layby. As well as our group, a family were trying to have lunch on a picnic bench nearby. Glen accosted them, sat down, started chatting and got fed. The rest of us made do with a lunch comprising some of the stars of the previous couple of days' lunches, plus a chicken curry pasta that tasted almost exactly like a pot noodle, with the same effect - you feel a little bit grubby and shameful eating it, but you end up wanting more, a bit like illicit Office Nookie. All this, and 80's music.
While we were stretching, eating, relaxing and finding convenient bushes, the question of what to wear came up. Not this:
reminds me of wrestling on World of Sport....
but rather, when cycling, do you wear pants or Go Commando? I won't mention who brought it up, because I'm being possibly unusually tactful, but she was clearly suffering from Tight Pants Syndrome.
'I tried both ways over my training - Commando is definitely the way to go', I said.
'Really? It's been really painful today'.
'Imagine what it's like having some meat and two veg down there'
'That's right', said Dave. 'Get 'em off, let the air circulate'
I should also point out that the lunch break was where I would apply:
also known as Udderly Smooth, an embrocation originally designed to be applied to cows' udders to prevent sores and injuries, Bum Butter is not actually made out of either bums or butter. That would be perverse. Instead, it is a paraffin and glycol based compound that, when applied, brings to mind the 1970's pop song 'Slip Sliding Away...'
 - that is, I would apply it if I could find a secluded spot, which fortunately I did on this occasion. We didn't hang around too long on this occasion, and before long we were once again on our way. The Tight Pants Person wafted along with a look of bliss on her face.
'Oh my God! That feels so much better! Wow!'
On we went, and things started to get a little silly. Another knot of riders, lead by Laura, stormed past us, laughing noisily. In Laura's case, actually laughing like the Wicked Witch of the West. We carried on at our own pace, through a few villages and up a couple of hills, then down some wonderful downhills. We came towards some huge golden fields, hay baled in tall towers, and we noticed four figures in one of them.
'Why are there so many scarecrows in one field?' I asked.
As we got closer, it became clear - Laura and her group had stopped and were posing in the field, arms outstretched and heads lolling. From a distance, it would have been easy to fool, except that they were heaving with laughter.  The ride continued, but there was now no sense of tiredness - we talked easily and the miles melted away. A few miles before the last water stop, we cycled over a little bridge with a picturesque duck pond to one side and a stream issuing out of the other. We stopped so that some of the group could take pictures.
'God, that water looks really nice', said Glen.
A minute later, he was wading bare chested down the stream, splashing along. and trying to catch fish in his hands.
The next water stop came in due course, next to probably the prettiest of the places where we took a break.
what do you mean, the bananas have almost run out?

There was even a bloke with a fishing pole and a fag dangling from the side of his mouth.
By this time of day, it was pretty hot, so we made sure to drink and replenish and set off at a relatively leisurely pace for the rest of the journey. By now, everything undulated, rather than climb in bloody big spikes, but somehow we stilll managed to get these wonderful downhill sections. Laura & co whizzed past us again, and again laughing like drains, so we were wondering what they were planning up ahead. We climbed a bit, then a  bit more, then reached a plateau looking down into a village and the prospect of a good downhill, and then
Lorraine, who had a constant supply of drugs and Lanacane, took a tumble. She'd come too close to the side of the road, hit a pothole, and ended up arse over tit on a grassy verge. She'd been remarkably lucky - the way she'd fallen could have resulted in a broken neck, and a little further on would have seen her fall down a 30-metre slope. Several of us stopped and made sure she was OK.She was deeply shaken, and her bike, while not exactly buggered, wasn't entirely damage-free, but after the support van had arrived with the nurse she rallied. Actually, she rallied when some slender, muscular olive-skinned bloke in jodphurs came riding past on a horse. He slowed down as he reached us, then when Glen (who had caught up with us) said to him 'wou;d you like to help her?', he gave an almost imperceptible shrug, then galloped off across the fields.
Once the nurse arrived, we carried on. A couple of miles down the road, we found Laura and co, lolling on a haystack
'We've been here ages! what happened?'
apparently, they were going to do some kind of display for us, but instead they just got bums full of straw. Oops.
Compiegne was visible from their field, and it wasn't long before we entered the town. We cycled past the centre and headed towards the outskirts. Because of problems with hotels, we were split into two groups, with the majority heading towards Le Campanile for the night. It came nto sight, and didn't look too bad - a kindof Travelodge-type thing. I found out that I was sharing a room with Dave. I also found out that they were charging lots for a large lager. Anyway. Several people had already arrived when we got there, and had scouted out the local supermarkets for bargain beers, and were lolling on the front lawn with cans.Sabrina went off in one direction with Pat, who was visibly fuming about something being fucked up, to a local petrol station. I went in the other direction, following someone else's advice, going past all these wonderful boarded up villas, or places guarded by snarling dogs, then, as I was about to turn into a road with an offy, what do I see in the evening sunlight?
Two blokes playing boules while smoking gauloises and complimenting each other.

I came back, had beer, showered, and went to dinner. Tonight's dinner wasn't as bad as the dinner in Arras, pretty much in the same way that the bombing of Dresden wasn't quite as bad as the bombing of Hiroshima. It consisted of something that was recognisably pork, though from which bit fo the animal was impossible to guess. It even had a few sad and lonely slice of some kind of pickle shoved apologetically underneath.
Fortunately, there was plenty of booze on supply, despite the fact that we needed to get up even earlier the next morning. Kriss (Glen's personal trainer, no less!) helped massage Gemma, and I played the Elephant on a Moped Trick on Laura, although I was laughing so hard I buggered up the punchline.
All in all, it was a wonderful day of cycliing. I got to bed at late o'clock, wondering about the final 55 or so miles to Paris that lay ahead.

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