Friends: Somehow in my thousands of miles of bicycling around France these past five years I have managed to miss the significant city of Vichy, spa town and seat of the French government during World War II. The Nazis ran the country from Paris, while they allowed the French to maintain a shadow government in Vichy, 250 miles south of Paris.
Vichy has rarely been included on the Tour de France route, as the route predominantly sticks to the perimeter of France and Vichy is very near its center. Nor have I included it on my route from Paris to Cannes these past five years. It wasn't exactly on my route this year either, but I had time to spare to swing west 50 miles or so to give it a look.
It wasn't necessarily its central location nor the spas that made Vichy suitable as a capital city, but rather its abundance of ready accommodations with over 250 hotels serving the many spas. There are so many grand, palatial hotels, the Vichy tourist office offers a tour featuring nothing other than hotels. This small city boasts many other attractions. It has a lengthy series of parks along Lake d'Allier and museums and opera house and magnificent architecture. One can leisurely wander about choosing any of several centuries he would care to imagine himself in. It is a city with an unhurried and gentle ambiance I will be glad to return to.
I was pleased to discover that it was the birthplace of Alfred Londres, a poet and investigative journalist who penned a series of legendary articles on the Tour de France in the 1920s. The house of his birth in 1884 was included on one of the walking trails about the city.
Londres covered The Tour the year after he had written a highly acclaimed book on the notorious French penal colony in Guyana. His series of articles on The Tour was entitled "Convicts of the Road." He revealed the harshness, if not brutality, of the race. He described the wide variety of drugs the riders resorted to and also their antagonism towards Tour director Henri Desgrange, who they considered a slave master. The articles only enhanced the popularity of the race.
From Vichy it is 100 miles to Puy-en-Velay, a city that I am eager to return to. It is the foremost starting point in France for the Santiago de Compestala pilgrimage route thanks to an astonishing chapel built atop one of two spire-like volcanoes in the heart of the city. It was constructed in the 900s by the local bishop after he had made the pilgrimage to Santiago. It is more astounding than the much more famous Mont St. Michel. But Mont St. Michel's location on the English Channel makes it more accessible to the tourist hoards, drawing it much more attention. Puy-en-Velay, like Vichy, is one of France's many treasures that not many tourists take the time to visit.
Yvon and I passed three older men walking along the road wearing loaded backpacks. Yvon recognized them as fellow travelers as we approached them and heartily shouted,"Bonjour colleagues." Then he asked if they were headed to Santiago, even though it was over 1,000 miles away and we weren't on any official route. His guess was correct. If we had stopped to talk to them, they would have been delighted to see Yvon's jersey, a souvenir of his ride from Puy-en-Velay to Santiago in 2002 with a group. It had been Yvon's longest ride until his circuit of France. His jersey had the route etched on the front and a golden scallop shell, the pilgrim's emblem, on the back and shoulders. Riding behind Yvon staring at the shell brought back a continual flow of fond memories from my Santiago ride last summer before the Tour de France.
This year I will spend the five weeks between Cannes and The Tour in Italy, giving it another chance to win me over. My previous two brief excursions in the northern part of the country were so traffic-clogged I have been hesitant to return. But this year I will try to search out more lightly traveled roads through the heart of the country, starting at its southern extremity after island-hopping from Corsica to Sardinia to Sicily.
No people love the bike more than the Italians. I thought it would be the promised land for cycling. In a way it is, as despite the excessive traffic, there are still many many more cyclists out on the roads than in France and they all exuberantly salute a fellow cyclist as they pass. That certainly counts for something. But when I contrast the magnificent tranquility of the French countryside to what I have experienced in Italy, I much prefer cycling in France, even though I assumed Italy would have been my preference. I'm still hoping I will discover the Italy of my dreams.
It is now less than a week to my annual 12-day immersion into the world of cinema. On the way I will scout out three Tour stage cities--Aubenas, Montelimar and Brignoles. I will also swing pass Mont Ventoux, where the penultimate stage of The Tour will conclude, the day before the race ends in Paris. It will be the first time in The Tour's history that a mountain stage will come so late in the race. It will be highly dramatic. I was atop The Ventoux in 2004 for the Daphne-Libere time trial that Lance finished behind Ibyn Mayo and Tyler Hamilton. I have looked forward to returning ever since.