On the road with Crab and Bikey: part one

On the road with Crab and Bikey: part one

Part One: In which Team Bike drags itself away from Bristol and across the sea to darkest France, only to find it really quite nice.


Leaving Temple Quay, Bristol. Perhaps the hardest part of the journey. I had bought Bikey after several months trawling eBay for the Perfect Bicycle. It never came, so I ended up getting this beautiful blue steel racer. He was handbuilt in Bridgwater and is in no way designed for long-distance touring, something we instantly had in common. The previous owner was a Cambridge engineering student who had devised a frictionless dynamo system involving magnets, Tupperware, LEDs, a Nokia phone battery and lots of wiring. I gave its survival 48 hours. Having recently returned from Bestival on the Isle of White, I was naturally frazzled from the various things I’d taken there. My so-called friends had told me it would be fun. And it was.

Bikey, fully-loaded and ready to roll. Extreeme!

Bikey, fully-loaded and ready to roll. Extreeme!

However, their after-effects are not conducive to efficient packing, so I would advise leaving a suitable window between having ’fun’ and embarking on any kind of emotionally and physically draining odyssey. Quite how you’re supposed to pack for an epic bike trip I don’t know. I figured I had covered the basics: a pump, inner tubes, various tools, a few clothes, a tent and sleeping bag and an inflatable sleeping mat, a camera and a guitar. And two ounces of marijuana, cunningly concealed in the seat post. In order to get some momentum, I took a train to Dorchester. It was an odd decision, considering I’d spent the past couple of months telling my friends I was going to cycle all the way to India, but an essential one, in that it actually got me out of Bristol.

Once in unfamiliar terrain, I felt I had escaped its siren-like bosom and I was free to pursue my new life of athletic hoboism. From Dorchester I settled into the saddle and headed for the glorious town of Weymouth. Below are two ladies from Weymouth. Some uncharacteristic forethought had led me to book a ticket on the Condor ferry to Saint Malo, France. Bikey cost £5 extra, but I didn’t begrudge him that. The ferry was leaving at 0530 the next morning so we set off to find a secluded cove for some free camping action and an early night…

The ladies of Weymouth

The ladies of Weymouth

Sleeping that night proved problematic. My city-boy skittishness manifested itself again and again. Sounds I couldn’t identify startled me out of my sleep, as the initial dead silence revealed itself as a quiet cacophony. A loud tap on the tent roof sent me sprawling out of the door with a dim torch to confront the murderous rogue who was tormenting me. Turned out to be a seed pod falling from the overhanging tree. Then the unmistakable sound of approaching footsteps had me unfolding my Opinel knife in an unconvincing defence. I peeped out terrified, only to realise it was the slap of retreating waves on the beach. Eerie sounds would arise from nothing, bringing with them an unnameable dread, before I rationalised them one by one, like shooting clay pigeons. I was going to have to toughen up…

The early morning ferry set off around dawn and I bid goodbye to the mainland, with all the dignified demureness of a first-year drama student. As I clasped my hot plastic up of coffee in shivering hands, I felt strangely like I’m never coming back. I’d had this sense once before when I boarded a plane to Tanzania, but I returned home unscathed so I dismissed it as melodramatic sentimentality.

A fort in Weymouth. Some say it’s a battlement. It’s not, it’s a fort.

A fort in Weymouth. Some say it’s a battlement. It’s not, it’s a fort.

The ferry went via Guernsey and I had a small taste of what life as a Channel Islander entailed. Most of the people in the streets of St Peter Port were in the autumn of their lives. They talk with an Australian twang, their number plates don’t have letters in and everything feels just a little bit French. The town was busier than usual due to the annual Battle of Britain Air Display, and the Red Arrows were carousing through the sky, as spectators gazed up at them, sheltering their eyes with their hands against the midday sun.

I sat at the stern of the ferry, waiting to embark for France, idly analysing what I was doing and why. I had no reason to leave England. I was having more fun than ever before and my life was flashing by in a haze of weekend hedonism, sustained by an undemanding job at a video library. This was the dream that my sixteen year old self had strived for, yet I had just quit my job and left the friends I loved. A quiet panic rose in me, before I silenced it and went back to browsing my map of France and the ferry rolled out.

Coming into Guernsey – home of jumpers and strange accents

Coming into Guernsey – home of jumpers and strange accents

Almost immediately after getting off at Saint Malo, I cycled on the wrong side of the road for about half a mile, before a mini roundabout taught me a valuable lesson. I have since made the same mistake only twice. After a few dispiriting dead-ends down muddy tracks and an ill-advised foray onto the four-lane ring road, I found the campsite and freewheeled in. A shout followed my entry and a flustered middle-aged man instructed me to check in.

