As this year’s Tour rolls into Paris for its final étape, a longer post that you normally find in this corner of the Internet reflecting upon my visit to France last week with Welcome To Yorkshire to witness stages 10 and 11 of the Tour de France 2017.
The world of cycling is a rainbow of activities of which I mainly indulge in just two: cycle touring and cycle racing. The former I do; the latter I watch, occasionally. Since embarking upon my first long-distance ride nearly ten years ago I’ve been fortunate to explore many corners of the UK and continental Europe with my Sancho Panza, my Passepartout; my bicycle, Reggie. As with the characters of Quixote and Verne, he has become a useful, indeed essential side-kick as I have pedalled up the mountains of Norway, beside the beaches of the Mediterranean and across the flat plains of Spain. He’s even become the eponymous hero of my three books.
My interest in cycle racing is somewhat less strenuous and, admittedly, less devotional. I lack the in-depth knowledge of the bicycles, the teams, the riders, the politics… I’m guessing that many other cycle racing ‘fans’ are the same. We know of Froome and Wiggins and of Team Sky. Other names always seem to be on the tip of my tongue. We know there have been issues with drugs and E.P.O. but don’t push me for the details; the acronym will suffice, no? The attraction is to be found elsewhere; in its sheer, unadulterated beauty. The smooth, swift passage of a large group of lean, colourfully clad athletes swarming their way along the bucolic rural roads of sun-drenched countries. What’s not to like? Football is all about the action. Never has a camera-equipped helicopter lingered over the Shay Stadium in Halifax with its electronic eye focussed upon the architectural delights of the glorified shed that keeps the fans dry. Watch the television broadcasts of cycle racing however and you are transported to a sporting arena where the setting is just as important as the action. As spectacles go, cycle racing is a very attractive one indeed.
It’s not difficult to understand why, several years ago, Gary Verity and his colleagues at Welcome To Yorkshire made what many believed at the time to be an audacious attempt to bring the Tour de France to Yorkshire. The sceptics mocked but, in 2014, the Grand Départ arrived and my own fair county was televised to the world. Unsurprisingly to those of us fortunate to live here, it was a beautiful thing to watch and, as the years have progressed, we have become increasingly accustomed to seeing our little corner of the planet shine through the flat screens in our living rooms, even when the sun has declined from doing so itself. Millions of us have gone one stage further and have lined the routes of the annual Tour de Yorkshire, decorating our towns yellow and blue, revelling in the ephemeral roadside community that has developed prior to the main dish of the day: the whoosh of the peloton.
None of this is news to the French. They’ve been feasting upon the beauty of their country and lining the sides of their rues for over a century and such is the intrinsic link between Le Tour and le tourisme that towns and cities across the ‘hexagone’ pay millions of Euros for the honour of being either an arrival or departure town for one of the race’s 21 stages. Only Paris is a guaranteed destination; the route elsewhere is up for grabs. The Tour de France and tourism are two sides of the same lucrative coin.
Perhaps in an attempt to learn from the masters, during this year’s race, a delegation from Welcome To Yorkshire travelled to the Dordogne département of France to sign a pact of friendship – un accord d’amitié – with their French colleagues at the regional tourist board. The visit was planned to coincide with the arrival in the Dordogne of this year’s Tour de France and I was fortunate to be invited along. Over four days in south-western France, I was able to experience a perfect blend of cycle racing and tourism. It was, if you like, cycle touring without a bike; cycling without a bike called Reggie.
It could be argued that visiting an area when the world’s largest annual sporting event is also in town isn’t such a great idea. But think for a few moments. Here is a place that has put on its best coat, covered itself in eau de Cologne and is ready to party. Not that there was much pomp or ceremony at the functional airport just outside Bergerac where a direct flight from the UK deposited me and the other passengers right in the heart of the action. No long drive or train ride from Paris or Bordeaux, just a short taxi journey to a town centre hotel. Was it really only two hours ago that I had been driving down the M1 to Birmingham?
