Saturday, May 9, 2009

Brignoles, France

Friends: The presentation of each year's Tour de France route is a prime-time gala ceremony every October held in a Paris theater. It is attended by riders and team directors and press and sponsors and representatives of host cities and assorted dignitaries. It is a highly anticipated event not only by the followers of the sport, wondering what mountains and extra challenges will be a part of it, but also by everyone in France, wondering if the Tour might pass their very doorstep.

The unveiling of each year's Tour poster deserves equal pomp and ceremony, as it too will touch the lives of millions, and will live forever as the emblem of the year's Tour. It is invariably a master-work of art that can be commented on at length. It will be reproduced millions of times in newspapers and magazines and on t-shirts and billboards and posters along the 2,100 miles of The Tour route. It will exalt and capture the imagination of those inside and outside the sport.

This year's poster is another iconic image for the ages, comparable to the poster of two years ago that rearranged the continents on a globe to form a human figure on a bicycle. The 2009 edition is a golden shroud spun to form a cone of a mountain with a sharp pointed peak. It stands out from a range of mountains in the background. It's air of mysticism could have been inspired by the German mountain artist Caspar David Friedrich. There is not a cyclist to be seen, though on closer examination one can see the Tour de France logo near the summit of the peak and then recognize that the shroud is a veritable yellow jersey. Above the dramatic pointed peak is the slogan "Le Tour Toujours," The Tour Forever.

The mountains always define The Tour. It is there that the riders distinguish themselves or fall to pieces. The mountains are a cyclist's, and man's, proving grounds, a battlefield that test their fortitude. They can awe and inspire and give one something to meditate upon, as does this poster. The mountain on this poster bears no resemblance to this Tour's signature mountain, Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence, but it does bear testimony that The Tour is its mountains.

I just spent nearly a day in the presence of The Ventoux, as I approached it and circled around it, and could feel its power. It is a solitary hunk of a mountain, a behemoth mound separate from any range. It has no peak, but it is a long, steep, much-feared climb, longer and much more challenging than L'Alpe d'Huez, especially the final four miles above tree line on a rocky, semi-lunar surface that can be scorching hot.

I lingered in the town of Bédouin at the start of the foremost of the three routes to the summit, eating lunch in the town square beside a fountain with four spigots dispensing cold spring water. All the while cyclists stopped to fill their water bottles. Bédouin and The Ventoux are a cyclist's Mecca. The round-about outside the town on the approach from Carpentras features an iron cyclist on an incline with the actual summit of The Ventoux in the distance just over his shoulder.

Mont Ventoux is a regular feature of the week-long Daphine-Libéré race that precedes The Tour. The Ventoux stage will be June 11 this year, providing The Tour riders an early test. In both races the riders will pass Bédouin's fountain as they commence their climb. They will also pass, facing the fountain, a plaque on a wall to Tom Simpson, the English rider who died on Mont Ventoux in the 1967 race a mile from the summit with an excess amount of amphetamines in his system. There is a full-fledged monument to him on the mountain beside the point where he expired.

The tourist office in Bédouin did not have The Tour poster up yet. I first saw it in the tourist office in Aubenas, the arrival city for the stage before the Mont Ventoux stage. The tourist office had free Tour de France postcards advertising its status as a Ville Etape. The tourist office here in Brignoles, the arrival city for the first stage after the opening prologue in Monaco, also had the poster on proud display. There were also posters about town already, even though it is nearly two months until The Tour arrives.

It is less than 70 miles to Cannes.

Later, George

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