That Time I Covered the Tour de France, Interviewed Davis Phinney and Watched the 7-11 Boys Eat

It’s was 1988, and I was in Nice. The sports editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer finally decided, after weeks of hemming and hawing, that he wanted me to cover a few days of the Tour de France. Starting in Bordeaux. Where the day’s race would end. Editors! I don’t think he understood Nice and Bordeaux where on opposite ends of the country. So, I took the overnight train from Nice and …

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Fortunately, there was a shower in the Bordeaux train station. And, for a train-station shower, it was pretty nice. I paid, showered and emerged feeling somewhat clean, sort of awake and excited to be in Bordeaux to cover the Tour de France. But a bit disoriented. Even more disoriented when I finally figured out that while my map of the Tour, which I’d torn out of the International Herald Tribune newspaper, said the Tour finished in Bordeaux, it didn’t actually finish in the center of Bordeaux. The finish line of the day’s 123-mile race from Pau was somewhere near Bordeaux, at some sort of lake resort town.

Now remember: It’s 1988 and there’s no internet. Or smart phones. How did we survive? How did we find things and places?

I think I took a bus to the lake town (my memories of getting there and where it was are quite fuzzy) where the race would finish, arriving at 10 a.m. Which was a couple hours before the day’s race had even began. Actually, there were two separate races that day, a bit of a rarity and something they don’t do any more. The first was 22 miles from Luz Ardiden to Pau. And then 123 miles from Pau to the lake near Bordeaux.

In other words, I had several hours to kill and, once again, no smart phone. I found the finish line, which was a ghost town. Nobody was there, except a few workers setting up the fences that line the final kilometer or two of the course. Found a bench, and took a nap, like some sort of homeless sportswriter.

A little after noon, things began happening. People arrived, tents and stands were erected. I found the press tent, showed my Philadelphia Inquirer press card and … nothing. They’d never heard of me. There wasn’t a press credential with my name on it waiting for me.

My editor had never called to set it up as he’d said he would do. Editors!

Uh-oh, I was in trouble. No access, no story. Finally, after pleading with one of the press guys, and standing there in silence while he lectured me, he waved me in. And gave me a credential. That would never happen these days.

Photo by Chris Peeters on Pexels.com

And so, I spent the next several hours watching the Tour on the TVs in the tent, while a friendly reporter from Belgium filled me in on what I needed to know. There was a large table filled with food, and, famished, as I hadn’t eaten since the night before, I scarfed down as much as I could without drawing attention to myself. The key is to only take a little bit at a time, but to make several trips. I set the record: 24 trips. Nobody noticed. Except the the guy from Belgium sitting next to me.

Finally, the peloton arrived, in mass, a colorful flash of bikes and jerseys. Dutch rider Jean-Paul Von Poppel won the sprint finish. I’d been hoping that David Phinney, an American sprinter, who’d won the stage into Bordeaux in 1987, would somehow win again. That would have made for a great story. Phinney finished seventh.

I followed the swarm of reporters, who moved in a giant mass, out of the tent, and then split, amoeba-style, into two packs: One to interview Von Poppel, the other moving inexorably toward Pedro Delgado, the Spanish rider who was the Tour’s overall leader.

Off I went in search of Phinney, as it made more sense for me to interview and quote an American. The 7-11 team was the “American” team and included Phinney, Bob Roll, Andy Hampsten and Ron Keifel. They were the brash, bold young Americans, taking on the more experienced European teams. And the 7-11 boys were doing quite well. Phinney won a stage in 1986 and 1987; Hampsten finished fourth overall in the 1986 Tour; Jeff Pierce won a stage in the 1987 Tour.

Somehow, I found the hotel where the 7-11 team was staying. They were eating dinner by the time I found them and nobody stopped me as I entered. Here’s what I remember: A long table filled with heaping mounds of food. Giant piles of pasta. I approached Phinney, who was kind enough to agree to meet me in the lobby for an interview after he ate a few more pounds of food.

“This race is one of the most physically demanding events there is,” Phinney said. “You just have to reach down and come up with whatever you have left to get through the day.”

