Thursday, 15 February 2018

Ariegeoise 2017 - A rider's review

The short story, for those short on time or patience, is simply that the Ariegeoise was and is a bloody French cyclosportive and you should register for 2018 as soon as you possibly can. The End.

The full story, for those with the time and inclination for a tall tale of a lack of training, nerves, elation, route changes, incredible organisation and a frickin great day out on the bike. For this version you'll need to read on...

The story starts at the end of 2016 when, after many years of staring at the registration screen from the UK, I finally signed up to the 2017 edition of the Ariegeoise in the voluptuous XXL variety. I covered that in an earlier post but suffice to say I was excited to get amongst it.

"...a chance to see if our area really is a good training ground..."

Our new cycling business had started well in April/May but wasn't busy going into June so I quietly hoped that I'd have a chance to complete our local sportive (the Albigeoise) by way of training. However, our self-build pool was taking forever and I just couldn't justify the time out for the event or the training. Coming to terms with the fact that I wasn't going to be ready to "smash it" was hard I have to admit but we live in a fairly hilly part of south west France and it was a chance to see if our area really is a good training ground as I always bang on about.

So, a bit like when preparing for an exam, I decided I'd make do with some last minute cramming - which was of course absolutely pointless because it was of course way too late for that! I had to face facts: it was going to take longer and hurt more than I'd like and, to add a bit of drama to the whole thing, a strong storm had caused a landslide on the Col d'Agnes resulting in a last minute route change that would see us climbing another 1st category climb of the Port de Lers instead. Nice!

"the organisation was so good, there wasn't even a queue to sign on..."

The Friday before the event finally arrived and there would be three of us staying together in Tarascon. Iain and I headed over to Tarascon early with the plan to check in to our hotel, sign on and get our race numbers and mill around the 'village' ogling all the bikes and kit. Because the organisation was so good, there wasn't even a queue to sign on which, considering 5000 entrants would descend upon Tarascon to sign on that day, was pretty remarkable. It was a smooth as Iain's meticulously shaven legs!

Signing on at Tarascon
This gave us some spare time before third man Andrew could get away from work to join us so we popped back up the road the hotel, assembled the bikes and headed out for a bit of a leg stretcher.

A brief leg spinner to the base of Goulier Neige
We turned right out of the hotel and were almost instantly at the bottom of what would be the last climb of the next day - the Goulier Neige. This would make it nice and easy to stagger back from the final climb and back to the sanctuary of the car! Kudos to Iain's wife Yvonne for finding and booking that before anyone else had a chance! On that score, the hotel was perfect - just a shame they wouldn't let us keep the bikes in our room...

Andrew's arrival in town gave us a valid excuse not to take on the climb a day early and, after picking up Andrew and spinning back to the hotel, it seemed only right that we eat no less than two pizzas each - along with a couple of beers....obvs! There aren't masses of places to eat or drink in Tarascon so I'd imagined it would be rammed with 5000 cyclists and their families but it seemed like a ghost town. My home town of Coventry used to grind to a halt on a Saturday morning when Ikea opened its doors so I was a bit puzzled by this. I guess that since the place is so tiny most people stay outside Tarascon and head on in for start the morning - which worked a treat for us.

"It's OK looking cocky at the start, Marcus..."
After a poor night's sleep and pizza induced hallucinations, I woke to all three alarms at 5.30am. Everyone was paranoid not to miss the start after Andrew's near-miss with the Albigeoise (where he slept like a baby whilst Iain patiently waited for him on the start line) that we had all set separate alarms to be sure!

"...face the bitterly cold mountains (15ºc) like real hard men!"

The hotel had agreed to put on breakfast from 6am and delivered a fairly decent effort with home-made bread, confitures, cakes and good coffee - oh and a weather forecast. This wasn't as good as the food and we'd be looking at cloud almost touching the valleys, rain was a certainty and temperatures of about 22ºc. The last bit I was particularly happy about because climbing all day in 35ºc or more (like the week before) would have hampered my fun. The others however saw it as an excuse for constant costume changes and debates about whether to carry layers, wear arm-warmers or face the bitterly cold mountains (15ºc!) like real hard men!

We spun down the road to Tarascon to be shepherded from the outskirts and into the town to wait for the starting gun. Looking around it seemed everyone else was having wardrobe dilemmas too. We joined the end of the (very long) line, soaked up the atmosphere and checked out everyone elses kit. I was proudly rocking my Colnago C60 who was causing lots of people to show their sex faces in public. Luckily this didn't last long as all of a sudden there was a lot of shouting over the PA system, a loud bang and a surge forward toward to the start.

