Classics Challenge: Long rides from Paris, with a French accent

A different kind of cycling. That’s the promise made by the organizers of the Classics Challenge – a friendly, long-distance ride that’s held every month and starts from Paris. Not highly competitive, though more than just a day out in the country, the Classics is a lot more than just a hybrid of the two. What makes it special, is the human factor.

Words: Mathias Riquier. Pictures: Daniel de Lima

7:52am: Porridge is gradually forming at the bottom of my saucepan, as I struggle to keep my eyelids from closing and try to remember why I got up. Then I remember. It was to make sure I mixed some cashew nuts with a bowl of porridge – and then ride 110 kilometers through fog as thick as a glass of pastis. Apparently, because that’s what I like doing…8.30am: After crossing a nearly-deserted Paris, I reach the rendez-vous point at the La Cipale restaurant on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes. The spot is right next to the Jacques-Anquetil municipal velodrome, where the Tour de France used to finish in the early 1970s. I’ve got to be honest, if it weren’t for my buddies being part of this, I would certainly be back in bed. But now, I can see dozens of other human beings – chatting, nodding, rubbing their arms in the cold air, and struggling to at least raise a smile, albeit sincere. At the final count, there will be nearly 300 of us heading southeast, destination Provins.

This moment of happiness every month has been going on for nearly a year now, ever since I discovered the Classics Challenge. Personally, I’ve always loved riding solo. But this morning, that’s not what I’ve come out for – and I don’t mind at all. Riding as part of a Classics Challenge has developed a sense of togetherness that I hadn’t really experienced much before, and certainly not one that involves SPD cleats…François, our organizer, shakes a few hands and invites people to form into groups – without being bossy about it. When his group starts to move, he openly admits that has forgotten to load the route into his GPS. But then, that’s another reason why you get up in the morning for a “Classics.” We’re not here for a really punishing ride, or to take ourselves too seriously. And for me, that’s a crucial thing about this event: it’s the sense of togetherness, of being part of a group of communities – each with their different relationship with the same sport. I could go on about this for quite a while…

I start off with the “25-27s” (average speed in kilometers per hour) and, of course, nothing goes according to plan: the tarmac was perfect, we were rolling at a decent speed, but after three kilometers, the only sharp piece of gravel on the entire boulevard ends up in my tire. The group disappears into the distance and I’m left to try and make a lightning repair with my frozen fingers. Just as I finish, I’m overtaken by the “23-25s”, but I manage to tag on to the end of the group. Well, it’s not what I’d planned – but I’m just going to have to ride at a slower pace than usual, and with a bunch of people I’ve never met before. I wasn’t to know it at the time, but that’s when things started to get interesting.I moved to the front, and then out on my own, but there was no hope of catching up with my friends. So as a ride, I’m just making it up as I go along and I’ve no idea what’s coming next. But with a map marked Classics Challenge, you can be fairly sure of winding up on the best roads for cycling in the Paris region. My first CC was to Rouen, in May, and I was riding solo (thanks to Strava). There was a grey sky, plenty of wind, and a few doubts about whether I’d make it to the finish. And, apparently, we were told that all the bakers’ shops along the way would be closed…

It’s probably the most enduring memory in my pantheon of Classics so far, or in fact of any of my rides. Are the routes just a tease from someone’s GPS? Perhaps, but it’s always a tease for a good reason. With CCs, the routes are stress-free, no danger, and never use major roads full of ugly lorries. Of course, there are a few steeper parts, but they’re always on isolated roads that seemly barely able to take any cars, and therefore are just fantastic to ride. I guess we’ll never know whether some of those sections were used by the cycling pioneers of the age of the “real” Paris-Rouen race, but I guess it’s not important.Anyway, I made it to the ancient capital of Normandy, almost on my knees. But I was proud of the physical achievement and, above all, I was amazed by the journey I’d just made. Because that’s what the Classics Challenge is all about in the end, even though it’s a pocket-sized ride.

Provins. With my finger raised, I make a prediction to the rest of my group – that there will be a steep climb in the last three kilometers (the people who map the routes are known for their sense of humor). And bingo, there it is. No hard feelings though.There is no way of knowing it at the start of the climb, but the ramparts of Provins’ old town start to appear after a few twists and turns in the road. 200 meters further on, the Fleur de Sel crêperie is overflowing with hungry cyclists, tucking into buckwheat crêpes.I decide to get a later train home, so that I can spend more time there, talking over the day’s ride and the meaning of it all with the other guys. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen when I sat down in front of my bowl of porridge at 7.52 in the morning. But I’m pretty certain that I’ll set my alarm for the same time next month.

Mathias, rider and writer.

The Classics Challenge by Mathias is here in French language.