de France Audax
Impressions de John Weeks
The following are my impressions of the re-enactment, 100 years later, of the very first Tour de France, which took place in 1903. The other two English riders were Rick, at 22 by far the youngest, and Keith, a real enthusiast who spends half his life cycling in France and has already ridden the Tour de France Cyclotouriste. Also in the peloton were three Americans, Mary-Blair and Bill on a tandem, wearing identical jerseys, which changed each day, and Karl from New York. All three are experienced Audax riders and members of the organising body, the Union des Audax Français. Some others riders spoke English, but the majority, who arrived in dribs and drabs during the hot afternoon of 13th July were, appropriately, French.
A bicycle shop at the check-in area had a display of bikes from the beginning of the century to the present day. One began to get a sense of what the original riders had faced on their heavy machines.
The bike check completed we were given our route cards containing a potted history of the 1903 Tour and its important places and personalities. We also got our jerseys, U.A.F. blue with a bright yellow map of the route and the initials of Henri Desgrange, the founder of Audax and the Tour. We dispersed in the heat to park our cars in a secure compound and install ourselves in our respective hotels. The evening meal was at Réveille Matin, the legendary restaurant from which the original Tour set off. The place was crammed with people, giving some idea of just how large the peloton was going to be. After an animated meal, we went back to our hotels to try to sleep in the heat, and the noise of the inevitable firework displays on the eve of Bastille Day.
Bags put in the vans and breakfasts eaten, everyone returned to Réveille Matin for the 7.30 am start. An impressive bunch of some 160 riders skirted the stones surrounding the roundabout in front of the restaurant, each stone marked with a year from 1903 and the name of the Tour de France winner. The bunch had a lead car and following car together with baggage and mechanic's vans, a Red Cross ambulance and motorcycle outriders. Impressive and reassuring. During the quiet bank holiday morning we cleared the suburbs and cycled through the magnificent forest of Fontainebleau. All the time the temperature rose. At midday it was over 30° in the shade.
225 kilometres and 5 stops later, we arrived at Névers, the end of the first day. The second day we went over our first col, the little Col du Pin Bouchain, 759 metres high. No mountains, but plenty of hills on the route. The third day, the Col de la République, a bit more serious at 1161 metres and after two hot days in the saddle. The heatwave lasted most of the trip and caused many physical problems for the riders. The volume of water drunk was enormous. Happily the organisers made sure that there was always enough available. The fourth day the temperature was over 40° in the shade. Most riders were looking forward to arriving at Marseilles for our first rest day. We got there to find a good hotel on a hill with excellent views of the town. Friends and relatives arrived to dine with us and share the ambience.
Some people spent the day washing clothes and cleaning and adjusting their machines. Others spent the time as tourists in the attractive town. All got a much needed rest and respite from physical exertion in the heat. We had travelled mainly along the RN7 to get to Marseilles. For the next three days we were mainly on the RN113 to Bordeaux, and another rest day. Although the route of the original Tour now lies mainly on "routes nationales" we found ourselves from time to time on what were clearly sections of the original route unaltered apart from their improved surface. Even so, we had the experience of riding a fair distance on a section of road completely covered with molten tar. A touch of authenticity!
I tried to imagine what
it must have been like to ride, probably alone, along the roads of 1903 on a
bicycle of the time. What an achievement. A similar feat was achieved by one
of the riders Bruno Lemoine, who rode on an antique bike with fixed wheel and
balloon tubulars. His team had a car of the same era. That was usually on a
trailer but, during one memorable stage, led the peloton. In his white jersey
Bruno, like a ghost from the past, rode for an organisation waging war on a
little-known illness "la dystonie". This results in repeated and painful
muscular convulsions which result in the sufferer becoming completely bed-ridden.
It affects children from a very young age.
The second rest day was at Bordeaux, a town in the throes of major construction works to build a new tramway. After a trip round the historic centre on foot, we were taken by coach to be entertained and fed by the local cyclists. After Bordeaux came Rochefort,Nantes, Blois and finally Ville d'Avray. On the tenth day the weather changed dramatically, it poured with rain practically all day. It is debatable whether the heatwave was better or not! The 1903 Tour ended at Ville d'Avray. For us, a reception with a compère, entertainers drinks and food. And above all, a superb firework display. A brilliant end to the route of the 1903 Tour.
But it was not the end for us. Sunday the 27th July, the rain had stopped and we headed for the Pont de Léna to lead a group of some 10,000 cyclists who that morning were going to go round the same circuit that the pros would ride in the afternoon. A superb way to see Paris from closed roads. What a magnificent sight to round the Arc de Triomphe and see a river of yellow jerseys flowing up the Champs-Elysées as we went down it. Although 30 kilometres long, the circuit was over very quickly, like another firework display.
After the crowds in the centre of Paris, back to a relatively quiet Réveille-Matin for the final meal. Sad to say goodbye to people one had shared the same memorable experiences with for a fortnight. Sad also to think that ones habits would have to change and it would once again be necessary to stop at every Stop sign and red light when cycling.
Last, but by no means least, a few other impressions. What a pleasure to find, as well as old friends, many new ones, from all corners of France and other countries. What an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of others.
Most stages were run at the standard Audax speed of 22.5 kilometres an hour. Some, between Orléons and Langeais were at 25 kph. One of those was at a speed slightly over 25 kph. It was led by the women in the bunch, fast but steady, an impressive performance.
The oldest participant, Pierre Oberlin, is a charming gentleman of 84. Although I am 63 years old, he started racing before I was born! Even more impressive, when he was young he met two cyclists who had ridden the 1903 tour. What a superb link between the 1903 and 2003 tours.
In the afternoons, those towards the back of the bunch benefited from impromptu concerts and comedy acts which seemed to naturally follow lunch. The comedy often continued between the riders and spectators.
Thanks are due in particular to the following. The local cyclists who organised receptions with drink and food on a greater or lesser scale, all very welcome. In particular, the motorcycle outriders and their friends the police and gendarmerie, who ensured the safety of the group at every turn, especially on the routes nationales and through the large towns and cities we visited. Our route captains who led the group in accordance with the timetable, and the organising team, the baggage handlers, and above all Charles and Françoise, who had done an enormous amount of work over a long period of time to organise an unforgettable Tour of the Century.
To find out more about de Bruno Lemoine and the Association he rides for, go to : http://www.dystonie.com/
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