Living in France my cycling friends abroad and PEZ fans alike are always asking me what it’s like to race there, see the sights and simply experience the beauty of riding in France over the mythical roads that the Tour de France uses. Well despite living in France for the last 5 years or so my racing experience in the land of le Tour has been sadly limited to my ever dwindling memories of my old racing career from many years ago. The usual excuses of family, work and perhaps just sheer laziness have stopped me from taking advantage of my beautiful surroundings but that all changed recently.
There are 2 basic ways to go about achieving the dream of racing in France; a) You could try and become a professional, find a team in Europe to take you on and work your way up the rankings or b) Simply enter a ‘cyclosportif’ and race at your own level but still against some of the best riders around and over some beautiful roads.
Off the front, racing up Mt Ventoux, many years ago….
Having tried option A nearly 10 years ago and not quite making the big leagues my age and fitness levels were clearly leading me towards a path of option B. The cyclosportifs are well organized races that anyone can do with a certain degree of preparation and are a great way of achieving the dream of racing in France. Generally the races are divided into two circuits or ‘parcours’ a shorter one of around 60 – 100km and a long one that could range anywhere from 90 – 180km depending upon the time of the season, the difficulty of the circuit and just how sadistic the race organizer is.
For my first experience back in cyclosportifs after many a year away I chose the cyclosportif, ‘La Tarbaise’ in the region in the South West of France called the Hautes Pyrenees. Why La Tarbaise? Well firstly I just wanted to do any race at some point this year after finally starting to get some fitness in the legs. Secondly I had family from Australia coming to visit who are big bike fans and I thought that a weekend away racing would be a great way to show them a special piece of France that is the South-West.
With roads like this to ride on, why haven’t I done more racing over the last 5 years?
That’s one of the things about the cyclosportifs that I love so much, the discovery of a new region, the food, the culture and the people that you meet. La Tarbaise was just the right size too at ‘just’ 200 riders so as not to be too big and still have a great atmosphere and yet highly competitive racing. With 200 riders for the grand parcours and another 200 for the ‘petit’ it’s certainly on the small side for a French cyclosportif but for the uninitiated 200 is still a big peloton! Yes, a 200 rider peloton is small people. Some races in France attract numerous thousands of partcipants – it just depends what you want out of the experience. I’ve done races like Etape du Tour and the Megeve Mont Blanc where pelotons of 5000 strong are the norm and they’re certainly great experiences also – I love them both!
For this race though I chose a small one, in a beautiful region and what I thought would be a relatively easy ‘grand parcours’ of 110kms. The profile on the helpful website when I entered didn’t look too bad, but when I got there on the Friday before the race and went for a spin on the circuit on my trusty ‘bitsa’ bike I quickly realized that it would be tougher than I first imagined. In fact it was hard, really, really hard. The region is called the Hautes Pyrйnйes or ‘High Pyrйnйes’ for a reason I guess.
Now I mentioned that I got there 2 days before and this is a luxury that I didn’t often have back when I was racing these things to win, but it does make a huge difference. I managed to find a great rental house for 3 days at just 100Euros a night which was big enough for 7 people and it had everything you needed in terms of cooking equipment, towels etc and was just 3km from the start/finish line – perfect.
This totally renovated farmhouse at just 100 Euros per night made the perfect PEZ base for 3 days.
Staying just near the race start and arriving early meant that I could acclimatize for the race, pick up my number and entrant’s pack the day before and just generally enjoy the region which is almost guaranteed to be beautiful if you’re anywhere in France – this country is just ridiculously scenic sometimes.
My entrance kit for La Tarbaise, water bottle, gift certificate, energy drink, map, rules and regulations for the race and some info on the region.
The region of La tarbaise was absolutely gorgeous with a combination of small hills, big hills and just plain huge mountains that included some beautiful little villages, old churches and buildings, ancient farmlands and the catholic pilgrimage town of Lourdes.
With la Tarbaise being an end of season race we thankfully avoided the high passes in this race. We managed to do a lot of these other ‘hills’ though!
Now Lourdes is where believers come by the millions to visit the church and grotto where Mary apparently appeared once many years ago. The town itself is certainly a pretty place but with just 15,000 residents for an incredible 6 million (!!!) visitors per year it’s certainly a tourist trap if ever I’ve seen one. It was worth a visit though and even though I’m not of that persuasion I figured a bit of holy water from the sacred spring couldn’t do me any harm.
