Friends: The Tour is so fan-friendly, Pau's guide to The Tour given out at the tourist office, as well as the two local newspapers in their extensive Tour coverage, list the hotels each of the teams is staying at.
One is a small hotel just down the road from Yvon's brother in Idron, a suburb of Pau, hosting the Belgian Lotto team. Yvon and I swung by knowing the huge team bus would be in the parking lot with the mechanics on display tending to the bikes. Seven of the nine bikes were lined up and ready to go. The two other bikes were perched on stands with mechanics busily washing them down and spraying their moving parts with lubricant and testing the gears. Yvon noticed a mechanic wrapping handlebar tape in a manner he had never seen before, a technique he plans to use the next time he replaces his tape. There were half a dozen fans watching. For some getting so close to the bikes is the highlight of The Tour.
We had an appointment with a newspaper reporter at eleven. Yvon had alerted both papers to my story and our story as international cycling friends. A couple years ago another French newspaper had written about us. French newspapers frequently have stories about cycling adventures. The Tour newspaper passed out by the caravan and the national newspaper "Aujourd'hui," also passed out by the caravan, both feature a daily story about some French celebrity and their love for bike and The Tour. This would be the fourth time a French newspaper had written about me.
The reporter was a young woman who only spoke minimal English so Yvon was able to conduct the bulk of the interview. He traced our friendship back to our meeting at the cycling chapel not far from Pau six years ago. She asked how many countries I had bicycled. I told her I'm up to about 85, but that I always look forward to returning to France as no place is better for bicycle touring. She replied with a "Merci." Such graciousness is one of the many things that makes France stand out. There are frequent signs along The Tour route saying "Merci" to the caravan and The Tour and the riders.
Lance is one of those recipients of "Thank You." After the interview we went to the hotel where Lance's team is staying. As we approached we could see Lance straddling his bike and signing autographs. He and his Portuguese teammate Paulhino had just returned from a training ride. Two fans had a "Thank You Lance" banner that he had just signed. After he left people wanted to take a photo of the banner with the two fans holding it.
Two guys were reverently holding water bottles that Lance and Paulhino had just given them. Nearly every fan was wearing a yellow Livestrong bracelet. Some were wearing Livestrong t-shirts. There was also a guy in a "Mellow Johnny" t-shirt, Lance's Austin bike shop. Mellow Johnny is how Lance's Texas friends pronounce "maillot jaune," yellow jersey.
In our wanderings Yvon and I stumbled upon several other hotels with team buses and a small group of fans reverently gazing upon the mechanics at work. We didn't see any other riders, though if we cared to we could have lingered until they emerged for their rest day ride. The vast majority of fans and mechanics were wearing yellow bracelets, as Yvon and I do, signifying them as cycling fans, if not Lance fans.
We could have made a day of searching out all the hotels, though some of the teams are staying as far away as Tarbes, twenty miles to the east. Many of the hotels are putting up multiple teams. The Astana and Saxo teams of rivals Contador and Schleck are at the same hotel. The Saxo team might be looking for a new mechanic, replacing whoever it was who might have been responsible for Schleck's faulty derailleur that cost him 40 seconds and the yellow jersey.
We did hit a couple more hotels but not all of them. Then we ventured off into the quiet countryside for a couple of hour leisurely ride. We had to stop on occasion to ask for directions, though we couldn't get too lost, nor did it matter much until the air grew misty and we needed to hightail it home.
Yvon mentioned that once near his home in Mulhouse when he was out riding he paused to figure out where he was. A motorist stopped to offer help. Yvon told the man he was all right as he knew the area and had once made a tour around France on his bike. The motorist said he had made six Tours de France. Yvon then recognized him as the highly popular Roger Hassenforder, who raced in the late 1950s between the eras of Bobet and Anquetil, competing against both of them. Hassenforder was a jokester who would speed ahead of the peloton and hide in the bushes and then slip in the back after the peloton had passed. He'd stop and kiss pretty women along the road.
He was someone I had never read about. When we returned we dug into Herni's library of cycling books to read more about him. We learned he had won several stages of The Tour, twice those finishing in his home town, and had also worn the yellow jersey. He was an ardent hunter and had accompanied Coppi to Africa on the trip where Coppi contracted malaria and died. None of the books though profiled his antics as the prankster of the peloton. We googled him. There was a Wikipedia profile and also a lengthy interview on You-tube, but nothing about his crazy side that made him the most popular rider of his day. That will have to await further research.
With Henri spending the night camped out on The Tour route beside the tent where his cycling club would be selling beer and sodas the next day it was just Yvon, Henri's wife Anik and I for dinner, a French classic starting with salad from Anik's garden, followed by sliced meats and a baguette, an olive quiche, a platter of cheeses and then a dessert of a home-made tart and small containers of custard.
Anik went to grade school with Gerard Depardieu. She said he was a bit of a trouble-maker, and that nothing in the school or town had been named after him. Yvon knew that about Anik, but he was surprised to learn that she had once had an American boy friend, an Air Force pilot who had served on a nearby base, who was fluent in French, as Anik only speaks French. The base lasted until 1965.