Thursday, June 30, 2016

Saint-Lô, Ville Départ Stage Two


The first stage of this year's Tour ends at Utah Beach, one of the June 1944 D-Day landing sites for the Allied Forces.  The French haven't forgotten the American role coming to their rescue.  The Stars and Stripes can be seen in all its glory throughout the region on memorials and battlefields and homes and businesses and bikes and cemeteries.

The tourist office in Sainte-Mère-Eglise, the first town liberated from the Germans, sells the flag for eight euros, mostly for people who wish to place one on a grave.  Sainte-Mère-Eglise and Utah Beach both have large D-Day museums with tanks and landing vessels and airplanes.  Sainte-Mère-Eglise will host the presentation of the teams tonight, two days before The Tour commences seventy-five miles away at Mont St. Michel.  This grand spectacle, that will be telecast nationally, will take place outdoors in a large park beside its cathedral.  The cathedral is noted for snagging an American who parachuted in the night before the landings on the beaches began.

Despite the deference to America, French nationalism still reigns supreme, especially this month as France hosts the European soccer cup.  The Tour route is not only bicycle-themed, but French as well

Though the Eiffel Tower is the paramount icon of France, and the most recognized symbol in the world, the French have a strong affinity for the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysées as well.

The Champs-Elyées itself holds a dear spot with the French, as featured in a painting for The Tour on a shop window in Le Haye Du Puits on the Stage Two route.

A mural on the outskirts of Saint-Mére Eglise was bracketed by Mont Saint Michel and the Eiffel Tower.

Bikes painted the red, white and blue of the French tricolor aren't the only representation of the French flag and identity.  A farmer made an arrangement of large plastic vessels in the colors along with a rickety-old bike to salute the peloton as it passes his home. 

He was no less creative or light-hearted than the advertising agency that conceived the idea of a bicycle with a carrot for its the fork.

Another home along the route had a front yard full of creations including a rustic bicycle-themed rendition of "Tour 2016."

Some are solitary efforts and others are clearly a group effort.

The bike pyramids can appear to be just heaps of junk bikes, but there could be no finer way for them to enjoy their retirement, far better than the ignominy of a land fill or scrapper.

The above is a permanent structure by a sports center in the city of Valognes a few miles off the Stage One route.  There were a handful of modest pyramids right on the route that had a character of their own.

Some may look as if they've just been thrown together, but others have been meticulously erected.

Some are conceived with absolute precision.

Their meaning isn't always clear.  This one has something to do with cats.

The woman in a nearby tourist office was mystified by its meaning as well.  She was wearing the traditional mariner's shirt that is the attire of many of those staffing the tourist offices in this region during The Tour.  It has twenty-seven stripes, the number of battles won by Napoleon.

Stage Two in Saint-Lô starts in front of the tourist office across from the castle.  It's hillside was populated by painted cows, in contrast to the sheep near Mont St. Michel.

Shortly after I left the tourist office along came Skippy.  We always manage to find one another even when we're not even trying, as if our status as the lone perennial followers of The Tour by bicycle naturally draws us together. He'd arrived the night before and had found a room for five days through Sunday at a place that provides accommodations for students, as can be found in most large cities with a student population.  They aren't meant for travelers or non-students, but Skippy can invariably convince them to let him stay.  He's become quite accomplished at it since his first Tour in 1998, and is so confident of his abilities to find a place to sleep each night that he bikes The Tour without a tent or sleeping bag or even panniers, just a sack that he secures to the tri-bars on the front of his lightweight bike. His minimal weight allows him to ride much faster than me.  And when the transfers are too excessive, he has found that it is quite easy to get a ride by sticking out his thumb.  People take him in his Lycra as a cyclist out for a day ride with a mechanical problem and are happy to come to his rescue even if they are in a modest-sized car.

When I encountered Skippy I was on the way to a bike shop to replace my front tire.  Skippy had already been to it and could lead the way.  The wire bead had worn through on my front tire about 500 miles ago.  I had been able to ride on by inserting a folded dollar bill to protect the tube.  But the day before the dollar bill had actually worn a hole into the tube.  After replacing the tire I also replaced my chain, as I always do at the start of The Tour.

We grabbed some food and retreated to Skippy's room, as it was too chilly and dank to have a picque-nique outdoors.   His place was on The Tour route.  After eating we gave it a ride.  Although most of the teams will be staying in Saint-Lô, the riders were just arriving, so we didn't see any of them out on their bikes.  When the misty air started to turn into rain, Skippy turned around while I continued down the route until after eight.  It was the only segment of the first three stages that I hadn't ridden.  The next morning when I came to the city of Lessing, that intersects the first two stages, I saw my first encampments of Tour followers in their camping vans, two days before the racers were due to pass.  Some recognized me from year's past and gave me an exuberant greeting, already feeling the thrill of the three weeks ahead.

