Saturday, July 3, 2004

Rouen, France

Friends: Back in France, where I was promptly warmed by the civility and cordiality of the French, even those behind the wheel. Rare it is to encounter a driver impatient to get around me on the narrow roads when there is other traffic present. They almost seem to enjoy pausing and trailing me for a few moments, even when they don't need to, to share in my experience, as if to say they'd much prefer to be on a bike than confined in an automobile. One doesn't frequently come upon a touring cyclist, evidently making my appearance all the more appealing.

When I stopped at the velodrome in Roubaix, just across the border from Belgium, I was an instant minor celebrity among those biking and hanging out at the adjoining clubhouse. There were several dozen serious cyclists whirling around the track, some on the wheel of a motorbike. There were too many for me to take a whirl around the track myself. Instead, I had a fine picnic dinner watching the cyclists getting their miles in. The walls of the clubhouse were jammed with dozens of photos of those who had competed in the Paris-Roubaix Race, known as "The Hell of the North." The road is rough and hellish with over twenty segments of cobbles, but it earned its nickname for how destroyed the countryside was after WWI.

The Tour de France will be passing nearby in several days, which had everyone excited. There were billboards advertising its arrival, featuring Lance and his teammates in team time trial formation. I've come a couple hundred miles across the north of the country, first passing by quite a few cemeteries from WWI, some devoted to a specific country and others to the Allied forces in general. There was a Portuguese cemetery just a quarter mile from an Indian cemetery. If I cared to be fastidious about seeing as many as I desired, I could have followed many signs that pointed to cemeteries off the route I was following. They were all meticulously maintained, with grounds that could have passed as putting greens. Some had registry books for comments. The Indian cemetery was recently visited by a group of Nepalese.

I headed up to the English Channel, drawn by the allure of coastal riding. If I'd known how ferocious the winds were going to be, funneling through the channel from the North Atlantic directly in my face, I might have chosen a different route. They had me in my small chain ring for hours, head bent, struggling to do nine miles per hour. They had me thinking I was back in Iceland. It wasn't as cold as Iceland, but the temperature was just in the 60s and cooling off enough at night that I could see my breath. Its July, and I was expecting to swelter, so this is a bonus. There were limestone cliffs, sister to Dover across the channel, and beaches of gravel. No sand could withstand the winds. I followed the coast to Diepp, just east of all the D-Day, or J-Jour, as the French call it, beaches, and then headed forty miles south to Rouen.

The Seine passes through Rouen. For centuries it was the last place one could cross it by bridge before it emptied into the English Channel. This is where the English burned Joan of Arc at the stake, but that's not what drew me, rather the birthplace of Jacques Anquetil, first five-time winner of the Tour de France. I came in search of a memorial in his honor. The Tourist Office, however, didn't know anything about it other than it might be in the village where he grew up about ten miles away.

Before I go in search of it though, I must find a pub with a television showing the Tour, as today it finally begins. No one at the tourist office could recommend a sports bar in this town of 40,000. I was assured that any bar ought to have it on. At last, I'm about to find out what it's like to be in France during the three weeks of the Tour de France. One woman at the tourist office said she hoped a Frenchman would win the race, but she couldn't name any, as there isn't a single one among the favorites or even among the top 25 contenders. Its been nearly two decades since a Frenchman has won the Tour--Bernard Hinault in 1985.

Its nice to see the Yahoo front page is featuring The Tour, enabling one to get Tour coverage with an instant click rather than having to go to sports. With England so close I've been listening to the BBC on my radio--not a peep, however, on the Tour, just Wimbledon and soccer. Maybe that will change now that it's starting.

Later, George

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