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

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