17th: Emily and I select our preferred cycle helmets from the three in the store room. She has chosen the metallic blue model, and I have selected a worn out matt gold helmet. Neither fits very well, but they will keep us safe in the unlikely event of an accident.
We have decided to do the loop around the back of Soubes, heading out to St Etienne, a village about 1.5 km (one mile) down the road, and then heading back along the other side river into the village. It should be a simple journey to cut our teeth on. I have prepared my Kanken-style rucksack and donned my high viz vest, which I have found has a special inside pocket that can be used to carry keys and the like. I have taken various paraphernalia that I will not use, including notebook and pen and pencil. Emily and I wheel the bikes up the garden path, over the stairs that lead up to the terrace, and then along the side of the house. It is a beautiful day, and the sun is shining through a clear blue sky that is completely cloudless.
The first part of the ride is downhill, first along the dusy track from Les Oliviers, then down the Chemin des Capitelles, which is tarmacked but rather uneven. We then go down the steep 7% gradient hill that leads to the main road, the D25. Even though Emily has been cycling down to the sea from Lewes in recent weeks during lockdown, I feel incredibly protective towards her, and insist she cycles on ahead, as I am wearing the high viz vest to alert cars to our presence.
Although this seemed like a good idea at the start, by the time we are on the D25 I have started to fall behind, and the strain of pedalling is really starting to make demands on my stomach and legs. Emily seems to be breezing along without any problem, pausing occasionally to check on my progress, and then whistling to herself in a nonchalant way as if this were a walk down by the river on a spring day. I am determined not to stop, but by the time we have got to St Etienne, I am relieved that she has decided that it is time for a photo opportunity. My chest has started to ache and my thighs are feeling tight. I try to breathe evenly.
We drive through the village, then take a right over a small bridge that crosses the river, and we take the second or third road on the right to begin the return loop. Before then, there is time for another photo opp with the mountains behind us. It’s only after another 10 minutes of driving that we realise we are not heading back along the river, but have somehow taken a loop up a steep hill that has led to another hill, and then back down into a rather windy road through a suburban residential area and that we have, to put it mildly, lost our bearings. We pause for another photo opp on the path as we begin to descend to a wooded area with pine trees.
I have been taking the photos with my underwater camera, which I packed hoping we might find some idyllic wild swimming hole, as yet undiscovered. Emily suggests we stop for some water and check where we are on my mobile phone.
There are only two problems with this suggestion. I have not brought my mobile phone with me. And I have not brought water.
We take a few more photos and cycle onwards. There is a bit of me that believes that things work out one way or another if you just keep going. I have experienced this serendipity a number of times during my life, and while I recognise that meticulous planning is generally a more efficient way of getting from A to B, instinct often works just as well.
I had spent the lockdown reading about labyrinths, and the notion that if you just hold to the right path you will always get to the centre. The (unicursal) labyrinth differs from the maze because you do not have to make choices, you just stick to the path. It is a potent archetypal image that spans across many civilsations, from early rock engravings dating back tens of thousands of years, through the Greek myths of Daedalus and Ariadne, to more recent religious myths including Christianity, of which Chartres is perhaps the most famous.
So it was this time. Just as I started to feel that we were going in the opposite direction to what we had intended, the river and campsite of Les Sources appeared as if by magic on our right, and then the local winery called Mas Fabregous loomed on our left.
We drove on, with Soubes on our right, freewheeling back down to the D25 again, where we cycled back over the speedbumps we had travelled over so many times in the car. We turned left into the village, took in the Bar and then drove past the new car park, and finally up the paths leading to Les Oliviers.
It felt wonderful. We have been to Soubes each year for around two decades but have never done this cycle ride. Back at the villa Emily told everyone about the journey and how I had set off without the two things we would need: water and a mobile phone. I walked down to the pool and put my feet up one of the loungers. I would definitely need to work on my fitness.