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17 Nov 2012

Cycling in France

You will have read that Bradley Wiggins, winner of the 2012 Tour de France, and Olympic gold medal, was knocked off his bike and injured earlier this month (November 2012), while training. Of course, there is always the risk of a crash while on the road, and I cannot comment on the details of the incident. But what horrified me, and many others, is the level of absolute hatred directed at cyclists in some of the UK Twitter and other social communications. This was so awful that the Guardian ran a piece on it. Some of the comments that this article attracted continued this irrational and disgusting hatred.

What is wrong with so many British people?

Cycling in France has always been a respected and shared activity. Not just the professional sport, but ordinary people of all ages are enthusiastic and active cyclists. I have never encountered anyone disliking cyclists for cycling. All motorists in my experience slow down for bikes, give them time and space, and are aware of the risks to them.

It is clear that cycling is very important in France, and seen as such. There are over 2,500 cycling clubs, most of which have their own club uniforms, and local sponsors. Over 2.3 million bikes were sold last year. There are about 500 organised cycle races every year. There are about 60 velodromes. There are even 73,000 trips every day by Velib, the original in Paris of the BorisBikes in London. Driving around you will see bike riders every day, not just the smaller number using bikes as transport, but people in club colours, in ones, twos and groups, riding a hundred kilometres or more, for fun or for training for competitions.

2011 Tour de France racing through Brecey
In 2011, the Tour de France passed through Brécey, near where we live. People started forming crowds three or more hours before the race was due to pass. An hour before the caravan arrived – an hour of sponsors' and promoters' vehicles: specially adapted and transformed lorries and cars, with people throwing goodies like sweets, bags of croissants, flags and banners, whistles and toys, into the crowd. Five minutes before the race arrived, the sun disappeared and ferocious rain started. The bikes whizzed past in a couple of minutes, and it was all over; the rain then stopped.

There is also the Tour de Normandie which is a similar race, but is accompanied by a randonnée cycliste, a non-competitive open to anyone ride through Normandy. Last year we encountered the randonnée unexpectedly. To get to our house one has to go along a number of roads which are basically one lane wide. We turned off a two lane road into a one lane, having seen quite a few bikes crossing ahead of us as we approached. Once we entered the narrow road it was obvious that we were on the route of the randonnée. This was because as far as we could see there was an endless series of cyclists approaching, individually or in groups filling the road.

There was no point in trying to proceed, so we just parked in a field gateway and waited for them all to pass. This took a couple of hours: there were about 3000 riders formally participating, but many others joined in for the fun of it. There was no racing, just an endless stream of bikes, ancient and modern, racing bikes, granny bikes, mountain bikes, vintage bikes. Riders of all ages, male, female and indifferent. And because this was France, every one of the riders said 'Bonjour' as they went past us.

Young riders waiting for the start
Teams from all over the region
Family affair
And they're off
Cycling is for everyone. We had a load of gravel delivered, and gave the driver a cup of coffee. He told us he cycled about 150km every weekend, but 250km the previous one for a club competition. He also said he was retiring in a couple of weeks. Then there is the annual fête at a little village called La Lande d'Airou (population 509) which includes cycle races that attract competitors from all over Normandy. There are races for all ages, from five year olds, under 10s, 11-15, and adults. It is all taken very seriously, with roads closed, cups and trophies for winners, and pretty good crowds of spectators. The four photos show a bit of what it was like.

Cycling is indeed part of the French identity. Their poor performance in the Olympics, and the failure to win the Tour de France for many years, is a huge embarrassment.


Sean Carter said...

We are coming out to my parents house near Brecey in a few weeks time, i know Brecey quite well and was surprised to hear that the Tour had come through the town in 2011 - if i had known......

Good blog by the way, really interesting.

ManchePaul said...

Thanks for your kind comments Sean. I'm not that interested in cycling, but the TdF is such a major event I had to see it. This year the 2013 Tour had a time trial (contre le montre - against the clock) stage from Avranches to Mont St Michel. Wasn't able to get to it, but the whole of Avranches, including supermarkets, DIY sheds and shopping cenbtres, was closed for the entire day.