Nice, France to Imperial, Italy (53.42 miles, 5 hours 29 minutes moving)

I slept poorly last night, with roommates drunkenly and loudly coming home at 3 a.m. and more at 5:45 a.m.  Back in my college days in the cold-air dorms, I would have slept right through the racket, but the last four years have robbed me of that ability, and this only added one more reason for me to hit the road for a nice campsite in Italy.  I’ve decided that I truly prefer sleeping in my tent to staying in hostels, which is a surprise, even to me.

Sure, the hostels usually have a free wifi internet connection and plenty of comfy seats near electrical sockets to recharge my bag of gadgets and the only young English-speaking people that I’ve met on the trip, but the price difference, the sleep interruptions, and the extra difficulty of lugging my collection of gear up flights of stairs makes it more of a hassle than biking into a campsite, setting up my tent and transferring gear directly inside. And I think both experiences (the hostel and campsite) would be more enjoyable if I had a traveling partner, but I guess we have to play the cards we’ve been dealt.

During breakfast, I got a facebook message to let me know that my medical school class had just won first place in the musical/variety show competition that takes place between classes every spring. The previous three years I had taken a large roll in the planning/writing/acting and my heart wished to be back in Iowa City to celebrate a job well done with my deeply talented classmates. The pull and allure of home has often been on my mind over the past few weeks, and I have been struggling to justify my needs, wants, and experiences to make this endeavor worth missing so much of the little time I have left in Iowa City with my friends.

Leaving the city was quite exciting, as they were holding the Nice half-marathon along the same street I had biked into town on the prior day. The chaos of loud music, French announcers, and thousands of fit (and not-so-fit) athletes was something to behold. After reaching the end of the race route, I began the climb out of the city towards Monaco.  It was a long and hard climb, jumping 1200 feet over the course of almost six miles, but the views of Nice and the coast as I ascended made it totally worth it. I climbed for an hour and fifteen minutes straight, before reaching the top.

Perfect cove
Perfect cove

There were more ascents and descents to come though and finally I passed into Monaco. I didn’t really have expectations, but the city looked nearly identical to so many other cities along the coast, although the yahts in the marina were clearly larger and more ostentatious.

I continued on without stopping at the Monte Carlo casino, and soon passed into Italy (which did have a sign at the border, but it was nothing special and I almost missed it). The countryside instantly had a more italian look to it as the rocks and cliffs of the French coast were replaced by more brush and vegetation, and I started to be able to understand more of the signs and advertisements along the side of the road, thanks to some similarities between Spanish and Italian.

These quick country changes have been playing a number on my brain though as I struggle to remember which language’s words to try and use. Five countries with as many languages has seen me responding in Spanish to questions posed in French, and I finally resorted to an amalgamation that uses them all in hopes that one will be right, this afternoon at the grocery store. To the cashier: “Hi, bom dia, buenos dias, bonjour, buon giorno.” Upon receiving my change: “Thanks, obrigado, gracias, merci, grazie.” How confusing!

Although all of the climbing today (7105 feet!) made it feel like one of the longest days of the trip, I somehow managed to reach the campsite by 6:00 p.m. and had my tent up shortly thereafter. I found a bar that filled my grocery bag with some ice for the Pepsi Light that I had bought earlier and enjoyed the usual staples for supper before retreating to the campsite’s bathroom (again) for some writing and battery recharging.  The campsite was quiet and not a single person disturbed me before it was time for bed!

Les Adrets de-‘Estérel to Nice (36 miles, 3 hours 30 minutes moving)

What a beautiful day for bicycling! I woke up before my alarm could go off (as seems to be happening with increasing frequency). There was a nice downhill from the campsite, which I hoped would take me all of the way to to coastal road that leads to Cannes and Nice, but of course, that would have been much too easy. I hit the bottom only to have to climb for a mile and then burn away that hard-earned altitude on another quick descent. Lather, rinse, repeat. When I finally reached the coast, I was greeted by the rich aqua-marine hues of the ocean, waves gently lapping at the rocky shore. The towns seemed to bleed one into the next with little separation. Most of the time, I’d see a sign signifying the end of one town’s city limits right next to another proclaiming the new.

There were a few bicycle paths along the route, but nothing on the scale of the trail leading into and out of Hyéres. Cannes, with its sandy beaches and haute coastal shopping district, was about what I had imagined it would be. I decided that, true to Cannes international film festival fame, I should look the part as I cycled through town, so I attached my tripod to the rear of my bicycle and placed my video camera  with wide-angle lens in a position that would give a somewhat “third-person” view of my cycling through town and along the boardwalk. I stopped for lunch at a beach overlook and was mesmerized by the ocean and people’s beach activities as I enjoyed my usual cheese, bread, yogurt, banana, and candybars. Even though I was only cycling about 35 miles, I didn’t seem to have the will-power to limit myself to just one candy bar for dessert, and I’m hoping that lack of will-power was coming from my brain, screaming to my body that we needed more calories.

The beach at Cannes.
The beach at Cannes.

In Cannes, I stopped at a major electronics retailer and looked longingly at new GPS units.  Although I could get a brand-new Garmin Nuvi with four or eight hour battery life from 99-139 euros, I couldn’t justify pulling the trigger on the purchase, since I have been surviving by modifying my usage of my old model (only turning it on a few times per day to verify that I’m on the right route or taking the right turn).

