Sunday, July 5, 2015

Stage One


When we noticed the course markers had been set up in Utrecht Friday afternoon for Stage Two, a day earlier than usual, we decided to give them a follow and set out on the stage that evening, rather than the next afternoon.  We had only planned to stick around until noon on Saturday anyway for a look at all the excitement the publicity caravan would generate and then start riding before the riders started whizzing around the nine-mile time trial course at one minute intervals. 

But after half an hour of following the course markers with a dotted black line beneath the black arrow, indicating the initial neutralized portion of the stage before the racing began, the route intersected the time trial stage and the neutralized arrows ended.  We had been tricked into thinking that the entire stage had been marked, when it was just the first couple of miles in the heart of the city, which would have been difficult for the crew to erect the next day with the city packed with people.  

So rather than having the route marked for us, we had to figure it out for ourselves, which isn't the easiest thing to do through the urban sprawl and especially in Holland where cyclists are generally relegted to bike paths and not allowed on the road.  The bike paths don't always follow the road one wishes to follow.  And it can be tricky knowing whether there is a bike path on both sides of the road or just one or not at all.

Luckily one doesn't have to wait too long for a cyclist to come along to ask for assistance, and the Dutch have been amazingly generous with their help.  A sixty-year old woman on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle rode with us for a mile leading us to the road we needed to find out of Uttecht.  Half an hour later a young man on a racing bike wearing a special edition Utrecht Tour de France jersey riode with us for half a mile holding his cell phone with its GPS feature on to put us back on The Tour route.  

The next morning when we had gone astray for the third or fourth time in Rotterdam before the course marker crew had come through, two twenty-year old Morroccans used their cell phone to show us the way.  We invited them to ride along with us, but they said they were observing Ramadan and the effort in the heat without being able to eat or drink would be impossible.  They joined us as we taking our first break of the day after spending the night alongside a small-town cemetery just twelve miles before Rotterdam.  It was a semi-desperation campsite at ten p.m., as the countryside for miles had been too densely populated or fenced in pasture land for camping.

We were greeted at 7:30 the next morning by the cemetery caretaker, asking us if we knew we were camped by a cemetery.  "We are a Christian community and this is a sacred site," he told us.  When we told him we were following The Tour de France, which would be passing nearby the next day, and were preparing to be on our way, he invited us into his office for coffee and couldn't have been nicer.

The young Morroccans were equally cordial and conversational, but they didn't much like Holland.  They had come with their parents and weren't fitting in at all, plus they complained how expensive everything was.  After about fifteen minutes of banter, as we were preparing to leave, it came up that I was an American.  They had never met an American before and couldn't have been more thrilled.  It was the dream of both of them to come to America.  They asked how much a plane ticket would cost and if I might be able to help them get a visa.

Some of our route through Rotterdam was on a bike path with embedded plaques stating "2010 Tour de France Prologue."  We had all three been here for it.  When we saw the Hostel Vincent had stayed at, he stopped to take a photo.  "I didn't expect to ever see that again," he said.  

We were remembering the difficulties we had then too followng The Tour route.  Since cyclists don't ride on the road here, we couldn't actually follow the route, but just tag along beside it, while sometimes being forced to make loopy detours when the path diverged from the road.  We were beginning to feel like the Moroccans in their regard for this country despite the goodwill of its people and its delicious rich chocolate milk.  All day we kept getting separated from the route and then had to find our way back to it.  And, most disappointing of all, the route was hardly decorated, as had been Utrecht.



We had one bonus stretch of a half hour when we latched on to the draft train of Geoff Thomas' group following The Tour route one day ahead of the riders.  Thomas is a former prominent English soccer player who was diagnosed with leukemia the year after he retired in 2003.  When his treatment succeeded in defeating the cancer, he was inspired by Lance Armstrong to ride The Tour route in 2005 to prove his recovery.  He wrote a book about it called "Riding Through the Storm."  Since then he has devoted himself to raising money to find a cure for leukemia.  He decided to celebrate the ten tenth anniversary of his Tour ride by doing it again this year,  and to try to raise a million pounds doing it.  He hoped to recruit twenty cyclists with pledges of 50,000 pounds each.  Armstrong was going to join him for the ride, but the powers-that-be in cycling let it be known that he wouldn't be welcome on Tje Tour route.  Rather than doing the whole ride,  he will just join the group for two stages between the Pyrenees and Alps.

