Sunday, May 15, 2011

Les Forçats de la Route

When I woke up this morning at 7am, it was 58 degrees and raining. Not ideal cycling weather. But I was anxious to get out on the road and get a medium-length ride in. Because of work and travel, I haven't been able to put in a 50+ mile ride in the past couple of weeks and today was the only day I had available until next weekend.

So I stared out the window as the rain came down. I watched the weather websites to figure out if there would be a break in the rain that would be long enough for me to get out for a ride. Instead, it started to rain harder. At 8am, it had turned into a torrential downpour. I started to get antsy but the weather radar showed that I might have a chance after 9am. At least by then, the heaviest of rain will have passed through.

At 9am, it was still raining. But by 9:15, it had turned into a light drizzle. I quickly changed into my cycling gear, hopped on my bike, and started rolling.

And then I realized... I had become one of Les Forçats de la Route.

Les Forçats de la Route was a color piece written by Albert Londres for Le Petit Parisien during the 1924 Tour de France. It covered an incident where three riders abandoned the Tour because Henri Desgrange would not let them remove jerseys when the sun came up. (Riders used to wear several jerseys to try to stay warm.) The piece was largely written as a dialogue, of which a short section appears below (courtesy of Wikipedia):

"You wouldn't believe that all this is about nothing more than a few jerseys. This morning, in Cherbourg, a race official came up to me and without a word, he pulled up my jersey to check that I'm not wearing two. What would you say if I pulled open your waistcoat to see if your shirt was clean? That's the way these people behave and I won't stand for it. That's what this is all about."
"But what if you were wearing two jerseys?"
"That's the point. If I want to, I can wear 15. What I can't do is start with two and finish with only one."
"Why not?"
"Because that's the rule. We don't only have to work like donkeys, we have to freeze or suffocate as well. Apparently that's an important part of the sport. So I went off to find Desgrange. 'I can't throw my jersey on the road, then?' 'No,' he said, 'you can't throw away anything provided by the organisation.' 'But this isn't the organisation's—it's mine.'
"'I don't conduct arguments in the street,' he said. 'OK,' I said, 'if you're not prepared to talk about it in the street, I'm going back to bed.'
"'We'll sort it all out in Brest', he said. It will definitely be sorted out in Brest, I said, because I'm quitting. And I did."

Pélissier went to his brother, Francis, told him his decision and encouraged him to do the same. Francis said that suited him because he had a bad stomach and no enthusiasm for racing. Ville said he hadn't been part of the strike but that the other two had picked him up along the road. He was too tired to go on, he said.

"You have no idea what the Tour de France is,' Henri said. "It's a calvary. And what's more, the way to the cross only had 14 stations — we've got 15. We suffer on the road. But do you want to see how we keep going? Wait...'
From his bag he takes a phial. "That, that's cocaine for our eyes and chloroform for our gums..."
"Here," said Ville, tipping out the contents of his bag, "horse liniment to keep my knees warm. And pills? You want to see the pills?" They got out three boxes apiece.
"In short," said Francis, "we run on dynamite.'
Henri takes up the story. "You ever seen the baths at the finish? It's worth buying a ticket. You go in plastered with mud and you come out as white as a sheet. We're drained all the time by diarrhoea. Have a look at the water. We can't sleep at night. We're twitching as if we've got St Vitus's Dance. You see my shoelaces? They're leather, as hard as nails, but they're always breaking. So imagine what happens to our skin. And our toenails. I've lost six. They fall off a bit at a time all through the stage. They wouldn't treat mules the way we're treated. We're not weaklings, but my God, they treat us so brutally. And if I so much as stick a newspaper under my jersey at the start, they check to see it's still there at the finish. One day they'll start putting lumps of lead in our pocket because God made men too light."

Nowadays, the term les forçats de la route, roughly translated as "prisoners of the road", is used to describe those of us who are imprisoned by the passion of cycling. Yearning for the freedom of the road yet always stuck behind bars. Doing whatever we can to get outside and turn those pedals over, even in weather that encourages us to stay in bed.

And what are our rewards? Scenery like this.... roads silenced by the fog and rain that I only had to share with a few errant raindrops and the damp morning air.

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