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

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