Spotted a tiny, tiny lizard at the front of the house
And this is what happened when Oscar caught sight of it
Today’s bike ride was up to St. Antoine again, an old favourite.***
Found a terrifying bug in the kitchen. Had the body of one of those black beetles and the back legs of a grasshopper****
*I never thought I’d say this, but I’m kind of glad right now that the school I teach at isn’t under local authority control. If this kind of thing spreads, if more local councils collapse under the burden of cuts, schools will be among the services suffering (even more than they currently are). What struck me about this story is the complete lack of joined up thinking in the naming of the two proposed “unitary authorities”. Seems symptomatic.
**Mastodon, the safe-space alternative to Twitter, has been around a couple of years, but didn’t gain much attention till this week, when so many people decided, en masse, to leave Twitter. It’s fun on a superficial level, in the stupid joke phase that Twitter went through in its early days; that said, its roots are starting to show to me, a “normie” (in the site’s terms) and a middle-aged white male – the kind of person many on the site were hoping to escape. I feel no resentment about this, but don’t think it’s really the place for me. I appreciate more than most people in my position the importance of pronouns, but it still grates somewhat to see people who are really only talking about themselves in the first person refer to themselves in the third. Anyway, I don’t belong over there, and I question my own motives. With just 300 followers on Twitter (lost very few after the bot purge) after nine years, the heart sighs at the thought of starting from zero again. (Probably just as much as a Twitter celeb with half a million followers.)
I’ve long held the belief that a minimum of 100 of my 300 have muted me. Probably 10-20 of them don’t even see my tweets in the algorithmic timeline. Another 100 or so probably have dormant accounts. And of the 80-90 remaining, probably only a dozen or so actually read my hilarious tweets.
Of course, the Twitter experience is asymmetrical, and I enjoyed reading more than posting, but, after the initial rush of interest, I’m really overwhelmed on Mastodon with feelings of ennui.
***The St Antoine forest is dark and beautiful, with roads that melt in hot weather, cascading waterfalls, and cold, cold mountain water. But getting there involves a lot of climbing. I’m always surprised, heading back down, how steep it was; still, I love the descent, once it gets flatter. It’s my kind of cycling: a long stretch of ever-so-slightly downhill road.
****It was too terrifying to photograph. I just took it outside and stamped on it. Mutation!
I’ll start by saying that I don’t really mind the new 80 kph speed limit. I’m rational enough to know that in terms of journey time and arrival time, taking into account 50 kph villages, acceleration and deceleration, tractors, lorries, the timid and the hesitant, it’s not going to make much difference. We’re not travelling interstellar distances. But the limit “lacks public support”, according to the media. Ask damn fool questions and you get damn fool answers.
I’ve been trained by my commute, along a so-called A road with a 50 mph speed limit, to feel that speed is perfectly fine. Plus, you don’t use much fuel at that speed, do you?
When I saw the announcement earlier this year, that for safety reasons, the French government were introducing this 80kph speed limit, I was as skeptical as anyone. As I said then, speeding is just one of the terrible habits of French drivers, and the scofflaws who ignore 90 kph will continue to ignore 80 kph. Maybe the fines will be bigger though.
One problem I foresaw was signage. I kept mentioning it to my French other half and she just shrugged it off and said it wouldn’t be an issue.
There aren’t that many 90 kph signs in the country, but they do exist, and they’re more common than the British equivalent of 60 mph. But the French really do have a problem with signage because of the complicated nature of the new law. You’re restricted to 80 kph on two-lane roads where there is no barrier in between the lanes. Fine, if barriers weren’t a thing, but they are. Quite a lot of roads introduce a barrier, or a third lane, for the odd stretch, to enable overtaking of tractors and slow lorries, or to discourage any overtaking at all, even by idiots who ignore road markings. For the three-lane stretches, the speed limit reverts to 90 kph but only in the direction of the two lanes. So the same stretch of road has two speed limits, depending on which way you’re going. And then if the two lanes swap over, so do the speed limits.
Does this seem overly complicated to you? It does to me, and I’m paying attention.
Driving from Haute Saône into Haut Rhin, I noticed that the former department had bothered to signpost these stretches, but that the latter had just removed all the signs that used to be there, leaving you unsure.
Perhaps the real problem with 80 is that there is still a 70, which is the French equivalent of the British 40 mph (it’s actually around 45 mph). In other words, there’s a 6 mph difference between the safety limit on bendy bits or in places that aren’t villages, and the maximum allowed on a two lane road. Does 6 mph seem worth it?
I feel like the logical step is to reduce 70 kph to 65, giving us 15 kph increments. But can you imagine the outcry from the people who are currently ignoring 70 and will then have to ignore 65? Also, they’d have to install a lot of signs. The other move would be to do away with the 70, which I can’t see them doing.
How is it working in practice? Well, I think I’ve been tailgated (even) more often than usual, which is about what you’d expect. But speeding is still anti-social and therefore immoral, and I am still a cyclist, so.
My wife drew my attention to this news, which I missed when the Guardian covered it a month ago. In short: from 1 July 2018, the speed limit on a two-lane French N- or D- road is being lowered from 90kph to 80. This is a reaction to an increase in road deaths in 2016, and a steady rise since the historic low of 2013.
90kph is 55 mph, which (if you stick to it) already feels slow compared to the British equivalent of 60mph. On the other hand, I’ve always admired the rationality of French speed limits, which rise in 20kph increments, from the town-centre pedestrian friendly 30kph (which most people ignore) to the standard 50, then 70 for built up areas on open roads and 90 for two-laners in the open country side. Hit a dual carriageway, and you get 110kph or 130kph on a motorway in fine weather.
Throwing in a new 80kph limit feels wrong, for a lot of reasons. I think that most of the avoidable accidents come down to the bizarre habits of French motorists.
Statistics show that 32% of the 3500 road deaths in 2016 were caused by excessive speed. That’s the way the Guardian article reads, anyway, although it’s ambiguous enough to suggest that we’re talking about a smaller subset of 32% of the 55% of deaths that occur on N- and D- roads. Which is more like 18% of the total. And the French government says that the lower limit could save up to 400 deaths per year, which is an even smaller percentage.
I’m no defender of speeding: it’s irrational and anti-social, and generally the marker of an ignorant or nasty person who feels no empathy. If you’ve ever lived anywhere where motorists regularly pass your windows doing inappropriate speeds, you ought to be mindful when passing other people’s windows. Think of the children, and the pets, and the grown ups, too. Speeding not only destroys lives, it damages infrastructure. You get more potholes in heavy breaking and acceleration zones, and on bends, where the mechanical grip of tyres tears at the road surface.
We’re talking here not about speeding through villages or towns but open road speeding, which is another matter. I’ve been driving in France for long enough and regularly enough to know a number of bad habits of French motorists, including but not restricted to speed. While speed is always a factor in a road traffic accident (how could it not be?), the insanely bad judgement of many motorists is to blame for most of them. These bad judgements include:
Following too closely (tailgating)
Driving in the middle of the road
Dangerous overtaking – usually from a position of (1)
Mobile phone use
Not knowing how to signal at roundabouts
(1) is a habit I’ve been observing for nearly 25 years. They do it to intimidate, often, especially on motorways, especially on those mad “black weekends” when everybody in France is driving to the South (or back to the North). But they also do it thoughtlessly, or because they don’t understand that thing about dropping back from the slow lorry in order to see past it in order to overtake it safely and give yourself more room to accelerate. To achieve (3), your typical French driver will follow excessively closely, then swing blindly out into the opposite carriageway and hit the gas.
I’ve observed (2) with puzzlement for the same period of time. Because I’m driving a right-hand-drive car, I can of course judge my position relative to the verge/shoulder more easily. But French drivers seem to have a phobia about being close to the verge and instead drive everywhere in the middle of the road, with two wheels on the white line or even in the opposite carriageway. Points (1), (2), and (3) together are why huge stretches of road heading towards the Dordogne have been fitted with fixed bollards down the middle of the road (many of which, of course, have been mown down). They will even remain on the wrong side of the road when taking a blind bend at speed. I have long adopted a passive approach, where I am prepared to take evasive action at all times. It’s a wonderful life.
It’s also astonishing, in 2018, how blasé French people still are about drink driving. This is the country, of course, where it’s compulsory to have two self-test breathalysers in your vehicle, but that doesn’t stop people. They still act surprised when I refuse a drink because I’m driving. And the fact that so many French people still take two hours for lunch means that two o’clock in the afternoon is prime time for being shitfaced on the road.
