Monday, June 29, 2015

On to Belgium

I was reliving the 1947 Tour de France in slow motion as I puttered up the steep climb to Bonsecours from the Seine River on the outskirts of Rouen.  It was here that Jean Robic launched an attack about a third of the way into the final stage of The Race that led to the most celebrated breakaway in Tour history, ninety miles from the race finish in Paris.  He started the stage in third place three minutes behind the Italian Pierre Brambillia.  He was joined by the rider in fifth, Edouard Fachleitmer of France, who moved up to second overall, as their collaboration gained thirteen minutes on the two top-placed riders, both Italians.

As I pedaled squares on the climb, I was scanning the road side for a monument honoring Robic for his heroic feat, upholding French honor winning the first post-War Tour and sparing the country the ignominy of an Italian winning the race. It was years before French resentment towards Italy subsided.  One subsequent year the Italians pulled out of the race en masse accusing the French fans along the roadside of attacking them.

I knew what the monument looked like, but I didn't know its location. It was a large marble slab with an image of Robic that ought to have been easy to spot.  I had been told at Rouen's tourist office that it might be on one of several switchbacks on a narrow super-steep road that turned off the main climb.  When I reached the summit of that climb without spotting it, I assumed it must be in the small park at the summit.  Not so.  A man walking his dog told me it was back on the main road near the summit.

Fortunately I didn't have to descend the road I had just come up, as I now was on a plateau overlooking Rouen and the Seine, and could simply swing over to the other road.   I began its descent with hands on brakes keeping my speed to a minimum as I looked for the monument.  Still it was not to be seen.  After I had plunged about a third of the way down I came to a forest with a path entering it.  I stopped to see if it might lead to the monument.  Thwarted again.  I asked the next person I saw where it might be.  He said it was back up the road on the right hand side just before a bakery.  I had missed it because it was overgrown with vegetation and could only be seen as one came up the climb.

I had to trim away a bunch of branches to be able to read the inscription on the monument in its entirety.

There was no mention that Robic rode The Tour nine more times and never finished higher than fourth or fifth and failed to complete The Race his last four attempts.  All that mattered was that he had won the 1947 Tour, and it was thanks to this lone significant climb on the 162-mile stage that had begun in Caen up along the English Channel.

I was so eager and intent on finding this monument I didn't linger in Rouen to see all the tributes to Joan of Arc around the city including the spot where she was burned at the stake, which the tourist literature phrased as "the square where her ordeal took place."  Nor did I seek out the home or grave of Flaubert.  I knew I could see them another time.  With The Tour just a week away, it was now time to focus all my attention on matters relating to it.

After I had completed my task of finding the Robic monument, I proceeded on to The Tour start in Belgium somewhat following the route the peloton will follow as it enters France to Cambrai on its fourth stage.  It is perhaps the most dreaded stage of The Tour with seven stretches of cobbles totaling eight miles.  Six of those stretches come after the peloton has crossed into France and within the final thirty miles of the finish. I rode at a crawl two of the stretches.  

That was enough.  I'm not sure if I'll want to ride them on race day, jarring along at less than five miles per hour.  There won't be much space for the fans along the road.  They will form a gauntlet preventing the riders from the slightly smoother fringes of the cobbles.

If David and Vincent wish to sample the cobbles and subject their bikes and fillings to the extreme jarring, I will recommend the fourth stretch between Verchain-Maugre and Saulzoir, as the cemeteries for these two towns were at either end of the cobbles where we could fill our water bottles. Vincent may not need another cobble experience as he endured them with me in the 2010 Tour that started in Rotterdam. These ancient byways are still used, as I encountered several cars on both, just bobbing along as well.  

I was back in the land of military cemeteries.  I didn't encounter any with American soldiers, as there are just a dozen of them in France, in contrast to the British, who have close to one hundred, some no larger than a postage stamp.

It may not be quite as easy to camp in the more densely populated Belgium, but I was happy to find a supermarket open on a Sunday afternoon.  In France those that do open on Sunday close at half past noon.  I hadn't found an open supermarket that morning in France and thought I might have to resort to my emergency rations of the two packages of Ramon noodles I have been carrying since leaving home two months ago. Instead, I could dine right royally on ravioli and couscous in the corner of a meadow shielded from the road by a high hedge.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Livarot, Ville Départ Stage Seven

I may be off The Tour route but that doesn't mean that I don't come across decorated bikes.  Businesses and residents and towns all recognize that a bicycle can attract attention and is an object of beauty worthy of display.  

