There is always the danger that the detour could be legitimate, such as with a bridge being out, and that I will have to double back the distance I have ridden, which can be several miles, but such occurrences are such a rarity I'm never hesitant about continuing on past the "go away" signs. I almost welcome them for the miles and miles of solitary riding they promise.
I was a little bit nervous, though, a couple days ago when a sign at the summit of the 6,749 foot Col du Lautaret warned that the road was closed 25 kilometers away. I wouldn't want to double back the fifteen miles from the closing point, as it would be a Category One climb. But my options weren't much better--either to continue climbing from the summit of the Col du Lautaret for five miles over the Galibier or to descend seventeen miles back to Briançon and make a wide circuit to Gap and then to Grenoble.
The Galibier does have its allure. It was Henri Desgrange's favorite climb, and there is a monument to him a kilometer below the summit. But I've climbed it several times already, and didn't care to subject myself to it again, especially after doing the Col de Vars the day before, another Beyond Category climb. My legs were ready for some respite after six days in the Alps, two more than The Tour de France will inflict upon the peloton this year. The Col du Lautaret was to be my final big climb until the Pyrenees in a month-a-half. Along with the views the highlight of the long climb from Briançon was a ski gondola in the middle of a roundabout promoting the skiing in the area, winning the award for the most distinctive roundabout so far of these travels.
There were no roundabouts on the descent even though I passed though a couple of small towns along the way. At each of the towns more signs warned the road was closed ahead. An occasional car passed me but none flashed their lights or frantically waved or nor did anyone shout at me to turn back as I passed through the towns, giving me some hope that I wasn't on an ill-fated mission. If I had to climb back, at least it would prolong my time in this spectacular scenery and also put some more quality miles on my legs. After ten miles the road flattened a bit, but continued to descend along a rushing torrent of a stream.
A couple miles further I came upon a narrow, dam-created lake. Just before it a dirt road descended to the lake. It looked like it might be a detour, but I continued on the paved road, high above the lake. After a mile I came to a blockade I could easily get around. There were road construction vehicles along the road, but it being a Saturday, no one was working. If it was just this bit of construction that was the cause of the road closure, I could start celebrating.
Around a bend I came upon two guys walking my way. They waved their arms to make me halt, just what I didn't want. They said I wouldn't be able to get through, as a tunnel had been sealed up and there was no getting through or around it. With a sunken heart, I asked if the dirt road down below might get me around the lake, though I could see that it had disappeared below the sheer cliffs down to the water's edge. "No, no," they said, but that road I had seen led to a small ferry that would take me and my bike across the lake. That was too good to be true, but it was, as we could see the pontoon ferry that very moment approaching the landing, not even docking, just barely coming up to the sandy shore. I didn't care that I'd have to wait for its return, however long that might be, I was just thrilled to have my daring rewarded once again.
After the twelve-person shuttle of a ferry, which I shared with just one other, I continued descending to Bourg d'Osians at the base of L'Alpe d'Huez. I was a week early for a gathering of 20,000 Dutch cyclists who come there every year the first week of June, most of them making the climb six times as the word six in Ditch is similar to the word Huez. I camped a little ways beyond the small town and then continue on to Grenoble, thirty milers away, just as I will do when The Tour de France rolls around. I needed to scout out the train station in Grenoble, as for the first time I plan to take the train to Paris rather than biking the three hundred miles. It will be an early morning train so I can arrive in Paris in time to see the peloton on the Champs Élysées. Though I knew the location of the train station, I've learned its best to confirm the route ahead of time so there will be no surprises, especially when I'll be pressed for time.
Another of those lessons France has taught me is not to feel too crushed when a road I'm riding suddenly presents me with a no bicycles allowed sign. Though it is certainly disheartening, I know that it may be only for a short stretch and that I'll be able to return to the road after taking a secondary road or bike path paralleling it or sometimes a bit more of an alternate route. Twice that happened to me on D1006 on my seventy mile hop from Grenoble to Lyon. I'd never entered Lyon from the east before and didn't see a better route than D1006. An autoroute (super highway) ran near it, so I presumed D1006 would be bike friendly. It mostly was, but I did suffer the frustration of having to pull out my map several times to figure out what was going on when I was inflicted with that dreaded French sign of a bicycle with a red circle around it (red circle rather than slash). When I returned to D1006 for another try after my second eviction it was clear sailing the final twelve miles into Lyon.
