Thursday, June 30, 2011

Les Herbiers 2

Friends: Less than 48 hours now until 198 of the best bicycle racers in the world will be unleashed upon France to contest the 98th Tour de France--the world's most watched annual sporting event beamed into 190 countries. My build-up to this monumental sporting and cultural event seems to have been longer than in years past as for the first time in my eight years of tagging along with the peloton I've confined my five weeks of pre-Tour training to biking exclusively in France.

Previously a good portion of my training has been a long ride starting from Cannes after the film festival to another country and then back to France. One year it was a ride to Scotland. Others have been to Eastern Europe, the length of Italy, the Camino de Santiago across the top of Spain, to Berlin and on up to Denmark.

Even though I remained in France this year, I still put the same number of miles on my legs, about 2,500, while more thoroughly scouting the race route than I ever have. I checked out 23 of the 38 cities hosting a stage start or finish. Of the fifteen I neglected, I know eight of them from previous visits. I've learned it is invaluable to have some familiarity with a city, helping my escape immeasurably after a stage finish when it is clogged with traffic and also making a huge difference when I arrive in a city knowing where the peloton will depart from and where I will find the course markers to guide me for the next one hundred plus miles.

Once The Tour starts, every minute is precious trying to get as far down the route each day as I can, especially in the evening getting a head start on the peloton riding until dark and then pitching my tent along the road. It is not an easy task. It is a most demanding twenty-three days of biking. It is also good to know where I can find grocery stores and Internet and water and toilets and not have to waste time searching for them.

Also scouting out the race route has allowed me time to give more than a glance to the many Tour decorations already mounted by race fanatics. I was happy to have the time to stop and fully appreciate a mural in Le Champ Saint-Pére on the first stage that I otherwise would have had to speed past. It had considerable detail showing fans hanging out of windows and planes and helicopters flying overhead and even a tribute to Laurent Fignon who died earlier this year.

Many hay bail sculptures have already been erected. I saw a husband and wife and young son in front of one of a racer with his arms aloft wearing a red polka jersey that was big enough to have been a table cloth for a village picnic. They were taking turns posing in front of it for a photo. It was so gigantic it had a monster-size milk bucket for a nose, an original touch I had never seen before.

A Tour exhibition in Noirmoutier also had a version of bike art new to me--bike saddles pointed downwards with faces painted upon them.  It seemed so obvious, with the tip of the saddle a nose, I was surprised no one had ever done this before. They were stunning, especially one draped with a nun's vestments.

Several towns had displays of drawings by school children of their impression of The Tour hanging in its tourist office. Many Ville Etapes have concerts the night before or the night of The Tour's arrival. Lisiux scheduled a free screening of "The Triplettes of Belleville" in its town park, something that every town along The Tour route should offer.

Of the many things I've learned about France following The Tour is the pride people have in their department. Rather than states, France is divided into departments, over 90 of them. One always knows the department one is in as all the license plates end with the two digits of the department. The tourist office here in Les Herbiers is giving out stickers of "Je heart 85"--I love 85, the number of its department. A huge bike in a roundabout leading to Ville Etape Redon had a number 44 on it, the number of its department.

Even if The Tour de France didn't offer up such spectacular racing and provide for heroics of the highest order, it would still be a supremely exciting experience following The Tour for the many bike tributes and insights it provides into the French culture and character. They truly honor and revere The Tour. There is a plaque on the island side of the Passage de Gois, the five mile long road that is submerged by high tide but drivable during low tide, saying The Tour de France first rode across it July 5, 1993. The Tour honors it once again making it this year's official start.

The Race promises to be another spectacular event. The course offers up some great challenges and great beauty. The two early favorites, Albert Contador and Andy Schleck, both are looking vulnerable, giving extra motivation to a dozen or more contenders. Contador admits to fatigue after a very tough Tour of Italy and Schleck wasn't impressing anybody with his performance at the Tour of Switzerland.

A trio of Americans who have finished in the Top Ten in previous years, Levi Lepheimer, Chris Horner and Christian Vande Velde, can all legitimately motivate themselves for a Top Three or better placing. And Tom Danielson, at one time heralded as the next Lance, is finally making his Tour debut at the age of 32 after strong showings in the Tour of California and the Tour of Switzerland. He is one of three Garmin riders who could finish in the Top Ten along with Vande Velde and Ryder Hesjedal, who finished seventh last year and is known as "Weight of the Nation" for being Canada's great hope. I will be extra proud to be wearing a Garmin jersey this year with those three figuring to be among the leaders of the diminished and strung out pack in the mountains.

