Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Minimalist

Traveling great distances on a bicycle has always fascinated me. As a kid, I'd jump on my three-speed and pretend that I was embarking on a long road trip through America. When I was twelve, I went to summer camp in Colorado with my cousin Douglas, and, in Telluride, we met a guy who was riding his loaded-down touring bike across the country. He regaled us with stories from his adventure, and we thought he was the greatest human alive.

In college, my cycling obsession focussed on racing instead of touring, and that's where the obsession remained for the next 30 years. In that time, though, I still held on to the fantasy of doing a long, relaxed-pace bike tour in a far-off land, exploring new roads and a different culture. However, the idea of doing a tour on a 40-pound touring bike with big bags surrounding the front and rear wheels didn't look or sound appealing. I wanted to do a tour on my racing bike, and carry as little as possible. I wanted to be "the Minimalist."

The Preparation

This summer, my life-long daydream became reality. Full-scale planning for this trip started more than a year ago. I decided to tour France. There is no better country in the world for a bicycle tour--the roads are pristine, the motorists respect cyclists, the terrain is varied, and the scenery is stunning. My first decision: what part of France to tour? I'd need to do a loop, starting and ending at the same airport. I ruled out the north of France, because the weather can be iffy, and I didn't want to carry a lot of wet-weather gear. I ruled out the Alps and the Pyrenees, because I've ridden both on previous car-based bike trips, and again, the weather can be iffy in the high mountains, which would require carrying more rain/cold weather gear. I considered Provence, but I've been there. I settled on the southwest part of France, because I could easily fly in and out of Toulouse, I could do a loop through a part of the country I'd never seen, and the weather was a good bet to be sunny and dry.

Once I had my starting/ending point settled, I got down to the business of designing the route. This was a lot of work. I wanted to stay on small backroads, I wanted to avoid larger cities, I wanted to see different regions, and I wanted to visit a few sites. For months I toyed with different paths, even changing the last two days of my course as late as the Sunday before the trip started. I decided that riding about 75 miles per day would be perfect--long enough each day to get me to a different region and to make me feel like I'd accomplished something, but not so long that it would wear me down physically. After much thought, I settled on a course that would run counter-clockwise from Toulouse, west towards the Atlantic coast, then north through the Bordeaux wine region, then east through the Limoges Valley and Limousin, turning to the south through the Massif Central, and finally back into Toulouse. The plan called for nine straight days in the saddle, and pedaling roughly 650 miles.

Originally, I thought I'd ride every day until I didn't feel like riding any longer, find a hotel, and stay the night in whatever town I ended up in. But I decided that I didn't want to be forced to sleep on a park bench in some small village, so I booked a hotel for each night along the way. Researching the hotels was time-consuming, but it was also a lot of fun.

Just as time-consuming was deciding what to carry with me. I wanted my racing bike to feel like my racing bike--I wanted it to be lightweight and nimble. So, I had to carry the bare minimum. The first order of business was to find a bag that would fit underneath my saddle. Not too small, of course, because I needed to carry a set of street clothes and shoes, some toiletries, other necessities, and some tools. I finally found a bag made by Revelate, a company based in Alaska, called the "Pika" bag. Here is what it looks like, fully loaded:

The bag is actually supposed to attach at the bottom to the seat post, but during test rides I discovered that the backs of my legs would hit the bag, so I had to improvise and attach it further down, just above the rear brake. Because of this, I also needed to cinch the lower-third of the bag with a velcro strap to make it as narrow as possible, or else the bag would hit the rear brake cable, causing the brakes to close on the rim.

Once I knew which bag I'd be using, I had to figure out what to pack. Each day on the bike I'd be wearing, of course, a cycling jersey (with three rear pockets for extra storage), cycling shorts, cycling shoes, gloves, a helmet, and sunglasses. In my saddle bag I packed:

-- One dry-fit t-shirt
-- One pair of dry-fit walking shorts
-- One pair of dry-fit underwear
-- Toms lightweight walking shoes
-- Small bag of toiletries, including small tube of sunscreen, small tube of chamois butter, small tube of toothpaste, floss, toothbrush, a razor, and small bottle of Wilderness Wash (a concentrated detergent to use to wash my bike clothes each day).
-- One extra tire. I'd carry two extra inner tubes in my jersey pocket, but I thought I'd be screwed if something on the road shredded a tire, so I folded up a Conti 4000 and stuck it in my saddle bag.
-- First aid kit (small, with tape, gauze, anti-bac ointment, etc) in case of a fall
-- French electric outlet adapter, along with my phone charger and Garmin charger
-- A lightweight Castelli rain jacket, that wadded up to nothing in a small stuff-sack
-- A small bike lock
-- A small micro-fiber towel
-- A couple of extra velcro ties, because you never know when you'll need an extra velcro tie
-- Small tube of Nuun electrolyte drink tablets

In my jersey pockets, I carried a bike tool (with wrenches and a chain tool), a flat tire repair kit (with a mini-pump, spare tubes, patch kit, tire irons, and valve adaptor), my passport, a credit card, some cash, and my phone. I carried the important items in a small, waterproof pouch.

