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.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I remember the velodrome. It was bloody bumpy!