Friday, June 30, 2017

Düsseldorf--The Presentation of the Teams

As I was crossing the Rhine River at five o'clock, I could see the stage where the presentation of the twenty-two nine-man teams competing in this year's Tour would shortly be taking place.  I could hear the music of the opening act and see cyclists streaming towards the stage on the bike path along the river to where I was headed too and could feel the first surge of thrill that I had arrived at The Tour once again--my fourteenth.  I had biked to nine p.m. the night before to get within 75 miles of Düsseldorf in hopes of arriving in time for the presentation two days before The Race actually began.  No one in the crowd could be happier than me to be here.

The plaza in front of the stage was already packed with fans all on their feet.  I was so distant that even the large screen beside the stage was smaller than watching it on a television in a bar.  I scouted out the cordoned off route that the racers would follow through the narrow cobbled streets of the old city after their introduction in search of a closer view of another screen showing the proceedings.  I only had to go three blocks before I found a smaller, less packed plaza with a screen. The fans were three deep behind the barriers lining the route, but I could sit on the cross tube of my bike in an open space and gaze upon a good-sized screen flanked by an official Tour boutique selling souvenirs and a stand selling beer--a perfect blend of The Tour and Germany.

Just to my right, under a "Bonjour" banner, I could catch a glimpse of the teams as they rode by.  Peter Sagan in his World Championship jersey, who will be vying for his sixth straight Green Jersey, led his teammates through the gauntlet.  He has arguably the strongest pair of legs in The Tour, and unarguably, the thickest mane of hair.

The "Bonjour" on the banner overhead epitomized the theme of the Düsseldorf hosting of the Grand Départ--paying homage to the French.  Other banners saluted the French expression "Allez, Allez" exhorting the riders, rather than the German "Hup, Hup."

Large billboards wished the riders "Bonne Chance" (Good Luck).

But nothing was more French-centric than the abundance of bikes painted red, white and blue, the colors of the French flag. There were still plenty of the more Tour-centric Yellow bikes, but the Germans were certainly expressing their understanding of the French with the red, white and blue bikes.

The large town of Meerbusch outside of Düsseldorf on the Stage Two route had bikes painted red, white and blue with a basket of flowers every few blocks.

Düsseldorf also asserted its rapport with the French, and perhaps wishing to put behind the many times they've invaded France, with banners on the two bridges the riders will cross on the First Stage time trial proclaiming this a "Tour de Friends."

Just as last year, there was a strong representation of fans from Colombia waving or draped in their flag.  One group commandeered a second-floor room on the parade route and hung a Quintana banner and a pair of flags.  Someone up close under the main stage was waving a Colombia flag on a post throughout the ninety minute ceremony.

There were no Colombians to be seen though outside Quintana's hotel the next morning when I stumbled upon the deluxe hotel by the old harbor where his Moviestar team and Team Katusha were staying.  Quintana happened to be rushing by looking very intent and focused not wishing to linger with the handful of the fans hoping for a glimpse of a rider.

Skippy and I had made no arrangements to rendezvous knowing it would happen of its own will.   The time came just after the introductions had been completed and the throngs were dispersing.  I saw Skippy  walking on the other side of the barriers in uniform and helmet, but no bike.  I called out, "Mr. McCarthy," and he actually answered to his last name, perhaps recognizing my voice, rather than flinching that he was about to be apprehended by some authority, having had his share of tussles with the powers-that-be over their draconian enforcement of riding on The Tour route.

"Where's your bike?" I asked.

"Come on, I'll show you," he said.  "It's inside."

We headed over to a building by the stage.  We stood outside as a steady stream of well-dressed dignitaries streamed in.  It was the post-presentation party.  Skippy was the unofficial greeter.  Everyone was in a festive mood.  Two-time Tour winner and present broadcaster Bernard Thevenet gave Skippy a handshake and me too.  Christian Prudhoome, director of The Tour, did the same.  And so did five-time winner Bernard Hinault, looking a bit withered and smaller than when Skippy introduced me to him last year at the Dauphine.  It was a bit of a surprise to see him, as he has retired from his podium duties.  When the arrivals had thinned to a trickle, Skippy asked the man guarding the entrance if I could just duck in for a photo.  Skippy already had clearance.  Even though we were well below the dress code, the guy waved us in.

There was an open courtyard with several tents.  Skippy's first was reaction was, "There's the mayor.  Let me introduce you to him."  He was all aglow from the huge outpouring of the public and the culmination of all his efforts to bring The Tour to Düsseldorf, just the second German city, after Berlin in 1987, to host the Grand Départ.

Skippy's bike was off to the side, part of an exhibit in his campaign to make motorists more respectful of cyclists.

I couldn't linger, as I had an eight-mile ride out to the home of a friend of Ingo, the German cyclist I spent two weeks cycling with in Uganda in 2010 when he was on his way to the World Cup in South Africa.  It was approaching nine o'clock.  It would be light until after ten, but I already felt as if I would be arriving unfashionably late.

