The Last Days of Riding

October 27, 2012 at 3:05 pm

And so I took the canal from Montauban to Toulouse. In fact, I was helped greatly by my host who rode with me to another canal that later met up with the Canal du Misery. Good thing, too, because I thought as we were riding there that our route was a series of ever-decreasing circles. (I've felt this way often when navigating cities and villages in France, that something circular-seeming is the straightest line). Finding it on my own would have been a lengthy process. And I didn't have time on my side.

Canal. Canal, canal, canal; canal. I arranged to meet my next host outside of a metro station at 6:30. As the hour approached, I realized that the chances of arriving there on time were disappearing. My perfect record of timeliness would be shattered. Towards 6:00 I was still well outside of the city. I managed to pull off some of the best follow-your-nose city navigating I've ever done and found my way straight to the metro station a half hour late. My host was not there.

I waited a half hour and tried to find wifi, but there was none nearby. I eventually asked a couple of English-speaking girls nearby if I could use their phone. My French is good enough for a lot of things, but politely asking if I can check my email on someone else's phone is not one of them. We talked for a while about what was going on in their lives and about my trip. The English girl asked me if I had fallen in love with a French girl yet. Because, she said, isn't that why American men come to France? I told her that I came to ride my bike and see the country. And besides, I had a pretty girl waiting for me back home.

I got in touch with my host and arrived at her apartment late, well past dark. I had no real interest in going out and seeing the city alone and tired. Instead I ate and got some sleep.

Graciously, my host in Toulouse allowed me to stay an extra night. I was able to spend the next day exploring the city by foot. I must have walked a dozen miles, because I was out from about 10am to 10pm. I stopped at various cafés. First for coffee and later for beer. At each stop I watched the people and I wrote. The better things I might have written in my journal, as they come out more freely and easily. I took few pictures in Toulouse, although I found the city to be beautiful.

Toulouse or not Toulouse.


I wandered into a power plant that was also an art museum and watched 10 minutes of a bizarre film about the history of the plant, and then I had another beer someplace, and then I went home to rest.


Sky, water, power, Toulouse.


The next day was the second day that I spent on the canal, so: canal, canal, canal. I arrived in Carcassonne in the late afternoon in a bad mood. Partially because of the canal and partially because I have a hard time staying positive when I'm hungry. I found a bakery and ate a croissant, found a tourist office which pointed me towards the nearest campground. It was my last night camping on the trip, and I just barely found two trees that were right for the hammock. The showers didn't look inviting so I changed and started dinner. While cooking, a gaggle of cats pestered me for food and fought each other as they whimpered and circled me. I scared off the bigger, meaner ones and fed the kitten. I had made up my mind to avoid the canal the next day so I got out my atlas and plotted a course for Armissan on local roads. It felt really good to be drawing up a route again. It didn't look considerably longer than the winding canal.


The sun setting over the last of many, many campgrounds.

It was raining in the morning, so I packed up my wet hammock in the dark. There is a walled medieval city on a hill just outside of Carcassonne. I had passed it the previous evening without seeing a decent place to stop for a photo. I plotted a route that circumnavigated Carcassonne with the intention of finding a better vantage point for a picture. Which I never really did. It's just one of those things that you have to go see for yourself.

The area outside of Carcassonne was a mixture of trashy and overdeveloped. I passed large grocery stores and considered stopping for road food that I was desperately low on. Instead I pressed on, not feeling right about it. Just outside of the most developed area, I had to take the highway for a short stretch in order to reach the departmental routes that I would spend the rest of the day on. As soon as I found them, the entire atmosphere changed. The world returned to the state of immense beauty that I found in the massif central. I wound through, climbed and descended rolling vineyards and farmland.

Eventually I passed through a small village with a superette. I left my bike outside, as I've come to trust villages like this. As I wandered the aisles, I filled a shopping basket with the essentials: peanuts, yogurt, avocados, apples, cereal bars and a can of beer for lunch. Near the register there were a couple of small tables and a coffee machine. It was clear that this was a neighborhood watering hole. I bought a bad tasting and utterly satisfying 0,60€ coffee and had a conversation with an English gentleman who lived in the village. We chatted politics and the lives of young people and of old people. He reassured me that my trip was a “check in the right box.” He also timidly proposed that a Romney presidency might be a bad thing, and I told him that he didn't have to worry about offending my political sensibilities.

