Monday, May 9, 2011


Friends: As I began the final steep half-mile climb to the hill-top village of Venasque, a grey-haired husky guy pedaled past me. My first reaction was, "It's Greg LeMond," as he was on my mind, Venasque being his favorite village in France. I didn't know if he owned a home there, though it was doubtful, since it was so small and relatively isolated, but he could well be visiting. But an instant after I recognized the rider's physique as that of LeMond, I noticed he was wearing a yellow wrist band. That LeMond would not be wearing.

The only Armstrong wrist band LeMond would wear would be a "Lance is a doper" wrist band, if there were such a thing. LeMond has been a long-time, and among the first, accuser of Lance as a doper. It looks as if he might finally be vindicated. Even Bill Strictland, editor of Bicycling Magazine and author of a flattering biography of Lance and long-time supporter, acknowledged in a recent cover story of Bicycling that all evidence points in that direction and now it is time to move on.

That doesn't mean I'll shed my yellow wrist band. Lance still is a most heroic figure and just did what was necessary to be successful in an era when doping was matter-of-course. It has always galled Lance that Greg couldn't leave the issue alone and had to drag down the entire sport.

When I arrived at the tourist office in Venasque, I was hoping there might be a LeMond signed yellow jersey or some other LeMond memento. The elderly lady tending to the office knew who Greg LeMond was, but she didn't know that her town was his favorite in France or that he had even ever been there, so no luck for a possible encounter.

It was late in the afternoon and I needed some groceries. My route through the large city of Carpentras eight miles back didn't take me past any supermarkets. I didn't care to go out of my way to find one in hopes that Venasque would have one. I did not know it was so small, so small that its lone grocery store was only open in the morning. At least the bakery was open. With my peanut butter and honey, all I needed was a loaf of bread. It also had quiche and pizza. I added a slice of pizza to my purchase and enjoyed it sitting on a bench with a spectacular view of Mont Ventoux. As I ate a forty year old guy approached and addressed me in Dutch. He was fluent in English as well, so we had a nice bicycling conversation. He was the first person in my ten days in France to speak to me other than an older guy in a supermarket parking lot who greeted me with "Pou-Pou" as I cycled by him. Just as I'm accustomed to being taken for Dutch, I am accustomed to eliciting "Pou-Pou," though ordinarily just during The Tour de France.

"Pou-Pou" is the nickname of the most popular French cyclist ever, Raymond Poulidor. He was a rival of Jacques Anquetil in the '60s. Anquetil was the first racer to win The Tour five times. Poulidor was known as "the eternal second." Though he raced The Tour more than a dozen times and frequently finished on the podium, not once did he ever wear the yellow jersey. But his struggles have endeared him to the French. He's more popular than five-time French winners Anquetil and Hinault, three-time winner Bobet and two-time winners Fignon and Thevenat.

He's an ambassador for The Tour, appearing at every stage finish. There are frequent home-made banners along the route celebrating him. And people like his nickname and take delight in calling out "Pou-Pou" to me as Americans might respond to a cyclist with "Lance." The book I've been reading on trying to figure out the French, "Au Contraire!," also mentions Poulidor, the only cyclist in the entire book, citing him as an example of the French preferring panache to triumph.

Unlike years past, I only had one day of rain getting to Cannes, which amounted to really only half a day as I was in need of some extra sleep the day it rained so slept in until eleven, hoping the rain might pass. France is in need of rain. The ground has been cracked and hard, making it not so easy to insert my tent stakes. I missed Julie, who I rode with last year, as she traveled with a mallet to be able to pound in her stakes.

Though I haven't had any riding companions this year, as I've had in the past, I haven't been alone in my tent at night thanks to Craig. He bequeathed me his short-wave radio, no longer needing it thanks to the Internet. I've been able to pick up the BBC Africa broadcast, enabling me to keep up with the Bin Laden saga. It seems as if it has been big news all over the world, so I imagine anyone reading this would know he was finally tracked down and shot dead. Unfortunately, the BBC doesn't follow the NBA. I haven't been able to track down the Voice of America, though China's short-wave station does give occasional reports on the NBA playoffs, but not hockey or baseball.

It has been another idyllic ride, nearly 750 miles, rather than the more direct 600. I detoured from the very start to visit Le Cyclop, a monstrous 350-ton, 70-foot high sculpture deep in the forest outside the small town of Milly-la-Foret about fifteen miles west of Fontainbleu. It was erected over twenty years in utmost secrecy by the Swiss sculpture Jean Tinguely and his wife Niki de Saint Phalle and a few friends. To verify its height there is a metered measuring rod behind it going up to 22 meters, as being dwarfed by trees its easy to underestimate its magnitude even though a rail car extends from its backside about two-thirds of the way up.

It was surrounded by a seven-foot high fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. It is closed to the public during the colder months and was scheduled to reopen the day after I arrived. Still it didn't keep away the curious, happy to take a stroll through the woods to see this bizarre golden-eyed creature with water gushing from its mouth and down its slide of a tongue. It is enough of a tourist attraction there are official road signs to it, though written in script rather than the usual print. Its another of those "only in France" phenomenons. Last year on the way to Cannes I visited a museum of the bizarre by another deranged sculptor in an out-of-the-way place. And he too has a steady flow of curious.

My route also took me along the Loire on a Sunday afternoon. On one side of the river was a main highway and on my side a narrow, unlined road abounding with cyclotourists, all in Lycra, many in matching club outfits. I could occasionally hear a pack approaching me from around a bend jabbering away as is the French way, more intent on socializing than riding hard.

There's not much scavenging on the French roadways, but I did find a novice driver emblem for the first time ever--a red A on a white circle background that beginning drivers mount on their rear windows. Most are stuck on the inside. This was a rare detachable one. The A stands for "apprentice." I will have fun with Yvon when I meet up with him for our annual ride and strap it to the back of his bike. Craig better beware as well, and Florence and Rachid too, and Skippy and Vincent and David, all riding companions from year's past, who I plan to ride with again in the weeks after Cannes. I will be curious, too, what kind of response it might receive from motorists, never having seen such a thing on a bicycle before.

When I biked into Cannes this morning after establishing myself at the campgrounds I was delighted to see the sidewalks thronged with people wearing credentials around their necks. In year's past I haven't been able to pick mine up and the accompanying schedule until Tuesday. A day's head start on perusing the 1,500 film schedule would be too good to be true. And it was. I was told only a select few are allowed to pick up their info packs today. I would have to wait until tomorrow at eight am. I'll spent literally all day reading the one paragraph description of all the films playing and plotting my schedule for the next twelve days of cinema, the ultimate of all cinema experiences.

Later, George


joan136 said...

"It has always galled Lance that Greg couldn't leave the issue alone and had to drag down the entire sport."
lance has dragged down the sport, not greg!

i didnt know st.phalle was married to tinguely. do you remember seeing her giant female mosaic sculptures at the botanic gardens?? joan

joan136 said...

oops, i meant st.phalle at garfield conservatory.

Matt said...

I still say there needs to be verifiable proof to drag down Lance. I think the sport of cycling itself has been marred by doping but it has been going on for 40 years! I was watching a documentary by Louis Malle shot in the 1960's and he mentions doping. Nothing new.

What also is not new or surprising, to anyone who has ever biked more than a few miles, is that cycling over 100 miles a day for a month at high speed and over mountain passes is awesome by any standard.

So, yeah, there is some doping and steroid use but never forget these guys are athletes doing what most people could not do - even if they themselves doped and did steroids.

I would say as much as I like Greg there is a tinge of jealousy at play in his accusations.