Friday, June 29, 2018

La Fresnaye-sur-Chédouet



As I penetrated deeper into the sprawl of the Paris metropolis and the traffic grew thicker and surlier I began to have second thoughts about the need to scout out The Tour’s start of its final stage in Houilles less than ten miles from the Champs Élysées by the direct route. I’d have ample time to get my bearings when I returned in month the day before the stage start after my long transfer by train from Pau.   The maelstrom that was swallowing me up was no fun, especially after weeks of tranquil cycling through the paradisiacal countryside.  It was made even less fun knowing I’d have to turn around and ride through it again after I’d completed my reconnaissance.

But I pushed on deeper and deeper into enemy territory.  I was at last rewarded with a small oasis of tranquility in front of the Marie in Houilles, where the peloton will set out on its circuitous route through the northwest sprawl of Paris before its finish on the Champs Élysées.  I was further appeased by finding a forest five miles from the start where it would be easy to camp if I didn’t care to take advantage of a campground a mile closer.  The Village Hall was prepared for its role with a map of the route the peloton would follow through the town.  It’s decorations were minimal at this point—just a topiary bike and oversized kilometer post replica and a long mural of a string of cyclists on the windows of a modern municipal building facing the centuries old traditional Village  Hall.  My best discovery though was a nearby stadium named for Georges Lefévre, assistant to Henri Desgrange, who suggested the idea of a tour of France to promote their newspaper back in 1903.

The city of Dreux, start of Stage Eight, that I visited the day before, a first-time Ville Étape just like Houilles, likewise offered nothing out of the ordinary to acknowledge its role of hosting The Tour—just posters scattered around the city and wooden cutouts of the yellow, green, and red polka jerseys in a roundabout half a mile from the stage start on the outskirts of the city in the parking lot of its cinema multiplex.


Dreux is honored with the July 14 Bastille Day Stage, usually a stage with a little extra pizazz since there will be huge crowds on this French version of July 4, a national holiday of great magnitude with fireworks in every town with enough in their budget for incendiaries. But this stage is a flat one with just one category-four climb.  The only thing that could make it interesting would be winds off the Channel breaking the peloton into echelons.  The next day will be a truly dramatic stage when the peloton is subjected to the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix before its rest day and long transfer to the Alps.  Everyone will be focusing on that, as they are already, as the most important of the first nine stages. 

As I made my retreat from Houilles following the Seine for a ways back out into rural France I could feel a strong sense of satisfaction of having completed what scouting I could do of this year’s route visiting twenty-three of the thirty-nine Ville Étapes and riding a good many of the miles that I’ll be returning to in the weeks ahead.  Of the sixteen I missed, several I knew well from years past—L’Alpe d’Huez, Bourg d’Osians, Paris, Amiens, Annecy, Albertville.  With that accomplished I could turn my attention from looking for tributes to the bike as I pedaled along to giving full appreciation to the many enhancements the French make to their towns and countryside.  Majestic town halls are among the many pleasing features that making cycling in France a pleasure unlike any other. They are nearly always a stately building, going back a century or two, and often adorned with the refrain of the Revolution—“Liberté, Equalité,  Fraternité.”  


Flowers are an essential accoutrement of every town. Many have a water truck that goes around to quench the thirst of the many flower beds and planters.  WWI monuments and crucifixes are further embellishments.


Murals can appear anywhere.


Municipal campgrounds are a significant amenity.




And, of course, roundabouts form a pallet for a limitless variety of expression.


I was able to include another bicycle museum on my route back to the Vendée, the fourth in the past month, in La Fresnaye-sur-Chédouet that I learned of from a pyramid of bikes along the Stage Seven route.  If I had arrived in the morning I would have spent all day watching the hours and hours of  video it offered on twenty-some screens spread through the museum.  The museum was a mini-Smithsonian of valuable research material. As it was, I arrived ninety minutes before closing time and had to hurry through. The woman on duty was in no rush to kick me out, nor the six others there, who seemed even more oblivious to the closing time than me.  There was footage from every Tour de France from the ‘30s on.  

One could push a button in front of a large wall-sized screen in one room to watch highlights of a handful of the giants of the sport—Coppi, Anquetil, Poulidor and more.  There were rooms devoted to roughly ten year eras of The Tour since its inception in 1903 with a video from the period and assorted relics—bikes, jerseys, posters and more.  Jean Robic’s 1947 Tour-winning bike was on display.  The video for that period showed Robic being presented the Yellow Jersey at the end of the 1947 Tour that  I saw in the treasures room of the cathedral in Saint-Anne-d’Auray.  An excerpt from the 1953 Tour showed  a fan holding a “Vive Robic” sign. 

In the era devoted to Anquetil his Yellow Jersey from 1961, the second of his five Tour wins, was on display.  An Indurain Yellow Jersey was in another room.  It has been quite a summer of Yellow Jerseys for me with Ocaña’s at the Cycling Chapel, Robic’s at Sainte-Anne-d’Auray, and three of Bobet’s  at his museum along with these two. The museum had a room devoted to the publicity caravan that Desgrange introduced to The Tour in 1930.  

 One cabinet was devoted to Yvette Horner, the star of the caravan for eleven years in the ‘50s and ‘60s, playing the accordion for up to seven hours a day for the thousands and thousands of fans lining the route.  Her display included her biography and a 45 record and some miniatures of her.  When she passed away two weeks ago at the age of 95 she was the lead obituary in the New York Times.  The obituary in The Guardian mentioned the plaza of her home town of Tarbes is named for her.  It’s not far from Pau, so I’ll be able to pay my respects when The Tour passes nearby next month.

