All photographs by Valentine Tchoukhounine.
One of the hazards of being a bike guide is that lots of your friends will also be bike guides, and will invite you to go on crazy rides to strange places with very little planning.
Last month, we went to the Vaux le Vicomte estate, 41km from Paris as the crow flies.
We are neither crows, nor flying so we think we are in for a total ride of about 55km. We set off from Paris a bit before 11am, only an hour later than we had planned. For us, this is pretty good.
“We are the weirdest collection of bikes!” Valentine laughs as we ride down the hill from Montparnasse. “We should not be friends!”
We do make a strange sight. There’s Bri, on a Create single speed, Valentine and Eoghan on vintage road bikes, Drew on a hybrid, Pete on a spanking new bike with sixty thousand gears, and me, proudly riding The Silver Princess, aka, Frankenbike with it’s one, high gear.
As always I love riding with fellow guides. We cane up and down streets, blow through most traffic lights and move easily in and out of formation, keeping our eye out for each other. All the time, Pete is blasting music from his little wireless speaker, which occasionally screams directions at us via his phone, which is doing most of the navigating.
We follow the river out of the city via Bercy, and take the southern fork though Alfortville and Choisy-Le-Roi. It’s pretty un-lovely along here, with smelly trash nudging up against the banks of the Seine and in the middle of a brutal gravel stretch, Bri gets a flat tire.
It occurs to me that I haven’t got a single spare tube on me, so I pray to the gods of rubber that I don’t get a flat later down the road.
Finally off the glassy river path, we come bombing into Villeneuve-Saint-Georges for a pit stop.
It’s been pretty hilly in the town, and my legs are screaming in protest. Having one gear means I have to keep up my momentum, and everyone gets used to me yelling at them from behind as we go up hills. “Don’t you dare slow down!”
After a few wrong turns and weird diversions, we approach the Sénart Forest, but not before Valentine sheds the first blood of the day. The hazards of wrestling with two cameras and being clipped into your bike are real.
The forest is a paradise of cool greenery, a welcome change after the industrial zones and boring towns.
Pete switches over to ska music and we bop and cruise along the smooth, quiet paths. The odd weekend warrior speeds past, eying us, and our weird gear, suspiciously.
…And then there are no more paths.
Lifting our bikes over logs, riding through nettle bushes and down narrow, muddy paths, I’m reminded of mountain biking in the forest behind the house I grew up in.
“Pete, where are we going?” we yell out.
“Hmm?” Pete responds, zooming away.
I imagine my bike, used to bitumen and street traffic, crying out to me: “Mamma! Take me home! I don’t understand where we are!”
By the time we are out of the forest, everyone who is clipped into their pedals has stacked it at least once, in the slow hilarious sideways fall that appears to be for no reason.
Out of the forest, we get our first proper Tour de France field stage: riding through a picturesque agricultural area with golden wheat fields on our right and green corn on our left…and insane head winds before us.
We buckle down and grimly force our way through to a rest break in the town of Reau.
I’m almost spent and lie down with my legs up the hill to relieve a bit of lactic acid. We chill for a while and this is where my phone gives up. I’ve had a tracking app running, and the counter is at 53km. it’s taken us 5 hours to get here… so I don’t think we’ve broken any land speed records.
It’s time to tackle the final stage: a windy 11km stretch before we reach our destination. One more ride down an avenue planted with plane trees, and we are there!
Are you ready for some history?
In 1641 a guy called Nicholas Fouquet began construction on his dream home. Over the next twenty years, he built the small castle and estate with the help of architect Louis Le Veau, painter Charles Le Brun and landscape architect André Le Nôtre.
Well done Fouquet! Now put your feet up and enjoy!
Oh wait… you’re a politician. This will probably end badly.
Fouquet was the Superintendent of Finance to Louis XIV, and worked for a guy called Cardinal Mazarin, as did a certain Jean-Baptist Colbert. Mazarin had his hand in the till for years, but when he died, Colbert, apparently jealous of Fouquet’s success, managed to convince the King that it was actually Fouquet who had been stealing the millions.
It would appear that Fouquet wasn’t the savviest of dudes, because he agreed to host the King in a lavish soirée at his property, a kind of “spare no expense” party that displayed the estate at its best. This had the predictable result of cementing the idea that that Fouquet was a sneaky little thief living beyond his means.
Shortly after the rad party, Fouquet was arrested by Captain d’Artagnan, he of Three Musketeers fame, and ended up serving out the rest of his life in jail. Cue evil cackle from Colbert.
Meanwhile, Louis XIV helped himself to the Le Veau, Le Brun and Le Nôtre and built himself a Le Château in Le Versailles.
The design was heavily inspired by Vaux le Vicomte, in the same way that Vanilla Ice’s Ice, Ice Baby was heavily inspired by Queen & Bowie's Under Pressure.
As a tour guide I work in Versailles a lot, and even from a distance, I’m amazed by the similarities of the two estates.
I’m also so tired by this point I can barely walk, but we manage to drag ourselves inside and buy tickets. The place will close in about an hour, so we decide to forgo visiting the interior of the chateau itself, and spend the time in the magnificent grounds.
Wandering around the large moat, I park up on the steps of the magnificent house to enjoy the view. It is utterly gorgeous, and I’m just going to go ahead and say it: better than Versailles. You know why? There are almost no people. Heaven.
It’s hard to leave again, but the sun is getting low. Time to ride back to Paris!
Only about another 10km of downhill and we are in the town of Melun where we can eat our body weight in Indian food and catch the train back to Paris.
With all our bikes snuggled together and securely locked, we collapse in the seats. Between my phone tracking and Pete’s navigation, we estimate that we’ve done about 75km.
I close my eyes and meditate on this deeply as the train takes us home.