The urban sprawl only extended five or six miles in this direction.  I was soon out in the country with inviting pastures and forests for camping, but I pushed on, wanting to meet Ingo's friend Joachim.  His wife answered the door and said her husband was next door with the neighbors in the adjoining house.  Joachim wasn't a cyclist but he knew racing and his neighbor, an ardent cyclist, even more so.  The neighbor's  wife had an insider's knowledge of the sport as she had worked as a publicist for the Telekom team during the 2000 Tour accompanying the team of Ullrich and Zabel from start to finish.  The conversation started fast and furious and never let up. I should have been exhausted, but was temporarily immune to fatigue.  

I could have pitched my tent in their back yard, but accepted the bed room of their son, who is off on a several month sojourn in Australia, somewhat at the insistence of his parents, who wanted him to get a taste of the world after high school before embarking on college.  As with Ingo, I felt an immediate affinity with Joachim and his wife.  They had a most welcoming warmth and genuineness.  They invited me to join them the next evening for a dinner party at a friend's who had a balcony overlooking a concert.  It was hard to decline, but it would have been a late night and I needed to stockpile some sleep, as the day after my race to keep up with The Race would begin.  I'd had a good test with my nine-day hard push to get to Düsseldorf culminating with back-to-back days of biking until after nine p.m., as would become the norm.  

I was much in need of the relative rest day I've just had after the presentation of the teams with just 35 miles of soft-pedaling about Düsseldorf and riding the nine-mile time trial course along the Rhine and through the city center.  It was extra easy on the legs doing it on an unburdened bike thanks to Joachim and Ingo.  Quite a few of the racers were sampling the course  as best they could in the heavy traffic on their time trial bikes with disc wheels.  Peter Sagan passed me practicing bunny-hopping curbs.

I stopped by the tourist office and picked up a 76-page booklet on everything one needed to know about the Tour's visit to Düsseldorf.  It included a full page photo of The Devil accompanying a page of Tour trivia.  He's so synonymous with The Tour, he wasn't even identified.  I haven't seen him yet, but look forward to that as well.  

The time trial doesn't start until 3:15 on Saturday.  I'll watch the riders warm up,and maybe catch some of the caravan, but then I'll start riding the Stage Two route back towards Belgium on roads I've already ridden.  The legs will have a little extra pep to see them anointed with the Yellow Course Markers. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Longwy, France Ville Départ

Two more Ville Ètapes and no bike concoction or Tour tribute that made me go "Wow" as happened multiple times in and around Vesoul a couple of days ago.  An arcade of wheels in Longwy almost registered a "Wow," but not quite.  It was virtually the lone Tour-related object mounted in the tired industrial city of 14,500 inhabitants just below the borders of Belgium and Luxembourg.  Usually the first city The Tour visits in France after a foreign start is much more celebratory.  After setting out from Germany and passing through Belgium and Luxembourg and nearly touching Holland, The Tour won't reach home turf until the end of Stage Three.

It will have an exciting finish with a mile climb through the lower part of the city up to its higher part right across from the large plaza where it's Tourist Office resides.  The Tourist Office had some Tour trinkets for sale, but nothing out of the ordinary.  I'm still waiting for the first Ville Ètape Tourist Office to be offering a collectible souvenir as others have done in the past--stickers or post cards or pins or pens.  It makes me worry that interest is on the wane, but the economy is no doubt to blame.  Come Tour day the enthusiasm will be off the charts as usual.

Longwy had a set of Tour-colored bike cutouts mounted on a wall,

but it didn't compare to the barrage in Vesoul country.

I had hoped for an explosion of Tour euphoria in Vittel, since it is a double Ville Ètape, hosting a finish and then the next day's start, and also being the home of the long-time water sponsor of The Tour, but the spa town was taking its role for granted not going much beyond a spurt of vinyl posters.  Rather than anything imaginative or exceptional, it just erected a bunch of vinyl billboards.

Even the finish and start lines were marked by a slender vinyl sign.  

The finish is by the water factory and stadium, while the next day's start is across from the railroad station and Tourist Office.  It wrapped its digital countdown in vinyl and hung it from a railroad bridge that the peloton will pass under a mile from its Stage Four finish.  The Tourist Office featured a slick, futuristic wooden bike created by a local furniture maker. Vittel wasn't blessed with a bike-crazed welder as was Vesoul.  In the days since my visit there I have been wishing I'd had the time to visit his laboratory to see what other creations he might have been working on.  He is definitely someone to search out in the future.  Hopefully I'll have the time to stop in the Tourist Office when I return to find out more about this mad scientist of the bike.