I left packed with food and feeling good. The road remained beautiful and after noon I stopped to eat lunch and drink a beer near a tennis court. I was outside of a village schoolhouse and listened to the children as I dried my hammock and enjoyed the sun.

My hosts were in a small village outside of Narbonne. I found their house but it seemed to have only one entrance: a gunmetal gray fence at the end of an alley. I knocked and then waited and then knocked again. Then I waited. Eventually my host's son walked by with two bags of garbage. We introduced ourselves and he let me into the house.

I didn't spend much time that night with the family. Mostly I planned for the next day, which I anticipated would be grueling. It was 100km in the best case scenario. And since I had to find my way through three towns, it would certainly be more.

The most enervating thing on a long day's ride is the setting sun. I think that my total mileage per day could be considerably greater if I could take longer breaks and stop more often. The setting sun is always a threat, even as I leave at dawn.

And so, I left at dawn. The hills and vineyards outside of Armissan were draped with fog and it took my a long time to get only a few kilometers. I stopped often to take pictures of the morning bloom set behind the rich fog.


Morning blooming through fog outside of Armissan.

Viewing the Mediterranean was my last goal for the trip. I could see it from on high after I ascended through the fog to a rocky hilltop. And again, speeding quickly through winding roads down towards the shore. As I coasted at top speed along the road, tires humming, I had another moment where I felt and remembered the true joy of cycling. Getting there on your own power, and enjoying the fruits of your labor.

This was my last day of riding. Narbonne to Montpellier. This is where I planned to stay with a couple of college-aged kids for two nights before taking a train to Paris. The day's ride was often some of the prettiest and most fun that I've done on my voyage. At times I felt my heart beat in my chest. Resoundingly a reminder of the great joy that can be had on a bicycle.

There exists a narrow peninsula that reaches out to the town of Sète. A bike path runs the entire length of the peninsula along the beach. If you can manage to follow high-traffic poorly-marked roads for a good long while, you can take that bike path.

My ride on the beach was pleasant. Before and after that stretch of beach was nightmarish. This is why no one really recommends you bike tour on the southeast coast of France. It is gorgeous, but it's car-friendly and only occasionally a good place to ride a bike. Signage is poor and major highways trace their way up the coast. Sometimes the departmental routes dump you onto larger roads for an unavoidable and unenjoyable white-knuckle shoulder-hugging kilometer or ten. One of these segments had me against a jersey barrier while large trucks blew by. It would have been an appropriate time to be afraid. Perhaps the southeast coast will eventually be a gorgeous place to ride, when the planned EuroVelo route is complete.

I followed my nose into Montpellier and managed to find my hosts' apartment without a ton of trouble. My contact was L. but only his roommate was home. I sat on their couch and wrote while his roommate worked on homework. When L. arrived we talked cycling and eventually cooked dinner at a full table. We didn't go out that night because L. had class early. It was just as well, since my sleep schedule isn't appropriate for a social life.

When I awoke the next morning, I went to the train station and began the nerve-blistering process of getting back to Paris with my bike.


Bike Touring on the Canal du Midi

October 24, 2012 at 5:40 pm

People that I respected and were cool and likable and great, people that I met all over France, lots of them had mentioned riding down the Canal du Midi. And I'm aware that it's something that touring cyclists often do. It's said that you're likely to meet loads of them down there on the canal. Blissfully pedaling along, stopping only when their face hurts too much from smiling.

Man, I hate the Canal du Midi. It runs from Bordeaux all the way to the Mediterranean, and some people ride the whole thing. They do, and I haven't the foggiest clue why. I rode down the canal for two full days, about 200km. One day from Montauban to Toulouse, and another day from Toulouse to Carcassonne. I was supposed to spend a third day on it, ending up outside of Narbonne. I am extremely, extremely happy that I wizened up and took roads. Wide and friendly roads, with views and towns and people and differences.