It took an age to cross the start line, but once past we were directed around the town and in a loop before heading out and up to the first climb. A sort of mini tour of Tarascon for the crowds. The atmosphere was electric with people everywhere - cheering and 'Allezing'. We got into a nice steady rhythm and agreed to stick together for the first climb or two and then make a call on how to continue depending on how everyone was feeling. I was happy with tapping out 180 watts up the Col de la Port for an hour to warm and up and settle in - it would stop my habit of smashing out of the gates for 75km only to suffer for the rest of the ride. "Be the turtle" I told myself.

Everyone settled in quickly and Andrew was struggling with the turtle bit as he pushed a bit harder than I expected up the first climb. It soon became obvious it was just about positioning for the professional photographs!

Andrew dominating the frame!
The higher we climbed the cooler and more misty it became, though it was fairly still so conditions weren't too bad. We were overtaking all of the time with very few people passing us - which boosted the confidence a bit, along with the appearance of the summit.

Cyclists everywhere!

With the first climb under our belts this best part of the day ensued. The descent off of the col de la port. Apart from the lack of any stunning views, I can't really say much else other than the twisting, testing tarmac was only complimented by the closed roads and my Colnago! It was just perfect.

Those still tackling the first test...
As always the descent was over too quickly and we were into Massat and the rain. It wasn't too epic but enough to give a dampness to everything. The road out of Massat, through Biert and on to St Girons was sublime. It rolled smooth and fast along the valley following the river with some nice bends thrown in for interest. The closed roads meant that a large peloton formed, sucking us along the tarmac. Before we could settle in properly, a police motorbike came cruising past at speed closely followed by a larger group who came smashing past over our left shoulders. Iain seemed up for it and a glance over the shoulder to Andrew told me he fancied it too so the first chance we got we jumped on. It was a big group so was rapid for very little effort on our part so we bridged any gaps that formed and kept with the group.

Shortly after this things got a bit less peachy as the junction where the various routes split meant the large group giving it welly at the front suddenly peeled off on the shorter course and our band of 3 were left dragging everyone toward St Girons. Iain wasn't keen on working so early in the ride and especially not when it seemed like there were only 5-6 of us really taking any turns in the wind. Iain lost patience at one point and starting singling people out and gesturing them through to take a turn! To be honest they were right - nobody needed to push on but I got caught in the moment when I looked behind to see literally hundreds of people being dragged along the valley road - it was liberating and I wanted more! This meant that we pushed on more than anyone else was prepared to so only a small breakaway group arrived at the base of climb together - especially since the road from Moulis to Les Bordes Sur Lez was a false flat and amplified the affects us pushing on.

"...all be together and soaking up the views mist"

The climb up the Col de la Core started proper shortly afterwards and then ensued 16km or so ascending, which was no bind and it was nice to all be together and soaking up the views mist. We continued to pass people on the climb to beat them to replenishments which we scoffed as quickly as the summit came and went. Coming down off the tops was damp and chilly but the need for speed and an intense concentration prevailed to keep discomfort at bay.

Once in Siex the road goes up again as more "faux plat" to confuse and question your legs but the actual climb of the Col de Sarielle doesn't start properly until it hits you like a train at Erce. Turning left into the hamlet from the main road is bad enough with a tight left and straight into a wall! The road gets very narrow too and even with our small group we struggled up past the church with people crunching the gears and starting to weave alonf the road. It wasn't for me so the first gap I saw I powered past spinning through the granny gear like Chris Froome. The gap went out behind and I heard Iain shout "why are you attacking" so knew we'd done enough to drop the group and could settle in again to the tap it out to the summit. I have to admit that it wasn't particularly nice if I'm honest and with around 120km in the legs I remember thinking "Christ we've still got two biggies to come"!

Internalising our uncertainties we just cracked on. Our minds asking questions of our legs (and our legs asking more sensible questions of us in return) was all too late. We'd signed up to 5 cols and 179km and to come to our senses at the base of the Port de Lers was just defeatist! The climb isn't hard and the gradients kind and manageable - even at this stage in the ride. We'd lost Andrew at the last feed the station, found him again a few minutes up the road but were now two again and seemingly going along nicely. There was even time for messing about with the event photographers...

Cockiness levels still high!
"...leaning on each each other to get to the orange segments, energy drinks and record breaking toilet stops."

There were very few groups on the road. The people we passed climbing within themselves, looking straight down between the bars to the tarmic passing under the wheels metre by metre and probably wishing they'd bailed at the last chance when the course had split earlier on. We'd pass more people here and there but it wasn't until the summit feed stop where we saw larger groups again with a renewed urgency in their demeanor - leaning on each each other to get to the orange segments, energy drinks and record breaking toilet stops. We abided with the summit etiquette and then got right back on to the increasingly difficult business of completing the XXL.

Iain and I descended together, rapidly, once again confidence growing with every sweeping bend and hairpin. It was still a little damp and Iain was having confidence issues with his Mavic Cosmics. At the bottom I remember thinking that he is the only person I know that still uses SwissStop Yellow pads.

