Mean streets

I sometimes ponder the problem of cycling’s popularity and the paradoxical difficulty of making a living by supporting it. Local bike shops are increasingly hard to find, because even something as personal and specific as buying a bicycle or cycle clothing is these days an online transaction. I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I look at the clothing on display in a cycle shop and it doesn’t appeal, so I look online for something less logo-festooned and more stylish.

Even around here (France), in the country of cycling, local bike shops are rare. One I was planning to visit closed down before I ever could. Another one never seems to be open. Another seems to cater only for mountain bikes. There’s one nearby who has a few bikes, but mainly sells lawnmowers. There is one in Lure I think is still open, but it smells of BO.

But you see more of them around, cyclists, and there is a phenomenon of middle aged well-heeled people investing in the kind of bike that a few years ago only a pro would ride. As far as I can recall, when Lance Armstrong cheated his way to his first TDF win, back in the 90s, he was on a steel framed bicycle. These days, even fat old gits like me are riding carbon frames, and steel, of course, has become more of a luxury.

Since the Tour visited Plancher for the first time in 2012, I’ve seen a phenomenal increase in the number of cyclists on the roads around here. When I went out early on Sunday, I was overtaken by a group ride, and saw several other soloists. By the time we drove up to La Planche des Belles Filles (which was the Stage 10 finish again this year) there were loads of cyclists on the road, many of them struggling with the gradient up to La Planche.

Of legend, cyclists are keen on cake and coffee, so you’d think, wouldn’t you, that after struggling up that mountain (and believe me, it’s a brutal, if relatively short climb as these things go), that it would be natural to pause at the top of a coffee and a beignet or something.

We drove up, took a picnic with us, and I watched as a succession of exhausted riders struggled up the (unnecessary and cruel) final 400 metres to the finish line. Saw one guy on a mountain bike put his bike by the commemorative sign and take a photo. Though about offering to take the picture with him in it, but didn’t. He then, after a short rest, got back on his bike and went off, even further up the hill on the gravel track, zig-zagging exhaustedly to flatten the gradient (you can see the track in question in the photo above, cutting across the green of the ski slope). Others arrived, paused, and then set off straight back down the hill. One pair appeared to have just a couple of plastic mineral water bottles between them, not even a proper bidon with an energy drink.

After our picnic, we went down and sat at the little café while the kids played on the new luge, one of the newer summer attractions that the basic ski station of La Planche didn’t bother with before.

In fact, this café is very new itself. Previously, there was one, further up the slope, a vast sprawling and impersonal space with surly staff and unattractive decor. You could get a coffee or a hot chocolate there, but even at the height of the ski season, not many people did.

Maybe skiers are like cyclists?

But that place burned down (see picture above), somewhat mysteriously, on the eve of this year’s Tour, and at the very end of the owner’s lease. Huh. Which leaves the little Buvette, which has (at least) toilets, and the facility to pay for time on the little summer luge or to hire one of the scooters to whizz down the grassy slopes. As we sat there drinking coffee, I remarked to my brother-in-law Munz that it seemed remarkable that more of the cyclists weren’t stopping for a coffee and a cake. So we sat longer and waited for even one of the many cyclists to stop and partake.

Finally, a couple of them clomped up the slope in their cleats and/or socks, and went to the counter. Munz pointed them out.

“See? Some of the cyclists do stop.”

But then I watched them for a minute and pointed out that the two of them were sharing one Coke. That’s it. No coffee, no cake, no ice cream. One can of Coke, between two. There were two more cyclists in the same party, and they just waited at the bottom of the slope for their friends to finish their Coke.

So, I appreciate the difficulty of carrying cash on a bike. What are you gonna do with it? Some people advise you to roll up a €10 note and stick it up your handlebar. You could put it in a pocket, but sweat would dampen it, as it would a wallet. You could have a little saddle bag, but not everybody does, even though it seems crazy to leave home without an emergency inner tube and tools.

So that seems to be it. Once you’ve forked over a few grand on a decent bike and another couple of hundred euros on the clothes and shoes, you’re maybe not inclined to support the local economy by stopping for a coffee? It seems odd. The Tour has attracted vast numbers of people to the village for the challenge of La Planche, and you could certainly spend a week or so around here, what with the Ballon d’Alsace, the Ballon de Servance, and the Col de Chevrères at Belfahy. People stop to fill their water bottles at the (free) local fountain, but they don’t stop at the Casino or the bakery.

Tight fisted bastards, cyclists.

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