Letters from the GR 11 – Flat tire

Letters from the GR 11 – Flat tire

I have just spent a very pleasant night camping in the woods near the town of Chantilly, where I’ll stop later for a visit of its extraordinary castle. But while I enjoy a frugal breakfast sitting on the damp bark of a fallen tree, I notice how flat the tire of my back wheel is. It has been a long time since I had to fix a flat, but given my past experience I am pretentiously confident it will go just fine.

That hasn’t always been the case, and I smile now as I remember how terrified I once was of anything breaking down on my bike. See, mountain biking, just like off-roading, came to me by accident. I was then living in Paris, we were in the first year of the new Millennium, and I had no interest whatsoever for that kind of stuff. I was a city owl, a consumed clubber. It’s only after having accepted a new job in an office way too far from home, forcing me to waste my life in a never ending subway commute, that I began to investigate the possibility of buying a bike. I could have gone for a logical choice, like a normal and cheap city bike, but instead I flashed on a super duper Cannondale mountain bike, showcased in Wallpaper magazine’s “What you need to be cool” selection of the month type of editorial. It was beautiful ! I had to have it ! Mind you, this was way before the current trend of hipsters riding sleek single speeds through towns. No one, and I do mean no one, would have remotely thought at the time, that riding such a design minded work of art, worthy of the best design magazine’s attention, could be considered a “cool” urban commuter!

Cannondale F4000sl
The Cannondale F4000 sl in Line by Wallpaper magazine.
Yes I still have it 18 years later !!

I went on to research the brand, found a reseller in Paris, and left my office with the firm intention to buy the bike. Off course they didn’t have the one I wanted. The top of the line, Cannondale racing team stallion, I had spent the last few nights dreaming about. Disappointed as I was, I noticed another model, still from Cannondale, that was just as beautiful, if not more.

– I’ll take that one !
– Good choice ! It’s a 900 sl, special edition.

The one I had come to buy was a 4000sl team special. Obviously I had settled for quite a downgrade, but the look was just the same and the decal on the frame was even more stylish. I still remember the shock I got when the sales guy told me the price once we got to the cashier. I had just realized that not once I had cared to find out how much one of those bad boys would cost ! It was ten times my estimated budget (for a mid range model)! So pricey, I had to pay in three checks. And it didn’t even come with pedals ! I had to pay extra to get special cycling clips, and off course the matching shoes to clip in !

I no longer knew what to feel ? Was I excited to own such an amazing machine ? 0r terrified by the foolishness of my purchased ? Honestly I was pissed of. I had already made a complete fool of myself, falling twice at the stop light, incapable of extracting my feet from the locked pedals. Then, it came upon me that there was no way I could leave it alone attached to a pole in the street, during the day while at the office, or at night in front of my apartment building. Such a beautiful machine, without a doubt it would be stolen in no time. Convincing my wife that a bike would now stand proudly in the middle of her stylishly decorated living room (the entry was too small) was one thing. Convincing my new boss that I would have my bike redecorate our office was another ! In then end I managed both, and feel a bit of responsibility when I now see all those flats and offices having sleek bikes as part of the decorum !

Anyway, here I was, on a racing machine to work. And, just like I feel that if you own a Porsche you should take it to the track, or if you buy a Jeep you should take it to the trail, I had to go ride that bike on tortuous single tracks in the nearby woods !

It just happened that a “ride” was organized by local authorities to promote the natural beauty of the Gatînais regional park, the exact same park I now live in, and crossed during the early stages of this journey. I had to try !

They had three courses. One for kids, 5 kilometers long. One for families, 10 kilometers long. Another one, the main course I should say, 20 or maybe 25 kilometers long (the one most suited for my condition). And a 50 kilometers for the “experienced” riders. As I just said, the 20 was the obvious choice here. But, never shy of being stupid, I felt my bike “status” imposed on me the “experienced” riders option. So of course I went for it !

All I had to do was hide my lack of experience with the proper outfit. So far, I had the bike and the shoes. I needed a matching helmet, and the… You know, those parrot looking tights cyclists love wearing ! But after a few “specialized” stores, it was obvious I wasn’t ready for that ! Not that it doesn’t suits me, I was just not psychologically ready for the spandex. I had to ease my way in the tribe, one step at a time. So instead I went to Ralph Lauren and found some cool baggy shorts, at Colette on rue Saint Honoré I got some Cutler and Gross sunglasses, got a manga inspired WL&T cycling shirt, (more suited for a clubbing night in New York than a family ride in the woods of Southern Paris), all coordinated with the color scheme of my bike. I was looking fabulous, set for a cycling gay parade on Paris Golden Triangle. Gosh, where was Instagram back then ? I could have been an influencer before it was even a thing !

Instead of a stylish parade on the dirty boulevard, I ended up a week later, on a very early and rainy Sunday morning, spoiling my knew shoes in the mud of a field pretending to be the parking lot for the event.
And that is where my troubles began. I realized that, having removed the back wheel of the bike, so the all thing could fit in the trunk of my car, I had no idea how to put it back on ! The more I tried, the more I got confused, the more my hands got black with grease ! No matter how hard I had try to look the part, it was obvious I was way out of my element ! It took the intervention of a good Samaritan to save me, and put the bike back in one piece in less than 15 seconds, so I could at last go line up with a bunch of XC riders, all looking half my age, skinny as sticks, ready to spit their lungs on the technical obstacles of the course.

And technical it was. As if 50 kilometers wasn’t hard enough, they had filled them with rocks, slippery tree roots, hellish descents and steep climbs. It took me less than a minute to go down. Still incapable of getting my feet of the pedals, I had slammed hard on the ground at the first rocky section after the start. Blood was bursting out of my right elbow, I felt like I had pinched a nerve which caused me so much pain. Despite the adrenaline rush, I could hardly hold on to the handle bar anymore. Changing gears was a struggle. Worst, it had begun to rain, hard. I was standing alone, all the other riders had now disappeared, feeling stupid, faced with 49 kilometers to go.

I took upon myself, sat again on my beautiful, but now very dirty bike, and kept on going. I had signed up for this, I had to finish it. I went through hell, split between the pain of my arm and the idea that if something was to break on the bike or a tire go flat, I had neither the equipment nor the knowledge to fix it.
But I never gave up, and finish I did. Full of mud and blood that did stain my car seats, I drove back home feeling so much pride… I was hooked on biking !

montain biking
As I unfortunately never had the chance to snap a picture of that infamous first go at mountain biking, here is a picture of myself a couple of years later, sporting a full on cycling look during a MTB national competition in the French Alps!!

It’s time to fix my bike and go. So much to see today, riding that same 900 sl I bought 18 years ago, wearing those same shorts, helmet, shoes… Only the Jersey is missing, after a good life clubbing around the world !