Le Triou - Vieux - In Céventh Heaven - CycleBlaze

September 17, 2011

Le Triou - Vieux

The villagers whom I saw seemed intelligent after a countrified fashion, and were all plain and dignified in manner. As a Protestant myself, I was well looked upon, and my acquaintance with history gained me further respect. For we had something not unlike a religious controversy at table, a gendarme and a merchant with whom I dined being both strangers to the place, and Catholics.

There are wayside crosses all over France, a largely unbelieving nation, but most replaced pagan monuments from ancient days.
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MUCH HAS CHANGED since Stevenson's time. More than half the population of France now considers itself a non-believer. Churchgoing is around three per cent.

At the start of the 20th century the state separated itself from the church, all churches, which had grown powerful enough to be an unelected government. Thousands of monks who'd set themselves up tax-free were sent packing. France is not anti-religion but it does nothing to encourage it either. That is by and large the way people like it. There was a fuss when the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, crossed himself in church during an official engagement.

I thought of that as I passed yet another of the wayside crosses that are such a feature of France. They contradict the movement of times but they have been there since the 1950s at latest and more generally from the 19th century. It was in the 1950s, a new generation having grown up in a secular State, that the church started feeling the chill.

Usually the crosses are marked 'Mission 1876', or whatever the date might be, and many are on the site of pagan crosses that Christians tore down to make room for their own symbol.

Of course, if I'd been of the persuasion then I'd have crossed myself for luck in going through the tunnel today. Because I hadn't been expecting it and I had no lights to get through it.

All morning the cloud stayed within shouting distance
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It rained last night and I wondered whether it was worth the effort of getting up especially early. But then it stopped and maintained my record: that in the 11 years I have owned this tent, I have never taken it down in the rain. It has been wet when I folded it, like this morning, and it has rained before I started taking out the pegs and it has rained afterwards. But never during, in around 400 episodes.

Nobody was about in Le Triou. A girl flitted about in the shower block in her underwear, as surprised to see me as I was to see her, and then there was nobody. The road ran silently beside the trees that lined the Tarn, rising sometimes to shake damp hands with the low sky. I crossed the river after Brousse-le-Château, another village permitted to boast it is one of the prettiest in France, and then after tiny Lincot began the long climb to Réquista. I enjoy the name. It ought to be Spanish: "Soy Requista! Viva la revolucion!' Réquista should be populated by unshaven men with knives between their teeth and women who dance on tables. In fact today it was busy with a street antique market, an unrivalled chance to buy cracked porcelain from the de Gaulle era and a few computer games which only a fan of diodes would qualify as old, let alone antique.

I sat and drank coffee. I listened to a fat English couple talking to a Dane with a cowboy hat and a pony-tail and a woman whose nationality I couldn't decide. They were saying things like: 'Well, of course, you could save three minutes by avoiding Limoges all together.'

The tunnel, when it came, came without warning. It had traffic lights and a button which asked cyclists to press it even if the lights were green. I did as it said and a triangle of flashes lit up on the entrance. 'Cyclists in the tunnel' they warned.

Well, ho-hum! I'd ridden through tunnels like that before. There were tunnels on the western end of the Northern Tier route in America and no sooner were you in the tunnel than you could see the horseshoe of light at the other end. Ho-hum!

I set the lights going and bowled in. I am a Real Man. And 20 seconds later I changed my mind and rode out again. The reflectors on both sides of the road died the moment the light from the entrance grew too weak. It was terribly black in there.

Four cars were waiting when I crept out. Three drivers took no notice. But one was brighter and spotted what the others hadn't: that I had no lights.

Now, with retrospect, I know he wound down his window and said 'Ride ahead of me and you'll see where you're going in my headlights.' But I was overwhelmed by my own stupidity. He was Romanian, perhaps, one of those nationalities that speaks French with a deep, rolling warmth perfect for all occasions except with boneheaded cyclists trying to fight back a blush.

'No, that's fine, thanks,' I said and not surprisingly he looked offended. And as he drove into the darkness I realised how kind he'd been and I wanted to race after him and apologise. Except that I couldn't because it was so dark.

A Real Man would ride straight in. I rode straight out again.
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Well, at the bottom of my bag was a little head torch, a couple of bulbs strong enough to make coffee before dawn should such an idea ever come to me. I put it on. The light rushed out of it, took fright and dropped to the ground within two metres. I could see one reflector but not the next. Only when I passed one did the next one glow.

Now I wasn't at all the Real Man. If I looked to the left, I could see the reflectors that marked that side of the road. If I looked to the right, I could see the right. If I looked straight ahead, I could see nothing at all. And in such a manner, praying that no refrigerator truck with a bored driver was going to come up from behind, I proceeded through the gradual curve of the tunnel at the speed of a three-year-old.

Well, I got through. I rode on from Réquista through open countryside and on into what to judge from village names - Blaye-les-Mines - must once have been industrial territory. Tonight I am at a naturist campsite outside Vieux. It is warm enough to have stood by the sink while washing the clothes I had just peeled off. A Belgian couple have been over to chat and a Dutch woman called Koosje, the campsite owner, tall with hair to her shoulders, says she'll be over in a moment.

Tonight it will rain, she says. Perhaps my 11-year-old record is about to die.

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