The next stage looked like a very short hiking section on paper. As usual in adventure races I was learning that nothing is ever as easy as it looks on paper! Race directors can be evil geniuses when they want to be (which is most of the time). But then, we (and especially the navigators) love them for that.
We left the transition in the middle of the night after a reasonably effective transition (allowing for the team house style!). The first control didn’t look too far away, and on paper looked to be easy enough to find. Just find a track off the road, branch off it after a few hundred meters and follow a river up. Watch for a vegetation change on the right side when there are no more trees, then fine tune to hone in on the control.
In reality the river is a dry river bed (good), but the gentle looking slope on the map is a bush-whacking trip up a steep walled canyon in reality. Here we go again…. more adventure. There was a French team hovering around us. They eventually seemed to get sick of being in the canyon and climbed up to its left edge and started climbing steadily from there.
I was making sure to watch for the original navigation triggers I had in mind. Thomas’ huge Lupine light came into its own here, as I occasionally lit up the whole canyon to get a quick look at the vegetation and steepness variations. After about 20 minutes of bushwhacking I hauled out of the canyon on the right side and found a forest boundary… just the feature I was looking for. Of course the shape of the boundaries didn’t match up to the map and took another 5 minutes of exploring to find the track which allowed us to hone in directly on the control… Bingo! We shouted out to the French team who were by now two or three hundred meters too high and let them know we’d found it.
We made rapid progress up the hill in the dark after that, carefully navigating and plotting an easy route, rather than the most direct. Up until now Frank was usually the slowest ascending on foot, but towards the end of the next climb Phillipe had been left a bit behind. We stopped to let him catch up. When he eventually reached us he was doing a good “death warmed up” impression. Clearly he was starting to really feel the effort of the race. We rifled his bag and redistributed any non-mandatory items from it so that he was carrying the minimum weight. That definitely helped him move a bit faster towards the next checkpoint, which was also a transition.
We had another relatively efficient transition (no sleeping bags, no jetboil!), assembled our bikes, and got going out of the control on the first of the really big biking stages. Dancing Pandas had caught up with us in the Transition… they had had a good little trek, but we got out in front of them and didn’t see them again for quite a while.
It was nice to be biking again. The lads were all good bikers in different ways. Phillipe enjoys mountain biking so much he has a tattoo of a mountain bike chain on his leg. Anthony said it wasn’t really his sport, but he could climb extremely well on the bike, the best of the 3 lads. Frank again was the slowest of the climbers. We still called him Frank Schleck on the bike stages though. But his biking skills lay elsewhere!
A short road climb took us out of transition back along the road we walked in to the edge of a small village. Here we branched off onto a double track trail. This was marked as an orange grade mountain bike trail on the ground. I was glad to see that the race was moving us on proper mountain bike trails, not just firing along roads to connect other stages together. This course was looking impressively well thought out in every detail.
Soon it dawned on us, and we could dispense with the night lights. We climbed steadily up through wooded trails and along the side of a another huge scenic valley. We had gained considerable height since last night’s start and the morning views down several different valleys were stunning. A team ahead occasionally came into view as we climbed up the trail, and about 1km short of the control we caught up with them as they took a rest break. It was the Belgian team BART. We had a good conversation with them. I had met them on course at last year’s ARWC in Tasmania. They didn’t have an experienced navigator on the team, so were learning as they went!
We cycled with them to the control, which we reached after an hour or two’s cycling since the start of the stage. The others continued up the hill as I adjusted the maps in the map board to see what was coming up…. OMFG! Well, we’re in the alps, so we were bound to get at least one interesting climb. We had a little more climbing to do, and then we would have a relatively short zig-zag descent on the double track tail. After that there was a long long road/trail that climbed up to a col. The col looked to be nearly 3000 meters. Yikes!! Luckily there seemed to be some sort of tunnel under the col, so we didn’t have to climb the full height. But this still looked like a monster.
I caught back up with the lads and warned them about what was coming up. In the last of the climb we overtook BART again and headed down the zig zag decent. This is where Frank came into his own. The lads would generally let me lead out, since I was navigating, and since I was also a good enough biker. However Frank turned out to be a tremendous descender on the bike. Even on the forest fireroad track decent he couldn’t help but go whizzing past me at speed once or twice.
