Ardechoise

Overall Distance 120 k / 66 k Time Taken 4:26 / 3:37
Height Climbed 2150 metres Overall Position 203rd
Distance Climbed 60 k Category Position Gold
Date June 2005 Country France
Entrants 13,109 Region Ardeche

With the the back-to-back Dauphine debacle and the Ventoux vaunt out of the way, we returned to Jersey for a week, regrouped, fed the dog, chucked in a few short training sessions, then left for the Ardechoise.

Haystacks & Needles
Held in the middle of a French nowhere, known as the Ardeche, the Ardechoise starts in the town of St Felicien whose Jersey size equivalent is probably St Aubin.  Each July around 15,000 people descend on a town that's 30k from the main road for one of the greatest cycling events ever.  A vast majority camp out in the surrounding countryside which was impressive in itself.  We stayed in a hotel about 40 kilometres from the start, in Valence, which meant when we drove to the event, on surprisingly clear roads, we had to park 5k from the start.  So, a nice warm-up then.

The "start village" is something along the lines of the tour.  Every cycle product you can imagine is on show and available to buy.  Friday's signing on was simple although drawn out, as they insisted on telling everyone everything about the process.  Even though it's all written in English. We got our goody-bag of gifts, bottles and power bars and a massive relief map of the course and even better, being "foreign" we had a 15-number which entitles us to a priority start!  How good is that!

Le Grand Depart
The start was flagged off by the mayor and dignitaries of St Felicien.  Numbers one and two, Bernard Thevenet (75 & 77 Tour winner) and Thierry Marie, rouleur extrordianire, without his special TT saddle which the UCI banned the day after he first rode on it, led us away.  These giants of the road were closely followed by the incredible sight of 13,000 other aspirants and adventurers all living the dream.  The weather couldn't have been better; clear skies, almost no wind and 27 degrees and rising.  What better way to start a day's cycling? The other 2,000 riders started the day before on the two day 368 k monster ride.

You leave the town on a slight 3 kilometre narrow, technical descent which gives loads of opportunity to make up time and positions.  Which is a little more dangerous than usual as there are so many people, of such varying ability, and so few gaps to safely go for.  I stay with Dianne for the first kilometre then it's every man for themselves.

Less than five minutes in to the race and it's the first climb.  The 10 kilometre eastern ascent of the Buisson Pass to the top of the 920 metre Col de Buisson.  A third of the way up, clinging to the rock face, is the thirteenth century priory and it's surrounding village.  Then when you get to the top you get a magnificent panoramic view of the Ardeche region you are about to tackle.  The first picture of the day is taken.  Dianne (above) is all smiles, I'm a little more serious (below).

Le Grand Descent
As we get to the crowd-filled, plateau-summit (can you have one of those?) I start to jump from group to group and realise my legs appear to be working quite well for so early in the race.  In-fact, I cannot recall a single person passing me on the climb!  If anyone does pass me I always clock the frame, the jersey and number and hang on to them as long as I can, then look out for them on the descents.  So far I haven't had need to.  So, do I capitalise on my good form and crack on or throttle back so I don't blow on the extremely difficult last climb?   Nah, lets crack on.

There is a super-fast, fifty miles an hour, 10 k descent in to the valley below, where the village of Lamastre is decked out in the purple and yellow of the race colours.  It really is quite a sight.  Everywhere you look there are scarecrows, old bikes, houses, even the bridge into the town, all draped in the race colour bunting and balloons. 

As you exit the bridge there is a brass band playing you into the village and once you get there the whole community is out helping run the massive feed station.  Leaving town you hit the first route junction.  Dianne's 66 k ride (right) would head east to the Pont de Clara, I head south to Nonieres.  It doesn't matter which way you go it's up hill either way.  In fact the whole route is either up or down, the only flat bits are the bridges that cross the many rivers!

