Travels with a Brompton

At about the time I was engaged on a series of long bike rides through France I met a man at a drinks party who had some involvement in the Brompton business. He asked me if I had ever considered using one for my French rides.  My answer was negative, since we carry quite a bit of luggage and go up hills, although not mountains as a rule.  Drinks party man assured me that the Brompton is not just a commuter bike but excellent at climbing and carrying – just the thing for touring holiday in fact.  His wife always chooses the Brompton when they go out for a ride together.

In a spirit of open-mindedness I arranged to borrow one, tried it out on the hill behind our house and wrote it off (not literally) for our French touring purposes; with regret, because the folding bike would solve the complications, which are only getting more intractable, of rail travel with a bicycle in France.  

A trial hill climb with my Brompton left me unconvinced

However, I delayed giving the Brompton back, because it was brilliant for trips to London by train and to Oxford by car.  I had just about worked out how to fold and unfold the thing, and was all set to take it on Eurostar for a day trip to Paris, when it was stolen from a bike rack at Gloucester Green.

Now here comes a new book about French cycle touring – Travels with a Brompton in the Cévennes (and other regions), by Sue Birley, published today by Cranthorpe Millner.  Congratulations Sue!

Sue’s approach to French cycling holidays has much in common with mine, beyond the fact that we both admire Robert Louis Stevenson and named a bicycle Modestine.    

Sue also faced the ‘my companion’ problem familiar to restaurant critics, and came up with a better solution than I did, her husband’s initials working as an acronym, Dahb, that reads easily.  Sue’s shoes have holes that let the rain in, but also let it out. Snap!  She and Dahb use Warlands on the Botley Road, which she considers a proper bike shop.  Who knows, we may even have been in there together.  They don’t like cycling with a backpack, nor do they adhere to the cycling mindset that considers mountains a challenge to be conquered. Check.  Although folding e-bikes are now available, something in their puritan souls makes them resist the temptation of battery assistance. Amen to that.

Like us – and presumably most other self-supporting cyclists on tour – they travel light and do essential laundry on the road, often draping damp items of clothing around the frame of the bicycle to speed the drying process as they roll along. So far as as I have read, however, they have not yet resorted to wearing wet pants around the neck as a cooling foulard, as my companion did on a warm morning in the Drome. Sue’s book is illustrated with delightful sketch maps in a style that looked so familiar, I wondered if her publisher and mine used the same artist. They didn’t.  

Sue and Dahb share my slightly nerdy interest in French number plates, and enjoy looking out for motorists out and about on furtive missions away from home. This must be a habit that goes back to their early French holidays, because, sad to say, the number plate system changed in 2009, since when the inclusion of a département‘s number on the plate has been facultatif; and, more shockingly still, the car owner who does wish to show regional allegiance through the number plate can choose any département he wants, as long as the badge and the number match.

Our paths do diverge.  I come from a guidebook background and France On Two Wheels was intended to be a book people might find useful, albeit not follow slavishly.  Sue’s Brompton book is a not a guide, nor is it meant to be one; rather, it’s thirty years of holiday reminiscence, some of it quite hazy – hardly surprising, after all that time – and whimsical, not to say haphazard.  She and Dahb often stop for a beer ‘somewhere or other’.  Lans en Vercors? That was where they watched a far-off tennis game and compared the different speeds of light and sound. I can well imagine, and know from experience, how much fun she and Dahb must have had, going back over their maps, diaries, post cards and photo albums while this book was in the making.

‘It really does not pay to have any idea where one wants to go,’ she writes.  I couldn’t agree less.  I side with the people of New Hampshire, who (according to Johnny Wheelwright in A Prayer for Owen Meany) take the view that ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, you have no business being where you are.’  

The point of this book is the pleasure of reading it, in an armchair. Sue’s narrative rambles pleasantly along, embracing digression in a way that suggests she writes as she rides, without a clear idea where she wants to go.

The book’s focus is not the regions of France, Sue informs us (correctly).   ‘It’s primarily about the Brompton.’  I would say it’s primarily about Sue and to a lesser degree Dahb.  Although I have read no more than a handful of its many chapters, I already feel I know her: a viola-playing, opera-singing former nurse who embarked on a geography degree at the age of 43 and finished it in 1996 (which suggests a date of birth about 1950).  A Renaissance woman, no less.  After the degree she did some PhD research, perhaps not completed, on French politics.   Dahb, by contrast, is a fully fledged doctor, almost world famous for forgetting things and hopeless with a camera, but not without his uses, especially as a bearer. (In their early days, when they camped, Dahb on his Brompton must have been quite a sight, weighed down as he was by tent, mattress and portable stove, to say nothing of bike tools, spare tyres and tubes). He bought a summer suit at C&A in Grenoble and has worn it to summer weddings ever since, along with the posh hat he bought in Villeneuve sur Lot.  

Sue and Dahb spend much of the book stopping to drink beer, which is not to say they don’t drink wine; au contraire, he drinks red, she white or pink.  Since they are the kind of franco-vinophiles who choose wine that comes in pichets, their incompatibility is not a contentious issue.

The aspect of the book that I found most intriguing was its inclusion of the Mont Ventoux. Up the Ventoux on a Brompton – chapeau! And what better day to choose for publication than this, the 686th anniversary of Petrarch’s famous ascent of the elephant of Provence.

Prepositionally, it might be more accurate to say, as the title of the book does, up the Ventoux with a Brompton, because it is clear that on this trip as on others Sue and Dahb spent plenty of time pushing their Bromptons, not riding them.  They took 6 ¾ hours to reach the top, nor did they find the ascent too tough, the gradient rarely being too steep for pushing.  

Other cyclists stared in disbelief at Sue and Dahb, pushing their Bromptons up the hill. ‘Why?’ one of the more forward of them asked.  ‘Why not?’ Sue replied. ‘That shut him up.’   But did it?  

Why, indeed?  Pushing a bike up a road is something that has to be done on occasions, but there’s no pleasure in it. On this occasion, Sue and Dahb could easily have left their Bromptons at the hotel or in some convenient place at the foot of the Ventoux and walked up more directly and more quickly, on a beautiful footpath, far removed from sticky tarmac and sweaty cyclists, as Petrarch did on April 26th, 1336.

I suppose the answer to that may lie in the fun of the descent, which would certainly be quicker on a Brompton, more enjoyable and easier on the knees, than on foot.   Still, it does strike me as a strange choice of holiday activity. 

Sue has done time as a subeditor but there is nothing nitpicky about her easy, breezy prose. When not drinking beer, she and Dahb are forever nipping up to places and popping over hills. In reality, I suspect their travels involve less nip and pop than plod and trudge. Her footwear may be full of holes, but she advises solid shoes, because they spend so much time on footpaths.

Isn’t it supposed to be a cycling holiday?  Sometimes I have the impression the Brompton is little more than a luggage trolley, in which case a donkey might be less trouble.

All that said, rather ungraciously since Sue has been kind enough to send me a copy of her book, Travels with a Brompton is much more fun to read than I imagine it would be to implement. Sue and Dahb are delightful new friends I have enjoyed meeting, remotely. Had our path crossed with theirs in la France profonde I’m sure we would have all hit it off and gone our separate ways in the morning with a hangover for the ages. Perhaps it could still happen. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to getting to know them better in the remaining chapters of the book.

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