The summer bike trip I do with my friends Jeff, Matt and Tim began in 2011 and has since become an annual ritual. For the past two years we’ve headed across the Channel to France. In 2013 we tackled the iconic London to Paris ride, following the excellent route on Donald Hirsch’s website. This year we took our bikes over on the Eurostar and cycled east of Paris on a sparkling 150 mile journey to Epernay in the Champagne region. The full details of the route can be found in the highly recommended book Cycling Northern France by Richard Peace and Andrew Stevenson.
This year’s ride also had an extra dimension, happily coinciding with the second (knock-out) round of the football World Cup. Though the England team had already returned home in disgrace, the French had started brightly. With two games to look forward to each night, the atmosphere in the local bars promised to be electric…
With a long weekend of biking, beer and the beautiful game ahead, we leave St Pancras in high spirits. The weather prospects are less bright. The sky is a dismal grey and rain is forecast for the first two days. We may get a bit of sun on the third day if we’re lucky. It’s not ideal but it’s in keeping with the back notes of existential angst that flavour this trip. We’re staying for the first two nights in the town La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, two miles from the house of Samuel Beckett, where the author of Waiting For Godot and many other gloomy plays lived during the latter phase of his life. It promises to be a weekend of dramatic pauses and gallows humour in the face of the absurdity of existence. Plus footy.
The route begins just outside the Gard du Nord and for the first three hours the threatened rain mercifully holds off. We make good progress out through the leafy suburbs of the city along the Canal St. Martin and Canal de l’Ourcq towpaths, then onto quiet roads into the lush green of the Marne valley. At this rate we should do the 47 miles to La Ferté in time for the 6pm kick off in the mouth-watering South American clash between Brazil and Chile.
However we have reckoned without Matt’s annual puncture, which has become a regular feature of our trips. His bike has been christened Berbatov, after the abundantly talented but temperamentally fragile ex-Spurs and Man United striker. This year he has taken the precaution of fitting extra strong Armadillo ‘puncture-proof’ tyres. Around mid-afternoon we hear the familiar hiss of escaping air pressure and the familiar howl of anguish. There’s a delay while a new inner tube is fitted, and when we get going again it starts to shower. Pretty soon it’s raining ‘chats et chiens’ as the French say. We’re now well behind schedule and arrive in La Ferté during the half time interval.
La Ferté is not blessed with accommodation options. The only hotel we could find on Tripadvisor had a review from someone who was given a mouldy chocolate on his pillow and was forced to fill his own bath with 20 buckets of hot water. So we’re staying for two nights in the local Polish Catholic Mission, recommended in the guidebook, for which I have paid the risible sum of 50 euros a night for two double rooms.
The others wait outside the Mission with the bikes while I go to check in. I enter the wrong door and come face to face with a rotund priest sitting at a table scoffing his dinner. He scowls at me, pointing back through the door shouting, ‘Il faut aller à la réception’. I eventually manage to locate the lady in charge, decked out in black and white nun’s habit and wimple, presumably the Mother Superior. I check in and we lock our bikes up in the shed.
I ask the Mother Superior if she knows anywhere with a TV nearby. Her face immediately lights up.
‘Pour le match?’ she asks?
‘Oui’, I reply, ‘Brésil contre Chile.’
‘Et plus tard’ she says, ‘Columbie contre Uruguay!’’
The international language of football truly knows no boundaries. She is so animated I begin to suspect she may have had a bit of a wager, perhaps even a monkey on a Brazil-Columbia double. In fact, although my French isn’t brilliant, I’m pretty sure I hear her say, ‘J’ai un singe sur le Brésil-Columbie double.’
She beckons us to follow and leads us to a bunker in the basement of the building. An underground chapel or crypt perhaps. But inside the darkened room there is a TV, armchairs and a bunch of nuns plumping up their cushions. We settle down for the second half of what turns to be a dour 1-1 draw which Brazil undeservedly win in a tense penalty shoot-out, sending dark horses Chile out of the tournament and triggering a volley of swearing from Tim, followed by a sheepish grin as he remembers there are nuns in the room.
