Why You Should Race In France This Season

By the mid-1980s France really had become the place to be for ambitious triathletes. More so than Australia and the USA. There were plenty of races but less travelling between them. Neighbouring Belgium and Germany also had rapidly developing race calendars.

There was good prize money at most races and it was often possible to race more than once a week. Many of the foreign pioneers did exactly this. Piling into old transit vans post-race on Saturday  to travel through the night to another race on Sunday.

The club set-up was also unique. As the sport started to grow in the early 80s, triathlon clubs were created within already existing town sports clubs. There would be a football section, table tennis section, petanque section, swimming section and now....a triathlon section.

Clubs created in this way had an instant infrastructure. Running track, pool use and some clout when it came to organising events. The newly formed triathlon clubs also had an instant following in the town. Handy when you are looking for sponsors, volunteers or want to close roads for a race.

Quickly a national league was set-up with clubs travelling throughout France to fight for high positions and the pride of their town. French athletes were strong. Many athletes in this new Grand Prix were students or semi-pros with support from the military or SNCF (the national rail network). Teams also quickly realised that a fast-track route to victory was to recruit and pay foreign athletes. Australians mainly.

I first moved over in 1996 and joined a club. I had managed to negotiate a place on a French Division 1 team,  GT Vesoul 70, at the end of 1995. Back then, pre-Internet, it was all telephone calls and faxes. I had a respectable racing CV but they were only interested in previous results on French soil.

The depth of fields was nothing like in the UK. After regularly finishing in the top 10 of British Grand Prix events at the end of 1995, I was outside the top 50 in a French one in early 1996. Now if you’re lucky enough to be recruited by a French club you’ll be toeing the line with Jorgensen, Mola, Murray and the Brownlees.

One of the goals of this site is to compile a list triathlon events in Alsace, Lorraine and Franche Comté. These 3 adjoining regions have thriving triathlon communities. This event is on my 2017/2018 bucket list. So, whether you decide to come out east or not, below are 8 reasons why should consider coming over to France to race in 2017.

A Packed Calendar Of Events
The interactive race calendar on the FFTRI website is the best place to search for an event. The 2017 version should kick in soon and Triathlete Magazine will release it's events booklet. Let me know if you would like me to send you a copy. 

It's Not That Far
Eurostar still carry bikes and there are many events near Paris that you can cycle to. Also with many races starting in the afternoon you could leave Dover by car early on Sunday morning and be back in the Uk on Sunday night. Use the interactive map to find events not far from Calais.

Races Are Cheap To Enter
The vast majority of events are still organised by clubs and small towns. The for-profit companies have not really taken off. One of my local events, the Sarrebourg Triathlon is a typical example. €20 for Sprint Distance and €30 for the Olympic Distance. Races also rarely fill-up and the logistics of entering events are also getting easier. Even the smallest races now use multi-lingual online sign up sites. Just three years ago I was still sending paper entry forms and cheques in the post.

It's Part Of The Culture
Some events in Alsace, Lorraine and Franche Comte have been around for 15, 20, 25 or 30 years. They are well organised and roads are more often than not closed to traffic. Anyway, with shops are closed on Sundays, traffic is light. Races, be it bike races, triathlons or a 10 km are accepted as part of the culture of the town.

Learn The Language
Spend a summer holiday travelling to 2 or 3 events. Take some time off work, live in France and join a club.  At local races everything will be in French. Announcements, race information packs and instructions from referees (les arbitres). A great opportunity to improve your French.

Fields Are Strong
Do well at your local or regional events in the UK? Why not see how you stack up against the French? The age-group thing is not so big over here but even outside of Grand Prix events the depth of most fields is still high.There's less prize money than before but I'm sure the journeyman pro could still make money if they choose events carefully and live frugally.

Race More Than Once
Lots of events now span the whole weekend. At the Val de Gray Triathlon there's a Half Ironman, children's races and a Relay on Saturday. On Sunday there are Sprint and Olympic Distance events. Why not link up 2 race weekends, bike touring between the two venues?

Check out the French Grand Prix
These draft legal events attract some of the best short distance triathletes in the world to race for club points. The 2017 host towns are below with links to videos.

