Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Coutances, France

Friends: We weren't conducting a seance by any means, but if Louis Bobet, three-time winner of the Tour de France in the 1950s, had a spirit to summon, he would have been hovering above us in glee as Craig and I and a pair of older French couples, who grew up with Bobet as their hero, stood at the foot of his grave in his hometown cemetery of St. Méen-le-Grand in Brittany recalling his life and sharing our mutual passion for the bicycle.

Craig and I and one of the French couples had just spent an hour-and-a-half at the Bobet Museum a couple blocks away. We were all so engrossed searching for every telling detail we could spot in the many photos and articles and artifacts from his illustrious career that the caretaker made no effort to hurry us on our way even though we kept him there well past closing time. There was just too much to see in the three rooms of the museum, though any but the devout could have strolled through in a half hour or less.

The French couple that arrived at the museum at the same time we did used to own a bike shop, and the husband worked for the Tour de France for a spell driving a motorcycle along the race course shepherding race personnel. Even before they told us about themselves, it was obvious they were more than casual fans from the delight shining on their faces as they perused 50-year old magazines and scrapbooks. They apologized for never having visited the museum before, even though they lived less than 100 miles away.

There were only two bikes in the museum, but many jerseys and trophies and mementos, including a 1950 primitive Huret derailleur with Bobet's name on it. Bobet raced in the era when racers had to do their own repairs and carried a spare tubular tire wrapped over their shoulders. They also carried a cylinder that could quickly inflate their tire.

Bobet was the second person to win the Tour three times and the first to win it three times in a row, 1953-1955. He has been overshadowed by the five-time winners, beginning with Jacques Anquetil in the '60s. Bobet raced in the same era as the Italian great Coppi, a cycling god who ranks up there with Eddie Merckx. There were many photos of Coppi and Bobet going at it shoulder to shoulder, as they fought seeking to be the premier racer of their time. Bobet was just a cut below. Among his other major wins was the professional road racing World Championship and Paris Roubiax. The museum had a list of the nearly 100 streets and stadiums and schools that have been named for him all over France--in 40 of its 95 departements.

The museum didn't mention his burial site. When we asked the caretaker if he might be buried in the town cemetery, he said yes, and that we would have no problem finding it. He was wrong about that. Fortunately, just as the four of us arrived at the cemetery another couple was arriving to tend to a relative's grave. They took us directly to Bobet's grave. It was in the middle of hundreds of tombstones and had nothing bicycle related adorning it other than a small marble plaque that read "C.C.R. à Louison". They explained that it was a dedication from the Cycling Club Rennes (the nearest large city) that helped pay for the simple grave that Bobet shared with his parents and that had no mention of his bicycling exploits, just the span of his life 1925-1983.

As the six of us chatted, the couple that led us to the grave mentioned that they live in Bobet's childhood home, which at one time adjoined the family bakery. This gentleman was an ardent cyclist as well, occasionally biking to Mont St. Michel and back in a single day, a 110-mile trip. They envied our 650-mile ride from Craig's house to their town. Craig told them he owns a Bobet bike. They were amazed at Craig's fluency and even more so that a couple of Americans cared enough to seek out Bobet's grave. The bike shop couple talked about their tandeming. It was a joyous occasion that went on for nearly half an hour. Bobet would have been most pleased. Everyone gladly huddled together for a photo.

It took a little extra effort to make it to the museum by the time we did, including Craig's first career 100-mile day the day before. I had passed by the museum two years ago, on a Tuesday, the one day of the week that it was closed. I knew that it was only open a few hours in the afternoon. Our 100 mile day left us 70 miles away, so we needed an early start the next day and some determined riding to arrive by mid-afternoon. We arrived on a Sunday. If we hadn't
arrived that day there was the danger that the museum might have changed its closed day to Monday, like most of the rest of the museums around France. But the terrain had leveled a bit and the winds weren't contrary and we had a week's conditioning in our legs, so we were able to knock off those final 70 miles by 3:45, right in the middle of the museum's two p.m.-five p.m. hours. Our visit began with a 20-minute video. It included quite a bit of commentary from his younger brother, who also raced professionally and wrote several books about his brother.

Paying our respects to Bobet could easily be the highlight of our ten-day ride, though when Onni asked Craig what the highlight was the next day when he called her he said it was too early to say.

Later, George

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