Friday, June 27, 2008

Auray, France

Friends: No matter the size of a French town, its city hall, known as the Mairie or Hotel de Ville, bears a stately grace and majesty, part chateau, part cathedral, that commands respect and never more so than when it overlooks a plaza hosting a Tour de France departure or arrival and is adorned with Tour banners and bunting and an extra layer of French flags.

The two-story stone Hotel de Ville in Auray, site of this year's Sunday Stage 2 departure featured the extra attraction of a countdown until the momentous day. It was at 9 J--the J for jour (day). For Tour lovers, which is just about anyone French when The Tour is imminent or coming to one's vicinity, its arrival is as much anticipated as the coming of Santa.

Auray, a port city of 12,000, is a first-time Ville Etape, and is as proud as can be to have its name on the thousands and thousands of Tour posters and maps showing the year's route that are on display on billboards and in magazines all over the country and beyond. Auray stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the same size type as Paris and Toulouse and Brest and all the rest. On its day of honor Auray will be the focus of millions of cycling fans all over the world. Only once before in the 106 years of the Tour has the race even passed through Auray. A photo of the peloton passing by the Town's Hotel de Ville in 1939 was among a gallery of Tour photos on the walls of the tourist office.

The official Tour poster this year is the words "Le Tour Toujours" (The Tour Always) written in the shape of a heart. Cloth banners of the poster dangled from lamp posts lining the race route from the plaza in front of the Hotel de Ville down la rue de President Wilson to a round-about and then on to Boulevard de President Kennedy. This was a town with genuine Tour fever. Shop windows throughout Auray were Tour- and bike-themed. An artist had painted cartoon figures of bicyclists on many windows. Classic and vintage bicycles adorned with a shop's wares were on prominent display, enticing me to go into each and buy something. My only purchase though was the official Tour program with each stage's detailed route. Unlike year's past, no specific racer was featured on the cover, just the backside of the peloton in the mountains.

It's six days until the grand presentation of the 180 riders competing in The Tour, a day early this year on Thursday night rather than Friday night to give the riders a little extra rest before their Saturday departure, but already, getting a small dose of Tour fervor in Auray reminds me why I keep coming back for more. During the actual three weeks of the event I'll be mainlining almost lethal doses of the fervor. It always heats up the cockles but good to see such a widespread outpouring of affection and adulation for the bicycle and its ultimate race.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nantes, France

Friends: Bordeaux to Nantes, from the mouth of the Garonne to the mouth of the Loire, two of France's four biggest rivers, a distance of more than 200 miles, has been my route the past three days. In 1903 Bordeaux to Nantes was Stage Five of the six-stage inaugural Tour de France, back when each stage was a monster distance, a test of what man and bike could endure, requiring eighteen hours and more in the saddle on roads that would terrify today's riders. Riders weren't disqualified for drugs in those days, but rather for hopping on trains or getting towed by cars. The riders were left so drained after each stage, they were given several days of rest before the next stage.

The Tour is still a supreme test, pushing riders to their limits, but more in speed than distance. Rather than stages of over 200 miles, they now average a little more than 100 miles. The longest this year is 144 miles over flat terrain coming after The Tour's shortest stage, an eighteen-mile time trial. The race is now divided into 21 stages with two rest days during its three weeks. Nantes will provide the finish line for stage three of this year's race. One of the oddities of this year's route is that it includes three of the six Ville Etapes from that first race. Paris is another, which is a given, as the race always concludes there, though only for the past thirty years on the Champs Elysees. Toulouse is the other of the original cities. Many years none of those original six, other than Paris, have been represented, though in 2003, the Centenary Tour, all six were included, and the race even began in Paris as it did in 1903.

When I asked one of the attendants at the tourist office in Bordeaux if the huge plaza besides the tourist office was the start and finish of the Tour when it came to Bordeaux, she said no, that it was a few blocks away on the river. Then she added, "But it hasn't been here since 2003. Every year when the route is announced in October, we hope we'll be included again. Hopefully next year." Lyon, another of the original six, has also been neglected since 2003. Marseille only went three year's without being a part of The Tour, as it was on last year's route.

The Tour organizers resist the large cities, as hosting The Tour isn't as big a deal to them as smaller cities. Here in Nantes there is no indication whatsoever that The Tour will be arriving in less than two weeks. The tourist office had no brochures or even a poster of The Tour. Cholet, 35 miles away, site of the next day's time trial and start of the following day's stage had a huge ten panel vinyl billboard, each nine feet by twenty feet, celebrating The Tour plastered on the city's library across from the start/finish line for the time trial. The tourist office had nine display cabinets full of Tour memorabilia from its golden era in the '50s when Bobet and Coppi reigned. There were rare cycling magazines and souvenirs and mini-models like toy soldiers of the racers and sponsors and even an army of gendarmes. All the French visitors to the tourist office gave them a thorough look. There were also free postcards and stickers promoting Cholet as a double Ville Etape. Cholet had been a Ville Etape twice before, but just once a generation, so when it happens it makes a huge splash.

I followed a portion of the time trial route on my way to Nantes. It may be short, but it has some demanding hills. With no mountains to test my legs and continue my own conditioning the past few days I have been resisting my small chain ring and powering up the hills in a bigger gear than usual. I could feel the strain the next morning, so it is doing good. The small towns along the route already are decked out in a variety of bike art hanging from light posts and in store windows and front yards of homes. A post office had an array of bikes surrounding its walls painted bright colors and adorned with the tricolor French flag. The race is ten days away and the anticipation suddenly sky-rocketed when I rejoined the roads The Tour will be following yesterday. Big yellow signs announced road closures on the day the race will pass through. On the outskirts of Cholet a sign warned "Circulation tres diffcile" on July 8 and 9, the days The Tour will take over the city attracting tens of thousands of cycling fans. I have four more Ville Etapes to scout out in the next several days before heading to Brest in the far northwest corner of the country where the race will start. Brest has 200 rainy days a year compared to just 73 for Marseille, so I have moved my Gore-tex jacket to the top of my pannier.

Later, George

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bordeaux, France

Friends: It may have only been a metal cut-out of a cyclist climbing a steep incline, but there was no mistaking the features of Miguel Indurain, not that it could have been anyone else on a roundabout in the town of his birth, Villava, a suburb just to the north of Pamplona. There was no need for a plaque identifying the cyclist or listing his palmares. All know that he won the Tour de France five times and was the only one to win them consecutively until Lance Armstrong came along.

As I searched out his monument, all I asked lit up with delight at the mere mention of this local and national hero. He may not reign as supreme as Eddie Merckx does in Belgium, where a subway station has been named in his honor in Brussels, the only living person so honored, but Indurain is a virtual deity in the cycling circles and beyond in Spain. If I had defied a no bicycle sign preceding a half-mile tunnel through a ridge to the north of Pamplona, as I was tempted, I would have been denied the Indurain monument. There was no sign welcoming me to Villaha, and I didn't anticipate it coming so soon, less than two miles from the heart of Pamplona. If it hadn't been late afternoon with a lot of traffic, I could well have just bolted through the tunnel and saved myself several miles and the headache of trying to find my way back to highway N121A heading north to France and been way beyond Villaha before realizing I had passed it. There were no signs outside the tunnel giving an alternative route for cyclists. I would just have to figure it out myself. As I headed around the ridge, just three blocks away, there up ahead was the mighty Big Mig himself in all his glory, perched on a bike pedaling upwards toward the heavens.