The bicycle has the unique capacity of making one feel good, whether by riding it or looking at it.

As I pedal six hundred miles back across the top of France and through Belgium to The Tour start in Holland I have sought out roads that I have not ridden, though it has included a few stretches that I just rode.  A few of those miles were in the big city of Rennes, start of the eighth stage.  When I passed through Rennes a few days ago, it was Sunday morning.  The tourist office was closed and I couldn't find anyone who knew where the official Tour start would be.  I knew which road the peloton would follow north out of the city, but not how they would get there.  

So I returned to Rennes, as it is a large sprawling city, to find that starting point in case it was in some sports field on its outskirts, so Vincent, David and I would waste no time trying to track it down.  There were no Tour banners to be seen in Rennes, which could have led me to the start, as they often line the route.  Not were there any strings of mini-cellophane Tour jerseys across any streets, as are a common site in Ville Ètapes, also indicating The Tour route.  An explanation for this lack of declaration became evident when the Rennes tourist office charged me twenty cents for a city map, something that most tourist offices give away.  

If the city coffers were so bereft of funds that they had to charge for a single sheet of paper showing tourists how do find things in their city, then they could hardly have the funds for banners or even yellow paint to spray on old bikes.  There wasn't a single sign for The Tour in the Le Liberté plaza a few blocks from the tourist office where The Tour will start.  As a stood in a corner of the huge treeless Soviet-style plaza searching for something Tour-related, a young woman approached me and asked for money, a first in France.

The Plaza was on the route of a walking tour of eighteen significant sites in the city center of Rennes.  It included the city hall, opera house, cathedral and various old buildings.  Also noted was a municipal building named for Émile Zola where the second trial of Alfred Dreyfus was held in 1896, indicating how deeply imbued the Dreyfus Affair is in the French consciousness.  Dreyfus was an army officer convicted of selling secrets to the Germans.  He adamantly denied the accusations and had many supporters.  

The issue deeply divided the country.  Dreyfus was Jewish.  Zola sided with Dreyfus and wrote an open letter to the president of France famously known as "J'Accuse," blaming Dreyfus's conviction on anti-Semitism.  It helped Dreyfus get a second trial, but he was found guilty a second time despite convincing evidence that he was innocent. Zola was convicted of libel for his letter and fled the country to Great Britain.  In time both Dreyfus and Zola were exonerated.  

The Dreyfus case also has a bicycle connection as it indirectly led to the creation of The Tour de France.  The sporting newspaper that initiated The Tour  was started by a group of advertisers who thought Dreyfus guilty and didn't wish to advertise in another sporting newspaper that took the editorial stance that he was innocent.  The anti-Dreyfus paper, "L'Auto," was struggling and searching for ways to survive.  It dreamed up The Tour de France in 1903 and became wildly successful.  It will be interesting to see if The Tour's promenade through Rennes before the flag is dropped will take it past the Zola building.

I also needed to return to the start town of the seventh stage, Livarot, to visit an exhibition honoring two local cyclists.  It wasn't open when I visited Livarot nearly a week ago. On my way there I passed through Mayenne and crossed the MacRacken Bridge over the Mayenne River, now more of a canal than a river.  I stopped in the tourist office to ask if the town had a library.  It did, but it wasn't open until later in the day.  Per usual, as I turned to leave, I was asked where I was from, not because of my accent, but for their records.  When I said, "America," I was told, "That bridge over there is named for an American soldier, MacRacken.  He saved it in WWII from being blown up by the Germans when they were retreating.  They blew up the other two bridges in our city.  He was a hero."

As I approached Livarot on the same road I had ridden before there were a few new decorations.  One was a simple but elegant trio of bike wheels painted the colors of the French flag in front of a cathedral.

The bike exhibit honored two local cyclists who both competed in The Tour de France ten times--Thierry Marie and François Lemarchand.

It also traced the history of The Tour in the region, listing every stage that had passed through dating to 1905 in the third Tour and who had won it.  The exhibition was held at the cheese factory among the many rooms winding through the factory giving an excellent tour of the operation.  Each room had a video in French with English subtitles explaining the process of making cheese, emphasizing how important it was to one's diet providing essential bacteria for one's digestion.   Some rooms had windows looking down upon the factory.  There were several bus loads of French tourists taking the free tour and getting a little bicycle racing mixed in with it.  There were jerseys and trophies and numerous newspaper articles and team photos on display.  Lemarchand was on Greg LeMond's 1990 team when LeMond won The Race for the third time.  Marie was known as the King of the Prologue, as he won the mini-time trial that starts The Tour in 1986, 1990 and 1991.  He also won the prologue in the Vuleta and the Giro.

A woman at the factory was painting some bikes to put out along the road.

Just down the road at Notre Dame de Courson, the first town the peloton will pass through after leaving Livarot, a sign had been hung giving Lemarchand a "grand merci" for helping bring The Tour to Livarot this year for the first time.  Signs of thanks are not unusual along the course, another unique aspect of the French and their Race. 

Now its on to Rouen where Joan of Arc was burned and also the site of homages to Jacque Anquetil and Jean Robic.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Stage Nine Time Trial, A Bounty of Window Art

The Stage Nine team time trial may be only seventeen-and-a-half miles long, but it concludes with a mile long climb with a six per cent grade that will certainly cause some separation among the contenders.  Since the team's time is recorded after the fifth of their riders crosses the line, it will add considerable interest and intrigue to each team's strategy.  It is a climb of enough significance to be named--Côte de Cadoudel.   And it is notorious enough to be featured in several of the paintings on the shop windows in the town where the stage concludes--Plumelec.

Plumelec has served as a Ville Étape four times previously, as noted in the window of the town's tourist office --2008, 1997, 1985 and 1982.

This quiet, small town of centuries old, weather-worn stone buildings had left all its decorating so far to the artist Philippe Le Paih.  His window paintings more than sufficed to dress up Plumelec.  They each celebrate The Tour and capture its flavor and its many subtleties and charms.  He is a full-fledged aficionado.  

No two of his paintings are the same, even from town to town.  Each is adapted to the business behind the window. The tabac shop, which sells magazines and newspapers, featured a rider reading "L'Equipe," the incomparable French daily sports newspaper.  It is in the upper echelon of the many  things that I like most about France.

A few shops down a bank window featured one of the many things that make The Tour such an exceptional event--the super fan who dresses as The Devil.  He is taunting a racer with sweat flying on the six per cent climb.

Another window paid homage to Bernard Hinault, a favorite son of Bretagne, as acknowledged by the region's black and white flag.  One of his sponsors from thirty years ago, Look, can be seen on his shorts.

Le Paih's art was also widespread in at the stage start in Vannes, at least along the race route in this large city that is connected to the Atlantic by a narrow inlet.  The racers will make their start in the Place de la Libération, just above the grand town hall decorated with the official Tour poster.

They will proceed for two blocks down a narrow street lined with businesses before passing the town hall and turning on to a main street that descends to a harbor and then make a steep climb past a building boasting a thrillingly large Tour poster.

Nearly every business on the opening stretch had a Le Paih.  I wasn't the only one making a leisurely stroll, pausing before each to appreciate their every nuance.  The cyclist delivering bread for the boulangerie had a tattoo of a bicycle on his bicep.

A thirsty racer on the window of an Irish bar had a few bottles of Guinness in the pockets of his jersey.

A female cyclist in a version of a nurse's uniform adorned a doctor's office window.

A horse was taking a hunk out of the derrière of a racer in the window of the PMU bar that broadcasts horse races from all over the country.

Le Paih isn't the only artist who practices window painting.  On my way to Vannes off The Tour route a bank in a small town featured the work of an unnamed artist honoring two locals who had distinguished themselves in The Tour--Jean Robic, the 1947 winner and Françoise Le Her, who was a teammate of Jacques Anquetil in the 1950s.  The French do remember.

Robic's home town, Radenac, is fifteen miles north of Plumelec.  It is much smaller, no longer large enough to support a bakery.  In the main plaza was the most unlikely of sites--a small vending machine dispensing baguettes, fulfilling the French need for their daily baguette.

Radenac advertised itself as the home of Robic, a great national hero who won the first post-WWII Tour with a dramatic breakaway on the final stage taking the Yellow Jersey from an Italian.  The only thing worse to the French of an Italian winning their Tour so soon after WWII would have been a German winning it, but that couldn't have happened as none were allowed to compete that year or for several years more.

