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.