Don’t worry about the language barrier when cycling with a French club – all cyclists talk bike fluently!
My biggest concern about cycling in France wasn’t the language or even the chance of getting my legs ripped off. It was packing my Felt road bike for the flight to Nice. Luckily some of the boys went on a training week to Spain every year so I had a good idea of do’s and dont’s (special thanks Murray for his 150 point checklist about bike prep for travelling). They also kindly lent me a bike bag and took me through what to do with pedals, mechs and saddles etc. Still I would’ve preferred to have my machine sitting beside me in the cabin. Couldn’t the pilots look after it up front?
In Nice I got the bike set up and went a wee spin to check out where the club met. Stade-Laurentin-Cyclisme are a cracking cycling club. Why? Because although they met in the south of France they were just like Dumfries CC; lots of banter mixed with some hard cycling.
For my first cycle run with them I got treated the same as any new start – the bike got the once over and then half way up a 15k climb one of the boys turned the gas up. Let’s see if the Scot’s guy has got whisky in his bottle. I gritted my teeth and held on. At the top was a unique sight for me. Cyclists from different clubs standing at a water fountain. One of the guys told me to fill my bottle. I demurred saying that I had some juice. They looked at me a little oddly. I was soon to realise the absolute necessity of using these natural springs dotted around the hills and mountains. Dehydration was a real possibility in the blazing heat.
The hills around Nice are a treat for the eyes and a real test for the legs. The guys in the Stade mainly rode Time bikes or (my favourite) Looks with compacts. In the two weeks I rode with them I learned a lot about climbing. Sit back and get into a good rhythm. The hills rise steadily, ramping up near the summits. They weren’t at all like the hills around Dumfries which you can power up.
Two things really stick in mind about my time in Nice. I knew a little French. Enough to say things like ‘On va beaucoup monter aujourd hui?’ The guys never tried to speak to me in broken English and yet we communicated and joked because the language of cycling is pretty universal. I appreciated that a great deal. In saying that there was one day when we merged on the road with the Antibes club. They were chain-ganging in a military fashion through a huge, spectacular gorge. My limited French was extended that day with some of the most colourful swearing by these guys!
The second vivid memory was riding what the French cyclists call a ‘Concentration.’ All the clubs in the region agree to meet on a mountain summit for points and then refreshments. I remember riding to meet the guys (runs started at 7am for the heat). All along the road cyclists were waiting in their team tops for their clubs. An amazing, colourful assembly. After climbing for hours we met on the summit and the place was literally swamped with hundreds of cyclists. Cycling heaven surely!
Riding with the club in southern France was a genuine high in my cycling. Not long after getting back to auld Ecosse, my beloved Felt developed a crack in the chainstay. I think I’ll blame poor handling by Easyjet. The silver lining was getting a new bike.
In 2011 -12 my daughter moved to Angers (a couple of hours from Paris) to study. I took my bike over to ride with the wonderfully titled Les Gentlemen D’Anjou cycling club. The Loire valley is a relatively flat area. No worries then? Think again. The Gentlemen had a 5k warm up with some banter then it was down to business, a 80k eyeball run.
When these guys chain-ganged you could smell their after shave on the pass through. The chain-ganging was tight and disciplined. If you slacked off on the bends or mini roundabouts you were doomed to sit off the back by two or three bike lengths. Concentration was the key to riding with les gars! I got the nickname ‘Le Whisky’ and when I took my turn at the front they shouted warmly ‘Le voila qui arrive le whisky!’ Another great French club who made me very welcome.
I took an opportunity between the eyeball runs to cycle along the Loire in CTC mode. How incredible, how peaceful and calming it was. There is something eternal in cycling when you take the time to look at the scenery instead of staring transfixed at the guy in front’s cassette. It’s the same feeling I get cresting the moor at Loch Urr or riding parallel with the restless tide at Powfoot.