Friday, June 29, 2012

Liege, Le Grand Départ

When Andrew and I showed up at the start of the Prologue course at the southern tip of the Parc d'Avoy a couple of hours ago there was a digital clock reading  0 days 23 hours and 15 minutes, the time before the first rider would plunge down the starting ramp marking the start of the 2012 Tour at 2:30 tomorrow afternoon.  There were no riders out previewing the course as it was raining and the course was clogged with traffic through downtown Liege.  The riders will have to wait until tomorrow morning to have a go at it.

The yellow course markers were already in place making it easy for us to follow the six kilometer course along the Le Meuse River and past many sidewalk cafes and a McDonald's and a Decathlon sporting goods store and around two round-abouts and past the City Hall in the grand plaza where last night's presentation of all the riders was held.

It was hot and dry last night.  I received a sweaty hand shake from Christian Vande Velde when I called out to him after he and his teammates passed Andrew and I towards the end of the circuit each team made of the plaza after their introduction.  He shouted out "Georgy," as if he were thrilled to see a familiar face, and then circled back for a quick hello before rejoining his teammates.  I didn't have time to more than congratulate him for contributing to his teammate Ryder Hesjedal's win in the Giro d'Italia last month and wish him luck.

There was a caravan sampler passing out trinkets interspersed between the teams during the 90 minute ceremony.   Andrew made a dash for a Panama hat to shield him from the hot sun.  I'd brought my baseball cap, so wasn't in need.

We'd been in the sun for two-and-a-half hours before the ceremony began, grabbing one of the few available benches.  We were treated to the sound check of the rock and roll band providing music interludes during the introductions.  Andrew is a musician and had a slight longing to be up on stage himself.  He was okay with the lead singer, but complained that his female counterpart wasn't fully on key.

Eddie Merckx was not part of the festivities, but he was featured at a museum exhibit on "The Golden Sixties."  The brochure promoting it had his picture along with John Lennon, JFK, Che Guevara, Bridget Bardo and an astronaut.

We kept scanning the plaza hoping Vincent, my Australian companion from the past three Tours, might surprise us.  We also had out eyes peeled for Skippy and The Devil, two other friends and Tour stalwarts.  The only familiar face I spotted was a Dutch Rabobank fan who always rings his cow bell when I pass him along The Route. 

We were disappointed not see any Tour followers at Liege's lone campground eight miles fro, the town center when we checked in that morning.  The campground wasn't even a quarter full.  Everyone was arriving the next day and had reservations, so we were only able to stay one night.  We were hoping some fan would allow us to share their spot, but none had arrived when we had to check out at ten am.  That just means we get to wild camp tonight.  We have a couple of different possibilities, all closer to the town center than the campgrounds.

There were a couple other race fans at the campgrounds who also had to leave.  One was a Swedish guy who had raced back in the '70s with a fellow countryman who won the Olympic Road Race in Montreal in 1976.  There was also a guy from Philadelphia who'd witnessed the US Pro Championships every year it was held in his home town.  He often joined teams on their training rides.  He filled us in on the latest racing news.  He might end up camping in the same field tonight that is one of our options.  We were sorry not to be spending another night in the campground with other race fanatics.

Both Andrew and I made final adjustments to our bikes last night in preparation for the grueling three weeks ahead of us.  Andrew has fully adjusted to his new synthetic seat so decided to give his leather seat another try after punching a hole in the bottom of it on each side and passing one of his jumbo zip ties through to tighten it.  So far he is happy with the operation.  He also bought some copper tubing and bent it over his rack to keep his mini-panniers out of his spokes.  It was an ingenious solution.

I needed to raise my handlebars as the weight from my handlebar bag had it drooping.  My biggest project though was transferring a jar of peanut butter from a glass jar to a light plastic jar.  Holland had budget-priced peanut butter compared to the extravagant price of France, so I finally finished off the jar  I had been nursing along for two months that I brought from Chicago.  It will be my emergency rations during The Tour along with a couple of packs of Ramon noodles that have accompanied me all this time.  The peanut butter wasn't the only food bargain in Holland.  Another was a kilo of mashed potatoes for a little more than a euro.  I ate a tub a day.

Belgium's great grocery store food bargain is two cheese burgers for 88 centimes, though Andrew wouldn't agree.  He cooks up a quality piece of meat every night.  I warned him that the burgers wouldn't meet his standards but he bought a pack anyway.  He could stomach just one bite.  He surprised me when he managed to swallow it and not spit it out.  But he is tough.  The other night when his seven dollar Irish steak flopped into the dirt from his frying pan, he brushed off what he could and said, "A bit of dirt is good for you.  Its full of micro-organisms you need."

He was more upset by a Starbucks double espresso in a can that he bought at a supermarket.  He was feeling run-down and needed some extra pep.  "That's no double," he complained, "But I should have known.  Starbucks coffee is shit.  We know coffee in Australia.  Starbucks opened 220 stores and had to close half of them.  Anyone who knows coffee who went once would never go back.  We have lots of small coffee shops that sell genuine coffee.  There are six or seven just within a few blocks of where I work."

Tomorrow will be pretty much of a rest day for us.  We'll spend the day previewing and then watching the Prologue and won't begin riding until six after the Yellow Jersey is awarded.  We'll ride 15 or 20 miles of Sunday's stage before finding a place to camp and then will probably stay there until after the peloton passes early that afternoon.  That first stage makes a big loop out from Liege and then back to the suburb of Seraing that we've already previewed.  We'll take a short cut down to the last 15  or 20 miles of the stage.  When we finish it off we won't wait around for the peloton but instead will head for Monday's second stage and start riding that course.  We'll stop and watch the finish of the first stage on TV  and then ride until nearly dark, putting us within 50 or 60 miles of the 2nd stage finish so we can easily arrive before the peloton Monday.

