I’ve always liked the Paris-Nice cycle race and everything it represents. Winter into summer and the idea of south. So when my parents invited me to go on holiday with them to Corsica, I thought I’d ride there – Paris to Nice and beyond. This past year I have written too many books, and the ride will be a way of emptying my head, a cleansing act.
I have a route of around 1400km mapped in detail and GPXed. Lines to follow and dots to join in the Alps. Some of it is uncertain because of snow lingering at altitude and if I go off course, who cares? I might just follow a nice road or a track, or the white arrow of my compass, or the sun.
My only certainty: a ferry from Nice to Porto Vecchio, Corsica, at 21h00 on 10 June, 11 days after I start. Miss that and I miss my holiday.
The coffee and pastry marathon starts…
Monday 29 May
Pick bike up from the Eurostar freight counter at the Gare du Nord at 17h30. Paris is hot, crowded anarchy. The clamour slowly dissipates as I ride past the Réveil-Matin, the café in the suburb of Montgéron where the first Tour de France started in 1903, and out. Rush hour gives way to silent woodland and I follow sandy tracks into the Fontainebleau forest until it is dark. 21C at 22h30. I bivvy where my bike falls. Then, as I’m lying close to sleep, a near miss with some wild boar, which I had heard barking in the distance and which had come nearer and nearer until the rustling and the oinking got too close for comfort and, not wanting an aggressive and protective mother boar to run into me unawares, I stand up and shout and flash my bike lights. They move away. Sleep does not come quickly after.
76km done, 1265 to go >>
Tuesday 30 May
5 a.m. start with peaches and an orange bought the night before. It is almost June and the days are long, but the dawn is a soft grey thing. Pains-au-chocolat and coffee around 7h30 at a café. Grain waving in the wind as far as the eye can see. Siloes on the horizon. Flat. Hot and all going pretty quickly until the last 20km, which are basically uphill, in the Morvan National Park. Trout streams and Charolais cattle. Two crows attacking an eagle. That old trick of filling water at the cemetery tap. Begin saying ‘Bonjour’ to horses.
189km done. How many to go? I don’t know, I went off piste >>
Wednesday 31 May
Descend through Christmas tree farms into Burgundy. Ham-and-cheese sandwich and a mega siesta on a bench by the Saone river. Watching the departements change with the numbers on the car registration plates: Paris, 75; l’Essonne, 94; la Yonne, 89; La Nievre, 58; Saone-et-Loire, 71.
Rule: if you feel hungry, eat. If you feel weary, eat. If you feel non-specifically bad, eat. If you feel lonely, out of place or have a feeling of looming dread, eat, and then eat an ice cream too. Touched the Real a few times today. Stormy. This was not a day to sleep outside, so I requisitioned a caravan at a campsite, drank 2€ wine and ate steak.
165km done. Off piste again >>
Madeleines: 2/3 packet
Thursday 1 June
Another long day in 30C heat, with a large uphill net movement, as I finish in Annecy at the foot of the Alps. Skirt the Jura in the morning and a great conversation with old men in a bar, me drinking coffee and at least one of them rosé, at 10 A.M. Suddenly everything is friendlier. The towns and villages have got nicer, there are more boulangeries, cafés, things you need. On the plains where life is easier and richer, people can afford not to care and you can pass the day without seeing an open shop, a restaurant or a water fountain. In the mountains hospitality and kindness become important. I divert to a place called Nantua out of curiosity, thinking I know the name from Shakespeare. Maybe that’s true, but more pertinently it is a stage start in this year’s Tour. Turns out that in so doing I manage to miss a couple of climbs. And I have a lunchtime swim in a lake, so not at all bad. Keep on, hot and uphill. The first sight of snow on the mountain tops, yet it is 31C. I say sorry to my left knee, which is hurting. Bum management. Google ‘Vaseline on saddle sores?’. On one level, nothing is ever quite right. But, on another, everything is perfect, because this is what is happening and that’s all there is to it; and the only time you really worry is when you’re stopped, because if you’re going forward and time is passing then you’re doing exactly what you should be doing. I miss an instruction from my Garmin and get funnelled on to some big roads around Annecy. HGVs, traffic. That’s the best thing about GPS – when you follow it, it gets you easily trough the towns. The last 10km are around Lake Annecy, which is pretty, hot and heavy humid. Then a bed, staying with some friends. I said I’d be here for Thursday; the target kept me focused on covering ground quickly. Now I am in the Alps I can slow down.
No more flat roads till Nice…
151km today, 784 to go >>
Coffees: not enough
The rest of the madeleines
No cherries yet: disappointing
Friday 2 June
Explore mountain tracks in the morning with my friends who run Base Camp – a café / shop / adventure bike hire hub that opens it’s doors this summer. Good fun, and exactly what I came for, but following them I drop into the wrong valley, which meant a lot more climbing and faffing than otherwise. Col de la Forclaz, Col de Montessuit. Several missteps and false paths. Arrive at Beaufort at 16h completely shattered and knowing I have a 20km climb to my night’s stop, a refuge at the top of the 2100m, unpaved Cormet d’Arêches. Almost a failure of nerve but I stock up with food for the ride and for the night and, with cherries at last, plod on. A long and slow and at times desperate slog, but as I climb the day cools and the world drops away. The final 4km of gravel are deserted and radiant in the setting sun. At the unmanned refuge there are four others, two climbers and a couple. They lend me their portable shower, which I hang up in the eaves behind the refuge and strip naked and shower outside at 2055m in the day’s last rays. Then we eat pasta and drink whiskey from my hip flask in the dark. What a Friday night. Good cheese in Beaufort, but goat saucisson is not as good as it sounds.