Each day, he said, consists of: Rising early and eating breakfast, a warm-up ride, more food, and the day’s race, which is usually four to six hours long. Then it’s back to the hotel, which is hopefully close to the finish, for a massage, a huge, carb-filled meal, then back to your room to wash out your dirty bike kit (clothes) in the sink, hang them up to dry, and, finally, go to sleep and get up early the next morning to do it all over again.

I’m pretty sure, these days, the riders no longer have to wash out their bike clothes in the sink and hang them up to dry in their hotel rooms. Can you imagine Lance washing his own stinky bike jersey in the sink? I can’t. Unfortunately, we Cyclotourists have to do sink laundry.

“I’ve seen guys who have done this (race) for 10 years and it shows on their faces,” said Phinney, who was 28 at the time. “Sean Kelly (an Irish rider) is 32, but he looks 45. I hope I have enough sense to quit before that happens to me.”

I raced back to the press tent and wrote my story, by hand, in a notebook. With the help of the handouts. The handouts included all the results and quotes from the leaders, in several different languages.

Now remember, it’s 1988. How was I to get my handwritten story from France to Philadelphia? I raced over to a hotel, and made a phone call. Back then, many hotels had a couple of telephone booths somewhere in or near the lobby. You’d give someone at the desk the number you wanted to call, they’d tell you which booth to wait in, the phone would ring, and you’d pick it up and start talking.

Trust me, nobody on the sports desk of the Inquirer wanted to be the one stuck taking my call, and typing the story I read into the computer (yes, we had early-version computers back then). This is a crappy assignment under normal circumstances, and even harder in this instance, as my story contained a lot of hard-to-spell words and names. For example:

V-o-n-space-p-o-p-p-e-l

A-l-p-e-space-d-apostrophe-h-u-e-z.

FYI (1): Two days later the news broke that Delgado was doping. He tested positive for phobenicid, which is used to mask anabolic steroids. While phobenicib was already on the banned list for the Olympics, it hadn’t yet been added to the banned list of the International Cycling Union. Delgado was allowed to continue. He won the Tour, but it was a tainted win.

FYI (2): Phinney never won another stage of the Tour de France. He did have a long and successful cycling career, finishing with 328 total wins, the most by any American. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1999. Here’s what sticks out in my memory about him: A really nice guy.

FYI (3): I did a Bordeaux ride in 2018, and looked for the town on the lake where this 1988 state of the tour ended. My best guess was Lacanau, maybe Arcachon (a bay more than a lake) but when I got there … nothing. Nothing seemed to jog my memory. Nothing seemed familiar. I just spent several minutes searching the internet, but no luck. Every website and story says that this stage ended in Bordeaux. But it didn’t end in Bordeaux, I’m sure of it. Unless I’m caught in The Twilight Zone – The Tour de France episode. 

Do You Know the Story of Paul de Vivie (1853 – 1930), the Inventor of Cyclotourisme?

Sometimes fate – and a Michelin map – lead you and your bike exactly where you were meant to be. In this case, it was the outskirts of Pernes-les-Fontaines in Provence, where I saw this statue …

“Wow, this guy must really like cycling,” I thought, as I stopped and took a couple photos. 

It turns out that Paul de Vivie (1853-1930) was totally into cycling and may have been the original cycling fanatic! He’s pretty much the inventor of long-distance bike tours, or, as he so eloquently and eternally named the thing we love to do: Cyclotourisme. 

Paul (we’re fellow cyclotourists, so I feel comfortable calling him Paul), was also one of the developers of the derailer system to change gears and make cycling so much more efficient; he started his own bike-building company (his bikes were called La Gauloise); published Le Cycliste magazine in the 1880s (it lasted into the 1970s); and wrote under the nom de plume of Velocio in his magazine.

I know: Paul/Velocio was the coolest guy ever!

Here’s what he wrote about riding: 

After a long day on my bicycle, I feel refreshed, cleansed, purified. I feel that I have established contact with my environment and that I am at peace. On days like that I am permeated with a profound gratitude for my bicycle.”

Exactly! 

