Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The ViaRhona

On July 13th, I set out on my first bicycle tour.  I started dreaming about bicycle touring about 4 years ago when I met a Korean couple who were traveling the world by bike.  While it doesn’t look like I’ll be setting out on an endless bicycle trip anytime soon, I look forward to completing more mini-tours as my first one provided me with an incredible experience!

Before arriving in France, I had conjured the idea to follow the Rhone River from Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea.  When I actually arrived in France and searched for such a route on Google, I learned that the ViaRhona is exactly that route, however, it has not been completed.  Not really knowing what it meant to be ‘incomplete,’ I decided to follow this unfinished bike route.  How hard could it be to follow a river?

I started my ride at Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland.  I found the ViaRhona signs that I would follow along the way and started peddling.  I was lost in the first 20 minutes and spent the next hour trying to find my way back to the marked path.  This was my first experience with the incredibly unhelpful maps I downloaded from the ViaRhona website.  I eventually found the way with little frustration and quickly made my way into the countryside of Switzerland where it became very easy to follow the ViaRhona signposts.  On my first day, I crossed the border back into France and arrived in Seyssel after cycling for 78 km (48.4 miles).  The day included some really tough climbs but those intense uphills were balanced out by the beautiful 5 km long downhill at the end of the day.  

Swiss countryside
Cycling along in Switzerland
This is the border between France and Switzerland.   That gate closes between 10pm and 6am.
I road through fields of sunflowers all the way from Geneva to the Mediterranean.  I loved them every time!  
Me on a hay bale.
I woke up the following day feeling no soreness, surprisingly, and ready to tackle Day 2.  On this day, I had my first experience with campgrounds that my map from the internet claimed to exist but didn’t.  I had planned to stop in a town called Groslée, roughly 80km from Seyssel.  Upon inquiry from some local farmers, however, I learned that there is not any place to camp in Groslée, so, I jumped back on my bike and continued on to Sault Brénaz, hoping the campground there actually existed.  It did.  And I was incredibly elated because for the last 30km I was battling both wind and hills and going a distance I hadn’t expected.  At the end of the day, I clocked in 112 km (69.5 miles).  It was a tough yet very rewarding second day that had brought me riding along the Rhone, through small towns and beautiful country fields with rolling hills.

My ride on Day 2 was mostly right along the river like this....until Groslée where I entered the countryside and began my battle with wind and hills.
So many interesting bridges on this trip!
I woke up feeling incredibly refreshed and excited for my third day.  The morning was absolutely wonderful.  I rode through fields of hay and sunflowers and relished in the beauty of the countryside.  Frustration quickly began to set in as the signs for the unfinished ViaRhona disappeared and all I had to rely on were the less than useful downloaded maps and even less useful downloaded directions from the website.  I got lost several times throughout the day as the directions never explained which direction to take on a road, it simply stated get on route blah blah.  Nothing about heading North, South, East or West….just got on the road.  Next, there was the frustrating fact that the ViaRhona signs would suddenly appear and point me in a direction only to disappear at the next junction.  Then, there were the campgrounds that were supposed to exist but didn’t.  Finally, there was the infuriating fact that signs for cars on the road were appearing and disappearing, thus, I even found it unbelievably difficult to get to a town using the highway.  I eventually made it to a campground in Meyzieu (a suburb of Lyon) but not without some tears of frustration and some thoughts of quitting.  There were some fellow cyclists at this campground, however, and it was a stress reliever just to have some people to talk to.  I initially thought Day 3 would be an easy 50 km, however, it turned into a day of 98 km (61 miles).  

The morning was wonderful!
After this picture, the designated bike trail ended and my frustration set in.  At least I had this moment to love!
Day 4 began the same way the previous day had ended, full of frustration.  The ViaRhona signs into Lyon were difficult to follow and did not exist in the city limits.  I luckily found myself outside of a McDonald’s, however, and went inside to use the wifi.  My peak frustration was inside this McDonalds were I sat letting my phone charge and had serious thoughts about riding to the train station to quit.  For reasons I don't even know, I decided to persevere (I can always quit tomorrow instead) and make it to the day’s destination.  I set out from McDonald’s with confidence that I could do it with my newly downloaded directions.  My newly downloaded directions proved to be just as infuriating as the previous ones and I seriously struggled to make it out of Lyon and once I did, I cycled and cycled and cycled to get as far away as possible. I didn’t find the actually ViaRhona route until the very end of the day but was extremely delighted that the campground in Condrieu was exactly where the map said it would be.  I cycled 80 km (49.7 miles) this day and concluded that the actual cycling is very simple for me, it’s following directions when there are no decent directions to follow that is the hard part.

Hoping that I couldn't have a worse day than the one before, I started Day 5 with confident optimism.  And just as I had hoped, it was a day without a hitch.  It was nearly impossible to get lost following the ViaRhona signs.  I had been told that after Lyon, the route was mostly complete almost to the Mediterranean and so far this was proving to be true.  I arrived in Route-de-Glun at 1 o’clock and had my first experience with the French siesta.  The campground and everything else in this quaint little town was closed until 3:30 so I spent the afternoon relaxing next to the river and relishing in my solitude.  The ride during the day brought me back and forth over the Rhone River, always riding along its bank.  The day totaled 71.5 km (44 miles).
Wind at my back and smooth sailing!!

My plan was to stay the weekend in Route-de-Glun and rest.  This was perfect because the Tour de France was due to arrive in Valence on Sunday, just 15 km down the river from my campground.  So, I spent Sunday in the small city of Valence enjoying people watching and waiting for hours for the cyclists to arrive.  It was actually pretty boring waiting there by myself because not much was going on.  There were some bands and some street performances but people were not very engaged in either so it was rather dull.  And the actual Tour de France was a bit uneventful too.  At around 2 o’clock, people began to line the road on which the cyclists would arrive, so I joined them.  But we waited and waited and waited until around 3:30 when the caravan of sponsors paraded down the street throwing out free crap and blasting music.  There was about another 45 minute wait after the conclusion of the parade before the actual cyclists arrived.  The first cohort flew past me and all the people cheered.  I headed to my campsite right after this first cohort because there seemed to be another long wait before the next cohort of competitors would arrive.  It wasn’t very exciting, but, I am happy to have stuck around to see it, it is a world famous event after all.  

My favorite performers in Valence.  These guys had all sorts of things attached to this contraption that they were using to play music.  Very eclectic!
My 6th day of cycling was a great, simple day.  I had the wind at my back all day and the road was flat the whole way.  I road along the riverbank and intermittently veered into the countryside where I rolled through fields of corn, grapes, apples, apricots and sunflowers.  The route was clearly marked the entire way and when I arrived in Viviers (my intended stop for the day) I wanted to continue because it was only 1:30 in the afternoon.  Fearful that the campsites marked on my map might not actually exist, however, I stayed the night in Viviers.  It was a good choice because when I jumped on my bike later in the evening to check out the town, my legs were feeling pretty fatigued!  I traveled 95 km (59 miles) on Day 6.

Another fabulous bridge.
That's the Rhone!
Day 7 was another day with no complaint.  Once again, I had the wind at my back and a flat road the whole way.  There was great signage almost the whole way, though once it disappeared, it was no problem for me to follow highway signs all the way to my destination.  I arrived in Avignon at around noon, giving me the entire afternoon to explore the old city.  The city has maintained much of its medieval architecture and walking through the impossibly narrow roads was like a walk in the past.  Avignon is chockfull of cafes, restaurants, galateries, sandwich places and more. There are also a million things going on—street performers, theater performances, street buskers.  Although I didn’t talk to anyone, it was a nice break from the solitude I’d had for several days and I thoroughly enjoyed thus little city.  My 7th day I cycled a total of 91km (56.5 miles).
Narrow streets of Avignon.

I arrived in Port St. Louis du Rhone, my final destination, on Day 8 of cycling.  Except for about 12 km where I road on a cycle path along a canal, this day was mostly spent on highways because once again, this final stage of the ViaRhona has yet to be completed.  The frustration I felt from a lack of signs on my 3rd and 4th day did not appear, however, because I had reached a level of acceptance regarding this fact.  It was still a tough day though.  I was now fully in the south of France and it was HOT!  I felt like I was baking under the sun and the closer I got to the sea, the more headwind there seemed to be.  But I pushed my way to Port St. Louis du Rhone, cycled straight to the tourism office and asked the woman to direct me to the beach.  I was incredibly disappointed to learn that the beach was another 7.5 km away!!!!  I had spontaneously bought half a watermelon from the town’s market on the way to the tourism office and was looking forward to enjoying in on the beach.  Not feeling capable of making the 7.5 km right away, however, I settled on enjoying my half watermelon overlooking the last bit of the Rhone.  From there, I headed to a farm to set up my camp before finally heading to the Mediterranean.  Dolphin diving into the sea really felt like an accomplishment!  There were moments when I truly didn't think I would make it but there I was swimming in the salty sea!!!!  My final day to the sea I clocked in 119.5 km (74 miles).

LOVING this watermelon.  It wasn't even that tastey (a bit mealy) but it was the best watermelon I have ever eaten!!!
Want awesome tan lines?  Go cycling in the sun for 8 days.
The following day, I cycled back up the river to the city of Arles from where I caught a train back to Annemasse and was picked up to rest for a while in Vuiz-en-Sallaz. In 9 days of cycling, I totaled 798.22 km (496 miles) in 38 hours and 16 minutes, averaging 20.86 kmph (12.96 mph).  Though I had plenty of struggle throughout the trip (including the unmentioned boredom at campsites) I am already making plans for my next solo cycling trip to take place sometime in August, in someplace cooler than southern France, with a route that is actually completed, and I'll equip myself with much better maps!!!!
Roman stadium in Arles.  Built around 90 AD.

Waiting for the train


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