Now I just need to meet up with my cycling pals from years past. David the German has arrived at The Tour start in Noirmoutier. We will rendezvous at noon tomorrow. Skippy the Australian, back for his fourteenth Tour, has just reported in from the time trial course ten miles away. He could walk in on this cyber outlet at any moment. No word though from Vincent the Australian. Hopefully he will be there with David tomorrow.

Now I have the team presentations to look forward to in just a few hours, the introduction of all 198 riders, with a brief interview of the team captain of each of the twenty-two teams. It doesn't get better than this.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Les Essarts, Ville de Contre le Montre, Stage Two

Friends: The Tour's second stage team time trial, a loop of fourteen miles starting and finishing in the town of Les Essarts, is conveniently located just twelve miles from the first stage finish in Les Herbiers. The press center for the more than 2,000 journalists covering The Race as well as the hub for fan activities for the Grand Départ is based in Les Herbiers, one of the few stage cities large enough to support a MacDonald's.

Les Herbiers would be the place to hang out these few days before The Tour start on Saturday, but I was drawn back to Les Essarts to peruse a display of over twenty books at the local library on The Tour. I'd only been able to give them a cursory look when I passed through town a few days ago, checking out the town's preparations and also to ride the time trial loop.

I also knew there would be a chance that I might see teams previewing the time trial course. With the possibility of encountering Christian Vande Velde and his Garmin team I put on for the first time his hand-me-down jersey from last year's kit that I'd promised him I'd wear at this year's Tour. It had warmed up just enough into the 70s that I didn't need a t-shirt under it.

And lo and behold when I arrived in Les Essarts yesterday afternoon, there sitting in the parking lot a block from the library and at the start of the time trial course were the team buses for Radio Shack and Garmin. There was no one around the Radio Shack bus, but the Garmin team was gathered in front of theirs preparing to set out.

Twenty or so camera-toting fans stood at a respectful distance watching the proceedings. As I joined them, my jersey caught the eye of Jonathan Vaughters,former Tour de France rider and team founder and director. Delighted to see someone sporting his team jersey, his face brightened with a smile and he gave me a wave. Before I had a chance to put my foot down, Christian noticed me and pushed away from his teammates and glided over to me on his bike.

"Fancy meeting you here," I said. "Have you had a chance to check out the time trial course yet?"

"We drove it yesterday, but this will be the first time we've ridden it."

"What do you think of the down hill finish? Will you guys stay in formation or will it be every man for himself at that point?"

"I just hope David Millar doesn't rip my legs off."

Millar is his Scottish teammate and former world time trial champion that Christian was implying would be hard to keep up with. Christian was clearly much more relaxed and at ease than he'd been at Monaco two years ago and Rotterdam last year when I'd had chats with him before the Tour starts, as both years he was recovering from broken ribs suffered at the Tour of Italy. This year he's in fine health and is coming off excellent performances at the Tour of California and the Tour of Switzerland. He has a good chance to improve on his fourth place finish at The Tour three years ago.

But as always he deferred attention from himself and wondered how I was. I told him I'd ridden 2,500 miles in the past month checking out the course and was mildly concerned that I might be overtrained, not giving my legs enough rest. I was looking forward to taking it easy the next two days.

"Is there anything you need?" he asked. I was mildly tempted to ask if I could avail myself of the shower in his team's bus while they were off riding, if only to have a look inside, but didn't have the nerve. "No, I'm jut fine," I said.

"Are you sure?" he persisted.

"Well, I could always use an energy bar or two," I admitted, remembering the box full he had once given me. He unhesistantly reached into the rear pocket of his jersey and handed me two packets of Clif shot blocks energy chews, both margarita flavoured and uncaffeinated. "Have these," he said. "If you'd like more just ask Andre, the bald-headed guy over there, our bus driver, and he'll give you some more." He glanced over his shoulder and said, "I better get back to the team. We're about to go. See you back in Chicago." I wished him good luck and told him I expected to see him on the podium in Paris.

A young man, who had sidled over during our conversation, as had several others, asked if I was a friend of Christian's. "Yes, we're both from Chicago," I said. He asked if I was following The Tour and if I'd ever done it before. After I gave him my story I asked him, "How about you?"

"I'm covering it for L'Equipe," he said.

"That's my favorite paper," I said. "You guys are sensational. We don't have anything like it in America. For a short spell about twenty years ago we had a national daily sports newspaper but it didn't even last a year."