A couple of Guardia Civil motorcycle cops were loitering nearby. I asked them if there was any Indurain Museum or street or plaza named in his honor as well, or perhaps a plaque on the house he grew up in. They said they didn't know of any. But they were able to give me directions back to the highway. It wasn't too complicated, but five minutes after I left them, they came up from behind me to make sure I hadn't gone astray.

As I bicycled around the outskirts of Pamplona, I couldn't help but envisage the thousands of miles of training Indurain had put in on the very roads I was riding, inspired in his youth with visions of riding in and possibly even winning The Tour. But this road out of Pamplona was probably one that he avoided, as it was full of 18-wheelers and lots of traffic. It climbed to nearly 3000 feet before descending to the Mediterranean and France through a canyon with quite a few tunnels that were off-limits to cyclists. At least there were marked alternative routes around them on quiet roads with zilch traffic. Tunnels were still being built to streamline the route. I was forced onto a dirt road for six or seven miles on the opposite side of the river from the paved road. There were still tunnels on the dirt road, unlit and one long enough that it was pitch dark, requiring me to dig out my headlight.

I crossed back into France at Hendaye on the Atlantic, at the far south western corner of France, though its neither its most western point, which is up in Brittany where I'm headed for the start of The Tour, nor its most southerly, which is on the Mediterranean on the Spanish border north of Barcelona. Hendaye is the starting point for a bike ride known as a "Raid" from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean over some 20 of the most feared Tour de France climbs, including The Circle of Death. The challenge is to complete it in 100 hours--four days and four hours. Do so and you can earn a certificate.

The last 100 miles into Bordeaux have been leisurely cycling on as flat a stretch as is to be found in France, several miles inland from the Atlantic through forests providing a wind and sun break, with occasional roads off to the beach. The road also passes several fresh water lakes that were most welcome in the 90-degree heat, the hottest its been so far on this journey. The trees were all pine, some planted in rows with periodic patches of clear-cut. There were almost as many recreational cyclists out getting some exercise on the occasional bike paths along the road or its sometimes wide shoulder/bike lane as motorists, at least until the end of the day when it was almost bumper-to-bumper motorists returning to Bordeaux.

For those without a bike there were plenty of bike rentals. There was also horseback riding and an "Adrenalin Park," a mini-boot camp with ropes and walls to climb. I was in no hurry, as I only needed to do 80 miles to camp within 20 miles of Bordeaux, allowing me to slip into France's fifth largest city, behind Paris, Marseille, Toulouse and Lyon, during the quiet of a Sunday morning. I stopped at every cemetery and public toilet I spotted to fill my water bottle, soak my shirt and douse my head.

The first 40 miles into France weren't so flat or quiet, linking assorted resort towns including Biarritz, and clinging to the Atlantic and its cliffs for a spell. There were waves to surf and many places renting boards. As I took a swim in the Atlantic I had to think twice that it had been less than 24 hours and not several days that I had been in the high country of Spain bathing in a river. The contrast in terrain and culture and the many miles I had come made Spain seem a distant memory already.

Later, George

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Logroño, Spain

Friends: As in the western US, where on occasion cyclists are allowed on the Interstate highway for short stretches when there is no alternative route, Spain too seems to permit cyclists on their Autovistas. I've had to resort to the superhighways several times here and have yet to be taken to task, not that I feared a chat with the local constables, the Guardia Civil.

More often than not, I end up having some sort of tete-a-tete with a country´s law enforcement authorities, and whether it is to be reprimanded as in Germany or to have my hand shook as in Argentina or to be asked what in the hell I´m doing as in Israel or to be set on the right road as in Finland, they are never unpleasant occurrences. I feel no sense of alarm when I'm pulled over by the cops when I'm on my bicycle, even if it is with guns drawn as happened once in a northern suburb of Chicago. Someone who had just robbed a nearby jewelry store had fled by bicycle.

The first time I risked intruding upon the Autovista and a meeting with the Guardia Civil came when I was heading south out of Benoventa. There seemed no alternative than a couple mile stretch on the superhighway to connect to the road heading east I was trying to get to. Before my incursion I paused to eat and rest so I'd be fresh for an all-out effort to make the ride as quick as possible. I was slightly encouraged that I needn't fear as, unlike other Autovista entrances, there was not the usual sign depicting a cyclist, a pedestrian, a horse and a tractor, each with a slash through them, though there was no sign giving cyclists or others an OK, as in the US.

There was a nice wide shoulder with minimal debris and a steady stream of 18-wheelers giving me a helpful draft. I hadn't even been on the Autovista a mile when a spotted a can of WD-40, a sign that I belonged and a veritable gift from my biking guardian angel, who ever seems to be looking out for me. I had been searching for some WD-40 ever since my rear derailleur had balked at dropping my chain from the 34-tooth ring on my freewheel to the 24. My Phil Wood Tenacious Oil hadn't succeeded in loosening whatever crud had penetrated making it less responsive than usual. WD-40 in the past has instantly solved the problem.

I had found a small bottle of WD-40 at a hypermarket, but at three euros (almost five dollars), that was more than I was prepared to pay. I was willing to wait until France, hoping to find it more reasonably priced. Some things are cheaper in Spain (such as dairy products) and some more expensive, such as peanut butter. A small jar goes for four euros, a euro more than in France, still more than what my budget will allow. So far I have been happy to just sprinkle some nuts on a gob of honey spread on a piece of bread for a super-duper crunchy open face peanut sandwich.

I shouldn't have been overly surprised at finding the WD-40, as time and again the road has offered up something I was in need of, though not any peanut butter yet. I should have remembered that maxim, "Ask and ye shall receive." I've come upon bottles of water when I was running perilously low out in the middle of nowhere and toilet paper when I was down to my last few tissues and a pen when my last one had run dry and paper when I thought I might have to buy some. I regularly find money, but never enough for a splurge, though sometimes of a bill large enough to cover some unexpected expenditure.

I was forced onto the Autovista a second time when I was trying to get to Lerma. This time I was in a small town and wasn't entirely sure which direction to go and had to ask. I was told it was via the Autovista. I asked if bicycles were allowed on the Autovista and was assured, without hesitance, that they were permitted. When I expressed a bit of surprise, the guy wondered if I was frightened about riding on the highway and that I needn't be as there was a good wide shoulder.

