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United in Passion: French Cycling Clubs

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

While Great Britain has had a cycling boom – thanks to a lucky combination of two Tour de France Grand Départs; national success on the track and, through Team Sky, on the road; and an infatuation with fixed-wheel bikes and luxury merino jerseys – France has been doing things in its own way.

In the land of the Gauls, you only have to walk into a café in Lycra for one of the locals to pull you over and tell you a story about legendary cyclist Richard Virenque, or an uncle of theirs who once climbed Ventoux. But if you tell your friends that cycling is your passion, more often than not they look at you as some kind of old-fashioned nerd.

In France, cycling is no longer a way out of poverty for the ‘convicts of the road’, but neither is it yet ‘the new golf’ of the upper-middle classes. Cycling may be growing, but as a sport it remains the prerogative of cycling clubs, clubs in which everyone is loyal to their jersey – a jersey that is ideally as colorful and as peppered with logos as possible!

The Federations

At the origin of all clubs is a natural desire: to gather together around a shared passion. Thus, as cycling as a sport was spluttering into being, the first cyclists were uniting in various gentlemen’s societies. The Union Vélocipédique de France (French Cyclists’ Union) was founded in 1881.

The world of cycling clubs in France is at once simple – since it stems from a social and organisational need that’s basically inherent in any sporting practice – and complex, because it is split into four federations.

The Fédération Française de Cyclisme (FFC) trains and organises the racing programme of French champions and future champions – and we’ll come back to this in a separate blog.

The Fédération Français de Cyclotourisme (FFCT – for ‘cyclotourists’ or touring cyclists) works to improve conditions for cyclists the length and breadth France. It is the FFCT that, through the voluntary work undertaken by its clubs, runs randonnées – non-competitive organised rides – that encompass everything from your local fun-run to the prestigious 1,200-kilometre (750-mile) Paris-Brest-Paris.

In parallel, two multi-sport federations also issue cycling licences: the Fédération Sportive et Gymnique du Travail (FSGT – originally a workers’ movement) and L’Union Française des Œuvres Laïques d’Éducation Physique (UFOLEP – originally part of a mass-education movement) let enthusiasts compete in a sporty yet friendly way. Their races differ from the FFC’s in that there are no prizes and these races are generally less expensive to organise.

How clubs work

Meudon cycling club, known as L'ASM Cyclo, is based in an inner suburb of Paris, just a stone’s throw from the upper Chevreuse valley. It’s the cycling arm of the municipal sporting association, known as ASM, that is over 80 years old. It's a classic FFCT clubs.

With a healthy hundred or so members, ASM is perfectly sized: able to host interesting events but not overwhelmed by sheer volume of members and admin. The average age of its members is 50. The youngest is 19 and the oldest, 81. It must also be noted that only five members are women.

Within the ASM, the ‘cyclos’ (FFCT) and the ‘coursiers’ (racers of the FSGT and UFOLEP), mix freely. Cyclos look after the marshaling at the annual ASM race, and the coursiers pitch in on the signposting and scoring at the club’s yearly non-competitive ‘rallyes’ (something resembling a sportive event).

Annual fees are €40, and members benefit from club discounts on kit, as well as partnerships with several bike dealers. There are Sunday rides and training sessions, and the management also organizes a programme that includes weekend activities and week-long getaways. The local town hall puts money in the club's pot in exchange for the help of club members in organizing events.

The club run

Every Sunday, ASM members meet at 8 A.M. on the edge of the Meudon Forest. The club has around 20 routes, which it cycles through in either one direction or the other.

The cyclists divide into three groups, and Group 3 leads out at its habitual pace of 23 km/h (14 mph). We were meant to accompany Group 2, around 50 cyclists rolling at an average of 25 km/h (15.5 mph), but this week most of the regulars are away at the rallye of neighbouring club, Boulogne-Billancourt. So instead we are to join Group 1, made up of around 20 fast cyclos and coursiers who’ve reached the end of their season.