We hit the junction at the bottom of descent and headed straight through into an immediate “bottom of middle ring” climb. This was the biggie! The gradient didn’t let up at all. Anthony and myself led out the climb, and were discussing how it was absolutely perfect conditions for climbing. It would be so much more difficult in hotter conditions. The Valley walls were so high around us that they were still blocking direct sunshine, even in mid-morning.
After about half an hour of climbing we stopped for a longish break. One or two teams came through in the time we were stopped, all looking to also be suffering to varying degrees on the climb. We spent the rest of the climb back and forth with these teams, as we were generally a little faster, but happy enough to take longer breaks along the way. The sun eventually peaked over the mountains, and I enjoyed the warmth of the direct sunlight, even if it did make conditions a little harder for such a punishing cycle. There was enough zig-zags and direction changes, along with a changes of scenery as we climbed, that there was plenty of distractions to take away from the effort.
The climb was on a track that could probably only be driven/ridden by off-road vehicles, so I reckon it wasn’t one that too many people would have done compared to the more classic alpine road climbs. I was taking it all in, knowing that this was probably another rare privilege that the race director had thought through well.
We eventually reached the entrance to the tunnel. One or two other teams were flaked out at the side of the track taking a well earned rest after the climb. On the map the tunnel looked a couple of hundred meters long, so I re-attached my helmet lamp as we waited for Frank to make his way up the last section of climb to us. Not many off-road cycles have near kilometer long tunnels From the plaques at the entrance I could see that the tunnel was built for military purposes about 100 years ago. We also donned out jackets, since we were going to have a big descent on the other side.
The ride through the tunnel was definitely different! There were plenty of muddy puddles in there, so it was good to have the powerful lights on to see them. Without the direct sunlight the temperature was noticeably lower, especially given we were now at well over 2000 meters of altitude, again not where you’d normally expect to find an off-road tunnel!
After a few minutes of riding we broke out into the sunshine on the far side of the tunnel We exchanged greetings with another team who were pulled up nearby at the edge of the track having an extremely scenic lunch break. Once we were all back together we made sure our jackets were sealed up and set off on the huge descent. This was another beauty of a track. Wide double track, but definitely off-road vehicles only. Hitting it at speed was definitely “interesting”. The track took a classically alpine zig-zag routing down the mountain. On the “inside” line was usually a highish wall of rock, on the “outside” line was mostly unprotected steep drop away down the valley. Lost of loose stones on the trail meant that bike handling skills needed to be good if you weren’t going to spend the day grinding brake pads down.
Frank, again, was tearing down the descent with amazing bike handling skills. The rest of us were doing great speeds too, with only the occasional taps on the brakes heading into sharp or blind bends on the track. After 4 or 5 minutes of high speed descending I heard a shout from behind and pulled up on a hairpin corner a little lower down. The other coasted in behind me. Philippe’s rear tyre had a tear in it. The tubeless goo wasn’t sealing it, so manual intervention was required to fix it. We all sat down on the outside edge of the corner and grabbed some food whilst taking in the panoramic view of the valley we were descending. It was one of those perfect times with the weather pleasantly warm without being too hot, with a gentle breeze under the blue skies. It was nice just sit back for a few minutes and take it all in.
Phillipe used a special cement to glue the tyre back together. While it was drying and sealing the jetboil was broken out and one or two more freeze dried meals were cooked. Phillipe also broke out a vacuum packed suacyson, along with some French bread, and offered it around. Man, this is how the other half adventure race, and it’s not a bad way of doing it all!
The tyre was pumped back up again, and we headed off to resume the big descent. As we hit the bottom of the valley the track became more solid forest fireroad, but continued descending down the valley itself. Another 10 minutes or so of high speed descending followed before we eventually hit a junction, and we were back to climbing again, this time on tarmac road. The tarmac climb only lasted for 10 minutes or so, and then we were back onto off-road track, this time a wide easy singletrack, yet again with official orange mountain bike track way-markers. Another team had being going back and forth with us for a while, and they set of down this track in front of us. We were within a K or two of the next checkpoint.
Another nice bit of trail led us down into yet another valley. After a few minutes we came across the other team stopped at an old house on a corner which was more than likely very close to the control. They headed off on downwards on the trail as we approached. I stopped to recheck the map in detail. It looked to me like we should be taking a junction somewhere close to here. We walked back up the trail about 20 meters and found the junction to a much narrower trail. This one was marked as a red mountain bike route… could be interesting!
one or two hundred meters of technical riding down the trail took us to a bridge over a steep river cutting, with the control on the other side. The trail out was nice and technical… great fun to ride! I think I like these red tracks. This really was a great race. Often in adventure races the mountain bike sections can be a bit uninspiring, be these trails were superb!
