Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Apt, France

Friends: I was anticipating the monument to Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange on the Galibier to be a statue of him in some dramatic pose, cheering and exhorting all who passed to "allez, allez" ("go-go, don't let up"), but evidently no sculptor could be found to adequately capture the "beyond category" energy and fanaticism of this de Gaulian figure when his monument was erected in 1974.

Instead, his monument is a towering, ten-foot tall, barrel-shaped pillar with the inscription, "To the Glory of Henri Desgrange, 1865-1940, Ancient Director and Creator of the Tour de France." Perhaps the pillar alludes to the pillar of salt he would want any racer who didn't give his all to be struck into. Desgrange was first a cyclist. He set 12 world track cycling records, including the hour record of 35.325 kilometers on May 11, 1893. After his cycling career he became a journalist. He was known for his hyperbolic and colorful prose and his autocratic and intransigent ways, antagonizing many riders. He created the Tour de France to increase the circulation of the newspaper he worked for. Other newspapers at the time sponsored one-day cycling races, but this one topped them all. From the very first race in 1903, it was a monumental event that captured the imagination of all of France, sending his newspaper's circulation sky-rocketing.

Even as director of the race, he continued to write about it, declaring the feats of its riders as among the greatest accomplishments in the history of mankind. As director, he never let up in his efforts to make the race more and more challenging, as if to demonstrate the greatness man and bike were capable of. For years after the invention of the derailleur he didn't allow its use in his race, declaring it made it too easy to climb the mountains. He tried to ban drafting and any outside assistance. His ultimate race would be so difficult, that its winner would be its lone survivor.

If he could have, Desgrange might have given me a nod of favor for climbing his favorite mountain with 50 pounds of gear, though he wouldn't have been too happy about my speed. There were a handful of other cyclists, all unladen, attempting it, A couple had been reduced to walking their bikes. I was hoping Lance might be training on it, as it will be included in this year's race, but it was probably a little too early for him. He no doubt plans his training well in advance, and since the road had just been reopened, he couldn't have counted on it being clear of snow by now. Plus it was a Sunday, a day when such scenic roads tend to attract more cyclists and drivers.

The southern approach to Desgrange's hallowed summit begins at the summit of the Col de Lautaret at 6,750', already above tree line and higher than the summits of L'Alpe d'Huez and Mont Ventoux, the two most renowned of the Tour de France climbs. From the Col de Lautaret it is five-and-a-half miles to the summit of the Galibier, nearly 2,000 feet higher. The grade isn't as severe as other climbs, so it is not as dreaded a climb. Still, it is a beast. I spent several minutes at the snow shrouded Desgrange monument one kilometer from the summit cooling down and eating and drinking and hoping someone else might stop to pay homage, so I could get a picture of myself. But the closest anyone came to stopping was a guy who slowed to shout "Bravo" to me.

I had better luck at the summit though, where everyone was stopping to take in the stunning 360 degree panorama that included a distant Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak. I imposed on an older couple speaking English. The woman said, "It's so nice to hear someone speak English. We've been having the toughest time. Yesterday we couldn't figure out how to get water." The German cyclist I met earlier in the week had a similar complaint of finding virtually no one who spoke English. He thought maybe because he was German the French were discriminating against him and simply pretending not to speak English.

This lady asked where I was from. At the mention of Chicago she blurted, "That's where I was born." I asked if she got back often. "Not since I left in 1936." She said she and her husband were traveling with her daughter and son-in-law, who had brought along folding bikes and were biking a bit while they drove. She was excited to tell me they were "gorilla camping." Her daughter was experienced at it, but it was their first time. They couldn't believe how easy it was. When her daughter and son-in-law appeared, climbing down from an overlook, she said, "You've got to meet this man. He's bicycled all the way from Paris." They were eager to hear of my impressions of biking in France, as they were greatly enjoying the little they had done so far and wondered if it was as good as it seemed. They were especially curious if I had found the shoulderless roads at all perilous. So far they hadn't had any close calls and were most impressed at how considerate the French drivers had been. I confirmed that had been my experience likewise, not only in 1,000 miles this year but in over 4,000 miles last summer too.

The more they learned of my experiences, the more they wanted to hear. It was a shame we hadn't met on the open road on our bikes heading the same direction as we had loads and loads to share. They lived in Banf-Jasper and were great outdoors people, though mostly as hikers and climbers. They'd done a bit of bike touring, a couple of weeks in Cuba and also in Holland, but they longed for extended travels such as I've done. We shook hands and wished each other luck before returning to our respective vehicles. A few minutes later they overtook me on the descent. They slowed for a few more words. The guy said, "One more thing. We'd love to be doing what you're doing. Do you mind if we ask how you can afford to do it?"

"I'm a bicycle messenger. That gives me the freedom to come and go as I please. On a good day I can earn enough to pay for a month of travel in a third world country. Europe of course is more expensive, but still it only took me two weeks to earn enough for three months over here, including air fare."

"We've got a mortgage, which makes it tough. But we'd sure like to figure out a way to be as free as you."

All for now, George

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