Amsterdam du Paris au Velo

Maurine Dodge

© Copyright 2005 by Maurine Dodge

I did not know how much it would change my life when my beloved Isuzu Rodeo blew an engine.  Forced to rely on friends for rides to search for another vehicle, to get to and from work, and, having little credit,  finding anyone to finance me was a depressing situation.  The real change came at the lunch that was the hand off  from one friend who had taken me around to the different car dealers, to the one who said I had looked enough for one day and had something else in mind.

We pulled into the Schwinn dealership and I protested that I had not ridden a bicycle in some years and would probably fall on my face.  The point was, she said, that while she could not afford to get me a new car, she could and would buy me a new bicycle so I would not feel quite so stranded and at the mercy of others to get around.  She persisted that one simply does not forget how to ride a bicycle.

It was a very great thing she was offering and I did not have much heart to refuse her.  While I was picking out one from the row of bicycles she had indicated I should choose from, she was having the store manager gather together the normal accoutrements.  Seat bag, tool kit, helmet and riding gloves were all part of the deal.

A test ride proved one does not truly forget how, but also made it clear some practice was in order.  The bike and gear loaded into her van, she took me home.  Over the next few weeks I used the bicycle to some degree, but continued looking for a replacement vehicle.  I found a Ford Ranger pickup, which would give me somewhere to carry the bicycle to places without traffic to ride without fear of being run over while I gained more stability on two wheels.  It was over priced and they pretty much wore me down to a very high interest rate that, had I been in my right mind, I would not have accepted on a credit card let alone a vehicle loan.  Their crooked dealings are currently in litigation in a class action suit, but that is another story all together.

I was actually getting to the point of enjoying a bicycle ride now and then when the television started having ads about a bicycle ride from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Paris, France over the 4th of July week of 2002.  It was a fund raiser for finding a vaccine for AIDS.

Oh to return to Paris, Amsterdam.. memories of a happier time in my life when I would work in the states for six months, take a back pack and a thousand dollars and wander around Europe for six months came flooding into every cell in my body. Even better, it was a really good cause.

Excitedly, I thought, put together a team from work.  That might even have worked had the company been willing to put up anything to sponsor a team.  I spent weeks trying to get an audience with the right person with the company to present my plan to have the company have it’s own team represented.  They turned me down flat.

 It was apparent  I would be on my own.  To train I would ride a minimum of 10 miles before going into work, and on my days off at least 30 miles.  Feeling better it began to look like I might be able to do 50 to 100 miles a day which was what it would take.  I talked to everyone I met in an attempt to get pledges for the ride.  I had promises of money, and money given to me.  There was even a way to pledge online by the second month.

I did not have enough vacation time to cover the whole trip, but told them I was simply not available those dates as I would be out of the country.  Surprisingly, after the first turn down and my going over the heads of those who denied my vacation, I got approval for time off.

The round trip ticket  flew into London where I would stay with friends. Ferry over to France, rent a car, drive to Amsterdam, bicycle to Paris, then take the under the channel train back to London and back on a plane home.  In the back of my mind the idea that perhaps I would find a way to stay there.  Arrangements were made for critter care and intensified training. Lengthening my ride times before work to 20 miles and the off days to a minimum of 100 miles.

Online I found biking shorts and shoes, panners, bike lights and odometer.  The friend who had gotten me the bike to begin with, bought me a new bike seat that had no horn to it and was by far more comfortable for longer rides.

Departure day came and I got a ride to the airport from a co-worker and was off.  Landing at Heathrow, I took the time to put the bicycle together and tossed the cardboard box that had carried it.  The only damage from the plane flight was the odometer cable had been severed so I would be without odometer.  Learning which trains in London had space for bicycles, I made my way to my friends house.  They not only provided a roof over my head for three days but agreed to meet me in Paris at the end of the ride

Having made a reservation on the ferry from Dover, I got a ride from London and rode the bicycle onto the ferry. Something had felt not quite right as I rode into the line for boarding but I could not quite put my finger on it.  The thing about the ferry is that you can only ride the ferry with a vehicle, but a bicycle is a vehicle.  Securing the bike in the hold I spent the trip in the lounge sampling fine beers, taking pictures of the shrinking white cliffs, and when they were out of sight, watching the horizon for Dunquerque.

The reason for the restriction on boarding without a vehicle became clearer on landing in Dunquerque when we docked ten miles outside of town.  It would be a good warm up ride, after all, I was in France again. The ramp of the ferry was wet and I took a small spill on exiting, the only spill as it turned out, my entire journey.  With a slightly scrapped heel of one hand I managed to ride off the ferry and head out for town. The effects of the beer imbibed on the ferry was soon lost as I toiled onward in search of the car rental place.  The only map I had been able to procure was not much for detail and did not seem to correspond to the roads I found myself on.

It was during this ride that I realized what had not felt quite right on boarding the ferry.  Normally fairly astute in assembling things, I had inadvertently put the handlebar stem on backwards which placed the handle bar too close for comfortable riding.  I stopped long enough to reverse it and assemble it correctly.  I had planned on being in Amsterdam by early afternoon but it was beginning to look like this would not happen.  I had not found the car rental place, and had not seen anyone who understood what I was asking.  I stopped at the first car rental outfit I saw and inquired showing them my reservation paperwork I had obtained online before departing the States.

While I do not think they really were, as I am seldom quite that lucky, they claimed they were the right place.    It occurred to me that a refresher course in French would have been a really wise move prior to this undertaking.  It was clear that my limited French was not sufficient to negotiate a contract and it ended up costing me more than expected.  The Citroen had an on board navigation system, the only problem was it was all in French so I only understood part of it.  Still, I can read a map, and had no difficulty in finding the right roads to head to Amsterdam.  I arrived in Amsterdam too late to find a room so slept in the Citroen until morning when I found a nice room in a small hotel within walking distance of the rides start, checked in my bicycle with the ride coordinators, and turned in the rental car.

The next two days were my own to be a tourist and I took full advantage of that.  Spending a great deal of the time in the red light district, where all the gay clubs are, as well as all the cop shops.

In the United States if someone said “cop shop” you would think of perhaps, a police department. There it is a specialized place with a menu of every type of cannabis from all over the world.  Just reading the menu is an amazing thing to a hippy from the 60’s.  The prices are not from the 60’s, but you are not breaking the law to imbibe.  I did as much sight seeing as time would permit me, found some of the local gay bars, and went native.  It was like a return to the 60’s for me without the onus of breaking any laws.

It is at this point that I must mention the one most important essential piece of gear for any trip anywhere.  You can forget your toothbrush, hairbrush, waterproof matches, or deodorant, but never, ever, go anywhere without a compass.  With a compass and a map you can find your way from one point to another.  The reason I mention this is because when I decided to go native on my last night in Amsterdam, I did not have one.  When I tried to find my way back to the hotel I became completely lost. Asking directions from several people, got me different answers, all of which were completely wrong.  After walking around for 10 hours I threw myself upon the mercy of the police who were kind enough to take me to the door of my hotel.  It should be mentioned that even they had to call in to find out how to get to the street where my hotel entrance was.  A little side street next to a canal.

Being late to bed caused me to oversleep and I found myself racing down the sidewalk with my panner bags in hand to get to the start of the ride.  Handing off my gear to the gear truck, I located my bicycle amid the few remaining.  I was the last rider out before they packed everyone's bicycle into the trucks who had not shown up yet.  They would have to catch us at the next stopping point.  The route was well marked and I had a map just in case, but I still had failed to locate my compass.  The start of the ride went through some beautiful country, along rivers and canals, past windmills.  I pushed harder than I probably would have if I had gotten a little earlier start as I had noticed the trail car was usually not far behind me.  I think they half expected to have to pick me up and take me in until I had made the first two check in points where there were snacks and drinks.  By then I had proven my stamina to them and had actually even caught up to some of the riders who were taking it easy on the first day.  I began making a few more stops at photo opportunities.

In most of Europe, unlike the United States, bicycles have the right of way more often than not.  Drivers of motorized vehicles not only watch out for a bicycle, they show common courtesy lacking in America.  The difference is amazing and something to consider before deciding where you want to take your first bicycle tour.  It is far more pleasant in Europe to bicycle the roads than in the states where I have had everything from yelling at me to get off the road to throwing things like bottles at me from the moving cars.

At one of the places bicycles had to stop if there was a red light, and push a button to get the green which had a bicycle symbol on it, there was a very old man who was not part of our group and only spoke French.  I managed a small conversation with him, and he told me that not far ahead was a war memorial that was a good place for a picture.  Sure enough, it was beautiful.  An octagonal structure with ornate statuary, built on what appeared to be a pier that jutted out onto a lake.  The back end was under construction. but indeed it was an excellent picture stop.  The old man caught up to me while I was taking the pictures, and the trail car pulled up and started taking pictures of my having a chat with the local.  I wished my French was more fluent, he wished his English was more fluent, but we managed a nice chat before I continued on.  I was rather pleased with myself for having had my first french conversation sans translator.