But speed, (6), the disease of motorists everywhere, is as big a problem in France as it is in the UK. Frankly, until all of us deal with our attitude to speed, our righteous outrage over the American gun problem is pure hypocrisy. People are so affronted if you slow down to the speed limit when you hit the village. I had one lorry driver, a couple of trips ago, try to overtake me – in a village – on a hill, just because I was still doing 50kph and he wanted to prove something (I guess?). You end up being tailgated by a possibly drunk truck driver who really wants to make a point, like being in Duel.
So will slowing the already-ignored 90 limit to 80 make a difference? Who knows. There are already many stretches of 70kph limit for zig-zag sections or junctions, and unless there’s a camera, they’re generally ignored. There’s a bridge near our place in France where an Argentinian general died in the river on a bend in the road, and in spite of the enormous marble memorial that marks the spot, people still end up in the river there, including a truck driver recently, which prompted the introduction of a 50kph limit (which was subsequently raised to 70 when people ignored it – logical).
Me? I’m busy calculating the impact on our journey time. The truth is, that over an 11-hour, 600-mile drive this new limit won’t make much difference. It’s in the day-to-day shorter journeys that it will have an impact, and even then, you’re talking about one or two minutes on a 20-minute drive, aren’t you? Maybe it will make cycling more pleasant, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
It’s the irrationality of speeding that gets me in the end. The insistence on doing it as if you have a right to do it, and wilfully ignoring the reality of what happens when you do it. We’ve all been there: you overtake the slow lorry and go screaming up the road, only to encounter another slow lorry a few km ahead. And then the slow lorry you overtook is behind you, in your rear-view mirror, reminding you of the futility of your manoeuvre. You can do that three or four times, and you don’t really get anywhere any faster, but you do stress yourself out.
But when you’re looking for your freedom, nobody seems to care, do they?
As a replacement for the disappointing and unreliable B’Twin Hoptown 500, my wife ordered a Raleigh Stow-e-Way, which is still a folding model, but a step up in terms of quality and (hopefully) technology. This bike costs £1100, which means (once you’ve paid a £100 deposit) it’s possible to buy it under the UK’s Cycle to Work scheme. This allows you to get a £1000 voucher and pay it back through your salary before tax.
Like most bikes, you can also get an interest-free finance deal from the dealer.
It’s a good-looking bike with a charcoal finish (orange decals), and a clean design that looks elegant. There are a couple of neat features, including a support at the bottom of the frame that protects the chain when the bike is folded, and a pannier rack which is guaranteed not to rattle because it’s part of the frame. It also has a couple of magnets which help to keep it folded neatly for transport/storage.
We got this from Rutland Cycles, who have several shops in Northamptonshire, Rutland and Cambridgeshire. The dealer was very friendly and helpful, and I’d recommend them. In terms of e-bikes, they have a really good range, and some of their shops are also hire centres, so you can even try before you buy.
The Stow-E-Way is bigger than the Hoptown, has 20″ wheels and is less portable, but would still fit in the boot of a hatchback or estate car, and is clearly aimed at the boating/caravaning crowd — or people with limited storage space. Of course, the great thing about a folder is that one size fits all, because the saddle post and handlebars have a lot of adjustment.
The motor is an R15 rear hub from Taiwanese manufacturer Trans-X. It’s a lightweight design which is extremely quiet in operation, and it uses a torque sensor to kick in the power quite gently, which means you feel more controlled as you start pedalling. It has 4 levels of assist. My wife was able to climb our steep hill quite easily in 6th gear on setting 4 – meaning she had 5 gears spare for steeper or longer climbs. It’s so quiet you barely know it’s on: you just feel like you’re suddenly much better at pedalling.
The rear cassette is an 8-sprocket Shimano Altus, which is their second-ranked mountain bike equipment. There are bound to be some compromises in an e-bike built to this price. The cassette has an 11-32 gearing range, which means that you could really tackle anything on this bike. The 6.8 Ah 36V battery from Trans X fits behind the seatpost, and promises power assistance up to 50km (30 miles), depending on conditions and setting. After a 14-mile ride, it had lost two out of its five indicator bars. On its initial full charge, the bike managed about 35km (22 miles), on mixed routes, including some hills and a headwind. I think it was mainly in settings 2, 3, and 4. The supplied charger connects to the battery either on or off the bike, and looks a little like a XLR microphone connector, only with 5 pins.