I was taking my time, enjoying the sights along the coastal road, knowing that even with a few detours, it shouldn’t be too hard to arrive in Nice by four or five o’clock.  As I was coming into Nice, I hopped onto their great bicycle path leading along the boardwalk, paralleling the Rue de Anglaise and noticed an inline skater in my rear mirror. He was tucked up inside my enormous draft and looked like he was barely expending any effort to keep up with me. I picked up speed. Twelve miles per hour, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen! With each increase in speed, the skater stayed right on my tail without breaking a sweat. He kept up the pace for mile or so, and by this time, incredulously, I turned around and flashed him a thumbs-up sign to show that I approved of his super-human inline-skating prowess.  Shortly thereafter, we started to hit some heavier pedestrian traffic along the path, and he expertly weaved in and out of the open spaces, fluidly slaloming through the living collective mass of the crowd.

The grey-pebbled beaches of Nice.

The grey-pebbled beaches of Nice.

I headed north through the city, towards my chosen hostel, the Villa St. Exupery, for which I had picked up a pamphlet while at the hostel in Barcelona.  I was hoping that they would have a bed available despite it being a Saturday night. Along the way, I passed so many delicious smelling restaurants and each one struck a new craving in my mind and stomach. Mediterranean, Chinese, BBQ! Everything sounded good and I looked forward to checking out what was on offer after checking into the hostel. The road up to the hostel had a considerable incline, and the last half mile was so steep that I had to dismount my bike and start pushing, which is the first time that has happened since starting the trip.  And it was located so far north that all of the restaurants I had passed on the way were more than easy walking distance.  The hostel had a waiting list of at least five or six people when I showed up, and the English girl working there suggested that I stick around for a while and they would see what they could do. Although it looked like a great place to stay, I didn’t want to waste too much time and miss out on other open lodging elsewhere in the city, so I downloaded the HostelWorld listings for Nice using my iPhone and the hostel’s wifi and just as I was starting to entertain ideas of heading back into town to check on availability of another three hostels I picked out, the English girl came and told me that she’d found an open bed for the night! Relieved, I checked in, paid my 24 euros (which would have been 16 euros had I had a reservation or arrived earlier in the day), and started lugging my bags up two flights of stairs to my room. Another American from Michigan offered to help carry my front panniers as I was dropping them on the steps, and I found out that he had been in the Lamda Chi Alpha fraternity and had bicycled 4000 miles across the United States a few years ago, so he always enjoys meeting other cyclists! After getting settled, I took a nice hot shower to try and at least have some semblance of cleanliness about myself now that I had re-entered civilization.

The common room of the hostel was huge! Two stories with computers lining the walls, a bar, and plenty of dinner tables. The menu that night included pizza or a hamburger and fries for only 5.50 euros, which is a veritable bargain compared to the costs at all restaurants I’ve seen, but my wallet still stinging from the cost of a bed, I opted to dine on the bread and cheese which I had already purchased earlier in the day.  I had originally planned to stay two days in Nice, but changed my mind after realizing that two nights in the hostel would pay for four nights of camping, and I didn’t really have any specific attractions in Nice that I was dying to explore. My mood was further depressed at the realization that I had lost my LED penlight probably when I slept on the bench outside the campsite in Hyéres, and that my GPS-data-logger, that I have been using to keep track of my route for geo-tagging photographs, died from low batteries only one hour into the day, leaving me without data from much of the ride to Nice.  I resolved to set off for Monaco and then Italy in the morning and begin the last phase of my trip.


Hyéres to Les Adrets de-‘Estérel (66.83 miles, 6 hours 49 minutes moving)

The ride today began with a dry rain that lasted six hours, or the first 42 miles of biking. I say dry, because although it felt like tiny rain-drops were pelting me all over, they were actually little black bugs that looked a little like elongated flies. But unlike flies, once you ran into them, they would basically stick right where they landed. They were so slow-moving that if you swatted or flicked at them, they didn’t take flight, but instead kind of rolled across your clothing, ready to stick if your efforts were inadequate. It became a constant exercise of bicycling for a few minutes and then trying not to crash my bike while I swept a new set of parasites off my clothing. Thank goodness I was wearing long sleeves and long pants, because having them crawling on my bare arms or up my pants-legs would have driven me crazy.

The worst part about this arrangement was that swatting or sweeping the bugs too voraciously would squash them, squirting little red blood-stains all across my freshly laundered stone-colored adventure pants. Actually, now that I think about it, the bloody battle-scars were the second-worst thing. The worst was the constant effort and concentration to breathe through my nose that these bugs made a requirement. Too many times, breathing hard after cresting a hill, I found myself with a bug right in my mouth, and if each bug contained one calorie of energy, I estimate I received about 1% of my daily (non-cycling) caloric needs. They were not particularly tasty though, and I could recommend a million better avenues to reach daily caloric goals.

Most of the route from Hyéres to Ste. Maxime could be traveled on a nice network of two-lane paved bicycle paths, but I quickly realized that the regular road had fewer little bugs, and often traveled closer to the coast, with its beautiful blue-green waters lapping on rocky, pebbled beaches. Rounding a corner at one point, I nearly crashed my bike at the sight of a topless sunbather right on the public beach. It’s not that I disapprove– it was just a surprise! On that same topic, after three-and-a-half weeks of spending nearly all day in the sun, my sunscreen and long-pants/long-sleeves routine has kept me from receiving a single sunburn, and my face and hands are only slightly more tan than when I started. I won’t be coming back to the United States with the ultimate-tan you’d expect of a bicycle tourer, but I also hopefully won’t be getting prematurely aged with the skin cancer “down the road” to go with it. I guess all of those lectures in medical school and the patients I saw on my dermatology rotation actually sank in.

