I left the tourist office in Saint-Amond-Montrond with a 24-page brochure recommending sites to see and food to eat and wines to drink in the province of Berry. Along with the UNESCO World Heritage cathedral in Bourges and several Loire Valley chateaus was the town of Sainte-Severe, where in 1947 Jacques Tati filmed "Jour de Fete," one of the most beloved of French films. I have seen this film of a bumbling bicycling postman many times, including last year here in France under a tent in the town of Gap as part of its weekend bicycle festival. I could see it again at Cannes next week, when it is being given a special presentation at its outdoor theater on the beach.
I had never thought to seek out the town where it had been filmed. I'd head directly there if it weren't on the opposite side of the province from where I was and the opposite direction in which I was headed. But I will have another opportunity next month after I complete scouting The Tour stages in Brittany and will be heading down to Corsica for The Tour start. Even as much of France as I have biked the past nine summers, new fascinating, must-see places keep turning up.
I don't have to worry about running out of first-time Tour Ville-Etapes either. Every year there are always a half dozen or more. Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule is one of this year's. It will be the departure city for the 14th stage that will finish in Lyon, the second largest city in France. The Tour is heavy this year with large cities, not something I particularly welcome. It also includes Marseille, the third largest city, and, of course, Paris, its largest by far. Other large host cities are Nice, the sixth largest city, Montpellier, 15th, and Tours, 20th. I don't object at all to Tours, as that's where my friends Florence and Rachid live.
The terrain had been relatively flat the 200 miles from Paris to Saint-Amond, but then turned hilly, making the 58 mile transfer to Saint-Pourcain all the longer and painful. It's not likely I'll be riding ahead of the peloton on the stage to Lyon, but will rather have to take a short cut and duck down to the start of the next stage in Givors outside of Lyon.
Despite hosting The Tour for the first time, Saint-Poucain had done little in preparation for it unlike Saint-Amond. There were no banners or posters around town other than a tattered announcement of the June 15 Jour de Fete ride of part of The Tour route that all the host cities will be offering this year for the first time. There was also a banner across from the tourist office where the peloton will commence the stage. The next day though in a small town I passed a bike sculpture in someone's front yard such as I would have expected in Saint-Pourcain. It was a mannequin dressed in a postal uniform astride a yellow postal bike, perhaps a tribute to Jacque Tati and "Jour de Fete."
Yellow is the prominent color of France and not only in July during The Tour de France. In the spring time in the northern half of the country there are acres and acres of bright yellow rape seed. Dandelions can also be seen all over, as well as occasional patches of daffodils and tulips and other flowers. Towns vie for as many stars as they can get as a Ville Flueri with their flower displays. During the summer months super bright yellow sunflowers take over the countryside.
I had some severe climbing from Saint-Pourcain to reach the Rhone valley and my next Ville Etape in Givors, just south of Lyons. I camped a couple miles up a long climb down an overgrown tractor trail beside a pasture of cattle. I began the next day with a 25-minute seven per cent climb, a good way to warm up in the cool temperatures. As I approached Givors a group of cyclists slowed for a chat. I told them I was in search of the starting point of the stage leaving Givors. They said to follow them, that it wasn't too far ahead. It was right along the Rhone, already marked. Also nearby was a round-about decorated with painted bicycles and a large wooden sign giving the details of the route. It will be one of the most dramatic of The Race finishing atop Mont Ventoux, and the longest at 150 miles. It will be the eighth time a stage has finished atop Ventoux. The sign listed all eight winners. Also near the stage start was a Museum to the Resistance, another common site in France.
I followed the Rhone for 55 miles, a welcome spell of flat. Traffic was at a minimum as it was a holiday. The route was lined with orchards of fruit trees with for easy camping. There were regular pull-offs with a picnic table or two. At one a couple in their fifties invited me to join them in their picnic. Though they had never done any touring, they had biked many of the legendary passes--Ventoux, the Galibier, the Col de Bonnette and more.
They were driving down to St. Tropez for the long holiday. I asked if they knew that Henri Desgrange, the founder of The Tour de France and its director for better than thirty years, was buried near there. They did not. I told them I had visited the grave of Jean Robic earlier in the trip. At that the wife turned to her husband and somewhat derisively said, "He knows more about The Tour de France than you do." Its not the first time I've heard a French woman tell her husband that, evidently not as enamored with The Tour as her husband and tired of listening to him go on and on about it as if he's its ultimate authority.
Realizing what a Tour-obsessed fanatic I was, the husband commented it would certainly be a "catastrophe" for me if The Tour were cancelled because of all the doping. He pronounced "catastrophe" the French style "ca-ta-strof." It is another of my many favorite things of France. It is a word that is commonly used in Tour de France broadcasts and daily life. "Quelle catastrophe" is a favorite French expression that always warms my heart, like "voila" and "alors."
"What about the dopage?" he asked.
"It has always been a part of the sport," I said. "It is very difficult and demanding. It has to be hard for the racers when they are trying as hard as they can to keep up and they can barely do I. How can they not resort to caffeine or whatever else might assist them? A great many of the riders claim to have asthma so they can take asthma medication that opens up their lungs and makes them inhale more air and ride faster. There are all sorts of such quasi-legal tricks. One just has to overlook that part of the sport and appreciate what great athletes they are to begin with and the great effort they give and how beautiful the sport is."
I crossed the Rhone at the large city of Valence, as I was in need of a grocery store. There hadn't been an open one the day before, it being a holiday. As I meandered about the city, I happened upon a street named Henri Desgrange, as if I had been led to it. I couldn't have been more thrilled. One of the many charms of France are all the streets named for Hugo, Zola, Balzac, Baudelaire and others of the arts and those such as Desgrange who have brought honor to the country.
It was back into semi-mountainside terrain from Valence as I approached Mont Ventoux. I was also far enough south for vineyards to be taking over the countryside. It was also a region of picturesque villages attracting tourists and cyclists. I added a couple of small cols to my collection. At the top of one of them south of Dieulefit, a village packed with camera-toting tourists, a giant yellow bicycle was already in place to honor the peloton when it comes by in July.
I am writing from Vaison-la-Romain, an old Roman city with a 6,000 seat amphitheater, a 2,000 year old bridge and castle. It is teeming with tourists, many with bicycles, either to make an attempt on nearby Mont Ventoux or just to partake of the fine cycling around it. There will be even more cyclists come July when it will be the start of the stage after the Ventoux stage. It has hosted Tour stages before and is so much of a tourist town that it doesn't need to promote itself as a Ville Etape. It offered not a single Tour-related artifact for my camera.