The Col de Nonieres takes you to the town of the same name sitting at it's 671 metre summit, fifteen kilometres away.  Five kids, in their early twenties, come past all dressed in pro-kit, at a rapid pace.  I bolt down the food I'm eating, take a swig of a drink and jump on.  The climb is in two parts, a 10k St Peter's Valley drag to St Prix then five kilometres of Jubilee Hill to the summit. 

Kids of today!
It's big ring and through and off all the way to St Prix and as the kids tire I stay on the front to help them along but they now seem reluctant to join in.  Leaving St Prix, I continue my good form and pick up the pace; the young 'uns have no staying power and retire to the feed station.  Huh, in my day etc, etc...  I carry on in the big ring to Noniers and it's descent in to Le Cheylard, where I fill my bottles at another massively decked out, crowd lined village.

Now comes the third col of the day; the 1088 metre and 20 kilometre climb to the Col de Clavieres.  At the top is St Agreve and a water station.  It's an hour and a half climb and as you near the top you approach the town through a horseshoe shaped road that has a cemetery at it's centre, 

Behind the cemetery is an abattoir, which was giving off the most tremendous (in a bad sense) smell.  I tried to disassociate the two images but it was proving very hard.  The 35 degree heat didn't help matters either.  Still, they did set up a water tunnel you could ride through to cool down.  Which was nice.  On the move, I grabbed a drink of water from a roadside volunteer but it was fizzy!  I pretended to drink it then dropped the cup in the big bins provided.  Time to crack on to Rochepaule to find some food and flat water.

There was an extremely quick technical descent taking us to the gruelling climb of the 891 metre Col de Rochepaule.  It's at this point that I realise not a single person has passed me yet!  To be more exact, two or three riders did come past but I'd always managed to hold them in sight, only to catch them on the descents.  I was feeling really good and had obviously held on to my Ventoux form.

However, I was dying for a wazz!  It's so hot that I've never missed a chance to take a drink from the thousands of volunteers that literally line the route.  But I now need a comfort break so I decide to stop at the next feed, which is the last, to ensure I "top-up" for the massive last climb and descent.  I tap out a rhythm to the summit then ride through the, yet again, spectacularly dressed village looking for the feed.

There are people and bikes everywhere.  Every shop, cafe and bar is crammed with bikes and bikers but no official feed is in sight.  Then I come to the market square to be greeted by a sight that I really wasn't prepared for.  There must be a thousand cyclists at the massive feed station!  This is the last feed for all of the Ardecheoise rides and it looks like most of the 13,000 riders are here!  I didn't realise we'd started so far back.  I filled my bottles, grabbed some apricots, figs and a power bar, I really didn't fancy the smelly cheese!, then set off for le wazzerie.

When in France...
Didn't have time to wash my hands, we're in France after all, and I made sure I didn't dribble.  So it's back on the bike with three minutes lost.  Not a lot in the big scheme of things and well worth it as I can now concentrate on the finish without having to dodge all the bumps and potholes.  Another spectacular, 50 mph technical and very, very narrow descent takes us to the Pont de Clara at Mozieres.

This is where we meet up with Dianne's ride that we left at Lamastre.  We took in a few cols while she rode through the Doux Valley taking in the medieval village of Desaignes and it's 1000 year old fountain.  A steady climb through another of France's deceptive, non-flat, gorges brought her to the Pont de Clara and the foot of the Col du Buisson.

You don't actually ride over a bridge, you ride across a dried up river bed that takes you down a dirt road that's not even a car wide.  You turn a corner and there it is.  The one they've been warning us about in all the pre-ride bumpf. 300 metres at 15% is the start to the back way up the 6 kilometre Col du Buisson.  Remember, Bonne Nuit is only 10%!

Riders are walking everywhere and all you can here is thumping, rhythmic new age music.  Your mind automatically tracks in to the music and before you know it you've passed the 200 and 100 metre countdown boards. Only to find the next 700 metres are at 10%!  There was no mention of that on the website. 