The bike has mudguards and built-in lights, front and rear, which draw power from the battery — and the rear light stays on for several minutes after you switch off, which is a safety feature, in case you’re stopped or walking on a dark road. The lights themselves are switched on by a light sensor (built into the control panel), which detects whether they’re needed. Personally, I’m in favour of always-on lights, and I might also add a flashing light up on the handlebars to catch motorists’ eyes.
Another price compromise is evident in the control panel, which is based around LEDs and push buttons, and has no range indicator other than the battery bars, and doesn’t feature a computer of any kind, so if you want to track your speed/distance, you have to use your phone or wrist-based tracker. Switching the bike on for the first time after a charge means using the switch on the battery, after which you can use the bar-mounted control panel.
I’m really impressed with this bike for the money. It looks well put together, and it works smoothly and efficiently. If you live within 20 miles of work (and can possibly top up the battery at work), it’s an ideal option for the Cycle-to-Work scheme, and you’d save between 25-39% of the cost in tax savings, depending on your earnings bracket.
It was heartening to see this cycling infrastructure being put in a couple of years ago. It was a shame, in a way, that I had changed jobs and would have no real reason to use it. It’s a cycle/pedestrian path which has been installed all the way from the Tesco roundabout in Buckingham to Winslow, as part of an integrated transport scheme which includes the opening of a new railway station in Winslow.
It’s only about 7 miles, but it runs parallel to the A413, which is a busy road between Buckingham and Aylesbury (via Winslow), and it is completely separate from the main carriageway, making it, in theory, safe and accessible for cyclists of all ages and abilities. That’s the good news.
So since my wife had just taken delivery of her new Raleigh Stow-E-Way e-bike, we thought we’d go on a family outing to Winslow and back, with my teenage daughter the only one moving by pedal power alone.
To reach the cycle path involved crossing Buckingham, which we did via the park and though the Badgers housing estate. This brings you out onto the A413 close to the Tesco roundabout, and you can cross the ring road on the pedestrian crossing.
The first bit of bad news comes right at the beginning of the cycle path: it’s closed by roadworks, and there’s a sign directing pedestrians onto the opposite footpath. But cyclists? Who knows? So we used the road for a short stretch, then back onto the cycle route.
As all cyclists know dedicated cycle routes can be a pain to ride on because you are constantly required to Give Way to motor traffic, which often involves uncomfortable contortions as you try to turn your head like an owl in order to see over your shoulders. In my ideal world, it would be like the rules on water, where motor boats give way to sail boats. Motorists, who are not having to crane their necks to look behind them, should be giving way to the cyclists (that might be) in front of them; not the other way around.
Anyway, I lost count of the number of junctions/crossings where we, the cyclists, had to look over our shoulders to give way. They were helpfully painted red, but then this is a brand-new scheme, and we all know what happens to coloured tarmac and painted lines if they’re not regularly maintained.
The next bit of bad news concerns detritus. The narrative that cyclists are the ones breaking all the rules of the road is of course a convenient foundation myth for the Clarksonites, who are the real sociopaths, throwing McDonalds boxes, empty drink bottles, plastic bags, and other rubbish onto the grass verges and ditches that line this nation’s roads. As well as plastic, glass, and cardboard waste, passing vehicles throw up huge numbers of loose stones, and the trees at the side of the road drop their leaves, seeds, and fruit onto the cycle path for good measure. In short, you’re riding through a lot of crap, even though the underlying surface is pleasantly smooth in comparison to most British roads.
It’s also not a particularly pleasant ride because it does run parallel to a very busy A road, along which the Clarksonites do drive way too fast. You see them screaming past, on their way up to the rear end of a visibly slower vehicle, and you see their brake lights go on, and you wonder what can be going through their heads.
In Padbury, the cycle route is forced to cross the road twice, because there was clearly a reason why it couldn’t run alongside the local allotments. Crossing for the second time, I was very much aware that the oncoming Jaguar was doing at least 50 mph in a 30 mph zone. The driver didn’t noticeably slow down, either, even though there was a cyclist crossing the road in front of (I’m going to guess it’s a) him.
The next bit of bad news was that the cycle route was blocked again by roadworks at Adstock, where signs had been erected indicating that Main Street into Adstock was closed ahead. And in spite of there being many other options available, the Road Closed Ahead signs were smack in the middle of the cycle path, necessitating a detour around them, on the bit of the road where the signs could have been placed.