94km today, with 3,100m climbing. Phew. 715km to go >>
Saturday 3 June
Wake in the peace of the mountains at 2000m for what the Tour calls a transition day, down into civilisation and towards the Chartreuse. I cut out a climb, and so spend the day in the valleys dodging main roads, sometimes successfully. Things that are bad to eat on the bike: peaches (bruise); cheese (melts). Things that are good to eat on the bike: saucisson; cherries, which sit in my bar bag and I can eat until my teeth are red and my stomach hurts. Push on further than I might have and am rewarded by a block headwind and a slightly sore knee. C’est la vie. Why haven’t I eaten pizza yet?
123km today, mainly downhill, 579 to go >>
Sunday 4 June
Could have stayed in bed today, struggled to wake up. Had to eat all my saucisson early in the morning as it was stinking my bags out. The Chartreuse is beautiful, but cool and wet. Heavy rain and for the first time I am cold. Up a deserted forest road to the Col de la Charmette, spooky in the clouds. Then into the Vercors, known for its sheer cliffs and balcony roads. Neither region is renowned by cyclists because the climbs are not so high (up to 1300m or so), but they are stunning. For days now my Garmin has been saying ‘Ride to end point’, which increasingly strikes me as approaching a metaphysical truth. On the final descent, a most unlikely thing: a jazz festival on a mountain. Stop and drink a beer. Tonight, pizza at last.
119km today, 425 to go >>
Dates and dried figs: lots
Monday 5 June
A gorge, hiding behind the town like a family secret. The legs feel OK before starting but lethargy setting in. Up the gorge is a terrible effort. Lots more roads my mum wouldn’t like. Scanning my surroundings for any sign of when it might end. Oh fucking hell. Stopped to eat a hot meal at the top, followed by an overwhelming desire to fall asleep. Over the Vercors plateau in thick silent forests and cloud. France is a big place full of nothing. It’s difficult to believe, sometimes, that I am crossing one of the most civilised countries in the world (because it is) when it is this full of nothing. For vast stretches I think of nothing. France is a big nothing I lay my little nothing out upon. A cold and lonely day.
91km today, mainly off piste >>
Duck breasts and gratin Dauphinois: 1
Ice creams: 1
Tuesday 6 June
Better today. Had realised yesterday, at the bottom of a long descent, that my back brakes was rubbing. Cue lots of time wasted pushing stuck pistons back in. But the feeling after: like flying. Brakes finally sorted around 10h30 this morning, so today was a blast. In Provence, surrounded by lavender fields, but it is raining and less than 10C all morning. Past Gap and the Lac de Serre-Ponçon, impossibly blue with meltwater. High snowy mountains on the horizon again. A jacket-on jacket-off kind of day. Emotions like clouds across the landscape. I can honestly say these were some of the most joyful moments of my life. Sit with a beer watching the sun go down in the Queyras, very happy.
138km today, 229 to go >>
Ham-and-cheese sandwiches: 2
Ham-and-cheese pizzas: 1
Wednesday 7 June
Through Risoul ski resort and on to the gravel tracks through the ski area. Where there is still snow partially covering the way it is muddy but passable on a bike, but I watch a Swiss guy on a BMW R1200 GS first overtake me and then turn back. When he is gone I am left in a deserted landscape, with only marmots squeaking to keep me company. Col de Chérine, Col du Vallon, Col de Valbelle, Col de Saluces, then down to the Col de Vars and on to a proper road again. I am in familiar territory now, which makes me incredibly emotional. The Ubaye is the prettiest valley in the Alps and the only thing standing between me and the Mediterranean now is the Col de la Bonette. I am afraid of the Bonette, but not because it is so high (the ‘highest road in Europe’ loop at the top is still snowbound; the col itself is 2715m).
I wrote a book – Higher Calling – based principally around the Bonette, so I have climbed it more than 10 times on a bike, and countless more by car and on foot. I am afraid of it because once it is over it will be downhill to the coast and this adventure will be finished. Actually I the climb is fearsome: 24km long, very hot and my bike seems heavier than ever. I haven’t eaten much and the cafe halfway up has no food. Consequently I feel like I am really getting to the bottom of things. I dip deeply into my emergency nuts, which isn’t even a metaphor. But, as on the Cormet d’Arêches, as evening falls and the world cools and falls silent, a kind of magic occurs. I am alone at the top of Europe as the sun goes down. A short descent to the refuge on the other side. Beer with the owners, who I know, and we spy with field glasses upon the bearded vultures nesting on the cliffs opposite. I am the only one in a dormitory of 16.
86km with 3100m of climbing today. 107km to go (to Nice), basically all downhill >>
Thursday 8 June
Descending off Bonette is like a dream. Freewheeling and no effort but I am also dazed, struggling to make sense of riding all the way to this road from the mountains to Nice that I have been up and down so many times. Stop for several coffees and eat two bars of chocolate and two sandwiches, and arrive at the Promenade around 2pm. Not an anticlimax, exactly, but it was all in the journey. Now I have a couple of days’ rest, staying with friends, then a night sleeping on the deck of the ferry to Corsica.
After 70km the other side, the holiday begins…