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

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