Friends: The stage six finish in Lisieux could well win the award for the most jaw-droppingly picturesque of this year's Tour. There are always a handful of contenders, mostly those in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Its hard to upstage a backdrop of spectacular snow-streaked peaks.
But the monumental Basilica of St. Thérése, half-way up a one-mile ten-per cent climb to the finish, will be hard to beat. The TV producers of the many networks covering The Tour will be shouting their lungs out at their helicopter camera crews to give them more and more of this grand monument and its sprawling grounds.
I unfortunately won't be at the finish line for this stage, as it ends one hundred miles from the next stage, way too much of a transfer for me to handle. But I wanted to visit it anyway just to have a first hand feel what it will be like and also to see how Lisieux was responding to the honor of hosting a stage finish. Seeing the Basilica certainly justified my efforts.
Had I known about the Basilica I would have visited the home St Thérése lived in the first four years of her life in Alençon when I passed through the day before and gone inside its grand Notre Dame Cathedral where she was baptized. I noticed them, but I didn't realize how revered she is in France, second to Joan of Arc, the number one patron saint of France. Her Basilica is the second most visited religious site in France after Lourdes, also a Ville Etape this year.
St. Therese was born in 1873 and is considered the most important saint of modern times. She became a Carmelite nun at the age of fifteen and died ten years later. Her book "The Story of a Soul," professing her devotion to Jesus and God, was published a year later and became widely known and translated. She was canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.
She is buried at her sprawling and towering Basilica. The visitor center and church were full of pilgrims, many delivered in tour buses. Almost as much of the visitor center was devoted to a visit by Pope John Paul as to Saint Thérésa.
The finishing straight for the racers was already adorned with Tour banners hanging from light poles. The round-about half-way up the climb at the turn-in to the Basilica was lined with four steel figures on steel bikes welded from scrap metal, including hub caps, that might have been designed by Picasso, each painted a different color. The one bringing up the rear was holding an aerosol can meant to be a water bottle to his mouth.
Another round-about the peloton will pass featured a penny-farthing and another a bike covered in flowers. Lisiuex is primed and ready for The Tour. There were billboards scattered about town proclaiming the event. There was an exhibition celebrating the history of cycling in the region since the 1860s. The first great race in history was in 1869 from Paris to neighboring Rouen, home town of Jacques Anquetil. The eighty mile race drew 323 competitors, including two women. Only 120 finished. The winning time was ten hours and forty minutes.
The exhibit gave a lengthy biography of Anquetil and also gave the career highlights of two other notable local cyclists who distinguished themselves in The Tour de France. Its history of The Tour mentioned the usual significant events in the Tour's evolution since the first race in 1903 and also some oddities, such as the first year The Race went counter-clockwise around the country in 1913, allowing the Pyrenees to precede the Alps. It also made mention that 1958 was the first time the racers were not given a rest day. That lasted until 1968, two years after doping tests were instituted and the year after Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux.
From Lisieux I traced the stage route back to its start in Dinan, 140 miles away, the longest stage in this year's Race. It included a second "Wow" feature, passing by Mont St. Michel. This grand cathedral sits almost like an apparition out in the English Channel. Its the second time I've biked past it, the first with Craig, my friend from Chicago who spends half the year in the Cevannes in southern France. This time was even more dramatic coming from the east rather than the south, allowing my eyes more time to linger on it and shake my head at the wonder of it. I also had flocks of sheep in the foreground coming from this direction, sheep famous for their unique taste feasting on the sea-salt flavored grass from the winds blowing across the Channel.
I was able to give my legs their first genuine test to see if they are race ready, as I battled a strong head wind and rain and big steep hills much of the way. I've had rain nearly every day the past ten days, but nothing like this, a non-stop steady cold rain for five hours. It didn't look like it was ever going to stop. I was tempted to make camp in the first forest I came upon in mid-afternoon, setting my tent up sheltered from the wind and also on ground that allowed the rain to soak in, unlike the fields along the way. But I continued on and the rain finally did abate and all was wonderful with the world. But it resumed and stopped and resumed several more times before I finally made camp at 8:30 after nearly nine hours on the bike just barely managing ninety miles. But I felt no fatigue and could have continued on until dark at 10:30, as it is this far north as the the longest day of the year approaches.
Just two weeks until the action begins.