Cycling in France

In the continuing poor excuse for a British summer (flooded roads and an absolute drenching on yesterday’s ride), it already seems unlikely I was so recently riding under a warm sun and often cloudless skies in south-east France. But I was, with Jim, who also lives – and for the rest of the year rides – in this corner of north-west England. It was a super trip, comprising three lots of three days’ riding.

We started in the Ardèche, riding 300 miles over a mountainous three-day course which formed part of L’Ardéchoise, a massive annual cycling event which this year celebrated its 20th anniversary.

What an event! Jim had ridden it four times before, and had told me quite a bit about it. Indeed, it was Jim and Jules raving about their experiences of previous L’Ardéchoise – sat in the pub following long, hard riding on cold, dark winter nights – which had first piqued my desire to give it a go. But you know how you can’t quite imagine something until you actually experience it yourself? How, no matter how well someone describes something, it remains just that, a description – until you actually, practically, taste it directly?

So nothing Jim had said prepared me for the magnificence of L’Ardéchoise. The best way I can think to (unsatisfactorily) describe it is to ask you to imagine an area you know well, and perhaps often ride in. For me, it’d be somewhere like the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales National Parks, in this part of England. Then imagine that bit of the world being given over almost completely, and absolutely unapologetically, to cycling. For four consecutive days. Imagine the area announcing in no uncertain terms that it is throwing open its doors to cycling, and cyclists. During L’Ardéchoise I detected not a hint of ambivalence to this welcome: out in the countryside, farmhouses are decked with balloons and banners; at the roadside, people join together to provide drink and food to the riders, whilst bands play as you pedal past; and the villages! Entire villages re-make themselves for the event – the whole place often organised according to a theme (the village below was in the moo … d). It’s as if they’re intent on outdoing one another in the generosity of their welcome.

Towards the end of the first day, having ridden over a hundred miles, I was feeling weary. I’d got insufficient hard miles in my legs, the long climbs had taken their toll, and a spoke snapping in my front wheel had forced us to detour off route in search of a bike shop (huge thanks to the guy from a great bike shop in Vals-les-Bains, Topvelo Vals,  for dropping everything to fix my wheel so quickly and happily). It was getting late and I knew we still had some way to go. And then we emerged into the village square of Chassiers.

Suddenly we rode into a party: music playing; the master of ceremonies announcing our arrival to the whole village; people cheering and clapping; we were being congratulated, and offered food and drink by a happy team of people, who’d presumably been offering riders food and drink over the past few hours. I don’t think I’ve ever, anywhere, felt so valued and appreciated, just for the simple fact I was riding a bike, into their village! It’s too glib to say, but I’ll say it anyway – the British mistreat the cyclist; the Dutch take her or him for granted; but the French – or certainly the French in the Ardèche during L’Ardéchoise – know how to celebrate the cyclist. What a rare and joyous experience, to feel wanted – as someone who loves riding a bicycle – by a whole village; no, by an entire region! This experience helps me understand how the French embrace le vélo in ways which other nations don’t, at least not yet …

If you’re following this year’s Tour de France, you get a sense of this radical orientation to the bicycle when you watch the riders ascending the big mountains, and getting funnelled through a tunnel thick with cheering, screaming, spectators. Paul Sherwen, the British ex-pro cyclist who is now a TV commentator, described a few days ago how that was an experience which, as a rider, would make the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. For a mortal like me, L’Ardéchoise is probably as close as I’ll get to that experience. But boy, it’s good!

Also like Le Tour, there’s something special about the involvement which L’Ardéchoise inspires. Actually, ‘involvement’ isn’t the right word, it’s too passive; ‘ownership’ is better. In various ways people don’t simply ‘accept’ the event, or get ‘involved’ in it; they take ‘ownership’ of it – they make it their own. This ownership is demonstrated in folk art. You see it during TV coverage of Le Tour. And riding L’Ardéchoise, you spot it (but also no doubt often miss it) everywhere; bicycles –  clustered together in a velo-love-in, or dangling elegantly and alone – painted in the colours of the Ardèche, the yellow and purple of the wild flowers so wonderfully abundant in late spring.

