Thursday, June 30, 2005

Challons 2

Friends: It was a breeze finding my way to the Bobet museum as there was a sign at nearly every intersection through his home town of St-Méen-la-Grand indicating the way. And then to top it off, there was a large vinyl yellow banner with his name on it across the highway right in front of the museum. If I had to ask at the Tourist Office for its whereabouts I would have been certified blind and had my bike confiscated on the spot, as the two share the same century old two-story house.

It's been 50 years since Bobet won the last of his three Tour de France titles, but the town isn't about to let anyone who passes through forget him. The local stadium is also named after him. Until Anquetil came along a decade later to become the first person to win the Tour more than three times, Bobet and Phillippe Thys held the record for most Tour wins.

I had been riding hard, coming 160 miles in a day-and-a-half, to arrive during the museum's hours of two to five. It was 2:30 and not open, nor was anyone in the Tourist Office. This was a quiet town where attention to schedule was not strictly observed and lunches could be prolonged, so I plopped down for some refueling of my own, something I can do any time.

The woman tending the Tourist Office returned at three with the bad news that the museum was closed this day. Most places it is Monday. If I had known, I would have made my circuit of Brittany counter-clockwise and headed here directly from Plouay. If there had been Internet in St-Meen I might have considered taking a rest day there and lingering until the museum was open the next afternoon. But then I wouldn't arrive in Challans until Friday, the day of the Tour opening ceremony. I was intent on arriving by Thursday, so I'd have ample time for some rest and to partake of all the pre-race festivities. I didn't want to cut it too close and risk being delayed by bad weather or mechanical difficulties. I had bigger fish to fry than seeing the inside of the Bobet Museum. I was content to have at least seen the outside of it and to see the high esteem he is accorded by his community. The details of his career can be found elsewhere.

I will no doubt be back in this region one of these years anyway, if only to complete my circuit of the perimeter of France. Between this summer and last I have ridden all of it except for about a one hundred mile nibble between St-Méen and Rouen, where I visited Anquetil's Memorial before last year's Tour. This neglected stretch includes many of the D-Day, or J-Jour, as the French call it, beaches of the Normandy invasion, and also Mont St. Michel, the most visited tourist site of France after the Eiffel Tower. Having biked 8,000 miles all over France these past two summers and not visiting Mont St. Michel is akin to biking across India and not seeing the Taj Mahal, which I am also guilty of. Some tourist I am. I did not skip Machu Pichu, however, when I biked through Peru or the Blue Lagoon when I made my circuit of Iceland or Angor Wat when I crossed Cambodia, so I can't be accused of forgoing the premier tourist site of every country I have visited.

I have now biked a little over 3,000 miles these past two months, or month-and-a-half, as two weeks of my time in France were spent watching movies. I began with a 600 mile ride from Paris to Cannes, did about 150 miles in my two weeks there, then resumed my serious riding with 400 miles in the Alps. Then it was about 1,000 miles across the bottom of the country, zig-zagging my way up to Craig and Onni's and through the Pyrenees to Pau. It was then 700 miles up to Brest, 100 miles along the Channel and then 200 miles back down to Challans. I feel primed and ready for the 2,000 miles of the Tour, though I won't tag along with the peloton the whole way. I'll follow the first five stages and then let them head over to Germany and down to the Alps on their own. I will linger in Tours and do some biking in the Loire Valley with friends Florence, former Chicago bike messenger, and her husband Rachid, before heading down to the to follow the last eight stages of the race.

When I was here in Challans a week ago the town was well-decorated celebrating the Tour, but it is even more so now. As I headed to Challans from Nantes today I began to feel a surge of Tour excitement as I was passed by a parade of Tour vehicles--team cars, sponsors, TV trucks, RV's of fans and perhaps some of its riders. All riders are due today for medical certification. Tomorrow evening will be a gala introduction and then Saturday the competition commences. Can't wait.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Yffiniac, France

Friends: As I followed the signs to "Centre Ville" of the modest-sized town of Poulay in Brittany, I had no inkling I was in the midst of a den of arch-devotees to the bike and bike racing. The only semblance of a clue was a sign to a velodrome. I was looking for a sign to the bike museum, but there was none to be seen. Nor was there more than a stray bicyclist out on this Saturday afternoon, or bike lanes or bike racks.

It wasn't until I started asking directions to the bike museum that I began to detect the bike fervor of Poulay, as everyone perked up with delight at the mention of the museum and didn't hesitate in pointing the way. The museum was on the outskirts of town. Getting there wasn't as easy as following a single road. It didn't help that I didn't encounter anyone who spoke English, nor that my French wasn't good enough to understand much more than "droit" and "gauche." I had to rely on gestures and understanding at least the first of the series of right and left turns I was given. But I kept closing in on it until I found myself at the velodrome. I looked around and still couldn't see it. Two men playing boules in the gravel parking lot pointed to a chateau on a hill in the distance. And there it was, behind the chateau.

Like every museum devoted to the bike, there was an array of bikes old and new, including the first pedalless bike, the Draisienne, designed by the German Baron von Drais in 1817 and the first bike with pedals, invented by the French Michaux father and son in 1861. Putting pedals on the latest incarnation of the Draisienne made the bicycle more than a novelty and launched its popularity. The museum abounded with decades and decades of all manner of bike parts and accessories, enough to occupy any equipment freak for hours. Anything related to the bicycle or with a bicycle on it (bottles and plates and posters) could find a place in the museum.

But the museum was much, much more than a clutter of bikes and bike parts and bike paraphernalia. Exhibits explained and exalted the bike's social and cultural significance. It paid tribute to Frenchman Paul de Vivie as the father of cycle touring. He founded the French Touring Club in 1890 and published a magazine for years that promoted bicycle touring. He was an ardent advocate of using the bicycle to get out of the city and into the country. It served as an instrument of discovery and brought people close to nature. The museum also recognized the many utilitarian uses of the bicycle. It contributed in many ways to the betterment of society. It radically transformed the relations of the sexes, giving women a mobility and freedom they hadn't previously enjoyed.

One room was devoted to the five greats of Brittany cycling--Correntine Corre first winner of the Paris-Brest-Paris race in 1891, Lucien Mazan (also known as Le Petite Breton) who won the Tour de France in 1907 and 1908, Jean Robic who won the Tour in 1947, Louison Bobet who won it in 1953, 1954 and 1955, and Bernard Hinault who won the Tour five times in the '80s.

Another room acknowledged the bike's use around the globe. There were many photos from third-world countries of bikes overloaded with produce and products from pineapples to pottery. There were photos of peda-cabs and cops on bikes and a bicycle messenger and a touring cyclist. No one was left out.

There were several video screens, one tracing the early history of the bike and another celebrating the Tour de France and others featuring interviews of Tour de France riders. The largest of the screens was faced by a gallery of a couple dozen bicycle seats mounted on posts stuck in the floor for viewers to perch upon. Each seat was different. Viewers had their choice of a variety of skinny racing seats and larger, soft, plush grandma seats. Rather than background music, one room had the background noise of the faint occasional light tinkle of a bicycle bell, like a chirping bird. One had to hear it several times to realize what it was. Then it was hard to go on to the next exhibit. It was a genuine gem of a museum, well laid out and with many features that any museum, bicycling or otherwise, would do well to emulate. I've visited quite a few bicycle museums. This one tops them all. Besides having a velodrome and a bike museum, Plouay hosts one of the premier French bike races every fall and hosted the world championship road races in 2000. It is a place that every bicycle pilgrim needs to visit.