The "BeforetheTour.com" group passed us riding on the road on the outskirts of Rotterdam.  There were eleven cyclists in matching jerseys, including two women, led by three motorcycles and a car and trailed by four vans all plastered with decals promoting their Before the Tour ride. We sped up to their seventeen mile per hour pace and rode alongside them on the path for a couple of miles.  When our path ended at a roundabout, we swung out on to the road and took advantage of their road privileges  for several miles until the continual slowing at intersections and then accelerations did us in with the heavy loads we were carrying.  If we could have simply ridden a steady pace, we could have stuck with them to the stage end, but our legs were done in by the effort to regain the lighter bikes every time we had to get back up to speed.  Still it was nice to make contact with this group.  We probably won't see them again, as in the future the only time we'll be riding a day ahead of the peloton will be in the evening hours after that day's stage and this group will be long done with their ride.

David doesn't like riding in the heat so we took a much, much too long two hour midday break so he could have a swim in a canal and a nap under a tree.  When we returned to the road we had course markers to follow, though they were only of marginal help since we couldn't ride on the road the racers will. Our next stop came at three p.m. at a bar to watch the final two-and-a-half hours of the time trial.  We had the television all to ourselves.  

Vincent was thrilled that the Australian and former hour-record holder Rohan Dennis, riding for the American BMC team, had the best time so far and by a significant margin.  None of his main threats had ridden yet, but still his time would be hard to beat.  The camera was on him as he sweated out former time trial World Champion Tony Martin's strong effort, just several seconds short of beating his time, and then former prologue winner Fabian Cancellera missing by a few seconds more. When Chris Froomer and Alberto Contador, among the last riders on the course, were even further behind, he held his wife in a prolonged embrace.  He would be wearing the Yellow Jersey the next day, no doubt his proudest moment in cycling.

When we returned to the road the wind had turned cool and strong as we closed in on North Sea.  And it was in our face. It held us to half the speed we had enjoyed the evening before when we were well off the coast and the wind was at our back.  We pushed into it for a couple of hours, knowing that it could be even worse the next day.  There was more open terrain than the night before, but we needed a camp site protected from the fierce wind.  We passed up several sandy gulleys, as David the biologist said that they wouldn't be an ecologically responsible place to camp.  We settled upon a narrow strip of grass behind a hedge of trees beside a small parking lot overlooking a harbor.  There were stray cigarette butts and condoms.  It looked like a place people would stop for a pee as well.  It was getting late and we were worn out.  Once again Vincent had the last word--"A little urine never hurt anybody."


Friday, July 3, 2015

Utrecht, The Presentation of the Teams



Though we were all biking into Utrecht from different directions from hundreds of miles away, Vincent, David and I easily found one another yesterday afternoon in the park along a canal in downtown Utrecht where the presentation of the teams was to take place later in the day.  Vincent was sprawled in the grass having a picnic when I stopped by before noon just to scout out the location.  He had arrived in Utrecht the day before, just as I had.  He made the ride from Frankfurt in five days after flying in from Melbourne.  We hadn't seen each other in three years, but we have kept in close email contact, so it seemed as if we had last talked a week ago.  And David turned up several hours later fully resplendent in the bright green PMU jersey he had scored from the publicity caravan a couple of years ago.

I joined Vincent in the grass with a two-pound tub of mashed potatoes, my favorite Dutch supermarket treat.  Its to Vincent's liking as well and he had yet to find any, but he couldn't help me as he had more than enough food of his own.  I couldn't handle it all it one sitting, so after an hour of nibbling while the band and emcee rehearsed on stage we ventured off to visit a few of the museums with exhibits on The Tour.  The Instituto Cervantes had a gallery of photographs entitled "Bicycles, A View from the Road Side."  Most were in black-and-white from the past twenty years.  There were close-ups of haggard racers and fans along the road and other glimpses of the intensity and the passion that epitomize The Race that we were fully attuned to.

