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L'Ardéchoise sportive

Peter Stuart
6 Jul 2016

The Ardéche region of France plays host to one of the world's biggest cycling events.

There’s a road junction, some 90km into the Ardéchoise, where two signs point in opposite directions. One points left to the punishing 220km Ardéchoise circuit; the other one points right to the slightly more forgiving 175km Volcanique route. For me, having traded in my shiny Fondriest road bike for an ill-fitting and jittery women’s hybrid, with 130km and four climbs totalling 3,000 metres of vertical ascent ahead, it’s a difficult decision to make.

The Ardéchoise began in the summer of 1991 as a casual club ride for local cyclists. After the success of the first year of the event, the opportunity for a large-scale ride through the Ardéche was clear. So it was that Europe’s largest cycling event was born. Now in its 20th year, it boasts more than 14,000 participants and many, many spectators. More than a sportive, the Ardéchoise represents a festival of cycling and a celebration of the Ardéche region of France.

The event is composed of a collection of different rides, with the official race covering the 220km Ardéchoise course. Six different one-day courses are available to choose from, with no prior commitment to any route necessary. Six further multi-day options are also available – something not widely known by competitors. The range of courses makes the event very inclusive, offering everything from an 80km cruise to the racy 220km Ardéchoise course, to Europe’s hardest one-day event in terms of gradient and distance: the 280km Vélo Marathon course. It’s little surprise, then, that the annual Ardéchoise draws in such a wide crowd.

The event is an enormous deal in the region. Images of the start-line are plastered over the front page of the Sunday edition of Le Dauphine Libéré, the main newspaper of the Rhone-Alpes region. Every village along the route is saturated with locals dressed up in Ardéchoise colours and offering food, drink, music and conversation.

With the festivities offered en route, some riders take the course casually – stopping in the towns at feed stations, restaurants and even bars for some gentle relaxation under the 30°C sun. But for those seeking speed and pain, rest assured that you’ll be in good company.

A missed apex and an unfortunate tumble leave me with a frame in two pieces

For me, riding hard and testing myself is the initial objective. Having been given a priority starting position of 32nd, I am sitting amongthe fastest in the event – those 300 taking part in the Ardéchoise race.

The atmosphere on the start line is electric. Leading the entire event is Robert Marchand, a 100-year-old who is this year taking on the shorter course (with a ten-minute headstart). His presence sends an important message, explains organiser Gretel Piek: ‘We want everyone to be able to cycle the event. We have an Ardéchoise course for children, and we have many older riders. Marchard, who holds the hour record for the 100-plus category, is the best evidence that anyone can do the ride.’ 

Alongside Marchand stands the president of the event, Gérard Mistler. Crowded with TV teams, journalists, photographers and hordes of crazed supporters, it feels more like a pro road race than a provincial sportive.

Given the number of cyclists, those with dossards in the late thousands have a significant wait before they can take to the route. Luckily, foreign entries are granted a semi-priority start order just after the first 300 racers. It’s a big advantage as it can cut your waiting time by hours and put you among the talented riders.

The first climb of the day does a good job of separating the true cyclists from the chancers. Spiralling out of the starting town of Saint-Félicien up the Col du Buisson, the course follows winding roads that present little challenge at such an early stage (only 3% to 4%). Passing the historic site of Rochebloine, an ancient castle and just one of the historical riches of the region, I arrive at the Nozieres ridge, a flat interval between the climb and the descent, still among the leading riders.

Crashing out, carrying on

This descent, like many on the route, is steep and fast. Here my ride becomes a little more interesting. A missed apex and an unfortunate tumble leave me with a frame in two pieces and no prospect of a replacement in the team car.

My fall is not too bad, but I’m reminded of comments from the event’s director, Michel Desbos. ‘Safety is the top topic,’ he says, and they spare no expense. The organisers hire nine full-time safety staff, and an army of emergency vehicles are on call for an accident, including two helicopters. Desbos says, ‘There are lots of small incidents, falls and crashes, but we have had no severe incidents in past years.’

Thankfully I’m not in need of emergency vehicles. I’m left with only a mild scrape on my wrist and I’m keen to carry on. After a wait of around an hour and a half, organiser Gretel Piek appears in the town of Lamastre, and kindly offers me her hybrid bike. Gretel, an energetic retired Dutch woman, planned to cycle the short course and her bike is suited to that route – heavy, small and uncomfortable for the purposes of my trip. Nevertheless, I hop on and continue on my merry way, with 190km ahead of me.

Following the descent into Lamastre, the next 60km are characterised by a few gentle climbs but largely cover a flat and pleasant course through valleys, alongside rivers and passing charming stony villages. Unfortunately for me, I have to cover the 60 klicks in less than two hours to reach the passage to the Ardéchoise course before it is shut. A slightly ridiculous time trial ensues. Despite expending most the day’s energy, I make it to the hills in good time.

