Short note for the digitally excitable

red_antiprismThis bikepacking blog is now being written  and (hopefully) read in two places – on my self-hosted WordPress platform and on my site in a new distributed network called the Red Matrix (currently in developer preview, but already impressively functional).  Red is derived from Spanish and simply means ‘the network’. But that term doesn’t do it justice, because it’s so very different from anything you might expect. Different as in…. powerfully different. Scroll down to the bottom of this page for more information.

From now on, articles will be more or less identical on both sites. I can post from either platform, and they will appear on both – virtually simultaneously. People who set up a Red site of their own (or find a home on someone else’s) will easily find this blog in the new network’s directory – it has the same title in both places.

And now (weather permitting)… back to biking. There’s still a bit of season left to use up.

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The Princess Ride (versus ye olde hiking trail)

collageAn ostensibly fun project idea inspired by literature: Take a hiking trail you know fairly intimately and re-route it for fellow bikepackers. You would bypass the impossible bits to eliminate pushing and carrying, and also attempt to ensure that good single track gets approached from the right direction.

A trail I might personally have in mind is the Rheinsteig in its initial stages here near Bonn (Germany) – hoping other people would contribute other passages of the full route. The literary prototype is William Goldman’s Princess Bride, which I read with laughing delight back in the 1980′s. The book purports to be the abridgement of an earlier work and is subtitled The ‘good parts’ version – so sorry for the pun in the headline, but it’s appropriate, don’t you think?

It’s a pipe dream, of course, because the scheme would probably corrupt bi-directionality and certainly create signpost confusion. The Swiss know how to do these things properly: The Jura Bike trail I rode a few weeks ago has a road-bike companion route close by and a more loosely related hiking counterpart, too. All three are well and distinctly signposted to make GPS navigation virtually redundant. But it appears that even the Swiss haven’t solved the problem of directional optimisation yet – so it’s still the same itinerary from both starting points. A colour-code regime and a lot of hard work by dozens of volunteers would be necessary to address that issue in the physical world. The maintenance of two accompanying GPS tracks would be a far more trivial challenge.

Fundamentally, though: GPS navigation is a stressful stop-and-go process that seriously sucks in comparison with signposting. That’s one reason I love the official long-distance hiking trails so much. They are signposted and they work well, albeit it with a few caveats like the need to push or carry for some of the time. And with the exception of those points, they are mentally relaxing. When I last spent a weekend on the Rheinsteig in late June, there was the usual fairly easy symbiosis of hikers, the odd biker, local dog walkers – and one couple of irredeemably stuck optimists on horseback. We all seemed to be following an intuitive choreography of fairness: I was always ready to give way to the walkers on the single track, though they would often also stand aside for me instead of interrupting my flow. Admittedly, that equilibrium may be fragile. It could shatter as tourist companies cart bus loads of day-trippers to the popular trails, and as the electric bike craze puts under-trained people and heavier metal in places they might otherwise never have reached. If there’s a serious public debate, we bikers stand to lose it and will get lobbied off these itineraries. But that isn’t happening quite yet.

We could avert the threat entirely if other countries followed the Swiss model with a dedicated long-distance trail network for bikers. But then I suddenly wonder: Do we really want that? Drawing a mountain-bike route involves a projected average rider, and while I was quite happy with the specific, fairly robust projection on the Jura Bike trail, my experiences of (shorter) set MTB trails in Germany and Austria temper my enthusiasm for such projects. When tourist bureaus get involved, the tendency is to presuppose a very average biker and dilute things a lot – especially on the downhill stretches. It’s the responsible thing to do, I admit, and politically understandable too. Badly injured visitors or worse are any local council’s darkest nightmare (notably in the Alps with their popular reputation for incalculable peril).

To be honest, I would also miss the company of hikers if we were segregated. It’s worth taking the meat with all the gristle (the footwork that comes with steep hiking paths) for that reason alone. You can slow down and push for a chat with hikers, whereas it’s often uncomfortable and inconvenient to ride alongside another biker you have met by chance – we usually either lack the puff to converse much or the physical equality to pedal abreast. Besides, who is genuinely immune to some incredulous admiration? “What? The entire distance by bike?” A lot of hikers treat us a bit special, whereas fellow bikers often pointedly fail to impress each other. Here in Germany, at least, that’s a piece of on-trail culture that can rather inhibit free exchange. Hikers are frequently easier to talk to.

And while it’s the riding, the views and the camping that make a trail sensually memorable, it’s the (talkative) people who storify it – contributing structure to the movie your mind will retain. The guy with the red face and the towel around his neck will remain with me forever, because I stopped off for lunch after chatting to him, watched him plod on as I lit my stove and later picked up various items of gear he had absent-mindedly lost en route… a paper-chase of kit (including the towel) all of which I restored to him further down the track. And the main reason I remember the cloudy weather on my last Rheinsteig overnighter in June is the elderly woman hiker with whom I discussed the threat of rain, and who then told me about her own road cycling tours with her best friend 50 years ago; the length of Germany with no gears and only a handlebar basket for luggage. Imagining her with the long blond plaits and a folksy cardigan of the era was easy and touching, but uncomfortable too. At my age, the temps perdu sensation has started pick up poignancy.

