Thursday, September 23, 2010

Defeated by Wine and Cheese

1000 du Sud, September 11-14, 2010

When I learned towards the end of last year about that new "1000 du Sud" in Southern France, it instantly became my number one goal for the 2010 season. Everything else was relegated to the role of preparing me for this event. I like picking goals that are a little above my head; this motivates me to be more disciplined in my training and life style (yes I know, still not nearly enough). This route with 40000 ft of elevation gain including many serious "cols" definitely was threatening enough. In addition, there was the fact that much of the route would take me back in time by 40 years, when I had moved from Germany to Southern France as a student, eager not only to study mathematics but also to discover the geography and the cultural riches of this attractive region - and to find a wife there. Consequently, it was an easy decision to pencil a two-week vacation trip to Southern France into our calendar, first to celebrate our 37th wedding anniversary, second to participate in the "1000 du Sud."

I felt well prepared and reasonably confident when I showed up at the Hotel Kyriad in Toulon - La Garde to meet with Sophie Matter, the designer of the route. She introduced me to a bunch of other participants, including Jean-Philippe Battu whose generously outgoing personality has earned him high visibility throughout his last three PBPs even among US randonneurs. It was an exceptional pleasure to share a big table with all of them at the hotel's restaurant for a common pre-ride dinner and again the next morning for breakfast, before lining up at the start for equipment check, sign-in and payment of the registration fee: €3 for FFCT members, €5 for foreigners - something to let melt on your tongue if you are used to the fees at RUSA brevets. In exchange, rigorous self-reliance was the rule of the game (as it is meant to be in randonneuring ...). The special event t-shirt handed out by Sophie was obviously not covered by the registration fee: she had decided to take a chunk out of her personal savings to offer it to the riders of the inaugural edition. That's how dear this event is to her heart.

And heart-shaped is the route itself, from Toulon at the Mediterranean to the foot of the Mont Ventoux, out west to the Gorges de l'Ardèche, back east over the Rhône and through La Drôme before approaching the heart of the French Alps and climbing the Col du Lautaret, the literal and metaphorical high point. The remaining 350 km are far from being all downhill, and I knew very well that the accumulated fatigue would do the rest to make them slower than my optimistic-as-usual planning predicted. Nevertheless, I had no doubt about being able to finish before Tuesday 10 a.m., the 75-hour time limit; I had even built a margin of five to six hours into my time table.

The first day certainly seemed to validate my educated guesses about when I would ride through where, even if only because we enjoyed a pleasant tailwind for much of the day and I could take advantage in the morning of riding with a larger group which represented about half of the 34 starters. The lunch stop in Cadenet (km 115) made the group fall apart.

Jean-Philippe in Cadenet

Much to my bewilderment, I watched many of my companions seek out restaurants that matched their expectations - the search alone took quite a while. Or they settled for relaxed chewing and drinking on a shaded bench and didn't seem to be bothered by the thought that 890 km were remaining. In contrast, my timeline for this clearly very difficult 1000k mandated to minimize all off-the-bike time. I was confused enough that I stayed longer than planned before I took off alone, not without erring a bit in the medieval narrow and steep streets.

The Col du Pointu soon afterwards was easy and enjoyable, in particular because Jean-Philippe caught me there (he had stayed behind in Cadenet). Jean-Philippe's companionship has to be a randonneur's gift from heaven; in hindsight, I feel privileged that I could enjoy this gift for the next 400 km. But (and there is a but) he is also much faster than I am, even without making an effort; and I was unable not to do my best trying to avoid that he had to wait too long after each major climb. I could tell that my legs complained and threatened to punish me for stepping over my boundaries, and I certainly tried to explain that I really, really didn't mind riding alone at my own pace and that he should just take off without ever waiting for me again. But there was nothing I could do to persuade him, and so we continued together. With him, I certainly advanced faster than alone; and I marveled at his experience and authority in matters long-distance riding. After all, he is a well-known member of the brotherhood of "Diagonalistes" - the guys who ride their bike across France following imaginary diagonals from any one of the six vertices of the hexagon to any other non-adjacent one, following rules very similar to those we know from brevets. He has completed 12 diagonals so far - and I cannot even expect my first one before 2012! Clearly, he is the master, and I am the apprentice. I decided to let go of my personal planning and to model my ride from now on after his, regardless of the consequences.

Approaching the Mont Ventoux - very impressive!

Can you tell I am struggling to follow Jean-Philippe - while he has the time to take pictures?!
(This and most of the following photos are his)

The consequences started in Pont-Saint-Esprit (km 246). My original plan was to arrive there around 8 p.m., refill provisions for the long night and set out as quickly as possible into the very demanding stretch through the Gorges de l'Ardèche. We arrived around 7:30; so that was good. But Jean-Philippe had decided to stop at a restaurant for about an hour and a half for dinner. He didn't have to persuade me, because, as I said, I had decided a couple of hours earlier already to model my ride after his. But I admit that I had to consciously silence my concerns, and that I was ready to leave well before him (he was genuinely taken aback that I declined to order a dessert - my belly was already too full from my lasagna). This is the time where I should explain the catchy title of this blog post. To begin with, I don't consider the outcome of my "1000 du Sud" a defeat. Second, I didn't have that much wine and cheese - it's only a cliché. And finally, don't come to the conclusion that all French randonneurs spend hours dining in restaurants and only finish within the time limits because they are fast; I know there are many who like riding alone to optimize their performance and personal experience, regardless of how fast or slow they are. Then again, when we finally left and passed by the restaurant next-door with outdoor seating, we recognized half a dozen other 1000 du Sud participants, solidly anchored at their dinner table ... (they passed us later that night, but I believe none of them finished within the time limit either).

