Two weeks ago we went over to Fréjus on the coast for what is called Roc d’Azur. All we knew was that it was just some sort of mountain biking event and the day being warm and sunny and Fréjus not being far away we thought we would drop in. It turned out that our ignorance was in fact comparable to thinking that Glastonbury was just a music concert or Wimbledon just a tennis match.
The reality is that Roc d’Azur is the biggest mountain biking event in the world. (The French for mountain bike by the way is velo de toute terrain or VTT and mountain bikers are conveniently abbreviated to VTTistes). Indeed Roc d’Azur is astonishingly big. It’s a five-day event that it is claimed attracts 150,000 attendees and has around 20,000 competitors. (No we’re not making an order of magnitude mistake and from what we saw we really wouldn’t argue with the figures.) And it was really mostly mountain bikes, there was very little sign of the anaemic road racing/Tour de France type of bike; although there was an almost infinite variety of bikes, almost all had suspension and knobbly tyres and were peddled by serious-looking men (mostly, and some women) sporting hefty muscles, gaudy Lycra and sunglasses. Sunglasses are definitely needed: it wasn’t just that it was another cloud-free day but that there were so many bikes hurtling along the routes sometimes you couldn’t see the riders for dust.
Roc d’Azur is based on an old airfield with car parks so big you can get lost in them, and from it run well marked racetracks that wind up some of the spectacularly steep local mountains, swing down across beaches and even sway across pontoon bridges carefully created by the local authority. Every so often thousands of bikers gathered at the starting line and then with a great flurry of dust hurtled off over the horizon. Then half an hour later another batch of a few thousand would assemble before they in turn set off.
In addition to the adult races there were also ones for children, starting from 4 years (they only had to go 2 km), a family one and one in fancy dress. We missed the evening race round the narrow streets of a nearby village.
There were also seemingly endless stalls promoting bikes, bits of bikes, cogs, gears and cables for bikes, T-shirts for wearing on bikes and almost everything else you can imagine to do with mountain bikes.
It is also of course a great venue for displaying new technology where you could stare at and stroke the latest mountain bike designs. There are some fascinating developments: bikes made out of carbon fibre, titanium and even more truly exotic materials that allow weight to be reduced in some cases by under ten kilos or twenty pounds. And particularly interesting was the presence of a large number of electric bikes with lithium-ion batteries that allow you to go not just faster but further. There were also some very geeky things; it was quite common to find people staring with extraordinary fascination at cogs and chains and muttering about gear ratios. There were also some eye-watering prices: some hi-tech bikes now head up to the €9,000 price which we are afraid is now very easy to convert to £9,000.
For the visitor one of the nice things about the world of mountain biking and cycling generally (as opposed to birdwatching where it’s all camouflage) is that everything tends to be incredibly multi-coloured. At the very heart of mountain biking is not simply the idea of bouncing down some impossibly steep slope at an enormous speed but to dazzle the world as you do so.
It was an extremely good-humoured event and we were struck by the fact that is absolutely free to visitors. Indeed we even got given a free coffee. The money comes not just from selling marketing space but from the race entry fees. With 20,000 competitors they make a fair amount on that.
One other observation. The merciless and joyless commercial competitiveness (yes Sky, we are thinking of you) that seems to have effectively destroyed the Tour de France has not yet made it into the mountain biking world: people seem to be enjoying themselves and having fun. Long may it last.