Riding a bicycle is something that I have been known to do, on very rare occasions
Riding a bicycle is something that I have been known to do, on very rare occasions.
Occasions such as going to the shops to get a puncture repair kit when the car has a flat tyre.
Or perhaps, when at boarding school in the lost African savannah, as a way to escape, if only for a few hours, the prison-like confines of the school boundaries.
But to cycle for pleasure?
That has to be an occupation rather akin to running for pleasure.
Running, when you come from Africa, is an occupation that you only use in an emergency, and that is a real emergency, which is not when you have a flat tyre. Only then do I find myself forced to ride a wobbly mechanical contrivance that will at least ensure that the 'pain' does not last too long and that the emergency will be dealt with quickly.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I first saw people riding bicycles for pleasure, with no real destination in sight and enjoying the saddle sores, stiff muscles and stretched tendons.
This was in the Alsace, in Eastern France, where in spring a strange phenomenon occurs.
Brightly coloured creatures, with bulbous heads and large dark eyes, emerge in the forests. They have wheels for transportation and they have evolved in such a way that their legs pump at a series of levers, cogs and chains to achieve forward motion.
At first, I thought that these creatures were some kind of enormous butterfly that hibernated during winter in the forests, perhaps in a large cocoon suspended from a snow clad fir tree. Then, miraculously, they emerge in warmer weather and start a sort of mating ritual, which involves chasing each other up and down the sides of roads and along mountain paths. Rather like those African flying ants that flutter briefly before shedding their wings and then run 'nose to tail' with another flying ant, to find and start a new home.
These colourful creatures don't seem to make much noise, except a sort of panting which seems to have something to do with the terrain. They definitely seem to get more excited, and pant faster, when it is hilly. Above all, they grimace as though they are not really enjoying themselves.
I learned to drive with caution in the mountains of the Alsace, as these great 'butterflies' could appear suddenly and with no warning. I have seen what a tropical insect smear can do to a windscreen so I knew I had to be careful not to impact one of them.
One day, the 'day of revelation' I call it now, I saw one of these strange creatures separated from its wheels. Up until then I thought that the wheels and thorax were inseparable. It was tottering because it was wearing a special type of footwear that seemed designed to lock onto the pedals of the wheeled machine, rather than for walking.
The animal was covered in bright day-glow colours in strange patterns. It removed the top of its head and unclipped its eyes and underneath I saw, what I realise now, was a human being wearing helmet and goggles.
It tottered into a bar/restaurant.
I noticed that it emerged about three hours later, weaving and humming a tune that seemed to have an "Oumpa Oumpa" rhythm to it.
It attached itself to its wheeled apparatus and after a couple of false starts, wobbled off in the direction of the Swiss border.
It was my wife, Marlene, who explained to me what these creatures were.
"They are Swiss nationals who have told their wives that their doctors have said that they need some exercise. To get this exercise, they have been told to get a bicycle and pedal it. Most of them start off", she tells me, "with enthusiasm, but this soon wanes, and they become distracted by the watering holes along the sides of the roads in France, rather like butterflies to a buddleia."
These watering holes are easy to find, because they identify themselves with signboards that read 'MENU DU JOUR', and then underneath this there are a series of hieroglyphics that presumably represent what is available that day.
Sometimes these signs have a picture of a snail and a bottle of wine, which must have some sort of attraction to these wheeled creatures.
"The problem is," Marlene tells me, "instead of losing weight and getting fitter, they put on weight and their livers grow."
"That just goes to prove it then!"
"That doctors are wrong!"
Marlene, being a member of the medical profession, leaps to their defence. "Why?"
"Well, they tell these people to get a bicycle and pedal it to lose weight, and what happens? Cirrhosis … that is what happens. Very dangerous, this cycling business!"
Well… the day came for me to try out this craze of 'cycling for pleasure'.
Bicycles, for those who are not used to these contraptions, are very unstable and they require considerable effort to propel them any meaningful distance. They are not easy to 'park' because they tend to fall over. They also fall over when ridden across sand, gravel, oil, mud, grooved surfaces, cattle grids, grass etc. etc.
They also do notcome with comfortable seats, places to put chairs and tables for picnics or any meaningful packing space.
They also require you to use muscles that have been happily dormant for years, and which resent having to work outside their "Job Description" limitations.
So bearing in mind all these drawbacks and having no excuse regarding 'bad weather' or urgent 'other business', I have succumbed to the concept that it "will be good for me!"
