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Thursday, 8 September 2011

Suffering Is Jamming - Part 1 - Unicycle adventure

I just got home. My nose is dripping like a leaky tap and I am sneezing like a machine gun. I have a head full of feverish temperature and unhealthy memories, the cause of which I will get to. But let’s start where most stories do: finding motivation to begin.

Matt Downing was in a pub in the town where we both grew up. He was talking boldly like many under alcohol’s influence will. He told a lot of people that he was hardy enough to pedal from the top of France to the bottom of Spain on a Unicycle! Later it struck him that he wasn’t one to just say things. He was a man of action and the training began. Life is full of challenges, why not set them yourself? At least then they are on your own terms.
When he left early in July 2011 I decided I should join him at some point. I would enjoy the summer’s sun, get fit and healthy doing a bit of cycling (on a normal two wheeled bike) and boost Matt’s morale. I booked a flight to Perpignan on August 24th and arranged for my friend Albert to get me a bike and meet me on arrival. I had a flight home booked from Valencia two weeks later – a relatively easy fortnight’s cycle: for a guy on two wheels.

Day 1: Perpignan - St Cyprien
Perpignan airport is the kind I like; small and shoddy. I didn’t wait long outside before Albert arrived. He had with him a girl who I took to be English and a ‘Peugeot - Tim Gauld - Mountain Bike’ a relic from the 80’s. I jumped in the car and we sped off. Matt was waiting but we stopped for pizza and beers regardless. At St Cyprien strolling down the beachside boulevard we caught a whiff of sweat and sure enough there was Matt sat on a wall smoking. He looked tanned and healthy even though his clothes were filthy. He had shaved recently but his hair was long, curly and greasy. At the nearest bar Albert asked him why unicycle all that way? Matt told him he was raising money for Cancer Research UK – “A good investment” Albert laughed as Matt smoked another cigarette. We walked back to the car and took out my bike, both wheels were flat but Albert handed us a pump and soon they were full and bouncy. He was careful to show us how the pump attached to the frame with velcro and ensured we took the puncture repair kit and two hooks for removing tyres. I thought nothing of it: just sensible precautions. Albert and Sarah left for Barcelona.
Matt and I left for a bar and found a small cafe where we befriended the flirty middle aged bar maid – let’s call her Sharon (Shazza for short). Shaz gave us free Tapinade, bread and peanuts and drinking wine herself lost track of how many beers we had and rounded it down when we finally paid. Walking back along the beach we found a Christmas disco; everyone dressed in Santa Claus get-up and a full blown snow machine. Joyeux Noel! When Christmas ended we cycled down to a deserted patch of beach and set up our tents. After boasting to Matt how mine was so light and had cost very little, I promptly found out why: Whoever had designed the tent had obviously never tried using it. The two vertical poles forming it’s structure fell down if you even lightly brushed against them meaning I had to crawl backwards into the tent like some kind of fleshy hermit crab. The tent was called ‘High Peak’! You would be royally screwed if you had climbed a mountain before unfurling this joke of a product.

