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Sportive review: La Ronde Tahitienne in Tahiti

Peter Stuart
21 Dec 2017

There are many good reasons to visit the tropical island of Tahiti – and thanks to the annual Ronde Tahitienne, cycling is now one of them

It’s all a little surreal. Four Polynesian women are dancing in grass skirts as the sun rises from behind a mountain. The temperature is already nearing 30°C, even though it is only 7am in the morning, and a trickle of sweat runs down inside my floral-patterened jersey.

I’m standing in a queue, waiting to pick up my race number, and in front of me, wearing a matching tropical jersey, is five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault.

It could be a dream, but I am very much awake and awaiting the start of La Ronde Tahitienne in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti in French Polynesia.

The Ronde is a relatively new event, having begun in 2011, and it has become big enough to persuade a certain Grand Tour winner to make the 23-hour flight to participate (although it’s unlikely he required a lot of arm-twisting: ‘So Bernard, what attracted you to a cycling event on the tropical paradise island of Tahiti?’).

Tucked away in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, midway between the east coast of Australia and the west coast of South America, Tahiti is known more for black pearls and white sand beaches than for its cycling.

But the sport is catching on here, and the Ronde provides a rare opportunity to ride on clear roads around the coast.

The police are out in force to shut the roads for the procession of riders; the event has been national news for days on the island; and the crowds that have amassed for the start seem more suited to a national pride march than a cyclosportive.

It’s a modest course with only 500m of climbing, but riders have travelled from far afield to take on La Ronde Tahitienne, and everyone gathered on the start line is speaking anxiously about the 110km ahead.

Some, Hinault included, have already opted for the shorter 55km Petite Ronde, although the 110km La Grande Ronde seems much more appealing, tracking the eastern coast of the island with an out-and-back profile.

‘The East coast is really the most beautiful,’ says sportive organiser Benoit Rivals. He was the pioneer of the first event in 2011 and continues to manage all elements of the ride.

‘The East coast also has the only hill on the coast, with a wonderful view at the top.’

The small amount of climbing on the route is certainly not because of a lack of hills.

Inland from the coast the island has plenty of steep forested slopes, but most of the roads on them tend to end up at private properties, making them unsuitable for a mass-participation cycling event.

‘Riders here in Tahiti are used to making a sharp turn on the road,’ says Rivals, explaining that on account of the few complete loops on the island it’s normal to mark the middle of a ride with an 180° about-face.

Chasing the Badger

Tahiti is the largest island of French Polynesia – the metropolis of the region. The picture it conjures is one of palm-fringed beaches of pure white sand, and clear waters teeming with tropical fish, but in reality that image is better suited to its smaller sister islands of Moorea, Bora Bora and Teti’aroa.

The last of these is otherwise known as Marlon Brando Island, after the movie star fell in love with it while filming Mutiny On The Bounty in 1960.

In typical Hollywood style, he bought the whole thing and lived out his autumn years on the island, much to the consternation of the local Polynesians who could no longer visit.

The main island of Tahiti is, nonetheless, very stunning indeed. While lacking the postcard perfection of its smaller sibling islands, it offers grand landscapes of volcanic peaks and dense forests, as if Jurassic Park has been dropped in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

On the morning of our ride, clouds hang over the mountains of the island’s centre, but the sun is gaining in strength as I wait in the start pen beside Hinault, French broadcaster Henri Sannier and expectant winner Nicolas Roux, a French former winner of the Etape du Tour.

The event is the biggest in the region, so competition at the front is expected to be fierce. To stop myself from overheating, I do my best to sit in Hinault’s shade, but sadly the Badger doesn’t cast much of a shadow.

Just in front of us is a group of local children with disabilities, for whom the event is a charitable benefactor. They will be completing a short lap of honour before the main event kicks off, and they receive a warm cheer of encouragement as they head off on their trikes and wheelchairs.

With the children doing their lap of honour, I assume it will be a long while before the main sportive gets underway, but after a surprisingly short amount of time the gun fires and a raging front line of would-be winners sprints off down the road at top speed.

I’m not the only one looking around with trepidation at the possibly terrifying logical outcome. Thankfully Hinault has lost none of his aura of dominance, and he casts his patronage over the leading riders, ensuring that the children are able to skirt off the road before the peloton catapults to full pace.

