All Dutchmen come in two types: St-Maurin - Monflanquin - North to the Loire, monsieur... and home again - CycleBlaze

July 27, 2013

All Dutchmen come in two types: St-Maurin - Monflanquin

Useless when pretty but effective when old and sagging. So much like touring cyclists, when you think about it...
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ALL DUTCHMEN come in two types. There are the long, pale Edams and the plump, red-faced Goudas. And they were both sitting outside the café when we stopped.

We could see their bikes from way off, of course. Cyclists have a homing instinct when it comes to finding each other. And when that doesn't work, no wise cyclist wheels a loaded touring bike further than he needs and at any moment the doors of French supermarkets and bars are likely to be blocked by grubby panniers and weary riders.

It was our first day of riding more or less north, from our home within sight on a clear day of the Pyrénées to close to the mouth of the Loire. There, at Nantes, we plan to join up to 13 000 others at the Semaine Fédérale rally, held each summer in a different part of France.

Edam and Gouda were going the other way. They had passed close to Nantes without knowing what was to happen there a week or two later. They had big upright bikes, not classic Dutch roadsters but their modern equivalent, with aluminium everywhere and big, butterfly handlebars coated in plumbing sponge.

"We're going to the mountainsh," Edam said, presenting a surprising small photocopy of the outline of France. "We want to ride the passesh. You know them, maybe?"

I said I knew some of them. It always surprises me that anyone would ride quite so far to go uphill for the delight of it, but that's to forget that Dutchmen don't have hills and that their ears pop as they step off the pavement into the plunging valley of the road centimetres below them.

Edam sensed my puzzlement, about his map anyway.

"No wurrish," he said. "We have a GPS." He pronounced it the Dutch way: ghkay-pay-ess. I said we'd have had ours as well had I not left it in the barn.

"I've had to ring friends to ask if they'll go and look for it," I said.

"Zo!", Edam said. "Thash not ghkood. But you have mapsh."

I said I did, and he walked over to inspect a piece of springy and folded Perspex that I'd found in England and which holds a map in even a typhoon.

Gouda said little through all this. He sat and looked as though he was trying to think of something to add and that, thanks to Edam's talkativeness, felt grateful that he didn't have to succeed. I sensed he was the solid half of the partnership, the one who would advance into the fiercest storm and stay optimistic when disaster struck. It was just that he didn't say much.

The day had started grey, with a hint of rain. That wasn't bad. After a winter that looked like never ending, France moved into a heatwave without end. To have a moment's respite on the first morning wasn't a hardship, especially when Steph in particular still had to find her legs.

We took the long climb out of Beauville towards Laroque-Timbaut, through fields of green and of gently patient sunflowers. How crops change in your absence is the measure of a journey: these sunflowers are useless when they're pretty and it's only when they are rotten and sagging that they can be cropped to make margarine and cooking oil. They'll be black and sagging by the time we get back.

Today, all was familiar. We rode through Laroque, where a market closed the main street, and then down the long descent from Hautefage, a road shut once a year for a motorbike race. One year, riding to another Semaine Fédérale, we had scraped through only minutes before the closure. The racers had begun thinking of the road as their own and roared out of the bends, coming the other way, and showed surprise at finding a bunch of bikies with panniers descending towards them.

Just another SNCF oubliette but...
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At the foot of the drop is the station for Penne d'Agenais. The railway people couldn't get their station closer than the valley because Penne is on a steep hill crowned by a church with a golden dome. It's a pretty if rather narcissistic village worth the sweat up the hill but the station is just another peeling SNCF oubliette. Across the road is one of those bars which never seems open.

On the wall of the station is a plaque I had passed many times without noticing. It was only when I sought shelter from a hail storm that I spotted it. And it was chilling. Because it recorded the day when the station was the last contact with the world for the sad, condemned people on their way to extermination.

...Penne station was the last that many saw of the open world
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Our camp for the night was at Domaine Laborde, a three-star place in the countryside beyond the picture-book village of Monflanquin.

Our home for the night... or the campground beyond the accueil, anyway
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Yet another closed bar unknowingly gave us the shelter of its abandoned terrace, still with table and chairs, and we scoffed a baguette and buns with an indecency which would have alarmed my mother.

A short man in grey flannels and an anonymous jacket stood and examined our bikes. He never said but they must have brought memories. He looked up, slightly shy, and said: "You can go a long way in a day at 22 kilometres an hour." It wasn't just affirmation; it came from experience, I think.

Edam and Gouda had been active tourists. This unknown man, who smiled again and walked on, had just his memories. And maybe his regrets. Who knows?

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