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Cycling the seat tube

Posted on 25 December 2019, by Arianna

With the beginning of the seat tube our route took us deeper south into Wallonia, and specifically into the southernmost province of Belgium, curiously known as Luxembourg (not to be confused with the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg!). The weather being still unforgiving - perhaps even hostile - we had a few wretched days during which I couldn’t but keep cursing myself for the silly mistake of taking non-waterproof over gloves and shoes.
Again, we didn’t take many pictures to document our miseries, partly because our camera is not waterproof and partly because we didn’t have a deep urge to faff around with photography equipment when our main goal was to keep warm and relatively dry. Nonetheless, we did manage to take one shot that I think captures the moment rather well.

Do I need to add a caption? I don't really think so...
Do I need to add a caption? I don't really think so...

With such persistent rainfall and temperatures approaching zero, we knew it was just a matter of time before it would start snowing. At some point, we encountered the first few patches of settled snow at some 500 metres of altitude, close to the Belgium-Luxembourg border. But it was not until the following day, whilst camping, that upon emerging the tent during the night to go for a pee, I could witness the magical display of a white expanse of snow covering everything, tent included. I stared at this beautiful scene with awe for some time… till when I remembered I needed to pee.
This was our first camp in the snow and I was very excited to get out in the morning to take some pictures and play with the dog (she loves the snow)… but it was gone! ALL of it! Melted and replaced by the familiar boring rain. Not even Daniel believed what I saw during the night.

With no photographic evidence, one has to imagine how beautiful this scene would have been with a light covering of snow
Lacking photographic evidence, one has to imagine how beautiful this scene would have been with a light covering of snow

Progressing further south we reached the bizarre border town of Martelange, where a stretch of the main street marks the boundary between Belgium and Luxembourg - meaning that the territory on one side of this street belongs to Belgium, and on the other side to Luxembourg. This results in an horrid display of far too many petrol stations and alcohol stores lining up only on the Luxembourgish side of the road, where taxes are lower.

While we literally got just a glimpse of Luxembourg during this trip, our impression of it was far from pleasant. It left us with the feeling of being a country for the rich, dominated by an environmentally unfriendly and car-centric culture, where driving a SUV aggressively down the road can be socially condoned with the excuse of business. We ended up remembering with fondness the small, unpretentious Renaults and Peugeots that drove patiently behind us in rural France… the contrast couldn’t be more striking!
But at this point we were almost back in France, and after a last Belgian camping in Arlon and a quick “La Chouffe” beer in Messancy, we finally crossed the border into our beloved France, feeling almost at home.

Zola trotting happily next to me, despite hating her rain jacket
Zola trotting happily next to me, despite hating her rain jacket