This kindred spirit from the early days of the pedal revolution perfectly summed up the joys of cyclotourisme – and the intimate connection between man/woman and machine. There’s no need to try to improve upon what Paul/Velocio wrote, he nailed it. What he said is why we ride.

Here’s something else he wrote: 

My aim is to show that long rides of hundreds of miles with only an occasional stop are no strain on the healthy organism. To prove this point is not only a pleasure, it is a duty for me. 

And so, he went on really long rides. Often.

According to this story: “His serious cycling started in 1886 on a Eureka with solid rubber tires (pneumatics came in 1889). On this bicycle he rode 90 miles from Saint-Etienne to Vichy before noon. In 1889 he made his first 150-miler, a round trip from Saint -Etienne to Charlieu on a British Star weighing fifty-five pounds … Sometimes alone, sometimes with a small group of friends, he would ride through the night, through the second day, through the second night, and into the third day without more than occasional rest to eat or change clothes.”

The Velocio was a beast! I wonder I could keep up with him, on my all-carbon bike?

He rode the Alp mountain passes in 1900: 400 miles, 18,000 feet of climbing in 48 hours; he rode from Saint-Etienne to Menton and back, 600 miles, in four days, in 1903; he rode 350 miles to Nice in 32 hours, then immediately departed on a “leisurely” 250-mile, three-day ride with some friends. I wonder who led the pack?

Every cyclist between twenty and sixty in good health can ride 130 miles in a day with 600 feet of climbing, provided he eats properly and provided he has the proper bicycle.

To prove his point, in 1912, at the age of 59, he rode the 400 miles from Saint-Etienne to Aix-en-Provence in 46 hours. 

Now remember, riding hundreds of miles was a lot tougher back then. The roads were paved with, well, dirt, rocks and gravel, making Paul/Velocio one of the founders of gravel grinding. The bikes were heavy; the tires were wide, the brakes were, I presume, not so great at braking, which made descending a white-knuckle, adrenaline-fueled adventure. And: no energy bars or sports drinks. It seems Paul/Velocio was also a bit of a health fanatic, and didn’t smoke or drink, which made him quite an anomaly for the times. He didn’t eat meat, which was even more of an anomaly. What the heck did he carry along with him to eat and drink? 

Paul/Velocio also developed what are referred to as the Seven Commandments for the Wise Cyclist. And damn, if they don’t still hold true today, more than 100 years later. Let’s go through them, one by one.

1-Keep your stops short and few. 

2-Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty. You can’t argue with science

3-Never get too tired to eat or sleep. I’ve never been too tired to eat! 

4-Add a layer before you’re cold, take one off before you’re hot. No spandex of gortex back then.

5-Lay off wine, meat and tobacco on tour. Thank goodness he didn’t mention beer!

6-Ride within yourself, especially in the first hour. Yes, it’s called pacing … and he did it without a bike computer, Garmin or GPS.

7-Never show off. Uh-oh, I don’t think Peter Sagan knows of this one.

There’s a sad ending to the story: Paul/Velocio was killed on February 27, 1930 when he was hit by a tram while wheeling his bike across a busy street in St-Etienne. 

Here’s one final quote from our hero …

I will never forget the day I climbed the Puy Mary. There were two of us on a fine day in May. We started in the sunshine and stripped to the waist. Halfway, clouds enveloped us and the temperature tumbled. Gradually it got colder and wetter, but we did not notice it. In fact, it heightened our pleasure. We did not bother to put on our jackets or our capes, and we arrived at the little hotel at the top with rivulets of rain and sweat running down our sides. I tingled from top to bottom.

OK, if I didn’t already feel a connection to Paul/Velocio, there’s this: The Puy Mary is at the top of my biking bucket list, one of the highlights of the Sarlat to Avignon route I’ve mapped out and am determined to ride. And now, when I get to the summit of the Puy Mary, I will tip my cycling helmet to my friend and thank him for inventing cyclotourisme.

My First Mont Ventoux Attempt (1995)

“It is like the moon,” Remy said of the top of the nearby Mont Ventoux, which he and his wife, Evelyn, had visited earlier in the day. In their car.