Our next stop was the Aborginal Art Museum.  On the way we stopped in at one of several bicycle boutiques with high quality designer bikes and accessories, including Brooks saddles for an ungodly $320. The owner had recently been to Australia and raved how much he enjoyed it. Many shops, whether they sell bikes or not, featured bikes in their windows.  So did the Aboriginal Musuem.  The frames of its bikes appeared to be made with didgeridoos, but they were only wrapped around their cross tubes.  The tires and forks were also painted with white dots in the Aboriginal style.

The large Central Museum had an exhibit entitled "Sport is Fun" that couldn't entice us in.  There was too much bike art on the street and in shop windows to pay to see any.  The emblem of Utrecht, the Dom Tower, the tallest structure in the city and the highest church tower in Holland, was flying yellow flags.


The official town poster for The Tour featured in shop windows and on the sides of buildings was of the tower and a rider in yellow.



Yellow was the dominant color in the city.


Benches and buckets turned up yellow.


 Waitresses wore yellow blouses and t-shirts and trees were wrapped in yellow as well as red polka dots.


The polka dots were almost as popular as yellow.  Canal tour boats had been repainted to acknowledge The Tour.


This being Holland the streets were aswarm with cyclists and not a one was wearing a helmet.  Bikes were parked everywhere, sometimes in masses.


Shortly after Vincent and I returned to the park for the evening presentation David rolled in on his bike, a couple days before he expected to arrive on his ride from Bremen.  He'd had favorable winds and an eagerness to make it in time for the opening event of The Tour.  When Vincent's face brightened with the recognition of a friend as we were talking I expected to turn and see Skippy, an Aussie who has been following The Tour on his bike since 1998, six years more than me.  He had been in town since Monday.  I had stopped by the hostel where he was staying earlier in the day but had just missed him. We were to learn later that he had been told by the manager of The Tour headquarters that he was a "persona non-grata" at The Tour this year and would be arrested if he didn't leave.  

All of us who follow The Tour on our bikes from time to time ignore arbitrary, senseless orders from gendarmes to stop riding the course hours before the riders pass.  Evidently Skippy had gone a little too far last year.  He has a strong exuberant personality who everyone knows, though not all appreciate. He is a strong rider who tags along with teams on their rest day day rides. He is a wonderful animator full of dazzling stories.  We have had many fine times over the years riding and camping and hanging out.  He has introduced me to many riders and tour officials over the years, including Chris Froome two years ago in Corsica as he was helping guide him through the crowds after the team presentation.  Hopefully he will get this matter straightened out and we will enjoy his company in the days to come.

It was still three hours until the ceremony started when we met David.  We were happy to sit in the shade on this hot ninety degree day.  About an hour before the program was to begin we were told we would have to remove our bikes from the park.  There was no corral or sanctioned place to leave them and since they were loaded with all our gear we needed to keep on our on them.  So removed ourselves to beyond the barriers along the parade route the riders would proceed after their on stage introduction.  We found a spot with a vantage of the stage and the large screen showing the proceedings.  The acoustics were strong enough to hear the introductions and interviews of two or three riders from each of the twenty-two teams.  It was conducted nearly all in English.  That's Froome on the screen.


It was actually on ideal spot as we could get a close glimpse of the gleeful faces of the riders as they rolled past responding to the cheers of the thousands who had turned out for the event.  I might have caught the eye of Mark Cavendish as he drifted by slapping hands if I had held out his team water bottle that was on my bike that I had scavenged in Dubai earlier this year.


Albert Cantador slapped hands on the opposite side of the road.


A Dutch rider was one of five or six who stopped to give a young boy his autograph.


The fellow in the helmet in the foreground was about the only one of thousands wearing a helmet.  He was decked out in Lycra and had biked from his town twenty miles away for the event.  His nine-year old daughter raced.  They had been in Denmark the week before for a race.  He pulled out his phone to show us a photo of her with The Devil, who had been there.  Boys and girls race against each other until they turn fourteen when the boys start developing faster.  Up until then there are fairly equal.  His daughter had finished third in her last race, beaten by two riders on carbon bikes.  Her bike is aluminum and she thought maybe she should upgrade to carbon.  Her father pointed out that she had beaten other riders on carbon, and that aluminum would be just fine for her, though he knows in the feature the sport could get expensive for him.  He pointed out that whenever one of The Tour riders rode by us, he thought, "There goes ten thousand dollars," the cost of their bike.

