It. Is. Sweltering. We’ve been cycling through through the French heat wave and have paid the price. Man down, man down! Liam is experiencing heat exhaustion, we think. On reflection, there is no wonder. With regular highs of 42 degrees Celsius, and it not getting cooler than 21-25 on a night, cycle touring through the heatwave has been an inhospitable environment. However, we’ve still managed to have a lot of fun along the way.
We departed from our rest spot 11 days ago and had two days of rain and storms. In our little green nylon fortress, we could hear the rumbling of thunder for an hour before the lightening struck overhead. Then the rain arrived, wailing, merciless, startling rain, nearly collapsing our tent onto us. It felt like we were in the eye of a hurricane! And then, as fast as it arrived, it passed. Just enough water to guarantee that our tent was soaking for when we had to pack it away in the morning!
The following evening, we once more had rain. This time we had constructed a bivvy spot next to a large bush in some wildlife reserve land next to a major road into Montpellier. The campsites were too expensive to stay in and we decided to brave the elements and trust our gear. As the sun set, I flicked ticks off my camping mat, batted mosquitos away, crawled under a nylon ground sheet tarp, into my hot sticky bivvy bag, and cried. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, but it was so hard. As it goes, I slept extremely well, and our system worked perfectly because we both woke up dry despite the rain all night. Of course, all of our gear was damp from the condensation! For added amusement, the busy road had turned into stand still traffic in morning rush hour, and commuters looked at us in bemusement and bewilderment as we stood on the scrubland brushing our teeth as the traffic crawled slowly by. I felt like I was an animal in the zoo!
Finally, the last night of rain… we splashed out on a campsite because we were depleted by being splashed on. The rain spat down on us all night in our tent, and the mosquitos circled menacingly. We, and most of our posessions, were damp. However, the sun was on its way! We rejoiced.
Oh, just how much we would miss the feeling of cold air on our face, we did not quite appreciate. A new kind of dampness was in the post. A heatwave bringing 40 degree heat to most of France hit us in the face, and soon we would be battling with stifling, relentless heat. A blanket of exhausting warmth that did not fade even with the evening sun. Being constantly covered in a layer of salty sweat, turning us into desperate shade seekers, with a mortal fear of running out of water.
Our tent, definitely dry now, became uninhabitable. We abandoned it in favour of stringing a mosquito net underneath trees and sleeping outside looking at the stars, with no need even for a sleeping bag.
Litres of water, teaspoon after teaspoon of salt, we struggled on. Getting up early to cycle until 1pm because by 4pm, you could not cycle. By the late afternoon, the heat became totally unmanageable and fatigued.
We struggled on, I had more tears sheltering under a walnut tree at lunch time. The heatwave warning said a danger to human life. How could we carry on? Oh, but we did. Maybe a little foolishly, we bashed out 80km days, 1000m altitude climb days, long days, hard days… and we were only 150km away from our target when Liam became unwell from suspected heat exhaustion. Which brings me to my overwhelming memory of the past 11 days.
The kindness of fellow humans
It started with a stranger giving us a bottle of fresh mineral water along the Meditteranean Sea near Sete. It continued with two couples making us a coffee at a campsite in Saint Gilles, seeing us struggling with our stove in the rain. A Danish couple also gave us chocolate! Chats about the Lake District with an English couple replenished our spirits. Playing with some Spanish Children in the town square. And then, there was the free glass of wine the Wine Bar owner bestowed upon us, after seeing the Gendarmarie move us on from sitting on the steps of the Church in the town centre. So many cheers from French people and road cyclists – ’Bonne Voyage!’ ‘Bonne Route’ and my favourite – ‘Bonne Courage!’. So many offers of help with directions, or just general cheerful and heart warming interest in our adventure. We’ve been powered by human kindness.
The kindness overflowed when we stayed with three Warmshowers hosts in Valence, Chateauneuf-sur-Isere and Voreppe. Warmshowers is a network of cycle tourers who host other cycle tourers – and we were lucky enough to meet three amazing sets of people. In Valence, we met a woman who regularly cycles 200km days and is entering a 1200km race! She let us pitch our tent in her garden, fed us, washed our clothes and we swam in her swimming pool! Our next host fed us raspberries from the garden, and we listened to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack from our comfy bed. Our last host let us stay very last minute and arranged it from London… and also washed our clothes! We had such an amazing time with each host, learnt a lot about French culture, had really interesting conversations, incredible food, lots of laughs, and shared stories of travel and cycle touring. These hosts saved us from the heat! We realise now, just two days of camping in the heat and Liam fell ill. Those nights of shelter allowed us to keep going.
On the last day of cycling, a French woman flagged us down to offer to fill our water bottles. And then, when Liam got sick, an amazing woman accepted our Couchsurfing request. I cannot imagine how she felt when she received a message saying ‘my partner has vomitting and diarrhoea, can we stay with you?’… but she accepted and even came to pick Liam and his bike up from our campsite. She also took most of my things, and I just had to cycle a light bike 10km to reach shelter. We’ve been resting in her home today and she said we can stay as long as we need for Liam to get better. Even though she has family staying from England right now, our ex-pat Mancunian hero Angie, offered us a place in her home. People, are just amazing.
That brings me to the next bit of amazing. Our Workaway hosts that we’ve been racing to get to, have been so understanding of Liam’s sickness. They said as long as we can make it to Geneva (40km away), they can pick us and the bikes up. I am just blown away!
When I think of everything we have achieved over the past 11 days, it makes my eyebrows raise a little. We’ve cycled nearly 1300km now, and the last 7 days have been particularly amazing. Up impeccable cycle tracks, along beautiful rivers, past castles, Chateaux, Nuclear power stations, wetlands, parklands, sunflower fields, apricot trees, vineyards, apple trees, cherry trees, walnut trees, beaches, historical market towns, churches and through forests. We’ve swam in rivers and picnicked anywhere with shade. We’ve mostly been on the Via Rhona, the track along the Rhone River to Switzerland. However, we’ve taken a few detours to make the route quicker.
The route is getting hillier and hillier, and we’ve had to push up a few of the hills due to the gradient! This is no easy feat – my legs are much stronger than my arms! Most of the hills we’ve managed though, in low gears, grinding on, with regular gasp breaks.
We’ve also gotten a little better at treating ourselves. We realised that our adventure had become a Cycle Tour of Suffering! So, we’ve managed to relax our budget a little, and stay in a few more campsites and have a few more bottles of wine. A particular favourite during the heatwave was buying a 2 Euro for 4 box of magnums and eating two each! We also love having strawberries and cream. We’ve absolutely needed to treat ourselves a bit in this weather!
So, we are due to start with our Workaway Host on the 2 July. However, we have to see how Liam recovers. We are a bit gutted not to finish our cycle adventure into Ogens – visions of triumphantly cycling over the Swiss border and arriving at our workaway host on bikes, have been shattered. However, problems are all part of the adventure. We remain upbeat, and feel blessed to be staying with the lovely Couchsurf host. We turned the disaster into part of the adventure. We will wait until Liam is well enough, then get a train to Geneva and be collected by our Workaway hosts, or get a train directly to them.
The verdict? What a bloody adventure we’ve had!! Cannot wait for the next few weeks… looking forward to being indoors and our Workaway Opportunity, but we will miss our bikes! So far our adventure has been everything we wanted it to be. The warmshowers, couchsurf and workaway experiences are making it for us a very exciting cultural cycle tour experience of human kindness, learning and exchange.