January 16, 2012

Interview with Gerry Patterson

Gerry Patterson lives and cycles in the Languedoc in southern France. I came across his blog Mr. Patterson Goes to Languedoc when reading about the Camargue, which I had previously visited. We've corresponded from time to time since and he has included several short descriptions of my visits in his other site, Cycling Languedoc. Be sure to check Cycling Languedoc if you are thinking of a trip, and don't miss Mr. Patterson, if you like to race bikes, or to watch bike racing … or to read about riding in France.

His experiences ring a chord with many cyclists, as he has spent a lot of time on day rides, touring, and now racing. I'll again post this in several sections, it is too long for one post. By the way, this is the second in a new series of interviews with cyclists.

Landscape, Languedoc
Bicycles can be used in so many cool ways .... What led you to two wheels, no motor?
Like most people out there, I’ve always ridden a bicycle. As a kid, the instant sense of adventure I got when I threw my leg over the top tube for the first time was infectious (although I think I was dreaming of having a motor at that time!). Riding for me was always about freedom of movement and the great unknown, but it really took hold when I got an idea to ride across Australia while working there in 1996. That trip, across the desert alone, got me good and truly hooked on travelling on two wheels.

I've learned from your blog that you've lived and travelled in many different countries after growing up in, I think, the Maritimes in Canada, but don't know how long you've been gone. Did you cycle in Canada? And where else have you lived since then?
I rode around when I was young in Québec, but we only had one road in our town, so on-road adventure was a bit limited. I left for good in 1994 and have lived in Australia, Japan, Singapore and now France.

Did cycling lead to your travelling? Or, maybe did travelling lead to cycling?
Definitely the latter. While travelling in S.E. Asia in the early 90s I ran across a few oddballs riding their bikes through the region. It hit me right away as being a much more interesting way to see a place than from behind the window of a bus or train.

How many countries have you cycled in, where?
According to my blog I’ve ridden in 15 countries, most of them in Europe, with Australia, Japan and Canada rounding out the list. 
Gerry touring in Japan

So surely you have ridden in countries where you don't speak the language? What can you tell us about that, how did it affect your experience, how did you communicate?
Never a big problem. Cycling and travelling independently have the same challenges when it comes to language, although on a bike you might need to ask for directions more often. Cycling, especially alone, is an excellent way to meet people and learn a language, since people are inevitably attracted to weirdos from afar, particularly if they are riding a bike.

Absolutely, I've found that too ... it is as if the bike draws people into conversation who might not otherwise interact ... similar to the function of cute dogs or babies here. Could you talk a little about how cycling and the cycling culture, are different in those various places?

Really all over the place. In Japan, where I lived for many years, cycling as a sport or exercise (and definitely as a form of travel) has not really taken off. They have a strong bicycle culture, but it is mainly one that involves cheap mamacharis (shopping bikes) that you use to get yourself back and forth to the train station or, obviously, to do some shopping.

In Italy, where my wife and I cycled two years ago, there is a deep appreciation for the bicycle and, although you don’t see many cycling paths or dedicated roads, drivers are courteous and used to seeing bikes on the roads. France is the same. One of my favorite memories from that trip is stopping at a café for our morning cappuccino and, after asking the lady behind the counter to fill up our bidons, getting ice-cold water from the fridge with lemon slices added. I tried to stop her from cutting into the lemon, but she would hear nothing of it. She knew about the simple pleasures of cycling.

Stuart Highway, Australia
What brought you to bicycle touring?
A whim, really. I needed to get out of Australia (and back into Asia for some more travelling) and the cheapest flight I could get out was from Darwin, 3300 km away from where I was living. Taking a month and riding it seemed like a good idea at the time.

That's quite a sentence .. I have friends here who think I'm weird if I decide to ride the 35 miles into town on errands instead of driving...and they ride bikes! So having crossed Australia on a whim, tell us something about that trip.
Australia, once you leave the thin coastal strip of habitation, is pretty wild and desolate. That’s what much of my trip was about. I think that I was in the desert proper after 3 or 4 days and it really didn’t let up till Darwin, with some notable exceptions like Alice Springs. The road was terribly flat and awfully straight, but it was also meditative in a strong way. The flatness and straightness naturally lead to a steady cadence and minute-after-minute looking off into the middle distance.

