Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Travels With Yvon, France

Friends: For the third time since I met Yvon, a retired French postal worker and fellow arch-devotee of the bicycle, at the hallowed Notre Dame de Cyclists Chapel north of the Pyrenees in 2005, I have been able to meet up with him for some cycling here in France. As we have in the past, we arranged to rendezvous in front of a church in a small French town. This time it was in Chateauvillain, about halfway between Paris and Mulhouse, where Yvon lives near the German border.

I biked the 180 miles from Charles de Gaulle airport, while Yvon came by train, as he had a petanque tournament to compete in the day before. I was somewhat pressed to arrive at our agreed upon meeting time between 11 and 12 less than 48 hours after I landed, but the winds were not adversarial and the terrain fairly flat, so I did not have to deprive myself of any sleep or resort to heavy doses of caffeine to make our appointment. I managed 50 miles after my overnight flight from Chicago to Paris that included a stop-over in London. I arrived in Paris at 1:30 and was biking by 2:30. I defeated jet-lag once again by biking until 8 p.m., then sleeping for 12 hours in a dark and quiet forest. The next day I was good for 100 miles and an 11-hour sleep.

That second night I camped ten miles outside of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, hometown of Charles de Gaulle. There is a museum and towering cross devoted to him on a hill overlooking his small village of two churches. I had passed by it three years ago on the way to visit Yvon in Mulhouse, but didn't have the time then to visit it. I had no regrets, as I knew I'd doubtlessly have another chance in the years to come. The Tour de France passed through DeGaulle's village in his later years and paused in the middle of the race to pay tribute to him. One racer, however, did not stop, unbeknownst to everyone else, and sped off to win the stage.

The museum did not open until ten, unfortunately. I was there at nine and could not linger as it was 20 miles to Chateauvillian and Yvon, so I was only able to peek in and climb up to the cross, erected in 1972. But I will inevitably have another chance for the museum in the years to come.

I arrived in Chateauvillain shortly before 11, early enough to stop by the supermarket for groceries. All the supermarkets had been closed the day before as it was May 1, a big French holiday. Through every town I passed there were people sitting at tables along the road selling flowers, as it is a tradition for men to give flowers to women on this day. Luckily I had brought along several dozen breakfast and energy bars and a jar of peanut butter and biscuits. They provided my fuel for the day.

As I approached the supermarket in Chateauvillain I saw Yvon up ahead, just leaving. He said it was good that I was early as he had arranged an interview with a reporter for the regional newspaper at 11 at the church, our meeting point. He said he arrived in town at nine and while he was sipping a coffee at a small restaurant reading the regional newspaper he noticed that there was a local correspondent with a phone number listed. He gave her a call telling her about our international cycling friendship and that we were meeting up for a couple day ride. She agreed that it was a worthy story. So Yvon said I had no time for the supermarket. Instead I could get some food at a smaller grocery store by the church.

The reporter arrived shortly after we did. She spoke no English, so Yvon more or less conducted the interview. He knew the answers to most of the questions she asked, so I didn't even have to reply. When she asked my profession, Yvon said, "Oh this is interesting." One question she asked that I'm not ordinarily asked, was what I ate, something of course the French would be very much interested in.

As always, I knew that I would gain even greater insights into France and the French in my time with Yvon. He knows he missed his calling working in the post office. He ought to have been a travel agent, given his great interest in travel and his natural outgoing, exuberant personality and his facility with languages and his eagerness to share his knowledge. But he said he was able to somewhat savor the world of travel as he sorted mail with stamps that came from all over the world. One of the strongest lessons I learned from Yvon this time, is that thought I share much in common with the French, I am greatly lacking in an appreciation for food, which is an integral part of their culture. Yvon's meals seemed a culinary delight compared to my basic fare. When we had dinner at a cafeteria he naturally included a hunk of cheese and biscuit and wine and strawberries with cream. I just grabbed a plain ol' hard-boiled egg, while he choose the deviled eggs.

Even though Yvon has done a fair amount of bicycle touring, including a solo circuit of the circumference of France, he does not camp, so for the first time in my six bicycle ventures in France I stayed at a hotel. It was at a Formula 1, a chain of bargain-prized motels. We shared an almost capsule like cubicle with two narrow beds, a sink, and a table with a lone chair below a television. Shower and toilets were down the hall. We at least didn't have to flip a coin to see who got to take his shower first, as there were multiple showers, each in their own tiny compartment.

Yvon does plan to give camping a try. He recently bought a tent and intends to test it out in his son's back yard later this summer. Yvon and his wife occasionally babysit for their two grandchildren, eight and ten years old. They spent several days staying with them over Easter while their parents were in Montreal looking for a house. Yvon's son is a lawyer for a large French pharmaceutical company. He recently vacationed in Montreal with his family and liked it so much he asked to be transferred there. He said the Canadians aren't as in such a hurry as the French. Yvon said he had the same impression when he traveled there himself several years ago. Yvon's son so enjoyed the seeming less harried pace of Canada that he told his boss that if he wouldn't transfer him, he would quit the company and move there on his own. "My son is like you and me," Yvon said, "He doesn't care so much about money."

Even though Yvon travels extensively, he rarely has the need to use his English. He said speaking English with me was more tiring than the bicycling. When we came to one long climb he said, "On this climb we do not speak." Even when he visits Holland he rarely has to resort to English, as most Dutch speak French perfectly adequately. But when he does speak English with the Dutch, he said he can understand their English better than mine.

Yvon could only spare two days to cycle with me, as he had to get home to meet up with some friends from Portugal. Our ultimate destination was Le Guidon, the home town of two-time Tour de France winner Bernard Thevenet. It is a perfectly named town for a bicyclist, as "guidon" is the French word for "handlebar." I had passed through it last year, but it was so small it did not have village signs and I missed it. I wanted to return and try to see once again if there was any acknowledgement of it being the birthplace of a famous bicycle racer. Yvon is a great lover of the Tour de France. He had never been to Thevenet's village and was curious too. Le Guidon was about 85 miles south of Dijon,where we stayed at the Formula 1, and five miles after Charelles, a town large enough to have a hotel for Yvon. He planned to accompany me to Le Guidon and then double back to Charelles. We had another fabulous day of cycling together. We biked along the Canal de Centre for about 50 miles to the large city of Montceau-de-Mines, a recent Tour Ville Etape I had visited.

Yvon and his wife had bicycled some of those miles. They met an 80-year old guy biking along who had been a teammate of Jacques Anquetil, five-time winner of The Tour de France. Yvon has also crossed paths with present Tour de France rider Christophe Moreau in his training rides near Mulhouse. He has also met some former riders at bicycling functions, including the brother of Louisson Bobet, three-time winner of the Tour, as well as Laurent Jalabert and Thevenet. How wonderful this sport is, being able to connect with its stars in one fashion or another.

When we arrived in Charelles around 6:30 Yvon said he was a bit too exhausted to continue on to Le Guidon. That was okay as the prime purpose of our ride was just to spend time with each other. There will no doubt be longer rides in the future. Yvon was a superb traveling companion. He delights in all and sundry. He does not hesitate to stop to ask directions or a question, as it is an opportunity to interact with others. He was happy to introduce me as a friend from Chicago. People would frequently give me news of the Bulls. "The Bulls are tied three to three with Boston," he said. The Bulls are one of three NBA teams with a French player. Theirs is the most prominent, Joakim Noah, son of Yannick Noah, the tennis star who won the French Open and married a Miss Sweden.

Yvon stopped to ask an older woman working in her garden if there was a water spigot nearby to fill our water bottles. She dropped her rake and brought us into her house. As with everyone Yvon encounters, he charmed her so much that she said if we had been an hour earlier we could have joined her for lunch. When we left after ten minutes she gave both of us kisses on both our cheeks. Yvon said if we had been wild camping and were in need of a shower, she no doubt would have let us have one.

After Yvon and I parted, I continued on to Le Guidon, and nearly missed it again, it is so tiny, just a cluster of half a dozen or so homes at a cross roads. And there at the crossroads was a yellow sign that I had missed last year paying tribute to Thevenet. It was the only sign that identified the village. It read "Le Guidon, Village Natal de Bernard Thevenet Double Vainqueur de Tour de France 1975/1977." It also mentioned that on July 11, 2003 the 90th edition of the Tour de France had passed through Le Guidon.

Later, George

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