Thinking of Veronique - Mid-winter across Europe - CycleBlaze

January 9, 2007

Thinking of Veronique

Puiseaux, Boesse, Barville, Nibelle, Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, Tigy, Sennely, Lamotte-Beuron

The furthest I've ever cycled to work is 45km each way. That was when I lived in the English Fens, a region of former sea bed which is flat, open and rewarded at times by wonderful skies. The scenery could be better but those enormous skies made me feel I was in an outdoor cathedral.

I had a routine then. It was to get home, wash, change, have something to eat and then check my bike. Were the tyres still up? If they were, there'd be no nasty surprises at dawn when time was short.

That's what I should have done at Véronique's.

"Oh don't bother with that," she'd said the previous evening when I pointed at the grimy water dropping from my bike. "Bring it indoors and prop it against the wall there." And that's where I'd put it, on the flagged flooring of a comfortable room that had a library, a coal fire and soft deep chairs to fall asleep in.

Maybe it was that somnolence that stopped my checking. Or maybe by then the puncture fairy hadn't struck. At any rate, by morning the back rim was down against the floor.

I told Véronique that I'd take the bike outside to remove the wheel and change the tube.

"Mais non," she said. "It's too cold out there for that. Do it inside in the warm!" Which is how I came to spread my bike, a wheel, tyre levers, spare tube, filthy tyre and miscellaneous belongings in general in such a wide circle in Véronique's house that I felt sure she'd regret her generosity.

Not in the slightest.

"I just like meeting people," she'd told me over breakfast. "It's part of staying alive and being healthy, isn't it? So many people don't do anything. Me, when the house has emptied again, I take the dog out for long walks through the woods and across the fields. I can be out for ages and I love watching the wheat change colour and the birds flying.

"So many people do nothing at all and then they moan that their lives are empty and that they never feel well."

I told her that her exercise and her view of life were evident.

"Looking at you, I'd have guessed that you'd been a dancer," I said, "that you maybe still are."

She giggled a shy but appreciative giggle. Like many women (or indeed men) who keep themselves in good shape since the flush of youth has passed, she didn't object to a genuine compliment.

"I'm here by myself all week," she said. "I have this chambre d'hôtes, my little hotel, as my business and to meet people. My husband's away all week. He works in Paris. You know Thomson, the electronics firm? Well, they're not called that now but that's who he works for. He works in the aeronautics side in Paris all week and comes home at weekends. Except when he goes off round the world. He's about to leave for China."

Her "little hotel" is unmistakably feminine. The rooms show that, with a little fussiness of style that you wouldn't get in a business chain. It's the kind of place you'd be happy to go out of your way to stay at even, if you had no reason to be in the area.

"The one time that we get a lot of cycling people here," she said, "is when we have the big cycling auction here. You know about that? It's every autumn and it takes over the whole town. It started quite small but little by little it's grown and now people come from all over France and there are stands selling old bikes, a bits of bikes, and clothes and memorabilia.

"I don't follow cycling. I watch the Tour de France a bit on television, but that's about it. But we're full over the auction period - people book a year in advance - and I've learned a lot from my regulars. It's funny. There are relatively young people in their 40s, say, and the older ones of 70, and the young ones mention someone famous from decades back and the older ones say 'Oh, I remember him, yes, I remember him'. And I watch the younger ones and the way their eyes go wide open and they say 'You KNEW him?', this old star they were talking about. And the old boys would say 'Mais, oui, oui, bien sûr que je l'ai connu!'"

She took my e-mail address and promised to send me details of the next sale when she got her own leaflet.

As I'd repaired my puncture, washed my hands and began wheeling my bike into the street, she stood to watch me leave. And then she handed me two croissants. "Her," she said, "put those in your bag and stop and eat them and think of Véronique when you get hungry."

A delightful woman.

I left Puiseaux in a slow dawn, casting a glance at the village's twisted church tower. A sign on the way into town had boasted that it had a "clochier tor" but I hadn't understood. Now I do, that the towns that have them have joined in some way to make the most of their unusual attraction.

I set off for a couple of hours into a headwind through more countryside with no shelter. Getting to the Fôret d'Orléans made progress much better and, with one gap, that's how it stayed the rest of the day. I'd expected to manage only 60km but the change meant I no longer had to struggle on the drops at 12kmh and I rode 90km before it got dark.

I stayed that night in a motel behind a pizza place in the main street of Lamotte-Beuron. The receptionist, a chubby woman, barely whispered. After the wind in my ears for the past week, it was a job to hear her.

Today's ride: 91 km (57 miles)
Total: 930 km (578 miles)

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