There is also a 2nd division that includes many British athletes racing for French clubs. 2017 events are in:

  • Besancon (4 June)
  • La Rochelle (10 June)
  • Angers (22 July)
  • Peyrolles en Provence (10 September)

French Grand Prix Videos

2017 Sarrebourg Triathlon Tour

I'm considering the 2017 Sarrebourg 2 Day Tour as the first official FSR triathlon tour. I started testing the format with a three-day tour with my brother in July 2014. We rode mountains, gravel and bike paths. We stopped for wild swims and tried to race and run.

Importantly, we found the limits of fully-loaded triathlon touring. The distances that shouldn't be exceeded if you want to keep your sanity while getting fit and chilling out. Once you get to camp there's always the possibility to ride and explore more.

With two children and the arrival of a third at the end of 2014 I had little time to think about the concept. However, I continued to ride potential routes, uncover wild swimming venues, test campsites and experience races tour-able from Strasbourg.

I've gone back and forth on tour formats. Sticking points were daily riding distances and whether to design strictly tarmac or mixed terrain routes. However, I knew I needed to include daily lake swimming, trail running, nearly traffic-free riding, camping and a race.

There’s also plenty of people out there thinking up ways of making triathlon complicated, expensive and even more competitive. With FSR Triathlon Tours I want to offer something that is cheap, simple and somewhat of an adventure. The way that triathlon used to be.

This year I’ve penciled in just one short tour to the Sarrebourg Triathlon. The plan for 2018 is to offer several weekend tours and a 4 Day Tour into Franche Comté. A free service to those who want to come or be inspired to roll out from home for their own tour.

The tour includes 290 km of cycling over two days, one night of camping at Celles-sur-Plaine and a taste of small-town French triathlon culture at the Sarrebourg Olympic Distance Triathlon. The tour is built around some of the best bike paths in the region.

We're meeting at 08:00 at Cafe Con Leche, 4 Rue Kuhn, Strasbourg.on Saturday 24th June. We'll be back in Strasbourg late on Sunday. There should be a few local athletes and anybody reading this is welcome to come. 

Bike Touring For Triathletes

Pencilling in a few short bike tours in the triathlon season allows me to keep training sessions super-short the rest of the year. So why might you forgo the sun and comfort of a Training Camp in Lanzarote for the potentially muddy camp-sites of France or your local area?

It’s Cheap & Simple
As triathlon seems to get increasingly complicated and expensive, a bike tour is cheap and simple. Most bike tours require very little planning. No need to book ahead as even the most popular campsites will find a space for your tent.

Unfold your map and sketch out a rough itinerary. Try and stick to back roads and forest paths. Include lakes for swimming and trails for running. With everything you need tucked tightly behind your saddle you can ride out of your garage and let the adventure begin.

Leave Your Best Bike in the Garage
Systems exist to attach a rack to your race bike or any other bike without rack eyes. However, it’s better to strike out on a bike that you don’t mind leaving out in the rain overnight and that you’ll be comfortable on all day. Don’t have a dedicated touring bike? Why not save an old frame from the scrapheap and build up a cheap, go-anywhere touring rig?

Get Comfortable
Why does my commuting bike always feel more comfortable than my race bike? I don’t move on the saddle. I flatten the pedals and drive them downwards. I feel great on the drops, hoods or tops. Saddle height feels perfect.

Of course, it’s because I ride it every day. Fine adjustments have been made over the years and my postural muscles have become stronger. Use even a short tour to decide on a powerful position that you can enjoy all day long.

Slow Down
A bike tour is a holiday and a retreat rather than a training camp. Leave your Heart Rate Monitor at home and forget about Power Data. Don’t rush. Ride all day and get from campsite to campsite. Stop at a castle, dip your feet in a stream, have a coffee or a picnic. Read, write, sleep and take photos.

Have an Adventure
If you’re on a quick S24O from home seek out roads that you’ve never ridden before. Turn off onto forest tracks even if you don’t know where they might pop out. When exploring foreign lands you’ll experience different cultures or grapple a with language you might not understand. When pulling into camp or stopping for a rest in a village, the sight of your bike is an instant conversation starter.

You know your destination exists as you’ve seen it on the map. But you don’t know how long it’s going to take you to get there and the obstacles that could be in your way. You’re riding into the unknown. See villages and countryside that tourist buses don’t stop at. That trains speed through and that planes totally ignore. See what’s in-between and get there under your own steam.

Work Hard
With your bike fully loaded you’ll be forced to build strength in the hills. With long days in the saddle planned an endurance boost is guaranteed. Why not push yourself on the last day with an extra ambitious route?

You can ride pretty far when all you’ve got scheduled for the day is sitting on your saddle. You’ll have a massive sense of achievement, possibly set a personal daily mileage record and the beer on arrival will taste great.

Recover From Life 
Go to bed when it’s dark. Maybe read for a little while with your head-torch. That novel you’ve had on hold for months. Get up with the sun. Eat Well. Stop and buy fresh, local produce for lunch. Get Inspired. Keep a diary. Switch off. No computer. No TV.

Pick Up Some New Skills 
We look back on our early tandem tours as cultural and travel successes but bike touring disasters. It took us 3 or 4 years before we figured out what was worth bringing and what wasn’t. Finding a balance between lightness and luxury. We also improved our camp cooking, how far and how fast to ride, pitching a tent, striking camp and basic on-the-road mechanics. 

Holidays of the Future
Petrol prices are rising, air travel is becoming unfashionable and there’s a renaissance in exploring your own country. People are starting to realise the importance of spending time in nature and the growth of cycle paths make it possible to plan tours that are nearly traffic free.

The Path Less Pedalled has also recognized that bicycle touring is changing. People are taking shorter tours, combining train journeys with biking and taking advantage of bicycle friendly accommodation options and other bicycle-focused businesses.

Simplify Event Travel
I hate loading the car and driving to events. I also have a little chuckle when fellow athletes open the boot of their car and piles of superfluous kit tumble out. As I race infrequently I prioritize events that I can ride to. I minimise kit, camp and enjoy having a weekend of steady activity rather a balls-out, results based racing experience.

Camping Is Not Compulsory
Lack of equipment or no desire to brave the hard ground shouldn’t stop you from enjoying bike touring. Checking into a Bed & Breakfast will guarantee you stay dry and sleep well. Bring your best bike if you want as it can be locked away overnight. Pack light using a saddlebag such as the Carradice Longflap Camper.

Favourite Triathlon Books

Bit of nostalgia here. And I haven't read any of the modern autobiographies; Brownlees, Wellington etc. I also regret getting rid of my copy of the Lehénaff. Not in order. Tweet me if you think something else should be on the list.

Scott's.jpg
  • Dave Scott's Triathlon Training by Dave Scott
  • Triathloning For Ordinary Mortals by Steven Jonas
  • Mark Allen's Total Triathlete by Mark Allen with Bob Babbitt
  • Scott Tinley's Winning Triathlon by Scott Tinley
  • Championship Triathlon Training by George Dallam
  • Breakthrough Triathlon Training by Brad Kearns
  • The Well-Built Triathlete by Matt Dixon
  • Regards d'experts sur le triathlon by Didier Lehénaff
  • Strength Training For Triathletes by Patrick Hagerman
  • Primal Endurance by Mark Sisson and Brad Kearns.
  • One Hour Workouts by Scott Molina, Mark Newton & Michael Jacques with Amy White
  • The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing by Phil Maffetone.

We all squeezed the stick...

…and we all pulled the trigger. Except that we couldn’t. Before the internet, you had to wait until Tuesday morning for the Daily Telegraph to print the results of major races. It was August 1989 and my triathlon hero, Glenn Cook, had just finished second in the inaugural World Short Course Championships in Avignon, France. The Short Course was the fifteen hundred, forty-kay, ten-kay format before Olympic politicians put their branding on it. No drafting and flat out from gun to tape.

Arc La Bataille.JPG

In the next issue of Triathlete Magazine there was a double page spread of Cook running toe to toe with third place finisher Rick Wells. Cook had cut his Ron Hill vest navel high and felt-tipped GBR across his chest. Both athletes had their moustaches pinned back from the speed and the sweat. I picked the staples out of the middle of the poster, put it on my bedroom wall and drew nightly inspiration before dropping off to sleep.