It was July 29, 1995 (25 years ago! how is this possible) and we were in the little hilltop village of Seguret in Provence. And, like so many other things in life that seem like a good idea at the time, it began with alcohol. Lots of red wine at the combination Auberge de Jeunesse and hotel in Seguret where Susan and I were staying. 

Remy’s English wasn’t very good, but definitely got better the more he drank. And Remy was a world-class wine drinker. 

FYI: Increased wine consumption doesn’t improve my French. And my English gets a little slurred.

“Is it possible to ride up on a bike?” I asked, certain the answer was no. I didn’t know much about Mont Ventoux back then. I had no idea it’s considered the toughest, most leg-shattering, lung-searing climb in the Tour de France. Or that French philosopher and bike-racing fan Roland Barthes called the Ventoux “a god of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering.” Or that Tom Simpson, a British professional cyclist, died trying to climb the Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France. His last words were supposedly “put me back on my bike.”

Perhaps ignorance was bliss, especially the Simpson part.

I had no idea cycling fanatics from all over France, Europe and beyond come to Provence to climb the Ventoux. It’s a 21-kilomter (an unlucky 13 miles?) climb. “It is like this,” Remy said of the road to the top, holding his hand and arm at a steep angle.

“We saw many people riding on their bicycles,” Evelyn added.

“How many” I asked.

“Thirty or 40 people, maybe more,” Remy said.

I looked over at Susan, who immediately knew what I was thinking. She smiled and shrugged, knowing it was too late to stop me.

The Ventoux is 1,909 meters (6,273 feet) high. The highest I’d ever climbed before, on a bike, was 996 meters (3,267 feet). This was almost twice as high. (The mountain seems to have shrunk and the sign at the top now says it’s 1,909 meters high).

There are three ways up the Ventoux: From the base town of Malaucene, on the western foothills of the mountain and the closest base town to Seguret; from Bedoin, to the south; and from Sault, to the east. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Bedoin route is considered the toughest, and is the one they do in the Tour de France. The Malaucene route – the way I was going as it was the closest base town from Seguret – is considered a little-less difficult, but not by much. The Sault route is the easy one, with easy being a relative term.

 (Here’s the link to my Biking Provnce eBook)                                       

                       ***

August 1, 1995: The ride from Seguret to Malaucene is an easy 20 kilometers (12.3 miles). I hit town and the start of the climb at about 9 a.m. “OK, it’s only 21 kilometers to go to the top,” I told myself. “That’s not too far. How hard can it be?”

On many of the roads in France, especially the smaller and more rural rues I sought and rode, there’s a marker every kilometer that often tells you the distance to the next substantial town. The D974 road I was on, had these signposts, with the distance remaining to the summit, as well as the altitude. The first marker said the summit was 20 kilometers away and my current altitude was 366 meters. I did some math in my head. “That’s only 1,500 or 1,600 meters of climbing to go, a mere mile, spread out over 20 kilometers,” I told myself, trying to sound optimistic. And confident. “No problem.”

The first two kilometers are kind of easy. Only 4.5 percent. And then, the fun begins. The next two kilometers are 9.0 and 7.5 percent. My thighs began to burn, it was hard to suck in enough air to fill my lungs and giant beads of sweat began rolling down from the top of my head and running into my eyes – and started to sting like crazy. I kept going slower and slower, and soon my speed was down to four or five miles an hour, so slow that it felt as if I was about to lose all my forward momentum and topple over. I kept going. Pedal stroke by pedal stroke, through several switch-back turns.

With 11 kilometers to go, I hit the hardest section of the ride: Four consecutive kilometers of 9.5 percent. Ouch. As I struggled and sweated, two guys on the way down flew past, shouting something encouraging. In French, I think. These were the first two cyclists I’d seen all day.

With 10 kilometers to go, the signpost said I was at 1,041 meters. I was over finally 1,000 meters and a little more than halfway there. There was some light at the end of the tunnel. I started believing I could actually do this. And, believing you can do it is half the battle, as climbing is as much psychological as it is physical. Like that episode of Gilligan’s Island, the one where Gilligan made a set of wings out of some feathers he’s found and is flying. He’s actually flying. And then the Skipper has to go and tell him he can’t fly.

