Sea story: Riding the French Riviera (1975)

One of our first ports-of-call in the spring of 1975 was Toulon on the French Riviera between Marseilles and Cannes. USS William H. Standley (CG-32), a guided missile cruiser homeported in Charleston SC, was on deployment to the US Sixth Fleet (“Med Cruise”) with her new Assistant Operations Officer, Lieutenant. J.T. Hine. Toulon was the French Navy’s big base on the Mediterranean; the other was Brest, on the Atlantic.

We had spent several weeks at sea on exercises with the French Navy and other NATO ships.

Mont Faron from Navy base

The 508-m high Mont Faron overlooks the French Naval Base at Toulon.

In Toulon, I was kept busy as liaison to the French Navy and their repair facilities. I also pulled a two-week TDY (temporary duty) assignment to the French Navy Research Center as the American member of the analysis team for the exercise. I had never had shore duty, so this was the closest thing to “normal” working hours I had ever experienced in my life.

As soon as I could, I used the yellow pages (yes, the pages jaunes) to find bicycle shops in town, and began shopping. I ended up on the edge of downtown, where a new store featured a line of bikes that I had never heard of, Velosolex. They were beautiful: classic road machines of the latest geometry, very lightweight chrome-moly steel and gleaming in their carefully finished details. I was my own wrench (bike mechanic) in those days, and I recognized craftsmanship that was all out of whack with the low prices. I shared my suspicions with the owner.

“You know the Solex brand, monsieur?”

Oui,” I replied. The ubiquitous black mopeds with the friction-drive engines on the front wheel were still major players in the French transportation mix. “There are several parked outside.”

Bon,” he said. “The Solex company last year bought the Mercxx bicycle company. They kept all eight factories and the staff, and those factories are now making the Mercxx bicycles under the Velosolex brand.”

“You mean, this is a faux-Mercxx?” I asked, astonished. Eddy Mercxx, of Tour de France fame, had his name on some of the finest racing bicycles in the world.

Oui.” He beamed. “Of course, we can’t put the Solex name on it and command the kinds of prices that Mercxx could, but the craftsmen who made them are the same.”

I rode out with the first bicycle I have ever owned that was red, a ten-speed Velosolex with the same lines and performance characteristics as a Raleigh, Bianchi, or Peugeot, for 550 francs (less than USD 140).

My exhilaration was boundless. I rode 50 km that day, just burning through the suburbs on a very long route back to the base. I went back out toward Nîmes later, just to dine in the countryside. I had never ridden a bicycle that felt so free and easy.

petanque

“Who’s closer?” A question that attracts more judges than players in petanque, the national sport of Provence.

The next weekend, I climbed the Mont Faron, rising 508 meters above the city. It took me two hours to climb the switchbacks to the World War II Memorial at the top. I was grateful to pause three times, either to watch some men playing petanques outside a wine shop or to admire the view through the umbrella pines that lined the road.

Mont Faron switchbacks

The switchbacks on the Mont Faron: incredibly steep and sharp.

It took me only 20 minutes to get back to sea level. On the last two switchbacks, I learned why trucks go out of control in the mountains: my brake shoes melted. I could barely slow down enough on the hairpins to lean sharply into the curves, the metal brake bodies squealing on the rims all the way.

Sobered and shaking, I pedaled back across town to the Velosolex shop. The owner must have had a good laugh with his family that night, but he did not show me anything but courtesy. He smiled and patiently replaced the brakes. He also cleaned the rims and sold me some spare shoes.

The next weekend, I rode 140 km to Cannes, following the rocky coastline on Departmental Route No. 98. It was one steep climb after another with exhilarating descents rewarding every climb. Wiser now, I remembered not to overuse my brakes.

Breuget-Cannes

The coast road winds among the craggy capes of the Riviera on its way to Cannes.

Stunning post-card views of the Mediterranean greeted me on every crest. I took the train back to Toulon that night.

The next trip was to ride to Marseilles, 70 km west of Toulon. Marseilles is and was a major maritime port, and I never tired of seeing hundreds of ships from all over the world coming and going, load and unloading, easing into drydocks, or just sitting at the piers, flying their flags and doing routine maintenance.

Chateau dif

The notorious Castel D’If, immortalized in the Count of Montecristo, lies in the harbor of Marseilles.

Toulon is a Navy town, but Marseilles is a seagoing town, and the signs of commerce were everywhere. Stores, warehouses, trucks, freight trains. I rode around town, reveling in the excitement of the traffic and the crowd. I was delightfully exhausted when I hefted my bike onto the train for the ride back to Toulon.

One thing that still strikes me today about that visit was the weather: it was pleasant and sunny every day. I would not have to ride my shiny new Velosolex in the rain until we pulled into Naples, months later.

That bicycle went to sea with me for the next ten years, and you will read about our adventures every other week in this blog. It was a noble steed, the like of which I have never owned since.

Next week, the Freewheeling Freelancer will continue the ride around the Iberian Peninsula with a visit to Mallorca. Then, I’ll be back here with more adventures on the red Velosolex.

Smooth roads & tailwinds,

JT.

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