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.