02 April, 2010

Two wheels on the tarmac.

I haven’t always lived in France. I was in the American Midwest for a time, in Madison, Wisconsin, up the road a bit from Chicago. If you didn't know it, Madison is one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the United States, brimming with bike lanes and locals who boast some serious equipment.

After that I moved to Amsterdam, considered by many to be the most bicycle friendly city in the whole world. In [pancake flat] Amsterdam, practically half the inhabitants have a bike--and not a helmet between them. The Dutch can do anything on a bike, from what I've seen. I remember watching a man in formal wear, leaving the multi-story bikepark by Central Station, ferrying a full-size Christmas tree on his bike. Biking’s just what you do in the Netherlands, like breathing, three-kiss greetings--le-e-eft, right, left--and avoiding turds on the pavement.
Now I live in the Cevennes, and the Tour de France all but passes outside my gate. This is at least part of the reason there are adventure bikers on the roads three out of the four seasons. People come from far away to kill--I mean test--themselves on these steep mountain roads. It is only logical to assume that I am a committed cycler as well.

But: I don’t know how to ride a bike; never learned. No deprived childhood, there was simply a lot of moving, from Sierra Leone to (the country formerly known as) Zaïre to South Africa, and so on. By the time I reached Amsterdam, it had dawned on me what I’d been missing, but I was no longer willing to take risks given the small child (followed by another) surgically attached to my hip. Amsterdam is a congested city, and the bicycling is not for the faint of heart, even if you do see impeccably coiffed, elderly ladies tooling around—and yes, Queen Beatrix and family have been known to bike too. (Very old photo courtesy of insideroyalty.) Here in France, in the grueling smackdown that is summer, I do not understand the bikers. I mean, I truly do not comprehend. Where are these weekend warriors going in the hottest part of the day, when all the locals are most sensibly asleep? Is there a fantastically good restaurant I don't know about? The bikers wear lurid Lycra. And just looking at their helmets makes my scalp itch. These people do not smile, because they are in full, sweat-soaked suffering. I am somewhat surprised I haven’t yet come across one of the 50-something guys (on a holiday from his desk) in mid-heart attack.

But I do understand the bikers in gentle spring. Roads here wend and wind, and are narrow, only just meant for two-way traffic—and occasionally not even that. They wiggle, shudder across plains then sprint uphill toward the mountains. In spring, the roads pass vineyards, where the closed, black fists of the vines rise out of a cloud of tiny canary-yellow wildflowers. A biker has time to watch the sheepdogs work a mob of sedate sheep, bells a-ringling, just behind a low stone wall spattered with lichen. A biker may even slow down to watch the pair of eagles riding the air currents above my house. And only in spring can a biker eye a line of still unadorned poplar, standing sentry over the gentle swale of an electric-green meadow, cycle up the way just a smidge further, and watch the sunny, half-asleep plain reveal itself below, wide as all get-out. I may just need to find an old bike after all. Think I'll pour another glass of mint lemonade and consider the matter a bit more.


  1. My son and his friends learned to bike in less than a day. They had "razor" scooters; they were so good on them, doing tricks... I think they were 4 years old or younger. When they got their bicycles, there was not need for training wheels. I held my son's bike 2 or 3 times for a short time then he went on his own.

  2. That's in thing: at the beginning, there is this golden age of learning, bright with discovery and possibility, before we learn to second-guess or be afraid.

    As parents, we hold our breaths for nothing: they gain these skills all but effortlessly.

    Me, on the other hand...

  3. I meant to type that's THE thing. Bedtime, anyone?


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