Day 2: St Cyprien – Collioure
In the pale morning light I did some crude stretches to scare away a man with the metal detector. It had been a good nights sleep regardless of the tent. We returned to Shazza’s café for a coffee, she filled up our water bottle and bid us adieu. We fuelled up with a large supermarket breakfast – ham, cheese, baguette and Yop! Then we were on our way heading out of town past the circus, past the port and onto a dry-mud bike track. For twenty minutes Matt lead the way, I was surprised how fast he could go and enjoyed the bemused looks of other cyclists and people out walking. Suddenly I felt my bike wobble unusually and heard a sound like and extended, high-pitched sigh. The front wheel had deflated.
Matt had been on the road for over a month now and he was used to dealing with whatever was thrown at him. He grabbed the tools and set about taking out the inner tube. We found the puncture in the most annoying place, like a cut on the crease of your finger. The hole was on the base of the valve where it met the tube and because the protruding valve is set at a right-angle it was near impossible to patch up. We did the best we could but after five minutes cycling it was flat again. After searching for a bike-shop in the near vicinity to no avail we stopped for another coffee. Camping in the open Matt had become accustom to frequenting cafes not just for their coffee but for the toilets. We both took a dump at this one amidst shameful looks at the other patrons who I imagined knew exactly what we were up to.
The French police told us the only bike shop was back in St Cyprien. The speediest solution would be for Matt to unicycle back and buy two inner tubes (one spare), which he did. Fitting the new tube and feeling like problems were just there to be fixed we looked at our hands – black from the tyre’s tread – and chanted “BLOKES DOING BLOKES SHIT” football terrace style. In a positive frame of mind we hit a straight stretch of road and managed to cover some distance. Then I heard that sound again ‘Pppppppppppphhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ and my heart sank. Again it was the front tyre. The sun was at it’s height beating down overhead. When we removed the inner tube the puncture was in exactly the same place. We surmised the hole in the metal part of the wheel that let the valve through was sharp and quickly rubbed through the valve’s rubber coating. In short it was the wheel itself that was popping the inner tubes. There was nothing around except a huge sign for ‘Aqualand’. We tried covering the wheel’s metal hole and bandaging the last inner tube around the valve’s base to protect it. I was now riding on tenterhooks. On the outskirts of Argeles – the next town – the dreaded sound pierced the air once more ‘Pppppppppppphhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ and my optimism deflated too. We pushed our bikes into town, cyclists flying past us, rubbing salt in the wound. In town healthy bikes were everywhere. Argeles was the sort of town with no past, built solely for the summer months; all children’s fun-parks, mini-golf, restaurants and hotels. We decided that this wheel was beyond redemption and that the only solution was to switch it for a similar one. We ate steaming ‘Moules Frites’ waiting for it to get dark. But when it got dark there were a lot less bikes and our courage was lacking. We decided to drink two large bottles of Sangria and allow fate to take hold. And fate took hold, or at least the Sangria did. Sitting on the beach talking to some local French girls they pointed out the huge green laser shooting into the sky and said it was the biggest open-air club in France: ‘Indigo.’ They left to go there and we left in that direction on the look out for bikes to ransack. Through the town, through the port and out into the darkness. Nothing. We got to a campsite and Matt went in looking to steal a wheel. Nothing presented itself but we were on the road now getting closer and closer to the laser. Getting further and further away from civilisation. On the edges of cliffs. On little paths. Danger signs everywhere. Along roads hung with trees. Down hills with Satanist paintings on huge rocks. Under disused bridges. Into another campsite with no one on reception.
Leaving our bikes at the entrance we went in. Should we sleep here? We see the perfect wheel and decide to take it. We leave our bikes by the side of an escape road. A skinny black dog runs across our path and we hear strange singing in the distance and see the flickers of fires. After the Satanist paintings these omens only add paranoia. But we are on one, there is no turning back because there is nothing to turn back to. With the wheel almost off the nearby caravan comes alive with coughing sounds. We vacate fast and push our bikes away from this weird dark corner of French coastline. The laser’s closeness is a geographical illusion. We keep pushing leaving it all behind us. Sober again in the night’s harsh emptiness. Finally the road spirals down into an ancient town. Huge old houses tower over us their window’s shutters slamming in the ghostly gusts of wind. It is now around 5am we have almost been awake for 24 hours. I spot a nice patch of lush green grass sheltered by a wall and some bushes. We get in our sleeping bags and lay down to sleep.

