September 27, 2015 Features & Images » Feature Story

Taking the road less travelled 

An unplanned trip trough France offers spectacular riding, and a few bumps along the way.

click to flip through (8) ILLUSTRATION BY CLAIRE RYAN - Travelling the road less travelled by Thomas DeMarco.
  • Illustration by Claire Ryan
  • Travelling the road less travelled by Thomas DeMarco.

In my 33 years as an international cyclist, I've never been one to follow other riders' routes, preferring the small risks inherent in developing my own "originals" rather than the security of painting by numbers. And even in this electronic age, I abstain from Internet research, confident that good surprises will outnumber bad ones. With no compulsion to prove anything, I seldom embark on epic transcontinental tours. I just like to ride my bicycle on smooth, quiet roads with curiosity my only guide and beauty the only objective.

Taking inspiration more from birds than from other cyclists, my latest journey was, however, a bit of an aberration from the usual zigzagging wanderlust. I decided that I'd see what it was like to migrate south in September. After picking up one of my oldest touring bikes that I keep with friends near Oxford, England, I would take the train and ferry to Calais, the northernmost city in France. Then, with the 13 days remaining of my vacation, I hoped to pedal from the English Channel to the Mediterranean Sea.

As usual, I'd travel with no tent, no sleeping bag, no hotel reservations, no phone, no GPS, no computer, no guidebook... just like a bird. But unlike my avian role models, I don't have wings so I would bring along bits and pieces of old Michelin maps and follow the back roads, indicated in white, along which one typically only sees three or four motor vehicles (counting tractors) between one town and the next.

Day 2, near Gournay, France: The meticulous attention that I devote to my bikes, components and accessories would surely be the envy of the clientele of my family practice back home in Whistler. Consequently, I rarely even experience a puncture let alone any major mechanical disaster. It makes for pleasant riding but rather dull material for postcards.

But today proves exceptional.

After a photo op at Chateau Minerval, I hit a minor bump while riding across a grass parking lot and my frame breaks! The rear triangle is almost completely detached from the down tube. I'm not upset and not even totally shocked — after all, the bike is 27 years old, and this is not the most tragic event to occur on this day in history.

I also rationalize that it's probably not the worst mechanical that can happen in a rural area, 100 kilometres from the nearest bike shop. The frame is steel so it just needs welding, and isn't that something that most farmers can do in their own barns? Language is no barrier as I'm fluent in French, so I present my dilemma to a passing motorist but learn that local manpower is away, harvesting elsewhere today. So I fall back on a personal skill of which I'm even more proud than my cycling: hitchhiking.

I don't know what it is, but it never takes me long to bum a ride, even with a bike in tow. Sure enough, the very first suitable vehicle stops and delivers me to the nearest auto body shop, 12 kilometres away. I don't even have time to duct tape over the sticker on the frame that reads VERS UN MONDE SANS AUTO (Towards a World Without Cars) before the bike is handed over to the mechanic. Not initially particularly sympathetic (it is closing time, and maybe he noticed the sticker?), Aurelien concludes that I need a new bike. I explain that as a minimalist, I'm reluctant to add to my current collection of 14. All the others are in perfect condition, but I just don't happen to have another one with me here at the moment.

Then perhaps another sticker on the bike comes to the rescue. It's a Canadian flag. The French have always felt sorry for French Canadians, so helplessly overwhelmed by dominant Anglo North America culture. Taking pity on a poor wayward overseas cousin, Aurelien decides he'll try to fix the frame, inviting me to return tomorrow.

Patience has always seemed to me the most boring of virtues, so I appeal for immediate attention to the matter, offering a postcard from the coast of Spain as incentive, as well as any amount of cash that he desires. A mere 50 euros and 90 minutes later, I'm back on the bike, its frame as stiff as new, and only slightly crooked! I will subsequently learn from an old Raleigh merchant back in Oxford that 1987 was a bad year for Reynolds 501 cromoly frames. Many broke years ago. I hope to get another 27 years out of mine.

Day 3, Nogent-le-Roi, France: "FROOME! FROOME!" some drunkard shouts from across the bar, evidently mistaking me for last year's winner of Le Tour de France. How disappointing, I would much rather be taken for this year's champion, fellow Sicilian Vincenzo Nibali, a much more handsome man.

