Monday, September 21, 2009

Knees and Things

'Kneecaps are complicated things, you know.' Jenny said, 'They're disks that slide up and down in slots and yours are way out of line.'
'Yes,' I said, 'I've been meaning to have a word with them for some time now.'
Jenny wiggled my kneecaps from side to side making a whistling noise with her breath. 'What are you planning to do?'
'Cycle to Rome. You see I've always ...'
'Do you know how bad the traffic is in Rome?'
'Yes, well you see I ...'
'Yours are crunching around, see!'
'Argh!' I whinged.
'Your flat feet are the trouble makers, your knees have just had to compensate.'
'My flat feet, oh?' I said. Jenny sounded like a second-hand car dealer rubbishing the goods before making an offer.
'How much for the lot?' I asked.
'Your knee cap is here and it should be here!'
Argh! I said again as she slid my kneecap to one side. What little solid bone I had left was being reduced to rubble.
'If you strap them up each morning with adhesive tape and pull them into place, like this,'
'Ugh!' I said, trying not to repeat myself.
'You might be able to get away with it, if you don't mind a bit of pain.'

I had started thinking of cycling to Rome some months before. My father had been a keen cyclist, when young, so I told him.
'You're too old for that sort of thing. Why don't you cycle to Cornwall?' he said.
'Why would I want to cycle to Cornwall?'
'It's not as far as Rome.'
'I want to do something that's difficult: a challenge.' I said.
'What's the point? Do something that's easy. Why Rome anyway?'
All roads lead to Rome, I said.
'No they don't, the A30 goes to Penzance.'
'It's a saying.' I said.
'No, the A30's a trunk road.' he said. 'You could take the A31 but that only goes as far as Dorchester, you'd have to get on the A35 to Honiton, then you'd be back on the A30.' This conversation was going nowhere.
'If you'd travelled further than Cornwall, you might understand.' I snapped.
'The A5 goes to North Wales,' he said, 'why don't you go there?'
'I've been there before.'
'Well, you'll know your way around then.'
I gave up. At fifty-seven I didn't need too ask my Dad if I could go out on my bike.

'I've been thinking,' I said to Valerie over breakfast, 'of cycling to Rome.'
'Rome?' Did you know that they have aeroplanes that fly to Rome?'
'No, it's got to be a bike ride.'
'Well a long bike ride is more than a long ride on a bike.' I said, 'It's like life.'
'Anything can be like life. A banana's like life.' Valerie said, peeling her banana, 'It doesn't matter what it looks likes, it's what's inside that matters.'
'It's more than that.' I said, 'For example, you spend ages growing up and then, whoosh! It's downhill all the way and the end is in sight just when you're getting the hang of going along without pedalling.'
'Hmm…' said Valerie 'a banana starts with a stork, gets fatter in the middle. Isn't that like middle age spread?'
'If you stop moving, on a bike, you fall off. That's like life, isn't it?' I said.
'What about the bicycle bell?'
'I haven't got a bell.'
'You'll need a bell; they say the traffic in Rome is terrible. Do you want the rest of this banana?'
'No thanks, I've just started my diet.'

Pumped up Tyres

When every kid as far as the end of the next street has solid tyres on their trikes and you have pumped up tyres, it makes you feel a bit special. Fast, smooth and silent, I rode that trike over bombsites, explored distant streets and I was the envy of every other trike owner. Of course it did spend a lot of time in the back garden waiting for my father to fix punctures and then every kid from as far as the end of the next street would enjoy rattling their solid tyres past my house as I sat, trikeless, on our garden wall. When I was nine my father put various bits together to build me a two-wheel bike and took me for a ride out to Epping Forest. He said, 'Always keep to the left of the road, even when there's nothing coming.' I hoped this might be a bit of family wisdom passed down from father to son but he was probably only trying to keep me from under the wheels of oncoming trolley-busses. With my bits and pieces bike, and my father's advice, I started to go places. Woolwich was a favourite. I would go down below on the ferry to watch through the windows of the engine room as the sweating, shirtless engineer oiled some bit of the beautiful, heaving machinery and, for a brief moment, I was voyaging to exotic shores on the other side of the world, instead of crossing the Thames. Once, I went off with a gang of kids to explore the waste area south of the Becton Bypass and, after lifting our bikes over a dried up stream, we found ourselves amongst thousands of new cars, all parked in straight lines - the storage park for Ford's factory. A pick-up truck raced down between the aisles towards us and we cycled off as fast as we could. At the end of the line we could either turn left to the riverbed or towards some trees. I thought that we would be caught at the stream, so turned right towards the trees several hundred yards away. The others went towards the stream. Suddenly there was a dog, snarling and snapping at my ankles. I was thinking of fighting the dog off with my bicycle pump when another car joined in the chase. I got to the trees to discover that they hid a twelve-foot high wire fence. The man in the van screamed at the dog to stop and as the posse surrounded me the snarling salivating beast was put on a chain. They said that if I ever came back they would set the dog on me. Ever since I have had strained relationships with Alsatian dogs and can never get comfortable in Ford cars.

The New Year of 1960 I had felt sure was, in someway, going to be special. I was fifteen and knew that one year was much the same as another but I could not help thinking, as I went out into the street at midnight on New Year's Eve with my mother and father to bang our dustbin lid and listen to the ships from the nearby docks blow their horns, blasting out a welcome to the new decade, that tomorrow would be just a little different. The mood of post war optimism matched my youthful outlook and if I played my cards right I might see a few more decades change and even a new millennium. The next morning was indeed different: the milkman swore as he tripped over our dustbin lid, which startled his horse and made all the bottles in the milk cart jingle. That made the milkman swear again. All of which woke me up early.

By the fourth year of Faraday Secondary Modern I had slithered down to the bottom stream, a dried up river bed of a place where most of the East End's emergent villains were waiting for their chance to join the Cray gang. I was too scared to be a proper villain and I said as much to Gracie, on a bus one day. Gracie was considered to be one of the more successful villains as he had been reported, presumably by his mother, for emptying her gas meter, taken to court and had obtained a police record.
'You need to get yer self an emmo, Gray.'
'Yeh!' I said, 'That's what I need alright, an emmo.' I did not have a clue what he was talking about, not an unusual situation with Gracie.
I asked Dennis, a good friend of mine, who shared my sink trap class, what Gracie meant by 'emmo'. Dennis, being in the same class as me, gave me hope that I was in the lowest stream, of the worst school in London, through some terrible mistake or as the result of some vindictive action on the part of a vengeful teacher. Dennis was clever. How he had been streamed with the likes of Gracie was a mystery to me. After leaving school Dennis joined MENSA, played the classical guitar and worked in a posh bank in the City. Dennis had, somehow, learnt a lot about the world, despite being washed up in Faraday Secondary Modern, probably because he had learnt to read: a skill I was still struggling with. Dennis said Gracie was referring to M.O., 'modus operandi’: a term the police used to describe the way a criminal works. Gracie's use of Latin came as a surprise to me but explained why I had always struggled to understand him.

Stealing bikes was far too dangerous. Bikes, at that time, were locked up with combination locks. I had one, and had worked out how to open it without looking at the numbers. I could even undo it in the dark under my bed sheets at night. Yes, that was the sort of thing teenage boys got up to beneath their bed sheets each night in those days. Lock thieving, would be my M.O. I pinched a few, swapped the tumblers around and sold them on. I managed to sell Jeffrey Pettit's lock back to him. But I was not happy: I could not help feeling that, in some strange way, it was like cycling on the wrong side of the road. I decided to carry out one last spectacular heist and then retire. I hid in the school toilets for the last lesson of the day, along with six smokers, two skivers and Jeffrey Pettit who spent most of his secondary education hiding in toilets. In the bike shed I swapped over all the combination locks. Being too scared to stay and see the effects of my criminal act I jumped on my bike as soon as the school bell went and left before the hordes of would be cyclists came out. I cycled away so fast that one of the cotter pins, holding the pedal cranks, sheared off, a common problem on that bike, and I had to push it home.

Cotter pin unreliability, along with my failure to find a girlfriend, gave me some anxious teenage years. So, I bought Jimmy Elliston's old bike for five pounds. I was also hoping that some of his image, and success with girls, would come with his old bike but ... well it was a good bike: six gears, a dynamo, aluminium mudguards and, at last, I could wake up in the morning and not worry about cotter pins. Now I could go places and be carefree. I went fishing in the ponds at Epping Forest and along the canal towpaths to Waltham Cross. Dennis and I went on Youth Hostel trips, once as far as South Wales, to St Briavels Castle. After which we planned to get the ferry across the Severn and down to the south coast. Apart from cycling capes, we had no special clothing. To keep the water off my head I wore a plastic bag. Going down a hill in the driving rain I pulled the bag over my eyes to keep the drops out but could not see the road so took the bag off to find that I still could not see the road. I was not on the road and a gatepost was looming. After the gatepost had loomed and I had bled over a kitchen table of a nearby big house, been taken to the geriatric ward of the local hospital (that being the only bed available), they told me I had broken my collarbone and would have to stay in for the night.

After that, I gave up the bike for twenty years. Then, when our children were young I started to cycle to work on Valerie's old Raleigh. I soon began to hanker after the, long gone Jimmy Elliston bike, and bought a second-hand one. I agreed to do a sponsored cycle ride from the school, where I taught, to Snowdon: about 300 miles. I loved that bike ride: up to Bath across the Severn Bridge, an over night stop in Chepstow, then a beautiful ride through the Wye Valley and on up to Snowdon. The trip inspired me and I was determined to do another but things happened, life got in the way, the bike got a puncture, I lost the pump and, apart from family trips, I hardly used the bike again for another twenty years.

Trying to Get Fit

When people used to ask what I did for a living I would say, 'I'm in credit control', then they would always notice that their glasses were empty and never stay to learn of the magical world of sales ledger management. Now, when people hear I am a freelance storyteller they say things like,
'Wow! That must be exciting.'
And I say 'Oh, it's tremendously exciting, but your glass is empty.'
And they say, 'Oh, that doesn't matter; tell me all about storytelling. Where do you get all your ideas from?'
And I say, 'They give you a big book of ideas when you start the job.' Another exciting thing about the job is the word freelance, as it conjures up the vision of a knight on horseback stopping travellers, at crossroads, whilst on their way to market to sell their cow, sitting them down at lance point and telling them, free of charge, life changing stories (the travellers that is, not the cows), then riding off under a waxing moon to the sound of a howling wolf. This image is not far from day-to-day reality for a storyteller except that the crossroads are invariably at the other end of the M27 and a Transit van is quicker to get started than a horse on cold mornings. I am not sure that my stories change many lives. Usually, how little audiences play with the Velcro on their shoes and how few books the teachers mark are my benchmarks of success.

When the year 2000 arrived I was busy starting up my storytelling business but years are only arbitrary numbers and so I decided that I would do a millennium celebratory ride in 2003. If I started on April 24th it would be early enough not to be too hot during the day and late enough for the nights not to be too cold.

I had eight months to get fit, organised and ready to go. I got the old bike, of Snowdon fame, out from the garage, pumped up the tyres straightened out the front wheel, put some oil on the chain and started training. Fordingbridge is on the edge of the New Forest, which is a lovely area for cycling: quiet country roads, a few hills, beautiful countryside and wildlife to spot as you cycle along.

After a week of training I decided that I would try a 60km trip (I changed to cycling in kilometres in preparation for the continent.) My left knee had always hurt but after 60km my right knee had now become painful. I rested it for a couple of days and then started cycling again but the knee still hurt. I was beginning to think that I would be lucky to get as far as Cornwall. That's when I went to see Jenny, the physiotherapist, for advice and she suggested strapping my knees up. But the prospect of rearranging my kneecaps each morning, like a pair of worn out Rubik's cubes, as I cycled through the lanes of France, was more than I could face. Rome seemed beyond reach, I stuck the bike back in the garage and stopped cycling. I wondered how other aging cyclists managed to cope with painful knees and searched the Internet, read lots about cyclists' knee problems, studied diagrams and tried to understand how knees worked. I decided it might be worth one last spin of the wheel and drew up a new training schedule, this time starting slowly and carefully. I rested for the whole of November and when I started I concentrated on keeping pressure off my knees, on finishing each ride without pain and, for a while, I completely avoided hills. Much of the advice I had read on cyclist's knee problems suggested that setting the saddle and handlebars to the correct position could help. After each trip I stretched my muscles, put ice on my knees (bags of frozen peas proved best) and took anti-inflammatory pills.

I kept all the records of training sessions, diet and route plans in a little red book. It is very satisfying drawing graphs of your weight loss, unfortunately, this satisfaction is not quite as great as that gained by eating pies and roast dinners. I went swimming once a week to loosen up my joints and after a few weeks could turn my head enough to see traffic over my shoulder. By Christmas I had lost a stone and a half and felt fitter than I had done for a long time.

There was a lot of rain that winter, I cycled along many flooded roads and a few icy ones. One evening when returning from a trip around the forest and turning into my driveway, I waved to a neighbour and, not being able to cope with two things at the same time, forgot to brake. I went through the flowerbed and banged my knee on the corner of the house before falling off. I had spent weeks looking after my knees and had now smashed one into the side of the house. I hobbled upright and looked at my grazes, my back wheel spinning, front wheel buckled and handlebars bent. The knee would mend but I needed a new bike.

'He who fails to plan, plans to fail.'
~ Italian Proverb

The New Bike
There is a wonderful moment in the film 2001 when the camera follows the twirling bone thrown up by the ape, high into the air, into the future and a beautiful futuristic space station revolving to the sounds of the Blue Danube Waltz. Well, there was my new bike: Iridescent green and maroon, 27 Shimano gears, 27 inch wheels, matt black carriers front and rear, there it was the Super Galaxy, the go anywhere; carry anything bike, my very first new bike. I was on my way to the stars, if my knees held together.

The new bike was silent. All I could hear, once the sound of the Blue Danube had faded, was the smooth purring of the free wheel mechanism. The gears slipped effortlessly through their range. There were so many I decided to save the lowest gear for the Alps. The bike needed a few adjustments: the handlebars were too low and too far forward. I bought a pair of Carradice Super C rear pannier bags and used my old rear bags for the front. I bought a bag for the handlebars, which could be removed quickly and carried as a shoulder bag for my valuables. I also bought a nifty looking tool kit, some decent cycling clothes and small lights for front and rear. These were in case I became stranded at night - I had little intention of travelling in the dark. I searched the Internet to find out the tents people recommended and chose a Robert Saunders Jet Packer, weighing only 1.3kg and costing £200. I intended to camp as much as possible; so, a good lightweight tent was worth the investment. I bought a small and lightweight sleeping bag. Touring cyclists recommended self-inflating mattresses, lighter than a conventional airbed, less bulky than foam mattresses and ... well, self-inflating!
There was the route to be planned: I wanted to cycle all the way from my kitchen door to Rome. I would cycle to Portsmouth in an afternoon, sleep on the ferry during the overnight crossing. Then travel south to the Loire, turn east and follow that river as far as I could, cross the Central Massive after St Etienne, on to Grenoble, up the Alps to Briançon and cross over to Italy via the spectacular Col d'Izoard followed by the Col Agnel (2744m). Crossing the Alps at these cols was not the easiest route but when I started reading cyclists' accounts of different Alpine rides I became fascinated by the Col d'Izoard's remoteness and spectacular scenery. It would be long and steep but I had that extra gear, and I would probably not get that far anyway, so what was the point in choosing the easiest route?

After four weeks of the new training regime and the new bike, I was feeling better about the trip. Although I had ignored the physiotherapist's advice my knees appeared to be working fine, however, I was now experiencing a new problem: numbness from the saddle that was lasting longer and longer. Cyclists have a description that would seem to get close to the syndrome: numb nuts. Here in the UK avid cyclists consider that the only thing, which is required to be stiff, is the upper lip. However in the US there has been much research into this problem because American cyclists take pride in their sensitive nuts and, quite frankly, could not give a damn about the stiffness of their upper lips. One project studied seventeen cyclists. Each was given a differing style of saddle and sent out to cycle around Oklahoma for two hours. When they returned they were tested to see the degree of numbness. What interested me, almost as much as the results, was the means of the test. Being a thorough piece of academic research the details of the whole project were published but the test was only described as the West Test. Was this some contemporary Mae West, belle of Oklahoma City? 'Aren’t yer pleased to see me Hon, or have you been in the saddle too long?' I imagined the queue of young male cycling volunteers stretching clear across Oklahoma. Oh, the results: they found that the best saddle for alleviating the problem was one with a large hole in the middle. The same cut away saddle was recommended elsewhere, so I bought one and sure enough my West Test scores shot up. I did a couple of trial runs with my pannier bags full to see how the bike handled a full load. It was important to get the weight as low as possible otherwise the bike tended to wobble a lot at certain speeds and tried to turn upside down when I stopped.

I bought Michelin maps to cover the whole route to Rome: 1/200,000 for France and 1/400,000 for Italy. I used them to plan the route and copied the area I would need, in colour, onto A4 paper. From the Michelin Guide to French Campsites I copied into my red book the details of those I might pass on the way but could not find a similar publication for Italy. There were campsites marked on the maps of Italy, so I would rely on that. There were a lot of printed map sheets, about thirty but I could throw them away as I finished with them. The day before I left, I laid all my kit on the floor; it looked far too much.

Plastic ground sheet
Pillow x 2
Sleeping Bag
Sleeping Bag sheet
Spare gas
Knife, fork & spoon.
Sharp knife
Head torch
Coffee & tea bags
Olive oil
Pain killers
Antiseptic cream
Washing up liquid in pot
Plastic bags
Mini disk player & 10 disks
Phone charger & adapter
Cycling shorts x 3
T shirts x 3
Pants x 3
Socks x 3
Fleece x 2
Waterproof cycling top
Lightweight Waterproof
Waterproof trousers
Long trousers
Track suit bottom
Shorts x 2
Sandals Cycling shoes
Washing stuff
Thermal vest
Thermal long-johns
Multi Tool, small adjustable spanner,
Puncture repair kit, 2 inner tubes rear brake cable, gear cable, brake blocks
Lock with cable
Heavy lock
Needle & thread
Fishing line and hooks
Drawing stuff
Tin whistle
Note book
Money belt
Sun glasses
Reading glasses x 2
Sun block
3 water bottles
Front and rear mini lights
First aid kit

He who would travel happily must travel light.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The fishing hooks and line had something to do with the possibility of being stranded by the side of a lake full of fish without anything for an evening meal.

It occurred to me that the Alpine passes might be snowed in. I emailed the tourist office in Briançon who pointed me to an Alpine cycling club website but I found the information on a motoring map. In May the Col d'Izoard would not be kept clear if there was a big snowfall. I decided to see what the situation was if I got that far and re-plan if necessary.

The night before I left, I dreamt I was stuck in the snow in the Col d'Izoard. When I got out of my tent in the morning, the snow was so deep; I could not find my bike. When, after a week, the snow finally melted my bike had shrunk and I had to cycle into Italy on a tiny bicycle. I woke up cross with myself for overlooking this possibility.

Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.

--William Dement - American expert on sleep.

Day One – The New Forest

The ferry was due to sail from Portsmouth at ten in the evening. Leaving Fordingbridge at midday would give me plenty of time to cycle the 70km and arrive before sunset. Valerie went off to work early with a quick and cheery farewell, I cycled around to say goodbye to my mother and father. He said the bike was over-loaded; I reminded him it was a built specially for this type of trip and that it was a Dawes Super Galaxy: the go anywhere carry anything bike, but I could see he was not convinced. I could see he was not convinced but this was a man who refused to have an electric kettle made of plastic in his house because plastic melts! Doesn't it? What did he know? The next farewell was at the local museum where I had done some voluntary work. They had suggested I pop into the museum on my way out of Fordingbridge, to say farewell. When I arrived, there were all the volunteers together with two local newspaper photographers. I smiled through my tummy ache and told the reporter something to the effect that I had always wanted to go to Rome. 'How will you cope, the traffic is terrible in Rome?'
'Oh, I have this.' I said pinging my little bell.
I said I was taking a small tent with me and I saw one of the reporter's eyes light up as he conjured up the caption for his photograph. 'So you'll be camping under the stars, then?' Some nights I might camp under the clouds, some under the moon and, 'Yes,' there would be nights, with luck, I would be camping under the stars. I explained about the satellite navigation system but the little emergency light seemed to impress them the most as it was assumed to be illuminate the maps. 'Are you going to cycle all through the night?'

It was a nice send-off; I did a little lap of the courtyard by way of farewell and left.

Fordingbridge has no ford but does have a splendid bridge spanning the River Avon joining the town to the rest of the world like a causeway from an ancient citadel. I crossed over and was on my way, fully packed, knees finely honed, freelance, and ready for anything.

I cycled up the first of many hills, remembering not to use the lowest gear, through the village of Godshill and out into the New Forest. Skylarks flew up from the heather, filling the mist with their song and speeding me on my way: only 2,000kms to go.

Sixteen kilometres per hour, is just the right speed for gazing around, listening to skylarks and taking in the smells of the heather. There is time to wonder about the events, which have shaped the landscape.

The New Forest is somewhat misnamed as it is neither new nor, for the most part, a forest. William the Conqueror created it as his personal hunting ground, and made a whole forest legal system to go with it, which forbad anyone from enclosing or farming the land. To ensure that the Saxons did not help themselves to his deer he decreed that killing one was punishable by death. Those ham-fisted Saxons who shot at a deer and missed would have their hands cut off and anyone found to have, as much as, disturbed the animals, for example by making a fuss about having their hands chopped off, would be blinded. The peasants were allowed to continue grazing their animals, provided the stock did not disturb the King's deer by eating their grass or being sarcastic. The limbless, blind peasants tended to let there stock roam freely across the forest, which they do to this day. After a thousand years the locals are now so keen to continue hunting in the forest, that they have sprayed graffiti over most of the road signs supporting the right to hunt and are eager to put out the eyes of all Anglo Saxon town dwellers who dare to interfere with the old Norman ways. William's son, Rufus financed his expensive habits by helping himself the contents of church collection boxes. As it was the monks who wrote the history books, Rufus received a pretty bad write-up. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm of Bec went to Rome, to get the Pope to end Rufus's pilfering but Rufus just refused to let Anselm back into England. A few years later Rufus was shot in the eye whilst hunting in his Dad's forest. The arrow came not from a vengeful Saxon's bow but a paid Norman assassin. Whether he was murdered because of his cruelty, plundering, red hair or homosexuality is not clear. I cycled passed the Rufus Stone, commemorating the monarch's death. He was killed a few miles to the south but a local pub owner in the Nineteenth Century relocated the site to just outside his pub and made a commercial killing out of a royal killing.