Coastal View
Coastal View

One of the roads had the scariest gutter for a bicyclist so I decided to stop and take a photo of it, and almost dropped my bike down into it twice in the process. It’s a gutter about eight inches wide and eighteen inches deep, and if you became off balance and accidentally rode a bicycle off the edge, it would surely result in a minor disaster!

Gutter of Death
Gutter of Death

I was thinking about running marathons and bicycle touring today, because my sister, Joy, will be running the Boston Marathon on Monday, and I realized that, for me at least, there’s a parallel concept to the “20th mile” in marathoning. Marathoners talk about how after the 20th mile of running, those last 6.2 miles are often the biggest struggle as muscles start to get tired, energy reserves fail, and fatigue sets in. For me, this translates into the “50th mile phenomenon”, whereby the first fifty miles of each day are generally pretty tolerable, barring problems with the weather such as rain or wind, or large hills/mountains requiring constant climbing. But after 50 miles, i find myself wanting to take more drink, food, and photo breaks, my butt getting sore more quickly after those breaks, and my general ability to keep a nice high cadence while pushing the pedals begins to diminish.

This concept was especially notable today because at about mile 54, I began a 7-mile long climb that brought me from just above sea-level to 311 meters on a winding mountain road. Each time I rounded another corner, I kept hoping to see the final crest, but instead the road would be visible far-ahead, winding its way up and over the mountain. I did have a number of oncoming cars give me some excited beeps and honks with thumbs-up signs, which temporarily helped my spirits and gave me a few more watts of power.

Trophy photo at the top
Trophy photo at the top

Finally, I reached the top of the climb, posed my bike for a photo, and began the gradual for mile descent to my chosen campsite for the night, Les Philippons. I arrived once again just as the golden orb of the sun dipped behind the mountain I had just crossed (funny how that always seems to happen) and chatted with my tent-neighbor, the husband in a retired couple from Holland who runs orienteering races, while I put up my tent.

Special thanks today goes out to Bill and Lindy Good, who made a donation to ALS through my Iron Phi fundraising drive. Also, I’m appreciative of the man at camping reception who made me a new photo-copy of my passport, as my original photo-copy from the start of the trip has almost become unrecognizable after so many days in my pocket, and to the campsite restaurant, which gave me a free sack of ice cubes that I used to enjoy a few glasses of my previously purchased Pepsi Max, during my supper.

Tomorrow it’s a short ride to Cannes, where the famous international film festival takes place each May, and then to Nice, where I’ll spend an extra day gearing up and recuperating for the end of my trip as I head down the coast of Italy to Rome. I can’t believe how quickly these weeks have been going by, and I am sad that my days here are numbered, despite also being a little anxious to be home.

Although I have been working on this idea almost since dreaming up the plan for this Europe bicycle adventure, I didn’t have time to finish putting everything in place until today’s rest day in Hyéres, France (and didn’t want to fail the charity if my heart/body/mind weren’t up to the rigors of the ride), so I had delayed the announcement.

After already having become an Ironman triathlete, this year I’m taking the next step, which will result in personal growth and discovery, while also aligning with my professional goals of helping people throuh my new career in medicine. I’ll be attempting to become an Iron Phi – a distinction given to a small percentage of members within my Fraternity. The mission of Iron Phi is to strengthen the Phi Delta Theta International Fraternity and the impact it has on the fight against Lou Gehrig’s disease through the fundraising and athletic efforts of its members.

Lou Gehrig was a member of Phi Delta Theta, and our organization has taken an active role in finding a cure. The net proceeds will support ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) research, education, screening and treatment. It will also help strengthen an organization (Phi Delta Theta) that has had a lasting impact on my life.

According to The ALS Association’s web site, approximately 5,600 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year. It is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. This cause hits especially close to home for me, because my grandfather, Thomas Carroll M.D., a loving family man, devoted physician and icon of volunteerism in his community, succumbed to a disease similar (but not the same) to ALS in the spring of 2002. That’s why I’m becoming an Iron Phi. To do something bold about Lou Gehrig’s disease.

As you have been reading, I’m taking an unsupported and self-financed bicycle tour covering approximately 1500 miles along the coasts of Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy. This difficult journey is a celebration of human-powered feats in support of a disease which robs its unlucky recipients of their bodies before their minds.

I’ve set my personal goal at $1000, but I would be ecstatic to raise one dollar for every mile that I bicycle. So I need your help. Would you please consider making a donation of $5, $10, or even $50? You can make a donation on this page by clicking on the “Make a Gift” link below the thermometer (the money will go directly to ALS, and none of it will go towards costs of my trip). You can also send a check to Iron Phi to me at my parent’s house (email me for the address) if you’d rather donate that way.

I hope that you’ll share this incredible adventure with me – by supporting me in my fundraising efforts and following my progress on this blog. Thank you in advance for your generosity!

Respectfully,
Nate Carroll

And as for the rest of my rest day… A little after 10:00 a.m. I stopped working/recharging in the bathroom and presented myself at reception to check in. They told me I could put up my tent anywhere, and I put it up in roughly the same location which I had kindly pleaded the security guard the night before to let me use. Oh well, it’s the campsite’s loss, since now they’d only be getting my money for one night of camping instead of two. It’s amazing how quickly a rest day can be eaten up with laundry, posting blog entries, reading about and mapping my future destinations, and eating. Surveying the other patrons of the campsite, I surmised that there must be really great windsurfing around Hyéres, because about 25% of the inhabitants of the campsite were living out of RVs and vans with windsurfing club/company/school logos, and their sails and boards were strewn across the grass near each van.

