Cycling. France. Training with a local Club at the foot of the Pyrenees. Three simple things spun together that seem far removed from belting up and down Beach Rd in Melbourne at 6am.
What does it mean to roll along in a club ride through the Pyrenees-Orientales?
Hopefully this virtual tour will do it justice…
Same Same but Different
Depending on whether you’ve ever ridden with a club, cycled pre-dawn at 50kph, soloed your way through the evening traffic lights or just bumped around the mountains with your mates I doubt taking a spin with a French Cycling Club will be that different or the same.
Unwritten rules, unseen dangers, hierarchies, undefined sprint locations and plenty of chit-chat lead the way.
Plenty of Choice
An array of cycling clubs smatters the south of France: Road specific, cyclo-cross (CX), mountain biking (MTB) and a melange of all three. Most have a website, all have no specific information about where or exactly when they meet to start their training rides.
Is it a method of protecting ‘secret-training’ or perhaps promoting exclusivity or just a way of covering up there’s not that much organisation behind the scenes? Yet to work that out, at least the location and time of the weekly ride has been discovered for the LeBoulou Cycling Club, a strong club in Road and CX.
Pre-Dawn? No Way!
There’ll be none of this pre-dawn stuff in the Mediterranean. This is soleil and siesta country.
Though it’s called the LeBoulou CC, rides begin at 9am on the weekends in another town, Villeneuve de la Raho, taking off from the historical wine co-operative. For those that live more than 20kms from the start or are late, there’s an additional meeting point 5kms down the road rolling through between 9:15 – 9:23am (the French are not well heralded for their punctuality).
About 20 riders consisting of men and women, juniors, veterans and everything in between roll down the road two-by-two. Being winter some dispense with helmets and wear a training-approved beanie, it protects from any potential climate-related injuries.
Personally I’m one for wearing a helmet at all times training on the road or mountain biking and in respect of any local laws and regulations. (Though, my jury is out for wearing a helmet where it’s not compulsory, ie commuting in cities with dedicated cycling infrastructure, eg, Amsterdam.)
The Ride Route
It’s taken a few rides to understand exactly how the ride route is determined for each training ride. Asking anyone in the last 16 riders where the route for the day is going usually results in a dumbfounded look and an “I have no idea” response. Note 1: Bring plenty of food.
As a visitor, they’re kind enough to send word to the Patron of the bunch to find out, but normally it wouldn’t bother them. Note 2: Get to know the Patron of the Peloton.
Like most bunch rides I’ve experienced, about 20-30% of the bunch actually does any work or contributes to the ride. All other passengers port a virtual ticket and sit in.
Saturdays are flat days, Sundays the hills.
With the dead roads, patchwork quilt surface, loose gravel, zero shoulder and undulating terrain average speeds appear low, around 26-28kph. Never mind, it’s bad enough on the legs. Note 3: Wear good quality knicks.
Flat or Hilly?
On first impressions it appears the task of deciding the route rotates around a few Patrons. Generally the circuit is between 60-80kms and on flat days takes in as many back-roads as possible with a mixture of rolling roads, a few short climbs and occasionally a jaunt right up the guts of a town. Always a loop, there’s no bail-out options. Note 4: Take a GPS.
On the climbing days, there’s a meander to the hills, generally along a gentle incline to the base of a long climb (~10kms). A bail-out option pops up after the first climb for a direct high-paced return down the gentle decline (if you’re lucky with a tailwind too). For the dedicated, the second climb is ridden like it’s the first. Note 5: Go long, but not in your first week back on the bike.
The Patron determines the loop on the day, but in the background there’s a pseudo-organised “Board” that have a general idea what training loops will take place over the coming weeks. On more than one occasion a bit of shouting, finger pointing and discussion on whether the route is straight ahead, left or right has taken place. All part of the ‘ambience’! Note 6: Be flexible. Focus on riding, not the route.
What about the behaviour of the bunch you may be thinking? Do they signal, are there key phrases, are there any patterns?
For sure there’s the guy with the noisy brakes, that bike with the clapped out free-wheel, another steel-is-real clunker from 1982. There’s plenty of bling too and a deep-dish carbon is certainly the perfect training wheel in these parts as well.