Though I didn't need to ride the Autovista anywhere along the main Camino de Santiago, I was very grateful for the one that paralleled it for many miles, as it siphoned off about 99% of the traffic. The old two-lane highway, that was formerly the main road up until a couple of years ago, had been rendered a virtual bicycle path, making for very blissful, carefree cycling. Much of my Spanish cycling has been as sensational as any I've encountered. I just completed a 120-mile stretch on back roads from Baltanas through Olmedilo de Roa, Villafruela, Lerma, Santo Domingo de Silos, Sales de los Infantes, and Villavelayo to Najera that was absolutely fabulous. It began up on a wide open high plain with dazzling vistas, then descended into a tight narrow gorge, that led to a large dam-made lake for miles of coastal riding, then another plunged through a long canyon. I had no warning how spectacular it would be. The roads were just a series of squiggles on my map taking me back to France.

Before one stretch I was warned the road was very narrow and windy, "poco peligroso" (dangerous), but also very "bonito" (pretty). There were just a handful of small towns, some seemingly abandoned with their picturesque cathedrals badly in need of repair. The only hazard were the sheep nibbling at the road´s edge. If spooked, they were as liable to dart out into the road as off into the fields. All it took was for one to go haywire and it would set off a pinball scramble of sheep darting in all directions. So I´d slow dramatically, and try to slip by without causing too much chaos.

With it so sparsely settled I was fortunate to find one town large enough for a grocery store, so I didn't have to exhaust my supply of nuts and bread and honey and Nutella. The dam was a towering monster from one side of a canyon to the other. Its waters had swallowed up four villages. It was begun in 1935, just as the Spanish revolution was breaking out, delaying its completion until 1960. For miles the road wound around many fjord-like arms of the lake extending into side canyons.

The cycling was so superlative that it constantly triggered deep, trance-like reveries of trips past. I was lost in Bolivia I know not how long on one reverie, biking through a canyon similar to the one that climbed out of the Amazon River Basin to the yampas and the World´s Most Dangerous Road. When my thought returned to the present it took several frantic moments to recall where I was. No need for peyote or acid on roads such as these.

Later, George

Monday, June 16, 2008

Palencia, Spain

Friends: There was no river or mountain pass or distinctive geographic feature or even a change in the quality of the pavement marking the border when I crossed back in to Spain from Portugal at the small town of Feces de Abaixo, only a sign stating "España".

And a little further was another sign, the fondly familiar Camino de Santiago sign, two feet wide, three feet high, with the golden streaks of the scallop shell on a sky blue background, the streaks converging upon the base of its shell, symbolizing the many roads that lead to Santiago and self-awareness and enlightenment. Just outside of Feces was a small post with the Santiago emblem pointing towards a footpath. There haven't been many, but in the past two days I have passed a handful of pilgrims, mostly on bike but a few on foot as well, on their way to that hallowed city. This wasn't the main Santiago de Compostela route, just one of its many tributaries. If there´d been a tourist office or evident official Santiago hostel in Feces I would have stopped to add another stamp to my pilgrim passport. I'd only filled half of its nine pages with 27 stamps, half as many as some collect, but my average of four a day had to exceed most.

It was nice to be back to the easy wild-camping of Spain and its vast, unsettled expanses. There was a much greater population density in Portugal. The land-holdings there were smaller and closer together, forcing me to be a little more creative than I need be in France and Spain in finding a place to camp. Still, it only took a slight bit more ingenuity to find a place to pitch my tent.

My first night in Portugal I sought out a campsite down an overgrown dirt road towards a river and a cluster of trees, where I found an abandoned old shed of a barn swallowed up by the vegetation. The next night I went up a dirt road that had no recent tire tracks and set up my tent on a grassy path between a couple of neighboring vineyards, and slept as well as anywhere.
With it light until past ten I have not come close to fretting that I might not find the best of camping spots before dark.

Regardless of whether my campsite has been worthy of the cover of National Geographic or more suitable as a rodent's lair, I unfailingly set up my tent with triumph and joy, filled with the great satisfaction of not having to hand over a passport or lucre and then read or listen to an array of idiotic do's and don't's for the privilege of sleeping on someone's patch of earth. That nightly ritual of setting up my tent when and where I want is always an exclamation point on another day of blissful biking freedom, followed by the equal bliss of sitting in my tent and gazing out at my natural surroundings as I chow down and pore over my map, seeing how far I've traveled and what lays ahead, reveling in my day and anticipating the next.

I had hoped the terrain might have been a little flatter back to France 50 miles south of the route I had taken to Santiago, but it very much mirrored the terrain to the north, though it was more denuded of trees and the flats were planted with vast expanses of wheat. Other than the framing mountains, I could have been in the Dakotas. Shortly after crossing back into Spain and turning east I had a 3,000' climb that included a couple of tunnels. It was another strenuous day of climbing. Eight hours on the bike earned me 80 miles--a paltry ten miles per hour average. But the next day the terrain flattened and with the wind at my back, just as it had been a week earlier in the same section to the north, I had another frolicsome century, though without any drafting assistance this time. Seven hours on the bike earned me a bountiful 115 miles. It was hard not to feel sympathy for the occasional bicycling pilgrim struggling along in the opposite direction going half my speed.

One of the delights of Spain is seeing the company names of former and present sponsors of Tour de France teams--Banesto, Kas, Once. They each set off a fond string of memories, recalling the mighty Kings of the Road who wore the company name on their uniforms--Kelly, Indurain, Jalabert...

Later, George

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Chaves, Portugal

Friends: Seems that all roads in Spain lead to Santiago de Compostela. As I headed south out of Santiago towards Portugal I passed a trickle of pilgrims nearing the end of their journey, some waving with exuberance. The main plaza in Pontevedra, a sizable city half way between Santiago and the Portugal border, is named Praza de Peregrina (Pilgrim Plaza). One of the streets alongside it is the Rua de Peregrina. The church in the plaza is laid out in the shape of a scallop shell. There was a statue of a pilgrim along the road in another town south of Santiago.

Unlike most who must return to the routine of every-day life upon completion of their pilgrimage, I get to keep going on my own private pilgrimage. The 500 miles of the Santiago route will be less than 10% of the close to 6,000 miles I will bike these three months through Spain and France. My travels have taken me 2,000 miles so far. The pilgrimage is such an intense experience for many, they don't want it to end. I talked to a Canadian cyclist who was still in Santiago a week after he'd arrived, just hanging out in the huge plaza outside the church
greeting arrivals and asking them about their experiences on the Camino. He said he met an Italian who'd hiked the trail every year the past 14 years. The Canadian said he hopes to return and do it again himself. I too would be happy to repeat the experience, not that it altered my life in the way it does many others, but because it was such a rare experience to be amongst so many people who were filled with such joy and ecstasy.

It would be a much more powerful experience to walk the route than to bike it, spending four weeks, rather than one, immersed in the experience, and spending much more time off on isolated trails rather than sharing roads with motorized traffic. It would also be an entirely different experience, though not necessarily more uplifting, sleeping communally, rather than in the privacy of a tent.

I encountered the heaviest traffic of this trip as I left Santiago and followed the coastal route. It made me happy that I decided to avoid the coastal route back along the north of Spain. Coastal towns not only attract vacationers but they blend together and tend to look the same. I did get to take a dunk in the Atlantic and gave a look for the scallop shells that are sold along the route, but all that were to be found were dinky shells no bigger than a fingernail, a fraction of the size of the official pilgrim scallop.

