In 2002, on a whim, James Clarke persuaded five of his friends to cycle with him 1000 km down the Danube from Passau in Germany to Budapest in Hungary. One of them had just reached 70 years of age and none of had cycled since his first childhood. They had six months to prepare.
The tour which was a great success was dubbed “the Tour de Farce” – a name that stuck. The tours are the subject of a book, Blazing Saddles, published by Jonathan Ball in 2007.
The ages of the six nowadays range between 58 and 78 and they are planning Tour de Farce VII which will explore the Portuguese coast in May 2008.
Four of the team are former editors of major South African daily newspapers (one is currently editor-in-chief of Independent Newspapers) and a fifth, a retired company director and mutual friend, became the team’s photographer.
Clarke is their titular but not terribly successful L*E*A*D*E*R though he makes little fuss and tries hard to be modest about it.
In 2003, Tour de Farce II cycled across southwestern France to follow first the Dordogne westwards and then turn back eastwards along the Canal du Midi which joins the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
Their adventures along the 350 year-old canal became popular reading in newspapers and magazines.
In 2004 they cycled down Tuscany and up Umbria in an attempt find a continuous cycle route across the thigh of Italy.
In 2005 Tour de Farce IV set out to cycle round the north coast of Ireland from near Belfast to Westport in the Republic. They met with the worst Irish weather in 40 years but managed 30km per litre of Guinness.
In 2006 they marked the 150th anniversary of Speke and Burton who set out from England to find the source of Africa’s most important river. The Tour de Farce marked the anniversary by setting out from Africa to find the source of England’s most important river – the Thames. They found it and then cycled all the way down the river, through London including areas where some inhabitants had never seen a white man before, to the North Sea.
In 2007 they cycled through Catalonia and then Andalusia in Spain.
The six are:
Harvey Tyson – author, travel writer and one of the longest-serving editors of The Star.
Richard Steyn – travel writer and respected book reviewer; proprietor of a South African travel website (http://www.satravelguide.com/). He was editor of the Natal Witness for many years before succeeding Harvey as editor-in-chief of The Star.
Rex Gibson – author and travel writer. He edited the Rand Daily Mail and was, more recently, deputy editor-in-chief of The Star.
Peter Sullivan – current editor-in-chief Independent Newspapers and an inveterate traveller who also writes about travel.
James Clarke – author, columnist and travel-writer for various journals.
Alan Calenborne – retired CEO of an international company involved in parking and tollgates – he is expedition photographer.
Here is the beginning of Chapter One of Blazing Saddles:
THE TRUE STORY BEHIND THE TOUR DE FARCE
(Edited and with interruptions by Harvey Tyson)
We were old enough to have known better. Well, all right, Richard was only 58 but the rest of us were certainly old enough. Here we were, six grown men whose ages averaged 67, about to set out on a nearly 1000 kilometre cycle ride down the River Danube. Perhaps it was nearer 900 km but I am speaking of genuine kilometres, the sort they have in France. We planned to follow the Danube from Passau in Germany, across Austria, across the tip of Slovakia and into Hungary and on as far as Budapest.
I had been led to believe the ride would be downhill all the way.
“Anyway it’s logical,” I explained to my prospective though hesitant companions. “River courses are famous for running downhill; ipso fatso, as they say in my local cake shop, the cycle track along it must do something similar.”
It was the first of many assumptions that proved to be not terribly accurate.
The upshot of it all was that a few months later the six of us found ourselves inside a bicycle hire depot on the periphery of the medieval town of Passau inspecting the Austrian-made trek bikes we were about to sit astride for the next couple of weeks. Harvey observed that picking the right bike is more important than picking a mate.
“It must,” he said, “be a bicycle of docile but steadfast character with gentle saddle and – vitally important – of precise and peculiar height to suit the rider.” In other words it was no good anybody trying to adjust a bike that was suitable for Richard who is almost 2m tall, for Rex or me who, even standing on soapboxes are shorter.
We minutely inspected our bikes; we rang their bells listening to them intently and professionally as if tuning a harp. We squeezed the tyres and clicked the gears. There were 21 of them.
“I’ve never seen so many gears,” muttered Rex who is inclined to growl to himself into his clipped beard which, like his close-cropped hair, is silver.
“What’s that about ‘so many years’?” asked Harvey who, like me, is somewhat deaf. Harvey, the oldest of us, hardly has a grey hair in the mop that sometimes hangs over his forehead, and has the stamina of a long-distance runner.
“Gears, gears,” repeated Rex whose low resonance voice means he has to repeat practically everything he says no matter to whom he is speaking.
“Every bike these days has at least 21,” somebody said. My companions were as inexperienced as I – none of us had seriously cycled since our first childhood.
The fellow in charge of the cycle depot came over and asked us with more anxiety in his voice than I thought was warranted, “Are you sure you’re going to be all right?”
