Friday, June 10, 2011

Tours, France

Friends: Of the twelve towns hosting a start or finish of a stage in this year's Tour de France that I have scouted out so far in the past few weeks, Aigurande is the one I'll most look forward to returning to on its Race Day--the start of the eighth stage on July 9.

It is much more enthused than any of the other Ville Etapes I've visited about The Tour coming to town, even though it was a Ville Etape just three years ago. It was so thrilled by The Tour's visit in 2008 its tourist office carries a DVD documenting the event. The tourist office was also giving away two different post cards promoting The Tour as well as a sticker. A billboard from 2009 when The Tour passed nearby hadn't been taken down. This year's poster has been erected on a round-about at the entry to the town.

Though there were no other decorations up yet celebrating The Tour, judging by the town's exceptional memorial to its WWI and WWII dead, its clear the people of this town care about distinguishing themselves. Its Tour decorations will surely be most original and artistic. Its rare for such a modest-sized town to earn the right to host the Tour so soon after having already done so. It obviously impressed the Tour organizers with its enthusiasm. I well remember passing through Aguriande three years ago in the early evening and seeing swarms of people about in front of its decorated Town Hall and admiring all the other decorations and busily working on others.

I will be passing through Aigurande once again in the evening, close to dark, after coming thirty miles from Chateauroux, where that day's stage will finish. Those thirty miles will be among the most memorable of this year's Tour, as it will be bumper-to-bumper with the hundreds of vehicles comprising The Tour entourage--team buses, team cars, press, sponsors, officials, crew setting up Tour villages at the start and finish of each stage as well as Tour villages along the route for sponsors and hundreds of fans in their campers. By this time into the second week of The Tour we will all be family.

I will be very happy to have the company once again of Vincent for the third year, a Tour fanatic from Australia who I met in Monaco two years ago, and David, a German touring cyclist Vincent and I met in Rotterdam last year. We will need to take advantage of one another's draft during these back-to-back 125 mile stages into and out of Aigurande with this extra 30 mile transfer tossed in. It is a narrow two-lane road with no shoulder, largely through a forest. There are signs along the way with the profile of a deer in flight warning "Grande Animaux" frequently traversing the road. None bothered me when I had the road nearly to myself a couple of days ago, so that is a concern we shouldn't have with the army of vehicles plowing through.

Aiguarnde with its small town feel was quite a contrast to Chateauroux, a large sprawling city. I had memories of it too from 2008 as it is where Mark Cavendish won his first stage of the many he has won since and will be the favorite to win quite a few more this year. There was no indication anywhere in Chateauroux that it was playing host to The Tour once again, just an over-sized surrealistic design of a bicycle near where the stage will finish on the outskirts of the city near its stadium. At least the finish is in the southern part of town, making for a quick exit to Aigurande. If Vincent and David and I arrive early enough before the peloton, we might be tempted to get an early start and watch the finish on television somewhere down the road, though it would prevent us from being a part of the grand parade of vehicles making the transfer between these two towns.

Rather than heading directly north to Le Mans, the departure city for the Chateauroux stage, I detoured forty miles to the west to Saint-Savin to visit a World Heritage site, an Abbey and Church. It is just one of a handful of France's that I have yet to visit. It is easily the least impressive that I have seen anywhere, run-down and not very well maintained. If I hadn't known it was a World Heritage Site I wouldn't have even given it a second glance. The church is over a thousand years old and its criteria for being made a World Heritage Site was that is is "exceptional testimony to a civilization that has disappeared." It is one of a series of churches in the area that are known for their frescoes. Its greatest distinction to me was the tower that had been added in the late 1800s designed by Leon Edoux, co-inventor with Otis of the hydraulic lift at the Eiffel Tower. The tower wasn't anything out of the ordinary, but I am always happy to find another Eiffel connection for my Tour de France route commemorating the renowned architect.

So few people are drawn to the abbey and cathedral that the tourist office did not have an English speaker, quite a rarity. The older lady on duty was friendly enough and helpful, forcing a couple of maps on me. Though I have a highly detailed 200 page atlas, I never turn down the offering of a map, as they frequently mention sites that I'm unaware of or that I knew of, but didn't know were in the vicinity.

These maps were no exception. I learned from one that Futuroscope was thirty miles further west, about ten miles north of Poiters and sixty miles south of Tours. I had been intending on heading directly north to Tours, but having some time to spare and not minding a few extra miles of training could go give Futuroscope a look. I'd been reading about this tourist attraction similar to Disney's Epcot Center for years. Though I had no inclination to spend fifty dollars to gain entry to its many exhibits and shows, I was still curious to see what it looked like and who might be attracted to it.

It was built on the outskirts of the small town of Jaunay-Clan. I could see its futuristic cubes and spheres towering above the horizon from miles away. I arrived at dusk with people pouring out. A map at its entry listed over twenty pavilions and exhibits. Most dealt with outer space and technology (Dances With Robots, Cosmic Collisions, Fly Me to the Moon), but there were also some of a more mainstream theme (Journey to the Center of Life) and even one for those with an artistic bent--Van Gogh, Brush with Genius. If I hadn't been expected by Florence and Rachid the next day, I might have been tempted to pitch my tent beside the parking lot with campers parked for the night to spend the next day in the Future. I can add it to my to do list for another time. I used to have quite a long list, but I have been knocking off quite a few of them this year from the Pont to Gard to getting to the summit of the Puy de Dome.

Later, George

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