“I can’t?” Gilligan says, despite the fact that he’s flying.

“Of course not,” Skipper says.

And with that, Gilligan, who no longer believes he can fly, crashes to the ground, landing on top of the Skipper, who then chases him around, swatting at his head with his hat.

“Screw you Skipper,” I said as I continued to slowly fly up this mountain. “I’m gonna make it.”

A couple hundred meters later, a cyclist came up from behind, passed me and slowly pulled away. Normally, this would have sparked my competitive streak and I would have been up, out of the saddle, trying to catch him. Or her. Not today. I was in survival mode.

The four-kilometer stretch of doom was finally over, and I was at 1,479 meters. And … was immediately engulfed in a giant cloud of gnats. Or, the French equivalent of gnats. They were everywhere and all over me, dozens sticking to the sweaty, exposed skin on my face, arms and legs. A few flew into my mouth. Was this some sort of ominous warning sign? A plague? And then, just as suddenly as they’d appeared, the cloud of gnats were gone. Perhaps I’d passed their altitude limit.

Finally, I was out of the forest and could see the summit of Mont Ventoux up ahead. This was the psychological boost I needed. It was exactly as Remy and Evelyn had described it: A barren, white-rock filled mass that really did look like the surface of the moon. Unfortunately, it was also shrouded in dark, ominous clouds and it looked like it was raining, up ahead, on top of the mountain. As I continued to climb, I entered the dark cloud … and the cold, drizzle of rain. It was refreshing at first, and then I began to shiver and shake a little. 

With 1.5 kilometers to go, I was at 1,813 meters and could see the final section of switch-back turns up ahead that would take me to the top. I was close, so close, and also in the midst of the toughest kilometer of the climb: 10.5 percent.

“Go for it,” shouted a guy flying down the mountain. “You’re almost there.”

How did he know I spoke English?

There’s a viewing stand with half a kilometer to go, but it was too dark and overcast to really see anything down below. Finally, I rounded the final turn, and was at the top. All I could manage was a tired, satisfied smile. It had taken me 2 hours and 20 minutes. Not bad for a rookie.

There’s a café at the top, and a souvenir shop where you can buy all sorts of Mont Ventoux-themed knick-knacks. No thanks. I got two cans of Orangina, a Mars candy bar and sat on the edge of a wall, shivering and shaking, looking down through the clouds. It was sort of like peering down from an airplane. Behind me were several vendors with carts filled with candy and cured meat products. Candy I could understand. Salami sticks? Who rides to the top of the Ventoux and craves pepperoni? On a bike ride, that’s stomach distress in stick form. 

There were a dozen or so riders at the summit, and I could look down and see a few more ever-so-slowly riding up the road from Bedoin. They looked like ants. Most of the riders on the summit were smart and experienced enough to have brought a jacket with them. Not me. Several riders posed for photos in front of the summit sign, that read 1,912 meters. I didn’t have a camera. Heard several languages, definitely French and German. Met and talked with a British guy, who had ridden up from Bedoin with a fully loaded bike. Including all his camping gear. His gear must have weighed 50 pounds. Impressive.

After all the effort to make it up to the top, it seemed like I should stay and savor the moment a lot longer. But I was cold. Shivering and shaking. And the dark clouds pretty much ruined the view. So down I went, to Bedoin, clutching my brakes in a death grip whenever my speed got too dangerously fast.

Let’s just say I’m not a very talented or brave descender. 

After five kilometers, I was below the clouds. The rain stopped and I started warming up and drying out. 

                                                                        ***

That night I celebrated with lots of red wine, and told Susan, Remy and Evelyn all about my conquest of Mont Ventoux. They were impressed. And then two new arrivals wandered over: David, 18, and Martin, 16. These German brothers said they were semi-professional bike racers and were here to climb the Ventoux several times over the next few days as part of their training. David told us his best time was an hour and 20 minutes, up the tougher Bedoin route, and he thought he would take another five, maybe 10 minutes off his best time tomorrow. 

I felt like chasing him around and hitting him over the head with my hat. 