Along the way I came upon the first Poulidor banner I'd see this year.  Usually they are draped on a car and not put up until the day of the stage.  He remains the most popular of former racers even though he never won The Tour or even wore the Yellow Jersey back when he battled Anqutil fifty years ago.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Previewing Stage One and Stage Two

As I closed in on Mont St. Michel, the starting point for this year's Tour, I was hoping to see it draped in yellow fabric like a Christo project and adorned with yellow bikes dangling from its every ledge and spire.  But it was not to be.  The Eiffel Tower, France's other pre-eminent icon, may bathe itself in colored lights according to the occasion, but Mont St. Michel would not defer its dignity for even the mighty Tour de France.  There wasn't a single Tour decoration to be seen on the tiny island it occupies, not even a restrained banner.  The only acknowedgement of The Race were a few brochures in the tourist office and an occasional mention on the digital message border of upcoming events outside the tourist office.  

The nearest bike decoration, the lone figure of a cyclist in yellow, was nearly a mile away, well before the causeway leading to Mont St. Michel that only shuttle buses and official vehicles and pedestrians and bicyclists can travel.  The yellow figure, along with others in The Tour jerseys,popped up all along the first two stages, singly and in phalanxes.  This austere rendition of a cyclist also appears on all the Tour brochures this year.

They also appear front and center on posters throughout the region.

The Tour ought to hire the designer who formed a much warmer cyclist from the number 2016 for next year's poster.

Or whoever it was who sculpted a cyclist within a huge circle.

Though Mont St. Michel was bereft of such homage there were decorated bikes and sculptures in the gauntlet of hotels and restaurants and souvenir shops preceding it such as infest any major tourist attraction, though the French version were far less tacky than most and the bike tributes genuine works of art.  Most of the pyramids of bikes along The Tour route are just thrown together.  The one here was stunningly well-crafted with the intricate detail that the artisans of all the grand cathedrals would have applauded.

The dangling globe was fashioned from chain rings.  Mini-replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Mont St. Michel on a bike below it were ingeniously crafted from chains.  

Across the street were the basic painted bikes, but these too had a little more class than most.  One could overlook the minor taboo of white bikes, known in many circles as Ghost Bikes, placed at the site of a fatal bike accident.

They set the tone for an exemplary array of bike decorations for the first sixty miles of this year's Tour as it headed northeast along the coast until turning inland at Lessing to cross the peninsula and finish the stage at Utah Bay.  Stage Two intersects with Lessing and continues up to the top of the peninsula at Cherbourg, which I elected to do, awaiting to finish off Stage One later.  And the bold and innovative decorations didn't diminish.  This was maritime country and it was reflected in the decorations.

There were not one, but two yellow boats with a red polka dot cabin, with one incorporating Homer Simpson.

The weather has been cold and sultry along the coast, leaving the beaches vacant, but Granville, a large port city that is the Stage Three Ville Dèpart, greets arrivals in its roundabout with a woman in Tour-themed beach attire.

A large indoor swimming pool on the outskirts of Cherbourg, Stage Two Ville Arrivée, mounted a large banner taunting the peloton for being drenched in sweat after their day in the saddle, saying that they too have "wet" maillots, though theirs aren't from sweat.  The word "maillot" means both jersey and swimsuit.

Perhaps the most creative tribute to The Tour were a trio of modest-sized topiaries in a roundabout.  Topiaries aren't uncommon, but most tend to the gargantuan.

It's not a stage without a giant made from rolls of heavy.  This one was clutching a blue bike.

The town of Vasteville, near Cherbourg, is so proud of its dairy production, that it constructed a huge scaffolding to hold up a monstrously large cow on a bike.

Further south someone put as much care and time into constructing a podium scene as others at Christmas put into duplicating a manger in their front yard.

A restaurant before Avranches formed the wheels of its overs-sized bike from beer cans and further showed their homage with a pair of large historic photos.

Tour fervor was affirmed by the many shops in the villages along the route that had paintings on their windows of a Tour theme, all signed by the prolific artist who travels the Tour route.  Each is an original. He is a genuine marvel.

And of course I can't forget showing a bike with a flower arrangement, as they are almost as ubiquitous as the window paintings and even more pleasing.

The pyramids too, even when they are nothing special, are also worthy of note for the effort put into them.

It's been a challenge keeping my iPad charged with all the photographing, especially this past Sunday, a day when libraries and tourist offices are closed and cathedrals are in use.  I was thrown into a panic when late in the day none of the outlets in a cathedral succeeded in charging and then a little later a rare outdoor outlet outside a city hall failed me as well. I feared my charging apparatus might be malfunctioning.  My battery was under ten per cent.  I had to become even more selective in what I shot.  Luckily I found an open cathedral the next morning and its electricity was flowing.  I was spared trying to find a computer shop.  