As Glenn was riding himself into medal contention he was doing it on a Dave Russell bike. Dave was the British team mechanic for the Avignon trip and his kids swam at my swimming club. I bumped into him at the pool on his return. He regaled me with tales from Avignon and we discussed the progress he was making with the bike I’d ordered: a fluo-green and white Reynolds 501 Russell Frame specced with Shimano 105 groupset.

I’d finished my first triathlon just six months earlier. I’d been a runner since the early 80’s inspired by British marathoners like Geoff Smith, Charlie Spedding, John Graham, Mike Grattan, Tony Milovsorov and Steve Jones. In the Spring of 1989 I bought the book Dave Scott’s Triathlon Training, joined Berkshire Tri Squad and started training for the May 1989 Wokingham TRY-A-TRI.

My ride back then was a powder-blue Peugeot Elan with the seat right down and my running shoe shod feet loosely slotted into chrome toe clips. When bent into my drop bar aero position I imagined that the two looping lengths of brake cable formed my windscreen and I was Joey Dunlop negotiating the deadly Isle of Man TT course at great speed.

Despite having to switch to breaststroke during the 500m pool swim, I comfortably maintained thousands of RPMs on the bike and my transition practices on Cippenham Green allowed me to finish with a strong run. I think I was second overall and first under 18 by a solid margin. At 16 I’d already made the decision that I wanted to be a professional triathlete.

I imagined the sport developing along the golf model, allowing the journeyman pro to make a respectable living but remain relatively anonymous to the general public. There would be multiple circuits like the US, European and Asian tours in golf. Athletes would have to race at all distances while attempting to be on peak form for “the majors”.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Carlsberg Grand Prix Series provided pocket money for a small group of UK-based pros. These included Rick Kiddle, Ken Maclaren, Mark Marabini, Rick Morris, Alan Ingarfield, Tracy Harris, Richard Hobson, Bernie Shrosbree and Jon Ashby. To make more serious money you had to race regularly on the continent.

I’d read that Glenn Cook had perfected the logistics of this. Leaving at dawn on Friday from his Devonshire home, he’d fly from Heathrow into Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands or France. He’d check out the race course on Saturday before racing on Sunday. After collecting his cheque for winning or placing he’d make his way home on Monday.

The golf thing obviously never happened but Brett Sutton did come up with an imaginative way of keeping triathlon draft free at the highest level that was published in an early issue of 220 Magazine. The idea was to make the World Championships and eventually the Olympics into a two day, short distance slash long distance combo.

Day 1: Sprint Distance Individual Time Trial. Day Two: Long Distance non-drafting race for the top 24 qualifiers. It would be a 4km swim, 120km bike and 30km run. However, the swim would take place in a rowing lake. A typical rowing facility is 2000m long with eight, 13m wide lanes. Three athletes per lane. Get this…no drafting on the swim! Nobody listened.

I progressed steadily through the early 1990’s thanks to swim sessions at Windsor Swimming Club, turbo training in my parents’ garage and serious Cross Country seasons. I raced all over the UK and in Holland and France on family holidays. After winning the national universities’ title in Halesowen and a GB elite team cap at World Long Distance Championships in Nice I negotiated a place on a French team at the end of 1995.

After some frustrating faxes and awkward telephone calls I made plans to move over to race for GT Vesoul 70 in April 1996. After a winter of HARD training, including some brutal nights at Palmer Park velodrome, my dad dropped me at St. Pancras Station.

This was pre-Eurostar so I had to haul my massive bike bag and bulging green suitcase from train to cross channel ferry to train, between two stations in Paris and then back onto another train. My baggage contained parts to repair various improbable bike mechanical incidents and clothes for every social and sporting occasion.

My train eventually pulled out of the Gare de l’Est laden with hundreds of soldiers heading back to their barracks in the east of France. About an hour out of Paris I got out my phrase book. I was tired from carrying the outsize luggage and greetings such as “bonjour, enchanteé de vous faire connaissance,” were getting harder and harder to memorise.

