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Journeys : RACT MNJ June July 2010
Sainte-Marie, population 100, is a monoculture of buildings: grey cement render over local stone, shuttered windows, slate roofs. As you climb the Tourmalet and look back at the village, its houses spiral like the shell of a snail. At its head is the spire of the church of Our Lady of the Angels with its clock, showing 10.10 at whatever time of day. Cinematographer Robert Hea zlewood and I stayed in Sainte-Marie for the best part of a week before the Tour, talking to the locals and watching the metamorphosis of the snail into a crowded amphitheatre through which the parade would pass. One could write several chapters of a book just from those experiences in Sainte- Marie, but perhaps the best way of sharing them is to string together a few vignettes of life that I saw. Jean-Bernard Lacome You've seen his ilk in every Jacques Tati film, the postman on the bicycle in Jour de Fête, an archetypal loony Frenchman that every village seems to have. When we stayed, Jean-Ber nard war ned his other guests, ample Germans and Belgians, that he would be cooking kangaroo in our honour, then proceeded to hop between the tables, arms crooked like paws. He revealed to us that on the day of the Tour, he watches it on television, although the peloton passes one metre from his front door. "Two years ago I was standing at the door. I opened it and I got a handful of sunglasses thrown at me. I shut the door and then reopened it and I got a face full of key rings. Now I watch it on television." The other citizens They are simple, hard-working, courageous people, Jean-Paul Depierris, the local priest, tells me. "Life is hard in the mountains," he says, "The fields are steep. The families are numerous. They work hard to sur vive. They are honest." Out in the street In the week leading up to the Tour passing through Sainte-Marie, the roads are already clogged with cyclists of all shapes and sizes, invariably wearing the latest gear on ultra-lightweight bikes. They have come to Sainte-Marie to tackle the Tour malet. At the village's only intersection, they replenish their water bottles at the water trough set into the wall of Our Lady of the Angels. A man in a red beret directs the traffic at the intersection. The hat is enor mous. He car ries a traffic war ning sign in one hand -- green on one side, red on the other. It looks like an over-sized table tennis bat. He is not a policeman. He is a cycling official. He has a serious function to perfor m. Just past Jean-Bernard's hotel, at the foot of the Col d'Aspin, llamas and camels graze on the verges, a giraffe leans out from the back of a parked red trailer and pans the passing cyclists. Two bare- chested young men co-ordinate their swinging sledgehammers to a drive a tent peg into the ground. The circus has ar rived, 'un cirqu e a l'ancienne avec 30 animaux, la girafe, les acrobates et les contorsionnistes.' Sainte-Marie's special place in the Tour's history The story of the Tour de France is one of legends: Eddie Mercx, Ber nard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, Marco Pantani, Lance Ar mstrong. In these villages of the French Pyrenees, one name stands above the rest: Eugene Christophe. In the Tour de France of 1913, Christophe began the day with an 18-minute lead. Today he could not be beaten with such a lead, but 97 years ago the Tour was a different kettle of fish. The peloton was to descend the Tourmalet. The road was a gravel track. Christophe began the twisting narrow descent to Sainte-Marie de Campan but almost immediately shattered the front forks of his bike. He carried it 13 kilometres dow n the mountain to the village, found the local blacksmith's forge and refashioned his forks. He rejoined the race six hours later. Jour de fête A troop of scouts arrives to take up position at the front of newly-erected barricades. Men with pipes and dogs appear from around cor ners. Gendarmes take over from the man in the red beret at the intersection. A bright red tr uck parks across the road from the church. Secours d'Urgence aux Asphyxies et Blesses says the sign on the side: 'first aid for the breathless and wounded.' Then comes the commercial cavalcade that precedes the arrival of the peloton. The crowd, now five deep, is pelted with sunglasses, key rings, green hands, bonbons, videos. A pause. The approaching flight of helicopters heralds Apocalypse Now: the arrival of motor bikes, men yelling over loudspeakers; no breakaways; the peloton, whoosh, a hint of yellow in a sea of green, red and blue; chasing cars laden with spares on their roofs. It's over. Time stands still again at Sainte-Marie de Campan. Jean-Bernard Lacome, le patron of the Hotel les Deux Cols Destinations 15 June /July 2010
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