Friday, July 29, 2005

Bar-le-Duc, France

Friends: Thanks to a bicycle enthusiast who didn't know when to stop when it came to collecting anything and everything related to the bicycle, the small town of Cormatin, about 75 miles north of Lyon, is home to the Musée de Vélo. It contains an overwhelming array of over 2,000 bike relics neatly arranged in a two-story stone barn of a building, whose rafters on both floors offer extra hanging space for all the relics, many of which no other museum would dream of displaying.

There were cigar bands featuring famous racers, wine bottles, LPs and 45s of bike music and racer narrations of races, bicycle racing board games claiming they could be played by anyone from 7 to 70, coke cans with racers on them, bicycle-inscribed lighters and ash trays and pens and key chains and cookie jars and cups and stamps. You name it. There were even a couple of small revolvers dating to 1900, manufactured in the bike and arms town St. Etienne, that were specifically designed for the weight-conscious cyclist. There were piles of scrapbooks of newspaper articles and photos and post cards and team cards that will be a goldmine to future historians.

And, of course, there were dozens of bikes from every epoch since its birth in 1817. There were no video presentations in this private museum, but better yet, the man responsible for this conglomeration was gladly circulating among the rooms demonstrating the use of some of the older and odder bikes and enthusiastically describing what made each unique. He was delighted to be able to share his treasures.

There were more people at this museum than the previous four I've been to in the past two months. Cormatin isn't much more than a village and isn't on the way to anywhere, but it has a chateau that attracts tourists. The bike museum, however, seemed to be a genuine attraction of its own for the French with children, some of whom must have been holidaying in the area, as they came by bike.

Maybe Tour afterglow was responsible for some seeking it out. As I think back on my Tour experience, what stands out more than anything is the devotion of the French to this bicycling event, what an ingrained part of their culture it is and a ritual for them to go witness and pay their respect to. The French may not ride their bikes a whole lot, but, as a socially conscious people. they recognize the value of the bike and applaud those who do bike. I've encountered no other French touring cyclists and just a few Germans and Aussies, but the French acknowledge it is a noble and worthy activity that they ought to be doing, but since they don't have the motivation, they are happy to see someone else adhering to the faith.

I didn't fully realize how committed the French are to seeking out The Tour when it comes near them last year, but this year with the start in France rather than in Belgium, and being part of a gathering of thousands the evening before the race started in front of the city hall of Challans watching the introduction of each of the 189 riders on the big screen that would be erected at all 21 finish lines, I could feel all around me the honor and respect given the riders and The Tour. And that same honor and glee was reflected on nearly every rider's face as he was introduced with great hyperbole by the official revered voice of The Tour, Daniel Mangeas, a fixture of The Tour since 1976. He was at every start and finish line, spouting names and stats like an auctioneer for a couple hours straight, barely pausing to draw a breath. At the Grand Depart after each team of nine riders biked onto the stage before a packed auditorium and was introduced, they rode out through an arcade of flashing lights to make a loop around the town, including past us, cheered all the way. Whose grins were broader, theirs or ours, was hard to say. It started the whirlwind to come with a giant exclamation point.

And it was more of the same for the three weeks ahead. Only by riding the stages past all the people can one fully appreciate its widespread appeal. One can be at a start or finish line with a stadium's worth of people or on a steep climb where a whole World Series worth of fans can be gathered, but they only represent a small percentage of the tens and hundreds of thousands who line the road for up to 150 miles each day, and not for just a few minutes but making an all day affair of it. One can't help but be swept up by the devotion of the millions who are part of The Tour.

Later, George

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