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An adventure in sustainability

Back in August, whilst enjoying a free glass of wine or two in Belfast I found myself committing to cycling across France to Geneva. This leg-powered journey of many hundreds of kilometres is enough of a challenge for anyone ambitious enough to take it on, and it was a huge deal to me. Never in my life have I been considered as sporty or even energetic, generally taking life at my own single speed and often preferring to sit down and craft or use my brain rather than my limbs. But once this opportunity for an adventure was out on the table, I found that I just couldn’t let it pass me by. So, nine months later, after a lot of poring over maps and only about four months of ‘training’ under my belt, I was aboard the Eurostar heading to Paris.

Our five-day ride from Paris to Lons le Saunier

My PhD is funded by QUADRAT, a doctoral training programme which provides training and opportunities for each cohort to network and learn new skills. One such opportunity is a week in the Italian Alps for all second-year PhD students. The easiest way to get there is to fly to Geneva and drive across the border. But given the state of the climate, throwing additional carbon into the atmosphere through flying felt far from ideal. During initial discussions about the impact of our travel, the offhand promise of a pint was made to anyone who dared tackle the journey by bicycle. This piqued the interest of two researchers, James and Xavier, and set the wheels of our adventure in motion.

The view from our final destination in Courmayeur, Italy

Once my bike was reassembled in Paris, my first stop was the Eiffel tower to meet the others. Xav and James had spent the previous week cycling from Cherboug and had taken a well-deserved day-off to explore the sights of France’s capital, and we were keen for a photoshoot in front of the iconic emblem of our ‘starting point’. Despite cycle paths making navigating the city much easier than some, at junctions in particular I pulled over to watch where other cyclists went as the lanes continued in what I sometimes considered illogical fashion. After an exhilarating half hour ride at what felt like rush hour, I found the rest of the team and we marked the start of our journey together.

Ready to hit the road in Paris

Despite knowing the first day would be the longest ride of the trip, we started two hours later than intended, fuelled by fresh pastries and with panniers full of baguettes. Whilst planning, the distance for this first day had crept up and up as we aimed to minimise the time spent on roads. This resulted in a 130km day with significant proportions of the route very much off-road, making a long day even longer. Woodland trails became muddy sludge, unpaved tracks became wheel-buckling gravel, and cycleways became root-strewn overgrown meadows that hadn’t seen another soul in quite some time. One of my first training rides back in January saw me stopping halfway up an incline – not even a hill – on the verge of throwing up as my body struggled to understand this new feeling of exertion. Yet there I was, at the end of what might possibly be the longest ride I’ll ever do, still with enough energy to wash off the mud and have a feed before falling into bed.

Mud, not-so-glorious mud

Tree one of three on a 'cycleway'

The terrain of day two made up for day one. After a late breakfast in Sens watching house martins swirl overhead and people potter about the market, it wasn’t long before we joined the Burgundy Canal. We followed the canal for three days, the flat, smooth towpath and straightforward navigation making for some relaxed riding and more opportunities for wildlife spotting. Herons were in abundance, kites soared above, kingfishers dashed along the water, whilst warblers and marsh frogs serenaded us. Either side of the canal was lined with lush vegetation, rich green forests exuding the sweet smell of blossom. Unfortunately, the canal itself left a little to be desired. The alluring blue of the water was actually a reflection of the poor quality, demonstrated by many sightings of dead bream littering the surface. As conservationists, we also felt conflicted when we spotted several coypu, a relative of the guinea pig and capybara, swimming along the banks; it was a wonderful treat to see such an exotic animal but as an invasive species to Europe, the damage they cause can be catastrophic to local ecosystems.

The flat terrain of the Burgundy canal

Overall, the canal was pretty quiet. We encountered very few people so the ones we did cross were notable. As we passed a couple laden with panniers, I commented that they must be cycle touring too. Only after I said this did I realise that I’d acquired a new identity, and I was in fact a cycle tourer myself. I was pleasantly surprised to feel some pride in this realisation, later reinforced as I tended to my bike to keep it in top shape for the days ahead. The faff of bike mechanics was always something that put me off any form of serious cycling previously, yet here I was, putting my new skills and knowledge to use without much faff at all.

Enjoying the view and a snack at one the locks

Although we had more than 100km to cover on average each day, it didn’t feel like a race. Daylight was on our side and we each took the ride at our own pace. We went into autopilot, legs pumping up and down, bodies constantly adjusting slightly to stay comfortable. Given the amount of time it had to occupy itself each day, surprisingly little went through my brain. Other than noting my surroundings and fleeting memories of people and places, it seems that all of my usual mental energy went into my legs.

Stunning evening light along the canal

As we inched towards Dijon the landscape adjusted. At first it began to open out; we passed more villages, more boats and beautifully old farmhouses and castles dotted the hillsides. Then it closed back in. The trees shrouded steep valleys, and exposed rock faces suggested we were nearing the mountains. After a morning steadily climbing lock after lock, I enjoyed an afternoon feeling fast and strong, assisted by a gradual downhill and a sugary snack or two. The reward for another long but successful day was a meal out and a sample of the local wine. It would've been rude not to.

En-route to Dijon. Spot the castle on the hill

The next day, my final ride lay ahead. By the afternoon we’d said goodbye to the canal and found ourselves in the undulating French countryside. Here, I had my first taste of fast roads and we had our first glimpse of distant mountains. But once again, these gave way to quiet, tree-lined cycleways glowing green in the sunshine. This is my kind of cycling – smooth, flat and surrounded by nature – and I tried to absorb it all as much as I could, knowing that it’d soon be over. I listened for the birds, sniffed the sweet air and embraced the feeling of my newfound fitness.

The final stretch to Lons le Saunier

I stopped cycling at Lons le Saunier before reaching Geneva. The final two days were in the Jura Mountains, following the roads up steep inclines and tight hairpin bends. I’d been nervously ambitious about completing this part of the route but as we got closer I acknowledged my limits. My lack of experience, and therefore strength, lack of low gears and lack of adequate waterproofing – I’ve since discovered my ‘waterproof’ is actually only windproof, which explains the quick saturation rate – meant that it would’ve been an incredibly stressful, and quite likely hypothermic, forty-eight hours, which wasn’t what it was all about. So, it was in my soggy coat that I waved au revoir to the team as they started the final stage, and I hopped on a train to meet them at the end.

Heading for Geneva on what would be a very busy train

Over five days, we covered 515km, and the guys totalled an impressive 1,100km border to border. We were very lucky and grateful to have the support of QUADRAT for this adventure. I’d strongly encourage anyone to consider alternative, more sustainable means of travel to your next destination, whether it’s five or five hundred kilometres, and whether you think you’re a cyclist or not.

Heading for home after a well-earned jaunt in the mountains

1 Comment

Peter Young
Peter Young
5 days ago

Chapeau!! Great adventure. What maps or apps did you use or would recommend? Thanks for sharing.

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