It had been nearly 3 years since I’d moved to France, and recently – while working as a cycle courier – I’d decided to turn cycling (which before was just a hobby) into a career.
I’d been considering starting a business for a while and had had multiple fairly bizarre cycle related ideas. Like the wine cycle boxes and my gypsy caravan tour company that was all set to go into prototype phase when I completely ran out of money and realised the Vélodyssée cycle paths along the French atlantic coast were too narrow in a lot of places for it to fit!
The final decision to <laisse-tomber> the caravans had been made after making some good friends who were also entrepreneurially driven and deciding with them on a slightly less wild idea, one that has been proven to work elsewhere [more on this soon].
In the preceeding months we’d done a lot of planning and were just about set to launch when we were told that in France a CQP cycle technicien certificate is required when running a bicycle related business in France.
So after going through all the necessary administration (including a 3 month business plan validation course) I’d finally persuaded the French job centre to pay for my training. It would have been too expensive otherwise because the two month course cost €2,300 at the school I’d chosen partly because it was everso slightly less expensive than the others.
Another reason I’d chosen the CNPC at Pau was because my old flatmate lived there and it had the closest start date. There was only one course in Bordeaux in 2016 and there was next to no information about it online. I’d e-mailed but they hadn’t got back to me. When I phoned they said it would most likely start in September (it was March) but that they couldn’t confirm a definate date.
I’d been impressed in comparrison by the CNPC’s website and very impressed by the speed of their replies to my e-mails. The school itself was pretty flashy too.
On my first day I was feeling both nervous and a little proud. In the the foyer I saw posters for new sports I’d never heard of.
I guessed they’d been invented by CNPC allumni.
I began imagining the sort if sports I might be inventing after 2 months intense study here: bicycle bungee jumping, cycle cricket, BMX boxing, bike badminton!? My future seemed bright… briefly.
The CQP cycle technicien course
THUD! Le book landed on the table in front of me. The size of the thing!
I flicked through. Some of it looked super complicated but the sheer amount of information is what frightened me the most. The exams were in two months. Not even. We had 7 weeks to get through (and digest) all 720 pages.
Although appearing to be ex convicts, when introducing themselves none of my new classmates mentioned prison. But it was still early days.
It turned out that a lot of them had been working ski seasons and were here during the touristic slow period in order to get the skills to contnue working seasonal jobs over the upcoming summer season. A couple of the others were there because they were passionate about vélos and were hoping to start working within the industry. And one – the only other person from Bordeaux – was also doing it in order to run his own bicycle business. We both looked at each other with furrowed brows 10 minutes later when the teacher began introducing the course and told us that since january 2016 the legislation had changed and a CQP certificate was no longer obligatory for operating a cycle shop (although it was still strongely advised). Seems niether of us had gotten that memo.
After the introductions we got started right away. Our teacher was a bald headed (by choice) man wearing an outfit composed entirely of mountain / sportswear with lots of neon trim. He bombarded us with information but nothing too complicated. We went over the different types of practices in the biking world from le All-mountain, le Contre la montre and le Dirt to Le vélo artistique and Le bike-polo. Even at this early stage a schism had begun to appear between those in favour of mountain bikes (what the teacher called ‘real bikes’) and , well, Jauffrey (the other entrepreneur from Bordeaux) who was a semi-proffesional road cyclist.
It wasn’t yet a divide and the jokes seemed lighthearted but it did worry me that the teacher was the one instigating this macho rivally, I was even more worried when he explained ‘fixies’ as old bikes that had been customised. For me ‘fixie’ meant fixed gear and more often that not refered to a single speed bike with no freewheel. Looking back now having finished the course these were early signs of what would go on to dissapoint me about the course: the fact that it was very VTT (mountain bike) focused. It is understandable though I suppose seeing Pau’s proximity to the Pyrennes and the fact that mountain bikes sell more that any other kind of bike in France, but in my opinion it would be good if the course was run with the option to specialise in either road or mountain bikes.
One thing that was clear from the begining was that this course would at least be good for improving my French, if nothing else. It was the first time I’d attended a French school and with it being a specialist subject I was soon learning lots of technical terms, vocabulary and phraseology.
“Aller chercher du pain” was a term used a lot to describe a bicycle with no sporting merit, only good for going to get the bread.
We learned about the properties of various metals and carbon fiber, how different shapes and types of tubing change the behaviour of frames, the evolution of suspension, chain sizes, treatments, lubricants, industry standards, ratios, E.T.R.T.O, hydraulics, inertia, SAG, Vélo à Assistance Eletrique and how batteries work and have memory. How different technologies affect yield, etc, etc..
It was all very interesting and after just a couple of weeks, looking at the scribblings in my notebook you’d think I’d been possessed by a lycra clad Leonardo Da Vinci.
What was dawning on me though was that there was not a lot of practical to go with the theory. When and if we did get into the workshop we had to share workstands and bicycles between two, making it difficult to really get stuck in and absorb the mechanics and the gestures.
