Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Epinal, France

Any network of secondary roads through the unrelentingly picturesque French countryside would make for an exceptional bike tour or bike race.  The Tour de France organizers can never go wrong with whatever route they concoct each year, but they always manage to stun me with beyond exceptional roads every year.

The stage nine time trial from Arc-et-Senars to Besançon, from its start in front of the jaw-droppingly magnificent World Heritage salt factory/Utopian society, through rolling countryside for 26 miles to the large city of Besançon, was a stupendously inspired choice.  It passes through half a dozen small villages.  If its a hot day the racers can grab a quick drink or douse themselves at any of the four cemeteries they'll pass.  The route is already marked at every turn and every kilometer post with a stenciled yellow bicycle on the road along with "9éme étape."  I wasn't the only one giving it a joyous preview Sunday afternoon. 

Arc-et-Senars is a small village of less than a thousand people, one of the smallest towns to ever host a Tour stage.  Size doesn't matter to The Tour.  Beauty and heritage are of most significance.  Such is the French consciousness.  The entire nation will be proud to see Arc-et-Senars at center stage all afternoon as one rider after another sets out from in front of the six grand pillars at the entry to the salt factory.

Various flower gardens in Arc-et-Senars had sprouted bicycle wheels.  One garden had eight green painted posts four to six feet high, each with a 20 or 26 inch wheel painted a bright color at its top as if it were a sun flower.  Another flower bed had a much taller post with multiple arms, each with a wheel attached.  Other bike art throughout the town were the yellow, green and red polka dot jerseys in another flower bed.  The flower bed in front of the city hall was filled with bicycles.

None of the bike art though matched all that in the last 20 miles of stage seven in the Vosges that ends at the La Plache des Belles Filles ski resort up a category one climb.  The Tour rarely visits this area and all the small towns it passes through were well in the spirit of celebrating its visit.  Houses and business were already adorned with decorated bikes.  One home had propped a mini-bike over its roadside mailbox.  Life-size wooden cutouts of racers adorned the roadside through Plancher-les-Mines, a mile before the turn to the final climb.  This region is near the German border, so there was a cut-out of Jan Ullrich.  But French nationalism strongly prevailed.  The railing of a bridge the peloton will pass had three bikes mounted painted blue, red and white, the colors of the French flag,  known as The Tricolor.  Someone else had painted a bike the three colors.  Ordinarily green, yellow and red are the colors of choice.  Many of the bikes had mannequins mounted atop them.  One town had several bikes featuring watering cans.

Earlier I had ridden the first fifty miles of stage ten leaving Macon. Only one town had mounted a welcome The Tour sign so far, but it was still a fabulous stretch of riding, one of those I ought to keep in mind when someone asks me for a recommendation of where to ride in France.  It is all so pleasing, I truly don't have any favorites, except sometimes the last stretch I've ridden. I was in Macon on Saturday.  The front page of its newspaper was filled with a picture of Tom Voeckler in yellow from last year with the headline that it was one month until The Tour arrived.  That was a bigger story than the national election the following day.  It listed various activities that would be taking place while the Tour was in town.  One was an exhibition of  Tour photos at an art gallery adjoining the City Hall that has yet to be set up.  The Tour arrives in Macon on a rest day after a 100 mile transfer from Besançon, so hopefully I will have time to see it.

Many of the towns through the Vosges put an extra effort into decorating their round-abouts to establish their identity, if they hadn't been taken over by a bicycle theme.  Baumes-les-Dames showcased a fly fisherman at one of its round-abouts and a mountain goat atop a pile of rocks at another.  Brightly painted huge mushrooms filled the round-about in l'Isle-sur-le-Doubs.  The mushrooms could be in abundance with all the rain the region has been experiencing.  This is the wettest spring I've experienced in France.  Its kept me in my tent longer in the morning than I've wished, waiting for it to let up and also forced me to camp a little early several nights when a sheltered forest presented itself just as another cloud burst was about to hit.  I haven't been able to wash my clothes for a couple of days with the non-step wet.

Hopefully Andrew will have brought drier weather with him from Australia.  We plan to meet at the Nancy train station, fifty miles north of here, tomorrow at noon.   Stage seven begins just outside of Nancy.  I'll have completed the stage and will have the first six left to preview with Andrew up towards the English Channel and then into Belgium.

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