Cycling south through the farmland and vineyards to the south of Taulignan you will pass many isolated farm houses, but it may be some time before you see a window. You will see walls, much taller than you might expect, but no windows. Not even arrow-slots through which you could fire on hordes of barbarians surging down from the North.
No, it is the wind from the North they are trying to keep out, and not just any wind. When it decides to blow, the temperature plummets and the puffer jackets and hoodies come out even in mid-summer.
It is called ‘Le Mistral’ and it is the honest answer to the question “Who’s in charge around ici, then?”. Fail to plan for it and the grapes will be blown off your vines, the olives off your trees and the horns off your billy-goats. That’s why East-West rows of poplars and tall bamboos criss-cross the fields and why ranks of Cypress trees looking like tall, thin men in Lycra, stand by the road-side to shield the traffic where the wind funnels & gusts.
(Don’t worry, after you’ve been overtaken as many times as I have, everything starts to look like tall, thin men in Lycra.)
Those Cypress trees have an amazing ability to deflect the wind. Even when it is really howling, their tops scarcely bend
……….. unlike this power-line pole that I regularly cycle past, which makes me wonder what it must have been like on that day!
The Mistral is, and has been, such a regular feature of life in Provence that it pervades the culture and the psyche. It is well known to drive people mad and after days of trying to get my 300 miles cycled in spite of it, I am well prepared to believe that!
What causes this Mistral to appear suddenly, to blow sometimes for days on end and to reach speeds of over 100 mph?
Well, my favourite diagram of explanation is this,
…….. not because it is the best, but because it reminds me so much of the very well scuffed page 182 in our second form Biology textbook.
Winds from high and low pressure systems wind each other up and funnel down the Rhone valley. Just what causes it to kick off, we will leave to the Met Office. Suffice to say that when it does, it can blow the tops off belfry towers, so around these parts they have learnt their lesson and now they leave them off.
I am showing you this because I have a lot of bell-ringing friends who think they have a hard time climbing up all those stairs to the ringing chamber and being zapped by hungry chauves-souris in their belfry.
I have now been trying to cycle on 10 days, and on 6 of them the Mistral has been seriously out to play. The first time it happened, I decided that no cyclist not in possession of a couple of ‘Domestiques’, a Peloton and a full set of Lycra would ever dream of riding. So I left the bike in the shed. But as the realisation dawned that Le Mistral is no respecter of ‘September 300’ deadlines (indeed it reckons September as prime-time), a strategy would have to be evolved.
- Navigation: we would travel along lines of latitude only, studying the detailed maps to seek shelter from the contours, features and vegetation.
2. Technique: we would use low body profile, low gears, high pedalling cadence
3. Psychology: we would stuff earplugs into ears before going outdoors. It’s a trick I learnt windsurfing in very strong winds – if you can’t hear it you don’t fear it!
No problem then! Ah but …….
1) means serious UP-hill if you start from Taulignan;
2) means making bad back worse;
3) means road-kill.
Yep! OK., We’ll just have to Nike it!
So that is what we have been doing, paying respect also to the following, which are frequently encountered by the road-side and which I shall interpret for you in ascending sequence of terminality.
“You would be ill-advised to be blown off sideways here.”
“This is a picture of my sister. They did not want the one with the blood dripping from my jaws”
“Always read the small print”
“Stepping into here means certain death. We’re not joking. We are loaded and listening. There will never be a prosecution. Your body will never be found. The wild boars will see to that. We call it ‘Sustainable Truffle Culture'”
Also read the LARGE PRINT
WHEN WE SAY ‘GIBIERS’ WE DON’T MEAN BAMBI’S – WE MEAN BOARS
WHEN WE SAY ‘CHIENS’, WE MEAN BASKERVILLES
AND OF ‘MERCI’ WE WILL SHOW NONE.
So, last Saturday, Le Mistral is blowing like the French Horns in a Mahler Symphony. ( REM > Volume up to MAX and press stop after 56 seconds!)
I’ve done my navigation and heeded my warnings, and with Monsieur Mistral gusting to 45 mph I’ve bitten the bullet, and set off on a ride which will mean a climb of 1,200 ft through the forest, pretty much as soon as I’ve got warmed up. The forest will be my wind shelter. I’ve checked that the French hunting season doesn’t start till the second Sunday in September, so I’m safe enough there.
Off we go. Stone walls and sunken tracks shelter me for the first mile and a half and then – Wallop – and almost
as I’m hit by a belter just as I emerge from behind a farmhouse. I’m going west, which means I get blown sideways into the path of the approaching tractor with the added disc harrow. Possibly time to think again? Well, I’m nearing the forest, so grit the teeth (it was so nearly the knees in that last squall); turn up the jolly old sang froid and the rigide upper lip.
All goes well as the climb starts, then I spot one of those aforementioned yellow and green BIG SIGNS, loosely binder-twined to a post by the roadside. That’s odd, but glad I checked. Half a mile on, I am rudely overtaken by a pick-up with a crude kennel in the back. Its contents are HOOOOoooowling ever so enthusiastically. I’ve seen such pick-up truck kennels before and they only mean one thing – hounds to the hunting ground. 400 metres further on and the worst fears are confirmed. Down a track and in a hollow, 8 or more similar trucks with swarthy, unshaven, hard-looking men milling around and shrugging into bright red high viz jackets.
I am not sure why I didn’t turn back but I reckoned they hadn’t started hunting yet and if I got a move on……… Then this crossed the road right in front of me. I hope you will excuse my using someone else’s photograph – it didn’t seem quite the moment to try to find the camera.
Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. There was still plenty circulating 800 feet higher and around 2 miles later, when I realised I was a tad out of breath.
Well, I wasn’t going back down that way as originally planned, was I? And of course, the other way down was via the wrong side of the forest, which meant a long climb back over another pass. It turned into a long day.
It seems that you can organise a premature hunt before the official start of the season if the Prefect grants special dispensation and a notice has been put up. This is France.
Today actually is the second Sunday in September, so across France the red jackets are OUT in force and I am firmly IN, safety catch on, and catching up with this clog!
To bring you right up to date, the tally so far is 205 miles cycled and 3,394 metres climbed, logged over 10 cycling days and 3 rest days. Some of the ‘Mistral’ days have been very sapping. The damages so far are: worse than normal complaining from the lower back, which I expected, and something in the right calf area which I am seriously hoping is not going to be to do with the Achilles tendon. The French bike shops have run down their spares in advance of Brexit.
Enough I think! Don’t want to bore you.
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