Largely stripped of such episodes and baked to a recipe, The Princess Ride would be just that: The Princess Ride. Tamed here, tweaked for amusement there, cherry picked, low on collateral surprises and clandestinely artificial. The purpose of a mountain bike is simply to go anywhere – in one fashion or another, carried or pushed if need be, uncomplaining. But where they already exist, customised itineraries often obliterate that magic, treating our bikes as our limitation rather than as enablers of adventure. If you’re a skier, think of them as good groomed pistes. They don’t always look like it. But that’s what they are – in spirit. Or to word it somewhat bluntly: Put a mountain bike on a trail especially mapped for it, and what you essentially no longer have is… a vehicle. You might still have a superlative leisure toy in a fun place. But that’s not quite the same thing.

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Biking base in Catalunya

casita_int_bed.previewA friend of mine has a small house to offer near Xerta, Terres de l’Ebre. That’s in Spanish Catalunya – and reportedly a superb region for trail riders. Prices start at € 150 per week, which strikes me as more than fair. So I’m happy to link to his website (expat solidarity!).

casita_ext_back_right.previewA shot from the outside gives you a better idea of the terrain to expect – sadly, I don’t have any trail pix from the area, but my imagination can feed on that mountain in the background. Bikers who want a picturesque, but authentic base with a good bed and wholesome food (optional evening meal for € 7) should also note that the Mediterranean is less than 50km away, which might help to keep the rest of the family happy.

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Things I learnt this summer

Simple questions tend to pile up over the years, because I am not good at asking them in public. So it’s always a relief to file a few of them away. Here are a couple of answers the 2013 season has provided me with to date, along with a few other discoveries.

Lunar SoloThe silnylon canopy of my SMD Lunar Solo 2012 is seamless over my actual sleeping space and had withstood several shorter storms without a glitch. But 20 hours of torrential rain in France convinced me that you should, indeed, seal two seams: the one connecting the mesh skirt to the silnylon and the one around the black material at the apex of the tent.

In the event, rain eventually seeped through these seams – not a huge problem, since the quantities were manageable and a NeoAir keeps my sleeping bag off the floor anyway. But the manufacturer’s advice to seal ain’t just a formality, as I discovered.

FotoStealth camping isn’t advisable everywhere in Germany (where I live). The ADAC is the country’s main automobile association – but also provides a very comprehensive mobile hiking guide with over 6000 short and long-distance routes as an iPhone and Android app. It’s a great research tool for bikers too, and can be used to navigate at a pinch (though it seems to use up my battery pretty fast). But additionally, a quick glance at the Wanderführer’s map tells me whether I’m in a national park or nature reserve – where wild camping can incur a stiff fine. See the pic on the right and the green(ish) lines marking a nature reserve’s boundaries. It was very much a guessing job with other GPS apps/maps I had tried, so this digital guide rates as a eureka discovery in more ways than one.

Sleeping bag in shelterThe pic  on the left shows a lean-to on Germany’s Rheinsteig trail – arguably the ultimate convenience in outdoor shelters, but they always constituted a bit of a planning challenge for me. Distribution is erratic, and prior research is advisable if you mean to rely on them. On some trails, you can even leave your tent at home… but how to know that in advance? Maps, people suggested. Which maps?

leantosWhile many classy topographic maps show lean-tos as unspecified blobs (just like any other building) OpenStreetMap has a distinct symbol for these havens. Only, you might not ever see it, because the default colour is an almost invisible green. Fortunately, OpenCycleMap uses the same symbol in sensibly conspicuous black. It’s an important distinction that could be used to showcase the word ‘meaningful’ – and I only noticed it last month.

The towel sandals you get in good hotels make extremely light camp shoes for summer, weighing in at just 80g for a pair… and better than DIY flip-flops if you sometimes want to wear socks in the evenings. However, mine only lasted a week (just like all the other UL sandal solutions I have tried, so I will be forgoing this luxury in future). Other common suggestions that fail the durability test include ziplock bags – good for some uses, iffy for others. Ziplocks that get opened a lot (e.g. for money) are liable to fail early.

My external battery pack gave up the ghost after four years of fairly frequent use. Shopping for a new one, I was faced with the usual trade-off: capacity vs. weight. For once, I was clever – realising that huge capacity also means long hours of charging time. You need to figure out how much you need, but also how often you might get the chance of a full recharge on tour. A monster of a battery is redundant weight, if you are not exploiting its potential in both respects: in and out.

Yes, it’s generally a shaky idea to compromise on the quality of your clothes. That includes underwear. Even when all else is equal (and it often is) drying time can prove paramount. Testing this variable at home is a superb habit – but nukes your chances of a refund when a product fails to convince. By contrast, some other compromises are fundamentally necessary; and further contemplation of them just devastates your peace of mind. Once again, I wasted many hours on many days toying with the dream of a full-suspension bike frame… and once again I invariably came to the conclusion that I don’t want to sacrifice a bottle cage or put one in a silly place. Some racing frames that place the rear shock behind the saddle kept invading my imagination. But this solution would interfere with my dropper seat post cable, and the mud problem would probably ruin my time on a multi-day trip. Besides, such competition frames only come in carbon nowadays, and I am a carbon hypochondriac. A good scheme would be to write down my various insights comprehensively when I have reached a final verdict on an issue like this. A folder of Thoughts I Have Well and Truly Put A Lid On would make a great resource.

Such a folder would definitely put the topic of pack covers to rest. Yes, silnylon dry bags provide ample protection for clothes and sleeping bags. But I’m psychologically unable to accept that fact in real life, even though I have proved it to myself. A wet backpack will always scare me until I have opened it to check everything. So while I disappoint myself hugely by carrying unnecessary grams and a double solution, I just can’t adjust to a true UL strategy on this one.

