The Beauty of the Bike.

Thank heavens for cycling.

Since most foot-dependent activities are currently out of the question, cycling is the option that remains. [Regular readers will know of my aversion to water submersion-hence swimming is off the menu].

So cycling is becoming vital to maintaining an amoebic level of physical activity and to this end Husband has been rising to the challenge of hauling me around various routes and tracks in pursuit of improving my corporeal condition.

Of course the bikes are always on board when we are out and about in the van and were transported all around Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica despite being rarely employed. This was mostly due to the terrifying nature of the Italian roads, although in Sardinia there was a modicum of driverly care un-encountered anywhere else in Italy.

On the subsequent [most recent] trip to Brittany there was more cycling. Travelling by ‘velo’ in France is a whole different experience surpassed only by bicycle use in The Netherlands or Belgium. So we undertook some pedal routes-quiet lanes and tarmac tracks, not all of which were totally flat. As I’m aware that Husband is not over-fond of complaints during cycle rides I took pains not to comment that my knees were creaking, my wrists numb and I was becoming generally knackered.

Such are the nuances of marriage however that once returned he announced that I’d been ‘complaining silently’.

On another afternoon I opted to stay behind, not so much as to spare him my silent complaints as to get down to revising poor, neglected Novel Two. Thus I was heavily engaged in the task and oblivious to anything else when Husband reappeared after what seemed an unusually brief spell. ‘I came off’ he said.

He’d come off in spectacular style, judging by the holes in his elbow and his knee. In the customary manner of husbands he was eager to minimise the event, the effects of which were not a pretty sight. Novel Two went back on the back burner while I delved into the eclectic mix of items I call the First Aid Box.

Back home now, I’ve managed to cycle without complaint, silent or otherwise, ascended some hills without dismounting to push and achieved staying within sight of Husband’s bike most of the time.

I’ve also come to realise that the bike has other uses besides the exercise factor. If I need to nip up the road for a loaf of bread I can do so without needing to suffer the excruciating attentions of Neighbour, a man who speaks to me as if I am a miniature toy poodle and who I tend to avoid at all cost.

So bike is the way except for when it’s raining-which it is-a lot-at the moment…

 

Hurt One or Two Living Things

Hurt No Living Thing

Hurt no living thing:
Ladybird, nor butterfly,
Nor moth with dusty wing,
Nor cricket chirping cheerily,
Nor grasshopper so light of leap,
Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat,
Nor harmless worms that creep.

 

Christina Rosetti’s famous poem exhorts us all to refrain from harming tiny creatures; a lofty ideal, but one that is tricky to follow. I notice she keeps to insects that are both beautiful and/or harmless such as ladybirds or beetles and does not venture to suggest that we should preserve locusts, tsetse flies, head lice or maggots. And was Christina a vegan, I wonder?

It is easy to admire and wish to preserve ladybirds and butterflies. It is even possible to tolerate annoying wasps, who gyrate in an irritating, menacing fashion around your alfresco lunch if you adopt a laisser-faire attitude. And hornets should be given a wide berth at all times. For those of us, however who seem to be a favourite snack for mosquitoes, midges and any other blood sucking insects there is a strong desire to smash them into a pulp. Anyone who has lain awake tortured by the hot itching of myriad bites will understand this.

I’ve been attacked by most of the common, European biters. Years ago there was a local, Dorset, river dwelling blood sucker called The Blandford Fly whose bite induced ankle swelling akin to elephantiasis together with a flu-like fever. I’d had at least two of these before the little monsters were sprayed prior to hatching.

Of course in tropical climates there are some truly nasty insects-grubs that burrow into skin and eyes, wormy things that colonise the bodily systems. But here in France, in the pine woods of the south west my own, personal běte noir has to be the horsefly. If horseflies are beyond your experience consider yourself blessed.

My first real run in with them was a few years ago whilst enjoying an innocent cycle up a quiet lane in the forest of Les Landes. It was a hot afternoon, provoking sweat to erupt between my rucksack and the fabric of my T-shirt. As we passed a particular spot a swarm of horseflies erupted from the trees and up beneath the rucksack, biting as they went. The result was a constellation of itchy, angry, red, raised lumps that lasted for a couple of weeks.

