Sunday, June 30, 2019
Friday, June 28, 2019
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Sunday, June 23, 2019
I’ve been listening to the audiobook “Dreaming of Jupiter: In Search of the World—Thirty Years On” by Ted Simon of his motorcycle trip around the world in 2001, repeating his trip of 27 years before that resulted in the seminal book “Jupiter’s Travels,” as fine a book as I’ve read capturing the essence of traveling by bike, pedal or otherwise. There’s hardly a page in that book that I didn’t underline some passage that spoke to the heart of the matter. I’m excited to finally meet him at the end of July at a slow travel festival in Le Caylar north of Montpellier organized by a friend, who invited Simon to give a presentation at my suggestion, as he now lives in a small village nearby.
Simon turned 70 during his second trip and wasn’t as inclined to camp as much as he did on his first trip, and laments that he fears might be trending towards becoming the traveler he despises, but he certainly should have no worries of that, traveling as independently as he does, traversing desert terrain in Africa and subjecting himself to the rough roads of India and South America and elsewhere. Rarely does a chapter pass that his motorcycle doesn’t fail him in some manner from parts breaking to falling over in impossible situations requiring the help of others to right. He constantly has to rely on the goodwill of strangers or contacts back home to get some part replaced or repaired.
I finally had such an experience myself when I discovered my bottom bracket had considerable play and needed to be replaced. It was sealed, so there was no possibility of tightening it or replacing a cup or bearings. I presumed it would be just the simple procedure of removing the old one and inserting a new one that any mechanic could perform.
I was in a city with a Decathlon, which has a large bicycle department. The mechanic instantly recognized that my fifteen-year old Trek had a semi-obsolete bottom bracket. He didn’t have one, but said he knew of several bike shops in the vicinity that might. The nearest was owned by the father of Cedric Vasseur, a recent Tour de France rider. It would be an honor to have him work on my bike.
The mechanic called to see if he had the part. After placing the call he shook his head and said his shop was closed this day. He tried another shop and got the same message, then explained, “I forgot, today is Thursday. That’s the day when most bike shops in Flanders are closed. If you don’t mind biking twenty miles to Lille I’m pretty sure our super store there will have the part.”
That was fine with me. Before he placed the call he removed both crank arms from my bike to get a precise measurement on the length of my bottom bracket and also to count the number of splines on it that made this Shimano part unique. He had to wait a couple minutes for the person he called to check their inventory. “You’re in luck,” he reported. “They have it and will be able to do the repair when you arrive. They’ll be waiting for you.”
This was the same good fortune that Ted Simon experienced every time he suffered some calamity. People invariably are happy to go out of their way to help a traveler in distress. I was surprised how quickly my bottom bracket had deteriorated, as I do check it from time to time, and there had only been a slight wobble a week ago. Now that I knew how bad it was, I could feel it as I pedaled along. I was looking forward to a new one, hoping it would lessen the effort I was expending to propel myself.
I felt lucky it happened in a land of abundant bike parts and not off in Senegal or Madagascar as I’ve been the previous two winters. I’ve broken parts on the bike here and there in far-flung places, but the only time it was a near-travesty was when I broke my rear axle in Iceland. It was a tandem hub with a rare axle not to be found in Iceland. Luckily it happened on my last day of my tour in Reykjavik and I was able to limp to the airport without putting much pressure on the broken axle.
The Decathlon in Lille was a giant warehouse exclusively devoted to the bicycle, possibly the largest bike store in the world. It adjoined the factory that makes many of the Decathlon line of bike parts. It’s repair room was bigger than most bike stores and staffed by over a dozen mechanics in matching smocks, who all looked as if they had years of experience. The mechanic who took my bike attached a couple hooks to it and hoisted it a few feet from the floor without removing any of my panniers and dove right in.
After he removed the cranks and took a close look at the bottom bracket he had the bad news that it wasn’t the part he thought it was. He could still replace the bottom bracket but would have to replace the cranks as well. That wasn’t as bad news as it could have been, as we could see the teeth on my two smaller chain rings were badly worn and needed replacing anyway.
They had a crank set that would actually be cheaper than replacing the chain rings. The only drawback was that the smallest chainring would have 28 teeth, compared to the 26 I’d had. I could live with that. I left him to perform the operation while I ventured off to a dining area to eat a couple of pâté sandwiches I’d brought. I was back on my bike in less than an hour. As after any repair, riding felt more glorious and smoother than ever.
This was to be my first day of rest since I’d left Cannes over three weeks ago. I was going to spend it at the library in Bailleul. So I had to delay it until the next day. While the library was closed for lunch between noon and 2:30, I took my lunch in a nearby park, then dropped in on the town art museum, that only took an hour break for lunch from noon to one.
