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.