The main reason for our trip to France was to take part in Semaine Federale, a national cycling event which this year was being held in Mortagne-au-Peche so on the Friday we made our way to our designated camp site. Registration was from 14-00 and we thought we would get there early to get set up and relax, problem was that every other Frenchman had the same idea and the roads were gridlocked.
Campsite CF2 was on an undulating grass field and once through the gate we were greeted by smiling faces and each camper was escorted to their pitch by a volunteer on a mountain bike who must have clocked up a fair few kilometres by the end of the day.
Arriving at our designated pitch our French neighbour and his son were unloading a tent from a trailer and emptying his car, we levelled our motor-home using ramps and walked over to the registration tent to be “processed” and collect our welcome pack which included a security bracelet and individual maps for each days rides. From the site HQ on the high ground a panoramic view over the field and the temporary facilities of outside showers and WC’s , washing sinks and a very French mens outside urinal with a 1m high modesty screen.
Walking around the site people were very busy setting up their pitch, chatting and renewing acquaintances and noticeably we were one of only two vehicles that did not carry French registration plates.
Returning to our van our neighbour was still erecting his tent and this went on for the next four hours, I felt tired just watching him and felt a bit smug as I got out the garden chairs and we opened a couple of beers.
On Saturday morning we cycled into the centre of town to have a look around, a large banner aloft indicated Kilometre Zero from where all the weeks rides would start. The official opening was not until 14-00 so while Kaye was cycling locally I rode the course of the short Sunday ride to Mamers to have a look at the local countryside.
The route was certainly undulating and every village I passed through was bedecked with brightly painted bicycles and decorations, a theme that was to be repeated daily on the planned routes, it was also impressive that farm entrances had some intricate displays at a time of year when farmers had far more pressing concerns.
Every village community seemed to be enjoying the moment, a full day before the main event and people still waved and shouted as I pedaled past, at least I think they were friendly, very a la Tour De France. Road signs warned of 10,000 cyclists in the area so drive with “Prudence” and chapeau to French drivers for their patience and good grace.
The main cycling events started on Sunday morning as swarms of cyclists took to the roads, as well as the issued maps the courses were marked with stickers on the road that proved a very reliable system, the organisers had also provided GPX files for the sat nav’s, sadly these were not very accurate, deviating from the intended course on many occasions.
Each days routes intersected at one or two points where a refreshment point was set up and these provided food, drink and entertainment where cyclists could meet up and sit and chat, again a very good system but it did get very crowded and I invariably sought out a local Boulangerie for a pan-au-raisin and coffee.
Without detailing individual rides a few random observations that came to mind on the various days throughout the week.
On Monday I followed a French club that were riding in a tight group, all were older members that appeared to be riding bikes that were three sizes too big with saddles slammed onto the top tube, arms stretched to the bars and club jerseys two sizes too big, it must be a French thing. The last feed station on Monday was at Belleme which you could have mistaken for bedlam with all the routes converging on this town that was very poorly signed and completely gridlocked with cyclists. A diversion routed up a narrow cobbled street to highlight the appeal of the town but pedestrians did not want to yield to the cyclists so again this meant gridlock.
Tuesday went to the west of Mortagne with the rides following the same format, once again motorists showed incredible patience when faced with ten thousand cyclists. Cycling gridlock at one junction where two Gendarmes were at a “Stop” junction making sure cyclists did just that before proceeding. I also saw the aftermath of a bad accident where it looked like a steep decent with a tight left hand turn at the bottom had claimed a couple of victims with paramedics and ambulances on station, thankfully that was the only one of the week.
Wednesday I was woken by rain on the motor home roof but thankfully it was short-lived, I picked the midweek for a 110 mile solo ride and set off early before the crowds, once again the electronic route did not agree with the road marked route but quiet roads and beautiful scenery were a wonderful compensation.
Thursday was Picnic day and this involved a leisurely ride to the site at the race course at Moulins La Marche, after parking the bikes we joined the throng, the BBQ was cooking on an industrial scale and the largest plate of chips I have ever seen. A group of cyclists entertained with musical instruments but we decided not to stay and found lunch in a nearby village and cake of the day was Paris – Brest-au-praline a creation for the famous Paris-Brest-Paris cycle race.
Friday was very windy and the easy outward leg was tempered by a massive headwind on the way back, yet again every village we passed through was decorated and manned by enthusiastic locals cheering and waving. Later in the day the sun disappeared and drizzle started, it looked comical to see people queuing for the outside showers under umbrellas.
Saturday came around all too quickly and the last ride was north towards L’Aigle, where there were some undulating roads, I met Kaye back in Mortagne at the Permanence where we had lunch and walked around the exhibits before a look around the cycle art exhibition. The art was an interesting fusion of bike parts and the price tags shall we say looked a bit theatrical, an old wheel rim with a few spokes mounted on a block of wood was priced at €450 , I will be busy in the workshop when I get home.
The end of a great week, for the local villages it was their Tour De France, decorating the towns with cycles, bunting flags and flowers, providing hospitality and friendship, the motorists were also superb, patience and understanding that you would never see in the UK. I cannot recommend the event highly enough.
We will be back…