Discovering the Semaine Federale


‘What’s that, then?’ was the typical response from Wheelers when Carol and I mentioned our plans to attend the ‘Semaine Federale’ this year. We had said just the same a few years back when our friends in the Forty Plus cycling group had talked about it: they’d told us that it’s an annual cycling festival in France, attracting an enormous number of riders from around Europe to a different location each year. The Forty Plus group had been going for some years and spoke enthusiastically about it, so the relative proximity of the 2017 event, in Normandy, made us decide to give it a try, joined by Julie and Nicola.
Our first indication of the popularity of the event was that, even in October 2016, we could find no accommodation left in or very near to Mortagne-au-Perche, the Normandy town chosen as HQ. The best we could do was 17km away in what turned out to be an attractive historic town called Belleme.
To reduce the mileage in France, we took the Portsmouth to Cherbourg ferry, leaving on a Friday night to get the early boat on Saturday: by about 3pm we had reached Mortagne, and were soon queuing among hundreds of others to register our presence and receive maps, wristbands etc. We soon encountered the Southend Forty Plussers, who had taken the Calais route and endured a 3 hour ferry delay…
 


Once registered, we discovered the heart of the SF: the ‘Permanence’, sited at an indoor market and showground, where bike merchants, bars and food outlets vied for cyclists’ attention and money. A huge marquee was ready to serve up drinks, evening meals, and entertainment throughout the week.
Riders can opt to have accommodation allocated to them by the SF, in college dormitories, gites, and private homes. Others camp in tents, campervans or caravans, for which vast sites are reserved around the town. Our private accommodation proved to be part of a country club/golf complex, and was a cut above the shared facilities that the Forty Plussers reported to us later…
Rides began on Sunday, and continued through to the following Saturday. Five routes were available each day: a green route of c45km could be extended into a blue route of c80 km, and so on up to the longest option of c160km. A full colour map was available for each day, with all the details necessary to plan the day. Once on the road, though, no map was necessary, as the signage was simple and brilliant: paper arrows were pasted in the road, a different colour for each day.
 


Even the arrows were barely necessary: all you really had to do was follow other riders, as there was always a string of them ahead, as far as the eye could see. The headline in the local paper reminded residents that 10,000 cyclists were due in town (thus trebling the population!). This may have been an underestimate: the highest attendance for an SF in recent years was 15,000

And who were these riders? A glorious mixture of just about every kind you could imagine: grizzled vets on treasured steel frames, skin-suited carbon speed merchants, tandem and recumbent enthusiasts, tots in and on tow-along devices, pannier-laden tourists… Mainly they were experienced road riders, of both sexes, usually in club kit. The proportion of female riders of all ages was far higher than one would see in Britain. (You’ll be proud, I’m sure, that the Wheelers group was 75% female, if only 25% youthful.) The electric bike is an established part of cycling now: there were quite few of these, making cycle touring available to some heavier and older riders. I confess to feeling some resentment when the first of these devices came whirring past me as I struggled up a particularly testing incline: an involuntary gesture of exasperation drew a few appreciative laughs and comments from around me.

The event had been four years in the planning (2018 is already heavily booked, and the 2019/20 locations are now available) and was enthusiastically embraced by the villages and towns through which the routes passed. Brasseries and restaurants displayed their ‘menu cyclo’. The region’s unused bikes had been hauled from shed, garage or barnyard, decorated with flowers and welcome signs, and erected in improbable positions on hedges, gateposts, telegraph poles and village signs. Much time had also been expended on the creation of straw stuffed figures (think November 5th in the good old days). These ranged from cheery, wholesome mannequins to the frankly disturbing. Many were combined with the bicycles mentioned previously, in roadside tableaux representing typical cycling scenarios eg. tumbling into a ditch, or crashing into a telephone pole, with arms, frame, legs, and wheels all hopelessly entangled. Some rural French folk clearly have far too much time on their hands and had motorised their creations: one of the best consisted of a bike, with shoes attached to rotating pedals, and a helmet suspended above the bike which dipped and nodded in perfect unison with the pedal movement, giving an oddly convincing sense of an invisible rider at work. Warren Barguil’s recent achievements were celebrated by the many mannequins dressed in polka dot jerseys and caps.
 


Every route, long or short, was arranged so as to pass at least one ‘Accueil’, where a park, chateau garden, or spacious town square had been taken over for the day to provide a food stop/rest area. Food and drink were complemented by live music and dance, and local produce and crafts. For anything directly organised by the SF, no cash was necessary: an electronic wristband had been issued at registration which we each loaded with c.40 euros, and a simple swipe of the band was enough to buy lunch. This was a first, apparently, and technophobes like me foresaw disaster, but it must be admitted that it worked just fine, even down to a quick and easy reimbursement of unused credit at the end of the week…

Our drive down to Mortagne had passed through some pretty flat landscape: we might have expected an easy week’s riding. But apparently the area we were riding in is known as ‘Suisse-Normande’… the reason was amply demonstrated on the first day’s ride, on which we completed over 60 miles of constant up/down/up/down riding, ending up shattered and a little apprehensive for the week ahead. Fortunately later rides, striking out in different directions from Mortagne, were a touch easier, though steady bottom gear climbing remains a major memory of the week. The beauty of the SF, though, is that there is always a wheel to follow. Down on some flatter stretches, impromptu pelotons form, and we’d find ourselves flying along with comparatively little effort in the midst of 30 odd riders we’d never seen before… Our own private maillot a pois must be awarded to Nicola, who gave many demonstrations of her fast, sustained climbing ability, with Julie climbing as never before for second place in the standings.

Motorists generally treated us with respect and care, and plenty of people applauded passing riders from doorsteps or garden gates. The police had little to do, but kept a watchful eye here and there. It must have been getting quite tedious for them by Wednesday, at least for one squad car full of gendarmes who observed the Forty Plus group at a junction, then followed them to deliver a stern lecture on the importance of actually stopping at STOP signs. 

So, what’s the Semaine Federale?  It’s a fine cycling holiday in rural France with all the route finding done for you, a memorable celebration of non-competitive cycling in a convivial atmosphere, and a formidable feat of organisation by the French Federation of Cycle Touring. The SF began in 1927, and this was the 79th such event. Long may it continue.

Nicola & Julie discover an early Giant cycle the Musee de Velo visited on one route. Not a big seller

 


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