Monday, 27 August 2018

The Heat of Darkness

Apologies to Joseph Konrad for the title ...

Some time ago Cath announced that she wanted to do the French Divide. Hmm. I had a look and thought that I didn't fancy dot-watching for two weeks so I'd try it as well. 2200km of mainly off-road riding from the top right corner of France to the bottom left. (Easier than trying to describe where the start and finish towns are). Limited to 150 entries, Cath was starting on the Saturday and myself on the Sunday as I'm normally a bit quicker than she is. Note the word "normally". There's no real time limit but the organisers hold a party at the finish two weeks after the start.

With getting to the start and the time to get back you actually need three weeks' holiday.

Each start has a registration and briefing on the day before so you need to be in the starting town of Bray Dunes for that. A ferry to Dunkirk then a late night ride to find the camp site full and we had to find another campsite a bit further out of town. Registration was all quite convivial with each rider introducing themselves and explaining where they were from, etc. Then it was final packing and something to eat.

I got myself some beer goggles

These bikes didn't make it.

The start was at sunrise, 0624! which I suppose is as good a time as any but you needed to be there 45mins earlier. So a very early alarm call. Cath headed off to get there in time while I sauntered along at my own pace.

The first few Km had a lead out car, a Citroen 2CV no less.

And then they were gone. In another 24hrs it would be my turn.

Sunday morning and another sunrise, the same procedure as yesterday. Shouts of "Allez! Allez!" and we are off. It's a hell of a pace, I'd be happy with it on an unladen road bike let alone an MTB with bivy gear and kit - I hit 50kmh at one point, on the flat on a mountain bike! The lead out car pulls away but the pace doesn't let up. There's no way I can keep this going so at the first dusty farm track I stop and take a shot.

It's the last I'll see of the fast riders. The rest of the day is spent flitting between the tail enders. The route weaves in and out of the French/Belgium border. Not a problem except that this is Sunday and as one lady at a "Surprise revito" (think trail angel with a van full of water and fruit) noted "La Dimanche? La Belge dorme!

At one of the few places we found open

It turned out that I'd ride nearly 150km before finding somewhere open that served anything more than a croissant. A McDonald's on the outskirts of Seclin. It's at this point it's worth noting that this was only the fourth time in my life that I've visited a McDonald's. Fast food? Quite how a pre-packed salad can take 20 minutes to prepare is beyond me. A good job I was the only person in the queue or being served. Also why does a salad need something deep fried in it?

Around this point we hit the pave sections used on the Paris-Roubaix race though we were doing them in the opposite direction. We didn't do all the secteurs but quite how you ride in a bunch, at speed, on a road bike along them is beyond me. I recognised a few of the corners as well as the Arenburg section with its cutting and bridge. There was a guy here with a "Allez le French Divide" board on his bike who'd ride alongside you then take shots.

Up to this point I'd been going quite well. Tucked up in my own little world following a track on the GPS screen. Then the heat turned up. While my speed in the morning was reasonable (though not the 35kmh+ of the start) as time went on I slowed and slowed. The last 20Km to the town of Le Quesnoy seemed to take forever. When I get there there's a fair on. I find the campsite and grab some food from one of the fair stalls and crash out only to be woken by a firework display. ah well.

239km, 1200m climbing, 13hrs moving, 3hrs faffing

Day 2

Up and away by about 0600, well before the campsite office is open so I shove my seven Euros under the door. If only I'd ridden another five kilometres I'd have had a nice quiet bivy in the woods. There's a lot of woods actually and for much of the day I don't see much or indeed anyone whether a rider on the event or not. A few deer cross the path in the early morning. Again as the day progresses the heat rises and my speed falls.

As evening approaches I get to a small town, Rocroi, the information sign shows 37C! No wonder I'm struggling. What follows next is an ace couple of km swooping through woods until a long drag up a fire road intervenes. I miss the next turning but pick it up and follow the quad bike track as it undulates along a slope. The GPS trace shows the next bit as turning sharp left. That's straight downhill! So it proved, over a kilometre of pretty steep track straight down the fall line of the slope. Great fun.