At least 2 hours; no towns, no stops, no street lights. Then some brief stops in small dark towns. Then finally Vesoul, a basic station building and a tiny platform. I was met by the club president. I learnt later that he’d battled for my inclusion in the team. I was first the athlete from outside the region to be invited into this rapidly improving group.

That year I raced every weekend, learnt French, won a race and stepped onto the podium with the team at a French Grand Prix event. The beginning of my pro career also proved to be the end. I’d spent far too much time crossing France every week in the back of a Peugeot 806 and I realised that I lacked the killer instinct needed to make a living in triathlon.

I worked in Germany for 2 years before moving back to France in 1999. Racing for Rouen Triathlon I won a regional title and the team gained promotion to the FGP Division 1. After 4 years in Beirut and 2 in Bangkok we settled in Strasbourg in 2006. In 2017 I'm psyched to train and race more more in short triathlons for ASPTT Strasbourg and Berkshire Tri Squad.

Favourite Running Books

I’ve read a lot of running books. A lot. Physiology, training plans, barefooting, biographies, ultra, histories and fiction. Here are the best 10, not in order. Tweet me if you think something else should be on the list. And yes. I have read Born to Run.

Running Books.JPG
  • The Perfect Distance by Pat Butcher
  • Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore
  • Flanagan’s Run by Tom McNab
  • Running with the Buffaloes by Chris Lear
  • On a Cold Clear Day by Frank Murphy
  • Kings of the Road by Cameron Stracher
  • Strength and Conditioning For Endurance Running by Richard Blagrove.
  • The Way of the Runner by Adharanand Finn
  • Running My Way by Harry Wilson
  • Better Training For Distance Runners by David E. Martin and Peter N. Coe

Tandem Touring For Triathletes

If you thought that buying a tandem was the perfect way to get a non-cycling partner onto two wheels, you'd be right. Think about the possibilities. Day trips on bike paths. Easy spins in the forest. Weekend tours or longer camping trips.  

However, your triathlete’s enthusiasm could put your spouse off cycling forever. We've owned two tandems and ridden in China, Greece, USA, Spain, France, Lebanon, UK, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Germany. The ideas below are specifically aimed at triathletes who are probably strong cyclists but may not have ridden a tandem or been bike touring.

Where do you sit? 
The rider at the front is the Captain or Pilot. I prefer Captain. The rider at the back is the Stoker. Stoking the fire. Usually the taller and stronger rider sits at the front. If you're using front panniers the Captain will definitely have a bigger load to handle when starting, stopping or steering.

I've never seen a tandem built higher at the back but that doesn't mean it's not possible.  If you’re going custom-made I’m sure that anything is possible. Our tandems have always been set-up racier at the front (drop-bars) for me and more relaxed (high straight-bars) at the back for Gwen.

Pack (Seriously) Light
It’s a careful balance between comfort and lightness. Something that bike tourists are always refining. We don’t compromise on bedding; packing good self-inflating mats and pillows. We do take less clothes. I always say that I pack the same for a two day trip as I would for a 2 month trip.

We’ve made packing mistakes. Not taking a cooking system when touring in the USA was one. We had this image of relaxing with a burger and micro-brew outside of a trendy pub every evening. The reality was that many camp-sites were in very rural locations. Make sure you know where your next meal is coming from. Where is the last supermarket before camp?

Slow Down (A Lot)
With two comfortable and fit riders it’s possible for a tandem to go pretty fast on flat or rolling terrain. But don’t plan on that. Don't take any ideas of speed from your time riding a solo bike.There's no comparison and it will ruin your holiday. Take it easy and the speed will come when both of you want it to.  

Stop Often and Plan Other Activities
Don’t rush. Ride all day and get from campsite to campsite. Stop at a castle, dip your feet in a stream, have a coffee or a picnic. Read, write, sleep and take photos. Swim or jog en route. Visit Museums.

Ride mornings and have other plans for the afternoon. What about a themed tour to visit places that interest you? Castles, breweries, bike shops, book shops, farm visits, wild swimming holes, surf spots, battlefields.

Don’t Compromise On The Cadence
Ride at the cadence the least experienced rider prefers. A good rider is comfortable at a range of cadences. A beginner isn’t. Let them choose the cadence and give instructions to speed up or slow down. Your stoker will hate the feeling of the pedal dropping away without them being able to exert any pressure.

