The Race Across France was quite possibly my most rewarding experience on two wheels yet. I completed the 1050km + 21,800m course in 3 days 11 hours, placing 5th out of 9 starters (2 female, 7 male). The memories are both raw and brilliant but fragmented, as expected when the three days merged into one big ride. I hope that this account will help me to covey the beauty of the race and clarify some of the grey areas in my mind.
The starting grid: nine athletes lined up for the inaugural self-support race. At this point all the prep was done, we were all keen to push off and get on with the climbing. With this small group we were to set of in 2 minute intervals, a gesture of individuality and moment for each of us to focus and acknowledge the challenge ahead. As bib no. CSS1 I was to set of last, waiting a whole 18 minutes for my time of departure. Over the course of the race this time was insignificant, but it gave the benefit of chasing rather than being chased when it was time to go.
The first section was gentle in gradient, taking me from sea level to the summit of the Col de Bleine at 1439m over the first three hours. The final climb to the col itself was 5km of narrow, smooth asphalt with forested switchbacks and a drop off to the left hand side awarding glimpses of a spectacular vista over Provence. The road was a world away from the Côte d’Azur and it’s saturated tourism which I was quite glad to be leaving behind. The villages were quiet and sparse but at 74km the quaint village of Soleihas delivered with a water fountain in perfect timing just before starting the ascent to the Col de Saint Barnabé. Here I saw fellow rider Vincent (bib no. CSS6). The route passed right by the fountain, the cold spring water being too good to pass by I re-filled my bidons and headed on. Once over the Col de Saint Barnabé, the decent to the Lac de Chaudanne was brilliant, smooth switchbacks though a forested road without a car in sight – I knew Vincent was hot on my heels so I was keen to push on.
The gentle climb alongside the Verdon Gorge was spectacular, the road snaking high above the river Verdon whose turquoise waters eventually flow into the Lac de Sainte-Croix far below. I stopped by a pizza restaurant clinging to the rock face where the chef / manager / waiter was preparing fresh dough for the next order. Without the time luxury for fresh pizza I made do with some left overs and took a white magnum for the decent.
I reached Forcalquier after 197km and 9 hours 28 minutes in the saddle. I had a brief stop here to stock up on boulangerie supplies and have a glance of the tracker. Anna had started after me due to sorting a routing issue at the start, so I noted that she was a short distance away and had also pushed on without much stoppage time. One more visit to the boulangerie ‘pour la route, merci!’ and I was on my way again. At this point it was early evening and I was planning to ride through the first night. As the light came down I remember seeing Stefano (I think – bib no. CSS2) who was experiencing some issues, but it was good to chat with a fellow rider nonetheless.
The ride up to and through Gordes at 265km was memorable – the road was narrow and as smooth as silk, lined with lighting which cast atmospheric shapes up the rough stone walls lining the road. It was mild and I was still comfortable in my jersey and shorts, not thinking twice about pulling up to a busy Italian restaurant and asking the waiters to refill my bidons. They were more than happy to do and I waited as hot plates of pasta and pizza flew past me, the smell and buzz of the place a welcome respite from the lonely road ahead. Still, I knew Ventoux wasn’t far down the road and I was happy to push on.
The checkpoint was located some 10km before Bedoin and the start of the climb, I reached it after 296km and 14 hours 20 minutes on the road. There was no requirement to stop, but what a brilliant and surprise welcome from the RAAF team and volunteers! The offer of a bed and hot food was a welcome surprise I had not expected – I soaked it up for 30 minutes, enjoying the food and company while bracing myself for the climb ahead. Nicola Reist (bib U5 – support) had caught me at this point and was leading the ultra support category. It was good to see Anna arrive, who had a much more efficient stop and set off again shortly before me. I remembered the race and set off a few minutes after.
We reached Bedoin together, enjoying a midnight chinwag and brief break from the solitude before hitting the slopes of Ventoux. It was pitch black; I pointed out the red beacon high above and we enjoyed a brief debate as to wether it was Ventoux’s weather station or an aeroplane. Of course it was rock stationary and marked the summit of Ventoux. I bid Anna farewell… head down and on with the task, focused on the patch of illuminated road directly ahead. The single word ‘relentless’ went through my mind more times than necessary and is the only way I can describe the climb. Ventoux is unique in that there are no switchbacks to offer respite from the gradient. It simply goes straight up for 21.5km, the gradient varying between 7-10% for the last 15km.
I saw the steps of Tom Simpson’s memorial and had intended to rest here. I slowed right down to pay my respects and passed by, keen to ride the last 2 km to the summit. Climbing Ventoux in the dead of night was an incredibly peaceful experience, trancelike. We were lucky to have very little wind, almost as if the mountain itself and it’s historic demons were in a deep sleep. Once at the summit I took in the the lights of Provence, spread like a carpet as far as the eye could see. As if not to awaken the beast, I layered up quickly before rolling down the other side towards Malaucène.
After 365km and 19 hours on the move I reached Vaison-la-Romaine where I took some time to refuel and have a power nap by a petrol station. It was 4.30am; I knew the route was rolling for the next 120km to Die and the start of the Col de Rousset so it was important to get some shut eye before moving towards the Alps. After the exhilarating decent of Ventoux I was in no mood to sleep and managed about 15 minutes of shut eye before continuing. Another 100km down the road I reached Saillans, Drôme just as the sun was rising, a beautiful sight to see the dawn of a new day and be feeling good. The sleepiness had kicked in by this point, I took another blissful 15 minute power nap in a landscaped area right by the River Drôme. There was no one to be seen but I knew Anna wasn’t too far behind.