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.