Monday, June 27, 2011

Les Herbiers, Ville Arrivée Stage 1

Friends: Among the many sub-cultures of The Tour-obsessed is a strain of men who are a cross between American baseball card collectors and Civil War buffs, men who amass such vast archives of Tour de France memorabilia that they could open a museum. Some do and others periodically mount exhibitions.

I encountered a couple more of the exhibition types in Les Herbiers, as I frequently have over the years at Tour Ville Etapes. Such towns are happy to honor The Tour in any way they can, not only with decorations and banners but with presentations tracing the history and the culture of The Tour. These two men called their display "Journey to the Heart of The Tour." It filled a large warehouse of a space with over 200 photos and 2,000 artefact's. It was just a small portion of their collections.

Both men were on hand when I gave it a look. As others of their tribe I have met, they were most enthusiastic, but in a professorial sense, unlike their American obsessive counterparts who often are geeky social misfits blighted with the fervor and single-mindedness of a conspiracy theorist. They make one want to flee rather than spend any time with. One of the contributors brought out several portfolios of posters and photos from a back room that didn't make the cut to share with a couple of his friends. I joined in, feeling as if I were enjoying a special encore. He was proud to point out unique features to each of his bonus items.

There were several display cabinets going back to their youth when they collected models of racers and built mini-race courses complete with models of gendarmes and sponsors. The back wall of the space was covered with general interest magazines featuring many of the greats, some on their bikes in the heat of battle and others posed with a heroic expression. The only one that didn't have a racer gracing its cover was a 1986 French Playboy with a naked woman bent over a bike in its Tour de France issue.

That wasn't the only photo of a prurient nature. In the section of fans of The Tour, which of course included a photo of The Devil in full fury, was a photo of a woman in a bikini along the road holding a sign "Le bidon s'il vous plait," hoping for a water bottle. Another photo showed six bikini-clad woman sprawled along the road nestled together like spoons waving at the passing peloton. Not all the women fans were skimpily clad. There were also a couple of photos of nuns in full regalia with expressions of sublime delight as if their savior were passing as the riders swept pass.

In the tribute to L'Alpe d'Huez there were several photos of the 2004 time trial when Lance clinched his sixth Tour title. I scanned the photos closely for a glimpse of myself, as I was among the estimated million fans along the ten mile climb, its largest gathering ever by far. It was obvious how packed it was comparing photos from other years. It was surprising to see so many American flags and fans wearing the US Postal team uniform, as American fans now are hardly ever seen.

A particularly fascinating exhibit was a series of photos taken from identical places on the race course several decades apart, comparing the racers, the fans and the background. This exhibition didn't include any video footage, so I was able to thoroughly cover it in less than an hour.

In contrast to previous years, the team introductions will be Thursday afternoon rather than Thursday evening and not at the Tour start location but rather at the Puy du Fou theme park about 75 miles away just a few miles from Les Herbiers, the arrival city for the first stage. Puy du Fou is one of France's four theme parks along with Futuroscope, Disney Paris and Park Asterix. I'll have to watch the televised version on a giant screen in Les Herbiers as one can only attend this year's presentation by invitation only.

The team presentation was to be my meeting point with my fellow Tour followers David and Vincent, thinking it would be at the Tour start. David is presently biking over from Germany and Vincent from the Paris airport. Hopefully they will receive my email notification of the different location. If not, we'll just meet up Friday afternoon at the stage start, sixty miles via a short cut from Les Herbiers. Then we'll get a day's head start on the peloton's first stage of 120 miles back to Les Herbiers. I've already ridden much of it, but it will be a much different experience doing it with the course markers up and the fans gathering along the road.

Later, George

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