Once we had “learnt” something practical – that is to say done it once ourselves – I was always keen to try it out again on my bike in whatever free time we mght have. I had with me a 1980s Peugeot that I’d bought for €60, which I used to cycle the 12.3 km to school each day. After the first few weeks I’d regreased the headset, and the bottom-bracket, changed the cables, removed the front derailleur, and changed the handlerbars and chopped the new ones down to size.
So once I’d added new handlebar tape and tyres I was riding the wierd beast like a madman, not just to school but even off road through Bastard Forest and on the trails around the village of Montardon where I was living.
Montardon is a rural little village. I was happy to be there as it made a change from city life and I was staying with a good friend. One of my classmates, who was also staying there, was not however overly thrilled about it. His name was Bruno. He spoke to me in English because he had lived for a number of years in Magaluf or Shagaloof as he called it, laughing. Bruno wasn’t the oldest in the class but he was older than me. He smoked morning, noon and night and drank noon and night. I think you’d call a bon vivant. If it was raining he’d give me a lift to school and in return i’d give him films on a USB drive because there was no internet where he was lodging. He’d soon up-and-left the first place he was staying because of his elderly landlady.
“Focking hell mate she wont leave me alone. She comes into my room and doesn’t stop talking, « blah, blah, blah » all the time. Focking hell. I think she wants to shag me! Seriously. I just want to tell her to piss off and leave me alone. I can’t take it. All day in class the teach is talking about focking bikes « blah, blah, blah » then I get home and I hear « Bruuuoooooonnnooooh, Bruuoooooooonnnnoooooh»”
A group of us from the class would eat most days at Crescendo, the self-service cafét in the supermarket. Bruno would get a half pitcher of rosé wine every lunchtime and more often than not charm the various woman that ate at this illustrious eatery.
He would stop dead in his tracks and say something in English like “Wow! Your tattoo is amazing. Beautiful. So sexy!”
Safe to say he was not a fan of Le blablabla. So he was in need of something stronger than rosé after the first day on the subject of clothing. We both were.
Eric Corno, sat silently, zen, drinking tea from a thermos, waiting for us to be ready for him. After the last few students had settled down he briefly introduced himself – mountaineer, canoe guide, teacher, organiser of New Year’s Eves in igloos – then he got started… at the very beginning… of human evolution.
…How our ability to stand on two legs gave us the capacity to grow a bigger brain (at the expense of increased mortaily during childbirth) but how it was our ability to sweat that really gave us the edge over all other species. We weren’t as fast as other animals but if we just kept chasing, eventually they would over heat and keel over or just give up.
Mr. Corno was clearly passionate about his subject. You could tell visually. One of the first things you’d notice about him was that he wore sandals regardless of the weather. Before long he was denouncing closed footwear and calling cotton socks mankind’s most idiotic invention. Conversely, he loved merino wool with a fervour.
Bruno held his tongue during class but afterwards he’d been set off swearing and laughing about the fact that Corno had boasted of not using shampoo and called anti-persperants “suicide”. I’d say he was actually so stunned that he was almsot impressed by the man’s ability to talk non-stop, unrelentlesy, for an entire day. He called him a machine.
It certainly had been an impressive lecture (and I’ve since always checked the labels before buying clothes). The machine had only broken his flow once when a wasp had flown into the room and agitated the students on the back row. He sauntered over to the window opened it and fanned air at the insect until it was gone. Then he recounted a story of when he’d been on a safari and the jeep and been attacked by hornets. Everyone else had panicked swatting and squirming but he had remained completely still and when the madness had stopped was the only person that hadn’t been stung.
What all this had to do with bicycle mechanics though was beyond me.
Going way off the subject
After that lesson things began realy taking a turn for the worse. We had a lesson on running a business.. The teacher was far less charismatic than Corno and far more depressing.
“Don’t think you will make any money if you open a bike shop” he said within the first 10 minutes. Not exactly the motivation I’d been looking for. Neither was it the kind of unimaginative negativity I agreed with. Maybe you wouldn’t make any money if you opened a bike shop just like all the others, but I believe if you do things differently and better then there is always a way to make things work.
I went straight home after lunch that day.
A week later we had part two of gestion d’entreprise lined up. It had gotten very hot and sunny by this point and back at the house in Montardon we had just installed a small swimming pool. So I decided to skip school. There is no way you can teach people to run a business in two days, so why try? I called in sick, put Janis Joplin’s greatest hits on the stereo and jumped in the pool feeling like Ferris Bueller.
We also had two days of sales techniques. These I participated in because the teacher was charming, and the upcoming exams would include a ‘sketch’ where we would act out selling a bike with the examiner playing the client.
