When cyclingnz.com first asked me to write a piece on living and racing in France, I wondered whether I would be able to make the article concise enough to fit on the CNZ website! France and New Zealand are such different worlds in so many ways it is hard to know where to begin really……
The BikeNZ European Training Centre is based in a little town called Limoux in the South of France– Limoux is about an hours drive from Toulouse (which is a pretty big city) and only 20 kms from Carcasonne – which many of you would have seen on the T.V this year as a stage of the Tour de France finished there on Bastille Day – it got a lot of coverage due to the medieval city on the outskirts of town which is a huge tourist attraction.
Limoux, like most French towns is very old….there is nothing in NZ that even comes close to the age of most of the houses and shops about town! The houses are all sorts of shapes and sizes and on all sorts of angles, and are packed together like coronation street flats. Every house is equipped with shutters which the French like to keep closed at all times….this is generally to keep the heat out so the house stays nice and cool, but fresh air loving Kiwis generally take a bit of time to get used to this idea!
In the centre of almost every French town there is a town square – most of the restaurants in town surround the square and there is usually a statue and fountain in the middle – In Limoux's case, it is not unusual to see dogs swimming in the fountain, people washing their dogs in the fountain, kids swimming in the fountain and people filling their water bottle in the fountain….yep, we've seen it all! It is fair to say that the hygiene standards in France are a lot lower than in NZ!
The town square in Limoux is the hub of the town in summer time – hosting concerts, markets and fetes. Every Tuesday evening in the summer there is a fair/market and all through the year a Friday market runs selling fresh fruit and vegetables as well as a host of random things, from sewing supplies, clothes and shoes to fried pastries.
Every second shop about town is a bolangerie or patisserie (bakeries) - how they all survive we can't quite work out! While there are plenty of café's/bars/restaurants there is not really a 'café culture' like there is in New Zealand. Something we found hard to adjust to was the distinct lack of not only good coffee, but frothy milk! We became home espresso experts during our time in Limoux and I hate to think how many hours we spent talking and dreaming of NZ coffee!
Another first impression of France is that all the cars about the place are of European make – Renaults, Peugeot, Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Skoda etc – no Japanese imports round here!
I think that most people who have visited France will agree that the French are a funny lot. But before I bag them, I have to admit that I do actually really respect them because they have stubbornly stuck to their own culture without buying into the Americanism that most 'western' countries have. But as Tess the soigneur so aptly put it – the French don't follow the usual course of gravity by following the easiest/most 'normal' course in the way they do things.
In the whole time we were in France I don't think we made a single French friend outside of cycling – apart from Gold member who doesn't really count (Gold member is a Dutch guy running a take away shop in the town square and bearing a striking resemblance the Austin Powers character! I wouldn't have been surprised if I had ever seen him don gold pants and roller skates!). The French are just not an up-front friendly bunch like us Kiwis like to think we are. Obviously, there are the language barriers which don't help things, and the fact that most French hear us talk and think that we are Americans or English and as a result don't give us the time of day (old war wounds are slow to heal).
All the same, I do really like the French and their funny little ways – they are passionate people and are strongly nationalistic – no other country matters outside of France in their eyes, and I find that quite cool.
Now onto the cycling side of things!!
The training in Limoux is absolutely outstanding. Training paradise! There are an incredible amount of small, sealed roads – long rides, short loops, great big long climbs, short climbs, steep climbs…..you name it! I reckon you could spend a good couple of months in the area without having to do the same ride twice! Further, you basically don't have any traffic to deal with in the small roads surrounding Limoux which is fantastic (and you generally get the utmost respect from any traffic that there is!)
Racing in France is a completely different style of racing to that in New Zealand. First and foremost, as with all European racing, the emphasis is on TEAM not individual – something that most Kiwi's (including many cyclists) struggle to get their head round since NZ cycling is basically an individual sport. In some ways, you can't really expect anyone to understand the sacrifice involved in team racing until they have raced in a team environment themselves. Lance Armstrong and the Aussies have educated the general public to a degree with some fine examples of team work which has ensured victories at the Tour de France Olympics and Commonwealth Games, but until you have actually ridden as a team yourself, it is hard to truly understand the concept. There is no need to explain the team concept to the Europeans - cyclists are idolized in France and the rest of Europe – both the domestiques and the race winners. The French understand how a cycling team operates…just like the NZ public understands that the forwards in the rugby team do a lot of the dirty work yet don't always score the tries.
The racing itself is without exception hard, fast and usually hilly. The hills are huge – long and steep and in the summer the temperature is through the roof which presents a whole new host of challenges. However, the biggest challenge for most new riders in France is getting used to riding in the big peleton – usually from 80 to 140 plus riders in the women's fields and far more than that in the men's. Positioning – particularly when the racing is hilly, is very important and if you want to be involved in any moves, you need to be up the front of the race. This is much easier said than done since that is where everyone wants to be and the roads are only a certain width! It is a challenging part of racing in Europe, but can also be a lot of fun once you get used to it (if not a little hard on the nerves at times!).
Despite all the challenges, there is something about racing in Europe (other than the fact that it is the way to get to the top of the world's cycling ranks!) that makes it a really special experience. Perhaps it is the incredible support that cycling gets around the whole of Europe where you are made to feel like superheroes as opposed to annoying non tax paying road users that slow up the traffic, or perhaps it is the organization of the races - with all the officials, vehicles, police motorbikes, television cameras, support crews, team cars, team buses, directors, mechanics, soigneurs…..Or may be it is racing in the huge bunches amongst the best in the world……whatever the case, it is a special feeling that is the turning point in many people's cycling careers.
Racing in Europe is not everyone's cup of tea, but for many it becomes an addiction – it's a bloody hard life and steep learning curve, but it is such an incredibly awesome opportunity to strut your stuff with the best in the world in their own territory and something that every young cyclist who is aiming to get to the top should aspire to!
Dale Tye has spent a large proportion of the last three years with the New Zealand women's road team in Limoux, France. She is a talented road and track cyclist with grit determination in training and racing, winning the sprint jersey at this year's Tour of Wellington, along with numerous national titles over the past few years.