Sunday was Election Day in France. Despite the dramatic differences in the candidates and the high stakes, my day on the bike cycling through small towns in the heart of the country wasn't impeded by citizens flocking to the town halls where the voting took place nor was I blocked by lines of people eager to cast a ballot. There was no missing the polling places, as the town halls (Mairies), are all prominent buildings as majestic as Carnegie Libraries and each adorned with flags and the same posters of the two candidates, as if the population needed to be reminded what their options were.
As predicted, Emmanuel Macron convincingly defeated Marine Le Pen, 65% to 35%, but the turnout was low, even though whoever I'd asked about the election the past four days, since I began my annual cycle ride from Paris to Cannes, blurted with a tone of concern and alarm that Le Pen needed to be defeated. Not everyone though could bring themselves to vote for one or the other, finding neither to their liking, if not distasteful.
My first destination after assembling my bike at Charles De Gaulle airport was Montgeron, a suburb south of Paris that was the starting point for the first Tour de France in 1903 and will be the Ville Départ for the final stage of this year's Tour. It was a relief to be biking despite the chill and the damp, as I feared my bike and gear hadn't made the less than hour transfer I'd had to make at the Atlanta airport. When my duffle did not turn up on the luggage carousel, I felt jinxed again, though not quite as horrendously as six weeks ago in Madagascar when I had to leave my bike behind because Turkish Air did not accept credit cards to pay for the bike fee.
If it were not for the heroic effort of my Swiss Warmshowers host Juerg, who came to the airport to rescue my bike after my departure, my much beloved bike that I was presently awaiting here would now be in the hands of some Malagasy who had no idea of the treasure that he had come in to. Once again I was nervously awaiting my reunion with my bike. I knew it would happen this time, though possibly twenty-four hours later than I wanted. As I headed to the baggage claim office reconciled to having to hang out at the airport for a day until my bike showed up on the next flight from Atlanta, I was thrilled to spot my bike box at the oversized-luggage area and there beside it my duffle. Hail, hail Air France.
It is always my airline of choice when flying to France, largely because it would supply a bike box right there at the airport for my return flight, but also because it gives me an early introduction to the charms of French culture. From the moment I boarded the plane, greeted by its sophisticated and committed crew who genuinely seem to care about serving those traveling with them, I feel as if I'm entering a realm of civility. It is reflected in the more than edible food and the extraordinary selection of films available on each passenger's personal screen.
The films included a handful of award winners from last year's Cannes, including "Captain Fantastic," from Un Certain Regard that I had missed and had been eager to see. I was also able to finally see Mel Gibson's Oscar-nominated "Heartbreak Ridge" and Ron Howard's delightful documentary on the Beatles. And my cinema viewing was highlighted by peeking at the screen a row ahead of me of someone watching "Moonlight," the best of the lot. With all the irresistible cinema I didn't get as much sleep as I would have liked on the flight, one reason why it wouldn't have been so bad if I'd had to find a corner at Charles De Gaulle to curl up in for twenty-four hours if my bike hadn't made the flight.
Sleep-deprived I may have been, I was still fully energized once I took to the bike. My ride began with over three hours of haphazard navigating through the southern metropolis before I reached Montgeron. It was nothing special other than a stretch through Vincennes past a sprawling chateau and its large forest, which included the Paris zoo. I was drawn by a towering man-made promontory that I didn't realize marked the zoo that looked totally out of place in the urban sprawl.
The round-about preceding Montergon was marked by a spaghetti of tubes spelling out the name of the town interlaced with the configuration of a bicycle. It was erected in 2003 for the Centennial Tour, which commenced at that very spot, as will the 21st and final stage of this year's Tour. Just behind it is the hotel/cafe that formed the backdrop for the departure of that first Tour that has evolved into one of the premier sporting events in the world.
Of course a plaque sanctifies it.
As does a more recent commemoration.
Inside the walls are adorned with posters and photos and displays of bikes from the ancient past. It was a shrine well worth visiting and a bargain at 36 euros for a room for the night. But I was intent on sleeping in the forest.
The town's small tourist office already had a window display of bike memorabilia related to The Tour de France, which doesn't start for two months. Next door was a small museum named for the town's first woman mayor elected just after WWII--Josephe Jacquiot. I asked the older gentleman in charge of the tourist office if France would have its first female president. "I hope not," he blurted, "But we don't talk politics here. Le Pen sounded like your president in the debate last night."
"I came to France to escape talk of Trump," I said.
"Don't let anyone know you're American then," he replied.
I continued on for another twenty miles before I escaped the sprawl and found a forest where I camped beside a small pond, happy not to have to swat mosquitoes this early in the spring. The arbor canopy prevented the sun from awakening me and allowed me a solid twelve hours of sleep.
I was headed due south to Montluçon, near the very center of the country, to visit the grave of 1956 Tour de France winner Roger Walkowiak, who was laid to rest this past February. It took me through the large city of Bourges and its gargantuan cathedral. A few miles south on highway 2144 I passed a tribute to the Resistance, such as are scattered all over the country--plaques and monuments and museums are the emblems of France, a country that loves to remember and to pay tribute.
As I approached Montluçon on Election Sunday I spotted a speeding Lycra clad cyclist making a sharp turn from a side road towards me onto the road I was riding. I stopped and held up my hand to ask if he might know where Walkowiak was buried. I knew it was at the Cimietere Nord, but I didn't have its exact location. He graciously stopped. He didn't know where the cemetery was and apologized that he was in a hurry, as he was on a training ride and his Garmin was running. It was my turn to apologize for effecting his time.
I had just gotten a SIM card for my mini-iPad in Bourges the day before so I could check to see if I could find the cemetery on my map. It showed up. I had to double-back a mile-and-a-half. It was in the small commune of Chateaugay, two miles north of Montluçon.
It was a large cemetery with an office, but the office was closed on Sunday. There were a handful of cars parked, so I had hopes of finding a visitor who might know where Walkowiak's grave was. The first man I asked had no idea. Two ladies thought they knew. Even though they were on their way out of the cemetery clutching some dried up flowers, they led me down an aisle. Half-way down they realized it wasn't the right one. We doubled back a bit and tried another aisle. That wasn't it either. Then we cut through a narrow path to another aisle and a little ways down, there it was. I thanked them profusely. It could have taken me all afternoon to find it on my own.
It was a fittingly simple and nondescript family tomb without the names of any individuals interred within it, as Walkowiak is considered the most unlikely of Tour winners. He won it on a fluke thanks to being in a breakaway during the seventh stage that gained eighteen minutes. He actually lost the Yellow Jersey four stages later, but regained it on another fluke four stages from the finish when the leader lost sixteen minutes. He was an unknown well into his career who had never distinguished himself and was an unpopular winner. He raced The Tour twice more, dropping out once and finishing 75th the other time before retiring without any other result remotely comparing to his Tour win. He is the only Tour winner to have never won a stage of The Race. He is most famous for contributing the term "a la Walkowiak" for any win by a rider who is not highly respected. That has given him enough significance that paying tribute to his grave and his legacy gave me a jolt of uplift no less than did the graves of five-time winner Jacques Anqutil or Italian legend Fausto Coppi or Maurice Garin, the winner of the very first Tour or any other of the many graves I have visited. Cheers and thanks to Walko.