Life lessons from our Lac Leman tour cycling adventure
Cycle touring enables you to spend the day outside immersed in the natural world and really take in your surroundings – that’s one of the many beauties of it. It’s the chance to truly unleash your inner adventurer, navigating your way across landscapes and being completely self-reliant as you do. This also leaves you pretty vulnerable to the elements and means, more often than not, you need to have your head screwed on. Like the rest of life, there are plenty of ups and downs, but this is what makes it all so exciting.
These two-wheeled adventures really teach you a lot – we know it sure did on our latest trip cycling around Lac Leman. Once again, we were reminded just how ruthless the elements can be and how vulnerable we are. This experience, in turn, also reminded us of the kindness from strangers – always a highlight with journeys in the saddle.
The 200km Tour du Leman has been on our bucket list since first arriving in the region. If your thighs are up to it it’s easily done in a day, but, knowing that we’d be in awe of the mountains and eager to get snap-happy, it seemed best to go for a relaxed two days instead.
As much as we like spontaneity, I’ll admit our trips are normally decided at least a week in advance, with some vague planning thrown in to boot – this was an exception. With 5 days freed up to complete the TRJ backpacking trail, and it then crashing to a finish with our mountain rescue ordeal, we still had a few free days. Wide-eyed for adventure yet, I suggested cycling the Lac Leman tour to J and we left the next morning. Rolling out from our front door was a pleasant surprise with such light gear in comparison to our normal long-distance tour set-up.
Day one started with gloomy skies and before long the heavens opened upon us, with soggy socks soon following. The forecast was pants so it wasn’t a surprise, however, you always hope the weather people have it wrong, don’t you? Not afraid to look like a wally I slipped on my waterproof shoe covers; J didn’t follow suit, a decision he rather regretted later (enter smug Sarah).
Despite the rain, we made good time mostly due to the uninspiring views of rain clouds and a desire to eat lunch somewhere dry. As luck would have it, we found the perfect lunch spot, perched under the shelter of a public toilet and maintenance building – a truly classy lunch location on Valentine’s Day Eve. We got some very funny looks from groundskeepers as we wolfed down our peanut butter sandwiches, still dripping with rainwater.
Post lunch we put the pedal to the metal and reached the half-way point by 4 pm (a lot earlier than we’d intended, with nightfall not even on the cards).
Most of our time touring travels through remote, natural areas where wild camping spots are in abundance. The Tour du Leman travels pretty exclusively along populated stretches, with a lake to one side and beautiful Swiss villages to the other. Google Maps had helped us spot what looked like a woods close to the halfway spot, but, on arriving, it turned out this was actually completely bare vineyards. Not a very subtle place to shackle down for the night, especially as it was still light.
After considering the options for a few moments, just further down the road we spotted what seemed like the perfect place: a small peninsula by the lake with a cracking view of the snow-capped peaks against the moody sky – the perfect place to pitch I proclaimed. There was a caravan site next door which was closed, so the owner said we could camp on the land for free and even use the long drop loos – winner!
It definitely seemed like a place time had forgotten since the 80s. You know, one of those campsites that was probably thriving 30-40 years ago, and because of that has refused to modernise, still clinging to its former glory. It was quirky and we were grateful but the lack of running water meant we’d be filling up from the lake. Can’t beat a spot of protozoa in the morning, can ya?
With the night drawing in, wind speeds picked up and the walls of our tent began thundering and closing in around us. A quick check of the forecast showed heavy rain for the rest of the night but clear skies mid-morning, something worth holding out for. Our water stores were dry and this presented the first challenge of the evening: we attempted to fill our water filter from the lake, with one person anchored on the rocky shore and the other precariously lunging towards the water, but the choppy lake and slippy rocks made it impossible.
Back to the tent (with no water), the wind was ferocious and causing the walls of our tents to slap us in the face every time there was a gust, which was becoming more frequent. Fresh memories came to mind from the whiteout on the Jura only two days prior.
Just as we were attempting to turn in for the night a big white bright light illuminated the front of our tent. I shook J to see if he had noticed, or was it just me witnessing some unique natural phenomena or an alien invasion. It turned out it was the caravan park owner’s headlights who was shouting over the wind “are you guys okay?”. I unzipped the front of the tent swallowing the large amount of toothpaste I’d just shoved in my gob (yuck), only then realising how bad the weather was. The torrential downpours were turning the grassy patch we were camped on into a muddy bog, the fierce winds meant I could hardly open the tent flap and debris from nearby trees were being strewn all over the place.
The campsite owner (we never got his name) offered us one of his caravans for the night and invited J to go to look around whilst I (wo)manned the fort. I don’t know if J’s height and girth had been keeping the tent upright but as I attempted to pack up the bits and bobs strewn about the tent the whole right side completely caved inwards with the cold, wet canvas slapping me right across the face. I pushed it back only to have another gust of wind completely collapse the same side, knocking me backwards and landing me arse first on the open tube of toothpaste, spewing everywhere, with my camping matt taking the brunt of it. I managed to salvage J’s new Arcteryx coat without him being any the wiser (until he reads this that is).
J returned dripping wet and was a bit puzzled to see me mopping up toothpaste, but he had great news. Turns out this man who owned this humble caravan park was one of the kindest souls on the planet, offering us one of his empty caravans with electricity and a heater for the night. We crammed our sleeping bags and belongings into our moist panniers and made a run for it through the relentless rain, leaving our tent standing on its own, to the warmth of the caravan. With all but our shelter now safely inside our new lodgings, we ran back to our perfect camping spot in the brutality of the storm to see our badly beaten tent almost being carried off by the wind, with half the poles unearthed and poles bent.
Wrapping my now numb fingertips around the wet canvas, which felt almost impossible to hold, seemed like the most important thing in the world at the time. As J took out the pegs I was responsible for ensuring the bloody thing wasn’t claimed by the storm and lost to the lake. Surrounded by the angrily lapping waves and with the raindrops stabbing my exposed face I attempted to hug the tent with all my extremities. Who thought camping on a peninsula by the lake would be a such a good idea anyway?!?!
Clinging on to the dripping structure as it frantically flapped in the gusts, almost being pulled right from our grip, we attempted to get to more sheltered ground. Sliding through mud and puddles we made it to the safety of the caravan park where we disassembled the tent at record speeds before piling into the caravan. The thought of lugging around a wet tent on the bike the following day seemed like the least of our worries.
It was in the comfort of the heated caravan that our minds were finally able to take-in the tribulations of the night. For the second time in a week, we’d been at the mercy of the natural world, and, had it not been for the kindness of that stranger whose name we didn’t even get, it would have been a long, wet, cold and very unenjoyable night. Our tent has suffered though, even if it was only exposed to the elements for a few hours.
“Maybe people just don’t do things like this in the winter?” J pondered as we warmed our cockles under the cotton blanket we’d been kindly lent. “Well, at least mountain rescue wasn’t needed”.
The following morning was a stark contrast to the night before. Waking up just before dawn, we ventured outside to be met with gently lapping waves beneath an atmospheric sky, with gentle hints of pastel pink. At our original camping spot Betty and Roger hadn’t been swept away (despite my paranoia) and we listened to the birds morning song as the sun gradually rose on the horizon. It was as if the new day brought a completely new perspective. The warming sun gently lit up the landscape as the snowy mountains in the distance started to become visible for the first time, whilst the clouds gave give way to streams of pink, orange and moody purples. With snowy mountains now back in our sight. we were motivated to get back in the saddle.
Water was still an issue (we hadn’t figured out a way of safely lunging into the lake) so breakfast was a dismal affair of dry porridge with a shot of tea for J and a shot of coffee for myself – it was rank – but it did the job.
The second day couldn’t have been more different from the first – we covered a mere 3 miles in one hour. Not because of tardiness (well sort of), but because of the views. It was impossible not to keep stopping and standing in awe at the vast lake against blue skies and rugged, snow-capped mountain peaks stretched out before us. Weaving along the lakeside path through Montreux, then peddling through wintery wetlands, every corner gave way to a new magnificent view.
Breathtaking views aside, we still had 100 km to cycle and our 3 mph wasn’t going to get us there anytime soon. Considering the ease of our first 100 km, this second half was actually pretty tough and we definitely felt it. Perhaps it was delayed onset from the trials and tribulations of the previous night? Either way, our bums grew sore, shoulders began to ache and we were reminded of the ferocious appetite cycle touring gives you. A loaf of bread, a jar of pate, four flapjacks, a packet of nuts, handfuls of dried fruit, and some banana bread seemed to make only a little dent but took us all the way to the home stretch.
The trip made us all that more eager to get back in the saddle next month with India in our sights, confirming the reasons we the touring lifestyle. It also reminded us about how vulnerable you can be when your home is made from three poles with a sheet of canvas and how a little bit of compassion from a complete stranger can really get you out of a sticky situation.
Have you had any encounters with kind strangers on your travels that really helped you out? Tell us in the comments below!