As one encounters all over France, this museum had been the collection of an individual, Benoît de Puydt, a bachelor who died in 1862. He donated his three-story house and his vast store of carvings and music boxes and paintings and knickknacks, known as a “cabinet of curiosities,” to the city to make it into an art museum free to all. It was fascinating even without the enthusiastic, expert commentary of Janina, who had guided me through several such emporiums during our time in France two years ago. The house was destroyed and much of the art during the First World War. The house had been restored and his collection greatly added to.
I asked the caretaker if the museum had ever had an exhibition devoted to Bruno Dumont, a filmmaker who grew up in Bailleul and used it as the setting for his first two movies, “Life of Jesus” in 1997 and “Humanité” two years later, both award-winners at Cannes. The museum hadn’t, but she showed me a book on the local artist Pharoon de Winter from the late 1800s, and said that Dumon gave the tortured investigator in “Humanitè” his name.
The park across the street from the museum had several benches named for people in the arts from the past two centuries that had a connection to Bailleul. I was hoping one might bear the name of Dumont. Others I asked about Dumont all said his movies didn’t give a very flattering portrayal of Bailleul, so the city hadn’t acknowledged him in any way despite his high-regard among cineastes. I was hoping the tourist office might have a map of sites that had been used in his movie as Cherbourg does for the umbrella movie. There was a walking tour of the city center and its historic sites, but nothing relating to Dumont. There weren’t even any teens on motorbikes buzzing around as in “Life of Jesus.” The city’s small cinema, which was playing a Claude LeLouch film I had just seen at Cannes, made no reference to him either, nor did it always play his films, the last of which debuted at Cannes, his second on Joan of Arc.
After my much-needed day of rest and recovery I plunged into Belgium to begin a circuit of its many cycling shrines. The first was along its northern coastline in the seaside town of Lombardsijde, for a bust of Freddie Maertens, a contemporary of Eddie Merckx, who was twice World Champion in 1976 and 1981. He wasn’t a climber so never contended for the Yellow Jersey in The Tour de France, but he did win eight stages in the 1976 Tour.
Thursday, June 20, 2019
The northeast of France abounds with military cemeteries from the two world wars. Every few miles is another of one nationality or another. They range in size from fewer than a hundred identical white tombstones in neat and orderly rows surrounded by perfectly manicured grass to thousands of the white markers.
I was drawn to the most massive of them all, Notre Dame de Lorette, containing the remains of over 40,000 French combatants by a plaque to the winner of the 1909 Tour de France, Francis Faber. It resides on a high ridge twenty miles north of Arras. A memorial in the middle of the 64-acre grounds piercing the sky can be seen from miles around. It is flanked by an equally grand and majestic cathedral whose interior walls are covered with names of the dead.
Faber is also honored with another plaque a few miles away in the village of Mont-Saint-Éloi near where he died. It is mounted on a wall along the main street through the village a block from the city hall. A rusty pyramid of bikes such as one sees along The Tour de France route stands another block away in front of the towering facade of a cathedral that was bombed by the Germans, as it served as a lookout all round the vast valley.
Unlike the usual French cemeteries, the military cemeteries don’t have a water spigot. I had to resort to a school late one afternoon in the small town of Briastre despite the abundance of cemeteries when I was getting low on water and the time was growing near to be looking for a place to camp. The door to the school was open and a couple of women were standing beside it. One gladly took my bottles inside and filled them and returned with an extra bottle from the refrigerator with extra cold water.
I had passed by the school fifteen minutes before when school was letting out at the surprising late hour of 4:30. Not only do the French keep their students at school late in the day, but also late into summer. Their summer vacation at this school doesn't commence until July 5. A congregation of young mothers stood in the shade of a row of trees waiting for their children to come out. Among them was one grandfather standing off to the side.
He was just who I was looking for—someone who would surely know the location of the memorial to the Belgian cyclist Michael Goulearts, who died in the 2018 Paris-Roubaix on a nearby pavé section, suffering cardiac arrest at the young age of 23. I had already ridden two sections of the pavé into the town and then out without finding it. He knew precisely where it was, near the summit of a rise on a fork in the road past the town stadium. I had taken the wrong fork on my first attempt. Surprisingly there were no signs to the pavé, despite its legendary status. That was the case too in several other towns I had passed through in search of its pavé. I had to ask around or hope to come upon it.