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MotionX revisited – and much appreciated

Not to launch into a fussy and superfluous comparison of outdoor navigation apps for iOS, but I took a look at a classic today and have decided to keep it for a single, apparently unique feature.

FotoI normally use Scout by MagicMaps for its flexible track import functionality and for extremely detailed, albeit expensive topographic maps. But these don’t serve much purpose when zoomed out too far – so I sometimes like to switch to free OpenStreetMap or OpenCycleMap for the bigger picture. Actually, Scout would let me do that quite painlessly, but I generally prefer to keep my detailed view of the world in Scout intact and briefly invoke a different app to glance at OSM or OCM. Of course, a whole range of free to reasonably priced products fulfil that purpose well and usually let you download the map segments in advance to avoid costly data connections on tour. Until now, I saw no massive reason to prefer one over the other or to sing anyone’s praises exclusively.

But there’s one thing a broader overview should really, really offer, though I hadn’t seen it anywhere until I reinvestigated a classic late this afternoon: the ability to show multiple tracks at once. It seems such an obvious feature: for people comparing options, for riders assembling a long trip by linking shorter tours, and for a dozen other reasons I could list if they hadn’t already occurred to you. Of course, this option is available on some route portals. But I had given up hope of ever seeing it implemented in a mobile app.

Then, by pure coincidence (I was idly surfing around on the bus home) and with delighted surprise, I noticed that MotionX has the very magic I have been missing. Not only that, but it has been present for quite a while… so I feel a bit stupid now. I wonder how many times I have complained about this supposedly elusive function in forum discussions – because it seems my complaint has now been obsolete for well over two years.

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The Cevennes – a preview?

No, the 2013 season hasn’t run out of puff just yet. But the days are getting shorter already, and with fresh memories to exploit, it’s a good time to start contemplating next summer’s routes.

P1020049The picture above was taken by my wife during a walk with friends in early August. They were showing us the Cirque Navacelles, a circular canyon in the Cévennes of Southern France. Robert Louis Stevenson tramped around these mountains with a donkey over 130 years ago and wrote a book about it. Donkey-less, but willing to carry my own pack, I am somewhat obsessively wondering how best to roll in his footsteps.

During our hikes in the area this year, we were amazed at the diversity of terrain – ranging from burnt-looking karst land to cool river valleys. In the more moody and serious northern Cévennes, forests are denser and Mont Lozère reaches almost 1,700 metres. Further south, there are olive plantations and vineyards and Pic Saint Loup – a lowish, but brazenly shaped mountain just a bus ride from buzzing Montpellier. Every turning on our walks seemed to reveal enticing single track, and the views are equally compelling. On a good day, you can take in the Alps, the Pyrenees and the sea; all from the windy peak of Mont Aigoual with its quirky meteorological museum.

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Strictly speaking, the Cévennes are the southernmost part of the Massif Central, rather than a range in their own right. As such, they could be incorporated into a longer tour starting in the Alps and crossing the Rhone south of Valence, where the two mountain systems draw closest to each other. This site could be helpful in planning the crossover. Yes, I suppose my thinking is getting a bit epic at this point, but I am slowly trying to introduce some realism. I have already ruled out the mammoth scheme of continuing on the pilgrims’ route to Spanish Compostela from ancient Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert – I genuinely don’t have the time and would make a very hypocritical pilgrim anyway. But I am still greatly attracted to the notion of riding all the way from the high Alps to the Mediterranean, strenuous though the living of that dream might prove.

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To encourage myself, I have even devised a couple of rational-sounding arguments. For instance, it could make sense to eschew the arid terrain and thin population of the Maritime Alps, which would normally constitute the obvious finale on a ride from Geneva to the sea. The Cévennes with their maze of river valleys would spell a significant weight and comfort advantage, with less water to be carried less often… not to mention a financial one by avoiding the hideously expensive Côte d’Azur. The flipsides would be the time requirements and the somewhat unspectacular sandy beaches near Montpellier. I would much prefer to end up at the Côte Bleue, just west of Marseille (pic below).

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Given that preference, any map will tell you that this dream still needs some tweaking. Maybe I’ll road-ride some of the itinerary, similar to my strategy during this year’s heat-wave. Heretically, I could even abbreviate a few stretches by hopping on trains. But there’s a folder titled France 2014 on my PC desktop at home, and it’s getting fatter and fatter as the current summer wears thin. The odd discussion like this one is in there, further whetting my appetite and indicating that route discovery should be fairly easy in the Cévennes themselves. Having maintained several such folders before, I’m guardedly optimistic about things – a slender majority of my folders have actually come true.

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The backpack experience

Backpacks generally get a bad press in the bikepacking world – conventional wisdom being that weights over two kilos should be on your bike, not on your back. I venture to disagree, strongly suspecting that many people’s dislike of heavier packs is due to factors much lower down.

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The pic shows my long-haul-compatible touring outfit as it currently stands for late spring to early autumn – with a base luggage weight of just over six kilos, including a choice few luxuries I have come to consider essential for a good time. Unlike many bikepackers, notably in the Anglo-Saxon world, I don’t use a huge seat bag, because I want the bulk of my baggage to shift with my body on technical trails. And anyway, a seat bag would also hamper my drop seat post, so I am strongly backpack-reliant for that reason alone. Luckily, this rarely bothers me, because I feel I’m getting a technically superior trail-riding experience with little loss of comfort.

