Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Road Cycling and the Yellow Belt

I have been married for 10 years this September, 10 blissful happy years, not a crossed word nor a moment of discontent - you know how marriage can be so perfect! On the flip side... (I have a big wry smile on my face) Relationships demand continual input from both parties, I love my wife to bits, I know that she feels the same about me and we love our son like - well you can only understand that if you have children of your own.

In fact we were super proud today when our boy received his first yellow Judo belt. 8 years old as proud as punch, in fact during the demonstration put on especially for the parents, my tiger threw an adult instructor over his shoulder on more than one occasion. I guess in reality I was also feeling as proud as him, if not more so :o) Sport in France plays a major part in the lives of everyone - on reflection I think more so than in the UK. This obviously depends on each individual because I'm fully aware that if you want to participate in the UK, it's not a problem. Here in the south of France the weather certainly has it's advantages - endless numbers of good quality skate parks that are used by skaters, skate boarders, roller bladers, BMX'ers, high numbers of ball sport clubs including rugby which features high on the agenda in this part of the world. Watersports care of the Mediterranean and surrounding rivers and numerous outdoor adventures including pot holing, caving, ropes courses, walking and cycling, which is just off the scale. One thing you will have to get used to is that everything stops for the kids on Wednesdays!! Including work for many people. Kids here go to school - Mon, Tues, Thurs and Fri some go on Wednesday morning but my boy has the day off every week. Of course the flip side is it really screws your working week up and some kids have to go to school on a Saturday morning which also screws your weekend! Of course that's normal here so you either like it, lump it or put your kids into a private school. It's just the way it is!

Cycling here, is as I mentioned earlier off the scale. It doesn't matter what sort of riding you like everything is well accommodated. So you're not a sports rider but you like the idea of meandering around town exploring the historic buildings. Fantastic - park your car in the underground parking, bang in the centre of Montpellier and pick up a bike care of the Local Council, (Montpellier Agglomeration) you have to leave a deposit but the cost is less than 5 Eu and you can ride it for as long as you like. There are some 290Km of cycle tracks in and around the city so you can get from town to the coast (9km) if you're feeling up to it. Mountain biking here is called VTT or Velo Tout Terrain and this goes way off the scale. You can choose from easy right through to extreme rides and you don't have to drive or ride that far to be in the Cevennes national park; dropping down some very technical downhill routes. Lots of VTT competitions for all the family that are very well organised.

Road cycling, as you are probably aware, is a national phenomena here. The Tour de France starts in a couple of weeks and this mesmerises all and his dog. TV coverage, radio reports, newspaper articles, talk in the bars it is truly bizarre. However... I too took to road cycling at the beginning of 2006 - I couldn't believe it at first either.

Having realised that I was living this kind of reclusive lifestyle, that I described in a previous entry, I looked to meet other expatriates in the area to network and swap notes (to see if anyone was experiencing the same sorts of frustrations). After contacting the British Consulate in Marseilles to enquire if there were any British business or family associations I was bluntly informed that my best option would be to start one as nothing in this area existed! This was a definite blank. One day I was recounting this to my wife's pharmacy business partner and he suggested going out for ride with his local cycling club. This could serve a number of reasons, firstly fitness, secondly networking and meeting new people, thirdly I would be forced to communicate in French. Not a bad idea I thought.

Problem Number 1. No road bike - solution change the tyres on my VTT (Mountain Bike) Problem resolved.

So Saturday morning 7.30am I pitch up to the meeting car park and wait, of course I'm early and no one else is around but slowly a bunch of guys congregate to form a group of about 25 guys (sorry no ladies in this club yet). Lots and lots of very light very expensive road race bikes and numerous puzzled looks at my Trek VTT with suspension forks and road race tyres. I guess I was the Crazee Engleesh Guy at whom they could mock... So we set off and the speed didn't seem to fast everyone was very polite and inquisitive, simple short bursts of French and then silence whilst we tackled the climbs. 60km later the legs were beginning to feel tired and we still had 30km to go - of course I was completely lost, disorientated and slightly worried about my blood sugar level, as I suffer from diabetes but the guys were fantastic, they had seen it before with nubies and I wouldn't be the last one, so Philippe & Noel stuck with me, talked me home and made it quite clear that I had to get a road bike if I was serious about riding on a regular basis. Thanks guys - it sure was a relief to get back to our starting point - boy did I sleep that afternoon. Well and truly cream crackered.

I never thought of myself as a cyclist, my physical build is far from ideal 90 kilos and large shoulders, plus my diabetes can be fun on those really tough climbs when the sun is cooking everything it touches but I thought to myself this is a great way of networking, getting to know the local lay of the land and building a social circle of contacts, friends + improving my language skills. So one and half years later I ride 2 to 3 times a week, Saturday morning with the club and a couple of early mornings during the week to keep myself in form. My wife's business partner Philippe, ex president of the bike club, helped me in my quest to buy a road race bike by telling my wife it was essential that I had one - he's a good lad and now a good friend. Of course the bike I bought was at the time fantastic but as I have ridden it more and more for some reason one has the impression that the bike has become heavier and heavier. On the climbs like Mount Ventoux (one of the renowned French mountains) every gram in excess weight seems like a kilo so I am gunning for a new bike at present.

The cycling experience has made a big difference to how I feel about living here. 2 years on I can speak and read French to a reasonably good level - far from perfect but my god the grammar is incredibly challenging. The friendships I have formed are not what you'd call rock solid buddies but I now have a network of people I can bounce ideas with. So the flip side to this little experience is without any shadow of a doubt find an interest or a sport and get involved in it asap, if you sit on the side line waiting for things to come to you the opportunities will pass you by and you'll never get the chance to wear the yellow jersey let alone the yellow belt.