Grodzinski's Tower - Across France to the world's biggest bike rally - CycleBlaze

Grodzinski's Tower

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The best things have the simplest names. Tour de France, for instance... We say it so easily, so familiarly, but it means "All round France". The Eiffel Tower could have been Smith's Tower or Grodzinski's Tower, except that it's not.

It's the same with the Semaine Fédérale. So far as I know - and I've never heard of anything bigger - it's the largest bike rally in the world. Around 15,000 bikies, sometimes a little fewer, occasionally a few more, plus all the accompanying wives, husbands and children who don't ride bikes.

And what does it mean? It means "Club Week". Or "Federation Week". When it started, three-quarters of a century ago, nobody thought it needed anything fancier. It was the week-long get-together of the Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme and they called it the Semaine Fédérale. "Semaine" is French for "a week".

Couldn't be easier, could it?

The Sem Fed is open to anyone. Anyone, anyway, who belongs to a national cycle-touring association. Most who go - it's in a different region of France every year - are French, of course. But not all. The organisers said there were 14 nationalities this summer, of which the largest foreign contingent was the 1,000 from Britain.

And what is it?

Well, the best thing to imagine is a star. The centre of the star is the host town. The points are the rides, going off in a different direction each day. They're not led rides. You're free to set off when you choose, stop when you want and take as long as you fancy. And since each beam of the star is a succession of loops, each longer than the one before, you can ride as far or as little as you like. All the routes are marked by arrows on the road and in maps prepared for every rider. Take the first cut-off and you'll ride the shortest route, perhaps 50km. Miss all the cut-offs and you'll ride 160km or more. But all the rides set off along the same roads and come together before the end.

All the rides, too, have "accueils", stopping points with food, drink and, frequently, entertainment laid on by the welcoming village or clubs. Many villages along the route decorate the way with flower-covered bikes or other symbols of welcome. It's common to be greeted by people standing beside the road to watch the show of passing cyclists.

Villages welcome the cyclists passing through. This was just one of a dozen decorated bikes in this village
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The atmosphere, therefore, is a rolling party, a carnival, a moving temple to the gods of cycling. Even on the longest routes, you're never out of sight of other bike-riders. At the start and occasional pinch points, the number of riders brings not only the traffic but the cyclists themselves to a halt. Is that a problem? Not especially, not with the gendarmerie and thousands of volunteers keeping the junctions clear.

Friends of mine always thought the Sem Fed a professional organisation. That's how good, how polished, it is. But it's not. It's run by cyclists like you and me, not for profit but to put something back into the sport we love. It takes four to five years to organise, what with finding camp grounds for those of the 15,000 who want to camp or sleep in camper vans - the Sem Fed must also be the biggest camper-van rally in France, I note with some shame - and negotiating with city leaders, with the police, with businesses and so on. They can be brought over with news that a Sem Fed brings €12,000,000 into the town that hosts it.

It takes 4,000 people to run a Sem Fed, one volunteer for every three or four riders. They're not all on duty all the time, of course. Some are but most aren't. And nor are they all cyclists. Many are just local people taken by the idea that something special is happening and who have volunteered to help for the fun of it.

This amateur-but-professional aspect means the Sem Fed costs no more than it costs to run. Forget the prices of commercial tours. This is professional... But amateur. The target is your fun, not your wallet.

Well, we've been going every year since we've lived here. We consider ourselves old hands but we're novices against people like my pal Serge, whom I met on the road a few years ago and have seen every year since. He hasn't been to all 70 Sem Feds but he's been to more than 20. Some have been to more.

I haven't missed a Sem Fed yet. And I haven't missed cycling to one yet. We real cycle-tourists, sleeping in tents and riding to the week, are a minority, of course. But, by my reckoning, we are an élite. To judge by the reaction of those in their camper vans, I think more than a few think that way as well. The way parts when you arrive at a Sem Fed on a bike garlanded by bags.

Well, this year once more, we rode. It was to Saumur, a castle town in the Loire Valley and home of the Cadre Noire, the horse-borne section of the French army on whose cross-country horse course we camped and who, for reasons which amuse me but which I don't understand, have perfected making horses jump vertically with their knees raised. In the horse world, this is quite an achievement. We'd have gone to watch, since it's not every day you see a horse leap vertically, but so many others were intrigued that tickets sold out before we got a chance.

This is the account of just another two cyclists at the Semaine Fédérale. There are no tales of cloud-covered cols. There's nothing about devastating distances, frontiers crossed, human limits transgressed. If, on the other hand, you can stand reading about a sojourn in the temple of cycle-touring, a coming together of clans, then that is what follows.

With luck it will entertain you. Perhaps it will also tempt you. You'll have to let me know.

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Catherine HastingsLeo,
Greetings! On Friday night we are hosting some keen cyclists interested in finding out ALL about cycle touring. Malcolm and I will do our best to get them hooked. I know they speak French and have France in their sights as part of other European touring. You had two wonderful articles at CGOAB - one on touring in France, tips etc; and the second suggested less well known but excellent places to target a trip by bike. Is there anywhere that these resources can still be accessed? If you have them in a format you are able to share, I am at cath_hastings at yahoo dot com.
I love your writing by the way and have been enjoying your journals for years!! They provide lots of snorts and giggles.
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