In fact, until recently I never saw much problem potential in backpacks – including relatively heavy ones. To me personally, the acceptable load still hovers around a maximum of 4.5 or occasionally even 5 kilos, counting some provisions and inevitably fluctuating a little; but I carried quite a bit more without ruining the fun in the early days of my touring adventures. So when I briefly switched to a framed rucksack this summer and the additional 500g of empty pack weight felt like the proverbial straw, my first reaction was to attribute the experience to middle age. My second was to question pack design. Both approaches suggested that weight must be slashed.

So okay, I have never imagined that weight doesn’t matter – only that the agreed parameters for backpacks might be more generous. And the supposedly superior design of my new pack improved nothing at all anyway – in fact, the frame even seemed to exacerbate the consequences of pack motion. But come to think of it, why should a frame serve much of a purpose on a bike? Pack frames were invented for walkers, not pedallers. Different postures, different intensity levels, different movements. People somehow expect the concept to be transposable with a few tweaks, but the reality of the effort is a let down. Sophisticated carrying systems don’t even deal with perspiration very convincingly. All they deliver on two wheels are redundant ounces… and the wicked potential of all superfluous cures to backfire in unforeseen ways. Truth be told, I knew that already; so I’m a ninny for staging another expensive experiment.

I have hence returned to a simpler and lighter pack that weighs just 340g in itself, and I’m certainly right as rain again now. But is the explanation as straightforward as it possibly seems? Are simplicity and a reduction in total back load the whole story? Remembering that my pack problems coincided with sudden saddle woes during a long tour in July, I started wondering whether a more holistic approach to riding comfort might hold the true key to an acceptable backpack experience. In other words and for instance: Is seat pain a symptom of excessive weight? Or does an ill-fitting saddle limit the weight you can handle? What happens when you get geometry spot on and find the best available saddle for your very own bum? Because when your seat bones are well cradled and your torso optimally relaxed, shouldn’t your body should be much happier to cope with some work? Hey, perhaps even with weights that would strike any hiking granny as yawningly unremarkable! Yes, that’s comparing apples and oranges, which is something I rejected just a paragraph ago. But the contrast seems significantly bizarre nevertheless.

My tentative conclusion after very meticulously choosing and testing a new saddle is this: tolerable backpack weight is indeed a fine line, but only once the rest of your configuration is set in stone. Until then, it is a pretty wild variable quite astonishingly determined by proper alignment of the other two parameters I have mentioned: saddle comfort and bike geometry. The better adjusted these two factors are, the more your pack can weigh – sometimes to a radical extent and often due to modifications a day-tripper would not experience as urgent. But conversely, questionable riding posture and even slight saddle disharmony can throw the equation right out of whack for a plethora of interacting reasons. And then you endure a painful disaster you might understandably attribute to an overloaded backpack – though it probably says almost nothing about pack weight and showcases something more elusive. Yes conceivably, even the shape and angle of your grips could be the true culprits. So before you eschew backpacks and their on-trail advantages, you might wonder whether your bike is actually fine-tuned for touring.

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Bergischer Weg (Germany)

IMG_0689The Bergische Weg is a virgin hiking trail in Germany, covering almost 270 kilometres from Königswinter on the Rhine to Essen in the once industrial Ruhr district. For a two-day tour starting at my own door step in Bonn, I find the route near neighbouring Hennef – clocking up some 120 trail kilometres until rain stops me in Altenberg the next afternoon. Signposting can be sparse, but frequent single track compensates for bouts of navigational despair. Near Rösrath, the trail coincides with the remains of a downhill race course. A YouTube clip indicates that the location was in use until recently. Alas, all that earthwork is probably doomed now that walkers are claiming the same itinerary.

IMG_0686 IMG_0687 IMG_0688 IMG_0690 IMG_0697 IMG_0698 IMG_0699 IMG_0700

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Saddle-bag replacement for drop seat posts

A drop seat post like the Gravity Dropper usually rules out a serious saddle bag , a loss that sometimes bugged me during my recent tour of Switzerland and France. While I am no fan of the huge seatbags favoured by American bikepackers, I still wanted to take a little more weight off my back and utilise space under the saddle. Turns out that an additional bottle cage fits the bill very nicely. And surprisingly, it’s even in the right place.

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The picture shows an adapter by SKS that attaches anywhere you like: frame, fork or stem. Screw on a bottle cage and insert a so-called cage box, also by SKS, and you have a very versatile storage container with almost one litre of capacity – for supplies, gear or even drink… depending on your trip’s needs. Additionally, the cage box can be used to scoop up water from a stream prior to filtering, or to protect your food from the thieving fauna at night. As luck and the adapter’s partial rotatability would have it, I am able to fix mine to the saddle stay of my hardtail without restricting my Gravity Dropper at all – roughly filling the gap where my saddle bag once was (with just enough clearance for a full 4″ drop). But much obviously depends on frame size and geometry, and others might want a similar, but smaller container. Weight is 180g, using the Blackburn Slick bottle cage – heavier than most bags, but multi-functional to compensate. I took the precaution of installing a couple of cable ties to reinforce the one-click attachment system. No glitches yet, after two full days of rough riding.

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Riding a heat-wave

Amid a fierce and prolonged heat-wave, and later subject to some organisational chaos, my main summer mountain-bike trip of 2013 takes me from Basel in northern Switzerland to the lakes of Neuchâtel and Geneva, then further to the grand French Alps, the Rhone Valley and the Ardèche area of southern France; some 800 kilometres down the track. Intended as a trail adventure focussing on the Jura mountains, the journey  partly morphs into a road tour  – mainly because the heat persists into high altitudes and mars the prospect of strenuous riding above the tree line. An outcome of so much road riding is that I cover more distance and experience more regional diversity than originally planned. And while I miss some adrenaline activity, I still enjoy back-road territory that tourists normally bypass.

