Saturday, May 7, 2011

Saint Paul-Trois-Chateaux, France

Friends: Saint Paul Trois-Chateaux is one of fifteen cities that will be hosting the start or finish of one of the twenty-one stages of this year's Tour de France for the first time this year, possibly a record number. There are thirty-eight Ville Etape cities this year, out of a possible forty-two, also close to a record number, with only four cities serving as both a stage start and finish, two of those on the time trial stages. That means a lot of extra miles for me riding from the finish of one stage to the start of the next.

I've been able to scout out three of the Ville Etapes on my ride down to Cannes. The tourist office in each has had Tour displays in anticipation of their great honor, even though the start of The Tour is precisely eight weeks from today. The slogan of this year's Tour is "Tous Fous du Tour."

It has been a struggle for anyone to translate it for me. After much hesitation one lady said, "It means, 'They like it.'"

Another explained, "The word 'fous' means 'crazy,' so it means 'We're crazy in love with The Tour,' but even more than that."

"I understand completely," I said. "It means you're utterly fanatical about it. Me too."

The phrase is spelled out on this year's poster with bales of hay in a recnetly harvested field as the peloton passes in the background with mountains further in the distance. It is another instant classic Tour poster that I will never tire of looking at. As with most of them, it is impossible to imagine anyone criticizing it.  That's not the case when it comes to film festival posters.  Every year when I attend Telluride and Cannes, or any other film festival, there are those who belittle the poster, no matter how magnificent it might be. But the designers of The Tour poser invariably succeed in capturing the majesty of the event.  It is a wonder that a Tour poster has never made use of the bales of hay, as they are a favorite building block for fans along the route to construct monuments. They are almost as much a part of The Tour as the Yellow Jersey. Incorporating them into the poster was a stroke of brilliance.

The tourist office in Saint Paul-Trois-Chateaux had a chalk board with "J 72" scribbled on it, the number of days until The Tour comes to town.  The exact day is July 20.  It will be the departure city for 16th stage to Gap, gateway to the Alps and a frequent Ville Etape. The tourist office had started the count down on day 100, a day the town celebrated.  Hanging on the wall was a Yellow Jersey signed by Lance on loan from the hotel across the street. Saint Paul-Trois-Chateaux was a favorite training base for Lance with Mount Ventoux in the vicinity.  He always stayed at that hotel and showed his appreciation by giving it one of his Yellow Jerseys.

The two other Ville Etapes I included on my route were veterans of the event. I had been to St. Flour during my first Tour in 2004. It was the finish of one of the most memorable of the more than one hundred stages I've ridden and witnessed these past seven years. It was a Bastille Day stage, always an extra exciting stage, and it was won by French favorite Richard Virenque, who rode solo off the front the final two hours through the mountains thrilling the entire nation. I was stationed at the summit of the final climb joined by a husband and wife from Iowa on bikes with a tour group. The husband was wearing a vintage 7-Eleven jersey of the first American team to participate in The Tour. That alone gave my heart a great uplift.

A couple minutes after Virenque passed us the lead pack of twenty riders, led by Floyd Landis, teammate of Lance at the time, flew by with Lance on his wheel. Dangling off the back of the group was Thomas Voeckler in the Yellow Jersey, giving his all to hang on and retain the lead for another day. A two-foot long string of drool hung from his mouth. It was a remarkable sight, something I had never seen captured on film.

After the peloton passed a while later, I mounted my bike and continued twenty miles on to the finish in St. Flour. I remember it quite well, as it included a final steep climb of nearly a mile to the town center. That was seven years ago, so I needed to reorient myself to the city and figure out where the Internet was and grocery stories and the best way out of town after the stage and also to see how the town's preparations were going for The Tour. The tourist office was a rare one that had printed up stickers proclaiming itself a Ville Etape that were free for the taking, a favored souvenir.

The Ville Etape of Issoire was the only of the three to already have some Tour art work on display.  Out in front of the tourist office was mounted a mini-peloton of eight riders made out of sheet metal on bikes.  They wore the four prized jerseys--yellow, red polka-dot, green, white--and four plain generic jerseys. There was also a similarly constructed rider on a penny farthing off to the side. That was the second photo I took in these travels. The first was of a large basket with huge crayons sticking out of it on the roundabout into the city. Roundabout art is one of the delights of traveling in France, frequently featuring something distinctive to the town. I asked the lady at the tourist office if there was a crayon factory in Issoire. There wasn't.  The sculpture was chosen simply for its beauty.

I followed the route the peloton will take from Issoire to St. Flour on its ninth stage July 10 for its first thirty miles, some of it through a spectacular gorge, where I was able to find a spot to camp along the river. France has many scenic gorges. laced as it is with rivers. I would highly recommend a Tour route one year dedicated to the Gorges of France, sending the peloton through them all. I would also like to design a route passing through the fifty-five towns in France that are a St. George something or other. There are limitless possibilities of themed routes with all that France has to offer. A Joan of Arc Tour is another possibility, as is a Tour including the various Eiffel bridges and other Eiffel designs.  All its nuclear plants could provide another theme.  The possibilities are nearly endless with all that France has to offer.

I've just about completed visiting the various sites I had on my pre-Cannes itinerary. The only one left is a hill-top village that Greg LeMond calls his favorite in France about forty miles south of here--Venasque. Then it is not much more than one hundred miles to Cannes and two weeks of cinema.

Later, George

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