27 August 2009

Thank God for chamois cream

I got an innocent-seeming email last week from a riding friend about getting a couple of longer rides in over the weekend, when he was to be in bachelor mode. I was game-- what'd he have in mind?

His list included riding to Sancerre at the Loire-Burgundy border, maybe Joigny in northern Burgundy, heading down to Provence for a few days to climb Mont Ventoux and do some mountainous rides out of Nice, and schlepping out to Mont St Michel on the Atlantic coast, which while interesting, was really a bit more riding than either of us wanted.

But the candidates fell for a variety of reasons-- cost of getting down to Provence, Sancerre's a nice distance, but not that interesting physically a destination, riding to Joigny meant riding a fair ways on routes we already knew-- and so Mont St Michel kept moving up the list by default.

I wasn't convinced it was a good idea. I'd looked into the ride this spring, and it's a long way, and I didn't want to spend very much money on this trip. “We could make it in 2 long days and get one of several reasonably priced trains back home on Sun night,” he said.

I was worried about my tendonitis and other nagging injuries; 215 miles in 2 days probably wasn't the best way to start up again after being in Japan 2 weeks. “We'll take it easy, have time off the bike for lunch and snacks, and there are lots of places to bail and catch a train back,” he said.

Of all the places on the list, I've actually been to Mont St Michel once, almost 30 years ago. “I've never been there,” he said, “and I've always wanted to go.”

Aha... I'm starting to see the driver here.

“And how cool would it be to turn the corner and see it there, then have fresh shellfish for dinner?”

Bingo-- now, I get it.

He had this whole Mont St Michel fantasy worked out in his head: catching the vision of the Mont in the late afternoon sun as we hit the coast, rolling right up to the beach for a dip in the Atlantic in the shadow of the Mont before crossing over, feasting on just-caught fruit du mer and Mere Poulard's famous fluffy omelets. He'd been playing that romanticized film in his head for years, and he sensed his chance.

Cut! Sounded more like a horror movie to me: heavily traffic'd highways and cheesey tourist traps for the last 20 km, mud rather than sand at low tide, shellfish allergies that would make eating out a game of culinary Russian Roulette, and a view that omelets, however fluffy and however silly the capes and hats worn by the guys who beat the eggs to the click-click-click of tourist cameras, aren't especially satisfying recovery food.

But I was interested in seeing the countryside between here and there, I was intrigued by the lure of back-to-back centuries, and seeing the admittedly spectacular Mont a second time in 30 years wouldn't exactly qualify as redundancy. So OK, I said-- let's go.

So we set off Sat AM from the Trocadero in Paris, with a perfect view of one iconic symbol of France, for another. We got lost almost immediately. OK, not really lost, but we hadn't mapped out getting out town, since we do it so often. For some reason chose to go a way we'd never really done before, and so we had to backtrack a few times, find our way around unexpected one-way streets, etc. Starting this kind of ride tentatively can cast an early ominous pall on the day, and it didn't get any better quickly as my riding companion, recently returned from a trip to the States, was redlining as we noodled along easily up the gentle long slope to Versailles. 5 miles down, 115 to go today. Gonna be a long one.

Picking our way past yet another famous site, the Chateau in Versailles, we had a few tricky unmarked traffic circles, and we were still crawling. But once out of the congestion and into the countryside, we started to get some momentum. His jet-lag fog lifted after the first 50 km or so, when we stopped for some more sugar and liquids, and we had a stretch of good directions and signs, and we were cruising. Stopped in one town when the trail went cold, a tiny old man in a tractor cap on a bike wobbled up and gave us directions with a big, genuine smile.

You're foreigners, he said, and we said that yes, we're Americans. He noted how big and strong Americans are (I explained that I'm big, and my friend is strong), and as we pushed off he yelled after us, “Vive les Americains!” We both laughed out loud at the surprise of such an exuberant reaction from a Frenchman. But we were out of Paris, and more importantly, it was the weekend of the 65th anniversary of victory in the Normandy Invasion and the liberation of Paris. And for that weekend, especially among those old enough to have been there, the normally annoying anglophones were probably A-OK.

And in fact, our route took us straight through the jaws of the Falaise Pocket, the site of the decisive battles closing the Normandy invasion. Chambois, Argentan, Mortain-- this is where it happened. And we saw countless celebrations marking the anniversary that weekend: elderly British men in uniform decorated with medals and accompanied by their descendants having beers at the sidewalk cafes, American era tanks and jeeps displayed (or still rolling) in towns, and big outdoor barbecues and picnics. Memorials and simple markers to those who died there in both world wars lined most of our ride. The lack of French military resistance in the 2nd WW is something of a (mostly good-humored) joke in the US, epitomized by Goundskeeper Willie's classic remark to his French class in one Simpson's episode, “Bonjourrr, ya' cheese-eatin' surrender monkeys,” but the losses suffered by the French in WWI, nearly 1.4 million military and 1.7 million total, or about 4% of the total population, are often forgotten in that teasing. It's hard not to be moved by memorials in villages almost too small to merit a dot on the map with hundreds of local names on them.

