"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own" Sri Chinmoy
Chalons to Freyming-Merlebach - 220k
I woke up early on day 4, Thursday, feeling physically pretty rough. Everything hurt from my aching feet to my painfully stiff neck, but the pain in my quads before I'd even got out of bed was the most alarming! Fortunately I'd stashed a can of coke for the morning and with that inside me I started to feel revived and I woke up enough to meditate well, really well, and feel right up for it by the time I finished breakfast and hit the road at bang on 7am. Cycling kit was feeling just like you'd expect it to feel after 3 days of all weathers and 560k! Today would take that total to 780 or maybe more depending on my navigation. I toyed with the idea of taking the highway but wisely I stuck to plan A and went out on the D3 as far as the amazing gothic church at l'Epine.
This was Argonne, another region of massive undulating fields and big skies, whick were leaden and serving up sporadic rain. I was really aware of the vastness of France with the rolling landscape stretching away in all directions, an unbroken expanse of rolling fields meeting the dark skies at every horizon. Once off the D3 through the outskirts of Courtisol and the village of Sommes Vesle, I was happy with my route choice. Silent roads, no traffic at all, easy to follow from village to village as the skies began to clear and I noticed the welcome absence of a headwind. The only problem was that things were too quiet.... As I started to run low on calories and short of water I got anxious that there might not be anywhere to get food or drink until I reached the moselle valley and that was hours away. Herpont and dampiere came and went with no sustenance. Then I saw on the phone screen that Google was taking me a long way round to the next village and the short cut, which I could see up ahead, was a proper tarmac road. I took the shortcut and just as I approached the junction to rejoin the route I caught sight of a water tap in the corner of a field... I gratefully filled the bidon; drinking-water or not I knew I had to keep drinking! I was so relieved I'd taken that unmarked road and cut the corner otherwise I'd have been suffering from some acute dehydration.
Shortly after that, and after some 3 hours on the road, I finally saw what looked like a café or bar at the roadside. I stashed the bike and went in... 3 jovial locals were drinking and they called the owner out to serve me. He had warm, intelligent features and was wearing green farmer's overalls. I asked what he had to eat and he smiled and said "rien". OK, et qu'est ce que vous avez pour boire? He smiled again and asked me what sort of food I was after... I guess it was a bar first and foremost but with food at lunchtime or in the evening, as it was full of tables set with cutlery. Problem was, it was 10 in the morning. When he established I'd be happy with just about anything that wasn't meat and had some calories in it he kindly produced a whole baguette, a kilo of local honey, a pat of butter and café au lait. Saved! I told him the mileage I was doing and he jokingly asked if I was on a velo electrique.
Restored again, calorific debt paid off, I was back on the roads of endless Argonne heading for the Meuse and then the Moselle. Department de Meuse brought a different kind of rural charm... the vast arable fields gave way to cattle country, with lush meadows filling the flat lands bordering the river. I crossed the Meuse at midday by which time the sun was beating down and I was dried out and making decent progress. I followed the river from Ippecourt to Souilly where I found another shop and was able to fuel up again by eating a whole pack of pims (jaffa cake equivalent) and drinking coke and water until I couldn't fit anything more in my stomach. I filled my bidon and packed a small water in the handlebar bag too.
From there it was slow going over hilly country towards the Moselle, I got rained on heavily and sheltered in a café briefly at Mars le Tours, then got over the high ground on the Rue de bois to Ars sur Moselle. There were numerous memorials to the War of 1870, which I hadn't heard of, so I googled it during one of my rest stops. As you may know, if your European history is more up to scratch than mine, this was the Franco-Prussian war when Bismarck faced off with Napoleon the 3rd, starting a war for no real reason other than to unite Germany against a common enemy. How many had to die for that end? To me the landscape was still imfused with a sullen or melancholic feeling from that war even after a century and a half.There was a kind of bleakness in the air.
I had another abortive cycleway experience when I tried following an amazingly fast and direct tarmac path to Metz. It started out as the most perfect, traffic-free route but suddenly became a nightmare farm-track surfaced with hard core causing me to turn around and ride back in the wrong direction to rejoin the road. Despite the setback I still arrived in Metz at 4.30pm hoping to eat my main meal of the day before pressing on for the last 55k to Merlebach on the border with Germany. It was hard to find a café serving food at that odd time of day, but once again I was rescued by a kebab seller who did me a veggie option with chips and drinks for six euros. Metz had some interesting buildings but the traffic was unpleasant and I didn't want to stop to take photos. Getting out of town on a bikeable road again proved to be a seemingly insurmountable task. Numerous false starts and detours got me to a promising junction for the D954 but I ended up on a motorway slip road somehow, and had no choice but to dismount and walk my bike back to the roundabout. The verge was soft and hard going and when I got back to the roundabout I realised my cleats were full of heavy clay, which had also accumulated around front and rear forks, totally clogging up brakes and mudguard. I took around twenty minutes trying to get it all out using sticks and bits of roadside rubbish but even then it was still badly clogged. I got back on and started riding but it took 2 more de-clogging stops before the bike was running properly and my feet were actually clipped in to the pedals. I was hoping for torrential rain, as nothing else seemed likely to get that incredibly awkward clay out of all the inaccessible places on the bike.
Once that episode was behind me I carried on through Lorraine... this was France, but with a definite German feel. It was rolling country, beautiful in the evening light, with my route taking a quiet back road that shadowed the autoroute towards Saarbrucken. It was a very long stage to end the day with, and I was grateful for the uplifting scenery that kept me going. Vast rolling fields lay over the low, rippling hills like a green ocean swell, forested slopes and gently sloping valleys, mighty turbine windmills, most of them still, all facing east. I was still in France but with German place names... Oberwisse, kahlenburg, Carling. It got urban/suburban for a while which meant lots of stops/starts at junctions, then I was on a quiet main road following a railway through a mining area, the tall structures of winding gear reminiscent of South Wales. At the end of all this came Merlebach, where I checked in after another day of well over 13 hours on the road. It had been another epic, but not so tough as I'd feared at the start of the day. They gave me a room on the ground floor so I was able to get my bike inside, but not before another long bike clearning session with water, toilet roll and various sticks trying to get that clay de metz out of my brake calipers!
With the final day shorter at 180k the end was in sight. Body, mind, bike and most importantly spirit were holding up well.
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