Friends: Sisteron stands alone among the four Ville Etapes I've visited the past three days in its preparation and excitement of getting to play host to the Tour de France come July. It is the first time that Sisteron has had such an honor and it is making the most of it, even going to the extent of hiring someone with experience to oversee it.
Sisteron is a gorgeous town of 8,000 people in the foothills of the Alps at the confluence of two rivers. It boasts a variety of tourist attractions including a citadel on a promontory above the city and a museum devoted to scouts, as well as an eco-museum. The Tour has passed through it on occasion during its 108-year history, but surprisingly it has never been a Ville Etape.
Of the 32 Ville Etapes in this year's Tour, eleven are first-timers, though Bour-lés-Valence and Bourg-de-Pèage, which I've just visited, don't really count, as they are smaller towns adjoining cities that have previously hosted The Tour. Neither of the Bourgs had a tourist office. There were no banners or posters to be seen anywhere in Bourg-lés-Valence, next to Valence, advertising itself as a Ville Etape, and Bourg-de-Péage, next to Romans d'Isere, had a mere banner hanging from a fence announcing it will host the 12th stage of The Tour.
I did notice one home-made banner stretched across the top floor of a three-story building depicting a series of cyclists riding up a road. I didn't see it until I'd crossed the Isere river to Romans and looked back across the river. If I manage to make it back when The Tour passes through I expect to see the round-abouts decorated with bikes and shop windows adorned with bicycles and yellow and green and red polka-dots. Not yet though, unfortunately.
The large city of Chambéry, about forty miles north of the even larger city of Grenoble, has the honor of being the departure point for the Bastille Day stage, always one of the preeminent stages of The Tour. Its been a while since Chambéry last hosted The Tour, but its not thumping its chest about it just yet, with only a small billboard outside the former tourist office announcing that The Tour would be passing by.
The new tourist office had no mention of it whatsoever, even though it will be departing from the square right in front of it then heading through the heart of the city past the Fontaine des Elephants, one of the most unique fountains in all of France. It features the front half of four larger than life elephants bursting out from its central pillar. It was built in 1838 to honor General de Boigne, a local who made a fortune in India and became a great benefactor to the city before his death in 1830. The peloton will head 112 miles south to Gap over one category-one climb and a couple of other minor ones along the Route de Napoleon. It will pass behind L'Alpe d'Huez. The Tour is neglecting it this year, the first time in decades that it has by-passed it two years in a row.
It will be a beautiful stage, but it will be hard to surpass the beauty of the next day's stage, the 115 miles from Sisteron to Bourg-lés-Valence, that I biked a couple days ago. Though it has only one climb, up the Col de Cobre, it is sandwiched between thinly settled mountainous terrain and follows for miles the Drome River. It is such fine cycling there were quite a few cyclists out enjoying it, though none with packs such as mine. By July the Drome River will be full of canoeists and kayakers.
I've had superlative forest campsites all to myself each of the past five nights since leaving Cannes. I've hardly needed my sleeping pad so soft has the ground been from fallen leaves. I continue to marvel at the ease of cycling and camping in France, especially in contrast to my recent travails in Africa.
Though this region doesn't have the chateaus and cathedrals that draw many to France, it has scenery that would delight anyone, and all the minor features of France that are so easy to take for granted, but all contribute to its grandeur. Picnic tables abound along the roads and water spigots jut out of cliff sides and are on offer in town plazas, many designed with artistic flair. Just as French women are attentive to their appearance, but without overdoing it, so do towns try to make themselves attractive in some subtle way with flowers or or sculpture or art. France is truly a cyclist's paradise.