Lance Armstrong was acknowledged in a photograph by the entry taken at the centennial Tour in 2003 when he was going for his fifth win.  He stood in front of all the living winners gathered wearing a Yellow Jersey with all else in black.  Indurain is on the far left and Pantani the far right.  Three have since passed away.   A large portrait of Armstrong hangs in another room with all The Tour winners and other legends of the sport.  There is a black  x though across a photo of him in a row of smaller photographs of all The Tour winners along another wall.


The museum was established in 2001 from the private collection of a local.  It has been added to and is going strong unlike many similar collections of an individual that come and go.  The pyramid I saw on The Tour route a few miles away normally stands in the middle of the town.

For the first time I saw a few cars flying the French flag on mini-antennas that are so popular elsewhere, finally acknowledging the World Cup. France survived the first round and will play Argentina in the elimination round of the remaining sixteen teams tomorrow.  It is time to get serious.  I’ll be able to watch it with Florence and Rachid in Tours.  Hopefully they’ll keep winning and more flags will start sprouting on cars as a few inevitable break off in the wind and fall to the roadside for me to collect.  I gathered a bounty while cycling through Germany eight years ago and almost as many four years later in Great Britain.  There has been a minimum of such nationalism here.   I know though that it will become more evident if the French keep winning.  They will have my full support.








Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Chartres, Ville Arrivée Stage Seven


Stage Seven to Chartres offered up the first pyramid of bikes on this year’s Tour route.  It came at about the half way point of the stage east of the large city of Alençon in the village of Neufchâtel-en-Saosnois, another of the many, many French town names with character. The bike on top acted as a weather-vane spinning in the wind.  The pyramid advertised a bicycle museum in La Fresnay-sur-Chédouet ten miles to the north of the route. It was a museum I didn’t know about.  I’ll be able to give it a look in several days when I make my turnaround and head back to the start of The Race in the Vendée—now nine days until the team presentations.

As eye-catching as a pyramid of bikes can be, lone bikes can carry as much impact with their simple sincerity, especially when accompanied with a rustic home-made sign.  The most popular sign along The Tour route is Vive Le Tour, so a Vive Le Velo is a pleasing alternative.  Can’t argue with either.

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One of the most creative offerings on Stage Seven was one that used the red plastic twist-off caps from bottles of Coca-Cola to form the red dots emblematic of the mountains jersey.  The caps are a link with the past as Coke was once a sponsor of The Tour.  Not too many American companies have joined the calvacade of sponsors of late.  Occasionally a Hollywood movie has had a float in the caravan preceding the peloton, but that too has faded away.


Painted wheels, these in the colors of the French flag, continued to outnumber bikes amongst the decorations.


All these decorations along the stage route made up for the lack of any in Chartres.  It is such a large tourist town, big enough to have five McDonalds, it felt no urge to promote itself as a Ville Étape to attract visitors. The tourist office didn’t even have a brochure or any mention of The Tour.  It’s towering cathedral, arguably the most magnificent of the several given World Heritage status in France, is perched on the high point in the city, making it visible from miles away.  It will form a classic backdrop to the stage finish a mile outside the city proper, the same location The Tour used in 2012 when I watched the final time trial with Florence and Rachid won by Bradley Wiggins, wrapping up his Tour win, with Christopher Froome second on the day and overall. 

The cathedral is a genuine tourist attraction with a gift shop inside and a lenghty list of tours available of the cathedral posted on a pillar within the cathedral as well.  At the lone open entrance a guard looks inside bags and orders men to remove their hats.  Less than one hundred feet from the entrance, next to a souvenir shop advertising toilets, is a shop renting Segways.  Outdoor cafes line the narrow cobbled pedestrian-only streets leading to the cathedral.

Though there’s just one categorized climb, a Four, on the 145-mile stage to Chartres, there is plenty of climbing.  I kept waiting for the terrrain to level off, as it is on the fringe of the Loire Valley, but the road undulated all the way to within twenty miles of Chartres.  It will be a long day for the peloton, especially if it has to contend with a headwind as I did.  At least the northeast breeze coming in off The Channel kept it cool. It has been sweater-weather for days now, quite a contrast to the sweltering heat Ralph has been contending with in the south.  

Fortunately I’m in no great rush to get anywhere.  My only objective these days has been to put in five, six, seven hours a day on the bike while trying not to overtrain for my upcoming race with The Race.  I can feel the increasing strength in my legs and am now recovering well enough to wake after eight hours of sleep, down from nine and ten.

With time so precious during The Tour I’m always on the alert for shortcuts and ways to save time.  The ever increasing number of supermarkets with self-checkout is a big help.  There is never a wait at the four to six stations, as they are restricted to customers with less than fifteen items.  I can swoop in and be done in no time.  I just have to be wary of the occasional store that only accepts credit cards for such purchases.  Directions are given in English as well as French, German and Spanish.  I slip bills into a slot and drop coins in another to pay for my purchases, avoiding the human element.  They are a good place to pass off coins I find on the road that are scuffed up enough for an attendee at the cashier to question.  So far none has been rejected by the machine.



Another time-saver is using my map app on my iPad to find supermarkets and campgrounds and tourist offices.  In the past I’ve always taken pleasure in just coming upon them.  I didn’t realize I could simply enter “camping” or “tourisme” or “intermarche” (my preferred supermarket chain) in the map app and, voila, they pop up within a twenty-five mile range and I can rest assured of where the next might be. The number of campgrounds has been a revelation.  I always knew they weren’t uncommon, but I had no idea there was such an abundance.  There must be a government subsidy for all the municipal campgrounds that can hardly be self-supporting.

