Day 24 – PARIS to TOUR DE FRANCE

Bon jour.

I woke up this morning and I wasn’t riding to Paris as I had been for the past 23 days – I had ridden from Rome to Paris – and it feels as good as it sounds.

Today was our final official day of our tour with most of our group attending the Tour de France finale on the Champs Elysees in the evening. Stelle and I had an early morning stroll to collect tickets for our evening function and there were bike tour groups taking people of all shapes, sizes and ages up and down the thoroughfare that later that evening would be raced on by 169 riders of the Tour de France averaging 60 km per hour.

There’s something special about walking big cities in the early morning – you can dream like you actually have it all to yourself. Then you leap out of the way of a street sweeper with a water cannon and the dream is over. A later mid-morning stroll to locate our marquee for the evening emphasised the significance of the 100th running of the Tour de France. People were everywhere. It must have already been over 30 degrees and the crowds were massing up and down the Champs which was now totally shut down to traffic.

Our group entered our marquee at around 6pm which was positioned about 250 metres short of the finish line. And then the race started – for food and drink that is – you can observe the best and worst of people in a crowded buffet. Many people reconfirmed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – women hoarding chairs like at a Boxing Day sale in the 1990s (these days if shops have sales running all the time then what makes a ‘sale’ a ‘sale’? When prices are ‘slashed?) and men hunting for cocktail finger food – made all the more challenging because of the dexterity required to handle and transport finger food back to your ‘camp’. It was very impressive – we had chefs come out from the kitchen and prepare and serve meals in the marquee. The funniest moment for me and one that emphasises why French food and cooking is so unbelievably good was when a chef refused to serve his dish because he had no sauce left to ‘garnish’ the dish. The hungry people in the front of the queue of over 30 were pleading with him to just ‘let it go’, but he was resolute. In desperation a woman at the front of the queue dashed off to source sauce from another chef!

For this 100th edition of the Tour the organisers changed the use of the Champs with the Arc De Triomphe to be featured in a laser light show at the final presentations. So the finish line was moved down to the Louvre end of the Champs, near our marquee, and the riders, for the first time I know, rode around the Arc at the northern end of the Champs.

The peloton entered the Champs at around 8pm and completed 10 laps of the circuit over the next hour. And then it was over. Marcus Kittel won the race. Chris Froome won the Tour and a number of other riders were presented with their winner’s jerseys. Yorkshire was presented with the honour of being the starting point for next year’s Tour de France and then the laser light show began, using the Arc De Triomphe as a giant projector screen – it was quite spectacular.

So my tour from Rome to Paris is complete and so is this edition of my blog. Thank you for your support and comments. At times the blogging was harder than the riding – when fatigued you tend to just write what was done, rather than what was felt or thought – it’s harder to recall feelings or thoughts – at least for me at times.

Thanks to Stelle for her support – I couldn’t do either the blogging or riding without her love. We now have 2 weeks of rest and recreation together in Paris, Belgium and The Netherlands – and of course it will involve some cycling.

Au revoir.

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Day 23 – FONTAINEBLEAU to EIFFEL TOWER, PARIS – 92 KM

Bon jour.

Is it really over – after 23 days – has it really come to an end? Is the blog actually finished?

Well no – there will be one more post. But the cycling is done and done, having rolled into Paris and under the Eiffel Tower at around 2pm Saturday we completed our journey from Rome. As one of our team said – today was all about the destination – Paris.

Ten things I won’t be doing tomorrow as a result of reaching Paris today:

1. Wearing lycra bike pants.
2. Asking bartenders to refill my bottles.
3. Recharging my GPS.
4. Eating cake for breakfast.
5. Having a late afternoon sleep.
6. Calling out road obstacles to people around me.
7. Taking photos while riding a bike.
8. Drinking coffees with whipped cream on top.
9. Packing my bags to move to another hotel.
10. Sitting down to watch the Tour de France on TV.

As for the point 10. we will be sitting in the grandstand watching the final stage of the Tour on the Champs Elysees as the peloton completes laps of the main thoroughfare from 8pm.