Two days later, I climbed the Ventoux again. And here’s the thing: I could have sworn I rode to Bedoin and climbed up from there. But no, it seems that while I did ride to Bedoin, I then headed to and along the Gorges de la Nesque, an incredibly beautiful ride, and then on to nearby Sault. 

This is the memorial to Tom Simpson

According to my journal, which I’m sure is more accurate than my memory, I had lunch in Sault “and then – apprehensively – I was off for Mt. Ventoux. The 20 K climb to where you meet the Bedoin road was pretty easy, but then the last 6 Ks were torture the whole way. I did the first 3Ks pretty well, then, after 58-59 miles, I was pooped. I stopped to get a photo at the monument of the dead biker [Tom Simpson], and, after that, I was spent. I wound up walking the final K. It was much clearer and warmer today and the view was excellent.”

The total for this amazing ride was 85 miles.

Bike Bashing In Blois (BBIB)

“This is not possible,” I mumbled in desperation. “This can’t possibly be happening. It just can’t.”

Oh, but it was … and I blame my sister because, well, it was totally her fault.

It was 2013: The start of our Loire bike trip. We had spent a few days in Paris, then it was on to Blois, where Susan and I were gonna ride for a few days. Susan was then heading home (Columbus, Ohio), while I got to stay, ride and gather information and photos for my first eBook: Biking the Loire. Thank you Susan.

sign5

We’d made arrangements with my sister, Debra, who lives with her family in England, to ship my bike to Blois. It was the bike – a men’s road bike (you know, curved handlebars and a straight-across top tube) – we bought during our 2007 French bike trip. We also bought a women’s hybrid bike (flat handlebars and an angled, woman’s style top tube) for Susan. We met Deb and family in Southern France back in 2007, hung out for a few days, and had a great time. They packed our bikes into their SUV and drove home to England (yes I know, you can’t drive all the way from France to England … they took the ferry across the channel).

And there our bikes sat, in their garage, gathering dust and cobwebs, for several years.

So, I asked Deb to take my bike to the local bike shop, have it tuned up, packed up in a box and shipped to our hotel in Blois.

“I did it, it’s on the way to Blois,” Deb emailed a few days before we flew to Paris.

That’s a relief. Thank you, Deb.

We arrived in Blois, and the guy at the desk told me there was a big box in the garage with my name on it.

That’s a relief. Thank you, Deb.

The plan was for me to ride my old friend, and we’d rent a bike for Susan. Her old bike, from 2007, was kind of a crappy bike. And she was only riding for 2 days.

Went to the garage, started opening the box … and … it was Susan’s bike. You know, the too-small, non-road-bike bike. The women’s bike. The hybrid. It wasn’t my bike. How is this possible? They’re totally different bikes. Different sizes and …

Think I went into shock. A little bit. I just stared and stared at the bike in the box, not believing or comprehending what I was seeing. Thinking that somehow, some way, if I kept unpacking the box, my bike would be in there.

It wasn’t.

Decided to assemble the bike … and ride it. What choice did I have?

bike10
Sometimes you just gotta make the best of a bad-bike situation

And, too make matters worse, which is always possible, I couldn’t get the damn front tire back onto the fork. Somehow, someway, in the packing or shipping, or by osmosis, the front fork had been ever so slightly smooshed together … and the tire wouldn’t fit back in no matter how much I tried … or cursed. And I cursed a lot! Some of it in French.

(Here’s the link to my Biking the Loire eBook if you’re interested)

Thank goodness the guy at the hotel desk (the owner) is a former Tour de France rider.

“We will pull,” said Roland Le Clerc, who rode the Tour from 1987 to 1991. His best finish was 70th in 1988. That’s impressive.

bike11And so we pulled and pulled, each of us pulling on one of the forks, somehow stretching it a millimeter further apart, just enough to squeeze in the wheel.

“Voila,” Roland said after we got the wheel on and it seemed to spin properly. The French say “voila” whenever they accomplish something.

If I’ve learned one thing over the years on bike trips, it’s that you must always adapt and overcome the inevitable mechanical, logistical, geographic and psychological problems you will inevitably encounter. This was a big one.