It’s a shame I didn’t realize I had this capability to find them last year with Janina when she introduced me to the pleasure of French campgrounds.  They are much quieter and more pleasant than their American counterparts, and cheaper too.  What few children are accompanying parents are well-behaved and restrained.  Up until last year about the only time I slipped into a campground was in midday when I was desperate for a shower, and would just pay for a shower and be on my way, much preferring to camp in a pasture or in the woods away from all. 

That is still my preference, but a sanctioned campground every few days is a not unwelcome luxury.  I almost look forward to it.  It’s not quite the difference between first class and steerage when flying, but I can appreciate the campground amenities.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to integrate them into my route during The Tour though, when I won’t want to stray from the route and will want to keep riding as long as I can each day.  But I will be alert to the possibility and will be happy for their water and electricity and maybe even WiFi—the pleasures of the Easy Life.  

Just two Ville Étapes remain on my scouting mission—Dreux and Houilles—then it’s back for the Grand Départ in the Vendée with a stop in Tours to visit Florence and Rachid.






Saturday, June 23, 2018

La Chapelle-Janson, Stage Seven


One of the many charms of following The Tour route is coming upon villages expressing pride in a local who has ridden in The Tour.  Just four kilometers from the Stage Seven start in Fougères the small village of La Chapelle-Janson announced itself to all passing through as the home of the brothers Groussard, Tour riders from the ‘60s, who not only rode in The Tour but wore the Yellow Jersey.  

Younger brother Georges wore the coveted garment for nine stages in the 1964 Tour and finished fifth overall, his best finish of his seven participations.  Joseph was in Yellow for just one stage in the 1960 Tour, but won a stage the year before, his best result in his nine Tours.  He also holds the distinction of being the Lanterne Rouge in the 1965 Tour.  The large vinyl poster of them in Yellow was mounted on the side of its Marie (City Hall) that will greet the peloton as it passes through.  The town further celebrated the bike with a giant replica of a Draissene, the first version of the bicycle.


I was glad I had ignored the barricaded road signs and hadn’t taken the recommended detour around the village, though I was forced to push my bike through a park to get around the work replacing a bridge over a creek.  The detour would have deprived me of these wonderful ornaments and learning of the Groussards, as I won’t be riding this stage come Tour time as it requires a brutally long transfer of one hundred miles from the stage finish in Mur de Bretagne to the start of the next stage in Fougères.  I will skip Stages Seven, Eight and Nine across the north of France to Roubaix, heading south after Stage Six to meet up with The Tour in the Alps after it makes a several hundred mile transfer by plane on its Rest Day to Lake Annecy.

Just as small towns on The Tour route paying tribute to a local who has ridden in it is a feature of The Race, so is passing through one of the many towns in the country named for Saint George.  This stage had both with St-Georges-Buttaven twenty-one hilly miles after La Chapelle-Janson.  There could be many more of both to come, maybe even on this stage, the longest of this year’s Tour at 145 miles.  It is one of five stages longer than 200 kilometers (125 miles).  

My ride from Mur de Bretagne to Fougères at least included one significant cycling pilgrimage site—Saint-Mèen-Le-Grand, home town of three-time Tour winner Louison Bobet.  Not only is he buried there, but there is a museum devoted to him.  I had visited it ten years ago with Craig on our ride from the Cevennes to Mont St. Michel.  I have wanted to return as the museum had a list of the more than seventy streets, plazas, schools, stadiums and such that had been named for him.  I hadn’t thought at the time to make a copy of it, as I wasn’t fully obsessed then of searching out anything cycle-related, however minor, in France.  Over the years as I continued to circulate all over the country, I’ve occasionally happened a Bobet tribute. They always give me a jolt of excitement and make me want more.

The museum had been totally transformed from a haphazard collection of his mementos in a living-room setting to highly-organized, albeit sterile, summary of his life growing up as the eldest son of the town baker to becoming the country’s most prominent athlete.  The two room museum in a municipal building that also houses the tourist office now had interactive exhibits and two screens with thirty minute videos on his career produced by the eminent Jean-Paul Ollivier, a cycling authority who has written over fifty books on the sport, including two on Bobet.  One of the videos was interviews with his brother and sister and two children.  Bobet died in 1983.  His younger siblings are still alive.  His younger brother Jean also raced, but he is best known as a writer.  His book “Tomorrow We Ride” is one of the best is on cycling.  Lance Armstrong’s bike shop in Austin, Mellow Johnny, has a quote from the book on a wall.

The second video was thrilling clips from his career broken into six segments.  He rode in the post-WWII era when cyclists still rode with a spare tire looped around their shoulders. He was the first to win The Tour three years in succession from 1953 to 1955.  A Yellow Jersey from each of his triumphs was on display.  The last had the rainbow stripes of the World Champion on the sleeves, which he was entitled to after winning the race in 1954.  Among the other jerseys was the one from his Paris-Roubaix win in 1956.

I was relieved the list of places named for him was still on exhibit, though the museum didn’t have copies to distribute.


Though I’d been to his grave in the cemetery by the church in the center of the town on my previous visit, I couldn’t be on my way without paying my respects once again.  I had a strong memory of exactly where it was in a middle aisle just after one enters.  But I couldn’t find it. Craig and I had no problem locating it as when we arrived at the cemetery we met the couple who lived in Bobet’s childhood home and they led us straight to it.  I walked down each aisle of the crammed cemetery twice and even ventured into the addition below it thinking my memory must have really gone haywire.  One doesn’t usually have to wait long in a cemetery before someone arrives to check on the grave of a loved one, bringing flowers or rags and brushes to clean it.  Finally someone did.  She thought she knew where his grave was, but she couldn’t immediately find it either.  She said she knew it was a big one and held her arms apart, as in wider than most.  After several minutes of circling around she finally spotted it near where I thought it was.  It hadn’t caught my eye as the featured name on the grave wasn’t Bobet, but his first name.  Nor was there anything bike-related to draw our attention either.  He was beloved enough to be known as simply Louison.


