Sunday, 17 May 2020

52 Cycling Voices (in the time of coronavirus) - 29: Claire Floret

(Photo: Mickael Gagne)

Since 2015 during the month of July, Claire has done her annual pilgrimage around France in honour of women's cycle racing. With the women's cycling group, Donnons des Elles au Vélo she has ridden the entire route of the Tour de France one day ahead of the men's professional race to highlight the fact that there is no women's Tour de France stage race.

Like many women, the group is campaigning for a women's Tour de France to take place at the same time as the men's professional event, much like it did in the 1980s. The initiative started out as a couple of women from France in 2015, but has since grown to a larger group, including women from across the world, with support and sponsorship from big brands involved cycling.

This popular ride along the Tour de France route ahead of the professionals, known as Donnons des Elles au Vélo J-1 [J-1 meaning one day before] selects around a dozen women from a pool of over 100 applicants. Last year, Claire noted the large number of applicants from Anglophone countries who didn't speak French. She then suggested a need for a group where they could be part of the project and still bond, thus was born the InternationElles, women from various Anglophone countries, who rode the group in parallel with the Francophone group.

(Photo: Marie Istil)
I first met Claire last year in Paris, at the end of her three-week challenge around France with the team. I travelled to the Town Hall of the 8th arrondissement (near Champs Elysées) where Donnons des Elles au Vélo and the Internationelles were given a civic reception by the Mayor of the 8th arrondissement, and we all toasted their amazing achievement.

It was a good spread, and before I indulged in the canapés and Chardonnay I introduced myself to Claire and got chatting to her. Over the months I have followed what she and the group have been up to, including through these challenging times.

Claire Floret, aged 34

From: Bayonne, SW France

Lives: Courcouronnes, near Paris

PE Teacher, and Founder/Co-ordinator of Donnons des Elles au Vélo J-1

I don’t actually come from a cycling background, as I was originally a competitive rock-climber.

Previously, I lived in the Basque Country, in south-west France, and was working as PE teacher. Then I was transferred to the Parisian region where it wasn't easy to do mountaineering!

At that time I met my partner, Matthew who is a cyclist, and he introduced me to road cycling. Initially, I took part in cyclosportives, then I moved on to take part in French Cycling Federation road races.


Nowadays road racing is much better than the early days of getting dropped (M. Gagne)
I was just 24 at the time, and would get dropped within the first 3km. It was such a massive jump in level for me. 

More than ten years on, I am still doing road races and doing okay, though sometimes I wonder to myself these days what made me stick with road racing back then when it was so tough


Donnons des Elles au Vélo is part of my cycling club, Courcouronnes Omnisports Cyclisme Feminin – based in the Parisian region. We created this club five years ago because we weren’t able to fit in well in a club that was predominantly male. 

Although we were made to feel welcome there were so few women that it was difficult to develop a training and racing programme specifically for women. So in order to deal with the things that were specific to our needs we decided to create a women’s cycling club, with it's own committee to make decisions. So the club is exclusively for women, run by women. 

As I got into cycling and saw that there was no women’s stage race at the Tour de France I thought, "I can’t believe it - we really have to do something about it."
I have always done what I can to achieve equality between boys and girls and between men and women. Since I was a child, I have never liked the thought of being prohibited from doing something because I was a girl. So I have always fought for equality. So I decided we have to do something about it. From our women's club we launched Donnons des Elles au Vélo J-1.


Sometimes the days can very be long!! (photo: Mickael Gagne)
The first year we did this J-1 ride, in 2015, everyone thought it was a crazy idea and people didn't believe we could succeed. 

We were an intimate group of just me, my sister-in-law Marie, and Matthew to set off from Utrecht, Netherlands. Then on Stage 3 in Belgium, a cycletourist, Marion, who was also doing the ride, joined us for the rest of the challenge. Along the way a few people would join us to do a stage or two, but most of the time there were just four of us. 

We rode as a chain gang, but with just four of us that made for each person doing some long turns on the front and the days were very long!!

Although we had a support vehicle in case of mechanical problems we still had to sort out our meals, laundry, and self-massaging after every stage. Then the rest days were spent going shopping for food and replenishing provisions.

Our arrival on the Champs Elysées, in Paris was a bit strange. There we were in the middle of all the cars, trying to navigate our way through the traffic. No one knew who we were or what we'd done. We used up most our energy trying to pass the cars safely, and in the end we didn't think so much about celebrating this great thing that we hadn't been sure would succeed.

We had aimed to do this ride in 2015 as a one-off, but then we received interest and engagement from others, and people were interested in our story. 

Then we had a boost when organisations came forward to provide funds for us to do another ride. The French Cycling Federation, the Minister for Women's Rights, and Cycling Fans who sponsor our club, plus other companies all sponsored our ride. This was really good to receive this recognition of the message we were sending.


Logistical support is very important in completing the challenge (photo: Mickael Gagne)
So as a result, we ended up doing a second, a third, a fourth, and a fifth edition of the event with more and more people wanting to join us. 
The second year that we did the ride there were eight of us and I felt more emotional on that occasion than on the first time, as it was great to share the moment as a group, and see the others cry for joy.


In the last three years we have had a great support team of eight or nine people - physiotherapists, osteopaths, mechanics, a photographer, and a safety and support motorbiker, along with others who deal with our logistics. 

Within the riders and the support team we motivate each other during those difficult moments, as we are all working towards the common goal of reaching Paris. The project is as big as it is ambitious, and even though we have managed to get around the route previously, we can't be complacent and assume that we will get there the following year.

In fact, in 2017, the third year of the tour I got food poisoning and came very close to not completing a couple of the stages as I could barely eat or drink anything. But somehow I managed to put myself into autopilot and carry on!


Conquering the col d'Izoard (Photo: Mickael Gagne)
Normally we break the stage up by having a few cafe stops - a 10-minute break in the morning and then in the afternoon, and a 30-minute stop at lunchtime. 

The mountain stages are the hardest, but they are less monotonous as we have different cols to climb. 

The long flat stages are the hardest psychologically, as your mind is less focused, and you notice the aches and pains that bit more, especially in the undercarriage department!

I do have some great memories though. For example last year, I really loved the climb up the col d'Izoard because the previous time I did it was in 2017 and struggled so much. This time I enjoyed every metre of the climb and really took in the scenery. It was lovely to go over the summit with Matthew, and do a victory salute. 

It was a beautiful stage from Embrun to Valloire where the Mayor and hundreds of people welcomed us with a guard of honour like we were professionals from the Tour de France. Then a few days later ASO announced that they were working to organise a women's Tour de France.


Civic reception in Paris (photo: Maria David)
We start the process of recruiting team members for the following year's tour around November. 

We decide how many places there will be on the challenge, depending on the available vehicles and logistics. 

For the last three years we've had around 100 applicants for around 13-15 places. 

We receive the CVs and make an initial selection of around 50 women whom we interview to see how engaged they are in the campaign for the developing women's cycling. 

We also want to see how athletic they are, and how sociable they are, given that we will be spending a lot of time together. Being able to speak French is therefore quite important. Based on that we make a final selection for who will be on the team. 

These riders are part of the official sponsored team that rides the full Tour de France route, but during our ride, people are welcome to sign up to ride with us for part of a stage or for one or two stages along the way as guests. Those people sort out their own logistics and support for the time they are with us.

The riders on the team don't have to be road racers, but they need to be fit enough to ride 3,500km in three weeks at a comparable pace with the rest of the group (25km/h on flat terrain).
The training to prepare for this varies depending on the person in terms of their experience as a cyclist and if this is their first time doing this challenge.

For me, it'll be the sixth time I'm doing it so I guess I have a bit more muscle memory. I can't say it gets any easier though as each year my body is that bit older! I don't tend to do specific training for the J-1, as my training is for my overall racing season which includes various road races in the national and regional series.


