This is a continuation of Part 1 (read here).
As the sun cast long early morning shadows across the old village, I only had to share the road with municipal street cleaners. I set out for this “Bar L’oasis” across from the square… I arrived, tentatively peering around the corner as I made the turn onto the correct street… no one. Indeed, there was “L’Oasis” and the square… but no bikers. My clock still indicated that I was 6 minutes early… I surmised that others had determined that 7:30am was too early too and slowly moved the time later and later as the summer progressed. I made a quick lap around a few blocks and returned 5 minutes in arrears. Still no one.
“Oh well.” I thought as I punched in the course that I found on the internet that resembled the itinerary described on the website. “I’ll do the ride anyway.” [Note: Turns out there are 2 bars near the center of town named “L’Oasis” both bordering a central square and I had chosen the wrong one.]
The course I found online was from someone who lived outside the city so I had to navigate the first 15km or so myself. My Garmin directed me through some not-so-nice “Big Box” / Urban Sprawl areas but the traffic was non-existent at this hour. The early morning fog and clouds (the first “un-sunny” moment I’ve witnessed after the first few weeks) began to part, exposing the jagged mountains that cradle the city and the sea.
I got “on course” and began to notice very faint tire tracks on the shoulders of the road. “Could be fresh,” I thought to myself but then I remembered my regular route in Spain when one day someone tossed a soda out of their car window and the sugary drink inched it’s way down the slope of the road – and it was still there the next day, and the next, and the next week, and the week after that… The dry Mediterranean climate isn’t nearly the same as the climate I’m use to where the roads get a regular dose of cleansing rain. “These tire tracks could have been from last month.”
Just then I looked up to see a group of 20 or so riders dressed all in red and black. It was the group I had tried to meet with. I caught on to the back of the pack and just laid low for a while. The pace was pretty easy and I was having fun just scoping out the team and the riders. At this hour, there was not a lot of chit-chat among the group. A few of the riders near the back caught a glimpse of me and recognized I was a tag-along. I hoped they didn’t mind.
We made our way through a few small towns and passed through vineyards resting against the foothills of lush mountains that radiated green and gold in the morning light. The composition of the group was in keeping with the cycling demographic that I had noticed thus far as most cyclists are “seasoned veterans” to the sport. I actually think this is a great sign as most of these guys are muscular, strong, and fast… giving me confidence that I’ll be able to continue in the sport for years to come.
After a few turns that shuffled the pack, I found myself in the middle of the group. Soon we made a hard right turn and the road tilted upwards. This was the beginning of the climb that I had seen on the itinerary… Col du Babou. It wasn’t as big as the solo climbs I had been doing earlier in the week but by default it’s a good idea to give respect to anything with “Col, Gap, or Pass” in the name.
I decided to keep the pace of the wheel in front of me as I was a guest after all. However, one by one the wheel I chose to follow started rocking back and forth and the pace lost momentum and the riders ahead pulled away. I decided that it was socially acceptable to pass in this situation and stay with the leaders. Soon it was down to 4 of us. Then 3. Then just 2.
The guy I was climbing with certainly looked like an interesting character. He was very tall and muscular with a large tattoo band around his upper quadricep. I wondered if Popeye the sailor-man was inspired by Toulon sailors – they look like a tough bunch. After a few minutes I decided to ride side-by-side since I know I’m not a big fan of wheel suckers. We exchanged glances and I thought it might be polite to return the favor with setting the pace for a while. We wound our way around the sweeping curves, periodically interrupted with a quick view of the valley below. A goat could be heard saying hello from the valley. We continued to climb.
Suddenly, I saw a sign for the top but something was strange. After all this time deep in the country, I was surprised to see hundreds of people! “Wait, they’re all cyclists?!” I got to the top and before I could come to a complete stop a gentleman was greeting me with an outstretched arm,
“Bienvenu! Bienvenu! Venez vous quelque chose à manger. Avec quel club etes-vous?”
I paused for a moment, trying to figure out what exactly I had stumbled upon on this remote mountain pass. There were hundreds of brightly colored cyclists eating and drinking and chatting while an accordion blasted traditional music that elevated the energy level and the volume one had to speak to be heard.
“Pardonez-moi?” I said as I my heart rate was still racing.
“Avec quel club?” the energetic man asked.
“Oh, ummm, aucun.” Although I was riding with a club, I really couldn’t say I was part of their team.
“Vous parlez francais?” the man asked.
“Oui, un petit peu.”
“De quelle ville êtes-vous?” he asked.
I thought for a second and couldn’t quite gauge whether he wanted to know from where I was living locally and had cycled from or where I was originally from.
“Toulon,” I replied.
The man looked at me like I had just said something in Chinese.
I thought to myself, “Damn it, my french is so bad even people from the area can’t understand when I try to pronounce the biggest city.”
“Two-lonne,” I said with more focus on trying to be heard over the accordion music.
“Non, votre ville… en Angleterre ou en Allemagne,” he clarified.
“Ahhh, je comprend.. en Etats-Unis.”
“En Etats-Unis?! A quelle ville?” he asked.
“Oh.. c’est trop petite… mais, c’est dans le nord-est en Nouvelle Angleterre. Connaissez-vous?” Earlier in the week I had met someone who didn’t recognize state names but knew New England so I thought I would see if he also knew the region better than specific states.
He curled a brow and shook his head.
“C’est pres du Quebec.”
“Oh, d’accord! Je suis allé à San Francisco,” he exclaimed. “Venez, venez!” he shouted over the accordion music and told a lady with a notebook, “et un American” who diligently wrote it down in the notebook. The man was probably in his mid-50’s but had the energy of a college student throwing a back-to-school party at his frat house.
“Un Coca-cola pour l’American,” he shouted over the beverage table to the person in charge of pouring drinks. I smiled at this and accepted with great appreciation. There was a vast array of fresh breads, figs, prunes, and even wine available for the cyclists. I felt a little awkward because I think you should be a paying supporter of a club which probably helps to fund these little soirees so I didn’t want to indulge too much. The sun was beating down more brightly now and I couldn’t help but just stand back for a second in the shade next to the accordion player and smile at the craziness of it all.
Then it occured to me. It was 10am on a Tuesday. Ahhh, Provence in August!