If you missed it, check out Part One in this series. The last article focused on how this trip came to be and the first time the crew touched based on Belgium soil. In this article, Chris, Damien, Josh and Ben catch a train from the Netherlands to Brussels and then on to Lyon, France.
We were now about a week and a half into our trip. A large portion of our time had been spent in Amsterdam and the south of Netherlands in a town called Roosendaal. Nettie and Jos were our gracious hosts here. Without them we wouldn't have had the experience we did during the famed Stage Five of the 2014 Le Tour.
On our last night in the Netherlands, Nettie was kind enough to prepare a traditional Dutch dish, Herring. Let's just call it the Dutch equivalent of Vegemite - you either love it or you don't. Regardless, we were thankful for the hospitality and warmth shown by all Dutch people we met.
The next day we were off to Brussels on a two hour train journey. Brussels entertained us for one night. The world heritage site of Grand Place was breathtaking. Just the sight of the buildings at night set parts of the mind aglow. The attention to detail and craftsmanship displayed with the architecture was astonishing.
Our very last tourist stop at Brussels was to view Manneken Pis (Little man Pee') - the unassuming Little Boy statue that is approximately four centuries old. When I look at something like that, I can’t help but think about the artists life and situation when it was created. I wondered whether he entertained thoughts of travelers from land afar coming to observe his creation?
We started early the next day and were headed to Lyon by train to collect our camper-van. The French part of the trip started extremely well when we grabbed an absolutely scrumptious 'Baggi' (Australian for Baguette) from the 'Patiss' (Australian for Patisserie) at Lyon train station. There would be almost daily visits to the Patiss from here on.
Traveling with bikes and their rather large cases can be difficult. The French are clearly accustomed to foreign folk traipsing across their lands with bikes in tow. We faced no issues on the train from Brussels - even when the bike cases stood in the middle of the train isle. People just accepted us.
At this time we were three - Josh, Chris and I. Damien was catching a later train and meeting us in the evening. We needed to travel across Lyon to an industrial area to collect our vehicle. This was no issue for Jerome, our taxi driver. Jerome had us seated in his black Mercedes van with three bikes in no-time. He commenced a personalised tour of Lyon and had the tunes pumping - this Gentlemen was yet another character who knew how to welcome people.
On our depart, Josh commented on how pleasant the tunes were. With that, Jerome promptly ejected the CD and placed it in Josh' hands. Three man hugs later and we were onto the next stage of the trip.
With collecting the camper-van we were aware of our roles for the remaineder of the trip. Chris became the driver - always reliable and willing to clock the K's. Josh was 'Mr Patiss', often acting like a Grandmother who forced delicious French delicacies down our throats. They called me 'The Pirate', for my Pantani-like abilities when climbing a Col or two. Damien was the entertainer, once he got his first coffee down for the day. Otherwise, let him be!
We left Lyon that evening with a van full of full of food and beverages. Spirits were very high, but there was also a degree of anxiety as we navigated through narrow streets with our van.
Our first stop was Besancon. Almost a week later, this was to be the location for second rest day stop for Le Tour. When we woke in the morning in a car park we stumbled into late the night before, we could see why. To the French, it was probably just a car-park, but the surrounding walls that would have once been a barricade to stop intruders was 'magnifique!' That's French for 'bloody awesome'.
We spent two nights in Besancon. Our days involved local rides around the neighbouring country roads, followed by afternoons in a bar watching the closing stage of Le Tour. Our very first ride on French soil started with a light drizzle, within no time we were riding along sun drenched roads with gorgeous hills surrounding us.
During this first ride we found ourselves in the middle of a wedding heading to a church. There aren't too many events that can give such an insight into a culture. The procession into the church was enough for us to stop our ride for fifteen minutes and observe. The church bells rang to signal two becoming one. Or was that the chiming of our empty stomachs? Time for the Patiss!
From Besancon we made our way further north to Mulhouse. It was around this stage of the trip that we realised how valuable Josh was. He was the only part of the team that had spent most of his schooling years learning French. His ability to repeat 'Par-don!' to French locals was outstanding. When they didn't understand, he simply repeated the word with more emphasis on the 'don'.
Our lack of French started to hit home in Mulhouse. This was the location for the finish of Stage 9 and start of Stage 10. Our plan was to stay at Mulhouse for two nights and ride to meet the riders on Stage 9, then watch them at the base of a climb as they departed the region for Stage 10.
On both days we became incredibly lost. At one point on the first day we were riding along a freeway in the pouring rain as the sun fell from the sky. Very dangerous? Yes. Part of a great memory that created a bond between the four of us forever? Yes to that also.
Rewind a few hours to that afternoon and we had just witnessed Tony Martin power away from his breakaway compatriots and the chasing bunch to take a huge stage victory. After witnessing Tony's efforts we climbed the mountain they had just been on. To us it was a chance to hit a decent category three climb, to them, it was just a little hill they sneezed up.
On our return to Mulhouse and probably our initial reason for getting lost, we stopped at a small village which may usually have 200 residents. With Le Tour passing earlier and France playing in the World Cup that evening, it seemed everyone within 100km was there. We simply had to stop for a beer and sausage.
This is one of the great things about France. In Australia, you can get a sausage every weekend for $2 at Bunnings. But in France, its how they do a sausage and how the local village throws a party. Its the spirit with which they take to an occasion that is impressive.
Fittingly, we left Mulhouse and it took us about two hours to find our way out. Love that place! Our plan was to make a bee-line through Switzerland to meet Greg and Nick further south in the French Alps.
Driving through Switzerland, there was one dominant thought - I must come back to explore.
Stay tuned for Part Three, where the team rides the French Alps and takes on Mount Ventou under challenging circumstances.