The Dordogne – named after the meandering river that flows west towards the Atlantic via the Gironde estuary – is, perhaps above all, famed for prehistory. History so old that it came before ‘history’ itself. A curious use of language but one that refers to a fascinating period some 15,000 years ago when Cro-Magnon man lived in the valley. Within its modernist angles, the Pôle International de la Préhistoire near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, 60 km to the east of Bergerac, provides a useful summary of the prehistoric attractions and it was our first pre-tour destination. It’s worth the trip beside the river as the context of the area is clearly and simply explained leaving you to concentrate later on the beauty of what you about to discover.
A further 30 km along the Dordogne you find perhaps the most extraordinary paintings in France, perhaps even on the planet. Then again, you are guaranteed not to find them, as a visit to the Lascaux complex near Montignac is a fruitless one if you want to see the original cave paintings of Cro-Magnon man. They were discovered, by chance, by a group of schoolboys in 1940. An unparalleled collection of colourful depictions of horses, bulls and bison. Why they were painted is open to debate but with two thousand images crowded into the same small complex of caves they must surely have been of the utmost significance to our ancestors, or at least one of them. Was it the work of many or just one passionate and talented artist? We don’t know that either.
The story of the evolution of the visitor experience is almost as fascinating as the ‘exhibits’. The original cave was closed to visitors in the early 60s when it became apparent that the breath of modern man and woman was damaging the art. Lascaux 2 – a precise replica – was opened in 1983 but it too has now closed because of fears that the movement of vehicles near the original cave could, through vibration, also harm the paintings. Fortunately Lascaux 4*, another rather wonderful slab of 21st century architecture has come to the rescue and another replica – more extensive than the first – enables visitors to ‘see’ the original paintings. It may all sound like visiting the Sistine Chapel but not only not being allowed to go inside, but it works, and as your guided visit comes to a close you are not left disappointed. Far from it.
(*For those wondering what happened to Lacaux 3, it can currently be found at the Kyushu National Museum in Japan as it continues a long world tour.)
The Cro-Magnons had their caves; we have boutique hotels and in Montignac – just a couple of kilometres north of Lascaux – there is the Hôtel de Bouilhac, a newly renovated 17th century chateau built at the behest of a forward thinking medic who tended to the needs of the Louis XV. Forward thinking not necessarily for his medical skills but for creating a rather grand chateau in which the tourists of today can stay and dine. It provided us with a great base to explore the eastern areas of the Dordogne, its location being only surpassed by its level of luxury. As someone more accustomed to a two-person tent pitched on a municipal campsite, a night in one of the hotel’s 15 spacious suites was as welcome as it was comfortable. Not a camping mat nor sleeping bag in sight.
Arriving at the finish line of an étape of the Tour de France must be just as bewildering for a first-time spectator as it surely is for a first-time competitor in the race. This is a pop-up circus to beat most others with thousands of eager fans strewn along the final kilometre of the route. The wise have bagged their spot early and are kept amused with a booming commentary describing the events being played out on an over-sized TV screen mounted on an articulated truck beside the road. The arrival of stage 10 of the 2017 race at an out-of-town sports complex near Bergerac was scheduled for around 5.30pm but a mid-afternoon arrival afforded plenty of time to wander and soak up the atmosphere. The great and the good (and the press) were somewhat closer to the finishing line itself in their fenced off enclosure quaffing complimentary beer and wine amongst a sea of yellow buses, stands and parasols… And then the whoosh arrived. Great commotion. Frenetic commentary. An approaching tsunami of cheering. Helicopter swooping low. Kittel wins. Froome is still in yellow. The crowds disperse. The circus packs up and is gone.
Stage 11 would see the riders complete a 203 km course from Eymet – a small town in the very south of the Dordogne département known for its large population of Brits – to Pau, the most visited town in the long history of Le Tour. It was in Eymet that Welcome To Yorkshire had decided to introduce some decorative blue to the traditional and ubiquitous yellow. Was it because of the preponderance of English speakers? Or the ‘y’ in Eymet? Irrespective, they had chosen their town well and beamed across the world were images of enthusiastic fans waving blue flags with the white rose of the House of York at their centre and ‘field art’ visible only from the vantage point of a helicopter making great capital of the Y of Eymet and, of course, of Yorkshire. France may be home to the tour but this was a gentle reminder that Yorkshire was its holiday cottage in England.
