Wednesday, September 12, 2012


By Mark Cramer

Our goal, in two stages: cycle 200 kilometers (125 miles), arriving at race courses each time, where we make a “thematic” wager. The bet symbolizes the dilemma of many who suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis) who must “handicap” from a “field” of medications, with only approximate probabilities of success. There is no cure, as yet, for this painful and disabling autoimmune disease but a good “pick” of medication can offer relief and sometimes remission.  Our bicycle voyage is raising money through donations to support research for a cure. (See previous reports here and here, or you may donate here.)

BEFORE: map in hand, fresh and ready to roll,
at chateau Meung-sur-Loire
Let’s start with the ending of Stage One: bottom-level country track of Tours (Loire region). Yes, we got there, but not without some daunting challenges during the 149 kilometers.

At the track, Alan Kennedy and I confronted a type of racing we were unaccustomed to betting. The Tours track is remote from the main circuits, with only five race cards per year. Five of today’s races were for trotters (on grass!) and four were thoroughbred races. The small grandstand (cement benches) was packed, the crowd spilling out into grassy areas. In 88-degree heat, the best seat was on a bench under a tree.

The track is near a big-box suburb, but the grounds themselves are seductively green, with wooded background.

 AFTER: 140 kilometers later, worn out, beaten down, at the rail:
Tours-Chambray race course
Our bet for the charity came in the 8th race, the last Tbred event. Remember the rule. We make the wager, and if we win (big “if”), the winnings go to the charity. The race was for amateur riders, adding wagering insecurity. We wanted to make a lot with a moderate bet; we staggered the combinations so that there could be a “saver” payoff. What we really wanted was a cure, which would happen if our picks finished one-two-three in the 11-horse field.

We played the 1, Air Chris (low-percentage rider Madmoiselle Artu had won on this horse). We chose the 4, Aux Quatre Saisons, because he had once won at this same track, but that was on a heavy rain-drenched surface (today’s surface was parched-firm from the lack of rain). Our third horse, the 8, Sleuth, showed a promising win at a lower-level track we had never heard of, only his second career try.

Metaphorically, our handicapping paralleled making an iffy choice of medications for IBD disease.

Our result turned out like the results of a typical IBD medication. We lost the race because the 5 horse won. However, our 1-horse was second and our 4-horse third (the 8 finishing fourth). Since two of our horses were in the money, we won $20 in a consolation payoff. That will be added to the pool of donations.   

In summary, we won a bit of relief without winning the long-term remission.

And our trip? I planned it for a season when the average temperature is 70 F. But we were hit with as much as 18 degrees higher. Whenever Alan and I take a cycling trip, the temperatures zoom up uncomfortably the day of our departure, and then plunge back to normal just after we return.

We departed in the fresh morning, the moon remaining starkly visible in the daylight sky, from a town just south of Orleans. I, the pessimist, griped about the imminent spike in temperatures. Alan, the optimist, rejoiced that his no-rain dance had worked.

The Loire. Our ride was mostly along the Loire, the last wild river in Europe. The river itself has fought off ship transport and tourist cruises by forming hundreds of evolving island obstacles. This moody river is sometimes Zen, sometimes raging, and occasionally both these personalities swirl simultaneously in a danse macabre. Beaches are here and there, but wading can be dangerous, the locals say, because of unexpected spots of quicksand. On the chaste islands, heron eggs are protected from the foxes ashore.

Bicycling the Loire. They call it Loire à Vélo: 500 miles of sign-posted bike paths along the river and numerous other well-kept cycling routes nearby, often through pungent forests. Certain bike-path itineraries take you from one castle to another.

These facilities include cycling paths (protected), country roads with virtually zero car traffic where bicycles have the right of way, and packed dirt-bike paths. Bicyclers of all ages populate the network, making frequent and long stops. Alan and I had to make first post and painfully, we let this beauty flow by too quickly.      

Our trip. The itinerary took us through the grainy castle-fortress towns of Meung-sur-Loire and Beaugency. The halfway point was the city of Blois, with its stone bridges crossing a wider portion of the Loire and its castle with double-spiral staircases.

In Blois, at the bridge over the Loire River
Following our riverbank picnic, the sun hammered down, but the bike paths remained soothingly cool. The castle in Chaumont is perched on a cliff, built into limestone. We stopped for a drink at an outdoor café. Our goal was the city of Amboise, with a medieval fortress castle forged into the cliff.

Our bed-and-breakfast reservation came with a promised garden picnic table next to a weeping willow and a pear tree. The owner told us we needed to arrive before six because she closes down after that. Her excuse: her breakfasts are home-made, including the breads, and she wakes up with the roosters to prepare them.

For us, this meant a change from the usual riding strategy. At 4:30 pm, when the sun was strongest, we emerged from the protective bike paths and faced the final 11 kilometers of energy-sapping heat. Normally we would stop under tree cover, where I’d dump my backpack as a pillow in the grass, for a glorious siesta.

But the B&B schedule forced us to bear on. I felt the onset of heat stroke, even as I drank water continuously.  You’re supposed to halt strenuous exercise in such situations, but we had our deadline. I doused my head with water and rolled on. When we arrived at the B&B, I cooled down for an hour and was ready for a gourmet picnic that Alan had gone and picked out from a green grocer: shrimp, artichoke hearts, ripe cheese, garden tomatoes, crusty, grainy bread.

Troglodyte wine caves: need to get to the track,
no time to stop for a taste
Day 2 seemed easier. Tours was a straight shot along the river. We passed the troglodyte town of Montlouis-sur-Loire, admiring cave dwellings and wine cellars with their façades pointing out from the limestone cliff.  

At Tours we stopped to see the Gothic cathedral, resting in the shady garden of an art museum. Tours is located between two rivers, the Loire and the Cher. To get to the race course, we crossed the Cher. At the last few yards of a tree-lined bike path, I stopped to ask a pedestrian how to get to the hippodrome.

“Just go straight ahead!” She took a long look and me: “But it’s a brutally steep hill and you may not make it.” You could see real fright in her eyes. We had to navigate through a dangerous cloverleaf, with no respite from the sun: my second opportunity to get heatstroke.

Eventually, we got to the top. It was like Jack and the Beanstalk: a very different place up there, but now the ogres were big box stores, furniture, clothing, home improvement, sports equipment, office supplies; the only break in the treeless parking-lot landscape was a McDonalds and KFC. This place was a crime against humanity, “the shopping lot of Tours,” according to locals.

We turned off the strip, following the sign for hippodrome, things got greener. For the first time in 10 hours of cycling, we found cookie-cutter housing clusters. Beyond, the race course was our oasis.

Distance traveled: 92km from south of Orléans to Amboise and 57 km from Amboise to the race track (this count includes the round-trip between my apartment to the Paris train station.







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