The route instruction sheet had warning to walk the bikes through the next section, which descended around another big river cutting. The trail was steep and highly technical, and with lots of powder dust and roots. As was becoming standard, there was a huge unprotected drop off on the “outside” edge of the trail, so the consequences of getting things wrong were pretty big. I walked my bike quickly down, with the others following. It wasn’t long before Frank and Philippe decided that they weren’t having any more of that. They hopped on their bikes and started to descend. It was an impressive display of skill, and they were well able to manage this highly technical section.
Eventually it eased off a bit and the other 2 of us were able to get on our bikes and catch up with the ace-decenders. They insisted I go back in front, as I was navigating, but I would have been perfectly happy following their lines down. The trail was still a blast, nice singletrack descending through sun dappled woods. A few minutes later the trail came to very sharp zig-zag, with added roots just to make it really interesting. Sure enough a few meters into this section I went flying sideways and hit the ground with spray of powder dust and expletives. The lads checked I was alright, which I was, and I pushed my bike on a few meters to the bottom of the tricky turns and got back on.
The rest of the trail took us on a kilometer or two into a small square in a village where there was a manned control point. We refilled with water, and Anthony got a quick check-over from the medic who was nearby. The team we had met earlier on the trail then came in, obviously having corrected their mistake of going two far past the earlier junction The just before we left team Dancing Pandas arrived in, all looking in good spirits. It was good to see them again and have another chat about the days adventures.
The climb out from the village looked like it would be long and hard on the map, but for once the reality was easier as ten minutes or so of steady climbing took us (after a little checking) to a junction with another technical single track trail. We had to follow this trail for a few kilometers along the side of a valley and it would take us to the next control. This trail if anything was even more “interesting” than the ones that had preceded it, with even steeper drop-offs to the left down the valley. It was also very narrow and of technical enough that mistakes could very easily happen with a moments lapse in concentration. I was impressed that we were being sent on such a fun trail, considering the potential risks.
The trail was great fun, again! As well as the big looming drop to one side we had plenty of other obstacles to contend with, like a low steel capable, low hanging branches, occasional boulders, and the usual rocky rooty fun and games. It was good to be with such technically competent and confidant riders. We were rolling along at a good pace, managing to overtake one or two teams along the way.
Unfortunately at the end of all that we had to pay for the fun. We had to reach the next control using a a series of rough road and forest road climbing trails. The climbing wasn’t too steep, but it we had been cycling for a while now, and the air was warm and still in the mid afternoon heat. Anthony and myself were still cruising away, but Frank and Phillipe were both finding it hard going. A few rests here and there and we made it to the penultimate control of the stage.
Thankfully the last 7 or 8 kilometers to the transition were mostly a flat cycle along good forest tracks running along the side of a valley. We covered the ground at a good speed, and the tracks eventually popped us out at the transition at the end of the cycle stage. It had been a great cycle!
The transition was in an awesome location. The next trekking stage was through the Mercantour national park, and this transition was on the edge of a lake with the fabulous pristine hills of the park sitting in perfect proportion behind it. Unfortunately our transition didn’t quite match the location. There had been a bit of a logistical mix up, and the team 35 A-box (trekking box) had not been transferred to here. I had a lot of spare clothes and food in the box. Unfortunately one of team 66’s tents was also in there.
The marshals took a bit of convincing that there was a problem, and that both A-boxes were in use. They then tried to see if there was anything they could do to get hold of it. But this was a very remote location without even a mobile phone signal in the immediate area. In the meantime we packed away our bikes, and took the usual default action of cooking up some dehydrated food and grabbing a bit of rest. We also worked out with the marshals that the only thing we really really needed from the box was the 2 man tent, otherwise we were had everything else we needed (although I could have murdered the bottle of coke I had in the team 25 A-box!).
The marshals then conjured up a 2 man tent from somewhere (presumably someone had brought it for their own use) and offered it to us. Wow! that was great. We gratefully accepted and packed it one of the backpacks, and not too long afterwards we were off on the Mercantour trekking section.