The bike sped along as silently as an assassin's arrow and I had soon left the forest behind, crossed the Itchen Bridge, cycled through Southampton and was speeding down a hill into Portsmouth when I was squeezed between an overtaking car and a high kerb. I tried my best at a jump but I could not avoid a deep drain cover and the rear wheel went down with a great thump. I stopped but could see no damage to the bike except for a clip, which had fallen off from a rear pannier. The route then followed a pleasant traffic free path around the marshes of Portsmouth harbour and into the ferry terminal.

The ship set off, I found my cabin, showered and went for a beer. A chalkboard announced, 'Tonight The Siren Sisters'. They were dancing and miming to Kylie Minogue's, 'I should be so lucky lucky, lucky, lucky.' Everyone in the bar had their backs turned and were ignoring the singers. These seafarers must of had a reason for making such an effort to avoid the sight of the girls. Was it something sinister? Do all travellers unwary enough to be caught by their gaze and overcome by their spell, get lured into their cabins, to discover that their sequined costumes are not straining at the seams because the Sisters make up for their lowly pay by eating four free all-day-breakfasts every day but because their dresses conceal the scabby relics of ancient Sirens: half woman, half vulture? Do poor seafaring cyclists get drawn into their trap, innards ripped out, consumed by the scavenging scrawny necked birds and end up as yet more statistics in the Marine Accident Investigation Branch's record book, under the heading: Missing at sea presumed consumed by Sirens?

I quickly took my eyes off the two girls, screwed up a beer mat, stuck it in my ears and returned to my cabin.

I felt apprehensive as I fell asleep, not about the well-fed Siren Sisters but the journey ahead. A lot of time and effort had gone into this trip, and all those people had come out to wish me good luck: what if I had been hit that afternoon by the car that pushed me into the drain-hole in Portsmouth? But cyclists cannot live in constant fear of being hit, or they would go nowhere. They need strategies to keep them safe, or at least make them feel safe. I have a few. One is to wobble when I hear a car approaching in the hope that the driver assumes I am drunk or about to fall off and gives me extra room. It is not so useful in heavy traffic because I have to wobble so much it makes me feel drunk and I fall off.

As you set out for Ithaka
Hope your road is a long one,
Full of adventure,
Full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops, angry Poseidon
Don't be afraid of them:
You'll never find things like that on your way ...

From Ithaka - Cavafi

Day Two - Ponte de Normandie

The grey dawn replaced the darker grey of the night; I made my way to the bicycle deck and packed ready to go. A notice said, 'Cyclists must dismount and walk down the ramps.' but for the last eight months I had been imagining cycling off the ferry into France. I get annoyed when I see signs saying: 'Cyclists should dismount and cross the road by foot.' Civil servants who have never got over the time when their father removed the stabilisers from their bicycles write these signs. So, I defiantly cycled towards the ramp, and was told, politely, by a French attendant, who's job it was to stop defiant elderly English cyclists hurting themselves, that it was dangerous to cycle down the ramp and 'Would I mind ...' So, I walked into France.

The Ponte de Normandie is a huge bridge, you cannot miss it, especially if you have a map and instructions, from the CTC showing how to get from Le Havre to the bridge by bicycle but I managed to get lost and explored most of Le Havre's Complexe Petrochemique. I stopped for a drink of water and, as I restarted, there was a ping from the back wheel. A spoke had broken. Bicycle wheels are relatively thin pieces of steel for the weight they carry and the rough treatment they receive. They are kept true by spokes under tension. When a wheel is built the tension on the spokes is adjusted so that the wheel is pulled straight. With a spoke broken this balance is out and the back wheel begins to buckle. I would need to fix it but I had not brought any spare spokes and it was on the cog side of the rear wheel, needing a special tool to remove the cog set. I thought of going back into Le Havre to get it fixed but it was still only 7.30 and if I cycled carefully I should make it to the next town.

I eventually got onto the bridge where there was a little exhibition. Opened in 1995, for a while, the Ponte de Normandie was the world's longest cable stayed bridge. I hoped French cable stays were more robust than English spokes and cycled over the beautifully curving bridge, a hundred metres above the Seine. I left the main road and followed the Risle Valley to Pont Audemer, twinned with Ringwood in the New Forest but unlike Ringwood it had no cycle shop. I had coffee, bought some food and pressed on, taking my time. I planned to be strict about the distance I cycled each day for the first week. That way I might at least get as far as my first target, the Loire.

By early afternoon I had reached Le Bec Hellouin where there is a famous Benedictine Abbey. Anselm became Abbot of the Abbey at Le Bec in 1079 before moving to Canterbury and tangling with William Rufus. He was famous for writing several theological works, one designed to help people like me, fools as the bible calls us, who do not believe in the existence of God. His argument was in the form of a prayer:

O Lord, who gives understanding to faith,
Grant me to understand,
Insofar as You see fit,
that you exist,
As we believe You to exist,
and You are what we believe You to be.
Now we believe that
You are something than which nothing greater can be thought.

I thought my father might be interested in this argument. He is famous in our family for his religious scepticism. Once when confronted by a Jehovah's Witness at his door with the question, 'Who do you think makes all those pretty flowers grow in your front garden?' He replied with the logic of an East End tram driver's son, 'Well it ain't Jesus, because if I 'adn't watered them for the last six weeks, they'd be dead!'

French campsites are good, usually clean and tidy and run with pride, often by the local town and the one at Le Bec Hellouin proved no exception. I ordered a baguette and two croissants for the morning, put my tent up and had a sleep for an hour. Then, whilst doing some washing, threw my towel into the water instead of my shorts and tee shirt. I wrung it out and hung it up but knew it would not dry by the following day. Towels will always get wetter if left hanging on a line after four in the afternoon. Even in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world, hanging towels will not dry after four in afternoon. I have been to the Atacama, not by bike, but by bus. One of the youngsters in our group hung her towel outside the hostel window in San Pedro and in the morning it was wet. I kept quiet because, with age, along with an understanding of the fundamentals of towel drying, comes a profound knack of knowing what to share with others and what to keep to one's self. A wet towel is a bad omen for campers. Valerie and I would come home from camping in Cornwall when our towels were wet. It was going to be tough for the next few days, I would have to drip-dry every morning.

It was worrying that a spoke should break so early in the journey and, remembering my father's farewell warning about the bike being too heavy, I decided to throw away the biggest of my aluminium pans together with some other bits and pieces I felt I could live without. I must have reduced my load by at least 25 grams, which would be more than offset by the rainwater still on my tent the next morning.

As long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
As long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians Cyclops, wild Poseidon ....
You won't encounter them ....
Unless you bring them along inside your soul,
Unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

From Ithaka - Cavafi

Day Three — Le Bec Hellouin
to Conches — 56km

Day Three - Conches

The rain was still drumming inside my head while I packed up. Then I realised my headache was not entirely the fault of a night of continuous rain; the bottle of red wine was empty: I thought I had stopped drinking when it was half gone but must have been drinking in my sleep again. After washing, shaving and jumping up and down to dry myself without a towel, I felt my head was more buckled than my wheel. The couple that ran the campsite were keen to help sort out my problems, I kept quiet about the towel, and the headache. They said that there was a mécanique in nearby Brionne who mended bicycles and offered to drive me, and my bike, to the town. I thanked them but said I would get there all right. They shared their coffee with me, said the traffic in Rome would be abominable, I said farewell, cycled down the hill and let the rain wash my headache away. I left the bike with the mécanique in Brionne and went for a stroll around the town, bought some food and picked up my bike at midday. The wheel was straight, I paid €10 and cycled off, back on the road to Rome.

The sun was just beginning to shine when I arrived at the small town of Beaumont-le-Roger. It was time for lunch. I wheeled my bike up to the town's ruined abbey, hung my wet washing on the battlements, set out my picnic and thought about the world of the Normans, England's last invaders.

Roger of Beaumont and his son fought at the battle of Hastings and by the time the Doomsday book was compiled they had eighty manors, all over the south of England - just a little thank you from William. I have traced my family back to Humphrey Rogers of Modbury in Devon who was born around 1590. He was no land owning baron and probably specialised in something along the lines of ditch digging. Before the latter part of the Sixteenth Century the lives of ordinary people like my ancestors were not recorded and their surnames came from the names of their feudal Lords and masters. Is it possible, that my ancestors may have received the surname, Rogers, from this Norman baron? When Old Roger arrived at his new manor in Devon demanding the right to sleep with the ditch digger's daughter on her wedding night, little did he realise that the ditch digger's great grandson (multiplied by 37) would one day arrive on a mechanical horse at his place of birth in Normandy, and avenge the honour of his great grandmother (multiplied by 37) by hanging his underpants and wet towel on the abbey's battlements. I finished my dreaming along with my lunch, mounted my faithful steed and continued my way through the quiet roads of Normandy to Conches.

I arrived in the town just as a huge downpour did. It was warm and I was near the end of the day's ride so I did not bother putting my jacket on and got soaked. I squelched into the Tourist Office flooded their floor and asked for directions to the campsite, and then dripped into some shops, bought some turkey, potatoes and carrots (no wine this time). There is something strangely exciting about putting a tent up in the rain, getting all the bags inside, putting on dry clothes, lighting the stove and cooking, while the rain pours down. This tent was small and I had to be careful not to get my dry gear mixed up with my wet stuff. Some six years earlier when I was canoeing on my own, around the islands between the Clyde and the Mull of Kintyre. I arrived on the Isle of Bute just before dark after paddling five miles across the sea from Arran. It had rained all day, as it had for the previous week. The beautiful remote, beach led up to a lovely cow-cropped grassy pasture. It was a strange and rewarding feeling to be organised and self reliant enough to escape from the wild weather, lie in the dry warmth, eat a hot meal and drink a drop of whisky. Here in France I cooked and enjoyed my food, the clouds parted and the evening sun shone through. I looked on the map at the next day's ride to Chartres. I was due to have a rest day after another day's cycling but I wondered if I was in need of a whole day's rest just yet. I was just too excited by the journey to sit around on a campsite.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
With what pleasure, what joy, you enter harbours
You are seeing for the first time;
May you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things,
Mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
Sensual perfume of every kind;
As many sensual perfumes as you can;
And may you visit many Egyptian cities to learn
And go on learning from their scholars.

From Ithaka - Cavafi

Day Four — Conches to Chartres — 86km

Day Four - Chartres

On Sundays everyone in France gets on their bike and cycles out along beautiful empty roads. There are people in Britain who attempt to do the same but there is a world of difference between the two national activities. In France their bikes have been kept in the parlour all week, oiled, cleaned and ready to roll. Groups of cyclists have matching immaculate cycling clothes and they slip through the lanes in mini pelotons like well-oiled anacondas through mangrove swamps. On the other side of La Manche, the English Sunday morning cyclist is more like a flounder out of water than a lithe mangrove inhabitant. Flapping around at the end of a stressful week he goes to his shed to retrieve his bike from behind the lawn mower, then to the kid next door to borrow a pump, finds out that it has the wrong connector, decides that there is probably enough air in the back tyre anyway, cycles off in the wrong gear, tries to change gear at too slow a speed, dislodges the chain, gets a thick layer of black mucky oil from the chain over his hands, cycles off along the pavement to avoid the English drivers who rarely notice cyclists until they hit them, smudges black greasy rings around his eye whilst trying to removing a fly and is frowned on by elderly pedestrians who remember the days when they had policemen to stop cyclists cycling on pavements. The English cyclist gets as far as the countryside, has to stop because what air there was in the back tyre has gone, pushes the bike home, throws it back into the shed and vows to pay the yearly subscription to the local gym so he can use their exercise bike next Sunday. The French cyclists snaked by me, in groups as large as thirty. All calling out words of encouragement: 'Bon Courage' and 'Hey look there's an English flounder who's found his bicycle pump.'

I was travelling through open flat countryside and it was not too long before I caught sight of the steeple of Chartres Cathedral, one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe. The GPS said it was still over 20km away. The wind had got up by the afternoon and was head-on from the south, and making the last 20km seem to take forever. I got to the Cathedral around three and locked my bike to the railings outside. The square was packed with coach loads of tourists and I did not feel happy about leaving all my gear in the open. I reckoned that tourist places attract thieves and within minutes, I had identified several villains who had been waiting around all day for an Englishman to lock his bike full of gear to the railings and disappear into the Cathedral, so they could go to work with their bolt cutters. I spoke to a father and son cycling from the Netherlands. Father explained that they were on a cycling pilgrimage from the Netherlands to Santiago de Compestella in Spain. He said that they would be staying there for a while before leaving to find their hotel, so would keep an eye on my bike while I went inside the Cathedral.

There is a Twelfth Century pavement labyrinth set in the floor of Chartres Cathedral similar to a turf labyrinth near my home. A labyrinth is a winding path that leads to a central point and has no blind alleys: you just follow the path to the centre. A maze, on the other hand, is a puzzle and you may never get to the centre. This labyrinth has eleven circuits and you visit each quadrant several times before getting to the centre. Labyrinths are spiritual things for mystically inclined travellers: representing life's journey or, maybe, a bicycle journey: providing you follow the right road, and do not fall off, you will get to your destination.

I only had five minutes to look around the Cathedral before returning to my bike. The older Dutchman told me how fast they had cycled that day, and the day before that, and to make sure that I realised that he had not just had two lucky days in a row, he told me how fast he had cycled the day before that. He explained that he had just visited the cathedral to get his card stamped and asked if I had had my card stamped? I said that I had just gone in to see the labyrinth, and why did he need to get his card stamped? He said he needed to prove to the disbelieving folk back in the Netherlands that he had actually cycled all this way. I thought it was a bit much to expect pilgrims to have to prove they had done their pilgrimage. Then I supposed that the folk back in the Low Countries might be a suspicious bunch who would not expect anyone would bother cycling all the way to Spain, when they could pop across the North Sea and cycle to Cornwall. He showed me the stamp in his card to prove to me that he had actually been into the Cathedral and got it stamped and was not just making it up. I asked him if he had seen the labyrinth and said that medieval monks sometimes walked it on their knees as a penance and that some monks walked the labyrinth in place of a pilgrimage. In the old days they used to have a priest in the centre of the labyrinth whose job it was to stamp the back of labyrinthine pilgrims' hands with a red hot branding iron to prove they had actually done it. The Dutch pilgrims were keen to find their hotel and had had enough of standing around chatting about labyrinths. I said farewell, wished them luck with their stamp collection and cycled the couple of kilometres to my campsite.

During the previous winter, I had been studying French at evening classes especially to prepare myself for this trip. I had undertaken a similar exercise some years previously but I never seemed to advance with French. I blamed it on the failings in my education at Faraday Secondary Modern School, not because they did not teach me French but because they did not teach me English. I have never studied Italian. If I got as far as Italy I would have to rely on a little phrase book I had with me and waving my hands about a lot. After spending the forty-five minutes, required for Monsieur to fill out his form, and paying the €3.50, I bucked up courage and asked him what time the Cathedral opened in the morning and after only three attempts I managed to say it well enough for him to understand me. He said 'But it is a Cathedral, it is always open.' Feeling stupid I thanked him and went to put my tent up.

It was a cold night, with not a sign of a star in the sky, the wind was rocking the tent from side to side and I guessed it would rain before the morning. I ate some food, made some coffee and settled down for the night. The tiny tent was only just big enough for me and all my gear, so it was important to keep everything in the same place otherwise, small as it was, the tent managed to become a vast black hole during the dark hours, easily capable of swallowing up torches, spectacles and watches, which only reappear when packing up in the morning. I was enjoying the solitude of the journey during the daylight hours but it was good to be able to talk to someone in the evening about my adventures, even if it was via text messages.

If the Inuit have twenty-six words for snow, then campers must have almost as many for rain. When your head is only a few centimetres below the canvas, light dew settling on the outer tent can easily sound like a biblical deluge. Short of packing up and moving to a hotel for the night, there is only one escape from the noise: music. The effect that music has when heard through headphones always amazes me and when you are lying in a tiny tent in a downpour, it is even more wonderful. The musicians step right into a little room in the centre of your head right between your two ears. 'Hi there Bob, don't stand in the doorway and block up the hall take a seat. Perhaps when you've finished your smoke, you'd sing a little warming song for this poor wayfaring stranger, travelling through this world of woe ...'

Close your eyes, close the door,
You don't have to worry any more.
I'll be your baby tonight.

Day Five — Chartres
to St. Denis De’l Hotel — 103km

Day Five - The Loire

What with Bob and the boys singing all night and the cold, I did not sleep so well. I decided not to stay in Chartres for a rest day. I felt fit enough to carry on and it was too cold and cloudy to laze around for a day. I was still worried about leaving my bike unattended. I had a lightweight aluminium lock with a long cable and a heavyweight one with a bar that locked the back wheel but there was no way of locking my bags. I had come up with an idea during the night that I would assess all risks on this journey with the likelihood of a TTI -Trip Threatening Incident. Losing my bike and all my gear was definitely a TTI. TTI is a TLA, which stands for Three Letter Abbreviation and is much beloved by computer software engineers. I made a rule, and this is one of the great things about travelling alone: you only have to convince yourself to make a rule. Then of course you can overturn it, or ignore it, whenever you like.

Rule Number One: Site seeing on this trip shall be restricted to those sites that can be seen from the bicycle or to those times when I can leave the bike and gear safely locked up out of sight.

This meant I would not be able to explore a lot of the places on the way, but I was a traveller and not a tourist. I left the Cathedral behind and headed south, towards Orléans and the Loire musing on the idea that tourists wander, lost around mazes, whilst travellers follow labyrinths. I stopped to have some coffee and buy food and realised it was twelve o'clock. I had only done 26km, Orléans was another 60km away and it was getting hot with a strong wind from the south west. The countryside was filled with wide-open fields of young sunflowers offering no respite from the near head-on wind. I reckoned that my speed was averaging around 12kmph and that if I could keep that up for five hours and only stop at lunchtime for 30 minutes, I would be there by 5.30. After every 20 minutes I checked my watch against my distance and if I had achieved the 4km target I felt good. The first couple of hours went well and I was a whole ten minutes up on my time. I stopped in the shelter of a wall for some food and looked at the map. The route I had planned went straight through the centre of Orléans to a campsite on the south of the city. My route after that followed the River Loire to the east. If I turned left before Orléans I would avoid the city during rush hour and I could find another place to stay to the east of Orléans. This plan also had the advantage that the new route would go through a large forest to the north east of Orléans and I might be sheltered from the relentless wind. It was as well that I did change my route because I made less good progress after the stop and was continually falling behind my 4km target. When I reached the forest, the wind was reduced considerably and I soon saw the Loire and turned east. I followed 'camping' signs leading down a lane for about 4km only to find that the site was closed. I asked around but could find no hotels or rooms. I continued cycling and checking out every likely spot for somewhere to stay for the next couple of hours, until I reached St Denis de l' Hotel, at around seven o'clock. On the corner was a hotel, which had a bed and I could keep my bike in the room.

This had been by far the hardest day of the trip. I had travelled further than planned and the wind had made me struggle. I felt good that night, as I got into my comfortable bed and sipped a little comfortable red wine. I had reached the Loire, where France sheds her northern European dress and slips into a skimpy little Mediterranean number. Soon there would be every prospect of sitting and eating my dinner on dry grass in the warm evening sun.

Day Night Stop Distance per day km
1 Ferry 72
2 Le Bec Hellouin 76
3 Conchise 56
4 Chartres 86
5 St Denis
Total so far 393

Day Six - Jargeau
Saint Denis is one of the patron saints of France. He came from Italy in the Third Century AD and together with a couple of fellow bishops set up a Christian community on an island in the middle of the Seine planning to convert the Parisian heathens. Many did not take kindly to this uppity Italian and chopped his, and his friends, heads off and threw the various bits into the Seine. Denis's followers recovered his head and body and that night, low and behold, Denis got up, picked up his head and walked into Paris. Folk were impressed by Denis's display of cephalophory and took him to their hearts, burying his remains in an abbey of Montmartre in Paris. He is now the patron saint of Paris and France who is against frenzy and strife and who takes a special interest in those suffering from rabies, headaches or are possessed.
St Denis de l' Hotel is a collection of a few houses on the old main road from Orléans on the north bank of the Loire. It gives its name to Orléans' small airport. From there I walked across the bridge to the small walled town of Jargeau, slowly getting my legs used to this unaccustomed form of exercise. On the other side of the bridge there was a campsite. Another couple of minutes on my bike the previous night would have saved me a bit of money. I told my self that the hotel's bath was worth it. I found a cafe and enjoyed watching the people of Jargeau get their town started in the morning sunshine. There was a statue of Joan of Arc, in the square. She was holding her head in her hands, not under her arm like Denis but as though she might have a headache. Joan regularly listened to the advice of dead saints. In 1429, on the very same day that I was sitting drinking my coffee, Joan had entered Orléans and organised the locals to defeat the besieging English. A few weeks later she attacked Jargeau, a town that followers of the English king had occupied, France having English and French Kings in those days before giving up the whole idea of monarchy. Scaling a ladder, at the head of her army Joan was hit by a rock thrown by an English hooligan and knocked to the ground. She regained her feet, raised her banner high and, with her white armour glinting in the morning sunshine, gave a rallying cry (the moment captured by the sculptor), led her army over the wall and recaptured the town for France. She asked the English to surrender but they would not and 1,200 were slaughtered as they tried to escape over the bridge. Joan went on to win more battles that year but was never trusted by the French king and when captured, a couple of years later, by the Burgundians, it was the English who paid the £10,000 ransom.

I sat for a while looking at Joan holding her head and thought about the dangers of hearing voices. I occasionally hear voices but, being an atheist, I always assume that it is Valerie upstairs, someone next-door or a trick of the mind caused by too much red wine the night before. I am sure there is a part of the brain that shouts out warnings. It can warn the cyclist who has just decided to go as fast as possible down an icy hill believing his recently concocted theory that: tyres in contact with a slippery surface for less time are safer, to reconsider his decision. Sometimes though, for some strange reason, the voice remains silent. Like the time my voice failed to warn me about cycling fast down a hill with a plastic bag over my head to keep the rain off. On that occasion it probably stayed quiet out of embarrassment. The English commander's voice, in 1429, may have pointed out that escaping across the bridge at Jargeau, rather than surrendering, was a bad idea but was probably ignored because only English kings had a direct line to god. My father has heard tunes in his head for years, caused by a hearing problem. He lives with it by trying to hum along and gradually changing the tune. It must be difficult to not go along with voices when it sounds as if someone is talking to you in the same room. That must be scary and hard to dismiss as a hallucination. In Fifteenth Century France, where the Catholic Church was all-powerful, such voices must have always been explained as originating from a super natural source. The trouble was that whilst those in sympathy with the hearer of voices, claimed the voices originated from heaven above, those opposed to the claimant would insist that the voices came from Hell. The French said that Joan's voices were from saints and that she must be a saint but the English said her voices were from the Devil, because God was, of course, an Englishman. So, they burnt her at the stake. Christianity has been such a useful religion for politicians over the years. I was enjoying the south of the Loire sunshine and Joan's statue, when I heard a voice in my head say, 'Get your hair cut.' So, I went to find a barbershop.