We were, I suppose, an odd-looking group. We ranged from very tall – Richard and Alan – to short and stocky – Rex and me. The other two were more athletic and carried less fat than an acid drop.
We were attired in form-fitting canary yellow cycling shirts emblazoned with the words “Cycle Lab” – the name of the Johannesburg cycle firm that had fitted us out – and blue bum-hugging lycra cycling shorts. Yet despite our professional appearance the cycle hire man looked genuinely concerned. We thought afterwards that he might have been misled by the word “Lab” on our shirts. Maybe he thought we were part of some heartless geriatric experiment.
One by one we mounted our bikes and wobbled out of the shed on to the small cobbled square outside Passau’s bahnhof. It was quiet in the station forecourt where we tested our bikes, but we realised that traversing Passau town centre would be something else entirely. We were going to have to cycle clean through it in peak traffic.
We had spent the previous day walking round the mediaeval section of Passau which is set on a wedge of land between the rivers Danube and Inn. The river Ilz enters from the north. The town and great water junction nestles between steep forested hills. Its denizens have traditionally made fine swords that, over the centuries, have done a lot to trim the population of Central Europe.
It would have been sensible for us to have spent the previous evening carbo-loading and having an early night but, without our wives around to say, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” we had recklessly spent it wining and dining and offering each other toasts – a toast to our cycling success; a toast to our boundless courage; a toast to our good health, a toast to our wives back home (God bless them) and to many other worthy things all now a little hazy.
The expedition had, more by accident than design, been labelled, the “Tour de Farce”, but now, as we circled outside the bahnhof the whole enterprise had suddenly become very serious and I felt the first pang of anxiety. I had good reason to feel apprehensive for, as the instigator of this African-based expedition into Darkest Europe I was its titular Leader – the obergruppenfuhrer. Harvey, Rex and Richard were former newspaper editors under whose lash I had worked on a big Johannesburg daily. For the purpose of this expedition they had unanimously recognised my obvious leadership abilities though they had never mentioned them during my many years as a newspaperman. They afforded me the privilege of doing all the planning of the expedition and the organising, negotiating with the cycle hire companies and cycling outfitters, and organising the air tickets and connections. In fact among the toasts on the eve of our departure they had toasted me as a “Terribly Good Leader”. I was a little embarrassed and shuffled the feet. I told them that I didn’t need praise because (as everybody knew) I was a very modest person. Rex mumbled something.
“What’s was that?” asked Harvey.
“I was quoting Churchill,” Rex said, this time a little louder, “I was saying that James has quite a lot to be modest about.” I was quite touched by Rex’s little homily and might have coloured a little.
I had led everybody to believe that all we had to do in Passau was to get on our bikes and persuade some friendly Germans to give us a little push and we’d then be able to freewheel all the way to Vienna.
“What if our brakes fail?” Harvey had asked. “Then,” said Alan who has a way of bringing complicated matters down to basics, “we’ll go screaming through five countries and end up being pitched headlong into the Black Sea.”
I did a final check of my bike, ran a professional eye over my rear wheel panniers, clicked my gears one final time, re-tested the bell before announcing, with just a hint of drama that I considered befitted the occasion, “Right gentlemen, let’s go!”
In fact they had already gone.
I caught up with them as they were baulking at the formidable stream of traffic slowly crowding into the modern part of town. The city’s main thoroughfare was undergoing extensive repairs and there were many confusing deviations and many temporary signs in very poor English such as Ausfahrt, shritt fahren, radweg kreuzt and umgehungsstrasse. Frankly I find that everything in German sounds a little intimidating. To my ear even Ich liebe zicht sounds like an order for a Panzer division to move forward.
I was ushered to the front to lead the peloton through Passau. And so we merged with the jockeying traffic in much the same way that the Zulus merged with the 24th Welsh Regiment at Isandlwana. The traffic immediately engulfed us and we became helplessly scattered throughout the city – a yellow figure here and a yellow figure there. I kept coming across my companions going in all sorts of directions. I had anticipated this and had suggested at the outset that if we became scattered we should find our individual ways through the town and that the survivors should muster on the north bank of the Danube where the riverside cycle track began.
Obviously some of my colleagues must have been hopelessly disoriented because at one point I came across Harvey pedalling towards me and, later, as I crossed a flyover I spotted a yellow-shirted figure, head down, pedalling furiously at right angles beneath me. Yet, half-an-hour later I came across all five of them relaxing under a tree at the appointed spot. They said they had been waiting 20 minutes.
It was not to be the last time they were to wait for me and, as always, I was greatly touched by their reliance on my leadership and their nervousness about going on without me. After a great deal of hand shaking we set off. Naturally they insisted I go in front of the peloton.
[That was after we had discovered what a ‘peloton’ was. “It’s a bunch of crazed cyclists trying to find their missing leader,” Rex explained in the didactic tone newspaper editors use – Ed.