Then it's more pushing and at the top of the next hill I decide to skip the last little bit and head into town to the first checkpoint. There's a long easy climb to begin with though, less than 5% gradient but I have to walk it. My "reward" is a long downhill blast into town, getting all the lights on green. I'm just in time for food at the bar. My brevet card signed I head for the campsite.

166km, 2100m climbing, 13hrs moving, 2.5hrs faffing

Day 3

Up early again and I'm away pedalling steadily up slopes that yesterday afternoon would have seen me walking. I'm going well as I pass a fancy gateway to a big house. Common style I think, there was one like that yesterday. I look to the other side of the road to see a water storage facility and it hits me. It's the same house I saw yesterday evening! I've followed the route I should have taken into town last night but in reverse. Back the way I came (easily riding the climb I'd walked the night before) and start again. What I didn't know was that was just to be the start of my problems for the day.

Having lost two hours I pushed on. It was already getting hot. By 11am I was in need of food. Just off route lay a town, even better there was a big sign saying "Intermarche". Time for some resupplies. I sat in the shade of an old filling station forecourt roof eating my purchases and just getting hotter and hotter. Time to move on. The route lay along the flat bottom of a valley for a few km before turning off and heading up the valley side. Only a slope of 5% but I could only just walk it. That tree at the top's got my name on it. I lay there in the shade exhausted when I hear another rider approach. We sit there numb with the heat. Eventually we push on.

After a couple more hills where the above was repeated I'd had enough even though it was only mid-afternoon. Signs for the nearby town stated that it was home to "The European beer museum". Get somewhere to kip and recharge. Even coasting downhill at 50kmh I was getting hotter. The info sign in the main square stated it was 44C :shock: Even allowing for a couple of degrees inaccuracy, it was hot.

I found a B&B - first thing was to sit in a cool shower for 20mins to try and cool down. I went into town to get something to eat but everything was shut for various reasons. The family at the B&B took pity on me and fed me an evening meal while we chatted in broken Frenglish.

116km, 1300m climbing, 8.5hrs moving, 3hrs faffing

Day 4

Overnight there were thunderstorms, Cath got caught in these, by the morning the temperature had dropped but it was pretty humid in its place. A late start due to having breakfast at a reasonable hour. I meet another rider in the next town, he's scratching, I'm on my own again. I wasn't sure what I was going to make of today as it passed through the battlefields around Verdun. In the event I sobbed my way through the deserted villages, reflecting on how modern stupidity is taking us in the same direction. One village had ghostly life size images of the families who'd lived in each destroyed house another a simple stone marking the location of a home. The simple white crosses at the official memorial of men who died over an argument over a line on a map were similarly moving.

I arrived in Verdun too early for a proper evening meal so grabbed what I could and headed onward. I found a spot in a field overlooking a valley so settled down for the night. Or would have if half the local village hadn't used the nearby track for their evening walks and goodness knows what.

104km, 1900m climbing, 8.5hrs moving, 2.5hrs faffing

Day 5

Never quit at night, sleep on it and see how you feel in the morning. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the heat had got to me and I was managing less and less each day. With a fifteen day limit you need to be doing at least 150km a day and this first bit is the easy part. Mornings were fine, it was just the afternoon heat. Each day had been a battle. Decision made I headed back to Verdun.

Unbeknownst to me, Cath had been hit by thunderstorms on successive nights soaking all of her kit including her phone which subsequently had given up the ghost. She couldn't remember my mobile number, who remembers any number these days when the phone does it for you? The only number she could remember was her sisters so the campsite let her ring her sister who texted me what had happened. Eventually I managed to ring the site and speak to her. She was going to scratch as well. She'd got just beyond the next major town of Vitry le Francoise. We sorted out where to meet and let the organisers know our plans.

We'd still got nearly two weeks' holiday left so decided to do a bit of touring, after a bit of touristy stuff in Reims and Paris.

Take aways

  • Don't start on the Sunday - everything's shut!
  • Be prepared to ride fast
  • The French have set hours for eating, get to towns for those times.

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