The French Divide

Ok, so I am terrible for regular updates and now I’m going  to skip almost three weeks worth of cycling in Finland in favour of talking about the French Divide ‘race’.

I’ve always had my eye on the Tour divide/Great divide mountain bike route as something I would like to do, however the expense of such an endeavor has always put me off. So when the French Divide crossed my radar I thought it looked like a great, more ‘local’ alternative. I entered and then tried to work out whether I was in anyway physically up to this challenge. To be honest the jury is sort of still out on that question.

Touring in Scandinavia had a dual purpose, fun and exploration but also acting as some last minute training for the French Divide. I have a good base of fitness from years of cycling/touring but was unsure how my body would cope and adapt to riding the sort of distances required in the ‘race’. I thought I could ride the route in probably 12 or 13 days which equated to 110 and 100 miles per day on average.

So after a week spent in Bray-Dune ‘tapering’ and generally getting more nervous the day of the start rolled around. I lined up on Saturday August 6th with 50 odd other competitors at a time far too early in the morning and at 6:24 (sunrise) we set off. It felt good to get going and the first part of the route was pretty flat although surfaces were varied. After 6 miles I had a bit of a tyre malfunction which required me to re-inflate my rear tyre, I’m still not sure why it suddenly lost air. However this meant that I was the last rider the main group having disappeared into the distance.

To be honest this really didn’t bother me, I was happier riding my own pace and just sticking to the ‘plan’ I had formed. Even at the slow pace I ride I did start to pass other riders especially when people started stopping for food etc. A feature of the way I rode in the event was that I stopped as little as possible. Long distance cycle touring has removed any resemblance of top end speed I might once have had. So to compensate I pretty rigidly would only stop for 10-30 minutes at a time and would try to limit these breaks as much as possible.

After covering 140 miles on the first day I camped in some woods with a French guy called Alex and agreed that as he was setting an alarm for 5:30am that I would also do the same. I had originally planned to set alarms for 6 or even 6:30 I think but getting up before dawn and being on the road/trail as the sun rose was definitely a better idea so I continued in this habit.

To be honest my resounding memories of the first couple of days are what I would view as the ‘annoying’ bits. Overgrown paths resulting in being repeatedly stung by nettles and cut by thorns. Short sharp ascents that I couldn’t ride. Waterlogged trails with large expanses of water. These elements really detracted from the fun bits. After 36 hours I arrived at the first checkpoint in Reims. I was pretty astonished to be told I was the 21st person to get there. Where was everybody? It’s a really odd feeling to pass people but not actually see them because they are eating/sleeping etc.

This was a real confidence boost and after a good feed I pushed on into the woods to the south my enthusiasm being slightly tempered by an uphill push through some of the stickiest clay/mud I’ve ever seen. After this point the route started to include more field edges/boundaries and gravel paths and less mud which made going a bit quicker and easier. However it also included more climbing.

French Divide 2016 - Ben Day 1 - Canal 1On Wednesday (I think) after camping just outside of Avallon I entered the region of Morvan, which I really enjoyed. It was a fun day on the bike despite 110 miles and 3000 metres of climbing. The area in my eyes is ‘alpine light’, some really good ups and downs without being as technical as the alps. My first taste of ‘mountains’ again gave me confidence as I seemed to cope well both in terms of fitness going up and technical ability on the way down. I was starting to feel like I could definitely complete this challenge and had a small buffer of miles in the bank for when I reached the higher peaks in the Massif central and the Pyrenees.

At the end of Wednesday I had pushed on riding longer than I normally would so that I reached the checkpoint in Toulon-sur-Arroux. Again I was in 21st place. For the last 5 miles or so I was nursing my gears because I knew my rear derailleur cable was about to snap. I wasn’t worried though as I had a spare in my bag. The cable snapped literally as I rode into town and when I tried to change it at the checkpoint I suddenly discovered that the cable I had was too short! Now officially according to the rules at this point no one should have helped me or given me assistance and I would have had to essentially covert my bike to single speed until I found a bike shop. I however learnt at the checkpoint that there were other riders who had stopped in the town and that maybe I could ask them for a cable (bending the rules).

By this time it was pretty late and I was tired, I cycled to the campsite but it was well and truly shut and I could see no sign of other riders. So I carried on – my bike grinding from the chain being crossed-  along the route out of town and camped in some woods by the road. I would have liked to have set my alarm slightly later for the next morning but knew I couldn’t. It wasn’t a good nights sleep mainly due to a rather noisey donkey and some French people at a nearby farm having a heated argument at midnight. I was up early and started packing up by the side of the road. The idea, to flag down one of the riders leaving town and try to get a gear cable. I missed two riders because I was still packing up the tent but for the next rider who came past I was prepared and on the road side. A quick exchange of gear cables short for long, road side installation and I was moving again with a full quota of gears.

French Divide 2016 - Ben Day 1 - Canal 3Apart from those riders in the morning I didn’t see a single other competitor for all of Thursday. There were two days of the seven I rode when I didn’t see people and it felt very strange. After a 20 or so miles to get out of the mountains the middle section of the day was fairly flat to Moulins which enabled me to quickly gain distance but also to have some slightly longer stops in order to refuel/stock up from a food point of view. I was suffering a bit from the lack of sleep and the exertion from the day before but knew I needed to recover before I hit the Massif central the following day. Towards the end of the day the trail started to include more climbing and I stopped early with only 90 miles covered in order to get some sleep/rest.

The next morning the alarm went off at 5:30am again and onward I went. The previous day I had passed the halfway point in terms of distance and today if my target of 13 days was to be achieved I would pass the halfway point in terms of time. I was feeling good, a slight twinge I had felt underneath my knee at the end of the previous day wasn’t there and I was prepared for lots of climbing in the days ahead mentally knocking back the daily mileage targets to compensate.

