To the Sem Fed: Les Essarts - Nantes - North to the Loire, monsieur... and home again - CycleBlaze

August 2, 2013

To the Sem Fed: Les Essarts - Nantes

Nantes... a fairly ordinary city with a striking centre
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THE SEMAINE FEDERALE may be the world's largest bike rally - but it is also a giant rally for caravans and camper vans. Sometimes bike campers, the essence you'd have thought of a cycle-touring rally, are an endangered species on the edge of a county of white and coffee-coloured tin houses.

There are thousands of these things. Most of the 12 000 or so people who attend the Sem Fed sleep in them. And that became clear today as we crossed the autoroute an hour or so back from Nantes. Because lined seemingly endlessly on the road below us were motorised campers waiting to get through the toll booths. Since you don't normally see such a flock of them, the conclusion could only be that most were cyclists heading for the Semaine Fédérale.

Tent city: for us, the heart of the week
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We were amused, but also saddened. And, to be truthful, we felt superior as we slid over the bridge, across their heads, moving silently apart from our panting.

Nantes is a regional capital and, like Rome, all roads lead there. It lies astride the Loire as it spends its last hour flowing into the Atlantic. It therefore generates traffic and, even though we were on a minor road relieved by the autoroute, we were aware of more and more neighbours as we rode.

And slowly we began to realise that something was wrong. There are only so many bridges to cross the river and everyone arriving from the south has to use one. Normally there would have been yellow arrows pointing to the week's headquarters. SF 2013 they would have said. But there was nothing.

We wondered if we had just been unlucky, whether the directions would start when we reached the centre of town. But still there was nothing.

Now, in itself, this wasn't the end of the world. But we began to realise when we got to the tourist office that Nantes wasn't about to give us the welcome that towns across the past half a century have traditionally given its visiting thousands.

Outside the office, I stood guard over the bikes and gazed at the castle and its moat while Steph collected a plan of the city and asked for directions. When she emerged, she had a puzzled, disappointed look.

"It's as if they don't know it's happening," she said. "I asked how to get to the permanence and she looked lost and said 'Oh, I think that's happening somewhere out here' and tried to find it on the map."

And that's how it continued. We and thousands of others were left to flounder our way out to the northern suburbs. Throughout the week we got the feeling that Nantes just didn't want us there, that it had enough going on without our making things busier. And when riding route after riding route bypassed rather than passed through doubtless pretty villages, we began to believe the rumour that the villages had asked not to see us as well.

Bikies rule OK!
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The villages we rode through had none of the decoration or celebration that they normally have. If only from a commercial aspect, villages welcome their transient visitors because some at least will stop at the bars and restaurants or visit the bakers' and other shops.

Word spread that the mayor of Nantes hadn't wanted the Sem Fed, that he was outvoted by his committee and had then done nothing to make things easier. Certainly, there was no welcoming message from him in the week's programme. Nor from regional bigwigs, and if French politicians love anything, it's associating their pictures and words with other people's toil.

I assume that the makeshift campgrounds set up for the Sem Fed need a drinks licence for the buvettes that, with their chairs and tables, are so much part of socialising after rides. But there were no buvettes. Again, word had it that the city had refused the licences.

The bridge of thighs
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Well, enough of this grumbling. It was an unsatisfactory week in, to be honest, unexciting countryside. Nantes was too big as a host city and one of the week's 80km ride that circled half the town never wholly left its suburbs.

The cyclists' campground steadily emptied as the week went on. Those inclined and able to leave left, like us, before the week had ended. Those who stayed, we sensed, did so mostly because they were travelling back to Britain - half the cycle-campers are always British - on a chartered bus that couldn't pick them up earlier.

It was all such a shame. We don't regret going. But we are much looking forward to next year's week being better.

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