Thighs and calves like the pillars of a cathedral - Digging Deep in south-west France - CycleBlaze

Thighs and calves like the pillars of a cathedral

My northern friend pulled off a few minutes later, freewheeling into the yard of his daughter's house with a laugh of "Next year, same place, same time?" I waved him au'voir and rode out of the maize fields and into the vineyards of Fronton.

I'm not the man to ask about wine because I don't like it. It seems pretty good for lighting lamps and getting oil off chains but I never drink it because it's too acidic. I can say that in print because it's not going to bring the usual response, which is: "You moved to France and you don't like wine!" To which I reply: "And you, you moved to France and you don't like cycling?"

I feel sometimes like gay men feel when they encounter women sure they can convert them. Everybody wants to make me a wine-drinker. I'm happy not being one. I've tasted every wine put under my nose, sweet, sour, bubbling, pale, dark, new and old and to me it all tastes the same, which is of drain cleaner.

I went to a wine market, an open-air one, in Fronton once. I should have seen the mistake. Every wine-seller short of a few euros saw me as likely to fill his wallet in exchange for a free sip. It was no good saying I didn't like it. No wine seller believes that. In the end I said I was driving everyone home and I was already half-cut from the previous sampling. That killed the generosity instantly.

Should you be interested, I happen to know that Fronton wines are easy to make but don't taste, even to wine-lovers, of very much at all. So they get mixed with other wines, sometimes as much as 50 per cent. But for me, there's still plenty of beer left in the world and I'll concentrate on that first.

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From Fronton I skirted round Grisolles, a little town hardly worth mentioning were it not that a Pope stayed the night there once and that the village blacksmith rode the Tour de France. Jean Dargassies, the man's name was. Or, rather, it wasn't. It was Jean Dargaties, but the way he said it with his southern accent made it sound like Dargassies and that's the way history records him.

The Pope stayed the night in Grisolles after his release from captivity, says the plaque in the square, but there's no mention of the blacksmith who rode the Tour.
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Dargaties or Dargassies bought himself a bike so he could ride up the road to Montauban. I've no idea why. The bike dealer had barely parted with it when he said: "You're a big strong lad: you ought to enter this new Tour de France thing that everyone's talking about." So Dargassies wrote to the organisers in Paris and said he planned to be at the start and nobody objected and so off he went, this man who'd barely left his village. The organisers didn't know what to make of the country oik who turned up in their midst, although they were impressed enough to write that he had "thighs and calves like the pillars of a cathedral."

He didn't do badly, either. There were only 30 riders left by stage four and Dargassies so much impressed the others that they slowed down to let him ride through his hometown by himself. A tradition was born. The whole village turned out, and all the villages on both sides. He came 11th in the end, although he'd have done a lot better had he not had to use his skills to mend his front forks. That was the very first Tour and

A dead-and-alive place, Grisolles. You'd think they'd celebrate Dargassies just to have something to do.
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Dargassies enjoyed himself enough that he entered again in 1904, the following year, when he came fourth. You'd think there'd be a plaque in Grisolles but there isn't. There's one to the Pope but not to Dargassies. I know because I've looked and asked in the bars. Shame, isn't it?

And that, for quite some time, was the end of the excitement. The road ran on harmlessly enough, over rivers and across impressive bridges that proved impossible to photograph. And then, at Beaumont three things happened. The first is that I sat in the square and drank a litre and a half of iced tea and ate an entire fruit cake; the second is that, quite coincidentally I'm sure, every teenage girl in town came to sit in the square as well, followed by all the boys, who sat on the opposite side so that the two sides stared at each other like a 1950s school dance; and the third was that I hit the Gers that the miserable couple on the tandem had complained about. And I suffered. I suffered a lot.

Hilde the Dutch Lady gave me a bottle of beer. But that bit will have to wait until the next page.

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