Into the hills

The big climb of the first half of the ride is the Col du Mézhilac, which rises to 1,130m over 12km. The gradient is not overwhelming, but with cyclists all around me, competitiveness more than survival puts me in a bit of agony. There’s satisfaction in climbing through groups riding Look 695s on my 12kg aluminium hybrid. In retrospect, this was probably my undoing.

Atop the Col du Mézhilac comes the junction for the Ardéchoise and Volcanique routes. It’s a great position for the junction – after the first heavy climb most riders are clued up as to whether they have the form for the full course or the scenic route. I opt for the former, still packed with adrenaline from making the distance in time and filled with delusions of grandeur.

Once turned onto the Ardéchoise, the journey becomes lonely and the course punishing. The full Ardéchoise circuit is far less popular than the Volcanique. This is probably because the Volcanique is easier, and significantly prettier. It boasts high views of the Ardéche and passes volcanic mountains and the famous ‘Suc’, a lava formation high in the mountains.

Every pedal stroke on my long and lonely loop through the Ardéchoise I curse myself for not cutting off 50km. The biggest climb of the course lies ahead, the 14km Col de la Barricaude, which gives way to the 3km Col du Gerbier de Janc only briefly after reaching the plateau. 

The Barricaude, topping out at 1,232m, will dictate whether you spend the remaining 100km freewheeling with your tail between your legs or finishing in strong form. I would love to say I managed the latter. The climb is not too steep, mostly around the 5% mark, and the road is lined with the region’s famous chestnut trees which offer some shade. It is persistent though, and even strong riders will have trouble doing this in under an hour. As such, fuelling up before the climb at the feed station in the town of Burzet is essential. Foolishly, I have not done so. Climbing for an hour without water on a woman’s saddle on a 12kg hybrid bike is a gritty experience.

Reaching the Sagnes-et-Goudoulet I let myself appreciate the scenery (by which I mean I freewheel at 10kmh while gasping for air).

Over the top of the Col du Gerbier sits the Gerbier de Jonc, an impressive Basalt mountain peak that can be seen from hundreds of kilometres around. Cycling at 1,416m, views of the surrounding region are rich, and there’s a comforting feeling of satisfaction, spiked with dread over the long road ahead.

It’s clear why some take the course in a leisurely fashion and enjoy the scenery – gorges, waterfalls and valleys are abundant. Cyclists lining the roadside with cameras are evidence of that, as well as the difficulty of the latter climbs.

Heading for home

Rejoining the Volcanique, the route becomes more crowded. The Volcanique treats its riders to a less undulating journey through the Ardéche highlands, sparing the most painful climbs. Despite being finished with the Ardéchoise loop, I realise that it’s important to keep survival tactics in mind. The journey is far from over.

The region, surprisingly, is a very poor one. The purpose of the event is to promote tourism, and Piek explains that more than €30 million are spent by cyclo-tourists during the event. As a result, local supporters come out in force to help make it a blast. Fine cheeses, meat, bread and cakes are all available at feed stations, cheerily distributed by local supporters. Amusing tour-style cycling sculptures are also abundant.

Speaking with the villagers, the Ardéchoise is far from a nuisance, and the spectators share a genuine excitement for the event. In the village of Rochepaule one of the villagers, Jeanette, explains, ‘We love the Ardéchoise! This is my fourth year supporting – there are lots of people, everyone’s enthusiastic. We even like the noise!’ 

One of the important things for English competitors to remember is that language is a barrier in the region. Come equipped with a solid vocabulary of French terms in case of trouble, for example, je suis sur un vélo de femme parce que mon vélo est cassé… and so on.

The last 70km is a wasteland of broken riders, and I do my best to not become one of them. Eating in the first half of the race is pivotal.

The cruellest part of the course sits just beyond the 30km to go mark. The steepest climb of the day is the 8km Col de la Louvesc, preceded by a 4km climb that I optimistically confuse for the final ascent. Swarms of cyclists walk up bike in hand. To avoid any further embarrassment to sporting a women’s hybrid, I pedal to the top but expend every ounce of effort I have left.

The last 20km is downhill. My wrists and neck are obliterated from the uncomfortable riding position and the jittery frame actually makes the descent more of an ordeal than the climb. I make it home at a crawl.

On my arrival I find some relief leaning against the wheel of an HGV, and it takes some work to move me from that spot. I like to think I’m not being too melodramatic, and a severe fatigue that lasts for two weeks post-event supports my case for milking my exhaustion.

The atmosphere in Saint-Félicien following the finish is exuberant, replete with music, drinking and tales of the day (patched together in whichever pidgin language competitors share). Everyone speaks very positively about the ride, and especially the good weather. Swiss rider Dominic says, ‘The last two years had very bad weather, but we still come back every year. The organisation is fantastic and it’s a friendly atmosphere, and it’s not commercial. Best of all you can choose a route to suit your training.’

On the TGV heading home I’m already thinking about how much I’ll miss the region. Although my body is in total ruins, I’m bursting to do the ride again with a little more experience of the course. So, chances are I’ll be taking up the challenge again next year. But hopefully not on a borrowed hybrid. 

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