Friday, May 11, 2012

Avignon, France

For the first time last night after nine years and thousands of miles of cycling all over France and hundreds of nights of wild camping, other than my secret campsites just outside of Cannes and near Charles de Gaulle airport, I wild camped in a place for a second time.

It was exactly two years ago that Craig and I had camped in the spot I ended up at just past Lézan, 37 miles from Craig's house, down a dirt track alongside a field into a secluded nook of trees and bushes, another perfect campsite.  There was still a stray blue shot gun shell laying in the grass.

I was on the alert for the campsite, as I departed Craig and Onni in Notre Dame de Rouvierre just about the same time he and I had, 4:30 in the afternoon, after a brief three-hour visit.  I couldn't remember precisely where on the map we had camped, but the moment I exited Lézan and saw a small rest area it came to me in a flash, as we had at first scouted out the woods behind the rest area as a place to camp.  Typical of the French rest areas it did not have a toilet, so the woods behind were scattered with clots of toilet paper, not the best of places to camp.  Even if we went deep into the woods, we could be interrupted by the sound of motorists stopping for latrine duties.   It was just beyond there, on the other side of the road, that we had discovered a much much better spot for camping.

I had hoped Craig could join me once again, but he was so buried in a translating job he couldn't even escort me for my first few miles, a climb that went on for more than an hour on a narrow road with no traffic, one of his favorite local rides.  I felt lucky to have at least had a leisurely lunch of an Onni  soup and Craig home-made bread with a couple different local cheeses from the farmer's market with Craig and Onni on their balcony overlooking the village festival grounds and the surrounding Cevannes.  They had flown into France from Chicago the day before me and were fully settled in for their annual six-month France sojourn.

I began my day with a 35-mile ride from Le Caylar, where I had done some more socializing with another of my French bicycling fanatic friends, Hubert and his wife Francoise.  I met Hubert a year ago in Montpelier, a large city 50 miles south of Le Caylar.  He saw me on my loaded bike and invited me to visit.  He hosts an annual slow travel conference at the end of July of more than a dozen touring cyclists giving slide shows of their travels.

Francoise is the town doctor.  That and having four children doesn't allow them to do as much cycling as they'd like.  All they managed the past year was a weekend in St. Tropeze.  I wasn't sure if I'd have the time to visit them, so I arrived unannounced.  A half mile before entering Le Caylar at eight pm a car pulled off the road ahead of me and out hopped Hubert, just returning from Montpelier.  He hadn't recognized me, but was being his usual cycling good Samaritan and was going to invite the cyclist for the night.  We were thrilled to see each other.

Over dinner he gave me a thorough education into the French voting process.  Francoise as a town assembly person was one of those along with the town mayor overseeing the election, each serving a three-hour shift.  It is done with paper ballots, no electronics involved.  When the local poll closed at six, anyone in the town was welcome to watch the counting of the votes.  Of the 400 who voted, about 60 per cent voted for Hollande.  There is another election June 10 to determine the deputies for the French version of our House of Representatives.  That will determine how much power the new president will have.  Once again, it will be the only office contested on election day.  The French version of our Senate, also called Senat, is determined by vote of mayors, not the public.

Hubert wasn't the only person to hop out of a car and flag me down.  The day before it was Yvon and Collette, who were on their way to meet up with me in Graulhet, the day after we had parted.  We had arranged to meet at the local tourist office at three pm and then bike together to the Poulidor monument 12 kilometers south of the town.  I was ahead of schedule, less than 15 miles away from Gruhlet,  partially because it was only 90 miles, not the 100 we thought it was from Degagnac.    I had covered the distance in well under 24 hours.  When I stopped to greet them, it was a typical French greeting,  a handshake from Yvon and kisses on the cheeks from Collette.

When I arrived in Grualhet, Yvon was walking up the road ready to meet me.  He led me to the town plaza a block away, where Collette and half a pizza awaited me.  One could not have a finer friend than Yvon.  While I ate, Yvon regaled the two owners of the pizza parlor with the story of how we had met and our friendship since.

It was nearly a four-mile climb out of Graulhet.  Yvon and I could go at our own pace while Collette drove, as she and Yvon were going to continue on from the monument to Castres, where Yvon's parents are buried.  It would be his annual visit to their grave.  We weren't precisely sure where the monument was, so Yvon flagged down a motorist pulling out of a side road.   We were less than a kilometer away.  It was a large slab of marble with the story of Poulidor being hit by a gendarme on a motorcycle on July 14, 1968, costing him a Tour de France victory.  He wasn't leading The Race at the time, but he was within pouncing distance with a climbing stage ahead that it was presumed he would win and assume The Yellow Jersey.

His nemesis Anquetil had retired and 1968 was the year before Eddie Merckx made his Tour debut and began his dominance.  Jan Janssen of Holland won The Tour that year on the last day.  He was a much less accomplished rider than Poulidor.  Yvon said he could vividly remember seeing the accident on television and feeling crestfallen.  It was even more dramatic and caused a much greater uproar than the collision in last year's Tour of a car that knocked a rider into a barbed wire fence.  Poulidor struggled on for a couple more stages, but his injuries forced him to abandon.

Both Yvon and I felt as if we were reliving 1968 as we biked the same road that the peloton had.  And gazing upon the monument brought to mind the many other bicycling monuments I have paid homage to over the years: Anquetil, Hinault, Christophe, Poiters, Simpson, Hinault, Fignon, Lapize, Desgrange, Goddet, Indurain, Michaux father and son, Velocio, Merckx, Stablinski.  And it also had me thinking about a few more that are on my itinerary this year--Vietto, Ockers, another to Hinault and perhaps a few more.

I am presently less than 200 miles from Cannes and fine times with great friends Ralph and Keller from the Telluride festival and Charles and Milos and Patrick from Chicago.  My cycling mileage will plunge to ten miles a day and I will lose my first place standing in the League of American Wheelman Endomondo competition of several thousand cyclists all over the US.  The goal is for 50,000 cyclists to ride ten million miles from May through August.  Team captain for Team Illinois Kathy says our team is also in first place despite being three riders short.  If anyone is interested in joining let me know.  There are prizes.  All the socializing has limited my mileage the last two days to 142 miles, 70 on May 9 to Le Caylar and 72 on May 10 to just after Lézan.

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