I was hoping for a similar such museum in the large port city of Brest, the premier city of Brittany, a region that has produced some of France's and the world's greatest cyclists. If this were Belgium, there would at least have been a museum devoted to the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race. Brest had several maritime museums, but nothing related to cycling. The two women working at the Tourist Office didn't even know of any monument or plaque acknowledging the race, nor could either of them tell me where its turn-around point was or what route it took in and out of the city.

At least I knew there was a bicycling memorial in Yffiniac, birthplace of Bernard Hinault, 100 miles to the east across the northern fringe of France. It was a hard ride just below the English Channel into a head wind. With the thousands of miles of training Hinault did on these roads, hardening his legs, and more importantly, his will, they still resonate with the fury he expressed on the bike. Known as The Badger, he may have been as ferocious a competitor as Merckx. He was the last great patron of the peloton. His dictates were obeyed by all. He still has a farm in the area, and also works for the Tour de France. He can be seen on the podium at the end of each stage congratulating the day's stage winner and holders of the various jerseys (yellow, green, polka dot and white) and also allowing his picture to be taken with the town's mayor and the local business tycoons who put up the money for The Tour to finish in their town.

I did not immediately find the large photo of Hinault that Yvon the French cyclist had told me graced the main plaza of Yffiniac. I circled around the city hall and surrounding buildings several times without spotting it. When I went into the city hall to ask where it might be, I was directed to the second floor. There was no wall-sized painting or photo, just a mini-Hinault shrine in a glass case with a bust and a painting and a signed rainbow-striped World Championship jersey and a ribbon from one of his Tour victories. I figured the large painting that Yvon had seen may have just been raised for a special occasion. But then when I did a little more wandering I discovered it on the side of a building at the main round-about in the heart of the city visible to those entering the town from the east, the direction Yvon had come, while I arrived from the west. If I had seen it immediately I wouldn't have discovered the tribute to him in the City Hall, something that Yvon had missed.

Now it's 40 miles south to St. Meen's de Grand and the Museum devoted to Bobet.

Later, George

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Carnac, France

Friends: One could spend days searching out all the menhirs and dolmans in the Carnac region. These assorted rock placements can be seen everywhere--along the road, in back yards, in the middle of corn fields, amongst grazing sheep. Some are surrounded by fences and can be viewed from stands. There are literally thousands of these rocks, some simply planted upright, standing three to nine feet tall, and others placed horizontally atop others, as if to form a table or a tomb.

Some might say, "See one and you've seen them all," but they each have a character and personality of their own. They could easily be individually named and honored. There is one batch of three thousand of them lined up in several files over a two-and-a-half mile stretch. No one is quite sure of their purpose or meaning, unlike those of Stonehenge, which foretold the seasons. They may have been the brainstorm of some Christo of five thousand years ago. They evoke holiness as well as art.

The main street into the coastal town of Carnac is Avenue of the Druids. It is intersected by the Avenue of Elves. Even though Carnac is a tourist trap of a sort, there aren't as many tacky allusions to the town's heritage as there could be. Busloads of tourists are herded from site to site. Many are off on their own clutching a map, as if they are on a scavenger hunt, sniffing out all the ancient rocks. Signs in the the parking lots warn people not to leave valuables in their cars, signs I have not seen elsewhere in France.

I've finally been granted a cooling breeze off the Atlantic, and cloud cover as well, more appropriate conditions for experiencing these formations. I feared I might have to overnight at a regulation campground here, but wild camping is easily found. I wouldn't dare to camp amongst the relics with all the tourists crawling about at all hours, but I found a place in a wooded area near enough.

Now its up to Brest, the half-way point for one of the oldest and most famed of bicycle races--Paris-Brest-Paris. It covers a distance of 750 miles and must be completed in 90 hours. There ought to be some memorial related to this event or its founder. It was first staged in 1891, twelve years before the Tour de France. Its held every four years. One must qualify to participate/compete. Its not so much a race any more as it was originally, but rather an event. Most of its participants are happy just to complete it. The size of the field is limited to 5,000.

But first I have a bicycle museum to check out in Plouay, thirty miles north of Carnac, a bonus I just learned about from the local tourist office. I always ask if there are any bicycle museums or memorials in the area. Often I am given a startled or strange look, as its evidently not a question that is often asked. Most often I am told no, but those rare occasions when I am told yes are so gratifying, that I keep asking.

Fortunately, Plouay is inland a bit. The many inlets of the coastline have added more miles to reach some destination than I've sometimes anticipated, though the in and out winding hasn't been as extreme as in the fjords of Norway or the bayous of Louisiana. I feared I would be forced to make a huge detour yesterday when I came to a mammoth bridge spanning the Loire near its mouth. It looked like a bridge that wouldn't allow bicycles. The nearest bridge was 30 miles away. Luckily there was a sliver of a bike lane, and also signs warning cyclists of the occasional gaps.

Later, George

Friday, June 24, 2005

Vannes, France

Friends: The Tour will commence next Saturday with a twelve-mile time trial from the small village of Fromentine, just off the Atlantic coast, out to the resort/fishing village of Noirmoutier on an island. The route will begin with a climb over a high mile-and-a-half bridge. I wasn't able to ride the exact course yesterday afternoon, as cyclists are relegated to bike paths on certain parts of the island, but I passed the same fields of hay and potatoes and salt-water evaporation pools and residences that the racers will pass. Roadside stands sold bags of the island's famed salt and potatoes. The salty soil and seaweed fertilizer give the potatoes a distinctive flavor.

The bridge isn't the only road that connects the island to "Le Continent," as the mainland is called. There is also a narrow five-mile long road, the Passage du Gois, that is only drivable several hours a day at low tide. It is otherwise submerged. It is a treacherous road, that the Tour has included several times, though not this year. The last time was in 1999, the year Lance won the race for the first time, and the road played a role in Lance's win. He was able to gain time on several of his key rivals when they were caught behind a crash caused by some seaweed along the fringe of the narrow road. Lance and the Postal Service were on the front. When they heard about the accident, they upped the pace, and many riders were never able to catch up.

I wasn't able to ride the Passage du Gois yesterday as it was under water. Yvon, the French cyclist I met at the cycling chapel, had warned me to be very careful about riding the road. There is no gate closing it or warnings of the tide rising, one must simply know. There are three towers along the road for people to escape to if they are caught on the road when the water starts rising. I will give it a ride next week when I return.

The round-about outside Fromentine, the start of Saturday's time-trial, was decorated with flowers forming a bicycle. Many of the stores had Tour-related displays. Some freshly laid asphalt didn't even have lines painted on it yet. Rows and rows of metal barriers stood in clusters waiting to be interlocked along the race route. An art gallery in Noirmoutier, not far from the finish line, had a display of Tour photos, all from the past couple of years. There were very few photos of Lance.

The terrain has been fairly flat the past couple of days as the vineyards of the Bordeaux region gave way to fields of hay, many of them already harvested and dotted with giant rolls. I've camped the past two nights in hay fields that had barriers of tall trees surrounding them, giving me ample privacy. In one the hay had recently been harvested and had yet to be bailed. It made for the softest mattress of the trip. When its already been bailed into giant rolls, I can push the rolls together to form a private boudoir if I desire some extra privacy. With the temperature in the 90's, as soon as I stop to camp, I immediately shed my clammy clothes and shoes and socks, only adding sandals, even before I set up my tent, and begin cooling down, becoming a naturist, one of those activities I couldn't engage in if I were staying in a campground. I haven't bothered with the rain fly in days, as it retains my heat and blocks whatever cooling breeze there might be. My tent has mosquito netting on four sides, as well as the roof. Sitting in it without the rain fly is almost as good as sitting outdoors.

