What would you expect from a ride in the French countryside? If I had ever stopped to consider that question, I might have imagined the ride we went on our second day in the Aix-les-Bains area, as part of our ten-dayish biking vacation in France with the Andy Hampsten-led Cinghiale Tours.
Sadly, however, I am — as I stated yesterday — a yokel. And so I had never thought about how a 69-mile ride with 6800 feet of climbing in France might be a different experience than a ride with similar distance and elevation in Utah.
This ride would fill up that particular hole in my imagination. From now on, whenever I think of the French countryside, I’ll think of the sights and sounds from this ride.
I’ve described before the sad, sad state of my sense of direction. What I have not described — at least, I don’t remember describing this — is that my memory of roads traveled is no better than my sense of direction.
Which means that while I might have a really vivid mental recollection of many parts of a given ride, you wouldn’t want me to be the guy who guides you on that ride again.
Which is my way of saying that I probably should not be on Andy’s short list of people he considers hiring as a guide at Cinghiale. Even though I am very charming.
The above three paragraphs are not really my point, though, and if I had an editor, she would be entirely correct to delete those paragraphs (and this one, too).
Unfortunately for you, I do not have an editor, and so you have to read everything in the order it occurs to me.
Anyway, the point I did want to make is that I was fairly startled to see that our route from this ride looks like this:
And I wasn’t just startled for a single reason. No. I was startled for three reasons. The first — and most obvious — reason for my startlement is that this route tracing looks like some kind of evil dragon/snuffleupagus hybrid.
What, you don’t see it? Here, I’ll help:
No, that’s not right. That image is conveying all the wrong things. This is better:
Now it’s a friendly dragon/snuffleupagus hybrid (notice the eyebrow change and the not-sharp teeth?), and instead of breathing fire, it’s eating candy corns.
That’s more what the ride was like. A candy-corn-eating, square-tooth-having, friendly imaginary creature.
OK, this post is getting kind of strange. Please give me a moment to collect myself.
The second reason I was startled was that when I looked at this route on a map, I realized I had no idea which direction we had traveled this route: clockwise or counterclockwise.
Finally, I had no idea that the “extra credit” part of the ride some of us chose had us cover so much extra ground (out to Ecole, then to Aillon-le-Jeune) without actually having us go anywhere.
Though I guess that was kind of the point, now that I think about it.
Impressionism, Or Something Like It
The point I’m edging up to here is that this ride wasn’t really about going anywhere — we clearly didn’t take the most direct route, and we weren’t focusing on going fast.
This ride was about seeing. And hearing, too. And, in general, just being overwhelmed at how privileged I was to be experiencing such a beautiful ride.
Really, I’d have a hard time describing the order of what I’ve seen, because we were all over the place, and memories start to blend together a little bit. But I would like to share some impressions. And photos.
I don’t even know how many quaint villages in the French countryside we rode our bikes through that day.
Five? Seven? Maybe even more?
Regardless of how many there were, there were certain common attributes to each of these little places. First, it seemed that so many of these houses had flowers in every possible place:
Next, the houses were old. I asked The Hammer if she had seen any buildings during our ride that looked like they were fewer than fifty years old. She hadn’t.
Without exception, each of these little villages had a large, old church as its centerpiece:
And every village had a wonderful little fountain and trough, decorated with flowers, where we could refill our bottles with cold water. Like this:
And it was good (as in, I never got sick), cold water, too.
Though I wouldn’t have wanted to scoop water from the trough. Greenish, in case you hadn’t noticed.
I’ve long held that pretty much everywhere in the world starts out as beautiful. Desert, mountain, plains, everywhere. Nature is, by default, spectacular.
Sometimes, of course, people mess it up.
Other times we tame it a little, but mostly just to add some finishing touches. And that — more than pretty much anywhere I’ve ever been — is how the French countryside appeared to me:
Mountains everywhere. Some farmland. Really nice, well-paved roads. Cows on the sides of the road with bells around their necks — together making a sound like windchimes.
I kept looking over at The Hammer and said, “We’re in France. In the countryside. On a perfect day. With nothing to do but take it in and have fun for the next week.”
And then we’d both start laughing. It’s not often that everything seems just perfect, so when it is, you’ve got to enjoy it.
This second day was loaded with climbing. About 6800 feet of it, in about 69 miles (it’s possible I have already mentioned this). Here’s the thing, though: I never really noticed it much. The Hammer and I were riding for fun — not to set climbing records.
That said, the elevation profile is worth checking out:
And while we were definitely in the mountains, those mountains started about 3,000 feet lower than the mountains The Hammer and I live in (our house is right at 4912 feet). As we rode, The Hammer observed, “Isn’t it great to not have your lungs burning at all on a climb?”
“Yes,” I agreed, my lungs burning only a little bit.
After a full day of climbing and picnicking, we got to an overlook at a ski resort — the high point (literally) of the day. 4000 feet below, we could see the lake, where our hotel was.
The above image, by the way, is probably the most spectacularly ineffective photo I have ever seen at demonstrating a dramatic 4,000 altitude difference between where you are and the water below. You’re just going to have to believe me that it would take more than a short walk across a flat grassy field to get to the lake over there.
While I was taking this picture The Hammer started laughing. I looked down and saw why: a very small dog had lifted its leg and was peeing on my bike’s rear wheel.
So I got my revenge by peeing on the dog.
OK, not really.
Improbable Is Not Impossible
From this overlook, we had a ten-mile, 4,000-foot descent back to our hotel, in one giant, unbroken, twisty bomber downhill.
It was glorious. Beautiful. A perfect descent.
It was also something that you did not want to interrupt to take pictures. So you’ll have to trust me.
But the problem is, the tour group had broken up into several group-lets during the long climb, so that The Hammer, one other rider, and I were the only ones together. I believe that I’ve already mentioned what a comical sense of direction I have, and — alas — The Hammer is not much better (this is actually a good thing in our relationship; it means neither of us ever gets mad when the other gets lost or fouls up directions).
Naturally, the guy riding with us had no idea how to get back to our hotel either.
And so we went with a simple premise: since our hotel was lakeside and thus the lowest place in the area, we’d always turn downhill when presented with an option.
And you know what? This method worked perfectly. We got to the hotel without a single wrong turn or double-back.
And thus wound up as one of the first groups to arrive at the hotel. Later we’d find that most of the other grouplets got semi-lost once they got into town, having used their sense of direction rather than the arbitrary “go the direction water would flow” technique.
We were so proud.
So . . . Cold . . . Must . . . Eat . . . .
The group ate at the hotel restaurant that night, out on the patio. Honestly, I do not remember what we ate, but I do remember that it was around eighteen courses, each the size of a single beanie-weenie (but not quite as filling).
And then there’d be forty-five minutes of waiting for the next course.
As the night wore on, I had two distinct impressions:
- I became increasingly cold. Thankfully, I had filled my suitcase with pretty much nothing but jerseys, shorts, and every SmartWool product imaginable. The Hammer and I excused ourselves multiple times to go add another layer to our clothing.
- I became increasingly hungry. After riding all day, you — or at least I — are more interested in calories than cuisine. I started the evening hungry, and found that the precious, artistic courses weren’t enough to even keep up with my hunger, much less beat it back.
I decided that I am probably not a good bet for fancy food in general, and especially not when I enter a restaurant thinking about meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
Like I said before, I am a yokel. I was in France for the riding, not the food.
Stanley Tucci and Patrick Dempsey
Let me conclude this post with a photo of me with Brian, one of the riders on my tour.
I post this because I’m pretty sure that when people saw us together, it looked like Patrick Dempsey and Stanley Tucci were vacationing in France together.
Which they may be, as far as I know. But I’m pretty sure Brian and I could kick their respective butts, riding-wise.
PS to the ladies: Brian is a practicing doctor, is very fit, is good-looking (The Hammer kept saying so, ’til I asked her to please stop), has a thick, full head of hair, and is single. Act now.