19 Jul Solitude In Abondance
Lazily cycling over the river Solitude, entering the town of Abondance on the French border with Switzerland, all desires were answered,”solitude in abundance; perfect!” The previous days in Morzine had me swamped in the Tour de France media frenzy. As I laid dozing in the summer warmth on a bench in the town centre, expensive freewheels ticking past me replaced the sound of crickets which had kept me awake in rural farmlands as the picturesque alpine town filled with hoards of cyclists from around the world. I had been thrown into the colourful chaos of thousands of enthusiasts bustling for the best view of the race, children fighting over the eagerly distributed merchandising material and the constant streaming caravan of garishly decorated, deafening floats advertising everything from telecom companies to sausages. It was a good weekend to catch up with old friends over beer and coffee, but for a 2 minute blurred view of the world’s greatest cycle race, we tolerated days of in-your-face marketing. Solitude sounded like the perfect remedy, but as I had learned so far on this bike trip, time alone rarely lasts.
The mountains of the Alps acted as a perfect backdrop to my brief time in solitude, alone with my thoughts, my senses opened to a new vertical world after the endlessly horizontal Northern France. Reflection and concentration battled in my mind while my legs fought with the first climbs and with only one gear left, sweat ran from my face as I climbed the Pas de Morgins. Stopping to appreciate France, a country I had come to love, I looked back into the valley only to see a ‘Welcome to France’ sign, I had already left! Surprised at the failures of my navigational prowess, I began pedalling into a new adventure where pine clad mountains rose around twisting roads and moisture evaporated from between the trees as aromas of grasses, teas, herbs and citrus engulfed me descending into the Rhone valley of Switzerland. Subtle environmental changes invited themselves into the journey as rustic stone villages turned to wooden alpine cabins, tractors were swapped for ski lifts and I exchanged camps in vineyards for nights in apple and apricot orchards. Changes were the only constant in this new world of Switzerland, a country of four languages, a new currency and erratic weather systems.
On the morning of my one month anniversary into the trip, I was lost cycling onto what dauntingly looked like a dual carriageway when a voice shouted from behind me. On his carbon road bike, Francois effortlessly caught up with my pedalled heavy goods vehicle and told me to follow him. He was cycling with two visiting Australian friends, Sam and Shana, six months into cycling around the world in the opposite direction to me. Catching the slipstream from each other, we effortlessly cruised like a heavily loaded touring peloton, averaging crazy speeds while discussing our trips and sharing advice en route to a local lake. We sat with an enormous picnic spread of bread, cheese, multicoloured boiled eggs and ‘tourist chocolate’ and after swimming in the warm clean waters I joined them for the afternoon walking a trail in the mountains. We sped up hills by car and walked along thin trails and across narrow suspension bridges over avalanche debris. We overlooked the skyline of Mont Blanc and discussed travel and sports. The day was as relaxing as can be in the company of a world triathlete, a runner and two world cyclists.
The company was short lived and I returned to cycling alone before finding myself lost in the town of Sierre, sheltering from a now regular six o’clock storm that ravaged the mountains with thunder and lightning on a daily basis. After the storm passed I emerged from the shelter of what used to be a garage but had turned into a pharmacy, roused Dolly who was leaning on a condom machine where a petrol pump used to stand and wondered where to sleep in this crazy town. Standing lost and confused looking, I watched a mountain biker coaster wheelie effortlessly past fountains and banks through the cobbled town streets. On the way back to his studio after a brief introduction, Alex wheelied and pulled tricks at every opportunity, and shouting “I like to play” he reminded me of a cycling Garth from Wayne’s World. Overlooking a solitary rowing boat in the middle of a perfect lake, we sat outside discussing parallels in our lives over a hearty meal and a dose of Ratafia, brewed by his family in Champagne. Alex had moved to the Swiss mountains where he loved the sports and lifestyle but missed his friends and family of France. His words echoed my time alone but as we drove to a lookout to view his favourite parts of the town, the mountain bike and ski trails, I felt the happiness he also had in the decision he had made. We drank a beer in front of a church as the sun set behind the mountains before driving the route I should ride out of town the following morning.
I was on the road early and apricot stalls were being set up at the side of the road. Still craving a breakfast, half a kilo of the sweet little fruits were loaded on top of the panniers at a price I realised later should definitely have been bartered down, and I set off with my new favourite snacks. By midday there was only an empty bag left on the bike and like an organic Hansel and Gretel, I had left a trail of stones from where I began munching. I laid down for a siesta in a small town as the midday sun helped maintain the ‘bicycle shadow’ tan on my legs and reduce skin layers on my back. Half an hour later I was awakened by a fierce rumbling, movement and a sudden fear, I had been struck by ‘The Curse of Swiss Apricots!’ I reached new top speeds for a touring cyclist, clenching and furiously searching for somewhere to sit. Two lessons were learnt that day, I learnt that a bag of apricots eaten in one sitting truly can exercise ones bowels, and the tourist information centre learnt never again to allow such an enthusiastic cyclist to use their toilet… That night I also found the excellent accommodation facilities that can be provided by a closed driving range as I rested under a blanket of stars on a mattress of astro turf and I fell asleep counting the distance markers disappearing down the valley. I awoke to the laughter of the man who came to drive around his ball collecting machine before having a well deserved shave and heading back into my self contained pedal driven bubble.
Over the following week as the map gradients became more defined, so too did the muscles in my legs and I began cycling a major mountain pass every day. The enormity and power of nature again surprised me, from the grand scale of giant mountains taking hours to climb, to the vast, turbulent, rapid grey waters of the Rhone that scared me just imagining the soggy consequences of a slip on a damp bridge. Mornings became dominated by climbs as Switzerland dealt me the cruellest hand of passes it could manage, the Nufenpass, San Bernardino Pass, Splugenpass, Maloja Pass and Bernina Pass. At lunchtimes arose random meetings with strangers who would offer me directions from tacky mountain top souvenir villages or welcome me into their houses for strange moonshine and cakes. And afternoons rewarded my morning effort, descending at hair raising speeds, cornering the bike with knees to the ground like Valentino Rossi around hairpin bends disappearing in and out of the darkness of tunnels with ‘woop’s’ of joy to announce my presence. At night I lay awake to enjoy the light shows above as the air cracked with thunder and lightning in short powerful storms that illuminated my nights camped on mountain sides.
Solitude was rarely encountered after I cycled over the river of the same name, meeting countless people along my journey through Switzerland. My journey spun from climb to climb and from encounter to encounter, wild camping and opportunistic sleeping practise improving and my legs growing stronger. Time alone curiously spent reflecting on my vast array of varied experiences in various languages, considering the opinions of those I meet, questioning what draws people to speak to this bedraggled cyclist and wondering about all the things that my widening eyes are still missing. My journal is quickly packed with every detail I can remember at the end of the day but with so many elements to every day and so many angles from which to view them, I am finding it hard to know what to document. As I sat with a couple of octogenarians outside their cottage in the alps discussing nature and tradition in broken English, my memories of Morzine and the chaos of ‘le Tour’ seemed less from the previous country and more like a distant planet.
The river of Solitude flows throughout my journey where I bathe in its waters and reflect on my experiences, knowing that I am never far from the banks of Abondance, where the next surprise encounter awaits me and a cyclist with no demands or deadlines can be dealt ever more diverse experiences.