Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Saint Usuge, France

As I approached Dijon from the west I climbed up onto a massif of hilly terrain with ups and downs of a mile or two.  It was Sunday morning, cycling time for the French, and this was optimum cycling terrain, a virtual private preserve for the two-wheeled pedalling set.

The narrow roads were fully alive with a steady stream of "Mamils" (middle-aged men in Lycra ) and other cyclists enjoying a few hours on their bikes, a time that for many would be the happiest of their week and something they look forward to all week.   Smiles and good cheer radiated from all.

Most whizzed by me with a mere "bonjour," but one of the brethren on a steep climb of a couple miles, slowed for a few words.  He began in French.  Luckily he was that rare Frenchmen who also spoke English.  When I indicated that was my preference he responded, "Ah, your're English."

"No, American."

"An American!" he blurted with surprise and seeming glee.  "What part?"


"Chicago! I was there last summer with my wife and children.  We loved it.  We were impressed by what a bicycling city it was.  We rented bikes and biked along the lake and on the bike routes in the city.  It was su-pear."

They had started their trip in Montreal, then rented a car and drove to Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York.  They enjoyed it all, but especially Chicago.  They'd only planned on staying a couple days, but spent a week there, thanks in part for the ample opportunity to bicycle.

I asked how much longer until the summit.  He said it was less than a kilometer, but then after a level spell it would climb some more.  That was no surprise.  These French climbs can go on and on. Just as one never knows when the flat will turn upward, one never knows how long it will continue.  This plateau I was on came as a surprise the evening before, and I had no idea that I'd be still climbing well into the next morning.  But varied terrain is what cyclists seek, and that's what had attracted all these cyclists from Dijon and that I could be happy for.

"Is this a col?" I asked.  I knew there were more than a thousand named passes all over the country and that it is the goal of many to join the one hundred col club and the goal of some to climb them all.  I've been keeping a list myself in case I need another quest.  But he said this was just considered a hill and that there weren't any cols in this vicinity despite some long climbs up and over a summit. Just before this summit we came to a side road where two of his friends were waiting.  He turned off and bid me farewell.

I'd been through Dijon several times and had visited its Mustard Factory a few years ago, so rather than submerging myself into its urban quagmire, I stuck to the wonderful rural byways and went south around the city.  When I descended to a vast valley that would be my cycling for the rest of the day the first city I came to was Nuit St. George.  It is one of a hundred or so towns in France that have taken their name from the Saint.St. Visiting them all could make another quest if I were in need of one.

I was actually on a semi-quest to visit another of France's many bicycle museums.  I was headed in the direction of one, though that wasn't what had brought me this way.  My main objective was to scout out some of this year's Tour de France route.  There happened to be a bicycle museum in the vicinity that I had yet to track down in the small town of Saint Usuge with a population of a thousand people.  French museums come and go, so I wasn't certain if it was still there.

There were no signs for the museum as I entered the town.  It was after seven p.m. and no one was about to ask.  There was a small hotel up ahead that could probably tell me, but then just beyond was the City Hall with a map out front of the town.  There was no bicycle musuem on it.  I turned to inquire at the hotel and then noticed a small sign for the museum down a side street, blocked from my view coming from the opposite direction.

I knew it wasn't likely to be open at this hour, but I would still be happy just to see how it presented itself.  It did not disappoint.  The gate surrounding the museum was well garlanded, advertising itself as a bicycle emporium.

On the faux entry was a tribute to seven Tour de France riders who'd died during WWI, including several winners.  Above it was tribute to an early bike manufacturer and team sponsor--Alcyon.  Flanking this was a replica of a banner from 2003 celebrating the Centenary Tour featuring many of its winners, including Armstrong.

To the other side was a lantern inscribed with vintage cycle posters and below it a road sign from one of the named stretches of cobbles from Paris-Roubaix and then a mini-mural to the side.

Inside the locked gate was a photo of French favorite Raymond Poulidor and wooden cut-outs of a polka dot and yellow jersey.  All would stir a warm glow of memories for any Tour follower.

The museum resided in a Tour lover's home.  He was so pleased to share his collection of mementoes there was no charge to come in and see them.  But he only officially offered this opportunity from June until September and between the hours of ten and six.  If I had arrived earlier in the day I'm sure he would have made an exception and opened his treasure-trove of artefacts to someone who had biked over 150 miles from Paris for a look.  I would have even offered him a Tour souvenir I had wrapped around my seat post, a Festina reflective leg band distributed by the caravan, though I wouldn't have been surprised if he had one on display.   We might even have recognized each other from Tours past, fellow fanatics that we were.  But I did not need to see more than I had.  Just knowing that this manifestation of one's love for The Tour was out there was satisfaction enough and that it awaits me another time.

I continued a few miles further and then slipped into a forest for the night.  This one was guarded by a narrow band of stinging nettles.  I knew how to step on their roots and push through them without their noxious leafs brushing against my legs and their tiny tentacles setting my legs on fire for a few hours.  It was a fine finale to Another Great Day on the Bike.

No comments: