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Challenge Vercors sportive: The ride that goes right

Pete Muir
9 Mar 2017

Torrential downpours, bone-crushing crashes, hollow-eyed suffering… this ride in southern France has none of those things

Anyone who has followed Cyclist’s exploits at European sportives and gran fondos over the years will have noticed a certain pattern to the articles that appear in the magazine each month. 

Usually, the writer will begin the tale by jumping straight to the most significant moment of the ride – a soul-destroying climb, perhaps, or a catastrophic bike failure – followed by backtracking to the beginning of the event.

There will be a description of the tanned, lithe riders waiting in the starting pen (covering a sportive for a magazine means we always get pushed to the front of the pack alongside the serious racing whippets) and then the gun will fire.

Everyone will fly off at 50kmh and our intrepid writer will describe their increasingly desperate attempts to stay on the wheels before being unceremoniously dropped.

By kilometre 10 the writer is already experiencing the first signs of exhaustion. Then they crash, get lost and run out of food. Then it rains.

Finally they crawl over the finish line as a broken and shivering wreck before declaring what a rewarding experience it has been and how they would do it all again tomorrow.

My experience of the Challenge Vercors is very different.

 

The gods are smiling

In the weeks running up to the Challenge Vercors, I’ve been checking the weather apps frequently.

Depending on which one I look at, the day of the event will either be thunderstorms or thunderstorms with added gales, so it’s a pleasant surprise when I wake on the morning of the ride to find clear skies and barely a breath of wind.

It’s frighteningly early, and as the guests of Velo Vercors gather in the kitchen for coffee and bowls of oaty cereal the conversation is little more than a series of grunts.

Velo Vercors runs cycling holidays in the Vercors region of southeast France, a little known but beautiful area just south of Grenoble and close to the Alps. Most of the guests have been exploring the roads for the past few days, and now we’re preparing to join 2,000 other riders to tackle a route that takes in the region’s lush valleys and rocky gorges.


After the usual palaver of driving to the start village, finding a parking space, queueing for registration and setting up bikes, we’re late to arrive at the starting pen and there is no more space for us to join the crush.

As it turns out, this is for the best. Rather than waiting, packed like sheep, we can relax and watch the other riders set off, before tagging onto the back of the group. 

By sheer luck I have avoided the curse of Cyclist – being lined up alongside the fastest competitors at the front – and instead find myself at the rear of the bunch, which has a double bonus.

Not only do I not have to duke it out with a group of steel-limbed semi-pros at the head of the race, but I can also feel smug about my riding abilities as I slip past rider after rider in the early kilometres of the event.

A long downhill section sees us dip in and out of patches of sunshine and shade, with the temperature rising and dropping in an instant as though someone has just opened a freezer door.

At this early hour there’s still a slight chill in the air, but not enough to warrant armwarmers, and my lightweight jacket is soon stowed in my back pocket, where it will remain for the rest of the day.

With me are Dominic, who spends his summers doing guiding duties for Velo Vercors, and Julian, one of the company’s guests, who has unfinished business with the Challenge Vercors and is determined to do the long route today.

I have decided on the 114km medium route (discretion trumping valour, and all that), so we have wordlessly agreed to stick together until the two routes separate somewhere after the 50km mark.

As we track south down a long, flat road, Dominic moves up to the front of a large group, with me inches from his back wheel, and he starts to drive the pace along the valley floor.

At one point I glance behind me and it seems like the whole of France is taking a tow. The line of riders stretches as far as I can see, and they enjoy the train ride for several kilometres until we hit a roundabout in the village of Villard-de-Lans and begin the day’s first proper climb.

Vision of perfection

By now the sun is bright and the first part of the climb offers spectacular views down the valley. Directly below us are green fields with the gentle curves of a dropped duvet.

Further up are forests, a darker shade of green and clinging to the mountain slopes like a well-trimmed beard. Finally, dominating the horizon are the sharp peaks of the Vercors Massif, dusted with a light sprinkling of icing-sugar snow.