The street named for him goes by his full name and carries the additional identity of “Champion Cyclist.”  It is an artery off the main plaza and is where his father’s bakery had been.  The three-story building has a plaque on the second floor. It now houses a driving school which has a painting of Bobet on its window, though not by the artist who specializes in painting storefronts in Ville Étapes.


He had made a killing in Mur-de-Bretagne.  Nearly every storefront in its center and beyond was graced with a freshly minted Tour-related painting, as the artist, Philippe Le Paih, who goes around to Ville Étapes plying his trade, lives ten miles to the south in Pontivy.  If I had had a little more time I would have dropped down to meet him to hear his stories and see his vast portfolio.  I’ve seen hundreds of his paintings over the years and each is different, though distinctly similar.  He must be a genuine Tour fanatic.  He featured Warren Barguil, who lives in Brittany, in a painting for the town bakery. 


Barguil was one of the stars of last year’s Tour winning two stages and the mountain competition.  His nickname is Wa-Wa, taken from Warren, rather than Bar-Bar, taken from his last name as one might expect considering the great popularity of the nicknames Pou-Pou for Poulidor and Ja-Ja for Jalabert.  One can’t predict how a nickname will be derived. Yvon tells me he has been known as Von-Von by girl friends.  The nickname for André is Dé-Dé. The French love for repeating a syllable goes beyond nicknames.  Do-do is a slang term for sleep, taken from dormir.  And of course there is bonbon for candy.   Cou-cou a version of bonjour, as hi is to hello, though rarely used.  The Zola novel I’m reading, the cynically titled “The Joy of Life,” has a dog called Lou-Lou, also a nickname for Louis. This is one subject the released deceased Peter Mayle never wrote about, unless he saved it for his final soon to be published book on his twenty-five years in Provence.

The stage finish in Mur-de-Bretagne is two miles out of town up a notorious mile-long climb of fifteen per cent.  I was no more looking forward to it than the vast majority of the peloton will be, especially since they will be climbing it twice, just as they were forced to climb Alpe d’Huez twice a few years back. The strongmen will be eager to take it on as it will be a great separator.  There will be no drafting or hiding on such a grade.  It was most definitely a strain, but the nearly two thousand miles I’ve put on my legs in the past month made it less of a strain than some of my earlier murderous climbs in the Pyrenees and on the Massif Central.  The legs are definitely coming around.  They will be ready when The Race commences in two weeks. They had no need of pause when I reached the summit with its sign giving the contour of the final loop of the stage and actually felt as if they wanted more.













Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Brest, Ville Départ Stage Six


Rather than biking around the large bay that Brest rests upon and battling the traffic leading into the largest city of Brittany I took a 35-minute bike and pedestrian ferry across the bay to arrive in the thick of the city.  There are only two crossings a day.  I arrived an hour early for the morning 10:10 a.m. departure.  I was feeling relieved that I was the fourth cyclist when the ferry pulled in and I saw how small it was.  There was no certainty that the dozen cyclists awaiting the ferry, including a tandem, would all fit into the small enclosed area for cargo at its rear.  The forty or so foot passengers boarded first and then the process of lifting loaded bicycles aboard began.  It was tight but there was just enough room for us all.

As the distant metropolis grew closer and closer I felt happier and happier to be making my immersion into it by water rather than the slow agony of miles and miles of passing through its industrial and residential sprawl just as I had recently experienced in Dakar this past March when a ferry up the Atlantic coast deposited me just a few blocks from its city center.  My arrival equally close to the heart of Brest brought me even more joy when the first site I noticed when I started riding was a towering fixture marking the start of the sixth stage of The Tour just a block away. With the city defined by its port, that is where The Tour had opted to make its departure point.  In the distance behind the fixture up the hill that the peloton would climb was a further Tour tribute of a comical array of over-sized Tour garments hanging amongst a cluster of trees on a mock clothes line.  One just never know how Tour mania will manifest itself.


The Tour route up the hill and all through Brest was emblazoned with stenciled yellow markers on the road, just as every Tour Ville Dèpart ought to do.  All it takes is a few gallons of yellow paint and a few hours of a road crew’s time to give a jolt of pleasure to hundreds of passersby every day for weeks and weeks reminding all that the roadway will be graced by the greatest cyclists in the world.


The route up the initial hill was further consecrated by three large vinyl reproductions of photos from previous Tour visits to Brest in 1939 and 1952.  The 1952 photograph captured Jean Robic, whose Yellow Jersey from the 1947 Tour I had just seen in Sainte-Ann-d’Aubray, peering over the shoulder of Gino Bartoli as he played bicycle mechanic.  The caption on the photo didn’t identify the second on-looker.


Brest had far outdone Lorient, the Ville Départ for stage five further down the coast with its declarations. There had not been a single notice of its role in Lorient, another large port city, not even in the roundabout in front of the market where the peloton will set out from.  The only yellow that caught my eye as I pedaled through the city were advertisements for its McDonalds.


McDonald’s may register a negative reaction in some, but they are pervasive in France and found in any town with a population of a couple thousand or more, which means they are represented in most Ville Étapes.  They are a source of WiFi for me if none else is available and a charging-station for my iPad, so I’m ever on the alert for them.  I avoid them during the lunch hour as they are packed, making finding an electric outlet a challenge.  Dinner isn't so popular.  They are virtually empty in the hours between.  They are the most common advertisement as I approach a town and also on bus stops through towns.  They are definitely a growing strand in the French way of life.  I have yet to see graffiti on one of their billboards. 