His job done, Hinault happily lets the eager racers go as he drops his pace and drifts back from the front group to ride gently alongside his fans towards the back of the pack.

I, on the other hand, am being pulled along near the front of the peloton, where the pace is a furious 50kmh and I soon find myself pouring with sweat and glugging water at every available moment. All too quickly I’m sucking on a bottle full of hot air.

We negotiate several roundabouts and are soon out of the city and into deep forest across from a rocky coastline.

The road surface is full of gaps and bumps, and combined with the challenge of holding onto the wheel in front I’m barely able to glance at the scenery.

I’ve been told I could spot the flash of a turtle or dolphin’s fin if I look out to the ocean, but for now my eyes are mainly fixed on the road ahead. 

Polynesian pavé

I’ve been in sportives with a diverse mixture of riders, but nothing compares to the geographical scope of today’s particpants.

I befriended a group of New Zealanders in the start village, returners to the event who are clinging onto this front group with me, but we’re joined by Europeans, Chileans and Asians, as well as local riders.

We all seem to be united, though, in a collective miscalculation of pace.

As we approach the first and only significant climb of the day in the town of Mahina on the northern coast of the island, it becomes clear that this is the point that will finally separate the race-winners from the hangers-on.

It’s a wide highway but it clings to the rocky coastline in a way both visually stunning and unnerving. Even as the road tilts up, the speed at the front doesn’t seem to relent at all, with the leaders floating up the 12% incline at near 30kmh.

I finally accept that I won’t be winning that glittering trophy and settle into a more sociable rhythm, which at least allows me my first opportunity to absorb the scenery.

As we gain elevation, I can look back over the city of Papeete, which from here looks small and vulnerable, squeezed as it is between the mass of wild of forests on one side and vastness of the Pacific Ocean on the other. 

At the top of the incline, locals throw tropical flowers and petals over us. It’s not something I can say has ever happened to me before on completing a climb, and it makes for a pleasant surprise, although I’d gladly exchange all those flowers for a bottle of water – I’m parched. The view ahead is salivating at least, showing the long coastline we’re set to descend along.

It’s fast and fun but the road is bumpy. As the descent levels off I hear a mighty crack from behind me, and I turn to see Selwyn, one of the New Zealanders I befriended hours ago, crashing with a mess of carbon and lycra.

Speeding down this steep section of wide road I have no chance to stop, and have to hope he’s OK. It later turns out he struck a pothole and his bike was sheared clean into two, leaving him with a mild concussion but thankfully otherwise unharmed.

It’s a reminder that as beautiful as this route is, the quantity of riders and the ruggedness of the roads demand attention, like a cobbled Classic.

The rest of us make it through, and we’re soon forming into a tight chasing pack behind the blistering pace of the front group.

So far we’ve been riding below an intense sun in a cloudless sky, but ahead there is some relief. As we reach the 20km mark, a dark tunnel looms in the mountainside ahead.

We fly through it and emerge into a different climate altogether. On this side we seem to be in a humid tropical cloud, as the mountains and forests to our right are shrouded in mist.

Rather than detracting from the scene however, it only adds to the primordial impression of the island.

I relish the brief respite from the sun, but we don’t spend long in the cloud and all too soon we’re below a clear sky once again. We begin to twist in and out from the shoreline – through forests, past solitary stone churches and over tumbling streams.

We pass two water stations on the outward leg and I nearly tear the poor volunteer’s hand off snatching water and drenching myself to alleviate the heat at the first stop.

We’re now heading south along the coast, and the further we go, the more rugged and wild the scenery becomes. Hanging over us are giant chestnut trees intertwined with the green orbs of breadfruit and other exotic shrubs.

To our left, the shores have become rocky and jagged, with huge waves crashing and spraying foam into the air. 

The Fire Road

When I see the race’s frontrunners come hurtling towards us in the opposite direction (they seemingly haven’t wound down from full sprinting pace), I know that the halfway point
can’t be far off.

Once we’ve made the U-turn and are heading back in the direction of Papeete, I begin to back off from my exhaustive efforts on the front of our little group and take some more time to view my surroundings.