After he learned that David was German he told Vincent and I that whenever a Dutch person meets a German they say, "Give me back my bike."  He was somewhat joking but also somewhat serious.  It was no small matter if he thought to raise the issue.  He explained that it went back to WWII when the Germans started to randomly confiscate bikes for their own personal use.  That was about the gravest indignity that one could inflict upon another in this Kingdom of the Bicycle.  He then he added whenever someone they know is going to Germany they say, "Bring back a bike."  I had read about this in a very fine book on the history of bikes in Amsterdam.  It told about a World Cup soccer match in the '70s between the Dutch and the Germans when the Dutch fans chanted "Give Me Back My Bike."  David said the guy was overstating the issue, but it was still quite telling that he would bring this up seventy years since the War.

The small murals painted by school children that line the parade route also gave some insight into the Dutch way.  One across from us featured a marijuana leaf and a joint.  It also had the small head of a white rabbit, a much more common emblem on these mini-banners along with the Eiffel Tower.  Our Dutch companion explained that Dutch children learn to read from books that feature a white rabbit and everyone has a strong connection to them


After the ninety minute program was completed we headed out of town to a field where I had camped the night before.  It was a somewhat complicated route as the many meandering canals prevent roads from going straight.  I had to take three ferries across waterways on my way into Utrecht.  We got near to my campsite but a storm was imminent so rather than continuing to seek it out we settled upon a small patch of grass with a picnic table alongside a bike path and a canal with a deck for swimming.  With three of us we had no concern about being in such a wide open space.  As we rushed to set up our tents Vincent echoed all our sentiments, "There isn't any place I'd rather be."














Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Leuven, Belgium



Any day on the bike is a great day, but some days are greater than others.  When cycling in the US, a day with a Carneige Library or two always stands above.  In Europe with virtually no Carnegies outside the UK, I end my days with a heightened exhilaration when it includes a cycling shrine or two.  Yesterday was another of those extra great days with a pair of such places.

The first was Florennes, a city of 10,000 inhabitants sixty miles south of Brussels.  It is the only city that is the birthplace of two Tour de France champions--Firmin Lambot, who won The Tours of 1919 and 1922, and Léon Scieur, the 1921 winner.  There was no sign at the city's entrance celebrating its famous sons, as there had been outside Jean Robic's home town in France.  Nor was  there anything in the town plaza nor on the town map posted there.  Nor was there any acknowledgement of them at the city hall.  The receptionist didn't even know what I was talking about when I asked if there were any plaque in the city to its Tour de France champions.  She at least took my question seriously enough to go and ask if anyone else knew.  

When she returned several minutes later she said that there were indeed plaques honoring them.  They could be found on their homes.  As she was writing down the addresses, she paused to remove her sweater and started vigorously fanning herself with a piece of paper.  It was early in the morning and still cool enough that I was wearing my vest, but the ordeal I was putting her through, having to deal with some cyclist who spoke a minimum of her language, had her sweating and so much so that the piece of paper she was fanning herself with was too flimsy for the job, so she put it down and used a magazine.  It was a bit stuffy, the air still heavy from the unseasonably warm eighty degree temperatures of the day before, but it wasn't even 70 yet.  She seemed to be anticipating the heat to come.  A male colleague, just arriving for work, greeted her with a kiss on the cheek, just one in contrast to the French style of a kiss on each cheek.  Then she was interrupted by a phone call.  It was someone with more information about the plaques.  

After she wrote down the addresses she tried to find the houses on a town map, but was struggling as it wasn't detailed enough.  As she peered at the map, a guy who spoke English came to her rescue.  He knew precisely where the houses were.  For one I had to turn right after the cathedral, go to the roundabout and make a left, then just beyond the Match supermarket I'd see the plaque on the left side of the road a couple houses down. The directions were perfect other than mentioning that the plaque was up high above a garage door, so I missed it and had to ask a vetinarian across the street if he knew where it was.  He could point it out to me from his office.


For the second plaque I had to turn left after the cathedral, go through a stop light and there it would be on the right hand side of the road just after the intersection.  I knew enough to look up and there it was, on a better maintained building than the first.