The ride from Fountainbleau started through the forest and before reaching the outskirts of Paris was predominantly on bike paths. It was during this part of the ride that we climbed our last hill, descended our last descent (excluding the ride down into the underground carpark into the garage in Paris), gazed across the last wheat field, free-wheeled through the last town, made the last wrong turn and the last double-back to get back on course. The group were quieter this morning, perhaps taking some moments to reflect upon their personal achievements over the past weeks.

We continued our entry into Paris along bike paths that ran parallel with the Seine. It reminded me of our exit of Rome along the Tiber. Like all cities, riding through industrial areas and the ports reveals other less pleasant but all too real aspects of city existence. As real as these may be, they are soon consumed by the grandeur and opulence of central Paris – which is stunning. If you measured the wealth and majesty of a city by the width, length and order of its roads then perhaps Paris is one of the greatest cities in the world?

And after passing Notre Dame, suddenly the Eiffel Tower was in view, then an Australian flag held aloft underneath by the team manager could be seen in the distance, and finally after 23 days, more than 2,200 km, and over 24 km of vertical climbing we were all standing under the Eiffel Tower.

We were quite the centre of attention. We had earlier tied balloons to our helmets and bikes which created even more interest. As I was riding with my balloon I noticed people’s faces light up – I think it’s natural to smile at balloons – they are obviously very symbolic of celebrations, but for most people they are also a common link back to childhood. Maybe we should use balloons more often around the workplace – having a difficult meeting or conversation – pull a balloon out of your pocket, blow it up, tie it off and see how the mood of the meeting changes.

That evening we had our final dinner together at a restaurant that specialises in the cuisine of Lyon. Entree of lentils, main of pork and pistachio sausages with potatoes (bangers and mash) and a dessert of fraise with glace e creme (strawberries with ice cream). A stroll along the Champ Elysees up to the Arc de Triomphe in the warm night air was the perfect way to finish our final day of riding.

The melancholy of our arrival in Paris was not lost on the group. The relief of not having to ride tomorrow was celebrated outwardly but for some I know, inwardly, we were feeling the emptiness of not having a planned ride tomorrow. I could write for years about the metaphors of cycling, but I’ll finish off this post with a response I gave someone sometime recently when I was asked ‘When does this hill end?’ – I replied – “At the top after the last corner – that’s all you need to know to get there.”

Bon soir.

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Day 22 – MONTARGIS to FONTAINEBLEAU – 67 KM

Bon jour.

Not sure if I have explained earlier that the photos you may have noticed in the headers are actually from our previous trip to Italy. That time we rode mountain bikes on a self guided tour around Tuscany and amazingly without GPS guided electronic maps mounted on our bikes.

Only 2 days of riding remain and they are relatively easier rides. But as we say goodbye to rolling hills we will encounter more traffic. There is always a trade off. Today was an unusual start to the day because we had cloud and rain. Yes – after 21 days we had our first day of cloud and rain – at least for the first 15 minutes. Not only did it cool things down a little it also made for more interesting photographs as the cloud provided a contrast that had not been previously seen against the golden yellow and rainforest green of the various crops we had been riding through over the previous few days.

The Oracle was in tremendous form today. We passed through crops of soybean and barley, entered a geological area that features chalk deposits indicating that we were far enough north to be on the same land mass as the white cliffs of Dover. He spotted a monument to the Polish patriot Kosciuszko, which Australia’s highest mountain was named after by Edmund Strezlecki and was able to explain how the water level of canals was managed. Thank you Oracle.

Our final 20 kms into our destination took us though the Fountainbleau Forest. But not before the largest field of sunflowers in the whole of Europe (that I have cycled past). It was refreshing to now be out of the sun as and under a canopy of shade. Today was the hottest day of the Tour – despite the cloudy start to the day. As we arrived earlier today due to the shorter distance we were able to go into the town for lunch and the visit Chateau Fountainbleau.

