real life cycling

A Frenchman on my wheel

Col du Joux Plane

As I pedalled recently through the mountains of alpine France I discovered a sure fire way to tell if a fellow cyclist is a Frenchman or not. It’s got nothing to do with the polite ‘bonjour’ as you pass each other on the road, and everything to do with the amount of writing on their kit.

The French, it seems to me, love a bit of local club kit.

We’re talking matching jersey, shorts, and socks, with club name emblazoned, and local sponsorship deals advertising café bars and local butchers’ shops across chests, up and down arms, and along shoulders. On my Sunday morning ride out of Morzine recently they were all out in groups of five or six, and it was tempting to latch on just for something to read, and to brush up on my French vocab.

And in the same way the French like a French car – a Renault or a Citroen – they also like a French bike. It’s all Looks and Lapierres.

Whilst climbing up to the town of Les Gets I caught a straggler from one of these groups. “Bonjour” I said. No response. He was struggling a bit so I put his grumpiness down to a bad day on the bike. I had a quick read of his jersey – a blue and white number, from a club from Sallanches – before pushing on past him in pursuit of his pals up the road.

As I worked to bridge the gap in what I thought to be friendly and unthreatening fashion, the four up the road took to peering over their shoulders at me and discussing something amongst themselves conspiratorially.

They appeared to be cooking up a plan.

Was this apparent (and admittedly, very minor) display of hostility anti English? Or Brexit related? Or was it due to the sheer plainness of my cycling kit and my lack of identifying colour scheme and sponsorship deals?

Or was it all in my mind?

Either way, I pushed on, concentrating hard on riding fast uphill whilst displaying the most diplomatic body language I could muster. As I reached the four I gave my ‘bonjours’ again, to no response. They seemed to have slowed to give their struggling friend some respite so I left them to it with my own Gallic shrug.

‘Pah..!’ I thought.

Pedalling on towards Les Gets I was riding slightly harder than I’d have liked, bearing in mind the thousand vertical metres of climbing already in my legs and the thousand still ahead of me over the Col de Joux Plane. But when you ride past a group you are duty bound to commit and ride away from them, or face accusations of disrespect and game playing.

Five kilometres down the road I became aware of a Frenchman on my wheel.

The blue and white kit, a flash of ‘Look’ branding in my peripheral vision, and the heavy breathing were all the clues I needed. I peered at him, and he avoided my gaze. His mates were out of sight down the road.

‘What the hell is going on?’ I thought, wondering how I might have offended these guys. With the limitations of my conversational French and the feeling that neither ‘bonjour’ nor ‘ca va?’ would help me accurately appraise the situation, I decided to pedal on, hard, and await his next move.

The next move, on the descent from Les Gets into Tanninges about ten kilometres down the road, was for five blue and white blurs to streak past me in formation at risk-taking pace.

So, unless I’ve imagined it, these chaps took my passing of them to be an attack, sent a guy up the road to silently mark my show of aggression, before bridging across as a team and counter attacking in a show of force on a technical descent.

Clearly defending the honour of Sallanches without so much as an ‘aurevoir!’

I suppose it’s possible the heat (thirty-five degrees) had warped my sense of perspective, and the conspiratorial body language I’d read was simple concern for their struggling team-mate. But either way, they were gone.

I rattled on – still too fast, my steely focus lost – down the valley towards Samoens and the foot of the Col de Joux Plane. The temperature was still high, and I was down to my last quarter bottle of liquid.

Perspective now definitely skewed I chose not to bother myself with negotiating the local shops for more drink in the knowledge that the lovely, caring French water authorities were sure to have installed some kind of font near the base of the climb. As I pedalled confidently across the Tour de France graffiti I scanned my surroundings for a tap.

You can see where this is going.

The Col de Joux Plane is more than eleven kilometres in length and has an average gradient of over eight percent. After two kilometres I had run out of liquid. The temperature was still thirty-two degrees.

After eight kilometres I was wobbling around uncertainly in the gutter, riding far slower than I’d planned, and I had a headache. Through the haze five cyclists appeared over my shoulder, silently, wearing blue and white, and riding Looks and Lapierres.

As they left me grovelling in their wake I could just make out the word ‘Sallanches’ across their bright blue backsides.

They had the last word. Twice. And I’ve got no idea why.

And they never said a thing.

11 comments on “A Frenchman on my wheel

  1. Although I’m French (well with Breton blood in my body) they would have acted the same way with me just because I’m not local. Some (not all luckily) hate being challenged by riders coming from regions they consider as flat. Not everyone replies to my “bonjour” or “salut ” when riding in France. I hate that in particular when they stick to my wheel

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s interesting – it’s a local thing, eh?

      I wondered if it was the simple fact that there are SO many cyclists around the alps of all different nationalities, that the politeness and acknowledging of each other just slips a bit.

      So as Breton does that mean you consider yourself Breton first, and French second? I do like a bit of regional pride!


      • Not replying to a bonjour or hand gesture happens in many places in France regardless of the number of riders. As for the local part it’s more related to the fact that some hate being challenged in their backyard in particular if that backyard is made of great cols. As such they will flex their muscles to show that they are stronger.

        Am I Breton first and French second? I would say yes.


  2. I just don’t get some people, brother. I guess every group needs its snobs…. now it would have been funny if you put on the aire that you were flagging, then hammered them when they caught up! Now that would’a been sexy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good climb CdJP. I was overtaken by an elderly woman on an E-MTB. Not a word from her either!

    Liked by 1 person

    • How rude. I have ridden the Joux Plane twice now and made a right pigs ear of it – the Joux Verte however, it’s slightly more forgiving cousin, I find a breeze.


  4. Funny, if somewhat saddening story!

    I once toured through France, two heavy panniers on bike, singing Bob Dylan sings out loud as I cruised south towards the end of a long day. I too had a local shadow on my wheel, much to my surprise! We had a brief chat when he pulled beside me, my French as broken as my legs, an entente cordiale agreed, he offered to pull for as long as we followed the same route. A lovely and much welcomed gesture I gladly accepted!

    Hope you enjoyed your foray into the mountains, very envious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A nice gesture indeed. Must have been a fellow Dylan fan?

      Had a great time in the mountains, and would have happily stayed longer, but did miss the odd flat and rolling road from time to time to break up the relentless gradient.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Knock spots off dominos | ragtime cyclist

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