Saturday, May 12, 2007

Pernes-les-Fontaines, France

Friends: It is about 600 miles from Paris to Cannes, mostly south but a bit east as well. This is the fourth year in a row that I have made this spring-time ride. I have taken a different route each year. My first ride three years ago began with a 100-mile detour west, rather than heading south, out of Paris to Tours to visit Florence and Rachid, friends from Chicago who had recently moved back to France. Then I headed south 300 miles miles to visit another friend from Chicago, Craig, who spends half the year living in France. It made for an 800-mile trip.

The next year I went more directly to Cannes via Lyons. Last year I took another less than direct route, heading east out of Paris for 300 miles to visit a French bicycling friend, Yvon who I had met the year before. He lives in Mulhouse near the German border. That route took me through the western tip of Switzerland, then Grenoble, and also a taste of the Alps before hitting the Mediterranean. This year my route has been mostly south, so far, to visit a couple of birth places of cycling luminaries.

The first was the town of Le Guidon, former home of Bernard Thevenet, two-time winner of the Tour de France in the 1970s and presently one of the television commentators covering the race. Le Guidon, coincidentally French for handlebar, is about 300 miles south of Paris and 75 miles northwest of Lyons. My travels about France have taken me through the birth places of several other French multiple Tour winners--Yffiniac of five-time winner Hinault, Saint-Meen-le-Gran of three-time winner Bobet and Mont-Saint-Aignan of five-time winner Jacques Anquetil. Yffiniac welcomes visitors with a giant mural of Hinault astride his bike, face snarling in full badger fury, at its center-of-town round-about. Its city hall had his bust in its lobby, as well as a display of his jerseys and trophies. Saint-Meen salutes Bobet with a museum chronicling his triumphs back in the '50s. A round-about on the outskirts of Mont-Saint-Aignan honors Anquetil with a marble slab in the shape of France with his figure on a bike etched into it and a giant concrete yellow jersey in the foreground.

I expected to find another proud tribute of some sort to Thevenet in Le Guidon. But Le Guidon was such a speck of a village I passed through it without realizing it until I was ten miles beyond it. I knew it was south of Charalles, but I hadn't made a strong mental note of just how far, figuring there was no way I could miss it. I was so lost in my reveries, soaking up the paradisaical French countryside, so green and so pastoral and so unblighted by homes or structures that don't complement the landscape, that I missed it. I could have doubled back, but that would have entailed an extra twenty miles of up and down terrain. Instead, I will be content to make another attempt next year or the year after. I was happy simply to be riding the roads that made him a champion.

I had much greater success tracking down the roots of Paul de Vivie, aka Velocio, considered the father of cycle touring. The woman in the tourist office in the town of his birth, Pernes-les-Fontaines in Provence, was well aware of him. Not only could she direct me to the house he grew up in and the town's sports complex named after him, she also told me a biography had recently been published on him. De Vivie wasn't well enough known though for the woman in the much larger town of Carpentras, gateway to Mont Ventoux, to have any information about him, nor was he mentioned in the travel literature on Pernes-les-Fontaines that I picked up there, though if I had looked at the map of the town closely I would have noticed that a street in the town bore his name. Along with the street named after him and the plaque on the house he was born in, there was also a statue of him, erected in 2003, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth. It stands at the entry to the town's sports complex named for him. He was oddly enough wearing a pair of sandals.

De Vivie was an inventor of bicycle parts, but he was better known as a writer and publisher of a magazine promoting bicycle touring that he started in the 1890s and was still publishing when he died in 1930. He established the Seven Commandments of Cycle Touring, including "eat before you are hungry" and "drink before you are thirsty." He spent most of his life in St. Etienne, center of French bicycle manufacturing, about 100 miles north of here. There is also a bust of him at the summit of the Col de Republique outside of St. Etienne, that was included in the first several Tour de France routes. St. Etienne has a holiday in his honor and cycle touring clubs all over France have rides named for him. It is no wonder that the cycle tourist is treated so well in France. The French are remarkable in remembering those who have enriched their culture and made contributions to society in general. Plaques and memorials can be seen everywhere.

My route to Cannes this year has been much easier than the past three. I followed the Rhone River for about 150 miles from outside Lyons to Orange, one of the flattest stretches I have encountered anywhere in France. It made for an easy 100-mile day yesterday. It wasn't as scenic as being off in farm country, but there were still cathedrals and chateaus and castles to be seen, as well as a couple of nuclear plants. One had a mural of a smiling infant on one of its four cooling towers. About 75% of France's electricity is provided by nuclear power. One of the issues in last Sunday's presidential election was whether to build another. Both Eelco and I commented that we didn't mind at all that we weren't caught up in the post-election talk. We both are more concerned with the simpler day-to-day issues of a country. If we hadn't known that France was caught up in election frenzy we would have had no inkling of it, nor could we detect any in the days afterwards.

I'm less than 150 miles from Cannes. My twelve-day movie marathon commences Wednesday.

Later, George

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