He asked my age and then quickly said, "I've got to go," as he was accompanying Vaughters in the his car for the team ride. As the nine riders pedaled past on their time trial bikes, wearing their time trial helmets, team character David Zabriskie, wearing his US National Champion Time Trial jersey gave me a thumbs up.

Then I got to spend the next two hours until the library closed continuing my Tour de France immersion paging through the collection of books on The Tour it had mounted on a rack overlooking a bicycle draped in yellow. Many were coffee table sized books largely of photos, several by Jean Paul Olliver, the premier authority on The Tour and commentator for the Eurosport television station that covers The Tour. He gives lectures on the history of The Tour at many of the Ville Etapes in the weeks before The Tour visits them. I missed his appearance in Dinan by one day a couple of weeks ago. I would gladly attend even if I wouldn't be able to understand much, just to hear the holy names of Tour legends and iconic mountains roll off his tongue.

The books were like a mini-museum visit reliving its many storied moments. Though I knew well many of the photos, I never tire of seeing them, just as one is always happy to see paintings or works of art by a favorite artist. They are akin to masterpieces that never fail to evoke emotions or lift the spirit and often give a glimpse of something I hadn't noticed or felt before. It would not be easy to rank the Top Ten photos of Tour lore as there are many contenders--Poulidor and Anquetil battling it out on the Puy de Dome in 1967, Italian rivals Coppi and Bartoli sharing a water bottle on the col d'Izoard in 1949, a medic trying to revive Tom Simpson on Mount Venoux in 196, René Vietto looking as forlorn as a young girl who has lost her kitten sitting beside his bike minus the front wheel he has had to give to his team leader Antonin Magne in 1934, the Swiss matinee idol Hugo Koblet combing his hair, one-time Spanish winner Federico Bahamontes sitting on his suitcase at a train station after abandoning the 1960 Tour, the diminutive climber Jean Robic the lone rider wearing a leather helmet fearful of crashing in the 1940s, Albert Londres interviewing the three Pelissier brothers in a cafe after quitting the 1924 Tour in protest of Henri Desgrange's draconian measures confessing that it required cocaine and other forms of "dynamite" to survive The Tour.

Every exhibition on The Tour and every Tour book also has photos of Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond at the finish of the 1989 Tour that LeMond won by eight seconds, overcoming a near minute disadvantage on the last stage, a time trial from Versailles to Paris. They wear the ultimate expressions of sheer delight and supreme agony. The most touching and revealing of the many photos is LeMond consoling Fignon on the podium, his smile gone, feeling some of Fignon's devastation.

Looking at hundreds of photos in one go also reveals the great aging process the racers undergo, as dramatic as a US President, from fresh-faced boys to hardened veterans, not only from the strain, but the great pressure to maintain their success.

When I left the library the Radio Shack bus was gone, but the Garmin bus remained. I headed out on the time trial course going in the opposite direction that the racers will follow hoping to catch the Gamin team in action. Evidently they had gone off on another route after riding the course once or twice, something they could do in less than half an hour. I did encounter team cars from Sky and HTC-Highroad driving the course. They weren't the first team cars I had seen.

Even before I came upon the Garmin and Radio Shack buses I encountered a couple of Liquigas team cars of Ivan Basso's Italian team in the large city of La Roche-sur-Yon where a few of the teams are staying ten miles before Les Essarts. But that wasn't my biggest thrill of La Roche-sur-Yon. Rather it was seeing a sign Henri Desgrange Stade, as the city's large football stadium had been named in honor of the founder of The Tour de France. There was no statue or bust of him on the outside and it was locked up so I couldn't check to see if he had been further honored in its interior.

One never knows when one might come upon a Tour memorial in France. I passed through the small village of Calorguen just south of Dinan where Bernard Hinault's wife is the mayor. There was a penny farthing bicycle at an intersection near the town center, but otherwise no indication that the five time winner of The Tour now lived there. The only business in town was the bakery and it was closed the afternoon I was there and no one was about to ask about the Hinaults. I had inquired in Dinan if there were any monuments to Hinualt in the area. I was told, "Not yet, as he is still alive." That's not a defining criteria, as the town he grew up in less than 100 miles away has a large mural of him on a wall and a display honoring him at its City Hall.

Later, George

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

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

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

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dinan, Ville Départ

Friends: The stage six finish in Lisieux could well win the award for the most jaw-droppingly picturesque of this year's Tour. There are always a handful of contenders, mostly those in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Its hard to upstage a backdrop of spectacular snow-streaked peaks.

