Tour de France

Eddy Merckx pushing for the lead in the Tour de France, Summer 1974

In the summer of 1974 , the 61st edition of the Tour de France – one of cycling’s Grand Tours – took place. The race officials decided it was time for some real innovation, so they scheduled one stage in the UK near Plymouth, England. The stage and the race was won by the favourite, Belgian Eddy Merckx – his fifth in a row. (This occurred years before the great cheater Lance Armstrong dominated the race by replenishing his blood during every stage.) Quite by coincidence that summer, I had planned to take a long cycle trip to the continent and found myself in the middle of the world’s most famous bicycle race. I experienced  the following on the first day of my journey . . .  

Tour de France


J. P. McEvoy

June 1974

While cycling on the D7 along the northern coast of Brittany, I discovered a most beautiful expanse of white sand near Plouescat. It was so inviting that I turned off the main road toward the sea. Shortly thereafter, I was forced to carry my cycle, avec panniers, across an enormous sand dune and onto the beach. It was low tide. At the edge of the water, turquoise blue and glimmering in the mid-day sun, the sand was firm. I put the cycle down and soon realised that I could stroll along the water’s edge, rolling the cycle easily. I knew a risk was involved as the consistency of a sandy beach prepared by the sea is not as predictable as highway D7. Yet, it was worth a gamble as the visual delights ahead (cliffs, dunes, miles of empty beach, blue water) gave me a heady sense of abandon. 

The Beach at Plouescat

The wind off the bay caused the kinds of sensations in my body which make one feel several times more alive than usual – like having twelve senses. Such feelings always involve bodily motion and rhythm – dancing, singing, love-making and cycling. I was sighing under my breath– happy. I began to sing. I could not see another human being. Except for the church spire in the village in Plouescat off in the distance, I could have been on another planet blessed with the miracle of water. A loud splash startled me. I turned and watched a sea gull fall like a rock into the surf. One, twice, three times before successfully acquiring his mid-day meal. 

Suddenly, I felt the imaginary presence of someone next to me. I could not make out who it was. I began to wonder who should be here with me. 

About a mile away, I spotted a young woman with two small children playing at the water’s edge. Slowly, I rolled my cycle towards them trying to imagine the impression I would make. Sunglasses, jeans and sneakers – with a racing cycle on the beach. She might surmise that I was a delirious drop-out from Tour de France which was passing nearby this very day on the road from Brest to Roscoff. I passed without incident, other than the mouth-opened stares of two small children. “Bonjour Madame.” “Bonjour Monsieur.”

As I approached the point, the sand began to give way. Although still pure white and virginal, it could no longer support the cycle nor indeed, my own weight. I began to walk like a duck which I learned as a fourteen year-old beach umbrella salesman on the Southern Atlantic Coast of New Jersey. It became a chore to go on as the moist sand, piled high by the recent tide, gave less and less support. My fantasy world began to collapse about me and I was thrust back into the uneasy tension of the real world. I thought of the dull, firm D7. Exhausted, I sat down – smiling like Peter O’Toole in the desert. Again I wondered who should be here with me. 

I was determined to push on. I was determined not retrace my steps nor climb over the dunes, which by now were small hills. Dripping with perspiration – pulling and pushing and carrying the cycle as one might a lame pony – I finally reached the end of the sand. What should I find but a marshy plateau, surfaced by the escaping tide, which I would have to cross. I had to carry the cycle – now much heavier than before — some 300 meters through the marsh. My sneakers soon disappeared in the mud. I rolled up my jeans in an attempt to re-coup some self-respect. However, the stickers and other abrasive vegetation forced me not only to roll them down into the mud but use my cycle clips as well to fashion a pair of denim ‘Wellingtons’. A snake slid between my legs without raising an eyebrow (mine i.e. not his!) and I was down to about two senses. Yet, I continued to wonder who should be here with me. 

After a still more frustrating detour to avoid what looked to me like the continental shelf, I finally reached dry, firm soil. I climbed up an embankment by a small bridge onto a most pleasant footpath which lead into the village. As I finally placed the cycle down on the ground (Is it a mirage?), I decided I would never feel guilty letting this delicate machine carry me anywhere again. 

I sat by the bridge and cleaned my feet. After a swallow of Muscadet from my flask, a slice of Camembert, and five or six juicy plums, I laid back in the soft grass and let the bright sun galvanise my disposition. I noticed that the bridge was quite beautiful, made up of granite blocks and containing an ancient wooden paddle wheel to indicate the direction of the tidal flow. The sea was now returning as the earth’s motion changed the position of the sun and moon relative to the meridian. The marsh would soon be a dark pool of water. Birds were singing and the reflections of the sun off the water produced strange dancing images through my Polaroid lenses, like a mild ‘acid’ trip. I was once again at peace with the earth. Suddenly, the introspection caused by the intense concentration of the last hour had cleared my mind. I now knew who should have been with me …. my twelve year-old son, Michael. 

He would not have been concerned with regulations regarding cycling on the beach. After all, he was with his Dad! He would not have been embarrassed to sing and sigh and study the seagulls with me. He would have trusted my inclinations to wander along the beach fully accepting that something might go wrong. He would not have complained at all about the sinking sand and the mud in the marsh. This young, lithe body would have been able to carry his cycle without my help, or my worry. And I would not have needed to say, “I told you everything would be all right” when we finally discovered the bridge. He would not only have endured but would have been interested in the short lecture on tidal forces which I surely would have given as we rested by the bridge.  How grown up he would have felt when I offered a drop of Muscadet from my flask. It would not have been an ordeal for him and he, in fact, would have wished to be there. And as we sat in that green pasture by the footpath, resting in the warm sun, he might have said – “That was great….Dad.”

The senses of a young boy like Michael — precocious, pre-adolescent and innocent are not finite. They are constantly being created and developed like the cells of the body. He has known the sensations I described here – he has sung and danced and cycled — and will soon discover love-making. It is then that he will leave me with a caress and an understanding of these things I have written about the bicycle trip we should have taken together. 

Twenty-five years later still on my bicycle

11 thoughts on “Tour de France”

  1. Wonderful account, Joe. I’m grateful that Susan and I had our own French cycling adventure with you, Pat, and Mark in 1980. You certainly took us on a detour or two.

  2. This posting may be my favorite to date. I can see it, smell it, feel it…It is you down to the ground…and thoughts of the 12 year old Michael…All this would have been a few years before we all met in Sept of ’77…the life you have led….My God, the life we have all led…too sublime, all together! xoxooxMary

  3. A wonderful recollection. I hope you included your sons on other trips. My son and I used to do a two and a half hour ride in the foothills behind Palo Alto. They are fortunately still in my memory.

  4. Joe – that is wonderful !!! You described everything so beautifully. I loved reading it (….love reading all your blogs ) …this one was particularly poignant. Xxx

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