Three years ago today, I trundled into Paris…
…arriving in, well, triumph at the Arc de Triomphe late in the afternoon. Here’s how the story unfolded in ‘Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie‘:
Having attempted to cycle several times along the Thames Valley into central London following the National Cycle Network route 4 and, on every occasion, having lost my way (usually around Chertsey), I didn’t rate my chances of cycling uninterrupted along the valley of the Seine into central Paris. It was time to call California and see what Google Maps had to say.
The suggested route worked out just fine and, until I was close to the orbital périphérique motorway – only about 5 km from the centre – I followed Google’s every twist and turn. I crossed the Seine for the first time at Bois-le-Roi, cycled through the centre of Melun, stumbled over a block of stone in Lieusaint used to define the metre in pre-revolutionary France, dodged joggers in the Sénart forest and then hit Paris itself… Well, not so much Paris as a Japanese tourist who was far too eager to cross the road, but let’s not dwell upon that inglorious moment of this adventure.
Once over the périphérique, the landscape was increasingly familiar: along the banks of the Seine, past the cathedral of Notre-Dame, over the multi-padlocked Pont des Arts, beside the Louvre, through the Jardin des Tuileries, over the cobbles of the Place de la Concorde and finally along the length of the Avenue des Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Who needed an open-top bus when you could do the whole thing for free on a bicycle?
I parked Reggie near the middle of what must surely be the world’s most prestigious traffic island and sat for a few minutes to admire the view down the busy thoroughfare along which I had cycled. You couldn’t have wished for a more pleasant spring day, with the sun high in the blue sky and a light breeze – sufficient to breathe life into the oversized French tricolour dangling from the triumphal arch behind me but insufficient to take the edge off the warm afternoon. Having just achieved the feat of cycling from the southern tip of Europe to one of the continent’s pre-eminent capitals, I was triumphant, and where better to be than an arch dedicated to that very emotion?
‘I’m in Paris! Look forward to seeing you at the Eiffel Tower at 10.30-ish.’
So went the text conversation with my former French teaching colleague Kerrie. The school group had arrived in Normandy a few days earlier and would be travelling up to Paris early the following morning. Thierry was their coach driver and he had accepted the challenge of minding the bike for the day. The plan was coming together well.
All that remained to do was for me to find somewhere to stay. In most cities I would have shuffled off to the nearest modestly priced hotel, but this was Paris. Did such things exist? My guidebook told me that the nearest campsite to the centre was Camping Indigo, on the other side of the Bois de Boulogne. If Hyde Park is one of the lungs of London, the Bois de Boulogne is the artificial respirator of Paris, slung over the shoulder of the périphérique and a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe. Within 15 minutes, I was outside the gates of the campsite, a small cluster of rather stylish reception buildings before me and beyond them a pitch beneath a tree that would be by home for the next 36 hours.
I cycled a rather slimline, pannier-less Reggie back through the Bois de Boulogne the following morning. The weather was OK, neither good nor bad. Despite this, many vehicles were parked along the roads criss-crossing the park and their female drivers had removed many of their clothes – far too many clothes for them to be comfortable in the freshness of a May morning in Paris. In some cases they had stripped down to their bra and pants. Could it have been an issue with the air conditioning? Were they waiting for a mechanic to turn up? Some of the ladies had abandoned waiting in their vehicles and were perched on nearby benches, their legs wide open in the hope of the cool air penetrating even the most inaccessible areas of their bodies. Lacking the necessary mechanical skills to offer assistance, I smiled and cycled on.
My former colleague Kerrie hadn’t told the pupils that they were about to be reacquainted with one of their former teachers. Whether this was because she didn’t want to deal with insurrection in the student body (‘What? You’re dragging us to Paris to see Mr Sykes?!’) or whether this was to add an element of happy surprise into their day akin to that which would be provoked by them bumping into their favourite pop star or professional footballer, I shall leave for others to judge. But the children certainly gave the impression of being pleased to see me and it was a genuine delight to see their familiar faces.
As a teacher, it was strange to be surrounded by familiar children but have anything other than a passing moral responsibility to keep them safe and well. Aside from Kerrie and two other French teachers, the group of four adults accompanying the pupils from Henley-on-Thames was completed by my good friend David. Away from the classroom, his interests were very much of the two-wheel variety. A fellow northerner – in his case from Lancashire – he had spent many years living and working in the Thames Valley and had even worked in the bike shop in Caversham from where I had purchased Reggie. He had coached cyclists at the Reading cycle track, and was able to talk with enthusiasm and passion about cycling in a way that wasn’t just mindless waffle.
David had helped me to keep my nerve prior to embarking upon the trip from Tarifa to Nordkapp with his regular injections of supportive words and advice. At times I questioned my decision to leave my job and venture off along the cycle paths of Europe but David never did. It was good to see him again and, as the kids went off to explore the Eiffel tower and have their portraits painted in Montmartre, we chatted about the cycling and the travelling in a way that I hadn’t been able to do with anyone in months. Who needed performance-enhancing drugs when I had a performance-enhancing friend? By the end of the day, my motivation to complete the task of cycling to Nordkapp was high and I was in good mental shape for the challenges ahead of me.
As the coach trundled off along the Avenue de New York and I stood waving on the pavement, I felt a sudden pang of loneliness. I had spent seven hours amongst the people of my old life and now they were gone. Once again I was alone, surrounded by strangers. I carried Reggie up the steps of the Palais de Chaillot, pushed him around the Trocadéro roundabout and cycled back towards the Bois de Boulogne. The women were still there waiting for someone to come along and repair their air conditioning. Just as I had done earlier in the day, I smiled sympathetically and cycled on.