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

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