I found myself dozing off in the afternoon while trying to read one of my guidebooks (must be the four hours of sleep the previous night) and was close to taking a nap, but I resolved to call it a night a little earlier instead, in the interests of getting things done. In the early evening, I headed out for a walk, and ended up getting a “pizza americaine” with cheese and chopped beef. The large was only two euros more than the small, and I ended up with way too much pizza that I somehow managed to eat, justifying it by reminding myself that I planned another long day on the bike the next day and the beef was some of the only meat I had gotten so far on the trip.

Aix-en-Provence to Hyéres (79.94 miles, 8 hours 34 minutes moving)

Today was a long and difficult day. Almost immediately I found myself climbing through mountains that I wasn’t expecting (look at the map, Nate!). It was a constant grind punctuated by adrenaline-inducing downhills. I had to stop a few times mid-way up a few of the passes just to take a short break for a candy-bar, a yogurt, a banana, or a water break, and on a few of the downhills I decided to take video footage. By 3:00 p.m., three hours after I had started riding, I had only covered 25 miles. If I had gotten off easy when crossing the Pyrenees, today was my penance. By 5:00 p.m., I had increased that distance to 40 miles and I passed a campsite that I had previously researched as a potential stopping point. I briefly entertained the idea of calling it a day, but I felt hopeful that another two and a half or three hours of riding would get me all the way to Hyéres before sunset.

It took me longer to navigate through the Six-Fours-Les-Plages region than I expected, with a few wrong turns, and by this time the sun was low in the sky. I still had about 20 miles to go to Hyéres and decided that I should play it safe and get a campsite where I was. My GPS gave me three options. I saw road signs pointing towards “Camping Saint Jean” and “Orly de Azur” and followed the arrow pointing towards “St. Jean”. The GPS guided me to a spot where there clearly was no campsite, although at that location there was a camping sign and arrow, which I started to follow up a very steep hill. I cranked away at 4mph through block after block of residential zone, not seeing anything that resembled the campsite, or any more signs for it. Thinking that I might have mis-read the arrow on the sign, I retraced my path, double-checked, and again rode up the hill. By now, the sun had set, and I decided to give up on St. Jean and search for “Orly”, which wasn’t in my GPS. I actually managed to find it pretty easily, but reception was closed, and the bathrooms were locked, and although there were people staying there, they all seemed to be in little bungalows, with no clearly marked areas for tents. Now, I really had a problem. I had wasted the last hour of sunlight on these campsites that either didn’t exist or were closed.

All I could do was continue on towards Hyéres. As I passed through Toulon, a medium-sized city, I saw a McDonald’s and decided to use their wifi to see if there were any hostels in the town. There was one at a price I could afford, but the online listing said check-in closed at 9 p.m., and by now it was almost 10 p.m. I set off again. It was difficult to navigate out of Toulon, but I finally found myself on the D559, which for the last 10 miles to Hyéres, had a parallel two-lane bike path! I was very thankful for this development, because it meant I would be even more protected from the few cars that were still driving out and about.

At just after midnight, after almost 80 miles of riding and eight and a half hours in the saddle, I pulled up to the gate at *** a cold, tired, exhausted mess. The two security gentlemen at the gate, who only spoke a little English, told me the campsite was closed for the night and that they couldn’t reopen it until 7:00 a.m. the next day. I asked if I could just set up my tent on the grass inside the gate and pay them now or in the morning, but they said it was against the rules. They suggested I head back down the road about a kilometer to another large campsite to see if they were open. I reluctantly turned around and biked back down the bike lane to the place they had suggested, but its gates were locked as well and there was no one in sight.

With nowhere else to go and nothing else I could do, I headed back to the first campsite and leaned my bicycle up against the wall to wait for morning when I could check in. I ate some more food and got out extra jackets and gloves, because the temperature was a chilly 45°F. After about 15 minutes, one of the security guards came out and suggested that I set up my tent behind a shed in this adjacent lot, and he would come wake me up at 6:00 a.m. I was reluctant to spend all of the time unloading and setting up my tent only to have to pack it all back up and move it again in the morning, especially if I was in a place where I might be “discovered” and asked to quickly vacate. I took my bike behind the shed and locked it to a tree though, and sat dozing in a plastic lawn chair that I found from 1:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. at which time my feet were really starting to be cold. I decided to inflate my sleeping pad on a nearby bench and get out my sleeping bag.

The sky was clear with no sign of rain, and I dozed lightly under the vast starlit sky until my alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. The security guard never came to wake me, but the gates to the campground were open at 7:00 a.m. as the sign had said. When I wheeled my bike up to reception though, I found out that reception didn’t open until 9:00 a.m., giving me two hours to find the bathrooms and a power-outlet so I could at least catch up on writing and the endless chore of recharging batteries.

St. Martin de Crau to Aix-en-Provence (36.98 miles, 3 hours 26 minutes moving)

This morning, when I woke up, the sky was clear, without a cloud and the sun was working hard to dry off my tent! In addition to my usual morning routine, I spent some extra time using a rag to scrub off the extra mud and grime that had accumulated on my bike in the wet weather the day before. Upon close inspection, I noticed that my rear tire was starting to look pretty worn, with a portion of the tire sidewall starting to wear away from the bead.  I made a mental note to keep an eye on this and loaded my bike for the day’s ride.