It was a tad disappointing that there were no statues nor streets nor plazas named for these early winners of The Tour, nor even their image inscribed on their plaques.  Nor would it have been out of place for their photos to be hanging in the city hall.  I didn't have to go to the Internet though to see what they looked like, as forty-five miles down the road in Huy, the Ville Arrivée for Stage Three, its tourist office had photos of all nine Belgians who have won The Tour, and there they were astride their bikes.


The tourist office was a mini-museum devoted to The Tour.  Its entry hall was plastered with articles on The Tour and the office itself was decorated with bikes and wheels and books and souvenirs.  I was given a yellow pen and a pin with a bike on it and "Huy Le Mur, Un Sommet, 19%," as the stage concludes with a kilometer climb of 19%, also the finish for Flèche Wallon, one of the premier races of the Spring.  The climb may be short but its steepness makes it one of the most legendary in cycling.  It began about a mile from the tourist office.  The peloton will turn at a roundabout just past the tourist office with a giant cube celebrating the climb.


The climb begins in earnest at a small plaza and winds up a narrow road through a residential neighborhood.  The road had been freshly painted with the town name.


Looking back one could see the twin cooling towers of a nuclear plant on the Meuse River.


I was joined on the climb by a string of about fifty English cyclists with a Tour de Force travel company with many of them wearing Tour de Force jerseys.  Some of them were zig-zagging back and forth across the road as I was doing.  My heart was pounding and I was gushing sweat.  Anything over ten per cent is a brute.  L'Alpe d'Huez and Mont Ventoux aren't even that.  I was gasping for air, but my legs were passing this final test, letting me know they were ready for The Tour.  A few of the cyclists stopped or returned from the summit to take photos of their mates on the climb, but careful not to include me on my loaded bike.  "You're putting us all to shame," one of them said. 

The summit was a plateau with a small cathedral and a park and a closed down gondola that once hoisted people up the climb.  And we were greeted by a sign congratulating us for making it up, the upper half identical to the pin I'll have to figure out how to wear.


If I had gotten to Huy a couple hours earlier I could have made it to Leuven, forty-five miles away, before dark and topped off my day with the lone Carnegie Library in Belgium.  


Instead I arrived at this vibrant university and beer town (headquarters of Stella Artois) the next morning.  The library was built in the 1920s replacing the library destroyed during the war.  Funds were provided by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace rather than Carnegie's library program as it stopped funding libraries after Carnegie's death in 1919.  There were quite a few other donors as well, many of them libraries, so its not recognized as a Carnegie Library, similar to the University of Chicago library he helped fund.

Two librarians I consulted didn't even know that Carnegie money had helpled build the library.  They had a list of donors, but he wasn't among them.  There was a bust of Herberrt Hoover though and also a plaque acknowledging the American ambassador to Belgium at the time of the construction of the library that was designed  by an American architect in a Flemish style.  One had to be affiliated with the university to use the libary or be given a guest pass as I was.  School was out so I had the huge place almost to my self.  I couldn't linger long as 120 miles remained between Leuven and Utrecht and I wanted to be there by the end of the next day, a day before the team presentations.  The terrain is now flat.  I hadn't used my small chain ring since climbing up from Huy and the Meuse River and it promised to be flat all across Holland.










Monday, June 29, 2015

On to Belgium



I was reliving the 1947 Tour de France in slow motion as I puttered up the steep climb to Bonsecours from the Seine River on the outskirts of Rouen.  It was here that Jean Robic launched an attack about a third of the way into the final stage of The Race that led to the most celebrated breakaway in Tour history, ninety miles from the race finish in Paris.  He started the stage in third place three minutes down on the Italian Pierre Brambillia.  He was joined by the rider in fifth, Edouard Fachleitmer of France, who moved up to second overall, as their collaboration gained thirteen minutes on the two top-placed riders, both Italians.

As I pedaled squares on the climb, I was scanning the road side for a monument honoring Robic for his heroic feat, upholding French honor winning the first post-War Tour and sparing the country the ignominy of an Italian winning the race. It was years before French resentment towards Italy subsided.  One subsequent year the Italians pulled out of the race en masse fearing hostility from fans along the roadside.  