Material statements of support for the event (and of course there are sound economic motives here) and cycling are everywhere: hand-made sculptures, banners, posters and placards welcoming the ride’s arrival, or more simply stating support for the bike – ‘Vive le velo!’. In these ways, the bicycle is annually, symbolically re-incorporated into the Ardèche (and during Le Tour, the entire French) psyche. Through this folk art people announce and honour their allegiance to the bicycle, and those who ride them. I don’t just mean this romantically – people embracing cycling, taking it to their hearts. I mean it as a tangible process – people in their ordinary lives mundanely reproducing the bicycle’s significance and iconic status within French culture. This cultural work around the bicycle matters. To get concrete about it, let’s look at one empirical outcome we saw often on the roads of south-east France as we rode 650 miles over nine days.

You might argue a society that really respects cycling shouldn’t need to remind motorists to give people riding bicycles space, as they overtake. But perhaps only a society that really respects cycling takes it upon itself to see such signs as important and worth installing. Although I’m wary of a culture of ‘signs for everything’, instruction is needed to bring about changes in behaviour which, when regularly repeated and aggregated, help shift social conditions. In Britain we need to shift conditions on roads to make them better places for cycling, and such signs provide a means of doing so. So we need such signs as one step towards effecting a cultural change towards greater recognition of cycling, and greater respect towards the cyclist.

The cultural work the French do around cycling ensures the status of cycling and the cyclist is preserved, even though few French people cycle. Such cultural work, then, is an essential but insufficient part of a bicycle system oriented to making cycling mainstream. Whilst such events don’t do much – if anything – to get people cycling to school, college, work and the shops, L’Ardéchoise is nonetheless a super example of solid cultural work in support of cycling. The organisational effort behind the event’s success is magnificent. We each paid 200 euros to take part in the three-day Montagne Ardechoise – this covers two night’s (very satisfactory, if basic) accommodation, two (superb) evening meals, two breakfasts, baggage transfer, ride jersey (modelled below by Jim), a meal at the end of the ride, and most importantly, all the behind-the-scenes organisation which makes such an event possible.

Jim and I were two of 15,000 participants. Most riders are French, and many clubs ride together. Although we didn’t meet any, a smattering of participants come from elsewhere around the world. We didn’t get a sense of how big the event is until the last day when our route, one of many, converged with the other rides, and took to closed roads for the final miles to L’Ardéchoise HQ, the village of St Felicien. As the road steadily thickened with cyclists it seemed like the previous two days had been only the prelude to this extravagant finale. We became part of a cycling procession. On the climbs barely an inch of tarmac was without a bike. On the right-hand edge of the roads people cycled slowly, and some pushed their bikes up the steeper sections of the longer climbs. To their left a steady stream of riders overtook. And to their left, sometimes accompanied by shouts of warning as they approached (“attention!”, or “a gauche!”), formed the fastest line of riders.

Over these final hours the event overtook me; the miles passed with my barely noticing. My ride became an experience I was sharing with thousands of fellow cyclists – not ‘strangers’, because this shared act involved some kind of communion – an opening out to others not based on knowing who they are, but on the shared practice of cycling. Together we become part of something sacred. Cycling’s the practice which has most reliably takes me towards something I call sacred, and I don’t think I’m alone.

Given we numbered in our thousands, our procession was remarkably quiet. It became a pilgrimage. How often do we share a ride with so many others? This is not the aggregated mass of individualised, stop-start cycle commuting that can be experienced on a daily basis in cities across the Netherlands and China, or in the Danish capital, Copenhagen; this is thousands of riders moving in the same direction, through the same beautiful countryside, with the same final destination – riders dropping deliriously down a mountain’s side before becoming a concertina crawl up the next long slow climb. There’s no inside/outside here; we become the experience we’re witnessing. Like others at such times I’m unwilling to break the silence, the reverential hush, which together we create. We contribute to something sacred, and our behaviour unconsciously adapts to it. We lose control, and the freedom is ecstatic.

The last 20 km of the ride were breathtaking. They involved a fantastically long descent from Lamastre to St Felicien, via a road that must have been deliberately selected by the local tourist board to stun each rider into a personal promise to one day return – a continuously unravelling panorama of Ardèche countryside at its most achingly beautiful. And sat with Jim and a cold beer in the sunshine at the end, our L’Ardéchoise experience felt complete as we applauded the rides of others, including Robert Marchand – the centenarian, who recently set a new hour record for his age, was the oldest participant in this year’s L’Ardéchoise, completing a day’s ride beyond what many people half his age could ever do. So who knows, perhaps my best riding years might still lie ahead of me?

From the Ardèche we travelled east to the Vercors. We based ourselves in a peaceful riverside municipal campsite at Pont-en-Royans for another three days of riding through outrageously spectacular countryside. The limestone cliffs and deep gorges of this part of France are incredible. Some of the roads we rode left me incredulous – “how on earth did ‘they’ build this road, and why, here?” I’d barely heard of the Vercors, but Jim insisted it provided some of the best cycling in France. And I’m sure he’s right; now I’ve seen it, I aim to return …

And then from the Vercors we travelled east again, basing ourselves at Le Bourg d’Oisans for three days of riding in the French Alps. I’d not been to the Ardèche or Vercors before, but nor had I been to the French Alps, and for me, this was the reason above all for making this trip – a big part of my love for cycling has been shaped by places I’ve only ever seen on TV and read about in books and magazines, places like Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. Without wishing to sound over-dramatic, riding those mountains for myself would be a dream-come-true. It’s also an ambition, a challenge, and – if successful – an achievement, of course. Perhaps the most seductive aspect of challenging rides, for me,  is the slow, unsteady process from hatching the plan, through getting prepared, and finally to its (never done until it’s done) execution.

Jim and I had discussed riding the route of La Marmotte, but in hesitant tones. It would depend …. on how we’d been riding until then, on whether we felt we had the legs, on whether we got lucky with the weather. I wanted to ride both Galiber and L’Alpe d’Huez, but was less sure I’d feel up to riding them together, as part of a day’s ride as long and hard as La Marmotte. To climb 5,000 metres in one day? That’s over three miles in a line straight up to the sky from the ground! But over the first week of our trip we seemed cautiously, slowly and silently to move towards a tacit consensus that we’d give it a shot. The day before, we pitched our tents and did the gentlest local ride we could find, engaging our lowest gear to soft-pedal our way up Col d’Ornan. We checked the weather forecast, which promised a fine start to the day before thunderstorms later, and then during the day we both grew quieter: beginning to focus on the ride ahead, to organise our minds as well as our bikes, and to solidify our conviction that we’d set on a course which we now would steer, come what may.

This is such a strong reason why we ride these rides – to test ourselves, to translate our potential to do a ride into actual achievement, something to stay with us forever; an addition to our own personal palmares. It doesn’t matter if no one else cares – by riding we move towards who we want to be, and become who we are. However amateur, if you ride even half-seriously you develop your own cycling biography, and it’s something which – as Robert Marchand demonstrates – can be added-to until life ends.

We rose at 5, were away by 6. What a feeling! There’s real intensity to the privilege of going into the unknown, not entirely sure what will happen, but knowing that you’re embarking on one of the rides of your life; obviously not emulating the legends of cycle sport, but getting closer to experiencing the obdurate magnificence of a cycle-scape created by all those riders who the world has ever heard of. Of course we rode conservatively, we couldn’t do otherwise. But we made steady progress, up first Col du Glandon and then Col de la Croix de Fer, over which the 2012 Tour de France will in a couple of day’s time ride.

Descending to St Jean de Maurienne Jim hit a stone that slit his tyre, forcing a search for a bike shop to get a replacement. But still we made good progress, the weather stayed on our side, and we grabbed food at St Michel de Maurienne before starting up Col du Telegraphe. Down from the Telegraphe, though Valloire and onto the Galibier. We both were riding well, and hard as it was, this is of course the right kind of ‘hard’ … chosen, of our own free will, and something which adds to rather than detracts from our sense of ourselves … an almost ridiculously (perhaps, in a world so full of involuntary hardship, criminally?) privileged ‘hard’, then.

It’s a long, long descent off Galibier, first down to the Col du Lautaret, where you’re still over 2000 metres, and then down the Romanche valley back to Le Bourg d’Oisans. We knew we could stop here, our campsite less than a mile away. But we over-ruled the little voices in our heads and kept going past the town. So we were onto L’Alpe almost before we knew it. With a hundred miles and 4000 metres climbing already in our legs, it felt outrageously steep. Then the storm broke, thunder rolled, lightning flashed and water was everywhere. We buried our heads, dug deep and kept going, entering our own little worlds. I loved it. My feet were on fire, hot spots breaking out across the base of both. Both my legs began to cramp. All the water was aggravating saddle sores which had built over the past week. I felt as slow as an ox. But I was climbing L’Alpe! Each hairpin carried names of heroes of our sport, and was another step up the mountain, another part of a day which I’ll remember forever.

As we gently rode a recovery ride the next day, we looked down on the road up to Alpe d’Huez. It seems almost vertically to ascend the mountain from the valley floor through 21 switchbacks. We couldn’t quite believe we’d had the strength to ride up it, in a thunderstorm, after ten hours and more than 100 miles in the saddle, just the previous day.