As a husband of many years standing, I realise now just how important this constant striving for self-improvement is. As a bachelor, I may have been content to pack the car with comfort equipment and drive to see the sights of the Burgundy between Beaune and Santenay. But now, with a wife who knows that I need constant self-improvement, I am obliged to take part in all sorts of activities that are questionable or even downright dangerous to both health and welfare.
However, I was able to get her to agree that we should transport ourselves to the start point of the special 'velo route' by car, about 25 Kilometres away, in order to start 'refreshed'.
We arrive at the Park de Bouzaize in Beaune, which is a place with a small lake inhabited by wildfowl and nothing to do with the Booze produced in the area. We find a place in the shade to park the car. This is the start point of the twenty-kilometre 'Route du Vin' from Beaune to Santenay. We extract our venerable bikes and I secure an emergency equipment box to the carrier of mine.
The signs for the 20 kilometre "Route du Vin" guide us down a short road and then into the vineyards on one of the tarred tracks that the 'viticulteurs' use for access. Even I have to admit that it is "bracing" to be pedalling through green fields with the young grapes just halfway through their 100-day cycle, between flowering and picking.
Little globules of 'green promise' are dangling under the vines, partially hidden by the lush foliage.
In places, the 'vignerons' had torn leaves from the vines so that the sunlight could penetrate and nurture the grapes in that magical transformation of earth and water into wine.
We accept this miracle as being commonplace these days.
We come across a small building where the workers used to leave their tools in the old days. Now they are ancient testimony to the era when all work was manual and tools had to be carried to where they were needed. Some of these older buildings are made with dry-stone walls with roofs of grey slate.
One day they will probably be 'bijou residences' with 'a view of the vines', but for now this small building only has a sign announcing to the cyclists coming in the opposite direction that they are approaching Beaune.
We cycle on up a hill and the view becomes more spectacular. Groups of cyclists pass us heading in the opposite direction. Some of them have 'all the professional gear', with helmets and psychedelic lycra outfits while others are family groups dressed in T-shirts, riding shopping bicycles and with their children pedalling ahead with gusto.
We puff to the top of the hill and then glide into Pommard.
Signs indicating cellars on all sides tempt us to stop and sample the previous year's produce of the grapes. With great fortitude and discipline, we carry on following the route. The route takes us to Volnay, but all the while I am tempted to go further up the hill behind Pommard. There is a place there that I come to each year after the 'vendange' (grape harvest) to celebrate the Autumn. This is the time of the year when the leaves on the vines change to the 'commodity metal' colours of copper, gold and rusty iron. And they are certainly as valuable. Not for nothing is this area called the 'Côte d'Or' or 'Gold Coast', referring to the molten metal colours that flow across the hills behind Beaune.
I turn and pedal back and Marlene follows.
"Where are you going?"
"Up the hill."
"I know that, but why?"
"I think we need to stop awhile to enjoy the view."
"But I'm doing that already!"
"Yes but, it's better up here." Puff, pant.
I get there ahead and by the time Marlene arrives, I have the fold-out BBQ on the table. I have the bottle of wine in my hand and I am searching my pockets for that essential piece of equipment that all visitors to France are obliged to carry with them at all times: the corkscrew.
"I know we have only done a few kilometres, but we can't waste such a beautiful day. I promise that we'll finish the tour on the motorbike."
"Well I didn't think we were wasting the day!"
"No but this is better." I urge her.
By this time, I have the sausage ready for the BBQ.
This is a special type of South African beef sausage called "Boerewors" in Afrikaans, which means 'Farmer's Sausage'. It is made by a friend of mine in Paris and it is the best I have ever tasted. He vacuum packs it and sends it by mail, on demand, all over France. It goes particularly well with wine, which is not surprising considering that the wine industry in South Africa was founded by the French.
A southern Rhone wine, or one from Bordeaux makes a good parallel to the Cape wines and so our memory taste buds succumb, once again, to that glorious luxury of 'anticipation of' and 'satisfaction with' food.
After all, isn't that one of the main reasons for visiting or living in France?
"This is better than pedalling." I insist. "And we have done at least four kilometres. That's two and a half miles. Surely that's enough for a first time?"
Marlene is not impressed with me.
But how many husbands transport the food, cook it, open the wine, serve it all AND help you to consume it?
And the best part is… it is downhill all the way back to Beaune