I didn’t appreciate having to subject my bike to any more of the pavé than necessary. I hoped this rough treatment wouldn’t lead to broken spokes. I had been lucky so far with no flats or broken spokes in some 2,500 miles, just worn brake pads and one frayed derailleur cable. There wasn’t anyone else out testing themselves on the pavé. I had the Goulearts memorial all to myself. Just like the Simpson memorial on Ventoux there was an offering of water bottles and cycling caps. Many of the 17 water bottles were full.
Monday, June 17, 2019
On my daily wander through the supermarket gathering my provisions for the day I am occasionally drawn to the snacks aisle for a package of peanut puffs. It is rarely premeditated. I have passed it off an impulse-buy until I heard the sports physiologist Dr. Allen Lim, who is an authority on cycling, give a fascinating dissertation on sweating on the Cycling Tips podcast a couple of days ago. He said that when one is dehydrated and low on sodium one is drawn to salt. The body knows, he said.
He recommends sports drinks to keep one in balance. Gatorade was the first in 1965. Now there is a vast array to choose from. He asserts that drinking water isn’t enough when one is dehydrated, that it can actually be harmful as it will further exacerbate the imbalance between sodium and water in one’s system. There are salty compounds one can add to one’s water for a quick fix that are so salty they’d be repugnant if one weren’t dehydrated. One’s taste buds don’t cringe at excessive salt when the body is craving it. The instructions on one additive state to keep drinking it until it tastes salty, as it won’t seem salty when one’s body is short of salt.
Lim gave as an example a friend’s restaurant in Boulder. In the summer diners often complained that its food was too salty. The head chef discovered that his chefs working in the heat were semi-dehydrated and when they tasted sauces they were preparing they seemed to need more salt according to their usual taste test. When the head chef mandated his chefs keep hydrated with sports drinks, keeping their salt levels in balance, diners stopped complaining of too much salt.
Lim’s commentary will have me keep a stock of salty snacks in reserve, at least until I come upon the next Decathlon sporting goods store where I can get a container of a powdered sports drink for the hot days ahead. Sweating hasn’t been an issue of late, as it’s been cool and overcast as I reach Northeast France and close in on Belgium. I was happy for some sun yesterday so I could give my sleeping bag and sleeping pad a blast of sunshine to remove their dampness and also to eliminate a possible infestation of bugs.
I awoke with a rash of bites such as I have never experienced before on the soft untanned skin of my inner thighs and abdomen and the underside of my arms. I have no idea what feasted on me during the night. I’ve had a few of the usual mosquito bites and ticks attaching themselves to me, which are just a minor nuisance, but these weren’t from them. I’ve learned to be careful to brush off any of my gear I may have placed on the ground before putting them into the tent, less bugs, particularly spiders, have attached themselves. But something in the forest I camped in penetrated my defenses and has had me itching all day.
At least I could thrill to the preparations that Binche, just seven miles into Belgium, has made for its hosting of The Tour’s third stage departure three weeks from today. I followed the route the peloton will take due south from Binche to Reims and on to Épernay though small towns. The terrain through fields of wheat was mostly flat, broken by a few sizeable hills.
Shortly after crossing the unmarked border into Belgium a roundabout in front of a McDonald’s gave the first evidence I was in Belgium with its flag planted in its center and surrounded by cutouts of The Tour Jerseys. The main street through Binche where the peloton commence its day was lined with banners of Eddie Merckx. An oversized version of the same photo of the young Merckx adorned the theater in the city’s main plaza. In front were planters of flowers with yellow wheels and yellow frames. An aloft giant bicycle had been erected at the opposite end of the plaza. It was a stunning site. A lengthy mural of cyclists had been mounted several blocks down the route from a post that marked the official starting point. They all added to the building excitement of Binche’s historic day of hosting The Tour for the first time.
Rather than penetrating deeper into Belgium to Brussels thirty-four miles away, the site of the first two stages, one a team time-trial, I returned to France for a couple of day’s before my full immersion into Belgium wandering all over visiting its many cycling shrines. I wanted to drop in on Valenciennes, the smallest of the nine cities in France hosting the Women’s World Cup. The others are Paris, Lyon, Le Havre, Montpellier, Reims, Nice, Grenoble and Rennes. It was the only one that hadn’t been a Ville Étape during my fifteen years of following The Tour de France. The second of the six games to be played there had been played the day before.
I was hoping there might be a giant screen in the town plaza showing the USA-Chile game being played in Paris. The square did have an enclosure for fans to gather, but there was no screen showing games being played elsewhere. France is one of the favorites to win, along with the US. Hopefully the fervor will gather as the tournament gathers momentum and I’ll have an opportunity to watch France in the championship game as I did last year in a huge stadium after Stage Nine of The Tour when the men’s team won the championship. Far better to have sports to preoccupy one’s attention than current events.