ch17 & epilogue:
"...The effect of the bicycle on daily life is now drastically underestimated by many historians, who tend to see it as an instrument of self-inflicted torture. Simple truths have been forgotten. As almost everyone knew a hundred years ago, the secret of riding a bicycle as an adult is to pedal just hard enough to keep the machine upright, then to increase the speed very gradually, but without becoming too breathless to hold a conversation or to hum a tune. In this way, with a regular intake of water and food, an uncompetitive, moderately fit person can cycle up an Alp, with luggage, on a stern but steady gradient engineered for an eighteenth-century mule. Descending is more difficult but statistically much safer, to all concerned, than in a car.
To generations unspoiled by automation, hundred-mile bike rides were quite routine. When the teacher from Chartres set off on his thousand-mile holiday in 1895, boneshakers were already a distant memory. His machine was identical in most respects to the modern bicycle. It had ball-bearings and pneumatic tyres. Many velocipedes were lighter and more reliable than the energy-sapping machines that can be seen on city streets today. There were bicycles that folded up into a suitcase and bicycles that pumped up their own tyres. The derailleur, which made it possible to change gear without removing the back wheel, was introduced in 1912. Brakes, however, were still in their infancy. Many cyclists recommended tying a heavy branch to the seat-post before beginning a descent, but only 'in the absence of dust, mud, sudden turns and especially forest guards who may refuse to believe that one has brought one's own branch from Paris' (Jean Bertot, La France en bicyclette: étapes d'un touriste, 1894).
As soon as second-hand bicycles and cheap imitations of the well-known models became available, millions of people were liberated from their close horizons by a mechanical horse that could be given fresh limbs and reincarnated by the local blacksmith. A boy with a bicycle could leave his pays in search of a job or a bride and be back in time for dinner, which is why the bicycle has been credited with increasing the average height of the French population by reducing the number of marriages between blood relations. It was used by farm workers, urban commuters, postmen, village priests, gendarmes and the French army, which, like many other European armies, had several battalions of cycling cavalry.
Before the First World War, at least four million bicycles were owned in France, which represents one bicycle for every ten people: 3,552,000 were declared for tax, but many more 'feedless horses' must have been hidden in stables. It was now possible to travel long distances at an invigorating speed, with the sort of panoramic view over the hedgerows previously enjoyed only by travellers perched on the roof of the diligence. Bicycles could be hired in most towns and taken on trains for less than a franc. The railway companies accepted responsibility for any damage. The Touring Club de France, founded in 1890 on the model of the British Cyclists' Touring Club, had a hundred and ten thousand members by 1911. There were special maps for cyclists, showing steep hills, danger spots, paved and tar-macked sections and separate bicycle paths in towns. In her European Travel for Women (1900), Mary Cadwalader Jones recommended the bicycle as a means of discovering France.
As a liberal republican, Desgrange was delighted with the first winner of the Tour de France. Maurice Garin was an Italian by birth. He came from the other side of Mont Blanc in the Aosta Valley. Like thousands of his compatriots, he had left home as a boy and walked all the way to Belgium, where he earned his living as a chimney sweep. Garin had since become a French citizen and settled in Lens in the Pas-de-Calais. 'The Little Chimney Sweep' was as much a symbol of national unity as the French-born Algerian Kabyle, Zinédine Zidane, who captained the World Cup-winning national football team in 1998. Attacks on Italian immigrant workers had been increasing. Poor Italians were employed to do the filthy jobs that no one else wanted and were blamed for driving wages down. But the violence had as much to do with xenophobia as with industrial relations. In 1893, fifty Italians were shot and bludgeoned to death by a mob at the salt works in Aigues-Mortes. The murderous man-hunt went on for three days. The perpetrators were arrested, tried and acquitted. In a country that was still divided by the Dreyfus Affair, national unity seemed a distant dream. Desgrange imagined that his Tour de France would help to heal the wounds and restore national morale...Unfortunately, the Tour was more catalyst than balm. As a Parisian, Desgrange himself was amazed by what he saw in darkest France: wild faces drawn like moths to the checkpoint's acetylene flares; 'raucous housewives' in a suburb of Moulins, 'who haven't even the decorum to wear a bonnet': 'Just how much further could we be from Paris?' On the second stage of the 1904 Tour, at three o'clock in the morning, 'the Little Chimney Sweep', 'the Butcher of Sens' (Lucien Pothier), 'the Red Devil' (Giovanni Gerbi) and a rider known only by his real name (Antoine Faure) reached the summit of the Col de la République near the industrial town of Saint-Étienne. A mob was waiting in the forest. Faure, the local boy, was cheered on his way while the others were beaten up. The Italian Gerbi later retired from the race with broken fingers. On the next stage, at Nîmes, a riot broke out because the local favourite, Ferdinand Payan, had been disqualified for riding in the slipstream of a car. All along the route, nails and broken bottles were strewn on the road, drinks were spiked, frames were sawn through and hubs quietly unscrewed at night. The Tour de France gave millions of people their first true sense of the shape and size of France, but it also proved beyond doubt that the land of a thousand little pays was still alive.
