Today promises to be a challenge. Over 70 miles on legs that have already done 230 miles. We must remember this is a marathon not a sprint, each day has to have something left in the tank for the next. Hopefully the short day yesterday to Vertus has helped. The sky is slightly overcast but the clouds are high so it is not starting as a scorcher. Good thing really as the heat saps energy. I’ll not bother with sunscreen first thing, but it will be close at hand. As it turned out, although warm and sunny, the sunscreen was not used. I am getting a cyclist’s tan. We have done this sort of mileage before but not after 4 days of cycling. Today may be a mental battle and a key indicator will be the wind (meteorological, not anatomical).
There was gentle climb out of Vertus, and on through what remained of the slopes of champagne. Soon we were crossing the flatlands. The roads stretch on for miles across rural agricultural France. This is land for growing crops, mainly wheat and barley as far we could tell. Very few large herds of cattle, no sheep and no pigs. Is this what is called Arable land?
Some grey clouds hovered keeping the temperature down to 16 for a few hours but we soon warmed up and had to remove our yellow wind tops. We passed many wind turbines, which seemed higher than the Eiffel tower, their gentle swoosh could be heard as we passed and their turbines giving a clue as to wind direction. For quite a few miles it was a cross wind, do-able if slowing things down a little. However at one point we faced straight into wind and dropped to 6-7 mph on flat roads that should see speeds of up to 15-20 miles an hour. It was energy sapping and morale sapping, head down legs pumping and creeping forward inch by bloody inch. Kirsten sailed by in the BMW at quite some speed. She would not be the first one with a German sounding name in a German machine made of heavy metal going at speed across the north European flatlands. Grant’s Italian machine was so light it nearly went backwards (true to type), while my sturdy British steel was, functional rather than beautiful. See? National stereotypes are such fun. And true.
At a place called Courcemain, which was a church, a house, a dog and a bit of gravel, we stopped to check the map for the next stop for coffee with Kirsten at Boulage (which is a cross roads, a church, two houses, a dog and some gravel). As we pondered the map the window from a nearby house opened and an old lady asked if we were lost. She kindly gave directions to Boulage and offered us coffee. We declined saying we must be on our way. Emboldened by this little bit of repartee she then asked if we were Belgian. I took heart from that thinking that my French is good enough so as not to show me up as barn door English. She giggled at the reply, as if to say ‘silly me, mistaking and Englishman for a Belgian’. Easy mistake I’d say, it happens to me all the time in Praze-an-Beeble.
We found Kirsten in the bar/tabac in Boulage a short while later. Again this cafe had only old men as patrons. I have found this in cafes all over the world. Only the men go to talk bollocks, smoke, and drink beer/coffee/retsina/ouzo/pastis…. Where are the women, apart from serving the men who talk bollocks…… ? There was a banjo up against the wall at the back of the cafe. I swear it is true. Famished, I looked in the shop that was attached to the bar for something that resembled food. Now this being France you would have thought there would have been a choice to make King Louis the XIVth blush with anticipation. Three other ‘customers ‘ joined me but the lady who should be taking our money was in the bar ignoring the bells that kept going off telling her that a customer was in the shop. She, rather than serve paying customers that will keep the French economy from dropping with the Euro, continued to gabble on her mobile phone while mumbling the French equivalent of ‘I’ll be there dreckly’. I gave up and Kirsten salvaged a brown skinned banana from the car which I shovelled down instead.
From that point onwards we made reasonable progress on reasonable roads. Today the sunflowers made their appearance in abundance. There were fields and fields of them, their yellow heads dancing and swaying slowly like a Gospel choir in the stalls singing ‘amazing grace’. Cycling past them was like being in your own French film, except without the shrugging and the sex.
Each day another French stereotype impresses itself upon the senses. I am glad of that, it would be so disappointing to expect it and then to be let down. It would be like a free ride when you’ve already paid, or good advice that you just don’t take, or rain on your wedding day. Ironic, don’t you think? I love France for being so bloody French, even the surly waitress this evening (for whom to give a smile would hurt as much as losing her virginity to a drink sodden docker – or so you would think) was a joy to behold. And yet tonight our host in the hotel could not have been more friendly, even replacing Grant’s pinot noir soaked dessert. Why was Grant’s dessert soaked with Pinot noir? Ask him.
Along with the sunflowers, we passed poppies which had now gone to seed for, well poppy seeds I guess. These were the cultivated kind not the wild poppies which continue to fringe the fields wherever we go. Then after cycling hard on, for once, very rough Tarmac we made a detour. Grant’s decision to go off piste was rewarded in spades. We met Kirsten purely by chance and came across a ‘voie vert’, a ‘green way’ (or cycle path) which ran alongside a canal towards Troyes. It was flat and smooth. We gained 200 feet in about 10 kms, so yes it felt flat. The attempt on this path was made after a hearty baguette, meats and cheeses. Heaven. Kirsten had bought the fresh baguette from a mobile baker’s van in a village we had passed through. Sheer joy.
The last few miles took us through the centre of Troyes, but we could not linger in this city. We would like to, but ‘tempus fugit’ or ‘time flies’ as my old Latin teacher used to say. Instead we followed the Seine to our destination – Bar-sur-Seine. It is a an old medieval town with many old timber framed buildings that surely would not pass building regulations today. I think the technical term for a wall that is less than straight is ‘pissed’. These buildings were trolleyed. I saw some horrendous scaffolding, so bad even I could see it was unsafe. So a picture for Aaron and Zion Scaffolding Ltd back hone in England. There is work in France for you boys. On the way I saw a proper train with an locomotive and everything! And we have seen the TGV! Does life get any better?
Dinner: cod again for me, steak for Kirsten and Grant had something not soaked in Pinot Noir, which makes it tasty. Nearly 3,800 calories today on the bikes so hungry, really hungry. Tomorrow is another 65 miles. Kirsten’s efforts at support is a marvel to behold. The efficiency and attention to detail is almost Teutonic in its execution. Although ‘Teutonic’ and ‘execution’ are two words that should not be often put together.
We were tragically reminded of teutonic ‘efficiency’ in Bar sur Seine. There is a plaque on the wall commemorating the martyrs and the heroes of the town who were massacred by ‘Les Brutes Hitlerien’ in August 1944.
Earlier in the day we passed a renovated American half track troop carrier from WW2 displayed in someone’s garden. Nuff said. There is a suggestion that this was used by General Patton during WW2.