Yes! there was once a girl.
Well a woman really.
Actually she was a grandmother!
Who was pure mad about cycling.
She was so mad about it that, after surgery and immunotherapy for cancer in her leg, she got on her bike and cycled across france and had great adventures and met lovely people.
But one aspect of her cycling that caused much debate and even controversy and sometimes uproar and once downright ‘Ri ra agus rualie bualie’ (Irish for when all hell breaks loose) was the fact that she didn’t wear a helmet.
If truth be told she had never worn one, not in all her years of cycling.
Even when she was seven months pregnant and cycling to her ante natal clinics and could barely fit between the saddle and the handlebars she didn’t wear one.
Strangely people were less concerned about the pregnant cycling thing than the lack of a helmet.
They were very quick to remind her of all the dangers out there waiting for her and her bicycle.
The potholes, the trucks, the tractors, the fast drivers, the buses, the taxis, the cows on the road, the dog running unexpectedly out in front of her, the football, the hen.
It seemed to everyone but her that the whole world was determined to knock her off her bike.
‘But’ she replied, troubled that people lived in such fear of accidents, ‘It’s never occurred to me I should need such an object. I’m an optimist and I like to cycle simply and spontaneously. If I was a pessimist I could say to you. why don’t you put on a helmet when you are climbing a ladder, or having a shower or going upstairs or getting into your car, or walking on a country road?’.
‘Plus’ She reminded them ‘I have never come to grief in all my years of cycling except once’.
Oh yes! they all remembered THAT day.
That day was the day she got her diagnosis.
It had already got off to a bad start and she knew by the time she reached the hospital, she might as well give up any smidgen of thought that it might improve.
To begin with, she had forgotten to set her alarm clock and therefore only just had time to have a shower.
A day when she didn’t know what part of her the doctor might want to examine, was not a wise day to skip a shower.
She remembered an incident in the assessment unit where she once worked.
An old farmer came in complaining about a sore left foot. She examined the clean and scrubbed foot produced out of the wellington and a sock that smelt of pears soap.
But when she asked to see his other foot to make a comparison, he went red and ducking his head, produced a foot with no sock but grimey with turf mould and muck instead.
Having taken the time to shower that morning meant she didn’t have time to make her espresso, a beverage she found hard to function without. Or to pop into the local church and light a hopeful candle (the last straw she could think of grasping)so by the time she got on her bike things were already going downhill.
‘Never mind’ She thought as she pedalled furiously down the hill on the wrong side of the road. ‘I can get a lovely latte from the coffee shop once the doctor has told me there is nothing wrong with me except the need to lose a bit of weight’.
As she sped around the corner a large jeep was coming slowly the other way.
In panic she tried to get up onto the pavement (a silly manoeuvre on such a heavy bike but she really wasn’t thinking straight due to the lack of coffee and what she had to face).
She fell off the bike and landed haphazardly on the pavement. Sitting up and realizing no damage was done, she lifted her face to the sky and howled like a baby.
The woman hopped out of the jeep and ran to see if she was alright.
‘No I’m not’ She bawled ‘I am late for my doctors appointment and I think I have cancer’ (there she had said it)
‘Well’ said the jeep woman putting her finger to her chin for a moment and frowning ‘If you HAVE cancer I don’t think being late for your appointment is too important.
The woman who might have cancer thought about this for a second or two before saying ‘yes you are right. If I have cancer it changes everything. In fact all the silly things I have worried about over all the years suddenly seem no longer important.’
‘Lets pop your bike in my jeep’ The jeep woman leant forward to help her up ‘I will bring you to the hospital’.
‘You are very kind. But I am ok and what you have said really makes sense plus I have a few things to do enroute. I will ring and say I am a bit delayed and I will cycle carefully’.
‘Do that’ said the woman ‘I see you are not wearing a helmet but I suspect its not a head injury you’re afraid of dying from and I suppose every minute of feeling the wind through your hair and the sun on your cheeks is important to you now. Good luck today’ she smiled then got back in her jeep and drove away.
As soon as the woman with maybe cancer quickly calculated how long it would take to light a candle and pick up a coffee, she phoned the hospital and told them she would be 10 minutes late due to heavy traffic.
I certainly didn’t bring a helmet to france.
I was planning to pedal sedately and calmly with my head up admiring the passing scenery and avoiding the potholes.
There was no reason why I should fall off and if I did, then definitely there was no reason why I should land on the top of my head. (as opposed to my arm or my shoulder or my leg).
I wasn’t quite sure what the helmet story was in france but I was about to find out.
My first encounter with cyclists was a peloton.
I had gone to Arcachon in order to dip the front wheel of the yellow bike into the atlantic. (The next sea I hoped to dip my wheel into being the mediterranean).
I was now cycling back in the direction of Bordeaux along a sand road which meandered between grapevines
The sun was warm and now and then a relieving breeze ruffled my hair wherever there was a gap in the rows of vines.
I was in a world of my own, happily settling into the rhythm of my pedalling.