Afterwards we head out to find somewhere to eat and a bar to watch the late evening game. Unfortunately the whole town appears to be shut apart from a kebab shop, a mini supermarket and a Tunisian salon de thé, which has a TV but does not serve alcohol. We dine chez Monsieur Kebab and consider our options. We could get some beers from the mini supermarket and head back to watch another match with nuns. But it’s not really how we imagined we’d be spending Saturday night on our holiday. We opt for the salon de thé where we enjoy an impressive Columbian victory, washed down with several mint teas, before heading back to the Mission.
The rooms are small but functional, with two beds, a shower, a few pieces of religious iconography on the walls and bibles on the bedside table. No TV, no whirlpool bath, no mini bar and no tiny bottles of shampoo. This is very much at the budget end of the Polish Catholic Mission market.
We do the traditional coin toss to decide who rooms with whom. This is our fourth annual cycle trip. We have put up with each other snoring and farting around Devon, northern France and the Low Countries and miraculously still managed to remain friends. I try to decide which Beckett play provides the most appropriate metaphor for our room sharing experience. Maybe Happy Days, in which a woman is buried up to her neck in sand, prattling incessantly to her monosyllabic husband, in a relentless flood of harsh light from which there is no escape, in a world without end and without hope.
The next morning the sky is still grey and rain appears set in for the day. The mood is a tad flat. Not so much Champagne as Pomagne. But at least there’s little danger of starting the day in La Ferté with a hangover. Down in the refectory we are served a meagre breakfast of instant coffee, stale buns and the French equivalent of Dairylea Cheese Spread, a grim repast which does little to lift our spirits. I find it hard to believe the grumpy prelate I saw last night is dining on this spartan fare. He’s probably somewhere in the cloisters tucking into devilled kidneys and eggs benedict, washed down with Green Chartreuse served by cherubic choirboys.
Half way through breakfast a Swiss lady, around 60 years of age, rushes over to join us. It seems she’s been living here in the Mission for some time and is thrilled to have an opportunity to practise her English. The conversation soon turns to politics and we discover that she is a fan of both Vladimir Putin and our own British Queen, enjoys watching young men in military parades and is the founder of an organisation that campaigns for world peace. She believes the world would be a better and more peaceful place if it were run by a council of army generals from different countries. She congratulates us on our glowing complexions and healthy demeanours, making the unexpected suggestion that we might wish to accompany her on a visit to the local municipal swimming baths. We decline the invitation, explaining that we are looking forward to a day cycling in the hills in relentless drizzle.
Today’s ride is a relaxed 30 mile circular loop exploring the hilly countryside around La Ferté, following quiet almost-traffic free country roads, meandering through small villages and enjoying sweeping views across the Ourcq valley. Because we’re staying two nights in the Mission it makes a nice change to leave our panniers and saddle bags behind and to ride unencumbered by the spare clothes, 19th century Russian novels and Cuban heels (Tim) that usually weigh us down.
On the way out of town there’s a long steep climb up to the village of Le Limon, particularly gruelling at this time of day before we’re even begun to warm up. Samuel Beckett apparently did most of his shopping in La Ferté and it may have been while cycling up this hill with his morning baguette that he wrote the famous line, ‘You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’
Surprisingly the rain stops as soon as we are up in the hills. Spirits rise even further when we arrive at the village of Certigny and find a great place for lunch, a small café with a few tables in the back. Nothing fancy, but decent rustic French cooking: grilled goats cheese and prosciutto salad, a fine beef and ratatouille, and half a bottle of red each (experience has shown this to be the upper limit in the middle of the day on a cycle tour). Rural France may not be the most happening place in the evening, but they still know how to do lunch thank god.
We get back to La Ferté by late afternoon in time for Mexico v Holland. Near the main square we spot a bar we hadn’t seen the first night. It looks like it might be a promising venue to watch the football. It’s called Le Sports Bar and it has a World Cup wall chart in the window. I enter and ask le patron if he is showing the match. He stares at me as if I am mad, then gestures around the room.
