My Tour of Corsica/ Le Tour de France

Two tours

This trip provided a new experience, for I was both an active and passive cyclist. While several hundred of the world's greatest distance bicyclists did their Tour de France - the 101st - I was doing my inaugural tour of Corsica - an island west of Italy, south of mainland France, currently administered by the latter as a double département. Or rather I rode only in the mornings - always starting off before 7 am (when the Tour athletes were surely snug in bed), when for me it was cooler and less sun-intense on Corsica, so that I could quit by noon, set up camp, shower, feed and find a tv for four hours of pleasurable passivity with a beer or two.

Usually when I'm riding, there's an imaginary bottle of wine a few meters in front of my nose, serving the role of the mechanical rabbit at the dog track, but this time there was also a tv, to be tuned to commercial-free France2's (their BBC/PBS, more or less) live feed. The Tour is a big media production with loads of folks in vehicles, on motos, in mobile studios and helicopters for the 70+ hour race.

Yes, it is a bit like watching grass grow, but after three+ weeks - comprising a prologue, twenty riding stages, the last of which is perfunctory, and three rest days - the grass at the end doesn't look exactly like what it started out as. Experiencing these subtle day-by-day changes is what makes Tour fanatics (I rarely watched tv alone).

The Comparison

There's really no comparison. My tour is so much more difficult. First, the equipment. I don't ride a $5,000 machine. I guess I'd go a bit faster if I did, but for that price I could have five of my Cannondale (On this trip one was enough - no flats, no mechanical problems). And all their fancy togs: color-coordinated jerseys, shorts, socks, caps, headbands, helmets; and someone doing the laundry every night, or maybe they just break out a new set of wear every day. When the athletes get thirsty, they don't have to hunt for a place to fill the water bottle (they carry only one; I lug around the equivalent of five). The Tourists just raise their hands and one of their support vehicles appears with water, juice, electrolyte, even cans of Coke. Lunch and snacks are provided by arm-extended roadside bagmen, and the cyclists snap up the sacks like the train spears the mailbag without ever slowing down. We both wear helmets, although one event on the Tour (against the mountain) was helmet-exempt and on two other occasions near the end of the day's race, when it got a bit hot and humid, the cyclists (such wimps!) just jettisoned their helmets to the spectators: $20,000+ worth of equipment for collectors, although I guess some of the support vehicles (riders are part of nine-man teams, each of which has several logo-coordinated cars and motos trailing along with spare bikes, wheels, water and food) tried to recapture their property from the fans - good luck!

And these kids - well not exactly kids; early thirties being about the peak for a distance cyclist - don't have much to worry about during the day's ride. Where to stay the night? Where to eat? White or red with dinner? Where to find an ATM? They have support teams - cooks, nutritionists, physio-therapists, mechanics, maids, butlers, significant others, groupies - so their minds are freed up to concentrate on the race.

And that's not all. There's the matter of baggage. I carry everything I need, about twenty kilos: tent, sleeping bag, the works. Their skimpy-framed bikes hold only the rider and a single water bottle. They never get lost, either. They don't even use maps. If you're one of the 'pack,' all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other, unless someone falls down and then you just fall with the gang, scramble to get up and go. Otherwise, you follow the crowd-lined road, and if there's ever any doubt, alternative exits are always blocked off. At times the spectators become rather massive (spectating is serious business: weekends bring out the loonies, the equivalent of European footy fans; loyalists stake our their roadside domains several days in advance, with rv's, tv hookup, etc.) and the route becomes the only meter-wide open space in front of you. In reality there is absolutely no way to get lost - or go seven kilometers in the wrong direction, as I did my second day on Corsica. It must be great to have so much encouragement, hundreds of thousands of fans cheering you on. I usually feel like I'm in the middle of nowhere (which is where I usually am), but sometimes when I'm on a busy national road, it's just like being on the Tour, which has scores of polluting team wagons and motos interlaced among the cyclists, including the resident Tour physician, who treats pedalling cyclists as they cling on to the moving doccar while he examines scrapes, cuts, pains, cramps, etc. Need an aspirin? Just ask. We watched on live tv as one cyclists was given ointment (I carry zinc oxide for just such an occasion) for crotch itch (French tv commentators called it a saddle problem), which was self-applied at 20 kph.