Riding back, there was an additional hazard caused by a workman who had parked his van on the cycle path at the same junction. He could have easily driven around and parked on the closed bit of road, but no: easier for him to block the fricken’ cycle route, which is also used by pedestrians, invalid carriages, pushchairs etc.
Another aspect of riding back was that we were now on the “wrong” side of the road, riding into the face of oncoming traffic. Although we weren’t sharing the carriageway, it was still hairy as we were buffeted by the slipstreams of oncoming trucks.
All in all, a useful commuting route, but too stressful and irritating for a pleasant leisure ride. And too many reminders that cyclists don’t matter and motorists are scumbags.
UPDATE: the bike has gone back to the shop for a refund. See below for why.
The other electric bicycle
As a counterbalance to the snarking from people concerning e-bikes being a form of “cheating”*, I like to enthuse about them whenever I can. It took a year or so, but eventually my wife couldn’t resist the siren call.
The difference between us, though, is that while I was willing to spend around £3k of money-I-didn’t-have on my Kalkhoff, my Mrs will only spend a smaller amount of money-she-does-have. For me, I could have spent £1k, but I didn’t have that money, either, so whatevs.
So, with budget being an issue, she wasn’t ever going to get the bike I’d picked out for her in my money-no-object fantasies. (That, by the way, would be something like the Riese and Müller Nevo, in a build with a carbon belt drive and a hub gear – which would cost between £2879 and £3779 ) So, to Decathlon we repaired, and considered their range of reasonably-priced (and, to be fair, quite well reviewed) e-bikes. If you’re on a budget, they’re not bad.
Bonus fact: the French government offer an up-to €200 refund, in order to encourage fitness and cycling.
Bonus bonus fact: Decathlon seem to have added this into the € price, because the one she got is just £599 in the UK.
Decathlon offer a town bike style model, the Elops, with a rear hub motor and a couple of price points, based mainly on battery size/life. But the model that caught my wife’s eye, not just because of its price, was the Hoptown 500, a folding electric bike. (https://www.decathlon.co.uk/C-811556-electric-bikes)
The Hoptown comes with a 6-speed Shimano drivetrain (derailleur), ergonomic grips, a gel saddle, and built-in front and rear lights. It has a 6Ah battery that gives a relatively small range of 15-25 km, which is good enough for going around town and for a short commute. If you have facilities for charging the battery at work, you could commute longer. For reference, my Kalkhoff’s enormous battery is around 13Ah, I think, so twice the capacity. And – because I am cycling fit – I’m getting up to 72 km (45 miles) of range on Turbo mode, which is the highest level of assist. So I can go to-and-from work (24 mile round trip) twice on a charge – possibly having to drop it down to Sport mode for the last bit.
Now, the idea that a normal person would be able to lug this Hoptown thing onto the train and commute with it is laughable. It still weighs a lot for a folding bike. But for an electric model, it’s relatively lightweight. Furthermore, whereas my bike is too heavy to go on the car without the addition of an expensive tow-bar and platform bike carrier combination, the Hoptown actually folds down small enough to go in the boot of the car. It was even possible to load up all our summer holiday luggage (including art equipment, a guitar and amp, and the usual bags) and still get the Hoptown into the boot.
So. It’s an ideal solution for someone who wants to buy an e-bike and use it in two locations.
A test ride in the Decathlon car park was arranged, and, happy with it, we set off home with it in the boot.
Not so fast. The only model they had in the shop was the display model, and they couldn’t find the charger. Huh. So an employee drove over to the next town’s store (Montbéliard is just 22km from Belfort), and brought over another model, giving us the charger from that. Visions of Decathlon robbing the charger from Peter to give it to Paul until the end of time.
A few km from home, I dropped my Mrs off with the bike, and left her to ride into Giromagny and then home. This would be a good test of the bike, as the journey from Giro to Auxelles involves at least three pretty hard climbs.
Not long afterwards, she phoned me to complain that the bike’s motor had cut out. I drove out to meet her, and encountered some strange behaviour. Getting on the bike myself, I set off pedalling and the motor kicked in. And then failed again.
So the excuses started. It must be that the battery, which appeared to be fully charged in the show room, was still awaiting its first overnight charging cycle. Batteries are really the most vexatious aspect of modern life, aren’t they? We left it on charge overnight, and the next day fired up the bike again for Maiden Voyage Part 2: I Tell You, This Ship Is Absolutely Unsinkable.