At some point in the middle of the morning I noticed an ache in my right thigh/quad. I think it was after a steep bumpy descent but it’s all a bit hazy now. As time went on the ache worsened. I had to shift down into low gears on hills and try to spin as much as possible and on the really steep stuff I was walking. I longed for lower gears, my choice of a 38/26 double and an 11-34 cassette suddenly wasn’t working. I reached the town of Riom and started up the climb which takes you up into the mountains of the Massif central. My leg was now starting to approach agony. It hurt to climb, it also hurt to descend and at this point I self diagnosed the problem as a pulled a muscle sustained whilst going downwards. I realised I had ridden every descent with my left foot forward putting  a lot of stress on my rear right leg in exactly the place where the pain was. I cursed my naivety.

Around mid-afternoon I reached a point where the route flattened slightly and I was still struggling to ride despite the lack of gradient. Ahead of me I could see a mountain rising up with a cross on top. I was pretty certain that was where I was headed. I had only covered 44 miles due to extended rest because of the pain. With no power available in my right leg without pain again I stopped. I burst into tears, I just couldn’t stop from welling up. It was an outburst of emotion because I pretty much knew that the ‘race’ was over for me. It was sadness but also frustration because I was feeling confident that I could complete this and then suddenly I couldn’t.

I found some shade and sat down to work out my options. I knew I couldn’t ride anymore that day. The question was either finding somewhere inconspicuous to camp here or heading back down the hill to Riom. I decided on the second option figuring that if I was ok the next day the extra 5 miles wasn’t too much to cover again. To my annoyance the ‘campsite’ in my GPS in Riom was actually an area for campervans so I paid more than I wanted for a ‘cheap’ hotel on the outskirts of town. I had a good feed and turned in early, setting my alarm for 6am so that if my leg did feel better I wasn’t losing too much daylight.

The next morning I packed up and rode to the station. My leg wasn’t excruciatingly painful but the dull ache told me that if I attempted to continue it would worsen again to the point it had reached the day before. Dejectedly I texted the organisers to say I was withdrawing. The train took me to Cherbourg via Paris and then by late Sunday evening I was back at my parents house. I rode the 6 miles from the ferry port to the village, I am glad I did as it settled in my mind that withdrawing was the right thing to do. The route ‘home’ involves going uphill and was incredibly painful, probably not the right thing to do in terms of recovery/healing!

Would I go back and have another go at the French Divide? To be honest I don’t know. The annoying elements of the first few days and the expense of entering sit at the back of my mind despite the route on the whole being good.

Would I like to enter another ITT style race?  Yes, definitely. There is something about being totally focused on just riding, eating and sleeping that I really enjoyed. It’s like touring plus, even on the bike my mind didn’t wander to other things. I was always considering time, distance and food/sleep stops. I really liked the intensity of the experience.

What have I learnt? If I was to do another event of this type I wouldn’t tag it onto touring in quite the same way. I’d arrive with just ‘race kit’, i.e. only that which I needed for the event so as to carry as little weight as possible. Despite sending things back to the UK I was still carrying items from my tour and that I needed for a few days holiday after the race.

I need to address the issue that caused me to pull a muscle and look at varying which is my leading foot as well as how I stand on the bike. I also need to put days with lots of rough descending into any training as well as just considering riding miles/distance. I do know that my ‘training’ could have been better/more consistent and maybe I was surviving on base fitness. I also wonder if I could (re)gain any more speed on the bike to cover the distance quicker.

So hopefully my leg will heal quickly and then it’s time to look to the future. Instead of satisfying the ITT itch I had I think the French Divide has made it worse…so what next?

I didn’t take a single photo during the French Divide despite having a camera with me, those of me above are from the French Divide instagram/twitter feed and I don’t know who took them.

5 thoughts on “The French Divide

  1. Thanks for sharing your memories, your thoughts and the things you learnt from your days on the French Divide – I find it all very interesting. I’m sorry you’re not that keen on coming back next year, it’s true that mountain bike riding can be quite a messy enterprise on our French terrain, especially in the north. We’re used to mud, quarries, agressive brambles, stinging nettle, and what not, but it does make riding so much more difficult. It’s a pity you didn’t make it past Riom, because the Massif Central is the entrance door to some of the most spectacular and rewarding landscapes in France.
    But you clearly had no other choice but to bail out, and you did well.
    I hope your sore muscle is back to normal.
    Patricia

  2. Really enjoyed reading your account of the French Divide. I saw mention of this and thought it would be a great event to compete in. I’ve not had time to look at the route in detail and hoped you might advise if this is one which requires a full mountain bike set up with suspension forks and wide tyres or if something with a rigid fork and narrower tyres could successfully be used?

    The Transatlantic Way race also looks like a great event in Ireland – something with a few less nettles and thorns to battle?

    Cheers Ian.

  3. I don’t think it warrants a Full Sus (or at least the half that I rode). My personal preference would be a rigid MTB.

    There were people riding on narrower ‘gravel’ bikes/tyres and it was rideable on that setup but those I spoke to said the descents could be a bit jarring/bumpy at times.

    If you are planning to race also think about being tired and therefore levels of concentration. I don’t think I could have picked a good line on narrower tyres when really tired and I’m pretty sure the extra grip afforded by my MTB tyres saved me from a spill on occasion.

  4. Thanks ever so much Benny. A fast rigid MTB with drop bars would perhaps be what I would think of using.

    I’m grateful for the info.

    Cheers Ian.

  5. Hope you are OK , Ben. Really enjoyed reading your blog. You are an inspirational person and a talented writer of words. Keep on, keeping on my brave friend.

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