One thing I’ve never been great at is riding a bike. Actually there are many things I am not great or even competent at but I generally muddle through as best I can and disguise my shortcomings or at least avoid showcasing them.
I have two mountain bikes, I’ve used them in the hills of Wales, and all over southern England but I’ve never quite managed to ride in the road! A legacy I suppose of living and working in central London where riding alongside buses, white van men and breathing in car fumes has not been a big lure for me.
Since I’ve been in France I’ve hardly used my bikes at all, there’s no excuse about traffic – there isn’t any where I live, the worst I have to fear is an escaped cow, a dim witted pheasant or a myopic tractor driver who has forgotten his glasses which he took off to enjoy a glass of wine at lunch. I just haven’t quite got round to mastering my fear of having other road users close to me.
So, when I was invited to take part in a Dutch bike ride in the bustling city of Lille I was a bit nervous (read terrified) but I’m always up for a challenge so decided to just do it. I didn’t practise before hand – I thought riding a bike would be just like… well, like riding a bike – I’d just get on it, pedal and I’d be fine!
It was a beautiful Sunday morning, my friends Kat, Cathryn and Audrey were all really up for it, they were either fairly experienced or had practiced – so sensible!
We arrived at the Lille A Velo premises alongside the beautiful canal in the centre of Lille. We were to take a two hour guided Lille tour which took in the parks, little secret streets of this lovely city and the Grand Place – bang smack in the middle of Vielle Lille (the gorgeous old town). We had a choice of bikes, Dutch, tandems and even an 8-seater bike known as Le Grant Huit. Thankfully my friends although they seemed to be serious about trying the mad 8-seater were persuaded to drop that idea tout de suite. Lots of the bikes were decorated with garlands of flowers which made me think that it might be okay, it clearly wasn’t competitive riding.
We hit a little snag as I am very short and the Dutch bikes are quite big, try as I might to stretch my legs to reach the ground, the only way I would be able to stop would be to leap from my saddle – we decided that was not a good option so Florent, our guide (optional), found me a special small bike (no it didn’t have stabilisers if you’re wondering).
We set off gently, I was wobbling about all over the place and everyone gave me a wide birth as I careered along the canal paths, narrowly avoiding the joggers and mamans and papas out walking babies in prams. I was fairly sure that I would end up in the water, on the floor or in a bush at some point. It was a relief that none of that happened and in fact after about 15 minutes I managed to become a little more proficient at stopping, starting and going round corners.
It was hard to concentrate since there were so many beautiful sights to photograph; Florent took us all over the place, amazing hidden nature reserves, the Vauban fort, to see the smallest house in Lille (and maybe France), a memorial to pigeons, through beautiful alleyways, even on to the cobble stone roads that form part of the famous Roubaix to Paris cycle ride. It is a very cultural city, dynamic, vibrant colourful – and I loved the street art. Everywhere there are the signs that Mister P, Lille’s premier street artist leaves for everyone to admire!
Eventually though, it was time to venture out on to the main roads of Lille – the moment I had been dreading.
It was obvious from the very first moment that we pulled out that this was not like riding in London. Never have I come across such courteous, careful and considerate road users as the car drivers in Lille. Audrey who works for the Tourist Office in Lille explained that this is quite normal, Lille road users are always this way with cyclists. I went round the square, across the square and all around the little side streets and at the end of it I was elated. I had overcome my fear, had a fantastic time and seen parts of Lille that I could never have done on foot in only a few hours.
Next stop… Tour de France (when they let women in that is!)…