When you have so much time on your hands and no iPod to help fill it up, you tend to get creative. I took it upon myself to ask the Aussies along the way the words to Waltzing Matilda, and sang it relentlessly on my way up the Stuart Highway. If I caught a whiff of road kill I would quickly try and categorize it before riding past it. It was, inevitably, kangaroo (not the brightest animals and easily mesmerized by car lights, it seems).

After the whim took over, did you plan the logistics, or did the road take care of things as you went along...I suppose I'm thinking mostly about water, did you cook, the logistics of it.
First I somehow found out the prevailing winds at that time of year (fall in Australia), which thankfully were favorable. Then I went to their version of the AAA and got myself a ‘Trip Tik’ — a little notebook-style map of the route that had roadhouses (glorified gas stations) and settlements pinpointed. This was before cheap mobile GPS devices of course, so the trip was paper-based.

I took three big water bottles and a bladder that held 4 liters, so I had 6 or 7 liters in total. That was plenty because there was usually a water source every 100 or 150 km or so. The longest I went was around 250 km without a single gas station even. I took a one-man tent with me and slept on the sand off the highway much of the time. When I found a campsite or hostel I went for some luxury. I cooked most of the time myself simply because there was no choice. I had a little stove and carried canned food mostly. I always stopped at roadhouses to have real food when I could.

To read more about that trip, visit Gerry's after-the-fact post at Cycling the Stuart Highway.

Where else have you cycle toured?
I’ve done multi-day trips, many with my wife, through France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic, as well as the other countries mentioned above.

Shoko in Provence
Ok, I suppose I have to ask, would you (or would Shoko) point any of these out as more appealing places for woman cyclists travelling solo?
That’s hard to say, since Shoko was with me all the time. I guess it would be down to ‘feel’ then. Any country that has more female riders would surely be more appealing for women, I suppose. So Holland, Germany and Switzerland would stand above the rest in that regard. I know plenty of women who’ve cycled around the world solo and they all end up having different experiences (good and bad) that lead to different opinions about each country they’ve travelled through. I think it’s hard to comment on a whole country being ‘friendly’ one way or another, since inevitably tourists are just basing their ideas on their own very limited experience.

When you toured, could you describe your style ... was it usually solo, with others, supported...
A mixed bag, I guess. Lots by myself, lots with my wife, Shoko, and a few times with others. I find it hard to travel with someone other than my wife, for the most part, because everyone travels at different paces and has their own idiosyncrasies and hang-ups, etc. On the other hand, it sure is nice to sit down with a good friend after a hard day in the saddle and reminisce over a cold beer.

I’ve never toured with an organized group and I guess I never will. I just don’t see the need.

Cycle-friendly route in Languedoc, France
Could you give us some recommendations from your experience for where to tour?
It really depends on what you want out of a bicycle trip. For my money Europe can’t be beat, for so many reasons. France rates at the top of my list, probably not unsurprisingly. Germany and Switzerland are up there, too, but I love mountains and beer, so other people’s lists could look different. Holland was a dream if you like the idea of travelling EVERYWHERE on dedicated cycling roads. We thought Slovenia was great as well, and I will definitely get back there and explore their mountains again someday. Each country has their own charms and annoyances, I think, so I’d say just choose one and go.

You know that I love travelling in France, what took you to France as a place to live?
The cycling. What else?

When and why did you move to there?
We arrived in the summer of 2008 and had various reasons for coming, other than the bicycle. Shoko wanted to study art, which she is doing now, and I’ve wanted to live in France since a failed attempt 16 years ago in Paris. Sometimes you just hold onto these vague desires, not even knowing why. It’s worked out amazingly well, so maybe there’s something to it.

Did you live in Montpellier for a while, and then Nimes? Anywhere else? How did you choose these places?
It was either Montpellier or Nice when we moved here and the riding looked a lot more pleasant around Montpellier. Nice is far too vertical for fun. Nîmes was easy; that’s where Shoko got accepted to the School of Fine Arts.

How would you describe your cycling experience in France?


  1. That was great fun to read - thanks!

  2. Good to hear from you! Second part is now posted.

  3. Fascinating post, thanks Suze and Gerry. But I now feel old and boring ...


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