Day 1: The Deluge (Le Havre –> Deauville, 48 km)

Kilometers covered: 51
Départements traveled: 2
Wines sampled: 3
Fromage consumed: 2

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It certainly seemed like the wrong day to start a long-distance bike trip. The weather had turned mean. I wasn’t wearing the right shirt. It was cold. I hadn’t adjusted my bike gear. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep. And I wouldn’t be biking until 2pm or later, due to a lecture I was giving at a university in Le Havre, a port city on the Normandy coast.

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But the lecture went well. We packed a small auditorium– I counted about fifty students out of a total of 260 in the PoliSci program. There was a high level of interest in the topic (the US and China in the Pacific), and several students kept me afterward to ask additional questions about my career and my opinions. Good for my ego, not so good for my progress down the coast. By the time I swapped my shirt and tie for a biking shirt (to the amazement of onlookers), the sky looked ominous and the wind could almost stop you in your tracks. I found myself reconsidering my “plan.”

But there really wasn’t much of an alternative. I could wait a day, stay the night at a cheap hotel in Le Havre– but the weather might be just as bad tomorrow, and I was eager to get on with things. Besides, what better way to get things going than to jump right into it? Ha ha.

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As I left the city I noticed that the few cafes along the route had sensibly battered their hatches against the incoming rain. Non deterred, I put rain pants over my khakis and clipped into my pedals. Google insisted that I could take this trucking route up and over a bridge somehow and into Calvados, the département for D-Day beaches and strong liquor (also conveniently called Calvados). Soon, however, the rain threatened to drown my iphone (along with everything else), so I was forced to steal quick glances at 30 minute intervals rather than navigate.

The first part of the route took me through the port area– Le Havre being the biggest port container facility in France. It looked much like a cargo port might. I knew this wouldn’t be the most scenic part, but I figured it would be interesting, and it was. Less “interesting” were the semis passing me along the road– in the rain, with no light– but to their credit, they were unfailingly courteous about passing me. I felt like a little mouse with an elephant behind me, the elephant being very careful not to hurry me along.

Soon an immense ghostly shape emerged out of the gray: the bridge! But surely not THAT bridge? Yes, that bridge. If Google was wrong, and there was no bike lane, it was going to be a very wet and very miserable ride back to the city center.

But this being France, there was a bike lane along the side– though it was a huff getting up the hill. It was a long suspension bridge, with the gradient pretty easy in the beginning and pretty steep toward the middle. I made it to the peak, but I was tired and soaked and buffeted by the wind, which couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to hit me head on or dismount from the side. Coasting down, though, I saw the sign for Calvados. Success! Département number two achieved.

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Coastal Calvados was every bit as attractive as you would expect from the postcards, if anyone still wrote postcards. Normandie houses, battered docks, beaches, seafood. Still, I was getting tired, and I needed to think about finding a place to crash before the earlier-and-earlier darkness set in. The rain had stopped so I pulled out my phone and looked for a spot about 20 kilometers out. A found a hotel in a charming Normandy mansion in a small town called Deauville. 20 kilometers would be about right to exhaust me and also feel like I achieved something for the first day.

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Just before the hotel, I spotted a small épicerie (a gourmet shop) and hopped off in search of some wine and nibblies. I figured one or two glasses before I went out for dinner, take the edge off, pack the rest for tomorrow. I told the man I went for red, local, and interesting, but he told me for local and interesting it was Auxerrois, a white from Calvados. They had a 50cl bottle, so I went for it along with a bottle of Cinsault from the south– a varietal I love, but which is hard to find in the US.

Even better, a full bath for tired bones. I’ll relax 30 minutes, I thought, pouring myself a little wine and clipping off a bit of cheese as I lay back in the water. 30 minutes later I had rationalized 30 minutes more. Three hours later, I reluctantly emerged– parboiled, sozzled, and in much less pain due to the two empty bottles of wine. At least I won’t have to carry them!

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THE MEAL: spicy chorizo, aged mimolette, pickled herring with Sichuan peppercorns, chocolate left over from a picnic yesterday in Giverny.

THE WINE: a 2011 “Arpents du Soleil” Auxirolles (Calvados) and a 2012 Domane d’Aupilhac “Les Serviéres” Old Vine Cinsault (IGP Pays de l’Hérault), named after the wild lynx now extinct in the area.

THE ROOM: L’augeval (€61), 42 guestrooms, a converted house in the coastal town of Deauville.

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