But the monumental Basilica of St. Thérése, half-way up a one-mile ten-per cent climb to the finish, will be hard to beat. The TV producers of the many networks covering The Tour will be shouting their lungs out at their helicopter camera crews to give them more and more of this grand monument and its sprawling grounds.

I unfortunately won't be at the finish line for this stage, as it ends one hundred miles from the next stage, way too much of a transfer for me to handle. But I wanted to visit it anyway just to have a first hand feel what it will be like and also to see how Lisieux was responding to the honor of hosting a stage finish. Seeing the Basilica certainly justified my efforts.

Had I known about the Basilica I would have visited the home St Thérése lived in the first four years of her life in Alençon when I passed through the day before and gone inside its grand Notre Dame Cathedral where she was baptized. I noticed them, but I didn't realize how revered she is in France, second to Joan of Arc, the number one patron saint of France. Her Basilica is the second most visited religious site in France after Lourdes, also a Ville Etape this year.

St. Therese was born in 1873 and is considered the most important saint of modern times. She became a Carmelite nun at the age of fifteen and died ten years later. Her book "The Story of a Soul," professing her devotion to Jesus and God, was published a year later and became widely known and translated. She was canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.

She is buried at her sprawling and towering Basilica. The visitor center and church were full of pilgrims, many delivered in tour buses. Almost as much of the visitor center was devoted to a visit by Pope John Paul as to Saint Thérésa.

The finishing straight for the racers was already adorned with Tour banners hanging from light poles. The round-about half-way up the climb at the turn-in to the Basilica was lined with four steel figures on steel bikes welded from scrap metal, including hub caps, that might have been designed by Picasso, each painted a different color. The one bringing up the rear was holding an aerosol can meant to be a water bottle to his mouth.

Another round-about the peloton will pass featured a penny-farthing and another a bike covered in flowers. Lisiuex is primed and ready for The Tour. There were billboards scattered about town proclaiming the event. There was an exhibition celebrating the history of cycling in the region since the 1860s. The first great race in history was in 1869 from Paris to neighboring Rouen, home town of Jacques Anquetil. The eighty mile race drew 323 competitors, including two women. Only 120 finished. The winning time was ten hours and forty minutes.

The exhibit gave a lengthy biography of Anquetil and also gave the career highlights of two other notable local cyclists who distinguished themselves in The Tour de France. Its history of The Tour mentioned the usual significant events in the Tour's evolution since the first race in 1903 and also some oddities, such as the first year The Race went counter-clockwise around the country in 1913, allowing the Pyrenees to precede the Alps. It also made mention that 1958 was the first time the racers were not given a rest day. That lasted until 1968, two years after doping tests were instituted and the year after Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux.

From Lisieux I traced the stage route back to its start in Dinan, 140 miles away, the longest stage in this year's Race. It included a second "Wow" feature, passing by Mont St. Michel. This grand cathedral sits almost like an apparition out in the English Channel. Its the second time I've biked past it, the first with Craig, my friend from Chicago who spends half the year in the Cevannes in southern France. This time was even more dramatic coming from the east rather than the south, allowing my eyes more time to linger on it and shake my head at the wonder of it. I also had flocks of sheep in the foreground coming from this direction, sheep famous for their unique taste feasting on the sea-salt flavored grass from the winds blowing across the Channel.

I was able to give my legs their first genuine test to see if they are race ready, as I battled a strong head wind and rain and big steep hills much of the way. I've had rain nearly every day the past ten days, but nothing like this, a non-stop steady cold rain for five hours. It didn't look like it was ever going to stop. I was tempted to make camp in the first forest I came upon in mid-afternoon, setting my tent up sheltered from the wind and also on ground that allowed the rain to soak in, unlike the fields along the way. But I continued on and the rain finally did abate and all was wonderful with the world. But it resumed and stopped and resumed several more times before I finally made camp at 8:30 after nearly nine hours on the bike just barely managing ninety miles. But I felt no fatigue and could have continued on until dark at 10:30, as it is this far north as the the longest day of the year approaches.

Just two weeks until the action begins.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Le Mans, France

Friends: Its eight years now since Florence 115 ended her seven-year career as a Chicago bicycle messenger when she returned to France with her husband Rachid, but her memories of those years on the streets of Chicago are as vivid and fond as if she were still on the job. She echoes the sentiments of many a messenger, including me, saying "It was the best job I ever had," a job she would gladly resume to if she ever returns to Chicago.

