On last year’s Semaine Federale in Dijon I was overtaken (as usual) by a woman. Flying the flag for West Surrey in my club shirt, she commented, as she passed, ‘Bonjour West Surrey.’ ‘Bonjour’, say I, adding ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Bristol CTC she replied. ‘How many are you?’ she added. ‘Just me, I’m afraid. How many are you?’ ‘Thirty-three,’ she replied…and sprinted on ahead.
There was a time when a few West Surrey-ites enjoyed the Semaine. Mark W for one and our old pal Alan Holbrook was another enthusiast. (It was Alan, who’d been on seven Semaines, who first got me interested). But for the past two years – at Dijon and at Albi in the south – I was the only West Surrey cyclist. Sad!
But this year it was different. There were THREE of us. Myself, John Pletts, who rode the 2011 Semaine with me in Flers and Keith Stainer, out for a few days as a ‘taster’.
We all three loved it. Why? One, its France; two, its about the Bike.
The Semaine Federale is the annual week-long celebration of cycling organised by the FFCT, the French equivalent of the CTC. It’s held in a different part of France every year. This year’s was based in the lovely old Norman town of Mortagne au Perche.
For each of the seven days you receive a coloured map with up to five colour-coded routes of varying length from 40-odd to 150-odd kms, each with elevations, distances between the towns en route and special sights you shouldn’t miss.
With up to 12,000 cyclists you never get lost as you can always follow a peloton. Its just as easy to cycle alone and wherever there is a crossroad there are arrows (fleches) pasted on the roads to show you the direction to take. All rides start from the same point in town and there are benevoles (volunteers) wearing coloured tee-shirts (this year it was green) who hold up the traffic for cyclists leaving town and give directions at major junctions.
Once out of town the roads are gloriously empty with hardly a car in sight. There are no potholes. The countryside is lovely and the villages positively medieval in the best sense. What is particularly striking is the effort the villages and farms make to celebrate the bike, with flower-bedecked old bicycles along village streets and outside houses, haystacks transformed into two wheels and a frame and stuffed dummies dressed up as bicycling priests outside village churches.
At the half-way point on both the shorter and the longer rides a village or small town will be the ‘Accueil’ or ‘Welcome’ centre. Here there are huge bike-parking areas, tents supplying food and drinks (beer, wine, soft drinks), seating arrangements under marquees and local entertainment in the form of line-dance troupes, oompah bands, singers and guitarists playing French chansons. The atmosphere is absolutely festive.
No money is exchanged at the Accueil as all food and drink is paid for through the ‘bracelet’. When you register for the week you put a certain sum of money onto your bracelet and make payments by having it read by the volunteers’ mini-computers.
Back at base large halls serve as the ‘Permanence’ (HQ) of the Semaine, with shops selling bikes and all kinds of cycling kit (including the presence, every year, of Bernard Thevenet, winner of the 1975 and 77 Tours de France), cycle repair workshops and food and refreshment stands.
Dinner in the evenings is served in a huge marquee in the Permanence. Five courses with wine and cider (the Perche region is apple country) are miraculously delivered to the tables without delay by the host of volunteers, an accordionist serenading the diners.
For John and me it’s back to the campsite less than two miles away together with the group of friends we’ve made over the course of the week. The camp bar has a live band and there is more chatter and dancing until 10 and by 10.30 all is quiet. Keith meanwhile has headed off to his home-stay, where he’s well looked after by a retired bookseller. Many others on the campsite retire to their caravans or mobile homes, while others bid goodnight in their hotels or campus dormitories.
On the final Saturday, after the last of the Semaine rides, there is the Gala Dinner. Seven courses followed by a charismatic multi-instrumentalist entertainer who whips up the two thousand or so diners into a frenzy of arm-waving, conga-lines snaking around the tables and otherwise sober cyclists giving it welly on the dance floor.
Next morning is the Closing Ceremony with a procession through the town of all the cycling clubs, many dressed up in costumes that represent the essence of their region. Mortagne au Perche is out in force, with the town in celebratory mood, out on doorsteps or hanging from windows waving, clapping and cheering on the cyclists and in their own way making a final benediction to the glory of le Velo.
Next year’s Semaine Federale is in Epinal in the Vosges. We three will hope to be there. And perhaps other West Surrey Francophiles too