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Saturday, July 20

The official Jura Bike trail starts at Basel’s SBB station. Half an hour later, I’m in the affluent outskirts of the city and finding them rather gloomy. So are the financial prospects for this trip, as I soon begin to suspect: At a modest country pub off a gravel road, the waiter serves a small n/a beer to help me combat the freak heat-wave, and unapologetically asks for five Swiss francs. I try to kid myself that the high price is due to the proximity of Basel. On the ride’s first afternoon, I easily make it to Laufen in a 35 kilometre loop through the woods. A slow worm crosses my path (or I the critter’s) ten minutes before my route dives into the valley. I take a lousy photo, but I’m a reptile lover, so I still consider it one of today’s highlights. Camping near the river and then taking a stroll, I meet a guy from Prague who is working here as a studio guitarist all summer and has been living in a tent for weeks. Curiously, his left hand dangles in front of his belly as if someone had recently assaulted it with a sledgehammer. I head into the village for a pizza and am treated to a local fiesta with alphorn blowers and a chanson singer – but Laufen’s population isn’t exactly out in droves to participate, so there’s nothing much to watch. Rummaging for money to pay the bill, I wreck my first Ziplock bag and begin to question my reliance on these to waterproof my various valuables. Tent aside, that’s about all I will have to say about my camping gear on this trip – none of which faces any serious challenges in the hot weather.

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Sunday, July 21

The Jura mountains are geologically distinct from the nearby Alps and are supposed to be Switzerland’s coldest region… but perhaps that only applies in the winter. Today, the sun is sadist and the thermometer hits 34°C before lunch. Viewed impartially, there’s a good mélange of terrain – some grueling uphill, some shady forest rolling, even some technically demanding passages. But I also endure a few brutally shadeless stretches of gravel road near the villages. For sheer heat exposure, these will soon be surpassed by the high, bare plateaus that are typical of these mountains. Soon, my courage is virtually dissolving every time the trail hits a bald spot. Water is a problem, with my two 0.75-litre bottles very barely lasting from one source to the next. Other snags are more comical: Riding through cattle-raising terrain, I discover an amazing diversity of gates and their shutting mechanisms. A couple of these almost defeat my meagre mechanical skills and usually poached brain – notably the DIY ones some farmers seem to favour. But in the end, I conquer them all (and I don’t even liberate any cows, though the notion is sometimes very tempting). At a vantage point signposted La Côte-à-Bepierre, I meet two local bikers without backpacks who pity me for mine. We agree that we also deeply pity the hikers for the long hours they spend between watering holes. But whenever we’re on roads, we pity the racing cyclists most of all, because they seem mentally unable to slow down and cool off. Which is virtually all we talk about. This heat experience is triggering a lot of mutual empathy – people salute each other with ritually pained grins when their paths cross. Despite it all, I manage to cover two stages of the official trail and roll into St. Ursanne well before evening, there to bathe in the cool River Doubs and chat to a couple of road cyclists from Germany. Each of them has packed about three times my base weight of just over six kilos. Among other things, they own a collapsible basin in which they wash their cycling clothes every night. I avoid mentioning that I don’t intend to keep as clean as they do.

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Monday, July 22

This is the day I finally fall out of love with my Sel Italia SLK saddle, which is a mystery, because I’ve been using it for years. There’s not much else to say about that – just something I have to resolve when I get home. More immediately, baby cream is the only answer, but it’s a feeble one. The official Jura MTB trail has a road bike counterpart, so it’s no surprise to meet the Germans again in Saignelégier. The square outside the town’s Migros supermarket provides no shade whatsoever, but the supermarket itself is air-conditioned Eden. Here, I establish a routine of eating (or unabashedly scoffing) white chocolate, a whole Camembert cheese and sliced ham for lunch. The German road cyclists are rather more health-conscious and purchase a huge melon. Fully expecting to meet again within the next couple of days, we part unceremoniously – and that’s the last I see of them. The rest of the day’s ride takes me into a thunderstorm, after which the heat-wave predictably reasserts itself within half an hour. I cross a plateau where cattle and horses roam semi-wild, but somehow fail to overwhelm me (the trail’s official homepage suggests that they really should). Then I miss the signposting just outside La Chaux-de-Fonds. This results in a slightly scary hike up a stupidly narrow and rocky path, some 20 metres above a stream. Carrying the bike and almost slipping once or twice (which triggers minor rockslides), I consult my GPS app and find an exhausting, but tolerably safe way of reaching a road… short-cutting my way up a very steep, wooded bank and crossing a field of grass, still half-swamped by the storm earlier on. Fatigued and pretty much brain-dead by early dusk, I ride too far into town for camping to be feasible and am forced to take an over-priced hotel room. There’s an expensive steak and chips, paid for very grudgingly. Then insult is added to injury when the hotel restaurant closes before I can order a second coffee. Taking an evening stroll, I find La Chaux-de-Fonds to be something of a metropolis in the middle of nowhere – by no means sprawling, but important enough to feel immune to the surrounding wilderness and even a wee bit cosmopolitan. On the steps outside a bar, a tattooed man and a strikingly beautiful black woman appear to be having a deep, hopeless and complicated argument. The scene oozes with urbanity and will become the chief mental snapshot of my stay here.

