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Gran Fondo Saint-Tropez sportive review

In-depth
28 Nov 2018
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Words Joseph Delves Illustration David Wren

This feature originally appeared in Issue 77 of Cyclist magazine

The Alps may be beautiful, but outside of the ski season they’re not exactly glamorous. For that, you need to roll southwards to the coast.

Pinned between the Mediterranean and the end of the Maritime Alps, the Riviera is proper Brigitte Bardot, arrive by helicopter, lose-all-your-money-in-a-casino glam.

With the last gasp of Europe’s great mountain range tempered by a far milder coastal climate, it’s also a great spot for a bike race.

And it’s for this reason that I find myself queuing up on the quayside next to several million euros worth of yachts on a bright April morning.

I’m here for the Granfondo Gassin Golfe de Saint-Tropez, one of the opening events in the UCI Gran Fondo World Series, and the fastest quarter of finishers in each agegroup will qualify to ride at the World Championships later in the year.

Unsurprisingly, then, the riders lining up alongside me in the start pens look suitably serious.

With everyone squeezed onto the jetty, there’s probably a similar value in bicycles on the quayside as there is in pleasure boats bobbing in the harbour.

I’ll confess that when I signed up for the event, I didn’t read far beyond ‘Saint-Tropez, early season sun’.

That said, I’m curious to see what the pointy end of a UCI Gran Fondo World Series event looks like, and with the luxury of starting off near the front, I resolve to try to have a poke around at the head of the race. 

Expectation management

It turns out I’ll do no such thing. As the tape goes up, the pack surges forward with all the nervous excitement of a category four road race, and several riders gamely launch themselves into various items of road furniture.

Those who manage to avoid these early crashes soon accelerate to somewhere north of 50kmh, and despite a tailwind I quickly find myself struggling to hang on.

I flick through my internal database of excuses and settle on ‘it’s tactically naive to start a 160km ride too fast’. It seems preferable to ‘I’m just not fast enough’.

Adopting a pace more suited to taking in the scenery, I turn away from Saint-Tropez to head inland and find the wind is now cutting across my bows at 90°.

It’s strong enough to make holding a steady course tricky, and despite the 2,400m of climbing ahead I get the feeling that the wind will inflict more pain on me today than any incline.

Still, the skies are clear and I’ve plenty of early enthusiasm as we make our way through farmland alongside the coast.

With riders setting off a couple of hundred at a time at regular intervals until all 1,500 competitors are on the road, technically it would be possible to start and finish behind the event’s lead rider on the road, yet post a faster time.

Sure enough, from each group a train of riders emerges intent on gran fondo glory and several of these grim phalanxes whizz past, invariably led by a gurning time-triallist dragging a line of hangers-on sometimes 20-30 riders deep, before I manage to catch onto the end of one.

Progress is speedy, and hiding about 20 riders back in the chaingang means my lack of work fails to elicit any dirty looks.

The kilometres tick by without much effort on my part and soon we hit the day’s first climb, the Col du Canadel.

Swinging away from the coast, the road heads into the mountains and our little group breaks apart, with the mountain goats stomping off up the climb while everyone else attempts to make themselves comfortable.

It’s steep, but not obnoxiously so. I ascend at a gentle pace until, with a decent chunk of height gained, one final hairpin turns me back out to face the sea.

The deep blue of the Mediterranean stretches to the horizon, and I can see the wind blowing spume off the waves, yet despite being early in the day it’s getting very warm.

Over the top of the Col du Canadel, we cross a brief gravel stretch to join a smaller road that traverses towards the higher Col de Barral.

The road now narrows to a single lane, hidden from the sea by the headland. It instantly feels wilder, but is at least more sheltered as we make our way over the Barral and another hump that follows shortly after.

However, as soon as we pass onto other side the wind hits again.

Unsafe passage

Exposed and high up, the turbulent eddying of the cork trees and squat cypresses that populate the headland give no indication of the direction of the gusts, which swirl about in ever-changing directions.

Racing downwards, the gaggle of riders I find myself in is buffeted about like a flotilla of ships in a gale.

With riders following behind me, I feel bad about not pointing out the cracks and potholes in the increasingly broken road surface, but the side winds are so fierce I don’t dare take my hands off the bars.

It’s hard not to be distracted by the views, but as the road drops more rapidly my attention is monopolised by simply navigating a safe course down the mountainside.

Then all of a sudden we’re on the climb of the Col de Babaou. Riding slower and sheltered by trees the wind is less noticeable, yet once we’re over the top, it’s back again with full force.

As the road tilts down once more and the speed rises, I give other riders a wide berth and allow a good couple of metres between myself and the sometimes precipitous edge of the road.

Branches that have snapped from the trees at the roadside are getting blown straight up the tarmac towards us, and at one point I see a rider in a ditch so decide I’m going to forget all about speed and rather take it as steady as possible.

I survive unscathed, but my arms and shoulders are screaming from clenching the bars so tightly.

I’m happy to have made it down in one piece, and even happier to latch on to the back of a fast-moving train of riders battering down a wide road through plains of vineyards.

Now would be a good opportunity to go in search of lost time, but lured by the madeleines piled up at the rest stop I instead decide to peel off to gorge myself.