The road south out of St. Martin de Crau was sparsely travelled, but narrow in portions, and the surface was not the smooth blacktop or nicely packed chip-seal that allows the bike to effortlessly glide between destinations, but instead was pebbled, like a rough sandpaper, causing the tires to make a hum as I cranked away at the pedals. I passed through more French farmland, vineyards, and most of the ride was a gradual uphill, from 90 feet above sea-level when I started, to 1000 feet above sea-level after 30 miles of riding, and this, coupled with the rough road seemed to sap all of my speed.  I had originally planned on making it to a campsite near Six-Fours-Les-Plages, which was about a 65 mile trip, but I wasn’t making nearly the headway needed to get there before dark.

I stopped at a grocery store to re-stock my supplies, and found out that I could purchase a box of four Magnum ice cream bars for the price of one bar at a gas station, and they had flavors that I had never even seen before!  I had no way to store and keep them, but I hadn’t had one since almost a week earlier in Spain, and I just had to try the new Honey-nougat flavor. In the parking lot outside the store, I ate three of them,  over 900 calories of delicious energy, and only felt a little bit guilty. I stuffed the remaining one into my insulated cooler for later in the day.

Back on the road and back on the gradual incline, I was passed by a peloton– no, more like a large “breakaway” group of about 10 bicyclists on road bikes, and I sprinted to catch up to them, hoping to be able to get a few miles of speedy drafting. My speed jumped from twelve to seventeen, eighteen, nineteen miles per hour and I started to make the catch, but the incline was too steep, my legs were too tired, and the group’s pace was too fast for me to hang on, and I dropped off the back before even getting enough of a free ride to make my sprint anything but a waste of energy. When I finally reached the gradual downhill a few miles later, my legs were definitely ready for a rest. I could see a large rainstorm to the Northeast and I picked up my pace, with the hope that I could reach a campsite and get my tent set up again before any more weather came my way.

While speeding down the hill, I heard a sudden “pop” and the instantaneous “whoosh” of all of the air in my rear tire escaping at a rate I’ve never experienced. I quickly slowed the bike to a stop and walked it across the road to the driveway of a vineyard to survey the damage. I had to unpack and remove all of the gear from my rear rack to be able to remove the rear wheel and repair the tire.  The problem areas I had noted on the tire earlier in the morning were still intact, so I removed the tire and began to inspect the tube.  The tube had a hole in it almost as large as a pencil eraser, but running my finger inside the tire and around the rim revealed no specific source. I decided the hole was probably too large to safely patch, so I retrieved a spare tube from my repair kit, and started the replacement process. It’s not too difficult a task if you know what you are doing, and as I have had to change/replace many tubes over the past few years, I made quick work of it. But then I inspected the rear tire again and decided that I should probably use this opportunity to put on the spare tire that I had been dutifully lugging around for the past three weeks. I would probably have to do it soon anyway, and when it became necessary, I’d also probably have another flat tire situation on hand. Better to do it now, than to possibly waste another tube and have to unload my bike on the side of the road again, especially (as my luck would have it) since this fast-approaching future flat would probably take place in the middle of a rainstorm or other inopportune moment.

The storm I chased...

The storm I chased...

It took me about thirty minutes to unload, repair and reload my bike, and as a reward for a job well done, I decided to have my final Magnum bar. It was melting and dripping all over the ground, and I’m not sure how much of the ice cream I got, but the chocolate outside covering was delicious.

At about 4:30 p.m., I rode into the town of Aix-en-Provence, and while this was not my planned stopping point for the day, I had decided I was done riding and wanted to be tucked in before dark.  Seeing a sign for the Arc du Ciel campsite, I found myself at a nice little facility with a small river running right through the middle. It was ten euros for the night and the place even had free wifi!  The girl at reception asked me if two hours would be enough, but with 7 hours before bed, I managed to talk her into giving me five. I enjoyed a relaxing evening, knowing that the next day’s planned 65 mile ride would require a good night’s sleep.


Aimargues to St. Martin de Crau (62.79 miles, 6 hours 2 minutes moving)

Today I became a “real” cycle-tourer. It was absolutely pouring this morning when I started to get moving at about 8 a.m. I lay in my sleeping back for a while pondering what to do with the day.  Do I pack everything on the bike and set off, knowing that taking the tent down is going to completely soak it? I had spent good money on waterproof panniers and cycling gear, but the idea of spending the day in the pouring rain was still not appetizing at all. But when you have limited time to cover the distance to Rome, even a partial day of riding would put me closer. And it has been hard for me not to be in the mindset that if I’m going to pay for a night of lodging/camping, I better have accomplished at least some mileage towards my goal. I showered and sat in my tent trying to decide. Go or stay? What if I stayed and the weather was even worse tomorrow? Would I then be compelled to brave the storm because I would be too restless waiting another day? At least if I chose to bicycle today, I’d feel justified in taking a rest day tomorrow if the weather was worse.

I decided I might as well put my rain gear to good use. I managed to take down my tent while leaving the rain fly standing to minimize tent wetness, but then in a moment of stupidity, I put the dry tent and the wet rainfly in the same sack when I got everything disassembled. Oops! At least I’ve figured out the process.  I strapped my tent-footprint tarp over the top of everything on my panniers to provide another rain shield, since my messenger bag wrapped in a garbage sack isn’t actually waterproof. When I went to the front office to pay, I think the guy in charge took pity on me at the fact that I was going to be biking today (and tomorrow he said, if the forecast held true) and he only charged me 7 euros for the previous night.