Though Lorient was barren of Tour acknowledgments, some of the small towns on the route to Quimper had some early decorations—strings of mini-vinyl Tour jerseys strung over the road, stray yellow bikes and a few ornate configurations of wheels.


This fifth stage will be the first with more than one rated climb with five of them, including the first rated harder than a four with a trio of threes along with a pair of fours.  The sprinters could be thwarted with a gradual climb to the finish in a park on the outskirts of the city.  The final roundabout had several clusters of bike wheels slanted every which way among its yellow flowers.


An over-sized bike in downtown Quimper, over a mile from the finish,  acknowledged The Tour with “Notre Tour” (“Our Tour”) inscribed on it’s front wheel.


It’s been days since I’ve seen the sun.  Though there is a continual threat of rain, there have been days where I’ve remained dry other than from the early morning mist that lays low over the land.  I make camp a little earlier than usual when I’ve dried out and don’t have to worry about wet gear in the tent.  I camped early one evening between a high hedge along the road and an electrified fence surrounding a pasture of cattle.  Half an hour after I was settled in a farmer in high plastic boots clomped up to my tent and asked me to leave for my own safety, as he feared I might provoke his cattle.  He said there was better camping anyway on the other side of the road.  He was very nice about it, though he wasn’t so tactful when he lapsed into his limited English, saying, “Go away.”  If it had been in the US he would have summoned the police. It was a rare instance of someone discovering me, and partially because I’d camped prematurely.  I may have been lucky he spotted me, but his cattle were far away in his large pasture and may have never sauntered my way. 

I had been considering a municipal campground that night near the ferry, but when the road turned steep as the sky darkened I opted to seize a campsite of my own choosing.  I’ve been resorting to municipal campgrounds every third or fourth night mostly for the opportunity of WiFi to give  Janina a call, but also for the luxury of a real shower, rather than my dabblings at faucets. WiFi isn’t always available, nor electricity.  The one certainty is an exclamation of delight when I’m asked my nationality and they learn I’m American.  Often I’m told I’m the first they’ve ever had.  I receive a similar reaction of happy surprise at tourist offices, though there I’m just a rarity not a first-timer.  There is not a hint of hostility, just pleasure.  I may be skewering the tourist office stats, since I can check in at two or three a day.

And now it’s on to the Ville Arrivée for stage six in Mur-de-Bretagne and it’s category three,  fifteen per cent climb to the finish, the first real test of this year’s Tour.  It was there in 2011 that Cadel Evans asserted he had the strongest legs in the peloton, winning the stage and then The Tour.  It will be a good test for my legs as well to see how my preparation is going.  Seventeen days until the start.














Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sainte-Anne-d’Auray




I’d read somewhere that Jean Robic’s Yellow Jersey from the 1947 Tour was in the cathedral in Sainte-Anne-d’Auray.  I couldn’t remember where I’d read it or how long ago, just that I had noted it on my French atlas as something to visit if I were in the vicinity. As I closed in on it, I didn’t have full confidence that the jersey would be there.  One could certainly regard the Jersey as a holy object, as Robic was a great national hero, almost on a parr with World War II hero Charles De Gaulle, for his dramatic winning of the first Tour de France since 1939 after it had been on hiatus for eight years during the war years, just as it had been during the First World War.  He seized the lead on the final stage from an Italian who seemed set to win, making Robic a savior of a sort, sparing France the ignominy of an Italian, their recent war time rivals, from winning their national race. 

That victory was so celebrated by the French that the point where he made his attack to win The Race, halfway up a hill just after Rouen, seventy-five  miles from the finish in Paris, is commemorated with a statue of him—not a mere plaque, but a full-fledged statue.  But to sanctify a sporting object in a religious setting is an extraordinary gesture even for the French. I would like to think that a momentous object from The Tour de France would merit such recognition, but I couldn’t imagine a Catholic Church in Chicago according an Ernie Banks bat or Walter Payton Jersey such an honor, however much they deserved it. This would be another example of the high esteem of The Tour in French culture.

Sainte-Anne-d’Auray may not even be the church Robic attended, as it is over twenty-five miles from where he grew up with a handful of other Catholic churches much closer to his home. I’m not well versed in French liturgy, so I didn’t know that the Sainte-Anne-d’Auray cathedral is the pre-eminent cathedral in Brittany—a mini-version of Lourdes and a popular pilgrimage site.  The cathedral was built in the mid-nineteenth century to honor the appearance of Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, several times from 1623 to 1625 to Yves Nicolazic, an illiterate, very pious farmer urging him to build a church in her honor.   The present grand basilica replaced the original Church built three hundred years before.  It took me by surprise, as it was uncharacteristically spectacular for a town of its modest size.  It was hard to imagine a Yellow Jersey, however significant it might be, hanging in such a monumental edifice.

I arrived after seven pm and the cathedral was closed.  I knew there was a municipal campground, otherwise I would have camped in the woods before I reached the town, but I was eager to see the cathedral with hopes it might be open.  Plus I was in need of a shower.  I followed the signs to the campground several blocks away.  I had arrived a day before it opened.  There was no problem pitching my tent and finding a water spigot, but the showers and toilets were locked.  I would have had a much better sleep in the forest, as a handful of rowdy teens came to party as dark settled in.  

A sign in the plaza in front of the cathedral announced that mass was conducted three times a day every day, the first at nine.  I arrived half an hour early to begin my search for the Yellow Jersey.  There wasn’t an item to be seen that couldn’t be traced to the Bible on the walls or in the many alcoves.  Rather than interrupting the solemnity of  any of the couple dozen mostly elderly and solitary parishioners who were awaiting the mass, I was content to wait until the tourist office opened at 9:30 to ask about the garment that had drawn me.  I sat for a few minutes of the mass conducted by four priests—two white and two black.  In 1996 Pope John Paul II had done the same.  He drew over 150,000 people to Sainte-Anne-d’Auray.

