American cities celebrate the bicycle with a Bike to Work Day or Week. In France the bike is honored the first weekend in June with a national Fete du Vélo weekend. I was fortunate to be passing through the city of Gap that weekend, which had a full slate of activities beginning with a Critical Mass on Friday evening.
Gap is a city of 40,000 and a regular Tour de France Ville Etape. I was there last year in the rain to see Garmin's Thor Hushovd win his second stage of The Race. The city was plastered with posters promoting its Fete du Vélo. After picking up a brochure of activities at the Tourist Office Friday afternoon, several of the organizers, who had noticed my overloaded bike, awaited me to make sure I knew about it and to encourage me to stick around for it. One couple, Sylvie and Pierre, invited me to stay with them, an offer I couldn't refuse.
It was two hours until the Critical Mass, its opening event. Sylvie and Pierre and their posse continued circulating around town recruiting while I went to the library to read back issues of "L'Equipe" to get the full story on Garmin's Ryder Hesjedal's thrilling victory in the Giro d'Italie. Christian finished a commendable 22nd riding in a support role as preparation for The Tour. He will be entering this year's Tour in the best shape he's been in since he finished fourth in the 2008 Tour.
The Critical Mass started on the outskirts of Gap on the road The Tour de France traditionally uses as its finishing straight into town. There were 125 of us, a little more than a year ago, one of the organizers said. All were French except me. My load attracted curiosity from all. I had conversations with a guy on a Surly who had recently baptised it on a tour of Morocco, a guy pulling a Bob trailer who was in town promoting a book on living as a vagabond in France, a guy who had done some touring in the US and the Queen of the ride, slender, red-haired Francoise, riding a vintage Gitane with moustache handlebars and relic vinyl petite panniers. She was the epitome of elegance.
She had traveled the world for thirty years as a backpacker on her annual five week vacation. She was an adventuress extraordinaire. She managed to gain entrance to Russia and Romania before the Iron Curtain fell, a very difficult visa to acquire. She's traveled to Alaska, Iceland, Peru, Bolivia, India, the Nordkap (the northernmost point in Europe beyond the Arctic Circle in Norway) and many other places my bike has taken me. The only place she wouldn't return to is Los Angeles. She hated it, even though she had relatives to stay with. They couldn't understand why she wanted to leave as soon as she arrived and head to Yosemite with her tent and backpack.
Even though she's been a life long devotee of the bicycle, she didn't attempt a bicycle tour until 2000, when she wanted to do something special for the Millennium. She rode her bike to the Atlantic, camping all the way. When I asked her if she had memories of watching The Tour de France as a kid, her face brightened even more.
"That was always the highlight of the summer," she gushed. "I couldn't wait to get up in the morning. My entire family, parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters, would spend the whole day somewhere along the route"
Our conversation went on and on as we pedaled the narrow medieval streets of Gap, passing a hotel Napoleon stayed at in 1815 on his way to Paris after being in exile. We circled various small plazas full of people dining and drinking at outdoor cafes. The ride ended up Fete du Vélo central, a small circus tent that had been erected to host its many seminars and activities. There was free beer and juices for all.
Then at nine p.m. the curtains went up for an event everyone had been talking about on the ride in eager anticipation--a screening of Jacque Tati's bicycling masterpiece "Jour de Fete." Not everyone may agree that "Breaking Away" is the Great American Movie, but among the French there is plenty of agreement that "Jour de Fete" is the Great French Movie. Tati is a national treasure. Most everyone on the ride had seen the movie many times, but that didn't diminish their eagerness to see it again.
I was among them. I too had see it quite a few times and knew this would be my ultimate viewing. Tati as a bumbling postman on a bicycle had the packed house tittering and virtually rolling in the aisles from start to finish. The gleeful response of the young children sitting on the ground up front and all the elders packing the chairs and the rows of elevated seats was almost as entertaining as the movie. It almost seemed as if Tati meant for the movie to be screened in such an informal setting.
We were fortunate to have a near full moon to ride to Sylvie and Pierre's house afterwards as it was a couple miles out of town up a steep climb on a rough road. Sylvie and Pierre were riding the same upright cross bikes they had ridden across France following a bike path along the Loire and on into Eastern Europe last summer. I set up my tent under a large tree and had a fabulous view down into the valley.
There was a full slate of programs on Saturday and Sunday beginning at ten and continuing into the night. Since most required more French than is in my repertoire I just attended a slide show of a woman's year-long bicycle ride the length of South America starting in Colombia following pretty much the route I did along the Pacific coast in 1989. It was unfortunate I couldn't contribute to the Q&A afterwards. I could have kept it going much longer than the ten minutes it lasted.
Gap didn't put an end to my climbing by any means. It was a four-mile eight per cent climb out of Gap over the Col Bayard and then several more climbs of a couple miles each along the Route de Napoleon on N85 towards Grenoble including one of 12 per cent. That made eight per cent seem easy and six per cent like it was nothing.
There were some more 12 per cent stretches the next day on the beyond category Tour giant Col du Glandon. At least I wasn't sweating as I had the day before with temperatures in the 80s, as it drizzled all the way up the six thousand foot climb. I camped four miles from the summit under an informational pavilion overlooking a dam. Though I had to erect my tent on concrete it was a most welcome dry spot and it allowed me to hang all my soaking gear on my bike to drip dry rather than hauling it into my tent.
From the summit of the Glandon I continued two miles to the summit of the Col de la Croix de Fer. I spent twenty minutes at the summit wandering around looking for a plaque to Davis Phinney's dad that a tour company that he frequently rode with had erected in his honor. I had read about it in Phinney's autobiography I read several months ago. The book was almost as much about his dad as well as his son Taylor, who won the prologue at this year's Giro and wore the pink jersey for several days. I did find a plaque on a post beside a large rock in honor of someone who lived from 1967 to 2011, but I couldn't find Phinney's.
It was a steep, cold, wet descent to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, start of this year's twelfth stage on July 13. Banners advertising the day were already adorning the town. A ceramic cow, exact clone of those that populated Chicago a few summers ago, was grazing outside the tourist office painted white with red polka dots. There was also red and white polka dot sheets strung over its entry. Tour water bottles and t-shirts were for sale and Tour stickers for free as well as "I heart bike" buttons. Shop windows were also decorated with the art of Teddy Botrel. But it was a Monday, so the library and the Internet cafe were not open in this not so large town. Saint-Jean too was plastered with Fete du Vélo posters of its own. A large banner advertising the event still decorated the town theater.