I knew what the monument looked like, but I didn't know its location. It was a large marble slab with an image of Robic that ought to have been easy to spot.  I had been told at Rouen's tourist office that it might be on one of several switchbacks on a narrow super-steep road that turned off the main climb.  When I reached the summit of that climb without spotting it, I assumed it must be in the small park at the summit.  Not so.  A man walking his dog told me it was back near the summit of the main road up the climb.

Fortunately I didn't have to descend the road I had just come up, as I now was on a plateau overlooking Rouen and the Seine, and could simply swing over to the other road.   I began its descent with hands on brakes keeping my speed to a minimum as I looked for the monument.  Still it was not to be seen.  After I had plunged about a third of the way down I came to a forest with a path entering it.  I stopped to see if it might lead to the monument.  Thwarted again.  I asked the next person I saw where it might be.  He said it was back up the road on the right hand side just before a bakery.  I had missed it because it was overgrown with vegetation and could only be seen as one came up the climb.


I had to trim away a bunch of branches to be able to read the inscription on the monument in its entirety.


There was no mention that Robic rode The Tour nine more times and never finished higher than fourth and fifth and failed to complete The Race his last four attempts.  All that mattered was that he had won the 1947 Tour, and it was thanks to this lone significant climb on the 162-mile stage that had begun in Caen up along the English Channel.

I was so eager and intent on finding this monument I didn't linger in Rouen to see all the tributes to Joan of Arc and the spot where she was burned at the stake, which the tourist literature phrased as "the square where her ordeal took place."  Nor did I seek out the home or grave of Flaubert.  I knew I could see them another time.  With The Tour just a week away, it was now time to focus all my attention on matters relating to it.

I entered Belgium somewhat following the route the peloton will follow leaving the country to Cambrai on its fourth stage.  It is the stage with seven stretches of cobbles totaling eight miles.  Six of those stretches come after the peloton has crossed into France and within the final thiry miles of the finish. I rode at a crawl two of the stretches.  




That was enough.  I'm not sure if I'll want to ride them on race day, jarring along at less than five miles per hour.  There won't be much space for the fans along the road.  They will form a gauntlet preventing the riders from the slightly smoother fringes of the cobbles.



If David and Vincent wish to sample the cobbles and subject their bikes and fillings to the extreme jarring, I will recommend the fourth stretch between Verchain-Maugre and Saulzoir, as the cemeteries for these two towns were at either end of the cobbles where we could fill our water bottles. Vincent may not as he experienced the cobbles with me in the 2010 Tour that started in Rotterdam. These ancient byways are still used, as I encountered several cars on both, just bobbing along as well.  

I was back in the land of military cemeteries.  I didn't encounter any with American solidiers, as there are just an even dozen in France, in contrast to the British, who have close to one hundred, some no larger than a postage stamp.


It may not be quite as easy to camp in the more densely populated Belgium, but I was happy to find a supermarket open on Sunday afternoon.  In France those that do open on Sunday close at half past noon.  I hadn't found an open supermarket that morning in France and thought I might have to resort to my emergency rations of the two packages of ramen noodles I have been carrying since leaving home two months ago. Instead I could dine right royally on ravioli and couscous in the corner of a meadow shielded from the road by a high hedge.








Thursday, June 25, 2015

Livarot, Ville Départ Stage Seven


I may be off The Tour route but that doesn't mean that I don't come across decorated bikes.  Businesses and residents and towns all recognize that a bicycle can attract attention and is an object of beauty worthy of display.  



The bicycle has the unique capacity of making one feel good, whether by riding it or looking at it.



As I pedal six hundred miles back across the top of France and through Belgium to The Tour start in Holland I have sought out roads that I have not ridden, though it has included a few stretches that I just rode.  A few of those miles were in the big city of Rennes, start of the eighth stage.  When I passed through Rennes a few days ago, it was Sunday morning.  The tourist office was closed and I couldn't find anyone who knew where the official Tour start would be.  I knew which road the peloton would follow north out of the city, but not how they would get there.  

So I returned to Rennes, as it is a large sprawling city, to find that starting point in case it was in some sports field on its outskirts, so Vincent, David and I would waste no time trying to track it down.  There were no Tour banners to be seen in Rennes, which could have led me to the start, as they often line the route.  Not were there any strings of mini-cellophane Tour jerseys across any streets, as are a common site in Ville Ètapes, also indicating The Tour route.  An explanation for this lack of declaration became evident when the Rennes tourist office charged me twenty cents for a city map, something that most tourist offices give away.  

