Give me back my hills, please - Across France to the world's biggest bike rally - CycleBlaze

Give me back my hills, please

Ruffec, Bauzé-Vaussain, Ste-Soline, Lezay, St-Sauvant, Rouillé, Jazaneuil, Lavasseau, Latillé

I've never counted but I sense there are more and more murals in France. This was on the side of a leather-making building by the bridge at Lavasseau
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What a dull day!

We knew it would be. We are within a day of our destination and we've been skirting round Poitiers. The Paris wheat basin reaches a southern finger into this part of the world. The result isn't prairie but the countryside is open and has trouble making the heart sing and the eye dance. There are enormous views and nothing to look at.

I knew it would be like this because I came this way on the trip I told you about, the one in which I had my first skirmish with La Rochefoucaud and slept at the end of someone's orchard. I was riding to see a couple who had bought a house here, who loved it, who wanted to live here permanently. I knew they weren't cyclists and therefore saw neither the countryside nor distance in the same way - dull country isn't so bad if you get in a car and drive to where it's better - but I couldn't understand their choice. The Loire valley was just to the north, the woods of the higher Dordogne valley to the south. Then I remembered they had spent their life in the air force. If you live on airfields for decades, round here probably looks pretty good.

Well, every journey has a price and so we settled in to push through the fields, nothing to distract from complaining about the wind, the heat, the cold, the traffic, the lack of traffic, and the special road surface that sticks to your tyres like suction pads.

I don't think they're used to strangers in these here parts. We stopped in a bar in St-Sauvant and were treated to the barman and his daughter discussing us just too quietly for us to understand. They followed us outside, to wish us goodbye but giving more the impression of checking we weren't making off with the silver.

Things looked up only at Lavasseau ("wash-in-a-bucket"), an old leather-making town with a modest château. We were eating sandwiches in yet another bus shelter when an enthusiastic woman in well-filled jeans urged us to dabble our feet in the stream across a bridge.

"We've just been there," she said, indicating what was probably her lady-friend, "and it's lovely. Just over there. Go on, go! You'll love it! Just over there... go on - try it!"

After the moodiness of St-Sauvant, the wish to please was giddying. So we went.

The water was glacial - and welcome. The stream ran through what must have been the vegetable-growing areas beneath the château walls. You came down here and tended your potatoes and brussels sprouts, then ran indoors and closed the door behind you when the neighbouring baron cut up nasty and sent the boys round. Now it's calm enough that the local infants' school treats it as a playground. Which is just what happened 30 seconds after I concluded, my feet in the water, that the day wasn't so bad after all.

"Come here, children. All of you this side... Jean-Marc, stop doing that... all of you on this side you're... PLEASE Joël, leave her alone... all of you this side are wolves. And all of you this side are lambs. JoëlIwon'ttellyouagain... I know, Suzanne, you'd rather be a lamb, but PLEASE, this time, PLEASE, be a wolf, won't you? And please don't cry..."

The wolves and the lambs ran about, the male wolves as interested in fighting between themselves as chasing lambs, the female lambs more intrigued by Steph and her bike than in escaping capture. A more inquisitive and less wolf-like boy joined them. A teacher ran over. "Jeune homme, leave that bike alone! You don't touch things that don't belong to you, d'accord?"

It'd drive me crazy being a teacher. I like children but I don't think I could eat more than one at a time.

We spent the night at a farm outside Latillé that had its own little camp site. A Dutch family were the only other campers. Two or three individuals each occupied mobile homes, sign these days of temporary or travelling agricultural workers who find it cheaper, quieter and more genial than a hotel. Other than them, and barking but unseen dogs, there was no sign of anyone. Certainly no farmer to pay, then or in the morning. We wheeled our bikes out past the closed-up farmhouse, giving any unseen owner the chance to rush out and claim his euros. But sign there was none. The coins rattled in our pocket as we rode away.

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