Friday, June 24, 2011

Olonne-sur-Mer, Ville Départ Stage 3

Friends: Alas, sunny skies for the first time in a week now that I'm out of Brittany and in the Vendée. Still long sleeve and vest weather though with a chilly wind off the North Atlantic. Despite the cold, wet , wind and perpetual low overcast, Brittany was still thoroughly satisfying, as it is a region that greatly honors and respects the bike and bike racing.

The harsh weather makes for a hardy people and it takes a certain hardiness to ride the bike under any circumstances except as a mere weekend, casual, recreational activity, as most people treat the bicycle. The hardiness of those in Brittany makes riding the bike an ordinary activity. I always see more people getting about on bikes in Brittany than anywhere else in France. It also has more bike lanes through the towns.

Cyclists riding hard in the latest of Lycra were a common site, especially on Sunday when there was a slight break in the weather and cyclists could not neglect their weekly group outing. So too were older grizzled men in everyday clothes riding along on 30-year old ten-speeds, that were no doubt their pride and joy, men who if the weather forced them into a car would feel obligated to make it the lead item at their weekly confession, just as should every one.

I wasn't surprised at all to see a random bicycling monument along the road. It was a marble slab in the shape of France with three cyclists etched into it, non-racers, each with a handlebar bag. It was a memorial to cyclists in general who had been killed on the road, and to three in specific who had been run down at the very spot of the monument.

I stopped to watch elementary kids in gym class playing bicycle dodge ball. Three kids on bikes tried to race fifty meters past two kids with balls. If they managed to hit one of the bicyclists, the bicyclist had to give up his bike and wait his turn to be a ball thrower. There were some pretty quick and wily sprinters in the class.

In another town I saw a bicycle symposium in the town plaza sponsored by McDonald's. Kids were provided with bikes and helmets and also a plastic hair net to put under the helmet for cleanliness sake, and rode an obstacle course with a couple of instructors providing help. They were loving it.

The bike consciousness of Brittany was further evident when I happened upon a bicycle museum in the small town of Le Fresnaye-sur-Chedouet, ten miles east of Alençon, birth place of St. Thérese. I've visited half a dozen bike museums in France over the years and others in Italy, Belgium, England, Wales and Germany and am always happy to visit another. I know I will come away learning something new and have my appreciation for the further elevated. This was no exception.

It was largely devoted to The Tour de France. Along a wall after one enters are framed portraits of every winner of The Tour, many autographed. Another room featured cloth banners with the face of most of the winners as well as other noteworthy cyclists. There were hours and hours of Tour highlights playing constantly on more than a dozen television monitors. There was one set in each section honoring The Tour decade by decade from its inception in 1903. There were bikes from each epoch that had been ridden in The Tour and also other memorabilia. That first section included a poster from 1910 promoting Peugeot's rival Tour de France, an effort it aborted after two attempts.

I spent four hours in the museum, the longest I've spent in any, and still didn't see it all. As it was I kept the proprietor past his lunch break, though he showed no impatience in trying to hurry me on my way. The museum was established ten year's ago by a local who had a collection of 150 bicycles and considerable amount of memorabilia.

One room was devoted to the caravan of sponsors who precede The Race tossing out souvenirs and trinkets. It trace its evolution from its inception when the giveaways were more basic than now. Visors were tossed rather than hats. Tribute was paid to Yvette Horner, the famed accordionist who rode the entire Tour route for years playing the accordion all the way. There was a miniature model of her and the car she rode atop as well as a copy of her biography.

Redon, the final Ville Etape I scouted in Brittany, was fully in Tour spirit with placards all over town with photos of cyclists from Brittany and general Tour stars. There were also classic photos enlarged and put on billboards and newspaper stories from decades ago. Many of the stores had Tour and bicycle themes in their windows, even fabric stores and hair salons. I have no time during The Tour to stroll about towns and appreciate all their bike art and tributes, fully justifying these scouting efforts.

A yellow banner hung over the finish line on the outskirts of Redon by its sports complex. The peloton will charge into town along the Rouen-Best canal Napoleon built and then make a hard right and follow one of the two rivers that merge in the town before making a short climb and then a mile more to the stadium making a final turn in front of a Buffalo Grill with a large set of buffalo horns on its roof, a popular restaurant chain all over France.

A few miles out of town at a round-about the peloton will be greeted by a pyramid of 21 bikes stacked six high in rows of six, five, four, three, two and one with a yellow bike on top and red-polka dot painted bikes just below and green ones below them. When I spotted it in the distance I registered another heart-warming moment such as I only experience at The Tour de France, and as I experience upon seeing all the tributes large and small that someone or some group has made the effort to place.

Later, George

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