Le Tour by R. F. Hamm

On the spur of the moment, I would see a stage of the Tour de France. My wife Anette, my son Ben (well into his 12thyear), and I were just ending a vacation in the Netherlands and Belgium and were on our way to Germany to visit her family the next morning.  Even while only sporadically following the news during our vacation, it was impossible to miss that Le Tour 2017 was in the first days of the race. Always on the lookout for something to see en route, Anette announced that Le Tour was passing near our route to Germany. We already had plans to see the cathedral at Aachen, a detour that particularly appealed to my son, but ever ambitious, Anette decided that we would be able to squeeze in both and still arrive at her parents at an acceptable hour.  The little Belgian village of Polleur, therefore, became our first destination for the next day.  I felt like a twelve year old who had just gotten his first adult bike.

I came of age on my bicycle when the “10 Speed” craze swept America.  I soon was using bikes for daily transport and toying with racing.  To be clear, I was never very good at racing – the only thing I am fast at is reading.  As my dreams of personal cycling glory faded, I got caught up in the written accounts of le Tour – to the point that I would go to the local library and follow the race through the pages of the New York Times.  No local paper followed Le Tour, no TV channel even mentioned it.  The excitement of reading about people like Merckx and the mystery of places like Alpe d’Huezstirred my imagination.  I could see the peloton flying by, marvel at the domestiquesferrying water and food to their team leaders, and hear the hum of the sew up tires over the pavement.

We started our journey to Le Tour confident that we could find Polleur and see the peloton flash by – after all, we had gotten used to the Dame, what my wife’s family calls the voices of all navigation systems, after a few days with the rental car.  Yes, it had an odd tendency to tell us to turn right on highways, when it meant veer right, and it had a love of back roads. But it had already aided us in the discovery of other treasure on this vacation – mind you, some of them unplanned as when asked to direct us to a park-and-ride at a stadium in Antwerp, the Dame  sent us to Europe’s second largest Hassidic neighborhood.  Yet we were sure between it and Anette’s innate sense of direction that we would find a good spot and see the race.  Just in case, we left early.

It was the Dame’s most erratic and confusing morning. About two exits from the one exit it had earlier told us we would take, it asked us to leave the E-4.  “She knows that there is traffic back-up for Le Tour and is avoiding ‘queuing traffic,’” I announced.  But after driving down one road, up another, and crossing over the freely flowing E-4, we were directed to get back on the E-4 at the next entrance.  We followed the E-4 to the previously mentioned exit, with Ben wondering, why the exits beyond it were closed according to signs (he reads pretty good French) while this one was open.

I was driving, and we took the exit, and followed the Dame’s directions.  I have to say, that it was going well, we were on the way to Polleur, until we heard the instruction, “take the third exit from the roundabout, and then immediately take the next right,” Despite three tries, I am not sure I ever recognized a roundabout (there seem to be two put together) but we eventually did see a road sign for Polleur.  We took the road.  It was small and winding.

It reminded me why two generations of European generals and military planners declared that the Ardennes were impassable for tanks. We were not driving a tank, but a rented nearly-new diesel Opel kombi with a near full tank and plenty of engine power.  We climbed a nice hill, and over the crest we were greeted with a road half barricaded, and a sign that declared in French and the universal language of signs that the road was closed for construction.  Just beyond that barricade there was a sign for Polleur.  Ben couldn’t read all of the French, the Dame was silent – her map showed the road as the desired route – and then a small car with Belgian plates blithely passed us and went down the road.  We followed it.

Alternating pastures, woods, and some crop fields lined the narrow, unlined, not wide enough for two cars to pass abreast road: not that any cars were coming in the other direction.  After a steep descent and sharp curve, we were confronted with the sign for the village boundary, and a real barricade, one that would stop our car, and might even slow a tank.  The little car pulled into angled in parking and a man got out and hurried away.  We took the last space, looked for no parking signs, and congratulated ourselves on getting to Polleur in plenty of time.

The road beyond the barricade looked as if tanks had passed – though the damage was done by some serious construction machinery, still standing astride the road.  But there was a foot path, skirting along the lovely brick houses, and we squeezed along, following it to where the road restarted.  We stopped briefly at a small store –in New York City you would it call a bodega– bought some rolls and bottled water.  The store clerk was friendly, but between us there was no shared language.  We then came to the intersection with the bigger road that would be graced by the peloton.

