Friday, December 31, 2010

The Route I: Rue de Paris (part trois)

As Stephen's lady was soon to be waiting for him in Paris, we woke up far too early and pushed on towards our ultimate goal, Paris.

Still 90 odd kilometers to go on another sun-blessed morning, this was the part of the trip which we really needed a plan for. By bike, it is one thing dawdling through the peaceful empty roads of the countryside, quite another to approach a large metropolis surrounded by motorways and stuffed with traffic.

We left Compiegne along the river that runs through it and enjoyed ourselves with a brisk peleton (well at least it felt brisk in our tight lycra) along the narrow tree lined path. This far too pleasant part of our journey slowed as the path disintegrated. We cut across the river, but it only worsened. Cutting our losses we headed towards a main road, thought twice about it and doubled back across the river again. Just when we were feeling a bit directionless a small brightly coloured arrow indicated a change of luck.
We followed it... and the next one... and the next one... before flying past a couple of rather British looking cyclists who informed us that they were on an organised London to Paris ride. By pure chance we had run onto the perfectly marked path. All we had to do was follow these little orange arrows and we would, in theory, end up at the Eiffel Tower via a cycle-friendly journey.

It was a fabulous route. Avoiding major, clogged up roads, through picturesque villages, sweeping fields, a forest and, to my particular joy (I had been looking for one since we left Brussels), a proper, veritable French chateau.
Petit machismo
One of the reasons for choosing Brussels to Paris for our tour was the distinct lack of hills on route. For two and a bit days the countryside had flitted between flat and lightly undulating. A while into this third day this changed. We encountered a number of hills, but one stood out. By some distance the most thigh-drainingly high and steep. Being sensible we took to the slope slowly, no pushing it, wheeling in the top in an efficient manner. This was until we came across the main pack of London to Paris riders. As you do, we upped a little to pass without too much issue. Ahead, but still climbing we caught up behind the leading group. Think your average late thirties, early forties banker who has something to prove to whoever will look about some dwindling alpha'ish male status. Add Tour de France team racing lycra, a £5,000 bike, no luggage (being escorted of course) and a pissed off expression as three amateurs on a mixture of hybrid, racer and mountain bike loaded with baggage breeze past.

A bit of an idiot thing to do – I paid for it later in knees – but there is something a cheap and satisfying about bit of ego pricking when you encounter such people. We nearly pissed ourselves with laughter when one of them felt the need to make a snide remark when he passed us later in the day as we dawdled along. I'm just glad he was able to reassure his self-certainty. I can't wait to leave the City...

The final stretch

We passed through tall forest and then through the open fields. The longest enduring memory will be gliding down this long, sharply inclined hill. The air forcing back cheeks pierced by a Cheshire Cat grin. Unbridled joy. Freedom on two gravity powered wheels. We pedalled our way through old villages, past centuries old farm houses and fields high with crops. It was early afternoon when we climbed onto a broad rise and were greeted with, well, one of those sights. Just discernable across a broad shallow valley, almost a plain to the eye, the unmistakable outline of the Eiffel Tower. Whether you view it as a glorified bit of scaffolding or timeless design, it is burned onto the collective memory. I took in a few satisfied breaths of surprisingly crisp air as I stretched my eyes to make out our aim. The sprawl of Paris 20 kilometers distant.

With extra impetus we pushed on and raced towards the French capital, reaching the outskirts in double time. For those not enlightened with Paris's layout, the postcard centre is surrounded by the Banlieue. A ring of often decrepid new build towns which house those who can not afford to live elsewhere. We had crossed well over 300km of relaxed country and never encountered anything but wide berths and friendly toots from passing drivers. Literally 500 meters into the outskirts proper an obnoxious driver nearly ran me into a concrete siding. It did not quickly improve. The Banlieue lived up to their name. Stuck in shitty traffic through neighbourhoods of post-war concrete design. A genuinely unpleasant experience that went on and on.

My memories of Paris were mixed and faint due to lack of time since my last visit and I was starting to wonder what all the fuss is about. Then, with sore knees pumping we hit the Seine, took a right and breezed into the famed tree-lined boulevards. Spectacular. Charming. Refined. Immediately in love.
Reconfiguring, we chucked a u'ee, left the little brightly coloured arrows for dead and, with Sacre de Cour gracing our frontal view, glided towards the Gare du Nord. 350 kilometers and three days since we set off from Brussels Midi, we saw the grand building ahead, zipped between the taxis, turned the final corner and..... in my case.... promptly fell over. All that time without even a wobble and I fall on my arse 50 meters from out final destination. Hilarous.
Picking myself up, I wheel into the station. We handover our bikes to the Eurostar, walk out to Gare du Nord's grand facade, plomp our sore posteriors on the hard street-side chairs of a Parisian cafe and salute the journey with an ice-cold Kronenberg.
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