 The tent city was being set up by the first arrivals, and the woman who had been assigned as my tent mate had already set up our tent.  She was obviously straight, and uncomfortable with bunking with a lesbian which was unfortunate. As things went, we avoided each other for pretty much the rest of the trip, so we never really got to know one another.  It seemed there were very few of us that had not come with at least a friend to ride with and most of the gay ones had come with their significant other or a group of others.  I was something of an outsider, although I was the only one with a bicycle seat like the one I had, and it was cause for some conversation about how I liked it.

I used a 79 cent shower cap over my bicycle seat to keep it dry and was glad I had brought two since someone from the ride stole the first one during the 2nd night.  I met and talked with a woman who had been born in the U.S. but had lived the last ten years in China.  She was fascinating, and an interpreter.  Her fluency in French was another reason to seek her out at the stopping points.  This was not very hard to do as she had this huge multicolored umbrella that she would strap to the back of her bicycle while riding.. leaving the point sticking out behind the back wheel by almost a foot.  When I asked her about this, she dryly said.. “it discourages drafting...”  Drafting is something bicycle racers sometimes do where they ride right on top of the bicycle ahead of them’s tire to use the air flow to help pull them along.

I had not noticed anyone really drafting, although on the first day one of the injuries was a young man who had been unable to stop his bicycle and had crashed into some other riders.  He had sprained his thumb and spent the rest of the ride on the buses, much to the chagrin of anyone who happened onto the same bus.  He did strike me as somewhat obnoxious.  I think I would have been far to embarrassed to not at least try to ride again.  As it was, I had my knees taped up the second day by the first rest stop, and by that night due to an allergy I had not anticipated, had blisters all over my leg where the tape had been.  The adhesive in Europe is apparently some different than the US as I had no problems with tape from home.

 The umbrella lady also had brought along some purchases from the cop shops in Amsterdam, and had found one of the ride’s security people who had  stocked up as well.  The three of us spent time, taking walks, or in the security guy’s tent which was always farthest from the other tents to imbibe.  Had we been caught, we would have been ejected from the ride, and I am sure either of them would have just taken a plane home.  I on the other hand would have had to continue on my own, by bicycle and found someplace to setup the half tent I had bought in London just incase.  The possibility, while not expected, of being ejected from the ride had occurred to me and my back up plan was to continue on no matter what, which was why my luggage had consisted of panners for the bike.

The three of us discussed the problems of possessing and transporting such things as we no longer were in a country where it was legal.  I had solved my problem by carving out the middle of some rather pungent deodorant soap and sealing small baggies inside, then using the soap to seal it good until the next stop where I would break it open and then re seal it during my shower that night having removed only enough to share that night.  We had all managed to buy three different varieties, so it was rather like having a pastry cart and getting nine different tastes at one sitting.

In the evenings they provided information about the next days route, information on the weather and conditions, and at one point well into France, they said we must be careful of French Gypsys who we were expected to encounter the closer we got to Paris.  It was after this warning and a day of riding in the rain, which let up as I neared camp, that I noticed they had added security.  This camp was behind a gate and men with dogs patrolled the perimeter.  This appeared to me to be rather foolish, as I found the entire side and back of the camp to be unfenced, and when I crossed the yellow caution tape to take a walk outside the camp, I was never challenged by any of the men with dogs.  It was via this route I am sure that the “gypsy's, who looked to me like nothing more than bored teenagers, were able to sneak in and steal a good amount of fireworks some of the riders had brought from the states for their personal  fourth of July celebrations.  The night was filled with fireworks in a park across the street from the main gate, and some of these “gypsies” even threw m-80’s at the gate.  An m-80 is the equivalent of a quarter stick of dynamite and makes a very loud bang, and if in too close a proximity, can take off a hand or foot, so this was a minor concern.   The umbrella lady and I, and a few others of our group, stood outside the gate and talked with some of these gypsies and as far as I know, there were no more incidents other than  fireworks across the street.  

I also met one of the crew workers who was to be of tremendous assistance to me during the ride, especially towards the end.  She was from San Francisco area of California and had not thought she could ride but wanted to be a part of this amazing trip.  She was in love back home with a married man.  A doomed relationship that had her crying a lot to speak of.

After bicycling for 70 to 100 miles, I was usually too tired to do a lot of sight seeing, which was to my way of thinking the only drawback to the entire trip.  Even the rain that fell sporadically during the entire ride, was not as much of a negative as the lack of energy to go see things during the time I had to do that.  The crew worked very hard to feed us all, and the medical staff always had someone on duty for blisters, cuts, bruises, and my favorite, massages after a long ride.  Leaving the camp most times was not worth the effort of checking out your bicycle, and not getting enough rest before the next days ride.

