Reliving the good old days in France — on electric bikes
By Timothy Leland and Julie Hatfield-Leland, Globe correspondents
The hill was short in length, but steep. Very steep. So steep we could see the leg muscles of our 49-year-old son ahead of us bulging, straining against the pedals. The back of his bike shirt was dark with sweat and he was hunched over the bike handles, giving his all to the abrupt incline that led up to our chateau, working the leg muscles that he had been conditioning for several weeks on his fancy Peloton exercise bicycle back home.
We hadn’t done any special conditioning for this European bike trip. We don’t own an exercise bike. One of us, the father, was 80 years old, the other — the stepmother — is . . . well, old too.
The precipitous hill ahead was a killer. It would require our full attention. We both pushed the same button on our handle bars, the one yielding maximum power. We could feel the instant surge in our pedals, the force of a magic, invisible hand pushing our bikes from behind.
The thrust of our shriveled old leg muscles pumped the pedals, propelling us effortlessly up the steep incline of the hill without delay, passing our sweating, toiling son about halfway to the top.
We gave him a little wave as we went by on our electric bikes.
Five years ago, when we reached our mid-70s, we assumed, sorrowfully, that our biking days were over. We were over the hill, so to speak, when it came to that activity. No more of those luxury bike tours we had taken in Europe and California, and so enjoyed. In all, we had gone on 12 of those trips, writing about each of them for the Globe Travel section, providing the material for a book we published two years ago: “Thirty Years on Two Wheels: A Biking Odyssey.’’
Henceforth, we figured, our trips on two wheels would be limited to pedaling down the sidewalk to the local library. Our clip-on bike shoes and padded bike shorts could be exchanged for sweat pants and bedroom slippers.
Then earlier this year, when someone turned 80, our adult children surprised us. “Happy birthday, Dad,’’ they shouted, “We’re giving you a bike trip and we’re coming along for the ride.’’ (We’d never taken them biking with us before.) “Anywhere in the world. You choose, we’ll pay!’’
And so we did. We chose, and we went. . . and in the end we paid their way as well. What are parents for, after all? It was the best birthday present we’ve ever given ourselves.
The choice of where to go wasn’t easy. With great anticipation we reviewed all the possibilities in biking catalogs, studying the photos, weighing the pros and cons of each: Havana to Santiago? St. Petersburg to Stockholm? Hanoi to Angkor Wat? Hanoi to Angkor Wat?
At the age of 80? Contemplating his creaky back, his lousy hearing, his questionable balance, and his clogged artery (doctors had told him he had one the year before), the birthday boy returned to reality. “How about the Loire Valley?’’ he asked plaintively, an executive decision.
And so it was in late May that we all celebrated his birthday biking through the beautiful terrain of the Loire Valley in Tours, France, and west along the river, with its fabulous castles, flowers, birds, chateaus, and crème brûlée.
It was the same month 34 years before that we had taken our first bike trip, also in France, but that one was through the lush vineyards of Bordeaux. Much has changed in the world in those 34 years — but not, it turned out, the sheer joy of biking down a narrow country road on a spring day in France, the smell of wet grass and mown hay in the air, the songs of birds in the underbrush, the sight of white horses peering over a wire fence as you ride past.
Can anything be more soothing than pedaling quietly along an empty lane through a copse of young poplars early in the morning, sun dappling the light green leaves overhead, the silence broken only by the faint whisper of your tire treads on the hard-packed earth?
That first bike tour in Bordeaux convinced us that there is no better way to see a foreign country (and we’ve seen lots of them) than from a seat on two wheels, powered by the thrust of your own legs
. . . . Which brings us back to electric bikes. Our kids didn’t want e-bikes, didn’t need them. But we did, and did. They were what made it possible for us to take this late-in-life bike trip, and we bless whoever invented them. They’re a marvel. Their ciabatta-size lithium batteries last a full day and hold enough power to help the rider (that would be us) climb any hill in four possible speeds: slow, medium, faster, and like-a-rocket. They make no noise, have no smell, and are scarcely visible on the frame — which leaves young studs in full racing gear wondering how two old geezers can leave them in the dust pedaling up a steep incline.
Much about our bike trip in the Loire was the same as the one we took three-plus decades earlier in Bordeaux: The tour company still made all the reservations for the five-star accommodations where we stayed (Chateau Prieure, overlooking the Loire with a bedroom the size of our Boston condo, comes to mind); the guides still took our luggage ahead in a van every day to the next destination; the gourmet cuisine on the trip was still . . . well, gourmet. We’re talking French, after all, what more do you need to say? (In white-asparagus season, when we were there, French chefs announced proudly on their menus, as if announcing a new baby in the family, “Asperges sont arrive!’’) The famous chateaux of the Loire have not changed either, they’re just as imposing as ever (see the glorious Chateau de Chambord, that enormous Renaissance behemoth of 11 towers, three types of chimneys, and a double spiral staircase). Nor have French flowers changed. In the Loire Valley, known as the “flowerpot of France,’’ the fields of poppies bursting in mid-May are as red as ever and the misty blue Ceonanthus bush, also called the California lilac, gave us special joy with its fragrance and color.
But there was one thing about this trip that was different:
On previous trips, the guides handed out a map to each guest every morning showing the recommended route to that night’s destination, along with detailed mimeographed notes on what to look for — road signs, route numbers, landmarks, etc. — along the way. (“Take a right immediately after the red barn, proceed on dirt road one mile, then watch for bike path on left just before old cemetery. If you pass a farmhouse with green door you’ve gone too far . . .’’
Following the map and the notes was like participating in a giant scavenger hunt, at the end of which was a five-course dinner in a historic chateau.
That was then.
Now, as we discovered, the map and notes have given way to high tech in the form of a GPS device. On the first morning of the trip we were each given one of the gizmos and told it was all we needed. No more paper maps. Just follow the purple line in the little window and it would take us where we needed to go. Never get lost again.
And truthfully, the pre-programed systems worked perfectly — except when they didn’t. And when they didn’t, which was quite often, panic and exhaustion followed.
There were two possibilities. They either flashed a warning that we were “OFF Course’’ — when we weren’t . . . or they indicated we were “ON Course’’ – when, it turned out, we also weren’t.
In the first instance we’d race backward to revise our turn at the previous intersection, only to find we’d been right the first time and have to retrace our route. In the second situation, we’d bike merrily along, following the purple line until it led us (as happened) to a dead end in the middle of dark woods. By then we were miles off course and thoroughly lost. To find our way “home,’’ we had to use another technology that hadn’t been available on our first bike trip: a cellphone. We were carrying one for just such an emergency and called for help. One of our wonderful guides, searching for us in his van, eventually found us and took us in hand like elderly Hansel and Gretels lost in the forest.
Our tech-savvy kids, of course, never had any problem with the GPS and never got lost. When the trip was over, they carried our heavy luggage down the train platform in Tours and sent us off to Paris with supportive hugs. Somehow, the 80-year-old father and his elderly wife felt more like the children of the family than the parents.
But the two old people made it all the way back to Boston on their own, safe and sound, after six glorious days of biking in one of Europe’s most enchanting locations.