Worked for a bit. Failed. Worked for another bit. Failed. Seemed to work again after using the brake, as if the brake was a switch that turned the motor on and off. Huh.
So we phoned Decathlon and arranged to take it back. The brake-switch thing wasn’t supposed to be a thing, they said.
Since they had the bike they’d “borrowed” from Montbéliard, they gave us that one instead.
So, new bike, new battery.
Back in the UK, the bike is deployed, and the manual informs us that the battery will reach peak efficiency after 5 charge cycles. So we deal patiently with the foibles. Sometimes the motor just cuts out. You stop, and turn it back on again, and off it goes.
One of the issues with the building-to-a-budget thing is that you miss out on what turn out to be very useful features. My Kalkhoff’s display tells me how much battery is left, how far I can go on it, and so on. My lights stay on for a few seconds/minutes even when the motor is switched off. The Decathlon’s built-in lights go off when the motor does, so if you’re riding in the dark/fog on a country lane and the motor randomly cuts out, you become invisible to traffic.
Nevertheless, it mostly seemed to be working okay. So my daughter borrowed it one morning last week to ride to work/school with me. A proper test, because it’s a 50-60 minute ride on country lanes, and about 13 miles. It seemed to go quite well, with the motor cutting out only a couple of times. Not bad! (Number of times my Kalkhoff motor cut out: 0.) Again, we made excuses. It cuts out when you’re going faster than 25kph, and to save battery it switches off? Maybe? Or it’s perhaps overheating on the hills and needs a cooling off period? Or, actually, this was a really long ride for the quoted range of this bike, so the battery was probably on its last legs by the end.
Anyway, we got there, taking about 10 minutes longer than I normally do on my bike.
Took the battery out (it’s not very big, with limited range), put it on charge, and then put it back in for the ride home. The light on the charger was green, indicating a full charge.
And this is where the problems began. The motor cut out on my daughter a lot on the way home. It seemed to happen whenever she hit a bump, but it also happened at inopportune moments: at the bottom of a steep hill, usually. So we nursed it home, sometimes having to fold and unfold the frame in order to re-engage the battery, and the excuses stopped. This thing, just like the first one we had, was faulty.
Two for two.
Luckily, Decathlon is an international retailer, so we took it over to our local store and left it overnight. 24 hours later, they called back to say that the battery had been faulty, and they’d replaced it.
So now the bike is on its third iteration, but here’s the thing.
Riding an e-bike is a pleasure. It puts a smile on your face. It’s like cycling, but without the suffering. Think about that: it’s all of the pleasure of cycling (including good cardio exercise, because you are pedalling) without any of the protestant work ethic nonsense about suffering and pain. It’s better than driving a car. You feel good, you enjoy the sunshine and the countryside, you arrive at your destination only mildly perspiring and able to go about your normal day without wobbly legs.
But if you have a constant nagging anxiety that the thing is going to randomly let you down at the bottom of a hill? Not so much.
So I have my fingers crossed that my wife’s latest bike and battery combination will be reliable, but I don’t think I’d want to risk my daughter riding to school on it. Because it’s a long ride home on a heavy bike with no assistance.
UPDATE: In the event, the replacement battery caused problems almost immediately. It arrived with a full charge, but then when we plugged it in to charge it up, the LED indicator on the charging unit remained green. So I removed the battery from the bike and tried to charge it off the bike. This seemed to be working (red indicator, changing to green after a few hours), but as soon as my wife tried to ride it: fail. All of the same symptoms we’d seen before, so we took it back to Decathlon for a final time, and got a refund. Note that the £600 refund did not cover what she actually paid for it in € (given exchange rate and transaction fees).
This ought to be the entry level for a lot of people. Once you’ve ridden an electric bike and felt that push in the back and the wind in your hair, you don’t want to stop. They are A Good Thing. But, if you can afford to spend more, you should. Get more range. Get a mid-drive motor (situated around the pedal cranks), get something German or that £4000 Trek Supercommuter. Spend upwards of £2k and you’ll be a lot happier.
My wife is actually going to order a bike costing twice as much: the Raleigh Stow-E Way (2017 model shown above, reviewed here), which will be arriving, hopefully, in early October. Watch this space. It looks like a much cleaner design, and has the battery behind the seat post.