The change of country didn’t translate into a change of weather unfortunately! As a matter of fact, this first day back into France must have been one of the worst days of our whole cycletouring experience.
With the rain persisting from an early morning and the wind pushing hard against us we averaged a painfully slow speed throughout the day. At some point I realised that, even whilst going downhill, I had too keep pedalling if I wanted to continue moving! How Daniel was able to cycle an even heavier bike, with gusts of side wind blowing occasionally into the covered cargo bay, was beyond me. He didn’t even swerve too much considering…
We were in the middle of this battle with the elements when, with a mixture of amazement and joy, we discerned the logo of a Mcdonald’s in the distance - just like an oasis in the desert. Having successfully smuggled Zola in, we sat at the table of this soulless place way too long, cherishing the feeling of cosiness spreading through our body whilst eating junk food. When we begrudgingly hit the road again, we were 3 hours behind schedule… but, having already secured a warmshowers stay for the night, what could possibly be the problem with a little delay?
As it turns out, quite a few things.
Firstly, we got lost. Or rather, the road indicated by the GPS was closed; so we had to turn back on ourselves and choose another road, which added an extra hour to our cycling. Secondly, it got dark - not surprisingly given the time! Since we had no choice but to cycle on a big busy road, with an even stronger side wind than earlier, the darkness added as a further difficulty to an already pretty nasty situation.
And finally I got a puncture, one of those quick punctures that left my tire with no air in the space of a few meters, exactly when I was changing lanes in the middle of a busy roundabout. After moving off the road into a safer lay-by, I eventually exploded in an epic swearing rant, cursing in all languages I know (thankfully only two), while Daniel slowly started the irksome job. I have no idea how he got on with it, as his hands must have been freezing even more than mine, that were somewhat covered. I only know that I sat on the ground for some time, feeling wet down to the bones and shaking all over from the cold, while using my body to try and shield at least Zola, who was also shivering. All this in complete darkness, and with the loud background noise of the busy road only a few meters away. A real nightmare!
We quickly resumed our cycling after the puncture was fixed, only to stop again soon after for a chain problem(!). But eventually we got there: the sight of our warmshower host Daniel, waiting for us under an umbrella and gesturing with a torch where to come off the main road, was even more welcome than that of the earlier Mcdonald’s!
Daniel and his wife Colette were genuinely incredible hosts: their hospitality was beyond perfect and Daniel’s joyful character was exactly what we needed to forget a terrible, exhausting day (the plush comfy bed may also have had a play in this). On the following morning the rain had stopped and we were again in good spirits, possibly helped by Daniel cheerfully singing “All you need is glove!” when dressing up to accompany us for a few kilometres.
Being on the road without the incessant rain felt like a dream and in a couple of fast days we reached Nancy, overall relatively dry.

Easy cycling along a canal, just next to the river Moselle
Easy cycling along a canal, just next to the river Moselle

A nice stretch of off-road cycling to allow Zola a bit of exercise
A nice stretch of off-road cycling to allow Zola a bit of exercise

At the Christmas markets in Place Stanislas, Nancy
At the Christmas markets in Place Stanislas, Nancy

Continuing south of Nancy we came upon the first few hills of the Massif des Vosges, another mountain range which, similarly to the Massif Central and the Ardennes, is geologically very old and of modest altitude. Here, tired of camping and lacking good warmshowers options for our route, one evening we decided to book an Airbnb and ended up having another little adventure.
The instructions I received via email after booking this place were very clear and came complete with photographic evidence: we were to search for the keys in a blue watering can by the entrance door. Easy. But once arrived at the right address, which we checked and re-checked to be sure we didn’t make a mistake, the house that presented itself in front of us was huge and looked like the perfect setting for an horror movie - quite different from the cute little cabin that we thought we had booked. Nonetheless, the watering can was there (admittedly it was green and not blue) and the keys were inside it… so I opened the door.
In the fraction of a second a screaming cat jumped out and run away, while we stared at each other aghast. Surely the cat was not included in the Airbnb booking!? Yet, how could it be? The address was right and the keys were there… As I walked a few steps inside the house to figure out what was going on, I immediately understood that the house was actually lived-in. In the meantime Daniel, who had run after the cat into the back garden, found himself in front of a little dépendance… where a blue watering can was sitting just next to the door. Shit!
Panicking, we tried to catch the cat as quickly as we could. The little bugger however, was having none of it! By hiding Zola away, perfecting our miaowing sounds and using a few dog treats, it was with immense relief that we eventually managed to grab the escapee and shove it back into his own house. All this before the owners got back… and then we managed to relax in our cosy dépendance. If only that cat could speak, what stories it would tell!

The beautiful undulating landscape at the beginning of the Massif des Vosges, near Épinal
The beautiful undulating landscape at the beginning of the Massif des Vosges, near Épinal

Sometimes Zola demands a change of chauffeur
Sometimes Zola demands a change of chauffeur

On the following day we experienced what even us Italians would refer to as a glorious winter weather. After weeks of grey clouds and rain, only rarely interspersed with spells of faint and equally grey sun, we eventually enjoyed some bright blue sky. The temperature being also rather balmy, we managed to eat a regular cold sandwich while sitting outside, a welcome change from our usual pots of unhealthy instant noodles!
Under this gorgeous sun we reached Vy-lès-Lure, where we started tracing the bicycle shape a few months ago, during an intense heatwave. Technically speaking, the seat tube ends in Vy-lès-Lure, and so should this post… However, for a while now we had been maturing the thought of reaching Basel to catch a train and have a break back at home - which I think authorises me to continue this post for a few kilometres more, thus entering the drawing of the “chain stay” (from Vy-lès-Lure to Fellering) and of the “back wheel” (from Fellering to Basel).

