As I mentioned in my last post, the night before the Gran Fondo I had put in some earplugs before going to bed, in an attempt to try and make sleeping easier in the presence of jet lag and the noisy hotel. The Gran Fondo started at 8:00am, so I had planned on arriving at 7:45am. Allowing for 30 minutes to ride the 10km to the start (the Gran Fondo started in St. Tropez, I was staying in Cogolin) and 45 minutes to have breakfast and get ready, I had set my alarm for 6:30am. Needless to say I was quite tired when I went to bed, from having arisen that morning at 4:00am to catch my flight to Nice, and from not having fallen asleep until 3:00am two nights before due to jet lag. Eventually I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of the next day's ride.
As my eyes gradually opened the next morning before (so I thought) my alarm had gone off, I thought "Wow, it sure gets bright early in France! It's not even 6:30am and look at how bright it is!". I then tried to force my eyes open further so that I could make out the time displayed on the clock radio, and as I did so, through the muffling of my ear plugs I began to make out the incessant ringing of my wake-up alarm. Sacre bleu! That meant I was running late. I frantically rubbed my eyes and read the time: 7:36am. That meant I was running REALLY late. Normally I like to have breakfast before I go on a 6 hour ride, but at this point there was no time for that. I frantically pulled on my jersey and shorts (which I had thankfully laid out the night before), applied sunscreen (nobody likes skin cancer, even when running late), grabbed two bananas and half of a fruit cake that I had bought the day before (I love fruitcake, even when it's not Christmas), and bolted out the door.
I had been planning on riding the 10km to St. Tropez at a really easy pace to warm up for the day ahead, but it had now turned into a frantic 10km team time trial done in conjunction with two Brits that I picked up along the way who had also slept in. As I rode I crammed fruitcake into my mouth while checking the time and realizing that the only way we would make the start was if they were running behind schedule (after all, we were in France, not Switzerland). As we rolled into St. Tropez at 8:05am things were looking good as the police were still blocking the roads, and we finally came around a corner to the start area and everyone was still there (see below). Bonne chance!
There were cyclists stretching back as far as the eye could see, so I rode back until the barriers allowed me to squeeze into the start area and join the throng of cyclists. I just had time to put on my arm warmers (it was a little chilly but until that point I hadn't noticed) when the gun fired and we were off!
This was the first Gran Fondo that I have done, but from what I had read about them I was under the impression that it was more or less a big group ride/tour done with a few thousand other cyclists, with perhaps a few sporting individuals at the front of the pack who would push the pace and see how fast they could go. For this reason I hadn't placed too much emphasis on any sort of training, with most of my preparations coming in the form of downhill and backcountry skiing. Well, it turns out that a Gran Fondo is a lot more like a race than a tour. This first registered immediately after the gun went off, as everyone around me took off at a frantic pace through the narrow streets of St. Tropez, and once we were out of the town and onto wider roads we continued to maintain a 40-45km/hour pace. "What's the hurry guys? I thought this was just for fun?!?". Maybe this impression was accentuated by my having started closer to the front, but I had a lot of people steam past me (and I mean A LOT), and everyone seemed to be going all out.
Eventually I drifted far enough back that I could hold the pace without fear of blowing up in 20km (there had been three ride options: 77km, 121km, and 161km; I had of course registered for the 161km version) and we continued to cruise along the roads. Everything was closed to traffic, so I felt like we were in the Tour de France as we went zooming through the roundabouts in a giant peloton.
After about 20km we came to the base of the first climb and things began to break up, and I began repassing some of the old men and children who had passed me on the flat section. It was a nice long gradual climb, and given that we had about 7,500 feet of climbing to go it was good ot get some of it out of the way. Eventually we crested the summit and continued along a ridge before descending back down to the valley below. By this time I had started to recognize the people going more or less the same pace as me, and there was a common thread that everyone seemed to be about 30 years older than I was. One conclusion to draw would be that in Europe many old people ride Gran Fondos; the second, and more accurate conclusion would be that everyone who was my age was up the road by about 20 minutes at this point.