It was exciting to ride the first six kilometers of The Race just a couple of hours ago and is exciting knowing all that awaits us.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Roermond, Holland

After less than a 50 mile dose of Germany Andrew and I slipped back into Holland for our return to Liege, as we missed the extreme ease of its cycling and all the pleasant people, most of whom could speak English, unlike Germany.  Andrew summed up Holland as "the world's premier non-threatening tourist destination.''  We haven't felt particularly threatened elsewhere, though we know being in unknown places one can feel ill at ease.  In Holland, we were fully at ease.

We weren't even in Germany long enough to shop at an Aldis, home of the discount grocery store that is taking over the world.  They are common in Australia as well as the US and France, Holland and Belgium.  We also cut short our time in Germany before Andrew could  take a photo of one of the many German cars bedecked with flags.  There was a great profusion of flags everywhere, in sharp contrast to France, Belgium and Holland, as soon as we crossed into Germany. 

With the European Football Cup going on, the Germans were asserting their ultra-nationalism.  When I was in Germany two years ago during the World Cup, nearly every other car had a flag or two or four on a rod wedged into their windows.  Some also had glove-like flags stretched over the mirrors outside the driver and passenger doors.  The latest flag decorations are magnetic flags they can slap anywhere on their cars and also a stretch version of those on their mirrors that fit over the gas cap.  The Germans are easily the most nationalistic of people.

Though it got rather tiresome seeing all the flags, that wasn't one of the reasons that forced our premature departure from Germany.  It was a combination of factors.  At first it was the poorer quality of its cycle paths.  Like Holland they parallel all the roads and are meant to be ridden by cyclists rather than the roads.  Unlike Holland there was dog poo to dodge.

A third strike against Germany came when Andrew tried to use the Wifi outside a McDonald's as he had been doing throughout our travels.  For the first time it wasn't free to any interloper.  One had to go inside and make a purchase to be given access.  He's not adverse to Quarterpounders.  He'd had a couple our first two days in Holland, the first when we needed to take refuge from the rain and the second while I spent an hour on the Internet in Nijmwegen.  But he took offense to the German McDonald's stinginess with their Wifi and refused to let them have any of his money.
Instead we searched out the local library.  That was not easy at all, as we had to ask quite a few people before we found someone who spoke enough English to understand us.  The word "bibliotek'" didn't even work and we didn't know that the word for library in German is "stadtbucherei."At least when we finally found the library we were allowed to use the Internet, though it didn't allow access to yahoo email.


When we reached the town of Staelen around seven pm and saw a sign to Venlo, Holland, saying it was just ten kilometers away, we decided on impulse to head back to a land of English-speakers.  Even people who can't speak English are willing to try and know enough words to give us directions to where we need to go.  The supermarkets in Holland are very modest sized and not as obvious as elsewhere.  We've had to ask several times where the local supermarket was, sometimes from one of the many elderly folk out on bicycles who didn't learn much English in school.  Dutch don't cringe or flee when we approach, but give us a smile and are pleased to be of help. 

We have one more day of Dutch sidewalk, sleep-walk cycling before we return to Liege and the start of our grand escapade of following The Tour.  Our legs will be fresh after  four days of soft-pedaling.  We pushed the pace a little bit last night and before long the balls of my feet were stinging from the exertion.  That usually only happens at the start of a tour.  I was surprised to have lost that conditioning.  I hope I have not lost any more.



Monday, June 25, 2012

Nijmegen, Holland

We've had two days of leisurely bike path/sidewalk riding in Holland, and two nights in campgrounds, helping us to recover from our four days in Belgium.  It is rather mindless cycling, almost as if we're riding through an extended neat and tidy suburbia.  But we topped it off with a visit to Holland's National Cycling Museum here in Nijmegen.   It had an extraordinary collection of old bikes, well-preserved and well-presented.  The overseer talked with us for over half an hour after our perusal.  He was preparing a special Tour de France exhibit and was excited to hear about our plans to follow The Tour.

As relaxed and pleasant as Holland has been we're looking forward to crossing over to Germany as soon as I send this off and heading back towards Liege for the presentation of The Tour teams Thursday night in the central plaza of Liege.

We also hope to meet up with a most eccentric 56-year old cyclist/artist who came to our aid in downtown Liege as we were puzzling over our map trying to figure out our precise location and the way to the library for an exhibit on The Tour.

Jack could easily direct us there, as he was a regular patron, but he wasn't sure if the exhibit was yet ready for viewing.  We wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't, as the Liege tourist office wasn't very well informed on Tour activities.  At one point the  woman trying to help us gave us a Tour de France telephone number for our more specific queries.  They had no brochure of events.  It was all available on line she said.  Evidently Liege had little budget to promote The Tour, unlike its sister Belgium Ville Etape Tournai.  One even had to pay 50 cents for a city map.  Brussels was equally financially strapped two years ago when it was a Ville Etape for The Tour.  The port-a-potties it supplied at The Tour finish cost 50 cents to use, the only Ville Etape to charge for such a basic necessity.

