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Another Kind of School

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French schools are known for their long hours and general intensity. But Wednesdays have long held a special place in French society, because generations of school children have enjoyed that afternoon off from an otherwise long week. For many, it is a time to focus on an extracurricular activity. Some take dance classes, others music, some work on their soccer or tennis skills—and some work on their cycling.

Words/images: James Startt

Here in the land of the Tour de France, children don’t just ride their bikes, they learn riding skills in one of the hundreds of cycling schools around the country. France boasts more than 2,500 cycling clubs that are registered with the Fédération Française du Cyclisme (and others with a multisport organization called UFOLEP); and, of those clubs, 700 host cycling schools with a designated staff focused on teaching the many nuances found within the sport. Starting as early as four year old, children learn to ride their bikes through obstacle courses and practice a variety of maneuvers destined to improve their bike-handling skills.

As children mature, training methods and dietary tips, along with racing tactics and skills, are added as the kids make their way through the ranks. Some go as far as the professional level, but for thousands of cyclists, regardless of their performance level, it all starts at school.

One of the most established schools is found in the CSM Puteaux club, on the outskirts of Paris. “Puteaux started in 1958 and we opened the cycling school the same year. It’s just always been an integral part of the club,” says Raymond Plaza, the club president. “Over the years we’ve had 22 or so riders turn pro, and for years we had one of the top category 1 amateur teams. But today we are more focused on younger riders. It’s just so satisfying!”

Plaza, a pro from 1954 to 1962 with teams as legendary as St. Raphaël-Gitane and Peugeot-BP, took over the reins of the club in 1988 and remains the club’s emblematic chief. And every Wednesday, for the better part of the past 30 years, Plaza has been at the clubhouse or one of the local parks where the kids practice and train.

Although it has been half a century since Plaza raced under the shadows of team leaders such as Jean Stablinski, André Darrigade and Jacques Anquetil, there are certain truths about the sport that he tries to pass onto each coming generation. He says, “I try to teach the young kids le métier,” what the French call the craft of the sport. “I just like to help each kid go as far as he or she can go. Cycling is a good school for life, you know. And, generally, kids that succeed in cycling succeed in life. A kid that has drive on the bike will have drive in life. He’ll go far!”

René Perrono, the club vice-president, oversees the day-to-day operations of the cycling school. Perrono, who has held a license with the club since its inception, has served as anything from coach to mechanic, but today focuses on the kids. “I took over the cycling school in 2000, because numbers were down, and I built the school back up. Today we have about 100 members in the club, and 27 of those are kids in the cycling school.”

Children can enter at the age of four and continue until 14, when they can enter the competitive ranks. “But we’re not a day-care center!” insists Perrono. “With the kids, I feel like I really am part of their life. I feel like the cycling school gives them something concrete, something of substance. That’s our goal.”

Two acrobats practice their moves as they prepare for an upcoming competition.
One of Puteaux’s most prestigious graduates is current professional Keven Reza, who rides for the Française des Jeux team. Reza visits regularily to encourage the kids and keep an eye on his nephew Alex.
Maneuvering through this miniature obstacle course hones bike-handling skills at a young age.
Passing the bike under a suspended bar forces the kids to ride semi-dismounted, while leaning the bike low enough to make the height.
Valentine Rieb, head of the acrobatics program, works with one of the youngest kids on balance.
Down time has its place too.
Hugo Dinelli prepares for his bike acrobatics workout. The 12-year-old is greater Paris champion in his age category.

From issue 55. Buy it here.