I hadn’t been expecting too much from this national park, as we were now getting further away from the main alps. But while it mightn’t have had the big heights of the main alps, it was absolutely gorgeous In the late evening light everything about it looked beautiful. The streams seemed to be crystal clear, the mountains were fantastic shades of greys and greens. The trees, river, lakes and mountains all seemed to be in perfect proportion.
To maintain the pristine integrity of the park we were only allowed to use pre-existing trails to navigate out way to the controls in the park. The first control was 5 or 5 kilometers up a valley. It was a very enjoyable walk up through the valley, and I spent a lot of time looking around absorbing the scenery. We could see teams at various distances ahead. As we approached the control we had to climb up the side of the valley on a zig-zag trail to reach a road at the saddle at the head of the valley.
Anthony and Philippe led the way up the zig-zag. When they reached the top a camper van had pulled into the small car park there. The two lads got talking to the occupant of the car. I walked past them and on towards some buildings where I thought the control was. The lads called me back. The occupant of the van was a nice French guy who was on his holidays. He had offered to make us some coffee, which the lads were more than happy to accept. It was 7pm now, and we only had an hour or so of useful light left. My navigator brain was telling me to hurry on and maximise the use of the daylight while we had it. But I knew there was no way the lads would refuse the offer of a Fresh coffee in the middle of a trek!
Camper-van man got out his portable table and chairs and laid them out for us while he brewed up fresh coffee. Frank declined coffee and asked if there was any coke. A 2 litre bottle was brought out for us, and we all indulged. The 5 of sat there, with clouds rolling by and then breaking to reveal views of the valleys on all side of the col. The others chatted away animatedly in French. I could tell that Anthony was explaining exactly what the race was and all the things we were doing, and camper-van man was enjoying hearing all about it. After one round of racuous laughing Anthony explained that I had just been described as the Irish spy on the team 🙂
I had a bit of a revelation then. Sitting here in the middle of a national park, drinking coffee with 4 french lads in the middle of nowhere as they chatted away, was actually a unique adventure racing experience to be treasured. The lads had converted me from the adventure racer I started as to the adventure tourist I know was. I settled right back and relished the experience, no longer giving a damn about how much light was left… we could sort out all that stuff later, no pressure! The Irish spy had surrendered to the French way of racing.
After about half an hour Anthony called it as time to leave, and we said our thanks and goodbyes. and set off back on course. A little to-ing and fro-ing later we found the control (about 10 meters from the camper van!!). The path to the next manned checkpoint took us along a track that swooped under the top of the valley. There were some huge concrete bunkers set into the side of the hill that were obviously fortifications from one of the major wars.
The next checkpoint was on a road just after another saddle that overlooked a huge valley that we could just about see in the fading light. It still looked amazing, and I congratulated the checkpoint staff at having landed by far the most scenic marshal location so far in the race. The route to the next control via a path that went down into the huge valley. About 30 minutes into the trek down the valley we were finally our of useful light and had to turn on the headtorches. As usual, my big lupine light was ridiculously good at lighting up the path ahead, even on low power.
We successfully found a small track off the main road down the valley which led us up the next valley. We walked passed a few more old military bunkers along the way. In the darkness we could now see the light of teams further ahead up the valley. As we progressed up the valley we seemed to be consistently making up ground on them. I reckoned the big lupine light was making the sometimes tricky task of staying on the track at night trivially easy for us.
It was well into the night as we crossed over the next big saddle. The zig-zag track off the top was ridiculously zig-zaggy to descend. We seemed to be walking 20 or 30 meters for every meter of descent. We eventually made to the bottom of the zig-zags to an extremely rocky track across the side of a long steep scree slope. Anthony reckoned that we needed to stop and sleep now, as Philippe was extremely tired. I checked the map, and there was a flat bit of land about 800 meters on (the only one for quite some distance), so we agreed to press on to that. Ahead of us I could see the lights of the teams in front of us wandering around the hillsides in what appeared to be a few different directions. The next control was up near there somewhere.
When we got there we found a perfect spot to pitch the two tents just off the tracks. We set them up and climbed in. The lads were happy to just take a 40 minute break, but this time I convinced them to upgrade that to at least a 2 hour sleep so we would have a proper sleep stop (and hopefully that would cover us for the night). About 2 minutes after we had all climbed into the tents we head something we hadn’t heard so far in this race… raindrops! How lucky was that… the first (and as it turned out only) rain in the race, and we were already in the tents. That was my last thought before I dropped into another deep sleep. It had been a very long day indeed, but fabulous one. What a great race this was!