Jack couldn't tell us whether the library offered Internet for visitors, as he said the extent of his use of technology was the bicycle.  That was the first hint that we were dealing with someone who was slightly off-kilter.  We had it further confirmed when he told us he had biked to the North Cape in Norway, 300 miles beyond the Arctic Circle, back in 1996 setting out on January 31.  He carried 50 kilos of gear, but hardly camped at all, knocking on people's doors and asking for refuge each night.  The roads were slick and icy.  He repeatedly fell, but he was so bundled up, he didn't have to worry about injury.

He told us how much he envied us for being off on a bike trip, "the real life" he called it, knowing how "magical" every day on the road can be.  He was the first person  we'd encountered who recognized Andrew's bike as a classic French design and was enthralled by its every feature, even ogling its lugs.  He was impressed that it had been built by a Japanese who specialized in such bikes.

After half an hour of mostly letting him talk our ears off, he asked if we'd like to see some of his touring gear back at his apartment, though he warned us he didn't often welcome visitors and that his apartment wasn't all that much.  On the way there we stopped to see a 374-step climb up a steep hillside that had a 24-hour competition going on and also to take a peak through a window slash in an old cathedral.  He would have liked to have taken us to see Liege's new ultra-modern train station as well, but it was in the opposite direction.

It wasn't until we reached his apartment above an antique store that we realized he was an artist.  The photos he showed us were quite good.  He said two of his photos were in the tourist office.  Besides photography he also drew very intricate, symmetrical pencil drawings that could only be fully appreciated under a huge magnifying glass.  It was prolonged, tedious work creating them.  He had notebooks full of designs.  He hadn't sold any yet, but had a potential client in a wealthy Danish collector.

His apartment was remarkably tidy and orderly with just a few bike parts on a shelf.  Dangling from one wall was a row of climbing ropes tied in intricate knots.  Knots had become his latest obsession a few months ago when he happened upon a book of knot-tying.  He rambled on and on about his various knots, often ending a sentence with "blah, blah, blah,"' and adding, "Sometimes I talk too much." He'd only take a slight pause for breath and go off on another tangent.

He said he was presently preoccupied with trying to decide whether to return to Norway to accept the offer of being the caretaker for a friend's isolated cabin, where his mother had recently died.  He'd "disappeared" to Norway once before in 2003 for 1250 days.  He liked it very much, but he feared "disappearing" again, as it was on his record now in Belgium.  He showed us a list of 50 questions he had posed to himself to resolve before making his decision.

The stranger he got, the more interested we became.  We invited him to accompany us for at least a couple of days.  He couldn't tear himself from his art.  Though he barely eked out an existence, he offered us nuts and apricots and chocolate for our travels and wanted to send us off with a three foot length of climbing rope with any knot that we wanted.  When we realized we had to accept something from him, we accepted the chocolate and let him tie a knot with some cord I had to help hold Andrew's new panniers in place.

I offered him any of three books I'd finished reading. Andrew didn't need them, as he had 13 books on his Kindle, including the recently downloaded "Escape from Lecumberri" by my friend Dwight that had been featured on National Geographic's "Locked Up Abroad" cable series last month.  Jack gladly accepted a book on the Seine River and a book of food commentary by MFK Fisher, but hastily rejected a collection of essays on DeGaulle as if it carried the plague.  He was impressed though by the books I'd chosen to bring along.

Since Jack had no email, if we wanted to communicate with him again we'd either have to return to his apartment or give him a call.  He is a fan of racing, though not of any particular racer.  There was no photo of Eddie Merckx in his apartment, nor Stan Ockers either, another Belgian who'd wore the rainbow jersey of world road race champion for a year after winning the race in 1955.  He died a year later at the age of 36 in a six-day bike race competition.  Andrew and I stopped by a monument to him at the summit of the 11 per cent Cote des Forges ten miles from downtown Liege.

Trying to find it was an adventure of its own.  We received vague directions to it from the tourist office in Namur, but then fairly precise directions from a most friendly bike shop in a town five miles from it before one of those typical long, steep climbs of the Ardennes.  We had to ask a couple more people along the way, some who knew of it and some who didn't, even though they'd driven past it many times.  It was only slightly hidden by bushes that framed it in front of some one's home who had a very ferocious dog.  We were lucky to make the approach to it from the north, which was a gradual climb, avoiding the steep eleven per cent from the opposite direction that makes it the final selective climb in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a spring race that is one of cycling's monuments.  It was a Saturday morning and the roads were full of cyclists on high quality racing bikes wearing various team jerseys riding as if they were preparing for The Tour de France, just as one would expect in Belgium. 


Friday, June 22, 2012

Seraing, Belgium, Ville Arrivée Stage One

Its our third day in Belgium and Andrew is still trying to find some reason to like the place.  I'm always gladdened to be in the Land of Eddie Merckx, but the riding is a stark contrast to the idyllic cycling of France and its wonderful ambiance.

The roads are rough and architecture cold, the people not so warm and there is a prevailing industrial decay.  There are a lot of burly, thuggish characters and drivers that are not only inconsiderate but down right hostile.  The worst was a genuine neanderthal who roared past us at high speed, swerved towards us and to top it off squirted windshield wiper fluid at us.  It could not have been a more hostile or premeditated act.  We've also had to divert from all too many roads that bicycles aren't allowed on as if we were in Germany.  One driver, very concerned for our safety, leaped out of his car and told us we were headed towards an autobahn.  He wasn't angry at us, just highly concerned.

But what may frustrate Andrew the most is how hard it is to find water.  Cemeteries are rare and public toilets even rarer.  Back in Australia he says everyone has a faucet on the front of their house that any cyclist is welcome to use.  So far he has only spotted two faucets in all of Belgium on houses and both were non-functioning.  When we finally saw  a faucet on the outside wall of a cemetery this afternoon, he was certain it would be disabled too, but but we lucked out on that one.

