The Escape Artist is back broadcasting again from the UK, having spent a week and a bit in a foreign land to the south called “France”.
For those that haven’t been there on a school trip, France is a bit like the UK other than its mountains are bigger, the sun often shines and the people there pretend they don’t speak English.
Those readers who aren’t interested in cycling should keep reading because this post is not really about cycling, its about how to think about financial independence (or indeed any big challenge).
In We All Need A Mountain to Climb, I set out my goals to cycle up Mont Ventoux in the South of France and then cycle all the way back up to the English Channel. By putting my goals out there, I created public accountability.
Those were stretch targets. I was not 100% sure these goals were achievable for me. Other cyclists told me that I might not be able to stay upright on the bike towards the summit. Venteux means windy in French and the mistral means it can get seriously windy at the summit; wind speeds up to 200 mph have been recorded and the wind blows at 56+ mph 240 days a year.
Even assuming I got up Mont Ventoux, I was far from sure that I’d be able to cycle the 600 odd miles back to The English Channel. How would my body hold up now that, lets face it, my boyband days are behind me?
The point of life is to find achievable goals and pursuits that are meaningful to you. I’d wanted to cycle Mont Ventoux since 2009 but work always seemed to get in the way. Life is what happens when we are making other plans. When I reached financial independence, I lost the excuse of being busy at work…so now was the time.
There is great simplicity to a trip like this because I had a clear goal: to get home. I realise cycling ~600 miles is not everyone’s idea of fun. I’m not sure its even my idea of fun. Fun implies something that is easy and immediately pleasurable.
In some ways, the initial decision to pursue the objective is the hardest part. Once you are on the path, you are on The Path. And the hardest part about the decision to pursue the objective is often fear of the unknown.
Lets be honest, cycling through France is not that scary. Other than those roadside “crouch” loos, how bad can it be? But there were plenty of nagging fears along the way…what if I get mechanical problems in the middle of nowhere?, what I get lost or injured? what if I cant find anywhere to stay and have to sleep rough?
Actually, that last one had the most resonance for me. I grew up with an irrational fear of poverty and being homeless. This trip involved just enough risk of having to sleep rough to challenge me mentally as well as physically. Of course, in the event it never came to this. If you have a credit card and a stash in the cloud there are usually people willing to provide you with accommodation.
A good way to deal with fear is to get closer to a mild form of it, rather than deny, conceal or run from it. This is like innoculation – a vaccine works by exposing your body to a small, weakened form of a virus. You are then better able to fight the real thing. So if you expose yourself to mild sources of fear you can build your mental resistance in the same way.
Living simply for a week with few possessions and no fixed abode is not a bad grounding for any of us. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
The trip reminded me how hard it is to lose weight (fat) by exercise alone. I wasn’t trying to lose weight on this trip which is a good thing because I came back exactly the same weight, despite having burned more calories in a week than the average office worker probably burns in a month. But appetite ramps up in response to exercise so I just ate more.
I did alter my diet during the trip. Normally I avoid carbohydrates including sugar, bread, rice, pasta, potatoes. But this would have been a bit impractical. For example, the average French breakfast is a sugar fest. Breakfast is croissants, pain au chocolate, pastries and bread with jam washed down with orange juice. This is not the diet our bodies evolved to live on. But if you are cycling 6 hrs a day, you can load up on the croissants. I think of carbs as being like rocket fuel, not the best thing to run your car on long term but not bad for a short term performance boost.
If you are cycling all day then the challenge is to get enough healthy calories to keep yourself well fuelled. At lunch most French restaurants have a good value menu du jour – 3 or 4 courses of real food for 12 – 13€.
One thing I’ve noticed on cycling trips is how emotions play tricks on us and how fleeting and insubstantial they can be.
For example, one minute the sun is out, you are cycling along smoothly and all is right with the world. You then get a sense of foreboding and realise that there is no good reason for this other than the sun has gone in and it might rain. Disaster! In the modern world, this might necessitate putting on a rain jacket. The reason it feels bad is that back in our evolutionary environment, a storm meant risk of exposure so we needed a warning from our emotions to get back into our cave.
On a physical road trip you get used to emotional fluctuations based on nothing more substantive than getting hungry or tired. Try to avoid making any important decisions when you are tired, hungry or de-hydrated as they will usually be bad ones.
One of the tricks of stoicism is distinguishing between observing (seeing the world how it actually is) and perceiving (how it feels as we experience the world). People tend not to write about this shit because who wants to admit they are a partially evolved emotional monkey?
Peak versus off peak
Almost everything about my trip was off peak. I went outside of school holidays and the July / August French holiday season. I went to places that were beautiful but not particularly fashionable and usually stayed in places that were off the main tourist strips.
This meant I didnt get ripped off with tourist prices. One thing that I’ve noticed since FI is that the effective cost of everything has fallen. This is something people usually overlook in the debate about what’s enough and safe withdrawal rates etc. The truth is that your spending tends to fall after FI because you have time to buy almost everything smarter and cheaper off peak.
I booked no accommodation but rather found somewhere to stay each night by keeping an eye out after 4 or 5pm. If you are in the sticks, look for chambre d’hotes, if you are in a town, head for the main square and price compare the hotels.