The Chateau Fountainbleau is magnificent. Over 500 odd years this was where the French Kings would reside, finally with Napolean after the French Revolution. The rooms were stunning and the history very enlightening. Afterwards the Oracle told me that the world globe in one of the halls had the map of Australia that had been charted by the Frenchman Baudin with the assistance of Matthew Flinders in the early 1800s. They were actually both sailing around Australian simultaneously and exchanged maps at one point to compare and complete their charts (I actually knew this because it is one of the few books on Australian history I have read) Nevertheless thank you Oracle! Actually in the end Baudin returned to France a hero, and Flinders sailed up the east coast, grounding on the subsequently named ‘Great Barrier Reef’ and then being held captive on Maritius while England was at war with France.

We had a final group briefing for our ride into Paris tomorrow (Saturday). This is a 90km ride and I suspect will be more symbolic than necessarily enjoyable as far as the riding is concerned. As our only American in the group will not be joining us for dinner tomorrow night, we had a naturalisation ceremony for him to make him an honorary Australian for the evening, complete with an Australian flag and rendition of our national anthem.

The evening was completed with a great meal in good company in one of the many streetscape restaurants in the town – of course completed with a banana split. My diet will be changing as of this weekend. I have shed a net 1 kilogram since the commencement of the tour but of course won’t have the convenience of burning thousands of calories per day to offset a rather cavalier approach to eating.

Bon soir.

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Day 21 – SANCERRE to MONTARGIS – 97 KM

Bon jour.

Woke up very sore and feeling very flat today. Unfortunate because today we celebrate our 2,000th kilometre of cycling since leaving Rome 3 weeks ago. I will be the ‘sweeper’ today and sit on some wheels to get through the day.

The feature of today’s riding were the canals of the Loire Valley. Canals were built to enable the inland transportation of agricultural produce and wine to the sea ports in the north. The bridge we crossed today had been the longest canal bridge for 300 years prior to the building of a longer bridge in Germany about 10 years ago. We witnessed a canal gateway in action which enables canal boats to pass under smaller bridges by lowering the water level and allowing the boat to pass underneath. The canal life seems very peaceful. Boats would go by with bikes, even motor scooters on board enabling a combination of both water and land transportation at the captain’s will.

The secondary roads and village backstreets that we have been riding are an easy way to cycle the countryside. It’s been a pleasure to ride with all of our group at different times throughout the tour, but one individual who has toured the region before has been particularly knowledgable and willing to share his knowledge with others which has been fantastic. I call him ‘Oracle’.

I feel I have seen enough of France to make the following observations, although not statistically proven:
– there are no fat cats (felines) in France;
– all men who drive agricultural equipment smoke;
– all women who eat alone at lunchtimes have a red and white striped jumper;
– all chefs smoke;
– banana splits are the national dessert of France;
– cream only comes in pressurised cans;
– their are more French made cars in France than in the rest of the world;
– steak tartare is only eaten outside in full public view;
– escargot (snail) farms have low costs of production;
– all bartenders smoke.
I’m happy to be challenged on any of these ‘factoids’. 🙂

The ride to our destination town was again punctuated with long stretches over hill passes of agricultural farm land and the now ubiquitous head and cross winds that will continue to repel our journey as we travel north west. ‘Repel’ is a little dramatic – I could reframe that to say ‘cool’ our journey as it is a relief from the afternoon sun.

Montargis is the first town we have entered since leaving Torino with any aspect of suburbia familiar to home. I saw manicured grass for the first time since leaving Rome. I guess it is a luxury in a more densely populated part of the world – France has a population of about 62 million people albeit one-fifth the size of Australia (although not sure if that is habitable area because obviously there are sizeable areas of Australia that are inhabitable).

Tonight, after an aperitif of campari and grapefruit we ate at an organic restaurant. I enjoyed “chaucutie” – a plate of cured meats (photo below).It is hard enough to read a menu here let alone question the bona fides of the ‘organic certification’ so we just rolled with it. I think at times that ‘organic’ is a convenient title that justifies the combination of foods that would otherwise be questionable. In this case, pasta and a red curry chicken. Huh? No – but it’s “organic”. Oh! That’s ok then – I’ll have a main size thank you! The food was good and any restaurant that titles its desserts with where the experience will take you is pretty cool. In this case the unofficial yellow jersey had a “Destination Antarctique” – a combination of mint, vanilla and chocolate ice cream in an edible biscuit basket with hot chocolate sauce and cream that took him straight from Montargis to Antarctica.