I crossed the Minho River into Portugal without having to pause to show a passport or deal with an official of any sort on either side of the river. I had to quickly learn how to decipher the Portuguese signs. Portugal at first seemed to be a land of greater prosperity than Spain, but
as I dipped further into the country it became a cross between Switzerland and Paraguay. Tidy, stately homes scattered on the hill and mountains sides and towns with upscale stores gave indications of affluence. But there are also symptoms of the third-world--tractors darting out from dirt side roads rumbling along on the paved thoroughfares and the less well-off, bent-over, hoeing their small plots of land. It was hard to tell whether the cobbled streets of some of the towns were a sign of backwardness or of quaintness, until I came to a town where a crew of a dozen or more workers were laying fresh brick-sized cobbles on a several block stretch of the town's main street. They may serve as traffic-calmers and look pretty, but they rank among a bicyclist's worst enemies.

As is common in small countries, there is evident a strong national pride. With the European football tournament underway, the Portuguese are brandishing pride in their team. Flags are everywhere, dangling from balconies and out windows and on their automobiles. There was
none of that in Spain and I doubt I'll see any in France, though I saw a minor surge of it two years ago when France played Italy in the World Cup championship game. And common to small countries that don't attract too many tourists or touring cyclists, the locals respond to me with extra warmth and delight, slowing to wave as they pass and toot their horns with welcome and approval.

I dropped 50 miles to Braga and then turned east for 85 miles to Chaves, choosing the route as the map showed a series of inviting lakes along the way, just what I could use with the warm temperatures. But I didn't realize they were man-made, created by dams, and that the road climbed through a canyon high above all but the last of the lakes, which was beachless and without access. It was warm enough for a plunge, but I didn't really need to, as there were frequent spouts of refreshingly cold spring water flowing from the cliff sides and out of little basins, that I could use for drinking and dowsing.

Now its back to Spain, seven miles to the north and then a long spin across the country to France. Three weeks until Le Tour and not only without defending champ Contador, but defending sprint champ Boonen, who recently tested positive for cocaine in an out of
competition drug test.

Later, George

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Santiago de Compostela

Friends: The pews in the mammoth and magnificent Santiago de Compostela cathedral, built on the burial site of St. James, are arranged in a T with two sets fanning out from the sides of the alter and a much longer set facing it. There are well in excess of 100 of them and they were packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, for the daily noon Pilgrim's Mass, some with tourists, but mostly with recently arrived pilgrims and their packs. Dozens more had to stand. A handful were barefoot, having shed their footwear at Mount Joy overlooking the city, treading the last few miles without shoes, as did the arch penitents of the early days of the pilgrimage. And this isn't even the height of the pilgrim season. The local pilgrim campsite beside the 500-bed pilgrim's hostel on Mount Joy is only open in July and August.

It may have been just another mass for the priests, but for most in attendance it was the mass of a lifetime. It was a tremendously moving experience to be amongst the amazingly diverse array of people from all over the world who had come hundreds of miles by foot and by pedal, all focused for days and weeks upon their arrival here. A good many had just pulled in, dirty and dusty and sweaty, holy ointments all, but hardly noticeable, overshadowed by their sun-bronzed faces and limbs, and an unmistakable, even brighter and shinier, aura that could have illuminated the gloomiest of dungeons or darkest of hearts.

Many greeted fellow pilgrims with hearty hugs and tears, having gotten to know each other's souls as intimately as their own over the days of walking and eating together and sleeping in communal halls. A row of priests in tiny confessional booths along one wall were kept busy. A stately cathedral full of "backpackers" was a most surreal, Bunuelean site. And Bunuel has made a movie about the Camino, back in the late '60s, called "The Milky Way." The title is taken from the mass of stars that seems to follow the route. Some say it was created by all the dust the pilgrims kicked up in the early years of the pilgrimage route.

I circled the pews several times hoping to spot Jan, a Dutchman I had cycled with for eight hours the day before. We parted the previous evening 30 miles from Santiago, Jan stopping a little earlier than I cared to as he was a bit worn down from having stayed up late the night before to watch the Netherlands play Italy in the first round of the European football cup. Jan was in a great mood, as the Dutch won three-nil, upsetting the World Cup champs. If Jan had been staying in the pilgrim's hostel that night, rather than a private hostel, he would have gotten to bed earlier, as the pilgrim hostel had a ten p.m. curfew. Jan admitted, too, to having a bit of a hangover, drinking one beer too many.

Jan still hoped to be up early enough to knock off those thirty miles to Santiago by noon. I pushed on to within twelve miles, so I would have no worries. I was glad that I did. There were still some steep climbs to do, and the extra time allowed me to leisurely follow the slow-going, sometimes dirt and sometimes gravel, footpath with its steady stream of walkers, rather than sticking to the mundane highway through the sprawl of Santiago. It also gave me time to search out a grocery store before mass.

Unfortunately, Jan was not to be found, denying me one last conversation with a kindred spirit of the highest order. Jan was a full-fledged pilgrim, having biked all the way from Holland, 1,750 miles in five-and-a-half weeks. He had left April 30, the Queen's birthday, Holland's biggest, most raucous holiday. He'd earned a six-week sabbatical from his job as an educational consultant. It was the longest he had been away from his wife and 14-year old daughter, though he had met up with them in Barcelona two weeks into his trip, renting a car and driving down from Toulouse as a birthday surprise for his daughter.

He was a long-time, ardent cyclist, but this was his longest bike tour. Several of his biking friends, who had joined him on forays to the Alps and Pyrenees to climb the storied Tour mountains and on other cycling trips, had wished to join him on this trip too, but he preferred to make it a solo venture. He would be turning 50 shortly, and he wanted time alone for reflection.

He followed what is known as the Dutch route, staying at authorized hostels most of the way but camping occasionally too, getting his pilgrim passport stamped at all of them. He was taking the train back and having his bike and gear shipped back separately. There are 17,000 members of the Dutch St. James chapter. Enough Dutch cycle the route every year that the Dutch chapter has arranged a weekly service to return bikes from Santiago to a member's doorstep for 100 euros, a little pricey, but Jan confessed to being a "luxury pilgrim". His cell phone rang twice in our time together.

Still, Jan was exactly the person I had hoped to encounter along the Camino--a seasoned, devoted cyclist wizened by many years and miles of cycling. Like many of the Dutch I have met over the years, he was a swell guy without airs or pretension or any seeming grievances. He pulled up alongside me on a long climb at 8:45 yesterday morning and would have passed me, as I was easing along in a lower gear, if I hadn't engaged him in conversation. I most certainly would have eventually caught up with him, as it turned out we rode at a most compatible pace. He too recognized in me someone with years of cycling experience, unlike the vast majority of those cycling the route. He gave me one of my highest compliments ever--"It was nice to meet you. You are a great cyclist," a true accolade coming from a Dutchman.

Jan is an exceptional cyclist even by Dutch standards. He rarely uses a car. He reaches all the schools he services as a consultant, even those 50 miles away, by train and/or bicycle. He's able to rent a bicycle at or near most train stations if he can't take his own along. At first, he said, many school administrators he dealt with, questioned his capabilities when he showed up on a bicycle. Even in Holland, the Kingdom of the Bicycle, the car is an emblem of one´s worth and if one doesn't use one, is suspect.

