Why God loves cyclists - Digging Deep in south-west France - CycleBlaze

Why God loves cyclists

Castelnau (32), Barbotan-les-Thermes, Labastide d'Armagnac (40), St-Gor, Arue, Brocas, Garein, Ygos, Arengosse, Rion-des-Landes

Castelnau is one of those places which struggles to carry on trading its thermal water. Just down the road, Barbotan-les-Thermes - the name says it clearly - is even more a centre for the weak or those who imagine themselves weak to spend a genial while bathing in warm mineral water in the belief that its elements will make them better. The Romans believed it and folk have been persuaded ever since.

For me, Barbotan was a street in which to eat sticky buns and then a climb past the casino on a road too narrow for its traffic. Beyond there, though, the road divided and the traffic goes off one way and cyclists and others in pursuit of a quiet life go in the other.

More interesting for me was what lay along this new road before Labastide d'Armagnac. For there, on the right,

Labastide d'Armagnac. Bastides were the town planning of the 100 Years War era, usually defensive positions and pretty much always laid out in a grid. If you wonder where modern cities got the idea of streets running parallel and at 90 degrees, look no further. Armagnac is the area as well as the name of a drink made there. It is the region of the Three Musketeers - you seek them here, you seek them there, etc.
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is the Nôtre Dame des Cyclistes, not as large as the Nôtre Dame in Paris but indisputably for cyclists. If I have the story right, the priest, a man called Joseph Massie, was called out one day in the 1950s to preach at a children's camp site. It rained that day and the service was either cancelled or cut short. Massie returned home and, having nothing to hurry for, spotted what looked like a small church surrounded by briars, bushes and the other growth of decades.

He got out of his car, walked across the wet field that separated the chapel from the road, and found he had one more place of worship in his parish than he realised.

Massie was a cycling fan. France was at its height during the Tour de France of the 1950s and Massie among millions who listened to continuous and romanticised accounts on scratchy medium and short-wave radios. His interest meant he had heard of a chapel high above Como, in Italy, dedicated to cyclists and turned into a working church and museum. He asked the Pope

Nôtre Dame des Cyclistes... unique in France, a church dedicated to cyclists. A stage of the Tour de France has started here and the Tour winner Luis Ocaña was married here.
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for permission to do the same at Labastide d'Armagnac and in mid-season in 1959 the Pope agreed. And so began France's only and so far as I know Europe's second sanctuary for cyclists.

The entrance is beneath a square arch of tasteless metal painted in fading blue, with the name of the site and the inevitable bike wheels. The gates to the chapel itself are more agreeable, having old big-wheeled bicycles built into them. Beside the chapel wall a

Please be kind to cyclists, wherever they may roam.
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sign reads: "Mary, Queen of the World, protect the ground ridden in all directions by cyclists in love with the Lord's beautiful countryside."

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The interior is, like the Madonna del Ghisallo near Como, lined with jerseys given by cyclists who have passed. The windows show scenes from cycling history, including the moment Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali forgot their rivalry and shared a bottle. Another shows a rider accepting a bottle from a nun: the rider concerned, Henry Anglade, learned to stain glass after he retired and the windows are his gift to the chapel.

Anglade's national champion's jersey hangs in the entrance, in a wooden frame, and so do yellow jerseys from Lance Armstrong and others from almost every great rider in modern history. Still older are the bikes on display, machines with spoon brakes - brakes that push down on the tread of the tyre - used in the first Tours de France.

The chapel is open some of most days. It's staffed by volunteers, some with some knowledge of cycling, others keener on the history of the church, still more the sort you meet everywhere, always happy to sit in a doorway or make tea.

I happened once to meet the grandson of the man who won the first bike race in the world. John Moore, his name was. James Moore had gone to Paris when he was four, his parents making the astonishing decision in the 18th century to leave their market town in eastern England and create carts and shoe horses in France. They settled in an alleyway near the Champs Elysées, now is one of the most expensive areas of the world, and "Jeemie" Moore made friends with the Michaux boys nearby. It was the boys' father who hit on putting pedals on the front wheel of a boneshaker, creating the modern bicycle.

The bikes were the rage and a race was organised under the patronage of the richest in society. It was held, one of several, at St-Cloud, now a suburb of Paris but then a royal hunting ground. The racefollowed a gravel path to the park fountains and then back again. Moore won.

His bicycle is, or at any rate was the last time I heard, in the municipal museum at Ely, near Cambridge in England. It was there because that was where John Moore lived when he wanted to get rid of it and because the Science Museum in London declined to keep it on permanent display.

John Moore told me he would love to show his grandfather's bike where it would be appreciated, where cyclists could see it. I took it on myself, with neither his knowledge or authority, to offer it to the Nôtre Dame des Cyclistes. The woman at the door, a bun-haired type of about 70, the sort who looks as though she's knitting even if she isn't, listened politely. She showed every sign, accurately, of not having any idea who James Moore was or what part he had played in cycling history. In the end she said:

"You know, it's very kind but I think we have enough bicycles already. But if this James Moore man would send us one of his jerseys, we'd be happy to hang it up with all the others."

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