Ground Effect staffer Laurence and his father John are on an intergenerational adventure in Europe, racing in the Chemin du Soleil or ‘Road to the Sun’ in France's Haute Provence. Both have been successful elite athletes in their day but now it's more about ‘completing’ than ‘competing’. The Chemins du Soleil is no lightweight affair. There are three days of riding, with a minimum of 75km and 2500m of climbing each day. It's XC-Enduro on steroids. While the pros battle it out in the ‘Raid’, Laurence is reporting from the 'Rando’ end of the field.
We arrived at the race start in Saillans to find the campsite bursting at the seams. Most riders camp each night and get their gear transported to each stage finish. We found a spot for ‘Calais’ (our VW California camper) in a corner beside La Drome river. A perfect spot as the temperature was hitting 29ºC.
The majority of entrants come from northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. There are 200 in the Elite field and another 500 in the Rando. Along with volunteers and support crews there are around 1,000 mouths to feed morning and night.
The queue for the outside buffet reflected this and we didn’t sit down to dinner until 8pm, but we were somewhat appeased by an mid-queue aperitif of Clairette de Die - the local sparkling wine. The 13th edition race briefing was in French so we got our own private encore with race director Herve Simon. It was pretty basic: "the weather will pack in, please find your way to the finish if you pull out, and the French emergency number is 112." Voila.
An early night had us in bed at 2130, just as the elite riders were setting off on their 35km prologue, The wind changed to the north.
Race start was at 0745, and after a good nights sleep we were keen to get going. A light rain was falling as we took our place at the rear of the peloton, mindful that we didn’t want to push too hard on the event's longest day. After an hour or so of 4WD track climbing we hit the first singletrack, and our first traffic jam. We walked for the next hour, traversing an exquisite ridgeline track and walked the entire first 300 vertical meter downhill. Quelle horror. Apparently the race always starts like this, with Belgium and Dutch courage taking a while to click in.
Over the next 8hrs the course became quite wet and muddy. We chanced on a couple of clear downhill runs and some very good singletrack but it was with some relief to find we had missed the cut-off in Die and were obliged to ride the final 20km on tarseal. Cold, wet, tired – and hungry. A beautiful meal and clear skies ended our first day on the Chemins du Soleil, with the hope that there really would be some Soleil before we hit the finish in Gap.
We started further up the field today, and I think really found our people. Baggy shorts, fat bikes and fat tyres - the 'Ground Effect tribe' in Europe. The skies were still overcast but at least we could see the mountains around us, and the flat valley floors spread out below. Magic.
The first 23km to the feed station was more up than down, and we ate our quota of energy bars for the whole day before getting there. Everyone must have dug deep for it was a feeding frenzy... cheese, baguettes, cake and fruit were all being stuffed into mouths as soon as the table was replenished. As we retreated to the quiet of the forest, there were at least 50 riders still at the trough. The rest of the day passed by on some superb trails until kilometre 46. We were then treated to one of the best downhills ever. All all 500 vertical metres of it was amazing. We were spat out at another feed station where we gorged on oranges and camembert. Soon after John started feeling a bit crook, we keep crawling along but just before the last downhill he threw up on the side of the track. It was hard to enjoy the joy of the last downhill as I pushed him across the finish line. 10 hours of toil without any whoops of delight as a coda. Minutes later John was on IV fluids and looking sick and trembly. He seemed unlikely to be back in the saddle for the last day. I settled my concerns with a rosé with dinner. At least the sun had arrived.
Ariving in Veynes the previous day had us crossing from La Drome into the Haute Alps. Unfortunately John he wasn’t even able to raise his head from the pillow. Unfortunately for me, I was going it alone. Ahead lay three cols over 1300m, and four over 1700m. It was to be a long day. I started at the front of the grid - why not? And was soon being passed by cross-country whippets on 29ers. It didn’t take long to fall-in with my 200 odd mates on full suspension rigs wearing baggy shorts (with the odd fat-bike and e-bike thrown in). A few calls of ‘ride with us’ were lost on me as the throng ascended to the first snow, on the now mud-slushy track. This day was different, no hike-a-bikes at all and some outrageous massive straight-line brakes-on descents. There was one 10km section on the highest part of the route which was like Craigieburn’s the Edge on steroids but with limestone scree clattering the chain-stays.
I stopped to admire the views on several occasions. Maybe this was what the non-competitive Rando part of the event was about. I didn’t have John to share the last day with which was a bummer. My fellow riders all seemed be all mates - blowing out the winter cobwebs in the South of France. Oh yeah, 7 hrs after the start it was 30ºC and the sun was shining in Gap. It truly was the ‘race to the sun’.