The pre-race atmosphere in Eymet was somewhat less frenetic than that in Bergerac the previous afternoon. The luxury coaches of the teams lined up on the main street and the crowds gathered behind barriers to watch the unfolding preparations. A gentle river of journalists, camera operators, photographers, dignitaries and the families and friends of the riders filled the space between. An hour or so before the scheduled departure time of 1pm, the cyclists began to emerge and relaxed interaction ensued. Journalists asked questions. Photographers took photographs. Dignitaries shook hands. Families embraced. The crowds requested signatures. All very civilised.
As the start time approached, the athletes started to mount their bikes and cycle up and down a narrow corridor of tarmac administered to varying degrees of success by the gendarmerie. Whistles were blown, shouts were exclaimed. No injuries were inflicted. Some dismounted for tweaks to the gears, brakes, saddle position… Could such minor adjustments make a difference? Perhaps. With races being won and lost by fractions of seconds and with Froome’s cumulative lead stretching to only 18 seconds, they potentially would. Then slowly they disappeared from view, towards the start line itself and onwards towards the Pyrenees. It would be another victory for Kittel with Froome holding onto the yellow jersey with still just 18 seconds separating him from the pack. Plus ça change…
With the cyclists having departed and the broom wagon en route, the final ingredient of the tourism-tour-tourism sandwich was now upon us; a return to Bergerac and its surrounding landscape.
“There were two Cyranos”, explains Pierre from the tourist office. “But neither of them lived here.” The fictional character was just that, fiction. The Cyrano who did exist may have been the inspiration for Edmond Rostand’s nasally enhanced character but he never visited the town whose named he adopted.
“He needed an aristocratic name so used his Parisien address; the building where he lived happened to be called ‘Bergerac’”, revealed Pierre.
Such hard facts haven’t prevented the town seizing upon the connection (and why not? Verona has ‘Juliet’s balcony’ which never saw so much as a star-crossed lover let alone long, pining soliloquies) and the medieval streets of the small town are dotted with several statues of the man himself. The restaurant in the main square has a ‘Pizza Cyrano’ on its menu. I liked that.
The man himself aside, wine is a key aspect of life in Bergerac. The accord d’amitié between Yorkshire and The Dordogne was toasted over many bottles of the region’s reds and whites within the pretty cloister of the Maison des Vins. Perhaps encouraged by a glass or two of the local tipple, Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour de France even went so far as to declare that “Yorkshire is gorgeous!” to the assembled crowd who smiled and applauded. Earlier in the day we had made the short trip south to the chateau at Monbazillac, a property owned by the local wine co-operative where tastings of the sweet whites of Monbazillac are presented to visitors. The journey wasn’t wasted for the non-drinkers however, the chateau offering an eclectic mix of stories, furniture, modern art and a wonderful panoramic view across the flat expanse of land back towards Bergerac and beyond.
A similar vista was on offer from the windows of the nearby Bistrot de Malfourat where lunch came complete with music from an automated and wall-mounted orchestra of drums, an organ, two accordions and a pair of saxophones, all operated at the push of a button. Its brevity was perhaps its greatest quality. Should your pocket be deeper, the adjacent Tour des Vents restaurant offered Michelin-starred dining without, perhaps, the musical accompaniment. The owner of both establishments had, it seemed, cornered the market in mid-to-fine dining in this small corner of the Dordogne.
There is much to differentiate England’s largest county from this south-western enclave of France; the respective climates and population sizes come easily to mind. Yet there is much to link the two; their countrysides may be distinct but can be equally as spectacular. Their rich histories may be different in scale but equally as engaging. And now there is a common love of cycle racing. The next time you plan your visit to France or indeed to Yorkshire, I recommend that you don’t avoid the Tour de France or the Tour de Yorkshire. Au contraire! Head straight for the action and embrace your inner cyclist as well as your inner tourist. Vive le Tour!
© Andrew P. Sykes 2017
There are direct flights to Bergerac from London City (BA), London Stansted (Ryanair), East Midlands (Ryanair), Leeds-Bradford (Jet2), Edinburgh (FlyBe), Manchester (FlyBe), Liverpool (Ryanair), Birmingham (FlyBe), Bristol (Ryanair), Southampton (FlyBe) and Exeter (FlyBe) airports.
Andrew’s latest book, Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie is published Summersdale and is widely available in bookshops and online priced £9.99. He is also the author of Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie and Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie.