Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Le Blanc, France

Friends: All early indications are France is a touring cyclist's paradise. Jesse and I are three days out of Paris and except for having to set up our tents in the rain twice, we have no complaints whatsoever. Camping wild has been a snap, our first night in an apple orchard and last night down a tractor path alongside a field into a bit of a forest. We didn't even have to wait until the cover of dark to make our camping clandestine, and for that we are grateful, as its not getting dark here until 9:30. All that daylight will be nice later on when we are stronger and can ride without tiring.

Jesse and I are on our way to the Cannes Film Festival, the granddaddy of film festivals. I have attended other prominent European film festivals (Berlin, Rotterdam, Thessaloniki, Midnight Sun). Cannes has long beckoned. I've felt an even stronger attraction to the Tour de France, the Cannes of bicycle races. Finally, this summer I will experience them both. Jesse will join me to Cannes then continue on to Munich, where his girl friend is spending the summer studying. This trip is Jesse's graduation present from his father. He completed his degree in film from Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh last summer.

I met Jesse two summers ago when we worked together in the shipping department of the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. Jesse hadn't been on a bike in years. He was inspired by my enthusiasm for the bicycle and my bicycling endeavors (touring/messengering/commuting) to return to the bicycle. He was awfully wobbly when he borrowed my bike and started biking again, but he is now a full-fledged, hard-corps convert, even working as a messenger in Philadelphia. This is his first genuine tour. He had a mini-tour last fall from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and enjoyed it enough to want more. Its nice to have him along, as a semester in Paris has made him fairly fluent in French. And he knows Cannes as well, having worked as an intern in the American Pavilion at Cannes last year. It was his love of cinema that encouraged him to learn French, so he could read the exceptional French film magazine "Cahiers de Cinema" and others.

Since I am a bicycle touring missionary, I am proud to have made another convert and to have the opportunity to fully indoctrinate Jesse into the joy and fundamentals of touring. This is my first touring experience in France. I did spent a week in Paris on my bicycle a few years ago, when I visited a friend over the Christmas holiday. Though I thoroughly explored the city, I didn't venture any further than out to Versailles. I am sorry I've waited so long to discover the beauty and charm of rural France. It has been exceptional in every respect. The roads have been narrow and without any shoulder, giving a first impression of being perilous for cycling, but there has been little traffic, and what traffic we've encountered, has been most considerate and patient. We've witnessed countless examples of how much the French appreciate and respect anyone on a bike. Drivers unhesitatingly slow and wait patiently, if they must, to pass us. Drivers give us thumbs up and a double pump of a clenched fist, a gesture "Allez-Allez," accorded racers. People shout it out as well and other encouragements--"bon courage" and "bravo."

The countryside is brightened by fields of the bright yellow flowers of rapeseed. If they were in such extravagant display during The Tour every Tour de France photographer would include them in the foreground of a shot of the peloton racing past, as they do with sunflowers. Rapeseed is grown primarily for animal feed, but it is also the world's third leading source of vegetable oil behind soybean and oil palm. This was the first time I had ever encountered it, or at least in full bloom. After a farmer had explained its virtues to us, he mentioned, without us asking, that The Tour had passed his farm three years ago.

With a different route every year, The Tour has included just about every road throughout France in its ninety editions. Often when there is a squiggle in the road ahead I envision the 189-strong peloton of The Tour ahead, snaking down the road in all its colorful splendor, pedaling hell-bent past the thousands who are drawn to The Race lining these roads. For a few seconds in some distant July, any spot I am biking has been the focal point of the cycling universe.

My thought strays to imagining myself shadowing those Giants of the Road (Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Bobet, Coppi, Armstrong) knowing that their tires have graced these roads and their sweat has consecrated the pavement below me. As I bicycled around Iceland last year, the question I posed to everyone I met was, "Do you eat putrefied shark meat?" On this trip it will be, "When last did the Tour de France pass here?" As in Iceland, I know everyone will brighten and have a fond memory.

The great variety of exceptional food also makes France a touring cyclist's dreamland. The deli departments in the supermarkets all have couscous and quiche Lorraine and potato salad and many other tasty offerings. Food is an essential part of French culture, and when the French have a passion for something, such as cinema, they do not hold back. When I tour the US baked beans is the cheap easy choice of food. The French supermarkets have a wide assortment of what can almost be considered gourmet canned foods, at least in comparison to our baked beans--pastas and lentils and stews and meats. The French do love meat. The potato salads are invariably thick with bits of ham. The cassoulet stew is half beans and half meat. I know I will have many more great food discoveries to come.

The noon hour has just struck and Jesse and I have just been informed that the library is closing for lunch. That seems to be the custom for most businesses in France, even supermarkets. We have been caught a couple of times arriving at a supermarket or tourist office during their lunch break, ranging from 90 minutes to two hours.

Later, George

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