Monday, May 9, 2005

Laragne-Monteglin, France

Friends: The media may wish to portray the French as being anti-American, but I continually see evidence to the contrary. McDonald's are in abundance. Billboards on buses and throughout towns of any size advertise American movies. Supermarkets frequently serenade shoppers with American pop songs to put them in a good mood to spend more money. Today I heard "Everlasting Love," which I can't get out of my head. Crissy continues to dominate my thought, alternating between remembering her triumphs and tragedies. I still have ample breaks to revel in the usual pleasures of traveling by bike, as well as anticipating the imminent pleasure of Cannes and all else that awaits me down the road, but so far, after a week here in France, this is the Tour de Crissy.

I feared thoughts of her might be a disastrous distraction. When I set out on this trip a week ago biking the fourteen miles from my apartment to Chicago's airport, a route straight out Montrose that I've ridden numerous times, I somehow managed to go astray and suddenly found myself two miles off course. I had had a ten minute blackout. I was expecting the spirit of Crissy to be looking after me. It was no catastrophe, fortunately, and I could laugh, remembering the mischievous Crissy. I was further concerned about my fortunes, when, as I unloaded my bike and starting stuffing my panniers into a duffel bag at the airport, I discovered my emergency rations, a can of ravioli, had burst. Losing the food wasn't of great concern, but cleaning the mess was.

Fearing that bad luck comes in threes, I felt doomed as I approached the check-in counter with my bike. There is always the possibility that the person at the check-in counter will regard my bike with a look of alarm and refuse it or make excessive demands before accepting it. I'd removed the pedals, turned the handlebars and dropped the seat post, the usual requirements when flying British Air. Hopefully that was still their policy and it hadn't changed since I last checked the day before. My streak of ill fortune came to a screeching halt. The attendant warmly greeted me and asked if I'd like them to take the bike as is or put it in a bag. Never have I been received so cordially and casually. What a relief.

And henceforth all has been well. I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris at 1:30 in the afternoon and was pedaling by three. I verified that my wild campsite along the perimeter of the airport I used last August was intact. The worn-out tire I had left dangling from a tree limb to mark my spot was still there. It will be my final campsite once again in August before I fly out. I by-passed Paris, skirting around its eastern edge, hardly having to suffer its sprawl of 12 million people, one-fifth the country's population.

I put in 40 miles before stopping to camp in a pleasant wooded area. I was zonked out within moments. After a solid twelve hours of sleep I was back on the bike by 7:30 the next morning, eager to make a dent in the 600 miles that lay between me and Cannes before the movies start in a week. I quit riding at eight that night after a hearty 107 miles, happy to have defeated jet-lag once again. But my minimal sleep on the flight over finally caught up to me, as I didn't awake until ten a.m. the next morning, somewhat lulled by the pitter-patter of rain.

I still had ample energy for 80 miles, a somewhat recovery day. Yesterday, Sunday, a day when nearly all mercantile interests take the day off in France and there are virtually no stores or restaurants open, all I had to do was bike, enabling me to lop off another 100 miles, leaving me less than 150 miles to Cannes. The lighter traffic of Sundays, especially in the morning, always make it an extra fine day to be on the bicycle. It is a day, too, when I am more liable to see others out on their bikes, always a welcome site. These extra benefits compensate for the slight hassle of the lack of open grocery stores and the challenge of finding a bar or restaurant open during The Tour when I'm not at the finish line and need to watch its conclusion on a television.

Some of my strongest memories from last year are of the great triumph of finally finding a place with a television, once just minutes before the conclusion of the stage. I almost felt as if I had won the stage I was so thrilled. Last year I followed the Loire River for a spell on my way to Cannes, when I detoured west out of Paris to visit Florence and Rachid in Tours. This year I kept company with the mighty Rhone River for about 100 miles after meeting up with it in Lyon. The Rhone led me to the ever majestic Alps.

The first significant climb took me over the Col de Cabre, a six-mile ascent to 4,000 feet. It doesn't rank among the legends, but it was an extra test on my legs coming towards the end of the day after I had already biked 94 miles. It felt like one of The Tour's mountain-top stage finishes. Concluding a stage at the top of a mountain was something Tour organizers felt was too much to inflict on the racers in the first few decades of the race. It wasn't until 1952, nearly 50 years after the first edition, that the racers had to endure their first mountain-top finish. It happened at L'Alpe d'Huez. The Italian great Fausto Coppi won the stage.

Its hard not to think of the exploits of The Tour riders when climbing. The image of their valiant efforts are deeply embedded in my consciousness from seeing them on television and in magazines and, after last year, in person. Lance and Jan and Hinault and Merckx and Anquetil and Pantani were all with me as I climbed the Col de Cabre. It felt assuring to have them along. Knowing I could summon their wheels to ride behind was reason enough to welcome an extended hard climb. Having all the fabulous panoramic views to gaze upon was another.

I was lucky to have found a bar that offered sandwiches a bit before the climb. I was down to an 840 gram can of ravioli for dinner, though I did have plenty of Crissy's nuts and half a dozen energy bars, if need be. As I climbed, I also looked forward to my descent. It would be an exhilarating end to the day. Nice as it would have been to camp up high, I needed to descend, as it would be below freezing up there after dark.

I am making good time, so I shall arrive in Cannes well before the movies start on Wednesday, giving me ample time to fully orient myself and to begin sifting through the over 1,000 movies on offer.

Later, George

No comments: