A Cycling Journey of Firsts

Julia Lawler (Courtesy Photo)

In late 2017, with my 30th birthday around the corner, I was hungry for adventure. I craved slow travel and solitude. A long-distance cycling tour seemed to fit the bill.

I had been a casual cycle commuter for years, but had never been on the road for days at a time. Over the chill of the Minnesota winter, I researched cities and routes across France — a country I had long been attracted to but never visited. This would be a journey of firsts.

The morning of my flight, I woke early, triple checked my bags, and pored over confirmation numbers and addresses. I gave the weather forecast another look and headed to the airport, my worry wide awake. Adventure was imminent, and my nerves were sapping the joy out of the experience.

I was aware of how many things could go wrong, and all the things I had not prepared for. As we rumbled down the runway, I wondered if there might be a mechanical issue with the plane that would force us to stay on this side of the ocean. “Oh well,” I imagined I would think with a rush of relief. “I tried!”

The flight was not eventful. When we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, I collected my bike and looked for a quiet corner of the airport to put everything back together, hoping nothing had been damaged by the flight. I took my time to delay my inevitable departure from the airport.

Throughout my journey, there were moments of ease and delight, followed by a fog of worry and nervous anticipation. I felt afraid many times. I worried that my chain would snap in the middle of uninhabited woodland. I worried that I would get to a town and there wouldn’t be a campsite, forcing me to carry on for 20 more kilometers into the dusk.

I was often by myself, pushing pedals for hours in solitude, musing on my life as the scenery changed. There was no one to distract me from fears, and no one else to blame if things went wrong. It was just me, getting from one town to another, moving through the static of anxiety.

My fourth day on the road, I faced three hours of uphill climbing toward a blazing sun, followed by harrowingly steep descents. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and demoralized. I stopped at the next restaurant for a lackluster lunch, which tasted terrible but also heavenly. From the patio, I saw a sprawling château perched on the edge of a river. I had sped by many ancient castles, less interested in them than in my mission to find the next place to sleep.

Once again, I straddled my bike. I was a half mile down the road before I stopped, turned back, and found a map of the village. I came to France to be in France, I reminded myself — not to clip past the whole country and miss moments.

I wheeled my bike and weary body into the nearest campground. Camping spaces for cyclists in France generally provide little shade or areas for refreshment, and this one was no exception. I pitched my tent in the hot sun as fast as I could. A little tent was next to mine, with a leg jutting from the opening. I packed up my day bag, ready for château time, when I heard it.

“Hello!” A woman’s voice spoke in English. Glorious, beautiful English.

Christine, my tent neighbor, was in her 50s and was a seasoned cyclist. She had already traveled through France, as well as her native England and southeast Asia. She had sold her company in the U.K. and was touring France in search of a place to live. She was road savvy, fearless, and full of energy.

We shopped for dinner, both excited for a traveling companion with whom to split a bottle of wine — an otherwise impractical object to stick in your pack.

Christine was my guide for the next few days. We rode for nearly 100 kilometers in a day, snuck into a campground after hours, and drank massive mugs of beer.

We found ourselves rained out on our rest day in Angers. We ate warm sausage bread from a boulangerie, plodded through the chilly halls of the Apocalypse Tapestry, and played a bizarre French version of Old Maid.

The next day she headed north, and I went west. Sad as I was to break from her company, I knew it was time to strike out on my own again for my final two weeks.

Her image — arms flung wide, eager to meet each bend in the road — stirs my own courage now, back home in Minneapolis. When anxiety rises, when I feel boxed in, and in moments of terrible weather, I think of Christine and feel as if anything is possible.

Since returning home to Minneapolis, Julia Lawler has set down roots by buying a home in the Twin Cities. Most recently, she travelled to Victoria, Australia, where she travelled by foot, train, car, and bus — not by bicycle.