The barber told me, in French, English and a little Spanish, that Jargeau was a bit quieter since the days of Joan and was now a dormitory town: empty during weekdays, apart from all the cyclists passing through on their way from Fordingbridge to Rome. He used to have a barber's shop in Paris, the place to be when you were a young barber at the cutting edge of your trade but he now preferred the quiet life in Jargeau. He had recently undergone his third heart bypass operation. To prove that he was not just boasting, he showed me the scars on his chest and back. It occurred to me that if you had had that many heart operations it would have been convenient to have had a zip inserted but there were the scars alright, making him look as if he had been cracked open like an egg. As well as scars, the barber had a passion for collecting antiques and his place looked more like a bric-a-brac shop than a barbers. We talked about Iraq, Bush and Blair, he wished me good luck for my journey and left thinking that I had never enjoyed having my hair cut in England as much.

Whilst planning this trip I came across the excellent website of Ken Keifer an American cyclist who has written about his extensive travels. There was much advice on his pages from years of experience. His tip for choosing a good restaurant was 'follow the locals'. This is obvious wisdom, I suppose, but it had never occurred to me before. I put his theory to the test. There was a street full of restaurants but only one had customers. There was a chalkboard outside advertising a five course meal for €11. Inside I was served, at express speed, with half a litre of vin rouge, a plate of cold meat pie and pickles, followed by cheese omelette with potatoes and vegetables, then raspberry tart and cream, cheese and biscuits, followed finally by coffee. I toasted Ken Keifer with the last of the wine and, after I had got my breath back, went for a wander around the shops. My lunchtime outing was completed by the side of the Loire where the considerate local people had set up picnic tables for English cyclists to write their postcards.

I enjoyed exploring Jargeau and returned for a lazy evening in the hotel, cleaned up the Super Gal, whilst telling her all about Saint Joan, ate a little food and went to sleep dreaming of the journey ahead.

Day Seven — St. Denis de l’Hotel
to Belleville — 90km

Day Seven - The Loire Valley

I like cycling through the countryside in the drizzle: waterproof clothes keep you dry enough and the silence and beautifully clean smell of the world is lovely. I followed the winding road to the south of the Loire for an hour then stopped at a cafe for a milky coffee and croissant. Madame looked a bit surprised at my request. I could not see croissants, but such was my command of the language by that time, provided I kept to the topics of coffee and croissants, I was almost sure she understood my order and had not thought I was asking if it would be alright to wait there for the next bus to Orléans. Madame was, at least eighty years old and after twenty minutes I began to wonder if she might be planning to get to ninety before getting my coffee but then she remembered, popped out the back and returned with a milky coffee but no croissant. It was taking me some time to get to remember Ken Keifer's rule.

I cycled on to Gien where I booked some time on a computer in an Internet cafe only to find out, after waiting for an hour, that the time I thought I had booked, was the time they were shutting for lunch. I crossed back over the Loire and found a cycle track following the top of a flood barrier. At Briare the Loire Canal crossed over River Loire and I cycled across and back over the river because I could not remember ever cycling along a towpath over a river before. I followed the canal and reached my planned campsite by 2pm. It looked full, there was no one around and a note said that the office would not open until 4pm. I decided to cycle on: there would be other places within easy reach. At Sury-prés-leré there was a much larger campsite with a friendly man in the office who began the form filling ritual. I offered him my Camping Carnet, a card with all your details on, but he said he did not need it. I coped with answers to all his questions but could not understand the final one. I tried to see the form he was filling in but he wished to explain it to me in mime. Despite its popularity as an art form in France, campsite officials are not often proficient in mime. French people find it difficult to elaborate or alter something they have just said in order to make it easier for some struggling foreigner to understand. They often shrug their shoulders or repeat their question in exactly the same manner, which of course is still not understood. Valerie and I had worked out a successful two-pronged strategy to cope with this. We had found that if one of us did the talking, and the other one stood to one side: not being faced by the shoulder shrugging, mono-phrased French man or woman the person off centre had a better chance of understanding. But this Frenchman was different. He had obviously been on a course, run by the local municipal authorities over the winter entitled, The Art of Communicating with Foreign Visitors. The kind man could see I was tired and therefore did not make me wait until he had put on his full Marcel Marceau white-faced mime make-up but instead launched straight into his routine. He wiped his face blank and expressionless with his long white fingers, linked his arms and indicated that he was holding a baby, he gently rocked his upper body from side to side and then smiled down at the infant in his cradled arms. 'Date of birth?’ But I had already supplied that. I could not get it. So he went straight into mime number two: screwed up his eyes and cried like a baby but silently of course. 'My mother's maiden name?' He shook his head. He then came to the front of the counter, cleared a space amongst the small crowd of people gathering in the office since I had arrived, laid on the floor with his legs apart and started to silently moan like he was in pain, perhaps he was one of the possessed people for whom Saint Denis had been so concerned? Conjuring up my journey's patron saint did the trick, because Saint Denis whispered in my ear the answer and I shouted out 'Londres!'
'Oui! Monsieur, tres, tres bien!' He said shaking me by the hand as the crowd applauded. Why do they need to know your place of birth at campsites, anyway? If I had been born in Cleethorpes, would there have been a problem? 'Pardon Monsieur but we have exceeded our government's quota for Cleethorpes visitors this month, there is another campsite fifty kilometres further on, bon chance!' My newfound mime artist friend explained, in mime of course, that there was a supermarket nearby where I could get some food for my evening meal but warned me to take care because the supermarket's two sets of automatic glazed doors did not always slide open properly. Once, he had found himself trapped between the two sets of doors for several hours waiting for an engineer to arrive from Orléans. During his long hours of confinement in the glazed box he had begun to realise that his desperate efforts to escape mirrored the futility of his nine to five existence as manager of the local power station. Once released, he resigned from his managerial position and took up the part time job as campsite officer in his local village. That, combined with his newfound love of mime, has made him the happiest man in Sury-prés-leré. I thanked him, cycled down the road, stocked up with food and, moving quickly between the shop doors, returned to the campsite to set up my tent. I sorted out my washing, cooked some food, whilst trying not to let the kids knock my stove over with their football and drank a little red wine. It was a lovely sunny evening with big billowing clouds hanging over the flat countryside. The air was of that clarity that you only get after a day of rain. In the distance, across the canal, stood the cooling towers of a power station. The towers added more steam to the aerial sculptures and I took a couple of photographs. I got my map out to check exactly where I was and saw that what I had been admiring was a nuclear power station. It is strange how the knowledge of what is behind a scene can change ones perception of its beauty. France gets 75% of its energy needs from nuclear rectors and has 59 of them, compared to Britain's 16. Lance Armstrong, Tour de France winner every year from 1999 to 2004, measures his power output in watts during training and for the final hour of a seven-hour race he can produce 400 watts of energy. The nuclear power plant over the other side of the Loire probably produced in the region of 1,300 megawatts. It would need 3,250,000 Lance Armstrong's cycling at full pelt to rid this part of France of the nuclear plant. I have never measured my output, but I reckon I would struggle to light a 40-watt light bulb. The thought of thirty million old blokes like me pedalling all through the day and night on a diet of croissants to keep the lights of Gay Paris burning brightly was enough to make me give up the comparison.

My GPS told me I was 510kms from my kitchen in Fordingbridge and 986km from the Coliseum in Rome, to the nearest 8 metres. Not being a perfectionist I settled for that.

I had been troubled by lack of sleep since I had started out on the journey and had bought some sleeping pills at Gien that day. When I crawled into my sleeping bag, at about 9 o'clock, I took one of the pills but it did not seem to work and to add to my sleeplessness, it sounded like every one of the many parents on the campsite was sending their child to have a tantrum outside my tent. Why did they not take them for an evening out at the nuclear plant and let them play hide and seek there?

Day Eight — Belleville
to Chevenon — 90km

Day Eight - Chevenon

I felt terrible. I was sure the kids had taken advantage of the effect of the sleeping pills to sneak into my tent during the night and fill mouth with aluminium milk bottle tops. I would have impressed the resident mime artist with my rag doll characterisation as I packed my things. Sleeplessness would be better than the after effects of sleeping pills and I vowed never to take them again. I finally got going and continued along the Loire Valley but became tired by the afternoon. I stopped for a rest and to check the whereabouts of that night's campsite and when I started off another spoke snapped. Was I putting too much pressure on the back wheel when starting? Perhaps I should have been giving the bike a bit of a push to get it started and not going off from a standing start by pushing on the pedals. The campsite at Chevenon was not far and was empty. I asked Madame about a bicycle shop and she said that there was one not far away. I pitched my tent within view of a large lake and settled down for an evening, washing, cooking and sending text messages. At home, Valerie was going off on her own adventure. Our son was travelling around the world and would reach Thailand while I was away. Valerie would fly out and join him for a couple of weeks of trekking and today was Valerie's last day before she left for Thailand.

It started to rain and I had to spend the evening laying in my tent. I felt depressed at that moment: having to start sorting out spokes again was demoralising and I was sure that the sleeping pills had added to my gloom.

Day Nine — Chevenon
to Bourbon Lancy— 70km

Day Nine - Bourbon-Lancy and Sunshine After Rain

The man in the bicycle shop at Imphy tried to help but did not have spokes to fit my wheels. He said that I could probably get them at Decize: 20km further along the Loire Valley. I decided not to go back to the other side of the river to ride the side roads but to stick to the main road, as it did not look too busy. The man in the second shop was not at all helpful. For some reason he appeared cross with me. Perhaps because of my lack of French or maybe he was cross with everyone because he hated his job and had never considered turning to a career in mime. He said that he could only sell me one spoke, although he had a whole box of spokes of my size, and that he could not fit it. I bought the one spoke and cycled off. I went back over the river, found the side roads and continued on with out much of a plan other than to check every town on the way until I found a cycle shop that could fix the bike. The day was showery and I had to keep stopping to change clothes. About midday another spoke broke. I found a flat bit of grass and took the rear wheel off to see if I could somehow engineer the new spoke past the cogs, then remove the tyre and tighten it up but as I looked at the wheel I realised the problem was worse: the spoke, replaced on Day Three, had been the wrong size. It had only been holding onto the rim by a single thread and had now come out. I looked around: I was on a side road surrounded by fields full of weeds and suddenly the splendid isolation of the journey I had been enjoying, until that moment, changed: I was in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country, I could not speak the language and cycle shops seemed not to stock my size spokes. Just as the scene across the Loire had changed the previous day when I had found out that I had been looking at a nuclear power station, my perspective on the countryside around me now changed: everything began to feel threatening. The sky above was grey and it was starting to rain, not the friendly warm drizzle of a few days before but cold, heavy unhelpful rain. I put my jacket on and looked at the map. Bourbon-Lancy was the nearest sizable town, about 20km away. It was a little out of my way but I could not go on with a back wheel gradually falling apart. I decided to ride as gently as possible, as far as the bike would go and then I would push it or get a lift. I was in France the nation that loved cycling and would no doubt find someone to help. I push started the bike and jumped on, a World War II pilot returning home, 'Hello Chalky, old thing, bringing the old Super Gal in on one engine, save us an egg and a couple of rashers, old chap.' I was trying to rid myself of the gloominess but it was not working.

Like Wellington bombers the Super Galaxy seemed to be able to carry on despite being shot to pieces and two hours later I limped into the town of Bourbon-Lancy. Having got that far, I was feeling a little better. I stopped at a big Citroën garage. The smart executive sales woman in the showroom assumed straight away that I was not there to buy a new Citroën and phoned for a mechanic. He pointed me back down the hill, to where there was a mechanic who worked on bicycles. I found the place, a little cottage with a garden full of flowers, and next to that a ramshackle showroom and workshop. The door was open; I leant my bike against a Castrol Oil sign and went in. Monsieur shook me by the hand and asked me if I would mind waiting while he dealt with someone else, who had just arrived and needed help lifting his repaired lawnmower into the back of his car. While I waited I looked around to see if I was likely to get help there. The place was divided into two rooms: a show room, with at least six dozen old bikes, a couple of motor scooters, half a dozen lawn mowers and a washing machine. The walls of the showroom had some spare parts hanging up and posters that had been bright and cheerful some years back. Next to this room was the workshop. Under a large window there was a workbench, and behind that a mountain of old bits and pieces that filled the rest of the room. This mountain had foothills, consisting of bicycle mudguards spilling out of lawn mower grass boxes and encroaching on the mechanic's standing space, there were glimpses of bigger things, under the mountain, the almost fossilised shape of a Citroen Deux Chevaux once painted in sixties psychedelic swirls, lawn mowers and water heaters. Beyond the nursery slopes, there were heaped collections of bicycle frames stripped of wheels, saddles and handlebars, the frames all lined up: small to large. There was a pile of cardboard boxes, which had long ago failed to hold their contents of cranks, saddles, lights, chains, carburettors and another thousand unknown objects. Hanging from the roof were dozens of bicycle wheels of every size imaginable.

If Monsieur Velo had some spokes within this mountain, he would be unlikely to find them. He returned with the lawn mower man who was in no hurry to leave, probably to avoid using his newly repaired lawn mower to cut the grass. We shook hands again and I took them outside to explain that I had three broken spokes.

Monsieur Velo was wearing a set of once blue overalls - the type that you can stand up on their own after you take them off, a cap, which was almost an onion seller's beret, and spectacles, which looked as if they had been made for a person with eyes much closer together than his. He asked a question and, not understanding, I nodded and shrugged at the same time. He tied my bike up to the roof of the workshop lifting it off the ground and with encouraging words from Lawn Mower Man, removed the back wheel, lifted the wheel onto the workbench and began to inspect it through his special close-together bicycle spectacles.
'Deux rais?' he asked. Holding up two fingers then tapping the spokes.
'Non, trois.'
He counted the broken spokes, 'Un, deux! Un, deux! Un, deux!' and shrugged, muttering something to the Lawn Mower Man, along the lines of, 'Can't speak French can't count to two.'
Lawn Mower Man laughed, then smiled at me as though understanding that counting to two, for an Englishman, must be difficult. The tyre and tube were removed, the wheel clamped to a special rig to hold it tight, whilst allowing it to spin, with the help of lawn mower man, and using a special tool, the chain set was taken off and the two broken spokes removed. Back on the road I was sure that there had been three broken spokes and I could not understand what had happened. Lawn Mower Man said farewell, wished me good luck and left. The wind was getting up out side and there was a sudden downpour.
'Fermez la porte,' said Monsieur.
I knew that I should have known what that meant but at that moment I could not get my mind around it.
'Fermez la porte, fermez la porte.'
'Pardon?' I said, adding my shrugging-head-nodding-arm-waving-thing.'
He put his pliers down, pushed passed me and shut the door.
'Oh,' I said, 'Fermez la porte'.
I felt that my international creditability was at an all time low. Despite three months of French classes I could not work out what 'Fermez la porte' meant, and although I had once done an Open University mathematics course called 'Understanding Time and Space' I could not count to more than two accurately. Luckily Monsieur was not one to bear a grudge and continued to work on my wheel. This meant that he had to do a bit of mountaineering. With suitable Gallic grunts and the help of strategically hanging bicycle parts he disappeared over the heap, crashing about, muttering, swearing and occasionally throwing lumps of bike, which came flying over the summit. The door opened and Madame entered with a raincoat over her head and a mug of coffee. She said something like,
'Don't tell me, I can hear where he is, if I have told him once I have told him a thousand times to clear up that mess, but will he? Non!' She put the coffee on the workbench and left again muttering about the rain. Monsieur Velo started his descent carrying a large cardboard box full of spokes, thousands of them both old and new. This was going to take a long time - perhaps I needed to return tomorrow. How would he find the right spoke amongst all of them? He stuck one of my old spokes in a hole on the bench standing it upright. He then picked out fistfuls of spokes from the box, dropped one end of the bundle on to the bench and by letting the spokes slide through his fingers he compared their lengths with my original. Although some spokes were the right length, they were the wrong gauges. My touring bike needed thick spokes. I understood him much better when he was talking about spokes. I must have been wide-awake the night at my French classes when Madame covered 'Talking about spokes' but dosed off during 'Coping with open-door-situations'.
Madame Velo returned with a mug of coffee for me and Monsieur Velo introduced me, as an Englishman who can nearly count to three. We shook hands and I explained that I was cycling to Rome. Monsieur Velo looked as though he had heard it all before. I could see him as a young man, in that now buried little psychedelically painted Citroen, following the 1964 Tour de France, for Team Bourbon-Lancy, working through the night rebuilding all the team's bicycle wheels, so that they would purr like lion cubs on the mountain descents the following day. He fixed the two new spokes, spun the wheel, tapped the spokes whilst listening to the new note and turned the key to tune each spoke to perfection. He kept on tapping the spokes in the same sequence so it played a little tune. But something was wrong. In the spoke world this man had perfect pitch and something was out of tune. Behind his narrow glasses his eyes had ceased to sparkle, his cigarette had gone out and he was huffing, and puffing. He drank his coffee, rolled another cigarette and considered the problem. He looked again at the wheel, turning it slowly and deliberately, tapping each spoke, a virtuoso tuning a Stradivarius. Suddenly he shouted out, his cigarette fell from his lips, I jumped up to close the door but it was shut. He beckoned me closer to the bench to look at his discovery: the colour of one spoke was slightly different from the others and it made a slightly different sound. It was the replacement spoke fitted at Brionne that had been too short and I had tried to reconnect back on the road. The thread must have caught hold and had confused him for a moment. He ripped it out and said triumphantly, 'Un, deux et, TROIS! Bravo!'
International credibility was restored. This Englishmen could count to three and could hold his head high in Bourbon-Lancy. He started again with his spoke sorting procedure, found a third spoke and re-tuned the whole wheel so that it was singing perfectly and spun as true as ever. He replaced the chain set, the tube, tyre and wheel, cleaned and oiled my chain, wiped his hands, rolled and lit another cigarette and took me to his showroom next door to write out a bill for €15. I paid him €20, shook his hand and told him that he was the greatest cycle mechanic I had ever met. He gave a Gallic huff, thanked me, wished me good luck, the traffic in Rome was, 'formidable' he said, and as I pushed my bike out of the showroom he added, 'Fermez la port, eh?'

I was on the road again. It had taken a couple of hours for Monsieur Velo to fix the bike and it was now five o'clock. I bought some food and wine for the night and then saw a sign to 'Municipal Camping'. It was a large site with camping pitches within areas marked off by privet hedges. The shower block had hot water. I did some washing, put up the tent, cooked some food, opened some wine and felt great because the journey could now continue. This journey had a life of its own, making its own way, and all I had to do was sit astride all the way to Rome. Paul Theroux said, 'Extensive travelling broadens the mind at first, then contracts it.' I said to myself that I though it possible that my mind had reached the contraction stage, as I appeared to be talking to my self more and more; I agreed.

I sent a text message home trying to explain, in less than 255 characters, what had happened that day. I had a text back from my nephew, Mark who asked, where exactly in France I was? I sent a text back saying that I was in Bourbon-Lancy and to show off added the longitude and latitude from my GPS. It was a cloudy evening and, at about 8 o'clock, I started to get ready for bed by sorting everything into its rightful place inside my tent. I was getting in when I heard someone say, 'Monsieur Rogers?' I caught a glimpse of a yellow florescent jacket and a helmet through the privet hedge, was it a Gendarme? Had I broken some law? Had Monsieur Velo reported me for infringing some local bylaw by cycling on a bike with more than two broken spokes? I could not believe my eyes; it was my nephew, Mark! Where had he come from? I did not know he was in France. He, and his friend were on a week's motorbike holiday zooming around the French countryside. Mark had got my whereabouts from Valerie but had gone to the campsite where I had intended to be that night, some 30kms south. I put the coffee on and broke out an emergency bar of chocolate. It was strange seeing Mark and his friend and I found it odd to be talking so much English and not having to answer my own questions. We shared stories of recent adventures, they stayed for an hour or so and then had to go back to their hotel, well go back to the bar of their hotel to be more accurate. I walked to the campsite gate where their bikes were and waved them off.

I crawled into my sleeping bag and scribbled a few notes in my diary. A lot had happened that day and I had cycled 70km. I listened to some early Bob Dylan and fell asleep.

Day Ten - Ready to go Anywhere

It was a jingle jangle morning, the good folk of Bourbon-Lancy were getting their town up and working, I had a fully working bike, fit enough body and ahead of me lay a trip upon a magic swirling ship. I was ready to go anywhere. By this stage of the journey, I knew exactly where everything was in my five bags. One rear pannier held the tent, sleeping bag and mattress. The other rear bag had clothes, maps, diary and mini-disc player. The two front bags held lightweight things: the clothes that I might need during the day, washing equipment, cooking stuff and food. I had swapped the pots and pans from the right bag to the left as I had kept denting them on high kerbs when pulling up to stop. There was plenty of spare room in the front bags for storing the food that I bought on the way. I tried to keep one spare meal in case I failed to find shops or restaurants. The bag on the handlebars held, my valuable things, glasses, camera, etc. My money and passport were in a belt around my waist. Tools, spares and my first aid kit were in a couple of side pockets of the rear bags.

Progress is often faster on main roads as there are fewer steep hills. I had coffee and croissants at Digoin, bought some bread and ham for lunch, crossed over the Loire and cycled along by the side of the river. By early afternoon I was entering Roanne. I had come to the conclusion that the best way through French cities was through the centre. Centre Ville was always signposted and most of the heavy traffic went on the ring roads. I got some apples from a fruit shop and had lunch in the cool shade of a tree in a park opposite. It was the Muslim quarter of Roanne and several old men sat around talking in Arabic. I wondered what they were talking about; it was a serious discussion and ended with the three of them in a sort of weary silence. I wished I had enough courage, and language, to go over and ask, 'Excuse me but I am a traveller from England and wondered what your opinion is of Blair's allegiance to Bush over Iraq?' I had noticed that if you study old men in parks talking about, what you assume to be, world issues, your faith in mankind's grip on global events often takes a tumble when you realise that they have not been discussing the impotency of the third world faced with the overwhelming economic power of the West led by an increasingly isolationist United States, but have been talking about football all along. Some children were riding their bikes down a slope with a jump at the bottom. They had a look at my bike but dismissed it as useless for jumps.

