Thanks to the pecision navigational capabilities of my new mini-iPad, I began my travels in France this year seeking out the grave of 1947 Tour de France winner Jean Robic in Wissous, a southern suburb of Paris. Ordinarily, I am eager to get out into rural France, which Charles de Gaulle Airport fringes, to recover from my overnight flight. The last thing I need is the frenzy and cacophony of urban traffic in a sleep-deprived state. But I was eager to put the GPS device on my iPad to use and to see if it was as accurate in France as it had been in the US.
It continued to be a wonderful marvel, pinpointing my exact location. Whenever I was concerned I might have gone astray, as invariably happens in French cities with their not always clear road signs, I need only consult the iPad and voila, I knew where I was. The blue dot indicating my location not only showed where on a block I might be if I zoomed in closely enough, but which side of the street I was on. It was mind-boggling, almost frightening. Though I did lose my way a few times, not once did I spew an expletive or suffer heightened blood pressure as I otherwise would. I could remain calm and collected knowing I was in the safe hands of my iPad. What a great relief.
I was in good spirits to begin with learning that Air France would provide me with a bike box for my return flight, unlike American Air Lines last year. It spared me having to lug the box I flew over with the long walk to the left luggage department and also the small ransom the privilege would cost me. Air France does not provide a similar service in Chicago. That enabled me the opportunity to transport a gigantic five foot by three foot box by bike the fifteen miles from my apartment to O'Hare, breaking my previous record of seven miles in Thessolinki, Greece. A nine mile wind from the north helped me to partially sail it all the way out, though I needed a couple of breaks to rest my arm. Still I was able to make the trip in less than two hours, hurried slightly by darkening clouds that let loose a good fall of rain an hour after I arrived. It made for a great start to the trip. Hazardous and difficult though it may have been, it was a much preferable start to my travels than sitting in the back seat of a cab. It was most satisfying to remain fully faithful to the bicycle, proving once again that one not be dependent on the demon internal combustion machine for transport.
My spirits were also elevated having learned the location of the Wissous cemetery from the information desk at DeGaulle, something I hadn't succeeded in doing before I left. The French are much devoted to cemeteries, so the tourist official did not blink an eye at my odd request, almost welcoming it even without informing her that it related to The Tour de France. I thought maybe she'd exclaim in delight, "Oh, that's where Jean Robic is buried," but he is not that much of a national hero, though he would have been when he won that 1947 Tour. Not only did she print out a map with the location of the cemetery, she provided the buses I would need to take to get there from the airport and how long it would take. It was 91 minutes, about half the time it took me to cover the 35 miles on my bike with a couple of food breaks and a few navigational checks.
Wissous is just north of Paris' other airport, Orly. And the cemetery was right alongside one of its runways. When I arrived at the cemetery an older gentleman was just leaving. He confirmed that Robic's grave was there and directed me to its general direction. It wasn't a very big cemetery, but it was still helpful to narrow down my search. There was only one other visitor to the cemetery while I was there, a young man who was perched on its wall nearest the airport watching the landing planes, another favorite French pastime. I always see such gawpers at French airports, unlike anywhere else in the world. The French do have a fascination for flight going back to hot air balloons, which they pioneered.
There was no bike-related artifact to identify Robic's grave. What caught my eye was a marble engraved photograph atop the grave of Robic wearing his trademark leather helmet. He was one of the few in his era to wear a helmet, due to his phobia for falling. He was a tiny guy, just five feet tall. He was an exceptional climber, but weak descender. His team director would hand him a lead-filled water bottle at the summit of high climbs to help him descend faster.
There was nothing on the grave identifying him as a Tour de France winner, just that he was a champion who loved Wissous. His lone Tour victory came when he attacked on a small hill, taking advantage of his climbing skills, just outside of Rouen, where a memorial marks the site, over 80 miles from the stage finish in Paris on the last day of the 1947 Tour. He overcame a couple minute deficit to the Italian Oscar Brambillia to win The Race without wearing the Yellow Jersey for a single day. This was the first post-World War II Tour, after a six year absence. There was enough lingering anti-Italian sentiment for no one to help Brambillia chase down Robic. Brambillia was so upset at his loss, legend has it he buried his bike in his back yard.
Robic did not have much of a career after cycling. He was reduced to reffing at professional wrestling matches, which were a spectacle then as now. The dwarfish Robic would be catapulted out of the ring by wrestlers upset with his officiating.
With this the 100th edition of The Tour de France I was hoping the organizers might include the cemeteries of as many of The Tour winners as possible on the route, making it easy for me to complete my quest of visiting all their gravesites. But that they did not do. I was also hoping they might have thought to establish an official Tour de France cemetery for all its winners and those who have brought glory to this great event, similar to the Israelis interning all their prime ministers in the same cemetery, but that did not happen either.
Of the 59 winners of The Tour, 34 are deceased. Three were WWI casualties, though none in the Second. Four were suicides and at least one murdered. Another was found dead during a training ride suspected of being killed by fascist sympathizers. Seeking out their graves will be a much easier quest than visiting all the 2,600 Carnegie libraries scattered around the world. The 59 different winners of the 99 Tours so far contested includes Armstrong and Riis. They may have been removed from the official ledger of Tour winners after admitting to being EPO-fueled, but no winner has been named in their stead unlike three other occasions when a winner was stripped of his win--Garin in 1904, Landis in 2006 and Contador in 2010.
I've been to two graves in Italy, those of Coppi and Pantani, and four now in France. Along with Robic, I've paid my respects to the gravesites of Garin, Bobet and Fignon. All have left me with fond, vivid memories, further bonding me to The Tour. They are there to savor whenever I fancy. They are the best of souvenirs that time will not tarnish, only varnish with a brighter and brighter sheen.
After paying my respects to Robic, I biked another thirty miles due south, twenty of them on bustling National Highway 20, perturbing more than a few of the rush hour commuters. I was inflicted with more horn blasts than I will receive in the next three months here. There was no viable alternative with my desire to get out into la France profounde as soon as possible. I turned off in Etampes, a final day Tour start during my time of attending it. I passed through another, Creteil, on my way to Wissous. Fignon had raced for its town's team and a monument had been erected to him there the year of his death. I was there a couple days after its unveiling, so didn't need to try to track it down.
I made a farmer's field alongside a small forest my first campsite of these travels. I would have preferred to have been in the forest so the morning's light wouldn't wake me prematurely allowing me to have all the sleep my body needed after only catnapping in an upright position the night before at 30,000 feet, but the forest was thick with nettles. I did not need stinging legs my first night in France. It was cold enough that I was wearing tights, saving my legs in their brief intrusion. Dinner was the last two of the half dozen hard-boiled eggs I brought along with ramen and some cheese and crackers, also smuggled in. My first couscous, the basis of my French diet, would have to wait until dinner number two.