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For the second year in a row, I (Tom, NYC Velo Team) had the honor of riding for four days with a dozen French cyclists in a sort of tour that makes me could be more common in the United States.
Of course La France has its infrastructural advantages for cyclists: towns that are closer together, affordable and well run owner-operator restaurants and hotels in those towns, fierce regional pride in locally grown food and wine, and impeccably maintained, low-traffic’d roads (Hey, the 60%+ of GDP coming from the government has to go somewhere), and a density of mountainous terrain high enough to put together a different point-to-point or circuit route every 4-6 years.
However, it’s not just a question of infrastructure — it turns out that the French attitude towards cycling and life in general makes a big difference. At the risk of sounding cheesy, the French may also have a different understanding of companionship and why they ride. Accommodations along the route are always nice but rarely prestigious, and rooms are often shared by 3-4 people. In fact, everything for 16 hours a day is shared by 3-4 people: cans of Coke and Figalou (the tastier French version of Fig Newtons) on the road, lunch tables, waits for the train, beers after a quick shower, walks after dinner, and of course plenty of time on the bike.
This makes the whole trip — including round-trip train fare from Paris and 3 meals-per-day — lighten the wallet the same as one “luxury” dinner in New York City.
The ride, always 4 days long and surrounding the 14th of July (or Bastille Day, as it’s known to Americans) started about 15 years ago, among friends who all worked for L’Oreal. While the base of the group is the same and many of the same guys show up every year, over the years new participants have been added.
One of the newest additions (besides me) is Kurt Dienel who readers may remember as our host in the Hauts Alpes in September 2010. He asked me join the 2011 edition of the tour after having been himself invited by Gilles, one of his co-workers at l’Oreal.
You may also remember Yves — our host in the Bas Alpes in November 2011. While a longtime member of the team, he was absent this year due to an unavoidable conflict with a family vacation. However, his brother Yann and his father Jean were able to make it. Jean now drives one of the two support vehicles along with Robert, the father of Steph, the chef / patron of the group who flawlessly organizes the trip each year. Both Robert and Jean no longer cycle at this level and have taken their retirement, and may be the two most kind-spirited people in the world … or just reasonably typical French dad’s who get a kick out of hanging out with their sons for 4 days in the mountains. The rest of the group included two Francois’, two Hervé’s, another Yann, another Tom, Christian aka Kiki, Maxime, and Arnaud.
The 2012 edition — the route is different each year and focuses on a particularly mountainous region of the country — was entitled ‘Traversée du Massif Central’ and was another extraordinarily organized, incredibly fun time.
At just over 300 miles in length and 32,000 feet of elevation gain (see Strava rides Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4), it’s an impressive effort for a bunch of guys who generally ride only once a week. There is no questioning their love for the bike, while at the same time, many put in a maximum of 3,000 miles a year and still maintain a level of fitness that lets them crank out a trip impossible for casual cyclists. I’m betting that their secret is a combination of commitment to overall fitness and a sporting lifestyle (while cycling is important to them, most, if not everyone else swims, skis, kitesurfs, windsurfs, runs, etc.) as well as a regularity of training that I have a hard time achieving, especially during the wintertime.
To be honest, on first view, I was initially a bit skeptical about the route. You don’t hear many people in France talk about the Massif Central, which happen to be some of the oldest mountains in France, if not all of Europe: they were created 500 million (!) years ago. The principle reason that Massif is oft-ignored is that the area is sparsely populated and one of the poorer regions of the country. Beyond the volcanos, the winters are cold, agriculture is much harder here than elsewhere, and the climbs here are shorter (and often steeper) than the longer, slower rising climbs in the more popular Alpine region. Somewhat to the contrary, these shorter climbs often contain longer sections of steepness (we saw 10% average gradient for greater than 5k on more than one occasion.)
Throughout the day, the bunch naturally divides into smaller groups, which are sometimes based on pace, but more often based on who you want to talk to or ride next to. In fact, on the subject of pace, there is a certain appreciation of the guys who are in better shape during a particular year, and increasing the pace is never frowned upon unless it would explode the full group at a time when everyone was riding together. Here, competition is a far second to ‘passer des bons moments ensemble‘ and creating great memories. In other words, having a good time. Even if that good time means pushing the tempo sufficiently to put everyone that you’re currently riding with, including yourself, in the hurt bucket on a 3-5 mile climb with an average gradient of 10%. This may sound crazy to some readers, but the goal isn’t necessarily to make it to the top of the climb first, it’s to suffer, together.
However, suffering does not come without it’s immediate rewards: as usual, ‘on a bien bouffé’ (we ate well). Lunchtime is usually a two hour affair with entrée (appetizer) plat (main course), dessert, and coffee, and no day is complete without a 3-4 course dinner, that would make anyone who ever thought, just for a second, of becoming a vegetarian, cringe. This year, local delicacies included pink trout, beef and sausage from the Salers (the sausage is made with Salers veal so it’s extra lean), St. Nectaire and Cantal cheese, and the incomparable inimitable, ubiquitous Aligot: a richer than rich combination of potatoes, cheese, and more butter than I previously thought possible for a cyclist to consume at lunch (or dinner, for that matter) and get back on a bike.
As a peace offering and a thank you for my inclusion on this year’s roster, I presented each rider with a NYC special edition cycling cap aka casquette. The picture below is everyone on the crew sporting their new lids before we rolled out on le quatorze juillet. It turned out that the gift was more practical than imagined as the temperature hovered between 40-60 degrees every day and also included a not-insignificant amount of precipitation. All that rain is a distant memory now — my primary recollections being great moments, outstanding food, and of course, suffering with my friends.