Getting out of city centres was never as easy as getting in. Sometimes it was obvious and I could follow what had been the original main road in and out of the town before the bypass had been built. But Roanne was not so straightforward: I needed to be on the right side of the river to get to my intended campsite. I set the GPS by entering the coordinates of the suburb I was aiming for. My simple GPS will not show which roads to go down, or where the nearest Boulangerie but knowing the right direction, distance and when you have arrived at your destination is useful. It worked well and I was soon on the side road that I had planned to use to cycle out of Roanne. It led through a prosperous residential area and then a country park by the river. The French have a very civilised approach to the use of their many rivers. The riverbanks are usually open to the public with picnic sites, public paths and places to launch canoes, go swimming or fishing. In England we failed to remove enough of the landowner's heads and therefore a lot of rivers remain private playgrounds for the rich. My town of Fordingbridge is a good example the vast majority of the riverbank is inaccessible. We do have a riverside park, which is more than most riverside towns in England. A local politician tried to join up some paths over a little island so that visitors could walk from the town centre to the park without having to go around an obstacle course of roads and crossings. The idea was soon sunk as the landowners objected to the idea of the public walking across a footbridge across the river because they might frighten the fish. These are the same fish that are not at all phased at being whisked out of the river on a hook, cooked and eaten. Here in France, I cycled past mothers enjoying picnics in the shade while their children paddled and explored the riverbank. The road led up into the hills of the Rhone-Alps. It was a hot afternoon and the road was steep. I could see it zigzagging up above me and so settled down to cycle as slowly as I could. A couple of cyclists passed me, puffing away on their afternoon exercise route and gave me an encouraging grunt. The same ones came flying down towards me after half an hour with cheery shouts. It was hard work getting up that hill and I was feeling tired by the time I reached the top. I shot down the other side only to find that I was at the bottom of a second, equally steep hill. This switchback went on for a couple of hours but I managed it, even without using the lowest gear. I should have spotted the wiggly roads on the map as being a sure sign of steep hills.

The campsite at Cordella was called Camping du Mars. It had stunning views from high up looking across the Loire, more like a lake at that point because of the dam. I did my washing and organised an evening meal. It was a glorious evening, and I was feeling better than I had felt for several days.

The site was wonderfully situated but was falling apart: only one shower worked in the whole place and there was no electricity. After dinner I went up to the bar to find a socket to charge my phone and found the reason behind the shambles in this magnificent place: an Englishman called Basil, who, I supposed, ran the site. He acted like the host of an up-market cocktail bar but the illusion collapsed immediately because the only drink he had was gin. I went for the gin. Basil launched into an anecdote, for no obvious reason, about flying in a light aircraft with a friend from St Etienne to Marseilles. Two Germans came into the bar, 'Hey, Basil do your octopus.'
'Nine, ist es caterpillar. Nicht, octopus, Helmut.' said Helmut's wife.
'Ja, ja! Caterpillar very funny. Ha, ha!' They chose gin as well then asked me where I was from and where I was going. 'The traffic in Rome ist es not so good, I'm thinking.' While I talked to the Germans, Basil continued his routine, even though no one was listening. The Germans told me they liked coming here because, 'Basil was so funny, like on Fawlty Towers.' Well, he was English, and his name was Basil, but this one was a bit on the short side, perhaps a larval stage of Torquay's over-grown stick insect.

I never caught up with Basil's monologue, it was punctuated with odd voices and moments where he got everyone to watch his funny face: stretching his neck as high as he could, opening his eyes wide and sticking a finger up behind each ear. He carried on, 'It must have been four in the morning when I woke up on the floor of the bar in Marseilles with a head like ...' Basil's story finely came to an end after, what seemed like an internment, with, 'The next day, you'll never guess, I still had a head like ...' (tenth caterpillar imitation.)
'Yes,' I said, ' great story, like the caterpillar face.'
'Caterpillar face? Caterpillar face?' said a wounded Basil, 'It's a startled rabbit.'
He asked me if I wanted one for the road but I thought he might mean another funny face, which would have lead to me committing my first murder of the trip. I picked up my uncharged phone and escaped to my tent.

The air was still and warm. I lit a candle, laid the maps on the grass and looked over today's ride and the route ahead. I had managed the hills well enough that day. It had been a good test for the real mountains ahead. I had also cycled 112km.

My tent was pitched on a grassy bank high above the flooded Loire Valley. All around the silhouetted hills sparkled with the lights of farmhouses. I lay back on my self-inflating mattress, and looked up, bedazzled by the billion, billion stars above. None of your cheap US billions here but good old fashioned English billions: a million million. Enough to ensure that there must be at least a thousand billion other yellow stars similar to our sun; a billion with blue Earth-like planets orbiting them; a thousand million with climates temperate enough to allow molten strips of tarmac to set into smooth roads; at least a million of these worlds will have invented bi-wheeled transport machines and a thousand of them will have other weary cyclists sharing this moment. Which all goes to show how vastly unlucky I had been to have endured one of Basil's anecdotes.

A starry night is a pretty common thing but never fails to fill me with awe. It's the same spectacle, notwithstanding local variations for the Aussies, which unites everyone who has ever lived. As long as people have been able to wonder they must have been overwhelmed by this nightly marvel. The Incas saw the Milky Way as a great stairway to heaven and calculated that every two thousand years its tilt would be such that the staircase would touch the tip of the Andes and Virachoca, the creator, would step down. A belief in cosmic origins to life has some veracity in the light of modern day science, which deduces that every atom of us was created in an exploding star. The belief is a sincere and modest explanation for the creation. I like the Inca creation story because, unlike the god of the Old Testament who created the heavens and the Earth and admits to few imperfections, Virachoca originated in the stars, was imperfect enough to abandon his initial creations and human enough to fall in love. He finally re-climbed the stairway to heaven at the very moment the Spanish arrived in Peru claiming they had the perfect god. To prove it they showed the Incas a bible and, while they were looking at the pretty pictures, stole their gold.

... ... ...I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night.
And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends is man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing ... Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero.

The Incredible Shrinking Man - Richard Matheson

Day Eleven - St Etienne

I was going downhill fast, not dwindling nor shrinking, but head down, at 40kmph, the Super Gal as smooth and silent as a falling star. It was my reward for yesterday's climb. The Loire was becoming narrower now sparkling, dancing, raindrops beyond number, collected together in God's silver ribbon of honour draped across the French countryside.

There was not a cloud in the sky and I felt on top of the world. I hardly had to turn the pedals for the first 20km and was soon in the little village of Balbigny for the morning croissant feast. The next 30km was a struggle along a straight main road with the wind in my face. I tried to get onto side roads but these kept returning to the main road. I reached a little place called La Fouillouse, which according to the GPS, was 756km from the Coliseum and 756km from my kitchen.

It was time to say au revoir to the Loire as our routes now parted. I had followed her for 455km, less than half her length and I was nearly at St Etienne, beyond which, to the south west, the streams of the Central Massif fed the great river. Are rivers feminine? She did get on with things without a great deal of fuss. I thanked her for her company, waved a tearful farewell and cycled into St Etienne following the signs for Centre Ville, which led through an uninspiring business district. I tried to use the GPS to escape but it was not easy. I wished I had brought along copies of city plans. I had expected tourist information offices to have them but they only had information for their own district, not the next place on route and they were often closed when I arrived. I eventually stopped at a busy garage to buy some cold water and showed the attendant my map, asking him where my road out of St Etienne was, he studied the map for a while, turning it around several times and then with a big smile of recognition jabbed down his finger and said, 'St Etienne!' He was so pleased he had been able to help me find his hometown on my map; I pretended that was exactly what I wanted to know.

The GPS took me through the back streets of St Etienne that most tourists miss out. I arrived at the city's ring road and there, over the cross roads, was a sign pointing to my destination - Pilat Regional Park. It was a steep climb up to Planfoy where I left the main road and cycled into the pretty village square. There were dozens of walkers sitting and drinking outside a bar having finished their day's trekking. My long day's pedal, the heat and the hill climb had tired me and the bar looked as if it might have a hotel attached. I ordered some ice-cold lemonade and asked if there was a campsite or a room for the night nearby but I could not understand Madame. After she made a few more attempts at explaining I did my shrugging-head-nodding-arm-waving-thing and sat down to drink the home made ice-cold lemonade. It was good, made from real lemons and probably real ade as well. I thought that Madame could have been speaking a local Pilat mountain dialect. She kindly filled my water bottle and I tried one last time to ask about accommodation. The lemonade must have had some special ingredient promoting international understanding because, all of a sudden, I could understand her easily. She said that there was not a single room in Planfoy because of all the walkers and that I had two choices: I could cycle on to Annonay another 5km uphill and 20 down, or there was a campsite off the main road 8km up hill at a place called St. Genest-Malifeux. I thanked her, had another glass of her excellent lemonade and started up the hill to St. Genest-Malifeux. It was a steep ride through a shady forest of pine trees. Experienced cyclists talk about their 'cycling cadence' and racing cyclists write extensive articles in magazines about cadence with RPM, wattage output, gear ratios and how much pasta you need for breakfast. Cadence is the speed you turn the pedals related to the speed you are travelling. Using the big cog at the front and the little cog at the back allows you to pedal slowly and travel fast. Swapping the cogs around with the gear changer allows you to pedal fast and move slowly. The latter is what you need when cycling up hills. Getting just the right pedalling speed takes experience. Spinning the pedals too fast uses too much energy and so does pedalling too slowly. You need to get the balance just right for comfortable long distance cycling. After cycling for a long time on the same bike you just get a feel for it. I always tried to cycle so that I could breath steadily and not get out of breath. I tried to cycle slowly and gently enough up that hill so as not to wear off the lemonade's cooling effect. It meant going so slowly that the casual observer might have thought I was not going anywhere and practicing for the endurance cycle balancing event at next year's Tour de France fringe festival.

If the campsite were full or closed I would find a place in the woods. My water bottles were all full, I had food and I needed to rest. I had always thought there would be a possibility of having to camp in the wild but it was definitely way down the list. However, the campsite at St Genest-Malifaux was open and had plenty of spaces. I sat through the form filling, paid my money, put my tent up, moved it to a better pitch, drank a pint of water and fell asleep on the grass.

Day Night Stop Distance per day km
7 Belleville 90
8 Chevenon 90
9 Bourbon-Lancy 70
10 Cordella 112
11 St Genest-Malifaux 93
Total so far 858

Day Twelve - St Genest-Malifaux

Genest was a Fourth-Century Roman who pretended to be a Christian. He was so good at pretending to be a Christian that one morning he awoke and thought that he had become a Christian. The church thought he might still be pretending and had him tortured to find out the truth of the matter but they over did it with the red-hot irons and killed the poor man. This did, however, enable him to become Saint Genest-Malifaux the patron saint of actors.

I had a lazy morning mending broken things. The clip on my rear pannier had fallen off again and disappeared. I used a piece of Velcro and washing line to make a repair that I was quite proud of. Then I walked into the town for lunch but it was out of season and all the restaurants were shut. I did get some coffee from a half open cafe then found a lovely baker's where they baked a wonderful variety of wholemeal bread, next door was a butcher's where I bought two pork chops. At a super market I got a couple of bottles of beer and some courgettes and returned to my tent to cook lunch.

I finished a little sketch, drank the rest of my beer and walked into town to find out that there would be no restaurants open that night. I still had some of the wholemeal bread, cheese and a couple of apples so, I settled down for a night in.

As I was halfway to Rome and it was Valerie's birthday, I would treat myself to a night at the movies. I must have watched Casablanca around fifty times, enough to be able to see it with my eyes shut. I put on the head phones, poured a mug of red wine, opened some crisps, tucked myself into my sleeping bag, watched the last of the red glow in the sky silhouetting a shiny clean Super Galaxy, closed my eyes and rolled the soundtrack.

'Sam, if it's December 1941 in Casablanca what time is it in New York?'
'Uh, my watch stopped, Boss.'

Saint Genest-Malifaux

Day Thirteen - The Rhone Valley

Around four o'clock, I was awoken by sudden silence. For the second night in a row it had been windy and every five minutes the tent had been shaken by violent gusts. Eventually I had become accustomed to it and fell into a deep sleep, until the wind died, I awoke and stayed awake.

The earliest time it was ever possible to get started in the morning, no matter what time I began packing, was 7 o'clock. The further south I travelled the hotter the afternoons were becoming. Therefore, the greater the distance I could cycle in the cool of the morning the better. This day was sunny and bright and the town of St Genest had not woken up, except for the woman in the bakers who was bringing lovely steaming loaves from the ovens at the rear. I cycled through the forest for 8km, then for 15km downhill to Annonoy where I stopped for coffee and pain au chocolat. Then south for a while along a quiet main road in the Rhone Valley where I stopped for a mid morning rest at a lay-by overlooking the River. I was half way though a text message, when a black BMW pulled into the lay-by and four men got out. They caught my attention because they did not get out of their car as though they were about to stretch their legs but the way, on films, FBI agents get out of their cars. They muttered something in Arabic then three walked into the road and one came to me. I started to pack up my maps, phone and food, which were spread over the picnic table. 'You speak English? See this card, we cannot get money on it, we need money for diesel, I sell you this gold ring.' He showed me a big fat ring on his finger shaped like a snake. It looked like brass, but I thought that this was not the time to argue the matter. The three in the road were trying to flag down passing cars and swearing when they did not stop. They stopped a woman driver and surrounded her car. 'I don't have any money.' I lied to my antagonist. 'It's cheap, very good we need some money.' he said. The woman in the car sped off with one of them hitting the roof of her car as it passed under him. They flagged down a small van with provisional driver's 'A' plates and were determined not to let the driver go. The man with me was getting close and tried to look into my handlebar bag as I hurriedly crammed things in. 'How much you give me?' I got on my bike, ready to go, but he stood in front with a hand on the handlebars. I could smell his after-shave, always a bad sign in gangster stories. His eyes were jumpy and I thought he might be as scared as I was. Then one of his buddies began to come over to help my man. In times of real panic, a little voice has often popped up to tell me what to do. Joan of Arc attributed her wise voices to various saints but my voice was far more practical than hers. It is probably some signalling system from the part of the brain responsible for self-preservation. It stimulates a rush of adrenaline, sends blood to the muscles and stands your hair on end making you look bigger. Sometimes a larger head of hair is not enough to scare off a predator, so the brain produces a voice to tell you to do something, like, 'check your shoe laces are done up tight.' I am sure everyone must experience the same thing in certain situations. In the film 2001 the ape's inner voice told it to pick up a bone and smash the other ape's skull. Luckily for me my inner voice must have missed that film and, anyway, there were no bones lying around. My voice said, 'Speak Arabic.'

Nearly forty years earlier I had worked as a radar operator on a military site in the mountains of Asir in Saudi Arabia. In my spare time I helped run a shop on the air base. Once an impressive looking Bedouin began arguing about the change I had just given him. It was only a few pennies but I knew I was right. He dramatically raised his index finger towards the heavens, looked me in the eye and said, 'Allah shuft!' I had picked up enough Arabic to know that he meant, 'God is watching.' The great thing about being an atheist is that you never feel a need to argue or defend your corner, so instead of pointing out that he was assuming the presence of omnipotent all-seeing deity, belief in the existence of which I did not necessarily share, I gave him the two-pence out of my own pocket.

Back on the road in France, thirty-seven years later, I thought it might have been two-pence well spent. I looked my antagonist in the eye raised my finger to heavens and said in my best Arabic: 'Allah Shuft!' I felt that the phrase would have had more impact if I had been a tall Bedouin, with a face partially hidden by a red and white chequered shumagh and I had been carrying a silver handled curved dagger in my waistband but there I was, an elderly Englishman with a Lycra covered, croissant filled bum and a polystyrene helmet, trying to pretend I was on close terms with Allah. The young man's eyes widened as I said my bit, his grip on my handlebars slackened and for a moment I wondered if he was going to pull out a gun, a knife or a copy of the Koran but his expression changed to puzzlement and he stepped aside. I thanked him in Arabic, pulled my bike further away and cycled off, feeling grateful that he did not ask me anything in Arabic because unless it was 'would you like another cup of tea', I would not know how to answer. The van driver was still being harassed by the other gangsters and for a moment I thought of going to his aid, but he was twenty, in a van and I was ancient and on a push bike. Having been called to make a rare appearance, my little voice made sure that its efforts were not thrown away in altruistic futile gestures and muttered something about frying pans and fires, so I cycled off.

The last time I tried to cycle that fast I was forty-two years younger and being chased by a Ford pickup truck, a patrol car and an Alsatian guard dog. I did not know from which direction the four gangsters had arrived at the lay-by. If they were travelling my way they would surly overtake me at any moment. I had recently read a report of cyclists being knocked off their bicycles by thieves who, whilst pretending to help them, stole their money. I was making a good job of convincing myself they were on their way to get me. I tried to calm down; it was unlikely I could outrun a BMW, even if the driver was trying to save on diesel. I stopped rushing and slowed to my usual dawdle. Then the voice in my head popped up again. It had been quiet for the past twenty years and had now appeared three times within ten minutes. 'Get off the road and out of sight,' it said. 'Where?' I asked but my voice never debated its advice. There was nowhere to hide, I adjusted my rear view mirror to check for cars coming up behind and speeded up again. There were some houses coming up and beyond them, I went down a little side road, behind some houses, through an open gate, into a field and hid behind a hedge. After a few moments I heard a car come along the lane. It was driving slowly, as if the driver was searching for something or someone. I waited to see if the little voice popped up with any suggestions but it must have decided that it had helped me enough of late. After five minutes I heard the car returning back down the lane. It stopped, not far away, its engine running. I slowly stood up behind a tree and peered around to see the van with the 'A' plates. Its back doors open and boxes of baguettes sticking out. I was hiding from the baker's van. I thought I heard my little voice sniggering but it was probably just the blackbirds singing. I was glad that the lad had escaped the gangsters though.

According to the GPS I was now off my route, I had missed a left turn by 5km that would have taken me across the River Rhone. I did not want to pedal back, so cycled on for another 5km to the next bridge. I had just added 20km to the day's cycling. Things could have been worse, I might have been lying on a trolley in the accident and emergency ward of Valence General Hospital suffering from a TTI or Trip Terminating Incident.

At around 3 o'clock I arrived at Beaurepaire, a few kilometres short of my intended overnight stop but the town had plenty of shops and a sign to a camping site, so I decided to stay there. I bought some steak hachés, burgers that you watch the butcher mince in front of you, some seasoned rice, fruit, cheese and wine. Then settled down for a restful afternoon and evening. There were just three other people on the site, a German tourist with his wife and baby. For some reason the man was wearing a mask, not like the Lone Ranger's mask but the sort a hospital surgeon wears. Maybe he was scared of contracting SARS, here in the middle of deepest rural France or maybe his baby screamed every time she saw his face.

Day Fourteen - Grenoble

Grenoble is advertised as La Porte vers les Alpes and thanks to Monsieur Velo back in Bourbon-Lancy I knew what it meant. Just after lunch I came to a long down hill section of main road on the outskirts of Grenoble. I was travelling at 50kmph when the draught from an overtaking lorry started me wobbling. My heavy load, especially on the front, meant it was hard to stop the bike snaking from side to side and it seemed an age before I got the bike under control again. With all the heavy traffic overtaking it was dangerous and I was cross with myself for going so fast on a main road. I found a suburban side road heading in the right direction, calmed down and began to enjoy the ride again. The road led right into the city and soon began to climb up steeply. I was cycling slowly and trying to keep as straight as possible to let vehicles pass, when a double-decker bus drew along side but instead of passing it kept level with me, its doors opened with a smooth hiss and the driver said, politely and slowly in French, 'Excuse me Sir, but here in Grenoble we have spent a lot of ratepayers money on cycle paths and there is an excellent one on the other side of the road you might like to use.' I thanked him and managed to get over to him that I was a crazy Englishman. The bus doors closed and the driver went past slowly enough so that all his passengers could get a good view of the Englishman who was ignoring their wonderful cycle paths. I crossed the road and discovered that the cycle path was indeed excellent. Its sign posts led me over railways, through underpasses and, for a couple of kilometres, along a flood path beside the Drac, a blue milky coloured river fed by melting glaciers high in the mountains. Not once was I told to ''dismount'' on this cycle path. I began to respect the road planners of Grenoble and thought they could be a good example for their English counterparts.

Grenoble is a fine town at the foot of the mountains, heralding the start of the Alps. Three rivers meet at this ancient Alpine crossing. In 1788 the locals, having suffered enough from high taxes and inflation, took to the streets to protest. The troops were ordered out to put down the riot but were beaten back by the people who climbed onto their roofs and showered the soldiers with tiles. It became known as The Day of the Tiles and this revolt encouraged local dignitaries to invite representatives of the area's main towns to a meeting at Vizille, the town I was heading for. The representatives demanded that the King convene an assembly of the three estates: clergy, nobility, and commoners. He agreed and the French Revolution was underway causing, of course, much frenzy and strife and ensuring Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin's name would survive him. Strangely, Monsieur Guillotin's invention came out of compassion for the French poor who were often executed, in pre-revolutionary days, by quartering: an agricultural form of capital punishment, where oxen were attached by ropes to each of the offender's four limbs then sent on their separate ways. Aristocrats could escape this by facing an axe man and rich aristocrats could afford to pay for a sharp axe wielded by a sober axe man.

I had suffered enough from the frenzy of the main roads over the last two days, not from locals throwing tiles but heavy traffic and gangsters and so decided to take a small road from Grenoble to Vizille, a distance of about 10km. It was part of the appealingly named Route Napoleon. For a while I regretted falling for the romantic route, as it was the steepest climb I had encountered and seemed endless. The road was popular with cyclists and I could not help noticing that everyone of them was not carrying 30 kg of gear on their bikes and that they had cleverly arranged to be going downhill as I was going up but, without fail, they all shouted out words of encouragement. Even passing motorists, who must have been erstwhile cyclists, wound down their windows and shouted out 'bon courage'.

