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

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