Bon Soir.

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Day 20 – SEMUR EN AUXOIS to SANCERRE – 149 KM

Bon jour.

Today was the hardest day of riding for me – or was it just that I rode too hard? The 149km included 12 hill climbs and 1800m of vertical climbing. The profile map looked like the teeth of a band saw. Despite this my plan was to ride hard the whole day to beat the heat. Unfortunately I finished 500 metres short effectively ‘bonking’ halfway up the final hill into Sancerre and having to stop and literally catch my breath before riding the final section uphill at around 6 k/hr. You body is unable to completely replace all energy and nutrients you lose during strenuous exercise and do everything else required to keep the bike rolling. Therefore you rely on your energy stores and the efficiency of your metabolism to maintain the fine balance between energy in and energy out. In cycling you also rely on riding smart.

Today I didn’t ride smart for one section. The first half of the ride was very strong. I rode with our unofficial yellow jersey rider and we rode aggressively up and down the hills through to the second lunch stop. About 1km into the next section we encountered newly paved rode that had not been sealed but simply covered with loose gravel. In hindsight we should have walked this section as it appears stones got caught in my partner’s chain, jamming the rear derailleur which then completely snapped off the bike frame. My mistake was to ride on by myself rather than wait for the next group to come through, which would have included my riding partner on a spare bike. I expended too much energy for the amount I was taking in. It is a relief to sit on the back of another person’s wheel from time to time, especially in head or cross winds – you can conserve much energy. Although I only ‘bonked’ 500 metres short I paid for it the rest of the night having to rest, rehydrate and re-energise.

During my solo journey I had to stop in a small town to get my water bottles refilled. It was like walking into the bar in the Wild West. All the locals stopped what they were doing and turned and looked at me as I stood in the doorway. The piano player stopped playing ‘Oh Susanna’, the barmaid stopping drying the glasses and the children playing in the corner ran and hid behind the meatsafe. I spat out the tobacco I was chewing into the spitoon provided (I have taken up chewing tobacco rather than smoking) and clipped clopped into the bar – my cycling shoes on the stone floor sounding remarkably like cowboy boot spurs. I glanced at the barmaid and in my most emphatic French said “Pouvez-vous s’il vous plait remplir ma bouteille”. The man next to me turned to me and said “Whiskey or water?”. Very funny. We all had a laugh and then they chased me out of town.

Our final destination town of Sancerre is remarkable. Situated on top of a hill it provided beautiful views out towards the Loire Valley. Our dinner at a local restaurant was a traditional fare. We were waited upon by the owner of the restaurant, her family also owning vineyards in the region of the past 100 years. I love the pride that the people have for their heritage. Although at another bar in another picturesque town a local asked us why we were there because “there is nothing to see here” – it is all relative I guess. The stroll around town didn’t take long as we were cautious not to walk too far downhill fearing the walk back up hill. It provided opportunities for photos across the plains of the valley below that would be our route for tomorrow.

Bon soir.

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Day 19 – BEAUNE to SEMUR EN AUXOIS – 92 KM

Bon jour.

I would like you to consider the following 5 items and name the odd one out: chateau, vineyard, canal, church, banana split? The answer is none of them. Well it’s actually a trick question because all are regular features of our tour as we travel through Burgundy – as per the photos below.

The morning’s ride saw us leave the beautiful town of Beaune to a hill top town. The countryside is now changing again with canals now featuring as we continue our ride up to the Loire Valley. This hill top town is as it sounds – 1km up – makes you appreciate the stunning views. A quick coffee and refill of water – at times we can use the local taps usually found in the town square – and we were on our way.

France is the leading agricultural producer in the EU and the third biggest exporter of agricultural products in the world. We thought there was a lot of wheat in the Po Valley in Italy, but the regions around Burgundy are immense. We spent the best part of 35 km riding through wheat and dairy fields perched up on rolling hills, exposed to the sun and wind. As we ride further north the head and crosswinds are more prevalent so the difficulty of riding long distances is compounded. The sun too makes riding more challenging after noon. The sun seems to reflect off the golden wheat intensifying is heat – or am I getting delirious.

