Image by Joe Shlabotnik via FlickrI hadn't thought much about cycling before moving to France. Vague impressions of someone called Eddy Merckx riding in lashing rain over cobbled streets in something aptly nicknamed 'the Hell of the North' was about the limit of my knowledge, and I saw no reason to extend my frontiers. I don't ride the things, I don't like the things, and the self righteous U.K. town cyclist of the period always made me wish that they could all be sent to join Eddy Merckx in the lashing rain.
Once in France, however, there was no escape. The nation was obsessed with cycling. Groups of men clad in garments that would have qualified them as customers of some of the more lurid shops around Berwick Street market publicly displayed themselves on bicycles on the weekends, riding three abreast and blocking country roads, and while normally anything blocking the path of a French motorist is hooted at, sworn at, gesticulated at and possibly run over if it is smaller than the French motorist, these shaven legged perverts were allowed free rein!
Travelling in Brittany one year, I came to a halt somewhere near Landernau, in a queue of stationary cars. A marshal with a flag and flak jacket was barring the road while another, without flag, was working the queue with bags of locally produced sweets for sale. The price was outrageous, even by French standards, and I refused. He was hurt....the proceeds were to go to supporting the organisation of the cycle race which was about to pass at the end of the road which his colleague was blocking. I turned the car and found another road to Landernau.
Friends driving up from the Dordogne reported their encounter with the big one - the Tour de France. In their case the road was blocked by a tank, whose crew were having a real grandstand view of the action and no one could move until the whole thing was over. By the time they realised what was happening, they were in a queue of cars and it was impossible to reverse. They sat it out, unable to see anything for the tank, and were released hours later. They weren't keen cyclists either.
Then the Tour came to the next village, and the place went mad. Grants were suddenly available for tarting up houses on the route of the Tour, flower beds appeared from nowhere and a road outside the village which resembled something from the aftermath of the Somme, so great were the potholes, was resurfaced. I could understand resurfacing the road....the Tour was to use it, after all, but why the tarting up.
'Television' said Guy.
I must have looked blank because he continued
'It's not just the race. Everyone in the world will be watching and no one wants their village to look like a dump.'
In my opinion it would have taken a lot more than a coat of paint and a few flowers to smarten up St. Ragondin, as I shall tactfully refer to it. It would win prizes for the most banal village in France. However, its' moment of glory was upon it. The council had even paid the Tour to have a sprint through the village with the finish line conveniently outside the maire's garage, which had the usual complement of ancient 2CVs and Renault vans removed to the back of the premises for the duration. No chance of getting any repairs done until the Tour had passed. In pride of place on the forecourt was the Citroen DS which the maire hired out for weddings. Yes, you do know what the DS is...it is the car used by de Gaulle while being shot at by those disgruntled with his policy on Algeria. It is pronounced just like 'deesse', French for goddess. I like it very much.
Guy insisted that we join him to watch the Tour and started to make his arrangements. His cousin lived in St. Ragondin, but not on the main street where the action was to be. However, his cousin's wife's sister did, and the whole party was to assemble at her place at an early hour, armed with picnic and wine. We were not trusted to arrive unless escorted, so Guy called for us in his car, towing a trailor with planks and we set off, avoiding the gendarmerie roadblacks which seemed to be more intent on preventing anyone assembling along the route than in facilitating their presence. Despite their efforts, the road was lined with picnic tables and chairs, umbrellas and cool boxes and people with flags, all preparing for the great event with food and drink.
The main street was blocked, so Guy drove down the back streets to unload his human cargo and then called for volunteers to unload the planks, before driving off to park the car and trailor at the cousin's house, whence he could be sure of an unimpeded exit. He returned, and chivvied the men out into the front garden, where the planks awaited. His master plan was to build a scaffold from which we could all watch the Tour over the heads of the picnickers already assembled on the pavement in front, and probably profiting from ancestral exerience gained in the Revolution, the scaffold was erected in double quick time, and chairs and tables brought from the house. I have never before or since eaten on a scaffold in the presence of the multitude, but Guy and friends thought nothing of it and before long had invited some of the people on the pavement to join us. It seemed a long wait to me, but there was food, drink and conversation to fill the void until at last the noise of excited people was heard, and a stream of cars passed in front, with the passengers hurling things from the windows.....bags of sweets, chocolate, hats, footballs...Guy said he thought he had seen sachets of condoms, but we all thought that was beyond the pale, even in France. This, it appeared, was the publicity caravan. Then there was an interval, then there were gendarmes on motorcycles and then IT appeared.... a stream of luridly dressed cyclists going like the clappers, with cars and motorcycles weaving alongside, photographers hanging precariously into space. It all seemed to pass in a flash...more cars, one with a broom, and then more cars carrying bike parts....and that was that. The Tour de France. It was a wonderful picnic, I met a lot of nice people, but the event itself left me cold.
Then I discovered its dark underbelly...the drugs, the money and the rivalries. Coming from Britain, even I had heard of Tommy Simpson, who died on Mount Ventoux, pushing his body too hard under the influence of amphetamines. I began to look at the sports pages, and found details of faked urine tests and goodness only knows what else in the war between men eager to win and organisers desperate not to have the Tour banned altogether for its shady reputation. Not something I had thought about as I watched the TV coverage on the news.....men giving their utmost on the gruelling mountain stages, or weaving through the pack in the sprint finishes.
France longs for a French winner. Merckx, Lemond, Indurain and, most notable of all, Armstrong, have broken their hearts over the years, and this year looks to be dry again for France as Contador looks unbeatable. But for the British in France, there is reason to go and cheer the Tour.....British riders are doing well as never before. Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, the British will be out on their scaffolds with their tea and cucumber sandwiches, cheering you on.
Even me...a bit.