Then last week, after a hot afternoon I emerged from the shower and sat to drag a brush through my wet hair, rising to glance in the mirror at the result. It looked as if two brown stickers had attached themselves to my face-one at the hairline, the other on my jaw. In my innocence I was slow to recognise the sinister, brownish, frog-with-a-touch-of spider [but without the charm of either] forms of horseflies, which had attached themselves greedily to my face and had begun feasting before I’d so much as dried off. While the itching has now subsided the scabby lumps persist. Now I am applying liberal dousing of repellent prior to each cycling jaunt, although this afternoon the little scamps were invading my helmet and ignoring the deterrent lotion by hitching a ride on my skin.

No, Christina I’m afraid exceptions must be made. Ladybirds and grasshoppers, yes-horseflies-NO.

Don’t Breathe until you’ve Strapped on the Button-

We are used, now to seeing those posts that invite us to join in congratulatory admiration for friends’ achievements. You know the ones. So-and-so has just run X miles or, J Bloggs has cycled to here; there will be a map to show you exactly the route they took. These posts fall into the same category as those selfie shots, a cloud of grinning friends all having a ball or seated around a table of delicious, ‘Masterchef’ style food-or standing on The Great Wall of China or Golden Gate Bridge. It is rare to see a photo of someone grappling with a flooding washing machine or in the aftermath of open-heart surgery.

Creeping along into this melee of ‘tell-all’ comes the tiny, wearable, digital device. Of course, monitors of all descriptions have been around for ages, but these, ever-smaller, watch-like buttons are becoming more sophisticated than ever. According to devotees they will tell you how many steps you’ve taken, monitor your heart rate and inform you of how you’ve slept.

It seems to me that this is taking self-absorption to another level. Why do we need a device to tell us how we’ve slept? I am still compos mentis enough to know whether I’ve slept or not-because if I was awake I probably knew about it already. I also have a fairly good idea whether I’ve walked anywhere or if I’ve been a lazy slob slumped on a sofa with a book. I’ll let the health system deal with my heart rate, though if I’m feeling ok why worry?

Won’t these little, wearable buttons give us the same paranoia that googling symptoms does? Supposing it tells you you didn’t sleep a wink last night? What will you do? Go back to bed that minute to recoup the lost hours? Only walked eight thousand two hundred and fifty four steps? Quick-get outside in the garden and do a few circuits before ‘Eastenders’. Eaten too many calories today? Nothing to eat tomorrow!

Worse still, in a sinister vision of the future, supposing some popinjay in the health department of a nanny state government comes up with the brilliant idea of linking their use to the health system. You will be required to wear a monitor at all times if you wish to be entitled to health care. You will be resuscitated only if you have slept for the mandatory eight hours last night. You will qualify for a hip replacement only if you have completed your compulsory ten thousand steps per day. Goodness! A veto on surgery for smokers or the obese has already raised its ugly head. Linking healthy lifestyle to healthcare entitlement can only be around the corner.

Or why not programme the devices to issue warnings? They could jolt us with an electric shock if we sip at a second Sauvignon or munch on a MacDonald’s and sound an alarm to alert us to getting on with our ten thousand steps. Does it remind you of any famous novels? Just remember that 1984 was over thirty years ago.

Whereabouts on the Podium do you Stand?

It is Olympics time. I was watching the women’s cycling road event, sucked in by the thrilling build-up as the competitors battled over the last few kilometres. There was a tortuous climb up a long, winding hill followed by a hurtling, nail-biting descent on a slippery road with more perilous bends, the roadside precipices looming at every turn. The leader, a Dutch woman had pulled ahead of the pack, shrugged off her nearest rival and was rocketing down in an exhilarating abandonment of caution. Then catastrophe struck as she hit the side, catapulting herself over the handlebars and on to her head to lie inert as the riders cannoned downwards past her and towards the finish.

My heart leapt into my throat. I remembered what a coward I was, whimpering my way down the mountain in Thailand and having to be nursed down over the ruts and chasms by a kindly Thai guide as the rest of the group swooshed down in a cloud of confidence. The camera continued to follow the Olympic cyclists, one of the commentators insisting we should follow the race, the other less sure, feeling much like I did that the catastrophic crash eclipsed any result that would ensue.

An American had taken the lead now, hotly pursued by a small group who closed the gap then at the very last they overtook her and the gold medal was won by another Dutch woman in an ironic turn of events. How must the American have felt to have the medal torn from her grasp in the last few metres? These are the stories you see less of during the coverage of the games. We see the triumphs, the excitement, the interviews and the joy. We don’t see the heartbreak and the disappointment.

Until I grew old-ish the only interest I took in anything Olympic Games related was to rail at the lack of proper telly. During the weeks that the games is on everything else-dramas, murder mysteries, historical documentaries, talk shows, music programmes, political debate or David Attenborough cavorting with primates-they all must make way for the ceaseless round of prattle that is the Games.

Nowadays I have an ambivalent attitude to watching sport. Sometimes it can suck me in [as in the cycle race]. Other times I’ll sit down to watch an event only to have my mind wander off on an event of its own-to the supermarket perhaps to ponder groceries or to the fridge to peruse the contents. My fingers may stray to the keyboard to play a round of Scrabble [I am engaged in a gladiatorial battle of almost Olympic proportions with a friend]. I might feel inclined to check emails or read a news website.

And where is the coverage of The Edinburgh Fringe event? At the very least it could be shown on a different channel!

The Dutch cyclist survived, albeit with spinal fractures and some other injuries-not least the disappointment of having crashed out at a pivotal moment. Since then there has been diving, gymnastics, tennis, swimming, shooting; some GB successes. The results, yes they are of some interest. The events themselves must take their chances and compete with emails and Scrabble.

Downhill for Wrinklies

            In the photograph, we are both smiling. The image is deceptive. Husband is smiling a deep, broad grin, signifying his abject happiness with the activity we were undertaking. I am doing my utmost, mustering, at best, a grimace that may be mistaken for a smile, given that we were swathed in helmets, dark glasses and various items of protective padding. The snap was taken after I’d hit the rock that projected me over on to the stone-laden, rutted slope but long before we were anywhere near the base of the mountain; hence the grimace.

            The mountain was Mount Doi Suthep, just outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and we were being nursed down a rough, muddy, rock-strewn descent by two enthusiastic, young men. One of them, ‘O’, had the misfortune to be at the back of our group where he’d acquired the herculean task of getting me, the ancient, terrified snail of the group from Point A, the top of the mountain to Point B, the base via the horrifying precipices, ruts and mud that was the trail.

            To the young, Thai mountain bikers we were ‘Papa’ and ‘Mama’, titles we were to be addressed by throughout our stay. ‘We must look very old’, I remarked to Husband, although we were charmed by the term, feeling that it was some mark of respect. Within our cycling group of eight we were not only the oldest by far but generations apart from the other three youthful couples, who surged down, leaping their bikes over boulders and soaring over the ruts in an effortless glide.

            ‘Good, Mama!’ encouraged ‘O’ as I negotiated a successful transfer from one rut to another. He must have wondered if we’d be down before nightfall. At times we briefly caught up with the others as they stopped for a water break or to take some photos; then they’d be off before I’d got the lid off my bottle.

            When I think of that day now, I know I would never have undertaken the challenge if I’d known how difficult it would be, and perhaps this is one of life’s lessons-that ignorance is somehow bliss. I can now look upon it as a kind of achievement, though nowhere near the hard won achievement of ‘O’, who got me, ‘Mama’, to the base.

            I must also point out that ‘Route 1’, our chosen way, was the easiest option. Others chose to follow a route across the mountain which involved, at times, cycling a death-defying channel along the summit, the width of a cycle tyre and with sheer drops either side, or a route which involved carrying the bike for some distances and calf-burning ascents.

            At last the trail levelled and changed gradually to gravel track. It led to a beautiful lake fringed with little thatched huts on stilts. We came to a halt, shed our trainers and climbed, wobbly-legged, onto a palm mat around a low table, already decked with bottles of cold water and coke. ‘Which lunch option would we prefer?’

            During the next few days a circle of dark, black and purple bruises appeared around my thigh. Throughout the course of the ensuing three weeks it changed colour, but remained. Vestiges remain today-a bracelet of honour and testament to the accomplishment of mountain biking down Doi Suthep.

Herwig the Hoaxer

                This post is dedicated to Bosswachter, who we met recently in an Antwerp bar and who provided us with a dash of entertainment before the long drive home.

                Following our mini sojourn in Amsterdam, having been spectators [of sorts] at the marathon and witnessed a satisfactory outcome, we’d planned to break the return journey by taking a quick look at Antwerp.

                There was an ‘aire’ at Antwerp, Husband reassured me. The ‘aire’ was furnished with water, electricity and [best of all] a shower block. It was near the centre of the city-no more than a short cycle into the town via dedicated cycle tracks. Antwerp, with its cobbled streets and tall, gabled buildings is another historic gem of a city to rival Bruges or Ghent.

