Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lorient, Ville Arrivée

Friends: France continues to provide one superlative campsite after another in forests and orchards and meadows and invariably within a mile or two after I've reached whatever time or mileage goal I've set for myself. As I set up my tent I can often do nothing but marvel at my continued good fortune of having such an idyllic place to spend the night. At times I'll catch myself comparing it to my previous campsite. When I recollect it, so much has happened in the twelve hours since I left it, I have to think twice to confirm it was the campsite I left earlier in the morning and not several days ago.

Each campsite earns a degree of notoriety after a long day on the bike. It would be impossible to rank them. None though will be more memorable than my campsite of two nights ago just a few feet from the finish line for the fifth stage of The Tour at Cape Fréhel right on the English Channel. It is another incredibly inspired choice for a stage finish, honoring another of France's truly countless noteworthy landmarks. A towering lighthouse, still in use, will beckon the peloton its last few miles as it barrels pell mell to this land's end. Its not a guaranteed sprint finish as the brisk winds could cause drafting havoc.

It was barely fifty degrees even in mid-June. The harsh weather only allows the hardiest of vegetation to survive. It was a mostly low-lying scruff that had me thinking I was once again battling the cold, misty winds of the moors of Scotland or the coast of Iceland. I was fortunate to find a corner in the car park blocked on two sides by shoulder high bushes to pitch my tent. Still, the strong, gusting winds buffeted my rain fly into my tent all night long.

All the English stations from across the Channel I could pick up on my radio furthered my impression that I was somewhere other than France. On one station a US State Department official acknowledged the US government was in secret negotiations with the Taliban. Wimbledon was underway. A sports talk program devoted its entire show to asking why England has failed to produce a contender in decades. The host bemoaned, "We can produce champions in other minor sports like golf and boxing and cycling, but not tennis." The Brits do like golf. Another station was covering the US Open golf tournament with two announcers providing stroke by stroke coverage. Unlike television, they did not have to speak in whispers. Their enthusiasm, especially with an Irish golfer in first place, actually made the sport sound exciting.

The wind had diminished in the morning allowing me to fully enjoy the coastal route the peloton will follow to the finish past rugged cliffs and small bays with beaches. There were surfers wearing wet suits and fishermen on the rocks. Yellow cardboard cut-outs with a racer's arms held aloft dotted the route. The many bus stop shelters had large posters of The Tour. They provided me refuge from the wind and the rain when I needed to rest or eat.

The woman at the tourist office in Carhaix, the Ville Départ for the Cape Fréhel stage, said the rain was most welcome, as even Brittany had been experiencing the drought that has afflicted the entire country. It was so bad that for the first time in her town's history people could not water their lawns two weeks ago. She was the most conscientious tourist official I've ever met. Many of the store windows in Carhaix were painted with a Tour de France theme featuring racers with bulging muscles and women with bulging breasts.

I had seen this art in year's past, but not in any other Ville Etape this year until Carhaix. Each piece of art was signed by the artist Teddy Botiel. I asked the tourist lady what she knew about him. She said I was the second person to ask her. "Let's go across the street to the Tobacco shop and ask them," she said. She didn't bother to lock the office, as she could keep her eye on it. The husband and wife in the tobacco/magazine shop said that Botiel charged them 100 euros for a mini-mural of their choice.

The town is known for its plows, so they asked if he could paint a racer pulling a plow. The pizza parlor next door had pizzas as wheels. I had a good casual meander around town searching them out. Although Carhaix is a first-time Ville Etape, it is on the Paris-Brest-Paris route held every four years that attracts several thousand cyclists. It was the only Ville Etape I've visited so far that had a giant yellow jersey hung on a prominent wall in the middle of town.

Mur de Bretagne, thirty miles away is also a first time Ville Etape, the arrival city for the fourth stage. It was smaller and quieter than Carhaix. Evidently one of its citizens noticed all the painted shop window in Carhaix and said they ought to do it as well. Rather than hiring Botiel though they had a local painter with talent paint Tour winners on shop windows. They too were a treat to see, some of legendary moments, such as Robic kissing his wife at the finish line and Bobet with a tire wrapped around his shoulders and Fignon with shaggy hair and spectacles. Bikes adorned many rooftops and ledges. The finish line here is at the summit of a climb on the outskirts of town.

The peloton will set out for Mur de Bretagne from the large port of Lorient at a port-side location on the outskirts of town near a working class district with seamen bars and union halls. A couple of maritime museums, one with a submarine, are near the start line, another most fitting spot, paying tribute to an aspect of French life.

I had thought of continuing on to Brest myself, the Grand Depart for The Tour several years ago, as there was a bike shop there that I was able to find Continental Touring tires on my last visit. It would have been fifty miles out of my way. With this wet nasty weather I am eager to head south out of Brittany, so will just have to trust I can find tires to my liking elsewhere.

Later, George

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