I spot colourful houses peering out from the forested mountainsides, and through the gaps in trees I can make out tiny beaches of stunning white sand, teeming with silhouetted surfers.

We churn through the heat towards Papeete. The sun bounces off the ocean to our right, cooking us against the jagged sandstone rock cliffs that the road is cut into.

As often happens in the final flat kilometres of a sportive, we begin to pick up the stragglers who have been ejected from the back of the lead group and our number steadily begins to swell.

With the increase in numbers comes an increase in pace, until eventually we are a fast-moving chainline. Gradually, buildings and road furniture replace palm trees and wild forest. Marinas replace the sandy beaches, and we’re closing in quickly on Mahina.

Sitting ahead is that first steep and sharp climb of the day, only in reverse. Locals line the road offering water – they’re not even part of the event but want to help.

From the top of the climb we can see Papeete waiting below us, and it seems as though it’s all downhill from here.

Our group gets faster and faster as we near the city, and by the time we cross the finish line I’m back up to 50kmh again. It’s an exhilarating end to the ride, but I’m most excited about the sight of a bucket of ice. I come to a halt beside it and stuff lumps of it into the recesses of my clothing.

Having cooled down sufficiently, I consider heading back to my hotel when I suddenly hear my name being called out. It appears I’m one of several foreign guests being invited to the stage, where I am presented with a medal, although I’m offered no explanation why.

I show my appreciation and smile at the crowd, but my expression changes to one of mild horror as I see a gaggle of Polynesian dancers begin to shake their way towards us and I realise I am about to be embroiled in some form of dance routine in front of 500 spectators.

In true British fashion, I try not to look too mortified while engaging half-heartedly with the dance before sneaking off the back of the stage. When I look back, Hinault seems to be having the time of his life, gyrating enthusiastically between three scantily clad dancers in coconut bikinis.

There’s clearly still life in the old Badger yet.

 

The details

What La Ronde Tahitienne
Where Tahiti, French Polynesia
How far 110km (La Grande Ronde), 55km (La Petite Ronde) and 15km (La Ronde Loisir)
Next one 20th May 2018
Price €37.70 (approx £34)
More information larondetahitienne.com

 

The rider’s ride

Giant Defy Advanced Pro 0, £3,875, giant-bicycles.com

The Giant Defy was our pick of 2017’s sportive bikes, and so I was naturally eager to take advantage of the opportunity to set it loose on the rough and rugged roads of Tahiti.

Giant has done a fantastic job of integrating disc brakes into the overall build without affecting performance, and on Tahiti’s bumpy surfaces I appreciated the damping effect of the 28mm tyres as well as the brakes’ accuracy and control on the descents.

Giant’s compact frame design also aids comfort, as the long and flexible seatpost absorbs the worst bumps and cracks of the road. Yet that comfort doesn’t come at the expense of frame stiffness, which ensured the bike had plenty of zip when I needed a sharp turn of speed.

Despite looking fairly beefy, the Defy actually boasts an impressively low overall weight for an endurance racer at 7.8kg.

The only way it could have been a better partner for my long day beneath the tropical sun would have been if it had a third bottle cage. Maybe even a fourth.

 

Do it yourself

Travel

Cyclist flew from Paris to Papeete with Air Tahiti Nui, which along with Air France is the only airline to offer a single carrier journey to Tahiti from Paris. Air Tahiti Nui offers special rates to competitors in the event, with flights costing around £1,500 with bike carriage (visit airtahitinui.com for details). Once in Tahiti, Velo Club Tahiti can arrange transfers.

Packages

Velo Club Tahiti organises cycling packages with rides in Tahiti and nearby tropical island Moorea. Prices start at £1,000 for accommodation and a number of meals (larondetahitienne.com). The Ronde Tahitienne is also the culmination of a Polynesian cycling cruise with Santana Adventures. Prices start at £2,280. Visit santanaadventures.com for details.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Manava Suites & Resort in Punaauia, which is a 20-minute roll from the start line. It sits right on a lagoon on Tahiti’s western coast, and is highly accommodating to cyclists. Prices from around £180 per night for a double or twin. 

Thanks

Many thanks to Benoit Rivals, who organised our trip. Benoit is a member of Velo Club Tahiti and is president of the Bureau of the La Ronde Tahitienne. He also organises package trips for the event.

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