23 July 2011

Etape Race Preparation - Compare and Contrast A Day with Jerome and a Day with a Tour Operator

The morning after Bastille Day, Jerome, Didier and I headed for Clermont-Ferrand and the Auvergne region, site of many small, extinct volcanoes, and also of Act II of Etape du Tour, the stage from Issoire to St. Flour.

We had today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, to prepare for Act II.  I wanted to enjoy Friday with Jerome and Didier and then rest on Saturday with my tour operator's group, get two good nights' sleep and be ready for a big day on Sunday.

On the way into Clermont-Ferrand, we drove right past the exit for the hotel where my tour group was staying and instead went straight to the center of town to pick up their friend Isabel at the train station. Isabel is a longtime French resident of Japan, temporarily living with her sister in a town near Avignon, post-Fukushima.
Isabel at the start village's Michelin exhibit, where Didier got new tires and tubes.
Michelin is headquartered in Clermont-Ferrand.
We saw lots of Michelin men in the region, some much larger than this.

Next we headed to Issoire, registered, ate some sandwiches, and enjoyed the atmosphere of the start village exhibitions. Didier got a new rear cassette (adding a few extra teeth) and some Michelin tires. If Clermont-Ferrand was lacking in character, Issoire looked like a very nice, large and relaxed town in the countryside.
Registration Friday highly recommended - not crowded, and a very relaxed mood.
Produits du terroir.  We skipped the sausages, but enjoyed
sandwiches on very nice artisanal bread.
Jerome in his touring garb -- horse drawn carriage available from central Issoire
to registration.  Much classier than the buses up the hill in Valfrejus last week.
My fellow travelers told me that Auvergne is the "real" French countryside, and that I should be prepared for a big and tasty meal tonight.  The mood was very festive -- and felt much more authentic than around the start village at the ski town in Valfrejus the previous week.
KTM top of the line model in orange and black. MOB's next bike?

As usual, traveling with Jerome things happen a bit spontaneously, without all the advance planning that some might think such a trip requires.  Didier had booked a hotel room for himself and Jerome for Saturday night in the small town of Saint-Nectaire, but they had no room for Friday, and none for Isabel, who they hoped would stay both nights (and could drive the car from Issoire to St. Flour, avoiding the need to spend Saturday in a shuttle operation).  I had my hotel room waiting back in Clermont-Ferrand, about a 40-minute drive away from Issoire, further from Saint-Nectaire.  So we headed toward Saint-Nectaire to scout out the situation and see if lodgings were available for them Friday evening.

At the hotel Didier had booked for Saturday, after much back-and-forth with a clerk, who was eventually overruled by the manager, it seemed they could only get one room for Friday night and no more than their current one room for Saturday.  The other hotel in town was also fully booked.  At least we got some recommendations for restaurants in the neighboring towns, having realized that everything was a bit further apart than we had thought -- further from Issoire to Saint-Nectaire, further from Clermont-Ferrand, and further on to La Bourboule, a town up the valley where we had been told there was a great place to eat.  We would keep looking for lodgings, but in the worst case Isabel could have the one room and Jerome and Didier could crash in my room back in Clermont-Ferrand.  (I had a double bed, and the camping mat from Transalp Camp).
Saint-Nectaire as seen from in front of its Romanesque church
Murol, from the chateau above
Jerome surveys Murol from the chateau

Isabel rests as the rest of us climb to the chateau.

We strolled up to the chateau above Murol, then finally drove to Lac Chambon and our next destination, the restaurant Le Grillon (The Cicada), overlooking the lake.  It was a meal memorable for the setting, the company and the uniformly high quality food in a simple eatery.  Of course, we tried the delicious local cheese.  Jerome profusely complemented our waitress on the food and as she was heading away across the room loudly pretended to place a call to a friend "Edouard" (being Edouard Michelin, founder of the Michelin Guide) and tell him to come over straight away and be ready to assign some stars.  After dinner, we stopped by the bar/pizzeria down the street where a live music band was playing out front.  I was amused to see that after our restaurant had closed, the waitress (who must have been in her late 50s or early 60s) also had made it down the street and into the bar for the live music and drinks.  The whole town was there, music wafting out across the road and over the lake.  Of course, if you lived nearby, you were subject to all the noise, so you might as well come join the party!  It really started hopping after 11PM when a group of 20-30 college students came in from some event and each ordered a meal.

The patron of the establishment came off the dance floor and behind the bar briefly, to get himself another drink (definitely not his first of the evening), and Jerome asked him about lodgings in the town.  He said he would check and headed back outside.  We saw him 10 minutes later, dancing away.  When he finally returned, he apologized, but said the one place he was thinking of was closed for the night, and he did not have a key (as it was not his place).  He did suggest a place down the road in Murol that we might try -- the Hotel du Parc.

We made it back to Murol where, miraculously, the immigrants who ran the Hotel du Parc were still awake and accepting guests to fill up their last few rooms.  It was not the best of accommodations, but at least we had someplace, and it was pretty clear there was no way I would get back to Clermont-Ferrand that night.  Didier was my roommate.  He snored, worse than MOB, so I slept with my iPod on.
Roomies.  I thought I was done with that after MOB headed back to Germany ..