The young woman at the tourist office was befuddled by my question of a Yellow Jersey, but “maillot jaune” clicked.  She knew nothing of Jean Robic, but after checking on her computer she reported that his Yellow Jersey was in a special room of treasures given to the church.  “Is it open to the public,” I hastily asked before she could tell me it didn’t open until two.  I was in need of a rest day, and I had noticed the town had a mediatheque, so that was okay.  I was just thrilled that all my anticipation for this extraordinary relic would soon be realized, and that indeed it had been granted this honor of consecration  and wasn’t a hoax like the story of Rene Vietto’s toe supposedly cut off during a Tour and preserved in a bottle of formaldehyde in a bar in Marseille.

I patiently awaited the opening of the room of treasures and didn’t even arrive early.  I had the small room of large glass cases packed with a wide assortment of items all to myself.  I slowly inched my way past medallions and rosaries and rings and crucifixes and baby shoes and miniature ships, some in side bottles, rather than rushing to what I had come for.  It was around a bend in the middle of the room on the middle shelf below a shelf of sporting medals.  It was flanked by two other jerseys—Bernard Hinault’s 1980 World Championship Jersey and a Yellow Jersey from the 1996 Tour  worn by Stephane Heulot, a relatively unknown rider from the region.  Robic’s Jersey was well-faded retaining just a faint hint of its yellow, but radiating all its historic impact. For a cycling fan this was seeing the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence.  It should have been in a case of its own, but no object in the room was separated from the others, implying the equality of all.


This was my second homage in two days to a figure of singular importance in Tour lore.  The day before I visited the grave of Lucien Petit-Breton, the first two-time winner of The Tour in 1907 and 1908.  He was buried in the small seaside town of Pénestin.  There were no signs to the cemetery so I had to ask at the tourist office where it might be.  It was right by the cathedral that I had passed.  “Is that where Petit-Breton is buried,” I asked, curious if the pair of women behind the desk even knew who he was. They knew and reported that he was actually buried in the new cemetery, even though he died in 1917, a WWI casualty.  The new cemetery was also beside the cathedral.  They could even tell me that his grave was on the left side of the cemetery.  But they didn’t tell me the left side from which entrance.  It was on the right side from the side I entered.  At least  it was in the middle aisle and not set back amongst the tight rows behind it, so my search wasn’t as prolonged as some are.  

His grave included his original name (Mazan) as well as his adopted name of Petit-Breton, which he assumed when he began racing to keep it a secret from his parents, who were opposed to racing as a lowly pursuit. His grave included a plaque listing some of his palmeres, including winning the first Milan-San Remo in 1907.  His name was also listed on a monument at the entrance to the cemetery to all the war dead in the two World Wars.  And the local sports complex bore his name.


The fourth stage of this year’s Tour from La Baule to Sarzean could have swung by Pénestin, but the in-and-out coast line around inlets and river mouths between the cities would have made it too complicated.   La Baule is a large resort town with a several mile long beach.  It was deserted during my visit with it cold and rainy.  The gloom of the day was further pronounced with no acknowledgement that the city would be hosting The Tour other than a token over-sized Yellow Jersey on the tourist office.


Sarzeau had allocated a significant amount of funds and energy to celebrate its hosting of The Tour.  It had a truly prominent Yellow Jersey with the year 2018 bicyclefied among its many decorations including a pair of yellow bikes over the entrance to its city hall.


The finish line for the stage on a four-lane thoroughfare on the outskirts of the city was highlighted with a cluster of finely-painted Tour-colored bikes.


The final roundabout three miles up the road was encircled  by a mural of racing cyclists, just as a roundabout on the team time trial stage in Cholet had been encircled by bicycles, a new trend in the spirit of giganticism that defines many decorations. Over-sized bikes and over-sized Yellow Jerseys have always been a favorite item to honor The Tour. It was nice to see this theme transformed to roundabouts filling them with more than a bicycle or two, truly taking them over. 


It will be nearly a one hundred mile transfer from the team time trial stage to the start of stage four in La Baule, a stage in and of itself.  I’ll have to forego watching the time trial in person and watch it on television somewhere between the two stages as I make the transfer ahead of everyone else.  I’ll try to find a different bridge over the Loire than the one I just took along the coast near the mouth of the river. It was almost as beautiful as the high bridge in Millau over the gorge, but a very hairy ride, up a steep incline battling a strong wind off the Atlantic trying to hold steady in the narrow bike lane as bumper-to-bumper traffic whizzed by.  The bridge was as long as the Passage de Gois, two-and-a-half miles, but nowhere as enjoyable.  Otherwise the cycling has been pleasant through the flats of the Loire Valley when it hasn’t been raining.  Unlike the rain further inland, this is truly wet with the proximity of the ocean and much more prone to go on all day.  Hopefully it will be all rained out by July.














Thursday, June 14, 2018

Noirmoutier


It was two hours past low tide. Signs warned that it wasn’t safe to cross the two-and-a-half mile Passage de Gois to Noirmoutier more than ninety minutes after the water began rising.  But an occasional car was still traversing the narrow causeway and people digging for oysters and clams were still going about their business and I could not detect a rise in the surrounding Atlantic waters, so I felt emboldened to make a dash across it, comforted slightly by the series of towers one could clamber up if caught by surging water.  

It wasn’t my first crossing to this island twenty-five miles south of the mouth of the Loire, as I had done it twice before when The Tour de France had made its Grand Départ from the island in the past fourteen years. It is one of France’s geographical gems that The Tour is happy to bring attention to, as it will do once again this year as it’s starting point on July 7.  It won’t be crossing the Gois though, as low tide that day is nine a.m., too early to commence racing.  Instead, the peloton will cross the high bridge at the bottom of the ten-mile long island, its only another access point for non-seagoers.

