Saturday, June 12, 2010

Cologne, Germany

Friends: There was no "Welcome to Deutshland" or any other such indication that I had crossed into Germany from Belgium yesterday afternoon except the sudden profusion of cars flying mini-German flags from their front windows. It is World Cup time and Germany is acting as if it is hosting it again as it did four years ago, with flags dangling everywhere.

I wasn't overly excited about biking in Germany, knowing that German motorists expect cyclists to stick to bike paths when they are available, but I've only received one horn toot so far in sixty miles from an upset motorist. Having biked across India, horn toots don´t bother me, but I don´t appreciate it when a motorist cuts close to me to emphasize their dissatisfaction, as this one did.

Germans can get upset when someone isn't abiding by the rules, though there are no signs saying that bicyclists must ride on the sidewalk of a bike path out in rural terrain. Twice when I did, I was led astray at complicated intersections, so I stick to the road as much as I can. There are lots of cyclists here in Cologne. I can follow them when they leave the sidewalk bikeway and take to the road without fearing the wrath of a motorist.

I did greatly welcome the leveling of the terrain upon entry to Germany after a day-and-a-half of repeated steep one and two miles climbs in the Ardennes of Belgium. It took me six hours to ride 57 miles my last day in Belgium, climbing for twenty minutes in my lowest gear, followed by a six minute descent and then another twenty minute climb. But that´s what makes the Belgians such tough, formidable cyclists.

I have completed my scouting of The Tour route for now. I will continue my training by zipping across Germany to Berlin, 500 miles away, then 350 miles up to Denmark for a few days before heading to Rotterdam, another 300 miles, where The Tour starts three weeks from today.

I have visited fourteen of The Tour´s 32 Ville Etapes in the past two weeks, the best preparation I've ever had for a Tour. Of the other 18 Ville Etapes, I know several of them from previous years--Bordeaux, Gap, Pau, the Tourmalet and Paris, though I won´t be making it to Paris this year.

It is always such a pleasure biking France, maybe next year I will bike the entire Tour route before The Tour starts. It would be interesting to make a count of how many war memorials and Jesus's on a cross the route goes by and other such oddities. I´m unable to keep track during the actual race, especially since I'm not totally faithful to The Tour route during The Race, taking shortcuts here and there trying to keep up.

As sure as the peloton will pass through fields of radiant sun flowers and climb past snow-streaked peaks, it will also pass a nuclear power plant or two and its tall, foreboding towers. Nuclear power plants may not be as common as bakeries or war memorials or Jesus's on a cross, but they do qualify as being ubiquitous in France, providing over three-fourths of the country's energy. They are scattered all over the country beside its many rivers. During its 2,200 mile circuit of France, it would be hard for the peloton not to pass a few.

There were a couple on the Loire not far from Montargis, though not on the actual Tour route, nor near enough for a photograph of the towers looming over the passing peloton. That does not seem to be a favored shot of Tour photographers. They´ll wade deep into a field of sun flowers or clamor up a mountainside for a scenic shot, but neglect the stirring image of bicyclists and nuclear towers and all the positive and negative connotations associated with them.

Photographers will have a chance at such a shot shortly after the peloton sets out from Wanze in Belgium on stage three, as the riders cross the Meuse River through the city of Huy. The towers are a bit obstructed by buildings along the river, but they still offer a powerful image looming in the background.

Wanze was finely decked out with Tour posters all over town and banners across roads and on its City Hall in front of the plaza where the stage will start. I had read that there was a bicycle museum in Wanze, but as I meandered about town I saw no signs to it. I finally asked a cyclist where it was. He said it was only open on Sunday afternoons, but that he knew the owner and he could give him a call to see if he´d open it up for me. He pulled out his cell phone, but received no answer. He was an ardent cyclist and gave my bike a close examination. He said he saw The Tour whenever it passed through Belgium, and was greatly excited about his town being a Ville Etape.

It was forty miles of hard riding to Spa, where The Tour would end the previous day´s stage before recommencing the next day in Wanze. Spa was a much large town than Wanze and a legitimate tourist city with grand hotels offering treatments and a casino and a nearby world-class motorcycle circuit. Once before it had been a Ville Etape in 1962, and on seven other occasions beginning in 1948 the peloton had passed through.

As I entered Spa and meandered about, I didn't notice a single banner or poster touting The Tour. The tourist office had several posters in its lobby, but nothing outside. I asked if I had missed any around town. The older man behind the desk sputtered that the city wouldn't give him any money to promote The Tour. "I was lucky to get the money to make those two posters, one in French and one in Dutch. I wish I could do more, but I can´t," he said. He did make a photocopy, though, of a story in that day´s paper about the many times The Tour has passed through Spa. It included a picture of Rudi Alding, the German who won the 1962 stage into Spa.

Later, George

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