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.

1 comment:

vincent carter said...

George one of the German flags you handed out in Rotterdam hangs in my shed with other tour mementos