There were some signs saying the Tour was coming, (I took a picture with my phone) some steel barricades stacked up, and no one.  The village had been empty (even for a Sunday morning) when we walked through it, but the road where the race would zip by, empty?  It was uncanny.  Still, we found a small park, just beyond a building supply store, where there were benches, where we could see the road, just yards away.  It was at the bottom of a hill and right before the beginning of a larger hill:  a good spot for viewing.

We spread a poncho to serve as a barrier against the damp bench.  While we ate our rolls and drank our water we began to speculate. I wondered, “Why is no one outside to see it?”

Ben answered,” Maybe Belgians do not like the Tour.”

Anette tossed in that, “If this was Germany the barricades would be up.”

We all couldn’t figure out “Why are cars still on road?”  And worse, “Why are the cars going in the direction that the race should come from?

Ben wanted to know, “Why is the tour in Belgium anyway? Isn’t it the Tour de France?

I delighted in hearing a helicopter “Look a helicopter; it must be the TV cameras following the Tour.”  But Anette had to ask, “Why is it going that way away from the route, then?”  I admitted it had to be a false alarm.

Anette consulted the Tour’s web page on her phone, and said that according to the projections they should be through here in about twenty minutes.  A vigorous but mature couple on touring bikes, stopped by, to look at the nearby map on a board, I said to Ben, “Look others to watch.”  They rode away.  Ben, who was never very interested in bike racing was getting antsy, he wanted to see Charlemagne’s tomb and get on the road to see his grandparents.  I asked Anette, “maybe they are really late, how long should we wait?”  She replied, “Let’s see the photo on your phone of the sign.”  When produced, she pointed to the date:  the Tour would come through Polleur tomorrow!  We made a hasty retreat to the car, embarrassed by our mistake.

Anette had her eyes more focused on her phone than the path. She announced, that the Tour web site told us that the Tour was going through Aachen today.  We still had a chance.  We began discussing our strategy.  Ben was worried that the tour would get in the way of the cathedral visit, I was worried about parking.  Anette was confident that all would work out.  It did.  The Dame could find Aachen, and there was a “parkhaus” near the center of town, and when we got on the edge of the city, electronic signs telling us how many spaces remaining in it directed us to it.  And, lo and behold, what did we see when we came up out of the stairs, but set up barricades, manned with people in le Tour vests, crowds up against them, and a big sign in German telling people about the stage today coming through their city.

We got a meal and hot drinks: coffee for me, tea for Anette, and chocolate for Ben.  And we wandered up past the city hall bedecked with a huge screen TV showing Le Tour, to the cathedral, where for an hour or more we marveled the art of Medieval Europe: the Throne of Charlemagne, the Barbarossa Chandelier, and the Tombs of Otto II and Charlemagne. It’s a church well worth visiting, even if you have been to a lot of cathedrals – its interior decoration is more Byzantine than Gothic, and you can still see the structure of the original octagon church inside all the additions.  It was raining as we left, and the as we hurried down toward the route, the announcers on the steps of the hall kept saying dramatic, but incomprehensible things. And the streets where the Tour would pass were far fuller with spectators than they had been when we arrived.

Here I learned how Germans watched the Tour.  I’m sure that there are many ways, but never empty handed.  Beyond the umbrellas, people mostly, held phones, cigarettes, and beer.  Some held all of them at once.  We wormed our way to a good spot on an unbarricaded section, and endured the smoke and the torrents of water that flowed off our neighbors’ umbrellas.  We also absorbed the good cheer and excitement of the crowd.  We coordinated our plans for picture taking.  I took video, while Anette and Ben took photos. And then the warning vehicles, then the breakaway group, and then the peloton, all flashed by.  It was hard for the eye to pick out details (especially with glasses spotted with rain).  I don’t think I ever saw the yellow jersey, but still there, passing within five feet, in all its glory, Le Tour.  Though I have the pictures and the video, I never look at them.  My ears still hear the sound of many tires on a wet roadway.

BIO: R. F. Hamm grew up in Florida. He now lives in upstate New York where he works at a University.