C'est magnifique! How to enjoy the Semaine Federale
The Semaine Fédérale Internationale de Cyclotourisme in France is better known as the 'Sem Fed'. Those in the loop have long-known that it is a week of cycling heaven that takes place every summer in a different region of France each time, as it has done for the past 81 years.
Like a beloved vintage bike, it is a well-oiled machine that runs very smoothly, thanks to the enthusiasm and commitment of the hundreds of volunteers who work tirelessly to make it happen. Each year, it attracts over ten thousand riders, catering to both roadies and mountain bikers alike.
If you've ever wondered what it would be like to take part in the Tour de France, then taking part in a ride on the 'Sem Fed' might be the closest you'll ever get, but without the pain or the glory, obviously.
Participants from all over the world descend on a particular corner of the 'l'Hexagone' each year, with local towns and villages rolling out the red carpet to welcome them. The week is a mass celebration of all things cycling and is an event on a scale that is hard to compare to anything in the UK.
As you can imagine, preparations for each event start years in advance so that by the time the Sem Fed, which is organised by Cycling UK's equivalent in France, the FFCT (Federation Francaise de Cyclotourisme), takes place in the first week of August, everything runs pretty much like clockwork. And that means that guests are free to relax and enjoy the choice of different routes of varying distances selected every day, eat meals paid for in advance or on the day with their cashless wristbands or even take part in organised walks, excursions and other activities, if they or their companions don't fancy a day out on the bike.
There is something special about riding with a group, the sociability, the camaraderie, meeting new people and even the stoking of the friendly competitiveness that lurks in us all.
Roland Seber, Sem Fed 2019 participant
Having heard about the Sem Fed for many years, but never having been, we eventually found we had a free diary so went ahead and booked our spaces in early spring for the 2019 event in Cognac in Charente-Maritime in the south west of France.
I went with my husband Roland Seber, he explained why we both wanted to go: "It may seem like stating the obvious but I’ve always enjoyed a ride with a group of like-minded others. Whether people I already know or mostly complete strangers, I don’t mind. Some cyclists like the solitude of riding alone but I think most, like me, love to pursue their passion surrounded by others who feel the same way. There is something special about riding with a group, the sociability, the camaraderie, meeting new people and even the stoking of the friendly competitiveness that lurks in us all."
I’ve been to the New Forest Cycling Week, the Birthday Rides, numerous sportives and Cycling UK Challenge rides to name only a few but nothing had prepared me for the enormity of the Semaine Fédérale. The sheer numbers of riders: stretching out along the roads, whizzing about in between the rows of motorhomes at the campsite, milling around the trade village and filling the long tables in the massive dining marquees. This is a gathering of cyclists on a truly grand scale.
It quickly became apparent to us just how much organisation had gone into it but I guess it follows a very similar format each year so there is a tried and tested template for success: the location may change but the marquees and shower blocks are portable and re-used each year. Also ever present is the slick army of nearly 2,000 volunteers, who do everything from serving food and drink to marshalling the routes to registration, lost property, first aid and much more."
Our original plan had been to ride down from the ferry terminal at St Malo but Roland's mountain bike injury a week beforehand meant he could just about manage shortish rides though touring was out of the question, so we’d reluctantly come by car and brought our tiny two-person tent with us, using a discarded fruit box for a makeshift table. Next to the other so-called ‘campers’, we felt very minimalist - most of them were staying in huge motorhomes, replete with TVs, microwaves and all the other mod cons, that filled several massive fields, while the area set aside for cycle tourers was tiny in comparison.
However, as far as the Sem Fed itself goes, the emphasis is very much on sustainability: no chemicals, little plastic and very eco. And very French. Roland said: "At the campsite, I particularly liked the long, open air, rows of wash basins with no mirrors. Instead of seeing your own face reflected back, when you looked up, you saw a complete stranger, male or female, possibly with a toothbrush in their mouth or shaving. Best of all, there were enough facilities to go round so, even though we had an amazing week of hot sunshine, you never had to queue. Although, one evening there was quite a contretemps over the electrical sockets provided for campers to charge their mobile phones – Julie’s French was just about good enough to figure out that one couple seemed to be accusing another of using the outlets to run a power line directly into their motorhome!"
There was plenty of other accommodation available, from lodgings with locals to dormitories in hostels and schools to local hotels.
Bienvenue the bénévoles
We thought that by arriving a good two days before the official start of the festival, we’d be ahead of the game as the campsite opened on the Friday. However, by the time we’d been shown to our pitch by an orange-clad ‘bénévole’ or volunteer, the camping fields were already nearly full of vehicles and people.
Once settled in, you then had to head to the registration tents, where you are issued with your ‘dossier’ or folder, which contains everything you need for the event: maps and information about all the routes for the week, both on and off-road; the activities and events in the locality; regional information; and wristbands with which to pay for everything as the Sem Fed is largely cashless - we had pre-booked most of our meals back in January, little realising that the event village was a few kilometres away from the campsite in the suburbs of Cognac. The campsite also had takeaway food options available every night plus live bands and even a fine dining option.
In hindsight, it may have been better to just have a couple of evening meals there and buy bread and other supplies for breakfast from the on-site boulangerie and marchand de fruits. However, the social aspect of eating the delicious meals with complete strangers at the long tables more than made up for the 20-minute ride into town: we met and chatted to many fellow cyclists, both French and from Cycling UK. We even had a lengthy chat with the guy responsible for all the recycling bins, who spoke fluent English, even though he'd never been to England, just because he was interested in the language.
There are no led rides at the Sem Fed - the sheer numbers involved would make that impossible but the maps and signage were excellent. Each day, there was a selection of different circuits, both on and off-road, heading out in a different direction from Cognac but with a choice of five distances.