The Route Napoleon is so named to mark the route Bonaparte took after he escaped from exile on Elba in 1815. Loyal soldiers joined him as he marched towards Paris but when he reached the town of Laffrey, he was confronted by troops sent by the King with orders to arrest him. 'I am your Emperor, don't you recognize me?' his inner voice had told him to say. 'If there is one among you who wishes to kill his General, here I am.' The troops responded with, 'Long live the Emperor!' and let him continue on his way.
This sort of laissez-faire attitude the French authorities have towards their own countrymen's demonstrations of discontent, to some extent, still exists today and can be witnessed during strikes and demonstrations, or manifestations as the French call them. In France Gendarmes will often allow the protesters to continue to block a port or two, unlike in England where the police often feel the need to interfere and beat up the protesters. Napoleon's triumphant entrance into Grenoble marked the beginning of his attempt to regain control of France. He would have probably succeeded but for his encounter with the English at Waterloo who felt the need to interfere and beat him up. My up hill struggle was rewarded with a fast winding downhill ride into Vizille. After finding the campsite and, setting up the tent, I walked to the town's Tourist Information Office, where I wanted to check which campsites and routes would be open through the Alpine passes but the Vizille office only dealt with their town and could not help other than suggest that I went to the campsites to find out if they were open and that roads closed by snow would have a notice to that effect. It occurred to me that the problem was that Tourist Offices were obviously for tourists and not travellers, so I decided to give up on them and try the local beer. After sitting for a while in a pavement cafe and watching the good folk of Vizille go about their afternoon business in the lovely Spring sunshine, I did a little shopping and returned to the campsite to find that it was no longer empty. A cohort of German camper vans had arrived whilst I had been viewing the town. I sat back to study their behaviour. I have spent a considerable number of hours, over the years, studying the behaviour of different nationalities on campsites. It is a habit I cannot shake off. All in all it has taught me not a lot, except that the Swiss will always wash their picnic tables with seven buckets of water every day (fourteen, if they have eaten fish). The Spanish will always talk at the same time until exactly 11.23pm local time, when one of them will fart and they will all go to bed. The Dutch always disappear silently during the night before anyone can see them pack up. Italian teenagers will always do what their mothers tell them. You can never tell what the English get up to because what ever it is, they do it behind windbreaks. The nearest camper van was big enough for the man and woman to keep their two big shopping bicycles inside. He was playing with the remote control for his satellite receiver. It rose automatically out of a box in the roof, rotating with a gentle whirring sound from its motors. Like something from Thunderbirds the thing went round and round searching the skies until eventually it found the satellite it was searching for and he could listen to the football results. He generously kept the volume up high enough so that all the other campers could share the results. After a while he joined his partner for a trip to the toilet block. This was a journey of no more than thirty metres. They put their towels over their shoulders, washing stuff into baskets on the handlebars, sat on the bikes and rolled down the slope to the toilets. After their showers they did not attempt the hill climb and pushed their bikes up the gentle slope back to their van. Camper Van Man returned to his technology while Camper Van Frau washed her knickers out and hung them on one of the van's wing mirrors. I thought, with a fair dash of English pride and a lot of smugness that at least I had the latest technology for drying knickers: a length of string. I gave up my international voyeurism and turned my attention to making a meal of boiled eggs, cold meat pie, salad, banana, cheese and crackers, followed by coffee and chocolate. All served with as much panache as I could muster, in order to celebrate the fact that I had a picnic table to eat from and that I had reached the Alps. It was a good campsite, I caught up with all the German football league results and as the setting sun turned the Alpine snow-capped peaks pink, I felt great. If I went home the following day the trip would have been a success

Day Fifteen - The Alps

There are two types of cyclists: those who shave their legs and those who do not, according to a theory in cycling circles, which, having cycled to the Alps, I felt entitled to consider myself within. Leg-shavers can be distinguished from non-leg-shavers (apart from their smooth legs) by the fact that they take part in races where, having drunk from a water bottle they throw it away. There are non-leg-shavers who are also racers but they rarely win races against the shavers because those who are willing to shave their legs, just to win a bike race, despite there not being a shred of evidence to say that it will help them in anyway, will also do every other possible thing to give them an edge. Such as eating pasta for breakfast, cycling a hundred kilometres every day of the year and taking banned substances. Non-racers will hardly ever shave their legs. That morning, as I shaved, I looked down with pride at my hairy legs, which had got me all the way to the Alps.

I was running low on cooking gas and wanted to be sure I had plenty before starting up into the mountains. That dream I had, the night before leaving home, about being snowed up, in a valley in the high Alps, could have been a warning from my 'little voice'. The best advice from the locals on the campsite was to get the gas from the supermarket, which opened at 8 o'clock. It was a big store and the car park had room for every car in Vizille, although at that time in the morning there were only half a dozen there. I was a little worried about leaving my bike, so locked it with both my locks to a barrier in a car space in front of the store in order that it could be seen from inside. I was just about to leave the bike when a car came into the car park and for some reason, out of the thousand empty spaces, chose my space. The woman drove close enough to bump into my bike. Not hard enough to damage it but enough to push it over. I went back to straighten it up and check that there was no damage and the driver got out and started to scream and shout at me. I was completely confused, as seemed to be the other woman who had been in the car with the careless driver and all the other drivers who were beginning to arrive. Everyone listened to the shouting for several minutes and as I could not understand her, all I could do was point to the other thousand spaces she could have chosen. This made the situation worse, sending her into a complete frenzy. I did try to work out what the French equivalent to Allah Shuft was, but thought it would probably not work as well in that situation. Perhaps she thought she was entitled to drive into my bike because there was a cycle rack around the back. Perhaps she had once been let down by a transient cyclist whom she had fallen in love with because of his shaved legs and following a whirlwind love affair he had heard the call of the open road and had cycled off into the mountains never to be seen again, leaving her to bring up the daughter, who was now grown up and standing by her side trying to quieten her down. The woman stomped off to leave me doing my shrugging-head-nodding-arm-waving-thing, to the gathered smiling crowd, which proved to be just right for the situation. I bought some gas and food as quickly as possible and got back to my bike before the frenzied woman returned with a set of wire cutters from the super market's DIY aisle, to cut all the spokes out of my back wheel.

My route from Vizille into the Alps followed the long winding valley of the River Romanche and had its highest point at the Col du Lautaret. On the map it looked like it could be a busy road but in the first hour I saw only four cars. The sun was breaking through a wispy mist around the snow covered mountain peaks. The further I went, the steeper the sides of the valley became and the higher the mountains rose in front of me but the road itself never got steeper than about one-in-ten. For the first time on the journey, the wind was with me. This was the longest hill I had ever cycled up and, unusually, I began to feel disappointed when there was a down hill section, as I knew I would have to regain the height but at last I had the luxury of my lowest gear, saved for all these months. Using that I could cycle at about 4kmph up the steepest hill with out getting out of breath. It was a lovely ride and I stopped every twenty minutes or so for a five-minute rest and to take in the majestic view of the swiftly tumbling river, the riverside meadows crammed with lush spring green grass and yellow flowers and the towering mountain cliffs with their snow capped peaks. After four hours I had covered 37km and reached Bourg d'Oisans, a village with a few hotels and tourist shops. I had considered the possibility of stopping there for the night but, as it was only midday, after coffee I continued on my way. The afternoon was a harder ride than the morning, with the long rising road clinging to the side of the mountains and occasionally crawling through tunnels where I would have to remove sunglasses and put my lights on. I stopped for lunch in a tiny field full of buttercups and wild spring flowers squeezed between the mountains and the fast flowing river. I laid out my picnic of bread, olives, cheese and apple and afterwards played a tune on my tin whistle, brought for just such an occasion.

At 4 o'clock I reached La Grave hot and tired. The campsite was closed, the Michelin Guide had said it should have opened a week before, but there was no one around to argue the point. I searched the village but there was only one hotel open. It was a bit expensive at €50 but when I saw the bath and the view of the glacier from the window I decided it was worth it. After the bath I went for a pot of tea in the hotel's restaurant over the road, then had a walk around the village. I went onto a little bar's veranda for a beer and to enjoy view of the mountain opposite with its dramatic hanging glacier. I amused myself by watching a group of designer lads in designer clothes, drinking designer drinks and being tantalised by a group of designer girls. Skiing clothes lend themselves to sitting around and showing off. This group of youths looked as though they specialised in sitting around, rather than skiing. Posing in cycling clothes used to be fashionable. There are some photographs, in one of my father's old photograph albums of him sitting around showing off in a tweed jacket, plus-fours and those long socks with diagonal stripes that look as though they were designed by a cake decorator. Cyclists' clothes nowadays are useless for sitting around in, once you have finished cycling. Those cyclists, who try posing, look a little like plastic carrier bags full of mixed vegetables walking around on oversized chicken legs.

I ate at the restaurant that evening, a delicious meal of grilled chicken and mixed vegetables but by the time the pudding arrived, I was fading fast and was worried I might fall asleep face down in my tart. I missed out coffee and walked back to my room. From my comfortable bed I could see out of the veranda windows and the last image I saw before my eyes closed was the stars dancing in the cold clear air over the snow sparkling mountain tops. I was over half way to the top of my Alpine climb.

Day Sixteen - Briançon

At breakfast a cyclist from Grenoble said that the Col d'Izoard was closed to motorists because of late snowfalls but cyclists could often get through. He was going to try. This was my intended route and I could not decide what to do. If I cycled up and had to turn back I would lose a whole day. The cyclist from Grenoble was younger than me and had just a little bag to carry. From Briançon there were two routes lower than the Col d'Izoard, but I thought I would probably need to stay the night at Briançon to get further advice. I set out before my Grenoble friend but he soon caught me up and after a few words, was off up the mountain. I watched him climb the road ahead and finely disappear into a tunnel. The tunnel was a kilometre long with bends inside. It soon became so dark my little light was barely bright enough. From behind me came a great roaring noise, louder and louder, too loud to be a car, it was deafening. I stopped, thinking there was a train tunnel along the side of the roadway, but that did not make sense: I would have seen the railway track going up the valley. Behind me, coming around a bend, I saw a light, it was the single headlamp of a moped, travelling no more than 20kmph, I could not believe the noise it was making. A Swiss cyclist told me later that they do not have sound baffles in French tunnels, so the noise is amplified. Of course in Switzerland they have many excellent baffled tunnels. The road rises steeply from La Grave to Col du Lautaret but it was a lovely morning and the snow-covered peaks were spectacular. I was getting closer to the snowline and by 11 o'clock I began to see walls of snow left by the snow ploughs at the roadside, remaining un-melted in the shade. The altimeter on my GPS read 2000 meters and after a few more minutes I reached the summit of the pass Col du Lautaret at 2040 metres.

I sat outside a cafe at the summit and ordered some hot soup. There were still a few skiers high up on the shaded slopes of the mountain opposite. On the tables next to me, outside the cafe, were some young skiers enjoying their Apres Ski drinks and chat, or maybe the drinks were avant ski, or even au lieu du ski. There was a group of young girls tantalising a table full of young men who were posing for them. There are probably only a few times in life when a man, like me, in his late fifties does not envy the young and wish that he had the secret of eternal youth, but at that moment, sitting on top of the world, I was more than content with my lot. I was glad I had passed the age when so much energy needs to be spent impressing others - playing Tantalus's game. King Tantalus climbed a mountain, Mount Olympus, to impress the Gods, not on a bicycle as far as I am aware. He stole the Gods' ambrosia, the food that kept the Gods forever young, then he sacrificed his son, to impress the Gods, chopped him up and served him to the deities at a banquet but his guests saw through the trick and ate none of the food, except for Demeter who had her mind on other things and did not notice a shoulder of Tantalus's son floating in her soup. The Gods granted Tantalus's wish for immortality but condemned him to spend it in Tartarus, the lowest part of the underworld, reserved for eternal punishments. There he would stand forever in a lake that receded whenever he reached out for a drink and over him would hang fruit trees that would spring up when he reached for the food. Just as an afterthought, the Gods perched a huge mountain of rock over his head, forever teetering on the brink of falling and crushing him. I finished my spring onion and coriander soup, pushing the bits of shoulder to one side and left the young to tantalise one another as I cycled off down the road, under the overhanging rock. Riding downhill for thirty kilometres at forty kilometres per hour is a good elixir. You cannot help but feel young again and it does not risk the wrath of the Gods. Head down, bum up, knees and elbows in and off I go. 'Wheeeeeeeee!' But I am easily embarrassed, so try to keep my mouth shut, but it bursts out between my clenched lips, 'Wheeeeeeeee!' Real cyclists take newspapers with them to stuff down their shirts and keep out the cold, probably because they have shaved their chests as well as their legs, but I put up with the cold, 'Wheeeeeeeee!' Down the long straight sections, beneath cloister-like flying buttresses, built to protect the road from avalanches, the side windows flashed framed pictures of the snow clad Alps above and the steep dark ravines below, which no doubt were hiding the broken bikes and bodies of over zealous cyclists. I sped down the road, clinging to the mountain edge, on through tunnels, no time to put lights on, aim for the light at the end, out into the sunshine, leaning over round the bends, shouting out to some climbing cyclists, but instead of 'Bonjour' I say 'Wheeeeeeeee!' The road ahead like a tiny scratch along the vast bulk of the mountainside, a piece of string stretching out for kilometres ahead leading me down the labyrinth, more straight sections, tight bends, grab the brakes - I am scared I'll overshoot the corner and join the Gods earlier than planned, 'Wheeeeeeeee!' Through dappled woodlands, along the side of a cascading river full of ice cold, snow-white sky-blue water from melting glaciers, then, forty minutes, later I roll into a little village and pull up in the square by an Alpine church to let the adrenaline seep out of my blood and allow the amazing ride to sink in.

The ride was so fantastic I had not thought about the rest of the day's journey and had to make a quick decision. It was only 12 o'clock, Briançon looked an interesting town, with ancient fortresses to defend France from Southern invaders, but getting to Italy that day was just possible. If I were going to attempt the Col d'Izoard, I would need to stop at Briançon for the night and make an early start the following morning. Carrying on over the high pass that afternoon sounded too risky, so I would take the other route over Col de Montgenevre. This would mean cycling further, but not so high. Later, I could choose to either, go over Col Sestriere, a shorter, quieter and higher route, or keep to the main road, travelling north east, and avoid the high passes.

The road out of Briançon was steep and had many hairpin bends. I became too depressed trying to count them and gave up after twelve. It was getting hot and the mountain was in a forest of tall trees, so that there were not the magnificent views of the morning to inspire me. As I peddled on I thought of getting off and walking but I had not walked at all on the journey so far and it would be a satisfying achievement to be able to get to the end without 'dismounting'. I passed two cars with over heated engines and water running from their radiators. A young girl was leaning against one of the cars speaking on her mobile phone. She called out, bon chance, as I passed. A cyclist in immaculate red and black livery overtook me saying bon courage. I began to stop more often, just for a few minutes, for a drink and to get my breath back. I had three water bottles on the bike, but I had started on my last bottle on that hill. I should have got more at Briançon. Another cyclist passed and also called out bon courage. He had exactly the same red and black clothes on as the first cyclist, I was sure it was the same man as before and I wondered if he had fallen from the top of the mountain, picked himself up and started up again. What was more, it looked as though he had no hair on his legs. I was impressed. Eventually I got into the rhythm of climbing the mountain and cycled slowly enough, stopped enough, drank and nibbled enough, to make my way to the top. Then everything seemed to be happening quickly: I was out of the forest, the road levelled out, I could see down the mountain to Briançon, then I was going down a gentle hill into a ski resort getting ready for its summer hibernation. There was a disused customs post but no Luciano Pavarotti to sing a welcoming Italian aria, so I sang Nessun Dorma but luckily no one heard me and I sneaked into Italy.

The road was flat for some time until I came to the turn off leading up to the Col Sestriere but I decided not to take it and to follow the longer route down towards Susa. I had done enough climbing that day and it was getting a bit late to be heading up into the mountains without water. Navigation was becoming difficult because there was a new motorway heading down the valley, and I could not find the side road to Susa. What seemed the right way led up a series of hairpins, and I did not want to struggle up these if they were leading me in the wrong direction. I tried to flag down a car to ask the way but they had obviously heard my singing earlier, and did not want to add an encounter with an English cyclist to that day's anecdotes, so ignored me. Eventually a brave moped rider stopped and explained that the road leading up the hill was, indeed, the way to Susa. I convinced my self that if it was one thing I had become good at that day, it was cycling up hills with hairpin bends. It was not as difficult as I had feared and after a few bends I was going down hill again. I got some water from a shop and, after checking my Italian phrase book, asked a couple of policemen if there was a campsite in town. They said that there was one, just down the road. I thanked them, felt pleased at my first success at speaking Italian and made my way to the campsite. But it was a strange place full of what looked like static caravans and kids' dens. So I carried on. It suddenly started to rain, then hail and in a few seconds the temperature dropped from thirty degrees to five. My waterproof jacket was not enough to keep me warm and I had to dive into my bags for my fleece and leggings. I was really glad I had not decided to go up to the high pass that evening. The shower soon ended and the sun came out to spread a magnificent double rainbow down the valley. I stopped to sort out my clothes and have some food. I had found that it was important to eat in the late afternoon, as searching for a place to stay was stressful and if I was hungry and tired, it became even harder. The road led downhill, through little villages without hotels or campsites. I was concerned at the lack of accommodation when I entered the small town of Chiomonte. Most of the houses were off to the left, down the side of the valley and as I slowed to turn down the hill I saw there was a hotel on the corner. It was open and they had a room. Signora fetched her son who spoke English and he explained that the room needed cleaning and would I like a drink in the bar while that was being done. In the bar the son introduced me to his father who muttered something, 'What did he say?' I asked. 'Oh,' he said, 'he doesn't like the English. But don't take any notice of him.' So, I did not take any notice of him and let his son give me a cold drink from behind the bar. The drink turned out to be a warm one and the son explained that the fridge, beer pumps and the lights in the hotel bar were not working because his father had fixed a new doorbell and fused everything.

After showering I went for a stroll around the town of Chiomonte. It was a smart little place with every building neatly renovated and looking prosperous. The few shops were full of luxuries including the food shop, where I bought some luxury cheese and some luxury fruit for the next day's lunch, whilst trying out my Italian with the shop assistant. I returned to my candlelit hotel, to have a delicious bowl of pasta together with too much vino rosso.

I had just had the greatest day's cycling of my life, travelled 90km, climbed over two mountain passes and reached Italy. I expected to sleep well that night. But the hotel room was not the quietest one I had stayed in. The road by the hotel was noisy and had been used for thousands of years as a route across the Alps: Napoleon, the Saracens, Franks, Vandals, Goths, Julius Caesar and Hannibal had passed that way. Hannibal had also experienced problems crossing the pass and finding somewhere to camp. Titus Livius, wrote:

' ...As the column moved forward up the first slopes, there appeared, right above their heads, ensconced upon their eminences, the local tribesmen, wild men of the mountains, who, if they had chosen to lurk in clefts of the hills, might well have sprung out from ambush upon the marching column and inflicted untold losses and disaster ...
Hannibal therefore encamped in the best stretch of fairly level ground he could find, hemmed in though it was by savagely broken rocks and
Precipitous cliffs.'

After dark he took his best troops to occupy the heights above the pass, abandoned by the local tribesmen each night. His army then started off in daylight down the pass but it was so steep the horses started to stumble and some men fell over the cliffs. The tribesmen finding Hannibal in their camp attacked the main army, sending them into a greater panic. Hannibal charged down to help and all ended in a scrambling mess along the narrow path. The tribesmen eventually fled and Hannibal got his army back together and advanced towards Rome.

Day Seventeen — Chiomonte
to Fossano— 131km

Day Seventeen - Fossano

It would have been really cruel, and obvious, to point out in the morning to Papa (who didn't like Englishmen) that his tangle of wires in the fuse cupboard, which he had been working on all night, looked like a bowl of spaghetti. So, I did. He said there was no coffee because of the fuse situation but I could have a croissant which one of Hannibal's elephants had left behind. I declined and cycled off down the hill to Susa for breakfast in a cafe next to the river. I ate some bread and jam, drank coffee and looked at a new map I had bought. The best route seemed to follow the valley towards Turin, then travel across the Po Valley getting back onto my original route within two days. There were unlikely to be campsites in that area, so I would need to find another hotel for that night. The road was downhill all the way to the outskirts of Turin where I stopped to check the coordinates for my turn off. A young cyclist stopped and asked if I needed help, then explained the best road to the south avoiding too many hills.

The pleasant rolling countryside made a change from the mountains I had been in for several days and I soon found the sleepy little village of None, with cobbled streets and a garden with benches, where I could eat my lunch. Navigation from thereon proved difficult because I could not get the right road out of None. I wanted to get to Castagnole but the road I was on seemed like a farm track. I caught up with a woman cycling in the same direction as me and asked her if I was on the right road to Castagnole. Surprisingly, she seemed to understand me and said that this was not the road to Castagnole but a farm track and pointed to a row of poplar trees and indicated that I should follow her. It was a lovely moment: the two of us cycling side by side through the flat Italian farmland in the warm drizzle, her with a smart coat, plastic rain hat, upright bike, basketful of shopping and me with my Lycra wrapped bum and satellite navigation system. I thought that I should make some small talk, so I said in English that I was cycling from Fordingbridge in England to Roma (I translated the last word for her). She smiled and said something to the effect that I was the third cyclist that day from Fordingbridge whom she had put on the road to Roma, and hadn't I heard that the traffic in Roma was awful? At least, I think that is what she said. The only word that I could be absolutely sure of was Roma. We reached the poplar trees, she pointed out the correct road, I cycled on and she went home to cook hubbie's pasta.

The villages I went through were beautiful but there was no sign of anywhere to stay. I headed for Fossano, the biggest town in that area. To get there would mean having to cycle a long way that day, 140km, but the first 50km had been down hill and the rest had been flat and for a short while I had had the company of the Signora with the plastic hat as a pace maker, so I felt I could do it. It was early evening when I reached Fossano where I could find no signs of hotels. I would have to stay there for the night and I thought that there must be somewhere to stay in a town of that size. The Tourist Information Centre was closed but the streets were full of people out for an evening stroll. A friendly looking woman was walking around with a clipboard, so I stopped but before I could ask her anything, she asked me if I would help her. She said that she was organising a sponsored cycle to raise money for the local school and did I think I could cycle 30km. I asked her if it was in the direction of Rome but she said that it was not. I explained that I was travelling through and needed somewhere to stay the night and she said that the Hotel Romanisio was the place to go and pointed the way. Twenty minutes later I was still searching. There was a local football match that evening and many local fans were driving their cars around the narrow streets blowing horns, waving scarves out of their windows and doing handbrake turns. These scary tactics seemed to be completely ignored by the other less frenzied Fossano citizens who seemed to take it for normal Saturday night behaviour. I stopped in a square to ask a young man, who was not wearing a football scarf, the way to the hotel. He said it was just around the corner, not very far and asked me where I was from. I told him and showed him the little map I carried showing my route to Rome. He asked me to wait a moment while he got his friends from the cafe. It seemed as if everyone came out to congratulate me on my journey to Fossano. They shook my hand, asked about the bike and how long it had taken me. They were all surprised I was in Fossano because it was not a tourist area. I left the group of youths who sent me on my way with a big cheer. There was a sudden downpour before I could get to the Hotel Romanisio. I was soaked right through and dripped across the marble floor to the reception desk. The receptionist welcomed me and did not seem at all put out by the sight of a soaked English cyclist and said that I could put my bike in the conference suite. I liked the idea of locking my bike up to the oak table and apologised for the tyre tracks across the marble floor but was told that it was no trouble at all. I had a fantastic room with a bath and the biggest bed in the world. After a long soak in the bath I ate my emergency tin of tuna, with some bread and fruit, had a couple of whiskeys from the mini bar and tried to work out what the Italian television news reader was talking about. Oh, football!

