Search This Blog

30 Mar 2010

On yer bike?

The French of course take cycling very seriously. All through the year you will see cyclists in tight fitting club uniforms in bright colours, steaming along all the country roads, in ones and twos or sometimes a whole club of a couple of dozen identically costumed people, in a group, or spread out of several kilometres. Midweek, many of these cyclists are quite elderly men and women. While we no longer young English chaps never get much more exercise and excitement than discovering a new cardigan in Districenter or Gemo, our French equivalents are covering 100 km at high speed. For the fun of it. They may look wind battered and wiry, with faces like WH Auden in the sun, and wear hideously multicoloured nylon costumes and hats stolen from aliens, but my word they are healthy. Even sometimes into their eighties.

There are cycle races all through the year, big and small. The biggest of course is the Tour de France, and one of the second rank is the Tour de Normandie, which is happening right now at the end of March 2010. I don't read the sports pages in the papers anywhere, and haven't seen the local Ouest France for a a couple of weeks. I was thus utterly surpriased to find myself heading straight into  the Tour de Normandie last Saturday. We were driving through the ForĂȘt de St Sever-Calvados on a road we often take, when suddenly a group of motorcycle cops with blue lights and sirens came screaming along the road towards us, and waved us to stop, and pull off the road. Not easy because there was a ditch, and very little else. They were immediately followed by a dozen or so other motorcycles with two up and signs saying 'Officiel' on the front, and then thirty or forty vans and cars, all covered in big ads, and most with half a dozen bikes on the top. That was when we began to think that the Tour was also going through the forest...

A couple of minutes later, more blue lights and sirens, and a group of about 15 cyclists in their midst, and then yet more vans and cars with bikes on top. We thought this must have been the end, and began to move off. More officials whizzed up and told us to stop again. After five minutes we could hear a roaring noise, like a train, and over 100 cyclists screamed by at full speed, throwing empty drink bottles, food pouches and other stuff as they passed.  They were so close together that it seemed that they could only be avoiding crashing by synchronising their pedalling. Five seconds and they were gone. Following them were more support cars, vans and bikes. And a group of people coming along picking up the rubbish the riders had thrown down. Two minutes later, it was all over, and we could drive on.

I had never actually seen a major cycle race up close, but the noise of the bikes, the speed at which they were going, and the closeness of the bunch were all quite extraordinary.

Cyclists having priority over motorists is not just something that applies to organised races, it is respected everywhere. Drivers will slow down, pull out to the left, and give way to cyclists as a matter of habit, whether the cyclist is a young racer training for the Tour, or an elderly lady coming back from the market, or a farmer who has already lost his driving licence wobbling home from the bar. Not like the UK, where cyclists are usually invisible, or if they are seen are perceived as two dimensional and need no space. Because cycling is respectable and respected, something like the Paris Velib system is very successful. Bike stands are everywhere, and the bikes are used by all sorts of people, from elegant lady lawyers with their briefs in the front basket, to elderly gentlemen with substantial bellies and award winning moustaches. Of course it also helps that Paris is much smaller than say London, and fairly flat, but the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, a cyclist himself, is planning a similar system. Whether the bikes will last more than a couple of days without being stolen, vandalised or destroyed is still unknown.

No comments: