Imagine an ultracycling race during which you are forced to sleep... It is indeed inconceivable. And yet, this is what almost happened with the curfew in force in France. Fortunately, the good news came a few days before the start, the curfew would stop on Sunday evening and we will be able to do the race in the proper way!
Start at 6 AM in Le Cannet with about 80 competitors, a lot of known
faces and I take the opportunity to chat with some of them. Everyone is
obviously very excited and can't wait to tackle this 1000km course with
more than 20.000m of D+. Most of the races have a first stretch of 20km
which is quite easy to warm up, but this is not the case on this
Bikingman France because the exit of Cannes is done by the beginning of
the Pre-Alps and we are directly in the atmosphere!
First difficulty of the day, the climb to Gourdon to reach the Pre-Alps Natural Park. The climb is constant and doesn't present any real difficulty, except that I ride quite fast, probably a bit too fast. We are now on a rather flat part of the course and the average speed is already high! We then arrive in the Gorges du Verdon which I know well as I have been going there regularly on holiday since I was a kid. And this is where the first real difficulty of the day comes up: the Route des Crêtes! A climb that is not very long, but with double-digit percentages and a heat that starts to get high. My Isaac Meson and myself are ready to race!
But once at the top, the reward is there, a breathtaking view on the canyon, one of the most beautiful and immense that I know. The beginning of the descent is on a very poor-quality asphalt, making it quite tricky, and the numerous tourists in vehicles do not make it easy for me. Here I am now at the level of the Sainte-Croix lake and its so particular blue color.
There is very little respite as the route quickly takes us to the second difficulty of the day at the exit of Moustier-Sainte-Marie. A new short climb with high gradients. And it is at this moment that I start to feel pain in my right knee. I had never had any since I started cycling, and after only 170km, it is obviously quite worrying. I don't understand what's happening to me, I feel like little shocks in the front of my knee. I continue to ride and notice that it hurts less when I stand up to climb. That's good, but I'm not going to do the remaining 900km out of the saddle... Anyway, I'll see how it evolves.
When I arrive in Gréoux-les-Bains, after 220km, my knee is still sore and I decide to take a good break as I've only stopped for 6 minutes so far. I take the opportunity to refuel and send news to my friends. During my break, I leave my bike in the sun and, surprise, when I get back on it, the front tire got a flat! Probably due to the patches that didn't hold the heat in the sun. It doesn't help me to calm down, but I'm starting to get used to it and I fix the puncture very quickly.
This is followed by a long, fairly flat section to the Massif de la Sainte Baume with a good headwind. Added to the heat, the conditions become difficult and I’m evolving slowly towards the South. But I keep a steady pace and wait for the sun to go down. And I finally find a food truck to refuel and have a little break. I’m not the only rider there and love these little breaks between competitors during which we share about the race, but also about many other subjects. That's what makes this kind of event so strong.
I get back on the road and the sun slowly sets. Once night falls, I meet up with Hughes, whom I pass on the downhill and who comes back on me on the uphill, and so on. We don't ride together, but we've been passing each other for over an hour. We are riding together towards CP1 and see that thunderstorms are rumbling in the distance, in the direction of the course, which is not a good sign. We arrive at CP1 at about 3AM after 445km of riding. It's not raining, but the storms are still rumbling and seem to be located around Mont Ventoux. I decide not to risk a night climb in the rain, I am tired and worn out by this long day and decide to rest.
After only one hour of sleep, the second day of BikingMan France starts with a short warm-up before arriving in Bédoin, at the foot of the Giant of Provence. After a quick stop at a bakery to get my strength back, I set off to climb Mont Ventoux. The summit is still in the clouds and I only guess it, but I know it is there and the next few hours will not be easy. So I go inexorably into the forest as the gradient increases and hovers around 10%. This is clearly the hardest part of the climb and I don't move very fast. But the pace is constant, my knee doesn't hurt anymore and I'm only looking forward to the summit. After about an hour and a half, I emerge from the forest and see the famous lunar landscape. The vegetation is gradually shrinking around me as I pass the Chalêt Reynard. I continue to make good progress and the summit is not far away. I share a part of the climb with a retiree who is not at his first attempt and finally reach the summit after 2h40 of effort. Unfortunately, they are working for the Tour de France venue and have removed the famous "Mont Ventoux" sign at the top. Anyway, I take a picture in front of the souvenir shop, take 5 minutes to admire the landscape and realize that I have just climbed one of the most mythical summits in the cycling world, and this after almost 500km of race!
I only put on my windbreaker for the descent because I don't want to get fully dressed and then have to undress again half an hour later. But it's only 10AM and the descent is obviously cool, not to say freezing! I'm hitting 80km/h on some sections and I'm shaking like a leaf, which makes the whole bike shake. Apart from that, the descent is obviously great and I'm enjoying it! Moreover, the asphalt has just been resurfaced for the Tour de France and this gives me full confidence.