Just before the sprawl of France's second largest city with two million inhabitants began, I passed its airport, named for Saint-Exupery, the famous pilot and writer. As I frequently see at French airports, someone had parked their car to watch the take-offs and landings. When the urban congestion began, the highway assumed a name--Avenue Franklin Roosevelt. A couple miles before the city center I came upon a huge monument celebrating the Lumiere brothers, the inventors of cinema. It was appropriate that right in front of it was a row of rental bikes, as Lyon was at the forefront of the urban bike rental programs that have swept the world. Paris was inspired by Lyon, which inspired all the rest.
This plaza was right beside the neighborhood where the Lumieres lived and worked. A small side street leading into the plaza was called "Rue de Premier Film," as it was on that street the Lumieres shot the first film ever on March 19, 1895. It was fifty seconds long and showed the workers streaming out of the Lumiere factory, some of them on bicycles. A plaque marks the exact spot where the camera stood.
And just across the street beyond the actual walls that all those workers passed through, the factory has been converted into a movie theater. For the month of June it will pay tribute to Orson Welles.
It was an unexpected thrill to stand at this seminal spot, as thrilling as standing where the inaugural Tour de France set out from on the outskirts of Paris in 1903 or standing where Lincoln stood when he delivered the Gettysburg Address. The images of that first film are so deeply embedded in my movie consciousness I felt transported back to the actual filming and good vividly perceive those fifty seconds even without closing my eyes. One of my most memorable experiences at the Telluride Film Festival was in 1995, the centennial of that first film, when Bertrand Tavernier and Thierry Fremaux gave a presentation of the films of the Lumieres. Among the films they showed, including that first one, was the first film ever with a narrative--a cyclist being pummeled by snow balls and then having his bicycle stolen. One of the images on the walls of the institute taken from the films of the Lumieres was of an acrobatic bicyclist.
But it wasn't the Lumieres, though it could have been, that brought me to Lyon, but rather to pay homage to Paul de Vive (Velocio), the father of my greatest passion--cycle touring. Back before 1900 he was the first advocate of venturing off into the countryside on one's bicycle, and made it his life's work. He is buried in the huge Loyasse Cemetery high on a ridge overlooking the city. The road up is so steep, one can take a funicular. Luckily the cemetery is such an attraction it has an office and maps in English and French listing the significant graves. Velocio was among the forty-nine listed. It would have been impossible to find him otherwise among the thousands of graves. Even with directions it wasn't so easy to locate him, as he was buried in a family plot of a name other than Vive and his name was near the bottom of those listed on the tomb.
It was the two plaques on the tomb devoted to him that caught my attention. It was almost as much of a thrill to prop my loaded bike up against the fenced-in grave of this great as it had been earlier in the day to gain a personal relation to the first film ever shot. But this was my third pilgrimage to a Velocio site. I'd been to his birthplace on a previous trip and just a few weeks ago climbed a road named for him to his bust at the summit of the Col du Republique outside St. Etienne, where he had spent most of his life.
My visit to Lyon lacked just one thing--a tribute to the first stage of the first Tour de France in 1903 that concluded in Lyon. The best I could do was to linger in the huge Place Bellecour where the racers set out from on the race's second stage. In the middle of the plaza is a statue of Henri XIV on a horse and overlooking it the high ridge with a huge basilica and the Loyasse Cemetery and a communications tower that is a replica of the Eiffel Tower, erected in 1893, ten years after the original.
The narrow streets of the old part of the city are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Among the labyrinth of streets is the Gadagne Msuem with a collection of over two thousand puppets, the only one of its kind in France. But it was Monday and its many museums were closed, so I was denied it along with the Lumiere Museum and a museum devoted to the confluence of the two rivers that converge in Lyon, the Rhone and the Saône, right there at their merging point south of the city center. Also closed were all the libraries, the way of the French, catering to the workers rather than the public..