At breakfast on day 4 I noticed that husband and I seemed to be the only couple on the trip. Well, at least the only couple that started the ride that way. The other cyclists seemed to be girlfriends united by a cause—like the Help for Heroes ladies who had sons and husbands in Afghanistan—or a group of men united by their local pub, the beer from which played a pivotal role in encouraging them to think cycling 300 miles would be a laugh.
Within the first 10 miles of today’s ride I realized why couples were so scarce. We were powering up a long incline when husband announced for no apparent reason that he was not going on the f***ing motorway that was running perpendicular to us. Seeing as our route had not yet been on any motorways and the organizer’s insurance premiums almost certainly couldn’t withstand such a decision, husband’s proclamation struck me as nothing more than another moan in what had been a laundry list of complaints over the past 3 days. Thus far I had thought myself rather restrained in dealing with this sort of behavior. Husband would complain, I would grunt some sort of acknowledgment and then let it drop. But this time, what with the sore knees and the aching quads and no end to this hill in sight, I let rip. “Shut up. SHUT UP,” I howled as I hunched over my bike with renewed vigor. There was no more speaking between then and the water stop at mile 23.
Despite the tension, the cycling over the first 30 miles of the day was some of the most rewarding of the trip. The roads were busier than the previous day which precluded riding side by side, and thus conversation (which given our early spat, suited just fine). With the exception of two lengthy inclines the terrain was straight and flat. The combined effect was that I was focused and alert and able to settle into a rhythm. No thinking, just doing.
Closer to Paris it was stop and start as we rode in along the Seine through the industrial northwest of the city, inching towards our Finish line at the Eiffel Tower. Our planned victory lap up the Champs Elysees was nixed by the gendarmerie—it’s a good thing I enjoyed my Tour de France moment earlier in the week in Calais—and so we found ourselves sharing the Eiffel Tower with a swarm of rambunctious Perpignan rugby fans who were in town for the French championship. They were amped up, dressed in their team colours of red and yellow and drinking out of bottles or cups or Davy Crockett style flasks that they tried to squirt in our mouths in some sort of drunken show of solidarity. It looked like Paris had been overrun by a convention of Ronald McDonalds gone bad. We had our obligatory picture snapped in front of the Eiffel Tower and headed for the hotel.
The end of the adventure had been surprisingly unsentimental, flat even. I felt no need to lift my bike over my head in a victory gesture or hug or high five anyone as many of the others in the group did. My lack of emotion bothered me, and for the next few days in Paris I thought about why this was so. The prerequisites for tugging at the heartstrings had all been in place on this adventure: tales of tragedy, triumph over adversity, endorphins, and the city of romance for goodness sake! But in the end this experience was a visceral one for me, not a sentimental one. The value had been in the doing, and I had done what I set out to do. Many others could and would and will and do ride their bikes from London to Paris. And for four days at the end of May, I did too.
Today’s ride is the most scenic of the trip, with terrain that resembles the Cotswolds without the dry stone walls. Their absence makes me realize how much that stone defines the aesthetic of the Cotswolds, manifest in the churches and cottages and, of course, walls. After three days of eating and riding together, our fellow cyclists are starting to become as much a part of our landscape as those dry stone walls are of the Cotswolds. Not yet knowing everyone’s name, we’ve taken to privately calling them by their defining, sometimes annoying— everything seems annoying when you are going uphill on your third straight day of distance cycling— characteristic. I’ve already introduced smoking man and sweatpants-tucked-into-his-tube socks man, but they have now been joined by a cast of characters including:
- Foghorn Leghorn, a twenty-something gung ho gal with a plum coloured bob and a booming voice she uses to indicate that she’s very pleased with herself.
- Australian Man Eater, Foghorn Leghorn’s buddy on this trip who’s clearly on the prowl. I presume the squeaking bed springs coming from next door in the early morning hours of Day 4 mean she was successful.
- The “Merely-a-Paper-Cut-Gals,” a trio of posh fifty-something birds who are shockingly athletic. My nickname for them hails from the French and Saunders sketch where the duo play a pair of country toffs who constantly sustain dramatic injuries and insist with quintessential English stiff upper lipness that it’s “merely a paper cut.”
- The Sports Bores, a group of twenty-something uber athletic men who we only see in the morning and evening because they’re always miles ahead of us. They favor achingly tight red lycra and wear their men-from-the-future sports sunglasses with their civilian clothes in the evenings.
- The Doofus, a ginger haired boy who’s joined Foghorn and Man Eater’s clique, and keeps falling over on his bike.
- The Doo-lolly, a blond haired, Rubenesque gal who likes to zoom past you on the downhill then suddenly stop her bike in front of you on the uphill so she can get off and walk.
By the time we arrive at our motorway adjacent lodgings, we’ve created back stories for most of the group. We continue this form of recreation over a pichet of the motel’s house rosé. (Being France, it’s quite decent wine relative to what you would expect to find at your average British or American Motel 6. Do they even sell wine at Motel 6?). And just to prove we’re not horrible people we share our pichet with Foghorn’s table.