As if the scene weren’t idyllic enough already, floating in the midst of it all is a single hot air balloon, hanging in the air at just the right height and distance to complete the perfect image. It’s enough to make the marketing director of Alpen shed a tear of joy. 

It doesn’t last long. Soon we are enclosed by trees, and for the next 10km we climb to the highest point of the route through a tunnel of pines.

The gradient is never severe, perhaps around 7%, and encourages a steady rhythm on the pedals. Occasionally Dom or Julian will pull ahead, but I tap away gently to close the gap again.

There are going to be no heroic journeys into the suitcase of suffering today – this is all about the pure enjoyment of the ride.

Upwards we go, still overtaking enough riders to feel like we’re managing a healthy pace up the slope.

Dom and I discuss what the most efficient gradient is to combine speed of ascent with conservation of effort, and conclude that it must be about what we are on now.

The climb has just the right amount of challenge without ever tipping over into discomfort. If only there were a few more gaps in the trees to see the view, it would be perfect.

At one point my heart sinks as I detect the low rumble from my rear wheel that suggests I have a flat tyre, but on inspection the tyre is fine.

It’s just the grippy road surface making a strange buzzing noise against the rubber. Nothing, it seems, is going to go wrong on today’s outing.

 

The pleasure principle

The long climb gives way to an even longer descent, which starts out steep, curving down through the forest like a giant slalom on a ski slope, before becoming more gentle as we emerge from the trees and into another valley.

After about 5km of blasting along a main road (although mercifully traffic-free) we suddenly arrive at a roundabout where a group of marshalls is shouting and gesticulating wildly.

It takes me a moment to realise what’s going on – this is the split point for the medium and long routes.

Hitting the roundabout at speed, we zip past the assembled hi-vis jackets and head straight on for the medium route, followed by yells of, ‘Non, à droite! À droite!’

The marshalls have spotted our race numbers and noted Julian is going the wrong way for the long route.

Except he’s not going the wrong way – he’s simply concluded that there’s no point spoiling a pleasant day out on a bike by adding another 40km and 1,000m of climbing to the ride.

So having decided to stick together, Dom, Julian and I begin a spot of through-and-off, lifting the pace as we hit the southernmost point of the route before turning northwards into a slight headwind.

Soon we’re joined by several others and we enjoy the sensation of zipping along the narrow roads at speed, crouched over the bars, taking turns in the wind and pretending we’re in a team time-trial.

Of course, it doesn’t take long before it begins to feel a bit too much like hard work and our efficient paceline fractures into an unruly bunch of individual riders.

An Italian in gaudy club colours is unhappy at the break-up of the group – he was plainly hoping to be dragged all the way to the finish line – and he scolds us while rotating a finger in the air to suggest we should all get back on the job.

But by now we have returned to a more leisurely pace whereby we can chat, enjoy the sunshine and take in the views of the limestone cliffs that guard the edges of the valley.

Our Italian friend looks a bit huffy but shows no sign of wishing to push on by himself. Today is a day for pleasure, not pain.

Gorge of ghosts

After about 85km, the route brings us back towards the village of Villard-de-Lans, but this time, approaching from the west, we get to experience the Chute de la Goule Blanche, which translates as the ‘Fall of the White Ghoul’.

We don’t notice any spooky apparitions, but the setting is dramatic enough for a few ghost stories. The route winds through a narrow gorge with walls of limestone towering over us on either side.

At one edge of the road, a low wall is all that stops unwary riders plunging down to the Bourne river. On the other side, the road has had to be carved into the cliff face, creating a roof of rock that drips chilly water down our necks as we ascend through the canyon.

The whole of the Vercors Massif is a warren of cliffs, gorges, mountains and valleys, through which a complex network of roads has been created, often via tunnels through the rock or balconies perched precariously above vertiginous drops.

What’s more, because it is a stone’s throw from Alpe d’Huez and the classic cols of the Alps, it tends to be overlooked by the hordes of visiting riders, so the roads around Vercors remain blissfully empty.