 In our first two days in Belgium the only two times we have been able to fill our water bottles were in garages--the first at a bus depot in the early evening with no one around and the other at a mechanic's garage in a small town.  When we tried the mechanic's faucet just inside his door, rusty brown water poured out.  "No wonder they don't have faucets here," Andrew said.  "No one uses them."

Camping too is much more of a challenge than France.  One forest we ventured into had an army jeep with recently cut branches covering it.  There was also a camouflage mesh blocking a trail.  We quickly evacuated that site.  Still, we've had two pleasant nights of camping, one in a pear orchard and the other in a semi-wilderness a mile off the main road.  Andrew startled a deer drinking from a stream as he wandered the site.  It was the first time he's ever been barked at by a deer.

Another reason to have doubts about Belgium is that we see signs for golf courses here, unlike France.  France may have a golf course or two, but I can't ever recall seeing one.  We both regard golf as less than a sport, practiced by those who think it lends them a sense of importance or superioirty. Since Belgians feel dominated by France, they have a ned to play golf as it makes them feel a little better about themselves.
Our first impression of Belgium, other than the immediate deteriorating road surfaces, had us thrilled to be here. Tournai, the arrival city for the second stage of The Tour, just across the border was grandly decorated celebrating its honor of hosting The Tour.  A gigantic yellow jersey hung from the town's central tower with a "J 12" under it, meaning 12 days until The Tour arrived.  They were truly looking forward to the event to have a count down going.

The tourist office offered a 24-page pamphlet of all the activities associated with The Tour.  The City Hall had an exhibit of Tour bikes and jerseys including Cadel Evans' time trial bike and Eddie Merckx's bike from the 1972 Tour.  At the entry to the exhibit was a Peugeot bike from the 1966 Tour, the only other time Tournai had been a Ville Etape.   There were photos from that year and photos and memorabilia from the entire Tour's history.  It was one of three exhibits around town devoted to The Tour.

Our arrival in Belgium coincided with the first warm day in our first week of riding together.  For the first time we saw women walking around in summery clothes, not bundled up.  Andrew thought Belgium was a land of great  feminine beauty, since it had all been under cover in France since his arrival.  But not even that was enough to win him over, especially when the weather turned cold and with it disappeared what feminine charm we had seen.

We were hoping Seraing would be another greatly decorated Ville Etape, but all it had honoring The Tour were banners across a bridge and along the city's main street.  We could hardly believe Seraing was chosen as a Ville Etape as we cycled into this industrial wasteland of a city on the outskirts of Liege.   It was truly like being in Poland or Gary, Indiana.

Before we head into Liege tomorrow we will pay tribute to the Stan Ockers monument about 15 miles from here.  He finished second in the Tour de France twice and was a world champion, but died in a cycling accident.  His monument is at the top of a climb on the Liege-Bastogne-Liege route, one of the five great one-day races known as Monuments of cycling. 

Our last day in France we paid tribute to Lasalle Duclose, two-time winner of Paris Roubaix, riding a stretch of cobbles named in his honor.  Photos available at http://fatseas.com

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Aire-sur-La-Lys along stage 3

If Andrew and I were giving tourist offices stars according to their helpfulness, the one in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, Ville Arrivée for Stage Three, would have earned four stars, our highest rating.  The woman in charge eagerly answered all our questions and offered to make a copy of The Tour's third stage without our even asking.  She also gave us detailed instructions of how to find a bike shop and the library and wrote out their names for us, unlike most tourist offices, so we knew precisely what to look for.  Her only slip was assuring us the library was open on Mondays.  I know they often aren't, and this one wasn't, a bummer not only denying us Internet, but forcing us to go up another of the long steep climbs that lace this city along The Channel.  One of those long steep climbs will be the finishing stretch for the stage, once again thwarting the sprinters. 

Nor was the bike shop open on Monday, but that allowed us to go to the huge sporting goods chain department store Decathlon on the outskirts of the city.  They offer some decent quality goods. Andrew was not only able to replace his sagging and sodden leather seat but acquire a set of rear panniers for a mere 18 euros.  Now he looks more like the serious touring cyclist that he is rather than just some dilettante with bags piled up on his rack.  And it greatly expands his carrying capacity.  

This Decathlon also offered free showers, catering to its outdoor clientele.  We we short on time and not all that desperate, but that is something we could take advantage of when we return to Boulange in two weeks.  I am very curious to learn if all Decathlons offer such an amenity. This was the first I'd ever noticed.  They can be found at most of the larger cities in France.  If they all come with showers, that will be almost as great a discovery as that cemeteries have water.  Andrew didn't know about the cemeteries on his first bike tour in France and was often desperately floundering about, even knocking on people's doors asking for water.  Now he's developed a sixth sense for cemeteries.  He spotted one off in the distance that hadn't caught my eye as we left Abbeville, start of Stage Four, Sunday evening. 

Filling up with water there allowed us to camp a little sooner than we had anticipated.  We were both exhausted after a day of steep climbs on narrow roads.  We had entrusted our navigation from Albert to Abbeville to Andrew's Garmin GPS device, entering in shortest route.  It took us along an extraordinary array of small byways that locals probably didn't know about--farm tracks through fields mostly used by tractors, a three-mile stretch on a dirt service road under a column of wind generators and on narrow paths for non-motorized vehicles.  It made for a fascinating ride, but also very demanding.  We were happy to make the final ten-mile run into Abbeville on a real highway even with all the traffic.