I packed perfectly. Not once during my trip did I ever think "I wish had packed such-and such." I never had to use any of my insurance items (rain jacket, spare tire, first aid kit), but having them gave me great peace of mind.

To help keep me on course, I typed a set of turn-by-turn direction cards for each day, and laminated them so they'd be easy to pull out of my jersey pocket, and so they wouldn't fall apart from sweat or wet weather:

While these cards helped, it was my Garmin that was the real life-saver. I purchased the European Maps chip from Garmin, and loaded it onto my Edge 805. I then programmed each day's route into the Garmin, so each day I had the computer giving me turn-by-turn directions, which probably saved me from riding an extra one hundred miles. There is an intricate network of small highways throughout France, and knowing which road to take can get incredibly confusing. So, I had my Garmin, my direction cards, and my phone, just in case.

Executing the Plan

Being as prepared as I possibly could be, it was time to get the show on the road. My flight was from DFW to London, then London to Toulouse. I had a three hour layover in London, but apparently that's not long enough to get the bike off of one plane and onto another. My bike box missed the connection, so I arrived in Toulouse at 5pm on Thursday with only the small backpack I had carried on. Luckily, my bike made the next flight out of London, and got in at midnight. I grabbed it, and headed to the airport hotel, and went to sleep. The next morning, I ate breakfast, assembled my bike, left the bike box and my backpack with the concierge at the hotel, told the hotel folks I'd see them in nine days, and set off on my adventure.

I was giddy to actually be pedaling in France, and I couldn't wait to see how this journey would play out. Day One took me from Toulouse to Condom (yes, that's the name of the town), about 75 miles through hilly farmland. France would be experiencing an unusual heat wave during my trip--high temps each day near 100--but being from Texas, I was used to that. And, for the most part, my rides were done by 3pm, so I avoided the hottest part of each day.

I quickly fell into a routine that I'd repeat for the next week-and-a-half: Get up about 7:30 each morning, eat breakfast at the hotel, put on my bike clothes and pack my saddle bag, ride from about 9am until 3pm (stopping for lunch at some point), checking into the next night's hotel, washing my bike clothes in the sink and hanging them out to dry, taking a shower, resting for a bit in the hotel room, then putting on my street clothes and walking the town, finding a sidewalk cafe for a beer or two, walking some more looking for a restaurant, eating dinner, walking some more and taking pictures, then returning to the hotel to watch a little French television, eventually falling asleep around 11:30pm.

My street clothes held up well. I was able to wash my dry-fit underwear a few times, and my shirt and shorts never needed a wash because I was only wearing them in the evenings, so I wasn't sweating in them. I chose a dark blue shirt, just in case I spilled something on it so the stain wouldn't show for the remainder of the trip. My bike clothes held up well, too--they were clean and dry each morning (thanks to the heat wave). I chose a nondescript light blue jersey, and plain black shorts, because I wanted to blend in. I left my racing kit at home.

Day Two from Condom to Roquefort (55 miles, the shortest leg of the trip) included a stop at Notre Dame des Cyclists, a functioning Catholic church that is also a cycling museum. The long-time church pastor was a huge bike racing fan, and over the years all of the legends of the sport have donated something to the shrine.

That night in Roquefort, I stayed at the Saint Vincent Hotel, one of my favorite stops along the way. The couple that owned the hotel were also the chefs, and they served a terrific six-course dinner. My dinner date was their dog, whom I fed under the table when the owners weren't looking.

Day Three was a 74 mile ride from Roquefort to St Emilion. The first half of the ride was on flat roads through a forest, the second half of the ride on rolling roads through the vineyards of the Bordeaux wine country. St Emilion was beautiful and lively, perched up on a hilltop in the middle of endless miles of vineyards:

Day Four's ride was a spectacular, 86 mile route from St Emilion to Sarlat, which followed the Dordogne River to the wonderful town of Bergerac, then through a hilly final 40 miles to the medieval town of Sarlat. For 15 of these miles, I rode with a 60-something former racer from Bergerac named Marcel. He was fit and fast, and I was able to carry on a very rough conversation with him in French (thanks to daily lessons from Rosetta Stone for the past three months which had expanded my vocabulary to the point that I could kind of understand what most people were saying to me). We talked about the Tour de France, the region, and the bike. He told me he rode every day, and that's what kept him young. He told me to do the same. I told him that was the plan.

Day Four was so much fun--in many ways the perfect day--that once I got to Sarlat I rode straight to the old-town center, sat down at a cafe, and ordered a big beer to toast my efforts.