AS THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY map-makers knew from painful experience, discovering is not the same as knowing. After the meridian expedition, the exotic name of Bugarach appeared on maps, precisely located on the same line as Paris and traversed by triangulation lines like a busy terminus. Yet the region itself was almost completely unknown to the outside world.
For that matter, how much was known about the other pays on the same line of longitude? A century after the Cassini expedition placed the first triangulation signal on Mount Bugarach, on the part of the meridian now occupied by the glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre, a dark, decaying quartier of medieval slums lay just below the level of the square. Someone who squeezed past the planks of wood that closed off the quartier would find a ruined church, some overgrown gardens and boarded-up doors, an arch from a vanished building and wasteground strewn with blocks of stone waiting to be used for the new Louvre. A few figures might appear amongst the wreckage - squatters and beggars, some of the artists and poets who lived in a small colony or the furtive customers of a homosexual brothel. Few Parisians knew anything about the Quartier du Doyenné. 'Our descendants', wrote Balzac in 1846, 'will refuse to believe that such barbarity existed in the heart of Paris, in front of the palace where three dynasties received the elite of France and Europe':
When one's carriage passes alongside that dead remnant of a quartier and one's eye pierces the gloom of the Allée du Doyenné, the soul turns cold. The mind begins to wonder who could possibly live there and what must go on at night, when the alley becomes a death-trap and the vices of Paris, cloaked in darkness, give themselves free rein.
Even now, scholars of French history can be surprised by obscure catastrophes which, like the Verdon Gorges, lay hidden in a landscape that seemed to have been thoroughly mapped. Very few have heard about the rounding up of the gypsies in 1803, when thousands were separated from their children and sent to work in labour camps. Fewer still have heard of the persecution of the cagots....France has often discovered its own past like a traveller forced to cross a remote and dangerous region without a map. Decades passed before the savage extermination of Paris Communards by government troops in 1871 was recognized as historical fact. It took even longer for the state to acknowledge the fact that the Vichy regime had rounded up Jews even more enthusiastically than the Nazis demanded. While memorials to heroic Résistance members killed by 'the Germans' are a common sight all over France, there is nothing in Vichy to remind a visitor of the genocide.
Now and then, a secret comes to light like an old convict emerging from prison long after the demise of the regime that locked him away. On the night of 17 October 1961, thousands of French Algerians, protesting peacefully against the curfew that had been imposed on them, were rounded up by the Paris police. Though records have disappeared and though official figures still disagree with scholarly estimates, it is certain that many Algerians were tortured, maimed and stuffed into dustbins, and that about two hundred were beaten up by policemen and thrown into the Seine, where they drowned, in the tourist heart of Paris. In 2001, despite the furious opposition of right-wing parties and the Paris police, a discreet commemorative plaque was attached, at knee level, to a corner of the Pont Saint-Michel. Four-fifths of the French population are still completely ignorant of the events of 17 October 1961."