*If an e-bike is cheating, then so is driving any car that is not a fucking Hamleys pedal car.
The Ile-d’Yeu is a 30 minute ferry journey from the French mainland, off the Vendée coast.
The Vendée is my favourite part of France: a different kind of landscape, with (I seem to recall) the second best microclimate in France. The Cote d’Azur gets first prize for sunshine, and has the calm, warm waters of the Mediterranean and its beaches to boast of; but it also has overcrowding, endless traffic queues and nowhere to park. A few summers ago, we took a day trip to an island off the Southern coast, and encountered a fabulously beautiful beach on the clear turquoise sea which was a long but thin strip of sand — and there was not enough room on it to lay down a towel.
The Vendée has a long coastline on the blue Atlantic (Le Grand Large) with vast sandy beaches interspersed with rocky sections which have tidal pools full of sealife. It’s a great base for a more traditional seaside holiday, for both sunbathing and rockpool exploration, for kite-flying, beach tennis, body surfing, and more. It would also be a great base for a biology/geography field trip, what with the life teeming in the rock pools and the different types of vegetation in the sand dunes as they progress inland. Best of all, even in the peak of summer season, the beaches are not so slammed that you can’t move. You can in fact spread out without finding your face in someone else’s crotch. In the South, if you manage to fight your way through the traffic and the wildfires to get somewhere; and if you manage to find somewhere to park; and if you manage to find a postage stamp sized patch of beach to sit down on, you are also surrounded by the strutting and preening of the Beautiful People (ugly oligarchs) and their giant yachts.
I love the architecture of the Vendée: white houses with red tiled roofs, blue shutters. There are variations on this, and people paint their shutters different colours, but the traditional Vendée house has two small single-storey sections joined to a two-storey central section. The best of them squat in the dunes, or among the pines, and the sun bounces blindingly off the white sides, and there are no gutters because there’s a collective self delusion that it never rains.
The Ile-d’Yeu has a small port on one side, several sandy beaches, and a rocky coast with a ruined castle. Like a society, it has rules. Visitors are allowed, but not with their cars. Only islanders are allowed to have cars.
I was naively optimistic about this. Far too many beauty spots are ruined by the motor car. Let’s face it: everywhere is ruined by the motor car: towns, cities, countryside. But it’s especially jarring when you visit somewhere ancient and mediaeval, somewhere quaint and relatively untouched by modernity. I remember visiting the hillside fortress village of Gordes and being depressed by the unending stream of noisy traffic. And wherever you go, its a universal truth that even the pedestrian zones, the zones pietons, are blighted by the eternal presence of the busy-and-important person who decides they are the exception, and so you are always dodging cars and vans as they edge forward at an ironic walking pace and you are forever encountering that peculiar sense of privileged entitlement which is a constant reminder that you live in a capitalist dystopia.
So! I was excited at the prospect of an island with very few motor cars and where everyone hires a bike. An egalitarian utopia of pedal power!
Every island is a microcosm of society
But of course, was disappointed. Of course, the people with cars, the locals, the islanders, asserted their privilege aggressively and selfishly, with no sense that they were part of a society. They treated bicycles as a nuisance to be dispatched, and were they ever determined to overtake — even if there were another 15 bicycles in front of the one they passed dangerously close — even if there was another slow-moving car in front of those 15 bicycles — and in front of that car another 15 bicycles, and so on, all the way into town. It was bicycles all the way down. But no! They must get past, because such is the privilege of car ownership. And of course, the tourists, bless them, mostly unused to the cycling life, were pathetically deferential to their superiors on four wheels and simply accepted this state of affairs, while I wanted to scream at the top of my voice, vous roulez a la vitesse d’un vélo, ou vouz achetez un vélo! Often, overtaken, I would pedal harder, catch up, overtake them, and then act as a rolling roadblock, sitting in front of them with my middle finger dancing in front of their windscreen. Fuckers! It’s not that I hate motorists; I am a motorist, after all. But I hate people who think they are more entitled, and there is no escape from them, ever. Up against the wall! Oh, okay, I admit it: I hate motorists, including myself.
Even worse, it turned out, that as well as hiring a bicycle from one of the myriad hire shops (including the horrifically named Bi-Clown), you could also hire shonky old cars, most of them vintage Citroens and Renaults. For a mere €80 par jour, you could lord it over the cyclists like a rich second-home owning Parisienne. What a way to conspicuously consume! Belching black smoke from a shitty old chugger for a week for the price of a half-decent bicycle. And while you’re at it, park on the pavement, why don’t you?
