An unusual rest day at the Tour. No clamorous press conferences, nor heat-stuffed launderettes. No wan baguettes by the side of the road, nor six hour drives. Just a day, a glorious one as it happened, and a landscape to explore.
At nine this morning I set off on board my new bike. It’s actually an old Holdsworth with antique gears and lovely chrome bits and was a gift to me from my good friend Garry. He found it in his garage, restored it, and for some inexplicable reason gave it to me shortly before I left home to cover the Tour de France. It used to belong to his Uncle Jim, he informed me. Garry’s a sentimental old sod (for a hard South Londoner), and when I posted him a picture of the bike being ridden in Kent lanes he informed that this was Jim’s old patch. ‘Totally approve’, he wrote back in a Cockney accent. ‘The old Holdsworth being ridden on roads it used to know.’
I set off from Maidstone, the air crisp but warming by the minute. Climbing out of the valley, I briefly bisected the Pilgrim’s Way cycle route, which left me reciting the one line of Chaucer I remember ad infinitum. Something profane in a silly version of an English accent. Then I headed north and straight into a series of ‘walls’ at which point I realised instantly the limitations of my 5-speed set-up and did a passable impression of Michael Gogl towards to the top of the Montée de la selle de Fromentel; weaving violently from side to side.
After that succession of horrors, the ride settled down as I set off towards the East along the ridge. Alone on the road, the noise I generated (huffing, puffing and rubbing mudguard) was enough to flush out a huge variety of birds from the Kentish hedgerows. They’d wing along in front of me for a while, tiny airborne outriders. At one point a hawk (I think) startled me by shooting out from a bush with what looked like a grass snake in its talons.
I passed through neat, prosperous villages; perfectly converted barns and oast houses with Farrow & Ball front doors and huge German cars on gravel driveways. I saw a proliferation of Union Jacks flying gently from white-painted masts, as if the late summer air was still buzzing with Spitfires and Messerschmidts. The miles passed by with unreal ease.
Then I dropped down again, and briefly got stuck trying to cross first the M2, then the A2, forced to double back on myself more than once when an innocuous country lane turned into a slip road to hell. Eventually, crossing the main arterial routes out of England, I caught sight of the huge motorway signs I had seen so many times before. “Dover” they read, and “Channel Tunnel”. For me, these huge metallic edifices, painted in a standardised font, mark the countdown to beginning of another Tour, another lap of France; another physical journey. This time, I rode past them at a perpendicular angle. They looked so much bigger when they’re not flashing by at 70 miles an hour, barely glanced at through a windscreen.
I had lunch in Whitstable, and good though the fish was, I couldn’t wait to leave again. It was crowded and felt normal. That disturbed me, because nothing is. On my way back out, I collapsed into the shingle and pebble beach at Seasalter, falling deeply but briefly asleep as the Thames Estuary lapped unenthusiastically on the shore. I think I may have dreamed, but if I did it didn’t stick.
Remounting my bike, I set off again, aware of the climbs to come. Heading back on a more easterly route, and following only my sense of direction, I passed through orchards heavy with Kentish apples. The lanes were strongly scented from the time to time with crushed hops that had been dropped on the tarmac by passing farm trailers. For half an hour, whichever way I turned, I seemed incapable of escaping the gravitational pull of Faversham, whose Shepherd Neame brewery was the local paymaster for the crop. Every road sign seemed to suggest that Faversham was always 1 ¾ miles away.
Finally, I broke free, as did my thoughts. I realised I barely knew Kent. For me, it had always been a point of transition towards a more distant objective. I remembered David Millar’s wonderful solo attack on stage one of the 2007 Tour de France along some of these very roads. And I realised that Kent had launched him, as well.
These last two weeks I have been bottling up how much I miss France. This became apparent to me as I crossed the motorway once more and headed for my final destination. The race has been wonderful, but the accompanying journey has been absent. I need that bit back, and to be reassured that, over the water, France still actually exists; it’s valleys, peaks, villages and rivers are real, not just pixels.
That was the lesson of the ride, I thought as I parked up my bike in the cool dark store room it’s been living in. Unlocking the same hotel room I have been in for the last two weeks, I understood the conclusion that six hours of pedalling had gently facilitated. The Tour means so much more to me that just the race. I hope that 2021 brings back its truer nature. I hope that my feelings are not left stranded in Kent; in a lorry park filled with longing, awaiting authorisation.