The Canal du Midi strikes you at first for its Olmsteadian beauty but then slowly dissolves into a Levittian nightmare. Plane trees line the banks of the canal, which is typically set a man's height below the surrounding land. When you're pedaling down the canal, you see plane trees on your left, a path in front of you, and a narrow expanse of green water to your right. For an afternoon stroll it's delightful, much more than that and it is maddening. Riding through the various landscapes of France, I've fantasized about future projects, drinks with friends, burritos, music I want to make, and I've thought of stories to write and considered what times in my life really meant to me. On the Canal du Midi I thought about trees to my left, the path in front of me, and a narrow expanse of green water to my right.

Canal du Midi

I was on the Canal du Midi for two days, but I only needed to take one picture.


Here's the other thing about this godforsaken canal. When you're nearby a larger town, the path is paved nicely and runs consistently along one bank. But from time to time, and for long stretches, the canal path is not paved and instead in various states of mud. If you're lucky, it's hard-packed dirt. If you're not, thick mud is sucking your tires into the earth and getting stuck in your fenders, breaks, and drivetrain. And you never know when the canal path will get lousy, nor which side of the canal the better path will be on. So sometimes you'll be picking your bike up over a log while your feet sink into the mud, while on the other side of the canal, someone with a picnic basket on their handlebars is eating an apple and talking on their phone as they coast nonchalantly. And then you cross the canal at the next bridge but then the good side switches, and so on. The effect of the on-again off-again road maintenance is diabolical. You end up hoping that you're going to receive well-paved roads forever. Yes, you end up praying for more monotony.

You also never have any idea where you are. Bridges are rarely marked with a route, and even small villages are not clearly labeled from the canal. My only notion of how far I'd gone was my odometer. And that's something I try not to look at too frequently for obvious watching-water-boil type reasons. So I would end up after a few hours simply having no idea even relatively where I was. And then maddening thoughts would pop up like that maybe there was a Y in the canal and now I've been headed the wrong way for hours. The passage of time is important to me. Riding along roads allows you to watch meaningful progress tick off as you find the next route or village. Riding on the canal all day has the effect of being in some kind of hyper sleep chamber. It's so regular-looking and unlabelled that it might as well be a painting that someone slapped up in front of an exercise bike. And then said, “here's your ride through France, isn't it beautiful?”

The parts of France that I rode through just before taking the canal and just after mercifully quitting it were some of the prettiest places I've ever seen in my life. The parts of France that I rode through on the canal I cannot speak for, because I did not see them. The trees and banks of the canal are high enough that you can't appreciate what's around you. And since there are no signs that indicate you can take a certain side street to see a certain thing, you don't ever leave it. Doing so would be 100% guesswork without a GPS. So you end up not even channel surfing because you assume nothing else is on, and the reruns play forever. In fact, I had been so brainwashed by the green water and monotonous paths that when I finally escaped the canal, it was like watching a color TV for the first time. The world was suddenly lush.

The second day that I was on the canal was after several days of high wind. It was often covered in sticks and branches that I would ride around and occasionally over. For many kilometers, every time there was a bridge or lock, there would be an orange triangular sign on the ground that read “Route Barrée” and then a random distance between 100 and 500 meters. These are temporary signs that road crews can use when they are doing construction or, say, removing fallen trees from a canal pathway. I saw these signs every kilometer or so for hour after hour and always rode right past them without ever being stopped by either a fallen log or construction crew. Except ONCE when the route really was blocked off by a huge fallen tree and several workers. One of them took off his headphones and walked over to ask me how I could have missed the sign. Maybe they had just been extremely thorough in their signage and wanted me to know in the morning that by the mid-afternoon the route would be barred someplace.

Someone told me yesterday that the best way to take the canal is if you really know what you can find by taking different bridges and routes away from it. And I'm sure there are some medieval villages and wineries that can make for wonderful day trips from Toulouse or Bordeaux. But as a touring cyclist who doesn't know the region intimately, the canal is a bad and stupid thing that I wouldn't recommend.