Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Dijon, France

Friends: After two days of Internet wasteland I detoured slightly out of my way to Dijon, to take advantage of an Internet cafe I used last year. I doubt I'll have enough time to give a full report on my past three days, which included a couple more bicycle museums, as well as my final day of The Tour, but here goes.

I started my final day of The Tour, Sunday, biking the previous day's time trial course. I camped alongside it the night before, joined by a German couple, one of whom was wearing a Lance bracelet. There was a continual string of mostly individual cyclists out riding the course along with me and also a few people walking it, scavenging. Even though it had been lined by thousands the day before, it was remarkably litter-free, thanks to the bulging official Tour de France plastic litter-bags hanging on wooden stakes driven into the ground every hundred feet or so.

St. Etienne was at one time the foremost city of bike manufacturers in France. Mercier and Stronglight, among others, still maintain factories there. The local Art and Industry Museum is primarily devoted to the four industries that at one time defined St. Etienne--bikes, optics, ribbons and arms manufacture. The museum resides in a stately four-story chateau on a hill overlooking the center of the city. In such a setting, the bike had to be taken seriously.

The bulk of the floor devoted to the bike included the usual array of bikes dating from 1817 to the present. They were arranged by a curator who knew how to pay tribute to each. Although the museum claimed to have the largest collection of bikes of any museum in France, there was not the sense of clutter that most bike museums have with bikes tightly crammed and wedged trying to fill every inch of a museum's space. In one of the rooms devoted to the early-day bikes was a video of cyclists in the attire of the period merrily pedaling along on country roads on the very bikes in that room. Even these neanderthals, some weighing as much as 60 pounds, seemed to float effortlessly along with a grace and elegance that was as pleasing to watch as the Tour de France riders. The video included flocks of cyclists on penny-farthings and a stray cyclist or two on the original pedal-less Draisine bikes propelled like a scooter with the rider pushing off the ground with his feet as he sat on the wooden seat between the two wheels.

A video in another room was devoted to bicycle touring. It paid tribute to Paul de, known as Velocio. He was a great apostle of touring and long distance cycling. He lived in St. Etienne until his death in 1930 at the age of 77 when he was electrocuted by a street car while pushing his bike. He was a bike manufacturer and inventor and publisher, founding a bike magazine in the 1880s that survived until the 1970s. He is such a revered figure that St. Etienne celebrates him every June 5 with Velocio Day. There is a ride that day to the Col de Republique, a ten-mile climb from the city that gains 2,500 feet. There is a bust of him at the summit.

I learned most of this over lunch on a bench outside the museum from one of the museum's curators. She interrupted her lunch to go back to the museum for a computer printout of his biography for me. As she headed back to the museum, she paused to admonish, "Don't eat my cookie," recognizing a ravenous cyclist when she saw one. Included in the several sheets she returned with was his Seven Commandments of Cycle Touring. Among them were "eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty," and "avoid meat, wine and tobacco," dictums well ahead of their time.

Although the Col de Republique was south of the city and I was headed north, it was a climb I had to make. The most difficult part of the climb was deciding whether to camp in the luxurious forest surrounding it that night, as I arrived there at 7:30, or make the descent back to the city and escape the metropolis before Monday's traffic. I probably should have camped in the forest in the presence of Velocio and given my legs some rest, but I chose to push on and bike to dark one last time.

Between the climb to Velocio and the museum visit, I had the final miles of The Tour to watch. The sports bar I found in downtown St. Etienne was about half-filled as the peloton reached the Champs Elysees for its eight laps from the Arc de Triomph to the Place de la Concord. And the bar continued filling, paying further tribute to this bicycle-town, as the peloton settled down to business with assorted attacks after the first ceremonial lap with Lance and his Discovery mates shoulder-to-shoulder riding past the multitudes.

The peloton at first looked puny and almost insignificant and out-of-place on that most grand and celebrated of boulevards, wide enough for a space shuttle to land. When the Arc de Triomph towered in all its majesty in the background, it threatened to steal all the glory from the many other magnificent sites and spectacular scenery that the peloton had passed in the previous three weeks. But within a lap or two the peloton regained its prominence and all nobility belonged to it. It brought the joy and cheer of the millions it had passed along the road, whose lives it had touched, people throughout France and those who had come from all over Europe and the world to see it and who would forever remember that moment when they connected with The Tour. The Tour added to their stature and they added to The Tour's stature.

For awhile it looked like another American, Chris Horner riding for a Spanish team, might pull off a surprise victory, but it was Vinokurov who surprised all the salivating sprinters by bolting from the field after it had overtaken Horner, managing to hold off everyone else for his second victory of The Tour. He's a fan favorite. Fans paint his name on the roads as often as any of the riders. With the nickname of "Vino" the French would have to love him. His daring, aggressive style is much lauded, as few riders are capable of it. He suffered mightily in his final, all-out effort, as it took several moments for the agony on his face to be replaced by the ecstasy of his win as he rolled past the finish line.

We in the bar didn't get to see all of his celebration or Lance's final coronation, as the TV was quickly switched to a soccer game without any protest from the now full bar. My close-up table was immediately grabbed when I vacated it. There may have been a couple of cycling fans present, but now that I looked, the majority of the crowd was wearing green jerseys or green scarfs of the local team. Local sports does reign supreme.

Later, George

No comments: