France abounds with plaques and monuments to The Tour de France. Whether its a small town with a sign simply saying The Tour passed through in 1977 or a plaque remembering an event of significance, each testifies to its place of prominence in the nation's culture and identiy. Streets and plazas all over the country also carry the names of riders who distinguished themselves in The Race. If the United States gave a similar regard to its once national pastime, one would see the names of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb and other baseball stars in every baseball town in the land.
After an eight-mile climb from the industrial city of St. Etienne in the heart of the country I came upon another of those ubiquitous signs at the summit of the Col de Republique recognizing the magnitude of The Tour. The Race went over this pass in its first two editions in 1903 and 1904. It was the second stage of the six stages that initially comprised The Race. This one was from Lyon to Marseille. It was a significant climb, with the first two miles a steep eight per cent grade and summitting out at nearly 3,500 feet.
It is one of the myths of The Tour that the 1905 editon was the first to subject the riders to mountainous terrain when the route ventured into the Alsace Mountains. Tour director Henri Desgrange wanted to hype that Race in his typical grand manner wondering if the riders could make it over the mountains, even though they were no more demanding than the Col de Republique. They certainly could and there is a monument at the top of one of its peaks acknowledging the first rider over it. The Pyrenees weren't introduced until 1910 and the Alps the year after, both with great fanfare and trepidation. It was good to see this sign at the top of the Col de Republique giving it its just due.
The summit also hosts a monument to Paul de Vivie, aka Velocio, an early proponent of bicycle touring. He published a magazine and also invented the derailleur. The road to the summit is named for this seminal figure, "The Father of Bicycle Touring," who advocated "eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty." He lived in St. Etienne, though he grew up in Provence. There is a plaque on the home he was born in, which I visited a few years ago. He is buried in Lyon, on my itinerary after Cannes.
I had hoped to camp at the summit of the Col to honor Velocio, one of my heroes. I had passed over it a few years ago and knew it offered a lush forest, but I fell fourteen miles short, ending up in a field on the outskirts of St. Etienne, a city of steep hills. I might have pushed on into the dark if I hadn't know how demanding the climb would be. It was much more of a pleasure the next morning with fresh legs.
The descent took me down to the Rhone. I was suddenly in the southern half of the country amongst already leafing vineyards and fruit tree orchards being pruned by workers. The Rhone, like the Loire and all the other rivers I had cycled along, were at flood stage after days of rain. The south brought me my first glimpse of the sun. At the first roadside picnic site I came upon, I emptied out my panniers and offered up all my gear to its warm rays. Though my panniers are waterproof, moisture managed to seep into just about everything during three straight nights of soaked gear strewn all over my tent.
After a few miles along the Rhone I crossed over it and headed to Bourg de Pèage, the first of two Ville Ètapes in this year's Race on my route to Cannes. It straddled the Isère River across from its larger sister city Romans-sur-Isère, one of many French towns acknowledging its Roman past. There were no signs to a tourist office so I dropped in on the city hall and talked to the young man in charge of The Tour. He said a private company working for The Tour de France organization was in charge of setting up everything in the town. He had no information on the route the peloton would follow to Gap other than its ceremonial route through the town from its starting point at a sports complex. He also had the barest of information on the Fête du Tour, a pre-Tour ride that all the Ville Ètapes would be hosting on Saturday, June 6 for locals to ride a portion of the town's stage. All he knew was that it would start at Parc Mossant, named for a hat manufacturer that once was one of the town's largest employers, but was no more. I ventured to the starting point to see if there were any banners or posters in place. There were not. In my wanderings I stumbled upon the tourist office, not in the town center as they usually are. It was after six and closed, but had no Tour banners up, either inside or out.
Bourg to Peage is a Ville Dèpart. The previous stage would end in the large city Valence, fifteen miles away back on the Rhone. On the way I paused at the small town of Besayes for a pre-camp site snack while I charged my iPad at its cathedral. As I ate some yogurt and cereal, a white-bearded cyclist in his club uniform coming back from a ride stopped to ask if I needed a place to stay and invited me to his home just a block away. His English was comparable to my French, but luckily his wife spoke a fair bit of English. We both needed a shower, then enjoyed a marvelous meal of pasta and hummus and lettuce from their garden and ended the meal with three choices of cheese and fruit. It was a quintessential French meal with a quintessential French couple--the epitome of graciousness and intellectual curiosity.
They lived in a classic stone house built in 1850, had two grown children and three grandchildren with one more on the way. They were life-long cyclists, tandeming during their courtship. Dominque had fulfilled his dream of a ride around France several years ago. Unlike Americans whose ultimate ride is coast-to-coast or the English who can ride bottom-to-top of their countries, the French make a loop of their own devising for their ultimate ride, just as my long-time friend Yvon was doing when we met eleven years ago. Dominque set his route by visiting friends during his two months of travel. Like Yvon, he did not camp, staying at bed and breakfasts when he didn't have friends providing lodging.
Biking remains the center of his life. He goes on a couple of club rides every week. His ride this day had been seventy-five miles on a week day with several of his pals. Every day I see older men in Lycra, alone and with others, out for a ride. French men also share a fraternity with their fellows playing boules. That is a familiar and pleasing site in small villages all over the country. They are usually the big-bellied set, while the cyclists are the slim set, as was Dominque. His club is hosting the Fête du Tour in June. With luck I'll be back and have the chance to further our marvelous comraderie.