At Mont St Michel

May 4, 2022

Back in our mid-twenties, my fiancée and I were riding our bikes across western France. Our finish line was the small city of Loudéac, where Fée’s brother was about to marry his first wife. The bikes were vintage. The rusty chains squealed in protest (they were French) with each turn of the pedals. The handlebars had a meter of give, maybe more, which made steering a vague effort of unforeseen consequence. The tires were soft. The seats were hard. But it was heaven, and I would not trade those visits to Mont. St. Michel and St. Malo for anything in the world. Nor the moment when the gendarme stopped us at an empty crossroads — many kilometers from our ride’s next objective — and made us dismount.

My French was good enough to understand that we were forbidden to ride further. Until when?” Fée asked, summoning her most intimidating native indignation. Qu’est-ce qui se passe?

Mademoiselle,” the gendarme replied patiently, c’est la Tour de France.

Fée started to protest that we just needed to cross the road and we’d get the hell out of the way, but I knew a good story when it started. Let’s wait,” I said. We’re not in a hurry.”

The gendarme permitted us to walk our bikes toward a lonely brick building we could see just down the road, a small café with two empty bistro tables beneath a weathered green awning. We had found front row seats for what turned out to be the most exhilarating spectacle I had ever experienced in my young life. And there was beer, which we were happy to purchase once the the proprietor permitted us to eat our sack lunches — fresh tomato, cold rotisserie chicken and a can of sweet corn.

Photo by Yohann LIBOT on Unsplash

The race caravan came first — a two-hour parade of sponsor vehicles tooting their horns, carrying rooftop dancers who tossed candy and trinkets at our feet. Then for a moment all went quiet, the calm before the storm. The café proprietor came out to join us. In the distance rose the distinctive klaxon of the Garde Républicaine motorcycles that escorted the race, changing in pitch as they raced toward us. Because we were only about 25 kilometers from the finish, as it turned out, on a very flat stage, the racers — numbering just under 200 — passed us in a single peloton. I remember it feeling like a bullet training passing very close — so fast you could not make out any particular detail, just streaks of bright primary colors, generating a giant whoosh that was as much felt as heard.

The finish was in Mont. St. Michel, which was also our destination for the evening. We quaffed our beer, paid our bill and climbed back on those ungodly bikes. The gendarme was long gone and the road was reopened to traffic.

I’d later learn it took the peloton about a half-hour to finish the stage from the point it passed us by. But for a couple of dilettante cyclotouristes on their way to a wedding on the weekend, the route was our afternoon itinerary. We stopped frequently on that early July day, enjoying the summer warmth, the salt-infused sea breeze and the vast, fragrant meadows of wildflowers that lined the road to Mont St. Michel.

As we neared that ancient, walled island city, the afternoon light just beginning to pale, we were overtaken by one of the caravan vehicles careening off for the next day’s stage. I want to say it was advertising Haribo candy, but I’m not really sure. Details sometimes sneak in when memory, like a French Atlantic day, begins to fade.

Attention! Attention! cried a voice over a loudspeaker mounted to the top of the van. Voila l’échappée!

What did he say?” I cried out to my fiancée.

He says we are in the breakaway!” she laughed. He says we are winning the Tour de France!”

Not all memories fade. At least, not the ones that make us who we have come to be. To this day, I have never again beheld such a moment of pure beauty, an image that made the racing peloton’s fleeting passage pale and ordinary by comparison. Fée’s face shone bright in the dusky light, her blond pony-tail frazzled by the day’s lingering humidity, a hint of sweat on her glistening cheeks. I felt enveloped by unmerited grace — that sudden and undeserved flush of joy — and recognized in that moment the ineluctable destination of this journey I’d set out on.

Here’s a backlink to Post 2. And another to Post 4

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© 2022 John Beaudoin