Day 3: Collioure –Port Bou
Psst Psst. I am woken by a strange noise,
thinking where am I and who is trying to get my attention. PsstPsstPsstPsstPsst. Then I realise what is going on. Sprinklers are spraying this patch of ground with water and Matt and I are about to get soaking wet. “Matt! Get up! Go! Go! Go!” I shout whilst grabbing my bag, shoes and sleeping back. Now with damp clothes and nowhere open we wait. A tabac shop opens and matt buys cigarettes, then the shop shuts. It is around 7am. After a while we get a coffee in the first café to open and sit drying off. The town in the light of day no longer looks like a set of a horror film - in fact it looks picturesque. I take some photos of the fortifications that loom over the quaint little beach, and then it hits me, an irrepressible movement in my bowels. Matt was lucky, he remembered to use the facilities at the coffee shop, God damn professional! I think logically, naturally - why not shit in the sea? Everybody pisses in there. Fish shit in there. There’s nobody around except that old man on a bench and he wont know what I’m up to, he will just think I am going for an early morning swim.
Floating out there I see the old man staring. Ha ha old fool you don’t have a clue. I see Matt on the bench folding up with laughter. And then as I squeeze I see a torpedo turd float up to the surface and off to my right. A long curved brown banana with blunt ends. The lack of gravity has made me able to produce the perfect poo! I feel great like a trainee astronaut. I wash my crack and swim back to shore. The old man’s eyes follow me judgementally. He suspects something but he can’t know, can he? Matt is talking to a girl now and trying not to laugh as I dry off and give him a thumbs up.
A guy who runs a bike hire shop and glides around on a Segway tells us that he can’t help and that the only place to get new parts to repair the wheel is in Banyuls which is very far to walk but there is a bus that only costs one euro going there every hour. The bus drops us directly outside the tourist information so we ask where this shop is. Apparently it is not a regular shop, just a house of a professional trail mountain biker who might be able to help.
This town seems like a bikers mini Mecca with lots of cyclists passing through dressed fully in lycra, streamlined helmets, wrap around sunglasses and with water bottles attached to their bike’s frames. Pushing my wobbly flat-wheeled bike in front of these people I imagined myself a guy whose cock had gone flaccid at an orgy. I feel I am starting to flip as the sun gets hotter and hotter and crazier. I blame it on the lack of sleep. When eventually we arrive at the address we know we are in the right place. A beat-up campervan sits in the drive covered in mountain bike stickers. We knock on the door – no answer. We phone the number – no answer. We walk to the back door where in the patio sits a caravan freshly painted with ‘Casa Monty.’ We knock on that but no answer. We knock on the back door – no answer there either. This pushes me into hysterics. The camper van is open and I can se a bed so I tell Matt I will just sleep here until the owner returns. Not a good idea Matt says. We sit on some scaffolding on the side of the house and try phoning again with no luck. I start laughing at what I am about to say before I have said it, spluttering out sentences that sound hysterical “No seriously I am going to sleep” ha ha “I am going to sleep in his campervan” a ha a ha “Matt I am” aha “I’m going to” ha ha “do a shit in his swimming pool.” Matt verbally slaps me back to my senses but even he doesn’t know what to do.
We decide to go look for a campsite and just as we are walking away we here a voice coming from inside the garage. We shout “Bonjour!” and the shutter raises. The garage is full of brand new ‘Monty’ brand bikes of all sizes, for all ages, there are even a couple of ‘Monty’ unicycles. He is a large man, athletic looking but older than I had expected. He turns out to be very helpful and sets about fixing the front wheel full of concern. He files down the hole with a metal file and lovingly fits a Monty brand inner tube not charging for the work just the part. We cycle off proud of our good karma - no thievery, no, we had done the right thing. After about 200 meters I hear the dreaded sound once more ‘Ppppppphhhhhhhhhhhhh’ This time it was the back wheel that was flat. We marched back to Monty’s. The puncture was in the same place. Again the guy filed the hole, whacked in a Monty inner tube and set us on our way wishing us good luck. It must have seemed like we needed it.
With two good professional wheels all we needed now was some food. We ate crepes and hotdogs and were about to set off when the sky opened up. Out of nowhere the sky turned a dark and the rain was coming down very heavy. We waited it out in some shelter outside a laboratory, and left as soon as it was just spitting. Leaving the town we were soon on a mountainous road but cycling like champions. Up, up, up, cars passing and beeping and waving and cheering Matt on. As the road evens out and starts to drop Matt’s legs spin in little circles like the colourful toy windmills you stick in the sand at the beach. His huge purple and black bag wiggles from side to side on his back. And we are both flying. The rain starts again but we don’t care. Passing pine trees, fields full of grapevines, roadside wineries and little towns on hills above the moody sea. The sky is shifting all over the place – swirls of grey, white and black. Warm wind storms through the gully’s in between the hills and mountains, sometimes we are sheltered then around the next curve it blows against us side-on but Matt somehow keeps his balance. Streak lightning begins splitting the skies and electrifying the hills in front of our eyes. Then the wind is with us on our backs and we are rolling and it all feels fucking amazing and we know the border of Spain is up ahead. We drop into the last town in France along this road: Cerbere. We stop for a coffee and see some cyclist we saw in the last town arrive and take a hotel for the night. There are still three hours of light life so matt and I push on. Up out onto mountains even higher. This is the place where the Pyrenees meet the sea, a geopolitical borderline. The wind increases in strength. The rain lashes but we are hot from the exercise. A gale is blowing in off the sea and some parts of the road are completely exposed. I am thankful for the first time as to the weight of our bags, they anchor us firmly down as we march on. We see a lone white building covered in strange graffiti and then a sign facing backwards. When we pass the sign we see it is to tell people going the other way they are entering France. But we have not yet entered Spain, just the lawless twilight zone in between, where a derelict Police border control station sits smashed up alongside a boarded up souvenir shop. Then reaching the peek of the mountain we finally enter Spain.
At the first town in Spain – Port Bou – we feel we deserve a hotel and find one for 45 Euros, so 22.50 each. A warm shower feels good then we step out into the evening’s twilight to get food. After almost overdosing on cheese from the pizzas we pass out in real beds.
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