The Bicycle Race

by G. N. MOORE

G. N. MOORE winters in the Austrian Arlberg and summers in France. This is his first appearance in the Atlantic.

I SAW my first French bicycle race with my neighbor, René Berny. He owns a bicycle shop here in our village of Javerlhac in the Dordogne; he is a racing fan and insisted that I come along because bike racing is worth the trouble — or, to translate literally the French phrase he used, “values the pain of being seen.” This turned out to sum things up nicely.

As we jogged in his Renault to the scene of the race, a fifty-mile stretch of road between Périgueux and Riberac, René explained that the race that day was the fifth leg of the tenday Route de France, during which the cyclists travel more than 1500 miles cross-country. There is a lap winner each day, and the overall winner is the cyclist whose total time for the ten laps is lowest.

Usually, René said, there is a mass start each day and the racers bunch up in a pack, those behind benefiting from the wind-breaking action of the leaders, but this day a short leg was to be pedaled against the stop watch, with individual starts at three-minute intervals. To preclude bunching up, or help of any kind, an official car would follow each racer.

We came to the racing route about ten miles from the finish. There were cars, motorcycles, trucks, bicycles, and people of all ages and sizes along the side of the road as far as you could see in either direction. Clumps of people were in the road, too — the path of the race — talking, shaking hands, eating sandwiches, drinking from quart bottles, or just standing. It was like Marathon Day, April 19, back home in Boston, only with much more eating and drinking. Children darted back and forth between the clumps. Parents ran after children, children ran after parents, and dogs ran after everybody.

A white-belted gendarme in the center of the crossroad made stern gestures now and then, his whitegloved hands cleaving the air. Periodically he would try to clear the road.

“Recoil, recoil!” he would shout. “Recoil yourselves!”

Nobody paid the slightest attention. We parked the Renault and joined the crowd.

Some of the men, many of the women, and all of the children wore paper hats on which was the advertisement

Drink

PERNOD 45

Refreshing!

Pernod, France’s most famous brand of green absinthe, certainly is refreshing; in fact, a few Pernods will refresh their imbiber to the point of insensibility.

René explained that the Pernod company was sponsoring this particular race. There would be, he said, a Pernod “caravan of publicity” during the race and a grand spectacle sponsored by Pernod after the race, in the neighboring village of Riberac.

When would the racers begin to appear?

“They already have,” said René. In fact, about seventy-five had passed our vantage point before we arrived. This made no difference, René assured me, as the best men are always given late starting numbers.

There was a distant tooting and a car came full speed up the road — a large, chauffeur-driven phaeton, covered with banners and streamers. In the back seat, a man wearing dark glasses and a checkered golf cap looked straight ahead, and as he passed our crossroad he saluted the gendarme without ceasing to look straight ahead.

The crowd cheered. René explained, “The director of France Soir, a man of the first importance.”

Other cars followed, containing people who evidently were of second or third importance because the cheering was mild. All cars bore Pernod banners, signs, and letterings.

“Pernod officials,” said Rene. “Part of the caravan of publicity.”

At last a sweating cyclist came into view, bent double. He wore shorts, a striped silk jersey, and a white cap. He was followed closely by an official car. On his back was

Route de France

168

PERNOD

There was scattered applause, far less than that accorded to the director of France Soir.

“Who was he?” I asked.

René didn’t know. Nobody knew, though one guess was that he was a Belgian. Nobody had a program.

“How was he doing?”

Nobody knew that either. “One will inform oneself later,” said René.

A large blue van, emblazoned with invitations to drink refreshing Pernod, came along. A loudspeaker on the van announced that the Pernod variety show would begin at 6 P.M. in Riberac and that admission was free

— which brought loud, sustained cheering.

A man in a dirty white bar coat bicycled up to the crossroad and wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve. A wire rack filled with quart bottles hung from the handlebars of his bicycle. He put down the rack in the middle of the road and, as the crowd surged around him, drew two tumblers from his coat pocket and began to dispense white wine from the bottles, He would fill the glasses, hand them to two customers, collect his money, retrieve the glasses, refill them, and hand them to the next two. For every six glasses he sold, he drank one himself. Finally he ran out of stock and pedaled slowly and unsteadily away.

Two more racers appeared, pedaling side by side. A shapeless woman standing next to me said she thought one of them was an Irishman.

“Which one?” I asked.

“Ah!” she said, shrugging.

The racing cyclists now went by at roughly three-minute intervals, each followed by an official car, then by other cars of varying sizes and ages. Officials outnumbered racers ten to one.

Sometimes officials were cheered, sometimes commented upon with such remarks as “There is Monsieur Ponteau, the assistant of the souspréfet of the Gendarmerie Nalionale in Angouleme!” The racers were less often cheered, sometimes completely ignored. Comments were rare, confined to statements like “How he sweats, that one!”

Meanwhile, we circulated. René knew everyone, and everyone knew René, and I was introduced to several dozen people who shook hands, offered hard-boiled eggs, liver pâté, cakes, candy, and white wine. Everyone agreed it was a wonderful race, though no one paid any attention to the racers and no one knew or seemed to care who was winning.

Suddenly a crowd murmur began to build up in volume and developed into a roar and heralded, not a newspaper director, but a bicyclist. As he drew abreast, the shouting reached a deafening peak.

“Allez, GOUJON!”

“Go, GOUJON!”

“Hurry, GOUJON!”

“Bravo, GOUJON!”

“Well done, GOUJON!”

“That was Goujon,” remarked René.

“I suspected as much.”

“Goujon comes from these parts.”

René talked to a small Frenchman with poached-egg eyes and a cigarette clinging impossibly to his lower lip. The subject was Goujon. “He defends himself well, our Goujon!” said the small man. “What tempo! What allure! ”

“A magnificent racer,"agreed René. “He will make himself regarded, that Goujon!”

Goujon had looked just like the other racers to me — a little more tired, perhaps; a little greener around the gills.

“Is he making that good time?” I asked, figuring that finally someone knew something. “Will he win?”

The poached-egg-eyed man turned them on me reproachfully. “It doesn’t concern itself with winning,” he said. “If is to defend oneself well.”

“The results will be in the newspaper tomorrow,” said René. “Goujon has passed and we will now go home.”

We left. On the way back, René asked me how I had liked my first bicycle race. “You were right, René,” I said. “It values the pain of being seen.”