Sunday, June 17, 2018


I’d read somewhere that Jean Robic’s Yellow Jersey from the 1947 Tour was in the cathedral in Sainte-Anne-d’Auray.  I couldn’t remember where I’d read it or how long ago, just that I had noted it on my French atlas as something to visit if I were in the vicinity. As I closed in on it, I didn’t have full confidence that the jersey would be there.  One could certainly regard the Jersey as a holy object, as Robic was a great national hero, almost on a parr with World War II hero Charles De Gaulle, for his dramatic winning of the first Tour de France since 1939 after it had been on hiatus for eight years during the war years, just as it had been during the First World War.  He seized the lead on the final stage from an Italian who seemed set to win, making Robic a savior of a sort, sparing France the ignominy of an Italian, their recent war time rivals, from winning their national race. 

That victory was so celebrated by the French that the point where he made his attack to win The Race, halfway up a hill just after Rouen, seventy-five  miles from the finish in Paris, is commemorated with a statue of him—not a mere plaque, but a full-fledged statue.  But to sanctify a sporting object in a religious setting is an extraordinary gesture even for the French. I would like to think that a momentous object from The Tour de France would merit such recognition, but I couldn’t imagine a Catholic Church in Chicago according an Ernie Banks bat or Walter Payton Jersey such an honor, however much they deserved it. This would be another example of the high esteem of The Tour in French culture.

Sainte-Anne-d’Auray may not even be the church Robic attended, as it is over twenty-five miles from where he grew up with a handful of other Catholic churches much closer to his home. I’m not well versed in French liturgy, so I didn’t know that the Sainte-Anne-d’Auray cathedral is the pre-eminent cathedral in Brittany—a mini-version of Lourdes and a popular pilgrimage site.  The cathedral was built in the mid-nineteenth century to honor the appearance of Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, several times from 1623 to 1625 to Yves Nicolazic, an illiterate, very pious farmer urging him to build a church in her honor.   The present grand basilica replaced the original Church built three hundred years before.  It took me by surprise, as it was uncharacteristically spectacular for a town of its modest size.  It was hard to imagine a Yellow Jersey, however significant it might be, hanging in such a monumental edifice.

I arrived after seven pm and the cathedral was closed.  I knew there was a municipal campground, otherwise I would have camped in the woods before I reached the town, but I was eager to see the cathedral with hopes it might be open.  Plus I was in need of a shower.  I followed the signs to the campground several blocks away.  I had arrived a day before it opened.  There was no problem pitching my tent and finding a water spigot, but the showers and toilets were locked.  I would have had a much better sleep in the forest, as a handful of rowdy teens came to party as dark settled in.  

A sign in the plaza in front of the cathedral announced that mass was conducted three times a day every day, the first at nine.  I arrived half an hour early to begin my search for the Yellow Jersey.  There wasn’t an item to be seen that couldn’t be traced to the Bible on the walls or in the many alcoves.  Rather than interrupting the solemnity of  any of the couple dozen mostly elderly and solitary parishioners who were awaiting the mass, I was content to wait until the tourist office opened at 9:30 to ask about the garment that had drawn me.  I sat for a few minutes of the mass conducted by four priests—two white and two black.  In 1996 Pope John Paul II had done the same.  He drew over 150,000 people to Sainte-Anne-d’Auray.

The young woman at the tourist office was befuddled by my question of a Yellow Jersey, but “maillot jaune” clicked.  She knew nothing of Jean Robic, but after checking on her computer she reported that his Yellow Jersey was in a special room of treasures given to the church.  “Is it open to the public,” I hastily asked before she could tell me it didn’t open until two.  I was in need of a rest day, and I had noticed the town had a mediatheque, so that was okay.  I was just thrilled that all my anticipation for this extraordinary relic would soon be realized, and that indeed it had been granted this honor of consecration  and wasn’t a hoax like the story of Rene Vietto’s toe supposedly cut off during a Tour and preserved in a bottle of formaldehyde in a bar in Marseille.