Within 200 meters of starting the ride, it became very clear that my Pearl Izumi “Barrier Lite” rubber shoe covers are NOT waterproof despite a design that would suggest so.  My socks were already completely soaked in freezing cold water, and I could tell that it was going to be a trying day. After about a mile or two, I passed two other cyclists with panniers and rain gear and flipped them the thumbs-up sign, as a show of support and solidarity for the “real” bicycle tourers who wouldn’t let the rain keep them from reaching their next destination.  But with the weather, I don’t think either of us were keen on stopping to chat about the usual “Where are you coming from and where are you going? Where are you from? How are the roads ahead?” questions, so we soldiered on in our separate directions.

There’s an interesting phenomenon on the French roads during the rain.  Back in Iowa when it rains, you find yourself dodging (or crushing) hundreds to thousands of earthworms. But in France, I saw a total of one earthworm.  That’s not to say there was nothing on the road for me to dodge.  There were thousands of snails! Some as small as a pencil eraser, but the large ones were about the size of a cherry tomato, and they made about the same kind of squirt if, in a moment of inattention, you accidentally ran one over.  I had never really examined a live snail before, so on one of my water breaks I first watched how smoothly it oozed across the road surface and then picked one (of the cherry tomato sized ones!) up by the shell. The body instantly began to deflate like a slow leak in a tire and the little pedunculated stalks on the head-portion retracted right into the body. Crazy!

It rained on and off for about two hours, though I was dry except for my feet, which were freezing.  I’m a fan of Smart-wool socks, which are supposed to keep their warmth-retaining properties even when wet, but they didn’t seem to be working today. At around 6 p.m. I made a turn south and started humming along, excited in the knowledge that I only had about an hour more to ride before reaching the campsite. I had only been turning on my GPS periodically throughout the day to save battery life, since it was too dark and cloudy for the solar panel to work, and somehow (I really don’t know) the GPS had begun routing me not to my chosen campsite but I didn’t realize until I had bicycled 6 miles in the wrong direction.

A quick re-route showed me to still have 15 miles to go to the original campsite or I could backtrack to the nearest campsite which was about 9 miles away. Remembering the ordeal that ensued last time I had eschewed back-tracking, I decided I would try and be smart this time. But after I rode the extra 9 miles, I arrived at a campsite that was closed. By now my GPS was getting dangerously low on battery but I found another campsite in St. Martin de Grau, a town that I had ridden through two hours earlier, but which was going to be another 8 mile ride.  For some reason, my GPS then routed me to a river and not the campsite and then died.  The sun had set by this time and I was feeling pretty beaten down. Cold, wet feet. Unsure of exactly where the campsite was.  I started glancing at the open fields along the back roads I was riding along, wondering if I should just “stealth camp” for the night, but I pushed that idea to the back of my mind, only to be used if I was unsuccessful at finding the site in the next hour.

I rode a few miles with the GPS plugged into my external battery, hoping that I could get it charged up enough to at least give me a direction and distance to my last chance  campsite, and thankfully enough, it did.  When I rolled up to the campsite’s restaurant/bar, there was a guy from Portos, Portugal having a smoke outside, and he was able to point me inside to the employee who spoke English.  They looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for a spot to set up my tent, because the ground was so wet outside from the rain earlier.  I replied back “So’s my tent!” They charged me 11 euros, and while in there, I met a group of guys (from Holland, Portugal, England) who were in town building greenhouses.  They offered to buy me a drink, but I declined (and felt badly about doing so) because I just needed to get my tent set up and my socks changed.  After getting things situated, I headed back to the bar where Geoffrey from Holland bought me a beer and we had a good chat before calling it a night. When I got out my laptop to charge it in the bathroom (one of the places where I can almost always find a power outlet) I noticed that there was a free wifi network and was able to get a few things done online since I hadn’t had time to stop at a McDonald’s earlier in the day.

When I returned to my tent, it was absolutely freezing. My little thermometer had broken so I couldn’t get an actual temperature reading, but the Weatherunderground.com says it was about 44 degrees. Brrr! Thank goodness I have my Marmot Hydrogen 30F sleeping bag!  I snuggled into my cozy cocoon and zonked out!

Agde to Aimargues (68.84 miles, 7 hours 13 minutes moving)

Today was a treat.  I started off the day biking along the beaches between Agde and Sete.  There was barely an open parking spot the whole way, and there were so many people out enjoying the warm and sunny Sunday weather.  I crossed paths with another gentleman with a bicycle loaded for touring as he was also enjoying the view of the beach. After the customary “Bonjour”, I asked “Do you speak English?” to which he replied “I speak English quite well, actually” with an English accent.  Collin lived in London and had been traveling by bike for the past three days.  In his week off from work, he was starting in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France and working down towards Barcelona, where he had a flight lined up back to London.  In a gesture of kindness that seems to be common among bicycle tourers, he offered me his high-scale map of the region surrounding Montpellier, as he had just passed off its boundaries and it wouldn’t do him any good anymore, and I could pass it along to the next cycle tourist I came across. He told me that it had cost him 25 euros to camp the previous night, and we both scoffed at how expensive that was.  It is a hugely popular coast for French (and other nationalities of) tourists, but that seems a bit ridiculous for the tiny little tents cycle-tourists use.  He suggested that if he had known that, he would have brought a nice large tent and lived in luxury and I suggested for 25 euros, you might as well just ship the tent home and stay in hostels (using the weight reduction to increase daily miles and decrease the number of nights spent along the way, even).  After navigating through Sete, I headed towards Montpellier.