And so, I rode this too-small, women’s bike for the next two weeks. It was manageable. Barely. Although my knees began to hurt on Day Three. And then my back.

At the end of the trip, I left the damn bike at the hotel in Saumur. In the garage. Never wanted to see – or ride – it again.

“You can have it … or let the guests ride it,” I told the woman at the front desk. “It’s a woman’s bike.”

PS: I eventually forgave Deb. Mostly! And, in retrospect, this made for a good story … and blog post. Wouldn’t have been half as interesting if she’d sent the right bike. So, Deb … here’s my belated thank you.

bike12.JPG
I wonder if “my” bike is still sitting in this garage at the hotel in Saumur?

The Great Geupe Attack of Maussane

            

July 8, 2007, Maussane: At first, it felt like a tickle. On my left eye. And then, like a bolt of lightning was shooting through my eyeball and straight into my brain. Followed by another bolt of lightning. And another.

“What the hell?”

 I swiped at my sunglasses, knocking them off my face and onto the side of the road. Something, some sort of large, black insect flew away from my eye. I swerved and almost lost my balance, but quickly steadied myself. My left eye really, really hurt. It was throbbing. And the pain kept getting worse and began radiating in ever-expanding circles until it encompassed my entire head.

“First things first,” I told myself. “Find your sunglasses.” They were prescription sunglasses, the only pair I had with me, and I kind of needed them to find my way back to Maussane, the town in Provence, near Arles, where we were staying. I walked back and forth, along the side of the road where I thought they may have landed, squinting to improve my vision like George did in that episode of Seinfeld. You know the one.

Couldn’t find them. Damn! I really need them. To see. How am I going to get a new pair of prescription sunglasses over here? Maybe I can buy those flip-up and flip-down sunglass things you put over your regular glasses. Do they even work right?

And then, a glint of sunlight caught the attention of my one good eye. It was my sunglasses. Thank goodness. I could see again. The searing pain in my eye had subsided and pretty much gone away by this time, so I got back on my bike. And rode back to our hotel in Maussane, where Susan was waiting for me. By the pool. Yep, a swimming pool!

“How was your ride,” Susan said, and then noticed my eye. I think she may have shrieked. Or gasped. She does that when she’s startled.

“What? What?” I said.

“Your eye, what happened to your eye? It’s all black-and-blue. Like you got punched.”

I told her what happened. 

“What was it?” she asked.

“I have no idea. Something big and black and very angry.”

Photo by David Hablu00fctzel on Pexels.com

Susan asked the person at the hotel desk for some glacon (ice). Here’s the thing: Ice seems to be a very rare and valuable commodity in France. There are no such things as ice machines at hotels here. At cafes, you get like two small cubes with your drink. And so, the guy at the desk grudgingly gave Susan a couple cubes. I iced my eye, took a couple Ibuprofen, and a nap. When I woke up, an hour or so later, my eye was swollen shut and the entire left side of my face was puffed up and swollen. Whatever the hell that was got me really good. Or really bad. I looked like Rocky at the end of the fight in the first and best Rocky. “Cut me Mickey, cut me.”

Here’s the link to my updated Biking Provence eBook

It was dinner time, and all the face swelling had made me very hungry. We walked down the street, in search of a restaurant, and people stared. I was hideous. Little children ran.

We entered a restaurant, and the hostess woman stared at me in horror. She spoke a little English, and asked what had happened to me and my face. I told her that some sort of grand (large) and noir (black) insect had bitten me while I was out cycling earlier in the day.

 “Geupe, geupe, geupe,” she said. We later looked it up … and geupe is French for wasp.

And then, the very-nice lady brought me some ice. Four semi-large cubes!

From Susan’s journal: “Steve’s eye looks better today, but not anywhere near all better. Still swollen, especially in the corner. I am worried about his tear duct clogging. I wonder if he had a fever yesterday.”

                                                                        ***

 A week later … another geupe attack! This time, the bugger got me in the leg, the upper and inside of my left thigh. Here’s what I wrote in my journal: “My leg swelled up like a log and is hot to the touch. And a 5-inch in diameter swelling that feels very stiff, like a pulled muscle. Amazing how something so small can cause so much damage.”