My simple question of where The Tour de France would finish in Cambrai was greeted with a rare level of enthusiasm from the fifty-year old woman behind the counter of the Tourist Office in Cambrai. Though the vast majority of those staffing the many tourist offices throughout France are most cordial and helpful, not many go beyond simply being friendly. This woman was full of exuberance and seemed thrilled that I was interested in The Tour and treated me like an intimate friend she hadn't seen in a while, wanting to know what I'd been up to and sharing things that would interest me.
"Its finishing just up the street in the big main plaza. It's less than a month away and the anticipation is bubbling. Every day there is a story in the paper about it. Yesterday the story was about the seventh section of pavé that is on the route on the way into Cambrai being named for a former racer who lives in the area. Nearly 500 people came out for the ceremony. Here let me show you."
It was a full page story with a photo of seventy-year old Robert Mintkewicz beside a plaque bearing his name. He rode The Tour eight times in the '70s.
Seeing my avid interest in the article, she said, "We have a monument by a round-about not far from here honoring Jean Stablinski. I'm sure you know who he is. He lived in the area too. Its too bad you weren't here last weekend. We had a ride that was part of a Fête du Tour in all the Ville Étapes riding a portion of The Tour route."
I told her I had been in Mulhouse and participated in a bike ride there. When she learned I had been biking around France the past month scouting out The Tour route and visiting various bicycling and historic shrines, she asked, "Do you know Louis Bleriot? He's from here."
I was sorry I had to tell her I didn't know him.
She charged from around the counter and said, "I'll show you who he is." She led be to the front of the office and pointed up to his bust.
"He was the first person to fly across the English Channel," she said. "He did it in 1909, six years after the Wright Brothers first flight. He won a thousand pound award from an English newspaper for doing it. The same round-about that honors Stablinski also honors him. You really must go see them."
I assured her I would. She was a whirlwind pulling out various brochures on things to see in the area from military sites to museums. I asked if she had anything on Robespierre, as I was headed to Arras, where he was born. She didn't, but she told me that Arras, like Cambrai has a network of subterranean passages and that I could go down stairs here for a sampling. She was a wonder, someone who genuinely loved her job. I didn't want to leave. She was wearing a colorful sweater that matched her personality. "I like your sweater," I said.
"You do? I bought it in America."
"You'll have to wear it when The Tour comes to town. I'll come by and I'll have a couple friends with me from Australia and Germany who would like it too."
"I'll be here," she said. "It will be an exciting time."
It was a quick twenty-five miles to Arras, my legs fueled by her abundant energy, the start town for the next stage, a not too painful transfer. Right at the starting point on a small hillside dotted with bikes painted the colors of The Tour leader jerseys, a digital sign on a Tour-decorated billboard had the number twenty-three on it, the number of days until The Tour will grace the town.
Before I set out on the route I paid a visit to the house where Robespierre lived until 1789, when he moved to Paris to serve as one of the ring leaders of the French Revolution, until he fell victim to the Reign of Terror and was sent to the guillotine. His home on Rue Robespierre, a narrow one-way street, is now a museum and a tourist draw.
This fifth stage starting in Arras ends in Amiens, another large northern city, about the same size as Cambrai and Arras. Riding the route I could feel the pavement humming in antipation. I could feel the joy that would radiated by the thousands of fans lining the quiet countryside roads for hours, picnicking and hanging out with family and friends for hours. This was the sensation I had been missing the last couple of weeks when I was making the huge jump from the Alps up to The Tour route in the north. I followed the fifth stage route all the way to the finish in the center of Amiens across from the Cirque Jules Verne.
Two blocks away is the home of Jules Verne, now a museum with large paintings on a surrounding wall of some of his wild imaginings.
Equally distinctive is his grave in the huge Cimeterie Madeleine on the outskirts of the city.
The chief attraction of Amiens though is its World Heritage cathedral. It would have made for a spectacular backdrop to the stage finish, but it was surrounded by narrow one-way streets too perilous for the peloton. At least its start in Arras would pass a World Heritage site, a Belfry in the town center.
I had another transfer of roughly twenty-five miles from Amiens to the start of the next stage in Abbeville, a lesser-sized city. Tour fever was manifested here with painted cyclists in yellow and red polka dots on Its tourist office window.
There was another set on the glass doors of its city hall.
The round-about leading to the city offered more of a warning than a celebration of The Tour.
The route through the town included an artistic wheel arrangement. I was hoping there might be a series of them, but it was the only one.