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  • Mark Smith

Soggy Gauntlet and Beyond

If nobody ever told you, it rains in Paris, and rains. And when it ain’t raining, it’s gray. Residents take this state of affairs as given, but even we were surprised this year, whose deep winter period has been trapped in a maelstrom both leaden and light starved.

If proof you need, then you may note: While Paris usually averages 62 hours of sunlight during the month of December, this year it got two. Yes, two hours of sunshine for the entire month. January was about the same, with weeks washed this way and that by rain sometimes sporadic and otherwise redundant to a grave degree. Floodwaters poured over the entire country, dominating the nightly news. The Seine swelled, swallowing the cobbled walkways favored by romance-seekers, and forcing péniche captains to bolster their moorings against the quickened currents.

The very idea of riding a bike in these conditions remained tightly abed, buried under the thickest feather blanket my mind could muster. Cold and gray is one thing. Cold, gray and wet is another.

I was not alone in my lethargy. Strava, which normally sends news of my followees’ outings with eye-rolling regularity, went silent but for the rare report of some masochistic nut case. The highlight in this vein came to me in a personal message from longtime bike pal Robert Grace, who actually completed Strava’s holiday “challenge” whereby one must cover 500 kilometers during the seven-day period separating Christmas from New Year’s Day. I remember that week, a meteorological car wash. Grace apparently grabbed his share of Strava glory on the Longchamp bike track in the Bois de Boulogne, the expansive park on Paris’s western flank. The track is 3km in length, which means that Robert had to circle it about 140 times to complete the “challenge.” Now there’s a bit of time well spent. Grace’s character grew two sizes that week, and we wary huddlers can do nothing but honor his humid effort.

I did get out a few times during the month of January, notably one steely Saturday morning when I was forced off my stomping ground by an invitation from old friends who live on the grounds of a large chateau 80 kilometers north of Paris. My wife would take the train, I the bike.

The swollen Seine overpoured its cobbled banks for a month this winter, thwarting would-be riverside seekers of romantic sentiment.

Le Château du Fayel, built in 1650, is kept in immaculate condition and rents out for weddings and receptions. The current Duc du Fayel, now 81 years old, lives in a single room on the third floor. His wife lives in her own chateau a few miles down the road. Why crowd yourselves if you don’t have to?

In 30 years of life here, never before had I ventured through Paris’s northern suburbs on two wheels. Vague knowledge of its dubious character and personal experience via the view from the train to Charles de Gaulle airport had always acted like a Star Trek force field, keeping me from entering the half-imagined wasteland.

A foreboding firmament crouched over all northern France that day, but the streets were dry—a boon. The inner city crossing unfolded smoothly, delivering me to the cobble-lined Canal de Saint Denis. But a city’s finances last only so long, and even before the cobbles ran out, 500 meters past the ring road, the dire immigrant camps began. Dozens of cheap tents pitched neatly cheek to jowl under a brand new footbridge, their owners milling around the scene like zombies. Not good.

Yet that scene soon became a shining standard when compared to the outer ‘burbs—places whose names I knew but the cold misery of which will remain opaque without a personal visit: La Courneuve, Stains (aptly named), Garges-lès-Gonesse, Sarcelles, and so on, all the way to Charles de Gaulle and beyond, a broken concrete, rusted barrel, shattered glass gypsy camp wilderness—no country for an old cyclist.

No self-respecting château can do without a few farm animals…to trim the lawn and imbue the grounds with a bucolic aura.

Still, this eternal winter of frigid inactivity got me thinking and ended with a plan. It occurred to me that I needed a partner to help peel me off the couch, and I needed an exotic itinerary to reawaken my lust for cycling life. I’d have settled for even a modest domestic adventure, but seem to have bargained instead for a more far-reaching odyssey—one that, when considered in detail, might even involve some danger.

It all started with a classified ad and a Danish woman named Ann. But more on that…next time.


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