So which is more difficult? You be the judge. Just remember that these Tourists are well trained, full-time, professional athletes; they get paid for whatever pain and pleasure arrives at the end of the cycling day. Us other tourists just do it for the fun.

As for this year's Tour. My compatriot Lance Armstrong (yes, Europe, good things can come out of Texas), supported by his eight teammates from US Postal - Berry Floor, ran exactly the race he planned. Consequently, he won his sixth title, a record. In the early sprint, he came in second - this from a guy who is not supposed to be a sprinter. Then US Postal took the team event and Lance was beckoned by his front-pacing teammate to cross the line first so that he, Lance, could receive the yellow jersey, which represents the current first place hold for time. There are four other jerseys - ones for youth, hills and certain sprint events. After that Lance & Co. ran their race while a young Frenchman basically burned himself out while retaining the yellow jersey and media attention for a week. Then came the mountains of the Massif Central and Pyrénées, and Armstrong demolished the competition. On two separate days Lance passed a leading challenger on the finish line, proving he had hidden reserves that other cyclists could only dream about. By the end of the race, no one dared challenge him; the other cyclists probably found it wiser to conserve their energy for events later in the summer.

In a sport there may come a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. Someone who is so superior that the game or sport he or she plays is really not the game everyone else is playing. These champions are in a league all to themselves. They are their own, their only competition. In sports that use an object - a club or racket or stick - this extraordinary athlete seems to become one with the object. When I watch Lance Armstrong cycle, I don't see a person and a machine. They have formed a perfect union. And, add to this the fact that Mr. Armstrong is a cancer survivor and has established a foundation to help others survive cancer, what more can I say?

Cycling Corsica

I like cycling islands. Corsica proved no exception. Tourism is its major industry and I visited in the peak of the summer season, but I didn't find the crowds (mostly mainland French and Italians and British and German hikers) to be annoying. Corsica is different from other parts of France and has a smaller amount of the stuff that France excels in: innovative food and drink, museums and ruins. There is a severe identity problem - how could there not be given that "since the time of the Romans Corsica has witnessed 19 changes of overlords, 37 popular revolts and 7 spells of outright anarchy" (Rough Guide)? Some of the locals I talked with considered themselves Corsican first, French second. For decades there's been a steep emigration of youth. All in all, though, the island provides good cycling. It is the most mountainous island in the Mediterranean: 200 peaks at least two kilometers high. It is so rugged and so far removed that it is one of the few French départements, perhaps the only one, not visited by the other Tour.

Enough cycling for this year. Sardinia, Sicily, the Massif Central, East Europe, UK...the list never seems to get shorter.

My Route

Basically I went counter-clockwise, which on an island where you bike on the right (not Hokkaido, Ireland, Tasmania, etc.) offers the best seaviews.

From Sanary 13 kms to Toulon for the overnight ferry to Bastia; via Col de Teghime (536m) to St. Florent; via L'Ile-Rousse to Calvi (Christopher Columbus birthplace); to Porto; via Les Calanche and Piana (classified as one of France's 'most beautiful villages') to Ajaccio (Napoleon Boneparte birthplace and island's fine arts museum: it helps to be a Napoleon cultist for, for most, a little Bonaparte goes a long way); to Propriano; side trip to Sartène (often called the most Corsican of Corsican towns, a real delight - probably has the island's best wine); off the cyclists' haunt, inland via D19, D119, D268 to Zonza; to Solenzara and Ghisonaccia on the east coast via Col de Bavella (1218m); back inland via D344 and D69 via spectacular Défilé de l'Inzecca and Col de Sorba (1311m) surrounded by fire-devastated forests to Corte, a delightful town with a citadel and the Museum of Corsica, which could also be named "Museum in search of a national identity while ignoring such elements as clans, vendettas and terrorism/freedom fighting;" to Bastia via small roads D18, D5 past San Michele lonely church and Défilé de Lancone; around Cap Corse and its pleasant villages such as Erbalunga and others built inland and uphill a few kilometers, just enough to keep away pirates then and roving cyclists now; back to Bastia repeating Col de Taghime from the other direction. Two weeks, 860 kilometers. No aches or pains. Sunny, 25 - 30 degrees.