This was our first visit to Semaine Federale a French Cycling event organised by FFCT (Federation franchise de cyclotourisme ) and attracting up to 13,500 participants from all over the world.
Arriving on Saturday we had collected our paperwork and made our way to the camping site at Albi Airport, in fact the airport had been closed for 3 weeks to prepare 6000 camping pitches for tents, caravans and motorhomes that completely covered the site.
All pitches were marked and locating our space was easy with the host of volunteer helpers on hand. It was an incredible sight to see every inch of grass-covered each side of the 1 mile long tarmac runway.
Temporary Showers, WC’s, washing and service points were there and the numbers provided allayed my fears from an earlier French camping experience where half a dozen portaloos were provided for 500 people
After setting up camp on a warm Saturday afternoon it was time to open a beer, look at the programme and study the maps for a week of pedalling, we also visited the “Permanence”, a village that provides meals and everything else for the weeks events. Another unique idea allows you to exchange Euros for tokens that you can exchange at food stalls on the site and at the various feed stations on the daily rides.
Each day there is a choice of 4 or 5 rides of differing lengths and each day the routes are marked with a different colour stickers that are stuck on the road surface to indicate direction and turns. I was surprised how well this system works. At several points around each days courses in the local villages feed stations and a full programme of events are set up with volunteer marshals to water and feed the thousands of cyclists. French traffic shows patience with the invasion of their roads which is also probably due to their law that states if a motorists hits a cyclist it is automatically the drivers fault until proven otherwise.
Sunday morning dawned with blue skies and with breakfast outside we could hear a conversation in the adjacent tent with Mr Cyclist politely asking Mrs Cyclist which bag his padded shorts were in, this turned to potential homicide when it was discovered Mrs Cyclist had not packed them. After a leisurely start I took to the roads at 10.00 joining the guys from Fleet Cycling and the masses. I had opted for the 130km circuit and with 5200ft of climbing and in 38c this was hard cycling and I was soon aware of how much extra fluid you need to take onboard with the soaring temperature.
Following Sundays experience I decided to start a bit earlier on Monday and at 08-30 I joined a queue to exit the “permanence” . It seemed most people had the same idea and it was slow progress in the peloton. I passed one guy towing a trailer with his dog and another in fleece trousers and jacket with 4 panniers and a wicker basket on the handle bars. As the ride progressed the temperature soared and took its toll as cyclists were sat at the roadside with heat exhaustion, the emergency services were kept very busy. The temperature locally had risen to 41c and people were still returning from the days ride at 7pm.
Tuesday morning produced leaden skies and again I opted for an earlier start as thunder could be heard in the distance. A lovely ride out to Castre through hanging valleys and a fast flowing river L’Agout The town was totally gridlocked with traffic as we completed a figure of eight route through streets of the town centre. The return leg back to Albi took us through the village of Lautrec as the overcast skies provided a welcome reprieve from the searing heat of Sunday and Monday.
Wednesdays “Tour of the Bastides” was one of the weeks high lights for me. A 100 mile circuit out to the L’Averon Gorge. Set on the tops of high ground each of the “Bastides “provided a long climb to the top but at each we were rewarded by spectacular views and then a fast decent. Once again each town put on a welcoming reception for the cyclists and we heard of one village with a population of 150 that had recorded 13,000 visitors on the day the Semaine Federale visited. Another warm day as the temperature reached 36c
Thursday is Picnic day when people take it easy and enjoy an event organised picnic lunch. You still have to work for it though with a few miles and climbs to the picnic site but it struck me as being akin to the Tour De France, each days rides being tour stages with the picnic day as the neutralised ride into Paris with cyclists laughing and sharing a joke on the ride. I passed one guy with a back pack and two bottles of wine poking out of the top, clearly he wouldn’t be sprinting anywhere after lunch. The picnic was held at Cap Decouverte an enormous bowl 430m deep presumably as a result of open cast mining that had been landscaped to provide a watersport and activity centre.
Fridays ride was a tour of the vineyards and I was joined by Colin for a 70 mile ride along the Tarn Valley to Saint Sulpice before returning through the fertile slopes that produce the grapes and the main wine-producing town of Gaillac. Once again the French motorists displayed manners and patience as the small villages were besieged with cyclists. I was also impressed that once traffic lights turned to red all cyclists immediately stopped, only on one occasion did I see two cyclists jump a red light and the haranguing, abuse and shouting that came from the rest of the peloton showed unanimous disapproval of their action.
The last ride of the week was on Saturday, the weather forecast was for heavy rain and thunder storms to reach the area by 11.00 so I opted for the 60 mile circuit and left at 06.30 just as the sun was rising. From early on the cloud base was lowering and wind increasing. This route was following the Tarn River to the east of the city passing through the picturesque village of Ambialet before turning South and the long climb up to Alban. From there we followed the ridge to Teilletand and a very strange experience as I came across a shepherd by the side of the road, his dogs were barking and chasing the cycles A couple of French Cyclists remonstrated with the shepherd who just laughed at the dogs antics, fortunately the downhill gradient gave enough speed to outrun the dogs.
The D81 provided a smooth surface and a fast return to Albi, I got back to the motor home at 10.30 as the rain started and it just got heavier during the afternoon just as if the weather gods knew the event was coming to an end.
The farewell evening dinner was a very laid back French meal for 2500 people with wine flowing. The five course meal was worthy of a good restaurant and rounded off a fabulous week. The organisation of the event was formidable and all the volunteers made it a resounding success. I do not think I have been to a mass event before where the organisation has been so good. I must close by saying chapeau to Albi 2015 and FFCT.
Next year the event is in Dijon 31st July to 8th August.