Jan was hoping for a book from his wife sent general delivery to the post office for his train ride back. But two other deliveries along the way he expected from her had not arrived, so he was happy to accept a couple of books on France I had finished and had been saving to give to a friend who I intended to visit in the Dordogne of France in ten days or so. Unfortunately, my friend had to return to the U.S. prematurely, so I'll miss her. But at least I was able to lighten my load a little early.

It's now south to Portugal, 75 miles away. I don't have the time to go all the way to Lisbon, but will spend a couple of days in northern Portugal before cutting back across Spain to France. Initially I thought I might follow the Spanish coastline, but Jan mentioned he passed through the town of Indurain, where Tour de France legend Miguel Indurain grew up south of Pamplona and how nice the cycling was there. Depending on how the winds go, that is a tentative target. Then I'll have passed through the home towns of all five five-time Tour de France winners.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Portomarin, Spain

Friends: For centuries the Camino de Santiago has been a vital strand of Spanish culture and heritage, deeply embedded in the national consciousness. James Michener fully understood this, devoting the last 80 pages of his opus on the country, "Iberia", to the route. The pilgrimage is something all Spaniards feel obligated to accomplish, just as the Japanese would all like to climb Mt Fuji, and all Americans ought to bicycle coast-to-coast across the US.

Santiago is Spanish for James.  The pilgrimage route is named for the apostle James, as his remains are believed to be buried in Compestela.   Not only is James revered for introducing Christianity to the country, he is also celebrated for defeating and driving the Muslim Moors out of the country just after the millennium, coming down from heaven and leading the Spanish forces in battle on a white horse. St. James Day, July 25, is Spain´s most celebrated holiday.
The towns along the Camino honor the route with statues and creative renditions of its symbol, the scallop shell.  A wide variety of versions of the shell emblem mark the route.  In Ponferrado a magazine kiosk in the corner of the city´s main plaza on the Camino route featured a golden sunburst of rays in the form of the scallop shell on its facade with an arrow indicating the way. There were a handful of pilgrims scattered about the plaza resting and meandering. I didn't have to wait long for a pair to come along to pass beneath it for a photo.

They were an Australian husband and wife who had started their hike in Le Puy en Velay, France, over 300 miles before St. Jean on the France-Spain border, the most popular starting point. Most of the pilgrims cut the 500 mile distance from St. Jean to Santiago short, starting somewhere along the way. But an intrepid few extend it significantly, starting at a much further distance, as they had. They had been at it nearly two months. They were fully aglow and quietly exultant, hale and hearty despite having been without Vegemite for weeks.

They were among the set of pilgrims who undertook the journey to try to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. Before they left Brisbane the husband sold his business, the wife quit her job, they sold their house and put all their belongings in storage. Their children were all off on their own, so they felt totally obligation-free.

So far they'd come to no conclusions other than they had greatly enjoyed this experience. They were a week from Santiago and then another three or four days to Finesterre on the Atlantic, where St. James' body was brought back to Spain for burial. At the time, the Romans thought it was the western most point of Europe, thus it's name. But the actual most western point by a bit more is a couple hundred miles south in Portugal.

After reaching Land's End the Aussies intend to take a train back to France and linger there, as they had enjoyed it much more than Spain and much more than they had anticipated, especially the food and wine. In France they had gone days without encountering anyone on the trail. As many, they complained about the commercialization of the route in Spain, perturbed by the businesses along the way selling souvenirs and refreshments to the pilgrims.

There are certainly businesses catering to the pilgrims, but they aren't all unwelcome, nor are they as tacky as those found in many tourist areas. Complaining about them is similar to those who malign the business aspect of Cannes. I submerge myself in the cinema of Cannes and have a sensational movie-going experience, while only being dimly aware of the mercantile interests. It probably helps that I don´t hang out in restaurants and bars and have to listen to all such conversation. Likewise, I shrug off the small entrepreneurs on this Camino selling slightly overpriced drinks and souvenirs, even Camino-themed Lance Armstrong-type wrist bands for three euros, almost five bucks.

One thing Spain has over France is it is significantly cheaper. The most pronounced for me is the price of Internet, less than half that of France and much easier to find. My favorite energy food, a 750 milliliter yogurt drink, goes for one euro in Spain. In France it is 1.80 euros, up from 1.50 last year. With the dollar so weak making the exchange rate 20% higher than a year ago, those yogurt drinks are more expensive than gas in France. Gas isn't taxed as heavily in Spain. It goes for 1.30 euros or less for a liter, compared to 1.50 euros or more in France.

Like many, the Aussies weren't inspired to take this walk for religious reasons, but rather by friends who had done it several years ago. They hadn't been disappointed in the least by the experience. Their only surprise was how few people spoke English, not only among the locals, but also among the pilgrims. They'd been told they'd meet English speakers everywhere. I've often heard that too when I've gone off to distant places such as India and Greece and Finland and Germany and elsewhere. The only places it has been true is the Netherlands and Iceland and certain parts of Great Britain.

They scoffed at the idea of dangling a shell from their packs, as most do, though they intended to pick up a couple on the beach in Finisterre, if there are any to be found. They weren't carrying a Bible, nor had they encountered any one who was. They did notice someone, though, fingering a rosary on a steep, long climb. I suggested, that if they truly enjoyed this vagabondage way of life, they ought to invest in a couple of bikes and travel in the grand style of a touring cyclist, unrestricted by hotels and the limited carrying capacity of their back packs. A second choice would be to buy a bed and breakfast in an out of the way place like Ecuador, and make that their life, letting the travelers of the world come to them.

One tradition of the Camino they had embraced was having their pilgrim passports stamped wherever they have stayed. Many people make a contest of trying to accumulate as many stamps as they can. Even if one doesn't stay at a hostel, it is accepted to stop in for a stamp. Many small businesses also have their own stamp and all the tourist offices of the towns on Camino. A German fellow wanted to explain each of his many stamps to me as we waited to get our passports stamped at the tourist office in Leon. Many are unique and interesting.

Only once have I encountered a place where the stamp was left unattended and it was self-service. It was at the small church in Cebreiro. There were actually four different stamps to choose from, two featuring the Holy Grail. This isolated Benedictine cathedral on a hilltop near the highest point on the Camino, tried to attract attention centuries ago by claiming to have the vessel that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. The chalice is still there, just sitting on a pedestal.

I will long remember Cebreiro, as I missed the yellow arrow on the road pointing to the right as I left the town and kept going straight instead, descending 1,000 feet in less than three miles. When the road dwindled from two lanes to one and then became caked with dried cow manure, I realized I was on a road to nowhere and had to turn back for a brutal climb at seven pm after having just climbed 3,000 feet to get to Cebreiro. It was a good test of my conditioning. I continued on til after nine pm, as I needed to descend to warmer temperatures. Even at 2,500 feet elevation, the temperatures have been getting into the 40s at night.