Aim For A Modest Daily Mileage
New to tandeming? One experienced rider? Start out with 60km. Move up to 80km. Get the feeling of going on a journey but know the daily distance is achievable for BOTH OF YOU. Hills are super-hard on a tandem but long flat days are hard too.

Don’t plan on going to the Alps or Pyrenees for your first tandem tour. Even for experienced tandem riders the first day on tour is always hard. Plan for that. Don't worry. With long days in the saddle ahead an endurance boost is guaranteed.

Look After Your Butt Cheeks
Fact. You don’t get to stand up much on a tandem. Balance and coordination is harder than on a solo bike. Both riders have to want to / need to stand up at the same time. You’re also hauling a load. You end up putting serious force through the pedals throughout the day.

Your saddle is an investment. Spend time breaking it in and it will improve and mature. Maybe a Brooks B17. Buy good shorts. Apply copious vaseline before you think you need to. Rinse them out well every night. Ease off the saddle on downhills. Lower cadences = less leg movement = less saddle / short / bottom friction

Getting On Your Tandem
Have a routine. Practice it before you leave. Nothing worse than looking like amateurs as you leave camp or take off from a café. For us it’s both right pedals up in the two o clock position. One. Two. Three. Push down. Up onto the saddle. Left foot on. Go.

Downhills
We coast the downhills. Always. We’re not in a hurry.  If you’re a confident descender take it easy and communicate with your stoker. They might be scared. Disc brakes are available now. Definitely better than rim brakes for tandems. We’ve had to stop in the past to squirt water on hot rims to avoid a blow-out.

Avoid Stoker's Knee
When we had our Thorn tandem built we asked for the gear shifters to be fitted at the back for the stoker to operate. If the captain is the gear changer make sure that they signal changes to the stoker to avoid sudden increases or decreases in cadence. Stoker's knee. It's real.

Share The Work
Have jobs on the bike and jobs in camp. I handle most of the equipment. The bike, stove and any mechanical issues. I break camp and look after route planning and finding. Gwen does logistics. Train tickets. Hotel and campsite bookings. Tent pitching. Sourcing and buying food.

Use Bike Paths
There's no valour in using busy roads to go faster or further. Don't be afraid of bike paths. In France and Germany they are everywhere. As a triathlete there's nothing worse than a narrow strip of tarmac. For the bike tourist it's a traffic-free heaven. Look for gravel roads and non-technical forest tracks. Get some guidebooks to help plan a route. Cicerone are really good.

Equipment
This could be a complete blog post all by itself. However, I’ll leave you with three thoughts. Get S&S Couplings if you plan to take your tandem on a train or plane. If you just want to ride from home or use a car, get a roof rack like mine.

Ortlieb Panniers are still the gold standard, although they must have rivals these days. You’ll need something completely waterproof. Lots of pockets just complicate the packing, unpacking and finding stuff process. Carradice saddle bags are cool.

Make sure your tandem can handle multi-terrain riding. Gravel roads. Forest single track. Canal towpaths. Not just roads. Get a tyre, wheel, frame and gearing combination that allow you to go where you want and make your rides as traffic-free as possible.

Favourite Rowing Books

I'm not sure how I got into reading rowing books. I've read a whole bunch though. Plenty of relevant stuff for triathletes in there. Coming next. Golf books.

  • The Amateurs by David Halberstam.
  • Assault on Lake Casitas by Brad Alan Lewis.
  • Wanted: Rowing Coach by Brad Alan Lewis.
  • The Sphinx of the Charles by Toby Ayer.
  • True Blue by Daniel Topolski.
  • The Shell Game by Stephen Kiesling.
  • Lido For Time by Brad Alan Lewis.
  • Boat Race: The Oxford Revival by D. Topolski.
  • Blood Over Water by D & J Livingston.
  • The Yanks at Oxford by Alison Gill.
  • Olympic Obsession by Martin Cross.
  • Mind Over Water by Craig Lambert.
  • Rowing Against The Current by Barry Straus.
  • The Red Rose Crew by Daniel J. Boyne.
  • Men of Kent by Rick Rinehart.