Later, George

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Challans, France

Friends: Rather than heading east out of Pau towards the Massif Central as the peloton will, I headed north along the Atlantic towards the race's starting point. Finally, after four days in the wilderness of Tour void, I regained The Tour route. I immediately knew I was back on the holy trail when I began seeing billboards announcing The Tour's arrival. The billboards all feature Thomas Voeckler in yellow, the young French rider who led the Tour for ten days last year, as he hails from this region.

For fifty miles along the coast I followed the route of the Tour's second stage, which will commence in Challans a week from Sunday. The town is already brimming with Tour fever. Yellow banners dangle from light poles. A giant Tour poster adorns the city hall. Most of the shop windows are Tour-themed. The tourist office has stacks of Tour brochures and post cards. It was jammed with people asking about The Tour. Stage One starts in a much smaller town about 15 miles away, not large enough to host all the Grand Depart festivities, so that falls upon Challans. Friday night before the Tour's Saturday start, all the teams will be introduced in the town's convention center and then will take a ceremonial ride around the city. I missed the gala affair in Liege last year, but not this year.

There are four cities of better than 100,000 inhabitants along the 500 miles of France's Atlantic coast between Bordeaux and Brest. Bordeaux is the largest with 735,000, followed by Nantes with 550,000, Brest with 300,000 and then La Rochelle with 120,000. My initial impulse was to steer clear of them all, even though they each had some allure. Bordeaux was one of the six original Ville Etapes of The Tour in 1903 and has been included many times since. It also had the attraction of a UNESCO cathedral, though its allure was somewhat diminished by having just visited St. Emilion's amazing cathedral, also UNESO certified. Though Bordeaux was just 15 miles away from St. Emilion, there was no hint of the nearby throbbing metropolis. I had no desire to leave the tranquil rural countryside, so I said no to Bordeaux.

I said yes to La Rochelle though, as it has a free bike program unique to France. Anyone 18 or older can rent one of the city's 350 bikes, bright yellow of course, available at two locations, for two hours free of charge and for one euro per hour thereafter. It was instituted over a decade ago by the city's progressive and popular long-time mayor. He served twenty years as mayor until his death in 1999. The rental program has so popularized the bike in La Rochelle, a handful of bike shops rent out better quality bikes as well. I saw more cyclists and bike lanes and bike racks in La Rochelle than I've seen in the past 50 days bicycling around France. The bike's presence is negligible by Dutch standards, but the bike has at least gained a toehold in La Rochelle and as more than something to be ridden fast or in special clothes. H.G. Wells would be free of despair if he lived in this community. La Rochelle is a must stop for anyone making a bicycling pilgrimage about France.

Just beyond La Rochelle is the island Ile de Ré with over twenty miles of beaches. One must cross a two-mile bridge, one mile up and one mile down. It is a toll bridge, though not for cyclists. I enjoyed my first dunking in the Atlantic. I needed it, as the temperatures have been in the 90s since left the Pyrenees. I keep hoping it will cool off the further north I get, but not so far. At least I will have the BBC to look forward to on my little radio, as well as the rocks of Carnac in a day or two.

Even after a brief immersion in a metropolis as benign as La Rochelle, I felt a spontaneous welling of peace and tranquility when I resumed my rural cycling. I am certainly not adverse to cities. I spend months at a time romping about Chicago as a bicycle messenger and love it. And I do welcome an urban incursion every so often as a touring cyclist, but it is the quiet of the country that is the great joy of these travels. That is when I can fully relax and feel free of virtually all concerns. When I leave a city, I feel the urge to thrash myself, as the pygmies of the Congo do after visiting a village,"to purify themselves, beating off its influence and clearing
their heads," as Redomnd O'Hanlon explained in "Congo Journey," a book that I have been reading. "For the pygmy the village is a foreign place, full of bosses, humiliation. In the forest--he's a man," he wrote. I always feel like more than a mere mortal on my bike, but even more so when I'm out of the city, covering vast distances and not letting hills or mountains or wind or rain or long stretches without supplies deter me.

Under ten days now until Lance begins the defense of his title. He is on the cover of many of the numerous cycling magazines here. There are all sorts of special issues, including one devoted to Hinault and Bobet, cycling heroes from this region.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Saintes, France

Friends: I've been staying inland 30 or 40 miles so far as I head north to the start of the Tour, but still I'm benefiting from the effects of the Atlantic. I've awoken to a thick, foggy cloud cover the past three mornings, which doesn't burn off until noon, keeping it pleasantly cool. Then it heats up significantly. I'm happy to have scavenged a fourth water bottle, as I drink and drink in my tent at night. I'll swing over to the coast line soon, however, where it ought to be cooler, but also windier and possibly wet.

The cycling chapel kept me inland and then to the World Heritage Site of St. Emilion. France has nearly forty of them, exceeded only by Italy, Spain and China. They are invariably something out of the ordinary, unlike anything I have ever come upon, and well-worth seeing, often drawing a gasp of disbelief upon first glimpse. St. Emilion is named after a Benedictine monk who lived in a cave there for 15 years back in the 800s. His devotion and asceticism so impressed his fellow monks, they built a cathedral in his honor at the site. Rather than building it atop Emilion's cave, the brothers spent three centuries chiseling into the huge rock to construct a full-size cathedral, keeping it hidden from the marauders of medieval times. Since then, a huge cathedral has been constructed atop it. The cathedral is an awesome accomplishment. It is no longer used and can only be visited by paying for a tour through the tourist office. It is on the pilgrimage route for those heading to Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Mondays can be as frustrating as Sundays in France in trying to find an open grocery store, as many of the smaller shops that are open on Saturday, take Monday as well as Sunday off. There were no supermarkets on my route yesterday, so as evening came on and I hadn't replenished my stores of food, I was getting nervous. Several towns had advertised a supermarket as I approached, but they were off on a different artery out of town than the way I was going. I had taken a detour at lunch time to a supermarket that a billboard advertised as being "one minute" away. The signs never give distance, just time and that is very arbitrary, even for motorists. I figured a minute meant a kilometer or, at the most, a mile. After I'd gone two miles and could see nothing but country road ahead, I doubled back, not wishing to give such faulty advertising my business, even though it was a Champion Supermarket, sponsors of the King of the Mountain (polka dot jersey) of the Tour and my preferred supermarket.

I was passing through towns big enough to have a supermarket every hour or so, so I felt assured that I'd eventually find one. But hour after hour passed without any luck. At 6:30, with time running out, as they usually close at seven, I came to a town that had been advertising an Intermarché Supermarket for miles. I had to make a slight detour to find it, but arrived. It was closed for remodeling with a bunch of painters just ending their day. None of the little grocery stores in this town were open and the lone bakery only had sweets and bread, no quiche or pizza. I had used up my peanut butter and honey the day before so had nothing to put on a baguette. I had to settle for the lone restaurant in town, but it didn't serve food until 7:30. They did give me several slices of bread and hunks of cheese which were enough to appease my appetite. I still had nuts and power bars in reserve as well as one 400 gram can of ravioli.

Later, George

Monday, June 20, 2005

Libourne, France

Friends: Not that I really needed one, but I was happy to have an extra incentive to keep riding until nine Saturday, an hour before dark. I was trying to close in on the chapel "Notre Dame des Cyclists," so I could arrive early enough on Sunday for whatever services it might offer. I was able to close in to within thirty miles of it.

I thought I was in luck when at a little before eleven, as I approached the turn-off to the chapel, two cars pulled in before me. I hoped they were locals heading to an eleven a.m. service. But they were pilgrims just like me and not parishioners, and like me, did not know that the chapel didn't open until three. Though it was a four hour wait, this was something I had to see. Fortunately, there were a couple of picnic tables in the shade, so lingering for several hours wasn't a hardship. And, in fact, it turned into a blessing, as otherwise I wouldn't have met Yvon, an exuberant 60-year old French postal worker, who was making a tour of France on his bike. It was his dream trip, a 2,500 mile loop around his country that he had been meticulously planning for four years.

