The annual Tour de France, the celebrated endurance marathon that takes cyclists 3,500 kilometers (2,170 miles) through the mountains and flatlands of France, takes place during three weeks this month, and the eyes of much of the sporting world will be watching.
However, one French man decided to ride his own private tour here in the United States, on that most iconic of American highways-Route 66.
Mickael Forge, the 33-year-old grandnephew of Daniel Forge, the proprietor of Malibu’s Beau Rivage restaurant, decided to travel the 3,840-kilometer (2,386 miles) distance between Chicago and Malibu on U.S. Hwy 66, solo, on a French racing bike. After a journey lasting 39 days, he arrived in Malibu last week.
“Why not?” Mickael Forge answered to the question of why he selected this particular route. “There are often reports about Route 66 on French television. It is typical America, right?”
Forge has been cycling seriously since he was a teenager and also plays competitive soccer, or, as he called it, “le fut.” But even that kind of conditioning doesn’t prepare you for the punishment of months on two wheels, on long stretches of highway.
“I have a very good coach, Raynald Choquet, who lives near Paris,” Forge said. “He is a sports trainer for professional soccer players and he prepared my training plan.”
Forge, who lives in Chartres, a town about 56 miles southwest of Paris, has been following Choquet’s plan since September of 2007.
“I trained at least four hours a day, either running or on my bicycle,” he said. “At night, I would ride a stationary bike in my apartment.”
Forge decided to take his annual vacation in May, arriving in Chicago and departing immediately on a route that would take him more than 2,300 miles through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Route 66 has been immortalized in song and story by American legends from Will Rogers and Woodie Guthrie to Nat King Cole. It’s been featured in road movies, television series, Jack Kerouac wanderings and art installations. Forge got to see it all up close and personal.
“I planned on camping the whole route and it worked out quite well,” Forge said. “I was able to carry everything in two sacks in front of my bike and two in back. When my bike was loaded up, it went from weighing 17 kilos (37 pounds) to 40 kilos (88 pounds).”
Heavy rains marked the first part of the trip. But by the time he left Illinois, the sun was shining. Forge would begin his daily ride at five in the morning and stop at two in the afternoon after finding a campground to pitch his tent.
“All the people I met were very, very kind,” Forge said. “Very generous and open. French people aren’t like that. They will not ask you questions. But Americans are very curious. They wanted to know where I was going and what were my plans.”
His observation of people here: “Americans work a lot,” he said. “I passed stores that were open all night. But the people are very nice. It is a trés bon souvenir.”
Despite his extremely limited English, most people Forge met on his journey were quick to share their breakfasts with him or advise him on sights to take in.
He stopped to visit the Grand Canyon and was impressed enough to take a train down to the bottom.
“The Grand Canyon, it is amazing. Un vrai moment [a true moment],” Forge rhapsodized.
He passed Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, the offbeat attraction created in 1974 when Stanley Marsh buried 10 psychedelically painted, vintage Cadillacs nose first in the Texas desert.
“It was very funny,” Forge said.
By the time he hit New Mexico, however, the heat was rising-“I was drinking at least five liters of water a day”-and Forge decided to journey at night. Despite the danger of nighttime truckers, he rode under the stars through silent deserts.
“The biggest challenge to me was not the physical demands, but the solitude,” Forge said. “It was all very beautiful, but I became bored and tired.”
When he arrived in California, the task of biking through Death Valley in the summer heat proved too daunting, so he rented a car and drove to Ludlow before he hopped on the saddle again.
Forge arrived in Malibu June 25 and was received with open arms and showers of petals by his uncle.
“When Mickael arrived, the first thing he said he wanted was a good meal,” Daniel Forge said. “Well, he was in the right place!”
Daniel said Mickael wanted a couple glasses of wine and a real steak. “All he had been eating was what you call beef jerky,” his uncle said.
Suitably fortified, Mickael prepared to return to France the next day. “I have to get back to work on Monday,” he said (he’s a mechanic).
Forge said he would like to return to the U.S., but probably not to bicycle through it.
“I can confirm for you, America is very, very large,” Forge said.