There is hardly a stretch of road in France where one isn't surrounded by pleasantly sublime scenery, pleasing both the eye and the soul, engendering a sense of gentle contentment and affirming that one could not better be occupying one's self than pedaling amongst such splendor. All of France is so remarkably pleasing, there is no saying one region is more agreeable to cycling than another, nor more beautiful than another, that is until one comes upon the Alps. Then the scenery raises several octaves.
Unlike the Rocky Mountains that one gradually approaches, one is suddenly upon the Alps and swallowed up by all their magnificence. One doesn't have to endure hours and hours of impatience through monotonous plains or desert. Though one may begin to take the rich and varied scenery of France for granted, one never grows tired of it, wanting something different.
Though I'll only have a three-day dose of the Alps before I return next month during The Tour, I'll feel no let-down when I leave them behind, as I will have a different variety of rich and uplifting scenery to fill my gaze. But in the mean time I am greatly enjoying my little dip into the Alps.
One of the side benefits of being in the Alps is the abundance of free-flowing, ice-cold spring water, some right along the road, and in French style, fancied-up and made an object of beauty.
The water has such a pure clarity, locals stop by to fill bottles for their own use. Craig has such a spring near his village in the Cevannes. Even though the water out of his tap is perfectly fine, he prefers the spring water for drinking. The French are always happy to treat their taste buds to a little extra pleasure.
I ducked into the Alps to scout out the preparations of two Ville Ètapes, Gap and Chorges. Gap is a frequent Ville Ètape that I have passed through many times. It is one of the larger cities in the Alps, down in a valley.
It is one of six cities in this year's Tour that will serve as both a Ville Arrivè and Ville Départ, though separated by a day while the peloton contests a time trial just down the road between Embrun and Chorges. It will be the same distance as the Mont-Saint-Michel time trial, twenty miles, but will include two category two climbs. Banners across quite a few streets in Gap announced the coming of the Tour.
I was familiar enough with Gap I just made a quick pass through to reach Chorges, eleven miles away, before its tourist office closed. It didn't have much information about The Tour other than this was the first time it would be hosting it and that the time trial would be finishing in front of the train station out on the main highway. A giant wicker bike had been erected at the site in a flower bed that spelled out the town's name.
The narrow streets in the small village were festively decorated with strings across them bearing miniature versions of the yellow, green, red polka dot and white jerseys.
The village had a 12th century cathedral. Whenever I see a sign advertising a town's cathedral, trying to attract visitors, I accept it as an invitation to come and give its interior a look and to recharge my iPad. The sign ought to include an electrical socket emblem as campgrounds sometimes do to attract customers or as cafes and pubs do advertising WIFI. But those in the know, such as me, don't need to be told there is electricity to be had.
These old cathedrals may have added electricity, but not toilets. The W.C. Publiques were in the same direction. French towns so consistently offer public toilets, it is hardly necessary for men to so unabashedly stop along the road for a "pipi rustique." I've even seen men take a pee right beside a public toilet if it is occupied, rather than waiting. As it is with the French nature to not withhold whatever might be on their mind, as if their opinion is paramount, so it is with their need to relieve themselves. It is hard for them to wait.
There was no plaza around the church, tightly surrounded by centuries old homes each built right up against one another in the old walled-in portion of the city, but there was a bench facing the front door where I could sit and eat a couple of cheese sandwiches and monitor those entering the church while I read a Peter Mayle novel and my iPad was being nourished. Rarely does anyone enter during my half hour or so of charging. An older woman though stopped in shortly before six. My iPad was well hidden in a corner up front snuggled in the dark cloth protective case that Janina had sewn, perfect camouflage in these dark cathedrals, lit only by what little light penetrates their stained glass windows. She went in for a long prayer or else I missed her slip out while I was reading. At 6:20 I was ready to resume my riding. When I slipped into the church, I discovered my iPad was being given the added benefit of a Friday mass. There were just five old women standing beside each other in the front row. I sat in back and soaked in the last few minutes.
All the time I have been spending in cathedrals must be benefiting me. I was rewarded with the most perfect of camp sights an hour later after climbing over the Col Laubret. Not only did it come with a spectacular view, but also a thick mattress of freshly cut hay. Even though I had better than two hoursof light remaining of the solstice, I knew better than to pass up such a spectacular place to camp.
I could go to sleep knowing a long descent down to the man-made lake awaited me, and then no doubt another long climb out of the canyon. The climbs may be longer and steeper in the Alps than the rest of France, other than the Pyrenees, but the views take away the worst of their sting.