The Route Napoleon

I seem to be sufficiently inept that, here from France, I cannot put this essay on my homepage, so I will send it out.

I like cycling in France for various reasons. First it is easy. Plenty of campgournds, hostels, markets, superstores, bikeshops and, of course, restaurants for various budgets and tastes. As you know I prefer French cuisine - even that prepared at the deli section of large supermarkets - to my own camp cooking. I don't feel human after the cycling day until I have a glass of wine and a warm shower. France lets me have both more easily than other places. Second, I like the French people, whose language I almost speak. They are my favorite Europeans, as a group of strangers, friendly and honest to strangers. Third, there's about a 6 month window of cycling opportunity, weather-wise. Fourth, there's a wealth of interesting things to see -- chateaux, museums, monuments, festivals and the like. Cycling across vast intellectual wastelands is no longer my preference. I need things to look at which make me think - to balance the physical exertion of cycling with its mental counterpart. For me, just reading something in French challenges the grey cells! France's sites are everywhere, to the degree that I figure anything in this country can call itself a museum. I have passed during these two tours several establishments touting themselves as bicycle museums. I don't stop at such places (entree fee 4 Euros), but at least they exist if I were ever to feel the need, such as on a rainy day. Finally, distance cycling here is manageable. France, compared to the USA, China, or Australia is a small country. It doesn't take too long to get anywhere, and there's a pervasive rail network to help out (no problem taking a bagged bike on any train). Though compact, France has plenty of rurality - it doesn't feel urban most of the time. Most urban conglomerations don't take more than an hour to leave behind. So, given the long cycling window and these other reasons, I have chosen France for future cycling, as well as part- time residence.

I use the Michelin 300 series "Local" series (France in 45 maps). Scale is 1/150,000 - 1/175,000. They are so cluttered with data that they demand I change to reading glasses - a 15 second process while I straddle the bike to keep it from flipping to the ground (often the bike wins). These maps are unwieldly - with a 1/2 life of several months, less if it rains - and I am almost always drawn to the fold, forcing me to open it up - it's the size of a kitchen table - in such a way that it makes a perfect kite for the wind that appears out of nowhere. Still these maps show small roads - and these are the cyclists' delight. Though white roads (the larger ones are represented by yellow, red and orange) can add 20-30% onto the distance, the safety and pleasure that they add and the stress they remove - national roads are race tracks in France - is incalculable. Which finally brings me to the Route Napoleon.

On the map this route is a think red line, National Highway 85. As a tourist route it is not even listed by IGN (Michelin's competitor) on Map # 902, France Routes Historique. Just think - a country with so many historical routes that one following the footsteps of one of history's greatest leaders, not to mention meglomaniacs, is not even considered. Such a country! In any case, I wanted to go from Cannes to Lyon and my route coincided in part with NB's. This wasn't planned; it just happened. And, as it happens, what on the map looked like the Autoroute Napoleon is actually too hilly (they are called the Alps) for most travelers, save the numerous Dutch who have invaded France, and don't know hills from nothing. Suffice it to say, the Route Napoleon makes for good cycling. In my section 3 well-graded summits around 1,000 meters, all in a single day. All along the route are explanations for what NB did, where he stayed, what he ate, etc.

On the cycle when I pass locals they often yell out courage or bonne route. I wonder if their ancestors did the same to NB and his army.


27 June 2002