I then climb the cols de Perty and Saint Jean which offer superb views and I feel good. I later cross the gorges of the Méouge, which are much smaller than those of the Verdon, but just as magnificent. I go at my own pace without forcing myself too much and continue to be preceded and followed closely by some very strong competitors. I'm around tenth place, which is very good considering I'm not a climber. But at the end of the afternoon, I start to get stuck again and I have to start drawing on my mental strength to keep pushing. Nevertheless, the road over the lake of Serre-Ponçon before arriving in Embrun is just amazing. I'm lucky enough to see the sun set at this point, flooding the peaks with a red light, making the setting exceptional, worthy of a postcard!
It's 10PM and I hesitate to eat in Embrun because I don't know what I'll find later, especially at CP2. But it's getting cold and I know I'll have trouble leaving if I eat here. So, I decide to push a bit in order to continue my route. I've been riding for about 300km since CP1, the last few kilometers to Guillestre seem endless and I am exhausted. The choice is therefore quite simple, I need to sleep at CP2 because I know I won't be able to ride like this all night. And after a big plate of pasta bolognese, I collapse in one of the beds of the dormitory at our disposal!
The third day starts with the climb of the Col de Vars in which I very quickly have chain problems. I don't know why, but at some point, the chain goes off the chainring and being very tired, I don't react right away, which stalls the chain between the chainring and the frame. I have to remove it but once on the bike, the same issue happens again and again. I notice that the chain is now bent. What I don’t immediately see is that the chainring is also bent. These mechanical issues are always a challenge for our mental as we are very tired after already two days of riding and where any issue can play with our nerves. But I start to learn which gears I can use and the combinations that are now forbidden with this damaged transmission. And I move on.
Then, a bit further in the climb, I start to feel nauseous. Again, something very unusual for me during these long rides. But as always, I take it in my stride, wait, and little by little it goes away. Not that I’m being very fast again, but I manage to ride at a steady pace. I arrive at the top of the Col de Vars at sunrise and the scenery is magnificent, an ideal breakfast for the eyes!
But it is the next big chunk that will be the main course, the Col de la Bonette. As soon as I start to climb it, I feel the fatigue getting heavier and heavier. I’m not going very fast, I yawn, and then I start to fall asleep on the bike. Literally. Twice I feel myself falling asleep on the bike and, although I’m climbing, I know it’s not very good and I'd better stop. Halfway to the top, I decide to lay on the grass under the sun and rest for a few minutes.
Refreshed, I set off again in the direction of the pass. I’m not far from it, with only two kilometres left, but I’m exhausted. My mind has taken over for a while now and my legs are automatically pushing the pedals. I have a thought for my parents, I can't help but burst into tears, but I’m boosted again. I finish at a good pace, reach the top, enjoy the view while I put my jacket on. And off I go on a frantic descent. The biggest difficulty of the race is behind me and there were less than 200km left!
There is one last big pass for today, the Col de la Couillole, which is harder than it looked like on paper. But the views are again rewarding and I’m enjoying the climb as much as I can’t wait to be at the top. And the absence of cars on the road is another good reason to seize this beautiful moment. We have now left the Alps and are again in the pre-Alps and I’m heading to the very last difficulty of the day and the whole race, the Col du Buis which offers three very hard kilometers before reaching the top. I have to leave the saddle during the whole climb as my 11-32 cassette feels really too small here. But I eventually make it to the top, a few minutes behind the rider in front of me and 20 minutes before the next rider. I’m reaching the Col de Bleine and it’s now only downhill and flat till the finish line. As from now on, I know I can use my qualities of rouleur to consider the last 100km as a time trial and get rid of my two close opponents. I know we’re not fighting for the first place or even the podium, but I like the excitement of competition and fierce battle.
I am entering full speed in Antibes as it’s almost 11PM and there’s no traffic in the city. The temperature is perfect and there’s a festive atmosphere thanks to the end of the curfew. The last kilometers don’t seem as long as they do on other races as I don’t have any pain this time. My bib short and saddle made a perfect combination and it’s the first time I feel so good after almost three days.
It’s 11.40 PM when I cross the finish line of this huge Bikingman France in 14th position after 65h40 of hard effort. I’m welcomed by Axel Carion and the race angels of course, but the most reassuring person is present, my wife. She sees and feels how deep I had to dig this time as I look way more exhausted than the other times. I’m very proud because I’m a finisher for the sixth time in a row. I always think about scratching during these races because they are a real challenge for the body and mind. And this time, I really thought it would be the only option after all the issues I faced. But no, even when I felt pain, even when I had mechanical issues and even when I wanted to throw up, giving up has never been an option and will never be!