Photos: Franck & Herve
A few months ago, after doing my first sportive, the "Paris-Nice Challenge”, I came across this Mercan'tour Bonette, "the highest sportive in Europe", why I registered? I'm not really sure, probably the need for another challenge, a bit like when you register for a marathon.
Just after it, I decide to participate to the “Louis Caput” sportive, 157 kms, 3000m elevation, just to test myself and see if I can survive this kind of long ride, straight after riding it, I decide to register, while thinking, it is good to set such targets, it will motivate me to take my bicycle to work instead of the comfy scooter.
Worst case scenario, I can always opt for the shorter version, the 120 km race with the same start and chance to go for the 180 km one on the way. Unfortunately with work and family constraints (with a June full of season end sport events, school and music shows...), my real training volume is nothing compared to my meticulously planned training when I bought my entry to the race...
Anyways, here I am a week to go before the D day with some Col de la Madones on my back and the painful Col de la Couillole done one month ago! Thanks to Alex I got wind that Herve is the only one from our MC Bike2Work association, who also did the Vencoise. We agree to meet at the start and ride together, I thought, at least I would not be alone the first few kms.... After a quick glance at his Strava, I get scared, he made 220 km the last weekend, and his training volume is way more impressive than mine!!
Sunday, June 18, morning, 7:30am, here we are, in Guillaumes! Despite the morning sunshine, it is cool, not too hot, perfect conditions for the moment. We decide with Herve to go easy, a slow start, the few first km are not so step, some 3 to 4%.
There is a very good mood among all the riders, Herve seems to have good legs, after a few kms I lose him, since we decided that the first of us waits the other at the Col de la Cayolle, no panic, a quick look at my cardio: 168 bpm!!! I decide to take it easy, as we have a long road in front of us, while there, I discuss with other participants and meet to 2 English guys living in the Var with some nice Cols chit chatting.
After Saint Martin d’Entraume, the road steepens seriously, we begin with the big percentages, I continue with my new English mates and finally catch up with Herve just before Estenc, which we climbed together, quick few pictures for Ivan, the landscape is beautiful all over the place. When the percentages rise further I take the lead ahead of Herve and arrive just before him at the Col which allows me to take pictures of his triumphant arrival! The first Col “Hors Categorie” (HC "beyond categorization) is in the bag! This deserves a picture! We start wondering if we will do the 120km or the 180km, we decide to postpone the decision...
On the way down, Herve rides like a madman, I have difficulties to follow and suddenly, there is the first refueling station at 11 km down from the Col. The landscape is sublime, a marmot passes by the side of the road, I stop and take a picture and meet Herve at the refueling station. So what do we do 120 or 180? Again we postpone the decision until the bottom of the Col, we will see at the split how we feel.
The rest of the descent was beautiful, a little less steep, and we start to see participants who go up the Cayolle! These are the first riders who are doing the 120 km race which are already climbing up back to la Cayolle. We finally arrive on the flat part before Barcelonette, with the descent doing good to our legs, motivation was high and let’s be crazy, let's do the 180 km!!! Not sure if we didn't have each, that we would have made the same choice…
We ride again flat until Jausier, the road wasn't that good and the heat started to get to me, I stitched to Herve's wheel who seemed to be quite in good shape... just compare his Strava to mine... With the sun hitting hard once we begin the Bonette climb, we're facing 23 km and more than 7% climbing conditions. There's a food and drink stop before the summit, but I don’t remember how far it is. We try to ride easy, after the first km among the green meadows on a low regular pace, we arrive to the high mountains with no more houses, a very rocky landscape with small rivers going down and increasing percentages... The heat and the road steepness make the pedaling more and more painful. At each drop of sweat, I'm thinking that I should stop and put my head under water to cool it down. I take the lead over Herve who stops for a pause. It is done, at the next bend I stop to put my head under water and I wait for Herve.