The special stop in Montpellier that I alluded to in my last post was the Facultê de Medicine. It’s the oldest “modern” medical school in Europe, according to some sources, with physicians teaching students there since 1137 A.D. (though some sources suggest that a medical school in Salerno, Italy is the oldest, so I need to do some additional reading to find which is correct). My Garmin GPS, which I think may actually hate me in a way that no inanimate object ever should, decided to take me on the scenic route through town, making double, triple, and even quadruple left turns through the narrow streets of the historical area of town, biking up and down steep cobblestoned roads and slowly dodging the pedestrian traffic.  One might wonder why the Garmin would make me take four left turns in a row, especially when it does not even seem to be paying attention to the direction of one-way streets half the time, so I suppose the answer is “Just because it can.”  But I did marvel at some of the beautiful old buildings and packed outdoor cafes and squares I was passing through and I even got to ring my bell a few times.

When I found out about the Montpellier medical school, I figured that it would be appropriate to pay homage, considering I would be graduating from medical school in just over a month, myself. The massive building had an almost castle-like appearance.  Not having been able to find any photos of it on the internet during the quick searching I had done the previous day, I was half-expecting a modern, new building with some kind of plaque commemorating the location of the significance of the site, so it exceeded my expectations immensely. The school is still in operation, teaching about 20 medical students, according to one website I found (which seems low in my mind, and barely even sustainable for a school?).

The Faculte de Medicine
The Faculte de Medicine

While I was taking a few photos, I saw some student-looking young people push open the grandiose and heavy green doors at the entrance and go inside.  I figured that if I had come all this way (it actually wasn’t much more than a few miles out of my planned route between campsites) I should probably try to see the inside too, so I wheeled my bicycle over to some nearby racks and secured it with my locks.  But when I went back to the entrance, the doors were locked.  I pulled aside a girl who was walking by with an SLR camera of her own and asked if she might take a photo of me in front of the building.  When she took her first look through my viewfinder she exclaimed “Wow!!” and after taking the photos, she asked me what kind of camera I had. I told her it was a Nikon D200, but she was probably most amazed by how wide the field of view is on the Sigma 10-20mm lens I had mounted on the camera at the time.  From her response, I have a feeling she may be going home to look up some wide angle lenses tonight.

Pilgrimage proof. (Why yes, I am wearing a different shirt in this photo!)

Pilgrimage proof. (Why yes, I am wearing a different shirt in this photo!)

The city of Montpellier was gorgeous, and were I able to speak French, it was a city in which I could really imagine living. I would love to go back and spend a few days exploring even more, and treating myself to a meal or two in the outdoor cafes, but I still had 20 miles to ride if I wanted to keep with my tentative schedule for reaching Nice by Friday and taking a weekend rest day at a hostel. An extra 10 mile detour later, after taking the wrong road out of town when my Garmin battery died and the sun wasn’t strong enough to power it by solar panel, I finally reached Aimargues and found the McDonald’s.  Unfortunately, I stayed too late and the gas station next door closed before I had a chance to buy more water for tomorrow, so I headed to the campsite to put up my tent in the dark, once again.

Sigean to Agde (55.47 miles in 5 hours 12 minutes moving)

Today was nearly a mirror image of my previous day in France. I woke up, showered, ate, and repacked all of my gear back onto the bike and was ready to leave the campsite by 10:30 a.m., but once again, there was nobody in reception for me to pay. The sign on the door with the hours suggested that it should’ve been open for another hour and a half before the mid-day lunch break, but there wasn’t an employee in sight.  I took off towards Narbonne, and then stopped at McDonald’s again, this time about halfway between Narbonne and Beziers.

I took a long break- 1.5 to 2 hours by the time I’d eaten my L’petit Wrap and grande Coke and then went across the street to the supermarket for more bread, cheese, yogurt, and water.  With a full stomach and thirst quenched, I hopped back on the bike at about 2:30 p.m. with another 35 miles to ride. Right after starting up again, a car drove by and the front passenger tossed a cupful of water on me. I was really angry at first, because I had been riding deep on the shoulder and wasn’t impeding traffic.  But then I remembered seeing spectators throwing cups of water on the cyclists during TV coverage of the Tour de France, and I decided to consider it a respectful act that I just don’t understand, not having grown up in France.

Beziers took me forever to navigate through, as has become the norm for all cities with more than a single road in and out, and I soon found myself on a highway paralleling the Canal du Midi.  There was a great-looking bike path on the other side with lots of cyclists, rollerbladers, and walkers enjoying the warm spring weekend weather.  I crossed over to the path at my first opportunity, and was excited to have a nice wide path on which to ride, without a never-ending stream of cars passing by (at a safe 3-5 foot distance, ok Mom?).

