Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mulhouse, France

Friends: Challenge number one of this, my third annual Cannes/Tour de France bike adventure was escaping the four-lane highway exiting Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle Airport and finding a way to the airport's back roads more friendly to the bicycle. As frustrating as it was, backtracking and circling about, I was at least relieved that my first challenge hadn't been dealing with a lost or damaged bike, a dread that always haunts me, especially when my travel involves a connecting flight, as it did this time.

The past two years British Air Lines has deposited me at Terminal Two. I knew how to go the wrong way down an exit ramp from there that provided access to the freight terminals and the two-lane road that links them to the outside world. This year I made the hour hop from London to Paris on British Midland, a lesser airline that is relegated to Terminal One, well-isolated from all the other terminals. Eventually I made it to Terminal Two, violating all sorts of laws, crossing and riding the hazardous network of four-lane super highways choked with speeding traffic.

It was Thursday afternoon, three p.m., when I began this ride. The next challenge was making it to Mulhouse, 314 miles to the east over by the German border, by Sunday evening, where I was to meet Yvon, the French cyclist I met at the Notre Dame des Cyclists bicycling chapel last year. If I could knock off forty or fifty miles this afternoon, I would only have to average ninety miles a day the next three days to make it. Even though I had flown through the night, leaving Chicago at six p.m. and not sleeping too much on the seven-hour flight, I felt no fatigue with the prospect of getting to ride my bike.

My chief concern was my conditioning. Since I took a sabbatical from the messengering this winter, the first winter I had missed in sixteen years, I wasn't sure how adequate my training had been. A large part of my conditioning had been biking to Chicago's seventy-six branch libraries, the most distant twenty-five miles from my apartment. My longest day of library-hopping had been seventy-five miles. It was a wonderful way to see the city, taking me to neighborhoods I had never visited. It was an exploration in many ways and a quest I had long wanted to make.

It was one of several neglected projects my sabbatical finally allowed me. Libraries are an integral part of my travels, little oases that bring me much pleasure. I felt like I owed it to my city to pay homage to all of its libraries. Each gave me a jolt of satisfaction to visit, just as those I come upon in my travels, and there isn't a one I wouldn't want to return to. That alone made forgoing the messengering worthwhile.

Visiting the libraries also allowed me to catch up on my reading, which included some thirty-six books on bicycling. I hadn't realized there were so many. Some had been on my to-read list for years, nagging and nagging me. There were books on Lance and The Tour de France and touring and the history of the bike and various memoirs. I didn't read all that I hoped to, but I can't be dissatisfied with what I managed to accomplish.

It was surprising to see how Tour de France illiterate many of the books were. The autobiography of Lance's mother misspelled "peloton" as "peleton.". David Herlihy's tome on the history of the bike had a photo of Lance with the caption "Lance on the Champs Elysees" when he was clearly in the mountains riding past the berserk, orange-clad Basque fans. Even Phil Liggett's edited "Tour de France for Dummies" was full of mistakes. One of the more egregious was placing the Tourmalet, the most famous climb in the Pyrenees, in the Alps. But they were all still good reading.

My winter of non-messengering also allowed me to tackle my basement full of donated and abandoned and semi-abandoned bikes I've accumulated over the year's, meaning to repair and get back into circulation. It was a great opportunity to spend an afternoon or two a week with friend Craig playing bike mechanic. With the mild winter, there was enough of a demand for bikes we were able to sell nearly one week for three months from the middle of January to the middle of April. We were thrilled to discover such demand and had so much fun repairing and selling we had to restrain ourselves from becoming a full-time bike shop. We owe thanks to the phenomenal web-site coincidentally named "Craig's List" for the bulk of our sales.

I've sold bikes here and there over the years, but not in this quantity. We made quite a few people happy, including several Valentine's Day customers who wanted a bike for a mate. Thinking of each bike we overhauled and revived and the person who ended up with it has already brought me much pleasure. We hadn't realized how satisfying it was to sell a bike, especially to those who hadn't had a bike in a while. They often rode off with their new bike as excited as a kid receiving their first bike.

It wasn't as exhilarating as the messengering, but it was still time well-spent. One of the bonuses was learning so much from master-mechanic Craig. And another bonus was going to God-of-mechanics Joe, down the block at Quick Release, when we were stumped over figuring out how to get something to work. We always delighted in watching Joe so easily solve a problem. He had an array of special tools that amazed us almost as much as his expertise.

We became quite adept at wrapping handlebar tape and straightening forks and steel-wooling rust. We had the satisfaction of straightening frames and solving bottom bracket mysteries and reviving a very stubborn cottered crank. We tinkered with a wide variety of derailleurs and brakes.

I have been looking forward to reflecting back on all these winter-doings in the hours and hours and hundreds of miles of biking I have ahead of me in the next three months. It was a wonderful winter, even if it didn't include the messengering I so much enjoy. The break from the frenzied miles of messengering may have actually been good for my body, as I gobbled up fifty-four miles my first day here, then twice that the next day, without significant soreness and was able to meet up with Yvon early Sunday afternoon in front of a small town cathedral about thirty miles from Mulhouse. We biked together the rest of the way to his home, mostly on a bike path beside one of the many canals that crisscross France. There was the threat of rain, but still the path was full of cyclists.

Yvon was as exuberant and enthusiast as I remembered him from the hour we spent together sharing a picnic table outside the Chapel Notre Dame de Cyclists last summer. When we met he was three-fourths of the way into his dream trip of a bicycle tour around France. Unfortunately, we were headed in opposite directions at the time. But we forged an immediate bond and have stayed in touch promising to meet up again, a promise we were thrilled to be fulfilling. As we biked along on the way to Yvon's apartment, he maintained a non-stop commentary, liberally spiced with "voilas" and "fantastiques".

He had regularly emailed me all winter enticing me to visit, even though swinging over to Mulhouse would add a couple hundred miles to my ride to Cannes. Yvon was extra bubbly, as he'd just retired from the post office eight days ago. He was presently training for a citizen's ride of Paris-Roubaix June 11. He will be one of 2,000 entrants following that most famous of routes through all the cobblestones. He was already looking forward to that moment when he would arrive in the velodrome Roubaix with arms up-raised.

Later, George

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