Well, there is no way to hide from the fact that today went as badly as it possibly could have. Far from being the perfect start to the task we have chosen to apply ourselves to over the next few months, from the offset we were handed problem after problem which tested our patience somewhat!
Our drive started at the ungodly hour of 4am after a limited amount of sleep due to us both waking a number of times probably because of the immanency of us leaving. The drive was clear with limited traffic allowing us the chance to have a final full English to fuel ourselves for the days cycle. Assembling our bikes we quickly realized that in the rush to get hour house packed, move and store our goods we had probably gone a bit overboard and we were carrying more than we had intended or wanted to. They handled like shit and felt far heavier than we would have wanted, the various panniers were not properly adjusted and didn’t fit as they should. With no chance to leave anything behind we cycled the short distance to the entrance to the docks, collected our tickets and followed a red line intended for cyclists to get us to the relevant area. With us both feeling a little unsteady due to the weight and the unfamiliarity of using front panniers, an altercation with a port bus driver left one of us grazed and shaken and the other extremely angry. The full story has been embargoed to make sure there is no unnecessary worry, but after a ten minute calm down we were able to carry on and board the ferry to head off!
Our first target after arriving was to head to the Belgian town of Ypres, a relatively easy 65km flat cycle through the French and Belgian countryside. For some stupid reason, most likely due the time in the morning we left, I decided that I wouldn’t put any cycling shorts on and quickly felt as uncomfortable as someone who had been slapped in the arse 30 times with a wooden plank. It was slow going, especially after getting lost trying to leave Dunkirque. Even worse was the absolute shock of having a puncture less than 10km into the ride… this was really unexpected as the tires we are using are excellent quality and we were not expecting any until at least Eastern Europe. The weather was good and we found an area to remove all of the panniers and take of the back wheel… shouldn’t be a problem as we had two spare tubes and a repair kit. We then discovered that both of the spare tubes we were carrying were completely the wrong size and had the wrong valve, and infuriatingly stupid thing to have done, especially as I know exactly what sort they are supposed to be, and after asking for them I didn’t actually check at any point I had been given the correct type, how stupid! It wasn’t a problem, we could find the right type and we could repair this one, it would just take a little longer…. Oh but the repair kit glue had leaked out of the tube which was now completely emply! Arghh… fortunately someone at Sheena’s work had given her a small repair kit as a joke, and in our haste to pack had thrown almost everything cycling related in…. was it in the bag?? Phew, yes it was.
We fixed the tire quite rapidly, which was useful for Sheena as she hadn’t seen it done before and meant that she learnt for when it happened next. What caused it? Half a smashed up shell inside the tire… how the hell had hat got there?? Half the shell of a sea creature between the tire and the inner tube? I had ridden the bike but not much (it was a newer version of one I had ridden many miles on) so can only assume that the weight of the panniers resulted in it puncturing the tube…
When the bike is fully loaded with a pack strapped on the bike along with four heavy panniers it isn’t easy to take the tire off and fix a puncture. The process takes a while and it a major break to the day. To have everything back on the bike and on our way in less than 30 minutes was a relief, but it was to be short lived as straight away the wheel was flat again. This laborious and frustrating process continued again, this time we checked the inner tube more carefully and found six more holes and major blemishes that were likely to break again. With almost all the puncture repair kit used we checked the tire as carefully as possible, with no sign of anything that could cause another break we fitted it all back together and loaded up to try and make some progress. This had taken over two hours sat in between a stinking waste incinerator and a noisy freight train yard barely 10km away from where we had started.
With only 3% left on our battery, and with a paper map that had a stinking resolution we somehow managed to navigate out of the grasps of Dunkirks industrial delights onto a road that would lead us to some level of progress. At 4pm we were exhausted and slightly demoralized at our disappointing progress, Sheenas Irishness leaves her skin about as resistant to the sun as the French are to the Germans, so she was already sunburnt despite the cloudy start. It would be exaggeration to say that we had managed to pedal 5 more kilometers before I felt the burden to become more difficult and the back of my bike to be hitting every lump like a hammer on rock… not again?! The eighth, or was it the ninth puncture of the day?? Seriously?? We had seen a sign for a McDonalds indicating that one of their ‘restaurants’ was just 3 minutes away. To people from the NE it may be a romantic date night, but for us it was a place to use free wifi and try to find out if there was somewhere close we could call an end to the day and try to regroup and reorganize ourselves. With luck, Bergues was close and had itself a campsite. By using a combination of fifty pumps and fifty pedalstrokes we made it there and passed through an admittedly beautiful old fortified town to the campsite.
Greeted by what can only be described as a cross between a busted up old Spanish soap actress and a retired dominatrix, with a straggly white bouffant hair and high heels. Not once did she smile or slow down her thick accented French to us as we tried to converse in her language. Regardless, we had a tent space, two cold beers from the only local business open on BASTILLE day (doh, we had arrived on a French holiday, no wonder everything we had seen all day had been closed) and two shower tokens (1.20 each) which were as cold as Neptune’s dark side and required pressing a button every 30 seconds.
It is easy to miss details or underestimate how trying our first day was. Never have we had such issues cycling anywhere, let alone the very first day of a potentially ten month tour! What a nightmare! Although Sheena may have been the driving force to do this, it was certainly me who was the one who had romanticised cycle touring as the way to do it. We had woken at 4, one of us was knocked off our bike by a bus, someone fell into a bush, we got lost, we had more than 7 punctures, every business was closed, we no way near made it to where we wanted to and there was no warm shower at the end. For most couples this would have destroyed them, but it had been a long time since I had laughed so much in a day. Nothing makes me more excited than the fact that throughout this nightmare unplanned first day we remained in good humour throughout and we able to laugh about it at the end. Yes there were moments where each of us had a slight sense of humor failure, but at any time it was short lived and we made it somewhere where we ate chips, drank a beer and collapsed in out tent – the first time of many to come! We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we both thought the first day would be!!!!