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Fixed on the horizon


Fixed on the horizon

My cycling travels always seem to have the same starting point: a daydream of journeys filled with images of majestic skies and rich landscapes—an irresistible desire to feel freer and to surpass oneself. And that’s before I even get on my bike.

Rewind to early 2017, and I was dividing my working time between couriering on the streets of Paris, various design jobs and a framebuilding workshop. I’d decided to build a fixed-gear for road and dirt with a view to joining the Cycle Messenger World Championships in Montreal and then crossing the North American continent from east to west.

Why a fixed-gear? Because that's what I’d been riding for a decade, and I'm a lazy mechanic. And I wanted an epic quest, in a physical sense but also with a spiritual and introspective element. It’s true that some people attempted to dissuade me from embarking on what they considered to be a stupid and masochistic project. But a philosophical article in the French cycling magazine “200” about Thierry Saint-Léger riding fixed across a country tied me to my original idea. I sought the simplicity and rhythm of one gear chained to a continual landscape over thousands of miles—a minimalist view of life in a quest to slay my demons and carry forward any hopes of completeness. In the end, I got all I was hoping for and much, much more.

Back in Paris, I quit couriering to focus on my furniture design and workshop jobs. I kept riding my bike every day around the city and on small European trips, but the road never stopped calling. New ideas were once again forming with the same dramatic mental images. So in 2019, I built myself a new bike on a framebuilding course at La Fraise Cycle in Roubaix. The result was an upgraded version of my tracklocross that would, unlike previous trips, allow me to use panniers instead of carrying a heavy Cordura messenger pack on my back.

 

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"I sought the simplicity and rhythm of one gear chained to a continual landscape."

I departed in late summer after making plans for some mid-route eco-building projects and visits to various framebuilders as I drifted through France. Forgoing straight lines, I zigzagged around the country, back and forth, alone on gravel trails and empty roads. From Paris, I rode to Brittany where I followed the Loire Valley to enter the swamps and forest of Sologne. Further south I could feel the land rising until I reached the volcanic chain of the Auvergne. My legs were steadily getting back in shape and felt eager to confront mountains once again. 42x17 is a well balanced ratio for any type of terrain, but the steeper the road, the more demanding it gets, and there is no hiding from it.

Lush green climbs and foggy mountains topped with pines are some of my favourite landscapes, and Forez was full of them. And then heading southeast under a blazing sun, I reached Grenoble and twice crossed the beautiful gorges and pastures of the Vercors Massif, the first time on my way south to Drome before returning to a project in a tiny village a few hundred kilometers north. I could have chosen an easier way to get there, but the most direct and scenic route was through the Chartreuse, a steep mountain range that appears to have been sculpted by axes.

Heading south once again, I was happy to connect the places I already knew with the ones I was discovering and all by the strength of my legs. Ardèche is another geological wonder with canyons, emerald rivers and a rich and diverse flora. But the most magnificent experience was entering the Cevennes. I screamed and spit and swore, hauling my fifteen kilos of luggage up endless degrees of elevation, finally exploding into tears at the sight of a golden sun setting over a raging ocean of green waves.

Descending off the mountains was then an easy task. I only had to let the bike go and race down, following rivers and streams through dark rock formations. I ended my day bathing in the Mediterranean Sea with my floating body at rest.

A few days later, I was finally facing the Pyrenees and ready to enter Spain. But first, I took some time to let go of everything unnecessary that I had on my mind—the one thing I always like to do when leaving my own country. Once over the border and on the southern slopes, a radical sense of freedom finished this clearing of my head. Here, I decided to follow the dusty trails heading west to La Garrotxa, another volcanic area lost in deep green woodland and covered at night by purple skies.

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"I was happy to connect the places I already knew with the ones I was discovering."

On the way, I passed through charming rock-walled villages where light fought with shadow. Cats were masters of the streets and Catalan flags were flying from the windows. I could already sense the region’s strong political heritage, and even more so when I took a break at Besalu during an anarchist book fair where I ate my share of nuts and dried fruits. From Olot, I followed a cycle route towards Girona. My body buzzing with endorphins, I stopped on a bridge over the Onyar River, contemplating the shimmering reflection of a thousand facades painted warm reds, yellows and blues.

I entered Barcelona with a broken rack and an euphoric desire to play with the traffic, an old habit ingrained by my years as a courier. Following the coast south - the undulating rocky outcrops plunging into the Mediterranean Sea - I rode to Tarragona to meet with friends and then kept on along the coastline until I reached the Delta Del Ebre where rice fields are harvested. It was here I discovered a labyrinth of gravel tracks covering these immense flatlands, inhabited, it appeared, only by flamingos and armies of mosquitoes.

