Thursday, 25 August 2016

The trouble with bikes

Another week on and we are on the Île de Ré. This is a beautiful - although a tad overpopulated in August - island, all hollyhocks and terracotta-roofed shacks with shutters in Farrow and Ball colours, local markets in every village offering the best of French produce on your doorstep and people sat outside bars at all hours drinking the local wines. Ramshackle shutters and rusty bikes. It's idyllic. Just wait till I find my camera cable to show you.

And I've been facing a demon. The other thing about the Île de Ré is that almost everyone goes around on a bike. Now it's a shameful thing to admit, but I only learned to ride a bike about 5 years ago, at a time when the eldest child started talking about it. I had a vision of us learning together, and then family bike rides, whirring along together happily, and certainly not the reality where the family whirred off and I clanked to a halt, beaten by a complete lack of confidence and an inability to believe I could actually pass anyone without crashing into them or falling off, the afternoon ending invariably with hot tears of fury and my poor bike being thrown onto the grass in despair.

Over the years people have tried to persuade me that I could overcome this; just a bit more practice and I'd be there. I'd love to believe it. It's true that I often look upon cycling friends with some envy, but it's in the same way as I feel envious of birds for being able to fly: they're just a different species to me. The world of feeling safe on a road, of being competent enough to lift a hand off the handlebars to indicate, is a million miles away. And actually that's fine. I've had years and years of skirting around biking conversations, of making up excuses, of finding a different way of getting about, and so the thought of being mobile on something two-wheeled feels utterly alien.

But the images I saw of this place, this beautiful island, persuaded me that I really needed to come here, and that the ideal thing to do what be to hire a tandem, as well as bring the children's bikes. It is too big an island for walking, and it would be too slovenly to drive everywhere. So we have a big beast of a thing, a masterpiece of archaic French fabrication, with enormous fat saddles and a rather nasty French superiority complex. Before I'd seen it, I had visions of growing to love it, our trusty steed, but I'm not sure this is happening. I wish it had a name, but like farm animals heading for the slaughterhouse, I'm not sure it would be wise.

It is in so many ways an abusive relationship: why would I ever fall in love with something that every time it looks at me, it reminds me of my failure and ineptitude... this contraption with its smug bell and smirking handlebars laughs in my face, clipping me with something sharp every time I try to manhandle it, and then looks away coyly, denying all knowledge. Every day, no matter what I do, it brands me with the Mark of Idiocy for all to see, a right calf black with oily chain marks; some days I look like I've been run over. And then there's the constant physical abuse. Every evening, shifting position tenderly on the sofa, I remember that this is the pain I had in my mind when I recently translated the sentence about examining for bruising and lacerations in "how to care for rape victims" for a French charity. This is clearly not a love story.

And yet I have to admit that were it not for this two-wheeled, two-seated cantankerous beast, there are things I would never have seen or experienced, and the joy of a cool breeze on a 33-degree day as we are freewheeling so fast that the children get out of earshot is hard to beat. I've seen acres of grapevines, with birds of prey hovering overhead, waiting for something interesting to eat, such as a rabbit that races across the path ahead. I've been on cycle paths with eery still salt marshes on either side, and nothing else for miles. I've passed shacks overlooking the sea masquerading as restaurants selling just one thing, with tables and wineglasses set out around their own oyster beds. I've been to every branch of La Martinière, the island's top ice cream producer, officially ranked among France's top 5 ice cream makers, and tried everything from local melon, to raspberry and red pepper, to caramelised potato flavour (although all my bravery was used up on the bike so I didn't have any spare for the oyster and caviar ice cream). And there is a joy about having cycled 12 miles and therefore feeling entitled to order up a big plate of fruits de mer for lunch to give me strength for the journey home.

Maybe it's not all over for the bike yet. Although I do need some similar incentives to make me want to keep going when I get home.


  1. Wow - you've done it again. Taken me to your wonderful island. Sounds magical - albeit the bruised bottom! I can understand what you mean about not being able to ride a bike - I have a similar problem with swimming. Everyone expects me to swim, but I don't, never have. I so love the sea, but scared of getting out of my depth. Good luck with the bike - as least you can't drown learning to ride it - if you do, you are doing it wrong! J x

    1. You would love it here, some of the best photography fodder ever. All rusty bikes and rotting weather beaten shutters in the best colours and the most beautiful light. You would be so busy. I just took 3 photos while putting the bins out! x