Here’s my belated report on the SF – a cracking ride as ever…
With expectation in our hearts and Euros in our pockets, 10 doughty riders set off for Saint-Pourcain Sur Sioule. We had decided upon camping; 2 caravan dwellers and the rest in tents. Various routes to the campsite were taken, the tent men opting to break the 540-mile journey at Soissons to spend the night in a sort of concrete egg box costing 33 Euros per room (£13 a head) and worth every cent. At the nearby diner, Peter erroneously ordered an Andouillette, – a French sausage made from the folded up colon of a pig, with tripe as the filler. This eventually caused much hilarity and nose pinching amongst the other British diners. He sensibly, left most of it. My room mate Peter T was the first gastronomic casualty of the tour, shooting urgently from his bed with the nocturnal squitters bestowed upon him by some dodgy fish and colliding hard with the prison-style doorframe, my bunk ladder and the door all at once in a calamitous crash through which I slept! The next day he looked like a man who’d been in a fight and lost, but soldiered on regardless.
Mr. Cox and I took the N-roads and got to Saint-Pourcain to find things running less than smoothly. Just ahead of our arrival, an almighty thunderstorm had flooded out the “Dossiers” (administration), the campsite and cast doubt on the availability of food. But the sun was having none of this and it beat down so fiercely that were soon allowed onto the site and got our tents and caravan set up together on the rapidly drying field, braving the puddles and mud as we did so. Nearby, a less fortunate motor-caravan had bogged down, and we watched as it was towed out by the campsite JCB. Some people were wearing shorts-and-Wellingtons, reminding me more of the Glastonbury festival than a cycling event.
The sanitary arrangements completed the rock festival theme and would not have looked out of place on the set of “Papillion”. A grim block of 24 galvanized steel shower cubicles stood menacingly on a wooden platform just back from the road near the entrance to the site. In front of them was a long row of water points and sinks, topped off with perforated steel girders, forming a shelf for your for mirror, toothbrush, bowl etc. At the rear of the showers, arranged backs-to-backs with them stood a similar row of toilet cubicles. None of the cubicles had roofs: the toilets neither seats nor paper (presumably there’s no point if you have no roof to keep it dry). The thin steel doors rattled and clanged and were so close to the toilet that you couldn’t sit or stand without banging your head against them. They were wet with dew in the mornings and hot enough to fry the proverbial egg in the afternoons. The sinks had cold water only, fed by agricultural taps with short rubber hoses as “splashes”. Cubicle floors were made from steel gratings (slats) – through which, in the case of the showers you could see the knives and forks dropped by campers who had been using them to do their washing up because only the showers had hot water. At the end of the cubicle rows, in a position that you had to pass to get to the loos stood a large sort of butler-sink sluice into which caravan toilets were emptied and then washed out using a flexible hose attached to the sink. Despite all of this, the queues for these facilities stretched back quite a way at most times of the day.
Our main meals (breakfasts and evening) were provided in a large industrial warehouse a couple of kilometres across town away. This facility catered for perhaps two thousand diners with surprising efficiency. We cycled to breakfasts and walked to dinners. The food was of a generally high standard although it was best to go early to breakfast as the full range of fare ran out quite quickly. The evening meals were 4-course affairs with red or rose wine supplied. It became quite evident that us Brits simply can’t adjust to the concept of “unlimited free wine” in anything resembling a responsible grown-up manner. After the trudge home each night, “nightcaps” (scotch, bourbon and brandy) were taken beneath Peter’s gazebo accompanied by a copious supply of superb cake courtesy of baker Chris.
Believe it or not, the rides were the real event and the actual reason for being there. As usual there was a choice of four or five rides each day, fully marshalled, marked on the road in paper arrows and each supplied with a coloured map and fully detailed route sheet. Navigation was further simplified by the fact that we set off fairly late and so had 7,000 other riders to follow. Disbelieve me if you like but some of us still managed to go off-route twice during the 6-ride week or to put that another way, 33 percent of the time.
What immediately struck me about this year’s rides was that they were shorter in general than those of last year’s SF and to make up for that, markedly hillier. As usual, the routes were graded P1 to P5 in ascending order of difficulty. All riders began on the same route, with the P1 branching off first and returning, the P2 second and so on, and all rides reconverging towards the common finish. Our group split several ways, the stronger riders opting for more demanding options, but usually all meeting at the main feeding points on the way out or back. The official feeding stops were large-scale open-field affairs designed to handle the 13000 riders. Participants were marshalled into a bike-park, via which food stalls, a bar, water station and toilets were accessed. Covered seating, live entertainment, local culture and a general party atmosphere were all thrown in before you returned to the road for another 25-mile leg and then did it all over again.