But we needed that quiet respite after being on main roads from Epernay to Reims and then to St. Quentin.  We wanted to get to all three cities in time before tourists offices closed.  It was a struggle finding the one in St. Quentin as it didn't have the usual banner out front but rather a new version that our eyes just glanced past.  We biked right by the tourist office and then had to start asking, as the signs to it were limited, in contrast to most towns.  We'd been feeling great about being in St. Quentin as the roundabout that welcomed us had a flower display of France with a bicyclist and also a pair of sculptured bikes, one with a cyclist in a yellow jersey and the other in green, letting all know it was a Tour Ville Etape (photos at http://fatseas.com ).  While we lingered taking photos motorists gave us friendly toots and waves, including a Tour team car.  The town plaza also had a few original bike sculptures.

The woman at the tourist office apologized for not having a schedule of Tour events available yet.  She also apologized for her English, though it was perfectly adequate.  She was quite a contrast to the man in the tourist office in the large city of Reims.  He acted as if he expected an apology from us for intruding upon him.  He let us know in four different ways that he wished we'd go away.  It was almost like a Monty Python routine.  Andrew and I were so entertained by him we lingered as long as we could.  He was an older guy with the air of a university professor way too good to be dealing with tourists.  He might have been auditioning for the Paris tourist office by being as rude as he could be.  He at first ignored us when we came up to his counter.  When he finally gave us some attention he only allowed us a couple of questions, then turned his attention to someone else who had stepped up to the counter.  When he finished with her and saw that we were still there he disappeared into the back.  When he returned and we were still there, he went to a drawer for some brochures to restock a cabinet out front.

He took offense to my very first question, asking if he could tell us how to leave the city towards St; Quentin.  "You're traveling by bike and you don't have a map?" he exclaimed.  "You can go next door and get a good Michelin map for six euros."

"We have a good map, we just need to know how to get out of the city," I replied.  At that he pulled out a city map and showed us the way.  We asked about the Carnegie library we had just visited, if he knew if the Art Deco chandelier was an original.  "Of course," he said.  Then we quicly bombarded him with an array of questions we had been wondering about--how it came to be that all the kings of France were crowned  in the Reims cathedral, if Joan of Arc had visited, how near was it that Louis XVI had been apprehended when he tried to flee the country.  At one point I said, "I have just one more question."  That was the Louis XVI question.  It was less than 50 miles to the east. 

He let me sneak in an extra question with only minimal protest when I asked if a monument marked the spot.  "No," he replied, but then added, "It is a very important event in the history of France so there is of course a plaque."  After we walked out, we wanted to go back in and ask him if it was done raining, but only knew he scream at us that he wasn't a weatherman and how dare us bother him with such a question.  After that I would have asked if a French rider had a chance to win The Tour de France to see if he would fully explode, but we left him in peace.  But recounting this episode with the most easily aggravated tourist official in all of France the next few days kept us mightily entertained.
We encountered an even less helpful woman at the Metz tourist office, another Ville Etape, who wouldn't go to The Tour website to provide us with The Tour route into Metz as most tourist offices had.  But she was a summer intern who had much to learn.  Andrew gave her a slightly higher rating than my zero stars because she was the prettiest woman in a tourist office we have dealt with.

We're presently closing in on Belgium and The Tour start in Liege.  Andrew manages a daily update with photos at  http://fatseas.com in his tent every night on his Iphone, so I don't feel as pressured as usual to try to find Internet.  We were lucky to find this place just before closing time late this afternoon.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Epernay, Ville Départ Stage Six

Andrew and I previewed eighty-five miles of The Tour's sixth stage between Epernay and Metz yesterday.  Only the largest town we passed through, St. Mihel, had a supermarket.  That was valuable information to know when we return in three weeks.  We also learned that there was only one cemetery along that stretch for water.  Surprisingly, none of the smaller villages the route wound through had even a little grocery store. 

We were in St. Mihel at lunch time. I took the opportunity to stock up on food for the day, a wise choice.  Andrew with a much smaller carrying capacity than I, riding super-light with no panniers, just two bags lashed to his rear rack and a handlebar bag, put off buying food for dinner until later in the day.  I know supermarkets can't always be found, but I wasn't concerned enough to advise Andrew to stock up when he could.  Plus I knew that if by chance we couldn't find food later in the day I had enough reserves to take care of the both of us.

Though Andrew biked in France six years ago with his girl friend he didn't intersect with me or The Tour then, as it was beyond his girl friend's capabilities.  He was riding with panniers on that tour and not trying to do the mileage that we will be doing.  Stocking up on food isn't the first lesson he's learned in our first two days together.  He also learned not to leave his shoes outside his tent at night.  The other morning when he put his foot into his shoe he crushed a slimy slug.  He's a tough lad though and didn't let out a peep, nor even show me the mess he had made.

It's been ten years since we met in Laos and though we only spent a day-and-a-half cycling together then, and that distracted somewhat as were were both accompanied by a friend, me Laurie and he Ilias,  we fully bonded and recognized we had similar temperaments and would make ideal traveling companions.  We have stayed in touch all these years, hoping to join up for some genuine riding together.  When we met at the Nancy train station two days ago, we immediately picked up as if we were life-long friends.  We have communicated enough over the years, we only had the small details to fill in.