‘Mais où est le TV?’ he asks, ‘Où est le TV?’
A gaggle of drinkers at the bar burst out laughing, and repeat in unison, ‘Où est le TV?’
They are right. There is no TV in Le Sports Bar. Although it does have an old table football in the corner, the paint peeling off and several players with heads missing. And besides, it seems the bar is about to close on account of it being nearly 7 o’clock. Of course, I don’t know what I was thinking of. I murmur apologies. Luckily there’s still time to get to the salon de thé and get a round of mint teas in before kick off.
Following a dramatic late comeback by the Dutch to win 2-1 we discover another eating option on the outskirts of town, a half decent Japanese restaurant where we dine on sushi and Asahi beer before hot footing it back to the salon de thé in time for the late evening game.
Jeff has spotted hookah pipes which somehow seem to have escaped the French smoking ban. He calls for one to be brought over, there being no other form of artificial stimulant available in La Ferté at 10pm. This is my first experience of the hookah and it feels illicit and slightly thrilling, heightened by the solemn ritual of passing the pipe between us. Whenever the flavoured tobacco (more fucking mint) appears in danger of fizzling out, a fat bald man with a goatee beard suddenly appears as if from nowhere and re-lights it, the genie of the pipe.
I’m feeling pretty mellowed out. It may just be the combination of feeling tired from the last two days cycling, the soothing gurgle of the hubbly bubbly and the heat from the burning charcoal, but it definitely feels like it’s ‘working’ on some level, albeit subtle.
Jeff later points out this is the longest smoke he has ever had, lasting the entire 90 minutes of Costa Rica versus Greece, plus half an hour of extra time and a penalty shoot-out, interrupted only for a ten minute fag break outside at half time. My mouth feels like it’s sucked a million Polos and by the end I’m practically communing with power animals. (I read later that one pipe may be the equivalent of around 200 cigarettes, making this possibly the most unhealthy cycling holiday ever. If there are any young people reading – my son for instance – smoking a hookah pipe is a really stupid thing to do.)
Next morning we decide to forego the Nescafe and buns in favour of an early start. As we’re getting ready to leave we run into the Swiss lady, who is waiting for us outside our rooms. She requests our assistance with a letter she is writing to a very high-ranking English General. She is organising an international military coup and wonders if he is doing anything a week on Thursday. Tim patiently helps her compose her letter in polite English, while I go to find the Mother Superior to hand in the keys and check out.
It turns out there’s been a misunderstanding. It seems I have only paid for one night not two and I have to cough up an extra 100 euros. Suddenly the room rates of the Polish Catholic Mission don’t seem quite so risible. The Mother Superior asks me to fill out a form for the second night. I complete the form using the only pen I have on me, which happens to be a red biro, and hand it to her. Clearly horrified she cries out:
‘Non Monsieur, pas de rouge, pas de rouge!’
‘Vous n’aimez pas le rouge?’ I ask. ‘
‘Je deteste le rouge! C’est le couleur du communisme!’ she shouts, screwing up the form, tossing it in the bin and handing me a new one with a blue ballpoint pen.
I consider this. She’s right of course. Red is undoubtedly the colour of communism, and I can understand why a Polish nun may have negative associations (a red rag to a papal bull). But red is surely the colour of many things. I’m not sure it’s reasonable to write off an entire primary colour on this basis. However I don’t have time to dispute with the Mother Superior. We have 61 miles to cycle and France v Nigeria kicks off at six. I fill out the form in (conservative) blue ink and pay for the extra night. In any case, it’s been well worth it for the entertainment.
As we’re leaving the Swiss lady is waiting for us again by the exit. She wonders if we would care to make a donation for world peace before we go. Well, it’s certainly a worthwhile cause, one which I think we’d all wish to support. We’re just not entirely convinced that a global military council is the best way to achieve it. We decline and bid her au revoir.