 I was never the first to get on the road, nor was I ever again the last. One thing that struck me on the second or perhaps it was the third day.  I would be passed by many of the other riders, as I am not fast, and my bicycle unlike many, is not a racing bike.  It turned out that my bike was perhaps more suited to this ride than the racers. Though they would pass me by the dozens, by plugging along at a decent clip, I would eventually pass most of them as they sat by the roadside fixing flat tires.  Racing bikes have notoriously thin tubes and most of them seemed to have lots of need for repair on a daily basis. The same riders would pass me again once they had made repairs.  It reminded me of the tortoise and the hare.  The only repairs I needed, and this was daily, was at the stopping point my wheels would be out of alignment and need to be trued.  I suspect that a good investment would be better wheels that maintain truing for a bit longer.  The ride had bike mechanics who did the minor tune up things and the truing for free.  If you required major repairs, you paid them for it.

The rains got heavier and more intense as the ride progressed.  All the tents seemed to leak severely and there were times it was dryer to sleep in the meal tent which many of us did.  I managed somehow to find a dry place each night in a corner, although one morning I awoke to find the river through the meal tent had just missed me and had swamped the folks right next to me.  I had not been truly dry for days by the time we were one ride away from Paris.  It was just under 100 miles to the velodrome that marked the end of the ride.  I was sore, and cold, and wet and was not sure I would have the energy for that last day of riding if I did not find a dry place to sleep.  By now even my sleeping bag was wet.  The crew member I had befriended had pretty much had enough of the wet and the leaky tents as well.. and called ahead to change her room reservation in Paris to one day earlier.  She took me along and paid an enormous taxi fare into Paris as well as the next morning an enormous taxi ride back out for me to finish the ride, and her to do her crew thing.

She had booked a room at the Duquesne with a view of the Eiffel tower.  It was awesome.  We shared a meal at a local bistro not far from the hotel, and slept dry and warm for the first time in almost a week.  I was energized and ready for the last leg of the ride and it was during that leg I realized how much better it would have been not to camp out in the rain every night and that if I wanted to start a bicycle touring company, it would be good business to own rooms along the longer routes thereby getting revenue from rental property as well as the tour packages.

At the end of the ride my friends who were to meet me did not show up at the velo-drome where we had a big celebration of our ride with speeches and fanfare, so I hung out with my friend with the great room.  We packed and stored my bicycle at the train station I would be leaving from to go back to London, and did some sight seeing together.  The d’Orsey museum was one I thought quite worth a visit.  I had made several attempts to call the hotel my friends were booked into, but had not reached them when we returned to the Duquesne.  We asked if there were any messages to which they replied no.  There had been someone asking for a Dutch.. I realized immediately this was for me.  I said.. “did they perhaps ask for Dodge?” and after finding out they had indeed said my first name and what the limited English speaking receptionist had thought was Dutch , was in fact Dodge.  I was then able to hook up with them and bid my good byes to the crew worker that had given me the dry, warm place to be.

My London friends were more interested in clubbing than in museums, although I think that was because they already had seen the museums, and the Eiffel tower, (where I bought myself a ball cap that says Paris), rides down the Seine and eating.  We stopped at Notre Dame where we found a film being made and they got the lead actor’s autograph by speaking to his daughter.  We wandered the streets of Paris for another day together, and then were on the subterranean train under the channel back to England.

I far prefer the ferry although the total time you are underground is about twenty minutes, I felt odd to know that the whole channel full of ocean was above me.  It is black and even straining to see out the window, all you can occasionally glimpse is what appears to be a cat walk not wide enough to walk upon, and far too close to the train to be caught on.  My London friends told me there had been many deaths of people trying to flee to the U.K. through this tunnel.. walking.  I think one would have to be very desperate indeed for such a trek, and without knowing if there was anyway to get out of the way of a speeding train should you time it wrong.
There was also the decided disadvantage on the train of not having an open bar to sample a variety of beer on the ride, nor a spacious area to stretch ones legs and look out picture windows at the departing coast line.  The Ferry is most assuredly the way to cross the channel.

I had not found anyway to stay there.  I had not found any way to extend my trip and was pretty much out of money, so I took the train with my now boxed up bicycle to the airport and sighed as I watched London disappear beneath me.  I wondered how long it would take me to get back again.  The next time I will have a compass, and while I want to do a bicycle tour, it will be leisurely so there is plenty of time for sight seeing all along the ride.  I do miss Paris.

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