In the morning, I noticed that the only "art" in the hotel were old posters of cyclists, local heros from the great duels of the 1960s between Anquetil and Poulidor.  Anquetil won the Tour 5 times.  Poulidor defeated him in many one-day classics, and was a perennial second or third in the Tour, but never managed to wear the yellow jersey.  He was the son of a farmer and a self-taught natural talent as a cyclist, an incredible story of someone who lost his greatest battles, but (or perhaps because so) remains incredibly popular to this day.  Poulidor and Anquetil had their greatest battle on the Puy de Dôme, the 1500 meter tall volcano on the west edge of Clermont-Ferrand.  Relationships within many families suffered as people chose sides, Poulidor vs. Anquetil.  And on Sunday's stage, mixed in among the the fans' painted slogans on the roadway left over from the Tour a week earlier, as we climbed the Pas du Peyrol, among markings for "Sylvain" [Chavanel], [Thomas] "Voeckler", "Andy" [Schleck] and others, I laughed out loud when I saw someone had written "Poulidor", still cheering him on in large white painted letters, only 40 years too late.

Raymond Poulidor -- the local hero -- rode for Mercier his entire career
Anquetil = Lance Armstrong
Poulidor = Jan Ullrich, but with personality, and without the career-end disgrace
True to his word and feeling a bit guilty about not getting me back to my lodgings on Friday night, Jerome treated me to the hotel, awoke earlier Saturday than he probably would have liked, and drove me back to Clermont-Ferrand.
Jerome enjoys (?) an early Saturday breakfast.
The waitress is the same woman who checked us in late last night, back at work.

Back in Clermont-Ferrand, I could sleep some more, in a noticeably larger, cleaner bed, and had none of the distractions of the French countryside to interrupt my race preparation.  In fact, in order to maximize our chance of success on Sunday, my tour operator had thoughtfully booked our group at a faceless Hotel Kyriad (somewhere between a Motel 6 and a Days Inn), in the middle of the Zone Industrielle du Brézet, just off the highway exit and near the little-used airport.  No distractions at all as we tried to focus on our race plans.
Zone Industrielle du Brézet.  No distractions. Nothing at all of interest.
I took a short warm up ride ... actually, not so short,
to try to find the nearest supermarket.

We had really crappy food for dinner -- pasta without sauce that must have been cooked for at least an extra 45 minutes -- but that would not cause us any digestive problems.  I did not see or hear any live music or other entertainment nearby.  Great for an early night to sleep for the big race.  Not so great for a visit to France.

I must say that while the two guys from the tour operator who interacted with us -- Sébastien and Vitor --  were really nice, the tour organization left something to be desired. They need to learn to post (or email) written explanations, instead of depending upon word of mouth for passing on crucial information like what time the bus leaves, from where, and how to meet up with them after the finish, etc.  (they were supposed to meet riders at the finish of Act II ... but failed to do so for anyone I spoke with, leaving us cold and wondering where we were supposed to go for our clean clothes we had deposited in the bus and the promised showers).

But the crappy food, even if barely edible, did not make me sick.  And the breakfast was tolerable -- hard to mess that up -- and they had us to the start line well in advance, with plenty of extra time in which to get cold.  Maybe the lack of distractions, fun, culture, or interesting food is why two of our group placed so well -- 25th and 40th, out of the thousands who rode?

The contrast between Friday and Saturday was almost too much.  With Jerome, Didier and Isabel, I had seen a vibrant countryside that was authentic, with rich colors, delicious flavors, warm smiles, healthy animals, and a beautiful sky. On Saturday, I was in an industrial zone in a Motel Six-clone.

In Issoire, we had seen a rag tag local marching band as we left the registration area.  My fellow travelers did not seem impressed, but for me they will symbolize the quirky, slightly disorganized and charming side of Issoire and neighboring towns that I saw.  I could not get the tune out of my head as I lay resting on Saturday in the Zone Industrielle.  I don't think there is much risk if you watch this sketchy video of part of the song, but be careful, if you do get hooked, it could require a trip to the Auvergne.  Just let me know -- I can lend you some maps I picked up and am saving for my return.

Issoire Marching Band from David Litt on Vimeo.
As we climbed up to the Chateau Murol, we passed two women who had just finished their show with birds of prey and were walking the birds down the hill.  I thought these two might have fit right in with the band.


mob said...

Very nice post that gives a good idea about the general feeling in the French countryside.

I like Jerome's hat!

I watched the video and I thought that I knew the tune but I couldn't remember the title until in the end everybody starts singing "Voyage, voyage". And of course it is "Voyage, Voyage" by Desireless from the Eighties. Her one and only hit. She might give you also an idea what you can do with your hair: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PDmZnG8KsM

I think it is better to visit the barber than the bicycle shop (to repair spokes).

David Litt said...

Thanks, MOB!

I am lost without you when it comes to identifying 1980s European hit songs, especially those like Voyage, Voyage that did not crack the charts in the U.S. (or U.K. or Japan). Still, I am glad to see that it was a hit, and so I'm not the only person who got it stuck in his head upon first hearing.
Also good that it starts out "Au dessus des vieux volcans ... " (above the ancient volcanoes), which probably made the Auvergners think that it was written about their region, even if it was not.

As for the hair, I think to be taken seriously as a cyclist I need to go shorter than Desireless does in the video, though I quite like the "flat top" idea--kind of "Ivan Drago" from Rocky IV (1985), if you remember that one.

Manfred von Holstein said...

David, thanks for all the nice reports. I definitely want to visit the Massif Central for some cycling. I even lived in Clermont-Ferrand for a few months when I was very small...