Every summer, those of us who enjoy human-powered transport of the two-wheeled variety dutifully tune in to highlights of Le Tour de France – the annual event of inhumane torture to which hundreds of lycra-cald athletes submit themselves for our entertainment. This confirms three things:
(1) The French love of a spectacle…
(2) The French love of agonising, heroic human effort and…
(3) The French tourist board recognise that the greatest advert for their country is… well… the country itself. Every year as I watch Le Tour on Channel 4, I am more transfixed by the chocolate box villages through which the competitors pedal than I am by any alleged strategic move made by members of the peleton when, quite frankly, they all look as if they’re pushing themselves to near death while wondering if the guy next to them contains more steroids than a body-builders’ supplies dispatch centre.
La Famille Jones witnessed Le Tour in the sweaty flesh when it passed near Mussidan in 2015. We were fortunate as it was a time-trial stage. This meant that we saw the riders one-at-a-time and that the spectacle lasted a full day. I had heard that the normal experience was a multi-coloured blur which flew past the crowd, just at the moment you’d vanished to get frites and take little Johnny to the toilet, and that would be pretty much it. Conversely, our day was quite an event. Before the actual sport, the public were treated to what is known as the caravan. This is a train of sponsors’ vehicles which negotiate the course hurling freebies at the crowd, much to the delight of watching children. These could range from packets of stickers to baseball caps, resplendent with logos representing a wealth of French multinationals with money to literally throw away. Parents who had been behaving in a civilised, cordial manner towards their co-spectators suddenly became raging animals in their quest to ensure a Stella Artois pennant for little Jean-Pierre, striking actual blows at other dads who dared hinder their quest. It was Darwin in action.
Being France, about 95% of spectators came along with seven bottles of wine, a foldable table and six months’ supply of andouille sausage, fromage and baguette. A few people had a full three-course meal on the go, cooked on a portable gas-powered barbeque in the middle of the road. The sun was shining, everyone was happy and mildly tipsy. All was good. We befriended a Belgium couple seated to our left. They were most charming and we had a spontaneous competition to see who could humiliate themselves the most convincingly when a rider of the appropriate nationality passed. When Geraint Thomas (a Welshman) zipped by, I yelled something incomprehensible in Welsh which caused a bloke next to me to drop his moules in his lap and almost forced Thomas himself to veer into a tree. I won.
Every Sunday, one will see large groups of men (is there a collective for cyclists? If not, we must create one) zooming around the minor roads of la Dordogne, panting and sweating in a manner which would, in ordinary life, attract calls to the emergency services. They sport figure-hugging outfits which, in some cases, would be better left unhugged, and when dismounted, walk like a kind of day-glo John Wayne. If you are unaware, cyclists’ shorts sport a large blob of flexible jelly between the legs in order to protect the groin area from a seat which appears to have been inspired by the guillotine.
The smallest of villages host cycle races where such amateurs can indulge in fantasies of leading the peleton as they race pass the bar where sane people quaff beer and exchange chit-chat. Our village held an event where competitors had to complete 7 or 8 laps of a circuit, each one passing the village centre. The first person to pass at the completion of each lap would win a prize (either 10 euros or a bag of snails or something similar); this ensured the cyclists were making an effort at the moment where the greatest number of beer-swilling armchair critics (all of whom had become suddenly expert on all issues cycling-related) were gathered. We also got a local bum to drive a car in front of the pack with a stick-on siren (from Toys-R-Us I believe) and loud horn which made the experience all-the-more convincing. Watching others suffer for token rewards and low-scale glory was a surprisingly agreeable way to pass an afternoon in rural France. I’d recommend it.
The arch-enemy of the rural cyclist is the garden dog. As explained in some depth in Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen, country folk will often choose to keep either large, vicious and downright dangerous dogs in their garden or, even worse, those ghastly yappy miniatures which appear to exist for the sole purpose of annoying people and occasionally acting as rugby balls if one is fortunate enough to get a decent punt in. During my own escapades on two wheels, I can’t count the number of times I was scared out of my wits by the bellowing of a lunatic canine, causing me to swerve in a hazardous fashion into the path of an oncoming hay baling machine and narrowly avoiding being rolled up into one of those giant shredded wheats you see in fields during the summer months. My son, Sam, was just six years of age when he rode his bike into a ditch having been distracted by a donkey. You have been warned.
