Monday, May 14, 2007

Cannes, France

Friends: Thanks to the easy pedaling and the time I gained following the Rhone River for a day-and-a-half, I was able to duck down to Marseille and give France's second largest city a look, something I had shied away from the past three years, adverse as I am to cycling through large metropolitan areas unless absolutely necessary. I could further overlook my urban-aversion, as it happened to be a Sunday, a day when traffic generally thins to almost sane levels, if motorized traffic can ever be considered sane.

I've known that I would have to give Marseille a look one of these years, as it holds a significant place in Tour de France lore. It was one of the six stage cities of the inaugural 1903 Tour and has been included many times since, though in the 1970s the mayor of Marseille vowed the Tour would never pass through his city again. He was incensed that the peloton arrived at the finish line an hour ahead of time, so few people were there to witness it. He had paid tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of having the Tour finish in his city. Eddie Merckxand a strong tail wind were to blame. Merckx went on a rampage that day upset that he had been attacked by the peloton the day before in violation of Tour etiquette when he had some difficulties. From the very start the day after, he and his team went on the attack in revenge to make everyone suffer trying to keep up.

Marseille was last a Ville Etape in 2003, the Tour's centennial year, when the original six stage cities were all included. A special prize was given that year for the rider with the best placing at each of those six cities--Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nantes and Paris. And Marseille is back this year, further reason for me to give it an inspection.

Marseille is France's second largest city with a population of 800,000, though Lyon is actually France's second largest metropolis, with a sprawl of over two million. I came within fifteen miles of Lyon on my way down and its traffic and network of roads was much more frustrating than those of Marseille. The arteries I chose to enter and exit Marseille held true. I didn't go astray once, as invariably happens in French cities of over 50,000. Before I knew it, I was at the tourist office at the heart of the city by the old port teeming with boats. I had come 27 miles from the patch of forest that had been my campsite.

I had two questions for the tourist office--where would the peloton finish and start their stages here and also how do I get out of the city? The Tour Village and start and finish area was near the city's velodrome about four miles away, more or less on my route east to Cannes, 110 miles away. I could follow the coast on John F. Kennedy Boulevard for much of the way. The coast line was mostly rugged cliffs with a few small pockets of beach. With it a Sunday, the beaches were well populated. I could look down and see that about one in ten of the fairer sex were topless.

I was hoping to see this year's Tour de France poster on lamp posts along the streets of this city, even though it is more than two months until the Tour arrives here on July 18, but there were none to be seen. Marseille will be both a Ville Arrivee and a Ville Depart. Stage ten starting in Tallard will end here and stage eleven to Montpelier will leave from here the next day. A lesser-sized city would already be proclaiming how proud it was to be hosting the Tour, but there is too much else going on in Marseille for the locals to get all hopped about the Tour's arrival just yet. It was disappointing though not to get another look at that poster with the continents arranged to form a bicyclist, easily the greatest Tour poster ever, and maybe the greatest poster of any kind ever. Every devotee of the bike will want to have one in every room of his house.

The velodrome in Marseille may be the biggest in the world, as it doubles as the city's football stadium, seating 60,000. It will make a great setting for the Tour Village, catering to the thousands of media and sponsors and support crew and dignitaries and fans such as myself that follow the Tour around France for three weeks. I am not sure if I will be here when the Tour arrives, but I am happy I'll be able to fully envision it if I happen to be watching it on television somewhere else in France as I try to catch up to the Tour as it heads to the Pyrenees from Marseille.

I thought I'd have a fast ride from Marseille to Cannes, expecting the winds to be with me, but they uncharacteristically blew from the east most of the way. Still, I arrived in Cannes earlier than I ever have, Monday afternoon, giving me ample time to rest up for the movie-marathon ahead that will commence Wednesday. I may actually have enough time to fully dissect the schedule of over 1,000 films before they begin. I hadn't expected to be able to pick up my credentials until Tuesday, but they'd begun giving them out today. This is the 60th edition of the festival. It too has an annual poster. It features about twenty film luminaries gleefully jumping into the camera with arms outstretched. One has to give it a close inspection to identify who they might me. Almodovar is front and center as well as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, director of Babel. It pales compared to the Tour de France poster.

There were only three other tents at the campground I'm staying at four miles from the Festival, so I was able to pick a choice spot on somewhat high ground in case of rain. There were hints of some today as I followed the coast for the final 26 miles from St. Raphael to Cannes, a route I had never taken before. It would have been hard to wild camp along that stretch, as it was packed with hotels and villas. There were few on the beaches today. Still it was nice cycling despite the head winds. I was protected from the wind for a few short stretches by the mottle-barked plane trees that line the roads all over France, some times as a simple wind or sun break on one side of the road and at other times as a virtual arcade and canopy covering the road. There are young, recently planted trees and some ancient, going back to the time of Napoleon. They are among the many charms of bicycling through France.

And now I look forward to experiencing the world vicariously on the big screen.

Later, George

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