Cycling in the Vercors

Or – how to succeed in the French Alps without really trying.

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So, my understanding is that the Vercors is part of the French Alps, but not the nasty pointy part, more the gentle but still spectacular part. We were based in St Jean en Royans, under the expert guidance of Teresa Harte and her husband, former pro cyclist Roger Dunne. They run a place called – wait for it – Velo Vercors. Teresa has written about the region for the website Freewheeling France here.

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So yes, we’ve now cycled the French Alps, where Le Tour sometimes goes and all that stuff, but we haven’t been gritting the teeth and telling our legs to shut up; really it seems more like we’ve had a lovely sightseeing tour and done some Cols with lots of oo-la-la French stuff thrown in  along the way.

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The nice thing about where we were based is that you can do a flat ride of 10-100km, or a hilly ride of 25-200km, climbing 500m or 3000m as the mood or conditions dictate. The roads are good, the motorists considerate, and the grades pretty gentle. It’s possible to stick to the valley floors if you don’t want to climb at all, or head into the mountains if you want to get serious.

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Coming from my home town town of Adelaide in South Australia, what struck me was just how consistent these climbs and descents were. One day we did a climb that was pretty much a nice 5-7% that went on and on for 20km. At home I’m used to pinches and sneaky false flats – this was far more a case of settling in to an easy rhythm and up you go. And a 20km descent – what’s that all about? I’ll take as many of those as I can get.

One bit of the trip was particularly spectacular – the descent of Col de Machine and Le Combe Laval – Europe’s largest gorge. They dig little tunnels into the side of the hills and at any moment you expect to see James Bond fanging through in an Aston Martin.

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It’s not just about the cycling of course – so much is to do with the French way of life. These hills have been settled for a long time, and the water long harnessed for agriculture and to power small mills. There are a lot of churches and abbeys.

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The food is excellent and cheap (by Australian standards). Maybe there is bad food somewhere in France, but we haven’t found it yet.   There is certainly no shortage of houses with French blue shutters and friendly dogs.

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les vélos qui sont Paris

I’ve been fascinated by the all the bikes here, the way people use them and how they interact while riding them. I’ve been peering at old bikes chained to fences and noticing the huge variety of riders as they whizz past; men in stylish suits, girls in floral dresses and sandals, parents with young children.  Last night it all came together – Margot and I were out walking, looking for a place to have dinner when I saw a flash of fluoro orange approaching. I grabbed a shot – it was a girl on an 1980s Colnago – and noticed that the light was now perfect. All the following images were made in the space of 45 minutes, within about 100 metres of each other.

A Visit to the Museum

The Gallery of Palaeontology at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris encapsulates all that I love about nineteenth century French architecture.

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First of all there’s the scale. There’s something special about French public buildings from this time. To my eye the scale is slightly exaggerated; they are a bit too big for we mortals. But it’s not an intimidating or belittling size like a skyscraper; it’s more as though by making the buildings a little too big the architects are encouraging us to grow to fit them; to be a bit better than we are.

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By the standards of construction of the time this one is quite modest (a certain Tour Eiffel was going up at around the same time). Like the Tower, this building uses a lot of steel and rivets. These materials showcased French mastery of the latest engineering techniques, but more practically they allow for large windows, huge spans and consequently lots of light and space.

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Part of what I love about riveted beams is that the mark of the maker is so much on them. Although they were the most advanced technique of the time I can’t see one without thinking of each rivet being hammered in to place by a human. There’s a lovely conversation I think, between the hand sculpting of the stone friezes around the outside of the building, the steel within, and the scientific endeavour the building celebrates.

Vietnam Days 12-15: Hanoi & Ha Long Bay

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Ha Long bay was an unexpected delight.  I’d seen photos of the karsts (the little limestone islands) before, but their extent – and the feeling of being within them – caught me by surprise.

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We travelled to the bay by bus from Hanoi, and the train trip up to Hanoi from Da Nang in  was a case of once is enough.

It was not too bad – we had the “foreigner soft sleeper”, a small cabin on the overnight train with four bunks. One might say the train was charmingly dilapidated, but that kind of charm wears off when applied to the toilets at the end of an overnight trip.

Hanoi was experiencing record temperatures when we entered it; 43 degrees and very humid, and our train was delayed when we hit a truck.

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We visited the Vietnam’s first university and the old French prison, which had been taken over by the Vietnamese and used to feed ice cream to captured GIs in the war.

Southerners had told us that Northerners were less friendly, and apt to scowl rather than smile (that is, once they had finished eating their dogs) but to me they seemed nice enough. We walked at night through the old city, and while it was mayhem, it felt safe and friendly, with lots of families and children on the streets. image

The paper next day said that the streets were deserted because of the heat; perhaps “a little less filled to bursting than usual” might have been more accurate.

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We knew it was the end of our trip, most of us felt a bit “Vietnamed-out” by this stage, and rather than hit the hot streets and dodge the scooters again were content to enjoy our air conditioned hotels and Vietnam-priced (cheap) cocktails for our last day.

While all of Vietnam had made an impression, it was the closeness we felt to the life in the small fishing and farming villages while riding through them on our bikes that made the strongest connection.

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Vietnam Days 8-10: Quy Nhon & Hoi An

“It’s not hot – it’s very very hot.”  This joke was first made by Tiet – our guide – in relation to chilli, but it applied equally to the weather.

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May seems to be the hottest month of the year; about 34 degrees and very humid while we rode, and quite ferocious in the direct sun. We travelled north up a beautiful coast, The mountains rising steeply to the west as we rode along coastal roads or though flat areas used for rice, prawns or salt farms.

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Hot dry weather was used for drying chilli rice and salt, in gardens and by the side of the road. At the end of our first day we stayed at Quy Nhon, in a hotel where three weddings had been scheduled for that day. Two were in progress, and the volume and tunelessness of the karaoke that accompanied them was remarkable.

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As we prepared to leave at dawn the next day, the beach was already being used by many swimmers, most of whom wore life vests.

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After a morning ride we visited the museum to the My Lai massacre of 1968, and did our  bit for world peace by being photographed with many smiling schoolchildren.

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Hoi An has a reputation for being more gentle than Nah Tran, and it does have a World Heritage market area, but to my eyes it is still a tourist trap – albeit a very nice one. The vendors are very polite in most instances.

It was interesting (even after another fearfully hot ride) to see the 1000 year old ruined temples of the Cham people at My Son. The Yanks did a good job of bombing it in 1968, but parts of the temples are still there to inspire.

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