A good many of the several hundred participants in the ride couldn't wait to put on what would now be the favorite t-shirt in their wardrobe, including Florence and Rachid, my long-time friends who have lived in Tours the past twelve years after living almost that long in Chicago. For years Florence was the queen of Chicago bicycle messengers, while Rachid worked as an architect and had occasional exhibitions of his art work. They are sensitive, enlightened souls both. No visit to France is complete without joining them for a ride on the bike.
The Tours version of the Fête du Tour wasn't much of a ride compared to those being staged at some of the other 35 Tour Ville Ètapes this day. Some were riding 30 or 40 miles or more of The Tour stage that was arriving and departing from their town. The one in Tours would only follow the five miles of the neutralized, processional start of the stage through the city. It was advertised as a family-friendly ride. It attracted a great number of small children, some on bikes and others in trailers, one wearing a replica yellow jersey.
Someone older wore the climber's polka dot jersey while riding one of the city's rental bikes.
The ride began along the Loire River across the street from the library and the Pont Wilson, named for the US President who came to the French aid during WWI. The bridge had just been restricted to one lane of car traffic, as two sets of tracks for a tramway had taken it over. The city had just completed a massive four-year project to introduce the tramway to the city. The tracks went straight through the heart of the city on Gaumont Avenue, turning it into a virtual mall, eliminating motorized traffic. On all previous occasions when The Tour has visited Tours, it started or finished on Gaumont. It will no longer be able to do that, finishing instead at an exhibition space on the outskirts of the city, and starting where we were but winding through the city rather than promenading down its main avenue.
Our group of several hundred was led by a police car and doodled along at a coasting pace. It was a Saturday version of a Critical Mass ride, as we took over an entire lane of the road and stuck together through red lights and green. Florence couldn't help but shout out "Happy Friday" here and there, the mantra of the Chicago Critical Mass that we had happily ridden together so many times. The ride was so leisurely and children-friendly that we stopped for a water break half-way through.
The brochure for the ride promised a "Buffet Gourmand" at its conclusion. And that was no exaggeration. When it comes to food, the French certainly do not skimp. The ride ended at an exhibition hall not far from the city's IKEA. After we arrived a woman gave a brief welcoming speech and then led us to a bar lined with glasses of juice and wine and trays of hors d'oeuvres.
There were also tables set up outside that waiters filled with trays of delicate bite-sized morsels of salmon and salami and cheese and vegetables. It was food fit for a state dinner. There wasn't a complaint as one and all heartily grazed.
After several rounds out came trays of desserts, even more delectable. There was no final cheese course, but coffee, tea and hot chocolate were provided.
After the fantastic feed, Florence, Rachid and I set out on The Tour route for 25 miles as far as Loches, a picturesque town with a chateau on a high point and a medieval warren of narrow streets in its center. It is among the hundred towns in France with the official designation of a town "Worth Making a Detour To," one of several categories that the French board of tourism has contrived. There is also a list of "Most Beautiful Towns" and "Ville Fleuries" and probably a few others too. Nearly every French town could qualify for some such category, as they are all so uniformity picture-pefect and charming, as if designed by a French Disney.
Florence took the lead and only relinquished it for brief spells here and there when Rachid or I would catapult ahead on a descent from our extra weight and could maintain it if the climb wasn't too steep. Her legs would soon grow impatient with our slackened pace and she would smoothly glide back to the front, not even ruffling the thick pony tail that lay docilely on her back. It was a pleasure to be "chicked" by one of such élan and an equal pleasure to sit in and have an easy ride, reveling in the countless miles we have ridden together. She is a high priestess in the cult of those "Born to Bike." She is among those who live to bike and can't bike enough. She would love to return to her life as a messenger. All their many Chicago friends will be thrilled to know they plan to pay a visit to Chicago this fall, scouting out the possibility of a return.
I was so energized by our time together I continued riding until after nine, nearly reaching one hundred miles for the day, all but ten of them after the noon-time gourmet banquet compliments of The Tour de France. I made it past the large city of Chateauroux, where I have twice witnessed Mark Cavendish win a stage. The last was two years ago with Vincent of Melbourne and David of Hamburg. How sweet it was to reflect on those memories as I rode up the finishing straight of both of those stages. I had another fine campsite in one of those small clumps of forest that the French so fastidiously preserve.