The daily routines of eat, ride, shower, drink, walk, eat, drink, sleep etc. soon passed the time and before I knew it, it was Saturday, and time for the “Repas de clôture” with departure to follow the next morning. As the week ended the weather was becoming less settled. We heard from home that the end-tail of Hurricane Bertha was heading towards Europe and the spectacular electric storms we received underlined that fact. The 540-mile run home was certainly a worry and more so given that I had bought a non-flexible ticket. On Saturday, half the group left for home leaving 5 to ride a short P2 before calling an end to the cycling. We aimed to return to camp early enough to get most of our gear packed away.
By 5 p.m. the sky was turning black towards the west. Standing in the open-top shower I was pelted by the opening salvo of heavy rain. It was strangely soothing to mingle the hot shower with the large cold raindrops and I was quite lost in pleasure for a while until I realised that my shorts and towel were hanging on the back of the steel door, receiving the same rainfall. I began to towel off, and then gave up. I hastily pulled on my shorts, opened the door, slid on my wet sandals on the wooden platform outside and, towel around my neck, ran the 400 yards to the tent and dived in. I quickly secured the porch zips from the inside, kneeling in the fresh mud as I did so. I was soaked, muddy, sweating and inside a tent full of wet gear. Outside, I could hear Peter asking Tony if he’d like a coffee. I shouted up one for myself, but just then, the heavens opened fully and a strong bind blew onto the rear of the tent, (sheltered to some extent by the car, which I had moved there just an hour before). The hardest rain imaginable then fell, and kept falling for a prolonged period. It banged like a drum on the tent and the wind began to lift the rear of it, so I was obliged to spread-eagle myself on the floor to hold it down. Outside, I heard people shouting excitedly in French but above these strange yells, the fibreglass poles above my head began to stress and oscillate as the tent fabric distorted this way and that as the water pelted it. After what seemed like an eternity (probably 15 minutes) the wind died down and eventually the rain stopped. The sun came out. Gingerly, I emerged from the tent to watch the French family on the next pitch, aided by half a dozen others, lift their large frame tent off of the lake in which it had been sitting and set it down again 10 metres along the field. They had a trailer which they began packing after that and a few hours later, were gone. All around us there was water in long, deep puddles. In my mind I began to wonder if I would successfully drive over this field, fully loaded, at 7 a.m. the next day. My muse was broken by a familiar voice: “Where’s that coffee got to?”
That evening, we 5 paddled off the site in wet sandals, carrying brollies and wearing all sorts of kit. After a mile and a bit we were in the queue for the food; a sea of brollies and flapping plastic. John calculated that 2600 meals were eventually dished up. Service was pedestrian, with initially, each dish ceremonially ushered in with a musical accompaniment. We drank the vin de table and waited. The standard of cuisine was top drawer. Beginning with a “bouchior”, then starter of fish pie and a main entrée of fillet steak accompanied by an egg thingamajig and pate de pommes de terre; then cheese; then a trio of sweets, all and each of superb flavour. It was ca fine meal, all set to live music, dancing and a massive party atmosphere, making a great finale to the week.
We plodded home to our damp tents. Next morning we got up, struck camp and were away before you could say “Robert est votre oncle”. I think mine was the first vehicle across the mud and water, which nevertheless caused a 4-wheel drift onto the harder ground. God knows how the hundreds of others behind me faired. We dumped our rubbish, parked briefly at the facilities and were gone; N-Roads to Moulins, then motorway all the way to the ferry.
In the afternoon the weather again worsened. The A26 flooded and we were caught in a series of downpours. The ferry was delayed and changed departure gate, resulting in a chaotic driving circuit of the port by the passengers. When we finally got to sea, the swell was as bad as it gets: spray crashing against the front windows of the ship which rolled and pitched like a fairground ride. There were soon some rather grey-faced people and the toilets smelled of vomit. (Sailor Tony loved this and marched around the ship taking it all in.)
We finally got home around 11 p.m. By then I just wanted a proper bath and a good sleep in a real bed.
During my eight nights under canvas I managed to complete 6 rides of varying difficulty, punctuated by a rest-day when I judged myself “rained off”. It summed up to 380 miles with about 16,000 feet of ascent. I’m not exaggerating if I say that these rides were some of the best cycling I have experienced. Steep, long climbs (for me), stunning views with volcanoes on the skyline; chateaux; ancient churches; small character filled towns, whose inhabitants turned out to cheer you on; beautiful old buildings; vast open landscapes; sweeping descents (including several sets of sharp hairpin bends); great riding company (including the French, of course). In summary, the SF once again delivered cycling pleasure of the highest order. Roll on the next one!