Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Dip into the Alps

I caught my first glimpse of the dazzling, snow-streaked Alps shortly after I descended from the Juras and  swung to the east of Lyon.  I have had them in my sights and under my legs for five days now, adding a few more cols to my life list and ever filled with a sense of awe at their beauty.

I didn't entirely avoid Lyon, as I just caught the edge of its suburban sprawl.  It is the third largest city in France with a population of 470,000, but with over two million packed around it.  I had to pull out my map several times to negotiate my way.  The main road I had been on that I thought would safely take me by it turned into a four-lane superhighway forbidding bikes, forcing me into a maze of tributary roads. I suffered the same ill-fortune the day before as I closed in on Oyonnax in the Juras.  

Oyonnax will host the finish of the 11th stage of The Tour de France on July 16.  It is the first time in the 111-year history of The Race that it has had the honor of hosting a Tour stage.  I expected all manner of banners and decorations and bike sculptures celebrating this grand occasion.  I was eager to see what its tourist office would have on display and what activities it had planned to coincide with the event.  I had had to do a considerable amount of climbing on the fringe of the Juras as I approached Oyonnax and was growing concerned that I might not make it before its tourist office closed.  But I finally reached a summit and began a long descent following a river that I anticipated would take me to Oyonnax with ample time to spare.  

When I came to a sign at four pm that said it was only eight kilometers to go I breathed a sigh of relief.  But a mile later I was barred from that road and had to wind my way through more mountainous terrain with an additional 800 feet of climbing.  Those five miles turned into nine and I didn't arrive at the tourist office until just after five when it had closed.  Its windows were frosted so there was no peering in to see if anyone was there or what Tour material might be on display.  

Disappointingly there had been no banners up yet or any mention whatsoever of the coming of The Tour in this tired and dreary city of 23,000.  Even its new glass-faced City Hall, in contrast to most town's historic and noble chateau-looking Hotel de Villes, as they are called, didn't add any class to this long-neglected by The Tour city, even though it is the second largest in its département.  The building would have been enhanced immeasurably by a gigantic Yellow Jersey, as many Tour Ville Étapes do, but like the tourist office it was barren of any Tour mention.  

At least the Hotel de Ville was still open, though the receptionist had no material or information on The Tour.  She called  someone in the office to come to my assistance with the information where the peloton would finish its stage and what route it would take into the city and how thrilled the town was to be hosting The Tour, but he was gone for the day.  She gave me the address of the town's Department of Sport, but no one was there either.  It wasn't a wasted effort though by any means to have paid an early visit to this Ville Étape, as I at least gained a familiarity with it and located a supermarket and cathedral or train station to charge my iPad.  I also could scout out the route to the next Ville Étape forty miles away.

A few miles out of town I began a steep descent to a valley floor.  It took me past a towering sculpture in a bend in the road honoring the Resistance.  A few miles further I passed another smaller plaque to a handful of locals who had died serving the Resistance.  And then the next morning I came upon another memorial to the Resistance, a tombstone of a sort in memory of a 17-year old and a 26-year old who had been executed by the Germans nearby in August of 1944.  Right across the road from it in a pull-off in the forest was a white van.  Lyon was a big enough urban area for there to be an ample demand for portable bordellos.  It was the first I had seen on this trip, but not the last, as a couple more popped up before I'd left Lyon behind. 

Those anonymous white vans aren't the only reminder of the emphasis on sex in France--billboards are another.

This cluster of billboards is quintessentially French.  Sex and politics side by side, two of their favorite interests, along with a billboard behind advertising chocolate dog food.  Further in the distance is a billboard advertising a large grocery store, unfortunately not the one that is affiliated with The Tour.  This scene further typifies France with flowers in the foreground and a chateau poking up in the far distance.  The only things that are missing to complete a total picture of France is an elderly couple bicycling by with wicker baskets on their handlebars with a baguette, bottle of wine and hunk of cheese getting ready to stop at a nearby picnic table and across the street a guy standing by a clump of bushes doing a "pipi rustique."

Grenoble is once again a Ville Étape this year.  I didn't venture into the center of the city for any reconnaissance as I kmow it well.  I had to pause once as I passed through to verify I was on the correct road out. As I peered at my map an exuberant older guy pounced on me, excited to see a cyclist on tour.  He confirmed I was on the right road and then gushed with envious delight that the road would take me over four of his favorite cols, and he rattled them off faster than my ear could decipher other than the Croix Haute (High Cross).

After leaving Grenoble I began a gradual climb that took me over the Col du Fau and then the Col de la Croix Haute at nearly 4,000 feet.  I wasn't sure if I could make it before dark, but as I gained altitude and the temperature continued to cool I was determined to make it.  I crossed the summit at 7:45 and then descended ten miles in less than half an hour to somewhat warmer temperatures.  I had a river to my left and train tracks to my right and snowy peaks all round.  At a dirt road crossing of the tracks I turned off and had as fine a campsite as one could ask for in a thin forest looking out over this magnificent scenery.

The descent continued the next morning for another six miles.  Then a side road took me over a two mile climb before connecting with a main highway that took me to frequent Tour Ville Ètape Gap.  I turned off just before I reached it to drop down to Tallard, twelve miles away, that will host the departure of the fifteenth stage of The Tour on July 20.  Banners were hung over the two main entries into this picturesque town of 2,000 known for its chateau announcing The Tour.

The peloton will head across the top of Provence to Nimes from Tallard before taking on the Pyrennes.  My present route will cut through the heart of Provence to Cannes, where the movies will commence in five days.  The full schedule was just released yesterday and the very first film screened at ten a.m. next Wednesday will be a market screening of "God's Pocket" starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in a small theater.  One will have to have buyer's credentials or get there very very early to see it.

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