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Tuesday, July 23

On waking up, I realise the heat might defeat me if I don’t go easier and modify my plans. So I decide to abandon the Jura trail with its sun-baked plateaus and head for Lake Geneva and the higher territory of the Alps. It is an over-optimistic scheme, as I will discover, since this insane heat-wave hasn’t peaked yet and will completely offset the altitude effect when it does. But the very thought refreshes me amazingly, so I start the day with confidence. An hour’s climb by road takes me out of town and to a wonderfully touristy spot called La Vue-des-Alpes – a hotel, a large car park with a snack bar, a coin telescope and no view of the Alps at all (obviously due to haze). I buy a coke and a mass-produced sandwich, food that only tastes acceptable in places like this. Then I roll down to Neuchâtel and the long, calm lake of the same name. The proximity of so much water offers the prospect of surviving this trip after all, and my plan to ride all the way to Lausanne today dissolves when I discover a legal camping site on the beach in Grandson. The rest of the day is rescheduled for bathing and recuperation. Later, after using the site’s washing machine out of turn (there’s a waiting list, but no one complains), I have a triumphant night discovering that my feather-light Six Moons Lunar Solo tent will very serenely resist battering rainfall and strong wind – another thunderstorm triggered by the heat. But my ears are much less indifferent, so I spend the midnight hour with plugs in them, watching a Blackadder episode on my smartphone, if truth be told. Such is the outdoor life.

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Wednesday, July 24

The first part of the day is spent on paved road again. As I cross from Lac Neuchâtel to Lake Geneva, the majestic Alps come into sight for the first time, soon followed by the vast turquoise lake. The heat remains debilitating until I hit the beach in classy Lausanne. From here on, the sight of water exercises its psychological cooling effect – added to which, there’s a shady, ungroomed hiking trail smack next to the lake for much of the route to Geneva. It’s flat, but rather fun to ride, negotiating roots, listening to the little waves and greeting dog walkers. On a rare hunch, I end the day’s cycling in Rolle. That is fortunate because I’m later to learn that Rolle boasts the last camping site near the shore before you reach Geneva (illegal tenting seems out of the question in such a densely populated area). Supper, after a swim, is instant mashed potatoes with capers and tuna, unexpectedly delicious. Then I watch people party by the lake. There’s a strong smell of barbequed meat and a semi-imagined one of booze and dope – all to the musical backdrop of reggae, presumably because this is a beach. Just before nightfall, a road cyclist turns up on his way north. Everything in his panniers seems dated and pitifully heavy, but he has covered over 200 kilometres of Alpine roads in a single day. He dines off noodles and canned beer, tells me I oughtn’t to smoke, scoffs at my expensive drop seatpost, but shows some genuine interest in my minimalist packing system. The entire ultralight gear paradigm seems to have spent decades escaping his notice… which is a tad humbling, given his stellar performance today.

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Thursday, July 25

I could swear the heat is getting worse – because it is. The last part of the road to Geneva is lined with quaint little villages, where I spend the last of my Swiss money on chocolate and cold drinks. I also take a break for some bike maintenance, lubricating the chain and fork. Then I roll into the city alongside two more road-bikers from Germany who are heading down the Rhone to Marseille. Geneva is incredibly affluent and immediately annoys me, so I ride on towards the French border, the route promisingly signposted for Mont Blanc. Just after Annemasse, I’m jubilant at my first coffee stop that doesn’t break the bank – so relaxing my Swiss spending restrictions, I end up drinking three espressos. For the afternoon, I’ve got a track to Bonneville on my smartphone, plugged on a web portal as especially suitable for mountain bikes, though it transpires that someone mislabelled it. The only decent off-road riding today is by mistake, when I miss a turn and enjoy a trail alongside a little stream. Shortly after this, I have my first experience of blitz ‘heat strokes’ – an intense, full-body sensation of organic anarchy that comes without warning and lasts for about two seconds. From now on, I’m to endure these attacks about once or twice a day for as long as the insane temperatures persist. I treat them as omens to be ignored at my peril and search for shade immediately – drink, dump my pack and rest until I feel fresh again. For an extra treat, I put instant lemon tea in one of my water bottles. The result is a blast of thirst-quenching elation, quite literally intoxicating. But little is won, because I can never summon enough self-discipline to ration the drink, and so I usually end up cursing a prematurely empty bottle. Not today, however, because the road ahead is short. By late afternoon, I’m pedalling into touristy Cluses, where the promise of a swimming pool lures me to a legal camping site again. I manage to chat to a couple of other campers in a clumsy mélange of English, German and French. The topic, I’m relatively confident, is racing bikes, which seem at least as popular as soccer in France. Dress up as a cyclist and you might never be lonely here, but my lack of semantic stamina is pitiful today. Linguistically exhausted, I ride into town for a three-course meal… the trip’s first decent dining event, courtesy of affordable French prices, but served by a waitress who unnerves me. Wearing thick layers of ill-chosen makeup, her main focus is on long chats with local clients, which she very unwillingly interrupts to serve anyone else. It seems I’m the kind of person she snaps at, so perhaps my lasting impression of Cluses is soured by her manners. The best description I can offer is of a fussy Dutch seaside resort teleported into undeservedly magnificent surroundings.

