I don't live in France anymore. But I did for more than 15 years. I'll definitely be heading back there with the boys to race a few times this season. The photo below is from the Alsace Regional Team Time Trial Championships in Colmar in about 2012. With ASPTT Strasbourg we won it 4 or 5 times in a row. The top 3 teams would qualify for La Coupe de France des Clubs.
La Coupe de France des Clubs is the traditional season-ending race in France. It's a big deal. Teams of five start at 30-second intervals to race over the sprint distance. Only three members of a team have to cross the line together. Post-race there's a banquet with presentations for both La Coupe de France and the Grand Prix.
When I raced La Coupe de France in Montelimar with Vesoul in 1996, teams were comprised of seven athletes with five to finish. With these larger teams, bike speeds were high on the half main road, half twisty lane course. On the run we did the back push thing (see video). It was the hardest race I'd ever done. Probably still is.
The video above is of the 1996 Iron Tour. I actually took part in the event. But only stage five in Besancon. Blue wetsuit arms at 33:50. As the race was in our region the local arm of FFTri was invited to enter a representative team. There was also a British Composite team with Glenn Cook, Richard Hobson, Scott Forbes, Tim Don and Craig Ball.
Unfortunately, the France Iron Tour is not around anymore. But for a few years it really showed the popularity of the sport in France and the strength in depth of the big teams. However, the structure of the clubs and the building of the elite race calendar had started many years before.
By the late-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 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.
A national league was set-up with clubs travelling throughout France to fight for high positions and the pride of their town. French triathletes were strong. Many in this new Grand Prix were students or semi-pros with support from the military or SNCF (the national rail network).
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. 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 Hewitt, Mola, Duffy and the Brownlees.
So, even if you're not about to be picked up by one of the elite clubs, below are eight reasons why should consider coming over to France to race in 2018. Let me know if you ever need any help with race entries, translations, logistics or further information.
A Packed Calendar Of Events
The interactive race calendar on the FFTRI website is the best place to search for an event. The 2018 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 photocopy.
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. 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 a few years ago I was still sending paper entry forms and cheques in the post.
It's Part Of The Culture
Many events 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 2018 host towns are:
- Valence (13/05)
- Dunkerque (17/06)
- Paris (01/07)
- Quiberon (01/09)
- La Baule (22/09)
There is also a national 2nd division that includes many British athletes racing for French clubs. 2018 events are in:
- Besancon (17/06)
- Chateauroux (30/06)
- Saint Pierre d'Albigny (01/09)
- St Pierre La Mer (16/09)
French Grand Prix Videos