First Rides with Levallois Sporting Club

February and March, 1997

The town where I live in France is only one mile square, yet it has three cycling clubs -- two sport/touring clubs and one racing club. In February, 1997, I joined the larger of the sport/touring clubs, Levallois Sporting Club (LSC). The fee to join LSC is approximately $65 (360ff) per year, most of which (317ff) goes toward a license from the Federation Française de Cyclotourisme (FFCT), which is mandatory to join LSC. The license fee includes the FFCT's calendar of cyclotouring events for all of France, insurance, and a very nice monthly magazine.

The first ride I did with LSC was a "rallye" on February 9, 1997. It was barely daylight at 8 a.m. when we met at Porte Maillot, one of LSC's two ride rendez-vous places. Porte Maillot is on the Avenue de la Grande Armée. Just up the street in one direction is the Arc de Triomphe and in the other direction, the Grande Arche de La Défense. We rode to the start of the rallye, which was organized by another club a couple of towns away. The rallye was like a century ride: registration, maps, three choices of distance, rest stop with food, awards and food at the end. The individual awards were key rings that said ACBB 1943-1993. ACBB is the club that organized the rallye -- Athletic Club Boulogne-Billancourt. It is a very well-known club that produced quite a few pro racers, especially in the 70s and 80s. It's interesting that it started during the war. I guess the key rings were left over from a few years ago, but it was nice to get something.

They also gave trophies -- those big cups on pedestals that you can buy at trophy stores -- to clubs with the greatest number of participants, the greatest number of women participants, the oldest rider, the youngest rider... LSC won the cup for the greatest number of participants that day. LSC frequently wins the cup for the oldest participant. His name is Jean Carpentier. He was 80 in March, 1997 and still rides a lot.

That day the temperature in the early morning was unusually warm for the time of year in that part of France. In the early morning it was in the 30s or low 40s (degrees F); in the late morning it was in the 40s or very low 50s, according to the weather report. I wasn't uncomfortably cold, which says something, because I'm usually the coldest person on a ride, that is, the person wearing the most clothes. It got colder in March and April.

On Sunday February 16 we did 70 km and went to the Vallée de Chevreuse. It is the best area for cycling close to Paris, and the only area around that has a number of what might be called hills. I was told that one of the hills we did is called Dead Man's Hill. At one of the crossroads, where we stopped to wait for slower riders, was a monument to Jacques Anquetil, who won the Grand Prix des Nations time trial nine times in that valley. As for the weather that day, it was cold and overcast with a strong wind.

One Saturday in March, the club borrowed a small van from the city. Ten people showed up for the ride. We put the bikes and three people in the van, and two people brought their cars for the rest of us. We drove to Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris, to start the ride. When we arrived in Auvers we drove up a little hill past a picturesque church that looked familiar, though I had never been there before. We parked next to a cemetery near the church and someone suggested we go into the cemetery. There in the cemetery are the tombs of Vincent and Theo van Gogh. Only then did I remember that Auvers is where van Gogh spent his last years, and the church is the one in his paintings. The tombs are side by side, both completely covered with ivy. People had left flowers and someone left a painting on Vincent's tomb. We looked at the tombs briefly, then did our ride. I plan to go back to Auvers and spend more time at the cemetery, and look at the church, the museums, and the town.

In the winter, the Sunday rides start at 8 a.m., which means I leave my place at 7:45, before daylight. I get back at around 12:30. It's a big deal to the French to get home by noon, and one of them told me that as the rides get longer, they will start earlier in the morning. In the summer that won't be as bad as it sounds, because it will be light very early, but as it turned out, there were some early rides in March.

Since I have no vehicle, I ride from my apartment to the club's meeting places. From the meeting place, we ride to the start of some other club's organized ride. One Sunday in March, I rode from my place to the next town to meet other club members. Then we rode to yet another town to do an organized 100 km ride. I ended up with 25 extra kilometers. Another Sunday I did a ride that ended up being 162 km because of the extra distance to get to the ride. These rides started very early in the morning. One weekend in March I had to meet the club at 6:30 a.m., another Sunday at 6:45 a.m. to ride to the start of rallyes. And yes, it was cold -- it was still winter in northern Europe.

The club does not meet in front of the local deli or bike shop so there are no restrooms available at the ride start. Along the route there are no gas stations, no public bathrooms in the parks, no portapotties. If you are male, no problem. You simply turn your back to the audience. If you are female it is not so easy. One Saturday I was riding with three male teammates along a narrow road, the Seine on one side and residences on the other side, when they decided it was time for the "arrêt pipi des hommes." What about me? They said we would arrive at a forest in about three or four kilometers, and I could stop (or go) there. Ten to 15 kilometers later we were on a bike path with a busy multi-laned road on one side and some spindly trees no larger than my arm on the other side. That was the forest. I did my best to find shelter, which is not easy since I wear very bright cycling clothes. However, the French are much more accepting of bodily functions than are Americans, so perhaps the only problem was in my mind. Since then I have gotten used to using anything as a bathroom, as the French do (update, December, 1997: this is not fun in the snow). However, I am convinced this way of using the forests is why, in autumn, the leaves just turn brown around the edges before they fall off instead of displaying spectacular fall colors.

Cycling can be very complicated here in the Ile de France, the region around Paris. It's a huge urban and suburban area, with millions of roads, which are not laid out nicely in grids, as in the United States. There are lots of intersections where many roads converge, and it's easy to get lost. However, once you get out of the city there are cobblestones, châteaux, scenic little villages, and the lone church steeple in the distance jutting up from the fields in the area northeast of Paris.

There are lots of cycling clubs and cyclists in the Ile de France, and there are several rallyes and randonnées each weekend. You can find information about these rides in the FFCT's calendar for the Ligue Ile de France.

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Barbara Leonard