Madrid was a few days' ride west and inland. I rode past clementine and olive trees growing out of blood red sand and surrounded by grayish pink rock formations. The asphalt was smooth and the dirt tracks were covered with dark red dust that stuck to my body and bike frame. With the sun high and the heat refusing to relent, I was sweating out every drop of water I drank.

Two exhausting days climbing on steep tracks and split asphalt to beautiful hilltop villages and the weather finally broke. A storm coming in from the Mediterranean Sea caught up with me on the morning I left Teruel. It smashed into the eastern coast of Spain, sending fierce winds, heavy rain and floods inland. I changed route, plugged some black metal into my ears and focused on the road to kill the miles and stay warm. Loneliness felt heavy as I hunched over the handlebars, battling against the elements. And that's where my achilles tendon decided to give up.

I entered Madrid pedaling with my left leg only, my achilles a new and omnipresent partner. I wasn’t able to give him any proper rest and he refused to change his mood. From that point on, we were forced to work together and constant compromises had to be made. But I did make it to Andalusia.

All around the northern part of the region, the land was a patchwork of intensive monoculture fields and areas of scratched and bare earth filled with trash. But the villages were welcoming and overflowing with life and laughter as night fell. After visiting the magnificent city and tourist trap of Cordoba, I rode on to Seville. Enjoying the quiet pace of the Andalusian capital, I rejoiced at the warmth of its neighborhoods, the tasty vegan food and perfect temperatures. I pictured myself living a good life there.

Riding along the Guadalquivir towards the Atlantic Ocean, I took a moment to consider the time I had spent on the road since leaving Paris. How many miles had I ridden? I had no idea and didn't care. The fresh breeze over the coast carried me to the pastel city of Cadiz. And then further south, through whitewashed villages, umbrella pine forests, red dusty earth, sand dunes and surfing beaches to reach Tarifa.

How could I not yearn to grasp the dream-like vision of the African continent floating over the Strait of Gibraltar? Morocco was tantalisingly close and I embarked on a ferry to Tangier. After a couple of days observing and adapting, I left behind the colorful medina with its labyrinthine streets, foreign melodies and intoxicating scents to head back toward the Atlantic. In search of some peace for my achilles and I - well, we - stopped in Asilah.

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With skies darkening over my head, I hit the road again. Morocco is a demanding country in terms of cycling, with any distance taking double the energy than anywhere else I'd been riding. The asphalt was built straight, heading up slopes without compromise. The gravel tracks were irregular and difficult - as they should be - with my 35mm tires struggling for grip on the rugged surfaces. But the magnificence of the landscape and a deep sense of solitude brought rewards, tears and joy. Opal lakes, endless horizons of grassland and cacti, bright colored hamlets constructed from concrete and building scraps, rocky canyons strewn with bushes and shrubs, complex and changing skies…

I rode on through brilliant white Tetouan, forced my way through the Rif Mountains to reach the picturesque blues of Chefchaouen, before facing the steepest climbs of my North African detour to reach the Mediterranean coast once again. My achilles was dying and I would go no further south. I was tired.

Lacking comfort, the solitude had finally started to affect my mood and spirit. I rode back to Tetouan - climbing more ridiculously steep roads - where a scooter stalled next to me as the rain poured down and ghostly visions of animals floated in the mist. I found solace with a mint tea in a cafe filled with hash smoke, howled down the descent to Tangier where I joined the city’s chaotic traffic, spent one last night in the poetic atmosphere of echoing prayers, and early the next morning, boarded the ferry once again.

Back in Spain, I rode along La Costa del Sol - scarred by mass tourism - to Malaga. Stopping right at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, I had one last challenge to overcome. From sea level, after a rainy morning, I jumped on the bike, hugged my achilles and went straight for the Zafarraya Pass, some 3,000 ft higher. From the top, I let myself be buffeted by the winds and reflected over the pleasures of my journey. Granada - its richness and treasures, its celestial skies and infinite horizons - would be my last stop. Winter had finally caught up with me.

Fixed-gear had suited my expectations and my need for minimalism. I had wanted to feel connected directly to the land and to understand every part of it. To take what the road had to offer and to accept it. To choose one gear, and if it proved too hard, then walk. To feel everything, all of the time.

Or something like that. Some of my motivations still escape my understanding.

Words and images by Romain Clement

Words and images by
Romain Clement

Somewhere like Sakhalin
Project type
Fraser River Gravel
Project type
Weathering the storm
Project type