Only seven miles separate Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle from Espelette, but the remaining riders in The Tour will take a winding twenty-mile route through the hilly Basque country to get from one to the other in the time trial on the final Saturday of The Race. It is made to order for Chris Froome with an eight per cent half-mile climb out of the starting gate and a few more climbs along the way including one going on for a mile three miles from the stage finish. The terrain is forested and the road barely a lane wide in some stretches. The riders will be able to fly along on the fresh asphalt.
Both these first time Ville Étapes just north of Spain, seventy miles west of Pau and less than twenty miles from the beaches of Biarritz on the Atlantic, were decked out in Tour regalia. Many of the stores were brightened with a Tour-related painting on their window. The number 64 on the pig is the number of the Département (Pays Basque), the final two digits on license plates for people living there. The country is divided into 96 Dèpartements. Residents develop a fondness for their number and attach a significance to it. I should know them all by now. I know many but I haven’t made the effort to commit them all to memory. It would be a nice parlor trick to rattle them off. They are in alphabetical order, making it a little easier than it might otherwise be.
The larger of the two towns, Saint-Pée with 5,000 inhabitants, had an old grand city hall. It’s foyer had a decorated bike and paintings of bicycles and a yellow jersey hanging in a window. An electronic message over the entry counted down the number of days until the arrival of The Tour. It was at 58.
Espelette, population 2,000, had put a yellow line across the highway where the finish line would be after a slight climb.
I was two days early for the Fête du Tour, a ride of the stage sponsored by The Tour de France that many of the Ville Étapes will offer a month before the start of The Race. As fun as it would be to share the experience with dozens of local riders, as I did one year in Tours along with Florence and Rachid, I didn’t care to linger around for it. If I hadn’t ridden the Camino de Santiago, whose primary starting point in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, less than 25 mikes away, I could have spent two days biking the first of its 500 miles across Spain. All roads in the region converge on St.-Jean and I had seen quite a few pilgrims converging on it. Most were older and in pairs and carrying modest-sized backpacks without a tent, relyinv on the numerous hostels and dormitories along the route. The way was well-marked with shells, the emblem of the route, embedded on the road and on the sides of buildings and on posts.
The spa town of Cambo-les-Bains was nearby, one of many “Bain” towns with natural hot sprigs scattered around the country in the mountainous regions that have a great allure for the French as a place to go to be pampered or to alleviate their pains. Their health insurance covers such treatments. As a tourist area it abounded with tennis courts and golf courses, though none were being used in the cold rainy conditions. My days in and on the fringe of the Pyrenees were more like being in Brittany than the south of France. The Tour will be venturing into Brittany after the first three stages just south in the Vendée, so this was giving me a taste of such weather. I have cut my days of riding short ducking into forests when the rain resumes to set up before I’m too dripping wet.
With the inclement conditions preventing the biking from pleasing me to the extent I’m accustomed to, I’ve had to resort to expanding my food choices to compensate for the diminished pleasure of the biking. Since the biking doesn’t leave me aglow in my tent at the end of the day, I have to resort to food to give me a boost. Rather than being satisfied with my standard rotation of ravioli and cassoulet and lentils with sausage with couscous for dinner, I’ve been adding potato salad and quiche and apple sauce or grape juice or a flavored yogurt I’ve yet to try. When the day winds down and I’m wet and chilled and I pass a supermarket, I’ll duck in for some extra treat even though I have food for dinner already. That is when I truly miss Janina, as she could always be counted on to find something to embellish our diet. It was always fun to tag along with her thorough perusal of the many aisles of food.
Usually I want to be in and out as quick as possible going directly to the location of the few items I’ve come for. One day when I’d exhausted my nuts I had to make two complete circuits of a large supermarket before I found them stashed amongst the extensive aisles of wines with other snack food. Bread is often relegated to a far corner amongst non-food items, as store managers know people can’t leave without their daily baguette.