He had set out two months ago with his wife. He had every day planned almost to the minute, staying with friends or in hotels every night. His wife, however, had to abandon the trip after ten days with knee pain that wouldn't relent. The two of them returned to their home in Mulhouse in the east of France near the German border. Yvon spent several days revising his schedule, even reversing his direction to go counter-clockwise, so when he resumed riding he could start there in Mulhouse. He was a lifelong bicyclist, but this was his first solo tour. His previous multi-day rides had all been with groups. He was loving it, and took delight in hearing of my travels. "You're an authentic globe-trotter," he gushed at one point. "I have to take your picture." When we parted he said, "You are what we French call a 'crocodile,' an adventurer. It has been an honor to meet you." I felt the same about him

Yvon's information was that the chapel was to open at two. He was quite disappointed to learn that it wouldn't open until three. He arrived at 12:30, right on schedule, allowing himself a 90 minute lunch and rest break before the museum opened. He had allotted himself thirty minutes to peruse all the bicycle memorabilia in the chapel and intended to be on his way by 2:30, so he could reach that night's lodging at a bed and breakfast by six. He said he couldn't be late, as that was when he arranged to be let in by its owners. I encouraged him to wait a bit in case the museum opened earlier or to put off his departure by half an hour or so and at least take a peak inside.

Even though Yvon was pulling a trailer, he didn't have a tent and sleeping bag among his gear, so he didn't have the flexibility of camping anywhere anytime as I have. He was a devotee of The Tour de France and bicycle racing and had been greatly looking forward to this chapel. It was going to be one of the highlights of his trip. I was desperately hoping he would delay his departure, as I knew I would enjoy his delight at seeing all the bikes and jerseys and trophies and medallions and photos of all the legends as well as his commentary as much as the museum itself. But Yvon couldn't be deterred from his schedule, partially because he said he would be returning to Pau, about 60 miles away, in August with his wife, to visit his brother, so he would have another chance to see it then.

We had a rollicking two-hour conversation right up to 2:30, glorying in all things bicycle, while he munched on a traditional French lunch of baguette and cheese, and I ate my American lunch of peanut butter and honey on wheat bread, my usual Sunday fare when it is rare to find an open grocery store. When I told him I had been seeking out bicycle memorials, he told me of several I was unaware of, two he had recently seen in Brittany, where I'm headed. One was a giant painting of Bernard Hinault, five-time winner of The Tour, in the town square of Yffiniac, his home town. Another was a museum devoted to Louison Bobet, three-time winner of the Tour, maintained by his brother in Saint-Meen-le-Grand. I was thrilled to add them to my itinerary. And I was able to thrill Yvon by mentioning some he was unaware of. He was well aware of the former blacksmith shop at the base of the Tourmalet where Eugene Christophe had repaired his broken fork in the middle of a Tour stage, but he didn't know about some of the other plaques and memorials in the mountains. Yvon wasn't much of a climber, so his circuit of France did not include the Pyrenees or the Alps, just like the early Tours.

Nor did he know about the Italian bicycling chapel I visited last year, devoted to the patron saint of cycling, the Madanno del Ghisallo, overlooking Lake Como. That one is more widely known and visited than the French version, as it is in a popular region of Italy and also on the route of the annual one-day Tour of Lombardy race, a fall classic. The Italian chapel was sanctified by Pope Pius in 1948 and was the inspiration for this one in France. This French version was established in 1959 by the Abbe Joseph Michaud, a cycling fanatic who visited the chapel in Italy. He was so impressed by it, he thought France ought to have one too. He knew of this abandoned chapel out in the middle of nowhere and gained permission to turn it into a chapel devoted to bicyclists. It is several times bigger than the quite tiny Italian chapel, and even has several rows of pews, unlike its Italian counterpart.

There are over 600 jerseys hanging on the walls, many of them yellow and world championship jerseys autographed by the legends and saints-in-waiting who had worn them--Armstrong, Indurain, Merckx, Simpson, LeMond, Ullrich, Anquetil, Longo. Among the bikes was one ridden in the maiden Tour de France in 1903. There were countless objects that would have sent Yvon into spasms of ecstasy. I greatly missed listening to his energetic glee and commentary.

Four of the chapel's stained glass windows featured racers in action. One celebrates that seminal moment when the two great Italian cyclists, Coppi and Bartoli, shared a water bottle in the heat of battle on the Col d'Izoard during the 1952 Tour. They were teammates on the Italian national team racing in The Tour that year, but also hated rivals. That act of sportsmanship ranks right up there in Tour lore with Christophe welding his fork. In the 1949 World Championship road race neither Coppi nor Bartoli would support one another, even though they were racing on the Italian team for the glory of their country, and, in fact, sat up in the race, earning each a three month suspension from the Italian cycling federation. One of the reasons the water-bottle sharing incident is such a celebrated moment is that a photographer happened to capture the moment on film. A copy of the photo hangs in the museum.

Four times The Tour has passed the chapel. The first was in 1984 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the chapel. Five years later a stage started from the chapel. The next time The Tour visited was in 1995 to honor 1973 Tour winner Luis Ocana of Spain, who had committed suicide the year before at the age of 48, distraught over financial woes. He had married a local girl in the chapel on Christmas eve in 1966. The Tour's last visit to the chapel was in 2000, the year after the death of Abbe Michaud.

Later, George

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Pau, France

Friends: Lourdes is on the fringe of the Pyrenees. Pau, 27 miles away, is fully free of them. My legs greatly enjoyed the gentle, imperceptible descent, partially along a river, then past corn field after corn field. The cornfields of France do not go on and on to the horizon as those of the Plains in the U.S. There is always a forest or cluster of trees nearby to add perspective and variety to the landscape, as throughout France. Pau is a frequent Ville Etape. It is ideally situated in the southwest sector of the country and with a population of 85,000, it can easily accommodate The Tour entourage.

Despite the throngs of pilgrims in Lourdes I had no sense of people pouring into the city as I entered or exited, quite unlike my visit to Andorra last weekend. It happened to be a Friday evening when I crossed into this small Principality, only slightly bigger than Liechtenstein, high in the Pyrenees. Traffic was backed up with duty-free shoppers for a couple of miles in both directions as I approached the border. It was a 20-mile climb from Aix-les-Thermes to Andorra, but at a mere five per cent my legs hardly noticed after all the eight plus grades they've endured in the Alps and Pyrenees.

Traffic was at a virtual standstill. One motorist leaped out of his car as I approached and frantically asked, first in French, then in English, "Is there an accident ahead," fearing, or hoping, that might be the explanation for the back-up. Passing all that traffic was good practice for me for the Tour de France, acknowledging all the "Bravos" and "Bon Courages" and "Allezs" from the people stuck in their cars.

The first town in Andorra right on the border is a ski town full of duty free malls and even a McDonald's. There were several parking lots full of encamped RV's, so I felt no need to be overly discreet in pitching my tent. I set it up near one of the ski lifts, all above tree line, beside a patch of snow. It was another 1,500 foot climb, if I wished to continue deeper into Andorra, but since I would have to double back, I declined.

