Monday, August 1, 2005

Meaux, France

Friends: After three months and over 5,000 miles of pushing the pedals, often with more than casual determination and resolution, trying to keep up with The Tour or surmounting the steep passes of the Alps and Pyrenees or reaching some destination by a specified time, I may have acquired the aura of the most seasoned and toughest cyclists of them all, the Belgians, whose cold and rain and wind-swept land has produced many a champion, including the king of cyclists, Eddie Merckx. For the second time in the past month someone asked me if I was Belgian. I consider that a compliment of the highest order.

The first time it happened was during Stage One of The Tour as I sat in front of my loaded bike watching the time trial. The man asking was a producer for a Belgian TV station. He asked if I were Belgian. He said he was looking for Belgian fanatics following The Tour by bicycle. He said he hadn't been able to find any. When I told him I was American he asked if I had seen any Belgian touring cyclists. Not only had I not seen any Belgian touring cyclists, I had seen not a single touring cyclist at that point. There were plenty of Belgians in campers flying their national flag, but the producer had no interest in talking to someone following The Tour in such a common place manner. Even though I wasn't Belgian, if I had at least spoken French or Flemish, the producer said he would have loved to have put me on camera.

The second person who asked if I were Belgian was an older gentleman who noticed me wandering through a cemetery in the tiny village of Sompuis, about 100 miles east of Paris and four miles south of the national highway. I was in search of the tombstone of Geo Lefevre, the man who proposed the idea of the Tour de France to Henri Desgrange. They worked together for the newspaper that launched the Tour de France back in 1903. The gentleman knew exactly where it was. I hadn't noticed it, as I was looking for a bicycle or the words "Tour de France" on the tombstone. His epithet was a simple "President de Association des Journalistes sportifs." He was a notable enough person to have had a street named after him in Sompuis, his home town.

After showing me the grave, the man mentioned that The Tour had last passed near here three years ago. Then he asked if I were Belgian, since they were the most liable nationality to be seeking out such an obscure Tour artifact, and that my French was bad enough that my native tongue must be Flemish. He was quite taken aback that it was an American who had gone out of his way to come to this grave.

It was one of the more challenging of the bicycling memorials to find that I have sought out. My information was that the grave was in the city of Vitry-le-Francois, about 15 miles away. The woman in the tourist office there knew nothing about it, nor even knew who Geo Lefevre was. There were three cemeteries in Vitry plus a large military cemetery I could have gone perusing, but first I went to a bike store to see if someone there might know. The older proprietor instantly knew what I was looking for and where it was. He drew me a detailed map of rural roads to reach Sompuis, which made the getting there all the more enjoyable.

I had no such trouble the day before in Bar-le-Duc finding the memorial to Pierre and Ernest Michaux, the father and son who in 1861 conceived of putting pedals on the two-wheeled forebearer of the bicycle, thus making the earlier invention a vehicle of genuine utility and popularity. The local tourist office had replica of the bike in its window. The monument to the Michaux's was a highlighted item on the city map of sites to see. There was also a plaque on the house where Pierre was born in 1813. The local museum had a room devoted to the Michaux's. And to top it off, I learned of a bicycle museum in the small village of Trois Fontaines de l'Abbaye about 20 miles away, though it was only open on Sunday afternoons. I had hit an unexpected mother lode of bicycle memorials.

The Michaux monument is the oldest I have come across and could well be the first of its kind. It was erected in 1894, eleven years after Pierre died, who outlived his son Ernest by a year. The Michaux's were repairers of horse carriages in Paris when someone brought in a bicycle to be repaired. When Ernest gave it a ride he realized it would be much easier to ride if one had a place to rest his feet. After putting pegs on the front axle, one of them was struck by the inspiration to make them revolve so the bike could be propelled rather than pushed along with one's feet as one does with a skateboard or scooter and had been the case for 45 years since the two-wheeled vehicle had originally been conceived. As so often happens, they were unable to capitalize on their invention and suffered financial ruin attempting to do so.

Their monument resides at a downtown intersection a block from the oldest bridge in the city. It rises some 25 feet high. It is a contoured concrete structure with a life-sized figure behind a model of their invention resting on a platform half way up. The bike and figure are not the original, as they were melted down by the Germans during WWII.

Perusing the brochures in the tourist office of Meaux, I discovered another bicycle museum 25 miles to the south. It will have to wait until my next visit, as in less than 24 hours I will be airborne for Chicago. Charles de Gaulle airport is 25 miles away in the opposite direction. I was also unable to make it to the plaque commemorating the starting point of the first Tour just south of Paris. It will be among a handful of bicycling sites on my next itinerary, that were either closed or I was unable to reach this time. And the list will no doubt grow as I learn of more. I have cycled over 9,000 miles of French roads the past two summers, but when I gaze upon a map it seems as if I have barely gotten started. I, along with all of France, eagerly await the October unveiling of The Tour route for 2006 to learn where it will take me.

So what, you may wonder, have I discovered to be the burning issues in French society in these times? If one cares to go by the official daily newspaper of The Tour that is freely distributed along the route, it is whether or not to eat popcorn at the movies and the cost of a baguette. Those were two of the dozen or so questions asked in the daily interview of one of The Tour riders, invariably a French rider though they only comprise a quarter of the peloton. The more personal questions included what does he think about before he goes to sleep, what does he eat when home alone, does he have any good luck charms on his bike. Based on the interviews, popcorn is very unpopular and not too many riders buy their own baguettes.

Even more than last year, I have been impressed by the excessive politeness of the French. I see it everywhere. In the supermarkets when one places a divider on the conveyor belt in the checkout line the person behind never fails to say "Merci." The French are always quick and on the ready to express thanks. Along The Tour route signs of thanks were quite common--"Merci French TV," "Merci Caravan" and "Merci" to assorted and sundry officials and announcers, affiliated with The Tour. People went out of their way to tell me where to find water. Once when I paused to ask a couple of spectators high on a hillside if I could take their photo, one leaped up and started running down to me thinking I was asking him to come take my photo. And, most importantly, I can accord the motorists throughout France as being more polite than any I've encountered.

I will close, as I began, with thoughts of Crissy, whose sparkling spirit was never far from my mind. It still greatly saddens me that someone with such a light heart and such goodness and purity, who brought cheer to so many, had to struggle so hard to cope with life as it is. She didn't have it easy, so at least she is free of her battles here.

Until next time, George