Day 4, Arrou, France: Overestimated yesterday, underestimated today...Not having the looks of Nibali, I'm never approached by attractive women when touring. But kids and old men seem to notice me. They usually want to know what I have on my head. For some reason helmet rearview mirrors have never been available in Europe. One particular older man has a few more questions...

"Where are you headed?" he asks.

"I hope to end up somewhere near Barcelona," I reply.

"How long will that take — two months?"

"No, more like two weeks, but not quite," I say.

Day 5, Chartres, France: I long ago learned to avoid touristy areas as much as possible when travelling by bike — too many people, too many cars. Besides, with homes in Whistler, Vancouver, and Fort Lauderdale, I already spend enough time in such places. And what is the point of going to see the Eiffel Tower or the Mona Lisa anyway, when you know exactly what they look like before you leave home?

I'd rather discover stuff that you can't Google — like an old tree, a broken windmill, a new life bird or a ruined castle, far from the madding crowds and safe from any English contamination, immersed in another language. But I do make an exception for Gothic cathedrals, the most sublimely beautiful structures in all of human history. This 800-year-old building is world famous for its stained glass, most of it dating back centuries.

But frankly I'm rather disappointed — thousands and thousands of human images engaged in all sorts of activities, but not one cyclist!

When travelling alone, I've learned that the key to getting a good self-portrait in such places is finding the tourist with the biggest camera, and then handing him yours. Here in Chartres, I do even better, I see a man with a tripod. Sure enough, with no instruction whatsoever, he composes a perfect shot on his first attempt.

Making up for the lost time of the frame repair (actually only three hours in total), and benefiting from a gentle tail wind and relatively flat terrain, I've pedalled 544 kilometres in the past three days through almost 100 towns and villages. That's a line of latitude daily, like a bird on migration.

Day 7, Monpazier, France: Over 1,000 times in my life I've awoken in the morning with no idea where I was going to sleep that night. Organization is my middle name, so I am naturally a precrastinator (the opposite of procrastinator) in all domains but one — accommodation.

I seldom start my search sooner than an hour before sunset. As a photographer, I value the light provided by a low sun. And as a cyclist, the last hour of the day is often the most comfortable as heat and wind abate.

But travelling off the beaten path, I know that I must take whatever lodging I can get when daylight starts to fail me (my legs never do, accustomed as they are to the effort).

Only twice in my life have I been caught out and forced to sleep outside like a proper vagabond (two nights ago that may have been in retrospect a better choice than the cheap hotel at Chateau Renault. I am still scratching the bed bug bites acquired there).

But this evening, I hit the jackpot and come upon the perfect place at the right time — the three-star Hotel Edouard I. Built in the 18th century, it is actually one of the newest structures in this charming medieval village.

There's a computer in the lobby, so I catch up on a week of emails, primarily to make sure I'm not missing any funerals, as my parents are 88 and 93 years old. As a doctor I've learned to never take health for granted. The 30 minutes online briefly break the spell of the otherwise Victorian existence that I prefer to lead when on the road.

Day 8, Penne d'Agenais, France: Since the age of nine, I've been accurately recording both the routes I've cycled and the cumulative distance. Near here today, at age 54, I hit lifetime bicycle kilometre 300,000, or one light-second, that is the distance light travels in one second — 82,000 of those kilometres have been covered in 35 European countries.

To escape the hot mid-day sun, I seek the shade of an outdoor café and document the milestone on a few postcards. I order ice cream, Coca-Cola, and beer to celebrate the event, but actually this is not a rare indulgence for a special occasion. It's my usual fare on any warm day on the road. How many more kilometres might I have now if I took nutrition more seriously? I am not convinced I'd have gone much further.

I think birdwatching along the way has cost me much more distance, but in the process I may be the first person ever to register both 300,000 life kilometres pedalled and 3,000 species of life birds spotted. Naturally, my position as a family doctor has also cost me a lot of distance. Part-time workaholic that I am, that's almost 40 weeks per year that I can't bike tour! The consolation is that house calls do add a few hundred kilometres to my annual total. Most are done in the dark, cold, slush, and snow (much of my career has been spent in the long winters of ski resorts and the Arctic). But I enjoy house calls anyway — getting paid to ride my bike.

