Monday, May 10, 2010

On the Road in France with Craig

Friends: Every year now since I met Yvon, the retired French postman, we have arranged to meet for some cycling or at least to watch a stage or two of the Tour de France during my annual ride around France. This year our plan was to meet at his brother's house near the Pyrenees when the Tour came through in the middle of July and to use it as a base to watch three or four stages together.

But fate grew impatient and couldn't wait for our yearly rendezvous. Less than an hour after Craig and I began our second day of cycling a van passed us giving a friendly toot and then pulled over up the road. Out jumped a grey-haired gentlemen. Craig with his minimal touring experience feared he was going to harangue us for something or other. I knew it was someone who wanted to congratulate us or offer us food or drink or a place to stay or perhaps just query us about our travels. It wasn't until I was nearly upon the gentleman that I recognized Yvon.

It was a meeting almost as miraculous, if not preordained, as our initial meeting at the Notre Dame de Cyclist Chapel one Sunday morning five years ago when we were both engaged in our own independent bicycle tours around France. Yvon and his wife had been attending a table tennis tournament in Montpelier, about 100 miles away. He didn't know I was riding to Cannes from Bordeaux this year, rather than Paris, so hadn't suggested trying to meet up. When he gave the friendly toot, he didn't know it was me. It was only as he passed that his wife Francoise recognized who they had passed.

Even though Yvon's English is very very good, he doesn't get to use it too often and admits its always a strain and wearying to have to speak English. It can be frustrating at times for his tongue to keep up with his mind trying to express himself. He knew that Craig is fluent in French. His first reaction when he greeted us was, "Now we'll be able to fully communicate."

He was gushing with his usual boyish enthusiasm, speaking half-English and half-French barely giving Craig time to translate. He said just a few days ago he had passed another touring cyclist along the road and stopped to talk to him. Few French tour so Yvon immediately starting speaking English to him. The cyclist spoke English, but Yvon soon learned he was French. He told him about my travels and blog, which Yvon says he has been reading.

Yvon was excited to report that he was on his way to Briancon to climb the Col d'Izoard, one of the top five climbs used by the Tour de France. I was surprised he has never given it a ride, as he has climbed all the other great climbs--L'Alpe d'Huez, the Galibier, the Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux. He said the day he climbed the Galibier and then L'Alpe d'Huez was one of his greatest days.

The Col d'Izoard is off in a corner of the country near the Italian border. I told him to keep his eye out for a plaque on a rocky spire a couple miles from the summit honoring Coppi and Bobet. Both had some great triumphs there. It was Bobet's favorite climb. He and his younger brother, also a Tour de France rider, climbed it on Bobet's 50th birthday, with Bobet unable to resist sprinting ahead of his brother to the summit.

After 15 minutes of catching up Yvon said he'd like to treat us to lunch in the town of Uzes, ten miles ahead. About a mile from the town Yvon was waiting for us along the road half way up a mile long hill. He shouted a few "Allees" and a "Tres Bien" and said Francoise was at the summit in their van. Yvon jogged to catch up with us. Then we met up at a parking lot on the outskirts of Uzes, where they left their van and we walked into the town center for a nice meal at an outdoor cafe.

Yvon usually keeps a very tight schedule. When we met at the Cycling Chapel he had assumed that it would open at one p.m. He arrived at noon, allowing himself one hour for lunch at a picnic table and then one hour to go through the chapel, a mini-museum of racing bicycles and jerseys and souvenirs. But the chapel didn't open until two. Yvon was due to be at his bed and breakfast at six p.m. and didn't care to delay to see the museum. He said he would be back that way later in the summer and would see it then.

I was greatly disappointed not to have had the pleasure of Yvon's company and translating abilities at the museum, knowing that he would be spouting excitement and explanation over many items that he would have known much more about than me, having been a bicycle racing fan all his life. So as we ate lunch, I feared he'd be staring holes at his watch eager to be on his way to Briancon, over 250 miles away, but he didn't mind at all prolonging our meal, nor did we.

Craig and I weren't on a tight schedule. The only site we planned to stop for on our way to Cannes was a bicycling museum in a small town just before Avignon. Unfortunately, it was too early in the season for it to be open on a Friday. During the summer months it would be open every day, but now, just on weekends. At least we were able to scout out its whereabouts. Craig may be able to see it on his ride back to Notre Dame de Rouviere, and I may be able to see it when I pass back this way during the Tour de France. If not, next year.

Craig was bursting with almost as much delight as Yvon, happy to be on his bike out in rural France. "I've been looking forward to this for six months," he commented. As we were eating some sheep's cheese, that he had bought in the local market from a friend, he said, "This is the first real cheese I've eaten in six months."

His enthusiasm was dampened a bit when on our third day shortly after we had begun our riding and were approaching the climb to Le Baux-de Provence it began to rain and continued all day long with only intermittent pauses. We were reduced to eating our picnic lunch under the overhang of a supermarket. At least it gave Craig a chance to give his new poncho a thorough test.

It kept him relatively dry, but we both ended the day with soaked shoes. It was too cold during the night for them to dry, so we had to begin our day with wet feet. The thought came to me that it was too bad we hadn't thought of scavenging a newspaper to ball up and stuff inside them to suck the moisture out during the night.

Many towns have a series of recycling containers on their outskirts. After bringing up newspaper when we came to the next recycling center Craig said, "Let's check to see if it has newspapers." It didn't, but the next one we came to did. We weren't so desperate to immediately take off our shoes and stuff them with newspaper, but waited until lunch. By then our shoes had dried fairly well in the perpetual wind of their pedaling, but we still managed to soak some more moisture out, which gave us great satisfaction. It was a dank and cold day until we neared the coast and began the final climb to Cannes from Frejus, about 20 miles away.

We camped at the summit of the three-mile climb in a much more flat and accessible place than I had camped in previous years a bit beyond the summit. Usually the area is thick with hikers and I have to be more discreet. But with the inclement weather, there was no one about. We were able to set up camp at 6:30 down a dirt road that had a barricade saying not open to the public. We could have continued on to Cannes and stayed at the campgrounds I'll be at during the festival, but this was much quieter and more authentic of a camping experience and without cost.

Later, George


JeffOYB said...

Hi George and Craig! Have a good tour! Someday it would be fun to ride and hang out with you guys over there. For now I'm a "doer" in my local area, and will keep my legs ready and touring stuff in good order, so if I get a chance again to go abroad I won't be a "gonna"! Or maybe we could do a coastal tour of Lk Mich north from Chi to give you global types a taste of your own backyard! Best wishes, Jeff Potter (I bet Chris Bushell would 2nd me on that)

Yonder Vittles said...

what did you have for lunch in the cafe?

Julie Hochstadter said...

So neat! I love to hear about your travels.