On the third evening of my visit with her in Tours, she suggested we pull up the messenger instructional video on youtube we were both featured in from 2001 (enter "Chicago bike messenger video"). Neither of us had watched it in years. She admitted she was initially reluctant to participate in the project, as she feared if she gave away her secret short cuts and resting places and favorite toilets they would become well known and no longer of use to her. It was a false concern, as the video dealt more in the generalities of the profession than in specifics.

It opens with a commentary from one of the owners of a messenger company saying that it is a very exciting occupation, but also dangerous, but if one pays attention to the advice of the messengers in this video, one can learn to ride safely . Then one sees a messenger speeding through the city and a voice-over from me saying how it almost seems like a miracle than one can pick up a package on the 38th floor of the Board of Trade and then five minutes later be delivering it on the 32nd floor of the IBM building a mile away.

I am also given the final words of the documentary, saying I was glad that I only undertook the job as a lark. But it cuts me off before I was able to explain that the job was initially much, much more taxing than I anticipated, both physically and mentally, learning the many intricacies of the job. It is initially quite frustrating wasting time and energy before one learns the closest place to lock one's bike to each building and the elevator bank that one is going to and each building's policy regarding messengers, as some require messengers to enter via its dock or to sign in with a security guard or to leave one's bag with the guard or use a freight elevator or go to a messenger center or jump through some other unknown hoop. One cringes before entering each building fearful that a security guard will pounce upon him as if he is on a most-wanted list for violating the building's messenger policy.

Both Florence and I agreed that the first couple of weeks of the job are quite overwhelming, as there is so much to learn. The documentary ignored this. The job is so trying those first few weeks that most messengers quit. It is not the glorious, romantic calling they envisioned, nor necessarily as lucrative as they had hoped. The company I worked for my entire 18 year career paid a bonus of 50 dollars to anyone who recruited someone who lasted two months.

My two key pieces of advice to any recruit was to be patient with conditioning your body to the job and learning its ins and outs and also not to antagonize your dispatcher. The documentary could have been more useful if it had included a dispatcher giving advice, as no one could better offer advice on what is expected of a messenger. The only mention of a dispatcher was one messenger saying one ought to give his dispatcher gifts, implying that it is necessary to bribe him if one wants good work. That's a myth clung to by lesser messengers, not wishing to acknowledge that the reason they don't do as many deliveries as other messengers is that others are better, preferring to think that the dispatcher is simply showing favoritism and that he needs to be bought off. If one simply works hard and serves his dispatcher well, the dispatcher will want to keep such a messenger happy and will do good by him as well.

A dispatcher immediately recognizes a good messenger and will want to keep him working. Florence said that within a week her dispatcher asked her if she intended on working through the winter. He was hoping so, and if she was, he wanted to keep her happy. After my first day on the job, my dispatcher was impressed enough by my performance to ask me if I had ever messengered before. This was after asking me at the start of the day if I could remember how to ride a bike, as I started when I was 38, older than just about anyone else working. I didn't tell him that I'd just returned from a six-month, 10,000 mile ride to the tip of South America. I knew my performance would speak for itself. So my key piece of advice for any aspiring messenger is go hard and keep your mouth shut. Don't complain. Impress your dispatcher and he will want to keep you on the job. They don't like training new hires, as it takes a couple months for one to thoroughly learn the job.

Florence and I were jabbering away non-stop sharing memories of dispatchers and fellow messengers and incidents on the job and the exhilaration of being on our bikes all day flying all over the city, ending each day with great satisfaction. When the 20 minute video ended, we couldn't stop with youtube. There were quite a few more videos on Chicago messengers we knew well and our much revered romping grounds. All of a sudden it was three a.m.

Like being on the job, as exhausting as it can be, it is quite infectious and revitalizing. The day just flies by. We're battling deadlines all day, trying to slow down the clock rather than speeding it up as on most jobs.I never wanted my days to end. I always wanted one more delivery to keep it going.It didn't matter that it was so late, as Florence didn't have to go to work the next day. It was a holiday, though a holiday she wasn't paid for as to meet France's budgetary deficit everyone on this day donated their day's pay to the government pension fund for retirees.

Even before watching all the messenger videos, we had had the usual fine time reliving our shared messenger past as we bicycled around Tours. Florence still rides with a poetic grace and smoothness that is a pleasure to trail behind. She is one who loves to ride her bike and admits she needs to. If she doesn't, she feels bad. We have wanted to go off on a mini-tour together, something she has never done, but once again it didn't work out. Next time we both hope it will.