One turn, 2, 3 and still no fueling station! I began to regret not to have stopped with Herve, then after 2 bends, miracle, I see the food stop that I thought was much further ahead! It is good news, the bad one is that we still have 7 km of climbing before the summit, but we will see this after some good refueling. I wait for Herve with my phone to take a picture of his triumphant arrival (again!). This food stop is ideally located, however, I'm starting to have a hard time to eat anything, not sure if it is due to the heat, the height (we are at 2400m) or the tiredness, it just seems my body only wants liquids. I force myself to eat a banana, I take 2 in my pocket for later, guessing I'll get hungry on the way.
After some stretching, Herve re-starts, a quick photo of his departure and I join him to reach the next kilometric marker which announces the percentage of the next km... 9.4%, ooops! The food stop has done us good, we start again on a low but regular pace, we catch a few cyclists and finally arrive on a flatter section, with a percentage of 4 to 5% and a breathtaking landscape. It looks like we are on another planet, rocky with patches of snow that the spring sun left us for a few good photos. We can see the summit of “la Bonette” in the background. We ride relatively easily the next 2 kms, we even have time to take some more pictures. The morale is good, road is less steep, we see la Bonette, we've never been so close. My memories of the Couillole climb from a month ago are ignored, while we enjoy the descent.
Finally we arrive at the Col of Restefond, a guy from the organization tells us that we still have to go further and continue the road to the top. Some MC Bike2Work friends had told me about the high percentages of this road, all agreed that it was very steep but not very long... Lessons learned: the length of a climb in a cyclist's mind depends greatly of the cyclist's condition and the previous ride done before that climb! To me, it seems endless, I push very hard on the pedals, a quick look at my speedometer, I'm riding at 7 km/h and the steepness displayed is 12%!!! Before each turn I think this is the last one, but it seems that it is never the last one! I can see a few riders in front of me, I look back, Herve is a few meters behind, turning the head in such a steep climb impacts my balance and I have to make a few turns to find back a straight line. I am thinking of slowing down to wait for Herve, but I tell myself that if I slow down I will fall! At the next turn I see a rider who has decided to walk, I continue pedaling, but realize that the pedestrian rider goes almost as fast as me... Finally, after a moment that appeared to me like an eternity, I overpass him, the guy congratulates me and encourages me to go on. It is there I can see the stone of la Bonette, I put one steady foot on the ground, Herve arrives shortly after and... We did it! That last part of the climb is just unreal!
Of course, we deserve a picture an the panoramic view is over the whole valley of la Tinee on one side, and to the Ubaye on the other side, we have this feeling of being on the world's roof, and we are not alone, with us, bikers, some cars and quite a crowd!
After yet some more stretching, we share a banana, I wasn't hungry but told myself that I must eat something. I also forced myself to drink the isotonic drink given at the food stop, the taste seemed nice at the start of the race, but now I can hardly drink it! The few neurons that I still manage to get connected make me drink a few drops. The good news is that now, it goes down! As usual in the descents, Herve takes the lead, I remain cautiously behind him, we go past the Col of Restefond. We could have easily avoided the climb to la Bonette, but then we wouldn't be able to say that we went up to 2802 m! The way downs does us good again, the landscape is very mineral with a very clear view over the valley and the nice feeling of the wind keeps us fresh!
A few kilometers after the col, we can see the ambulance of the organization, we are asked to slow down, a rider is in it and a bicycle on the side, a beautiful Cannondale on the ground (no time to see which model), with standing rescuers, we can hear firemen, choppers, etc. We are asked to keep going. It is a good reminder on how dangerous downhills can be, we just hope it's nothing serious for the riders, the bicycle itself doesn't seem to be in a such a bad shape. We then begin quite a series of bends, Herve negotiates them with an agility that my small riding experience does not allow. I try to do my best to apply the few tips from an article I read on this topic, anticipate, brake before the bend, then restart all in agility... With each turn, Herve takes 30 m more ahead of me. We don’t read the same books! I am with several other riders now, everybody keeps their distance, the accident is probably on everyone's mind. I have a thought for Ivan who asked us to take pictures, so I stop to take a picture of the road that goes down like a shoelace. We pass “le camp des fourches”, a former military camp I believe, it has been abandoned for years but is now going under renovation, it is a little strange to see this village in the middle of nowhere.
