Out on the road - Across France to the world's biggest bike rally - CycleBlaze

Out on the road

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It rained the first morning at the Sem Fed. But you don't want to know about that and I, in any case, neither want nor could go into every ride in detail. Much better to give general impressions.

We are camping on the army's cross-country trials course. Usually the organisers take over sports grounds, rugby pitches, parks and anywhere else to accommodate tents and the thousands of camper vans. A camper van is a baby version of an American RV. A powered caravan.

There are benefits to different sites round the town, plus those in hotels or sleeping with local people or in dormitories, and there are drawbacks. The same applies to having everyone on the horse course or on the smaller town site a little further on.

The benefit is that the site is just a kilometre from the village and the start of all the rides. Sometimes sites are 10km away, a hefty 20km there-and-back to add to the day's ride.

There is a bike path between us and the village. The drawback is that the site is so big that it's 1 500m from our tent to the exit, all on unmade road which daily fells cyclists with punctures. Since it is on that same road that every driver on the site also goes, there's a hint of a car rally now and then.

That annoys Steph. It annoys her that so many choose to drive into town rather than walk or ride. It annoys me because this is a bike rally. I don't mind if people want to drive but I show no mercy in making them move over for me and not the other way round. Fortunately, everyone keeps to the 15kmh limit.

But it's the rides that we're here for...

The countryside is gently rolling with occasional vineyards and châteaux. Riding standards are high although variable. To ride with thousands on the road, even spread over hundreds of kilometres, demands tolerance and bike-handling from everyone. I saw not a single touched wheel and only one bloodstained casualty beside the road. There are times you have to shout or push a hip, of course, but rarely given the numbers.

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We pass every few minutes through another village. Most have taken effort to welcome us, usually with flower-decorated bicycles by the road. There are so many, all from the 1950s or 1960s, you can't help wondering where they've been hidden. And why. Shops in town go better and have race bikes in their windows.

So many cyclists don't go unnoticed. This little girl stood outside her house for hours just for the fun of greeting every passing bikie with a blast on her horn... and to see them wave back to her.
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And some little girls shouted for other reasons. Can you guess why?
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They're offering us free strawberries, nuts and drinks...
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...which we were happy to accept!
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One day we passed a barn with a banner on its side.

"This is the home of..." it started, naming a rider most of us had never heard of. He rode the Peace Race as a professional and I don't blame him for being proud of it. Or of himself, especially since across the road he had created a collection of straw dolls, one wearing one of those pretty mauve Peugeot-BP tracksuit tops I so envied when Tom Simpson had one.

This is the home of...
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All the time, the peloton keeps rolling. We ride in small overlapping groups rather than one milling bunch. Three or four riders catch another three or four, join for a while, pass with a few words. Then a swishing sound of cross tyres and a little race of riders in identical jerseys will hush by, front wheels centimetres from back wheels, hopeful outsiders clinging to the back.

It's not the way I want to ride the Sem Fed, fast like that, but it's a truth of cycling that anyone riding faster than you is riding too fast. Just as you are riding too fast for others. We all think our own speed is the right one.

The sensitive spots are splits in the route. Each loop is identified by the letter P, for parcours, and a number. When the point comes, a yellow sign lists the numbers and points in the appropriate direction. It's surprising - and I don't blame people because I do it myself - how many realise only at this point that they have forgotten which course they're riding. This, and the fact that it's where friends wait for each other, and the French habit of wandering about rather than standing still, means the splits are places to be careful. If those pace lines flash through at 40, they are taking their lives in their hands...

The organisers have done a wonderful job of finding not only bike roads but places "for the pleasure of the eyes", as the signs say. We had, for instance, got within two kilometres of a coffee stop when the arrows sent us off on a loop along a less than wonderful road, then on a bike path beside an autoroute and then back in the direction we had come, through a village.

It surely had to be for a purpose, not just to show off that bike path. Had we read the back of our route sheet, we'd have known. As it was, it was a surprise to find ourselves at a troglodyte village.

My first thought was that it dated from the days of men in animal skins who grunted and clubbed girls before dragging them to the cave by their hair. A bit the way it is to these days in Scotland. But, no, these were homes cut out of the rock, where families ran farms and lived until the 1950s. By then they had electricity, telephones and the postman brought mail.

What do you do if you have a big hole in the ground? You move in, that's what. Two families lived on this site. The richer one dug a fresh cave when another baby was born or a sun or daughter married. The poorer one just extended what they had and dug an extension and hung a curtain over the entrance.
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The reasoning was commercial. Farmers had rock on their land. The rock had value. If it could be hacked out - by pick axe - it could be sold and it would leave behind caverns in which a family could live. Add a wall, a window and a door, and voila!

Farming families lived here until mechanisation took over in the 1950s.
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The farmers moved on in the 1950s when wooden carts and tools they kept in their caves gave way to giant machines which could neither get into the cave nor out of the depression in the land. Nevertheless, someone lived here until the 1980s.

The arrival of farm machines made life easier but ended an era.
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On another ride, we pushed our bikes through the lantern lighting of a wine cave, offered drinks as we went. It didn't do much for me, wine being a drink I'd turn down in the Sahara, but it delighted others.

"On va boire un coup?" excited voices said in anticipation. ("We're going to get a drink?")

"Ou deux!" ("Or two...")

Nice idea, although wearing when it happened again at the same point later in the week. By then we wondered just how much the wine people had contributed to the week to hijack us a second time.

I don't think we rode the longest circuits. They were unusually long - 180km the longest, I think, provoking a "Hurrumph! This isn't proper cycle-touring!" letter to the FFCT - but our neighbour on the camp site tackled them every day, helped by the flat countryside. We did ride about 120km a day, though, a little less now and then. There are so many interlocking loops that it doesn't take much effort to mix and match.

Hold-ups happen. The fun of this one is that a single gendarme good-naturedly stood by the road to see we were safe. We cheered whenever he blew his whistle. He began to laugh. Then he blew a toreador-style tune and the entire bunch of riders shouted "Ola!"
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Why the delay? Because we were turning off a wide road and on to a narrow bike path that led us back to town beside a river. The good humour continued. "Sleep well!" we shouted to those still stuck up on the road. "Save some food for us!", they yelled back.
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There are two traditions at the Sem Fed, one happily dying and the other living. The first tradition is that the ride on the first Sunday is not part of the week. To make that point, it often started in a neighbouring town. The result was that the ride was too far to get to and enjoy by bike. Which demanded all but champions drive there. Which defeated the point of a bike rally.

A couple of years ago, one week - each seeks to improve on the one before - incorporated Sunday into the week and the silly idea of starting elsewhere and charging for it separately looks dead.

Still going strong, though, is the picnic. There are still two circuits, although shorter. They head for a big area chosen by the organisers for an outdoor meal, a chance to sit around and see just how many other cyclists have a heck of an appetite after so many days spent riding. One year we even had a pig roast.

Last year, we took over the middle of one of the most touristy villages of the Dordogne valley. Usually cyclists have to wait for cars before they can continue. This year it was drivers brought to a halt. The atmosphere was good and stewards and the police did their best to keep peace, but when cyclists shouted "Just another 15,000 behind me and then the road will be clear!", the truth hurt as much as it amused.

This year we were in the grounds of a carriage-driving course. We were promised an exhibition of stagecoaches being driven as fast as possible through obstacles and I understand that it did actually happen. But so late in the afternoon that most people had long since left.


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