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

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