Still it was a pleasure to just meander around Tours together. We had the project of looking for abandoned bikes, as Florence needed some shifters for her bike. At the university we found three of them, one with just what we were looking for. In our rounds around the city, we also found another abandoned bike with a similar shifter and also with a traditional set of handlebars such as she would like.

In our meanderings we also came across an organization that was giving away fruit and vegetables to encourage people to eat more of them to combat cancer. It was the end f h day, so they were no longer giving away samples, but rather handfuls of grapefruits and apples and carrots and cherries and cucumbers and more. None of it was organic, which Florence tries to be faithful to, but I happily filled my backpack. It wasn't the only free food we came upon. Back at her apartment complex someone had left a dozen 200 gram containers of brie cheese out. Florence can't stand the smell, though Rachid occasionally brings some home. She allowed me to bring in several of them triple wrapped in plastic.

The city hall of Tours, one of the more impressive in France fittingly in chateau country, had a gathering of some thirty woman authors, each sitting at her own table with a stack of her books. Just down the street was a market of people selling odds and ends, each paying four euros for a table. We had gone in search of the local Emmaus, a chain of resale stores similar to the Salvation Army, but when we found it learned that it had moved. It was too late to go to the new location, so this market sufficed. I was in search of reading material. There was none in English here, but Florence still was happy to peruse all the clothe. Making the rounds of the many resale shops of Chicago was one of her passions.

The Tour de France will be passing within 25 miles of Tours on the seventh stage from Le Mans to Chateauroux. I will be too pressed for time to swing over for another quick visit with Florence and Rachid, but its possible that they might join me on the route when I pass.

The Tour stage will begin at the same stadium in Le Mans where its world famous 24-Hour car race is staged. It was this very weekend. All the television coverage overlapped the week-long Criterium de Dauphine bicycle race I had been hoping to watch. It is the final tune-up for The Tour for many riders. The car race has become such an accepted part of Le Mans, as I bicycled into the city there were no signs or banners or any indication that this huge event had just taken place.

From Le Mans I head north one hundred miles to the English Channel and then west to Brittany, previewing the first six stages of The Tour, now 18 days away.

Later, George


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

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Le Massif Central, France

Friends: This year's Tour de France route is less of a loop around the country than usual, hardly spending much time along its borders. It seems to have been designed to do justice to a couple of regions it has neglected the past two Tours--the northwest corner of the country and the Massif Central, a huge hump just below its center.

The first of its three weeks will be spent entirely in the northwest, beginning in the Vendée then venturing up to Brittany and across Normandy. After the stage six finish in Lisieux, just inland from the English Channel, the peloton will transfer nearly one hundred miles to Le Mans and then plunge 250 miles south in the next two stages to the very heart of the country. The second of those two stages will finish at the ski resort of Super-Besse Sancy. That stage will offer the first significant climbing of the Tour, first over the category two Col de la Croix-St. Robert and then a category three to the stage finish.

I made the climb to Super-Besse Sancy Sunday just as some heavy storm clouds were moving in. Its a short climb, only two miles, but the first half mile is a brutal eleven per cent, just like Contador likes, though it levels off, so may not be too much of a factor. When I saw that initial steep ramp, steeper than the killer start of L'Alpe d'Huez, I thought maybe I didn't need to do this, especially with the dark clouds coming in. If I had known it soon leveled off, I wouldn't have had any reservations. I did know that it was just two miles to the ski resort, so I went for it. I was very glad that I did, not only for the brevity of the steepness, but also because the toilets at the base of the ski lifts offered a free hot shower. Its been quite chilly the past week, so dunking in rivers hasn't been so welcome.

The rain did come, making the descent from Super-Bessy more of an ordeal than the climb. I had to squeeze my brakes hard most of the way down. When I finally let them go my speed rocketed up to 40.8 miles per hour, the first time I have gone over forty on this trip.

The tourist office at the base of the lifts, right at the finish line for The Tour, was selling Tour souvenirs already, along with t-shirts with the number 1,886 on it, the height of the peak of the ski resort in meters. That is similar to the height of Mount Ventoux and L'Alpe d'Huez, though nowhere near as dramatic since it is less than a 500 meter climb from the base of the Massif Central. This peak, like most of those on the Massif, is an ancient volcanic cone. The most legendary of the lot, the Puy de Dome, is less than 40 miles to the north. It is only 1,465 meters high.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I swung on by to see if I might be fortunate to be there on one of the rare occasions bicyclists are allowed to ride up it. No such luck. Cars are no longer even allowed to drive up it, recently banned after a bus crashed on the steep narrow road killing 26 Polish tourists. An 86 million euro train track is being laid to the summit, scheduled to open next summer. A train track was first laid in 1907, but had been dismantled and converted to a toll road in 1926. Right now the only way to the top is to walk up it, about a 45 minute hike, though someone managed to run up the mountain in eleven minutes and seven seconds in 2006. It was a wide, lightly graveled trail, almost as steep as that up Mt Fuji. Fuji was so steep it came equipped with hand rail chains to help pull one up. Here one just had to take small choppy steps.