Day Eighteen – Towards the Mediterranean

It was a luxurious Sunday breakfast with as much food a long distance cyclist could eat. I got my bike out as the business people were setting up for their conference. The hotel cost €53 Euros, good value I thought as the hotel of the 'fused door bell and no breakfast', the night before had cost €40. Fossano was an impressive medieval fortress town and would have been interesting to explore but I would leave that for another time. I made my way out and after a bit of a struggle found the road to Mondovi. It was a pleasant morning's ride with the sun shining over fields of what looked like runner beans. It was a fertile area and the farms looked prosperous. As I cycled along I checked my direction on the GPS. I seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. I assumed I had entered the coordinates for Mondovi incorrectly the night before and forgot about the GPS.

Then I saw through the haze that there were mountains, with snow on them, in front of me. This was surprising, I knew that there was a mountain range to get over before I reached the Mediterranean but I did not expect them to be so high that they would have snow on them in May. Then I started to see signs to Cuneo but assumed they pointed to the motorway crossing my road, which went off to the west. I then reached a sign, telling me that I had arrived at Cuneo. On the map I saw that I had taken the wrong road out of Fossano, the GPS was correct, the snow covered mountains were the Alps I had been returning to and I had just added 30km to my journey. I was furious with myself for having ignored all the signs, especially for having ignored the GPS. That reminded me of a case I had recently read about, after a canoe journey the year before. We had stopped at a tiny island not far from Plymouth called the Mew Stone Rock. It was an interesting place with a tiny chapel on, built for a hermit. I wanted to find out more when I got home and whilst searching for references to the Mew Stone on the Internet I found the Admiralty report concerning a shipwreck a few years before. Four teachers returning to Plymouth from a weekend trip to France had experienced rough weather. The skipper was tired after the twelve-hour crossing as they approached Plymouth harbour in the dark. He followed a line of buoys from the Mew Stone, counting them off as he went but he turned to starboard after six buoys rather than seven. His GPS had told him he was wrong but he said to the others that it was not working properly. They went aground on the rocks, three of them got ashore but the skipper died.

The journey to Mondovi seemed to pass quickly and I was soon back on my route. I decided I would still try to get to the Mediterranean that day. From Mondovi the route to the sea crossed the Apennines and as I slowly climbed the twisting road motorbikes constantly raced by. These were not just going fast but as fast as possible. One every few minutes, roaring up behind me and leaning over to take the hairpin bends. The mountain became really steep and, it looked as though the road ended in a cliff. When I turned the corner there was a tunnel with a sign saying 'no cyclists'. I could not see where cyclists were supposed to go, so turned my lights on and started into the 2km tunnel. Every ten minutes there was a deafening roar of a motorbike and I had to stop while it passed. The struggle up hill eased as the road levelled out and eventually began to drop. Faster and faster I went down the hill until I could see a bright patch of light growing at the end. I rushed out into blinding sunlight to find I was going over a bridge hundreds of feet up. The road dashed into another shorter tunnel and then out again over a similar bridge. I pulled up on the second bridge, I could not see if there were motorbikes coming towards me in the dazzling sunlight. If they were travelling at 200kmph there was not much I could do to escape them anyway.

The road began to climb again and in another half hour I was at the top where there was a cafe with two hundred motorbikes outside. I put my pushbike amongst all the flashy racing machines and took its photograph. It was three in the afternoon and I was getting tired but the road was downhill now and after forty minutes I was entering Savona and there it was, the Mediterranean. I had imagined I would go for a swim when I reached the sea but I needed to find a campsite quickly. The previous three nights I had stayed in hotels and it was costing a lot of money. I thought there must be campsites along this coast. I stopped for some water and a quick snack from my bag, turned towards the east and followed the coast. Within a couple of kilometres there was a sign 'Camping 5 Star, 2km'. After 2km there was another sign saying 'Camping 5 Star, 2km' with an arrow pointing inland. I followed it up hill and after another 3km there was another sign, 'Camping 5 Star 2km', but the '5' was covered with some sticky tape and '3' had been written by its side. I would be satisfied with the prospect of a one star campsite by this time. The road became steeper and I was beginning to lose hope when there was another sign pointing up a track. I was out of water and overheated. I should have rested for longer in Savona. The last half hour had exhausted me and I was feeling dizzy. I saw the man in the office, bought a bottle of cold water from his fridge, found a shaded site under the trees and lay on the grass to drink. After an hour my strength began to return and I set up my tent and dressed for dinner in the restaurant. I was not too worried about getting tired that day, I had cycled 138km and climbed over the Apennines but my fingers seem to be loosing strength towards the end of the day. I was finding it difficult to undo buckles on the panniers and in the morning the feeing had not returned completely. I was beginning to feel the strain especially after the difficult ride today and decided to stay at the site for a rest day and wait for my energy to catch up with me. That night I had a Pizza followed by ice cream. I would experiment on other Italian food when I was less tired.

Day Night Stop Distance per day km
13 Beaurepaire 87
14 Vizille 94
15 La Grave 69
16 Chiomonte 91
17 Fossano 131
18 Stella 138
total so far 1,468

Day Nineteen – Stella

A washing line had been a good idea; washing was a daily activity and the strong chord was useful, and it made good repairs, replacing lost nuts and bolts. As I sat drinking coffee, watching my underwear flutter in the morning sunshine and considering how useful a bit of string was, I began wondering if I was suffering from a lack of intellectual stimulation. I had been holding long discussions with myself, especially about the navigation error the day before.

As I had been riding along each day it appeared to me as if the journey had already happened, had been written down and a voice in my head was reading it, narrating events in the third person, describing all the places I went through and various people I met on the way. The voice in my head said 'He got up and set off to explore the local village.' A few minutes later, I decided to get up and set off to explore the local village and worry about going crazy later. The village of Stella was a twenty-minute walk. It had a bar, ramshackle shop crammed high with tinned food, closed restaurants, a church and a nice fountain. I had a coffee in the bar and listened to the two old men chat to the Signora. I left when I realised that they were talking about football. I sat on the steps of a fountain and ate some of the local bread and cheese then, as I seemed to have exhausted all of Stella's attractions, I wandered back to the tent for an afternoon nap. I followed that by cleaning the bike. On the way to the restaurant for dinner, I met Brian and my inner voice shut up for a while as I enjoyed talking English to someone other than myself. Brian told me that the motorcyclists, whom I had seen the day before, were not kids but well off businessmen from Milan who descend from the capital each Sunday to race up the mountain hairpin bends. Each week at least one of them made a slight error, on one of the bends, and killed themselves. Brian said that there had been a lot of complaints in the local press but the police had trouble finding the culprits. I said that, if it was any help, I had stumbled across their mountain hideout, where they hid their two hundred bikes, and I had photographic evidence. Brian had married a local woman ten years ago, lived in England during the summer and in his caravan here in the winter.

In the restaurant there was a huge slot-car racing layout and I was tempted to put 50 cents in the slot to have a go but decided I could probably get away with eating alone and not being seen as too sad, but racing toy cars against my self? A family came in and the two children climbed under the slot car table and turned on the electricity supply without putting 50 cents in the slot. They tried to race the cars around the circuit but never managed to complete a lap without a car crashing off and onto the floor. It was probably set up to get the youngsters used to high-speed crashes before they grew up, bought their Kawasakis and took them up to the hairpins of death.

The cook in the restaurant was arguing loudly with the waitress whose boyfriend was sitting at one of the tables. The three of them carried on a noisy argument and managed not to let the customers interrupt them. I eventually gave my order to the waitress and then tried to work out what they were arguing about. I think that the boy friend was accusing the girl friend of having an affair with the cook and the cook was saying that he did not fancy her anyway and if they did not leave him alone he would get on his motorbike and go kill himself next Sunday on the hairpins of death, along with the Milanese guys. The boyfriend then said that as the cook's bike was only a 50cc pop pop, it was unlikely to get up the hill, let alone fly off it carrying him to a romantic, if grizzly, death. Then the cook said that the boyfriend might have a bigger motorbike than his but everyone knows that boys with big bikes are only trying to compensate for their inadequacies. The mother of the slot car racing children told her children to come and sit down at the table but their father said that they needed to learn how to crash cars and what was she trying to turn the two boys into? She said that if he had spent a little longer talking to them they would not be so wild when they came away on holiday and he said that they were only high spirited. Then the girlfriend/waitress brought my pizza out but before putting it on the table she turned and shouted that she was fed up with both her boyfriend and the cook, she got so involved with the argument that she walked back to the kitchen doorway, still carrying my food, to tell the cook that she was leaving this job to get a job as a model in Rome. The cook said that she was too ugly to get a job as waitress in Rome let alone a model. The boyfriend was on his feet, shouting at the cook through the kitchen door to defend his girlfriend's honour. The waitress suddenly realised she still had my pizza in her hand, gazed around, saw me waving, brought it over, placed it in front of me and flashing a smile said 'bon appertito'. She returned to her triangular squabble, the course of which I followed whilst setting to work on my pizza. The pizza was good despite the cook's mind being on other things. My inner voice was trying to get in a word in between the delicious crusty dough, tomato and melted mozzarella mouthfuls with some idea that it was possible the clash, I was witnessing, did not concern hearts but clubs, football clubs.

After dinner I left the mother lighting her sixth pre-dinner cigarette, father scraping some garlic bread out of one of the racing cars' slots, the boys arguing over who should race the remaining car, the waitress wiping away her tears, the boyfriend with his head in his hands, the cook throwing pans around in the kitchen and returned to my tent. A caravan had arrived at the next plot and as I made myself a cup of coffee I could not help overhearing the young girl rowing with her husband. She always had to do the cooking and all he wanted to do was sit drinking beer. I went to bed thinking how much noise there was in Italy and what an excellent job St. Denis was doing in France to keep the frenzy and strife down. Just before I dozed off I heard the waitress shouting at the cook as he started up his little pop pop bike, shortly followed by the roar of the boyfriend's Kawasaki.

Day Twenty – The Ligurian Sea

I crept out of the campsite while everyone slept and rolled down the hill to follow the coast of the Ligurain Sea. It was not a beautiful stretch of coastline and soon the road entered the outskirts of Genova: a big sprawling port. The traffic was terrible and the route was not clear. It took the best part of two hours to escape the city but still the coastal area was built up. There was a cyclist in front with camping gear. Eventually he stopped at a cafe on the sea front and I decided to stop at the same place. He was Swiss, cycling from his hometown through Italy and getting the ferry across the Adriatic to Athens where he was meeting his wife and baby son. He was hoping to get to Athens in two weeks. We talked about, campsites, Swiss tunnels compared to Italian tunnels and bikes and then cycled off. The route along the coast was slow and where it looked flat on the map in reality went over some big hills. This, together with the heat of the afternoon, soon exhausted me. When at Chivari, I saw a sign for 'Camping, La Mare' I decided I had done enough for the day. This went against my experience, and Rule No. Five, which states that campsites by the coast, especially ones called La Mare or El Paridiso, should be avoided because they were always terrible, with tiny plots, no grass and often surrounded by barbed wire. But, I reasoned there was an exception to every rule, so I went in. The campsite was terrible, with tiny plots, no grass and it was surrounded by barbed wire. I considered travelling on but had seen few campsites on the way. I was hot, tired and did not feel too well. The man in the office spoke a little English and when I put my birthplace as London, (an important piece of information for campsite administrators to know here in Italy, as in France) the man said that he had an English friend called Peter who was from London, I explained that it had been some time since I had lived there and that it was a big place and I probably did not know him. 'Peter,' he said, 'come here every a-year and soon come to a-stay, because London is a full of Pakistanis.' One of my, growing list of, rules for the journey was: Rule Six 'Never, ever get cross with people when you are guests in their country.' I tried to explain that I liked ethnically diverse societies and thought that Britain benefited from its cultural mix and after all, weren't the Roman armies a culturally diverse bunch. He said that he didn't like Romans either. Neither my Italian, nor his English, was up to the debate and in the end I was afraid that he assumed I was in agreement with Peter.

Whilst putting my tent up another cyclist arrived. I was surprised to see my Swiss friend. His tent was much bigger than mine so he put his bike in at night for safety. I said that I had brought a couple of locks and that the big one doubled up as a mallet to knock pegs in. He borrowed my lock and banged his pegs in and later we shared a meal together. It was good to have someone to talk to even though the lack of a common language meant that topics of discussion were limited. Michel worked in the office of his father's transport business. Like other Swiss people he was very proud of his homeland and, unlike the English, who like to play down love of their country, spent a lot of time saying how much better Switzerland was than France and Italy. I said that Switzerland was the tidiest nation I had ever been to. His tidy set of pannier bags impressed me, when removed from his bike they were like a set of kitchen cupboards, with little drawers where everything was kept ready to hand. We shared some beers and then Michel settled down for the night with his bike. I could not help thinking that Super Gal was sulking being left out in the cool air for yet another night. I explained that she was a British bike and sharing tents was not the done thing and she should keep a stiff upper cotter pin. She said that she was a modern bike and had no cotter pins.

Day Twenty-One – Via Regio

Perhaps the Romans only built straight roads when they reached Britain. In that part of the world roads appeared to wind their way over the hills and avoid the coastline. It was good to get away from the urban roads and into the hills. After two hours climbing I reached 618m, the highest point of the Bracco Pass, stopped at a lovely cafe for coffee and sat back in the warm sunshine to gaze over the spectacular views of the Ligurian Sea. There was not a breath of wind. The Keeper of the Winds, had them tied tightly in his bag this morning. He was King Aeolus who lived on a floating island and kept all the winds in a bag letting different ones out from time to time. His daughter Alcyone, filled with grief after her husband perished in a shipwreck, threw herself into the sea and drowned. The gods, in a compassionate mood that day, transformed Alcyone and her drowned husband into birds – kingfishers. Each year Alcyone's father, Keeper of the Winds, calms the waves for his daughter to lay her eggs on her floating nest. Hence we have halcyon days, which are in December, not May. So, I ended reflection on this halcyon scene and cycled on, through shady woods, over a pass snaking around the mountains before dropping down again to sea level. I stopped for an early lunch and, as I ate my toasted pizza, thought that I really must start eating something other than pizza whilst in Italy. I found a side road, which stayed on the level and missed out the large city of La Spezia. I stopped under a flyover to change my maps and allow a shower of a rain to blow over. A man pulled up, stood his scooter up on its stand and looked me up and down. His leisurely, unhurried manner gave the impression he had time on his hands. I showed him the little map of my journey all the way from Fordingbridge to Rome. He said that he was waiting to pick up his wife who was visiting a friend in La Spezia and would be on the next bus. When the bus arrived two people got off but not his wife. He was cross because she had missed the bus, and now he would have to go all the way into town to pick her up and he hated doing that because of all the traffic. He was concerned at having to go a few miles to pick his wife up from her day in town, whilst I was happy to cycle off for a month and leave my wife to make her own way to East Asia.

King Aeolus popped the winds back into their sack, the rain stopped and halcyon days were here again. After a while I saw a sign for Pisa 60km away. I had already done 70km that day, so Pisa might be a possibility. I pushed on down the main road, thinking it would be quicker than finding side routes, but after 20km decided that the there was too much traffic. The side roads did not seem to lead in the right direction, all ending at the beach. I sat on one scruffy beach and ate some food. There were no ships, boats and the sea was too choppy for kingfishers. It was warm enough for a swim but the beach looked as though every builder from La Spezia had been using it as a rubbish dump. There were a couple of other people sitting amongst the mess, eating their lunch and one beautiful sun bronzed woman laying on a towel sunbathing in a bikini. She must have been dedicated to her tan and would have looked at home on the cover of a holiday brochure but the picture would have needed a lot of airbrush work to remove the piles of rubble. I cycled off trying to follow the coast but had to return to the main road because all the side roads were one-way systems. The image of the woman amidst the rubbish lingered in my mind as I cycled on trying to keep out of the lorries' paths and ignore the noise they made.

It is strange what rubbish collects along the sides of busy main roads. As well as potholes, cyclists have to get used to watching out for broken drain covers, bottles, cans, bits of exhaust pipe, rocks, builders rubble fallen from the back of lorries before they can get to the beach, and all other manner of obstacles and junk that can be hazardous for the hapless rider whose eyes spend too much time on mountains, skylarks or bronzed women. So whilst touring cyclists like to talk of how they have time to see so much of the beautiful countryside as they leisurely cycle along, they have to spend a good proportion of their journey looking at, and avoiding, the flotsam and jetsam of other road users. As I continued along, musing on the concept of beauty in the midst of rubbish, I cycled over something that jumped up, hit my legs and bounced around my knees and thighs before finally falling back on the road. It made me jump and sent shivers down my back. I thought for a moment that it was an animal, a roadside killer rodent attacking me but then I realised it was a loose set of cat's eyes in its rubber case. The thing definitely seemed to be alive as it jumped all around my legs. Shortly afterwards I saw one of the strangest roadside oddities I had ever seen, it was about a metre long and looked as though it was some type of giant kipper. It had obviously been run over a few times and it was difficult to tell whether it had been dried and flattened before or after arriving on the road. After cycling a couple of kilometres further there was another, identical giant flattened fish. Where were they coming from? Leaping from tanks of live fish and being flattened on the road by all the traffic? Or falling from the back of lorries overloaded with dried fish? Had I cycled upon evidence of an illicit cod smuggling racket? There were hundreds of lorries passing me but which ones hid the cod. Many were loaded with huge blocks of marble, held in place with inadequate looking straps. How many cyclists, I wondered, were flattened, kipper-like, on that stretch of road by blocks of marble falling of the backs of lorries?

All along that roadside there were marble suppliers, displaying in their front yards water-cooled saws, automatically cutting their way through the huge blocks of stone. Inland I could see what seemed to be a mountain topped by a late fall of snow but it was the white marble quarries above the town of Carrara, where the stone blocks had been cut since Roman times for stone pillars and statues. The stone for what is probably the greatest statue in the world, Michelangelo's five-metre high colossal statue of David came from Carrara. Work on the marble block had been started by other sculptors but abandoned as too difficult. The young Michelangelo took on the task and had completed it within three years. The choice of the character of David, at the point of taking on Goliath, was no accident. The state of Florence had expelled the ruling Medici family and declared a republic. The small new state was surrounded by larger hostile states and the people of Florence were inspired by the statue to resist their neighbour’s aggression. A replica statue now stands in the Piazza Signoria in Florence.

Kilometre after kilometre I passed factories working on the stone. Most, I imagined, were not producing marble for statues but floors. I gave up trying to find side roads and stuck to the main road. Eventually the factories began to disappear and the countryside prevailed. I stopped at a level crossing waiting for the barriers to rise and sat on my bike next to a school bus. The kids shouted out of the window and I waved. They must have asked the driver how to speak English because they came back and asked where I was from. I told them, they rushed back to the driver for a translation and returned to ask, 'How long, from, England?' I told them and the whole crowd of kids raced to the front of the bus again. This conversation, via the driver, went on for around twenty minutes while we waited for the two trains to pass with loads of, what were probably hollowed out marble blocks full of contraband cod. When we started again the kids gave me a huge cheer and after another half an hour of cycling down the road I saw the empty bus coming back towards me, the driver flashing his lights and waving.

Pisa was too far for that day and when I reached Via Regio I remembered Rule Number Five and avoided 'Camping Paradisio' and followed signs for 'Camping Via Reggio, a large Italian version of a municipal campsite with plenty of lush green grass, trees and a shop. It was nearly empty and only cost €3 as opposed to the ten for last night's patch of dirt. I signed in and had a pleasant evening eating a good meal of tuna and pasta and drinking beer. I had travelled 128km that day, including a hill climb and my knees were feeling the worse for wear. The next day should be flatter, giving me a chance to recover my stamina. I was getting weary but thought that if they could haul a ten-ton block of marble from here to Rome; I might manage to haul my self the same distance. Super Gal said they would have waited for the halcyon days of December, put it on a barge and taken it by sea. I said I hate smart bikes.

Day Twenty-Two – Pisa and Florence

Pisa is not a large city and I was soon beside the tower. It was a beautiful morning with that little hint of mist lit by the newly risen sun, low in the sky, making the new day sparkle and dance with adolescent promise. The stone of the tower and surrounding buildings shone so white that it gave the whole area a surreal atmosphere. It was delightful, all the more so for cyclists who could cycle right into the car free centre and lean their bikes by the tower. It is such a famous image that seeing it for real was magical. The place was largely free of tourists at that time of day and I enjoyed walking around and taking photographs. When the coaches of tourists began to arrive, and a queue grew next to the tower for guided tours I decided it was time to move on. Searching for a minor road travelling in right direction I found a flood prevention barrier with a cycle path along the top. I had bought some bread and ham for lunch so stopped on the grassy bank in the midday sunshine to eat. It was a lovely place, picnicking amongst the spring flowers and the long grass gently swaying in the cooling breeze. I spent too long there; finding it difficult to get going again and it was nearly one o'clock before I started off. If I was to achieve my target for that day I still had 60km to do. After another 15km along the flood barrier, the afternoon became hard going. Following side roads often meant getting lost and the main roads were busy. Someone in a car shouted at me, the first time on the trip that some one had been rude. Then a minute later someone else blew their horn and waved out of their window. I was going down a slipway to the autostrada and the bicycle friendly Italian drivers were saving me from ending up as a news item in the Pisa Times. Back on the main road, the afternoon became hot and I stopped for a refreshing ice-cold lemonade soda. I was planning to find a hotel or campsite some 20km from Florence and enter the city early the next day, a system that had worked well in Pisa. I spent a lot of time cycling down side roads, following people's suggestions for lodgings without success and decided that I would have to go into Florence to find a hotel. It was seven o'clock when I crossed the River Arno into the city centre. I had assumed that this beautiful city would be car free, as Pisa was, but it was crammed with traffic and cars parked at every possible place. I found a three star hotel, locked my bike up outside and asked if there was a room available. The manager said that the only room he had was €120 but as I started to walk off he remembered that he also had one for €60. I was too tired to continue to search and so accepted. A bellboy helped me get my bike into a storage room but I could not undo the clips and ropes on my panniers. The numbness in my fingers was getting really bad. In the end the bellboy undid it for me. The room was about all right but there were no windows and I felt claustrophobic after my many nights under the stars. I showered and ate some food then I went for a walk around Florence. I was feeling too tired to get excited, even about the most beautiful city in the world. I sat at a pavement bar, had a beer and tried to get my self motivated to enjoy the scene but the city seemed to be consumed by cars and scooters in their thousands. I returned to my room and listened to a phone messages from my mother who said my father had been washing his flowerpots in the greenhouse that day. That was nice.