Though it's not on The Tour route I was able to pass through the home town of Joan of Arc as I biked from Vittel to Longwy. Somehow I've managed to avoid Domremy-la-Pucelle in all my years of biking around France.  It remains a quiet, pleasantly uncommercialized village, quite a contrast to the vulgar Disneyfication of Lourdes--France's premier pilgrimage site. There were no tour buses nor billboards nor huge parking lots,  just a couple of small shops selling some token souvenirs to go along with the gift shop mostly devoted to books where one gained entrance to the rebuilt home of Joan of Arc.  There are no buildings remaining in the village from the time when she lived there in the early 1400s, but most of the stone homes look as if they go back centuries.  Hers was rebuilt in the 1800s.

There were just a couple of modest hotels and a barebones municipal campground.  About the only thing even hinting of catering to tourists was a handful of tasteful sculptures.  They would have met the approval of Janina the art critic, and the tranquil, unpretentious village would have enticed her to spend a day or two in its campground to soak in the area's ambiance.

The sheep Joan tended until she was nineteen before she responded to her calling to lead the French troops saving France from the British have been replaced by cattle, though the majority of the surrounding farmland was planted with grains.  I happened to be listening to an audible book on DeGaulle as I approached Domremy.  It repeatedly drew comparisons between him and Joan as saviors of France.  She was a hero of DeGaulle's.  He tried to observe Joan of Arc Day with some significance gesture every year whether placing a wreath on a memorial to her or urging all of France during WWII to defy the Germans to walking the streets in silence at an appointed hour.

I was well versed in Joan lore as I had read Mark Twain's two volume novel on her before I left published in 1896 when he was 61.  It was his final book.  It is narrated in the voice of someone who grew up with her and served her.  It is written very respectfully without any of the flair or humor one associates with Twain. He spent  twelve years researching it and two years writing it.   Once when a teen-aged boy told him how much he loved his books on Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Twain responded, "You shouldn't read books about bad boys.  My best is Joan of Arc."

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Darney, France

Vesoul, the Ville Départ for Stage Six, is an early front-runner for the beat decorated city of The Tour.  As I wandered the narrow streets of this city of 16,000 inhabitants, wherever I cast my gaze there was some tribute to The Tour--yellow umbrellas dangling from trees, bikes mounted on rooftops and in store windows, posters and banners slapped on buildings and bus stops, cut-outs of bikes in flowerbeds, a digital countdown to Race Day and murals mounted on canvas. This was a cycling nirvana and how every Ville Ètape ought to respond to the privilege of hosting a Tour stage.  I was glad to be able to leisurely take it all in, knowing that when I pass through Vesoul during The Tour I will be in a rush to be on my way and will be torn between absorbing all its Tour fervor and the need to be getting down the road.

Classic photos from Tours past had been hung on walls and fences, each glorifying the majesty of this monumental event. Each stopped me in my tracks, mesmerizing me with all it had to impart.  I could become so fully absorbed studying the richness of each I'd have to remind myself to move on to the next.  Most were of the racers, but the fans and the caravan were also acknowledged, including Yvette Horner with her accordion, who from 1952 to 1963 was the star of the caravan and was as much of a draw as the racers. She remains one of the great figures in Tour lore. 

In the large plaza where the peloton will start off from a building was plastered with huge vinyl posters of defending champion Christopher Froome, who will be going for his fourth win this year, and detailed maps of the stage before Vesoul and the stage departing the city.

The stage eight Ville Départ, Dole, that I visited the day before, only half-heartedly acknowledged that it would be hosting The Tour.  A round-about entering the city of 25,000 had a yellow bike configured with the present year.

A cluster of bikes marked the spot across from a large park and sports facility where the stage will start.  Other than that there were just a few strands of mini-Tour yellow and green and red polka dot jerseys hung across a few streets.

But my sixty mile ride from Vesoul to Vittel, which will be hosting the stage four finish and the stage five start, was partially on the roads the peloton will be riding and it had a rich vein of bike art.  The town of St-Loup-sur-Sermouse, 37 miles into the stage, was decorated as if it were a Ville Ètape.  The round-about on either side of the town had a confounding painting that might cause some crashes if the racers allow their gaze to linger too long on it.

Light poles through the town had blobs and dashes arranged to form a cyclist.

A mad welder had also created some never before seen versions of the bicycle.

There were more further down the road.

Some made less sense than others.

The town of Darney had a series of wheel configurations.  Some basic.

And others more ornate.

There were also smaller pallets that were no less pleasing.

Homes along the road also offered up decorated bikes.  Besides the most popular yellow, some were painted the red, white and blue of the French flag.

There were a few giant bikes, but none as large as the one hung from a bridge.

And this short stretch also included a pyramid of bikes on a hill.

And this is just a tiny sampler of a thirty-mile stretch of fhe 2,000 mile Tour route.  It is most exciting to ride the route when it is lined with fans, but all the bike art makes it plenty exciting even before Race Day.  As always, it is an incomparable joy to be experiencing this.  The route ought to be packed with cyclists from all over the planet indulging in this pleasure. I regret Janina was too worn out to share in this or that Vincent and Andrew, who have shared the experience with me multiple times and are always tempted to return, aren't here as well, especially as their fellow man from Down Under, Richie Porte, could well become the second Aussie to win The Tour.  Only six more days before he will begin his battle with his former teammate Froome.

There was so much art to see today that I was held under 80 miles for the first time since I left Notre-Dame-de-la-Rivière five days ago.  I'm far enough north and into the Vosges Mountains that the heat has abated.  For the first time the temperature has been under seventy degrees at nightfall in my tent.  Poor Janina is still sweltering, but loving her time with Onni and Craig.  She's not sure if she ever wants to leave. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Arinthod, France

As I approached Nantua, Ville Départ for the ninth stage of The Tour, banners proclaiming the coming of The Tour to the Département of Ain began appearing along the road.  They also adorned the tourist office and other buildings in this resort village of 3,500 people in the Jura mountains alongside an emerald green lake nestled between two ridges.

The peloton will be setting out from a shady park at the eastern end of the lake embarking on one of the most demanding stages of this year's Race with three Beyond Category climbs and a Category   Two before descending to the finish in Chambery.  It comes the day before the first Rest Day, so the contenders can ride with all guns slinging.  It will be a spectacular Sunday of racing.

I had a fair bit of climbing myself to reach Nantua, but my legs were fully up to it on my third day of riding long hours without Janina trying to reach Düsseldorf by next Friday for the team introductions.  I've knocked off 280 miles and have just over 400 miles, though I may add a few trying to intersect with four or five more Ville Ètapes.  I am energized by having a target, turning the touring into an athletic endeavor, good prep for following The Tour, as it is will be a three-week exercise in riding as many miles as I can to keep up.

Besides Nantua I also dropped in on Romans-sur-Isere, Ville Arrivée for the 16th stage.  It is a veritable city with lots going on, so only expressed minimal fanfare over hosting The Tour.  Standard banners dangled from a few light poles along the plaza where the peloton will arrive.  An over-sized imitation of the kilometer posts along the road stood in the plaza with an electronic countdown until Race Day.  It was only in days and hours rather than clicking down the minutes or seconds as some cities do.

The tourist office had no decorations, unlike the one in Nantua, which was selling yellow t-shirts with the "Ici, C'est l'Ain" slogan and had an array of Tour and bicycle trinkets.  At least Romans-sur-Isere had painted a stripe on the road where the finish line will be.  Though I would have liked to have seen more enthusiasm, it was enough to excite me as I envisioned the thousands of people who would be swarming this area and the millions on television watching it in less than a month.

My push to reach Düsseldorf is touring as I like it, spending as much time riding as my energy will allow, riding to the point of exhaustion day after day.   It's nice too not to be restricted by having to find an actual campground, but rather disappearing in some cluster of trees or behind a hedge right along the road, invariably when I have reached my goal of 80 or 90 miles or whatever for the day.  I had come to enjoy the communal camping experiences with others during my time with Janina, but wild-camping is vastly more satisfying and puts a final exclamation point on my day of freedom and independence from societal norms. One can sit and contemplate and not be distracted by the charades of all the other campers in a truly pastoral setting on ground uncontaminated by the dreams left by the slumbers of others. 

I'm not riding quite as late as I would like, looking to camp by eight with a couple of hours of light remaining, so I can be up by six to ride in the cool of the morning.  I always want to keep riding if there's light.  That I will have to do come Tour time, when hopefully this heat wave will have passed.  It has moderated slightly, but still my daily highlights are soaking my head and shirt at any public faucet I come upon.  That wet shirt on my back is a profound pleasure.  I had to dig out my pliers to turn on the faucet in one town toilet.  I put it in an easily accessible pocket for future use detaching Tour course markers.  In another town toilet that had no sink and offered no water I had to capture the water that flowed from the top of the urinals.  

France is behind the US in the proliferation of the Little Free Libraries on posts in people's yards that allow people to trade books, but the French embrace the concept.    Some towns have their own versions of system.  The small town of Raybon had converted a refrigerator for the service, providing much more space than the bird house-sized libraries the Little Free Library movement has popularized.

While with Janina we passed through a small town that had repurposed its obsolete phone booth into a book outlet.

Many of the campgrounds we stayed at had a shelf or two of books for trade, often with a few in Dutch, as they greatly outnumbered all campers other than the French.  It came as a bit of a surprise that the Dutch would be sharing books as they have the reputation of being very insular and not contributing much to the French economy.  The French say of them, "The Dutch bring their own potatoes and leave with their potato peels."

Beyond Nantua I crossed a couple of ridges, one that contained the third largest dam-formed lake in France.  I was now well away from the bustling traffic that extended for miles radiating out from Lyon.  It was near bumper-to-bumper traffic even at seven in the morning thirty miles from Lyon all headed into the big city for a day on the grindstone.   I have my own much preferable grindstone pedaling away watching the ever changing scenery unravel all about me.