After a series of turns that seem to never end, we reach “Bouseyas”, a few houses, a bar's terrace full of riders having a beer, quite a change of landscapes that we just went through! Beer and sunny terace seems to be a nice thing to do on a Sunday afternoon, strangely the beer doesn't appeal to me, as if my body paying back all the pain I made it go through. I continue and finally reach Herve after Saint Etienne de Tinee, he's waiting for me and again a picture for Ivan. We remove our covers and off we go! Next food stop is in 10 km, it goes down most of the time with some minor climbs that however, hurt the legs, the memory of the Couillole climb starts to worry me... Quick food and drink stop before Isola, I still can't eat anything, I drink a little and we leave. We make do 25 kms of flatness until Saint Sauveur de Tinee, the next food stop, and the beginning of the Couillole, with relay riding to fight together the strong wind. Each time I am in front I struggle a lot and slow us down, I really need to improve my self on the flats part.
At Saint Sauveur de Tinee, we stop for food and drink, we are joined by a small group of very cool riders that are actually following us for a while, we discuss and all agree that we need to be crazy to pay for doing something like this! We go on for the Col de la Couillole, last of the day, 16 kms 1100 m of climbing to be conquered. There is a food stop at 10km from the bottom at the small village of Roubion. The sign that mentioned “Arrival at 30 Km” cheers us up! The climb is very beautiful, but very painful, I feel each leg as being on the edge of suffering a cramp with each pedal stroke... after 5 kms, we decide to take a small break, we are just halfway to the food stop, but it seems logical to take a break here. We start again and we finally reach the food stop at Roubion, I only drink water. Herve stretches out on a low wall to recover and I take the opportunity to do some beautiful photos for Ivan again. The group of riders reach the food stop too and after a quick chat leave again.
We go again with more than 5km of suffering. I ride on a slow but steady pace, the legs are hard but I concentrate to keep it and finally reach the Col de la Couillole! Then, I wait for Herve to finish also the last climb... I wait... I wait... I start to think I should maybe have waited for Herve, but it's strange, he wasn't that far behind the last time I saw him! Finally, the group from before arrived and told me that my friend had a flat tire 500 m from the Col... I go down and find Herve next to his wheel struggling to put back his tire. We finish the repair together, then the assistance car of the race reaches us and asks if all is well, if we need something... Well, do you have any new legs for instance?
We set off again, with the car on our heels, which doesn't seem to wanna overtake us. When we reach the Col, we ask them if they were the broom car, which is usually the one that picks up the riders who have to abandon or are last of the race. "No, no, this car is in fact already full of riders, so that's why we stay behind you to make sure you are ok" Hmmm… Does this mean that we are the last ones? We hurry to go down to Beuil as quickly as our legs allow us. From Beuil, the last 5 kms are quick and flat sections, we overpass 3 fellow riders... yay, we won't be the last ones!
Then we can see the arrival, it is there, we did it!!! I thought it was going to be hard, but it was even harder, the climb of Couilloles was for me the hardest, I clearly missed some training for this type of race, but I am very proud to have done it! Strava sums up this effort quite well with a "suffer score of 508 - Epic", I'm not sure how the they do the calculations, my last record was 208, in any case, the word "Epic" is a good summary of this adventure. I have to say that without Herve, I'm not sure I would have reached the end, it was really nice to always have someone suffering with me!
I would highly recommend this one to anyone, just a few tips, make sure you train well and try to go with someone that will accept to suffer with you!
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