We emerge from the gloom of the gorge to sunshine over verdant fields and views of distant snow-covered mountains.

Fast forwards

After a short time of riding three abreast in solitude, a cacophony of car horns from behind warns us we’re about to be overtaken by the lead riders of the event who have been on the long route, so we squeeze over to the side of the road and let the two leaders blast past. They are a picture of strained sinews and pained expressions.

Behind them is a small convoy of race vehicles, then more riders fighting for a place on the podium.

We follow in their wake through a village where a gaggle of spectators cheers us on. They have obviously seen Julian’s ‘long route’ number and assumed we’re near the front.

All we can do is smile, wave sheepishly and pedal past them… slowly.

The final part of the course is a gentle uphill drag, which isn’t arduous enough to fully drain my reserves but sends a signal to my brain, via my legs, that it would be quite nice to stop riding soon.

As if on cue, a sign appears by the side of the road informing me there’s only 5km to go. We spin up the slope, ticking off the kilometre signs as we go, and even have sufficient energy for a playful sprint to the line.

After some post-event grub and a bit of time spent lazing in the sunshine, I do a quick mental assessment of how the ride has gone. I didn’t crash, didn’t get lost and didn’t have a mechanical or injury.

In fact, there was no drama or suffering at all, just a beautiful ride in pleasant company. Good God – what am I going to write about?

Ultimately, despite the absence of disaster, I have to say that it has been an extremely rewarding experience and I would do it all again tomorrow.

 

The details

Tunnels and gorges galore in the south of France

What: Challenge Vercors
Where: Vercors Massif, southwest of Grenoble
Next event: 20th May 2017
Distances: 162km, 120km or 50km (note that the routes have been changed for 2017)
Cost: €40 (approx £34.50) plus €10 deposit for electronic timer
Sign up: grandtrophee.fr

The rider's ride


Giant TCR Advanced Pro 2 (2016), £1,799, giant-bicycles.com

This is a lot of bike for the money. The Advanced Pro range sits in the middle of the Giant TCR hierarchy (above Advanced but below Advanced SL), and the Pro 2 is the cheapest of the three Pro models on offer.

For your £1,799 you get an excellent frame – stiff, light, responsive – with a pretty decent spec of components, which can be upgraded over time to make a truly high-class race or sportive bike.

The Shimano 105 groupset performs efficiently, if not as slickly as its more expensive brethren, and the Giant SL1s are a solid (without being overly hefty) set of training wheels.

They lack a bit of sprightliness, feeling a touch dead in accelerations, so a wheel upgrade would make for a faster ride, but you’d need to be spending well over £500 to notice a significant difference.

The only bum note was the Giant PS-L 1 tyres, which punctured on their very first outing in the run-up to the event. Of course, punctures can be down to bad luck, but this isn’t the first time Cyclist has had cause to be wary of Giant’s tyre offerings. 

Fans of the bright orange paintjob (of which I’m one) should get in quick. The 2017 version of the TCR Advanced Pro 2 is going to be mainly black. Boo.

Do it yourself

Travel 

Cyclist flew with BA to Lyon-Saint Exupéry. Expect to pay around £150 for flights, which includes the price of a bike bag. Lyon is accessible from several UK airports and with a range of airlines including Easyjet, Jet2 and FlyBe. From Lyon it’s around a 90-minute transfer to the Vercors Massif.

Accommodation

We stayed at the wonderful Velo Vercors, a former wood mill in the heart of the Vercors Massif. Run by Teresa Harte, it offers B&B rooms or self-catering gîtes, and has a large bike storage garage with workshop. Meals are sociable affairs, with home-cooked food served in a converted barn. Velo Vercors offers guided rides and support for events such as Challenge Vercors and L’Ardéchoise. Prices start at around £70pppn. See velovercors.com for details.

Thanks

Many thanks to Teresa for her hospitality, and to cycling guide Dominic Lowden for taking more than his fair share of time in the wind. Also thanks to Ludovic Griboval for arranging entry to the Challenge Vercors and supplying the moto for Cyclist’s photographer.

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