The day ialways presents items of interest...a monumental sculpture honoring the Resistance...

...a replica of the Statue of Liberty...

...a vending machine dispensing cheese...

...and that all too common site, someone engaged in a pipi rustique.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

St. Maurice d'Ibie, France

We had a relatively traffic-free and mostly flat final fifty miles from Nimes to Notre Dame de la Rouviere, a triumphal roll completing our sixteen-day 500-mile ride.  Janina was mostly aglow, just flummoxed from time to time by any surge of cars reminding us of the technological oppression that rules the world.  After one torrent of cars assaulted our tranquility she pulled over and spewed, "I can't think.  Every time any car goes by it shatters my mind.  I can't get any psychic rest."  It didn't make her want to give up the bike.  She only wished motorists could be more sedate behind the wheel or wizened enough to make the transition from four wheels to two (of the pedalling variety).  

She doesn't trust a single motorist. She fears each and every one is a threat to run her down. She flinches and sometimes comes to a complete halt when a car approaches us from a side road even when they have a stop sign and we don't.  She dreads roundabouts.  Even with me taking the lead and running interference for her she shouts out, "I'm terrorized, I don't know what to do."  But she bravely soldiers on despite her near disability when it comes to coping with cars.

We had one final prolonged afternoon break from the heat that is stifling the entire country.  Much of the country, including Paris, has activated its heatwave alert program.  Our heatwave response was to sit in the shade in a small plaza between the cathedral and mairie in the small village of Sauve.  We took advantage of three nearby spigots of flowing water to soak our garments to help us thwart the heat.  After a couple of hours we took a stroll down its narrow medieval streets that the sun wasn't penetrating in hopes of finding a park or stumbling upon R. Crumb, who has lived there since 1991.  

We found neither, but did notice lots of posters advertising cultural events from a dance performance to gallery openings.  It was a town of artists and hippies.  We could thank the heat for allowing us to be introduced to Sauve.  Janina was ready to move there.  I had biked past Sauve several times over the years, but had never crossed the bridge over the river separating the town from the road to explore it.  I've always been too eager to get to Craig and Onni, just twenty-seven miles away.  And I would have sped past again after soaking my head and shirt under the faucet at the cemetery outside of town if it hadn't been for Janina not wishing to try to endure the heat.  It was another worthwhile experience I could credit to her.

Her preference for campgrounds rather than wild camping has also enriched our trip.  Our final camp site was in a municipal campground half a mile south of Ganges on a river where we took a swim. Only ten of the sixty campsites in a large semi-forested meadow were occupied.  Our preference is always the municipal over private campgrounds, even though they don't have swimming pools, as they offer much more authentic camping, with no distracting frills.  The private campgrounds are dominated by small prefab cabins, making them more mobile home parks than campgrounds.  As at just about every campground we've stayed at, when I presented by US passport, I received a startled, "Americans! We hardly ever get any Americans, maybe one or two a year."  

Much as Janina likes to camp, she has become very self-conscious of us eating sitting on the ground besides our tent while all around us our fellow campers sit at portable tables they've brought.  "I feel like a barbarian," she said.  "I should have at least brought along a tablecloth to lay on the ground for us to eat on."  She likewise felt self-conscious walking around Apt a few days ago.  She observed that no other woman was wearing a hat, so she removed hers.  She also feels she's letting down her sex every time we walk through a supermarket, as all the women are dressed up in some manner or another unlike the custom back home, and she's wearing her grungy cycling garb. I think that earns her favor, but she doesn't agree. 

When we arrived at Craig and Onni's Monday morning Onni said she hoped we could stick around until at least Friday as a friend was having a soirée we were invited to.  That was the best news Janina had heard in days.  She wanted to stay put for days, unless her daughter in Beirut made a sudden decision about meeting up in Paris or Istanbul.  As much as I'd love to linger and do some biking with Craig,  I needed to be on my way to reach Düsseldorf 700 miles away in time for the start of The Tour the following weekend.  

I was hoping to take a ride up Mont Aigoual with him and Ralph, who was due to arrive later that day, the next morning and then be on my way, giving me ten days to make it.  I wasn't certain about my conditioning, not only to make it in time to Düsseldorf for the team introductions, but also to be able to keep up with The Tour for three weeks.  We'd only been riding thirty miles a day until the final four days when we'd upped it to forty.  But maybe my interval training, pushing Janina on the climbs riding at my limit for three or four minutes until my thighs were burning and heart pounding, then dropping off to recover for a couple minutes, then repeating, would have me in shape.  I'll soon find out.

