It was about noon on a sunny August day when I found myself out of breath in the general store in a tiny French village. Since my French is non-existent beyond the niceties and my phrase book was in my luggage, I was having a hard time describing what I needed: an inner tube.
Velo. Bicyclette. Hmm, what else could I say? Bike shop.
Did I mention I was sweating? I’d ridden hard to get there, not wanting to leave my friends out along the road for too long. I probably presented quite a sight.
All three customers and one clerk gave me the eye. I pantomimed a bike tire and pumping it up.
“Ahh!” the clerk exclaimed. “Chambre à aire!” She had to say it numerous times before it filtered into my American brain. “Chamber of air.” Oui! Merci!
I laughed and nodded. They laughed too. Probably at me, not with me. But they were gracious. They told me the bike shop was down the block, but it was closed for a couple of hours for a nice, long French lunch break. Great.
That frustrating bit of theater only lasted a minute, and didn’t get the results I wanted, but it’s a scene from my bike trip through the Loire Valley that has stuck with me. It’s the type of encounter that you will only get by striking out to parts unknown on your bike.
Adventures With Willie
Willie Weir knows more about that type of encounter than most of us. Willie is an adventure cyclist and storyteller. He has been taking cycling trips for many years, telling his road stories to readers of Adventure Cycling magazine and his two books (“Spokesongs” and “Travels with Willie”), to audiences on NPR and at events like the one held last Tuesday at REI in Seattle.
In front of a packed house, Willie related his gleanings from his latest adventure, a three-month ride through Portugal.
Willie has been to some pretty wild places – Cuba, Columbia, Turkey, Thailand, India, South Africa, Laos, the Balkans – so Portugal may have been one of his more tame adventures. And one of the shortest. He is known for cross-country treks, but he reminded the audience that Portugal is “a little bit bigger than the state of Indiana.” How do you make an epic trip out of that? “Cross it six times.”
He and his wife, Kat Marriner, entered Portugal in the north, where there are plenty of hills for those looking for climbs. Traversing down to the cork oak forests of the south (where wine corks originate), they found much more mellow terrain and stunning red trunks of the trees that had just been stripped of their cork layer. The west coast, north of Lisbon, proved to be “some of the most heavenly traveling experiences that I’ve ever had,” he said, proving it with pictures of craggy, high cliffs off the side of a wide-open road.
Willie told of befriending a crew harvesting grapes in a vineyard, camping for the night near the vines and having the winemaker fill their water bottles with last year’s harvest. Another night, their tent was surrounded by hostile sheep, and on another, an elderly gentleman riding a powered wheelchair led them at 4 mph to a small village’s public campground.
You can catch his stories in upcoming presentations in Sequim and Port Angeles and at the big Seattle Bike Expo in March. He’ll also have his maps and will talk travel with you at the R&E Cycles/Pike Brewing Bike & Pike event in Seattle on Feb. 12, a benefit for Food Lifeline, where I’ll also be appearing.
What’s Your Travel Dream?
When I hear his stories, I usually wish I were there, helping him fend off the sheep, crushing the grapes with the workers. It always makes me consider, where do I want to go?
Willie wants you thinking that way. He is the ambassador for bike-tripping, the spokesman for two-wheeled travel. “Adventures begin with dreams,” he reminds his audience, advising people to make a list of places they dream about going. “What are the seven wanders of your world?” he asks. Eventually, he says, if you keep dreaming, you’ll start wandering.
I have one of those lists, and at this time of year, with the frigid days, icy streets and torrents of rain, I picture myself out on a summer road somewhere, seeing a new country at 14 miles an hour. Perhaps having a little mishap, trying to speak the language, and eventually reaching an understanding. Then heading back to find my friends pedaling up the road toward me, having found a service station that could patch a chambre à aire.
Bill Thorness is the author of Biking Puget Sound: 50 Rides from Olympia to the San Juans. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.