I know enough not to regret such happenstances, knowing they always lead to something I wouldn't have otherwise experienced. One was a great photo looking down on the cathedral in Cebreiro. Another was meeting a fabulous Dutch cyclist the next day, who I otherwise would have been too far down the road to have encountered.

Later, George

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ponferrada, Spain

Friends: The Camino de Santiago could well be known as the Camino of Miracles. There have been a veritable Bible´s worth over the centuries associated with the road. One monastery alone along the way takes credit for 114 of them. Many rival any found in the Old or New Testaments. There could easily be a third Santiago Testament recounting them all. More than a few involve the raising of the dead, not only human but of horses and poultry.

The parable of the chicken is so revered, the town where it occurred keeps chickens in its cathedral and charges admission to see them--two-and-a-half euros for pilgrims, three-and-a-half euros for all others. The story goes that the handsome son of a mother and father making the pilgrimage together caught the eye of the daughter of the owners of the inn the family stayed at in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, about 350 miles from Santiago. When the son spurned her advances, she slipped a silver goblet into his pack and alerted the police to the theft. Justice was swift and severe. He was hung on the spot.

His parents continued on completing their pilgrimage. On their return weeks later their son was still hanging from the tree where he´d been strung up. But he was alive and twitching, saved by the intervention of St. James, rewarding his parents for the faithful completion of their pilgrimage. The parents couldn't get him down, so they rushed to the town mayor to rouse some assistance. He and his family were just sitting down to a dinner of roast chicken. The mayor was incredulous at the parent´s declaration and roared, "He is no more alive than the chickens we are about to eat." With that the chickens immediately sprung to live, squawking and dancing on the table.

This tale makes Santo Domingo one of the more popular places to stay on the camino, along with the charm of the narrow streets of the old town, a small pocket in time surrounded by a modern conventional town. One hostel with 35 beds was already full at two when I arrived. Another with 125 beds, that maintains a stable of chickens, had a line of anxious pilgrims hoping they wouldn't have to resort to one of the various pricey hotels or having to push on to the next village.

The distinctive scallop seashell indigenous to the Galacian seashore beyond Santiago de la Compostela early on became the emblem of the Camino thanks to another miracle. There are different versions to the story, but the main thrust is that a horse and rider happened to drown in the bay when the body of St. James was returned to Spain by his followers for burial. He had been beheaded by Herod in Jerusalem. A while later the horse and rider emerged from the waters covered with sea shells.

The shell is big enough that early day pilgrims could use it as a scoop to eat out of and drink from. Since the shell is only found along the Galacian coast beyond Santiago, returning home with one was proof that one had completed the pilgrimage. One can purchase a shell along the way for one to two euros with a sting attached and often the cross of St. James painted on it in red. Frugal pilgrim that I am, I hoped to find one along the road that had fallen from someone´s pack. On my second day I thought I had found one but it was one of those flimsy white nose and mouth masks that workers use to keep from breathing in fumes or debris. But with its shape and lines, it closely enough resembled the shell, at least from a distance, that that was good enough for me. Plus it is an emblem for bicyclists protesting the fumes from cars. There is a bicyclist version that comes with "Cars Suck" stamped on it.

I can't say that I've experienced any miracles yet, though a couple of days of strong tailwinds was close to a miracle. One day I averaged nearly 16 miles per hour for the day, about my best ever. For spells I was breezing along at 19 miles per hour on the flat. After 70 miles, well on my way to a 100 mile day, I was overtaken by a set of seven Spanish cyclists in matching uniforms, each with a banana peeking out of a rear pocket, and shaved legs. They even had a support vehicle with a spare bike and water trailing behind them.

I dropped into their two-rider wide revolving pace line and was able to tag along at 25 miles per hour for ten miles using my big chain ring for the first time on this trip. I could feel the strain in my legs, but I hung on until we came to a half-mile climb. I stuck close, falling just three or four bike lengths behind by the summit. They let up a bit, letting me catch back up and recovering a bit themselves, but that effort had toasted me. I clung to them for another mile, but I couldn't recover enough to stick with them. Still, it was a minor miracle of ten free miles.

Earlier in the day I caught up with three bulky, non-drafting, older Germans who were struggling to stay together, especially on the climbs. Only one spoke English, but fortunately he was the strongest of the trio. He and I left his companions way behind on a long climb at a very relaxed pace that was killing my average speed for the day. Like most on the road they were neither Catholic nor particularly religions. They were drawn to this as a bonding experience and adventure. They were among the many Germans inspired by the recent best-selling book by a popular German comedian\television personality who made it sound like a fun undertaking. His book was alternately reverent and irreverent. He wasn´t much of a pilgrim, often staying at hotels rather than the communal bunkhouses.

These Germans had had no problem staying in the hostels, though at times they were told they would have to wait until early evening before they were granted beds. Like many I met, the English-speaker asked where I was staying that night. I never have a clue. When the going is good, I keep going. It has been no challenge whatsoever to wild camp. I generally find a hidden and discreet spot, but knowing that pilgrims are given special dispensation, I know I could camp just about anywhere in plain view, just as along the Tour de France route the night before the racers are due to pass. But I am virtually the lone camper. None of the hikers want to carry the extra weight and only a few cyclists. After a spell, still a ways from the summit, we looked back and noticed the other two were nowhere to be seen. My companion said he ought to stop and wait for them to catch up. We parted with the traditional farewell of the road, "Buen Camino."

Later, George

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Burgos, Spain

Friends: Two of the world's most storied paths, the Camino de Santiago and the route the bulls take through Pamplona on their way to the bull ring, converge for several blocks in the heart of Pamplona. Both paths are proudly and prominently marked on the city maps. The annual week-long running of the bulls is a month away, so I had no worries of being gored as I passed through Pamplona.

The route bulls follow is about a mile long starting in a small holding pen just a couple blocks from City Hall. They have a steep initial climb to the small plaza in front of City Hall, where they veer to the left for a block then make a sharp right leading to a long straightaway down a narrow, cobbled street flanked wall to wall with shops. The street is restricted to foot and bicycle traffic for 51 weeks of the year, and to bulls as well for a week in early July. After about five blocks their route crosses a busy intersection and descends into the bull ring down a slight decline. Just to the left of their entry is a large bust of Hemingway, one of only two statues outside the 12,000 seat arena. Unlike the Camino de Santiago, which was well-marked through this sprawling metropolis with yellow arrows and signs with a yellow sea shell on a blue background, there were no bull horns or signs indicating the way of the bulls, not that it would be necessary when they are actually running.

As well marked as the pilgrim´s route is, it is still possible to go astray, especially for a bicyclist who is moving faster than the walkers and can´t keep his focus directly ahead scanning for markers. On those occasions when I fear I may be off track I slow and scan for pilgrims, most distinctive with their backpacks, frequently with a sea shell dangling, emblem of St. James and his way. Many pilgrims are also armed with a walking stick or two. When they're on pavement, there is the sound of those sticks clattering along to listen for. The pilgrims are always a heartening and heart-warming site, whether in an urban environment, where they are a most incongruous site, or off on the trail, often only their upper bodies visible as they amble through fields of grains or vineyards or through orchards of olive trees.

