France: the last frontier

DSCN4173On Wednesday the 19th of July, I lay in my tent at 0500, ready to go back to sleep, when I heard thunder. The storm front predicted for 1300 must be early, I thought. With a little more than four hours of sleep, I decided to break camp not to have to pack a wet tent. While I struggled to wake up and get moving, the storm rumbled over the fields well to the south, and never did rain on me.

DSCN4157All day, the rain threatened, and the wind blew in my face. This part of Belgium is Flemish, and almost everything is in Dutch. Of course, the signs are all bilingual with the French in second place, so it was easy for me to get around, shop, and find things. There are also excellent bike paths, including Eurovelo routes 4 and 12, hugging the coast. As in the Netherlands, there were many roads sporting the Fietstraat (bicycle street) sign. On these, bicycles have priority, and the cars have a narrow path in the middle between the bike lanes. I was glad that things were so easy, because the weather made the day a tough one.

DSCN4171Blackenberge, which I had never heard of, seemed pleasant and liveable. I enjoyed my breakfast/lunch on the beach there. The waterfronts of all these towns featured skyscraper condominium buildings that formed a vast cliff rising up by the beach. They caught and funnelled the southwest wind north along the beach, making the riding even harder than in the country. The wind did not dissuade the holiday crowds, however.

DSCN4170There were two ferry crossings, part of the bike routes through Oostende and Nieuwpoort. The ferries took only pedestrians and bikes, and they were shuttling as fast as they could, because I had lots of company on my way. I had to wait for the second ferry at each crossing. That was not a problem, because the people were interesting, as was the traffic on the rivers. Nieuwpoort sits at the mouth of the Yser River. While waiting there, I saw a deep-sea oil platform service vessel come in to pick up what looked like enormous concreted blocks. The ship seemed strange, with its helipad backfitted above the bridge forward.

After the second crossing, I was really feeling the fatigue of pushing into the wind. Not sure where I would find a place, I remembered that Warm Showers has telephone numbers in the hosts’ profiles. I checked ahead, and called Daniel LaMarcq. The wind made it hard for us to understand each other, but he readily agreed to take me in that same night. With a goal in sight, I knew that I could push to the end of the day.

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Daniel and Christine live in the French border town of Bray-Dunes. They put my bike in the work-shed, and settled me into a cute little house in the backyard. They shared their supper with me, and we all tucked in before the storms came crashing through that night.

Stretching out in the little cabin with my legs complaining, I reflected that I had just ridden across Belgium in one day. I had crossed the last border on my bicycle. There would be no more new countries for the rest of River Run 2017.

The next day, Daniel went on his morning training ride, and Christine set out on errands. I closed up the little house, and headed out after them. I found out that the headwinds across Belgium were just a warm-up. I had a punishing, steady 20 knots in my face, gusting to 30 knots at times. I found myself gearing into my lowest gears all day, and stopping every 15-20 km to rest. I also had to stop often to take off or put on my rain jacket, although I never caught a deluge.

One of the pleasures of cycling in France is the boulangerie-patisserie. Fresh baked goods of every kind with coffee or hot chocolate can fuel any cyclist, from tourists like me to the Tour de France racers on the TV screens in every bar in the country this week.

I stopped at the first boulangerie I passed in Zuydcoote, where I ordered hot chocolate and a big gooey raisin swirl. While a squall pounded the glass windows, I sat and read the daily paper, including the details of the previous day’s stage of the Tour. I noticed that Nathan Brown was the only American showing in the listings, placing in the top forty for both the stage and overall. The field still had 178 riders.

DSCN4175Dunkirk lay halfway between the Belgian border and my objective, Calais. The new film, Dunkirk, was making it premiere the same day that I was riding through the town. It felt as if everything in Dunkirk was under construction, but it was really only at key points, which made me do weird detours to get back to the bike route. I did pause at the Commonwealth War Cemetery honouring those killed in the Dunkirk evacuation operation. Next to it were cemeteries for other Allies, and for civilians.

After leaving the city, I found vast fields and rolling farmland. Slowly, I was leaving the expanses of water-riddled polders of the Lowlands, and easing into traditional farm country, with well-drained fields. Loon Plage turned out to be a major container port in addition to a farming center.

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I had lunch on a rock by the side of the road, near the Seafarer’s Club, an outreach to the sailors on the container ships. A motorist coming out of the Club parking lot told me that I could have lunch in there. Too late for that, but I was grateful for the washroom and a glass of orange juice before I resumed my grind into the wind. I chuckled at the problem that the Club had with sailors from countries that did not have Dyson hand dryers.

 

DSCN4177The town of Gravelines reminded me of Peschiera del Garda in Italy, a walled city with natural moats around it.

Despite the wind, I was determined to see The Burghers of Calais, the famous sculpture by Auguste Rodin, before I checked into the hotel I had booked in Blériot Plage, the beach of Calais. DSCN4180Finding it was easy, because it was on all the maps, the apps, and directly in front of the imposing Hotel de Ville of Calais. I had seen one of the original casts of the sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but, to me, the first cast in the town square of Calais would always be the original.

DSCN4182I was not disappointed. The legend, its happy outcome, and the struggle to erect the statues make for interesting reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Burghers_of_Calais.

By the time I visited the Burghers, it was getting on toward 1930, and the hotel reception closed at 2000. I made my way north as quickly as I could (which was not very fast). A swinging gate at the railroad crossing caught my rear panniers and knocked me over. With my rear derailleur out of alignment, I made my way to Blériot Plage and checked in just in time. To my delight, the hotel restaurant had moules marinières, which I enjoyed with a salad instead of fries.

DSCN4185On Friday, the 21st, I took some time to find a bike shop to have my derailleur checked. The first place was closed, but the Opale Velo Service in downtown Calais was open. The wrench adjusted my derailleur right on the sidewalk. The Opale VS is a non-profit community outreach, making used bicycles available to those who need transportation but can’t afford it (consider the massive immigrant population that has settled in Calais). The mechanic did not charge, but I left five euros as a donation. Happy to have the bike purring again, I turned southwest toward the second-largest city in the Hauts-de-France region: Boulogne-sur-Mer.

DSCN4186The party was definitely over. After more than 2500 km of river banks and flatlands, the gentle 17-km climb to the ridge of the Terre de Deux Caps (Land of Two Capes) felt like Mount Everest to my weak legs. I never expected to use my lowest gears on such gentle rises, never more than 7%. Fortunately, the headwinds, while persistent, were not as strong. Nevertheless, I did not plan on a long day in the saddle, feeling still a need to recover from the day before.

DSCN4187Broad farms stretched out in every direction. At the top, I came across a sign for a Canadian War Cemetery, something I could not pass by. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) maintains 2945 sites in France alone (more than 23,000 world wide), and each is a pearl of peace, respect and deep emotional content for me. I had visited the Canadian Cemetery in Ortona, where the Canadians fighting with the British Eight Army were interred.

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This cemetery held those killed in the push from Normandy (D-Day, 1944) to The Hague. Most were from the Canadian First Army, but there were many sailors and airmen there, too. The cemetery was on the very peak, with a view of both the North Sea and the English Channel. After a brief pause and signing the guest book, I began my breakneck descent into Boulogne.

DSCN4184In a small village between Frethun and the top of the hill where the Canadians lay, I came across a monument that I have never seen anywhere: to NATO personnel. It was erected by the veterans’ association of French personnel serving in Germany. As a Cold War veteran myself, I was touched that someone remembered the thousands who died in the war that never went hot before it was over. We spent forty years on the brink, but we accomplished our mission. NATO was, and remains, relevant.

In Boulogne-sur-Mer, I again picked a hotel for the night. The hotel restaurant featured a delicious couscous royale, and the staff was very pleasant and accommodating. But the bed was the worst I had experienced since April, and my back had me wishing that I had laid out my air mattress on the floor. For the first time since the operation in Landstuhl, I took aspirin on Saturday morning.

The forecast was for more rain on Saturday and worse on Sunday. There is a general lack of bicycle facilities between Boulogne and Normandy, and National Road 940 is a busy road, the only highway for motor vehicles connecting the towns on the coast. I decided to start my planned detour to Rouen and Chartres, and booked a train to Rouen. After Chartres, I will return to the coast, where Eurovelo 4 and 1 are reported to be completed and signed.

Until next time,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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