I had ridden hard the final twelve miles to the Gois from Challans where I had been waiting for Ralph for over an hour.  Since he is a credit card touring cyclist carrying just one small bag of gear, he stays he hotels while I camp.  He can gobble up the miles on his fifteen-pound carbon fiber bike with much less effort than required of me to propel my thirty-pound steel touring bike laden with fifty pounds of gear.  Rather than starting out the day together, I get an early start and let him catch up to me.  He got a later start than he hoped caught up in conversation with his bed and breakfast hosts, so he never caught up to me or made it to Challans by the deadline after which I could linger no longer to have any hope of crossing the Gois.  I feared he’d have to make the long detour to the bridge, but he wasn’t that far behind me and dared the Gois after me and successfully  made it.

It was the second time in two days we had failed to connect.  The day before I set out on the time trial course out of Cholet a couple minutes before him.  He managed to go astray and never regained me despite my frequent stops to photograph the many decorations on the twenty-two mike circuit. At the very start in front of the city’s mediatech (library) were several large edifices celebrating The Tour.  The mediatech itself was adorned with a towering staggered billboard staring down upon the main thoroughfare through the city.


A giant replica of the kilometer posts marking the course stood by the entrance to the mediatech flanked by an electronic message board in the form of a stop watch counting down the days until the arrival of The Tour.  Rather than spokes the front wheel of the bike had the “C” of Cholet.


The roundabouts on the course were adorned with a variety of decorations-with bikes.  The most grandiose was a ring of nearly one hundred bikes each painted a single color and accompanied by a placard advertising a small business.


Even more inventive and original, also a first, was a windmill whose blades had been emblazoned with the colors of The Tour’s four contested jerseys.


All the Tour reminders was quite a contrast to Noirmoutier, where the only decoration so far was a slightly oversized bike mounted on a stand along the course.  Noirmoutier is enough of a tourist attraction it didn’t need to emphasize its connection to this year’s Tour to bring it more attention. The island abounds with hotels and campgrounds and bike rentals.  A seventeen-mile bike path winds through low-lying vegetation on the Gois side of the island.  There are so many doddering folk on bikes, that bikes are forbidden on the two-lane road that runs through the middle of the island.  One can avoid the unpaved bike path by following small roads on the other side of the island that connects several small towns.  That was the route Ralph and I chose to exit the island, going over the bridge and then parting ways, Ralph heading south to Bordeaux and then over to visit Onni and Craig in the Cevennes to do a little house hunting, while I headed north to Brittany to continue scouting out The Tour route.  Ralph needs to be back to London by the end of the month, but he could be back in the middle of July when the peloton takes on the Alps.  

It was after six and I knew the camping would be a challenge along the marshy Atlantic coast, so I didn’t mind joining a cluster of RVs at a free camping area in the town of Beauvoir-air-Mer.  It didn’t offer showers or electricity, just water and toilets.  There were just a couple of small patches of grass, as it catered primarily to those in campers.  I am far enough north now that there wasn’t even a hint of dark at ten pm when I was ready for sleep.  









Monday, June 11, 2018

Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne, France


Just as I attend film festivals in hopes of discovering great cinema, so I am drawn to The Tour de France in a quest for extraordinary bike art and sculpture.  It was the racing and the magnitude of the event that initially brought me to France for its monumental bicycle race, but when I discovered the profusion of art celebrating the bicycle all along its two thousand mile route that became as much of an allure as The Race itself.  Bike decorations are such an intrinsic aspect of the event that The Tour used to annually give an award to the best decorated town along the route.  Individuals aa well as towns get into the act.  Whether it’s a bike painted yellow or a pyramid of bike parts, they are all a celebration of the bike.


The variety of the art is endless.  Not a great deal of it departs from what has preceded it, but the permutations are inexhaustible, each and all worthynof commemdation.


As with a film festival, something truly exceptional is quite rare.  I am delighted if there is more than one or two at a film festival or at a Tour..  So I was thrilled to have already come upon a singular creation of bike art, a globe of wheels exquisitely arranged in front of the town museum in Fontenay-le-Comte, the Ville Arrivée of Stage One.  It is as much a great feat of engineering as of art.  It easily ranks in the top ten of bike constructions I have come upon in my fifteen years of following The Tour.  It’s creator is a genuine artist.  I have seen many constructions of bike parts, most randomly thrown together, but this was done with the precision of an Andy Goldsworthy.  Almost as dazzling was a trio of mounted globes of an identical but smaller design fifty miles away in a roundabout before La Roche-sur-Yon, Ville Arrivée for Stage Two.





La Roche-sur-Yon will also host the team presentations on the Thursday before The Race starts.  An electronic message board facing its central plaza named for Napoléon counted down the number of days until the peloton would arrive on Day Two—twenty-nine.  The Napoléon statue was adorned with a sash of The Tour colors.


Columns on several buildings facing and near the plaza were wrapped in The Tour colors.  This was Tour fervor as I hope to find in every Ville Étape.


Towns along The Tour route had also begun mounting Tour decorations a month ahead of time.  A nursery on Stage Two offered a sample of topiary art.


The large modern first-class History of Vendée Museum in Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne was staging a special exhibit on all aspects of the bicycle worthy of any museum in the world.  At its entrance was a screen showing example after example of children riding a bike for the first time—the greatest event inanyone’s  life.  The footage was especially noteworthy being from the early days of cinema.  It was accompanied by a quotation on the miracle of the equilibrium one can find on a bicycle.  

