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United in Passion: French Cycling Clubs - Part 3

The Era of cycling communities

More than carbon, gravel, or electric motors, the internet has changed the way we ride our bikes. Social networks have brought into being new cycling groups, from ultra-local clubs to international communities. Here are four portraits that give a snapshot of this new world.

1/ Paris Chill Racing by Julien Sommier

When people ask me what Paris Chill Racing (more often shortened to PCR) is, I like to say that it’s “A group of mates riding with mates-in-the-making."

In the beginning it was just a group of friends, all passionate about fixed-gear bikes, who met at the Palais Royal in Paris. It was around 2010 that our little Wednesday ride formalised to become PCR. What we were into was fixies, not cycling. We liked the underground nature of it, the spirit borrowed from skateboarding that was far removed from racing, Lycra and the peloton.

This initial core evolved with the enthusiasm of new people who joined us. A key tenet is that everyone brings something to put into the mix. Really, we’re more of a movement or a community than a club – there’s no sign-up, no fee, no meetings. Projects happen because people are motivated and people turn up. PCR is first and foremost a state of mind that’s shared by all sorts of cyclists – and given there are close to 2,000 in our Strava Club, we've reached quite a lot of them.

At the heart of PCR is the Wednesday ride every Wednesday at 9 PM at the Place de la République, finishing at the Penty, a bar next to the Aligre market.

Then there’s Escape Town, a sort of ultra-alleycat that takes riders out of the city.
There’s also the Supercross, an urban cyclocross race series, and then a lot of parties around the different events.

After 9 years, the movement isn’t running out of steam, but now and then we have to stoke the fires. We’re lucky to be based in Paris, which is a crucible of talent. And, on top of that, it’s the town itself that makes all this possible. The capital is just the right size: small enough to cross in half an hour; big enough that there’s a great diversity of cyclists. And only in Paris can you run red lights like we do! PCR wouldn’t exist in the same way in New York or London. They’re too big, the traffic is different… and in small towns there wouldn’t be enough people and it would peter out, a bit like how a rock band runs out of energy.

PCR’s aim is to promote urban cycling in all its forms. We graduated from fixies to road bikes, the usual progression: on fixies you end up suffering from bad knees, and if you live on the Montmartre hill you soon develop an interest in gears – and you realise the stupidity of riding brakeless if you’re not on the track or racing a crit, etc. These days on the Wednesday ride only about 10 per cent ride fixed. I’d say that really it’s urban or commuter bikes – by which I mean guys who ride every day to get around. It’s not weekend warriors, the guys who do 100km every Sunday, although there are some of those too.

In the end, the only detail that links us to classic clubs is the PCR jerseys. When we were riding fixed, we used to say we didn’t want to do normal riding, but lots of time in the saddle meant we had to swap our jeans for bib shorts. As there are lots of graphic designers in the club, everyone wanted to make their own. This is how our multi-motif jersey was born.

There’s even guys in Austin and Dallas who’ve ordered the jerseys, but we’re not a brand and don’t make anything from them. We’re a sort of partnership under a different name, which means that PCR belongs to no one, there’s no leader. In fact, it’s so much of a movement without barriers or borders that people don’t know who PCR is or who it isn’t, which event is PCR and which isn’t. Journalists don’t understand where it starts or stops. We don’t either.

2/ Chilkoot Cycle Club by Luc Royer

Chilkoot was born in 1999, the fruit of a passion for the far north and for adventure. It was only in 2012 with the first BTR that Chilkoot really turned towards cycling. As it reached more and more people, friends pushed me to organise an events calendar, and so two years ago I founded my little business. Aside from this logistical aspect, Chilkoot is chiefly a collective of people who are passionate about ‘adventure cycling’; it officiates as a kind of scriptwriter or director, with the participants as actors who frequently go off-script.

The events evolve according to my inspirations: my reading, films I’ve watched or places I’ve discovered. Looked at from a rational economic point of view, I would keep the same events going (but with diminishing returns), but my taste for exploration and our justifiable curiosity as cyclists pushes us always to discover new places, new roads, new tracks.

From the start, we made people wear armbands with their race numbers. The fact that people would ask to have the same number they wore at the previous event made me realise that a bond was created between the cyclist and ‘their’ Chilkoot number. So I thought that offering a Chilkoot Cycle Club would fit well in this spirit of sharing and companionship. In the first wave there were 118 members. It’s great feeling the spirit at each event – like a family reunion, it's impossible to miss out on, or something you’d be sad not to attend.

At the same time we launched the Chilkoot Cycle Club Tour – it seemed an obvious step. After I’d received the jerseys, armbands and bib shorts from my supplier and got everything ready for dispatch, I came up against the logistical problem and the cost of sending more than 100 parcels by post or courier company. So I thought I might as well go and meet all the members personally! The number of enthusiastic responses quickly proved this idea was a good one. In the end, this tour ended up being 2,640km (1,00 miles) and five nights spent on a mattress in the back of my van – magnificent landscapes and roads, meetings and discoveries, anecdotes, presents, discussions over coffee and meals – on 19 stops over five days in the heart of winter.

3/ The Classics Challenge (#CC) by François Paoletti

The idea for the Classics Challenge came from reading an article by Jean Dury in Cycle! magazine. In it, he told the story of cycle racing in Paris. Like many, I knew Paris-Brest-Paris and Paris-Roubaix, but not Paris-Rouen – which was the first ever town-to-town cycle race – and I knew even less about the hundreds of others that followed it. I wanted to share this heritage. Given that most of these races were no more, it seemed to me a way of spinning the threads of memory between the cyclists of yesterday and those of a century or more later – us.

Beyond the historical dimension, the idea couldn’t be simpler: invite racing cyclists to meet once a month to ride to an unannounced destination – to leave Paris and head for a distant town. The challenge is to carefully plan the routes to avoid busy roads, which we travel in a spirit of camaraderie, and for free. The participants can choose their group according to the pace, so they’re riding with cyclists of their level. We’re in the fourth season now, and the community continues to grow, in Paris and in Lille, our second local #CC.

From the start I wanted to rise above the usual cycling cliques – racers v tourers, roadies v triathletes, club riders v lone wolves. I think it’s this melting pot that makes us unique, a pleasure that is a big part of what makes our members come back for more. I have a lot of respect for clubs, which rely on the dedication of the volunteers that run them, and I was a club rider for three seasons. I like everything about clubs, but I’d say that the #CCs are different because traditional clubs have to organise rides every weekend. That makes it difficult, maybe impossible, to keep on coming up with new routes, which explains why most club rides rely on tried-and-tested loops. This is why the #CCs manage to bring together members of different clubs, who come once a month for a change in scenery or to discover new roads.

While our Strava Club has almost 5,000 members – one of the biggest in France – for each #CC ride we limit numbers to 300. Nevertheless, all our routes are available on Strava and everyone can download them. What’s more, there are lots of rides organised within the community every week. They get together to ride old #CC rides, including those of previous years.

In June we undertook a big survey that confirmed our intuition that the community shared more than sporting interests. Our members are deeply passionate about every aspect of bike culture. We have already organised an exhibition of 15 cycling photographers, which was really successful. We also realised thanks to the survey that more than half of the community use their bikes as their everyday transport. So we understood that they would be interested in transport and ecological issues. These are things we want to talk about and take action on. With 5,000, we’re becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Despite the number of members, we’re a very small team: Romain looks after the routes, Sophie the photography, I do the communications and all the rest. We also benefit from the support of St John’s [a branding agency]. We regularly receive requests to launch #CCs in other towns and I dream of the phenomenon extending to other urban areas. If we’re spreading to new towns, we obviously want local leadership, under guidance from a handbook that will guarantee that the concept and the values of the #CCs are respected.

4/ The Rapha Cycling Club (RCC) by Franziska Stenke

The Rapha Cycling Club (RCC) is unusual as it is a club linked to a brand (Rapha), but above all because it is international and local at the same time. Each ‘Clubhouse’ (boutique) is a chapter of the club. Countries that do not have a Clubhouse are united in the International chapter.

In France we’re part of the International chapter, but most activities take place in Paris since that’s where most of the members are. The advantage of having a ‘home city’ is that people who travel regularly can make links and share experiences with other club members across the world. On a local level, this means regular rides (training rides on Wednesday evening, social ride and coffee on Friday morning, weekend rides) and bigger events such as the ‘Day in Hell’ (a homage to Paris-Roubaix) and sponsoring the Étape du Tour – and also member benefits and members’-only services.

Most traditional clubs need partners, whether that’s sponsors or support from their local town or village. Being already linked to a brand, and therefore having a sole sponsor of a sort, allows us to concentrate on the rides, events and club life, rather than logistical and financial stuff.

The premium nature of the brand lets us reach people who desire something a bit different in terms of their look, and don’t want to ride in kit that’s plastered with all sorts of logos, but apart from that it’s a club like any other. Putting aside the club perks, the only thing that really differs – and this is specific to France – is that we can’t be affiliated [to a racing federation] because we’re a brand and not a club organisation with a president, treasurer, committee and traditional membership below them.

In terms of performance levels, it ranges from guys who have just done their first 100 km (60 mi) ride with us to those looking for friends to ride with on something like a BTR or Étape du Tour. Each brings their own routes, their own projects and their own way of riding to the club. When you’re part of a group, there are always motivated people who set themselves challenges and share them with the others. People want to see how far they can go, and with the club they know they’ll always have someone to ride with. Whether you’re just starting out or you’re preparing for the Transcontinental, people are interested. They come ride with you to see if it’s their thing, and if they stick the course, there’s a good chance that they’ll be hooked. Cycling, in the end, is all about getting out of your comfort zone. It’s a difficult sport, one that takes you beyond your physical and mental limits; you say ‘Never again!’, but then a week later you think back on everything you’ve experienced and shared, and you end up recruiting people to do it all again.

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United in Passion: French Cycling Clubs - Part 1

A day on the road with the cyclists of Association Sportive (A.S.) Meudon and the Rallye du Toboggan Meudonnais.

United in Passion: French Cycling Clubs - Part 2

Training with the Étoile Cycliste de Clermont-Ferrand club.