Saturday, July 30, 2011


Friends: I am no stranger to cemeteries. Hardly a day has gone by in my last two months of bicycling around France that I haven't slipped into one or two or three to replenish my water bottles. If it had been warmer, it would have been even more, to give my self a dousing as well.

So I felt right at home as I went strolling through the sprawling Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris. But rather than in search of a water spigot, I was in search of an actual grave, that of Laurent Fignon. Since he was a recent burial, he wasn't listed on the glass encased directory at the cemetery entrance of the one hundred or so most significant residents-- Baudelaire, Balzac, Chopin, Hugo, Moliere, Morrison, Ophuls, Wilde...

A security guard said I would find his burial site by the crematorium, though she couldn't be more specific than that. It was a good ten minute hike past hundreds of tombstones with hardly any breathing space between to the far side of the cemetery over a bit of an incline following the signs to the crematorium. When I got within site of it, I asked another security guard. He gestured toward an extensive wall two stories high of mini-vaults containing ashes. He said that since it was a relatively new one it would be easy to spot, but not because they were placed in chronological order, but because the stone would be fresh and shiny.

I wished he could have been more specific than that as I began scanning the hundreds of slots with just a name and a pair of dates. I began just focusing on dates. There were few since 2000. I began hoping I would spot a fellow cyclist come to pay his respects as well who might have a better track on Fignon than I, but unlike the steady stream of obvious Doors fans making a pilgrimage to the Jim Morrison grave, no one stood out as a cyclists as I did with my helmet dangling from my backpack and the cleats of my cycling shoes clattering on the cobbled walkways.

But alas, after several minutes I spotted a slot in the bottom row in the corner of one section with three photos of Fignon, one from his prime racing on his bike with his long blond hair flowing, another of him with a set of head phones working as a commentator and the third towards his end with a bald head during his period of chemotherapy. In each his face was lit up with a smile and his characteristic liveliness. There was no room for an epithet, just his name and dates Aug. 12, 1960- Aug. 30, 2010. Below was a pile of flowers, the only ones around. As I was swallowing my emotions, a tour guide came along with twenty people in tow and stopped in front of it for a few words.

I then headed teary-eyed in the general direction of the Morrison grave, not caring how long it took as I recalled the many moments of great pleasure Fignon had given me over the years seeing him race and reading about his exploits and seeing the highlights of his career recounted in books and museums and also reading his commentaries in L'Equipe during The Tour. He was a great who gave his all and truly cared about the sport.

I can never avoid a visit to Jim Morrison's grave when I am in Paris if only to confirm his continued popularity as the most visited grave in the cemetery and the only one with barriers around it identical to the waist-high barriers used at The Tour de France that are no challenge to hop over if one wishes. Morrison's grave was piled with flowers, indicating that many do. There were also notes and photos of him as well as a turquoise alligator.

It was mostly young fans crowding around the grave, but others of all ages too. There was no longer a security guard stationed at the grave as there has been in the past. That has allowed people to graffiti the tree in front of it, mostly with messages rather than names, as well as lyrics from his songs--"Can you show me the way to the next whiskey bar," "This is the end, my only friend," "Welcome to the other side," "The lizard king lives," "Thank you Jimmy," "No haircuts."

I also made a pilgrimage to the headquarters of The Tour de France in Issy-les-Moulineaux, the first suburb beyond Paris along the Seine about three miles south of the Eiffel Tower on Quai Stalingrad. The Asaury Sports Organization takes up an entire modern glass high rise. The lobby has large photos of all the events ASO sponsors along with The Tour--the Paris Marathon, the Dakar car race, some golf tournaments and more. Though there was a large map of this year's Tour route on the wall, there was only one bike racing photo of the peloton in the mountains. It wasn't the full-fledged museum-like tribute to The Race I was anticipating. The two coffee tables in the lobby were cluttered with L'Equipes and a stash more were in slots underneath the map of The Tour, as L'Equipe is also under the ASO umbrella, though its offices are in another building just across the river, as there isn't enough space for it here.

I told the receptionist I had just visited the Fignon memorial put up by The Tour in Créteil and wondered if they had a list of all the memorials they had placed around the country. She didn't know, but called someone who might. She said his line was busy, but if Ralph and I could wait she would try him again. We were happy to take a seat and glace at L'Equpie. Ralph was disappointed that soccer was featured on the cover and not cycling. We had to leaf through to page eleven for a cycling story on the Schlecks being honored in Luxembourg for being the first brothers to share the podium.