There were another dozen or more screens showing the bicycle in action amongst all the bikes and art, including some by Picssso, scattered through the exhibit.  One was of Yves Montand singing a song about the bicycle. Three included clips of Jacques Tati from “Jour de Fête.”  They elicited chuckles from all who paused to watch, even though they had doubtlessly seen them many times before.  The final screen showed the view over a rider’s handlebars as he was racing along the quiet roads of the Vendée that will be on The Tour route.  Another screen featured Thomas Voeckler, the French housewife’s favorite rider until he retired after last year’s Tour.  He is from the region and is best known for a pair of stretches of ten days each wearing the Yellow Jersey, the first as an unknown in 2004.

The museum also had permanent, expertly-curated exhibits on all aspects of the region—it’s pre-history, antiquity, medieval period, and the modern era.  It also devoted several rooms to the Vendée War from 1790 to 1794 during the French Revolution when the region asserted its independence.  One could easily spend an afternoon soaking it all in.  Even though it is in a small, out-of-the-way town, a steady stream of visitors drifted through every room.  With it being on The Tour route the town had mounted several bunches of artfully crafted bikes in flowerbeds.  There seems no limit to the possible renditions one can make of a bike.


When I return in four weeks there will no doubt be a myriad of additions to the art already erected.  Towns that have yet to do anything will be inspired by what has already taken shape.  The Stage Three team time trial in Cholet could be a bonanza of art, where I am headed after first scouting out the island of Noirmoutier where Stage One begins to.  I meet Ralph in Nantes, forty miles from Cholet,  tomorrow.  We’ll be a team of two, compared to the Tour teams of eight, riding the twenty-two mile course. 


















Friday, June 8, 2018

Champagnolles, France


If I had an encyclopedic knowledge of The Tour de France, just about anywhere I found myself in France I would be reminded of some critical or memorable moment from a past stage of The Tour that happened nearby, if only of a stage victory at some town that instantly immortalized the winning rider. Not having grown up with The Tour I don’t have a great wealth of  Tour associations deeply embedded in my consciousness, but I still have a few that occasionally pop up as I meander around the country.   

So it was when I passed through the town of Valence d’Agen as I was riding along the Garonne River between Toulouse and Bordeaux.  It was the Ville Arrivée of a stage in the 1978 Tour that was annulled because of a rider protest over having to get up at five in the morning for a departure time of 7:30 from the city of Taubes after a long transfer from the previous stage finish in the Pyrenees not allowing the riders to get to bed before midnight.  

This was in an era when riders were occasionally forced to ride two and sometimes even three stages the same day.  The riders had finally had enough and rode this, the first of two stages for the day, at a promenade pace of just twelve miles per hour refusing to race and arriving well after their anticipated arrival time, dismounting from their bikes to walk across the finish line.   No one I asked in Valence d’Agen was aware of this event from forty years ago, nor did I find any plaque commemorating the rider’s standing up to the powers-that-be as if it were 1968.  Most histories of The Tour recount it as a turning point in the riders ending their serfdom and curbing the runaway commercialism of The Tour maximizing the number of Ville Étapes its organizers could sell.

Forty-five miles further along the Garonne in the town of Tonneins a monument stood in front of its city hall honoring Théodore Joyeux, who Tour founder Henri Desgrange credited for inspiring the creation of The Tour de France.  In 1895 Joyeux, who was born in Tommeins in 1865, made a 5,500 kilometer circuit of France on his bike in 19 days, a phenomenal feat on the rough roads of the time.  Joyeux was an accomplished racer, finishing third in the 1892 Toulouse-Bordeaux-Toulouse and third two years later in Paris-Lyons-Paris.  When The Tour was created in 1903, he was no longer racing.


As I rode along the Garonne, the longest flat stretch I’d enjoyed since leaving Cannes nearly three weeks ago, I intermittently ventured onto a bike path along the 150-mile Canal des Deux Mers paralleling the river between Toulouse and Bordeaux, an extension of the 120-mile Canal du Midi which runs from the. Mediterranean to Toulouse. The canal passed a twin-towered nuclear plant, one of 58 in the country that provides 40 per cent of its energy, outside of Valence d’Agen.  The canal was lined with magnificent plane trees, bigger and happier than those along the roadways, spared the fumes and noise of all the internal combustion vehicles whizzing beneath their arcade.  I didn’t need their shade, as the sky remained grimly overcast, as it has been for days.  

Other than the occasional dog-walker I pretty much had the path to myself.  I saw more people rowing than bicycling.  With all the recent rain, the vegetation along the path was flourishing. Tractors with an arm extending out, cut the tall grass.  They were adapt at stopping and pulling off the narrow path for passing bicycling.  The chilly weather had me battling a cold.  My nose was dripping as incessantly as the sky.  If I were contesting a race, my team doctor would probably have me on antibiotics.  I was just trying to get a little extra rest, even stopping at a campground early one afternoon.  I could have disappeared into a forest, but am always happy to support a municipal campgrounds. They are a generous offering at a minimal price.

I headed north before reaching Bordeaux, just coming within twenty miles of it, not close enough to reach it’s sprawl, just an increase in traffic.  Before I reached the next cluster of Ville Étapes for this year’s Tour in the Vendée, I passed by the grass velodrome track in Champagnolles that I visited five years ago with Andrew.  When a local former offered up his field for the track in 1921 the town had a population of 720. The latest census tallied 508 
residents.  I took a quick spin around the freshly cut track past large rolls of hay.


There was no notice at the post office across the street or anywhere around of the next competition or any indication if it was anything other than a quiet playground for cyclists.  It was another heart-warming amenity like the campgrounds and picnic tables and beds of flowers and toilettes publique that make France such a pleasure. There is a strong element of welcome everywhere and effort to make one’s town an amiable  place.