Lessons I Learned on a Family Bike Trip in France
How a vacation helped heal the emotional scars of childhood
When the idea of a family bike trip through the South of France was broached by my wife earlier this year, my initial response was, “Wow, what a cool idea!" While not a biking fanatic, I was pretty sure I could make it without a headline in Le Monde reading "Imbécile Américain Meurt dans un Champ de Lavande. (Stupid American Dies in Lavender Field)."
Besides, I had seen all the travel brochures with pictures of tourists my age, riding leisurely along the vineyards. All of them were dressed in T-shirts and shorts, as if on their way to a picnic where a nice Bordeaux would be served. In other words, a casual, week-long ride along flat roads that required no more effort than a stroll in the park — my kind of exercise. Plus, I’d be surrounded by travelers who were just like me — weekend bikers of a certain age who were there for fun rather than a challenging workout.
I figured, too, that we’d be a group rather than a team, which is a huge difference. Just the word “team” stirred dismal memories. You see, I wasn’t a sporty kind of kid growing up, uncoordinated to the point of being a danger to myself. Things only got worse in high school. Not only was I always the last chosen for teams in gym class, but the team captains would often come close to physical blows trying to pawn me off on the other. In baseball, I was always asked to play outfield — like, as far away as possible while still technically on school grounds. For basketball, my position was Over There and Out of the Way. Dodgeball? Just aim for my throat and throw as hard as you can.
Not What I Bargained For
There’d be nothing like that, I figured, in Avignon. Heck, I might not even need a helmet the way I was going to be riding. After regularly avoiding the traffic (automotive and pedestrian) of Manhattan, a quiet jaunt through the French countryside would be a cinch. That was until the tour actually started. Not only was France in the middle of the worst heatwave since Marie Antoinette cracked wise about eating cake, the rest of the bikers appeared to be veterans of the Tour de France.
Almost all of them wore professional-looking Spandex uniforms from past tours and charity rides. Some wore biking shoes, an item of clothing I didn’t even know existed. All that was missing were sponsors’ logos and cameramen following them on motorcycles. The men’s thighs were the size of hassocks, while their arms threatened to burst through the sleeves like the Incredible Hulk. The women appeared less dangerous on the surface, except for a couple who looked strong enough to throw me across a wrestling ring if necessary. What disturbed me most was that they were about my age.
Several of them were already friends, having biked together last year in another part of Europe. Five minutes after we started the first lap of our ride, they disappeared ahead of me, not to be seen again until we gathered at the hotel pool four hours later.
Too, those flat roads I’d seen in the brochures were in apparently another part of the country. Maybe in another country entirely. In this tour, I discovered that afternoon, hills were in the mainstay. And for some reason, many of them seemed a lot steeper going up than they did going down. Except for the winding road where I almost rode off into a ditch at around 50 kilometers per hour. If that weren’t exhilarating enough, we were going to have the option of riding Mt. Ventoux, the highest mountain in the region, and part of the Tour de France. Fun fact: An average of 35 bikers a year die on Mt. Ventoux, either from getting hit by cars, riding off the cliff, or just keeling over from heart attacks.
Oh great, I thought warily, this trip is going to be a lot of fun.
And you know what? It was.
A Good Sport
The following morning, while my family hung back at a more leisurely pace, I was determined to at least try riding with the serious cyclists. Maybe I couldn’t throw, dribble or hit, but I knew I could pedal. If nothing else, I figured that regularly dodging yellow cabs rather than fleecy white sheep would burnish my street cred with this crowd. To my relief, not only was I welcomed with open handlebars, my new friends were generous with their advice and encouragement.
These weren’t the exasperated jocks of my adolescence. They were grown-ups who, like me, were just out to have some fun, get in a good day’s exercise, and eat as much cheese, dried sausage and baguettes along the way as physically possible. Competition? Il est impossible!
To be sure, I tended to bring up the rear much of the time. An especially kind woman who was usually directly ahead of me kiddingly thanked me for keeping an eye on her in case she fell. Sooner or later, the job would be left to someone else as she, too, would zoom ahead. But that was OK – it gave me more time to look at the endless fields of lavender and sunflowers.
Once or twice during the week when a hill appeared a little too formidable, my family and I would opt for what was euphemistically called “a boost” in the tour company van. When I once admitted taking the easy way, one of my teammates replied with a shrug, “Nobody pays attention to who takes the van and who doesn’t.”
I was accepted when I biked. I was accepted when I rode the van. I was accepted, period. Call me naïve — and, trust me, I’ve been called much worse – but I had no idea that any kind of sports team operated this way.
New Friends, New Attitudes
My adverse exposure to sports had lingered with me for almost a lifetime. It’s kind of like growing up in a dysfunctional family: no matter how long you’ve been away from it, it clouds your perception on what the ideal is supposed to be like.
As the week progressed, we got to know the others quite well. One woman regaled us about a nasty run-in she had with one of the most famous comedians in show business. We met a writer who could spin new ideas like cotton candy. One couple turned out to have a relative who lived around the corner from us on the Upper East Side.
At the beginning of the tour, I dreaded being the loser of the group, the guy whose appearance was enough to elicit groans by one side and guffaws by the other. By the end of the week, I had experienced one of the best, most welcoming and most physically active vacations of my life.
All it took was erasing 40-year-old memories and hanging out with mature adults – none of whom were interested in riding the killer slopes of Mt. Ventoux, Dieu merci. Of course, the nightly round of Cabernet didn’t hurt either. Why didn’t somebody tell me sports could be fun?