A street behind the cathedral had been named in his honor.

It was included in a one hundred mile loop around the region named for Robic.

If I'd had a little more time I could have made a detour to the city of  Ste.-Anne-d'Auray west of Vannes where Robic's Yellow Jersey hangs in its basilica.  I was just happy to have made it all the way to Vannes, the western-most Ville Ètape of this year's Tour, and the start of the last stage before The Tour's first rest day and a 400-mile transfer to Pau and the Pyrenees.  The peloton made a similar transfer two years ago, except in the opposite direction.  I skipped several stages and pedaled the entire distance save for a few miles with Yvon in his car.  This year for the first time in my twelve years of following The Tour I will treat my legs to the train.  I bought my ticket while in Vannes.  It will depart at 7:30 Monday morning after Sunday's time trial.  I will arrive in Pau ten hours later after transfers in Bordeaux and one other city. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Stage Seven, A Bounty of Bike Art

The 119-mile seventh stage from Livarot to Fourgéres was so rich in bike art that riding the route was like spending a day in a world-class art museum.  It was exhilarating and inspiring.  This was Brittany with a deep cycling traditional having produced icons Hinault, Bobet and Robic, so this was to be expected.  The communal art celebrating The Tour went well beyond the usual yellow and green and red polka bikes that are scattered along every stage of the route perched on rooftops and dangling from poles and occupying flower beds.  One never grows tired of such gestures, but they rarely merit a second glance.

Along this stretch there was such an abundance of original interpretations of the bike and figures mounted upon them, I was continually brought to a halt to give them a thorough study, just as one responds to an exceptional canvas or sculpture when meandering through a museum.  I was fortunate to be previewing the route and in no great rush so I could give in to my impulses and let them thoroughly touch my soul.   I'm looking forward to seeing them all again on race day, though I'll have to speed past and just give them a glance.

There was random art all along the route but three small communities stood out in particular, fully transforming their towns into full-fledged exhibition spaces.  The starting and finishing towns also had a nice array of tributes to The Tour and The Bike.  Livarot is one of six first-time host cities, and the smallest of the more than thirty Ville Étapes with a population just over 2,000.  As a first-timer it had bike decorations galore, but didn't go much beyond the usual. It is known for its cheese and had an over-sized package promoting The Tour in each of the round-abouts leading into the town.

And around the bend were the usual assortment of bikes.

Nearly every shop in the town had a bike-themed storefront.

Shop windows were adorned with jerseys or bicycles or painted figures on their windows.

But it wasn't until Vimouters, ten miles down the road, that I came upon something exceptional.  All through the town were extra-terrestrial-looking wooden figures mounted on bikes.  Some were solitary.

Others came in pairs.

And some were in a bunch.

The smaller village of Levaré further down the road featured art of an even more wacky nature.  The first was of a cyclist crashing head-first into a course vehicle with two spare bikes mounted on its roof as once happened to Eric Heiden during the 1986 Tour, the only one he rode, and is a danger all dropped riders face when they are trying to regain the peloton by illegal drafting.

All through town were other stuffed figures, though in less traumatic poses.  One was of the town preacher in his vestments on a bike attacked to the town cathedral.  French have a long tradition of creating realistic scarecrows.  It is an art form that is recognized in festivals and competitions.  If it weren't for WWII canceling the first Cannes Film Festival in 1940, the first Palm d'Or winner could have gone to a scarecrow movie--"The Wizard of Oz."

A couple of stuffed elderly ladies, who'd certainly keep the crows off the corn, sat on a bench beside a pair of rusty old bikes.

The equally small town of Tanniére had a Vive Le Tour welcome on its outskirts with a stuffed figure on a bike in the distance.

All through the village were more stuffed figures, some on bikes and others masquerading as spectators, who represent The Tour as much as the racers.

One figure had a bucket for a head.

There were also a few giant bicycles along the route, a common sight, but with an uncommon figure.

One town advertised its Tour party with a poster that had a yellow and green helicopter with red polka landing skids hovering above the peloton. 

The Tour is frequently compared to Christmas, as communities on the route anticipate it with fervor for months and then they are rewarded with all sorts of goodies from the publicity caravan.  One farmhouse on the route adorned itself with half a dozen Santa Clauses on bikes.  Two were on its roof by its two chimneys, another was across the street on the barn and a trio were on a bike on a wire.

At the finish in Fougères a round-about included several figures on bikes designed with a minimum of swooshes.

There was also a more solid figure, though still riding a minimal bike.

The light poles on the finishing stretch were all adorned with yellow wheels.  It is more than three weeks before the peloton and I will be riding past them.  There will no doubt be lots more decorations all along the route, especially when communities see what their neighbors have done and they will try to equal it.  I was told by one tourist office that they were late with their decorations, but there would be some.  I'll be riding past them all with a boundless sense of anticipation and gratitude.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Le Havre, Ville Arrivée Stage Six

The weather behaved in typical fashion along the Normandy coast, a cold, fierce wind blowing off the English Channel one day and a soupy drizzle the next, as I previewed the 120-mile sixth stage of The Tour.  I'll be bypassing this stage come July, saving myself one hundred miles by biking directly from the Stage Five finish in Amiens to the Stage Seven start in Livarot, rather than going north to pick up this stage.   I was glad to have the opportunity to ride the stage, as it will be a dandy with challenging and spectacular terrain.

And the roadside already abounded with decorated bikes and signs of welcome.

Although there are only three category four climbs on the route, there is a considerable amount of climbing and the stage concludes with an uncategorized, steep half-mile climb to the finish that will shed the sprinters and have the likes of Nibali, Gilbert and Sagan licking their chops. If the wiind is a factor, fracturing the peloton into echelons, this could be one of the pivotal stages of The Tour, along with Stage Four and its seven stretches of pavé.  

The organizers have designed a stage that is in the league of the Spring Classics.  It ought to instigate a day of inspired racing that could make it one of those stages that is talked about for years to come.  I could well imagine the fury of riders trying to stay away and others trying to catch up, as I pushed into the wind struggling to go ten miles per hour.  But rather than bemoaning my lot, I could only marvel at the beauty all round me and congratulate The Tour organizers for finding such roads.  It was a privilege to be riding them.

There were others out riding, some with panniers and some not, but none of The Tour riders, though I well knew that any of the cars passing me could contain representatives of the teams scouting out the route and making copious notes of its ups and downs and ins and outs, concocting strategies of places to attack or to be wary of attack.

Quite a few of the towns had tourist offices. I was happy to duck into them to warm up or dry out.  Many offered WIFI.  I would make use of it, more though for the opportunity to avail myself of their electricity and charge my iPad, than to take advantage of the Internet.  With all the tourist offices, I've hardly needed to search out cathedrals for charging.

The town of Étretat, twenty miles from the finish, had scattered painted bikes along the road for several miles, each with a placard honoring a French rider from year's past as well as a few current ones.  Most were painted the traditional yellow, green and red-polka dot of the preeminent leader jerseys, but there was the occasional white bike, the jersey color for the best young rider, also synonymous with ghost bikes marking the spot where a cyclist has been killed, though not the case here.  The cyclist honored with this bike, Gilbert Duclos  Lassalle, is still very much alive working as a commentator.  He wasn't a Tour contender, but twice won Paris-Roubaix.

They were a pleasing site all,

no matter where they might have been placed.

A banner across the road the peloton will be riding embraced The Tour, referring to it as "our Tour," as the French so fondly regard it.

After the peloton enters Le Havre it will continue to its extensive docks and then make a 180-degree turn and ride through the center of the city past its City Hall and old cathedral before the steep climb to the finish on a ridge overlooking the city. It will be dramatic.  I will be sitting in a bar with Vincent and David one hundred miles away imagining I was there and ready to head to the cemetery just beyond the finish to fill my water bottles.   I will be glad, though, not to have to make the fifty mile transfer to the next day's start from there, especially as it includes riding for miles through the docks and then over a high bridge in a narrow bike lane on a superhighway crossing the Seine with a steady torrent of traffic.  Instead the three of us will be riding late into the day trying to reconnect with the peloton as it heads into Brittany.  

I'll be pushing on a couple more days now down the course before I must turn around and head 600 miles or so back to the start in Holland.  The count down is now fifteen days until The Race start and thirteen days until the presentation of the twenty-one teams.