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.


JeffOYB said...

Hooray George! Good to see you on your way for another Tour. You're an annual inspiration for me, but this is the first time I've thought of your perigrinations just before the big event. How exciting. I hope you have a great time. Someday I hope to join you over there! Ha. Or just to get over at ANY time.

Ya know, I reflect that my way of life is beneath estimation here in suburbia, but it could allow me free time to wander and wild camp. I've been doing my best to enjoy the spirit of adventure here in my hometown, lo these many years, (a la Thoreau) but, really, before I'm all washed up I should do the real thing.

Here's a little report on what I've been up to. I've been enjoying in recent years helping to build up a local "bike party" scene where dozens of us have been reviving a fun outdoor style around here despite disinterest in fun from both cityfolk and cyclists. We've been doing the same for XC skiing. And we would like to add paddlesport to the list. Everything, really: dullness and segregation are the enemies.

Lately I've added rescuing our best city park from misguided development. These are all cases of "if I don't then nobody will" and "act as if you know what you're doing." (The case in all I do!) I'm accidentally going up against the 2 most powerful people in the city. Yikes. But the goal isn't causing a fuss: just a happy outcome for the neighborhood. The goal is for them to be able to claim the outcome was their idea. I'm helping them help themselves. The goal is a party picnic afterward where all are invited. But if they say No, well, we still have the Media Card and protests.

...Ride safe! Soak it up!

george christensen said...

Jeff: Thanks for the update. I know you're making valuable contributions through your website and as a concerned, committed citizen. All wish they could do more. Billy Graham didn't think he did enough. Thomas Aquinas bemoaned on his deathbed, "All I have written is straw." One must just try to find some contentment in what one has accomplished.

Even if the top contenders crash out again this year, I know it will be a good Tour.