I'd once taken the ferry from Cherbourg to the UK, but hadn't had the time to give the city a look best known by many for the 1964 Palm d'Or winning "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."  The tourist office provided a twenty-page pamphlet with a walking tour of ten sites used in the movie.  It began with the former hardware store where four of the film's key scenes were shot.  It is just a block from the quai that juts into the city and is now a souvenir shop.

The tour also includes a cathedral and train station and theater and plaza, but not a plaza further away that has been named for the film's director, Jacques Demy.  The peloton will ride past it though just before it begins a steep category three climb of more than a mile to the finish.  It's on the main highway leaving Cherbourg and would only be a category four of it occurred earlier in the stage before the racers had expended so much energy.  

The first stage will be for the sprinters.  This one for the elite strongmen.  Sagan, Gilbert, Nibali and Valverde have all won similar stages at The Tour.  The winner of this stage will most likely claim the Yellow Jersey.  It will be an exciting and telling finish, giving an early indication of who is to be taken seriously. Both Evans and Nibali won such an early stage when they went on to win The Race.  I won't be in Cherbourg to watch it, but I'll have a feel for the effort that is being put forth as I watch it in a bar somewhere along the Stage Three route.  Four days til the start.  The anticipation continues to mount.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Previewing Stage Three

My first big challenge of this year's Tour, the 103rd, as represented with the above montage of bikes in the city of Vitre, will be to cover the 139 miles of Stage Three, the second longest stage of this year's Tour, before the peloton does.  If I fall behind here, it will be days before I see the peloton again, as there is a 30-mile transfer to the next stage, which is the longest of The Tour, six miles more than Stage Three.  I'll get a massive head-start on the peloton as I'll only ride the first 25 miles of Stage Two and then diverti down to Stage Three, less than ten miles away at that point, while the peloton heads north to Cherbourg at the northern-most point of France along this stretch of coastline and a popular ferry crossing to the UK.

I'll wait and watch them pass at 1:30 in the town of Percy and then connect with Stage Three in Villedieu.  If the wind continues to blow from the north as it has been, I could knock off 80 or 90 miles before dark and be in fine shape.  I shouldn't have to worry about getting lost as the course markers will have been mounted earlier in the day, plus I'll be familiar with the route as I have just biked it coming up from Angers.  It was most fortunate that I did, as it is so rich in bike decorations that I would have lost an hour or more stopping to photograph them all.

They began right away in Angers.  Besides the metal cut-out bikes in The Tour colors and poster-sized photos of Tours past that I've already reported on, the city had also painted some of its tram cars to honor The Tour and emblazoned them with The Tour logo.

As with many Ville Étapes it had a digital countdown until Tour day.  Cuillé was a rare small village on the route that had a countdown as well, though of the manual sort.

Blue was a popular color to paint bikes mounted along the course with the European Cup soccer tournament going on in France as the French team is known as Le Bleu.  Besides the wiry over-sized bike in the foreground, there were a pair of normal-sized bikes, also painted blue, in the distance behind its rear wheel.

This was far from the largest bike to be seen.

The over-sized bikes are totems for the devout to genuflect before.

There was also a giant replica of the fore-runner of the bike--the pedal-less Draisienne, designed by a German Baron of the same name in the 1830s.

A fanciful bike made of tree limbs was showcased on a mini-stage.

Even more orginal was a bicyclist made of planters.

Planters were also used to form a scarecrow in a round-about in another town.

There were various concoctions of wheels as well.

One town had a series of them with metal green leaves as if they were flowers.

Another town had a series of bikes with dolls.

There was only one categorized climb on the route, a mere four, but red polka dots was a common theme.

There were of course a few bikes adorned with baskets of flowers, as one sees all over France.  They are not reserved for The Tour.

Strings of small cellophane Tour jerseys strung across the road are a common site on The Tour route.  One small town strung real jerseys and water bottles as well.

Elsewhere residents here and there strung clothing in The Tour colors on their homes.  Anyone unaware of this Tour custom would think such people were rather coarse to be hanging their clothes out to dry in such a public place.  They'd also have to wonder at the commonality of the colors of the clothing.  It is always an odd and humorous site, but also a wonderful affirmation of the depth and universality of feeling the French have for their Tour.  They are a simple, but profound gesture.

They are as much of a delight as the monstrous figures made from huge rolls of hay.

Each and every decoration kept me in a non-stop spiral of revelry.  And it will be multiplied many-fold next Monday when I pass them by again, especially when they are mobbed by the throngs lining the roadways.  Hail, hail to The Tour.  It is just a few days away and I can feel the exhilaration already.