Instead of the throngs of young hippies I’d anticipated, I was met with the bourgeois silence of aged couples. I set up the tent and showered with my dirty clothes on the floor, treading them like grapes to find out if it was a simple way of keeping my clothes clean: it is! Sort of. I followed this with a shave and lay in my tent and smoked a joint. The Gendarmerie had not even looked at me as I crossed their border, and I congratulated myself on the fact I now have a blissful supply to last me all through France. The munchies soon took hold so I walked over to the café and saw only the owner, his wife and some of their friends in the dimly lit salle, with a sign on the door saying ‘ferme’. They all solemnly shook their heads at me as I pressed my palms against the glass door. Merde. I set out in search of food. The sun was setting fast but after just a few kilometers I came across a suburban oasis in the form of a pizza parlour.

I left with a fromage et jambon speciale and three cans of coke, and was disproportionately moved when the guy gave me one of them for free. This random act of kindness has led me to suspect that France is going to be just fine. On the way back I dropped the pizza, cursing as it skidded out of its box and span across the asphalt. I’d ingeniously balanced it on my handlebars in stoned idiocy. I doubled back to find it doubled over on the road, but I scooped it up and ate it later in the dark, not wanting to see the debris I’d failed to dust off it. With each crunch that neither ham nor cheese could account for, I grimaced but manfully ate on. It was an exercise in manning myself up for life on the road. It is also perhaps worth noting that French roads seem to have far less broken headlights and cigarette butts and desiccated insects than your average English ring road.

I slept fitfully that night and thought of a girl I was running from and the one I was running to, and the worrying way water drips through the roof of the tent in the morning. Dew seems to gather like pearls in alarming quantities under the fly sheet so each morning I am woken by a drip on my face, like a shit alarm clock. I hit the road, stupidly taking the national route out of town as it looked the straightest way to Rennes. It might well have been, but it is not for cyclists (even if it was legal for them, which it isn’t). After 10km of wondering what was at all enjoyable about cycling so close to so much speed and metal and noise, I turned off and by luck found a national cycle route, signposted to Rennes, which guided me effortlessly through the Rance Valley. The sun was hot, the sky was blue and the air was dry, infused with dust and pollen. My water bottles were full and I had a plentiful supply of Mars bars. I had a first taste of how good cycling could be.

A French petrol station: providing expensive fuel for cars, free water for cyclists, and reasonably priced chocolate for all.

A French petrol station: providing expensive fuel for cars, free water for cyclists, and reasonably priced chocolate for all.

I came through Dinan, Évran and a came to a small village called La Chapelle-Chauseé. A lady at the petrol station filled up my water bottles and I had a little rest before setting off. A couple of kilometers down the road I realized I’d left both bottles on her windowsill. I doubled back, picked em up and stopped by a bar for a café au lait and a cigarette, as a reward for my effort. It was populated by a young woman smoking, a silent barfly and a waiter showing the woman his mobile phone. I ordered my coffee and listened to them talk a while, before asking for a light. I got into a conversation about what I was doing, where I was going, and the imminent smoking ban that would rock France to its core. When I left they called out ‘Bravo’ and ‘Bon courage’.

I guess this little interaction isn’t really worth noting, but after spending the whole day alone, mumbling old songs to myself and occasionally pointing out some scenic oddity to Bikey, I can already see that as well as the distance involved in my trip, it is the solitude that will perhaps prove to be the most difficult obstacle. I will have no role to play in the places I come through and will have to be content skimming over the surface of life, smiling at strangers and sleeping by roadsides. It’s going to be hard and lonely. As a cyclist with no maps, apart from the totally inappropriately-scaled Map o’France I’ve brought, I have little idea where I am. I’m unlikely to bump into many young tourists along the route I’m taking as I have to avoid the main roads they travel on and the cities they congregate in. The chain-link of hostels that stretch in all directions across the world will play no part in my journey. Instead, I have to actively avoid cities at night as they provide little scope for rough (i.e. free) camping and if I am to make it as far as I hope, I’ve got to take it easy on my modest Odyssey Fund. Without a role to play, it’s hard not to feel like a parasite… I give very little to the towns and villages I pass through, and take little too. But, to bastardise Spiderman’s dictum: With negligible power comes negligible responsibility! I guess that’s the upside right there.

Anyway, the outsider plays their own role in the social dance. From the boundaries, the observers can watch the life of the worlds they pass through, detached in every way, yet recognising those things that unite us all. Simply by being a witness I am fulfilling a role, perhaps an important one. One of my hopes for this journey is that it will provide a chance to grasp some insight into the comings and goings of people that eludes you when you’re in the belly of the beast. I had an incommunicable urge to see it from the outside, before I fall, jump or am pushed in, and become totally consumed by it’s distractions.

In the couple of months leading up to my departure, I have both broken up with my girlfriend of 8 years (the relationship, not her) who had left for India, and begun something new with someone who wants marriage and babies, both as quickly as possible. Maybe that’s why I felt the need to leave when I did. I felt myself being inexorably sucked into a life of love and responsibility I have no real desire for. So with T behind me and L thousands of miles away to the east, I find myself here, alone, in a field near Ferme des Bois, to the north-west of Rennes. It’s really getting dark now, so I’m going to put the tent up and hope whoever owns the land has a lie-in tomorrow morning.

Sunflowers. Like a crowd of silent faces, nodding in approval as you cycle past.

Sunflowers. Like a crowd of silent faces, nodding in approval as you cycle past.


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