My body is changing visibly and invisibly. The neck muscles are stronger, the lats a bit more prominent. The clutch hand feels stronger. My stomach must have shrunk, since I am eating mostly small portions of high energy foods like raw bars and fruit, accompanied by half a bottle of water a few times a day. A couple of days I have felt some pain in my left knee and foot and my left hand, but nowhere near as much as I’d anticipated given the distances I am covering: 400 to 500km a day on the days I’m riding. From a mental perspective, it’s important not to zone out so I use the trick from RoadCraft, the Police Riders’ Handbook: narrating the details of the ride and asking “what will I do if…” about each manoeuvre. I try not to anthropomorphise Veronica too much, for surely that way lies madness? I do try to acknowledge and be grateful for each courtesy showed me by other road users, raising a hand when it’s safe to do so. Most other riders greet me with a victory sign or a leg kick.
France is pleasant to ride in. The landscapes are beautiful, fields and forests with sweeping blue skies, other road users are mostly courteous. The speed limit signs are a bit confusing but between them, the satnav and the speed at which other vehicles are moving, I settle into what feels like a good rhythm, keeping mostly at 110 or slightly higher where it’s obviously lawful. The only worry is fuel: both France and Germany have E10 95 petrol which contains biofuels and there is the chance it may wreck my engine. I’d been warned off it. In Germany there is regular 95 available too, in France only the E10 stuff. I resign myself to having to use the posh 98 for the next 1000km. After filling up with it for the first time, Veronica growls in protest. Perhaps rich food is not to her palate, but that’s our only option for now. Tolls are a bit inconsistent but one figures it out. I’m charged in three different ways: for travelling a distance, for being a vehicle and for being a motorcyclists. The motorways the toll gates guard are quiet and with mostly good surfaces, making them reasonable value.
Traffic thickens on approach to Lyon. It is France’s second biggest city, depending on how you count. During the nazi occupation it was a major centre of the Resistance. Large and cosmopolitan, in many ways it combines the features of northern and southern France. The friends P and C with whom I am staying live in the 5th Arroindisement in the west of the city. As I roll into the neighbourhood, it has an almost village like feel, but with a cosmopolitan dimension and a mixed population. P is not home from work yet, so I park Veronica in a little square with a bank, a bakery and a pharmacy, get the notebook out and catch up on some writing. My partner V is joining me here too: she has flown to Lyon and will catch the train north to Belgium the next day. Her flight is in late, she makes her way into the city and decides to walk to the suburb where P and C live with their kid and where I am.
Everyone arrives eventually. C shows me into the underground garage beneath their low rise apartment block. They bought the place recently and moved in in May. Both work in the biomedical sciences field. He is of Northern Irish descent, and therefore has a claim to both British and Irish citizenship. She is a French citizen of Middle Eastern descent. Between them their kid is entitled to five passports! This is a wonderful asset enabled by our modern world. But it comes at a price, and that price is racism.
Some folks consider the rise of the far right into the mainstream of French politics frightening. Others think it is a reaction to globalisation and perceived inequalities by ordinary people who feel left behind. In any case, it is strange to think that in Lyon, a major hub of the French Resistance to nazism, a young family of middle class professionals would have racist graffiti scrawled on their letterbox directly targeting one of them because they look… well, it’s hard to say even, they look a bit Mediterranean, maybe, like the vast majority of people who populate the southern part of France. The perpetrators themselves are not some skinhead thugs, they too are ordinary working and middle class people exactly like their targets. Lyon is famous for its WW2 Resistance inspired anti nazi graffiti. It is staggering that the defiant street art of that dark era must now share wall space with freshly sprayed swastikas. It seems that popular excitement about Macron’s “apolitical” style has all but gone and many voters are moving further towards extreme positions. Where this leaves France as one of the major axles of the European project is hard to say.
After a drink at a local bar we head into town for a meal at the world famous Brasserie Georges. It’s a Lyon institution, opened by an Alsatian restauranteur in 1836. P tells us he’s not ever had a bad meal there. The food is indeed excellent: I have a pig’s foot. Lentils are a major staple and a lot of things have cream on them. The establishment itself is constantly evolving too: the décor is an art deco masterpiece created by Bruno Fancisque-Guillemin in 1926; and now it also specialises in craft beer. It’s huge, cavernous even, but nonetheless it feels cosy and the service is every bit as attentive as it must have been when it was a family bistro in 1836.
Lyon’s history stretches back in time. The next day we have a quick breakfast at a delightful bakery, the second award winning such establishment V & I have been to during this trip. Afterwards C takes us to visit the Roman ruins. There are two separate amphitheatres, both stunning. The larger one is incredibly well preserved: one can almost hear the roar of the crowd as gladiators fought it out or a brilliant actor delivered a moving soliloquy echoing back from two millennia ago.
It’s time to go. V gets onto the funicular to get to the station and catch her train to Brussels. I pack the motorbike, sincerely tank C for her and P’s hospitality and set course for Castelnaud la Chapelle, where an entirely different historical adventure awaits me.