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Friday, July 26

I’m riding on paved roads too much, but I badly want to see Mont Blanc close up and have a curious sense of urgency about it. So I pause very briefly for a coffee and croissant in a seedy but friendly motor-bikers’ bar en route, then catch my initial view of the mountain just outside Les Sallanches. It turns out that Mont Blanc will remain with me for hours, offering plenty of superior photo opportunities, but the picture I take on first sight is so special to me that I’m reluctant to replace it with a better one (so I don’t). In the pretty little town, I squander an hour of precious morning riding time just sitting outside a cafe and admiring this vast, white boulder before continuing to the exclusive skiing resort of Mageve and onwards towards Crest Volant with its deserted chair lifts… this is where my thermometer reads 37°C at 1,300 metres of elevation. I then make a mistake by turning onto a promising trail that apparently leads down to Ugine. Before long, this unmapped track gives way to a half-dry stream, down which I am forced to carry my bike. I resolve to forgo further exploration and stick to road until I reach the valley. The reward is the breathtaking scenery of the Gorges de l’Arly, but the penalty is a red brick wall of heat as I approach the Ugine crossroads. In yet another show of whimpery, I take the flat, officially designated cycling path towards Lac d’Annecy, but stop off to camp in a field well before I reach the the lake. My tent pitched in open mode and facing a mountain for my first sight in the morning, I download a few bona fide mountain-bike tracks for the next day. This proves an unnecessary move, because there’s a network of excellently signposted hiking trails around the lake. But at least I fall asleep with a worthy mission mapped out.

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Saturday, July 27

At last, I spend an exhilarating morning on wooded mountain trails again. A grass snake gives me a ridiculous time by looking willing to stay put for a photograph, but sliding into the undergrowth the moment I kneel down in the dirt to get close. The trees offer welcome shade, but the physical going gets torturous whenever they give way to a panoramic view. The compensation is a variety of terrain – knuckled forest tracks sometimes yielding to white gravel paths that remind me of Crete. As I emerge from the forest near Brédannaz, I’m almost certain the sun is consciously intent on finishing me off… my thermometer giving me an unbelievable reading of 43°C! But just a moment later, the oasis of a bathing site appears and I catch sight of French parents huddling up in the meagre shade of a hedge while their kids enjoy the lake. Quickly, I drink a whole bottle of water before stripping and diving in. After that, I’m content to ride through the lakeside villages for a while. Outside a little café, I watch a pretty teenage couple purchase one instant lottery ticket after another, the girl busy scratching as the boy keeps returning to the counter for more. They are obviously getting exploited and probably not even legally, but I’m at idle peace with the world right now and therefore atypically non-judgemental… something that is about to change. Just half an hour later in the town of Annecy itself, commercial tourist hell burns red hot. Actually, it’s a sweet and ancient town at heart, somewhat reminiscent of Bruges in Belgium, but completely devastated by the arts, crafts and kitsch mob – hooligans in smug, bourgeois disguise. The bustle is infuriating, and getting past the outskirts proves well-nigh impossible, because cycling seems to be banned in every meaningful direction. Accordingly, I make several false starts and yell English obscenities at drivers who honk at me. Over coffee at an awful  burger bar, I phone Christa, who is due to head south by car tomorrow or the next day. I spend some time trashing Annecy, then we tentatively agree to meet up in Vienne, just south of Lyon, sometime on Monday afternoon. It’s a plan destined to collapse, but since I can’t know this, I decide to ride small country roads through the foothills of the Alps to the Rhone Valley. Before sundown, I make it to Rumilly, rather geared to spending a night in a hotel – but none of the natives I ask know of one. This is ordinary France, as I am to conclude. Though the road is actually rather charming and would be clogged with touring families in a country like Belgium or Germany, there’s a surplus of even grander scenery in every direction, and I’m not on the fast route to any of it. So nobody ever comes here, and the good people of Rumilly get to keep their tranquil town square to themselves. No tourists. Not even me. I’m just today’s stray foreigner, in and out like a customer who has entered the wrong shop. Ten minutes down the road, I pitch my tent.

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Sunday, July 28

I’m getting into the swing of these much lower mountains with their craggy little gorges as I encounter the Rhone for the first time. For lunch, I resolve to polish off one of my expensive freeze-dried trekking meals, purchased as emergency food for the Alps, but neither necessary nor at all enjoyable. The culinary experience is not worth relating. There’s a paved cycling path along some stretches of the river, but it doesn’t seem particularly well known. The only other leisure seekers I encounter are boat people and anglers. Botheringly, the clouds are starting to look ominous – in tune with the forecast I have been trying to ignore. As a result, I don’t get very far. As the first of several rolling thunderstorms strikes, the safe haven of a camping site emerges and I decide to stop at its restaurant for coffee, waiting for the rain to cease. As it happens, I don’t get to leave Gelignieux for another 20 hours. In the literally relentless downpour, I’m forced to admit that brushing off manufacturer’s advice is bad policy – I should really have seam-sealed my tent, though the small leaks are manageable. This cockiness shall be rectified when I’m back home. In the evening, I violate one of my most sacred principles by letting a teenager scrounge a cigarette off me without asking for his age. For lack of anything else to ponder until the following afternoon, the omission bugs me beyond proportion.