Day Twenty-Three - Florence to Cappanole 128km

Day Twenty-Three - Tuscany
A Florentine flea, or some-such beastie, had feasted on me during the night and I felt like my face had been inflated with a bicycle pump. I felt worse than on any other morning of the trip. I thought that riding would clear my head. I collected my bike and it was still early when I cycled onto the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. Apart from one young girl sitting precariously on the parapet and staring dreamily in the waters of the Arno below, I had the place to myself. The original bridge was built by the Romans to carry the Via Cassia from the north to Rome. This one is about 800 years old. Being on such a busy route, during the Middle Ages, the bridge attracted many traders who built their shops on it. As time went on all these shops were taken over by butchers who found the river below a convenient way to dispose of offal and other animal waste. The consequential polluting annoyed the Duke Ferdinand de Medici so much he banned butchers from the bridge. So leather traders took over and used the river as a handy sewer to dump all their used tanning products - mainly urine. So, in a brilliant piece of urban legislation the Duke decreed that only goldsmiths be allowed to trade on the bridge correctly figuring that goldsmiths would have little waste to throw in the Arno. Goldsmiths remain on the bridge to this day. In 1966 devastating floods caused a huge amount of damage to Florence's beautiful buildings and many of its works of art and also swept away a fortune of gold from the bridge. I wondered if the girl staring down into the waters below was keeping an eye on her boyfriend doing a little early morning sub-aqua metal detecting.

I cycled around Florence's beautiful Cathedral, the Duomo, and visited the Piazza Signoria to look at the replica of David but I was feeling terrible, and decided to abandon my cycle tour of the city and make my way out of Florence, find a campsite and rest until I was better. Trying to find my way south I became stuck in a traffic queue; a delivery van had tried to squeeze around a tight corner and become stuck, scooter riders were all fighting to get by and the van eventually knocked a bit of brickwork off the corner of the medieval building. I got out of the centre, found a park by the side of the river and stopped, to try to get myself together. There were some Africans who had been sleeping there overnight and they were now drearily setting up their stalls of Moroccan beads. I made some coffee and wondered how far I would be able to cycle feeling so bad. A little further on I stopped at a cafe and ate a couple of sugary cakes that seem to give me a little more energy. As I came out, three old guys were looking at my bike and falling about laughing. They were looking at the tin whistle fitted to my bike with a little clip taped under the saddle. The joke was that the English cyclists play music on their tin whistles by farting through the holes in their saddles. I thought of trying to explain the Numb Nut Syndrome but instead played them a tune on the whistle, much to their disappointment, in the conventional manner with my lips. The music did little for the old guys but it cheered me up somewhat. I struggled out of Florence and after a few kilometres saw a sign saying 'Camping 5km' but after 10km I gave up trying to find the site and got back on the road south. There was a campsite marked on my map after another 10km and I searched for that one but it was closed. I had a long conversation with a friendly man who told me it used be open to the public but now was for residents only. It struck me as strange how I felt relaxed talking to Italians; I could not understand much of what they were saying but there always seemed to be a lack of pressure during conversations with Italians because they never looked flustered at the lack of comprehension. Lack of understanding always seemed to concern the French more than the Italians who enjoyed a good chat. I left my friendly private camper and cycled back to the road to Rome. I was travelling through a wooded area and I thought that if I could find somewhere to get extra water I would camp in the forest. The next little village had a garage and when I cycled in, I saw that it had a restaurant crowded with locals laughing and filling their jovial overweight Italian frames with great bowls of pasta and plates of pizza. There had been a number of times I had been in trouble on this trip, what with broken spokes and Libyan gangsters. To repair the spokes I had turned to a local hero in Bourbon-Lancy and the little voice had come to my rescue by the side of the Rhone. I thought that this might be one of those rare times that I could eat my way out of trouble. I sat at the table in the crowded room and looked around at the strange mix of businessmen, old ladies, mothers and toddlers in the crowded restaurant. The waiter was either Robert De Niro researching an acting part as a waiter in a restaurant attached to a garage in a remote part of Tuscany or this was the town where his ancestors came from and the waiter was his second cousin. I ordered a two-litre bottle of ice-cold water and as I drank it and looked down the menu I began to feel much better. This restaurant specialised in bruschetta, I had no idea what bruschetta was but no one on the other tables seemed to be eating anything that looked too strange for me to cope with and at least I would be getting something other than pizza. I ordered a Bruschetta Rustica, taking Robert by surprise. I wondered whether I was ordering a whole roast pig or something. The cook came out to check that I did indeed want 'Rustica'. I stuck to my guns and said that I did. He shouted back to Robert that he was right after all and that the Signor did want 'Bruschetta Rustica!' It seemed that there was a muttering of admiration, or maybe it was amazement, from the other customers as the chef returned to his kitchen and went to work. After twenty minutes Robert returned announcing to everyone the arrival of 'Bruschetta Rustica!' and presented me with what looked like a… pizza. It was subtly different though: with a delicious thin crispy base, aubergine, cheese and mushroom topping. It was great and I started to feel better. So, on the theory (used too much by me according to Valerie) that if a little is good for you then a lot will be even better, I went for a plate of apple tart and ice cream followed by two cups of coffee. I thanked Robert for the Rustica and complimented him on his portrayal of Jake La Motta in 'Raging Bull' when he ate his way out of trouble by putting on four and a half stone in order to play convincingly the part of the overweight boxer at the end of the film. I left the restaurant, got on my bike, felt four and a half stone heavier but a lot better and decided to cycle on. After a few kilometres I saw something laying at the side of the road, it was another dried fish. Could it have fallen from the same lorry as the other fish had came from two days earlier? Was a codfish smuggler stalking me? Were all these fish being whisked up by some tropical storm over the Bay of Bengal and falling to Earth in Tuscany splitting open on impact, being flattened by a falling marble block from passing lorries and dried in the Italian sunshine? Or did rustica refer to the type of mushrooms Robert De Niro used for his 'bruschetta? That would certainly account for the popularity of his service station restaurant. I cycled on enjoying the day. I was still feeling good after another 50km. All I needed was a plan. On the map there was a road over a hill to Sienna, where there was a campsite but that was 40km away. I thought that I might find somewhere to stay on the route. So cycled towards Sienna. After a couple of kilometres I saw a sign for camping in 6km. I tried not to be too optimistic because such signs in Italy generally indicated the possibility of a campsite in a certain direction together with a rustic estimation of its distance. When I had completed the 6km there it was! Reopened only two days earlier after the winter. It was empty, with lovely big plots shaded by hedges full of flowering bougainvillea, two swimming pools and a shop – everything. I lay on my mattress had an ice cold drink and fell asleep in the shade.

Day Night Stop Distance km
20 Chiavari 98
21 Via Reggio 129
22 Florence 116
23 Cappanole 84
total so far 1,895

Day Twenty-Four - Cappanole

Pottering is an aimless sort of activity. Probably because of that it is one of my favourite pastimes. It must be done correctly: having a list of pottering jobs, each of which could be forgotten without consequence. Each job should require little effort. Anything involving frenzy or strife should be avoided. Pottering must be sandwiched between heavier, more consequential set of activities. For example: cycling through Florence and cycling through Rome. I became an occasional potterer many years ago, in the mountains of Saudi Arabia. All the other men there were much older, ex-military types. As well as sun, sand and camels there was a lot of spare time around, so I took up pottering. I did most of my pottering in a bit of the desert outside my window, which I grandly called 'my garden'. I was trying to make the desert bloom. After one relaxed pottering day, spent casually spreading camel dung, I ambled into the canteen and sat down next to Clive who everyone called Big Clive and who should have really been called Enormous Clive.
'What you been up to today Gray?' asked Big Clive.
'Oh just pottering around.' I said.
'Pottering around? Pottering around? Listen Gray, you don't potter around out here mate, you fuck about.' I took Big Clive's advice and fucked about for the rest of my time in the desert. Oh, and my garden: the flowers were on the point of blooming, the sweet corn was nearly ready to pick, I left the gate open and the camels came in and did there own bit of fucking about. A million miles away, and a million years later, there in my little hedged plot, quite over-canopied with luscious bougainvillea, in an almost empty Tuscany, I felt safe that I could potter around as much as I liked without fear of Big Clive's wrath. I cleaned the Super Gal, did a few repairs, went for a swim in one of the empty pools and chatted to a Dutch couple that were on a walking holiday. I decided to eat something other than pizza in the restaurant that evening and asked in the office what time it opened and was told at 7.30. But at 7.40 it still looked shut. The girl in the office said that the restaurant she was talking about was down the road but when I got down the road I was told that there was no room unless I had booked. I became demoralised when I could not get a seat in the restaurant. It did not seem to take much to get me down at that stage of the trip. As I walked back to the tent I remembered Rule 26: Always check if it is necessary to book when asking what time a restaurant opens. By the time I returned to the campsite the shop was shut. So I fell back on Rule 19: Always carry a spare meal in the panniers. In this case Pasta Rustica.

Yesterday had been difficult and I had been disappointed not to enjoy Florence. I had begun to smell success and was cycling too far each day. Climbers have a term for it: summit fever, when a climber gets close to the top and throws caution to the wind in one great charge for the summit. Many climbers have got into trouble, or even died, because of summit fever. I was close but should be careful not to over ride each day. Rome was only 188km away according to the GPS, 250km by road. In the morning I planned to cycle to Sienna and get to Rome after two more days cycling. All I needed to do was sit on my bike for three more days and the journey would carry me on.

Day Twenty-Five — Cappanole to Lago Bolsena 149km

Day Twenty-Five - Sienna

Sienna has a spectacular square, although, it is not square but semi-circular, like a huge amphitheatre surrounded by magnificent buildings and looked down upon by the Torre del Mangia. I walked around and chose a cafe in the sunshine where I could sit and take in the wonderful buildings. I locked my bike to a bollard in front of the cafe and while I was waiting for a coffee, a trader came to open her souvenir stall next to my bike. She seemed disturbed by the presence of a bike next to her stall so I got up to move it. As I unlocked it and moved it ten feet away from her stall she became more agitated and started shouting at me. I could not understand her so smiled and did my head-shaking-shoulder-shrugging act. I returned to my coffee and bun but before long the stall girl returned - with a policeman. I had visions of being dragged off and locked up in the Torre del Mangia until my insult to the stall girl's family honour had been satisfied, but the policeman was extremely polite and spoke in good English while the stall girl shouted in his ear and waved her arms at me. 'Welcome to Sienna, Signore,' he said, 'where do you cycle from?' I said that I had cycled all the way from England and that it had taken me twenty-five days to get to Sienna. He was impressed, 'You cycle here from England, that is wonderful and you are so very old.' I agreed with him and tried to shrink down to make myself look even older and frailer. 'This lady is upset because she says your bicycle is in her way but I tell her it is not in her way at all and that this Englishman is a hero and has cycled all the way from England to enjoy some morning coffee in our beautiful city of Sienna. No problem! Please sit down, welcome.' The policeman then turned to the stall girl, told her that she would lose her trading licence if she did not learn to be polite to visitors, even ones with bicycles, and that if she did not be quiet straight away he would lock her in the Torre del Mangia, even though she did have good friends in the local Mafia. Whatever he said, it shut her up instantly. By the time I was ready to go, the Signora had got her stall open and I could not help going to look over her souvenirs and flaunt my popularity with the local police. I spent an hour walking and cycling around Sienna then set out on the road to the south.

Rome 220km said a sign. I had resolved the night before to take it easy that day but it was a beautiful day, cycling seemed easy, I was feeling good and even the local police were on my side, so I thought I would have a good chance to get to Lake Bolsena that day. On the map it looked as though there were plenty of camping sites around its shoreline. However, it was a further 100km. I decided to ride on and let the journey decide how far I would travel and what would happen that day. My southward journey over the previous three weeks had followed the poppy flowering season, there were a few on the roadsides in the Alps, but here in Tuscany they were everywhere: great rolling crimson prairies of them. They must use less weed killer on the crops in Tuscany. Farmhouses in Tuscany are built on the top of rises in the land and towns are situated on hilltops. In England the landscape is topped by tree-lined horizons and the communities huddle in the valleys out of the rain and wind. Tuscany buildings reach up from the hilltops for the cooling Mediterranean breezes. It may also be that in the past settlements in Italy relied on windmills for power whereas in England watermills were more often used for grinding flour. This would mean that settlements grew up where the mills were, at the bottom of the valleys. On a hillside I saw a blaze of red from a field of what looked like pure poppies, I stopped to walk amongst them and take some photographs and saw that there was another photographer there. It was great that at least two people were there to see the brief splendour. It was Sunday and I was short of food; I was eating huge amounts at that time: at least two big lunches. I stopped at a town but the only places open were tourist shops and all I could get was some expensive cheese and fancy souvenir biscuits.

Around one o'clock I saw another service station with an attached restaurant. It looked crowded but remembering the excellent meal from two days previously, and how it had given me energy for the rest of the day, I pulled into the forecourt. There was a wedding reception being held in the restaurant but as I started to leave the waiter came and showed me to a marquee in the front with a spare table. So, I joined the guests for lunch. I was determined to have some food that was in no way connected to pizzas and ordered Risotto Pescari. After drinking a huge bottle of ice-cold water, a great plate of seafood arrived and I tucked into what looked like examples of every type of Mediterranean seafood possible. The family at the table next to me had two children, one was strapped into a high chair and the other was free ranging. So much so, that his range extended easily as far as my table and he freely helped him self to some of my pescari. The mother was young and elegant, with flowing shoulder length jet-black hair, but her hands looked too well manicured to have had a lot of dealings with the raising of two young children. She started to shout and, assuming that she was aiming it at her wandering son, I turned to do my smiling-nodding, 'it doesn't matter, children will be children,' sort of shoulder-shrugging, but realised that she was not shouting at the boy at my table, but at her husband, who was also free ranging and had slipped out of the tent to adjust the carburettor on his car while waiting for his pudding. I tried to change my shrug to, 'Can't you stop your kid eating all the best bits of my pescari,' but it was no good. I was beginning to bolt my food, trying to eat as much as I could before the infant scavenger helped himself. I like the way that Italians are happy to take their children to restaurants and the way that the restaurant staff recognise that people who have children still want to eat. Here, in Italy, this usually meant that children were used to eating out and behaved but this family must have been an exception. In the old days the Romans had ways of controlling their infants. They told them that the world was full of monsters, whose job it was to punish misbehaving children. One nasty minor deity was a crazed woman called Mormo. One of her legs was made of brass and the other was the leg of a donkey. She had a neat trick of being able to take her eyeballs out. So parents would get a pair of sheep's eyeballs, leave them in a saucer at the child's bedside over night and tell their child that if they misbehaved, Mormo would return, to creep up on them, 'Clop, dong, clop, dong!' as quietly as a blind monster can creep on a donkey leg and a lump of brass. She would bite into their neck and slowly suck out the blood. Even when delinquents reached adolescence there was no escaping Mormo. She would turn herself into a beautiful woman who would seduce teenagers into her bedroom and when she returned from the bathhouse, ''Clop, dong, clop, dong! ...' I wondered if my tormentor had heard of the Roman bogey woman and I whispered in his ear, 'Mormo is coming to get you,' but he just made a grab for the one giant size tiger prawn I had been saving for last, I made a grab for his wrist and tried to prise the giant prawn from his grip. He held on tightly and shouted, 'Mormo'. I looked at his Mum but she was just ignoring her son's behaviour. Perhaps stealing prawns was a cry for help. Was this kid attempting to get some attention from his mother who doted on his younger brother? He carried on shouting, 'Mormo, Mormo!' while his mother was talking, smiling and feeding her younger son. I called out, what I thought was Italian for 'Excuse me!' but she just called out nervously to her husband, who ignored her. At that moment my tiger prawn was twisted from my grip with a neat little flick of the wrist. The sort of manoeuvre that only a free ranging, streetwise prawn thief learns after years of experience. The last I saw of my tiger prawn was its tail disappearing into the kid's mouth. Crustaceans must have brought out the worst in my luncheon partner because as soon as he had swallowed my tiger prawn he was happy to leave me alone to eat my caramel pudding in peace. I toasted the bride and groom, paid €10, unlocked my bike, whilst trying to stop the free ranging kid from pinching the spare brake cable out of my pannier bags and keep his hands off all the gadgets on my handlebars. Then a little plump woman came up to us and grabbed the child by the shoulder. 'No, Mormo!' he shouted as she clouted him around the ear. She smiled at me saying, 'Molte scuse, molte scuse!' I looked back into the restaurant under the awning at, who I had thought to be, the boy's mother explaining to her husband about the strange cyclist she had had to put up with, over lunch, while he was fiddling with his carburettor. I cycled off, thinking that I must recommend this service station to all my friends at home who were looking for somewhere just a little different for their daughters' wedding receptions.

The countryside was gorgeous, with empty roads winding through poppy painted fields, below a skyline of silhouetted villages. It was one of the most beautiful afternoons of the journey. I did not see anywhere to stay and knew that I would probably have to get to Lago di Bosena before I found a campsite. The previous day's resolution of taking it easy was falling apart. Lake Bosena is in the basin of an extinct volcano that blew up some half a million years ago. The geology of the terrain was interesting but it meant that there was a cycle climb to get over the rim of the volcano and down to the lake. The afternoon was hot and there was little respite from the sun as I climbed the hill up to San Lorenzo Nuova. The town was an ancient stopping place for pilgrims travelling from England to Rome. There were three pilgrim routes in Early Christian Europe one went to the Holy Land, another to Santiago de Compestella in Spain and the third along the Via Francigena to Rome. In the year 994 Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury had his clerk record the important places they stopped at on their way back from their pilgrimage to Rome. The route has recently been retraced. Sigeric, 'The Serious' as he was known, was a monk from Glastonbury. When he became Archbishop of Canterbury he advised, King Aethelred 'The Unready' to pay the Danes ten thousand pounds. All observers of protection rackets would know, this would just encourage more rape and pillage. When asked by Sigeric, 'The Serious' to pay another ten grand to the Danes, Sigeric's faithful clerk, probably called something like Eric 'The Flippant', recorded Aethelred 'The Unready', as replying, 'Are you serious, Serious?' I cycled on up the hill squashing all other potential puns on sight.

It was strange to think that this little road was such an important route in the past. Merchants, artists, priests, bishops, armies, Anglo Saxon Kings, Barbarian invaders, Emperors and, I would imagine, other cyclists have passed this point on their way to Rome. From San Lorenzo I could see Lago Bolsena down inside the ancient volcanic crater and, without having to turn the pedals again that day, followed the winding road for the next 13km down to the lake's edge and into Mario's Campsite. Mario in person welcomed me and it took me some time, in my tired state, to work out that he was talking in German. I began to try to answer back in German but could not cope, so tried my head-nodding-shrug but it obviously did not look like a Germanic head-nodding-shrug, (an altogether much more upright, stiffer affair, and difficult to perform after three weeks sitting on a bicycle saddle.) Mario noticed this and straight away asked, 'Are you English,' then we both laughed in our own languages and I told him my place of birth and all was sorted. After getting some food and vino from Signora Mario's shop, devouring a large packet of crisps and more water than I thought it would ever be possible to drink at one time, I set up camp and organised myself for the evening. The campsite was popular with German tourists, a few of whom were on bikes. One group I spoke to said that they had come by train and were cycling around the area. They said that the Western side of the lake would be a pleasant ride for me the next day and would enable me to avoid the main road. After cooking and eating a meal of chicken and pasta, I sat by the lake with some red wine and watched the birds fly high above, returning to their roosting sites for the night and the last of the red clouds disappear behind the hills to the west. I thought about the journey ahead: only one more day's cycling and I would be on the outskirts of Rome. I was beginning to get scared. To be defeated by the Alps, would have been disappointing but I could have come to terms with that, but to get as close as this, and not make it, would be terrible. Ancient Romans in such a situation would have called for their auguries whose job it was to analyse the flights of the birds, look at the patterns of the clouds and the colour of dead chickens' entrails. From these omens they would have been then able to assess the fortunes of forthcoming ventures to see if the auspices were good. I reckoned that night, as every bird was flying towards the setting sun, towards the right, and there was not one was flying the other way, that fortune would favour me the next day. The fact that one cloud, disappearing to the west, looked suspiciously like a giant tiger prawn I put down to something I had not eaten. I reckoned that all I would have to do, to get to Rome, was to not fall off my bike, or get knocked down by the Roman traffic everyone continuously warned me about. Then, the day after tomorrow I would cycle over an avenue of strewn poppy petals, lined each side with the ancient ghosts of those who had completed their journeys ahead of me. There would be Julius Caesar after crossing the Rubicon, Cleopatra entering Rome with Caesar's son, Caractacus, last of the British freedom fighters brought to Rome in chains. I then noticed that most of my bottle of red wine had disappeared, I did not bother to go and disturb Mario to ask for some chickens' entrails to finish my auguries and went to bed instead.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

From Ithaka - Cavafi

Day Twenty-Six — Lago Bolsena to Lago Bracciano 100km

Day Twenty-Six - Umbria

The lake perfectly mirrored its surrounding hills and a few gulls flying high across the sky were the only things moving. I lit my stove and let the excitement of the journey wake me. What would lie ahead on the road today? More beautiful Umbria? How far would I get? Would the codfish mystery be solved? I talked to the German cyclists while drinking my coffee. One of them had a recumbent bike, the type you lie down on and cycle feet first. He said that it was the most comfortable ride he had ever had on a bike. Compared to my saddle it was luxurious with its bucket seat but I wondered if I would feel safe being so low down. I had felt safe on my touring bike for most of the trip. The few exceptions being when I was cycling too fast down hills. I returned to my tent and fell into my comfortable packing up routine. There was another group of five German cyclists nearby who were on a week's cycling holiday. I was amazed by the amount of instructions one of them was issuing to the others. Groups of travellers have to have a leader, it seems. Otherwise they spend forever in decision-making discussions. I like the simplicity of travelling alone. I often find following other peoples' decisions frustrating, having never been a good team member. I left as the Germans' team leader was handing out the day's cycling orders while his group counted off from left to right.