Day 9, Samantan, France: "Thomas! Thomas!" A stranger shouts out my name as I roll through town. Wow, it appears that yesterday's historic achievement has already won me international fame and recognition. Or could he be mistaking me for French cycling hero Thomas Voeckler? At least that's an improvement from being taken for the homely Mr. Froome. But I'm still not satisfied as my supporter is just another old man. The young women continue to ignore me.

Day 10, near Vielha, Spain: About 1,473 kilometres out of Calais, I leave France. I've never ridden so far on this continent without crossing an international border. Spain is the 10th European country that I ride in 2014.

Day 11, Port de Bonaigua, Spain: At elevation 2,072 metres above sea level, this is the third highest pass in the Pyrenees. I don't take a single pedal stroke for the next 22 kilometres. I'll end up climbing three passes above 1,000 metres altitude in three days. On this bike five years ago, I had hoped to do some high passes in these mountains, but I bailed because I just didn't have low enough gears back then, and I hate sweating! This time, thanks to a third chain ring and lighter components, I never lose composure with the effort. Technology has provided temporary respite from aging's inexorable erosion of physical performance. They say in Spain todas las horas hieren, la ultima mata (every hour wounds, the last one kills). But unlike me, my bikes just get better over the years. Back in Oxford, I'll soon invest another £250 ($500) in upgrades on this one.

Day 13, Tarragona, Spain: In 12 days and three hours, I have cycled from the English Channel to the Mediterranean Sea. It took 1,888 kilometres and a total of 18,470 vertical metres of climbing to get here on a 12- kilogram bike with another eight kilograms of baggage. I'm a man of my word, so the first priority is to send Aurelien, the welding hero, his postcard that I promised. It's the 99th that I've written so far this trip, a typical number for a two-week holiday (if you happen to be on my mailing list, now you know you are not so special after all!).

I happen to notice a commercial airliner flying low overhead. Oh good, I can fly back to the U.K. from here, and avoid the traffic of Barcelona.

But first I must find a cardboard box for the bike. Most merchants give them away for nothing and it's a weekday afternoon, so I don't anticipate any difficulty scoring one. But it turns out to be a local holiday, so most businesses are closed! I'm told Tarragona has three bike shops but, sure enough, two are closed, and I can't find the third. A clothing store happens to be open, so I duck in to ask for directions. Translated from Spanish, his second language and my third (the mother tongue here is Catalan), the conversation goes something like this...

Me: "Hi, I'm told there's a bike shop nearby."

Fernando: "Really? There's never been one in this neighbourhood. What exactly do you need?"

Me: "Never mind, I'm sure I can't find it here. I need a big cardboard box for this bicycle. I have a flight tomorrow morning."

Fernando: "Oh, you may have mine."

My disconsolation immediately transforms to disbelief.

Me: "That's very kind, but where is it?"

Fernando: "Right here," he replies, smiling.

Like a magician delivering a rabbit from his sleeve, he immediately renders the object of my desire from a closet behind the counter. I offer 20 euros for the performance, but Fernando declines any compensation. Naturally, I must ask, "Why, pray tell, do you keep a bike box in a store that sells blue jeans?"

"I ordered a bike on the Internet last year that was delivered in this, and I have no room for it in my apartment," replies Fernando. "I considered it prudent to keep the box for the 12 months of the bike's warranty, which just expired."

My astonishingly good fortune doesn't end here, as there just happens to be an auto repair garage across the street, also open — I need a wrench to remove the pedals. As the mechanic hands me the tool, I'm glad that the bike doesn't sport any of my stickers that read HACIA UN MUNDO SIN COCHES (you guessed it, "Towards a World Without Cars," in Spanish!).

As much as I like to bike tour, I'm not choked that this trip is over, as surely I've now exhausted my quota of good luck.

I make a point of sending my box hero Fernando a postcard when I return to Whistler.

So, like a bird on migration, I managed to arrive at my final destination right on time with no electronic technology.

Ornithological navigational skills are no mystery to me, and I can understand that birds don't require boxes to fly, but there's still one aspect of their annual fall journey that remains a puzzle. When you travel south in September, the low sun is in your face all day, every day.

So how do my feathered friends do it without sunglasses?

As much as I enjoyed sharing their experience under my own power, when I head back south to my Florida condominium, I'll go by airplane.

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