Walking around Sarlat that evening was a joy. Everywhere I turned, there were little side streets full of sidewalk cafes, like this:

Day Five took me from Sarlat to Uzerche, 69 miles through hilly countryside. Day Six was from Uzerche to Bort, the hilliest day of the trip--70 miles, with 6,000 feet of climbing. A common occurrence on this day was rounding a bend in the road and seeing something like this:

Day Seven was the day I was most looking forward to: 72 miles from Bort to Aurillac, through a national park full of extinct volcanoes. I climbed the Pas de Peyrol, over the Puy Mary volcano, and the scenery was breathtaking:

As you can see in the photos, the road is perfect. I was amazed at the high quality of the roads in France. Major highways or tiny country lanes, they are all immaculate. I didn't see a single pothole or crack. The country's infrastructure is amazing. Every road is a thin layer of a tarmac/tiny chip-seal combo, which makes for a smooth, worry-free ride. I wish we made our roads in America out of whatever they use in France. In addition to pristine roads, the motorists in France are extra-courteous to cyclists. In nine days, nobody ever honked at me, flipped me off, buzzed me, or threw anything at me. Cars would pass giving me a wide berth, and they always yielded to me. My theory is that the French grow up revering the bike, because their biggest sporting event is the Tour de France, and so some of their biggest national heroes are bike racers. They understand the sport, and they know how hard a cyclist is working, so they respect the effort. Bikes on the road are a way of life in France, and it was wonderful to never have to worry about being side-swiped by a car.

Surprisingly, Day Eight turned out to be the best ride of the trip. It was 81 miles from Aurillac to St Cirq Lapopie, a gentle, seemingly downhill course on empty roads through incredibly beautiful countryside. St Cirq Lapopie is possibly the most beautiful village I've ever seen, built into the side of a mountain overlooking a lush river valley. The town streets are steep and winding, lined with inviting cafes and shops. I couldn't have picked a better destination for my last night on the road:

Day Nine took me 82 miles from St Cirq Lapopie back to my starting point of Toulouse. It was a slightly sad ride, because I knew my adventure was coming to an end. When I got back to the airport hotel, I showered, packed my bike, and headed into the old-town part of Toulouse for one final dinner and immersion into the French culture. I found a bar and watched the first stage of the Tour de France on television--a strange feeling to know that as my tour was ending, their tour was starting.

I spent most of that last evening reflecting on the loop I'd just completed. The totals: nine straight days of riding, 664 miles, zero flats, zero crashes, zero mechanicals, zero physical problems, and an infinite number of beautiful roads, vistas, and memories.

The Verdict

My solo, minimalist bike tour of France was quite possibly the greatest thing I've ever done. I was really happy with my planning--day after day, the rides were perfect. The logistics (hotels, seeing the sites I wanted to, packing properly, daily food and drink, etc) all worked as well as could be expected. It's an incredible feeling to travel from one region to another each day under your own power, wondering what you might discover around the next corner as you explore new roads and new villages. I had never been to Europe by myself, and while traveling with friends or family is always great, doing this trip alone was equally enjoyable, and certainly added to the adventurous feeling of the undertaking.

It was refreshing to not see the inside of a car for 10 days. I was also happy with my legs each day--I never felt tired or sore. For a few months, I've been trying to do a lot of long, slower-paced training rides, and I think it paid off. I never woke up thinking "Oh crap, I'm dreading these 75 miles today because I'm worn out." Instead, I woke up each day thinking "I can't wait to get on the bike and see what kind of views and towns and people I'll experience today!"

The other thing that was minimal about this trip was the cost. I used airline miles for my plane ticket, I didn't have to rent a car or pay for gasoline, and, because I was staying in small towns, my hotel rooms (some of them really, really nice) averaged only about $100 per night. I could have made the trip even more affordable by camping each night, but that would have required hauling around a lot of camping equipment, which is not what I had in mind. Plus, it was nice each day to be able to wash my bike clothes, take a shower, and sleep in a bed--and I could do all of that by just carrying a credit card, which took up 1000 times less room than camping equipment.

Some of the best moments were the moments when I'd pull over in a small village, fill my water bottles at the fountain in the town square, and just sit and observe the flow of daily life in rural France. The French value a slower pace to their days, with longer meals that allow more time for conversation. In general, they seem to make more out of less--even the smallest homes are mostly well kept with colorful gardens and/or potted plants everywhere. They appreciate and take care of the history and beauty of their old buildings--probably gaining a greater sense of appreciation for those structures knowing that many have survived hundreds of years, not to mention World Wars. It's a different perspective.

I had dreamed about this trip since childhood, and I'm happy to report that it turned out even better than I had imagined. It was fun at the purest level, like being a kid again. A child usually first experiences the joy of freedom courtesy his or her bicycle, and the sense of adventure and play when exploring by bike can be just as enjoyable and just as liberating well into adulthood, as long as you're willing to break out of your comfort zone and take a few travel chances.

Vive le velo, and Vive la France!