As we get going on the ride – 90 km (56 miles), with a saw-tooth profile – we get to know Christian. He joined the club when trying to get fit again after being hit by a car. Riding with the group helps him push himself, but it also keeps him accountable to getting out of bed in the morning – a motivating factor for a fair number of the members.

After the Côte de la Vacheresse hill, Gille-Antoine tells us about his journey to becoming a member. He’d been looking for people to ride with after getting into cycling while travelling, and Christian had invited him along. Ever since, he makes the trip from Paris every Sunday, and takes pleasure riding fast and without encumbrances. It’s very pleasant riding with a group in which everybody knows each other and knows how to ride together. The strongest wait at the top of hills, but the peloton is pretty uniform. As for the older members, they design an alternative route, away from the steepest hills, that doesn’t take them away from the convivial atmosphere for too long.

Coursiers can be spotted thanks to their deep-section rims. Vincent raced for the club when he was a teenager. Ranked among the best in the region, he quickly became disenchanted when he joined the seniors: the era was not ‘clean’, and the prospect of prize money tempted a few of the local donkeys to use certain ‘products’ to turn themselves into thoroughbreds. Vincent hung up his bike for 20 years, but with the passing of time his desire to ride returned. In the Île-de-France region around Paris there are few pursuits that rival cycling when it comes to getting out of the city and into nature.

We take advantage of a puncture stop to chat to other coursiers, a group of them who will start training again at the start of November and will remain together until racing starts. Meudon is the perfect training ground. Situated next to a ridge it's easy to concoct a weeknight route that takes in thirty or so climbs.

Roland is known to be the only one to “descend in the 11”, and he drags us to the edge of our speed limits. This year, he raced 32 times. He encourages us to give it a try: “Go take a beating in a cat-3 race, you’ll see if it appeals or not. And it’ll give you some pace when you’re doing sportives.”

After a final few bumps, the peloton slowly dissipates. A post-ride drink is not customary, but with a new clubhouse you never know, that might change.

The “Meudonnais Toboggan”

The Toboggan Meudonnais is the ASM’s annual "rallye". Now on its 38th edition, the perfectly-signposted ride is one of the best known in the Île-de-France. While the route selection – a bit of a ‘Best of’ the Chevreuse valley – and its place on the calendar contribute to this, it’s mainly because of the oysters served at the feed stations that the Toboggan is famous.

No less than 70 volunteers are needed to make the rallye a success. Thankfully, even the least active club members answer the call to signpost the route at more than 100 intersections, manage the pre-dawn sign-on, shuck the oysters, or sort through the thousands of entries and pick out the participants who deserve special mention – the youngest rider or the most experienced, or the best-represented club, for example.

At the Toboggan, as at most rallyes, there are several routes on offer – here 45, 70 and 90 kilometres (28, 43 and 56 miles) – which makes this non-competitive event accessible to as many people as possible. There are small climbers and big hitters, the highly trained and the barely trained, beginners with all the gear and no idea and past masters in tatty old kit.

The oysters surprise more than one participant, and the vegetarians console themselves with Camembert. The jerseys on show reveal the presence of clubs of all types, and from all over the region. There is the Amicale Cyclo de Savigny-sur-Orge, the Entente Sportive de Nanterre, the Rapha Cycling Club, the Sporting de Levallois and even expatriates from the Paris Cycling Group.

The ASM and Strava

ASM’s Strava club was created five years ago by Baptiste Amiet, the current president, at a time when only four riders (all racers) were on Strava. Thanks to virtual club challenges, despite the real-world club’s average age, there are now more than 70 members.

The Strava Club is one step in larger modernisation work: ASM’s website is old, its forum deserted, links broken, and the latest results and reports are no longer put online. Today, the club essentially runs on email, but with 100 members and the different sections, the to-and-fro easily becomes unmanageable. In Baptiste’s view changing this, in order to centralise information, improve participation and attract new faces – is essential. Strava Clubs’ new functionalities should help with this, and at no cost to the club.

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