Now is a good time to say that the organisers of the Ariegeoise are sick. Who decides that a 11km climb averaging 8% is a good way to finish a 179km ride? Before today it seemed like a great idea but now, in the valley, having actually passed the race finish with all its food tents, sponsor stands and hoards of happy finishers - it was plain wrong. Somehow we found the will to continue....upwards. The Goulier Neige on any other day would be a bit of an ask but today, after 4 other climbs and at this point in the ride - it was nasty. Pure, sweet hell. 

"They had an aura of glee about them, the elation to have finished..."

We turned right off the main road and straight into a steep grade coupled with the utterly depressing sight of  finishers being marshalled down the descent by motorcycle. They had an aura of pure glee about them, posturing with a sense of achievement and the elation to have finished. The sense of expectation of those food tents (and booze) was palpable. They couldn't help it but their eyes behind those plastic tinted lenses said it all. Pity.

We had no time for pity though, the clock was ticking. We had no choice but to suck it up, drop to the little ring and hope we had enough energy or downright stubbornness to make it to the top.

It was here where the wheels began to fall off our little two-man wagon. We said our farewells and let each other go - it was about survival now and we'd ran out of chat miles down the road. I didn't have much left but for some reason I felt as though it had to be me who set off up the climb. It hurt and with hindsight I should've just stayed with Iain but I guess having the feeling of the chase was good for us both. It kept the fire in the belly when every cell in my body wanted to stop, point the bike downwards and head to the food tent! It was at this point that I started counting the km markers for the first time and this was a bad move. I began finding distractions and telling myself things like "hold 220w for 30 seconds" or guessing the time gap between me and the people I could see up the road. I had a glance over the shoulder to check for Iain at various points but the climb was twisting so much that I had no idea if he was 30 seconds behind or 3 minutes. 

In the meantime more groups would come flying down the road by motorcycle escort, chatting, laughing and just generally and understandably pleased with themselves but that is no way to motivate a waning mind or body! I started to pass people again with 5km to go and we exchanged encouragement and nods as we went. I was now riding somewhere else, somewhere dark, cold and empty. I was struggling to put out 200w and knew that each turn of the crank was sending me deeper into the hole. It was pure fatigue, the day taking its toll and nothing I did now would help.

"stay classy Marcus"

It really was about just finishing it now, about how much will I had to overcome the lack of energy, the screaming legs and the heavy head on weary shoulders. But still, in there somewhere, I kept hearing the phrase: "stay classy Marcus". It's like being told to stop slouching, to stand up straight or smarten yourself up by a school teacher. It serves to help me reclaim some posture, stop rocking and rolling and turn the pedals in circles not squares and it meant more in that moment than ever. The ship was sinking and if I didn't plug the hole and keep sailing I'd be done for. That little game passed a kilometer nicely whilst I was still, somehow, managing to pass people on the hill.  The mist was thick and my laboured breathing now becoming so loud it was almost deafening. Knowing it was the final kilometre when the marker came meant nothing  - it was still an unfathomable distance - and yet at 500m, through the mist and to the faint sound of a French voice on the PA my cadence spiked, the watts went up (minimally) and I managed to find something to sprint for the line.

In my head it was epic, it was heroic, it was a legendary sprint for victory. In reality everyone else, despite their cheers of encouragement and vigorous clapping, I was just a small man pushing 190w for all he was worth and barely coasting over the timing hump before slumping over the handlebars!

The finish line was chaotic. There were exhausted finishers being hurriedly relieved of their timing chips and medals thrown over their heads. I was congratulated and gestured to the end of the inflatable gate where I was spat out of the other side and into another feed zone. It was welcome as I needed coffee, fluids and more cake! It was like heaven on earth to be handed a warm coffee in a white plastic cup whilst leaning (in a casually deliberate manner) on my crossbar to ease my now trembling legs.

Iain wasn't far behind and I rolled back over to the finish to see him cross the line looking as pleased to have finished as had been. A quick shufty over to the food and drink area, an obligatory photo before joining the the line of happy finishers waiting to be escorted off the hill. Another amazing yet chilly descent to the base of the mountain, retrieve the car from the hotel and roll into the village we'd only envied and desired just an hour earlier.

Back at the village, to the sound of the award ceremony on the main stage we hunted down some real sustenance. I was amazed at the contrast in the food on offer compared to the sportives in the UK. There was a full 3 course meal on offer with red or white wine to accompany it! Got to love the crazy frenchies!

Overall this was a crazily good day out. The XXL is a toughie but even with minimal training it was doable at a reasonable pace with plenty of stops for food, drink and toilet breaks. It's great value and, if you book early, you get a pretty reasonable jersey for the price of the registration fee. If you're looking for a european sportive that's well priced, placed at a good part of the year (for your training purposes) and seriously well organised, I can't recommend the Ariegeoise enough. You can even combine with a bit of time in France or Spain....Girona anyone!