Midnight photo-control in Vallon Pont d'Arc

The next consequence was that Jean-Philippe offered I share his reserved hotel room in Aubenas (km 328). I had planned to ride through the first night (three 600s and one 1000 earlier this year were supposed to condition me accordingly); but in the end, the dehydration from the hot afternoon climbing on the Col de Murs and along the foothills of the Mont Ventoux to Malaucène, and the fatigue from the redoubtable roller coaster along the Gorges de l'Ardèche made me accept his offer without second thoughts. Besides, I would have been seriously in trouble through the night without extra water. If only the hotel had been closer to the route, and if only we hadn't added some substantial extra climbing (and lost another half hour) to get back on the route, after our generous hotel breakfast!

I did enjoy the smooth and long climbing on the Col de l'Escrinet in the fresh morning and proudly shouted to Jean-Philippe who was waiting for me at the top that "I gave it all!" Indeed, I felt strong again, knew that the legs would recover on the long (and cold) downhill, and was determined to make good time at Jean-Philippe's rear wheel over the following 90 mostly flat kilometers in order to absorb our time deficit. Indeed, we had lost over four hours in connection with the hotel in Aubenas, and my climbing speed on the Escrinet, while subjectively honorable, was far below the mandated 15 km/h brevet average. We would not be able to make the next control cut-off but didn't worry too much, because we had knowledge of the organizer's intention to be lenient as long as we arrived at the finish within 75 hours.

Given our delay, I thought we would hurry at that next control in Voulte sur Rhone (km 375). Well, what can I say: we didn't. We met Roland from Brest there (yet another confirmed Diagonaliste!). He had climbed the Col de l'Escrinet before us and encountered a wild boar there - quite a story! He also knew stories of other riders who had had a rough night and who were still behind us - I couldn't believe it. Roland didn't seem to be very motivated to continue, even though we had the long flat stretch along the Drôme river valley ahead of us. And so Jean-Philippe proceeded to motivate him, successfully; and after some more cafés and delicious Ardèche specialty pastries (I had stopped looking at my watch by then) we finally climbed on our bikes, crossed the bridge over the Rhône and rode on, although not as fast as I would have liked: we didn't want to lose Roland who didn't admit yet that he was suffering from tendinitis around his knees.

Still, it was very nice riding towards Die. The weather was perfect, and we could have made good time - if we hadn't stopped at every other little town, often walking our bikes through the utterly pittoresque medieval centers instead of using the bypass roads, always looking for places where we could sit down and order meals - not easy because they were nearly all closed on this Sunday morning. Out on the road, Jean-Philippe proudly explained the geography, history and other notable features of the area, which included the "Clairette de Die." This inspired him to make us stop at a Dégustation Gratuite where he had no trouble convincing the owner to serve his "friends from America and from Brest" a generous sample of the specialty.

There was some wine involved, after all ...

American tourist in Die, killing some time

Jean-Philippe later wrote on his web site that "in a couple of pedal strokes, Joseph fell in love with this remote region of Diois and promised to come back next year" - and it is true. But I also wanted to leave the region now, climb over the upcoming Col de Grimone and continue on the route of our 1000 du Sud. I started getting nervous about our increasing delay.

Climbing towards the base of the Col de Grimone

Despite my best effort, I was unable to follow Jean-Philippe and Roland as soon as the serious climbing on the Col de Grimone started (around km 460, roughly 3000 ft). They waited for me once half-way up, and Jean-Philippe waited again after the descent on the other side, while I caught Roland towards the top - the climbing revived his tendinitis and he had to slow down.

I worked hard on this climb, but also found it extremely rewarding and spontaneously declared it my "all-time favorite pass." The scenery was breathtaking. If I hadn't been so busy climbing, I would have taken dozens of photos:

With Roland at the top ...

... and on the downhill

But the hard climbing also made me think hard. By the time I arrived at the top, I would be about six hours behind my plan. It was obvious that the time limit of 75 hours was now out-of-reach; but I still would have liked to finish the whole distance on my bike, no matter what. I had invested so much mental preparation into the second half of the route, bragged so much in anticipation about the Col du Lautaret - and I felt I owed it to Sophie to complete the distance. I had a hotel room reserved in Briançon (km 650) where I had hoped to arrive around midnight. Riding through the second half of the night over the Col de Lautaret without additional (precarious!) sleep stops was unrealistic; I would arrive at my hotel in Briançon barely before check-out time on the next day. I would then need another overnight hotel room e.g. in Digne (km 790) and still have over 210 mostly serious kilometres to go on Tuesday. It would be better to forget about my reservation in Briançon altogether and spend the night in a hotel before tackling the Lautaret; but this would again push my arrival at the finish to Tuesday afternoon at best. On the other hand, Ghislaine was expecting me early Tuesday morning, and we had commitments for lunch with friends in the area for Tuesday noon, and for dinner with family in Aix! The only conclusion was that I could not complete the ride. (By the way: Roland found a room in La Mure (km 518) and continued on the next day to finish by Tuesday evening - chapeau!).
It was very hard to communicate my conclusion and decision to Jean-Philippe. But when he understood that I meant it, he didn't hesitate to support me. I saw him hesitate only at the control in Vizille when he decided to withdraw as well - the delay had increased further. As a result, I found myself staying overnight at his appartment in Grenoble. The next morning, he accompanied me to the nearby train station and looked to it that I got the appropriate train tickets back to Toulon. Then he waved good-bye when the train left ...


The quote below has been carried over from here. You can see it in context here.
I think I am a true mountaineer ...

The true mountaineer is the man who attempts new ascents. Equally, whether he succeeds or fails, he delights in the fun and jollity of the struggle.

Alfred Mummery "My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus" (1895)