If the city coffers were so bereft of funds that they had to charge for a single sheet of paper showing tourists how do find things in their city, then they could hardly have the funds for banners or even yellow paint to spray on old bikes.  There wasn't a single sign for The Tour in the Le Liberté plaza a few blocks from the tourist office where The Tour will start.  As a stood in a corner of the huge treeless Soviet-style plaza searching for something Tour-related, a young woman approached me and asked for money, a first in France.

The Plaza was on the route of a walking tour of eighteen significant sites in the city center of Rennes.  It included the city hall, opera house, cathedral and various old buildings.  Also noted was a municipal building named for Émile Zola where the second trial of Alfred Dreyfus was held in 1896, indicating how deeply imbued the Dreyfus Affair is in the French consciousness.  Dreyfus was an army officer convicted of selling secrets to the Germans.  He adamantly denied the accusations and had many supporters.  

The issue deeply divided the country.  Dreyfus was Jewish.  Zola sided with Dreyfus and wrote an open letter to the president of France famously known as "J'Accuse," blaming Dreyfus's conviction on anti-Semitism.  It helped Dreyfus get a second trial, but he was found guilty a second time despite convincing evidence that he was innocent. Zola was convicted of libel for his letter and fled the country to Great Britain.  In time both Dreyfus and Zola were exonerated.  

The Dreyfus case also has a bicycle connection as it indirectly led to the creation of The Tour de France.  The sporting newspaper that initiated The Tour  was started by a group of advertisers who thought Dreyfus guilty and didn't wish to advertise in another sporting newspaper that took the editorial stance that he was innocent.  The anti-Dreyfus paper, "L'Auto," was struggling and searching for ways to survive.  It dreamed up The Tour de France in 1903 and became wildly successful.  It will be interesting to see if The Tour's promenade through Rennes before the flag is dropped will take it past the Zola building.

I also needed to return to the start town of the seventh stage, Livarot, to visit an exhibition honoring two local cyclists.  It wasn't open when I visited Livarot nearly a week ago. On my way there I passed through Mayenne and crossed the MacRacken Bridge over the Mayenne River, now more of a canal than a river.  I stopped in the tourist office to ask if the town had a library.  It did, but it wasn't open until later in the day.  Per usual, as I turned to leave, I was asked where I was from, not because of my accent, but for their records.  When I said, "America," I was told, "That bridge over there is named for an American soldier, MacRacken.  He saved it in WWII from being blown up by the Germans when they were retreating.  They blew up the other two bridges in our city.  He was a hero."

As I approached Livarot on the same road I had ridden before there were a few new decorations.  One was a simple but elegant trio of bike wheels painted the colors of the French flag in front of a cathedral.


The bike exhibit honored two local cyclists who both competed in The Tour de France ten times--Thierry Marie and François Lemarchand.



It also traced the history of The Tour in the region, listing every stage that had passed through dating to 1905 in the third Tour and who had won it.  The exhibiton was held at the cheese factory among the many rooms winding through the factory giving an excellent tour of the operation.  Each room had a video in French with English subtitles explaining the process of making cheese, emphasizing how important it was to one's diet providing essential bacteria for one's digestion.   Some rooms had windows looking down upon the factory.  There were several bus loads of French tourists taking the free tour and getting a little bicycle racing mixed in with it.  There were jerseys and trophies and numerous newspaper articles and team photos on display.  Lemarchand was on Greg LeMond's 1990 team when LeMond won The Race for the third time.  Marie was known as the King of the Prologue, as he won the mini-time trial that starts The Tour in 1986, 1990 and 1991.  He also won the prologue in the Vuleta and the Giro.

A woman at the factory was painting some bikes to put out along the road.


Just down the road at Notre Dame de Courson, the first town the peloton will pass through after leaving Livarot, a sign had been hung giving Lemarchand a "grand merci" for helping bring The Tour to Livarot this year for the first time.  Signs of thanks are not unusual along the course, another unique aspect of the French and their Race. 


