On April 10, 1997, I rode at Longchamp for the first time. Longchamp is a horse race track in the Bois de Boulogne at the northwest edge of Paris. A lane of the street around it is closed to automobile traffic, and cyclists use that lane for training. The fact that the street is closed to cars does not mean it is closed to all motor vehicles. To the French, the distinction between whether a vehicle has two wheels or four wheels is more important than the vehicle's power system. All two-wheeled vehicles are considered equal, so sometimes motorcycles and mopeds are on the course with the cyclists.
The course is 3.6 km, basically flat, and has only two real turns. Much of it is as wide as a street lane including parking, but in two places, both of the turns, the road narrows to less than half this width and has curbs on both sides. The one crash I've seen so far happened in one of these turns.
All levels of cyclists ride at Longchamp, from pro racers to sub-recreational riders. I've seen people in regular cycling attire on good bikes and on lesser quality bikes; older men in knickers, knee socks and old-style leather cycling shoes riding old steel bikes; people in street clothes and running shoes riding all kinds of bikes from high-quality lightweight racing to mountain bikes to very old one-speeds with coaster brakes. I've been told that media and other celebrities ride at Longchamp.
With all level of cyclists, it can be dangerous. You can jump in with a group to go fast, but you always have to watch out for slow and poor riders. Most riders pass very closely then cut in right in front of you, almost overlapping your front wheel, even when they are alone (not in a paceline). It's unnecessary and dangerous.
My first time at Longchamp, I went there and back with a guy from the club who used to race, too, and is also a race official -- a French national commissaire. After we arrived, we did three laps moderately to warm up. We agreed to meet at a certain place in an hour to return to Levallois, then Jacques jumped into the middle of a very large group. I rode a few laps by myself. When Jacques' group caught me, he was in second position. He said "ça va, Barbara?" as he went by. I waited until the end of the group to jump in. The group was very large, and the people at the back kept coming off, so it was hard for me to stay in. I rode almost a lap with them. When we met at the arranged time, Jacques said he rode seven laps with that group, much of it at the front where it was safest. After he did some jumps and saw that no one would or could stay with him, he went off the front on his last lap. We rode a cool-down lap, then back to Levallois. I had 51 km, Jacques had about 8 km more.
In 1997 in Paris it rained from the end of May through all of June and into July. For awhile it seemed that the rain would start just as I was leaving work and wanting to go for an evening ride, so I started riding in the early morning before work. Then it started raining in the early morning, too, so I rode at lunch time. Then it rained during the whole day...
One day in July, it was a beautiful, sunny morning for a change (for a big change) and I rode at Longchamp before going to work. Halfway around my first lap, a peloton caught up with me. Some of the guys passed me, but not all, so I found myself riding with them. From their jerseys, faces, and frame numbers, I figured out that they were Colombians who had done the cyclosport ride called L'Etape du Tour, which was the same course as first mountain stage of the Tour de France in the Pyrenees, but a couple of days earlier. No one said a word to me, nor I to them. They maintained a very orderly paceline and did not cut off other riders, unlike most people who ride at Longchamp. We were almost the only cyclists on the course at that hour of the day. I rode a few laps with them, then they stopped and I continued.
I am often aware of the cultural differences between Americans and French, but living in Paris has an added dimension in that people of many other nationalities live or visit here, too. I thought it was interesting and somewhat incongruous -- a North American and a group of South Americans riding in circles in a park in Paris.
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