So, either European cyclists are intrinsically fitter than your North American protagonist, or perhaps they just train by riding their bikes instead of slaying mad pow in the Cascades. It didn't matter too much, but the upshot was that the small group that I found myself riding with consisted of myself and about 10 other riders who could have been on leave from their retirement homes, and one of them didn't have legs. Don't laugh, it's true: one of the guys had two prosthetic limbs from the knee down, and he was one of the stronger riders in the group (he had been ahead and only came to join our group when he stopped to change the padding on his legs).
We came to the first rest stop after 60km, some continued on through but I knew that I needed to eat as much as possible since I hadn't had the leisurely breakfast that I had planned on and because from past experience I know how important it is to stay fueled up when riding long distances with little preparation. I ate a few sweet loafs of something or other, grabbed some apricots, filled my water bottle with some strange European mint drink, and was on my way.
I'll apologize now that there aren't any pictures, I had planned on having a leisurely ride where I could snap lots of photos for nicely illustrated blog post (I even brought along a small tripod, which speaks to how miscontrued my impressions were of what the ride would be like) but everyone around me was going so fast and treating it like such a race that I had no choice but to do the same. Needless to say, when you are on the rivet with your forehead nailed to the stem trying not to let any daylight in between your wheel and the guy in front of you, there aren't a lot of oppurtunities to get out the tripod, set the 10 second self-timer, pose, and snap a photo. Hopefully the verbal description of the comedy of errors in my first Gran Fondo will keep my gentle reader adequately entertained. Here is one photo montage from the event photographer:
From the first feed station we headed up another big climb, and I passed some more people who would immediately catch back up as soon as we hit a flat section (that is the hallmark of my cycling abilities, not just something that happens when I am out of shape). Apparently it is okay for triathletes to ride Gran Fondos, there were a number who had on triathlon jerseys (e.g. Ironman Switzerland) and some who were even on triathlon bikes with aero bars. As expected, though they were quite fit and usually passed me on the climbs, on the downhills they took the corners so slow that you might have thought they were still ascending and they were easily dispatched with. I have come to realize that wearing triathlon gear while out on a ride is akin to driving a car with one of those "New Driver" stickers in the rear window; you are advertising to all those around you that your bike handling skills are nonexistent and that it would be prudent to leave a wide berth when passing.
We continued along, and after 115km we arrived at the second feed station. This one was similar to the last except that it had baguettes and pieces of Brie cheese (after all, we were in France) that were quite appealing as I was starting to get sick of sweet food (the upper threshold on my sweet tooth is quite high, but it does exist) as the only food that had managed to grab while rushing out the door that morning were some Dutch "stroop vvvaffels" (I'm not sure how this is spelled, I am trying to phonetically spell out the pronunciation that my Oma taught me when I was 5) which are thin sandwich sort of things with a rich syrupy filling. In retrospect, as I saw those around me chewing on energy bars and downing power gels, my nutrition choices of fruitcake and dutch waffles began to seem a bit strange but it had seemed like a good idea in "Le Supermarche" the day before.
Thus satiated we rolled out from the feed station and continued to wind our way through the French countryside. Periodically we would come upon a sign for the race (which I could identify because they said "Le Cycle" at the top before their message below); some of them I could understand or guess at but others I had no idea. For those that I was baffled by, I would usually find out a few seconds later when I encountered whatever hazard or obstacle they were warning about. Apparantly some of them meant "potholes ahead", as in one case soon after the sign I found myself dodging between holes in the road. Not knowing how to properly warn those behind me in French I just yelled out some gibberish (just various sounds in a loud voice); from the chorus of cries that propogated down the line after me I learned that I should have yelled "attention!".
Between 120km and 130km I finally began to feel confident that I was going to make it to the finish, so while up until that point I had mostly tried to hide in the pack and avoid exerting myself on the front (except for the downhills where I couldn't help but going all out and it was safer to be on the front for slaloming around the triathletes) I decided that it was time to stop shirking my responsibilities and do some work on the front. There wasn't any sort of formal rotation in place and everyone was happy to avoid doing the work (confirming the obvious truth that despite their fitness, Europeans are very lazy), so it came down to myself and one other wizened old guy to set the pace for the next 10-20 km. Things were going well until we hit the next climb, at which point I blew up and was spit out the back of the group. Oh well, better to try to "make the race" and explode than to just sit in and finish as an also ran.
