Thursday, May 11, 2006

St. Hippolyte, France

Friends: Among Yvon's pitches enticing me to Mulhouse was a nearby monument to the Tour de France. Yvon knew I'd go well out of my way for such a thing. My original plan for this year's ride from Paris to Cannes was to pay a visit to the Puy de Dome in the heart of the country, another of those storied climbs steeped in Tour de France lore and about the only significant Tour de France climb I had missed the past two years.

The Puy de Dome is a majestic isolated mountain in the Massif Central so dramatic that one of France's departements (states) is named for it. Like Mont Ventoux it is a long extinct volcano. I wanted to make the climb to channel the many heroics and legendary events that occurred on its slopes--Merckx being slugged hard in the kidneys by a spectator, causing him to lose the race, Anquetil and Poulidor jostling each other hard in perhaps their most memorable battle, Bahomontes winning a critical stage to its summit that led to his lone Tour victory and on and on.

Yvon gave me the bad news me that the Puy de Dome is a toll road and is closed to bicyclists except one day of the year and on those occasions when it is included in the Tour. He offered as an alternative a visit to the Ballon d'Alsace, about 30 miles from him. At its summit is a monument to the first Tour rider to cross it in 1905. It was the first time that the Tour route had ventured into the mountains, the Vosges, one of the five mountain ranges in France.

The first two editions of the Tour in 1903 and 1904 followed the same route of six stages linking France's largest cities--Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes--and avoiding the mountains of the Alps, Pyrenees, Massif Central, Vosges and Jura. It wasn't until 1910 that Tour director Henri Desgrange dared to subject the riders to the high, high mountains of the Pyrenees. When they managed to survive that, the Alps were included the following year.

May 8 is a holiday in France, celebrating the end of WWII. One of the many cycling clubs in the area was hosting a ride near the Ballon d'Alsace that day, my first full day with Yvon and his wife Francoise. We awoke to a drizzle. Yvon could ordinarily see the Vosges from his sixteenth floor apartment, but they were lost in the clouds.

Still, we loaded our bikes in his van and drove over, hoping the rain would let up. It didn't, but the ride still attracted 170 participants. Yvon was so eager to join his friends that as we pulled up to the gathering he released his seat belt a block away so he could hop out pronto, just as he swings his leg over the bike well before stopping to quickly dismount, with a delightful boyish enthusiasm.

There was a scattering of miserable riders having cut short their rides, but none of Yvon's friends. He confirmed with the organizers that they were out on their bikes, so we decided to visit the nearby city of Colmar, the Venice of France, and return at noon when there would be lunch and an awards ceremony. Among the sites of Colmar was a 30-foot tall replica of the Statue of Liberty, as its sculptor was a native of the city. There were buildings over 500 years old along the network of picturesque canals, and a handful of tourists walking about under umbrellas, but no one at the many outdoor cafes.

When we returned to the ride, Yvon's friends had arrived. There was a lot of kissing on the cheeks, including mine. Yvon was delighted to regale them with our meeting last year when he was making a circuit of France on his bike, and telling them of my exploits. After lunch, awards were given to the oldest and youngest participants of the ride and to the club which had the most participants and who had traveled the furthest to participate. And they even gave me a special award of a cycling magazine and musette bag. It was a most convivial occasion as everyone shared in pastries and the local Alsacion wine, which the locals claim is as good as
the Champagne that comes from a nearby region.

The drizzle persisted, so we declined to bike to the monument, allowing my legs a welcome full-day of rest. Even though the summit was only 3,500 feet high, there were patches of snow along the way. Yvon was eager to help plot my remaining 500 miles to Cannes. He would have much preferred working for a travel agency than in the postal service. He asked me when I expected to retire from the messengering. I said I liked it too much to think of retiring. I was surprised when he said he hated his job and hated going to work every day, as I'd only seen his joyous, exuberant side.

He was eagerly planning a three-month trip to Chile and Argentina in November with his wife. He said he was hoping to like it so much that he might want to move there. "Everyone here says how bad things are in the United States and Italy, but things are bad here too. The young don't want to work and people are always protesting. I have stopped trying to understand people. I only want to travel and forget," he said, as he slashed his hand across his forehead, as if he were annulling such thoughts. It was just a brief outburst over breakfast, but otherwise he seemed the happiest man I'd ever met.

Later, George

No comments: