By Fulton Armstrong • December 11, 2018
Adventure – with Support – at Every Turn
My brother and I did our first “unguided” bike tour in July – a weeklong ride from Paris to London (with a ferry ride across the English Channel) – and were delighted both by our sense of independence and the support the tour company gave us. Kevin and I had done a number of guided bike tours, and loved every one of them, but we yearned for the adventure of finding our own way each day. And we got it.
Other riders were doing the same route on the same days as we, but – because we weren’t riding together behind one guide – we were a very loosely knit group. During our orientation meeting on a beautiful Paris morning, we assembled alongside our bicycles, and the tour company rep gave us neat packets of maps, directions, and tourist information that would get us from our departure hotel to our destination hotel each day. Our official starting point on this first day was Notre Dame Cathedral, from which we headed out of town – passing by the Eiffel Tower, Trocadéro, and Arc de Triomphe, and launching into the great parks of northwestern Paris
The high quality of the information packet didn’t mean that we wouldn’t miss turns from time to time, but it did mean that getting lost would be our own fault. Kevin and I agreed that we’d bicker over the directions, as good brothers must, but never blame each other for mistakes.
Early on, however, we teamed up with four extraordinary riders – extraordinarily skilled and extraordinarily kind – for this adventure. They were two couples, from Italy and New Zealand. We stuck together for almost all of the six days of riding. Others in our loosely knit group of 20-something riders went in groups of two, three, or four. They’d pass us; we’d pass them; and we’d even hear them debating which way to go. But we always saw each other at the destination hotel or at breakfast the next morning. No one ever got lost despite the distances, the hills, and the street crossings.
Our team of six was brilliant, applying wisdom, technology, and a large dose of wit to the task of following the route. My and Fred’s job was to read the written directions. Mela’s was to read the maps. Shirley’s was to look for the little orange arrows the tour operator put on some posts at some intersections. When there was any dispute among us (and even when there wasn’t), Benny – armed with his GPS mobile phone showing a previous group’s route – would be the arbiter. (My brother Kevin’s job was to say “yes” to whatever we all decided.) We all made little mistakes, but we made it to each destination – and we had a blast. We laughed a lot.
Mela and Benny had additional responsibilities as our official scouts. They were strong riders who volunteered to run ahead in search of landmarks or intersections, while the rest of us caught our breath or drank water. Also importantly, they’d do reconnaissance on good places to eat and rest. When we couldn’t find a nice place for a sit-down lunch, we buy snacks and find a shady park in which to enjoy them.
The joys of riding through northwestern France – from Paris to the ferry at Dieppe – and from southern England to London were numerous. We were following the “Greenway,” or the Avenue Verte in French, a collection of trails linked by one great vision of linking two great world capitals. Most of the trails were excellent, and some were awesome, shaded tunnels through woodlands full of fresh air. On a couple occasions, we carried our bikes onto trains to avoid roads with particularly heavy traffic, like around Gatwick Airport in England.
We shared country roads with motorized
vehicles on some parts of the ride, but our
experience was that drivers – perhaps
because of signs like this – were respectful
and safe around us.
Reading maps, reading directions,
reading roadsigns ... it was all in a good
day’s riding. As you can see, it was real
All languages are beautiful, but I think the French greeting – a singing “Bonjour!” with an extended “oooooo” sound – wins the prize as warmest welcome on this trip. Maybe it was because seeing six laughing cyclists was the highlight of their day, but I think the French were giving us a greeting that was genuine, as if expressing appreciation for the honor we were paying them by enjoying their beautiful countryside and small villages. We would, of course, sing “Bonjour” back.
On this unguided ride, we were, really and truly, on our own for most of each day. Our support guy, who followed our route in a van and on most nights stayed in the same hotels as we, would get us off in the morning and meet us at the next hotel. We pedaled at our own pace; stopped wherever we wanted; and gave ourselves time to enjoy treats along the way.
But we were comforted to know that there was a safety net there to assist us in case our “self-guiding” led us too far astray or we had a mechanical problem or health issue. One rider among us (whose name shall be protected by the riders’ code of silence) needed a pickup at mid-day on a day that he wasn’t feeling well. We sent a text to the support guy, and our fellow rider was comfortably in the van on his way to our destination within 30 minutes. He had cold drinks ready for us at the hotel. Our ride was well supported.
For Kevin and me, one of the thrills of group rides is always meeting new people. Before the trip, I was wondering how it would work without a unifying force – a guide – to bring us together. What I learned from this experience is that relationships can have more spontaneous flair without a guide; they’re based on interests and, at least in our case, a shared sense of humor. We quickly discovered we were attracted to the same vistas and curiosities seen only by walkers and pedalers. We laughed at the same jokes.
Cycling, fresh air, and exploration – debating the six different ways of navigating a route – opened us up to other common areas. I learned loads about Italy and New Zealand, and I hope I gave my new friends some interesting perspectives on life in the United States even though they’ve visited before. We Americans joked about riding on the “wrong” side of the street in Britain, and our Kiwi friends reminded us that the opposite of “right” is “left.” Our Italian friends spoke amazing English.
The others in our larger group were delightful as well. A Swiss guy teased me about getting acrid smoke in his eyes – from my brakes – as he rode behind me on a massive downhill run. (I’m too scared to go down full-throttle.) I learned about sports in extreme cold from a Finnish couple. An Italian doctor and his wife provided excellent aid when one of us had a spill. A Swiss mother-son team brought incredible humor to every conversation. You can learn about the whole world on a bicycle, I guess.
Along the way, of course, we also met fascinating French and English people. On one occasion, when we were out of water after climbing some pretty awesome hills in southern England, a woman tending to her garden, seeing our sweaty state, offered us a drink. We handed over our water bottles with glee, and she returned them to us full of delicious cool water from her home’s artesian well. Showing the map to an English friend later, I was told that her neighborhood is the home to some of the country’s rich and powerful. They may be “posh,” I thought, but their kindness was palpable.
Riding between two great capitals – Paris and London – amid times during which international events tend to intrude into our lives, we felt nothing but peace and teamwork in our little group of cyclists. That’s why cycling tours are so darned good for us.
Want to see more bike tours in England?
(Click to enlarge)