Craig couldn't join us on the twenty mile climb to Aigoual, his regular training ride, as he had to go to Le Vigan to buy a pump and other supplies to insure his garden has enough water.  His battle over water rights with a contentious neighbor had escalated with the neighbor cutting the pipe that led from his cistern to Craig's garden even though Craig had legal rights to the water that goes back to Napoelonic times. The battle has been going on for months and would be worthy of a book.  Craig was also awaiting a call from his dentist for an appointment to replace a filling.  The dentists across the country were on strike to raise their rates, but Craig was hoping his small town dentist might still be taking emergency cases.

It is always a pleasure to go for a ride with Craig, whether for a several day tour as we've done three times here in France, or just a good ride in his mountainous backyard, so it was a disappointment that he couldn't join Ralph and I.  Ralph was wishing he could drag Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, and presently on Teresa May's cabinet, along on our ride.  Johnson was at the forefromt of the Brexit campaign.  Though Johnson is a strong bicycle advocate, Ralph thought he'd be so overmatched by the climb it would give him a heart attack.  As a Scottish national, Ralph has a predilection against the Brits, even though he keeps an apartment in London.  When he's not berating Trump, he's ranting about British politics.  He keeps us laughing, especially when he laces into Thatcher or Mick Jaegger with a profanity-laced tirade.

We got a late start on our ride.  I had hoped to reach the summit by noon so I could be back by two and then on my way to Düsseldorf by three.  When we reached a restaurant five miles from the summit at 12:30 I turned back.  I was able to keep to my schedule.  Ralph continued on and was back down in time to see me off.  With luck we'll meet up for a day or two at The Tour in two weeks as we managed to do last year.

Janina rode out of town with me, wishing in a way she could keep going, though knowing she needed to rest. She admitted her body had the urge to be biking, and her spirit too. If it doesn't work out for her to meet up with her daughter, she just might stay in Notre Dame de la Rouviere for a couple weeks and work on her book.  The sheep farm where Ralph is staying could be the perfect place to write.

It was nice to return to my routine of biking late and finding a place to camp without having to register to do it, though I had begun to appreciate the ease of finding campgrounds on my GPS device and knowing how far it was to reach them.  If I have energy left I want to keep biking, especially in the cool of the evening when the roads are nearly bereft of traffic.  I lifted a barrier down a side road that didn't look like it had been driven in a while. It led to a cluster of bee hives for my first wild camping in ten days.  Janina would have been initially nervous about camping here, but then would have loved it.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Some excerpts from Janina's journal

We are sitting out the heat of the day in someone's barnyard among several varieties of chickens, geese, about 10 goslings, very hot panting rabbits in a hutch, two rather thin cats, one a very serious looking male tabby who does not seem to mind the heat. We managed to get up early and leave Digne-les-Bains even though we did not do all we wanted to do. We rode a good 25 miles before the heat and hills got to be too much. 
A very warm wind is blowing across a ripe wheat field. We were supposed to find a place to stay, recommended by a lady in a moulin where they made biscuits, into which I ducked when the heat was overwhelming, climbing a hill into the this town. A lovely town (we probably should have stayed there for the afternoon) with a church with a Romanesque core, and an ambulatory with shallow Gothic arches. It had not been rehabilitated and so had more character than the churches that are all cleaned up. It looked like it was still in use, although I saw a lot of la France insumise--the far left posters around. Sorry I did not snap them. 
One tends to not want to stop too much, especially, when you know it will get really really hot. A huge duck is sitting behind me and there is some kind of ornamental chicken--very poufy and full of feathers with a headdress and a very silly walk. A funky chicken indeed. Hopefully, the farmer will not object to our spending the afternoon sitting at a table under a lime tree or linden next to the fowl-yard... The Guinea hens, who make a lot of noise, are hiding under an hedge from the heat.  And each variety sets up its call from time to time. 
Did I say we saw a Renard, a fox run by the trailer that George and Ralph and I rented one night. I got a good look at him, although he was traveling fast. There are red hens and a well-attired rooster, white hens, a Bantam pair a bard-rock hen, red faced pie-bald ducks and two geese who are separated from their goslings--about 10. 
When we decided to leave around 5, a lot of the fowl--the geese, ducks and chickens including the beautiful rooster came to the shade near us: I think they wanted to be fed. A Siamese cat, a Himalayan, appeared in a doorway, also watching. I hope the owners--I did not want to explain why I was there again, that we were lost and needed to get out of the heat--came soon. It was touching to see the fowl group up like that and all rather strange, as if it were some hallucination of magical fowl arising from the terrible heat of the afternoon. 
I am so glad to out of the sun. Glad George, who can take it, understands that I can't. He is happier with my performance however.  I am proving he says that I can do it.