I was eager to hear more about his further travels in Thailand and Japan and how it went with his job as the head of a computer programming department for Sydney's Snowy Hydro.  This is his first lengthy vacation since we met.  He accrued enough time off to have seven weeks.  Next year though he hits the jackpot with a three-month paid vacation, something every Aussie earns after serving ten years for a government agency--a "Long Service Leave."  He's still trying to decide how to spend it.  Biking South America is a good possibility, unless he becomes so enamored by The Tour to want to return.

Andrew is riding a custom built Japanese frame of a classic French touring bike with all sorts of unique features, including a generator that recharges his I-phone and his Garmin GPS device.  The bike is so exceptional Andrew wrote about its builder for Vintage Bike Quarterly, now Bicycle Quarterly, for a special issue devoted entirely to Japanese frame builders in 2008.  Andrew is a true master of bicycle technology.  I am continually learning useful information from him.  He put the utmost consideration into every aspect of his bike and every item he has brought along.

His I-phone allows him to update his blog every evening with commentary and photos.  It is http://fatseas.com/  He has no need of sharing any of the books I brought along, as he has plenty stocked up on his Kindle.  There has been no time for reading though with all we have to talk about.

Andrew will be an extra happy camper tonight after finally finding some alcohol for his stove.  He's had to eat cold canned food our first two nights.  It was more of a challenge to find fuel than he anticipated. The first half dozen stores we tried had none.  At last this morning we came upon a hardware store that had exactly what he needed.  If we'd needed to saw something we could have used a saw or a handful of other tools, including a vise, at that entry to the store that were on cords for anyone to use--another of those thoughtful, useful French amenities.

We're now headed north to Reims, less than twenty miles away, to visit the only Carnegie library in France.  It was built after WWI when its original library was destroyed.  We confirmed with the tourist office in Epernay that it was still standing.  The woman there did not have to check.  She knew it well and said it was magnificent.  It is near the cathedral of Reims, a World Heritage site.

All through Epernay banners advertised it would be a Tour Ville Etape, and also that it was under consideration for being a World Heritage site.  The Tour will depart from the town center at a grand round-about right next to the Tourist Office and the stately Hotel de Ville and its fine gardens where Andrew and I had lunch waiting for the tourist office to reopen after its lunch break.

The peloton has only one categorized climb awaiting it on this stage, a benign category four about half-way through.  But it has a surprise category one descent down a steep, narrow, twisting road to just before its finish in Metz.  It could cause havoc and could make it hard for Sky to chase down any breakaway to set up Cavendish for the sprint.

It was a brutal climb for Andrew and I. 

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.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Macon, France

After ten days and 500 miles of zig-zagging over, around and through the Alps searching out sundry sites of bicycling lore I've made my escape.  My legs are thankful to be back on the relative flat.  At times I thought I was mired in a maze trying to reach a destination via a network of narrow river valleys and high passes, some I sought out and others that were an unexpected surprise.

My final night was spent two miles from the summit of the Cormet de Roseland camped between the stone barn and stone house of an abandoned homestead above the tree line with patches of snow here and there.  It was a most quiet night, with no one driving the road after dark and no birds at such altitude.

I made my camp with an hour of light remaining.  I could have finished the climb and begun the descent, but I would have had to camp somewhere on the way down, meaning I'd have to start the next day with frigid air stabbing daggers into me as I continued the ten-mile descent.  I preferred to start the day fully warmed up finishing off the last two steep miles to the summit.  It was a slight risk that rain could move in and I would have another perilous cold descent, but I put my faith in the rain being done with me.

Not so.  I was awakened at eight a.m. with light drops on my tent.  I broke camp in record time before the rain began in earnest.  Twenty minutes of climbing warmed me up short of working up a sweat.  The rain remained light, but at my increased speed it seemed to be coming down much harder.  During the descent I kept my speed to under 18 miles per hour, not wishing to demand too much of my brakes.  Half-way down, I could hear that excrutiating sound of metal on metal as my front brake pads finally wore out with all the steep braking in the rain they had endured lately.  I knew they were wearing down, as I'd had to make several adjustments to tighten them.  Half-way down at a turn-off to a dam I came upon a bus stop with a shelter, just what I needed to replace the pads and also to add a few layers to my torso.

The Cormet de Roseland was on my itinerary to seek out the sharp turn where Johan Bruneel crashed in the 1996 Tour and came within inches of going over a steep cliff that would have been the end of it.  He makes frequent references to the incident in his autobiography, "We Might As Well Win," and it can be viewed on youtube.  It was a mile or so after I'd replaced my brake pads just before a guard rail. There is no plaque or monument to mark the spot, though at one time the guard rail had been spray-painted, but it had worn off.

The Pyrenees have a handful of noted crash sites.   The most prominent is the huge monument to Fabio Casaratelli at the spot where in died in 1995.  There are also plaques at the spot where Luis Ocana crashed in the 1971 Tour when he was wearing the yellow jersey and was set to upset Eddie Merckx.  There is also one to Wim Van Est, the first Dutch cyclist to wear the yellow jersey, where he lost it in a crash in 1951 on the Col d'Ausbique. 

The Cormet de Roseland is just one of two climbs that uses the archaic "cormet" rather than "col" to describe it.  It begins at the center round-about in Bourg-St. Maurice in that nook of France just below Switzerland.  It is one of those climbs that has kilometer posts for cyclists giving the grade of each of the 20 kilometers to its summit. 

