French pride and humble muscle power - Jimmy Carter thinks I'm a sinner - CycleBlaze

April 6, 2007

French pride and humble muscle power

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I have to say that at first evidence, this Eurovélo business exists more on someone's planning board than it does in real life. There wasn't a hint of it when I left St-Brévin, where the web site says it starts - not even a sign, let along the riverside path that I was hoping for. When I did spot what I thought could be what I was looking for, it turned out to lead to a small camp ground for travelling folk and, beyond them, a heap of abandoned tractor tyres.

Later on, there is indeed a path, but I think it was there - or most of it, anyway - long before the Eurovélo people thought up their plan. Coming out of Nantes, I met two guys coming the other way, on their first ever cyclo-camping tour. They urged me to be patient and said that shortly I would reach the Loire à Vélo paths and then happiness would be mine.

But things are happening. The night after I slept in a meadow of long grass and dandelions, I stopped for a coffee in a village at the top of the first long climb. And through the door just after me came one of those men who bubbles over at the thought of campaigning for better drains or a superior shade of street lighting. He could have been the mayor because the other old boys crowded round the beer taps showed him some sort of respect even if they never seemed to share his enthusiasm for anything.

"So much to do, so much to do," the man-who-would-be-mayor said as though he'd stumbled into a Lewis Carroll story. "Apart from anything else, there's this cycle path business. There's the land to buy, the path to lay, facilities to organise. It's all got to be done... it's all got to be done."

I'd dozed through his plans to divert the traffic, his dreams of this and his hopes for that, but my ears jumped to life when they heard about the cycling path. Unfortunately nobody else was in a bubbling mood and before long White Rabbit said something like "Well, I can't stay here gossiping to you lot all day", and walked out without anybody thinking to call him back.

It was then that the conversation turned to railway trains. French trains are the fastest in the world and the previous day they had become faster still. A train had got to about 580kmh, with room still left on the clock, and the engineers chickened out at that point because they were afraid the pantographs would melt. I think that's what they call the things that collect the current from overhead wires. The local paper, while it couldn't quite truthfully say that this world's fastest train had been built locally, was proud to say that the pantographs had been. In some sort of pantograph factory, I suppose.

It was the record that made my meeting with the level-crossing attendant all the more significant. Generally, level crossings across France are automatic barriers, triggered off by the approaching train. But not the first one I crossed that day. A short stocky woman with more than the usual dimension of biceps had a job like Pavlov's dog, in that every time she heard a bell ring, she had to wind down the barrier by hand. Sometimes trains are so frequent, as when I was there, that only one or two cars get through each time.

"Don't you go believing everything you read in the papers about modern trains, now", she said as I paused beside her. "There are lots of manned crossings on this line. They'll modernise us one day, I expect, and then I'll be out of a job. But right now, I work eight hour shifts waiting for the bell and winding down the barrier. And then I wind it up again. Until the bell rings again."

She paused to reflect.

"It's a job, though, isn't it?", she said.

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