Me and Michel Chapter Five

‘You only grow when you are alone.                                                       

Paul Newman


I’ve wheeled the bike down to the gates of the campsite, panniers fully laden and my fancy trailer firmly attached to the rear rack. The girls have walked down with me and stand by as I make final adjustments to the bungees holding everything in place. I fold the map to show the first leg of the journey, and slide it into the plastic window atop the handlebar pannier.

We’re okay. I know my daughters were talking late into the night, and none of us got much sleep, but I think we’re okay. Though it will be hard to say goodbye in a few minutes time. And I do believe they have very real concerns that I’m not going to make it home in one piece. They’re looking at me as if willing me not to go.

‘It’s a gentle bicycle ride,’ I say, ‘I’m not climbing a mountain or going caving. I’m just tootling along by the sea, taking my time and drinking wine. D’accord?

Megs says, “Will you please be careful though?”

“I won’t be pulling any wheelies, not with all this kit.”

I hug her tight for the longest time, and then I go to Lilly and she opens her arms wide. I can’t read her expression. It’s so hard to let her go, but when I do, I’m relieved to find she’s looking right into my eyes, and smiling too.

“It’s going to be fine,” I say, and she knows I mean for us both.

“I know Dad, I’m okay, really.”

I don’t want to linger, this is hard enough as it is, so I hug them both again and then begin to wheel the bike down to the road. I turn and give something like the bravado wave of a circus performer and prepare to mount my steed. But as I swing my leg over, I catch my foot on the crossbar and though I manage to hold the bike and trailer upright, I stumble.

‘Fine! All fine. Here we go!’

I’ve got a helmet, but I’m damned if I’m riding away wearing it. I look daft enough already in my padded shorts designed to protect my ageing ass and a cycling top that reveals rather more paunch than I might wish to own.

As I wobble away towards the coast road, I change down a gear to make the peddling easier, and risk a backward glance or two as I go. They’re still there. It’s a family tradition to wave until you’re out of sight, but I don’t know if I can manage to do that and stay upright. Finally, the road bends, and with a last trembling glance over my shoulder, my beautiful daughters disappear from sight and I’m on my way, talking out loud to myself about going the wrong way round roundabouts, stunned to find myself at the start of a foolhardy adventure that was, until this very moment, nothing but an idle fantasy.

Ten kilometres later, and I’ve negotiated the streets of Biarritz centre ville, taken the back roads through its suburbs, and joined the D260, busy, but the most direct route to Bayonne. I had to leave before the girls because I needed to make it to a campsite in good time. I’ve picked a place that is the other side of Bayonne, close to the Atlantic coast, and I think I’ve reserved a pitch there online, but you never know. So I’m allowing two hours to get there and an hour to sign in at reception – which closes at five, along with the gate, apparently – and set up the tent. I’ve got more than enough time, but I want to play it safe on Day One.

I check my phone for the time, but for the route, I’m relying on the map. I mean to start as I intend to go on. My daughters may well be on their way to the airport by now, but they won’t take off until 4.30pm, and by then, I’m aiming to be through Bayonne and on the other side of the Adour river, heading for my first overnight stop, the Campéole Ondres Plage.

I feel my confidence grow as I get into the rhythm of peddling, keeping the pace steady, but not overdoing it, and I’m getting used to the drag of the trailer behind me. Fancy it may be, but damned heavy. I’m an articulated bike now. I have to be careful not to take corners too tightly and accidentally catch the curb. Soon though, I get the measure, and I’m even starting to enjoy myself.


In Bayonne, I’m so taken by the quaint, half-timbered medieval buildings that I dismount and wheel my bike along the river. The afternoon light gives an unreal quality to the gorgeous waterfront houses, five or six stories tall but only one or two rooms wide, stucco in every conceivable colour, pinks, ochres and reds of all shades, roof terraces, shutters and ancient doors. I notice I’m attracting some attention as I pass people on the streets, and I like that the folk I pass take a second look, wondering perhaps at all the stuff I’m hauling, and how far I’m going. I am beginning to feel like an adventurer, not Odysseus perhaps, but a man with a mission nevertheless.

I stop for a coffee in a small street café that has the sun on the tables that spill onto the narrow street and dancing reflections from the river playing on the façade. I leave the bike against the stone river parapet and an older couple stop to examine the trailer. They turn to me, and point, saying something I can’t quite understand, but indicating approval, I think. I wave and say thank you, hearing my French accent and wincing. I must speak more, and more often.

I’ve lived in France at different times of my life, and I’ve driven here too, and I believe it’s true to say there’s a kind of built in respect for the bicycle and for those who ride bikes. How can one generalise about a nation? And yet drivers definitely give a good deal more leeway than they do in the UK, where a cyclist is always an irritating obstacle, something you can squeeze by if you breathe in. In France, you’re another road user with all the rights implied by that, and a certain extra consideration for braving the elements, but there’s more to it than that, I think. I may be oversimplifying horribly, but a bicycle, no matter who is riding it, always carries a hint of the chutzpah of the Tour de France.


I am three kilometres out of Bayonne, on a road that hugs the river that I’d imagined might be a pretty way to the Atlantic coast. Avenue Louis de Foix turns out to be lined with shabby industrial units and vacant lots, grey silos and enormous concrete buildings that are abandoned or seriously neglected. I’d thought to race through and reach the sea, so I’d put my head down until the back wheel began to weave from side to side and I found there was nothing I could do to control it.