I understand that the course is design to cover all aspects of working in the bike industry but what worried me was that we hadn’t even covered the basics yet. We hadn’t done tyres or mechanic brakes yet! In my opinion, on a two month course, it would be better to concentrate on what is unique to the cycle industry: the fundamentals of repairing a bike. If people need to learn about business, finance, marketing etc they should take that as an additional course.
Then Corno returned and things got ridiculous. On the curriculum we were meant to be studying cycle footwear and pedals. Corno’s philosophy however was that footwear is not entirely even necessary: The human foot is designed to naturally absorb shocks, so trainers – nike airs etc – just teach us bad habits. Corno wanted to keep us on our toes, litterally. So after his long polemic on barefoot running and minimalist footwear he took us out to experience it first err hand. We all removed our shoes and socks and went for a group jog around the industrial estate. When we got back my workstand partner Victor’s feet were bleeding.
Cycling accessories and bedbugs
Accessories represent around a third of the bicycle market in France. They range from bags and baskets to lights, locks, mudgaurds, power meters, bells maybe even whistles. We had been assigned just one day to learn about them all. It was fairly ludicrous.
I was frustrated. The weather was now very hot, and the the night before I’d been attacked by what I presumed were bed-bugs. At lunchtime Bruno drunk more rosé than usual and we concieved a plan. I couldn’t stop itching and the bites had now swollen up so Bruno, being the good samaritan, was going to volunteer to take me to the doctors / home, even if it meant missing the second half of the school day. The ladies in the office of course had other ideas despite Bruno’s intoxicated pleas. One of the women bundled me into her car and drove me to a pharmacy where I was forced to buy pills and cream, then I was taken back to class. Ferris Beuller would have been ashamed.
Exams and learning methods
Then all of a sudden there were 2 weeks left before the exams. We quickly covered brakes, tyres, front derailleurs and how to put on handlebar tape. Then the last week was given over to revision.
The exams took place over two days. The first day was a 100 question theory exam. If you didn’t pass you didn’t even get a chance to try the practical exams the next day.
I made flash cards and repeated the most important facts, figures and ratios to myself. I wasn’t pleased that the learning I’d expected to be hands-on had come down to an exercise in memorisation.
To make matters worse some of the questions were worded trickily to try and catch you out and some of the ‘correct’ responses were questionable. I am sure there are some perfectly capable and experienced bicyce mechanics that wouldn’t be able to answer some of these types of questions correctly. Here are some examples:
- Citez les 3 composants d’un pneumatique :
- Le matériau de renfort anti- déchirure d’une selle est en ………………………………….
- À tension égale, une roue à croisement par 3 procure davantage de confort qu’un rayonnage radial : Vrai [ ] Faux [ ]
- Citez 4 avantages d’une pédale automatique
Thankfully I passed. But three of the guys from the class did not.
The practical test I thought was much better and we had been given the week before to practice autonomously. Still it was hard. There were 5 different tests plus a bonus round:
The diagnostic, where we had to identify and fix 3 faults on a bike in 20 minutes. This was one of the tests everyone had to do yet we’d only been told about a few days before the exam and spent only about hour learning about it!
The sketch de vente, where a sales situation was simulated, the examiner playing the customer and us the salesperson .
The bonus language round, where if you spoke any English or Spanish you got to do a second sketch de vente in that language to try to get additional points. That, I must say, was easy for me.
The purge de frein, where we had 15 minutes to bleed the brake fluid of a disk brake and replace it.
The devoilage, where we had 15 minutes to remove a tyre and inner tube, true a wheel, massage it, test the hub is centred, then replace the tyre and inner tube and inflate.
Then there was a 30 minute test where we pulled a larger fixing job from a hat. I got the removal of the crank and bottom braket. This included cleaning and re-tapping the thread, regreasing and replacing the bottom braket and crank.
Only about half the class passed and those who did seemed to be those who were fans of mountain biking the sport favoured by our teacher / examiner. Tempers flared at the result giving, which was done in public in front of the whole class. Those who didn’t get cerficates got given chocolate biscuits and orange juice. I made the grade (just!), thanks in part to my excellent command of the english language.
Before even getting my results however I’d applied to a job in the regional workshop of Décathlon. At the interview I basically said I’d be doing the CQP course and once they’d heard that they gave me a full-time cycle mechanic job. I’ve heard that in England the well know bicycle chainstores run a basic mechanics training course internally so it seems the CQP is a kind of equivalent but run externally. Working this job at Décathlon fixing around 8 bikes a day is when my schooling really began. Learning by doing.
Improving my French and learning technical terms
Getting a basic understanding of materials and mechanics
Getting me a job
Too much irrelevant theory + too exam focused
Small amount of hands-on practical
Not much one-on-one time with teacher
I think the course could be easily improved in two ways:
By adding specialisms and allowing students to concentrate on their areas of interest e.g. road / off-road.
By removing ‘fluffer’ lessons and replacing them with ‘trial and error’ time in the workshop.
Peace out, and REMEMBER stay in school and don’t do drugs.