In the continuing poor excuse for a British summertime (flooded roads and an absolute drenching on yesterday’s ride), it already seems unlikely that 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 previously, 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 and 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 for yourself? How, no matter how well someone describes something to you, it remains just that, a description – until you actually, practically, taste it directly?
So nothing Jim had said had quite 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 would be somewhere such as the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales National Parks, in this part of England.
Then imagine that little 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 bedecked with balloons and banners; at the roadside, people join together to provide drink and food for the riders, whilst bands play music as you pedal past; and the villages! Entire villages re-make themselves for the event – the whole village is often organised according to a theme (the village below was in the moo … d) and seem to be bidding to outdo one another in the generosity of their welcome.
Towards the end of the first day, having ridden over a hundred miles, I was feeling a bit 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 was playing; the master of ceremonies was announcing our arrival to the whole village; people were cheering and clapping; we were being congratulated, and offered food and drink by an incredibly happy and enthusiastic 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 that I was riding a bike, into their village! It’s far too glib to say, but I’ll do so anyway – the British mistreat the cyclist; and the Dutch take her or him for granted; but the French – or certainly the French in the Ardèche during L’Ardéchoise - really know how to celebrate the cyclist.
What a rare and joyous experience, to feel wanted – as someone who loves to ride a bicycle – by a whole village; no, by an entire region! (And of course, this whole experience helps you understand how the French embrace le vélo in ways which other nations just don’t, at least not yet …)
If you are 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 about as close as I will get to that kind of experience. But boy, is it good!
Also like Le Tour, there’s something very special about the public involvement which L’Ardéchoise inspires. Actually, ‘involvement’ is not the right word, it’s too passive; I think better is ‘ownership’. In various ways people don’t simply ‘accept’ the event, or get ‘involved’ in it; they more pro-actively take ‘ownership’ of it – they make it their own.
This ownership is demonstrated by a profusion of 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) here, there and everywhere; bicycles – clustered together in a velo-love-in, or dangling elegantly and alone – are painted in the colours of the Ardèche, the yellow and purple of the wild flowers which are 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 all manner of ways, the bicycle is annually, symbolically re-incorporated into the Ardèche (and during Le Tour, the entire French) psyche, through both the production and the consumption of bicycle art. Through such art people are announcing and honouring their allegiance to the bicycle, and to those who ride them.
I don’t just mean this romantically – people embracing cycling, taking it to their hearts. I mean it as an actual, tangible process – people in their ordinary, everyday 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, which we saw often on the roads of south-east France as we rode 650 miles over nine days.
You might want to argue that a society which really respects cycling shouldn’t need to remind motorists to give people riding bicycles space, as they overtake. But I’d reply that only a society which 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’, I think instruction is needed to bring about changes in individual behaviour which, when regularly repeated and aggregated, help to shift social conditions. In Britain we need to shift conditions on roads, to make them more hospitable places for cycling, and such signs provide one means of doing so. So I think we badly need such signs across Britain, as one step towards effecting a cultural change towards greater recognition of cycling, and of greater respect towards the cyclist.
For a sociologist of cycling, France is an interesting case. It seems to me that the cultural work which the French do around cycling ensures that the status of cycling and the cyclist is preserved, even though very 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 this event’s success is just magnificent. We each paid 200 euros to take part in the three-day Montagne Ardechoise – this covers two night’s (very satisfactory, if relatively 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 probably most important of all, all the behind-the-scenes organisation which makes such an event possible.
Jim and I were just two of around 15,000 participants. The big majority of riders are French, and many club riders ride together. Although we didn’t meet any, a smattering of participants come from elsewhere around the world.
We didn’t get a full sense of how big this event really is until the last day, when our route, which was only one of many, converged with the other rides, and took to closed roads for the final few hours of riding back to L’Ardéchoise HQ, the village of St Felicien.
Gradually throughout the day, as the roads steadily thickened with cyclists, it felt as if the previous two days had been only the prelude to this extravagant finale. We became part of a cycling procession, with on the climbs barely an inch of tarmac without a bike upon it. On the right-hand edge of the roads, people cycled slowly, and some pushed rather than rode their bikes up the steeper sections of the longer climbs. To their left a steady stream of riders were overtaking. And to their left, sometimes accompanied by a shout of warning as they approached (“attention!”, or “a gauche!”), formed another faster line of riders.
Over these final hours the event overtook me; the miles passed with my barely noticing.
My own 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 without any necessary familiarity with them.
Together we become part of something sacred. Cycling is the practice which has most recurrently taken me towards something I call sacred, and I do not think I am alone.
Given we numbered in our thousands, our procession was remarkably quiet. I could provide other explanations for this silence, but the one which I find most convincing is based loosely around the notion of pilgrimage.
How often do we share a ride with so many others? This is not the aggregated mass of individualised, stop-start cycle commuting which can still be experienced on a daily basis in cities across the Netherlands and China, or in the Danish capital, Copenhagen; this is thousands upon thousands of riders all moving in the same direction, through the same intensely 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 is no inside/outside here; we become the experience we are witnessing. In such moments I find myself unable to break the silence of the reverential hush which seems to have descended, not by collective agreement but by the force of shared experience, around me.
I contribute to something sacred, and my behaviour unconsciously adapts to it. I lose control, and the freedom is ecstatic.
The last 20 km of the ride was simply breathtaking. It involved a fantastically long-winded descent from Lamastre to St Felicien, via a road which must have been consciously selected by the local tourist board to stun each rider into a personal promise to some day return to this place – a continuously unravelling panorama of Ardèche countryside at its most achingly beautiful.
And sat with Jim in the sunshine with a cold beer at the end, our L’Ardéchoise experience felt complete as we applauded the rides of others, including that of the magnificent 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 far in excess of what most people half his age could manage.
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 beautiful and peaceful riverside municipal campsite at Pont-en-Royans for another three days of riding, through almost outrageously spectacular countryside. The limestone cliffs and deep gorges of this part of France are just 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 before travelling there, 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, some day …
And then from the Vercors we travelled east again, to base ourselves at Le Bourg d’Oisans for three days of riding in the French Alps.
I hadn’t been to the Ardèche or the 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’d 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 these 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 up until then, on whether we felt we had the legs, on whether we got lucky with the weather.
I knew I wanted to ride both Galiber and L’Alpe d’Huez, but I 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 arrived later, and then during the day we both became quieter: we began to focus on the ride ahead, to organise our minds as well as our bikes, and to solidify our conviction that we’d set upon a course which we now would steer, come what may.
This is such as strong reason for why we ride these rides – to test ourselves, and to translate our potential to do a ride into an actual achievement, something which can 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 so amply demonstrates – can be added-to until our life ends.
We rose at 5, were away by 6. What a beautiful 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 could not 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 which slit his tyre, forcing a search for a bike shop at which to buy 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 the 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 are still over 2000 metres, and then down the Romanche valley back to Le Bourg d’Oisans.
We both knew we could stop here, our campsite was less than a mile away. But we over-ruled the little voices at the back of our heads and kept going past the town. So we were onto L’Alpe almost before we knew it.
With one hundred miles and 4000 metres of climbing already in our legs, it felt almost 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 very closed 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 up 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 rode a gentle recovery ride the following day, we looked down on the road up to Alpe d’Huez. From the valley floor, it seems almost vertically to ascend the mountain through 21 switchbacks.
We couldn’t quite believe that we’d had the strength to ride up it, in a thunderstorm, after ten hours and more than 100 miles in the saddle, only the previous day.
Finally, back to what the French can 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, clearly 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.