The bunch rolls along in formation two-by-two. All riders signal any debris, potholes or dangers on the surface with an arm and pointed finger at the surface on the side of the danger, left or right. An arm swung behind the back about pocket-height indicates a move around a parked car or when passing another cyclist. Approaching an intersection or roundabout generally goes unannounced. This is usually followed by heavy braking and swearing at the back.
Note 7: Try and move closer to the front (*See Note 8).
A car approaching from in front is announced “Voiture (car)”. A car moving around from behind is not.
With the “Board” stationed at the front of the bunch taking charge of the route, the ‘domestiques’ sit in and carry on with pedalling. Unconfirmed but certainly clear is that unless you’re on the “Board” your place is amongst the domestiques, unless told otherwise. Note 8: You’re a domestique, stay down the back!
Generally the ride goes along in a track-turns approach. The two at the front work for about 10-15kms and then peel-off, one either side of the bunch. Any kind of slight rise or extended incline does not mean the pace reduces, generally it means increase the tempo to lactic. Hills? Go harder and destroy the bunch. Attack if necessary. At the top, wait and reform the bunch, or ride back down the hill to support your fellow club mates as they climb up (or rejoice in the carnage you’ve happily created, I’m not sure).
It’s not all brutality and military rule, this is just cyclist being cyclists. Just be wary when the Patron has decided his training season has commenced with additional enthusiasm. Every hill, rise, incline is at full noise with no respite. The descent is the time to recover as the road condition cannot be relied upon. Mid-corner gravel is a certainty, if not there’s a pothole on exit. Descents are a slow affair, there’ll be no flair here, unless you’re keen to be told that’s not the way things are done around here.
Punctures and Pee-pee
Got a puncture? Some will be quite pleased. Punctures indicate the time for a natural break. If anyone gets a puncture, the entire group stops, gets involved or relaxes, or does that other thing at the side of the road. The environment is entirely supportive and the ride continues with everyone back on deck.
The best thing about cycling with a French club is that every ride is interesting. The route changes each ride, the distance and duration is relatively predictable, the Patrons do a great job of making it challenging and enjoyable and your pals down the back aren’t caught up in what’s unfolding, it’s the definition of simplicity rolling down the road. All you need focus on is pedalling and fuelling.
Away from the pedalling, there’s much more going on behind the scenes too.
For one ride, members of a Spanish club were invited along and joined in for a tour of the hills, great for swapping tales and keeping the borders open. Also part of a master plan by the Board as a training camp is planned for the end of the month down the Spanish coast, a friendly exchange of local knowledge and spirit.
The key thing I realise is that for this club at least, cycling and fitness is the priority and there isn’t a subordinate priority. The ride starts together but separates; there is no group finish. What does that mean? There’s no coffee or chance to regale how much you put that guy in the gutter in the sprint. But that’s it, it’s not about that, this is about being a better cyclist. Note 9: What happens on the road, stays on the road.
My absolute favourite thing about cycling with the club, apart from the variation in ride routes, the unwritten culture and the tour du soleil, is the Wednesday club ride. If there is one thing I’d sing the praises loudly for and encourage more clubs to do, even businesses, is to instigate a Wednesday afternoon ride that starts at 2pm.
For some it means starting work super early and finishing early, for others it’s a half-day of work. The spirit though of the Wed afternoon ride is fantastic, an excuse to get outdoors, a reason to break up the working week, a way of continuing the dialogue from weekend to weekend and keeping the club united. A shorter circuit, it is as effective in cycling as it is in life-balance. It must be the influence of the Mediterranean at work.
For that I’ll concede the lack of post club-ride coffee banter. Just the banter though, the coffee is long ritualised.
My enormous thanks goes to the Le Boulou Cycling Club members for inviting me in and providing me with access to great riding, tough training and the warmth of the LeBoulou spirit, it’s a privilege.
For sure, if you get the opportunity, a ride with a French Cycling Club comes highly recommended.
Oh, and did I mention the scenery…?!