I put on gloves and wind-breaker for my 20-mile descent back to France Saturday morning. There was no line of cars leaving the country, but cars were backed up for two miles, slowly inching forward, on their way into Andorra, and then it was bumper-to-bumper traffic, such as I have not seen since leaving Chicago, the next 18 miles, as if it were free Lance Armstrong bobble-heads to the first 10,000 people to enter the country. Mixed in with the cars were tour buses taking people for a shopping spree. I was a little wary about crossing back into France, as I picked up a French license plate along the road a few days ago to add to my collection back home. I feared the customs officials might reprimand me or more for not turning it into the authorities, as it is still had a current sticker on it. If it were just confiscated, that would be okay, as it would just lighten my load, and I'd no doubt find another down the road. If I had thought about all of this earlier, I would have hid it along the road before I entered Andorra. But I need not have been concerned. The customs officials just waved me through seeing I had no TVs or such amongst my gear.

I can walk about Pau without feeling self-conscious, as I did in Lourdes. I was about the only one there not wearing a cross around my neck. I kept my jacket zipped up, even though I didn't need to, so people could think it hid my cross. Pau will be mobbed with Tour de France followers for several days next month, as not only will it host the Tour's second and final rest day, but it will be the arrival city for Tuesday's stage, and then will be the departure city for the next day's stage. It will allow Tour participants and followers three straight nights (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday) in the same bed, a great, great luxury that they will all immensely appreciate after over two weeks of a having to pack up every morning and then unpack that evening. And it could well be in a bed, or hotel, they are familiar with, since The Tour encamps at Pau so frequently. I look forward to being back here for all the dramatics.

Later, George

Friday, June 17, 2005

Lourdes, France

Friends: Lance and company are spared the Tourmalet this year, the most notorious of the Pyrenean climbs, but not I. It was on the way to the next Ville Etape, Pau, but I would have gone out of my way for it under any circumstances, as it is more steeped in Tour lore than any other of its mountains. No other col has been climbed more times by the Tour's peloton, over 60 times, and it holds the distinction of being including in the first stage that entered high mountains in the Tour in 1910, ushering in a new era, proving that mountains were conquerable by bike.

Befitting its stature, its summit is crowned by a pair of monuments. One is a bust of Jacques Goddet, successor to Henri Desgrange as Tour director. He held the position from 1936 to 1986, sharing it with Desgrange his first four years. The other monument is a metal sculpture of Octave Lapize astride a bicycle. On July 21, 1910, in the eighth edition of the Tour, Lapize was the first rider to cross the Tourmalet. It was a 204-mile stage that he completed in 14 hours and ten minutes, back when the stages were beyond epic, often starting at two or three in the morning so the racers could arrive at the finish town at an hour when people could see them. In the early decades of the race, there weren't that many cities suitable to be a Ville Etape, so stages were much longer than they are now. Rare is it for a stage to be more than 120 miles these days.

At the base of The Tourmalet in the small village of Sainte-Marie de Campon is a plaque on a small house that was once a blacksmith shop. It was there in the 1913 Tour that the French rider Eugene Christophe repaired the fork of his bike--one of the most celebrated events in Tour history and a part of French lore akin to George Washington and the cherry tree. It was even reenacted on its 50th anniversary. Christophe broke his fork on the descent of the Tourmalet shortly below the summit. Racers had to perform all repairs on their bikes in those days. He ran eight miles or so carrying his bike until he found the blacksmith shop. There were Tour officials in attendance to make sure he performed the operation without assistance. He was penalized several minutes for allowing a young boy to help with a bellows. He lost over two hours, but still finished the stage and the race.

The blacksmith shop is now a quaint cottage. The plaque on its wall reads, "Eugene Christophe lost here his chance of victory, but he gave a formidable lesson in courage and tenacity. The Tour continues to salute with respect his exemplary comportment." Christophe is best known in America for the toe clips and toe straps that bear his name. There is a hotel in this town with Christophe painted on its wall and also a street named in his honor. In two subsequent Tours he also broke his fork. The French public felt so sorry for him one year they sent him more money than if he had won the race. He also bears the distinction of being the first rider to wear the yellow jersey in the 1919 Tour when part way through the race, fans complained that it was hard to pick out who the leading rider was. Desgrange decided to have him wear a yellow jersey. The riders at first rebelled, mocking whoever had to wear it, calling him a canary.

There was a steady stream of cyclists climbing the Tourmalet. The climb gains 4,100 feet in ten-and--a-half miles to a summit of nearly 7,000 feet, well above the tree line. There were signs every kilometer for cyclists giving the altitude and distance to the top and the grade of the upcoming kilometer. The second kilometer was only two per cent. Most were eight or more, with one of ten per cent, a gain of 100 meters, or 328 feet. That's more feet than I like to gain in a mile. It was two hours of unrelenting, close to maximum, effort in my lowest gear. I passed a vast ski area three miles from the summit, with dozen of chalets and several chair lifts that actually went over the road. I was surprised that racer's names painted on the road by fans last summer for The Tour had survived the winter snows. Most were devoted to Iban Mayo, the great Spanish hope, who went poof, eventually dropping out of the race.

Even more surprising was to find a Cofidis key-chain poking through the weeds at road's edge. I immediately recognized it as one of those items the parade of sponsors tosses to the crowds. It was shocking that no one else had nabbed it all these months, especially considering the great French culture of scavenging. Agnes Varda, who was on this year's jury at Cannes, made a documentary on the passion several years ago called "The Gleaners and I." It was so popular that she made a sequel.

From the summit of the Tourmalet it was 30 miles of downhill to Lourdes, a town, like Mecca, that is synonymous with pilgrimage. More than five million people a year are drawn to Lourdes. Though it only has a population of 15,000, it has 350 hotels, more than any other city in France other than Paris. There are also a dozen or so campsites. The main attraction is a grotto where a 14-year old had a series of 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858. She was considered mad at first, but after three years of investigation and interrogation, the Vatican certified her visions. She was canonized in 1933. A huge, three-tiered, fantasy-land cathedral was built by the grotto. The surrounding streets are choked by a jungle of souvenir shops. The variety of kitsch on sale makes Wall Drug look like a small-time peanut stand. Some Lord of Disney must have paid Lourdes a visit and realized that France was a place for a Euro-Disney.

There is one attraction after another--Bernadette's school, her home, a wax museum, several standard museums, and a two-hour movie. There is also a popular mile-long hike for those who wish to retrace the last steps of Jesus--the 14 Stations of the Cross. The path is mostly gravel so those going barefoot or on their knees can suffer a little more. There was a group of 30 or 40 Italians pausing at each station for a mini-mass complete with chants and song. Many come looking for a miracle cure. They are 17 baths just past the grotto for immersion. So many come in wheel chairs there are special lanes for them. There are beggars, or alms-askers, here and there, though they don't seem to be do as much business as the souvenir shops.

Since I knew I'd need a day to take it all in, I stayed at a campground for the first time in weeks. I selected the cheapest, something affiliated with a school, but didn't read the fine print that it was only for genuine pilgrims. When I arrived late in the evening, the security guard denied me entrance. If I'd known the regulations, I would have happily agreed to being a pilgrim, since I was one of a sort anyway. After I pulled out the local map to find the way to another campground, the guard came out and said it was okay for me to stay, evidently recognizing that I was indeed a pilgrim, as who traveling by bike isn't. There was only one other camper, a prim and proper young woman who probably was a pilgrim. The campground had space for hundreds with dozens of hot showers and toilets. It was just a little early in the season for them.

In the peace of the morning I replaced the chain on my bike now that I've pretty much completed the several dozen passes of the Alps and the Pyrenees that were on my agenda. Even though my chain and freewheel had been intimate companions for over 2,000 miles, my freewheel did not protest their separation by rejecting the new chain. That is always a relief. I have some 3,000 miles ahead of me before I return, but a lot less climbing, and strain than I've done, so I should have no chain/freewheel worries for the rest of these travels. I will now head up the Atlantic coast to The Tour's start in the Vendee, just south of Brittany, two weeks from tomorrow. Miraculously, my Ecuadorean brake pads are nowhere near done in. I've been lucky not to have had any wet descents, as they greatly accelerate their wear. I won't think about replacing my rear tire for another thousand miles, and the front not at all.