Several minutes later the woman came over and said they had no list, but that most of them were in the mountains. I said I had seen a Tour plaque at the start of this year's Race at the Passage de Gois and over the years had seen a handful of others such as one at the small restaurant on the outskirts of Paris where the first Tour departed from and one at the blacksmith shop where Christophe repaired his broken fork, as well as many of those in the mountains, and had been curious if they had all been placed by The Tour or if locals had done it, and how many might be scattered all over the country.

She said they were so busy putting on events that they had never taken the time to compile such a list, but that she would encourage someone to do it. When she realized what a devotee I was, she said that if I returned to The Tour next year I cold stop by and she would give me the official Tour loose-leaf booklet with all the information on the stages that all the teams and press use. We chatted for several minutes. She couldn't have been nicer and was in no hurry whatsoever to get back to her desk. She said on occasion The Tour passes by the headquarters on its final stage into Paris.

With film as a common passion Ralph and I attended a screening at the magnificent outdoor theater at the Parc de la Vilette on the outskirts of Paris along one of its canals. For five weeks it screens a movie every night of the week except for Mondays, a truly eclectic mix of films from all over the world and from all eras--Bonnie and Clyde, West Side Story, La Haine, Happy Together, Paranoid Park, Gomorra, Babel, A Day in New York with Gene Kelly, The Triplettes of Belleville. If I lived in Paris I would be there every night.

With the rainy weather quite a few of the screenings have been cancelled. It was threatening our night, somewhat reducing the crowd, so we didn't have to worry about craning over people's heads for the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma by James Mangold starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. The screening didn't start until 10:30. It was a three mile bike ride from Ralph's apartment near the Plaza du Republic. Ralph wasn't sure at first if he wanted to leave his deluxe carbon fiber bike at the valet parking, but after seeing how secure it was and how responsible the attendants seemed, he did not object at all.

We skipped a Nanni Moretti film the next night as Ralph needed to pack up for his return to Telluride the next day and I opted for the Paris version of Critical Mass departing from its Hotel de Ville, just across the Seine from Notre Dame. Unlike other Critical Masses around the world, Paris holds it every Friday night, rather than just the last Friday of the month and it also delays its ride until ten p.m., well after the rush hour ride of most others that contend with all the commuters. It makes for a most serene ride in the late evening through many districts of Paris. As we passed by the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and the Moulin Rouge and so many other familiar sites it was almost as if we were in a Woody Allen movie.

The Paris ride is also highly organized with fifteen or so leaders all wearing orange reflective vests saying Staff and Paris Rando Velos. Five of them lead the way and the rest serve as marshals riding alongside the group standing guard at each intersection it passes with a whistle in their mouths and a hand stretched forward halting traffic. When their duty is done they speed alongside the group shouting out "Pass a droite" or "Pass a gauche", whether on the left or right side, along with an "attencion" and then a "merci" or "s'il vous plait." They are as focused and conscientious as eager boy scouts striving to earn a merit badge. They are well-practiced and quite a spectacle. They could handle a cattle drive with ease. They did an amazing job halting all traffic corking the huge round-about of the Arc de Triomph as we entered and exited. It was another great example of the French ability to organize and manage along with the Cannes Film Festival and The Tour de France.

There were about 198 of us, the same as The Tour de France peloton. Most everyone was on a cross bike of some sort. There were no single-speeds, such as are so common now in Chicago Critical Masses. Only about a quarter of the participants wore helmets. There were just a handful on the popular rental bikes that are scattered all over Paris. When the rental bikes were first introduced to Paris three years ago most of the cyclists I saw in Paris were on the rental bikes. There were still many this year, but the rental bikes have reintroduced people to the bike, making them want their own. Its not quite up to Amsterdam levels, but one now sees parked bikes all over the city and many many more people riding their own bikes rather than the rental bikes, despite their cheapness and easy availability. Their lone disadvantage is one can't keep them for very long without it becoming expensive.

With Ralph's departure, I am now back in my tent for the next four nights before my return. It will allow me to explore some surrounding sites of Paris I have never gotten to--Van Gogh's grave, Monet's gardens, Fountainbleau and more.

Later, George

1 comment:

Stuart said...

Thanks for all the wonderful stories from the Tour and the other sights of France!