Matthew Wake, Book Store Owner in Lausanne Switzerland, world traveller and Kendo Master, decided to take on a challenge with his brother Dom this past week. Matt is my cousin-in-law, whom I have had the privilege of visiting in Switzerland and hosting here in Niagara last Christmas. Matt talked last Christmas of his goal of biking around Lake Geneva.
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The Tour du lac is a bike ride around Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It’s a 180 km (110 miles) of undulating road that travels through France and Switzerland, framed by the French Alps.
I’m 42 years old and I’ve been practising kendo, the Japanese art of fencing, for about 20 years. I’ve never been good at or particularly enjoyed long-distance sports and don’t consider myself an endurance athlete. One thing I like is getting up at 05.30 and cycling to the next town and back and watching the sun rise from behind the mountains. I have always dreamed of cycling around the whole lake and had vaguely planned to do it this summer.
My brother Dom visited from the UK. The week before he had cycled 100 miles in a London road race. I asked him on the Friday night if he wanted to do the Tour and he did, so I borrowed a road bike from a neighbour and we spent the Saturday buying food and equipment.
We set off from Lausanne at 04.00 after a breakfast of sandwiches and bananas. We had chosen this time because we wanted to hit the French border just as it was getting light. The road through France is notoriously narrow with a high volume of traffic travelling at up to 110 km/h, so we wanted to clear this section early. As a consequence, it was dark when we set out and we had our lights on. We had the additional hazard of drunk teenagers staggering into the road.
We had broken the ride into four, 45km segments, and we reached our first way-point at the French border around 06.00. We refuelled and got back into the saddle. I told Dom that I was feeling good. My bum hurt, my hands hurt and my knees hurt, but the pain wasn’t getting any worse and I felt confident on the bike. Dom said he hadn’t been convinced we would make it, and not just because I wasn’t fit enough. We had poor equipment – he hadn’t expected to ride and was wearing Birkenstock sandals. He was on my mountain bike, which is fine for short trips, but it’s heavy and no one’s choice for a 100 mile ride. It was the first time for me on my neighbour’s bike, the first time I’d worn cleats, taken a drink in the saddle, ridden more than 27 km. We didn’t have padded shorts or gloves.
On the positive side, Dom knew how we should nourish ourselves and had the experience of long-distance bike rides. The course, while long, was not particularly demanding. We also had an endless supply of jelly babies.
I was also getting used to the cleats. I had felt very unstable in them to begin with – it felt like my feet were glued to the pedals – but I realised they allowed me to use different muscle sets, giving my upper legs a rest while I used my ankles and feet. While I’m sure experienced riders efficiently spread the movement over the whole leg, this slightly amateurish approach worked for me.
As we cycled into France the rain began to fall and the wind picked up. The worst part of it was that all the bakeries were wafting the smell of croissants and coffee into the road. The road was as narrow as expected and the longer we rode the more the traffic picked up. We were both pleased to leave France a couple of hours later. We stopped at a petrol station to resupply our water and eat.
The third section took us through Geneva and it was fun pointing out the United Nations buildings. Rather than follow the lake path we decided to head into the hills, before descending back to the lake for the last 10km to Nyon, our third stop.
I was starting to struggle and we discussed whether to give up, but with only 45 km left we were too close to fail. It was difficult to get off the bike to eat and drink, and mentally even harder getting back on. The rain was steady and I was constantly shifting my hands and bum to find a less painful position.
A useful lesson I have learnt through kendo is to concentrate on my breathing. It places me in the moment and stops my mind being defeated by difficulty – real or imagined, already accumulated or still to come. So I just breathed in and out and refused to give up.
We arrived back in Lausanne a very slow nine hours after we started. The last 2 kms involved a steep climb. We could have taken the bus or the metro, and we could still have considered that we’d completed the Tour du lac from Lausanne to Lausanne. Almost.
But I think anybody who does some kind of sport knows all about living with ‘almosts’.
We cycled up those last kilometres just so we could say we’d done it.