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. Sainte-Mère-Eglise and Utah Beach both have large D-Day museums with tanks and landing vessels and airplanes. Sainte-Mère-Eglise will be hosting the presentation of the teams tonight, two days before The Tour commences seventy-five miles away at Mont St. Michel. This grand spectacles 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 identity with 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 isn'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."
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 pieced together.
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 the tourist offices in this region during The Tour. It has twenty-seven stripes, the number of Napolean's victories.
Stage Two in Saint-Lôstarts 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 cold and dank to have a picque-nique. His place was on the Tour route out of this large city. 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.