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(Jeannette Meier Kamer/Getty Images)
(Jeannette Meier Kamer/Getty Images)

Facts & Arguments Essay

I conquered my own Tour de France Add to ...

The year 1999 was especially good for me and my bike. We went to France twice, the second time landing in Bordeaux and pedalling up the Atlantic coast to Saint-Malo, Jacques Cartier's old digs. I remember my odometer hitting 100,000 kilometres while on that trip.

I've biked much of Ontario, the United States and Britain, and had taken my bike to France a handful of times. In 1994, I went all the way from Paris to Nice, no mean feat. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, I felt like the king of the world.

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My interest began to wane after 1999, for a variety of reasons. Suffice it to say that biking was becoming less fun. Maybe it was just that I was getting older and losing the spark. As you age you seek comfort, not hardships. You probably have the means to indulge more, too - as a kid you're always trying to cut corners.

Before I knew it, a decade had passed since my last foray to France. Would I ever go back? It was looking less and less likely.

Finally, this year, pushing 60, I began to fantasize about doing it again - more as a test than anything. Could I still pull it off, I wondered. I knew from past trips that plenty of things could go wrong, that the lavishly illustrated guidebooks don't tell the whole story. There's the weather, of course, and flats, dogs and other horrors. On a previous trip I'd watched my bike crash to the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle airport, snapping the seat off.

I also knew from reading about the biggest bike tour of all, the Tour de France, that the fewer pounds you are carrying, the easier it is to pedal. Try as you might to avoid them, you're always going to encounter some nasty hills on a trip of any distance. Check out many-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong and his cronies - they look like stick men.

I wasn't hugely overweight, but I certainly could have stood to lose a few pounds. A newspaper article from The Times of London in mid-May made a big impression on me. It included a sidebar on paunch types with drawings of bigger and bigger bellies, from "the pod" all the way to "the blob." I was reminded of that grotesque character from the Star Wars films, Jabba the Hutt.

Something else happened around that time that made me aware of how fleeting life can be, that by putting things off you may never get to do them. A good friend - a full 10 years my junior - was diagnosed with a nasty form of cancer and given only weeks to live. He'd relocated to Port Credit, Ont., a few years before. I visited him on my bike a couple of times, a lengthy ride from east Toronto.

Later in the summer, I biked to his funeral. I was asked to write something and offered a sentiment from Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor: "Don't waste a day."

I began riding my bike five to six times a week, venturing out of the city more than once, even as far as Peterborough and Belleville, Ont. On my off days, I watched Mr. Armstrong and the Tour de France on television, little realizing that I'd be joining forces with them down the road.

The Tour de France was hardly realistic, but my tour de France was beckoning. I first contemplated a reprise of my 1994 trip, but thought it might be a bit too much to handle. Paris to Toulouse was another possibility. I eventually settled on Paris to Bordeaux, a distance of about 700 kilometres. Fittingly, I'd be finishing where I started my last trip in 1999.

The flight to Paris in September was near perfect, but then my troubles began. Someone must have noticed my pump sticking out of my bike bag, because it wasn't there when the bag arrived. The fates were with me, though, as I had packed a second pump I'd found while riding during the summer. It had almost been an afterthought to bring it along. I wasn't even sure if it worked.

It did.

I decided to skip Paris, a nightmare on a bike, and took a bus to Orly, the big airport south of the city. But the only way out of Orly found me on a major freeway. Fortunately, it was only a short haul to the nearest off ramp. Things got worse, as I got lost repeatedly that day and the next, and had to be rescued by some helpful locals. I was beginning to have serious doubts.

On the third day, I was buoyed by a Tour de France moment. It seems the Tour had passed on the very road I was travelling, the giveaway being that someone had painted "Go Saxo Bank" on the road surface. The names of team members also appeared: Andy, Frank, Fabian, Matti, Jens, Chris and Nicki.

I was soon hugging the Loire, famed for its châteaux, passing through construction-riddled Orléans, then Blois, Amboise, Tours and Chinon. Then it was on to Châtellerault, Poitiers, Niort, Royan and finally Bordeaux. I biked about 50 kilometres a day. The last two were the toughest of all, as there were steep hills to climb, then heavy rain as I neared Bordeaux.

But I could hardly complain after a near-perfect two weeks. I was run off the road only once and didn't have a single flat, a miracle. Lots of dogs barked at me, but I was only chased by two. It was chilly most mornings, but only rained the last day. I did manage to snap two pairs of glasses, including my favourite shades, but I had wisely packed a third pair.

Finally, my paunch was just a memory. In fact, I'd lost so many sizes since I began biking in earnest that I could barely keep my pants up.

Best of all, not one day was wasted.

Larry Humber lives in Toronto.

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