(Photo: Mickael Gagne)
My training consists of five sessions per week, and I do around 1,000km per month. I also do two sessions of crossfit per week and training camps at Christmas, February, and April. In addition I simulate the cols, given that I don't have access to mountains in the Parisian region!

This year, because of coronavirus, our ride will be M-1, and not the usual J-1. That means we will be doing the ride one month before the Tour de France, from 29 July to 20 August. We would not have been able to ride the Tour de France route during September as most of the team have professional and family commitments which would make it difficult to take time off in September. 

Of course we will still be promoting our message on equality, and promoting women's cycling. We also hope people can join us along the way for one or two stages (depending on government coronavirus policy at the time). I understand the InternationElles are planning their ride for September.

Like with everything else we are going to have to be flexible in our organisation, given the changing circumstances and announcements the government makes. With this in mind, we will adjust our logistics in line with the government rules and the local rules in the different regions at the time. This could be in terms of accommodation or the number of guests that can ride with us on the different stages.


Team-mates can provide a great support network (Photo: Mickael Gagne)
We are also keen to support good causes during this time, and so profits from the sale of our Donnons des Elles au Vélo jerseys will be donated to a medical research organisation. So we will dedicate our ride to the current medical crisis, as well as to equality in sport.

For me, this has been a difficult period. When the lockdown was first announced it really knocked my schedule off balance and my goals were uncertain. I didn't know what I would be training for, or if my events would be taking place at all. It was difficult to stay motivated. 

I was lucky enough to live in a house with garden, though the hardest days were on those when it rained and the effect of being under lockdown felt even more acute. Initially I had a routine where I would do core stability work first thing in the morning. Then after a one-hour walk to the bakers I would do cross fit, pedalling on the turbotrainer, kettle bell, step-ups and virtual yoga classes.

I was still quite busy as I was giving virtual classes to my students. I also saw it as a time to try new things like making puff pastry, picking dandelions to make a salad, doing gardening, and playing board games.

Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with COVID-19. Initially felt tired, with aches and pains all over my body for about two days. After recovering from those symptoms I lost my sense of taste and smell. Two months on I still haven't regained those senses. Furthermore, I also experienced neuro-psychological symptoms - something that is hardly ever spoken about as one of the effects of COVID-19. I suffered from depression, like I had never had before, and suddenly lost all sense of direction and life no longer had any meaning. 


Claire with Trek-Segafredo's Audrey Cordon-Ragot (Photo: Mickael Gagne)
It was helpful to be in the Donnons des Elles au Velo chat group and we could support each other - especially as a couple of the women are nurses working in the front-line and things were stressful for them.

Things are getting better for me now, and having something like the M-1 to plan has been the best form of therapy!!

There are a few people who inspire me in my cycling. I admire Audrey Cordon-Ragot (Trek-Segafredo) who is straight-talking, and not afraid to step forward and stand up for the interests of professional cyclists. I also really like Roxane Fournier (Chevalmeire Cycling Team), who I had the pleasure to race against in the Parisian region before she turned professional. Like me, she is a sprinter who I really like to emulate. 

I also love Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), who is a super ambassador for women's cycling. I love her fresh, spontaneous, sincere way of speaking. When you listen to Cecilie you really feel like getting on a bike and racing. And let's not forget to mention the men.....I like Mark Cavendish because he small and a sprinter, like me, and he is a bit of a rebel!


Shared cause and celebration: Donnons des Elles au Velo and an InternationElle (M.Gagne)
Being part of Donnons des Elles au Vélo means a lot to me. 

I really like the human aspect of it, and how it brings so many different people together - amateurs and professionals, cyclists and triathletes, or skiers - French with foreigners, young riders with experienced racers, men and women....no one cares where you are from, or where you're going, but we are all together for one common cause - to advance cycling for women.


Other Cycling Voices
Maria Canins

Janet Birkmyre

Monica and Paola Santini

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig

Jenni Gwiazdowski

Sarah Strong

Rochelle Gilmore

Rebecca Charlton

Giorgia Bronzini

Emily Chappell

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