I had one more surprise ten-mile climb just after I finished the Roseland in Beaufort.  I spent an hour in its library trying to dry out and warm up until it closed at noon.  The Col des Sais to the ski town of Sais quickly warmed me up.  When I stopped after a mile to shed a couple of layers I leaned my bike against a fence post and received an unexpected shock, as it was electrified to keep its horses behind it.  Then I got another shock when I pulled my bike away.  But my worst stings of the day came from my campsite when I pushed through a patch of stinging nettles hidden in the tall grass.  Despite my fatigue it was hard to go to sleep from the throbbing pin pricks from my knees down.  When I finally did the pain woke me up a couple hours later.  It wasn't until late in the night that the pain finally subsided.  It was a long, hard final day in the Alps.

After the Cormet de Roseland I had one other plaque to search out in Sallanches, after a final descent through a series of ski towns.   It was there in 1981 that Bernard Hinault won the world championships.  Unfortunately I arrived half an hour after the tourist office closed and no one I asked knew anything about the plaque.  The tourist office may not have either, but they may have been able to google it.  But I will no doubt be back in the region in the coming years and will have another chance to find it.  At least I have a good strong image of Sallanches and its town park.

My foray in the Alps also took me to Albertville, start of the 11the stage of this year's Tour.  A cluster of yellow and green and red-polka-dotted bikes hung from a high tower in its Olympic Park where the peloton will set out.  I followed the first twenty miles of the stage to the foot of the Col de Madeleine at the small village of Pussy and continued on through the river valley towards the Cormet de Roseland.

I also passed through Bellegard-sur-Valserine, finish of the 10th stage.  It will be an uphill finish on the Avenue Saint-Exupery after a climb over the Beyond Catergory Col de Grand Colombier, included in The Tour for the first time.  It will be the first big climb of The Tour before its full immersion into the Alps.  I was just a few days early for a lecture by Tour historian Jean-Paul Ollivier on Monday, a man who has written quite a few books, some translated into English.  He is so respected his nickname is " La Science" (Knowledge).
There have been quite a few monuments in this region to the Resistance and another of the many museums to the Resistance in Nantua.  There was a particularly spectacular towering sculpture honoring the Resistance half way town a steep descent at a sharp bend in the road after Nantua. If I ever run out of bicycle mementos to search out, I could spend years of cycling around France going to Resistance sites.

The Tour starts three weeks from today in Belgium.  I could spend days there alone going to its many bicycle monuments.  In the mean time I have to try to connect up with Andrew from Sydney, who flies into Paris Monday and will be following The Tour for the first time.  We met in Laos ten years ago and haven't seen each other since.  He will be filling in for Vincent from Melbourne, who has joined me the past three years, unless he has a sudden change of heart and makes it over once again.



Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Fete du Vélo

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.


Friday, June 1, 2012

Col de la Bonette

After three days in the Alps Maritime, climbing over one pass after another, I feared my legs might be depleted and not have enough left in them to get me over the Col de la Bonette, the highest road in Europe at 9,000 feet, and the ultimate goal of the first stage of my post-Cannes training for the Tour de France, less than a month away.

The Tour de France never sends the peloton into the Alps or the Pyrenees for more than two or three days, often with a rest day sandwiched in.  I could understand why.  My venture into the Alps began in Nice up the Col d'Ese, frequently the last test of the spring time Paris-Nice week-long race known as the Race to the Sun.  This past spring Bradly Wiggins sewed up his victory by winning a time trial up the Col d'Ese, which was fresh in my mind having watched it with friend Robert.

Its first few miles are past homes and businesses before escaping the city up and over a ridge on the road to Monaco and Italy. After completing the Col d'Ese, I had enough time before dark to continue on to the Col de la Madone, Lance Armstrong's favorite climb when he was based in Nice before he had enough of the French and fled to Girona, Spain for his European home.  He and the other pros based in the area used the climb as a test of their conditioning.  Tony Rominger, the Swiss champion, long had the best time up the climb until Lance finally topped it.  Tom Danielson of Garmin, who finished seventh in The Tour last year, now holds the best time.  The Col de La Madone was such an integral part of Lance's training that Trek named its top of the line bike for it.  I could have camped in an abandoned building at the summit, but preferred to descend to warmer temperatures.

Earlier in the day I saw a Madone when I went in search of the Roche Marina Hotel owned by Stephen Roche, the Irish rider who won the Tour de France in 1987.  The hotel was along the Mediterranean in Villeneuve-Loubet just before Nice.  When I had trouble finding it I stopped in at a L'Etape hotel.  The man behind the reception desk was wearing a cycling jersey, set to head out on a ride on his Madone, propped up against the desk, when his shift ended at three.  He knew Roche well, but said that he had sold his hotel last year to some Russians and they were renovating it.  Even though there would be no Roche memorabia, I still went to see the hotel.  The renovation was still going on and it had been renamed, leaving no evidence of its bicycle past.

The Roche hotel  was one of several cycling sites I had on my itinerary.  Next were the Cols d'Ese and Col de la Madone.  Then it was the Col de Braus the next day and the marble slab at its summit honoring Rene Vietto, legendary Tour de France rider from the 1930s.  The six-mile climb is an officially sanctioned bicycle route with large signs every kilometer giving the elevation and how many more meters to the summit and the grade of the next kilometer.  A handful of cyclists without weight on their bikes passed me by.

After the descent of Col de Braus, the Col de Turini awaited me, a 15-mile climb to over 5,000 feet, almost twice as high as the other climbs.  There were no kilometer posts on this climb to let me know my progress.  As I was still regaining my conditioning, I stopped a couple times on this climb to rest and eat and read my book.

