My friend Pieter chirps on Facebook: “Why do you guys cycle? Are the transport workers on strike? You don’t have to suffer like that, you know.” That’s him being facetious, of course, but the question made me think. Why do we do it, when we can hire a car and go many more places?
Our first cycling holiday was in Ireland, three years ago. Our two-week timeshare exchange brought us to the tiny hamlet of Knocktopher, kind of in the middle of nowhere. Friends kindly lent us their bicycles and for two weeks we got around on two wheels. In the process we discovered the pleasures of going somewhere slowly.
So, when friends generously allowed us to stay in their holiday home in Royan during this trip, we were delighted to discover two bicycles in the garage. We shall do it again, we decided, and for the last week we’ve cycled wherever we wanted to go. From short hops to the supermarket to a rather ambitious 36km round-trip to a historic town, we explored our surroundings by bicycle.
Of course we would have covered far more ground in a car, but I doubt that we would have seen and experienced more. Cycling forces you to slow down (unless you have the legs and stamina of a Tour de France competitor!). It forces you to stop for ice cream on a hot day. Or to find a bicycle repair shop where a friendly Frenchman wields an Allen key. You get to savour the smell of a small woodland or a field being cut. And when you get to the day’s destination, you spend good time there so that your legs can have a proper rest.
Another consequence of cycling is that it forces you to be conscious. You have to be aware of your surroundings. It might sound like work, but it’s not – it’s a heightened sense of where you are.
Doing the shopping with only the backpack in which to carry it all home, takes being conscious to an interesting new level. You can’t just pile stuff in the basket; you have to think about what you really need. I think one definitely wastes less this way.
Look, there’s no denying that cycling is hard work and that your backside takes a pounding and your legs beg for mercy on a stiff uphill. And that you sometimes don’t get to see the sights you wanted cause they end up being just too far. But that’s ok. The times when we’ve chosen to cycle have been some of the most fun and rewarding, and this week in Royan is right up there with the best of them.
Interestingly, one of the most touching encounters we’ve had in this town came about when we were on foot. It was the day in between two big excursions and we thought our legs and backsides needed a break. Also, we only had some errands in town, so walking was entirely doable. Until the one errand turned into a bit of a production and we ended up speed walking to get to a print shop before the notorious French lunch hour arrived (shops close for up to 2 hours over lunch!).
Having accomplished our mission, we decided to conclude the day’s activities with a quiet visit to the town museum. According to the map it was close by. Except it wasn’t. We could not find the place.
Standing on a sidewalk trying to make sense of the vanished museum, a couple drew up in their car and Rob approached them for help (yes, I do indeed have a husband who asks for directions – far more readily than I do). Turns out we were standing outside their front door and they had just returned from grocery shopping. The man’s English was quite good and he quickly showed us that we were on the wrong side of town. And then he offered to give us a lift to the museum! But first we had to come in for something to drink. I used the loo, Rob helped to carry the groceries inside. The woman offered us a wonderfully refreshing cucumber-and-mint drink while she knocked back a glass or rosé (“Francaise!” she chuckled, pointing at herself and rolling her eyes). Then the husband loaded us in his car and drove us across town, pointing out places of interest as we went. We arrived at the museum and it was closed – that dreaded lunch hour! The friendly man made sure we knew what time it would reopen and suggested we have a drink at a beachfront café. He drove off, leaving us stunned by such kindness, so casually dispensed. We never even exchanged names.
I guess this little story is the answer to the question about why we choose to take things slower, be it walking or cycling.
Footnote: That museum? All in French. Not a word of English. So after all that, the visit was a non-starter.