Monday, June 20, 2016

A Vintage Bike Extravaganza

Most of France celebrates the Fête du Velo the first weekend in June.  Angers and Saumur delay theirs until later in the month so cyclists from all over the country can come and participate as it is so exceptional, riding a seventy-five mile loop along the Loire on barricaded roads along with masses of riders on vintage bikes in vintage garb.  It's a huge costume party, and who doesn't like a costume party.

I had no idea what I was in for when I happened upon this event.  I had been drawn to Angers because it will be the Ville Arrivèe for the third stage of this year's Tour and then Saumur, thirty miles up the Loire, as the Ville Départ for the next day's stage.  There was a brochure for the Fête du Velo in the tourist office at Angers.  It was taking place the next day.  It detailed the route up and down the Loire measured in short distances between the many small towns along the way showing where there'd be special events and repair stations and toilets.   There was no official starting or ending point.  With five bridges across the river and one ferry crossing in this thirty-five mile stretch, one could make a loop of any distance from a few miles to a century.

It mentioned that Saumur would be hosting a gathering of vintage cyclists, but it gave no hint of its magnitude.  I arrived in Saumur at ten a.m. just as the main contingent of the vintage clan set out on the course led by a vintage car.  They were rather quaint, the men in old racing jerseys and cycling caps, or dressed up in white shirts with bow ties and suspenders, and other outfits of a bygone era, some accompanied with florid mustaches real and fake, and the women mostly wearing festive, "Sunday-best" dresses, some accompanied by lavish bead necklaces and even a fur or two.  Men and women alike wore a wide range of period head gear, but no helmets, not even a leather-net. 

The attire was too distracting to pay much attention to the bikes, some of which had old-time metal water bottles mounted on their handlebars.  The women in particular stole my attention with their flamboyant attire.  It was a more dazzling array of femininity than the excessively-manicured elites at Cannes who promenade up the red carpet every night at the Palais in their gowns of thousands of dollars.  It goes without saying that anyone looks better on a bike than in high heels.

When the vintage cyclists came on to the route I thought there might be several dozen of them.  After a few minutes I realized that there would be more than that, maybe a few hundred.  But it turned into thousands.  The costumes veered off into extreme fringes--soldiers and Red Cross nurses, a miner with blackened face.  This is an annual event that has been going on for years, enabling everyone a full year to put thought into what they would wear in this joyous event.  As soon as one year ends, everyone begins anticipating the next.  People in Saumur not riding also dressed up.

There was an official Arrivée arch for the vintage riders to pass under and a gauntlet of fans to ride through.

A brass band and a man with a microphone, who snagged an occasional rider for a few words, welcomed them all.

Riders were on the course until well past six when the roads were reopened to cars.  The vintage riders dispersed and gradually filled the entire course.  It was a lark riding with them and against them all day, marveling at their get-up and sharing smiles.  With so many miles and so many hours the road was rarely clogged.

The route alternated between river views and forest views.

Riders were halted at one point when an ambulance came onto the course to rescue a fallen rider.

There were a few penny farthings and other throwbacks.

It will be hard for The Tour de France to top the revelry and exhilaration of this day when it comes to town in a little over two weeks and rides some of the same roads.  The Tour route was marked by a yellow stencil of a cyclist every few blocks.

Saumur's most stunning tribute, and perhaps the best I've seen this year, was a canopy of yellow and green and red and white umbrellas over a downtown pedestrian way.  They may have helped ward off the rain.  This was the first dry day in a week.

Angers, a bigger city, had a few more decorations, though none to equal the originality and flair of those umbrellas.  There was a digital countdown at sixteen at the starting point beside the large city hall across from an expansive park that The Tour will commandeer.  Metal cutouts of yellow and green and red-polka bikes adorned round-abouts and the grassy tramway through the center of the city, and cardboard promotions of The Tour enclosed trunks of trees.

But the most moteworthy of its Tour tributes was an arcade of more than a dozen large photos from The Tour's previous eighteen visits to Angers.  The first two Tours in 1903 and 1904 both passed through Angers on the final long stage to Paris.  There were no photos of that, but there were photos of the greats Merckx, Anquetil and Bobet.

It had been ten days since I'd been on The Tour route in Bern.  I felt revitalized to be back on it, though my biggest jolt came from riding with the thousands of yesteryear cyclists.  Just as I have been drawn back to The Tour year after year, this Vintage Ride will be something I'll have to do again, hopefully next year when I'll be joined by Janina. Though I loathe the term, it ought to be on every cyclist's Bucket List.

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