One feature we had not seen before was the colour-coded arrow stickers on kerb stones at roundabouts and junctions corresponding to that day's routes, which was very clever.
There were also gpx files available to download. In practice, we found that no matter what time of day you set out on a ride, you mostly just had to follow all the other riders to know which way to go.
"Another great feature of the rides were the highly organised official refreshment stops, sometimes based at a country house or in a nice park" said Roland. "There were many food and drink options, with carefully laid out barriers for queue control. There was plenty of covered seating and even recycling bins supervised by members of the ever-present orange T-shirted army of 'bénévoles'. Many stops also featured live entertainment or music blaring out from a sound system. One of these reminded me of a human fruit machine at a village fete, and I was dying to shout ‘jackpot’ as I was directed to the right bin for my apple core and banana skin."
The entertainment didn’t stop there: out on the road, it was fun spotting the groups, large and small, mostly dressed in club kits from all the regions of France plus many from other countries: in fact, over 19 different nationalities attended.
We particularly noticed the relatively high proportion of female to male riders - nearly 50:50 - and even quite young children, which was wonderful to see.
We stopped at a café one day, walked in and exchanged 'bonjours' with a tandem couple sitting inside - it turned out they were no more French than us, American in fact. Rol was riding quite slowly due to his bad leg and had to get used to riders, often of fairly advanced years, cruising past on their e-bikes.
The scenery and attractions
Compared to some parts of France, the countryside surrounding Cognac is fairly bland: lots and lots of vines to make the eponymous spirit, obviously, plus field upon field of sunflowers leering at us in a slightly sinister way from the roadside.
There were not many hills and little in the way of woods or forests.This didn’t matter as it is great cycling country nevertheless, with a vast network of very quiet country lanes, pretty villages, usually with a café open, and plenty of lovely chateaux and shops selling 'brocante' or bric-a-brac, as we know it.
The locals had even arranged special events just for the Sem Fed participants - for example, an exhibition of carved wooden objects, a mini fete and food festival, and a 'celebration' of local hunting traditions with a round-the-world bike on display. And, when the weather was actually too hot for cycling, we took advantage of the discounts on offer to visit the house of Remy-Martin to learn how Cognac is made - and, of course, taste some.
Our lower mileage meant we had time to stop at many of these and we even managed to squeeze a set of six painted glass tumblers into our panniers! Apart from all that, though, were the endless numbers of decorated bikes and cycle-themed sculptures lining the routes, often accompanied by bizarre life-size figures made from straw or cushions sewn together - a delightful cycling surprise around every corner. It was nice to feel welcomed, rather than a hindrance.
Cycling UK member Harry Fowler also went to this year's Sem Fed for the first time. He explains:
"I went with my wife, Sue, and three other couples who also ride with Two Mills CTC and Chester & North Wales Cycling UK Member Groups. There were eight of us in total and we rented a gite six miles outside Cognac in a tiny hamlet called Cherac; it was lovely, with four double bedrooms and each couple had its own bathroom.
The general consensus was it was a very well-run event. The routes were numbered P1 – P5, P1 being a 40km route, with progressive longer routes up to P5, which was always 160km. We generally rode the P1 or P2 routes, however I rode a P5 on the Tuesday and thoroughly enjoyed it.
We rode on open roads but there were so many cyclists at the event, that for once, cyclists were kings of the roads; however, I must add that French motorists are far more patient in general than UK motorists, and at major junctions in and around the large towns, there were police officers controlling traffic, which resulted in hundreds of cyclists flowing through whilst the motor vehicles were held for minutes at a time. It was joyous.
We ate at the Semaine Federale village on six of the eight evenings, as we had pre-booked, however Sue and I thought the food was very school dinnerish and if we went back, we wouldn’t take that option up again. I must say, in defence of the Sem Fed, they were serving thousands of people in a huge marquee in temperatures of 25C+, so the heat made it uncomfortable and the noise level was pretty loud.
However, I loved riding in the huge 'pelotons', which provided such a safe enjoyable environment; there was also the shared camaraderie amongst all the cyclists, making for a delightful and different adventure every day. Oh and the weather was great! Sunshine and 25C+ every day, too hot on some days, in fact. Also memorable was the rolling French countryside, with the huge bales of rolled hay ready to provide winter feed and open vistas of beautifully manicured vine fields, and picture postcard little villages with delightful boulangeries that we used most lunch times.
The lunch stops organised by SF were lovely but just had too many riders to service: I waited one day for over 30 mins to get an average sandwich and chips. It was easier, quicker, cheaper and tastier using a local boulangerie. However, we went to the final dinner on the Saturday evening. That was a real ball - I’ve never seen so many drunk cyclists doing a line dance; there were hundreds of them and it was a great finish to the week so we would go to that again."
A la prochaine!
The 82nd Semaine Fédérale takes place closer to home next year in the Normandy town of Valognes, just a short hop across the Channel from southern England - 'The Froggies Welcome You' as it says on the Sem Fed 2020 website - so why not keep the 'entente cordiale' alive by joining in? Booking is open now and you can even become a volunteer yourself, in return for which you will receive a coveted T-shirt plus other many other benefits, depending on how long you donate your services for. You don't need to speak French either - there were volunteers with many different languages at this year's week - but you will need to translate the application form.
If you want to experience the joys of cycling in Cognac yourself, CTC Cycling Holidays has a Cognac for Families holiday next June.
Of course, there's also lots of opportunities in the UK to enjoy cycling with others - look out for details soon of next year's CTC Cycling Holidays Birthday Rides, the New Forest Cycling Week and many more rallies, rides and festivals in our UK Cycling Events Guide.