Sleep appears to have externalised my inner angst into a smoggy haze clagging to the Seine valley. It’s unpleasant to cycle in, but adds atmosphere to the watery landscape; muffling sound and yet somehow heightening vision, lending an eeriness to the grottoed limestone cliffs and the tortuous tendrils and fluffy seed heads of The Old Man’s Beard lining our route.
Group cycling is tough…there’s the guilt of holding others back with your own technical hitches…and the impatience of being held back yourself when you’re cold and wet. In part, old bikes and charity shop clothing don’t help, but finding a use for yourself within the group is key. Today, after the first fall, I find mine. The role is very simple; just to ride behind someone so they feel safe, like a mother hen. It’s a practical task that I have day to day experience of, and it makes me feel part of something and strong again.
Half way to Paris, the traffic’s thickening, and we take a lunch stop at Andresy where sculptures and curly black kale line the banks of the sluggish Seine.
We’re journeying into a great historical metropolis of culture, and our excitement hangs palpably in the mist of the river. Leaving town, an elderly man with a foxy dog invites us home for “a cuppa”. But the clock’s ticking and the road to Paris awaits us.
There are cars, lorries, vans and beeping horns aplenty. But it’s the pedestrians that I like; the solitary women on their way home from work who raise a fist and cry of support, the fluorescent vested groups of after school kids who react with spontaneous joy at our passing by, even the gang of youths who I persuade to High Five me instead of karate kicking me off my bike.
We’re crossing the Seine into the peripheries of Paris, pedalling towards the distant space age spires.
Suddenly, with the wail of sirens pulsating in our ear drums, we’re passing armed soldiers into a Ballardesque hell of high speed subterranean roundabouts and choking smog as a multitude of police vans sweep past us. Somehow, we survive and wind up at La Defense, an alien futuristic cityscape, but at least it’s above ground and car free.
Our cycling camaraderie overflows. We’ve done it! Together, under our own collective steam, we’ve powered ourselves 206 miles from a Brixton church to this sci-fi citadel overlooking the illuminated Avenue de la Grand Armee with the iconic Arc de Triomphe looming large in the distance.
As a group, for now, this is the end of the road for us. Confinement and a criminal record is not easy for anyone to bear, so from this point we all make our own personal decisions. And strangely, I’m devoid of fear. Hot Chip’s “No fear, fear doesn’t live here any more” is my ear worm. I don’t want to scuttle into Paris alone, even though I know the French state of repression is awaiting us in some form. It’s not so much a conscious decision, as an instinctual gut feeling to go with the flow, to arrive in style, en masse, flying down the Champs Elysée with the smiles of my cycling compadres and their belief that another world is possible. Paris, get ready because la Grand Armee of cycling activists is rolling into town.