Twice per week, I worked at a school in Bordeaux. We lived some distance from this great city so I drove to the local station with my velo strapped to the back of my ancient Renault Clio (Nicole… Papa…), took the bike on the train and then rode through this magnificent city to my workplace. Happily, bikes are welcome on local French trains. There are vertical bike racks in each carriage upon which you can hang your cycle. During peak hours, these do become filled rather quickly so you can be left wobbling without a seat holding your bike. I did notice though that most French are very welcoming and respectful towards cyclists and do their best to make space for man and machine, even in the most heaving of trains. However, you are not allowed to take bikes on the high-speed TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse) without prior arrangement. Check this out before you travel.
Cycling in Bordeaux was an activity I loved. Although cycling in a city is an experience not without hazard, I found a route which allowed me to zip through back streets, zoom across pedestrianised areas, admire the shops in the vibrant African Quarter (often stopping for ocra and coconut milk en route) arriving in work feeling virtuous and sporty for my efforts. There were a few moments when I was forced to take the road along with the traffic. Very soon, I observed that my French co-cyclists took no notice of traffic lights; in fact some of them openly berated me for being so rude as to stop as commanded. After a few weeks, I felt that I had to follow their criminal ways; soon, I too became a red-light bandit. Some months after I commenced this practice, I was trundling down a tiny backstreet at 7.30am when I passed a red light at a pedestrian crossing. There were neither people nor vehicles in sight… except for a police motorcycle which stopped and fined me. In all my time in Bordeaux, I never saw another cyclist penalised for this action. I tried my best ‘I’m a foreign tourist who doesn’t speak French’ act but when the policeman saw my French driving licence, I was well-and-truly busted.
A year or so later, colleagues told me that a by-law had been passed in Bordeaux to make it law for all cyclists to wear helmets. This was no problem for me as I usually did anyway. One day, I had decided to walk to and from the school and, on a whim, decided to count the number of cyclists I saw and work out, as a percentage, how many were wearing helmets (I was clearly bored). Anyway, despite flunking maths at school, I calculated that just 30% were wearing them. The police, present at the majority of local landmarks, completely ignored them. They were obviously too occupied with busting Welshmen.
If you find travelling with your own bike too much of a hassle, Bordeaux has public bikes which you can hire on a daily basis for a couple of euros. I really enjoyed doing this and also took satisfaction in supporting the city’s green initiative. One swipe of a card and you could release your steed, adjust the seat and pedal off. The problem was that at the end of the day, the bike parking slots next to the station were often full. It was necessary to park it again otherwise you would be charged until you did so (i.e. the cost of a bike). I would often have to seek out other parking zones in the vicinity and once or twice, missed my train as a consequence.
Cycling in France is a joy. The traffic in Bordeaux was, as in all major cities, truly awful, so there was a smug satisfaction to be found in getting round the problem. In rural areas, such as the little village where our home is situated, it was an absolute joy to do the school run, fetch baguettes or just pop out for a leisurely pedal. For serious cyclists, many areas have opened glorious routes which will take you for miles between villages and towns. One of these actually passes our front door – that which runs between Perigueux and Libourne. If you decide to take it on, drop me a line and you can pop in for an aperitif.
When we initially considered moving to France in 2009, we were given wonderful and friendly advice by the good people at Breton Bikes. Their routes take cyclists along sections of the Nantes-Brest canal and they offer a range of packages, depending on how much of lightweight… err, I mean what degree of comfort you require.
Dan is a professional guitarist and the author of Extracting Goats from jean-Claude’s Kitchen. This tells the story of seven years working as a musician, raising a family and running a modest smallholding in rural France. Dan can be heard at his guitarist website: www.danjonesguitarist.com.