I will try to write about Digne now. One observation is that there were clearly Arabs and African people around, but you only saw a couple of shrouded ladies here and there walking along with shopping bags or a lanky young man walking at a good pace on his way somewhere. I also wanted to remember the color of the rivers--and I will have to look up the names of them later but the color was an incredible azure and the water rolled along through wide fields of whitish grey rocks. I was surprised to learn that the mountains there are largely limestone, sedimentary unlike the Rockies and of course, the area was covered by a sea. The limestone accounts for the color of the water, and the place is famous for its ammonite fossils. On the way from Digne: downhill from les Alpes du Haut Province until we arrived in this region where the town of Forqualguier sits, we went though a town called Mées, which sits under a very high colonnade of dark (dolomite) limestone towers called Les Penitents. The story runs that a local hero was holding 10 very lovely "Saracen" girls and the local monks were turned in to stone when they looked on them--in order to preserve their vows of chastity. 
Last night we were camped outside of a town called Maubec, near Cavaillon, which is on the Durance river which we encountered near Digne in a town called Mées. The campground was called Las Royéres  du Prieuré next to the Massif du Luberon and the forest of the Luberon. It was close to perfect: wooded, clean bathrooms, free wifi and a cat. It was quiet and secluded away from the road. And it was, I think a municipal campground, so it has that sense of generosity that comes with a sense of the social, and a love of nature. 
Tonight we are in one of these dreadful places called "Capfun,"a sort of KOA of France. It's expensive in terms of camping and there is no wifi. But it was very windy and hot on the road and the traffic, which had not been too bad, seemed to be getting worse and worse, so we are better off here than 10 miles up the road. Every car that goes by, and they are going quite fast, jars my senses; it's always more or less nerve-wracking to drive in any kind of traffic. During the earlier parts of the day we were driving through the avenues of plane trees planted by Napoleon to shade his armies, presumably on the way to Spain. The plane trees with their limbs wounded by pollarding are endlessly beautiful, they keep you cool, but they also feel dangerous, because there is not much of a shoulder and cars and trucks whiz by at speed.  They also make a beautiful sound in the wind, while the filtering light flickers and moves. 
The glare is tremendous in the Provencal sun, the rond ponts, filled with traffic are particularly brilliant with light bouncing off of the circulating vehicles. George, however, guides me through them with a certain amount of frustration. But it was a pretty good day and we did not have to spend the afternoon in the shade like we did yesterday in Abt and the day before in the barnyard outside of Forqualqier. 
In Apt we languished in a Park and then went on to a Mediatheque, which is a library with media. A nice concept. In any case we sat in the literature section and I caught up on René Char--a Surrealist poet, whose name the cultural center Digné sported, and read a very strange story in a volume of Cendrars (there were several) from Guinea in Africa, about an evil baby and seeresses who lived in human blood. George has written about the American literature in translation: a lot of Ereskin Caldwell, who no one in America reads, and what looked like all of London and Steinbeck. Godard fans will remember the charming and good Franz' comment about Jack London in Bande a part.

On our way from Apt there was a wonderful bike trail, unfortunately, the wind was blowing like mad against us. As we sped along we came upon a 5,000 year old dolman, a burial chamber with rings of small upright stones and a kind of paving of flat stones over the mound. What a thing to come upon all of a sudden.

The campgrounds here in France are like small ephemeral villages, everyone says hello, a Dutchman is helping the people next to us set up a tent. People sit at dinner and look out over the scene. The economies are interesting: the municipals are subsidized, the small-business ones must be quite an undertaking. The charming woman in Digne--it was so hot, she invited us to sit in front of her fan while we signed in--was selling beer to the "Germans," to bring in a few more euros.

The towns we passed through, Tarascon and Beaucaire at the deep blue green Rhone when the bells in the old church were chiming noon, were filled with the bright blooms of oleander hedges. A huge old citadel evoked more history and the color of the river, was like the sound of the bells, filled with harmonic overtones and resonances. I want to know more about the river, it looks so lonely, nothing is ever on it? Is it no longer navigable? What must it have been like looking at the deep mysterious river, the Alpilies, the citadel and hearing the bells ring out 1,000 years ago?

So we just fly along the sunny windy roads of France. In the last two days the wind has been very very strong, and sometimes you have to bear down on the bike to keep it from being blown off course. Its the bags that make it vulnerable. But the wind is also refreshing and lessons the affects of the sun. The campground listed its coordinates: we are still 43 degrees north latitude. Chicago is 41.

I will write about the sounds of France. In the campground the first night out of Digne, in a valley near a small river (EauVive was the name) there were frogs, I think, setting up a clattering racket in the night. Here there are cicadas and the the refreshing sound of the wind. There are pigeons. What are they saying? On a very bad day I thought they were mourning for me, repeating their endless three syllable phrase. --/, --/ --/ --.  Is it anapestic? Adam Gopnik called the sound erotic, and I agree. In the woods cookoos sing, another and more elusive two syllables and then there are birds who repeat a whole sentence, there seem to be several varieties of these song birds and if you lived here you would begin to recognize their songs, although I imagine only poets know what they are saying. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Domaine de la Bastide, France

Janina was happy to learn that it is fully acceptable to help oneself to a sprig of lavender from the plants that decorate many towns in Provence, another of the great amenities of bicycling through France.  It doesn't take more than a sprig to perfume our tent.  The aroma is said to facilitate sleep, though we hardly need assistance after a day of biking, especially in the present heat wave.

