Whoopee! We're there! - Across France to the world's biggest bike rally - CycleBlaze

Whoopee! We're there!

Latillé, Ayron, Vouzailles, Cuhon, Mazeuil, St-Jean-de-Sauves, Angliers, Sammarcolles, Lerné, Fontevraud l'Abbaye

Fontevraud l'Abbaye, Saumur

Little by little, the designated camp site for those who arrived by bike starts to fill.
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Do people just come up and talk to you when you're on tour? I think it must be my bewildered expression. Quite often it takes just a few moments and similarly old and bewildered people come and chat with me. There are times I think I am the human equivalent of a few moments spent throwing bread to ducks.

"My brother used to be a cyclist," said the old boy who wandered over. I can't remember now where it was, but there was a small square and we had just bought things for lunch from a supermarket in which by far the largest section - more than half the available space - was given to cotton reels, needles, patterns and the general, musty stuff of dressmaking.

"I used to be one as well," the old boy continued, standing there round and slightly red-faced in blue work trousers, a patterned shirt and his slippers. "Back then, everyone rode a bike. My brother, though, he was a regional champion. He rode for Peugeot, sponsored by them anyway. Now it's all different but in those days there were 'primes kilométriques', bonuses you won which got larger with the length of the race. Peugeot paid that. But that was a long time ago."

"What... in the Fifties?"

"No, before then. Before the war, this was. The war stopped that. He couldn't race any more, and then he met a woman and that ended everything. Me, I can't ride any more. I can drive and my son has got a plane, and he has to fly a certain number of hours, you know? So he takes me up for a tour now and then. But it's hard. It's only a little plane. There's hardly any room. He has to help me squeeze in, my hips being what they are."

He was 84, he said. He told us he lived in Loudun, 20km away. Were we going that way? No, we weren't. We'd avoided the place, preferring quiet roads, but we didn't say that. It's rarely appreciated when you say you've made a point of not going where someone lives.

"Between here and there on the nationale - it's a départmentale now but it's still the same - the truck drivers are crazy. Whatever you do, keep off that road. I never drive at more than 90, the limit, otherwise the gendarmes will take my licence and then I'll have nothing. But the trucks go past even faster. And they're limited to 70. Explain that."

Not that his quest for legal respectability restricted his going into a near-anonymous bar across the road for a glass or two of wine before he set off.

This was our last day before arriving at the Sem Fed. In fact it was the last whole day because we'd promised ourselves a good night's sleep at a camp site up on the hill at Fontevraud l'Abbaye, a tourist trap with a giant abbey as the name suggests, to catch our breath before the hurly-burly of the Sem Fed. Next morning we dropped into the valley and rode the busy but acceptable road that skirts the Loire, the road I had ridden a bit more than a year earlier in the opposite direction on my way to Romania.

The signs for the Sem Fed started at the outskirts of town. Bright yellow signs for the headquarters area, for the collection of exhibition and restaurant tents that constitute the village, and for the huge camp site established for the week on the army's cross-country horse-trials course.

Registration was easy, countless volunteers in bright red T-shirts standing beneath signs listing numbers in groups of a thousand. Go to the right volunteer, according to the number on the acceptance details, and your envelope is waiting for you. At one end of the row, three or four further volunteers, speakers of other languages, waited beneath a sign with the word "Foreigners".

In the envelope are all you need for the week. That includes the route details for each day, the souvenir programme, a plaque to fit to the bike, and a medallion on a ribbon that ensures entry to areas such as the village that are closed to outsiders.

Beer and coffee for all in the village bar area
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The routes are a work of art. At first glance they look confusing. Then all becomes clear.

Every day has its own expertly designed route
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All the circuits start at the same place - the village - and they all set out in the same direction. Arrows of a different colour each day are stuck to the road at every junction. At points along the route are cut-offs, to reduce the distance. Each cut-off circuit has its own colour on the map. Follow the blue arrows on the map and you'll ride the shortest route. Follow the red arrows and you're out for the whole day.

Detail from one of the route sheets. The coloured arrows beside the roads show which option you're following; the arrows on the roads themselves tell if you can expect a hill or a descent; the place names in boxed capitals are where food, drink and entertainment await you; the other place names in capitals or underlined have a mini-guide to their delights on the back of the map
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In smaller detail, further arrows printed on the roads of the map show whether you can expect to go up or down hill. The closer the arrows are spaced, the more you'll notice the gradient.

It's a model of route-finding. Every year, when we get back, I look up on my generously sized maps of the area just where we've been. Mostly I can follow the route. But often local knowledge, because all this is planned by local cyclists, has taken us down quiet byways that just aren't shown on maps.

And these are just the road routes. There's a whole separate set of maps for mountain-bike riders. And on top of all that, there are guided tours from a different town each day, local riders taking you to the area's sights and monuments and explaining with an insider's knowledge what it is you're seeing.

Take a deep breath now because, on top of all this, there are bus trips and walks for the various husbands, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends who come along but don't take part in the cycling.

I know of nothing else on earth remotely like it in scope or scale. It is simply the world's biggest and best-organised international bike rally.

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