I hear of strikes and demonstrations all over France of workers protesting proposed legislation to take away some of their rights and to give management more power under the guise of decreasing unemployment and giving some pep to the flagging economy, but the only glimpse of protest I have encountered is CGT stickers of the large labor union plastered on Tour de France banners in the city of Montélimar, the Ville Départ for Stage 14. They weren't protesting The Tour, as the stickers were placed on other banners promoting a concert and randomly stuck elsewhere as well. They were too high for me to reach and remove, but still only a minor desecration.
Montélimar has been an occasional Ville Étape, so it hadn't gone to extremes as do some Ville Étapes with message boards counting down the days until The Tour makes its arrival or with elaborate displays of Tour love. First-time Ville Étape Bourg-Saint-Andéol, on the other side of the Rhone, had scattered bike sculptures of metal cut-outs in the colors of the four contested jerseys with cyclists wearing aero helmets, as it will be hosting the first of this year's two time trials, or "contre le montre," as the French call it.
The town's main plaza, from where the riders will set out, had several sets of riders and also a marker at the starting point.
There were markers out along the 23-mile course, including one on the outskirts of the town at the start of a four-mile climb that will please Chris Froome as it gains over a thousand feet as the riders depart the Rhone Valley.
The riders will then descend to the spectacular Gorges de l'Ardéche and then climb to the finish at La Caverne du Pont-d'Arc, a theme park opened a year ago that is a replica of the Chauvet Caves that were discovered in 1994 full of drawings over 30,000 years old. Their environment is so fragile that few are granted permission to see them. Werner Herzog was one of them, resulting in the 3D documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." I arrived too late in the day to give it a look, as it is advised to allow two-and-a-half hours for it. The huge parking lot, that will serve as the finish area for the time trial, was packed. The hours of world-wide attention it will receive come July on a multitude of networks will make it all the more popular. The price tag for such advertising would be in the millions, much more than it is paying The Tour to be its host. But The Tour is gaining a superlative backdrop that will keep viewers glued to their screens watching rider after rider fly through the glorious scenery, happy for their repeated glimpses of the magnificent sites.
I won't be on the course, as I'll need to be getting a jump on the next day's stage through the rolling terrain on the other side of the Rhone that will follow a route east of Lyon. I rode it yesterday in the rain. I got an early start as I was flooded out of my tent shortly after daybreak. A light drizzle began around midnight after a barrage of lightning and thunder that resounded all around my campsite atop one of the many ridges the peloton will be crossing. I had pitched my tent on the fringe of a slanted pasture along a forest. The forest was too thick with prickly vegetation to penetrate. The ground was somewhat soggy to begin with, so after several hours of rain the water began trickling down the hillside and seeping into my tent. My sleeping pad kept me somewhat elevated so I didn't realize I was becoming an island in a lake. Wet feet awoke me. All my gear was stuffed in my water proof panniers, so it wasn't as disastrous as it could have been. It's never fun breaking camp in the rain, but I always welcome early starts.
The rain continued all day forcing me to take my breaks in covered bus stops. It was a Sunday and in small-town France everything is closed. Whenever I climbed a ridge the sky seemed to be lightening ahead, but it was just a brief aberration. I needed a bit of sun or at least a brief respite of the rain to dry my sleeping bag and tent if I wished to camp that night. If I couldn't it would be a challenge to find a hotel, possibly forcing me into Lyon. It was chilly enough that I was wearing my sweater for the first time since leaving Cannes.
Early in the afternoon I began noticing signs for the Lyon airport. It wasn't that far out of my way. I figured I could find a corner in a terminal to do some drying near an electrical socket where I could also charge my iPad as long as it wasn't too overrun with security. The riding suddenly became more pleasant with this to look forward to, as well as the possibility of WIFI and, best of all, a call to Janina.
The airport was bustling with people pouring out, but I was easily able to find a section with no people and rows of chairs to spread my sleeping bag and tent on to dry. There was soon a large puddle around my bike draped with my tent. I soaked it up with my neckerchief and squeezed it into a nearby garbage can. Janina had her cell phone with her while she was weeding the kale in her garden. It was a sweltering day so she was happy to take a break in the shade. She was ecstatic over a Melville double feature she had seen at the Film Center the day before, one of which had taken place in Lyon. Lyon is the home of Bertrand Tavernier. He presented a three-hour documentary at Cannes on French cinema, that no doubt included Melville. It was the film I most regretted missing, though I am confident it will be at Telluride, as Tavernier has been a frequent guest, including Guest Director.
The rain finally dissipated while I sat at the airport. Weather.com reported it would resume after seven. It was four when I resumed riding, leaving me ample time to get beyond the sprawl of Lyon, France's second largest city, and set up camp before the rain. An hour later though dark ominous clouds began moving in and half an hour later I was hit by a deluge. Luckily I was in a small town filling my water bottles by a shelter in a park so I avoided a soaking. It dissipated to a light drizzle after half an hour. My only concern was finding ground without standing water. I had hoped to make it all the way to Villars-les-Dombes, but stopped five miles short to take advantage of a grassy pasture with good drainage.
I continued on the next morning following D2, the route the peloton would be riding hellbent led by the teams with a sprinter for the finish on the outskirts of Villars-les-Dombes at its Parc Oiseaux, a huge park of lakes and lagoons with over 3,000 birds representing 300 species from all five continents.
The $20 admission includes a daily "Le Spectacle des Oiseaux en Vol" at 3:30 with birds trained to fly acrobatically all over the place. The French have a long-time fascination with flight, being the earliest of the balloonists and the first to fly across the English Channel and the developers of the Concorde and the Air Bus. The pilot and author Antoine Saint-Expury is a national icon. The Lyon airport is named for him as are streets in cities all over the country. There are several such bird theme parks around the country with battalions of trained birds that put on shows as incredible as the Blue Angels. Whether any birds will be part of The Tour finish remains to be seen. The modest tourist office a mile away did not know. It's only acknowledgement of The Tour was a set of tiny jerseys in a yellow bowl full of sand, a strong indication of a lack of funds for any kind of promotion. Small though it may have been, it was still a quaint and touching homage to The Tour that I was happy to sit beside while I took advantage of the tourist office WIFI.