Translated from French, original article by Spotzle.cc
The Roc d’Azur was always a dream event during my teenage years. One day I would ride it, but my cycling passion during my teens was the thrill of Downhill and Freeride. Ten years would pass before I finally registered for the Roc d’Azur!
Roc d’Azur is an annual mountain biking event held in Fréjus and Roquebrune-sur-Argens, France during October. It consists of a trade show and a few dozen races, attracting riders from various countries. The inaugural edition of the Roc d’Azur was run in 1984 and featured seven competitors, including event founder Stéphane Hauvette. The Roc d’Azur has since grown to become the biggest mountain biking event in the world.
The event’s itinerary has expanded to include gravel bikes. Gravel Origins 83 is a non-timed event, some 302 kilometres in length with 5,000 metres of elevation gain over two days. I was tackling the lesser gravel event, Mavic Gravel Roc. In total, 67 kilometres with an elevation gain of 1,280 metres. There are six feed stations along the course, so I wouldn’t need to carry a lot of food or supplies. I trained by riding some of my favourite trails in and around Brittany aboard my cyclocross bike, and took it to places that were ordinarily the domain of a mountain bike.
Sunday, October 13, 2018, race day, came around way too fast. The race began at 8am, but I’d allowed myself plenty of time to get ready. Pin the race number onto the jersey, secure race number to the bike, fill my water bottles, line my pockets with energy gels and kiss my lady before heading to the start line. It was a cool morning, but the sun is shining bright.
On the start line, I observe several interesting things; puddles 100 metres from the start line (my clean bike wouldn’t be so clean almost immediately), ex-professional Steve Chainel / current amateur racer for Chazal-Canyon, and almost 300 competitors. The start could get a bit spicy.
The race begins on time and I roll through the 100-metre slush pit barely clipped in. This is going to be a fun race!
The beginning of the course is not overly challenging. Speeds are slow and some stretches must be traversed on foot because there are so many riders, think logjam. However, the scenery changes quickly as soon as we arrive into the Var hinterland. We had barely traversed 10kms of the course before we are all suffering on a series of small ramps that average about 15%. My legs were really feeling the effort, ouch!
Also mildly hurting were some abrasions I collected on a descent located among these 15% lumps. Unfortunately, I spent a small amount of time on the ground, when a fellow competitor squeezed me just a bit too much… thankfully, my bike and I were fine to continue.
Once this first difficulty has passed, we took the fork towards the Col du Bougnon. This dropped us onto bitumen, which was also a good time to eat some food and recover a little. After these early difficulties, I was optimistic the rest of the course had to be easier.
The next set of climbs weren’t as difficult, neither were any of the technical sections or fast descents that made up a large part of the course.
During my journey, I passed several riders standing by the side of the course, fixing flat tyres. Suffice to say, I was glad to be running a tubeless tyre setup. Not long after this thought had left my mind, around 35kms into the race, my front tyre decided to begin detaching itself from the rim in the middle of a full-on technical descent … superb!
Time to effect a road-side fix. I cleaned the inside and outside of the tyre, inside of the rim and generally triple checked everything. I couldn’t find any sign of a puncture, but sometimes, tyres are strange things. Inflation with a tube mounted inside was somewhat successful. The tubeless tyre was not sitting fully into the bead, so my second and final air cartridge seemed to make things better. A mountain biker from another race happened to roll by and kindly loaned me a hand pump. Now, the tyre was properly inflated to about two bar (29psi) and seated. Fingers crossed for no more issues!
I tried not to think about the amount of time I had lost, but it was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30 places. Due to the time lost, I found myself in middle of other races, namely, mountain bikes and even mountain bike tandems! Still, best not to complain and finish the race without further problems.
I rode the final 25kms not holding anything back. Having tandems and mountain bikers to chase from other races spurred me on. I may have reclaimed about 12 positions, but I definitely lost time in some of the challenging muddy areas, made so by rain earlier in the week. In particular, the tandems left the biggest ruts in the mud, which added to the fun of the adventure!
At the final aid station, I had a chance meeting with Sébastien (Instagram@cycliste_tricolore), Maxime and Apolline (Instagram@apogllmn), the Mavic dream team. I made a point to enjoy a beer with them at the finish line. I took advantage of the mechanical assistance at the station to put a little more air into my tyre, and finish this muddy adventure on a high note!
I rode hard and focused during the final kilometres of the course, head down, on the drops, not a moment of respite. Impossible to slow down, the finish line was too close.
The final surprise difficulty of the course: the climb of the Col de Bougnon. Despite the visual of a wall rising in front of me, the few supporters on the side of the road gave me an incredible boost. Rising 200 metres at 17%, the climb wasn’t easy nor overbearing, and I was thankful the ascent was relatively short. The summit lead to a set of fun, technical tracks.
Heading towards the sea, the course zig-zagged in between housing estates to join the coastal road. This photogenic location was invaded by motorists, all of whom were blocked by we competitive cyclists, all there for the Roc d’Azur races!
The beginning of the next section is little technical and where my cyclocross skills came in handy.
The inhabitants of the nearby houses were outside, enjoying the sunshine and cheering on every crazy and courageous rider.
Back onto pavement briefly amongst the motor vehicles, then back to the coastal path and onto the beach! There are less than five kilometres to ride, which naturally includes a massive sandpit worthy of the best cyclocross race course.
I grit my teeth, plenty of power and finesse is required to ride loose sand.
Back to the bitumen, I can almost smell the beer at the finish line!
On this bitumen section, I am being overrun by the tandem mountain bikes that are fighting for the podium. I managed to grab the draft of one of the tandems, that markedly sped up my progress. On the next unpaved section of the course, I was able to return the favour by riding ahead and shielding the front of the tandem from the wind. I wanted to reach the finish line as soon as possible, I want my beer!
I raise my head, the finish is close now. The billboard announces, “arrival in 300 metres”. The funny thing is, the stretch of mud resembles a field of battle following an amateur rugby game on a rainy Sunday.
Once again, my cyclocross techniques paid off. At one spot, I rode hard against the barriers and on the thin margin of grass, all to gain maximum grip to reach the finish line.
Success! 67 kilometres travelled in the mud of the south of France! My ride time was three hours and 30 minutes, but the clock never stops. My official arrival ride time was four hours and nine minutes for 116th place. About 40 minutes lost because of the issues with my tyres! But, I did enjoy that finish line beer, it was well-earned.
In summary, I was very glad I spent plenty of time riding my cyclocross bike with local mountain bikers in the Brittany region. Downhills, technical trails, singletrack and long climbs (for a CX bike), made for a challenging edition of Mavic Gravel Roc. But to be honest, this route was most suited to mountain bikes, and not gravel / cyclocross bikes. However, I am certain I will return in 2019.
Is it amazing to see a talent like Steve Chainel win this race again. I think of this race as being similar to the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross race in Yorkshire (England), versus the gravel events we have been springing up everywhere, particularly those in the United States. Bigger tyres and a proper gravel bike would definitely have helped.
Thank you for reading!
Link to original article by Spotzle.cc – Many thanks to our French friends in Gravel!