The Canal du Midi bicycle path continued on for maybe 10 miles before disappearing at an intersection. I made my way back to the path on the other side of a bridge, but found it was unpaved dirt. I backtracked to a parallel road and tried that for a few miles until it came to the canal again, but the path was still a bumpy unpaved dirt trail, and I ended up having to add about 7 miles of backtracking to reach the D602 road which would take me to Agde.  My Garmin, for some reason, kept routing me off the D602 for about 5 miles, and then back onto the road, despite the map showing that the road continued on just fine.  I tried to force a route sticking to the D602 but “Nigel” wouldn’t have it, and I soon found out why. We came to a portion that had large “No Bicycles/Tractors/Pedestrians” signs, and I had to exit the highway for an alternate route. I wish the software would tell you why it wasn’t giving you the straightest and shortest route. In the past, on this trip, when I’ve ignored the GPS’ recommendations for a shorter or easier to follow route, I haven’t run into that trouble, making it hard for me to know when to trust the GPS and when to trust my gut.

The Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi

I reached “Camping De Les Clape” BEFORE sunset (but only about 20-30 minutes) and paid the outrageous 18 euro fee for one person and a tent (and to think I balked at 15 euros when it was Easter weekend in Spain), although since my last two nights have been free, I’m still ahead.  This campsite is right on the beach though, though I won’t be able to take advantage of it since I will need to check out and be on the road tomorrow morning in time to make a special stop in Montpellier.  In the future, I may have to try staying at campsites farther from the beach to see if they are any more affordable. I got the tent up and had a few hours for my nightly rituals, before falling into a deep slumber.

Capmany, Spain to Sigean, France (73.36 miles, 6 hours 49 minutes moving)

I slept terribly overnight, worried about what a stupid mistake I had made, to not secure the cover to my bike in such strong and gusty wind. When it became light, I headed back downwind of my tent and resumed the search for my bag.  I was having no luck, and figured that in the 8 hours it had been gone, it could be halfway to Barcelona, at the rate the wind had been blowing.  As I was heading back to my tent, a dark black shape caught the corner of my eye, and it was the cover!  I triumphantly brought it back to my tent and I was so overjoyed that I had to tell someone.  I walked over to Birre from Holland, whom I had met last night and bragged about my good/bad luck.  I broke camp in a much better mood after a nice hot shower, and despite the fact that it was 10:30 a.m., there was still no activity in the camp’s office.  With no prices listed and no drop box, I was forced to hit the road without paying.

As I rode towards the Pyrenees, I wondered how long the climb would take.  I hadn’t done any real research about which pass to take, and was just going to stick with the N-II road that I had been following yesterday. The wind was still strong and right in my face, making it difficult to climb any faster than about 6-8 miles per hour, but at least the sun was shining, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  This, along with finding my cover,was doing wonders for my mood, as was the hope that I would be leaving my bad luck in Spain when I crossed the border.

I wish I could brag about how tough the pass over the Pyrenees was, but it wasn’t very bad, and was rather anti-climactic. It was just over 10 miles from my campsite to the top, and I was able to ride it in just over an hour. It was certainly much better than my experience the day before. There was no fanfare or confetti or even a little drive up window where you could get your passport stamped. The only visible change was that all of the signs were now in French. I had passed a road sign that said “France 1km” but figured I would get a photo of a sign that said “Welcome to France”, but there wasn’t one to be had.  It’s somewhat funny that in the United States, you get a nice “Welcome to…” sign overtime you pass into new state, but they couldn’t put up a nice one at the border of a completely different country! There were, however, loads upon loads of little touristy shops lining the last couple hundred meters to the top. On the descent down, I didn’t even really have to wear out my breaks, because the head-wind kept my speed at a comfortable 17-22 miles per hour.

When I reached the city of Perpignan, I pulled off at McDonald’s and ordered my first McD’s meal since starting the trip.  I had read online that all of the McDonald’s in France were offering free WiFi internet, and sure enough, they were right!  I quickly tried to catch up on emails that had piled up in the last 36 hours without, but ended up spending more than an hour there. I may become rather friendly with McDonald’s over the next few days…

The Vineyards of France
The Vineyards of France

The rest of the day was spent riding on a mixture of highway shoulders, dedicated bike paths, and small-city streets.  I loved to see the abundance of bike paths, but the design and planning left a lot to be desired for long-distance touring, and after a few miles, I relegated myself back to the roadway.  The paths, despite having a good surface, would take half-mile jaunts away from the path in order to cross perpendicular streets, and it was frustrating for me, not only because of the added distance, but also because the signage along the paths almost never had arrows pointing to upcoming towns, making it difficult to know which way to go when I reached forks or mini-roundabouts.

By 6 p.m., the realization that I had eaten through most of my food supply set in, and I started looking for a supermarket to stock up on bread, yogurt, water, and more sweets like candy bars. The first two times I pulled off the highway, I was unsuccessful, but the third time I found a market, although unfortunately I had to backtrack more than 2 miles to get back on the highway. Nevertheless, I was in good spirits with the knowledge that I had food and water for tonight. I’ve decided that there are perhaps three occasions in the day of a long-distance bicycle tourist when they feel most happy and content. The first is when they do the math and realize that they should reach their stopping point for the night soon, or at least in plenty of time before dark.  The second is when they have just secured all of the remaining food supplies for the following day, and the third is when the tent and campsite are set up and it is time for a nice dinner before bed.

The sun went down when I was still about 2 miles from the campsite, marking the third time that I would be putting up my tent in the dark in as many riding days. The campsite reception closed 40 minutes before I arrived, so I chose a place for my tent and hoped that I wouldn’t have any trouble signing in and paying in the morning.  It was after 9 p.m. when I had my tent up and my possessions inside, leaving only a little bit of time to check my maps for tomorrow, write, and download/tag photos, as has become my nightly routine. Hopefully my good-fortune in France continues!