French horns

June 29, 2012

Hello again! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? And as a discerning consumer of webular content, I know exactly what you’re after: a succinct and reasonably diverting explanation for my absence. Well, your luck’s in, sunshine, because that’s precisely what I am about to furnish your eyeballs with. In a nutshell, I was preparing for a trip to France; I then travelled to France; and now I have returned from France. That means there’s going to be a lot of French stuff in this post. So, Francophobes, treat this paragraph as your sortie and leave, as they say, toot sweet. (Sortie means ‘exit’, which is a True French Fact what I have learned. Another True French Fact lodged in my head is that quotidien kind of means ‘quotidian’. This pleases me: their word for everyday is far from everyday. And it makes me wonder how you, the French-despiser who is about to depart from this blog, can possibly dislike a language that rejects the humdrum so emphatically. Begone! The French are simply too good for you.)

I’ll begin my account where our trip ended: at Luxembourg Gardens, sheltering from a sudden downpour with Littlejen and a couple of dozen Parisians. Young children are screaming with delight at the fierceness of the downpour while a quartet of indifferent students sit at a table smoking dope. Nobody is bothered by either party. About 30 feet away from our shelter, the joyful blast of a school’s brass band refuses to be silenced by the sheeting rain clattering on leaves and the roof of the bandstand. It is this – the sound of trumpets and their tubular cousins blown enthusiastically – that has been the soundtrack of my holiday. For I can honestly say I have heard more ebullient parping in one week than I had for years.

The bulk of the brass-based jollity occurred during the Ardechoise sportive, which was part of my four-day cycling sojourn in the Ardeche region before I met up with Jen in Paris. It was during my negotiation of an otherwise unremarkable corner on the 125km route that a small group played a military-style march; within a few miles, I had passed a sousaphone-wielding funk outfit. Later, as I tucked into my complementary post-ride pasta, a trombonist casually led a mariachi band into the food tent where they struck up a rousing and somewhat ramshackle version of Seven Nation Army. Whether hungry, tired or both, the sportive’s 12,000 competitors were destined to by buoyed at some point by a brigade of puff-cheeked chaps. For that, I can wholeheartedly say: thank you, proud brassmen of France!

This was my third sportive on foreign shores, and all three trips benefitted from London Dynamo’s seamless organisation. My previous two jaunts with the club were in Italy – the Nove Colli last year and the Granfondo Pinarello in 2008. For me, the main difference between my French adventure and the Italian events, and the factor that made this sportive slightly harder than I anticipated, was the absence of any flat roads: I started on a climb (see photo above), finished on a whizzy 20km descent and spent the five hours in between going up and down while the temperature rose to a giddy peak of 24C. The climbing in the two Italian sportives was sandwiched between flat starts and finishes, but those, too, presented their own challenges: I was on the drops pushing 30mph at the start of the Pinarello, and I struggled to find a rhythm in the dull the final kilometres of the Nove Colli.

There are other differences. The food on offer at the Italian feed stations was more varied, although in France we had the option of washing down a roll with a cup (or two, or three) of red wine. The Italian sportives generally had more of a carnival atmosphere: at the Nove Colli, many dressed up in bandanas to ride in Pantani’s former training ground, while the locals’ daredevil descending at the Pinarello often seemed, to this timid Englishman at least, to have an air of look-at-me theatricality. There were thousands of club kits on display in Italy, whereas the official yellow and magenta sportive jersey and familiar generic clothing brands were a commoner sight at the Ardechoise. (Speaking of which, I had the pleasure of drafting a competitor by the name of Beatrice Defour for a number of miles this year. So that’s what a sleeveless white Assos skinsuit looks like. God bless triathlon! God bless France! God bless Beatrice Dephwoar!) And the Italian events were simply louder – much louder. Last year I gauged my closeness to the top of the crank-punishing Barbotto by how much I could hear of Metallica’s cover of Whisky In The Jar blaring from the sound system – and at the finish, the excitable MC was only to happy to volubly announce the presence of a certain “LON-DON DEE-NA-MOOOOOH!”

For me, though, it is French brass bands that capture what should be the true spirit of sportive riding. Yes, there may be times when you feel completely alone – blissfully so as you fly up a climb, or grinding away, mired in your own private hell – but the blast of a trumpet, a trombone’s glissando, or the oompah of a tuba provides a perky, galvanising sense of togetherness. Sound the horn! A fanfare, please! Like those children shrieking in the rain, or the students taking a drag on a joint, we are all here together, each of us seeking out our own type of fun.

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