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Monday, July 29

By time the rain finally stops, it’s one in the afternoon and I feel pushed for time – so I average 20 km/h for the 105 kilometres to Vienne (not hugely athletic, but quite a bit faster than usual during this trip). As their foothills get progressively flatter, the real Alps are a mere shadow back in the Northeast… but the venerable Massif Central is already gracing the horizon on the western bank of the Rhone. Mountains behind and mountains ahead, I roll down into Vienne and instantly like the place for its 19th century architecture and lush surroundings. Yet despite Vienne’s attraction and wealth of Roman ruins, the only hotel I can find is a large, chain-owned antiseptic box. I deem the building physically impossible to enter, so still firmly planning on sleeping in a real bed tonight, I continue down the river to Les-Roches-Condrieu. There, in the nick of time before dark, a much smaller and prettier hotel offers affordable accommodation but an exorbitantly priced menu. I quickly scatter my gear around the room (some of it still needs to dry out) before heading off in search of cheaper food. There’s an alternative culture festival on the banks of the Rhone, with a folk group using a barge as their stage. Still wearing my sweaty, synthetic bike gear and thus blending in rather badly, I devour four crêpes at a stall and listen to the music indifferently, though an arty atmosphere I might otherwise find pretentious makes a pleasing change tonight. After the concert, a series of short films is shown. One is a collage of English-language footage of America’s civil rights and Black Power leaders in the 1960s. The black Frenchman sitting next to me asks whether the film is about Africa, so I explain, reciting names like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. He doesn’t seem to recognise them, and it takes me a while to realise that this really isn’t his history at all. He just shares the colour of his skin with the foreign men on the monochrome screen, who spoke a different language to another generation. Quickly, he loses interest in the topic because my French is too clumsy.

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Tuesday, July 30

I forgot to mention that news from home is a bit bleak. Our car’s exhaust pipe virtually fell off yesterday – and the verdict was to replace it. As a result, Christa’s departure has been delayed until midday today. We agree that I should grab the opportunity of some riding in the Massif Central, but not venture too far west or south. So with time on my hands, I pedal over the river into Condrieu proper, recalling that I’m now officially in the South of France, being comfortably below Lyon on the map. As a matter of fact, the changes are quite sudden and noticeable in broad daylight. Olive trees and a pavilion outside a café bear witness to a Mediterranean lifestyle of good food and warm evening air. But the most poignant sign is rather more mundane: a powerful smell of chlorine in the villages. It’s in the tap water, in the cleaning agents people use copiously, seemingly all over their cars and pavements, too. Perversely, it’s also a welcome odour to me – carrying memories of many other days spent near the southern edge of Europe. Is chlorine perhaps the defining smell of the South, I wonder? So many more wholesome contenders fill the guidebooks: garlic, lavender, pine resin, thyme… but those aromas are scattered treats, whereas chlorine is ubiquitous and assertive. The thought captivates me to the extent that I am mentally composing a light essay on the issue until I leave the road, turning off onto an unmarked forest trail with no particular care for its destination. For my efforts, I can afford to be sloppy about my route now, having the rest of the day to find my way back to locations that might feature in Christa’s road atlas. So I’m off-road and in the shade for a couple of hours, on a track that fords half a dozen little streams and ends in a vineyard. Apart from a local with a dog, I don’t encounter anyone in the woods, and when I roll into Saint-Julien-Molin-Molette to stop outside a cafe, I’m surprised that it is apparently a backpackers’ teeming Mecca. The explanation is provided by a German woman with an enormous rucksack and a paper map she lends me: my itinerary has crossed the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. For the first time during this entire endeavour, I catch sight of other long-distance mountain-bikers, who are probably also pilgrims travelling The Chemin, as insiders apparently call it. It would be fun to head for the village’s piscine-graced camping site for some conversation about our different routes, but I’m wisely reluctant to impose my frivolously agnostic self on the spiritually motivated. So I ride on to Bourg Argental, where I purchase a ton of nutritionally hopeless food and pitch my tent near the River Déôme. Then I phone Christa, who has fallen prey to a two-hour traffic jam in Luxembourg and now plans to stop off in Burgundy for the night. Accordingly, we postpone our rendezvous until noon tomorrow, when I am scheduled to wait in Sarras, further south on the banks of the Rhone. For my evening entertainment, I watch a guy dig a hole in the sandy bank of the Déôme while a woman looks on. Both are very clearly excited about his mission… but it’s one that remains a total mystery to me.

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Wednesday, July 31

So there’s a final, brief morning of cycling until this holiday is transformed into a car journey to the Cevennes and the sea – which is a another story. The higher Alps draw very close to the Massif Central here, and I catch one more awe-inspiring glimpse of them as I cycle towards Annonay. A short text message confirms that Christa will indeed make it to Sarras on time, having spent the night near Cluny. That still leaves an hour or so for me to visit Annonay, about which I lack any information whatsoever, though I’m somehow convinced that it’s worth a look. Perhaps I’m developing an instinct for rural France, because my hunch is accurate: Annonay is a proud little town on the Déûme river, a regional metropolis during the Middle Ages with echoes of its grandeur lingering everywhere, but not overly infested with tourists. It is also the largest settlement in the Ardèche department, which – as a signpost informs me – I have rather unexpectedly reached by courtesy of Christa’s delays and the enduring heat-wave. Chickening out of sunstrokes above the tree line and confined to surfaced roads so much, this trip has covered a good deal more distance than I could have accomplished on rough mountain passes. And perhaps mere mileage isn’t entirely to be scoffed at, either. For a brief moment, I am quite pleased with myself despite missing some of my off-road objectives. I roll down into Sarras, sit down in front of a bar and order a coke. Then I get someone to take my photograph. Just as I’m about to mail it to friends and family, a young Dutch lad on an ancient hardtail stops off to say hello as a fellow cyclist. He is clad in a bandana, a t-shirt and torn black jeans. His luggage is a tiny leather rucksack and his destination is Spain. “No tent?” I ask, since there’s surely no room for one in his pack and I wonder how he copes in storms. “Just the sky,” he says. “Or whatever else I find.” He’s right, I realise. Shelter always crops up when you’re his age and on the road – because anything will do and failing even that, you just delete the memory of a bad night. Later on in the car, we overtake him, riding out of his saddle and dancing around on his pedals like the first person in history to discover joy.

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