I chose to stick to the pilgrim hiker trail out of Pamplona rather than the less complicated roadways as I had followed the first 50 miles of the route. I managed to lose my way several times and had to do some backtracking, and once even pulled out my compass. In suburban Pamplona I was totally flummoxed and resorted to plopping down on a bench for some crackers with cheese and sausage hoping for a pilgrim to come along. After half an hour without a pilgrim, I seized upon a pedestrian. She was thrilled to direct me to the route, just a block away.

Eventually the sidewalk gave way to a path of hard packed gravel cutting through a field of golden wheat. After half a mile the path turned to dirt and then patches of mud. I began to second guess my choice, especially when the trail began a long, long torturous climb over a high ridge that was lined with whirring wind generators. Actual steps were carved into the hillside it was so steep, absolutely impossible for biking even if I were on a mountain bike. At the top of one brutally steep stretch I came upon a man giving his horse a rest. I hadn't noticed him ahead, nor even hoof prints along the way. The man greeted me in English, "That was impressive, I didn't think it was possible to get up that on a bike, especially one with skinny tires."

He was one of the rare people I´ve met in my travels who immediately introduced himself. "I'm Dean," he said, thrusting forth his hand like a well-trained salesman. Then he launched into a lively, good-spirited, somewhat glad-handing patter, clearly relishing his celebrity as a man on a horse. I asked if he charged for photos. "No, no, go ahead, I´d be honored, just as long as it doesn't turn up on the Internet advertising something or other." I showed him my 20-year old Olympus, appeasing his concerns and earning another compliment for not being one who was hip with the latest of technology.

He´d been prepping his horse since February for this ride. He´d bought it in Spain. He´d initially been camping, but a night in a lightning storm made him decide to give up his tent. After several minutes of conversation, mostly me listening, he blurted, "I've only known you ten minutes, but already I admire you. Usually I have to know someone a couple of weeks before they earn my admiration." "That´s a new record," I replied. "A few months ago I was in Jerusalem and a Muslim, who was impressed with my manner of travel and just camping anywhere, commented to me after 15 minutes that I was the most perfect person he had ever met." "I wouldn't go that far," Dean replied.

We continued on together for half an hour, while I kept a close guard on my wallet. He wasn't bashful about immediately launching into English when a group of three French couples I had earlier passed caught up to us at the summit high over valleys on both sides of us. Amazingly, one of the couples was fluent in English. They were actually more interested in my bike than in Dean´s horse. One of the couples had spent a week the past six years hiking a section of the trail. They had completed the final stretch last year and returned this year with friends to do it again. I have met quite a few people who have hiked the trail multiple times. It is easy to see why. It is an uplifting experience sharing in the camaraderie of the trail.

I have only encountered one set of cyclists with front panniers, as most are riding without tent, trying to keep their load as light as possible. They were a pair of older Dutch guys riding the trail in reverse. They started in Santiago and intend to continue on to Rome, combining two of the three foremost Christian pilgrimage sites. I said, "You ought to keep going to Jerusalem for the third." "We´d like to, but it´s too dangerous." Several others had said the same thing to me. I can tell them otherwise having just been there. "And besides, no harm can come to a pilgrim." But none seem convinced.

A couple of Danish cyclists who have been sticking to the trail and walking a fair bit were happy to meet an American. "About everyone we´ve met have been Germans," they said. "Some German guy wrote a book about hiking the trail a couple of years ago and now everyone in Germany wants to do it." I´ve met a few my self and they've all been the outgoing sort in great spirits.

When I stopped at a hostel to have my passport stamped about seven last night a couple of Canadian women immediately latched on to me hoping I´d be checking in. They´d been on the trail for six days and had been pretty much stuck with the same cluster of people each night going at their pace and they were eager for a fresh personality. But there was still three hours of daylight and I had a rare tailwind, so I had no intention of stopping just yet, though I too am enjoying the route enough that I´d like to prolong it. As always, other things beckon. The Tour starts four weeks from today and its a long way up to its starting point on the English Channel in Brest.

Later, George

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Pamplona, Spain

Friends: The tourist office in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port was not dispensing the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim passports, but rather an organization called "Les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques" over on rue de la Citadelle, a steep, narrow, medieval, cobbled street that was once the town´s main drag. For a mere two euros I was given a slightly larger than passport-sized folder with eight blank pages for stamps from the many refuges and hostels along the way. Upon arrival at Santiago I can present my passport at a similar office and receive a certificate asserting I had completed the pilgrimage and thus be absolved of all my sins. But more important, my passport allowed me to stay at certain dorms along the way for a donation.

However, the first such dorm I came to after a strenuous 17-mile climb crossing the border from France to Spain up into the Pyrenees to the small village of Roncevaux did not accept bicyclists and charged a flat six euros. The Dutch volunteer running the 60-bunk facility said that since bicyclists could range further than walkers, the walkers had priority. For the three weeks be´d been there all 120 beds had been filled each night. With it light until ten, even if there were empty beds at eight or nine, they had to be held for the stragglers. A nearby, smaller youth hostel charged eight euros and there were much more expensive bed and breakfasts. Or one could continue on towards Pamplona, 30 miles away, and find other accommodations in the assorted villages, easy for a bicyclist, but not so easy for someone on foot.

I had arrived at 2:30, way too early to be quitting for the day, especially after only biking 30 miles, but if I had been allowed, I was willing to stay at this first legendary refuge to share the unique communal experience of sleeping with a load of weary, blistered pilgrims after their first day. The dorm was housed in a centuries-old, windowless, stone, warehouse of a building. Its dimly lit interior, enhanced by the fragrance of sweet-smelling candles, looked like a cross between a cathedral and a hospital ward with its neat rows of bunks.

I had to wait until four, when it opened, to get a look. Though I couldn't sleep there, I could get a much needed shower for a couple of euros. I had a host of housekeeping duties (changing brake pads, drying out my gear with the first sunny, rainless day in a while, get some food into me), so that 90 minutes passed quickly. There was no end of entertainment watching all the pilgrims straggling in and listening to the Dutch guy explain the refuge´s procedure in a variety of languages. One had to go to the pilgrim receiving center across the street to pay for the dorm. That office too didn't open until four. One could also purchase a dinner meal ticket at the same place for nine euros.

The pilgrims were a mix of all ages, though mostly retirees. There were few students just yet with most schools still in session. Most walkers were equipped with walking sticks and not very heavy packs. There were several shelves of goods free for the taking in the dorm of items that walkers had discarded after their first day.

According to the pilgrim office in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 31,180 pilgrims had registered at their office in 2007, 13% of which were bikers. That looked about to be the same ratio here. The male-female breakdown of all pilgrims was 56% male, 44% female. The office also had a listed the 60 plus nationalities that had registered at their office in 2007. Not everyone registers at the office and many pilgrims pick up the trail somewhere along the way. One only has to complete the last 100 miles to receive a certificate, and a great many people only do that stretch. About a quarter of those registering in St. Jean were French, the greatest percentage. Next were Germans with 5502, Spaniards 3547, Italians 3384, Canadians 1347, Dutch 983, English 784, Belgians 734, Swiss 686, then Americans with 680. Countries with only one representative included Bolivia, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Taiwan. Every year the numbers increase. In 1996 there were 1,264, in 2005 23,710.