The towns were small with only small grocery stores with not much selection in this lightly settled region.  I was thrilled to spot a mini-Carrefour supermarket after I descended the Turini just before Roquebilliere.  It was 6:30.  After stocking up on groceries I plopped down outside the grocery store for a quick snack before riding another hour and then camping.  While I was eating, a woman came by and asked about my travels.  She quickly reverted to English when she heard my French, and introduced herself as Edith.  She asked if I would like to spend the evening with her family.  She had three little girls in tow and said her husband was a touring cyclist and had just published a book about a six-month, 6,000 mile tour from France to Jerusalem (projetoptimum.blogspot.fr).  There was a poster of the book on the back of her van.

I was delighted to accept her invitation.  They lived less than a mile away.  I tailed her to their home and then joined them in the van to drive to the town's indoor climbing gym where her husband was working out to let him know he had a guest for dinner.  He was a fine fellow I took an immediate liking to.  He was a kindly, gentle soul so common among touring cyclists.  There is the occasional one who has let their ego get the better of them, but not so with Anthony.

He had been so overcome emotionally by his trip six years ago, that it had taken him several years before he could talk or write about it.  When he set out he intended to go around the world and be gone for three years.  Along the way he occasionally gave lectures to students.  When he gave one at a French school in Athens he met Edith.  It was love at first site.  Edith instantly knew that he would become her husband.  He spent two weeks in Athens, but couldn't give up his trip just yet.  Five days after he left Athens, Edith met up with him in Thessaloniki,  and confirmed their love.

Anthony continued on through Bulgaria and along the Black Sea before taking a ferry down to Turkey and continuing to the Middle East.  Just as happened to me, he was robbed at gun point in Turkey.  He was grabbed by several drug-addict punks on motor cycles in a small town one hundred miles north of the large city of Adana.  They put a gun to his head and demanded his money.  He said he had none, just a credit card.  They didn't believe him and rummaged through all his gear, not finding the fifty euro emergency note he had.  So then they escorted him twenty miles to the first town big enough to have an ATM machine.  He withdrew twenty dollars for them and said that was as much as he could withdraw.  They didn't believe him and further threatened him.

There was a slight diversion and he was able to escape, sprinting a kilometer back to the house where they had stashed his bike.  He was an 800-meter athlete and did the best time of his life getting to his bike.  Then he rushed to the bus station, knowing that he couldn't continue on the road as there was only one road out.  He hid as best he could and was forced to take a bus for the one time on his trip.  The experience was the most terrifying experience of his life.  Other than that, his Turkey experience had been one of his best.  More people invited him into their homes than anywhere else.

He and Edith wondered how often I had been invited into people's homes in France.  They were shocked that this was just the third time I had had such an offer in nine years of bicycling all over France, but also not surprised.  Even when they rode a tandem pulling two of their daughters in a trailer for 750-miles from their home in the Alps to where they grew up in Brittany a couple of years ago, no one invited them in.  Few touring cyclists venture into their region of the Alps.  I was their first guest.

We were up until after midnight lost in conversation.  It masked my exhaustion from my hard day of climbing.  I certainly felt it the next day, suffering a rare bonk from my inadequate sleep.  I made it over the Col Saint Martin and began the 7,000 foot climb of the Bonette when I could continue no further, quitting just beyond Isore after making a thousand foot dent in the climb.  I had hoped to gain at least another thousand feet, but didn't have the energy.  I stopped 22 miles and nearly 6'000 feet from its summit.  When I woke in the morning I felt refreshed, though my legs were rather leaden.  Once I started the climb I knew I would have to finish it.  I wasn't sure if there would be anywhere to rest along the road as I neared the summit, as Anthony warned there would be high snow banks lining the road.

It was seven miles from my campsite to the last town before the summit.  Its grocery store didn't have much to offer. Luckily I still had a can of ravioli and bread and peanut butter and honey and some madeleines. The grade ranged from five to ten per cent.  Once I reached 6,000 feet, higher than Mont Ventoux or L'Alpe d'Huez, I was above the tree line.  At 7,500 feet, five miles from the summit, I passed a ghost town that provided shelter from the cold wind.  I paused for a last rest and feed.  A mile later the snow started to appear.  There were high snow banks, but only in patches, so if I needed to rest I could slip off the road and plop down.

All the while I had in mind the last time the Tour de France crossed the Bonette in 2008, only the fourth time in The Tour's history, as the road is so out of the way it is difficult to incorporate into the race route.  I hadn't ridden the Bonette that year as it would have prevented me from getting to L'Alpe d'Huez in time to meet my friend Julie.

After I reached the summit and began the descent, my thoughts were focused on Christian Vande Velde, as it was along this stretch that he suffered a crash and lost two minutes.  He finished fourth that year, three minutes and five seconds behind Carlos Sastre. If not for that crash, he would have finished third, just seven seconds behind Cadell Evans.

It was understandable that one could crash on the descent, as it was highly technical with many 180 degree turns.  I never let it out enough to go faster than thirty miles per hour.  It was fourteen miles and 4,700 feet down to Jauiers.  An over-sized bicycle hung on the town's welcome sign along with a plaque saying it had been a Ville Etape in the 2008 Tour.

I could have turned left and gone over the Col de Vars, another beyond category climb, but my legs needed a respite from the climbing, so I went left and headed to Gap on a mostly flat route with strain-free cycling.  But I am not done with the Alps.  I will swing back into them in a couple of days before I reach Grenoble for a few more climbs with plaques I wish to pay homage to that have evaded me over the years.