Now its on to Pau, where the peloton will enjoy a rest day after its Crucifixion Sunday. A rest week would probably be more appropriate. I can now go easy on my legs until The Tour.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

St.-Lary-Soulan (Ville Arrivée)

Friends: The third of the four weekends of The Tour will be "Ski Resort Weekend." Both Saturday and Sunday the stage will conclude after a climb to a ski resort, similar to L'Alpe d'Huez, but neither quite as long or steep. Saturday's stage from Agde on the Mediterraean to Ax-3 Domaines, with one beyond category climb, one category one, three category threes and one category four, will have the peloton panting, but it is a mere cream puff compared to what the riders must endure the next day.

It will be known as "Crucifixion Sunday." It will nail the peloton with four category one climbs, a category two, and then to the finish, a beyond category climb. The stage will start in Lezat-sur-Leze, about 25 miles south of Toulouse. Immediately out of town is a series of brutal hills. If hills were rated, they would all be beyond category or category ones. I was lucky to take a break at Pyrenean Pursuits in the middle of this stage. After doing three of the climbs yesterday, I was desperately looking for a post office to send home as much of my gear as I could. OLN will have to offer parental warnings about watching this stage on television. Part of it passes through what is known as "The Circle of Death." The route even swings into Spain for about 15 miles to take in an extra category one climb.

It will be a three-country Tour this year, with a day-and-a-half in Germany before the Alps. The Pyrenees may not be as picturesque as the Alps, but they are equally demanding, if not more so, with so many climbs clustered so close together. There are rugged snow-streaked peaks above the tree line that could be mistaken for the Alps, but they don't predominate here. With the Atlantic so close, the Pyrenees receive more rain, making these mountains much more lush and green. It is almost junglish. These could be the Andes of the Amazon, except they are not steamy hot. At least half of my miles each day are alongside rivers and streams and waterfalls and natural springs. It is no challenge to find a place to bath or to wash my Tupper Ware bowl and clothes or to fill my water bottles. There are much fewer RVs on these roads, as the German and Dutch tourists seem content with the Alps. But there are more cyclists. There are many towns like Massat where a cyclist can base himself for several days and have a multitude of passes to test himself on.

There are more cycling monuments in this region as well. Near the base of yesterday's Col du Portet is a monument to Fabio Casartelli, Lance's Italian teammate who crashed and died there in the '95 Tour, one of three riders who have died in the first century of The Tour. There have been other fatalities during The Tour, fans hit by vehicles and journalists on motorcycles trying to keep up with the racers on the descents. The Col du Portet is a category two from the east, but a category one from the West. There are two stretches with an impossibly steep grade of 17 per cent. Casartelli lost control on the steep descent and crashed. He died on the spot. The day's next stage was ridden at a ceremonial pace led by his eight teammates with his bike right behind atop the team car. The next day Lance won the stage, pointing skyward as he crossed the finish line. It was his second career Tour stage win, four years before he won his first yellow jersey.

In the central plaza of Lezat-sur-Leze there is a larger than life size painting of a local cyclist who won the gold medal at the 1948 Olympics in London. There is also a nearby street named after him. They were not on my list of bicycle memorial sites. I never know when I might stumble upon another. Each is a wonderful discovery, exalting me as much as a chateau or cathedral exalts the typical tourist. It is exhilarating to be in a country that honors and remembers those who have distinguished themselves on the bicycle.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

St. Girons, France

Friends: Once again, persistence and good fortune, my most valuable allies, saved the day and rewarded me with another exemplary bicycling shrine.

I departed from my scouting of The Tour de France route to search out Pyrenean Pursuits, a bicycle-themed small lodge catering to bicyclists. I had read about it in a British cycling magazine and also in the book "French Revolutions." I understood it to be in Oust, a small town flush up against the high Pyrenees that form the Spain-France border. However, when I arrived in Oust Sunday afternoon I could find no evidence of the place nor anyone who had heard of it, not even the lone hotel in the town. It being a Sunday, with everything closed, didn't help my search.

It was 7:30 in the morning back in Chicago. Fortunately, I had purchased an international calling card a few days before and Oust did have a pay phone, so I gave Joan a call to see if she could google it. I was lucky it was steamy hot in Chicago and Joan was home, having forgone her usual Sunday morning ride. I gave her ten minutes to find out what she could on the Internet and then called her back. And when I did, she had all the information I needed--town, address, phone number, email address and the names of the new proprietors. It was in Massat, fifteen miles away.

As I headed up another idyllic quiet road along a river, a storm moved in bringing the first rain I've experienced since Cannes three weeks ago. I elected to quickly set up camp and put off my quest to the next day. That was another stroke of good fortune, as it allowed me to arrive fully rested and to make connections that I might not otherwise have made.

I was lucky to find a tourist office in a town as small as Massat, just four hundred people, and lucky to find someone at the office on Monday, when it is normally closed. That someone told me he thought Pyrenean Pursuits was temporarily out of business, but directed me to the home of the former owner, a 64-year old Englishman, Nick Flanagan. I was lucky to find him home, just back from leading twenty cyclists on a four hundred-mile ride, a "Raid" from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean that crosses eighteen cols (climbs) in one hundred hours--four days and four hours. The heart of the trip is through a series of cols known as "The Circle of Death," my next destination. He leads four such trips a year as well as tours of the Tour de France. It is lucrative enough that he just sold Pyrenean Pursuists.

Nick and I talked for half an hour. He was a wealth of information. I told him I was in search of bicycling memorial sites. He told me about a few I didn't know about and elaborated on some I did. He is a bosom body of Graeme Fife, an English author who is an authority on the Tour de France. He dedicated one of his books, "Inside the Peloton," to Nick. He had accompanied Nick on his latest Raid and would be writing about it for "The Telegraph," an English newspaper. He has written the most literate and entertaining and informative book on the Tour in English, "The Tour de France: The History, the Legend, the Riders," a book that Joan gave me for my birthday shortly before I left. Nick is an avid reader as well as rider. One of the lures that brought me to Pyrenean Pursuits was its extensive library of cycling books.

Nick told me I had passed his former lodge on my way into Massat. It was a mile back. It had no sign, but I would recognize it by the two bikes welded together forming a gate to its patio. He said it was rare for someone to show up without a reservation. The former farm house beds only ten in three rooms with shared showers and toilets. Its primary clients are bicycling clubs who rent it out for days at a time. Nick told me the new owners, Sally and Austin Roe, were out on a ride this morning, but I ought to just show up and await them on their patio.

I didn't have to wait long before the slight Sally and husky Austin rolled in all aglow from their ride and greeted me as if I were an old friend.  Their warm and exuberant personalities seemed perfectly suited for the hospitality business. They apologized for not being there when I arrived, as if they had been expecting me, but explained it had been over a month since they'd been able to go on a ride they had been so busy.

They were into their third month of ownership of the business,  and were loving it they said.  They had no regrets trading in their careers on the other side of the Channel in England as a nurse and a butcher for this new venture. Sally was more of a cyclist that Austin. His sport was rowing, though he was quickly embracing the bicycle despite his bulk. They were ardent travelers and had visited many of the out-of-the-way places I've biked--India, Peru, Iceland... I had hoped to devour their library, but we had way too much to talk about to allow for much reading.  I was a rare guest, they said, who preferred a tent to one of their rooms.  I was their only guest for the night, but we were joined for dinner by friends of theirs from England. Sally could cook as well as she could converse. The center piece of our multiple course meal was duck.

