The French have a term of respect for the humble cyclist – “chapeau”, meaning ‘hat’, as in, “I tip my hat to you”. The best thing is, in my experience they love to tip their proverbial hat to you at the very moment – halfway through some grim battle with a Pyrenean gradient, for example – that you need it.
Or perhaps I just look like I need all the help I can get?
A couple of years back a riding companion and I were on the French side of the Pyrenees for a few days of glorious sun-kissed cycling. On this day we skirted the Spanish border and reached the town of Prats-de-Mollo – the perfect location for a coffee and lemonade prior to tackling the Col d’Ares; a long stretch of sweeping Catalan tarmac climbing to over 1500 metres in height.
We sipped our drinks and watched the comings and goings, bikes propped against the wall opposite, before filling our water bottles in readiness to get moving again.
My riding companion popped a couple of purple re-hydration tablets into his bottle, then looked up briefly to see he had an audience. An archetypal Frenchman, probably in his sixties and no doubt with a few of his own tales of cycling derring-do, was watching on with narrowed eyes.
The man then approached; no doubt a garbled and unintelligible encounter was about to ensue. In my minds eye the man wears a stripy jumper and a beret, and has an extravagant waxed moustache in the style of Hippolyte Aucouturier (any excuse to slip him into an anecdote). In reality he was a non-descript Frenchman doing his shopping.
He nodded knowingly at my friend’s water bottle – I mentally rolled my eyes, thinking ‘what’s coming now?’ – and he raised an eyebrow to utter the immortal syllables…
My friend, without missing a beat, replied ‘naturellement’ (of course).
Happy that the ‘rosbifs’ had played along with his little joke, our French friend smiled broadly and nodded, then wandered off with a chuckle as if to say ‘everything is as it should be’.
For any non-cycling fans out there, EPO was the cyclist’s drug of choice in the era of Lance Armstrong and the rest – a touchy subject in France, and ripe for a bit of fun. Amused, we jumped back onto our bikes and pointed them in then direction of the next winding incline.
Half way up the Col d’Ares the pair of us were locked in a grapple with the gradient. As we rounded a hairpin, a lay-by on the right contained a single parked car and a group of teenagers laughing and joking amongst themselves – just kids passing the time.
With our legs quivering and lungs on fire we tensed up in readiness for the sarcastic jibes; surely the lads were about to show off and attempt to impress the girls by winding up the red-faced lycra-clad cyclists. As we drew near, the group stepped back slightly from the edge of the road to give us space, then began to clap and holler excitedly.
‘Allez, allez, allez!’
They were encouraging us…and showing us respect…and cheering us on!
We grinned, hearts warmed, tipped our imaginary hats, and rolled on. Proof that we were truly in cycling country, and that, in France, respect for the humble cyclist is alive and well.