Semaine Federal 2011-08-11 - By Peter Hawker
I’ve heard about this event over the years and thought I’d better give it a go while my old legs can still twiddle those pedals, albeit feebly.
It’s the annual festival of the French Cycle Touring Club (if the CTC is the oldest, this must be the largest) attended by thousands and this year is their 73rd anniversary of staging the extravaganza. All possible glitches have long since been ironed out. Imagine the CTC Birthday Rides, but somewhat larger. Somewhat! All administered by volunteers wearing distinctive red teeshirts with prominent logos and all very professional.
I have previously cyclecamped with a member of the Bristol C.C. and was kindly adopted by the club on this occasion. I liased between them and a few CTC West Kenters. We took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen and rode 55 miles south to Flers in the Alpes Normande, which has it’s ups and downs. Pitched our tent on the playing field of a boys college. I’m something of a tent nut and I was in my element – never seen so many in one place before. Like an exhibition. But this site was small compared with others occupied by campervans and caravans. They were truly enormous. Not pretty sights. Ours looked quite charming by comparison, and fortunately, some distance away.
When we checked in we were given a large bag full literature, including a pack of beautifully presented maps for each of the seven days, with circuits varying between 20 and 120 miles. I favoured the less demanding end of the scale. On the road were stickers identifying the routes, applied overnight by scooterists, and by wayside signs showing where to branch off for the various alternative circuits. All very efficient. There was no doubt about the main route – it was packed with cyclists, sporting club strips from all all over France and also from the many regions. Very colourful. I designed one of my own, as we bowled along – “Please overtake – I’m not proud!” Road behaviour was good. Unlike similar events at home – the Brighton run comes to mind - all were club riders and well used to cycling in company.
Lunch stops were usually in small town squares, with food and drink stalls and covered seating. There was always entertainment to aid digestion – local dancing, singing, bands. Noisy (them and us) and colourful – very convivial.
I was intrigued by the proportion of women club cyclists, many more than at home. It reinforced the impression that theirs is a cycling culture.
Delighted by the ‘decorations’ enroute, bikes old and new in every location, strung up on lamposts, fixed to walls, everywhere, some adorned with lifelike dummies. Outside one house there were two, but the eyes of one followed me as I passed – he was real! Very impressive. Shop windows were similarly decorated and included all sorts of cycling accessories. And the natives were friendly, waving and cheering as we went by. I admired their stamina. No matter when you started the rides, or finished, there would always be riders ahead and behind. I was told that keen competetive participants started at 5am to try to get a clear road. There were many Routes Barre’d and motorcycle policemen gave priority to the cyclists. I reflected that if I lived hereabouts, I would go on holiday for a week to avoid the disruption.
The administration was in a complex of industrial buildings taken over for the occasion, with cycling associated centres selling everything – bikes, parts, clothing, holidays, and mechanics stalls – repairs and replacements while you wait. Like a Cycle Show. And a large bar in a gymnasium, where drinks were exchanged for tokens previously bought, the camp currency. Enroute lunches were purchased similarly, presumably to reduce the amount of money concentrated in a few places. One of the most crowded functions was the photo stall with pictures of the previous days rides. There were cameramen at points along the routes and trade was brisk. Very popular.
Dinner was in an enormous marquee in the complex, with unbroken lines of refectory tables stretching from side to side. And patrolled by strolling accordion players. Every four diners had a large bottle of water and a bottle of wine. Enthusiasts could buy more wine. The food was good, particularly at the ‘Last Supper’ when spirits were high and the more abandoned danced on tables. A couple of the Bristols were riding the gruelling Paris/Brest/Paris in a couple of weeks and they’d liberated a poster of the event from the bar which they waved to cheers and flashing cameras, standing on their chairs.Wine fuelled and very uninhibited.
The SemFed is extremely good value. The campsite fee and dinners for a week cost £147 33p. The only criticism I had was of the campsite toilet facilities, which were primitive. Veree French, you might say. Always hot water in the showers though.
I’m glad I went. An unusual experience in which I suggest all keen cyclists should participate once in their careers. Next year, Niort, for which all arrangements are in place, even down to the glossy brochure. The organisation is like an efficient, well oiled machine.
Peter Hawker, paid-up MAOist (Meridian Active Octogenarian)
Ren - The Ed said :-
One simple question, did you cycle all the way from Bristol to Portsmouth?
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