Thursday, July 14, 2005

Toulouse, France

Friends: It was a quiet, pleasant 40-mile ride into Toulouse this morning. I feared there would be traffic flocking to the countryside on this Bastille Day, but it seemed everyone was sleeping in. I arrived shortly before a petit-Casino supermarket was preparing to close at 12:30, enabling me to eat something other than peanut butter sandwiches and ravioli today. There are plenty of cafes open and even a couple of Internet cafes, so I definitely made the right choice to come here.

As I approached Toulouse I passed acres and acres of bright yellow sunflowers turned towards me. They made me think of Florence and how she might react. Would she recoil at these flowers staring at her, as she initially did at the crowds along The Tour route? She felt very self-conscious about at all the attention they heaped upon her, staring and cheering and making wisecracks, as we biked the time trial course from Tours to Blois. She said she wanted "crawl into a hole and hide." But before long she grew accustomed to all the attention and realized the comments were all playful fun and that she was heightening the experience for everyone along the route. She began to enjoy it and rather than focusing her gaze straight ahead, peered about, taking a gander at all the people and could even smile, rather than cringe.

Rookie bicycle messengers are similarly hyper-conscious of all the pedestrians watching them in action. Some are deluded enough to treat them as spectators and put on a few showboating moves for their benefit. One soon learns to pay the peds no attention and to simply focus on the job at hand. It's hard though to ignore the Tour de France crowds. They are as much a part of the event as the countryside the race passes through and the race itself. The crowds are a full cross-section of French society of all ages and all professions. They are relaxed and in fine form, out picnicking with friends and family and having a grand time. They are quite a contrast to the American sports crowds I have been a part of at football and baseball and basketball and hockey games, full of all too many rowdy louts intent on imbibing as much as they can and making a spectacle of themselves. The French may have some wine amongst their beverages and unleash a wisecrack or two, but they are much more tame and orderly than their American counterparts.

For many, watching The Tour is an all-day event and an annual ritual. Many arrive hours, if not the night, before the peloton is due to pass, to claim a choice spot along the road. Their array of picnic arrangements is a show unto itself. Some erect long banquet-style tables with white table cloths and candelabras and an array of wine glasses. Some picnickers simply sprawl on a blanket. Some play cards or board games or toss boules. Some sit reading books or newspapers or cycling magazines. I take particular delight in spotting someone holding up "L'Equipe" with its usual dramatic headline on display. The French seem born to picnic. It is their word for it, "pique-nique," that we have adopted for our own. They'll seize any opportunity to pique-nique. It doesn't have to be a holiday or a weekend. The French don't even have a word for weekend. They've usurped ours, calling Saturday/Sunday "le weekend."

It has turned hot enough again, after a pleasant two-week cool spell, for me to dig into the powdered Gatorade supply I've been carrying for 4,000 miles, to make the 90 degree water in my water bottles more appealing to my stomach. I've also been dousing my head and soaking my shirt whenever I come upon a town's water spigot. If I can't spot a town's toilet or water spigot, I'll ask anyone I might see "Ou est la fontaine?" In heat such as this, I don't care to wait until the next town hoping it will be more evident.

A 60-year old French cyclist was filling his bottle at one this morning, making it easy to spot. He was a rare local who addressed me in English, asking where I was from. When I told him I was from the U.S. he said with a bit of a sneer,"I suppose you're a Lance Armstrong fan."

"I am, but I like all things related to the bicycle."

Then, as if to test me, he asked,"Have you heard of LeMond?"

At first I was startled by this question, thinking he was referring to the French national newspaper, but then realized he was only being French, and exhibiting a strong streak of arrogance and lack of respect, figuring I was someone who didn't know cycling beyond Armstrong and was so new to the sport I wouldn't know of the American who won the Tour three times in the late '80s and could well have won it five or more times had he not suffered a hunting accident after the year of his first victory. How could I not know Greg LeMond?

I took no offense to the question, just an inner satisfaction that I was about to shatter his regard of Americans as ignorant savages. "Greg LeMond!," I retorted. "He won it three times, the same as Bobet. His win over Fignon in 1989 by eight seconds was one of the most exciting sporting thrills in my life."

"You know Bobet?" he exclaimed. "He was my hero when I was growing up. He was the greatest rider in the first 50 years of The Tour. But then along came Anquetil and Merckx and now he's forgotten."

"I went to Bobet's home town up in Brittany to visit his museum, but it was closed the day I was there."

"I've always wanted to do that, but never have."

"Have you seen his plaque on the col d'Izoard."


"Its fantastique, on a jutting rock near the summit right beside a plaque to Coppi. The view is spectacular. You'd love it."

Rather than an ignorant America, I hoped he wasn't now regarding me as the arrogant, know-it-all version of the species. But it was clear he recognized the enthusiasm in my tone, earning me his respect as a fellow devotee of the sport that was his passion. We talked cycling like a couple of fanatic American sports fans talking baseball as I downed one bottle of cool, fresh water and started on another. If I'd thought to ask, he no doubt would have let me come home with him to watch the day's action.

Before he was on his way he said, "When I was younger, I used to hope Americans would discover The Tour, but now that they have, they are taking it over. Three of the top ten in the standings right now are American and after this year, between LeMond and Armstrong, Americans will have won The Tour ten of the past twenty years. Now I'm almost sorry they have."

Later, George

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