Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Le Massif Central, France

Friends: This year's Tour de France route is less of a loop around the country than usual, hardly spending much time along its borders. It seems to have been designed to do justice to a couple of regions it has neglected the past two Tours--the northwest corner of the country and the Massif Central, a huge hump just below its center.

The first of its three weeks will be spent entirely in the northwest, beginning in the Vendée then venturing up to Brittany and across Normandy. After the stage six finish in Lisieux, just inland from the English Channel, the peloton will transfer nearly one hundred miles to Le Mans and then plunge 250 miles south in the next two stages to the very heart of the country. The second of those two stages will finish at the ski resort of Super-Besse Sancy. That stage will offer the first significant climbing of the Tour, first over the category two Col de la Croix-St. Robert and then a category three to the stage finish.

I made the climb to Super-Besse Sancy Sunday just as some heavy storm clouds were moving in. Its a short climb, only two miles, but the first half mile is a brutal eleven per cent, just like Contador likes, though it levels off, so may not be too much of a factor. When I saw that initial steep ramp, steeper than the killer start of L'Alpe d'Huez, I thought maybe I didn't need to do this, especially with the dark clouds coming in. If I had known it soon leveled off, I wouldn't have had any reservations. I did know that it was just two miles to the ski resort, so I went for it. I was very glad that I did, not only for the brevity of the steepness, but also because the toilets at the base of the ski lifts offered a free hot shower. Its been quite chilly the past week, so dunking in rivers hasn't been so welcome.

The rain did come, making the descent from Super-Bessy more of an ordeal than the climb. I had to squeeze my brakes hard most of the way down. When I finally let them go my speed rocketed up to 40.8 miles per hour, the first time I have gone over forty on this trip.

The tourist office at the base of the lifts, right at the finish line for The Tour, was selling Tour souvenirs already, along with t-shirts with the number 1,886 on it, the height of the peak of the ski resort in meters. That is similar to the height of Mount Ventoux and L'Alpe d'Huez, though nowhere near as dramatic since it is less than a 500 meter climb from the base of the Massif Central. This peak, like most of those on the Massif, is an ancient volcanic cone. The most legendary of the lot, the Puy de Dome, is less than 40 miles to the north. It is only 1,465 meters high.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I swung on by to see if I might be fortunate to be there on one of the rare occasions bicyclists are allowed to ride up it. No such luck. Cars are no longer even allowed to drive up it, recently banned after a bus crashed on the steep narrow road killing 26 Polish tourists. An 86 million euro train track is being laid to the summit, scheduled to open next summer. A train track was first laid in 1907, but had been dismantled and converted to a toll road in 1926. Right now the only way to the top is to walk up it, about a 45 minute hike, though someone managed to run up the mountain in eleven minutes and seven seconds in 2006. It was a wide, lightly graveled trail, almost as steep as that up Mt Fuji. Fuji was so steep it came equipped with hand rail chains to help pull one up. Here one just had to take small choppy steps.

Ancient Roman ruins were discovered at the summit in 1872 when a meteorological tower was erected. It was a temple to Mercury, patron of travelers and traders dating to the second century. The Puy de Dome is one of a handful of Grand Sites de France and is hoping to become a World Heritage Site as well. A plaque at the summit celebrates the thirteen visits The Tour de France has made to its summit between 1952 and 1988 with a photo of the classic battle between Anquetil and Poulidor in 1964 when they were knocking shoulders. The first cyclist to make it to the summit performed the feat in 1892 in 28 minutes. The first car made the ascent in 1905.

The largest monument at the summit though is a statue of Eugene Renaux, an aviator who won a 100,000 franc prize put up by Michelin to the first person who could fly a plane from Paris to the Puy de Dome in less than six hours, a distance of 250 miles. He accomplished the feat in 1911 in five hours ten minutes and 46 seconds three years after the prize was offered and two others failed in the attempt.

I've had a great week of cycling since Le Caylar scouting out six Tour Ville Etapes and sundry other attractions. On my way to Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France with a population of 366,000, I passed through Mazamet, home town of Laurent Jalabert, one of the two most popular French riders along with Richard Virenque in the 1990s up to several years ago when they both retired. Jalabert continues as a Tour commentator providing bird's eye views from a motorcycle in the peloton. His home town named its main plaza beside the Town Hall after him. There is a plaque with a bicyclist etched in yellow and black acknowledging his victory at the world championship time trial in 1997 and his ranking as the number one cyclist in the world in 1995.

Although The Tour doesn't pass through Toulouse, it will transfer through it as stage 11 finishes in Lavaur 25 miles to its east and then sets out on the 12th stage in Cugnaux, a suburb eight miles to the west. It will be a challenge negotiating that sprawl. I've got a semblance of a plan after checking out both towns, but it won't be easy, especially during rush hour.

On the way to Toulouse I had the bonus of passing through the town of Olargues with an Eiffel bridge on its outskirts built in 1889, presently being restored, and also a Resistance memorial in its town center. The memorial stated, "Les scenes de pillage se deroulent toute la journee, les allemands exigent du ravitaillement, des boissons, et intiment au marie l'ordre de leur livrer 50 bicyclettes." It says the Nazis demanded 50 bicycles from the town along with food and drink.

Now its on to a visit with Florence and Rachid in Tours, before continuing on to Le Mans and then to the northwest corner of France and the start of The Tour in just 25 days.

Later, George

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