Ancient Roman ruins were discovered at the summit in 1872 when a meteorological tower was erected. It was a temple to Mercury, patron of travelers and traders dating to the second century. The Puy de Dome is one of a handful of Grand Sites de France and is hoping to become a World Heritage Site as well. A plaque at the summit celebrates the thirteen visits The Tour de France has made to its summit between 1952 and 1988 with a photo of the classic battle between Anquetil and Poulidor in 1964 when they were knocking shoulders. The first cyclist to make it to the summit performed the feat in 1892 in 28 minutes. The first car made the ascent in 1905.

The largest monument at the summit though is a statue of Eugene Renaux, an aviator who won a 100,000 franc prize put up by Michelin to the first person who could fly a plane from Paris to the Puy de Dome in less than six hours, a distance of 250 miles. He accomplished the feat in 1911 in five hours ten minutes and 46 seconds three years after the prize was offered and two others failed in the attempt.

I've had a great week of cycling since Le Caylar scouting out six Tour Ville Etapes and sundry other attractions. On my way to Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France with a population of 366,000, I passed through Mazamet, home town of Laurent Jalabert, one of the two most popular French riders along with Richard Virenque in the 1990s up to several years ago when they both retired. Jalabert continues as a Tour commentator providing bird's eye views from a motorcycle in the peloton. His home town named its main plaza beside the Town Hall after him. There is a plaque with a bicyclist etched in yellow and black acknowledging his victory at the world championship time trial in 1997 and his ranking as the number one cyclist in the world in 1995.

Although The Tour doesn't pass through Toulouse, it will transfer through it as stage 11 finishes in Lavaur 25 miles to its east and then sets out on the 12th stage in Cugnaux, a suburb eight miles to the west. It will be a challenge negotiating that sprawl. I've got a semblance of a plan after checking out both towns, but it won't be easy, especially during rush hour.

On the way to Toulouse I had the bonus of passing through the town of Olargues with an Eiffel bridge on its outskirts built in 1889, presently being restored, and also a Resistance memorial in its town center. The memorial stated, "Les scenes de pillage se deroulent toute la journee, les allemands exigent du ravitaillement, des boissons, et intiment au marie l'ordre de leur livrer 50 bicyclettes." It says the Nazis demanded 50 bicycles from the town along with food and drink.

Now its on to a visit with Florence and Rachid in Tours, before continuing on to Le Mans and then to the northwest corner of France and the start of The Tour in just 25 days.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Le Caylar, France

Friends: It wasn't until we were on our dessert course as I ate dinner with my Warm Showers host and a few of his friends in Le Caylar, that I discovered that the woman sitting beside me was the town librarian. She had alluded earlier in the evening to being a reader when she mentioned that sometimes when her eyes were getting tired and she didn't want to stop reading that she'd alternately close one eye, to give it a rest, while reading one-eyed. We were too busy talking about bicycling to let me pursue the subject of reading with her.

Her one-eyed reading was just an aside after I mentioned that when biking in the cold, if my gloves weren't adequate to keep my hands warm, I'd ride one-handed, putting first one hand and then the other behind my back out of the wind, clutching it into a fist trying to warm it up.

We had been talking about cold weather cycling and if I ever stuffed newspapers in the front of my shirt to keep warm like the racers do on descents. I admitted I had. Someone also wanted to know if I resorted to dope like the racers to keep up with The Tour do France. "Caffeine," on occasion," I said.

Hubert had seated the librarian next to me because she spoke the best English of anyone at the table and also because she was his co-organizer of Le Caylar's upcoming Slow Travel Conference, a take off on the Slow Food movement. For over fifteen years this small town 45 miles northwest of Montpellier has had an annual festival of lectures on various topics. Last year's program included a talk by a local who the year before became the first person to sail the Northwest Passage over Alaska to Greenland in a small enough vessel that he could drag it over ice bergs when necessary. The conference also included a talk by someone who had walked the Santiago de Compestela pilgrimage route and a couple of other travelogues.