As I now found myself riding solo I decided that since it had been 5 hours I might as well stop for a nature break. After relieving myself and climbing back on my bike I noticed a strange periodic bumping in my rear wheel. At first I thought my brakes were rubbing (which would have also conveniently explained my getting dropped by a bunch of French retirees), but after looking back at the clearance from the brake pads it appeared to be fine. My next hypothesis was that the bearings in my hub were on the way out; on my warmup ride the day before I had noticed some disconcerting noises when descending at speed and a later inspection had revealed that the hub had a lot of play in it and likely needed some servicing. I couldn't prove or disprove this guess, so I continued on with the looming expectation that my rear hub would detonate at any moment.
I slowly began counting down the kilometers to the finish (luckily I had my GPS telling me how far I had gone), and eventually I was motoring along the final flat section into Cogolin, passing the 20, 15, 10, 5km to go signs. I found myself pretending that I was in a solo breakaway and powering along to a stage win, the only part missing was the "giving it everything and flying along" bit, as by this point I was completely empty and giving it everything didn't yield very much.
No matter though, I soon rolled into the "Place de la Republique" in Cogolin, zipped up my jersey and crossed the finish line as the tifosi went crazy, against all odds completing my first European Gran Fondo. Tres bien!
After sitting down for a bit to recover I cashed in my meal ticket for a delicious lunch of pasta, salad, cake, and apple sauce which I savored while watching the few people who had actually finished behind me straggle in. Here is a shot of the finish area:
And here is a shot of me and my mustache, happy to be finished with our exertions for the day:
And here is a shot of the Ritchey Break-Away fresh off his first century:
I had finished the 161km in 5 hours and 50 minutes, and although I didn't have any goals going into it (who sets goals for a casual tour?), to go under 6 hours would have been a good goal so I'll say that I acheived that and am very satisfied. I checked the results board and the winner did it in 4 hours and 24 minutes, not too bad. Apparently I can train all winter for skiing and still manage a better time in an early season bike race with no training that in my winter ski races (in the Wasatch Powder Keg my time was 3:35 and the winner did it in 2:06). I had read that ex-pros commonly raced Gran Fondos for the prize money, the only name on the leaderboard that I recognized was that of Phillipe Gaumont, a former pro who rode with Cofidis and left the sport in the same doping scandel that ensnared David Millar about 5 years ago. He only managed a 5th place, so apparently he has reformed his wayward tendencies.
I milled around the expo area a little more, taking in some of the sights such as the Colnago that Anthony Charteau rode while leading the KOM competition at the Tour de France last year:
I then decided to go have a shower and relax in my hotel room. On the way there I decided to finally investigate my mysterious rear wheel problem that thankfully had not manifested itself into anything more serious than the annoying bumping that I could feel. A cursory inspection of my tire revealed that I had worn a sizeable hole in my tire, and that a bulge had been created by the tube trying to press its way out of said hole:
Yikes! That could have ended badly! My saving grace had been a set of "Mr. Tuffy" anti-puncture plastic strips that I had installed in this wheel set a while ago, as seen in the photo below where the rim strip can be seen poking through the hole in the tire:
When I got back up to my room I removed my rear wheel to inspect the situation in more detail, and upon taking the tire off I realized that I was doubly lucky, as the hole in the tire had occured in the short section of wheel where the puncture strips overlapped one another to provide a double layer of protection. As seen in the photo below, I had worn entirely through the first layer of puncture strip and had gotten a good start on the second, next up was the tube! If the hole had occurred in the 95% of the tire circumference without a double layer, I would have flatted as soon as the first layer of puncture strip wore through. Bonne chance encore une fois!
So, this is a lesson to me that I shouldn't use worn out tires. I really like wearing right through a set of tires because it shows how much I have ridden on them, but I am less excited about such an event when it occurs during a 160km loop ride in a foreign country. I have no idea how I would have gotten back to Cogolin from the middle of the french country side, stolen a horse from a field perhaps? Thankfully I never had to find out, that might have been a little too much adventure for one day.
Below is a link to our route as recorded by my GPS:
And for those too lazy to click on the link (though you can't be too lazy if you have gotten this far into my trip report) here is a view of the route in Google Earth:
I headed to bed early that night, and the next morning got out for a good 90km ride (after further reinforcing my rear tire) before making my way back to Nice where I stayed one night before heading back to Seattle the next day.
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