I followed the sandy track along the west side of the lake. My bike was slower over sand, having narrow tyres but it was a wonderfully peaceful ride through small olive groves carpeted with poppies. After a shopping stop at Capeldimonti on the Southern shore of the lake a spoke snapped. I wondered if the rough road had caused it but decided that I needed to concentrate on what to do next and not bother what had caused it. I was going to have to demonstrate my skill at decision-making I had been musing over whilst watching the German cyclists. I bet their team leader had a set of spare spokes, the right gadget for getting the back cogs off to replace the broken spokes and probably a satellite phone to summon up an aerial drop of emergency spokes. Trying to straighten the wheel would just put more strain on the unbroken spokes. It would be best to loosen the back brake blocks off and find a repair shop.

The next town was Tuscania about 15km away, only a little off my intended route. I was regretting being so complacent and over confidant the night before but then thought that the behaviour of steel spokes under tension probably does not depend on a cyclist's level of confidence.

Tuscania was a sleepy little medieval town. I headed for the centre and found a little garage, where a man was sitting on a plastic chair on the forecourt. I started to work out an opening gambit from my phrase book but the man got up and said, 'I speak a little English, can I help?' I explained my situation. 'No problem,' he said, 'I get Luigi.' My heart leapt, Luigi would be Tuscania's version of Monsieur Velo from Bourbon-Lancy, a couple of hours would see my wheel set straight and I would be off to Rome. Plastic Chair Man walked across the empty road and shouted Italian at the house opposite, using the word Luigi often but nothing happened. He repeated the shouting closer to the door and an elderly woman pushed her head out shading her eyes from the sunshine and replied by pointing above. My heart sank, Luigi must be dead. Plastic Chair Man stepped back and called out again. The first floor shutters slowly opened and a head of long flowing black hair appeared; could Luigi be a girl? Plastic Chair Man returned, 'Luigi, he is a having his girl friend for lunch. He will return in one hour, you wait a here?' He showed me to his plastic chair on the forecourt. I asked him if Luigi fixed bikes. 'Maybe yes, maybe no. If Luigi not fix your bike he tell you a where to go.' I was confused and asked if he, Plastic Chair Man, could not tell me where to go? He replied, 'No, no, I am from Sardinia'. I thought that, as Plastic Chair Man had been sitting on the forecourt, he worked at the garage but having explained that he was from Sardinia, he walked off in the direction of Sardinia, I supposed. What 'being from Sardinia' had to do with anything, I could not work out, but after three weeks of trying to communicate in languages I did not speak, I was beginning to accept a certain degree of confusion as the normal state of world affairs. I propped my bike up against a wall, got some food out of my bag, a water bottle from the bike and sat down on the recently vacated plastic chair. This was a beautiful place and it was lunchtime. It was a comfortable plastic chair to sit on whilst waiting for Luigi and the beautiful woman to finish their lunchtime activities. After a pleasant picnic, sitting in the shade on the plastic chair, listening to the pigeons coo and the Tuscanian residents' sun-dried lunch time silence, I started to peel a banana, to finish my lunch with a flourish, when a car sped up the sleepy road and turned onto Luigi's forecourt. A woman in a smart business suit got out and looked into the workshop. 'Luigi?' She asked impatiently. 'Mezz'ora,' I said but the smugness at my grasp of the language was short lived because Business Woman barked back something like, 'Where is the son of a bitch?' I was just about to raise my banana and point to the shuttered upstairs window when my inner little voice woke up saying, 'Don't tell her where Luigi is. Business Woman might be married to Luigi who was having lunch with the beautiful Signorina of the dark eyes, dishevelled flowing locks and cascading perfume on the far side of yonder casement?' There was something of the Sicilian about Business Woman. I imagined that she would find it an everyday sort-of-thing to push aside the old woman from over the road, kick down the bedroom door, pull out the stiletto from her smart business knickers and plunge it into poor Luigi's still panting chest, leaving him sleeping with the fishes, along with my chances of getting my bike fixed that day. I reverted to my shrugging-head-shake (Italian style with banana) just in time. It worked, and business woman said, 'If I ever find out he is double crossing me I'll slit his throat and leave him in the gutter, where he was before I married him, and the Tuscanian sewer rats can get fat drinking his blood.' She got into her car and slammed the door, with the noise of an avenging shotgun that made the pigeons fly from their terracotta roof tops, dumping their loads for a quick get-away all over Business Woman's car. I took a mouthful of banana and a second car arrived with another woman who nervously asked, 'Luigi?' I could not work out quick enough what the Italian for 'twenty-five minutes' was, so said again, 'Mezz'ora' but I had a mouthful of banana this time. Italian is a language impossible to articulate with a mouthful of banana and I launched into a violent fit of coughing, spraying mashed banana bits all over the forecourt. Nervous Woman stepped back, assuming me to be some rabid foaming cyclist about to die in front of her on the streets of Tuscania. She peered over my coughing head into the back of the garage, returned to her car and drove off quietly. The hour, the Sardinian had mentioned that it would take for Luigi to 'have his girl friend for lunch' was gone and as much as I wanted to see the final act of the operetta La Morte di Luigi, I decided that the hero could not rely on me to protect him all afternoon, I had my own problems. I got back on my bike and, picking bits of mashed banana off my cycling shorts and cycled off keeping one ear open for the echo of a single gunshot, or the faint sigh of a dying man as cold avenging steel was pulled from his cheating heart. Round the corner, I found the cycle shop. The young man was concerned at my problem but had no spokes to fit my wheel. He told me he knew a shop that would definitely have my size spokes and be able to fit them into my wheel and wrote the address on a piece of paper. I expected it to be Luigi's address but it was not in Tuscania but ... Rome. There was no place nearer. I chatted for a while, telling him of my journey and showing him my route over the Alps. He said that a few years ago he had cycled over the Col d'Izoard but as he had recently opened his bicycle shop he had no time to ride.

I felt happier having spoken to the cycle shop man because I now knew that it was no good searching town after town. I would have to take my chances with the bike and cycle on. If the back wheel packed up completely, I would find somewhere to stay, take the wheel into Rome, get it fixed and return to finish my journey. I had plenty of time; I was a full six days ahead of my planned schedule and had also allowed ten extra days on top of that before I needed to get back to the UK and start earning a living again. I relaxed and cycled on.

There were two more major lakes on route that would be likely camping sites, Lago di Vico and, further on, Lago di Bracciano. The latter was only 40km from the centre of Rome. An easy morning's ride would get me to the Coliseum by lunchtime. It would be a hot ride to Lago di Bracciano but I if I broke it up into short sections I should manage it.

The road from Tuscania had little traffic and I enjoyed cycling through the neat fields of seedlings and early vegetables. By a cluster of farmhouses I saw a slim, black and beautiful, African woman, wearing a pink trouser suit. She had bright red lipstick and her high heels that made her look extremely tall. I thought her car must have broken down and she was waiting for a mechanic. If it were Luigi, she would be standing there all day. But there was no car. I could not work out why she was there and thought of stopping and asking her if she needed help but as I got closer I saw that she seemed to be a bit worried by the prospect of me stopping, so I smiled and cycled on. Around the corner there was another woman. She could have been a twin of the first: exactly the same, except she was wearing a turquoise suit. Then it struck me that they were prostitutes? But why were they here, in the middle of rural cabbage growing Italy, kilometres from likely customers? Were they on the look out for long distance cyclists? Had they not heard of the Numb Nuts Syndrome? Was I suffering from double hallucinations? After a hot afternoon trying to work out possible alternative scenarios for the presence of the two African beauties, I returned to Via Cassia climbed another volcanic rim before dropping down to Lago di Bracciano. There were a number of campsites along the shores of the lake to choose from. I could not remember having a choice before but decided on one away from the lakeside. It looked good, plenty of spaces with lush green grass. Signora was of the age when she was probably thinking of making a bike ride to Fordingbridge. She moved gracefully like a purring cat, wore an elegantly designed pink dress, their was a mature Carara marble look about her features and she spoke English with a beautiful Italian slow deep-filled, sun-dried accent, all of which was rather spoilt by her decision to wear a red baseball cap that evening. 'You eat in my restaurant, I cook myself, you love!'

After I had put up my tent, washed and drank a couple of pints of water, I went to Signora Red Hat's restaurant, her kitchen really, with a couple of extra tables. 'You have some of my soup, you love.' Each time she said the word love she stretched it out like molten mozzarelle on a fork. A Dutch couple arrived who were staying at the campsite and getting the bus into Rome each day to see the sites. The traffic in Rome was unbelievable they said, they would never dream of cycling in the city. The Dutch are famous for their cycling, so how would I cope? But it had to be done. I had crossed the Rubicon. Actually, I had not. The Rubicon is a little river in north western Italy, not on my route. It is curious how some phrases endure for thousands of years. 'I have crossed the Rubicon', Caesar said on his march towards Rome, which must have struck his soldiers as staggeringly obvious as they squelched out of the River Rubiconne with dripping cloaks. On my advance towards Rome, I felt I should leave an epigram to float down the ages. I tried:

'Encamped before the Roman traffic Hell
At dawn I'll enter and unleash my bell'

But in the end I sent a text saying, 'Rome tomorrow?!!?'

I dreamt of cycling through crowds of frenzied motorists, each one wielding a smoked cod intent on knocking me off my bike.

Day Twenty-Seven
Lago Bracciano to Rome

Day Twenty-Seven – The Traffic of Rome

An alarm went off and all the dogs began to bark, just as it was getting light. I did not realise, the night before, that there were so many dogs staying there. No people got up, so I guessed the alarm clock had been set for the dogs. This was the last day of my journey. I made one final shot at breaking the seven o'clock rule and failed. Rule 138 held fast, it was two minutes past, when I cycled out of the campsite.

There was a wonderful mist hanging over Lake Bracciano making the town of Anguillara Sabazia appear to float on a bowl of steaming water. I stopped for a while to take in the beautiful view of the golden sunrise warming the hills of the ancient volcano and to listen to the near perfect silence. I then climbed out of the lake basin along a small road and rejoined the Via Cassia. The road was busy but had a hard shoulder to cycle along keeping me safely out of the way of the traffic. By 8.30 I was entering the outskirts of Rome where the traffic was so heavy it had stopped completely. So, I stopped as well. There was a huge row between a woman in one car who was trying to join the traffic from the right and a man in another who would not let her in. This woman was possibly related to Luigi's wife. She was terrifying and the colour from the driver's cheeks drained as I watched him try to withstand the woman's onslaught. She ended her verbal mortar bombardment with a final gesture, representing putting her rubber gloves on and pulling the man's tongue out through his backside. Then she pressed the button to raise her window up, bringing to an end her terrifying show and preventing any last minute quips from the quivering victim who looked like a man who would never again be able to unclench his buttocks. He sat, like the traffic unable to move. I squeezed past the Signora of the Rubber Gloves, cycling more carefully than on every previous part of the two thousand kilometre journey.

I entered the centre of the road and joined the other two wheel riders who were all weaving their way between the two stationary lines of traffic with the skill gained from years of daily practice. What, at first, appeared haphazard was in fact an advanced social system of priority, which had evolved in the central road area. It worked like this: when meeting an oncoming rider, one would have to leave the central gap and weave between the cars. The neat thing was that there was a rigid code of who gave way to whom. Large motorbikes gave way to no one; new fashionable scooters were next; older scooters; men in suits had precedence over casually dressed men; beautiful woman in trouser suits went before non-executive woman; mothers with out children had right of way over mothers with children standing on their scooters; then came less fashionable motorbikes, mopeds, racing push bikes and finally bikes with shopping baskets. The whole scheme was sensibly based on fashion: the less fashionable giving way to the more fashionable. I knew exactly where I fitted into the scheme and gave way to everybody. I was coping really well for twenty minutes until I met a moped rider, with a sort of homemade helmet. One of his saucer-sized goggles was cracked and repaired with sticky tape and he wore a greasy overcoat. I gave way to him, without any thought but he had obviously had never met anyone who considered themselves less fashionable than him, so gave way to me and we both ended up stationary, facing one another, in the same gap. We giggled while he turned around to let me continue.

All the terrors people had talked me into believing about Roman traffic seemed not to affect cyclists in rush hour as it was just a case of learning the hierarchy and not bumping into cars, especially those driven by women who kept a pair of rubber gloves on the dashboard. After an hour of weaving through the stationary traffic, it gradually eased and by the time I had crossed the river Tiber, the traffic was all moving. I suddenly felt tearful. I had arrived. Twenty-seven days, 2,200km and a year of planning and I was in Rome. I wiped away a tear, wobbled a bit and made an overtaking van swerve. That was enough to bring me to my senses. I was cycling through the fabled deadly traffic of Rome with no back brake and I still had to get to the Coliseum. I found an information centre and got a street plan of the capital. All I had to do was follow the Tiber for half a kilometre and there it was, bigger than I had imagined, the Coliseum. How that building must have terrified the hundreds of thousands of people who entered it in ancient times, many never to leave it alive. To celebrate my arrival I cycled around it in a lap of honour.

And that was that.

I leaned my bike against a kerbstone and took its photograph with the Coliseum behind it, ate an apple and tried to come to terms with my journey's end. Some people asked me where I had cycled from and I enjoyed casually saying 'England'. I talked to a Danish man who told me that he had once cycled to Lapland from Denmark. Now that would be a good idea: I could embark on a lifelong series of tag-journeys, where, having arrived at a destination, I sit, wait for someone to suggest my next journey and then off I go again. I enjoyed sitting watching the showbiz centurion embarrass the tourists who took his photograph. I asked some Americans if they would take mine.
'You bicycled all the way from England. Wow! Excuse me for asking sir, but I wonder if you would mind telling me how old you are?'
'Wow, I just hope I can still sit on a bicycle when I am your age.' said Rita who had just arrived from Maryland with her husband Bud and her teenage son, Bud Junior. The chat with the polite American family was enjoyable and their praise for my little bike ride felt like a round of applause feels, after a story, which I had particularly enjoyed telling.

I ate the last of my bread and cheese and wondered what to do next. I would like to have gone inside the Coliseum but I could not see where I could safely leave my bike. I went to the tourist information office and got a list of two star hotels and went back to my seat to work out what to do. Then I thought I must announce my arrival to the world. When I turned my phone on there was a message from Valerie, she had just arrived home from Thailand the night before and said she had enjoyed waking up with the dog by her side and the smell of bread from the bread maker in the kitchen. I sent a text back, 'just sitting down by the Coliseum'. My plan had been to find a hotel, spend a couple of days sightseeing and then get the flight home but somehow that all seemed wrong now. The journey was over and I wanted to go home. I could return another day with Valerie and explore this wonderful city. I looked at the map and saw that Leonardo Di Vinci Airport was to the west about 40km. I set my GPS to the coordinates of the airport and decided: I was going home.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

From Ithaka - by Cavafi

Day Night Stop Distance km
25 Bolsena 149
26 Bracciano 100
27 Rome 48
Total 44

Going Home

Another spoke broke as I tried finding the right road out of Rome, through housing estates, college campuses. After an hour I found the Via Christopher Columbus leading to the airport, a main road with fast traffic. Slowly the airport signs became more frequent and at 5.30 I pushed my bike into the departure lounge and booked on the next flight to London, via Frankfurt, leaving in 45 minutes. I was told that I would have to turn my pedals around, put the handlebars sideways and let the air out of my tyres. I did all this as quickly as possible and got in a huge flap trying to remember if the left hand pedal had a right hand thread or the right hand pedal had a left hand thread or the other way around. In the normal course of things one does not have much cause to remove pedals, I must have only done it once or twice before but eventually I worked it out and reversed the pedals. I removed one of my panniers and filled it with what I might need for the journey, then took my bike to a special door for extra-large baggage and gave the bike to the extra-large baggage man. I wondered if I would ever see it again. I just had time to have a wash, change my clothes and get on the flight.
Sitting on the aircraft, I began to wonder if I had been too hasty in wanting to return home; I had little idea of what I was going to do when I reached Heathrow and the prospect of spending a sleepless night at the airport was not something I was looking forward to. I could get my head down on my self-inflating mattress in the arrivals lounge but Heathrow Airport probably had a self-inflating official with specific instructions to clamp down on sleeping cyclists. Perhaps I should have found somewhere to stay in Rome and organised my return in a less frenzied manner but I was on the aeroplane and that was that.

It was difficult to come to terms with the idea that the journey was finally over, and that I had got to Rome. It was not just the previous twenty-seven days of travelling that had ended but also the months of preparation. I had thought I had considered all the likely possibilities when preparing for the trip but I had spent a lot of time sorting out broken spokes, which seemed an unlikely problem when I had set out on a new bike designed for just the type of journey. If it had not been for the help of Monsieur Velo at Bourbon-Lancy I would have not got over the Alps. I had learnt the dangers of being too confident in my own self-sufficiency. I was certainly fitter than I had been for many years and had been amazed by the capacity of a pile of old bones to reassemble themselves into a body that could cycle a hundred kilometres day after day. I had seen a lot of the countryside of England, France and Italy over the past year and places seen during a leisurely bicycle ride are enduring. The memory of my day's ride over the Col du Lautaret into Italy was wonderful: the climbing, the remoteness, the snow covered towering mountains, the ice clear air, the long descent into Briançon and climb into Italy will last as long as I do. That day was all the more memorable because of all the roads I had cycled to get there. The whole cycle trip had become a big part of my life and would remain so for years to come. I can now slip into old age, not gracefully but with a flourish, playing tunes on my tin whistle through the hole in my saddle as I ride off over the hill. There may well be things that you should not do when you get older, dancing in public is one my children have often warned me about, but there are a few things that you can do, and getting older makes many of them easier. I have time, patience, a little money to spare, many experiences to draw on and enough wisdom to focus my ambitions on things that are important to me. It had been a marvellous journey, a great bike ride and great fun from the beginning to the end.

There was just over an hour to wait at Frankfurt. I sent a text to Valerie explaining that when I arrived at Heathrow I would find a nearby hotel for the night and get a train home the next day. The flight arrived in London at 10 pm, I watched the entire plane's cargo of luggage travel around on the conveyor belt and all were collected except for a broken umbrella and a large unwanted codfish. Eventually the bike appeared, not on the belt but out of a side door. It had not gone off on its own journey and was returned to me almost in one piece: I had forgotten to retighten the handlebars after twisting them sideways. I was gradually putting it all back together when a text message arrived on my phone from Valerie asking, 'Where are you?' I sent a text back, saying, 'Heathrow, night night.' It was 11 pm by then, the baggage reclaim area was empty and I felt a bit daunted at the prospect of searching in the dark for a hotel. As I walked out through the customs the security guard at the gate was laughing. As there was nothing else around I assumed that she was laughing at me. So I gave her my 'I don't care if you do find me funny because I have just returned from cycling all the way to Rome' type of shrug and wheeled my bike out into the main terminal area. I cast my eye around to see if there was an information desk or someone I could ask about hotels. I was regretting my rash decision to come home that night; I would probably end up sleeping on a bench somewhere in the airport. That part of the airport was fairly empty at that time, just a few odd people waiting around for contacts and armed police standing around to stop the armed muggers from robbing elderly late night unarmed cyclists. There was someone who looked just like my son-in-law Mark, there was a car hire place, a shop to buy ties (a shop selling new, clean tee-shirts would have been useful), a cafe and there was someone who looked just like my daughter. Beyond the glass walls of the airport the cold wet Heathrow night looked unwelcoming. What a coincidence, I thought, that woman looks just like my daughter, and she was laughing at me as well, everyone here seemed to be laughing at me. I thought that I must have slipped into advanced paranoia. The woman was pregnant - come to think of it so was my daughter - it was my daughter! She was four week's more pregnant than when I had seen her last. And there was a suntanned Valerie, waving and jumping up and down. They were all there, waiting for me.

Valerie had received my text from Frankfurt, and along with Emily and Mark had jumped into the car and driven for the three hours from Fordingbridge to Heathrow arriving just in time. They had been asking the security guard if there was an elderly cyclist around, hence the silly grin from her as I came out. After taking my bike to bits again, fixing it onto the top of the car and spending three hours sharing stories in the car we arrived home. Valerie and I said good night to Emily and Mark and I wheeled my bike back into my kitchen. The journey had ended.

Looking Over my Shoulder

My father never mentioned Cornwall, or broken spokes, and even patted me on the back saying, 'Well done!' I patted my daughter on the back and said, 'Well done!' after she gave birth to a perfectly formed baby cyclist who, though still yet to grasp a few of the more advanced skills of cycling abroad, has perfected the international shrug. Valerie and I have since visited Italy together and explored many of the ancient sites of Rome. The inside of the Coliseum was itself worth the return visit. We visited Tuscania, home of Luigi, and it is one of the most beautiful unspoilt ancient towns I have seen. But although we searched for over an hour we could not find the square where I did not get to see Luigi. Likewise, we searched in vain for Robert De Niro's restaurant just south of Florence and could not find it. Perhaps such places only exist for long distance cyclists. I have put on nearly all the weight I lost. The only lasting damage to my body is the numbness in my fingers, which has left a tingling sensation in my right hand. It is caused by the ulna nerve that travels through the neck, where in my case it was restricted during the weeks of cycling because my head was raised to see along the road ahead. The nerve goes through the armpit, then the wrist, where it was cramped yet again by pressure on the handlebars and the bumps from the road. The nerve finishes at the ring and little fingers. I have been trying to get it fixed but it looks like I might have to live with it. It does not affect anything I do and is a funny little daily reminder of the journey. In the Middle Ages it was thought that the ulna nerve went all the way from the ring finger to the heart and some say that is why wedding rings are placed on the ring finger. My doctor still swears by his 1567 copy of 'Learning from Cadavers' and says that, in exactly the same way as music was recorded onto gramophone cylinders the ulna nerve will have recorded every little bump straight onto my heart, which is strange because during the bike ride I had the distinct impression my backside was keeping a record of the journey. One way or another, my little bike ride will endure.