Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Paris (Ville Arriveé)

Friends: The image of men on bikes racing full-tilt, or near full-tilt, with their wide range of grimly contorted faces has been so firmly implanted in my consciousness from hours of close-up viewing on multiplex-sized screens at race stage finish lines these past three weeks that I have frequently found myself emulating those road warriors, pounding the pedals with more vigor than I ordinarily would with an extra bit of intensity etched into my face. My thought strays and when I am jarred back to the present, I suddenly realize my head is bent low and my eyes are pushed up under my eyebrows looking not much further ahead than the wheel that could be just in front of me and I'm pedaling like a man possessed.

I am in such a state of mind that when I reach for my water bottle, I don't casually pluck it from its cage, but grab it with a jerk, almost with fury, in the palm of my hand and give it a hard squeeze, barely tilting my head, just as do those prisoners of the peloton, doing their penance. I realize I have been transported from the tranquil world of the touring cyclist to the racer's realm of hardened determination chasing down a break or setting the pace for my team leader trying to drop the weak or riding off the front trying to stay away. It feels good to be riding hard with such zeal and purpose, all cylinders at near max. I don't want to let up, only wondering how long I can sustain such an effort or if I could possibly raise the tempo, though only mildly trespassing on the thresholds of pain the racers wallow in. I am surprised by this extra energy and want to enjoy it while it lasts. It's as if I've attained a higher level of consciousness, shedding some of those earthly bounds.

So it was again as I biked The Tour's final rural miles before reaching the Parisian metropolis of 12 million inhabitants, 20% of the country's population. Less than 25 miles from the Eiffel Tower The Tour route passed through forests being logged and fields with giant rolls of recently harvested hay, some still aligned to form bikes, and others stacked as viewing stands.

Earlier in The Tour one town along the way, in dairy country, had arranged their hay to form cows. Each had a sign with a pun on the word "lait" (milk). The only one I could appreciate was "pelaiton". I'm surprised I hadn't come across that spelling before, especially in US publications. With the high rate of cycling illiteracy in the US, peloton is frequently misspelled, often as "peleton". Lance's mother's autobiography spelled it that way. Even Bob Roll, former Lance teammate and commentator and author of a couple of books, spelled it "peleton" in an introduction he wrote for another's book, though that could be blamed on an editor. Since peloton is the French word for platoon, it ought to be easy to remember that is is spelled with two o's. If the word peloton had anything to do with soccer, the sport's association with Pele could easily cause people to misspell it with a pair of e's.

I did find a leftover caravan newspaper I was hoping for along the roadside, five of them in fact, here and there, each a little damp, but salvageable. The final of the 21 cartoons featured in each edition portrayed two riders flying through a narrow lane of sheep filling the page. I thought the editors might have been saving the best cartoon for the final issue, but it might have come the day before in the time trial issue. It showed a cyclist who had evidently just hit a severe pothole. He was kneeling beside a tree holding aloft his severely bent front wheel to catch the attention of a woman approaching on a bicycle. The wheel had been pretzeled into the shape of a heart. The cartoon would make for the ultimate cyclist's Valentine's Day card.

That final issue also included an interview with the prince of Monaco. He was attending The Tour, as Monaco will have the much sought after honor of hosting the start of next year's race. The last time The Tour visited Monaco was in 1964 on a stage won by Anquetil. It will be interesting to see what route the race will take from there. The Alps are just to the north and Italy to the east. Ordinarily the mountains aren't served up until the second week of The Tour. If The Tour follows tradition, alternating its direction around France, clockwise one year, counter-clockwise the next, it will head west towards the Pyrenees. But tradition also has it that the Alps and Pyrenees take turns in their order, so it is the Alps turn to come first. It could be a very creative route, perhaps a figure eight angling into the Massif Central from Monaco then looping over to the Alps. Usually The Race starts up north in the flat. A southern start is a rarity. We'll find out in October when the grand ceremony in Paris is held revealing the route and all the Ville Etapes.

I had to look hard to notice any litter along The Tour route to Paris less than 48 hours after it had been teeming with tens of thousands of fans. If I looked hard I recognized some Tour-related litter, an occasional Vittel plastic water bottle, Hariboo candy wrapper, but nothing worth salvaging other than those stray newspapers. The only real clues that The Tour had been through were occasional barriers at side roads that had yet to be picked up by road crews even though they had been moved aside. The sidewalks along the Champs Elysees, though, were still nearly fully barricaded and the stands remained too.

I arrived in Paris with hours to spare before the night's Open Air movie at the park by the Museé de la Musique on the outskirts of the city off Avenue Jean Jaures on the way to the airport and my wild campsite. It wasn't dark enough until 10:30 to start the program. The movie was "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" from 2005 starring Johnny Deep. Of the 35 films on the eclectic summer schedule it was the most mainstream and one of only three movies from the last ten years. It wasn't exactly a classic, as most on the schedule, but I didn't mind at all watching Tim Burton's fantasy extravaganza featuring song and dance numbers by Munchkin-type characters wearing suits. The French subtitles increased my vocabulary by a word or two.

The best French lesson I received on this trip, though, was in Brest during the rehearsal for the nationally televised rock concert the evening before The Tour started. It was outdoors and free. I and several thousand others arrived early enough to watch the rehearsal. Each of the dozen or so performers came on stage to sing a song and test the sound system. Several of the singers had the lyrics to their songs flash on a big screen as they sang, though not during the actual performance. It was a treat not only to be able to distinguish the sounds coming from their mouths but also how to pronounce the words on the screen. It was more exciting than the actual concert and not something I anticipated.

This was the 18th year of these outdoor movies in Paris, but a sign of the times was that for the first time admission was being charged--two euros. The lawn was still as packed as a year ago when I saw Steinbeck's "East of Eden" before my return to Chicago. The only difference was that there were less than 100 bikes in the valet parking area, compared to a couple hundred last year. Could be more people are locking their bikes to avoid the long wait to get their bike back as the bike appeared to be as popular as a year ago when the much acclaimed rental bike program was inaugurated. There were considerably more available for rent this year, many of the new outlets taking up former car parking. Ben and Jerry's is the chief sponsor of the outdoor movies. On three Friday nights of triple features they are giving away ice cream. One of the triple features is the Godfather series. Since each is nearly three hours long, the program will barely finish before dawn's light. A trio of Eastwood pictures is another and three by Almodovar is the third of the Friday triple feature.

The cornfield twelve miles from the outdoor theater I camped in last year was planted in hay this year, not high enough to hide my tent, so I had to push on a couple miles further to the forest by the airport. I didn't mind, other than it meant no sleeping in with jets roaring past me on the runway not more than 100 feet away starting at six a.m.

I've biked nearly 6,000 miles these past three months and, astoundingly, did not have a single flat tire, the luckiest I've ever been. Those German Continental Conti Touring tires are phenomenal. I'm lucky Rapid Transit Bike Shop just a few blocks from my residence keeps them in stock, and I was equally lucky to find a set in Brest four weeks ago when I needed to replace them.

One more night in the tent and then home tomorrow.

Later, George

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