This turns out to be a mistake.

After the rest stop, I find myself riding alone just as the wind hits me full in the face.

Even on the flat it’s strong enough to make it difficult to grab the cakes from my pocket and manoeuvre them into my mouth without getting blown over.

A great sunken depression slap bang in the middle of the route profile, this road to the start of the Notre Dame des Anges lasts for more than 20km.

Crawling across it with my speed barely in double figures I keep glancing over my shoulder in the hope of seeing another group that will put me out of my misery.

None appears, and I spend over an hour grinding away in my own personal purgatory, uncomforted by my haul of cakes.

Reaching the slopes of the day’s biggest climb almost comes as a relief. Exchanging the unseen force of the wind for the more obvious impediment of the gradient, at least now I can see what’s hampering my progress.

Technically the climb is 15.7km, but it really only kicks in from around the 8km mark, averaging between 6-8% from then on.

After the earlier good weather, the clouds above the neighbouring peaks are starting to look bruised and rain-laden as the road swings around to face the summit.

Away with the angels

We follow the Roman road, Via Domitia, up to the summit of the climb where once was located the settlement of Alaunium, named after the local Gaulish god Alaunius.

Responsible for healing and prophecy, in a mash-up of Celtic, Roman and later Catholic traditions, he also gave his name to the first chapel there, Sainte-Marie d’Aulun.

When a choir of angels appeared to locals on the site in 1665, it was decided a bigger church was called for, with the Notre Dame des Anges (Our Lady of the Angels) being built on the existing foundations.

Perhaps with a similar desire to be closer to God, at some point someone stuck a whopping great radio tower right in the church’s backyard.

Done up in red and white candy stripes it’s visible long before the chapel.

With a short stretch of flat before a final hump, I decide to forgo the official feed station and fill up my bottle from a roadside spring overseen by an effigy of the Virgin Mary.

I do feel somewhat revived, although I feel even better when the following descent knocks another 10km from the distance remaining to the finish with little or no effort.

Back on the flat I’m reacquainted with the headwind, but this time I surreptitiously tuck myself behind a broad-shouldered Italian, trying to look inconspicuous as I accept the tow.

Realising that most of the race is now behind us, everyone in the quickly forming group seems keen not to get left out on their own.

We take turns hanging ourselves in the wind, and at one point I realise I’m using the trailing ties of the lead rider’s Pantani-style bandana to gauge which side to form the echelon and best shelter from the wind.

The group stays together over the day’s last significant lump, La Garde Freinet, and then on the flat I drop off with about 10km to go.

Weaseling my way home

On the last leg towards Saint-Tropez, the final climb up to Gassin is the work of less than 200 vertical metres.

But with someone having been optimistic with the placement of the 5km to go banner its arrival never seems to get any closer.

I’ve little energy left to mount a siege, so instead I sneak over the finish line without fanfare, the best part of two hours after the winner.

I’m just happy to be finished, but around me other competitors seem to be taking it much more seriously. For many, the first stop after the line is the board of hastily printed results pinned up in the central street.

It shows that Tommaso Elettrico came in first with a time of 4hr 42min 46sec.

A man with his own website, brand and 66 gran fondo wins to his name already, he’s clearly not messing about.

Having colonised the town for the weekend, cyclists lounge about on every available surface.

This is what I’d pictured when I signed up to ride on the Côte-d’Azur, although it seems like most other competitors had dreams of glory foremost in their thoughts.

Next time I’ll know not to get distracted by the location.

Even on a calm day, this is no beach holiday.

The details

What: Gran Fondo Gassin Golfe de Saint-Tropez
Where: Saint-Tropez, France
How far: 163km (Granfondo) 114km (Mediofondo) 62km (Rando)
Next one: Early April 2019
Price: €45
More information:  grandtrophee.fr

 

The rider’s ride

Tifosi SS26 Disc Campagnolo Potenza, £2,500, chickencyclekit.co.uk

With a wheelbase and head angle that suggest endurance, but a raked-out reach and low weight, the Tifosi SS26 was keener than I was to get around the course quickly.

Its sprightliness is aided by superb stiffness, courtesy of an oversized head tube, bottom bracket and 12mm front and rear axles.

Any shocks transmitted by the stiff frame are largely mitigated by its broad tyres and forgiving seatpost.

The mid-depth Miche rims proved to be relatively easy to handle in the strong winds, and the disc brakes were a godsend on long and sometimes sketchy descents.

 

Do it yourself

Travel: With no railway station, Saint-Tropez is almost impossible to reach other than by car. The nearest airports are Nice or Marseille – both of which are well worth a stopover.

Accommodation: Cyclist stayed at the Ibis in nearby Congolin, where double or twin rooms start at €80. A posher option would be to stay in Saint-Tropez.

Bike hire: There are plenty of bike shops around Saint-Tropez, although your best bet for renting a bike is probably Rolling Bikes (rolling-bikes.com).

It’s really only an emergency option, so don’t expect anything too fancy. Better to bring your own.

Thanks: Many thanks to Eric and Loïc at organisers Golazo for securing our place in the event, along with sorting accommodation and a speedy moto driver for our photographer.