Amazing photos on this link, especially page 7
DAY 1: Guillaume
So up at 5am on Saturday to travel with Seb to Guillaume, about an hour and half from home, up by the bigger, wilder, secluded mountains. Throw on the gear, change a tyre from tubed to tubeless, snapped a bolt over-tightening it, stripped the drivetrain, swapped the bolt, bike as good as new all in about 20 minutes.
|Bikes, enough race gear for 2 days and a tent per person. ready to go!|
Time for some pain. Pedaled up the first transfer stage with Seb and Anto, 7km of uphill in about an hour. Nicely warmed up, i.e. already wrecked, we got ready for the first stage down some steep track in the forest. 3 riders left at once, with myself and Anto being in the same group. From the get go I realised Anto was on form, as he got away first in our group and I couldnt catch up either on the pedally flat bits or the steeper technical sections. My excuse this week was my brakes, which worked, but only just. I wasn't able to get up to fast speeds as it was simply impossible for me to slow down afterwards. Finished the stage way back from Anto with my forearms in complete agony from death gripping the brake levers.
In a pretty bad mood and expecting the day to get worse, we started to make our way to the second stage via the food stop. At the food stop everything started to pick up! First of all it was a gluttons dream: fruit, chocolate, cake, ham, cheese, bread and all sorts of drinks... I could have stayed there all day! But onward we went for a brief climb up to the second stage, the Terres Grises. Like a giant BMX track, hardpacked gravel with natural jumps and corners (see video above). I had ridden this stage a few weeks previously, so managed to keep up with Anto all the way down, just laughing as we jumped and skidded down for 6 minutes.
|Absalon in the terres grises. I have a few photos of the course 2 blog entries back at the end.|
An absolutely hideous climb (another 7km) back up to Chateauneuf d'Entraunes for the third stage. This was half Terres Grises, then rocky trails to the finish. Again my brakes hindered me a bit, but Anto would have been uncatchable even without my mechanical problems. So at this stage we had done 3 stages, about 1200m of vertical climbing and 20 something minutes of racing. On an average race weekend the day would have been over and time to go home. Not this weekend though, the best was yet to come.
Day 1: Valberg
We got into the car, drove 20 minutes to the Ski resort of Valberg, unpacked the bikes again and pushed the bikes up a horrendous hill for the 4th stage. This was a fun format, a chainless race! One by one we headed down a short course trying to stay off the brake at all costs to conserve momentum. At the bottom, we waited around for the top guys to come down with a decent amount of spectators cheering the riders on. Really bad luck for Anto whose tyre came off the rim causing him to abandon the race and go home after day 1.
The briefing of death. The only thing we knew already about Sunday was that the race was run as a pursuit, with everyone on track at once, but with staggered starts according to the time gaps between riders from the first day. At the end of the first day, we finally got told where the start and finish of the final stage was, from the confused look on everyone's faces it was clear that just about no one knew of this trail. Then things got scary. The organiser basically begged us not to race the next day, but to treat it like a casual spin. "Please hold back... only go at 90%... Do not overtake... Do not cut corners...". The more he went on, the more the room grew quieter and noticeably anxious. The reason for this warning was simple : the final race was in the middle of nowhere, if anything happened, no one could come out to help you.
So off for a pizza and then a night in a tent in the middle of the village's green area...
|Sadly I have no pictures of the first day except for this one of the pros chatting...|
Day 2: Wilderness
Slightly confusing start to the next day I found out a fox had stolen one of my shoes during night! Luckily he must have gotten bored with it, as we found it the other side of the field.
8am start, the transfer stage to the race alone was stunning. It took over an hour with the later half being on foot on a tiny hiking trail. The views were incredible coupled with the odd feeling of being secluded yet in a train of 300 people. We ended up in the proper wilderness. No one knew this place, there were no roads or houses for miles.
|The pilgrimage: an hour and a half pedal/hike to the start of the race at 8am on a Sunday.|
|No complaints when the view is this good!|
|Start lines waiting to be filled according the results of the first day.|
|About 50 meters from the starting line, the hiking trail began. 7km of mixed alpine trails in the middle of nowhere, 1100m vertical drop, 100m up (on foot, crying and suffocating at the same time).|
Everyone lined up for the Pursuit. False start! Technical problems with the timing system meant the leader headed off alone and had to be helicoptered back 20 minutes later for a restart! This was Nicolas Vouilloz, widely regarded as the best mountain biker of all time, as someone pointed out later: while everyone sweated all morning to get to the race, the king of MTB was flown in to take the #1 position at the top.
I started off 114th out of 300+ riders. The course was exceptional, right on the edge of cliffs, red earth everywhere. Following groups of riders, many crashing right in front of me. Red dust everywhere especially on the bike afterwards. One particular overenthusiastic youngster overtook me 3 times and each time ended up crashing violently in front of me.
|This photo says it all.|
I got to the bottom of a very steep ravine, jumped off a step, bang! Puncture! I shouted out in anger as I heard the air leak out slowly from my tyre, only to hear the helpers yell back "it's only 100m to the finish". I threw the bike on my back again, ran up the 20m vertical climb overtaking a few guys who couldn't believe their eyes someone had any energy left. I had none, it was simply adrenaline and desperation. I checked the tyre at the top, still a bit of air in it! I jumped back on and sprinted to the finish just as the last bit of air escaped from my ruined 2 day old tyre! Somehow I had overtaken 17 riders and was back in the top 100. Still far from where I wanted to be, but considering my mechanical problems pretty damn happy!
Back on the bike after a bit of patchwork for a slow ride to the main road a few kilometers below. Hopped in a van to get shuttled back to the car in Valberg. Then had a massive meal and entertaining prize giving. Huge cheers for the helpers, all 130 of them, nearly one for every two riders!
Like I said at the start, if you are considering a trip to France for one of the big races, this is the one to aim for, you need a lot of preparation and a good amount of experience, but so far I have never done anything as rewarding.
|Ignore the plastic tray, this was good stuff!|
|Podium, the best of the best. I was far behind!|
Pro photos from http://www.velovert.com/information/6064/l-enduro-des-portes-du-mercantour-sourit-a-nicolas