Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Notre Dame des Cyclists

For the first time since 2005 my wanderings around France brought me back to Notre Dame des Cyclists, a chapel that has served as a shrine to cycling since 1959.   I really ought to make it an annual pilgrimage, not only as an homage to all it represents, but also in remembrance of the place where I met Yvon, a fellow devotee of the bike who was making a tour of France on his bike as I was.  We have managed to meet up nearly every year since, whether at his home in Mulhouse or during The Tour or elsewhere.  Yvon often alerts the local media of our friendship and they are delighted to make a story of it.

The Tour de France has been more diligent seeking it out than I have been despite its relative isolation off in the southwest corner of the country, sixty miles north of Pau, eighty miles south of Bordeaux, one hundred miles west of Toulouse, and eighty miles east of Biarritz.  It resides two miles outside of Labastide d’Armagmac, set back from the road behind a small vineyard.  One passes under an arch and proceeds a quarter mile down a dirt road to reach it.  It is open four hours per day from two until six.  

The Tour first visited the chapel in 1984 to commemorate its 25th anniversary.  It returned five years later as a Ville Étape.  It has passed by three times since, the last a year ago.  It was little changed since my previous visit fourteen years ago, just a few more jerseys crammed in amongst the hundreds adorning it’s walls—a veritable who’s who of cycling.  Among the additions were a Cadel Evans Yellow Jersey and others from Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador hanging over a glassed-in trio of Luis Ocaña jerseys, including one of his Yellows from the 1973 Tour.  Ocaña has a special relation to the chapel, as his wife is from the nearby town and their nuptials were performed in the chapel.

Besides the many jerseys and bikes and photographs and miscellaneous artifacts worthy of any museum, there are several stained glass windows commemorating seminal events in cycling lore.  Two of them are the Italian rivals Coppi and Bartoli sharing a water bottle on the Col d’Izoard during the 1952 Tour and Poulidor and Anquetil leaning into each other on the Puy de Dome during the 1961 Tour.  The chapel oozed with history.  It was a genuinely holy place.  The other reverents in attendance spoke in hushed tones of respect and awe as they pointed out one sacred relic after another. 

I was the lone arrival by bike this time even though it was on the first weekend in June when towns all over the country celebrate Fête du Velo with a wide array of bicycling events. Earlier in the day I passed several hundred Lycra clad cyclists strung out for over an hour on a group ride of some sort. I had checked the national website to see if there were any events in my vicinity that I might be able to join, but there weren’t..

I continued east eighty miles through rolling terrain to Grisolles twenty-five miles north of Toulouse on the Garonne River.  It was the home town of Jean Dargissies, a blacksmith who competed in the first three Tours de France.  He had never raced before, but he was a strong young man who thought  nothing of making the twenty-five mile round trip to Montauban on his recently acquired bike.  When he learned that a newspaper in Paris was soliciting riders for a race around the country in 1903, he signed up.  He finished eleventh and returned home a hero.  He finished fourth the following year when six of the top ten riders were disqualified.  He achieved further notoriety when in 1907 he accepted the offer equivalent to the winner’s share from a baron to assist him in riding The Race, thus becoming the first domestique.  There were no time limits in those days, so finishing a stage twelve hours behind everyone else didn’t matter. The baron quit on the fifth of fourteen stages, and Dargissies along with him, never to ride in The Tour again.

Grisolles remembers him with a short street on its outskirts named in his honor.  No one in the City Hall knew of any plaques or monuments to him, though three schools in the surrounding area have been named for him.  His name can also be found on the family tomb in the local cemetery.  I had canvassed two-thirds of the cemetery before I discovered it about half way along the wall separating the old cemetery from the new.  There was nothing bicycling related at the gravesite, but among the objects on the grave was a momento from Lourdes.

Wikipedia mentioned that his bike was in a museum in Montauban.  The tourist office there knew nothing about that and called around to ask. The city has five museums, two of which were possibilities.  Neither had it nor knew anything about it.  Montauban had been a Ville Étape two years ago.  The man who was assisting me thought if the bike were in the city it would have been brought to attention then.  When I cited Wikipedia as my source, he responded with a laugh, saying one can never trust Wikipedia.

Montauban’s museums were all standard local history and art museums that I could forego, no oddities such as the Helicopter Museum in Dax, or the Rugby Museum in Bayonne, or the Bullfighting Museum in Basoms, or the Seaplane Museum in Biscarrosse all advertised on the regional map.  France truly is a country of museums, even turning a chapel into a veritable bicycle museum, one of many around the country.

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