A twitter of voices, getting louder by the second, woke me from my daydream.
Something large and noisy was approaching from the rear.
Before I had a chance to look over my shoulder! They were upon me!
A large flock of coloured ‘parakeets’ swooping by with cheery calls of ‘bonvoyage’ and ‘courage’.
In the seconds that they took to pass I noted bright lycra above their tanned muscular calves and coordinating helmets upon their heads.
They were supreme in their choice of colours and coordination.
If the lycra was purple with pink trim then the helmet catching the sunlight was pink with purple stripes.
But that was the men.
The women, recognisable only by their smaller slimmer stature, wore black. Some conceding cautiously to colour by the smallest streak of yellow or blue.
I presume this is because black is slimming and god forbid any french woman would be seen as fat especially when viewed from behind.
And on such a note I did observe that the men wore gel pads in the seat of their cycling shorts whilst the women, who would have no problem risking saddle sores and blisters for the sake of beauty, went au natural.
As the dust from the cheerful entourage settled I spied the last female hopping off her bike and leaning it against a post.
She disappeared in among the grapevines.
Aha! I thought. A good place to pee. But she was not peeing instead she returned swiftly with a few bunches of luscious black grapes in her hands.
As I drew parallel she popped a bunch in my basket.
‘Bon appetite et bonne chance’ she smiled, before leaping agilely onto her saddle and whizzing off after the others.
I could see her throwing back her head every now and again as she gobbled down her own bunch.
So there I had it.
Speedy cyclists in france wore helmets, but were very friendly and encouraging to slower cyclists who didn’t.
I arrived sticky handed and purple lipped into the center of Bordeaux
Here it was a different story. Just as friendly but hurrah! I hardly spotted a single helmet amongst the hoards of city cyclists.
And hoards is no exaggeration.
I stopped for a coffee at a cafe in gambetta square and sat and watched in awe.
Such a cacophony of bicycle varieties.
This was too serious a scene to merely sit nursing a coffee over.
I needed something to chew on while I observed the show.
Something to get my teeth into and as I had the best chair in the house, right next to the square, I shouldn’t rush.
I had timed it well.
The waiters were starting to throw pristine white tablecloths over the now emptying tables as the coffee drinking galloise smoking youngsters pushed back their chairs and drifted away.
Older serious foodies were now arriving.
‘Vous manger?’ a handsome lad nodded at my table holding a tablecloth in his hands.
‘Mais qui’ I replied.
With one gesture he flung the cloth high into the azure sky and we both watched as it floated gently down and landed with unwrinkled precision across my table. The waiter smoothed it once, just in case.
Out of nowhere, two glasses and a knife, fork, spoon and napkin appeared and a menu was produced.
‘Un aperitif madam? My handsome waiter suggested raising a dark eyebrow.
‘Bien sur’ I replied, with my best french shrug ‘Un verre de vin rouge s’il vous plait’.
He darted off to carry out my wish and was back within seconds.
I lifted the glass of dark ruby almost black liquid.
I would have loved to spend some time sniffing the aromas but fearing pretentiousness, I took a sip instead and was surprised by its silky elegance. I had expected something rougher for a house wine.
The menu was simple and only in french.
I eventually narrowed it down to the ham cassoulet with haricot beans or the moules a la bordelaise. The mussels won. Bordeaux was too near the sea for them not to.
While I waited for them to arrive I sat back, sipped my wine and bike watched.
France has a tradition of a two hour stomach challenging lunch but it seems this tradition is fading fast when it comes to the young.
The young in france were slim and beautiful on that sunny autumn day and out and about en masse on their bicycles and not planning a large lunch as I was.
A few in particular caught my eye.
A high heeled woman in a flowery dress with a small white poodle in her front basket for example.
She had a cigarette between her elegant fingers, which also managed to hold onto one handle bar, while the other clutched a mobile phone to her ear.
She laughed joyously and held an animated conversation whilst weaving in and out between taxi’s, her dog yapping noisily at any other cyclist who dared to cross their path.
With each bark its diamond trinketed collar jangled furiously.
She was not long gone when my attention turned to a handsome lad and pretty girl holding hands and cycling nonchalantly by.
Then there was a girl with a large cello on her back.
Next a man cycling an old black upright bike and with a free hand bringing along an empty bike.
Meanwhile girls perched on back carriers, arms twined around their lovers, who pedalled enthusiastically with no objection to the extra weight.
They crisscrossed, swerved, slowed, in and out between the buses, taxi’s and cars, but no one fell off. No one got cross.
They just kept going, optimistically and without fear it seemed to me and not a helmet among them.
So engrossed was I by what was in front of me that I almost missed the smells that were beginning to fill the air, almost delicate at first but gradually getting stronger.
Saucisson, steak, jambon, onions, garlic. A plate of earthy mushrooms went by leaving a scent of forest in its trail.
At last I smelt something familiar, something that reminded me of summer evenings in connemara. The smell of the sea. My mussels had arrived.