Michel is one of those Frenchmen one encounters now and again whose shining saintliness is beyond rational understanding. This great bear of a man, with heavy silver rings on his fingers and thumbs, is always cheerful, always kind, always puts others before himself. Whenever he speaks with me, it is always under the pathetic delusion that he might learn something from me that he did not already know. The only thing that makes him in any way contemptuous is my pointing out his goodness to him.
Michel was a teacher. For many years, he taught English at a private school in Somerset. Now retired to his native Provence, he has grown corpulent — or ‘bloody fat’, as he puts it. To lose weight, he has decided to get on his bicycle again and I’ve agreed to be his regular cycling partner. ‘The point of our cycling together is enjoyment,’ he emphasised. ‘If we don’t enjoy it, we will stop doing it.’
For our first outing we met with our bikes at an intermediate point beside some rubbish bins. His pride-and-joy Peugeot racing bike was 30 years old, he told me proudly. His only concessions to cycling culture dress-wise were a cycling helmet and a pair of chic, pink-tinted wraparound sunglasses. Our first outing would be a 30-kilometre run, he said. I hadn’t thrown a leg over a crossbar for ten years and 30 kilometres sounded rather a lot. His legs, which I’d not seen before, were stout, capable legs. I looked down at my own skinny, etiolated, vestigial ones and was glad I had tucked a rolled-up 20-euro note in my sock in case I needed to buy a drink in a bar while waiting to be rescued.
‘Allons-y,’ said Michel and we pushed off on the long road to cycling fitness.