Now its on to Rouen where Joan of Arc was burned and also the site of homages to Jacque Anquetil and Jean Robic.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Stage Nine Time Trial, A Bounty of Window Art

The Stage Nine team time trial may be only seventeen-and-a-half miles long, but it concludes with a mile long climb with a six per cent grade that will certainly cause some separation among the contenders.  Since the team's time is recorded after the fifth of their riders crosses the line, it will add considerable interest and intrigue to each team's strategy.  It is a climb of enough significance to be named--Côte de Cadoudel.   And it is notorious enough to be featured in several of the paintings on the shop windows in the town where the stage concludes--Plumelec.


Plumelec has served as a Ville Étape four times previously, as noted in the window of the town's tourist office --2008, 1997, 1985 and 1982.



This quiet, small town of centuries old, weather-worn stone buildings had left all its decorating so far to the artist Philippe Le Paih.  His window paintings more than sufficed to dress up Plumelec.  They each celebrate The Tour and capture its flavor and its many subtlties and charms.  He is a full-fledged aficionado.  

No two of his paintings are the same, even from town to town.  Each is adapted to the business behind the window. The tabac shop, which sells magazines and newspapers, featured a rider reading "L'Equipe," the incomparable French daily sports newspaper.  It is in the upper echelon of the many  things that I like most about France.


A few shops down a bank window featured one of the many things that make The Tour such an exceptional event--the super fan who dresses as The Devil.  He is taunting a racer with sweat flying on the six per cent climb.


Another window paid homage to Bernard Hinault, a favorite son of Bretagne, as acknowledged by the region's black and white flag.  One of his sponsors from thirty years ago, Look, can be seen on his shorts.


Le Paih's art was also widespread in at the stage start in Vannes, at least along the race route in this large city that is connected to the Atlantic by a narrow inlet.  The racers will make their start in the Place de la Libération, just above the grand town hall decorated with the official Tour poster.


They will proceed for two blocks down a narrow street lined with businesses before passing the town hall and turning on to a main street that descends to a harbor and then make a steep climb past a building boasting a thrillingly large Tour poster.


Nearly every business on the opening stretch had a Le Paih.  I wasn't the only one making a leisurely stroll, pausing before each to appreciate their every nuance.  The cyclist delivering bread for the boulangerie had a tattoo of a bicycle on his bicep.


A thirsty racer on the window of an Irish bar had a few bottles of Guiness in the pockets of his jersey.


A female cyclist in a version of a nurse's uniform adorned a doctor's office window.


A horse was taking a hunk out of the derrière of a racer in the window of the PMU bar that broadcasts horse races from all over the country.


Le Paih isn't the only artist who practices window painting.  On my way to Vannes off The Tour route a bank in a small town featured the work of an unnamed artist honoring two locals who had distinguished themselves in The Tour--Jean Robic, the 1947 winner and Françoise Le Her, who was a teammate of Jacques Anquetil in the 1950s.  The French do remember.


Robic's home town, Radenac, is fifteen miles north of Plumelec.  It is much smaller, no longer large enough to support a bakery.  In the main plaza was the most unlikely of sites--a small vending machine dispensing baguettes, fulfilling the French need for their daily baguette.


Radenac advertised itself as the home of Robic, a great national hero who won the first post-WWII Tour with a dramatic breakaway on the final stage taking the Yellow Jersey from an Italian.  The only thing worse to the French of an Italian winning their Tour so soon after WWII would have been a German winning it, but that couldn't have happened as none were allowed to compete that year or for several years more.


A street behind the cathedral had been named in his honor.


It was included in a one hundred mile loop around the region named for Robic.


If I'd had a little more time I could have made a detour to the city of  Ste.-Anne-d'Auray west of Vannes where Robic's Yellow Jersey hangs in its basilica.  I was just happy to have made it all the way to Vannes, the western-most Ville Ètape of this year's Tour, and the start of the last stage before The Tour's first rest day and a 400-mile transfer to Pau and the Pyrenees.  The peloton made a similar transfer two years ago, except in the opposite direction.  I skipped several stages and pedaled the entire distance save for a few miles with Yvon in his car.  This year for the first time in my twelve years of following The Tour I will treat my legs to the train.  I bought my ticket while in Vannes.  It will depart at 7:30 Monday morning after Sunday's time trial.  I will arrive in Pau ten hours later and after transfers in Bordeaux and one other city.