Friday, May 12, 2006

Aix-les-Bains, France

Friends: My two days with Yvon and Francoise enhanced and enriched my appreciation of all things French in many ways. It improved my pronunciation and vocabulary. I knew the word "bis" on road signs meant secondary or alternate route, but Yvon explained that it was also what the French shouted at a performance when they wanted an encore or seconds. I knew the word "marche" meant walk, but when I saw it on a multitude of billboards in Colmar promoting a
Paris-Colmar marche, I didn't know that this event was the Tour de France of walks, a competitive event that had been held for over 50 years. It would be staged later this month, attracting participants from all over the world for a 300-mile non-stop race which would take less than four days. Thousands would watch it on TV and in person.

Yvon and Francoise couldn't have been more hospitable. They drove out to meet me at the cathedral in the small town of Belfort, thirty miles from their apartment. Yvon and I biked the rest of the way. It was an easy ride as I put my fifty pounds of gear in their car. As I was showering, Yvon mounted my bike on his repair stand to check if all was well. He discovered my front brake was sticky, evidently from the day of rain I experienced from Paris. It was a simple operation to remove the cable from its housing and apply some lubricant, something that Craig and I had done countless times this past winter.

Yvon offered to drive me back to the cathedral where we met to save me a couple of hours when I resumed my ride, but I would have none of that. But still he insisted on guiding me out of the metropolis of Mulhouse when I left, even in the rain. He said it would toughen him up for his Paris-Roubais ride, known as the Hell of the North. Yvon had the best rain gear I've ever seen, but still it is never much fun to ride in the rain, especially when the temperature is only 50 degrees. He had a heavy duty poncho that attached to his brake levers, effectively forming a canopy over his legs keeping the rain off. I once had a flimsy similar version, that was only marginally effective. I long ago abandoned it in favor of a simple Gore Tex jacket. He also had a nice pair of booties. I do too, but I only put them on in dire conditions. I wasn't going to bother today, but since Yvon was putting on his, I followed suit and within an hour I was as thankful to him for my toasty feet as I was for any of his many kindnesses.

Yvon could have turned around after several miles, once I was safely on my route, but he wanted to put in 50 miles for the day, so accompanied me all the way to the Swiss border, due south of Mulhouse. I could have taken a flatter route and repeated my route of last year through Lyon, but I was curious to ride through the Jura Mountains and have a taste of Switzerland. I only nipped off a 30-mile bite of Switzerland before I slipped back into France, but I skirted its border for the next 100 miles. When we parted, Yvon told me to keep an eye out for Charley Moreau, the highest placed French rider in the Tour de France the past couple of years. He trains in the area. I did see his name painted on the road a couple of times by his fans, but I was the only other bicyclist out in the rain.

Before I left, Yvon, the travel agent, gave me a list of hotels that charge less than 30 euros a night along my route, including a chain called Formula l. He knew that not once in the past two years had I resorted to indoor accommodations except when staying with friends. Not even when I stayed at the cycling hostel in the Pyrenees last year did I sleep inside, sticking to my tent. Still, in these cold, wet conditions, I was happy to know I could stay somewhere semi-affordable if I and my gear needed drying out.

I had been hoping to entice Yvon to accompany me, if not to Cannes, at least for several days. But he's not a camper, staying in hotels every night last year when he made his 2,500-mile circuit of France. Plus he had a strict training schedule for Paris-Roubiax that touring would disrupt. The rain persisted for two days and the temperature never rose above 50, so Yvon made a wise choice. I remained at an altitude of 2,500 to 3,500 feet for most of that time, but with the low ceiling, wasn't much able to enjoy what views there might have been. Still, it was nice to be on the bike and I stayed dry enough that I could remain faithful to my tent.

Aix-les-Bains is a popular resort on a lake with thermal waters. It is down out of the mountains. The rain has stopped, and it is spring, nearly summer, once again. Grenoble is less than 50 miles away, where I will return to familiar roads. The snow-covered towering Alps are in the distance, which I will skirt. I have a couple of passes to climb between here and Cannes, but the worst is behind me. I ought to arrive a day before the movies start and will have time to rest up before the 12-day movie-marathon commences.

Later, George

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