(Let me explain: I am not Ed. He couldn’t come. I’m Harvey, and have been asked to edit this work on two dubious conditions: no fee and no deleting any hurtful remarks about me or, in his absence, Edward – Ed)]
We cycled leisurely in the crisp spring air along a smooth tarred cycle track with the Linz highway on our left and the wide, swiftly-flowing Danube on our right. It was a beautiful May morning. Cotton wool clouds floated against a blue sky and our progress was under the shade of an almost unbroken canopy of giant horse chestnut trees lavishly festooned with white blossoms. [Brisk, descriptive writing this. But let me not interrupt the flow – Ed] In the grass beside the track were shining yellow buttercups, white daisies, orange dandelions and the occasional patch of blood red poppies. Sometimes we’d catch the subtle aroma of lilac blossom – the headiest of all the perfumes in the European spring.
Soon the track peeled away from the traffic and dived into a deeply wooded valley – the Bavarian Forest. We now had the river and the cheerful songs of the blackbirds and thrushes to ourselves. At one time Rex himself burst into song. It was unusual for Rex who is normally a quiet fellow. It wasn’t a very tuneful song and Richard gave him a look and he settled down.
Rex, like Harvey is a retired daily newspaper editor. Richard commented on the ecstasy of cycling through foreign lands and how both hiker and cyclists were able to enjoy the aromas and sounds of the countryside far, far more than those touring by car or bus who, literally, suffer sensory deprivation. Cycling has an advantage even over hiking – the scenery changes at a more stimulating pace yet not so fast that one does not have time to savour it. And at cruising speed one creates ones own cooling breeze. Cycling, said Harvey, is the one form of wheeled transport that cannot in any way be regarded as offensive – no pollution, no noise, little demand on road space…
The Dream Machine
The bicycle itself is a marvellous machine when one considers how it runs on fuel such as bananas, bread and jam, beer, even duckling bigarade. The nice thing about this is that the cyclist has to eat it all first because the cyclist is the bike’s engine and the stomach is the fuel tank.
Richard described our form of cycling as “coarse cycling” in that it differs from riding hi-tech racing bikes just as coarse fishing differs from fly fishing. The casual pace allows one to experience nature, even to feel part of it to the extent one empathises with flattened squirrels and birds on the road. Ones objective as a coarse cyclist is totally different from the bum-in-the air frantic pace of those on hi-tech carbon-fibre cycles that are used in road races and sometimes cost as much as a Harley.
Ernest Hemingway said cycling was the best way to learn a country’s contours because you physically experienced them – you sweat up the hills and there’s the sheer joy of coasting down the other side.
Among my first memories as a child is that of yearning to ride a two-wheeler; of dreaming of owning one and the wonderful freedom it would offer once I had mastered the art of staying upright. I recall vividly the sheer ecstasy when, for first time, I rode round the garden on two wheels. A bicycle is probably the first serious material thing a child earnestly pleads for in its prayers. Canadian comedian, Emo Phillips, said he used to pray every night for a bike until he realised that the Lord doesn’t work that way – so he stole one and then prayed for forgiveness.
I believe the bicycle is on the edge of a golden age. They’ve discovered in Tokyo that cycling is faster than motoring for most trips of less than 50 minutes. Today there are about a billion bicycles in the world – most of them in China – yet the advent of the mass-produced chain-driven cycle occurred little more than a century ago. It was an event that affected human evolution. Being cheaper to buy and cheaper to keep than a horse the bicycle enabled more and more young men to court girls in distant communities thus giving a wider choice of mate, resulting in a more widespread and therefore richer human gene pool.
Mechanically the bike hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years of its development. Until almost the end of the 19th century its pedals were fixed to the front wheel hub which made it practically impossible to pedal up inclines. The penny-farthing with its huge front wheel and small back wheel was not only without a chain – it had no brakes. In emergencies such as when running out of control downhill, riders were advised to lift their legs over the handlebars, hold them straight out in front and aim for the softest obstacle – a bush maybe, or even a fat person – and crash into it making sure to land feet first. It must have taken practice. Yet these front-wheel-drive bikes were used throughout Victorian times and were, in a way, the first step towards the emancipation of women. They spelt the end of neurotic Victorian modesty; the end of ankle-length dresses, corsets and petticoats. These were replaced by skirts and bloomers and all over Europe women were suddenly revealing their legs causing men to walk into lampposts and into each other. In 1866 in Bordeaux, France, the first recorded cycle race for women was held. The girls, as they came pedaling along, bare legs working the pedals, caused such a sensation that hundreds of male onlookers collapsed the barriers along the length of the racetrack.
Cycling today is a mixture of science, sport and aesthetic pleasure. We in the Tours de Farce ride ordinary, relatively cheap roadsters or trek bikes with fat tyres, sit-up-and-beg handlebars, mudguards and panniers over the rear wheels to carry essentials such as map, rain cape, camera, cake fork, picture of the wife, and so on.