I biked the last several miles into Roncevaux with a retired Englishman who had hiked the trail three times. This was his first time biking it. He was weaving, tacking across the nearly trafficless road as I caught up to him near the 3,500 foot summit. He´d never tackled such a climb on a bike before. He wasn't struggling as much though as a couple of young Dutch girls much further down the mountain, who were stopping to rest and walk a bit every half kilometer. They all admitted they were woefully under-trained, but fully accepted that suffering was a part of the pilgrimage. I also rode a bit with a couple of Italians, husband and wife. I had hoped they could tell me who had won the Giro d´Italia, just completed Sunday. Last I heard, the Spaniard Contador, last year´s winner of the Tour de France for the Discovery team, was in the lead. But they didn't know.

I passed a handful of hikers as I approached St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, but I didn´t encounter any after I registered at the office and set out for Roncevaux 17 miles away, as they all stuck to an alternate route that was only partially paved. It was possible to bike it, but with all the rain in the past weeks it could be more of a slog than I cared to endure. It was also steeper and higher.

There were only four showers, two for the men and two for the women, at the Roncevaux bunkhouse. I was first to the showers, as everyone else in line at its opening grabbed their choice of bunks before heading to the showers. I ate a little more after my shower as my towel dried on the communal clothes line that was already filling up with socks. It was tempting to linger for a couple of hours for a photo of the 200-foot line fully clogged with all manner of socks and towels.

But I was on my way by five, continuing another 20 miles just before the wild camping started to look iffy as I approached Pamplona, one of just three significant cities along the 500-mile pilgrimage route and the largest by far. I had a meadow alongside a river all to myself. There were two more minor passes to climb in those 20 miles, making it a good training route that a continual stream of hard-riding cyclists were taking advantage of, many, many more than I´ve ever encountered in France. This is Basque country and cycling is their passion. There is even a Basque sponsored team that competes in the Tour de France. Signs are in Spanish and Basque. There are militant Basques, explaining a road-block of a dozen soldiers cradling nasty-looking rifles and machine guns that had me thinking I was back in Israel.

I think of Israel whenever I fly down a descent, something I was deprived off when I was there several months ago thanks to a small crack in my rear rim. Hard braking at excessive speeds heated up the rim and led to a couple of flat tires. It was a 48-spoked rim that I couldn't replace while there, so I just put up with it until I returned to Chicago and could entrust its replacement to master-mechanic Joe of Quick Release. I don't like remembering those treacherous descents of Israel, but I am happy though to reminded of the many other fine experiences I had there.

Later, George

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bagnéres-de-Bigorre, France

Friends: I've biked nearly the width of France this past week from Cannes towards the Atlantic along its southern extremity, some 500 miles. I've been gradually regain my conditioning. I was good and strong when I arrived at Cannes after a 680 mile ride from Paris, but two weeks of movie-going with only about ten miles of riding each day (four miles into the Festival from my campsite, a few quick sprints to nearby theaters during the day and then four miles back to the campsite) wasn't enough to maintain it. It's a little more than a month until The Tour starts, July 5, so I have ample time to be in peak shape by then.

My next destination is St. Jean-Pied-de-Port and the start of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, not far from the Atlantic. From St. Jean I'll cross into Spain and then continue 500 miles to the cathedral where the remains of the Apostle James (Santiago) reside. The site has attracted millions of pilgrims since the 800s when they were discovered. At one time it was a Christian Mecca. St. Francis of Assisi is among those who made the pilgrimage, back when it was truly a monumental undertaking in medieval times.

The way is rich with history and lore. I expect to encounter many others biking and walking the route, considerably more than I encountered along the Canal du Midi several days ago, another historic, well-traveled route. When the Canal was constructed in the late 1600s, it was considered the engineering marvel of its time, traveling 150 miles from Toulouse to the Mediterranean, providing a through waterway from the Atlantic. It has dozens of locks, including a series of seven that are known as the Fonseranes Saircase dropping some seventy feet. The Canal was designed to even pass over a couple of rivers.

The Canal was one of Louis XIV's proudest accomplishments. It was originally called the Royal Canal Between the Two Seas, but after the Revolution of 1789 all things royal were renamed. Even cities that maintained an initial loyalty to the monarchy, such as Lyon, had their names stricken. For a period Lyon was known as Libertad Commune. France, and the world, would be a remarkably different place if all the changes instigated after the Revolution remained in place. It would be the year 216 in France, rather than 2008, as in 1792 a new French calendar was established. All the months were renamed, relating to the seasons--Snow, Flowers... The months were divided into three ten-day weeks. The days were divided into ten hours. One change that has endured is the establishment of the metric system.

When I joined up with the Canal du Midi about 25 miles from the Mediterranean, I quickly learned that biking its former tow path after a recent rain is not the best of ideas. Except for a few short stretches, the path is dirt, and rain renders it mud. And since the Canal is flanked by towering plane trees providing a full canopy of shade, it can take several days for the trail to dry out. Since this has been the wettest May in France in the past 58 years, the path alternated between mud and puddles. I could swing off it in spots onto grass, but it was slippery and slow going, causing me to dismount repeatedly.

A woman walking the trail was making better time than I was. I stuck with it for an hour, covering about five miles. The map of the Canal route indicated that thirty miles ahead, the final ten miles into Carcassone, a harder biking surface awaited me, so I reverted to the road and hopped ahead. When I returned to the trail it was a much more bikeable hard-packed gravel. There were other bikers along this stretch and dog-walkers and women pushing baby-carriages. In the hot summer, it would be a delightful shady place to escape to. There were occasional boats, just pleasure craft, most with bikes on deck. It is the oldest still used canal in France. At some of the locks there were a dozen or more boats waiting, as at most only two could pass through at a time.

I've stopped in at four more Ville Etapes since Nimes--Lavenet, Foix, Lannemezan and Bagnéres de Bigorre. Not a one had this year's poster on display nor had any of the towns started mounting their bike-related decorations. Could be after last year's World in Yellow poster, the organizers are still hard at work trying to come up with something as striking. Foix has the rare honor of being a Ville Etape two years in a row. When I mentioned it to the woman at the town's tourist office, she replied, "Yes, but last year we were only a Ville Départ. This year we get to be a Ville Arriveé."

It is much more prestigious and exciting to host a finish rather than the start of a stage. The finish is at prime time, five p.m., when all attention is focused on The Race. Though none of these towns were expressing the gleeful anticipation of hosting a stage that has some towns in a state of ecstasy for months, it was still valuable reconnaissance work for me, scouting out supermarkets and toilets and water and tourist offices and Internet outlets and exit routes. It will save me valuable minutes when time is precious trying to keep up with The Race. I am very happy to make the acquaintance of these latest Ville Etapes when they can be themselves before the Grand Ball that is The Tour.

Later, George