Wednesday, May 8, 2013

My Annual Rendezvous With Yvon

 Yvon may be well settled into his retirement, but he is still challenged to equitably distribute his unflagging boyish enthusiasm among his many interests--cycling, travel, table tennis, grandchildren, pétanque, friends, helping his girl friend with her farm, and arranging interviews. Lucky for me he had a couple spare days between a cycle tour out of Toulouse to the Pyrenees and attending the table tennis World Championships in Paris to be able to meet up with me on my ride from Paris to Cannes.

We rendezvoused in Bruere-Allichamps, two hundred miles into my ride and a two hundred mile drive for Yvon from where he is living in the Lot departement. It was a most appropriate spot, as it is one of several towns that claim to be the center of France. According to Graham Robb in his book "Discovering France," three such towns consider themselves the center based on different calculations. I visited them all a few years ago, but learned from the local reporter, who Yvon had lined up to interview me, as he does just about every year, that there are actually seven that make such a claim. The reporter said that the general consensus though is that Bruere-Allichamps is the center. There is an obelisk in the road, just a block from the bar where we were talking, marking the spot.

Yvon hadn't forewarned me that a reporter would meeting up with us, but it came as no surprise. French newspapers regularly run stories on bicyclists doing something out of the ordinary. Yvon feels he is doing his civic duty to alert the nearest large newspaper when we meet up to the presence of an American globe-trotting cyclist who has come to France to follow The Tour de France. This newspaper was "Le Berry Republicain," named for the province in the center of the country.

This was this first time we had been interviewed by a male, and he had a decidedly different slant than his female counterparts. He was interested in hard facts (how many miles I ride a day and a year, how I have earned a living over the years, the number of countries I have biked and so on) rather than the human interest questions women reporters have always asked (what foods I eat, what I like about France, my favorite countries). After twenty minutes of questions he posed us in front of the obelisk, then Yvon and I took to our bikes.

Yvon doesn't camp, so he had booked a room in a four-room bed-and-breakfast in a small town five miles away. It had an adjoining apple orchard where I could pitch my tent, though there were even more inviting forests all about. We had a picnic-style dinner of cassoulet, couscous, ravioli, cheese and home-made pâté from Yvon's girl friend. I also provided a bottle of wine from my Air France flight. Yvon didn't object at all that it was in a plastic bottle.

Yvon wondered what the American reaction had been to the Armstrong doping confession. I said most Americans don't understand the culture of the sport, so were quite appalled. Yvon said the French weren't so angry at Armstrong, but rather at the authorities who never caught him. Some of the most revered French cyclists have served drug suspensions and remain high profile figures in the sport as commentators and coaches. But Yvon admitted his interest in the sport has waned. He hardly watches it on television any more. Rather than watching two hours of a race, he'll just watch the last fifteen minutes, other than Paris-Roubaix, as he has a special relationship with it having ridden a sportif of it with thousands of others. But he brightened considerably saying that none of this has dimmed his or the French enthusiasm for The Tour de France. It is too much a part of the national fiber.

We talked more about table tennis than cycling. It has taken over Yvon's life more than anything. He recently finished second in the Masters category in his departement, the equivalent of American states. He coaches his town's team and is in regular demand for play. He never knows when his phone will ring with someone asking for a match. He is often invited to come down to the police department to play, something he is always happy to do, lessening his concern about being ticketed for running a red light.

He also teaches table tennis at the local school on "Leisure Wednesday," when the teachers have the day off and the students can engage in pleasure activities, including going to the local cinema. There are ten students interested in table tennis, equally divided between boys and girls. The girls are particularly adept at being light on their feet, as Yvon compares the footwork he teaches to dance. And he hopped up from the table to demonstrate for me, gracefully gliding from side to side.

He is excited about attending the World Championships in Paris later this month. The top French player is ranked 27th in the world. He's hoping he will bring him the same good luck he brought the only French player to win the single's Championship in 1992 in Sweden when he was in attendance. Yvon also attended the World Championships the only other time the French won, a mixed doubles team in 1988 in England. The Americans are no threat he said. They have never been very good, and the World Championships have never been played there. The French are strong, but the Germans are even better. It is second to soccer as their most popular sport.

After dinner we took a stroll around town. We were the only ones out on the unseasonably cool night. As all French towns, there was a monument to the WWI dead in the center of town. Yvon pointed out something I had never noticed before, a paragraph from DeGaulle's radio address to the French people from London on June 18, 1940 not to give in to the Germans, launching and encouraging the Resistance movement. June 18 is not a French holiday, as the country already has plenty of holidays, including three in May, but the day is commemorated by veterans taking wreaths to cemeteries and such monuments.

The next morning Yvon accompanied for three hours before circling back to the bed-and-breakfast for his car and his drive home. Our first destination was Saint Amond-Montrand, the arrival city for the 12th stage of The Tour. The tourist office didn't have any brochures yet on all the activities the town would be offering, but the woman at the desk did provide us with a map of the peloton's route through the city and where the finish line would be, by a pyramid-shaped building that is the town's defining feature and serves as an artist's center. That explained the many sculptures we had seen around town and in its round-abouts. She directed us to a round-about the peloton would pass where there was a floral display of a bicycle and also a count-down to the day The Tour would arrive.  It was at 67. Many towns hosting The Tour offer such a feature, illustrating their great anticipation.

Yvon and I biked over to the newspaper office, so I would be able to easily find it when I returned in 67 days, as the reporter said he would like to interview me again about my experience following The Tour. A block from the newspaper office we saw a shop window full of Tour memorabilia for sale. It was the official Tour office, unfortunately closed, as it was a Monday, a day when most businesses in smaller French cities are closed, making up for being open on Saturday. That also prevented me from purchasing a SIM card for my iPad, allowing me to access the Internet whenever I wanted and not having to rely on WIFI, which I hadn't been able to find in two days. In the window of The Tour office was a notice saying that June 15 was Fete du Tour day in honor of the 100th Tour, announcing that each of the Ville Etapes would be hosting a ride of part of the stage that was either starting or finishing in that town. That was big news and something I will have to try to take advantage of. That is two weeks before The Tour starts, so I could be scouting the Alps or the time trial stage near Gap that day.

On our way out to the count-down round-about we passed a crew planting flowers in another round-about, also bicycle-themed. Yvon is quick to have a conversation with anyone. One of the workers said their biggest project was to make a one hundred foot by one hundred foot flower bed in the shape of a heart near the finish line with the town name and Tour de France in the center for the cameramen in helicopters to televise across the world. Yvon and I could see its outline when we went out there. Also nearby was a street named for The Tour de France. Saint Amand has served The Tour as a Ville Etape twice before. The last was in 2011, when the street, which served as the finish line then, was renamed. The French show their love for The Tour in a thousand and one, or maybe a million and one, ways. This was one of them.

We began together the nearly sixty mile transfer to the start of the next stage in Saint-Pourcain-sur-Siole, one of five stage cities in this year's Tour named for saints. I had just learned from the book I was reading, "The Identity of France," by Fernand Braudel, that few cities in the north of France have saint names as that practice didn't start until after the year 1000 when most of the towns in the north were already established. But there are still hundreds of them all over France--maybe not the fifteen per cent that will comprise this year's Tour, but possibly close to it.

As always, my time with Yvon was too short, but still packed with enough fun and enrichment to occupy my thought for days to come. It is never too painful to say au revoir because we know when we meet again we will easily resume where we left off, as if it we last saw each other the day before. I have much that I can be thankful for. Having friends such as Yvon is high on the list.

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