It’s an island, so I personally don’t think longer than a week’s stay is necessary. There are only so many things to see, and the town is both small and expensive. I saw some wonderfully colourful cotton shirts, but at €70 apiece in the sale, they were beyond my means, as were most other things you saw in the shops, from tinned sardines to nautically-themed t-shirts. They did a nice line in branding: the island’s name shortened to an assertive YE on everything from polo shirts to wet bags and keyrings.
The house we were renting was a miracle in packin’ ‘em in. Including bicycle hire, we’re talking €5000 for the fortnight, split between a number of families. The first week, three or four families shared, and then we changed over for our week with four more. Each bedroom was constructed with a mezzanine, so that a poky room for two became a poky room for four. I think there were five bedrooms and at least three bathrooms. We got an ensuite bathroom to ourselves, which was a solid reminder to me that the ensuite bathroom or toilet is an abomination that Shouldn’t Be Allowed. Not with walls that thin!
The ethos was that everybody ate together, most of the time, which led to some late mealtimes as everyone drifted in and eventually got around to lighting the barbecue. If you’ve never cooked regularly for 15 people, here’s an example: one day I barbecued 2.5kg of chicken breasts with four trays of sausages, thinking this would be an excessive amount of food. The leftovers were enough to half-fill a cereal bowl. A huge pot of moules (mussels) was accompanied by four bags of oven frites. If I had my way, we’d have done our own thing, eaten when we were hungry, and not had to deal with such catering at scale.
There was lots of seafood, on which I’m not keen. Freshly caught tuna was sliced into steaks and grilled: good, especially with my improvised sweet/sour sauce made with apricot jam, vinegar, and chilli/ginger. But the next tuna brought in was eaten raw, sushi-style. Not my thing. There were also mullet, grey and red, and other huge fish (hake, I think, merlu in French), all caught locally. I would have liked the time to cook and prepare these creatively, but they were just cooked whole and consumed in scraps by the multitude.
As for bread, apparently the local bakery produced wonderful baguettes, of which 8-10 were dispatched daily. I even found a couple of fresh GF loaves on the island, and these were much better than the vacuum packed supermarket breads.
Things you realise they got wrong in Jaws
Jaws is set on an island, and they got right the idea that the “islanders” tolerate visitors only as an economic necessity. They also got right that arrival scene: with the hordes of people arriving by ferry from the mainland. But, in reality, most of the “islanders” are just rich people with second homes. They’re visitors themselves, and they should ride fucking bikes and stop trying to lord it over the rest of us. And the arrival scene is happening all the time, every 30 minutes, another boatload gets off to stay, and another boatload gets on to leave.
Chief Brody wanted to close “the beach” but on an island there is never just one beach: there are lots of little beaches, and if there was a shark, there would be lots of places for it to operate, some of them — even on a small island — isolated and wild. And if there was a shark, it would probably feed 15 people.
Islands are hills in the sea
One difference between the Ile-d’Yeu and the mainland of the Vendée is that the island undulates a bit. Nothing too dramatic, but whereas much of the Vendée coast was reclaimed from the sea by Dutch geo-engineers hundreds of years ago* and is therefore mostly flat until you get about 15 miles inland, the island itself is a hill in the sea, which is higher in the middle, and has a rocky coast that does rise and descend steeply in places. None of this was beyond the ability of even temporary cyclists, but the nature of the bikes that you can hire made it harder than it ought to be.
The geometry of the bikes we hired was simply terrible. Even a mild incline would cause burning pain in your backside. I don’t know: the saddle wasn’t far enough back from the pedals or something. So although you never really cycled more than a couple of kilometres at a time, you felt it in your legs when you arrived. Our longest ride was a circuit of about half the island on a day when the Atlantic swelled and there was wind and drizzling rain. It was bracing, though the younger you were, the less fun you found it. The kids and I were dreaming of a Mars bar and a coffee, and we came across a man with a van in an isolated cove who was offering both for €1 apiece to our unalloyed joy. But the youngest kid, their cousin, went into a steep decline. Problem with a cycling holiday, though: if you’re tired and you want to go home, you still have to pedal to get there.
*St. Benoist-sur-Mer, for example, is a few kilometres from the sea, these days.