Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"A Tour of the Heart"

I have been anticipating the publication of a "A Tour of the Heart," a travel/memoir about bicycling in France, for years, as its author Maribeth Clemente is one of my many Telluride friends.  I've known for some time that she was working on a book about a pair of biking sojourns in France in 2000 and 2001 with her boyfriend in between her other writing and working as a ski instructor and also hosting a bi-weekly travel show on Telluride's community radio station, which I have been a guest on.  It would be her fourth book about France.  The others had all been buying guides.   

Not only was I looking forward to what she would have to say about bicycling, but also her insights into the French.  She knows their ways well, having resided amongst them for eleven years, some of them married to a Frenchman. I met Maribeth over ten years ago before I began my annual summer tours in France attending the Cannes Film Festival and following The Tour de France.  Her boy friend Pete was the first person I met who had biked up Mont Ventoux during their first trip, immediately winning my respect.

Maribeth wasn't much of a cyclist when she met Pete, who was working in a bike shop in the town in New York where she was living after leaving France. They weren't a perfect match, as he was somewhat of a jock, while she was "often impossibly feminine," but their "visions of the world coincided more often than they collided."

They were enough of a couple to go to France for some bicycling, though not as much as Pete, an occasional amateur racer,  would have liked.  They rent a car and drive around the country for six weeks with a pair of bicycles, stopping here and there for day rides of not much more than twenty-five miles, often accompanied by a local guide that Maribeth arranged with her connections.  Pete becomes increasingly frustrated over how few miles they are biking and the speed at which they are riding.  He calls her "Pokey," a name Maribeth did not care for at all.  When that fails to prod her into riding any faster, he declares the imposition of a ten mile per hour minimum on their speed.  That truly infuriates Maribeth, especially since she thought she had been improving enough to satisfy Pete.  She responds with an emphatic "No way."

Rather than a book about bicycling, it is more a book about bickering.  One reviewer suggested that a better subtitle for the book than "A seductive bicycle tour through France," would have been "Eat, Bicker, and Bike." They argue about everything, even how to do laundry.  Maribeth is reduced to tears over their frequent inability to understand one another.  She becomes so infuriated with Pete she tells him, "You're going to therapy as soon as we return home."   Whether he does, she does not say, but they agree to return the following summer for some more biking.  Pete cancels at the last minute. Maribeth goes on her own and has the time of her life, happy to have "no one there to yell at me to go faster, to change gears, to pedal nice round circles, or to tell me how to wipe my nose."

She intersects with the Tour de France and ends up at the same hotel with the US Postal Service Team one night.  She is thrilled to meet Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie, and is disappointed that Pete isn't along to share in the experience.  As proud as she is to be managing on her own, she misses Pete and arranges a flight for him so he can join her for The Tour's arrival in Paris. They still have their moments of friction.  He is upset that she can't adequately translate the post-Tour interviews they are watching on television in their hotel room. Maribeth is relieved he manages to chill before they have another a blow-up.

In all her years living in France she had never seen The Tour, as her sophisticated French husband had no interest in it, thinking it beneath him.  He was from a noble family and considered bicycle racing a sport for the masses.  Tennis was his sport.

But Maribeth is instantly captivated by the electricity and the energy of The Tour.  She becomes an enthusiastic devotee.  After watching the finish on the Champs Elysees with Pete she gushes, "I still can't believe I missed this all the years I lived in France."  Samuel Abt, who covered The Tour for the "New York Times" for over twenty-five years had a similar conversion.  He lived in Paris for six years while working for "The Times" before making the effort to give The Tour a look. He too was immediately won over and expressed great regret that he had neglected it all those years, even once choosing to go mushroom hunting rather than accompanying his girl friend who did go watch it, not realizing the magnitude and power of the event.

Maribeth acknowledges the transformative power of the bicycle.  It gave her a boost of self-esteem.  She no longer felt dependent on her wardrobe to make her feel good about herself.  She  attends a Paris fashion show in less than appropriate attire when her baggage on her flight over is delayed, something she wouldn't have dreamed of doing pre-bicycle.

The bicycle though didn't fully break her from her cocoon of self-concern.  Riding with a group of French cyclists on her first trip with Pete she learns that cemeteries are a good source of water.  But she admits when she is on her own a year later, she wasn't quite thirsty enough to bring herself to partake of water from a cemetery.

Even though this is more a book about male/female relations than bicycling, it does manage to include some racing lore.  She and Pete pass a plaque on the Aubisque in the Pyrenees where 1951 Tour winner Hugo Koblet suffered a legendary fall knocking him out of the1953 Tour, though she gets the year wrong.  She mentions Laurent Jalabert winning the Bastille Day stage when she is there on her second cycling trip during the 2001 Tour, bringing great joy to all of France.  Earlier she gives him the first name of "Alain."  She also mistakenly refers to PMU as France's lottery, when it is in fact a parimutuel horse racing entity that sponsors The Tour's points competition.

But these small foibles, which Maribeth said no one had pointed out to her, are more than compensated by her insight into the French ways, something she is truly an expert on.  She gives advice on how to gain sympathy from the French when you need something from them--don't protest, make them feel sorry for you.  She explains that noon is the sacred hour in France when all civilized folk rush to the table.  Five to seven is considered the most opportune time of day for making love.  She warns not to ask a French woman for a recipe, as they are very possessive of them.  One mystery she can't explain is how French woman remain thin.  She has also not figured out how they manage to make men put down their remotes and pay attention.

Any reader would have grave doubts of Maribeth and Pete enduring each other for long.  It is almost a surprise that they moved out to Telluride together, but few would be surprised that their partnership did not endure.


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