I patiently awaited the opening of the room of treasures and didn’t even arrive early.  I had the small room of large glass cases packed with a wide assortment of items all to myself.  I slowly inched my way past medallions and rosaries and rings and crucifixes and baby shoes and miniature ships, some in side bottles, rather than rushing to what I had come for.  It was around a bend in the middle of the room on the middle shelf below a shelf of sporting medals.  It was flanked by two other jerseys—Bernard Hinault’s 1980 World Championship Jersey and a Yellow Jersey from the 1996 Tour  worn by Stephane Heulot, a relatively unknown rider from the region.  Robic’s Jersey was well-faded retaining just a faint hint of its yellow, but radiating all its historic impact. For a cycling fan this was seeing the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence.  It should have been in a case of its own, but no object in the room was separated from the others, implying the equality of all.

This was my second homage in two days to a figure of singular importance in Tour lore.  The day before I visited the grave of Lucien Petit-Breton, the first two-time winner of The Tour in 1907 and 1908.  He was buried in the small seaside town of Pénestin.  There were no signs to the cemetery so I had to ask at the tourist office where it might be.  It was right by the cathedral that I had passed.  “Is that where Petit-Breton is buried,” I asked, curious if the pair of women behind the desk even knew who he was. They knew and reported that he was actually buried in the new cemetery, even though he died in 1917, a WWI casualty.  The new cemetery was also beside the cathedral.  They could even tell me that his grave was on the left side of the cemetery.  But they didn’t tell me the left side from which entrance.  It was on the right side from the side I entered.  At least  it was in the middle aisle and not set back amongst the tight rows behind it, so my search wasn’t as prolonged as some are.  

His grave included his original name (Mazan) as well as his adopted name of Petit-Breton, which he assumed when he began racing to keep it a secret from his parents, who were opposed to racing as a lowly pursuit. His grave included a plaque listing some of his palmeres, including winning the first Milan-San Remo in 1907.  His name was also listed on a monument at the entrance to the cemetery to all the war dead in the two World Wars.  And the local sports complex bore his name.

The fourth stage of this year’s Tour from La Baule to Sarzean could have swung by Pénestin, but the in-and-out coast line around inlets and river mouths between the cities would have made it too complicated.   La Baule is a large resort town with a several mile long beach.  It was deserted during my visit with it cold and rainy.  The gloom of the day was further pronounced with no acknowledgement that the city would be hosting The Tour other than a token over-sized Yellow Jersey on the tourist office.

Sarzeau had allocated a significant amount of funds and energy to celebrate its hosting of The Tour.  It had a truly prominent Yellow Jersey with the year 2018 bicyclefied among its many decorations including a pair of yellow bikes over the entrance to its city hall.

The finish line for the stage on a four-lane thoroughfare on the outskirts of the city was highlighted with a cluster of finely-painted Tour-colored bikes.

The final roundabout three miles up the road was encircled  by a mural of racing cyclists, just as a roundabout on the team time trial stage in Cholet had been encircled by bicycles, a new trend in the spirit of giganticism that defines many decorations. Over-sized bikes and over-sized Yellow Jerseys have always been a favorite item to honor The Tour. It was nice to see this theme transformed to roundabouts filling them with more than a bicycle or two, truly taking them over. 

It will be nearly a one hundred mile transfer from the team time trial stage to the start of stage four in La Baule, a stage in and of itself.  I’ll have to forego watching the time trial in person and watch it on television somewhere between the two stages as I make the transfer ahead of everyone else.  I’ll try to find a different bridge over the Loire than the one I just took along the coast near the mouth of the river. It was almost as beautiful as the high bridge in Millau over the gorge, but a very hairy ride, up a steep incline battling a strong wind off the Atlantic trying to hold steady in the narrow bike lane as bumper-to-bumper traffic whizzed by.  The bridge was as long as the Passage de Gois, two-and-a-half miles, but nowhere as enjoyable.  Otherwise the cycling has been pleasant through the flats of the Loire Valley when it hasn’t been raining.  Unlike the rain further inland, this is truly wet with the proximity of the ocean and much more prone to go on all day.  Hopefully it will be all rained out by July.


vincent carter said...

George all your Tour talk is having a effect on me ,feel like jumping on a plane

george christensen said...

Vincent: You were here the last time it started on Noirmoutier. Why not? You could cover your airfare with your sudden savings on food.