Here in front of the church with the family in Lourdes I thought about praying for my good legs from 10 years ago for the next day but instead went for the more realistic prayer of dry weather. (it came true!)
Tip number 2 for a cyclosportif is to be prepared. One should always have a checklist and check it religiously before travelling to a race. Helmet, shoes, doctor’s certificate or racing license (either or both are required for registration, depending upon the race) should be top of the list along with of course every bike rider’s essential tool – the excuse list. With well over 20 years of racing experience under my belt my excuse list was particularly strong for this race with the classic one’s of ‘not too many km’s done lately’, ‘been sick’, ‘working too much’ etc all in evidence but even I excelled myself by having root canal surgery and being on antibiotics the week before the race. Ok, I was now ready to race.
Another tip is to take along a good support crew to cheer you on. These guys took out the most miles travelled award coming from Australia to an abandoned mountain in France to cheer me on. Thanks guys!
Tip number 3 – position yourself at the front for the start. This is to me a no brainer but it’s amazing how many people rock up at the last minute for the start grid. Working your way through a 200 or even a 10,000 rider pack is not exactly easy. If you can save yourself the trouble by just getting there early and waiting before the race it will be worth it.
I was cold while I was waiting for the start but it didn’t matter – I was in the front row!
Tip number 4 – when riding in the first 20kms of the race position yourself on either the far left of the peloton or the far right so if there’s an accident you can always jump off the road and save your skin – literally! With anything from WorldTour pros to complete novices riding these cyclos sometimes the handling from certain riders is really pretty poor. Crashes could happen – don’t be in them!
Tip number 5 – Be realistic. If you’re not going to be in the front fighting for the win with the pros or wanna be pros at the end of the day, don’t kill yourself to stay with them as they force the pace at the start. The key is to find a group at your speed and roll with them. I also find this the best way to meet new riders and to enjoy the race. If you’re simply ‘sucking stem’ and looking at the guy’s brake calipers in front of you all race you’re probably not going to enjoy your day. It’s much better to be the guy who is 10minutes behind but is swapping off turns with a group of his ability and really feeling like he’s ‘in’ the race.
So after following all my tips how did I actually go in la Tarbaise? Well I can tell you that despite the relatively low numbers of entrants the quality of the riders was very impressive with the speed at the start being extremely fast. Having ridden the first 20km 2 days before I knew that there were two, good length hills to complete in those first 20kms so I was well positioned when we hit them and was able to get over them ok. The third hill was my undoing though and I followed my own advice and eased off the lead group(some would say exploded) as with over 80kms still remaining and already being well into the red I knew I wouldn’t finish if I kept up at that pace.
It was disappointing to let the leaders go like that but much to the surprise of both me and my wife I seem to be getting wiser as I get older! Some would say that day would never come……
After letting the elite riders go I spent my day with a group of about 10 riders although at this stage of the race, approaching the top of the biggest hill in the race we were reduced to just 4, soon to be 3, soon to be 2!
My race after letting the elites go consisted of working together in small groups of other riders as we continued at a very quick pace, but not so quick that I couldn’t appreciate the surroundings a little. Being able to work together in the group, catch other dropped riders and then have great fun in the last 10kms of flat roads before the finish with numerous attacks and counter attacks was a great way to end the day. My final position was 47th which was ok, although I had hoped to be top 30 before the race started with my current level of fitness.
Despite finishing a lowly 47th place I had a great time and was honored to be interviewed by the organizer, president of club, commentator and just plain nice guy, Michel at the finish.
For those that would like to race in France I only have one more piece of advice – just do it! You won’t regret it and no matter what your level if you follow my advice you’re sure to have a great day.
Still not convinced that racing in France is for you? Then let me talk about the price – just 15 Euros! Yes, my race in La Tarbaise cost a ridiculously low 15 Euros or 25 Euros if you wanted the delicious local meal at the end of your race. Ok, so this low race cost doesn’t quite offset the plane trip and associated travel costs, but seriously, for 15 Euros Michel and his team of 120 volunteers from the Tarbes Cyclistes certainly put on a good race.
Eighteen motorcyclists to clear the road, two feed stations en route for those that need it and a quality organisation all around. For those of you that would like more information on La Tarbaise, their website is here and if you go to their race next year, tell them I sent you! I might even go back myself as although the weather was clear on race day, the day before it was pouring with rain which cut my sightseeing dramatically and I’m sure that there’s still a lot to see in the region.
And for more on cyclos in France and the latest calendar (in French), velo101 is my source.
See you at the cyclo’s!