A pleasure, merci

CHRISTOPHER BLACKMAN
Last updated 10:27 12/02/2013
cycle tourists
CHILLY SPOT: Ruth and Chris on the Col de L’Iseran, 2770 metres. Height gain from Bourg St Maurice was 1900m (three times the Takaka Hill). Despite kitting up they were well frozen by the valley floor.

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Exploring inner space in Middle Earth Another page turns A weekend out searching Nelson's place in the sun Special friendships spawned on the river Home, sweet home The charge of the library brigade Heart of the arts silenced Cuts leave Murchison in suspense A passion for health

As cycle tourism gathers pace in the Nelson region, Richmond man Christopher Blackman expounds the joys of a holiday jaunt through a cycle-friendly country.

I recently spent six weeks cycle touring in France, the first two with my adult son and daughter, the next week with my daughter, the last three alone. Not everyone would envy me, or wish to do it.

To save weight we carried camping gear and cooked for ourselves. The tour was across seasons and climate zones, so enough clothing was needed. The total weight of bike, gear and food was more than 30kg.

Add my paunch and I was lugging up to 60kg more up 2800 metre passes than some of the 56kg speedsters on 6.5kg bikes.

Not everyone likes sleeping on the ground in a tiny tent, fighting off ticks, mozzies, chiggers, ants, horse flies, wasps and hunters. But cruising on smooth bike paths through dappled forests by clear rivers, viewing chateaux, enjoying cheeses, wines and the constant greetings "Bonjour! Bravo! Bon appetit" was delightful. We cruised the Loire and Rhone, battled high alpine passes, and curved through the forest, farm, volcano and village landscape of the centre. What a great country.

People in France aren't threatened by bikes. They don't throw cans, cigarettes or batteries at you. They give way at intersections and roundabouts, wait behind when passing is awkward. They don't shout abuse but call "Bon courage!"

In six weeks not one vehicle came dangerously close, a daily event in New Zealand. France has no ACC and paying lost wages, medical costs and pain money could pauperise them.

The huge network of roads is well maintained, bitumen surfaced. The cycle and footpath network grows yearly. Paths are wide, safe and built to last, as are the cycle bridges.

Alpine passes have kilometre stones for cyclists, showing gradient, altitude and distance to the top. A less welcome sign at the foot of the Col du Telegraphe gave the first and last times of a recent Tour de France. Those aliens had ridden 190km before zooming up the Telegraphe and Galibier at more than 20kmh.

Some passes (for example Col d'Allos) are closed to cars one morning a week in summer. Attitudes to cyclists are cheery, positive, encouraging and relaxed.

Helmets are optional. Many towns have bike hire stations everywhere. That wouldn't work with a helmet law. I would happily pay MPs just to sit in Bellamy's with a G&T if they'd promise not to make silly laws to justify their existence.

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Camping costs $7 to $16, and free camping is no problem if you are discreet or ask a farmer. A Youth Hostel or gite d'etape costs $25 to $32, a B&B $70. We ate well, cooking for ourselves, for $10 a day. So $25 to $40 a day covers some beds and the odd train ride. Spartans can do it for $16.

For more comfort, go with an organised group or form a group and hire a support vehicle. Stay in rooms or camp, maybe do lightweight tours from a central base. Lunch at charming country restaurants, dine in town and take in more cultural events. Heavy gear equals light purse. Light gear equals heavy credit card. Pay $150 to $500 a day.

If you're loaded, enjoy it. If not, go anyway. Alcohol is cheap; beer starts at $1.20 a litre ($0.90 in Germany), wine goes from $1.50 a litre, $5 to $10 is common, $100 also possible. Spirits start at $11, a Glenfiddich $30. Well paid do-gooders here want to make our dear alcohol even dearer. That hasn't worked with other drugs. How come you can walk the streets there at night?

President Francois Hollande promised to improve schooling. His proposals seem to be fringe changes, poorly thought out, and lacking consensus. The Cour des Comptes, which oversees government spending, issued a brief, damning report (October 4). PISA studies put France 26th out of 30 for delivering equality.

It stated that present systems do not deliver means and effort to improve the education of the lowest socio-economic group, that studies and reports to Parliament lack specifics on how systems affect the lowest; criteria are outdated, the well-off get the most, and the minister does not reward secondary schools that add the most value.

Before I left, Hekia Parata told principals that without the Maori-Pasifika tail we topped the world rankings. Her remedy for the tail: Performance pay and National Standards. She didn't draw the obvious conclusions:

Raise the socio-economic level of the tail [jobs].

Pay all teachers a professional salary. Don't bash them.

Put money into ongoing teacher development.

Unemployment, welfare, prisons, lost economic development cost us much more.

We believe our propaganda of "eco-paradise New Zealand". We have more wilderness, but the French more contact with nature.

France has huge areas of forest, mountains, lakes and sea coast. They walk, mushroom, hunt, fish, picnic, and are deep into climbing, mountain biking, water sports and skiing.

Wild animals are easily found. As are ticks and chiggers, may they never come here. Ticks are a nuisance and 10 per cent may cause Lyme disease or meningitis, at best debilitating, at worst deadly.

Chigger larvae, wee red beasts, bore in and the skin keratinises forming a tube through which they inject enzymes which dissolve the inner cells. They suck up the soup. The bites itch like crazy, can get infected and last for weeks. Folk remedies include near-boiling water, cider vinegar, and eucalyptus oil, but the main needs are stoicism and patience.

Everywhere, the CXII churches which escaped the Revolution and the abbeys, which helped provoke it, reminded of how and why democracy evolved. This history, and the tradition of building in stone, carry into the present.

Stone-faced retaining walls, huge and beautiful motorway viaducts, stylish and solid renovations, the road and rail systems, all contrast with our approach - cheap and temporary. Quality and elegance are attitudes. Cycleways are good.

Missing were the whining, "We can't afford it" or the contemptuous, "They've got a bike bridge. Let them carry their bikes over it. If they fall it's their own fault." Imagination, often quirky and humorous, featured in building, as did decoration. I must get on with the frieze round my house, and set a couple of stone possums or naked ladies on my gateposts.

Language was never a problem. My French gets me by and my children relied on smiles and smarts. We found the opposite of the common complaint that the French are arrogant and won't try to understand or speak English. People everywhere were patient, good humoured, helpful and would happily use what English they had. Maybe monolingual Kiwis express their own embarrassment and fear rather than the reality. How many in New Zealand happily try to talk French to tourists?

I have ignored the downsides of France. I'd rather remember the democracy, the fairly just legal system, good health and welfare, vibrant arts and industry, and the beautiful country.

A salute to the people, witty, sceptical, who after centuries of war would rather live well than die for an ideology, walk lots, and take time to eat, drink and talk together.

It's good to be home. The streets are wide, the houses low. Richmond School welcomes parents and radiates openness, co-operation and good leadership. No walls with gatekeepers.

Now if motorists could grow up and be patient . . . here, 85 per cent are very considerate, 14 per cent impatient leaving no room for error or the unexpected, and 1 per cent could easily kill. That's way, way too many.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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