On our ride, the hills of this region were peaceful and quietly beautiful. We rolled through one picturesque village after another, past chateaux and abbayes and medieval churches without the luxury of time to stop and visit, but also without seeing a car for hours at a time. We'd intended to get to Argentan the first night, 200 km from Paris, so that we'd leave ourselves a shorter 2nd day, but without knowing how my knees would hold up, we didn't dare make hotel reservations. And calling some places in the afternoon while stopped for coffee didn't leave us with warm fuzzy feelings. So when we rode through Gacé, still 30 km short of our goal, and saw a gorgeous 19th century B&B along the road, just a block or two away from another hotel that had an outdoor restaurant, we first looked into it and then checked into it for the night. Nice room, decent dinner outdoors at the place up the street, a boulangerie with a scene display from the Tour de France in their window (perhaps from a time the Tour rode through? This one looked to be from about 1950...), and the pleasant surprise of some gratis Calvados as digestif on our return to the B&B. A guy could get used to this.

Le Castel Morphée in Gacé: 19th century splendor outside and inside, a collection of American cars (!), billiards table in the parlor, digestifs served by an amiable hostess, and at least the night we were there, a meeting of the "our parents were related" club...

The chateau in Gacé, halfway between the hotel and dinner.

Le Tour under glass

The verdant countryside from our window.

The next day was longer than we'd have liked, started later than we'd have liked thanks to a French start time for breakfast at the B&B, and started with fewer calories than we'd have liked, but the terrain through Chambois and Putanges-Pont-Ecrepin was the perfect morning wake up, great momentum climbs and descents, and since we were fresh, we knocked out the previous day's missed 30 km in no time. Things got steeper and less cohesive after that for most of the rest of the day, and it was hotter than the first day. We each had a painful blister at a saddle contact point, and about 60 km from the finish and still in the hills, my right knee picked up yet a new pain, which can change one's outlook quickly. A few NSAIDs and retreating for an hour into that time trial focus place, though, and it relented. We were tired, but as the hills again became less steep and long, rather like Lancaster County without the Amish, we knew we'd make it. Finally with about 15 km to go, it leveled out, and though the roads were the busiest we rode all weekend, they were fine. We were both bonking just a couple of km from the Mont, so we stopped and ate the last of our sandwiches while watching the grazing marsh sheep, one of which I probably ate for dinner, cooked in a cocotte (cast iron skillet) with white beans and a very tasty stock-based sauce, the beans on the bottom getting all crusty and caramelized. Simple but delicious cooking.

Putange-Pont-Ecrepin, one of dozens of beautiful little villages we rode through. There's only a picture of this one because we needed to stop for water.

The famous (and tasty) salt-marsh-fed sheep.

Sight for sore butts: Le Mont.

The Mont was even more touristy than I remembered. Only 50 people actually live on the island, and so we didn't see a single business that didn't exist solely for tourists. Like San Gimignano, it has the feeling of Disney World, and still bonking, and tired, and maneuvering the bikes through the crushing crowds, and frustrated by trying to figure out how we were really going to get to our 9.07 train 60 km away the next morning, the scene and the cheesiness were pissing me off. But the day-trippers were starting to head out, and we got cleaned up and had a wander around before stopping for a cider and then dinner on a terrace on the rampart, watching the tide rush in and hoping that we'd get to see the few remaining cars of the people who had apparently not heard or understood the repeated loudspeaker warnings about the coming tide in 5 languages float away (no such luck-- they were all moved without incident). Late at night, the Mont deserted, one could almost imagine what it must have been like in earlier centuries. And though its current gothic splendor is 19th century renovation, it's a spectacular vision from just about any angle at any time of day.

View from town at low tide. The bay is silting in, helped by the construction of a permanent causeway some years ago, but a public works project is scheduled to dredge it.

And at high tide. The bulk of the change takes place in about 30 min. If you don't move your car "schnellstern," it might not be there when you get back.

All lit up.

It's only at night that this place actually feels like it might really have been an Abbey, once.

Sunrise from our hotel window.

The trip back was mostly uneventful. The sunrise was stunning, we made it to the station with a few minutes to spare, and though our train was both oversold and 2 cars short, and so packed to the gills with returning vacationers, we and the bikes made it back none too worse for the wear (though I still have flashbacks of the giant fleshy buttock that was pressed against my shoulder and back for the last hour of the trip).

In the end, the visit to Mont Saint Michel might not quite have lived up to my friend's internal idealized movie, but the reality was surely a much longer ways from mine. It was a really neat place to be after 2 pretty great days of riding.

I've never done back-to-back centuries-plus before, but I'm ready for the next one(s). He mentioned in passing maybe riding down to Nice sometime. Let's see, that's 600 miles... so that's about chicken-bucket of ass cream. I can live with that.


  1. L'agneau pre-sale? That stuff is seriously tasty.

  2. Am I really that transparent in my attempts to be manipulative ?

    You know, I hear the sheep will be grazing all around Honfleur this weekend . . .