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Vive la France.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Cyclist reads paper .

It’s been a tough couple years for Franco-American relations. Between French opposition to the invasion of Iraq and the desecration of their own national Tour there were plenty of reasons for a cool reception when I stepped off the plane in the French Riviera for the 23rd and final edition of the Isostar Nice Triathlon this September.

I’m pleased to say my reception in France was incredibly warm and hospitable. The luxuriant French breeze on the Cote d’ Azur and the delightful sunshine warm the skin, but it is the splendor of the French character that warms the soul.

For the French the sport of triathlon is a celebration of exuberance and vitality. It is also a celebration of the aesthetic of the athlete, of toned bodies and bronzed skin. There is no shortage of beauty during the week of the Nice Triathlon, and it is not limited to the landscape. A placid stroll along the enchanting Promenade Des Anglais in front of the pink pastel parapets of the famous Negresco Hotel yields a brand of people watching unmatched anywhere in my travels on seven continents. The finest athletes from France, Italy and all over the world walk under the sheer white draperies of the sun canopies erected along the beach. These splendid specimens recline on comfortable benches, on exclusive rock beaches served by tuxedoed waiters and in sidewalk cafes. Ironman Hawaii may have “Dig Me Beach”, but it is a sorry comparison to the Promenade des Anglais.

I do not speak French. At one time my French was passable having been immersed in a French household for two months. That was the best language instruction I ever experienced, but it was 14 years ago. I can read it given enough time, I can understand it if something is repeated to me enough, but I can’t utter much more than a half dozen phrases.

French Triathlon Federation officials were entirely accommodating of my typically American lack of language skills. When I asked a question in the registration tent about number placement I was assigned no less than five personal interpreters. Standing in the middle of this quintet they delivered a complete version of the pre race briefing in English and in an odd pantomime. Probably in case I was deaf in addition to being illiterate. The officials demonstrated everything from how to place numbers on my helmet to the unusual timing chip, which was one third the size of chips used in the U.S.

France is a country of diverse features, from historical to cultural and artistic to natural. But few places in the world or even within France match the integration of natural and man-made beauty as the French Riviera. Standing on the Promenade des Anglais, literally- the “Walk of the Angels”, I took in the nightly performance that is the sunset over the Maritime Alps. What I didn’t anticipate was the equally dramatic encore in the form of the moonrise over the castle peninsula at the opposite side of the same beach. Moonlight cast bright glare along the Mediterranean as soon as the sun surrendered. Following the neon, and then pastel hues of a brilliant sunset over the architecture of old Nice the stark solitude of the moonrise was a dramatic contrast. This entire natural spectacle unfolded in under 15 minutes. Taken by itself this natural light show was a sensation. But here on the Riviera set against the centuries old stage of French architecture and acted out by a cast of the finest triathletes from around the world it was a performance unlikely to be repeated anywhere on the planet.

Good food and good friendship are easy to come by along this treasure of coastline. It seems that no nationality is immune to the warmth of the climate or of the companionship. Friends and acquaintances are easily made strolling along the inner walks of Nice between picturesque hotel balconies and the very cafes that inspired Monet. Of all the wealth conspicuously displayed throughout the Riviera time is the currency most flagrantly squandered. Two hours in a café over strong coffee, wine and tea is nothing in Nice. It flies by in an instant, and it seems like no effort is adequate to truly capture its ephemeral splendor and delightful company.

For people like you and I who make a regular living, this region is a rare glimpse into the lives of the hyper-wealthy. I made the ride from Nice to Monaco one afternoon riding shoulder to shoulder in narrow streets with enormous Mercedes sedans, Rolls Royces, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. At the foot of the descent into Monaco the famous Formula 1 circuit is laid out before you, exactly as you see it on television. I’ve watched this race on TV since I was a kid, and to be here, on those streets preparing for my own race of a different sort only a few miles up the coast was cause for adrenaline bumps on my arms. Senna, Lauda, Prost, Montoya, Frentzen and Schumacher: Those are the names I know from these streets. You look for the remnants of their rubber in the corners. Of all the places in the world where man races anything- this is the most famous, the most celebrated, the most opulent.

The marina is filled with boats like I have only seen in the movies, because most of those movies were made here. Boats with other boats on them. Boats with cars on them. Boats with helicopters and cars and boats on them. Boats that are such big boats they have long since become ships. Once the scope of the opulence begins to sink in the one question you may keep asking yourself is, “How does a person make this much money?” In Monaco, a million dollars is barely a servant’s pension. I’ve never seen as many Gulfstreams parked in one place as at the Nice airport. Even the Gulfstream is economy class to the new hottest ride in this neighborhood, the Bombardier Global Express- a business jet with near supersonic speed, transpacific range and a price tag higher than most Boeing 747s. I counted five of the $40 million plus jet hot rods, all new, on the tarmac in Nice. You see the flight, maintenance and security crews scurrying around the rows of gleaming, spotless private jets. They wait for a page from an owner who demands her or his privacy and the need to wing off to Jakarta, Dubai, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong or New York at a moments notice in pursuit of commerce, diplomacy or simply entertainment.

Why is France so strikingly different than the U.S.? I thought about that a lot while in Nice and tried to collect the reasons on every walk I made from my hotel to the Promenade des Anglais. Walking through delightful markets stocked with fresh fruit and glossy, glazed baked goods I tried to nail down one thing to attribute this magic too.

Certainly, there are many reasons. I think the most prominent to me is a sense of reverence for beauty and leisure. Quality of life is the predominant measure of wealth along this coast, and it is had in volumes by billionaires and waiters to billionaires alike. Yes, it is true, everyone in Nice is wealthy- whether they have money or not.

In observing Nice and its charm I made these observations. These are only symptoms of what makes this place wonderful, I can’t name the exact causes: For a protected bay with several miles of beautiful beach and road access there are few small boats and no jet skis. These seaside annoyances are refreshingly absent, making open water swim practice safe and pleasant. While the attitude about bathing attire is absolutely relaxed on the rock beaches the dress code along the Promenade just above the beach seems decidedly more refined than any coastal area I’ve seen. There is the occasional garish display of fashion nonsense, but for every one of those there are ten people turned out like a magazine cover. This is not to suggest snobbery, it is just a different fashion sense that adds to the overall landscape. Municipal planners in Nice get huge marks for pedestrian seating. The benches are white, spotlessly clean and comfortable enough to sit on long past sunset. There don’t seem to be any bad restaurants here. Wait staff is excellent and a small tip goes a long way. For a couple extra euros I had a waiter completely explain the schedule for the helicopter from Nice to Monaco, how to get a seat and where the helipad in Monaco was relative to the rest of the town’s many attractions. The jet powered helicopter shuttles passengers from the airport to a helipad in Monaco for less than $100. This is a priceless day trip and one of few experiences us normal folk have to take a helicopter for a shopping trip.

And then there are the people. Any suggestion of rumored stereotypical French rudeness is immediately put to rest in Nice. Spectators all along the course, even in the remote reaches of the bike course and on mountain tops, are enthusiastic, helpful and polite. Fans that appeared to be in their 60’s and 70’s hiked to the top of the climbs to offer a dignified “Bravo!” as triathletes crested the summit of the Col de Vance. Along the Promenade des Anglais the reception was decidedly more festive, but no less dignified.

The list goes on and on. At night in my little hotel room, complete with wide French doors and a limestone railed balcony overlooking the cathedral next door, I made note after note about what makes this city such a delight. But there is no one thing. It is an enchanting and seductive conglomerate of things from simple and basic to luxurious and indulgent- all melded together along this short coastline that give meaning to the well earned cliché, “Viva le France!"


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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