Isn't it gorgeous?
Isn't it gorgeous?

Pointing at the incredibly blue sky
Pointing at the incredibly blue sky

The Col des Croix, in the Massif des Vosges, just before Le Thillot
The Col des Croix, in the Massif des Vosges, just before Le Thillot

We certainly wouldn’t have wanted to take yet another break from our endeavour. Perhaps somewhat irrationally, we feel that every interruption we take undermines the worth of what we are trying to achieve and convey. It is true that the combination of rain with cold temperatures hasn’t made things easy, but overall we have been able to manage without splurging too often on expensive accommodation, also thanks to the enormous help we have received from the warmshowers community.
The truth is that Daniel’s knee has started to hurt. Or rather, it has been hurting from day 2 of this second stretch of the journey, as I only recently apprehended myself. Yes, because Daniel has been carrying on, taking ibuprofen twice a day, without telling me how bad it was getting - hoping he would somehow manage it until the end of the bicycle drawing. On the positive side of things, MY knees have both been behaving wonderfully instead… so at least we take it in turns to break down, it seems!
After having transferred some weight from Daniel’s panniers into mine, despite it not mattering too much anymore, we kept cycling through the Massif des Vosges, the weather having turned the usual depressing itself.

A more representative picture of the Massif des Vosges in December
A more representative picture of the Massif des Vosges in December

Just before reaching the Col de Bussang we chanced upon the source of the Moselle, the impressive river which accompanied us for several kilometres earlier in the journey. Seeing a few drops of water trickling down from a pit into a small puddle made us laugh initially and then reflect on the propriety of a common Chinese saying, that even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The pitiable source of the river Moselle near the Col de Bussang
The pitiable source of the river Moselle near the Col de Bussang

In Fellering we had an entertaining encounter with Jean and his wife - proud owners of 5 Bromptons, 50 regular bicycles and many more bike parts - who kindly offered us an hearty lunch while indoctrinating us on the thoughts of the Croatian-Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich. Very interesting stuff! We will resume this conversation on our next visit (thanks for the amazing hospitality!), when we will be drawing the rest of the chain stay.

Our Mulhouse host for the evening, Dominique, was also incredibly nice, passionate about bicycles and at least as disdainful of the car culture as we are. Several years ago, Dominique and Jean had founded together CADRes Mulhouse, an association aiming to promote cycling and to enhance the cycling infrastructure throughout the city. When showing us his expensive half recumbent - half normal Hase tandem (Daniel got some ideas!), Dominique told us how he managed to get it as a retirement present, convincing his boss that it would be a better gift than the more commonly chosen Rolex… Honestly, a Rolex vs a tandem: would anyone have a doubt??

With Dominique and his special Hase tandem, just outside Mulhouse
With Dominique and his special Hase tandem, just outside Mulhouse

With only a few more easy kilometres we reached Basel, the end to this second stretch of our journey. Here we indulged in visiting a top-quality outdoor shop, where we dreamt of the lovely warm nights that we could have enjoyed camping, had we been in possession of some of the stuff sold there. Sadly our bank account doesn’t stretch to allow for such luxuries!
After catching the train and convincing an angry Swiss controller that we didn’t need to pay double for our cargo bike, we finally reached home in olny a few hours. Just in time for Christmas.

View of Basel from the bank of the Rhine river
View of Basel from the bank of the Rhine river

The suggestive market square in Orta san Giulio, back home
The suggestive market square in Orta san Giulio, back home