Every room of the house was adorned with bicycle photos, posters, paintings and bike art of many varieties, just as I hoped. Nick had left most of his mementos, including a signed jersey from Sean Kelly, the greatest Irish cyclist of all time who had won The Tour's green jersey quite a few times. There were Tour de France course markers from over the years and a large photo of The Tour passing in front of the lodge a few years ago. The library was full of gems. I was lucky that many of the books were in French, including four on Raymond Poulidor (Pou-Pou), so I didn't feel even more frustrated at being unable to give them more than a bare perusal. I'll definitely have to return for an extended stay.

Later, George

Friday, June 10, 2005

Aix-les-Thermes, France

Friends: Aix-les-Thermes is considered the arrival city for the 14th stage of the Tour that started in Agde. But just as the Agde stage doesn't actually start in Agde, but rather at a port five miles away, nor does the stage actually finish in Aix-les-Thermes, but rather five miles away after a steep category one climb to the ski resort of Aix-3-Domaines. The riders will be recovering from the beyond category Pailheres climb, a real doozy, just twelve miles before they begin their final climb of the day. The day's stage also includes several category three and four climbs as the peloton hits the Pyrenees. It will be a most exciting and, possibly, decisive stage.

The Tour starts three weeks from tomorrow and then will arrive in Aix-les-Thermes two weeks later. There were still patches of snow the last couple of miles before the 6,060 foot Pailheres summit, a demanding ten-mile climb with an average grade of 8.5 per cent, slightly less than the 8.9 per cent of L'Alpe d'Huez. The road passes a couple of small ski resorts, but much of it is little more than one-lane wide. There were some rough patches that will no doubt be resurfaced in the next month.

Freshly laid asphalt, like laying out a red carpet for cycling's royalty, is the lone headache of scouting out he Tour route. At least it's indication that I'm on The Tour route. The roads are generally in fine shape, so there's not a great deal of it. The sticky, tarry, still-curing asphalt adheres to my tires and picks up loose gravel and fragments, any of which could give me a flat. Luckily, I've had but one in 1,600 miles.

My lone puncture came yesterday, thanks to a thorn. I had no problem finding it still stuck in my tire, but it was no easy task extricating it. My pliers crushed it and wouldn't pull it out. I needed a knife and tiny screw-driver to perform the operation. The flat came at not an inopportune time--just after I'd downed a seventy-five cent, 850-gram can of ravioli for lunch. Fixing the flat allowed me a little extra digestion time. Right alongside was a stream deep enough for a swim that I might not otherwise have taken advantage of.

Its good to be back in the cool of the mountains and the abundance of running water. I know any town I pass through will have a spigot in their town center spouting fresh cool water. It is often so delicious, locals come by to fill bottles of it. In Aix-les-Thermes when I stopped at such an outpouring of water, I was shocked that it was scalding hot. There is always a warning of "eau non potable" if its not drinkable, but not here. I knew that Aix-les-Thermes was known for thermal waters that are said to have curative powers, but I didn't expect to see them running free about town. Rather than filling my water bottles, I did my laundry, though it was a bit treacherous wringing out the hot water.

Andorra beckons less than twenty miles away. It is a long climb to reach it on a road that I will have to double back on, as the lone road through this tiny country continues on into Spain and doesn't swing back towards France until way beyond to where I'm headed.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Agde, France

Friends: Although Agde is the designated Ville Etape for the departure of stage 14, the peloton will actually commence riding at Le Cap d'Adge, the coastal, resort town five miles away. The peloton will ride at a promenade pace through these two towns for about half an hour before the riders can unleash their legs upon exiting Agde on the road to Vias. Official departure time is 10:51, a fairly early start, as this Saturday stage will be one of the longest, and more dramatic, stages of The Tour as it takes the peloton into the Pyrenees.

This would have been Crissy's favorite stage of this year's Tour, going from the beaches to the mountains, her two favorite places. The literature at the Agde tourist office refers to this stage as the only one to pass through a town right on the Mediterranean.

There were wide sandy beaches for several miles at Le Cap, including several nudist beaches, as the world's largest Naturisme Community is nearby. They have a city of several thousand residents all of their own. It is the largest in the world. They have their own bank and grocery store and services. It is well-secured and one must be a member, or buy a membership card, to gain entry. The rule is that one must be nude and no cameras or video equipment are allowed. The Tour will pass less than a mile from its entrance along Avenue Francois Mitterrand.

There would be an occasional nudist, or at least topless, bather on the beach below the cliff side hut Crissy and I wintered at in Mexico, but they generally quickly covered themselves when they attracted the leering Mexican beach boys who honed in on them like bees to honey, offering to teach them the Spanish words for sand and waves and so on. Crissy wasn't bashful about going topless, though generally only when joined by others. She was always happy to lay on her stomach, so she could let the sun shine on the peyote bird tattoo at the base of her spine, a tattoo she acquired in the '70s, way before it became hip. She asked Tom Robbins to autograph it at a book signing in Chicago--vintage Crissy, enlivening an otherwise dreary and mundane proceeding. The next day Bob Herguth reported in his celebrity column in the "Sun-Times," "Some lass asked Robbins to autograph her tattoo on her backside." Crissy, the free-spirit, once slipped back stage at a Patti Smith concert and was welcomed to her dressing room. She and her boss at the nursing home dropped in on the Bears headquarters near their nursing home and invited Walter Payton to visit.

Crissy has been on my mind more than ever after I supplemented my reading material at Craig and Onni's with a handful of "New Yorkers." Crissy, the artist, was most adept at quick little sketches of everyday objects like shoes, flowers, vases, and bugs such as the "New Yorker" likes to insert in its long columns of copy. Any of them could have been a Crissy creation.

Not only did I leave Craig and Onni's with "New Yorkers," but I was able to replace the three books I've read so far with three more from the local resale shop, and not just drudge. I picked up books by William Burroughs and travel rider Redmond O'Hanlon and also H. G. Wells. Wells was an ardent cyclist and made that monumental pronouncement, "Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." It is a quote I have not been able to find the origin of. I thought maybe it came from one of his earliest novels,"Wheels of Chance," about a bicycle tour through England, but not so. I've read quite a few of his books trying to track it down. If I'm lucky, it will be in this book, "Kip." If not, it will still be worthy of my time, as there are sure to be a handful of bicycle references.

After three days of dining on Onni's exceptional organic, vegetarian fare, mostly from the local farmer's market or her garden, I am back to my usual fare--either a can of ravioli or a can of the traditional French cassoulet stew, a mixture of baked beans along with a hunk of goose meat and a knuckle of pork and several hot dogs. Onni concluded each meal in the French manner with a tasty green salad and cheese and several evenings with mulberries on sheep's yogurt. During my time with Craig and Onni,I was given the full French treatment in every respect. We took several outings in their 1988 Citroen, the deux chevaux model that is a French classic It was manufactured from 1949 to 1990 and is a minimalist's delight, such as is Craig. It is rare to see one on the roads, though they have a strong cult following. Craig has to keep a wary eye on the fuel gauge, as it only holds 25 liters.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Notre Dame de la Rouviere, France

Friends: I arrived in Notre Dame de la Rouviere, village of Chicago friends Craig and Onni, just in time for its annual boules tournament. We could watch it from the back terrace of their 100 year old stone house in a field below large enough that six of the ball-tossing games could be contested simultaneously. It provided an excellent introduction to the community, as Craig knew many of the contestants. Most were residents of this small village. There were young and old, male and female, the town mayor, someone's Peruvian husband, a rabbit farmer, baker, English retiree, goat cheese-maker and on and on.