Today offers the most challenging day’s cycling with over 1,100 metres of climbing, as well as some of the best scenery. The first half of the day runs from La Ferté to Chateau-Thierry. This section offers quiet undulating roads and sweeping valley vistas, the sparkling ribbon of the Marne never far from our sight, and even the sun occasionally donning his chapeau. Or, as Beckett would have said, “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” Miserable bugger.
The highlight of the morning is the tough but rewarding path from Orly up towards Bassevelle, a long hike through the deep green silence of the forest. The only sounds to be heard are birdsong, the occasional creaking of timber and cussing from Berbatov as he encounters another pothole or patch of loose gravel. We arrive famished at a promising restaurant only to find it’s just closed (lunch apparently being served between the well-known lunch hours of 7am and 1pm). Luckily, the woman in charge takes pity on us and serves up a cheese baguette and a cold Leffe.
In the afternoon we hit Champagne country proper as the hilly road winds alliteratively through the vineyards of Vincelles, Vernueuil and Vandieres. ‘Expect your spirits to elevate along with the route itself’ the guidebook tells us. There’s a leg- and lung-busting climb up to the hilltop village of Chatillon (‘tough, cruel even, but brief’) where we have a café stop before the final ten mile stretch into Epernay.
Epernay is an attractive and relaxed market town which makes much of its location at the heart of the Champagne industry. Almost every shop is selling a bewildering array of bottles from a multitude of Champagne houses in every possible size from Piccolo to Jeroboam to Nebuchadnezzar.
We have booked into a hotel for the night, given the deplorable lack of ecclesiastical accommodation in Epernay. The front of the building is covered with a vast neon sign which flashes ’58 euros a night!’ It’s a capsule hotel, a Japanese concept that is probably quite cool and minimalist in Osaka. Here, it appears to be the result of a drunken bet to see how tiny a space you can cram two beds, a shower and toilet into and still charge 58 euros.
Epernay has a bit more going on than La Ferté and, with the match about to start, we dive into the first bar we see near the hotel. After playing their opening group games with Gallic flamboyance the French have retreated into caginess. Though clearly the better team, they are struggling to break down a well-organised Nigerian side. The mood in the bar is tense for the first, goalless, hour and a quarter.
There is palpable relief when France score two late goals and murmurs of satisfaction at the final whistle. It’s all a bit low key compared with back home though. No fist pumping or joyous shouts of ‘Oui!!!’ If our team of no-hopers had made it to the quarter finals of the World Cup we’d be yelling ‘Bring on the Germans!’ and hokey cokeying around a pub in North London by now. We wander into the town centre. Things get a bit livelier here – cars driving around the main square honking horns and dangling tricolours from their windows. Then everyone remembers it’s past 8 o’clock and goes home.
We find a great restaurant where we enjoy some classic French cooking: grilled fish, a fine coq au Pinot Noir with mash and a sumptuous crème brûlée – thick sweet custard covered with a thin layer of crisp caramel as delicate as an angel’s wing. Later, though most of the town has inevitably shut, we manage to find one late bar (ie open after 9.30) in the centre to watch Germany beat Algeria in the company of a joyously drunk man and his wife from Cologne.
The final day involves no cycling, just some souvenir Champagne shopping (try saying that after a Jeroboam), followed by a 90 minute train journey from Epernay back to Paris where we check our bikes in at the Eurostar terminal. The train back to London does not leave until 6pm so we have a whole afternoon to kill. We discuss the options. A cultural tour is mooted. There is an interesting exhibition of Bauhaus furniture in town. We give careful consideration to this before deciding, on balance, in favour of a four hour lunch at Terminus Nord.
This is the second year in succession that our annual trip has ended up in this fine art deco brasserie opposite the station. This time we manage to set a collective personal best – all that training has paid off, putting in the hard yards over the last few days. The route unfolds before us: the traditional bottle of Champagne to begin, then onto towering platters of seafood, grilled salmon, a couple of bottles of Muscadet, via tarte tatin, cheeses, dessert wine, eventually reaching our final destination of coffee and Calvados . You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
We pay the bill, stagger out into the late afternoon sunshine and head for the train home.
Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day! (Pause). After all. (Pause). So far.