Our lunch stop was at a small village and we met an Australian living in the town who came out from his house when he heard our familiar intonations – that’s how small and quiet the village was – or we were we talking that loudly?

Our ride through Burgundy has been predominantly on quiet country roads. There has been more farm traffic than cars recently, but this will change as our final 2 days into Paris will lead us through suburbia. But for now the towns are still quaint, historical and the buildings continually surprising despite us riding through so many over almost 2,000 km throughout the past 19 days.

Semur is a fortified town, that is it is surrounded by a wall and perched on a hilltop. Actually the Tour De France started from here in 2007. Being a historic town it also features cobblestones – lovely to walk along – a pain to ride over – literally teeth chattering. In the warm afternoons, especially when there is no breeze the coolest place to visit is the local church. The high ceilings ensures relief from the heat outside and an opportunity to appreciate remarkable stain glass windows in comfort.

Our dinner was at a local restaurant – very friendly and accommodating although this is not always the experience. Some of the towns we pass through are not into ‘tourism’. Most bars, shops and even patisseries will close by 12 noon and may re-open at around 3pm depending upon the level of passing trade. You don’t approach a restaurant before 7pm unless you are making a booking. Even then you can’t wait at the restaurant. This is the time for the staff to have their dinner and relax before diners arrive from 8pm. As they say to the youngsters on the Contiki Tours – “it’s not bad, it’s just different!”

Big day tomorrow – probably our hardest day of riding.

Bon soir.

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Day 18 – MACON to BEAUNE – CAPITAL OF BURGUNDY WINES – 135 KM

Bon jour – comment ca va?

Today was a wonderful day riding through the region of Burgundy. If you were to rent a villa in the south of France this region would definitely be on you short list. Rolling hills, vineyards as far as the eye can see, stunning chateaus and some beautiful towns made the day a real cycling paradise. Although 2 sharp hills pitching at 15% are always an effective way of switching your gaze to the 5 metres immediately in front of you!

Krystelle and I started the day out early along a rail trail for the first 25 km, including a 1.5km tunnel. The area was very similar to that of the High Country in Victoria around Mansfield – also great cycling country. We stopped in the town of Cluny another picturesque town. Over the past 18 days we have ridden through almost 100 towns and villages, many we take for granted as we are focused on our next main destination. As in Australia, the state of regions and their towns vary. But here, as in Italy, they all have a charm – I think it may be the architecture, the narrowness of the streets and the typical two stories of the buildings. There is obviously significant wealth in the region of Burgundy and consequently the towns such as Meursault are exquisite and look like they were built yesterday.

So the hot topic here at the moment, other than is this year’s Tour De France ‘clean’, is how can French bread be so good everywhere you go. It is amazing. It would be difficult to get around France is you were gluten intolerant – although I’m sure in the bigger cities you would find the best gluten free bread in the world too. I suspect the Italians would dispute it, but this must be the best bread on Earth. Always fresh, crunchy, soft on the inside and when you break it gives you that feeling that you are in for a good culinary time – especially is there is fresh jambon and fromage on the side.

Our last 35 km included riding through the Meursault Valley. I rode through the Barossa Valley back in January this year and thought that was big. The endless, and I mean endless, rows of vines, of mainly pinot noir and chardonnay grapes was breathtaking. I rode along just one section of road for 5 km with rows of vines on either side as far as the eye could see. We enjoyed a wine tasting later that evening in our destination of Beaune which is the capital of the Burgundy region.

For our dinner together, we were treated to jambon terrine, the local dish of Beef Burgundy, cheeses and a blackcurrant sorbet. Blackcurrant (or cassis as it is called here) is a significant flavour in this region and has featured in a number of desserts to date. It is also a popular aperitif.

The only downside of a cycle tour such as this one is that you only have a short amount of time to explore the towns you stay at each night. A stroll around this town on a Monday night at 10 pm again revealed a vibrancy that surprised. But that is what happens when you are on holiday – you stay in popular areas and eat at popular places – perhaps we need to get out more when we get back home – easier too in summer – did I mention that we haven’t had a day under 27 degrees for the last 3 weeks.

Bon soir.

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