Boules is one of the favorite pastimes of the French, a game that can be played anywhere. I frequently saw it played last year along the Tour de France route by those biding their time awaiting the peloton. All one needs is a clearing of no more than 20 feet for two or four people to be able to toss their trio of heavy baseball-sized balls, trying to get them closest to a previously tossed smaller ball. After watching for a spell, Craig and I went off to the town's former boules court by the communal clothes washing area, to play a little ourselves. I also had some clothes to hang on the communal drying lines and needed to wash and ventilate my tent. Only once in the ten years Craig and Onni have lived in Notre Dame has any of their clothes turned up missing from the drying line. They suspected who the thieves might have been, went to the police and were able to recover their lost items.

Knowing one's court is a crucial element to boules. Playing surfaces can be akin to a putting green with unseen contours that make the balls trickle off in directions you wouldn't suspect. Before each round the smaller ball can be tossed wherever one chooses, near or far, left or right or straight ahead. The balls are fairly heavy. Putting the proper amount of back spin on them is also a crucial element. My wrist was sore after an hour or so.

It was nice getting an introduction to boules, but I was most looking forward to some biking with Craig on the intricate network of small roads through the mountains of the Cevennes that he knows so well. Unfortunately he was engaged in a major construction project on his house so he could only spare one day. When we set out the next morning, Craig only had a vague idea of where we might go, but there was so much to see it ended up being an almost all-day affair of over 70 miles, the longest ride of Craig's ten years here. We hadn't intended it to be, but once we started there was just one more thing after another that Craig wanted to share--a neolithic burial tomb thousands of years old, a spot where he had seen the Tour de France pass, a circle of 50 or so upright rocks in a farmer's field from the Stonehenge era, a dramatic canyon with a 16 per cent grade climb out and one lightly used road after another. "Let's try this road," Craig kept saying with seeming delight when we came to an intersection, even though it meant prolonging our ride.

Craig was particularly happy to be out on his bike, as his construction project had kept him off his bike for nearly a month, the longest deprivation he's endured in ten years. He's been hauling buckets of cement up stairs, so his legs were still strong, but the work has been so exhausting that he has had only energy to strum his guitar at day's end. His garden has also suffered. It is about a quarter mile down the road from his house on five terraces built into a cliff side. We did find time to plant raspberries, do some much needed watering and harvest some mulberries. Craig and Onni haul composting material from their house in an antique chamber pot, which always earns them strange looks from their neighbors, wondering about the plumbing in their house. As of now, they have one bathroom, but after their construction, which is adding a second floor over their kitchen, Craig plans to add a second bathroom.

Our ride prevented me from witnessing the Sunday church crowd. Notre Dame de la Rouviere's Catholic church is only used once every three weeks, and this was the week it was in action, which also meant the town library would be open for one hour after church. Otherwise, it is only open for a couple of hours on Tuesdays. Craig and Onni didn't know if this was their town's Sunday or one of the two other villages that the service rotates among. The chief reminder is a flurry of bells Sunday morning letting all know. The church bells signal more than the time. They chime two minutes before each hour and then on the hour so if you missed counting the number of chimes you can double check. They also chime once on the half hour and also an extra 18 times in two sets of nine at 7:05 in the morning to get everyone up and a similar pattern at lunch time and in the evening to let all know they can quit work and get dinner and get to bed. My bedroom window pointed right at the church bells a block away. Sometimes they woke me in the middle of the night, but mostly not.

I spent most of yesterday reading "Three Men on A Bummel," a book a retired English couple we had dinner with Friday night lent me. It was about a bike trip three Englishmen took through Germany in 1908. "Bummel" is an archaic English word for journey. The book was more about their comic impressions of Germany than about biking. In fact, of the 15 illustrations in the book, only one related to their biking. Still, it was a nice little discovery. I had a pleasant day sitting on one of he four benches in the town's square underneath the WWI memorial reading away. It would have been a total rest day for my legs if Craig and I hadn't ended the day playing ping pong for two hours until pitch dark on the town's outdoor table.

If Craig weren't slaving away with his two-man French crew today, we'd no doubt be off on a mini-bummel of our own. Instead, I'm back on my solo bummel to the nudist colony of Cape d'Agde, near the Ville Etape of Agde.

Later, George

Thursday, June 2, 2005

Arles, France

Friends: After scouting stages 11 and 12 of this year's Tour de France route through the Alps, I am now in the midst of stage 13, which skirts the Mediterranean starting in Miramas and finishing in Montpellier. It is the longest flat stretch of road I have encountered so far in my month here in France. It will be most welcome to the peloton after several days in the Alps and then a horribly long transfer of about 100 miles from the stage finish in Digne-les-Bains on Bastille Day to the next day's start in Miramas.

Usually such long transfers are reserved for the two rest days during the Tour. At least most of this transfer for the race entourage can be made on the high-speed Autobahn, but for me, riding the secondary roads of Provence, it took two days and 150 miles to get from one Ville Etape to the next. I did take several detours to visit some token tourist attractions, including a venture off on a truly back, unpaved road. Even with the many tourists in Provence, some even on bikes, the roads have been blissfully traffic-light. There are signed routes recommended for cycling, though all roads are just fine as long as one doesn't object to climbing, as there is plenty of that, some that go on for miles.

I have yet to experience a single horn toot or any other sign of impatience or hostility from a motorist. On the narrow, windy roads that predominate motorists seem to be happy to momentarily slow and vicariously soak in a few of my pedal strokes before passing. And never do they tail me so long that I have to concern my self with what they might be plotting. France has lost none of its luster from last year. I only wish there were more libraries with the Internet and that the ones that I do find were open more than just three or four days a week and for more than a few hours when they are open.

Finding Internet access remains a challenge. Even Ville Etape Miramas, a city of 25,000, had no place offering the use of the Internet. It did have a McDonald's. But most importantly it had a 4,000 square meter space capable of hosting the Tour de France village. This is the first time in the 102 year history of the Tour that Miramas has been a Ville Etape, a great event for the city. I was a week early though for the Tourist Office's brochure celebrating the event and listing all the activities it will be hosting during the week preceding the Tour's arrival.

One of the tourist attractions of Provence I sought out was the nature preserve Colorado de Rustrel. It had been recommended by the German cyclist I met last week. It is a pocket of red hued rock formations with various clusters of jutting spires and sails of stones. I would have been much more impressed by them if I'd never been to Arches and Zion and Canyonlands National Parks in the Western U. S. These were just thimbles of wonder compared to the striking majesty they offer. Rustrel didn't even merit mention in my 1,200 page Lonely Planet guide to France. Instead, Lonely Planet heaps high praise on nearby Roussillon, one of those centuries-old, charming French villages built on a hilltop to ward off invaders. There were busloads of tourists wandering its streets and walking through an area that once was mined for ochre. The world's largest vein of ochre runs through the area. I was most enraptured by the view of bare-topped Mont Ventoux off in the distance.

I then detoured to the small hilltop village of Menerbes, also in the vicinity. Englishman Peter Mayle bought a house on its outskirts and made it famous in "A Year in Provence" and subsequent volumes. Its not always obvious that such towns are on the tourist route until I spot stores with racks and racks of postcards out front. None of the stores though carried any of Mayle's books. There was a truffle and wine museum with lots of books devoted to those subjects and general travel books on Provence. Menerbes and its 900 year old church was included in a picture book of all the quaint towns of Provence. Many of its cobbled streets were too narrow for cars. The town was surrounded by vineyards. Like Roussillon , it also looked out upon Mont Ventoux.

I've remet the Rhone River here in Arles, last seen on my way to Cannes. I have the hospital where Van Gogh spent some time to visit, as well as assorted Roman ruins, including an amphitheatre seating 20,000. From here I'll head west to Montpellier, then turn north into the interior and the mountains.

Later, George