Finally, back to what the French tell us about building a mainstream culture of cycling. As Jim and I rode the roads around Le Bourg d’Oisans, I thought often to myself, “I would not want my kids riding these roads”. Le Bourg d’Oisans feels like a town oriented towards cycling, but not to the everyday needs of ordinary cyclists. The French, to generalise, love cycling. But not in a way which enables everyone to do it.

Huge thanks to Jim for most of the photos (I dropped and broke my camera at the top of Col de la Croix Fer!), for being such a truly amazing travel companion, and for tolerating not just my company but also my  slow descending for so long.

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9 Responses to “Cycling in France”

  1. Tim Jones Says:

    Dave, your trip sounded wonderful. I’m extremely envious. Hoping to visit (again) next year… Vivre le velo!

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Cheers Tim – the thing I realised with the Alps (can you believe I’d never ridden there before?!), though, is that ‘they’re only just there’, aren’t they? I mean, we’re so lucky to live in reasonably close proximity to them. So yes, I’m with you, I plan to get back to them again, soon-ish, now that I’ve got the taste. (I think Mont Ventoux might be top of my list, for next …). All the best, Dave

  2. Don Says:

    Thanks for a truly inspiring account! I’d never heard of L’Ardechoise before, but you’ve got me seriously tempted to make a holiday of it next year. Well done in the Alps!

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks very much Don. L’Ardechoise does seem a very French affair – but I’m not sure how they’ve managed to keep it fairly secret for so long! Riding through that fantastic countryside, gorgeous villages, in that truly hospitable atmosphere, I kept saying to myself, ‘I must come back to this’. The organisation is top-notch. I was helped by going with Jim, who knew his way around, so-to-speak, but it really does feel a very rider-friendly event. Have a superb time, if you manage it. Thanks for reading. Best wishes, Dave

  3. Tom Cahill Says:

    What an excellent story. I suppose better becasue I know you guys. Frankly, it brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps the joy of cycling emerging, perhaps being so respectful (and a bit jealous) that you planned and executed the trip, partly maybe feeling a little bit of what you might have been feeling. Who knows? Couple of good photos too.

    They do need a bit of reminding, the French. Many times I can reach out and touch rear view mirror of a passing car. But in general you are right, they often love cycling and they clearly love the Tour. They also have an intricate grass roots cycling culture.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Tom. On the French driving, it feels to me – from various experiences of riding in France – that it often depends on the kind of road. In Britain, I find I don’t get any greater courtesy from drivers on the back lanes; but in France I do; and it’s only when you get to the bigger roads, which seem to carry an expectation – from the French driver’s perspective – of unimpeded flow, that consideration towards the cyclist begins to erode. Would you agree?
      It should be a great day on Le Tour today. It might be in danger of getting ever-so-slightly ‘boring’ for others, but I have to say that the attention of this north Lancashire household is completely rapt!
      Cheers, Dave

  4. Jim Says:

    Excellent description Dave which brought back the magical timeless sense (senseless time?) of just riding every day in something like a state of grace. Your thoughtful perspectives on cycling always colour and enrich our rides. You were a wonderful, enthusiastic and generous companion. And is there a better way to have spent a few days of our lives?
    My mind turns to the future … only four and a half decades left!

  5. Jonathan Says:

    Fabulous! Achingly jealous of your adventure but really enjoyed the reading of it.

  6. Dave Barker Says:

    Hi Dave
    Touch of deja vu: did the 3 day Ardechoise in 2006. A totally unforgettable cycling experience – including: descending the Col du Pendu on the second evening, seeing a couple of heavy trucks thundering along the Route Nationale at the bottom and realising that I hadn’t seen a truck for two solid days! the multilingual camaraderie on the road and at the night time stops; getting used to a new kind of cycling where 42×16 or 52×19 (my ‘riding round Cheshire’ ratios) virtually never came into play – it was either up or down; and surviving ‘crises’ eg knackered and dehydrated in the cauldron of Privas in the late afternoon and knowing all my gear was in Darbres, over the Col du Benas; ditto in Valgorge and then realising that Dominique from Lourdes was in an even worse state and helping his mate Alain to pace him over the Col du Meyrand; then meeting them all at the finish- the first time I’d seen Dominique smile in two days! and, above all, the enthusiasm of the locals and the welcome we all got wherever we went

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