Le Grand Tour: stage two
It was the first day of kindergarten. We sat cross-legged on a hard carpet floor, gathered round a teacher I didn’t know, who spoke in a strange, soft way. She looked down from her chair, took a breath, and began to sing.
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
On y danse, On y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
On y danse tout en rond…
That image flickered through my mind yesterday, when I saw the sign for Avignon, roughly 300 kilometres into the second stage of Le Grand Tour.
I’d been flying down the Rhone for the past 200 kilometres, past some of my favourite vineyards, with the wind at my back and hot sun on my skin. We’d begun at 5:30 in Lyon and made our way down the river, leaving a pink sky behind us, and the city’s glimmer.
I was scared. The first stage had exhausted me, and my knees were still tender. Two easy days in Lyon had revived me, but I didn’t yet know how well my body had recovered. So, for the first 50 kilometres I held back, spinning light gears, all too aware of what I had coming.
It was not until the road turned up that I was able to find my rhythm. My pedal stroke returned. By the second switchback, I knew I could press on the pedals.
We made a few wrong turns in the grubby suburbs of Saint-Etienne. Then, the real climb began — the Col de la République.
At 13 kilometres and 4 percent, it’s no alpine pass, but it is the first climb over 1000 metres that the Tour ever raced up. By the second half of it, I was almost racing. What the hell, I thought. I’m here for my own enjoyment.
At the summit, I gulped down about a gallon of water. Then, we began the long swooping descent down into the valley. I didn’t touch the brakes once, but the Maserati still beat me.
We refuelled at a gas station, but got going quickly. We were already ahead of schedule and the wind was behind me.
From there, we dropped down into the craggy Ardèche, with its red rocks and crumbling bridges spanning inviting rivers. And from there, all I had to do was hold my tempo and watch the geography shift, from farmland and vineyards to lavender fields and tree-lined roadways, fruit-stands and battered mountains, as we headed south into Provence.
Along the way, I accidentally encountered several places I’d only read about. For about an hour, I couldn’t remember why I’d heard of Arles, before it struck me that Van Gogh had lived there. I saw the Roman theatre in Orange and Mont Ventoux. I saw Mont-Sainte Victoire.
And I saw the Pont d’Avignon. I’d just dropped into the city and was making my way across a bridge, dodging traffic, when I looked over, and it was there.
Jutting about a third of the way into the water, it is a solid structure. You would hardly believe it could be destroyed.
Our teacher said that Avignon is a place in a country called France. A pont is a bridge. And danser is to dance.
A third of the way into Le Grand Tour, I was dancing…