                We arrived to the ‘aire’, were greeted, as promised, by a manned reception and handed a bag for rubbish. So far so good. ‘Did we have a toilet?’ enquired the receptionist, causing my heart to plummet into my boots. Of course we do have a miniscule, basic porta-loo, for night purposes; not the gleaming, walk-in, capsule type of facility offered by larger motorhomes [of which there were a few, parked up on the hard standing area of the site].

                I might have known there’d be no washing facilities. The fabled shower block was there, yes, but had fallen out of use, the doors locked, the water extinguished. Having, by now, however achieved a sixth sense about these situations I’d taken the precaution of showering and hair washing at the beautiful Amstelveen site before we left that morning [see previous post]. Phew!

                We cycled into Antwerp. It was easy-a level, off-road path-until nearer the centre, when the path disappeared and it was necessary to share the street with cars, trucks, buses and trams.

                The old city is wonderful and boasts a plethora of souvenir shops to rival Bruges-lace, chocolate and beer. There is a grand square with an ornate town hall and an enormous, verdigris encrusted statue spouting plumes of water, the square bordered by a fringe of bars, cafes and restaurants. As evening descended we sat at a table and ordered Flemish stew accompanied by wine and beer. Heaven!

                Returning later by night we opted for a last drink at an out-of-town bar nearer to the site, where an almost lone landlady stood polishing glasses behind the counter. As we sat, resting elbows on the bar top, we were accosted by a solid, whiskered gentleman who assailed us with a stream of Flemish, seeming to be in the nature of an enquiry. We did not speak Flemish? OK, how about Francais? ‘Un peu’ I replied-my stock answer. We conducted a halting conversation about our travels and where I’d learned French, culminating in his excusing himself to visit the toilettes. He reappeared, smiling. ‘Now’, he said, ‘we can speak English!’

                He was, of course, delighted with his prank-delighted enough to have infected us with the merriment of it, despite the joke being on us…well, if I’m honest…me.

                Anyway, cheers, Herwig! See you next time!

Going Dutch

                We have arrived to the environs of Amsterdam. The last time we visited this compact but beautiful capital city was a number of years ago, despite having travelled in the Netherlands to some extent. Our last Amsterdam visited included a comfortable hotel stay near the centre. This time we have made the bold step of driving here in the campervan, despite the autumnal weather.

                Amsterdam boasts remarkable architecture and a network of canals, as many North European cities do, and like all of the Netherlands [which benefits from a flat terrain] has developed a magnificent system of bike paths. As I’ve mentioned before, the bicycle rules here, taking precedence over both motor vehicles and pedestrians, which is lucky since we have not only brought our bikes with us, but yours truly continues to be lame from foolish activities such as jogging.  Nevertheless we are here to watch a plucky family member undertake the Amsterdam marathon and provide whatever support we can, from clapping and whooping as he dashes past in a blur, to hearty congratulations and beer on completion.

                The campsite here in Amstelveen, a satellite of Amsterdam, is clean, modern and comfortable, with heated wash blocks, hard standing for motorhomes, affable, friendly staff and plenty of useful information. But Amstelveen is an odd, characterless area. We stumbled out to try and find the ‘centre’, hoping for a bank and perhaps a hostelry where we might enjoy an early evening drink. There are miles of new, pristine housing estates, neatly laid out and incorporating cycle ways, patches of grass with goal nets, basketball courts, picnic benches. There is no litter or dog excrement. There are also no newsagents, grocery stores, coffee bars, bistros, launderettes, betting shops, Chinese takeaways or bars. Eventually, among the vast warehouse factories and car outlets we discovered a supermarket and inside, a cash dispenser.

                There is an intrepid element to van camping at this time of year. A couple of years ago we ventured to Bruges, in Belgium just a couple of weeks before Christmas, to a site accessible to the centre, though a bus ride away. The weather was damp and chilly. One of the few fellow campers blew up the electricity supply, rendering our electric heater useless and necessitating using the gas rings for heating. Visiting the centre of the medieval city was nice, but cold, and in order to stay warm we had to keep nipping into bars and cafes even more than we would normally. Bruges was bedecked with lights, decorations, a Christmas market and an ice rink, but was freezing. We returned home with head colds.

                Here there is a vestige of watery, late autumn sunshine mixed in with the clouds. We are an easy cycle from Amsterdam’s centre and have the benefit of reliable, cosy heating. How was the marathon? I’ll let you know…