The travel programs were so well received that Hubert and Marie-Claire decided to devote this year's entire four-day event of sixteen programs to Slow Travel. Twelve will be by touring cyclists and four by walkers. Unfortunately it is the first week of August after I'll have returned to Chicago and won't be able to attend. I did learn from Hubert though that Paris has had an annual bicycle touring convention every January for the past 27 years. He attended it this past year for the first time to find speakers for his event.

Like my great friend Yvon and many French, Hubert has a natural inclination for travel by bike. It seems to be part of the French heritage going back to Paul de Vive (Velocio), the father of bicycle touring, the first to promote it back in the 1890s. Hubert plans to dedicate his conference to Velocio and hand out his Seven Commandments of Cycle Touring to all those attending. As great as his attraction to bicycle travel, his responsibilities as a father of four has limited his touring. His family has had two tours, one in Holland and another in Ireland. He says when his children are all grown, his dream is for he and his wife to bike to Morocco.

Among the others sitting around the dinner table were Hubert's wife, though as the town doctor she had to leave early to attend the monthly town council meeting, their teen-aged daughter Juliette, Marie-Claire's husband and Danielle, a widow whose husband had been an ardent cyclist. She brought along a sculpture in a wicker basket of a bicyclist given to her husband on his 75th birthday paying tribute to his love for the bicycle. When she left she gave me kisses on both cheeks. Even though I'd had some practice with Onni I was still not all that smooth with the ritual. Afterwards Juliette asked, "Do you kiss like that in America?"

The conversation was lively and animated all evening, just like in a French movie. These friends all enjoyed each other as much as they enjoyed the fine multi-course meal with veal as the main course that Hubert had prepared. When there was a momentary lull towards the end of the meal I asked if the town had a library. I had meandered all over it on my bike searching for the street that Hubert lived on and hadn't seen a library nor a sign for one.

Marie-Claire blurted, "We do, and I'm the librarian, but its only open three days a week and only a few hours a day." I told her that the scarcity of libraries and their limited hours was one of a few minor things things that prevented France from being the perfect place to travel by bicycle. She acknowledged that France is "behind" when it comes to libraries, especially compared to England and Scandinavia and America, though she insisted that things are improving. Just recently they had started an loan system between neighboring libraries.

"We got a late start," she said. "Our first libraries were books confiscated from the wealthy during the Revolution."

"Its always puzzled me," I said " that the French have such poor libraries considering your love for books. I see people reading books in line for movies at Cannes and along the road during The Tour de France, a site I rarely see in similar circumstances in America or anywhere I've traveled. Television shows featuring books and authors are quite popular in France. At one time wasn't there a Friday night TV show on books that was a big national hit?"

"Yes, it was called 'Apostrophe,'" Marie-Claire said. Then she explained that one of the reasons the French aren't so enamored with libraries is that they are particular about their books. They don't like to read books with smudges or a strand of hair or some other indication that the book has not been respected.

"Its too bad that Napoleon wasn't a proponent of libraries" I said. "Then you'd have the best in the world. He pushed the planting of trees along roads and the establishment of cemeteries so people wouldn't have to be buried in a mass grave. Now you have great tree-lined roads all over the country and the most cemeteries in the world. They are both great for bicycle touring, as the cemeteries are a source of water, but I'd sure like the ease of Internet that libraries provide. It can be a real challenge finding the Internet in France. It was remarkably easy in China and Turkey and Africa and of course in the US with every small town having a library that is open every day and for most of the day."

I wondered if Andrew Carnegie had funded any libraries in France. She didn't know, nor was she aware of his great library philanthropy, building over 1,600 in the US in the early 1900s, doubling the number of libraries in the country, and also funding the construction of 800 others around the world, though mostly in English speaking countries. France has never had such a benefactor. A visit to Wikipedia revealed there is a lone Carnegie in France--in the city of Reims. The city was largely devastated in WWI. The Carnegie was built in 1927.

After the cheese Hubert brought out a huge bowl of cherries. He said to set aside the stems, as they used them to make tea. I had practice at that, as Craig and Onni did the same. Craig and Onni also saved the pits for a friend who uses them to stuff into a pillow for heating in a microwave. No one at this table was aware of that.

I'm hoping to meet up with Hubert in Montpellier in the middle of July when The Tour concludes its 15th stage there on a Sunday. If it doesn't work out, I am sure to meet up with him again in the years to come, just as I have managed to do with Yvon every year since we met seven years ago. He is another true devotee of the bicycle that I rarely come upon.

Later, George