Two of the past three days we took a five-hour afternoon break from the ovenish heat.  One break we spent as squatters on a farm that we thought had a room for rent.  We were misdirected to the farm by a cyclist who is a fellow member of Warmshowers. We met him and his wife in a bakery that we had fled to when the noon-day sun became too much for us.  He could see we were done in and knew no one in their right mind would want to continue cycling in such heat.  He was from out of town but was visiting a friend who lived on a farm two miles out of town and had a spare room she rented out for thirty euros a night.  They were headed there for lunch.  That sounded like just what we needed.  

They called her to verify the room was available and then pinpointed its location on my GPS device.  Unfortunately he didn't get the right location, nor did he give us her name or phone number in case there was any snafu.  We did know though that he lived in Draguignan.  I found him on the Warmshowers website.  His phone number was listed.  We called but he didn't get back to us until later in the evening when we were already settled in at a campsite.

The farm had a table with chairs under a tree where we sat, at first hoping the Warmshowers guy might show up, until it was clear we were at the wrong place.  There was a water spigot, so we kept well hydrated.  We felt as if Providence was once again looking after us for us to end up at this unlikely, but perfect, refuge.  While we read and wrote we were entertained by the ducks and chickens languishing in the shade straddling a fence beside us.  It was so hot a dog beside the barn barely gave a yelp, nor arose from his shady patch.  A Siamese cat peeked out of the barn, but didn't venture out of its shade.  When the owners showed up we hoped they'd let us pitch our tent behind their barn.  But in the meantime I did a search and discovered a campgrounds just two miles away.  By five when the heat began to abate we cycled on over.

The next day we reached the sizeable city of Apt by eleven, just as we were beginning to melt.  We sought refuge from the heat in its rather mundane public park.  We nabbed the last bench in the shade, all the others occupied by teenaged boys and a couple of stray older men.  Behind us under a tree a young couple was smooching and smoking pot.  We ate and read until two, when the library reopened after its lunch break.  It had no air conditioning and was just slightly cooler than being outside.  But we needed to recharge our devices.  We sat in a corner where there was French poetry and a lone shelf of American literature translated into French.  Janina read some of Cendras, who she had done a dissertation on,  and some of her other favorite French poets, and perused the French translations of Steinbeck and Faulkner and London, all regional novelists she noted, who would appeal to the French.

We bravely resumed cycling at four, headed to a municipal campground fifteen miles away in the village of Maubec, cosily nestled up against a high ridge. It took us over two hours to reach it as a fierce wind had blown in.  At least we were on a bike path for most of the ride, the same path that we followed for six miles into Apt.  It was on an old rail bed, so was flat and even shaded at times by trees.  When we picked up the path on the way into Apt, Janina exalted, "That removes one layer of anxiety,"  not having to be concerned about traffic.  She also didn't have to be concerned about being caught out in the beating sun as happened the day before until we staggered into the bakery.  But she was still nagged by a pain in her shoulder and side that she hoped was due to the strain she was suffering from pushing down the gear lever for her rear derailleur.  She feared though it might be the symptom of a heart attack.  Earlier she thought she might be suffering appendicitis.  That was a false alarm as was this. 

She was having so much difficulty shifting that when we came to a hill she'd get off her bike and turn it over to me.  I'd ride it a few feet and make the shift for her.  None of this though had her regretting her choice to continue cycling rather than taking the train.  She was pedaling through the fabulous French countryside and seeing sites and having encounters that gratified her soul.  The climbing was minimal as we were mostly descending on a highway known as The Road to the Alps.  The bike path took us across an old Roman bridge.

The day before we cycled past a spectacular upthrust of rocks known as "The Peninents," that might have been transplanted from Canyonlands.  

The rocks were said to have been robed monks petrified back in 800 for leering and lusting over seven beautiful women when they left the harem of a warlord who had been holding them hostage.

After two days of extreme heat we were saved by long stretches of cycling in the shade of towering plane trees. 

We weren't the only ones pausing to take photos of them.  We saw motorists doing the same and also a wedding photographer shooting a bride and groom who happened to be Chinese.

When we pulled off the road to have a closer look at a small chapel,  a woman sitting in her van having some lunch in the shade of the lone nearby tree stepped out and asked if we needed water.  We didn't but it was another opportunity for Janina to have a friendly conversation with someone interested in our undertaking.  She was driving to Antibes to visit her husband's grave.  They had traveled extensively, including a drive from Denver, where her husband had some work, to Los Angeles, where their son was going to college.  She ducked into her van and offered us a bowl of cherries.  She and Janina chattered away as if they were old college chums who hadn't seen each other in decades.  Once again we felt as if she was another who could have been a best friend if we lived nearby.  As we continued on our way we could only say Vive La France.