I pull over to the side of the road, but it’s dual carriageway here and I’m scarcely out of the line of the traffic. I had hoped it might be the road surface, or the weight of the trailer, or maybe something caught in the chain, but no, it was the tyre, and the back tyre at that. There’s no pavement where I’ve stopped, just a thin strip of tarmac with a white line between me and the passing cars and trucks and buses. Away from the road, there’s a ditch, and beyond that, a wall.

I know what I have to do, and I know how to do it. Of course I do. I just don’t want to unhitch the trailer, undo the bungees, take off the panniers I only packed so carefully a little over an hour ago, and then get myself covered in grease. Not here. But I have no choice. I look up and down the straight road stretching back towards the city and on towards the sea. I decide to push on – literally – until I find a safe spot to make the repair. This may be Stoicism in action, or simple necessity, either way, it’s a pain in the ass and acceptance is not the first word that comes to mind.


My fingers are black and sticky with oil from the chain. I try to wipe them as best I can on the grass. I’ve got so few clothes with me I can’t afford to dedicate a shirt or a pair of shorts to becoming a rag, not at this early stage in the trip.

As I repair the puncture, my grandfather is standing by and watching me work – as he has done ever since I was a child and whenever I’ve got tools and a job to do – telling me to go slow, to think out what I’m doing and take it step by step.

I was seven or eight years old when he showed me how to remove a bicycle wheel, how to deflate the inner tube and unscrew the nut holding the valve in place; how to ease the tyre from the rim, and slide the inner tube free, inflate it again, and then – letting me take the lead – he’d tell me to hold tight, as if gripping a slippery snake, and dunk it, bit by bit, into a bowl of water until a rush of tiny bubbles revealed the invisible hole.

I was entranced. As a child, the whole process was infused with magic, and my grandfather was a wizard with the power to cast spells. And though he hardly spoke to me as he worked he made sure to pause and show me every stage of the process; drying the tube, rubbing around the hole with some sort of abrasive paper to give the glue purchase before pressing down the patch with his thumbs and dusting the area with what looked like talcum powder. I still have his bike. It’s rather rusty now, though I did repaint it twenty years ago or more, and I should again.

When we were done, Gangi would let me sit by him on the low sofa in the living room. I’d plant my feet firmly on the floor, legs flopping outwards just as his did, my elbows perched on my knees, just like him, fascinated by his slow motion existence and his long silences, more fascinated still by the strands of beautiful brown tobacco he teased from the navy blue St Julien tin. I can still see the saliva-wet paper pressed into the canvas of his rolling machine and hear the snap of the lid, producing a ready-rolled smoke. And sometimes, the devil in his eye, he’d let me light it, and he’d laugh his toothless laugh at the sight of me spitting out the horrid taste. He would shrug his shoulders, unconcerned, and yet somehow all compassion and care.

I don’t believe my grandfather ever read a book of philosophy in his life. The only books I remember him having were westerns by the great Louis L’Amour, but my grandfather lived a philosophical life, at least that’s how it seemed to me as a child, and now he’s dead and I’m old, I find I am still guided by the spirit of his unlettered wisdom.

But as the years have rolled by, and I’ve read a little more, I’m not sure he was a natural Stoic. I think it is much more likely my grandfather – like me – leaned towards the Epicurean, with his minimal but precious comforts and immersed in his garden; vegetables only, I think, and if there were flowers, they would have been dahlias, bright, colourful, and easy to grow.

One day, maybe, I will find a place to live as he did, content with my small pleasures and my own company, able to allow those I love to come and go as they wish, without ever holding on too tight. I hope there is an orchard because I have promised myself, and now my daughters, that there will be. I have plans to make jams and cider, and I will create space for vegetables because I want to make condiments, like horseradish sauce and salsa. But above all, I hope there will be some ataraxia, the ancient Greeks call it, peace of mind or freedom from disturbance.

George Gibson – Gangi to me – died when I was thirteen years old. Peritonitis killed him, ironically as he was riding his beautifully maintained bicycle to work as a baggage handler at London’s Heathrow Airport. I don’t think he died at the roadside, but it was not long after, and I know he didn’t make it to hospital. He was only in his late sixties, a few years older than I am now.

Who is to say whether George Gibson was truly the hero I remember, or something closer to my grandmother’s vision of a dull man with nothing of interest to contribute to the world. Either way, I hope he’s proud of me trying to do the right thing, even if I so often fail, and though when I look around there is nothing to see but road, I feel his presence close by, not least because he knows I have a confession to make.

I took the precaution of bringing a spare tube with me – two in fact – so there was no need to dunk, or glue, or apply a patch, or powder, and no doubt when I get to the campsite tonight, I will put the old tube in a recycling bin. It occurs to me how disappointed Gangi would be in his grandson’s abject capitulation to the throwaway culture of our times.

I’m aware that the sun is lower in the sky. I check my phone for the time. It’s half past four. I’ve been so engrossed in the repair that I haven’t noticed an hour has flown by, and I’ve still got to reattach the panniers and hitch the trailer, and make it another eight K or so to the campsite. About now, my daughters are taking off from Biarritz airport. I look up at the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of their plane. I scan the horizon. Nothing, or maybe far, far, beyond the city…is that a plane? I think it is. I’m sure it is, and it’s taking off, I think. It could be them. Or not. I watch the plane until it disappears into the high cloud.

And all at once, I feel completely alone.