Roll up, roll up, for the big show! - Across France to the world's biggest bike rally - CycleBlaze

Roll up, roll up, for the big show!

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I had to smile last night. Steph and I rode into town to meet friends. Our way back to the camp site took us past a couple of the exits from the Sem Fed village, the enormous marquees that house the bar, the bike exhibition and everything else.

It's best to ride past these exits carefully because, even with stewards, there's the chance that someone will charge out from the right and knock you flying. Our surprise last night was to have a youngish couple turn out of the exit and, having nobody to torpedo from the side, turn left and ride down the road hungrily looking for us.

They showed no sign of stopping as we came closer and eventually we all stopped, front wheel to front wheel, as the couple looked at us puzzled.

"On roule à droite ici," I said.

Neither said anything. They just looked puzzled. And then the man made a "Doh!" sound and the two rode diagonally across the road and continued along the right kerb. It is easy, if you're English, to come out of a turning and start riding on the left. I know... I've done it.

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The village is the centre point of any Sem Fed. When you collect your paperwork and your maps at the start of the week, the envelope contains a medallion on a ribbon. The design is different every year. We have had little cow bells and even a red reflector.

The medallion is your passe-partout. In theory someone should check it going into the camp site. It is always checked going into the village. Because there is where the bar, the restaurant, the exhibition, the repair stands and everything else is.

Dotted around the outside of the exhibition are the mechanics. Some are individuals, from local bike shops perhaps. Others work on the Mavic and Shimano stands, repairing and adjusting anything brought to them. Inside the tent are the bike companies, the clothing firms, the tourist agencies and the sellers of local wine, cheese and other food. This is France, after all. The crowd can get thick. The trick is to get there when everybody is out on bikes. That was when I bought shoes and Steph treated herself to a jersey. Later we went back for tyres from Schwalbe.

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There must, I think, be some friction between the organisers and stand-holders. One year, the friction grew hot enough that hardly anybody came. This year things had been remedied but the biggest exhibitor, Randocycle of Paris, looks gone for good. And it's been a couple of years since I saw Bernard Thévenet, the winner of the Tour de France, selling his bike clothes.

On the other hand, there's nothing but eagerness to get into a second tent. That is where the bike clubs and other organisations are. While the trade stands are manned by professional staff, paid not to wander off, the club stands are - or should be - run by enthusiasts. I say "should be" because, being enthusiasts, they tend to wander off and go out on their bikes and you find nothing on some stands other than a scattering of leaflets.

The biggest stand belongs to the Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme. You'd expect that. But there are clubs for people dotty about 650 wheels, for those who have had heart attacks, marathon men determined to ride from one side of France to the other in a limited time and, oddest of all, the "Demi-siècle" club.

A siècle is a century, so a demi-siècle is 50 years. It's a club for anyone more than 50. That amuses and puzzles me. I'm over 50 but I don't see any more in common with other people over 50 than I do with those less than 50. Age is the last thing that matters. Being a cyclist is what counts.

Odder, though, is that almost everybody at the Sem Fed is older than 50. It's not that cycle-touring appeals to old fogies, although it may do; it's more that to take a week off to go to a bike rally is easier if you're retired and therefore an unusually large number of retired people will be there. Not everybody, but more than in the population at large.

From that, you'd think the half-century boys would do a roaring trade. But I never saw anybody there. Happily, maybe other people also think their age is neither here nor there.

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