Day 2 and I use every piece of advice, from trite euphemism to true wisdom, to get me through the 78 hilly miles. There’s Larry, my L.A. yoga teacher and former zen priest telling me “so what,” when I complain my feet fall asleep during zazen (and, as it happens, when cycling excessive distances). Richard, the ex-Navy Seal/zen priest in training/workout instructor/and, more recently, cable television host of a program about the weapons of war for which he gave himself the nickname Mack, is also there. He’s shouting “not dead, can’t quit,” at me just like he did when I was doing push ups at 6:30am in the Santa Monica zendo. My colleague Ian is also on hand, nodding approvingly as I wash down my sixth Nurofen of the day with a dose of neat black currant cordial. Ian had advised me painkillers and a slow and steady pace would be my best friends for this bike ride, and so far he’s been right on both counts. The cordial and jelly babies are also reliable acquaintances.
The terrain today is punishing and scenic, and seems to be populated solely by lazy, white French cows who sleep in the meadows like dogs in the shade. The villages we ride through are ghost towns, with broke down mini-chateaus and those concrete bungalows with brightly painted shutters the French seem to favor. Later there are American scale stretches of agricultural land, so vast they make the Cotswolds seem like it’s engaged in boutique farming. Despite all the greenery it somehow feels desolate in these parts.
Over dinner at our hotel we are joined by a man and his friend who are riding for the same charity, the MS Society, that I am. We get to talking and I learn that he suffers from MS and was previously in a wheel chair. His story should be inspirational, but the more he talks the more I dislike him. I find him narcissistic and feel guilty about it, despite reminding myself that disease doesn’t discriminate when it comes to the likability of its victims. When we are back in our hotel room, I ask husband if he had the same reaction and am surprised when he tells me he liked the guy. Husband suggests my reaction might be more about my discomfort with confronting MS rather than the man’s arrogance. I decide to sleep on it.
An inauspicious start to the day when our mini cab driver arrives at our flat early, aborting my attempt to make coffee, then drops us at the wrong end of Crystal Palace park, leaving us roaming for 30 minutes looking for the starting line. Lose luggage tag and woman-from-the-future special bicycling sunglasses (later retrieved in the parking lot) in the process. When we finally do arrive at the check-in point I suggest to support staff they invest in some signage for future events in a tone verging on shouting. None of them gets hooked, which is a good sign: clearly they are well versed in dealing with drama queens, a skill that will come in handy over the next few days.
The whole thing reminds me of the time husband ran the Napa Valley marathon and we drove 26 miles from our hotel in Calistoga at 6am wondering why there was so much traffic going in the opposite direction so early in the morning. When we arrived in Napa we learned we were at the Finish line, so we stormed back up the highway to Calistoga arriving just as they were disassembling the Start line bunting. Support staff telephoned ahead to their colleagues to keep the first water stop open, and husband ran off into the morning mist like Forest Gump. He was so freaked out he finished in his fastest time ever, just over four hours.
Our late start doesn’t inspire such speed on the first day of our cycle ride. 90 miles later we arrive in Dover in the bottom 3 of our group of 70-odd, not counting the handful of people who got a lift in the van. The other laggard is someone I will come to know as smoking man thanks to his habit of lighting up at the top of hills. He and a rotund chap who wears his sweatpants tucked into his tube socks will become my frequent companions at the back of the pack on day 2.
90 minutes later we arrive by ferry in Calais and convoy the 1o or some unwelcome additional miles to the Holiday Inn on the outskirts of town. Young men with long hair and earrings step out from bars with names like Le Crypte, whistling at us and inviting us for a drink in accented English. This is the closest I will come to knowing what it feels like to ride through a French town on the Tour de France, so I savour the moment.
Near the exit at the Waitrose supermarket in Cirencester there are three tall perspex boxes with piggy bank style slots on top. When you checkout, the cashier gives you a charity token, a green plastic “coin” you can deposit in the perspex box for your charity of choice. Waitrose then makes charitable donations proportionate to the number of green disks in each box. The charities are rotated on a regular basis, but recently one of the boxes was designated for a local MS center. I am not ashamed to say that I got in the habit of lingering by the perspex boxes on my way out to observe what my fellow shoppers deemed to be worthy causes. Imagine my disgust at the number of people who thought that the town needed a better playground or that disabled kids might benefit from horse riding lessons. I thought about making an impassioned plea for tokens for the local MS center, but thought better of it. I’d hate for my outburst to get me banned from the store. This is the only place in a fifty-mile radius that sells Skinny Cow Triple Chocolate ice cream bars.
The truth is that getting up close and personal with a health issue will make you act in an extremely self-interested way. (Just look at Michael J. Fox. I don’t ever remember him talking about Parkinson’s disease when he was on Family Ties.) Which explains why I’ve just requested an information pack online for the London to Paris charity bike ride for the MS Trust in May 2010. Well, that and I’ve been catching up with old friends ahead of some upcoming high school and college reunions and am alarmed by the number of triathlete, yoga teaching overachievers who apparently haven’t gotten the memo that we’re pushing forty and officially letting ourselves go. Start saving your green plastic tokens now. You’ll need them when I come asking for sponsorship next year.