Wednesday, December 24, 2008

French Cyclocross

The weather has been better than expected here, at least better than we'd been led to believe. For the last week, the sun has come out for a few hours almost everyday and I have been taking advantage with frequent bike rides. On Saturday I took a favorite route west from Poitiers through Sanxay, Vasles, Latillé, and Montreuil-Bonnin. The route is notable for its smooth roads, relatively flat terrain, and low traffic. While passing through Latillé, I noticed signs for a cyclocross race the following day at the nearby Chateau de la Chèze.

I was hoping for good weather so I could compare the French version of cyclocross with the race I saw in Chicago. Of course, cyclocross is more interesting in adverse weather (think sharp, slippery turns, limited visibility, and lots of mud), but in order to watch I needed to ride my bike the 30 km to Latillé, something that would have been considerably less interesting in the rain. It turned out to be ideal: 50 degrees and mostly sunny.

Chateau de la Chèze was not hard to find. This is partly because Latillé is not very big, but also because, as soon as I got close, I could hear an announcer's voice booming from some loudspeakers.

The announcer was also the first thing I noticed that distinguished this French cyclocross race from the one in Chicago. He essentially never stopped talking during the 60 minute-race, and he reminded me less of a sports-commentator than an auctioneer. He was providing commentary at such a rapid pace (and at such volume) to the tiny crowd I couldn't help but laugh.

The race was situated on the grounds of the Chateau de la Chèze, which dates back to the seventeenth century (and was built on the site of an older castle), and the course was truly breathtaking. The ribbons and flags marking the course wound back and forth across the immense grounds, dipping into the valley and disappearing into the distance before winding back up the hill to the chateau.
There were nearly 60 competitors on the course, with multiple divisions competing simultaneously. The spectators seemed to be mostly friends and family; this was also true of the race in Chicago, probably because it takes an intimate knowledge of the cyclists to figure out who is competing with whom and who is winning which division.

Eventually, the speed of the announcements picked up, and I knew the race must be nearing a climactic end. The two leaders in the fastest division were within a few yards of each other as they went down into the valley for the last lap. As they approached the last turn before the straightaway along the water (look in the upper left quadrant of the above photo) they came upon a slower racer from a lower division. The leader was held up momentarily waiting for his chance to pass, then when there was finally room, the cyclist chasing him jumped into the gap and passed both the leader and the lower division cyclist. He held that tenuous lead for the next kilometer and took the win!

It was a pretty exciting finish and satisfying close to my first French cyclocross experience. And then, after the race, as I was preparing to head home, I noticed this little cute bike-wash station near the castle wall:
Very civilized!

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