Accommodation is the largest cost for a trip like this. The coach and ferry were both pretty cheap and you can make your food bill as large or as small as you want. My accommodation costs ranged between 14 and 66 Euros a night, with the low end of the range being a youth hostel and the high end a fancypants hotel in the centre of a scenic town. For me there is not much correlation between accommodation cost and enjoyment: its dead money and I usually prefer the low cost, quirkier places.
Living with less shit
Here’s an easy way to cure everyone’s materialism. If everyone had to physically carry everything they owned themselves, then I promise you that we would all have way less shit, no matter how rich.
Because I had no motorised entourage behind me of butlers and footmen driving my Rolls Royces packed full of golf clubs, waffle makers and hostess trolleys, I learned to live with only the stuff that could fit into a small backpack. If you know you are gonna be hauling it yourself up every hill for ~600 miles, believe me you learn to travel light.
You need a credit card, a passport and some cash. You can store everything else in the cloud.
How young / old do you need to be?
Age is no barrier. Going up Ventoux I rode up and chatted to a guy who was 60 and was doing his second ascent of Ventoux of the day…he planned to make it three later that afternoon. So even if you are a late starter in life, there is always hope.
When I was a young idiot, I used to think that 60 years olds were good for nothing other than pushing a Zimmer frame or towing a caravan. But I’ve come to realise that we don’t stop exercising because we age, we age (partly) because we stop exercising.
You can see a map of the route here (although its a bit shorter than my actual route as Google directions shows the optimal route with no getting lost).
I took the European Bike Express which picks up in the UK and drives south through France to the Mediterranean. Unlike flying there’s no need to box up your bike, its just loaded onto a trailer with sturdy racks that keeps it safe.
The ferry crossing takes place in the afternoon and the coach drives down through France through the night while you sleep. At about 7am on Saturday we got to Orange, my stop for Mont Ventoux.
Its about 30 miles east from Orange to Bedoin. Finding the way is not difficult as you can see Mont Ventoux and its distinctive moonscape summit and tower as soon as you get out. This ride gives you a couple of hours to gently warm up for the task ahead.
The ride up Ventoux is visually stunning. You start in the middle of Bedoin and follow a well signed route out of town, through farmland and vineyards until you get into the forest where the road kicks up. The forest section is beautiful, peaceful and sheltered from the wind and sun. You then emerge from the forest into the moonscape to incredible views for the last 6 km to the summit.
Once you hit the summit and have the obligatory trophy photos, all you have to do is follow the road down the other side of the mountain to Malaucene. You might want to check your brakes before you start down though as it is a white knuckle ride. Click here to see the descent (same road, different rider).
All you then need is for your automatic pilot to keep the compass pointing north / northwest until you hit the ferry at Caen (Ouistrahem). I had no GPS gizmo nonsense, preferring to keep it real with a Silva compass and a map.
My route stages were:
Day 1: Bedoin to Montelimar
Day 2: Montelimar to St Etienne
Day 3: St Etienne to Marcigny
Day 4: Marcigny to Bourbon-L’Archambault
Day 5: Bourbon-L’Archambault to Vierzon
Day 6: Vierzon to Chateaudun
Day 7: Chateaudun to Mamers
Day 8: Mamers to Caen (Ouistreham)
As I look at each day, none of the “stages” were that long or difficult on their own. The hard part is to keep going and stay consistent, pushing the miles out each day. I loaded my ipod with a whole bunch of podcasts before I left and these were invaluable at distracting me from my aching legs and staying in the zone.
If you are a competitive person or a serious cyclist it would not be difficult to knock a couple of days off. For example, my day 7 was not much more than a half day: I knocked off mid afternoon to get some beers in. I found that I needed some variety and time off from the bike to “refresh” but someone more focussed than me could easily reach the objective quicker than I did.
Was it hard?
It would be impossible for someone who emerged from a cubicle after 10 years doing no exercise.
But if you’ve done your preparation, the ascent of Ventoux is easy enough if the mistral is not blowing. Yes its steep, but its only 22km and the visual spectacle meant that I forgot it was supposed to be hard work. It took me about 2 hours from downtown Bedoin to the summit. This compares to 57 minutes and 49 seconds for Lance Armstrong in the 2004 Tour de France. But, to be fair to me, I took a lot less drugs than him.
#The harder bit was grinding out the miles day after day when you are tired and are facing a dead straight road, rain and a headwind. But again, this is more about mental side of things.
There were reminders at the end of the trip of how ridiculously easy modern life is.
The last bridge I crossed before reaching the ferry port was the Pegasus bridge where at midnight on 5 June 1944, gliders from the British 6th Airbourne Division crash-landed next to the German defences. The Brits that survived the landing started a fire-fight and overcame the Germans, holding the bridge so the D-Day landing forces could cross the river Orne.
You have to go there and see it with your own eyes to realise how ballsy this was.
Was it worth it?
It was for me.
Whilst it wasn’t always fun, I got a huge sense of achievement from the trip.
Confidence comes from demonstrated performance and not from short cuts, consumer crap or package holidays.
Money and belongings can be lost but physical experiences like this trip stay with you forever.
And no beer tastes better than the beer at the finish line.
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