There are boards in all languages encouraging you and giving you a percentage/distance countdown.  At each corner of the mini Alpe d'Huez climb there are gazebos with bands and entertainers playing their music and tunes to spur you on.  And it really works!  Although I was a little dubious about what the Edith Piaf looky-likey brought to the party.

How it's really done
Half way up the climb I hear a mechanical commotion behind me with horn's blaring and engines revving.  Which is odd, because the whole event takes place on completely closed roads.  Every junction on every road has a barrier manned by a Gendarme, I haven't seen a single car all day.  There's been loads of medics, photographers and assistance motorbikes around but that's it. 

Then a commissaire's motorbike screams past, horns blazing closely followed by a rider the size of Norma Mahony who seemed to be catching the motor bike!  Then a fully decked out Mavic bike was chasing behind the rider.  We're still at around 10% but he disappears in seconds.  He's obviously the race leader for the main event that started 30 minutes before the plebs,  Mmm, I must learn to climb like that.  Expecting the chasing throng to come through at any point I pick up the pace ever so slightly and head for the 902 metre summit for the second time today. 

There was a massive crowd at the summit and loads had stopped to soak up the ambiance and take a final water bottle.  There's no way I'm stopping so I take a gel, another swig of my half full (or is it half empty?) bottle and press on hoping not to be passed by the second place riders.

Bonjour mon ami
Half way down the 10 Kilometre descent I pick up a Frenchman who seems to be the exception to the rule.  He can actually descend.  He jumps in behind me on the corners and comes through on the false flats to give a hand.  Just how I like it.  We pass maybe a hundred riders and make up loads of time in a real full-on adrenalin rush.  We get to the flamme rouge and the road just turns ever so slightly up

He comes along side and we converse in French.  He asks how I am?  Moi? Bien, merci . Vous? I ask back,  Fatigue, tres fatigue.  Ah oui, Presque fini mounsieur, presque fini.  Almost there, almost there.  He pat's me on my back and shakes my hand, Merci anglaise, merci, Tres bon.  What a nice gesture I thought.  400 metres to go, I take a drink and look around for the second place riders, there's no one behind us.  I take my hands off the bars to stretch my back then just as I squeeze out the dregs from my bottle he knocks it up a gear and starts to sprint!  Bloody cheek, distracts me then attacks; a typical Dave Whitt manoeuvre!

Au revoir le git
I slammed my bottle back in it's cage and chased after him.  I just got his wheel with 50 metres to go and breezed past without a second glance as he blew.  I flew through the finish to a blaze of whistles from the marshals and must of looked a right arse!  But at least I beat him, finishing in a time of 4 hours 26 minutes for 203rd place overall and another gold medal ride in the bag.  Not just an age related one either, my Ventoux form remained with me and it was my second scratch gold medal time on the trot.  How happy am I?

I've lost a wife
I got a drink and a bite to eat then tried to ring Dianne on my mobile.  No chance; the network is busy,  And remained so for the rest of the day.  I tried a text and it worked.  She's sheltering under a tree not twenty yards away surrounded by knackered men!   Hot but not so bothered.  She had a good ride and rode her 66 kilometres, with two climbs of the 902 metre Col du Buissson and loads more climbing in between in a little over three and a half hours.  And she never got off on the really steep bits, just stayed in the saddle and ground it out.  I was really impressed.   But then in our Liege-Bastogne-Liege event she did climb La Redoute in the middle ring!

We handed in our timing chips, got our dosh back, and left town climbing the 5 kilometres back to the car, where the temp gauge read 35 degrees.  A thirty minute dash back to the hotel and a shower in an air-conditioned room.  While flicking the TV waiting for a shower (first to finish, showers first) I come across the race live on TV!  It's on for another two hours, showing the villages, the riders and the celebs.  It's just not like back home.

So another successful ride and once more I hit my objective by getting a gold.  The form's still there.  Wonder if I can hold it just a little longer for the Luc Alphand and the mythical Izoard?

website L'Ardechoise
hotel Campanile Valence Nord