Anthony woke me once more. This was more of a classic adventure racing style wake up. I had to drag myself out of my cosy warm world of sleep back out into the reality of a rocky river bank on a dark freezing night. Why do I do this again? Oh yeah, because its fun 🙂
I knew that the best way of getting warm was to get under way as fast as possible. There was a big steep looking hill (I don’t think there is another kind around here!) in front of us, and that was our way out. We packed our sleeping bags away and readied ourselves to depart. While I waited for the other too I rechecked the maps again to get a clear idea of the route, while sitting next to the fire. There were paths near the top of the hill, but no track to get up to them.
We got going and headed to the edge of the bank where the trees on the hill marked the beginning of the climb. There was no obvious way through the trees. It looked like a bit of a bushwhack. We looked a little further down and found one point where a few earlier teams had bushwhacked through, leaving a trace of a trail that would be easier than creating our path. We had to cross a small bit of water to get to it. Frank and Anthony were tip-toeing about a bit to avoid getting their feet wet, but I just ploughed straight through. We were probably going to get wet at some point anyway!
We managed to follow some trace of various tracks that teams had made up the hill. It was pretty steep, and would have been way harder clearing our own track. Even with that help it must have taken about an hour to make a few hundred meters of altitude gain and eventually hit the track.
Once on the track we had a nice gentle walk up the rest of the hill. Since it was nighttime there was no real view, apart from the lights of towns in the distance, so I tended to just wander into in my own little world and head up the hill on auto-pilot. A small bit of navigation work took us onto a direct track down the far side of the hill, avoiding having to take a more zig-zaggy road. On the descent Frank was starting to move a lot slower.
The descent took us down to a small town in the valley. There was a control at the point where we hit the main road through the town. Frank and Anthony stopped there, and I just lay straight onto the ground to grab a power nap whilst they did whatever it was they had stopped for (as it turned out, it was to try to fix Frank’s aching feet).
We got going again about 10 minutes later, although at quite a slow speed. We had to make a right turn in the center on a track that would take us to a nearby bridge across a wide river. As we walked through town we came across the unusual sight of a lone adventure race sleeping on the footpath against a wall. 10 meters later we came to a large concrete bus shelter, where there were 4 more adventure racers asleep. There was also a water fountain there. I hadn’t had a water supply since I lost my Bidon in the first kayak capsize, so I filled my bladder. It was clear why the first racer was sleeping outside the shelter. One of the racers in the shelter was making an unbelievable racket with his snoring!
The lads then decided that they need to sleep again. I was a bit bemused, as we had only slept an hour or two earlier. But there was no point discussing it, and we weren’t going very fast anyway. So we joined the other racer, and settled down for a sleep on the floor of the bus shelter.
When the original team in the shelter woke it must have been a bit of a surprise to them to see us. Their activity woke me (I was worried they’d accidentally step on me too), and I then woke Frank and Anthony. Only 3 of the 4 other racers in the shelter were getting up. The other racer mustn’t have been one of theirs (which explained the fact that we had found 5 bodies in total).
Anthony said that Frank’s feet were so bad that he was probably going to have to pull out of the race. I replied that we should probably use our emergency phone to contact the race and see if we could get picked up. But Frank was happy to try to make it to the next transition under his own power.
The other team turned out to be the Colombian team. They were a very friendly bunch. They asked if we’d like to join them, since we were all heading the same way, but we were a bit slower getting under way. As I was almost ready to leave the last racer emerged from under his foil blanket, and called out my name in greeting. It was a cheerful Bjarke, from my friends in the Danish team. His feet had become so bad that he had had to stop here and send his team on without him. He was going to get the first bus from here in the morning (about 2 hours time) to the transition village of La Tour. We had a good little chat before I had to leave the shelter and chase Frank and Anthony down.
It was obvious that the race was taking its toll on teams. Bjarke and his team are all tough experienced racers and they were being beaten up. A lot of the teams we were seeing were looking haggard. I was guessing that a large amount of teams wouldn’t make it around the course.
I hadn’t read ahead in the instruction books about short courses or timeouts, but I knew that the full course would have us doing 2 big bike sections with another large trek in between. We were bound to be short coursed, as it would be impossible for us to do all that before the end of the race on Saturday afternoon. My own preference would be to skip the big trek no matter what, and just cycle towards to coast.
But we still had to make it to La Tour, which wasn’t too far away on the map. I caught up with the 2 lads a little down the road. They had successfully found the trail out of town. This led us to an old pedestrian suspension bridge. It was quite long (maybe 30 meters), and quite wobbly. I doubt many people used it much more. I was assessing where I’d land if it collapsed as I crossed it! There wasn’t much of a trail on the far side. There was probably very little for the first teams, but a reasonable narrow singletrack path had been bushwhacked through. Navigation here was simple. We just had to go up a canyon.
The canyon started about 30 or 40 meters wide, with cliff rock walls on both side rising at least a hundred meters up. Within three or four hundred meters of the bridge we were walking on the dry bed of the river the flowed down the canyon, with no trace of any trail. The ground was rough and rocky, so I was a bit worried about Frank’s feet. However he seemed to be coping well and was moving at a much better speed than I would have expected. The canyon itself was awesome to look at. It had a real natural wilderness feeling to it. It was now early morning, so it was starting to slowly warm up.
The further we walked up the canyon, the more interesting it became. The walls closed in on us so that it became narrower and narrower, giving us fewer options as to how to progress. The river bed was no longer dry. It was now a stream running over a smoothed rock bed. Where the stream ran over flatter ground it often left pools of water that looked to be up to waist deep. We were back to canyoning again, much to my surprise! We were able to scramble past a lot of the early pools, but eventually had to bite the bullet and splash through a few of them.
We came upon the Columbians in front of a much larger rock pool which was hemmed in by unclimbable rock walls on both sides. It was hard to see how deep it was but to my eyes it didn’t look too bad. Feeling brave I headed off along its left edge first and made to the end. It was only waist deep so no real problems there. All the other followed quickly.
Within a minute or so we then all found ourselves at the next big pool. This one looked longer, and it looked a lot deeper. This time one of the Colombians went first and found a good route around the left side that avoided getting more than waist deep, but required a trick jump over the water from on narrow ledge to another. Everyone helped the people either side of them to make it through.
This then took us to an even more foreboding looking pool. This one looked really deep. At the far end we could see a fixed rope hanging above the water. We’d obviously need to grab hold of that to clamber out. One of the Colombians went first. With every step he got deeper, and then he was swimming! He swam to the rope and hauled himself out of the water and up the meter or two to the flat riverbed above. The girl on the Colombian team went next. One of the remaining Colombians joked that his only rule in the race was that if she did something, he had to do it!
I was laughing inside at the oddness of having to bring so much safety gear for the main canyoning stage, but here we were swimming (admittedly a very short swim) without wetsuit or PFD, and climbing up slippy steep inclines without a helmet. The adventure just keeps ramping up a notch in this race in unexpected ways! I was also glad the lads had insisted on having so much sleep before getting to this point. This would have been very cold and uncomfortable at night.
We took stripped down to a single layer of clothes and put the other layers into our dry bags in or backpacks (which makes them usefully buoyant as well). The lads let me go in the middle, and I managed to make the swim, grab the rope, and haul out without visible incident. The cold water did yet again cause my sore ribs to make themselves known when I had to haul myself up the fixed rope.
A few meters further on we had a repeat performance with yet another slightly longer pool, and another fixed rope climb out. This canyon was just ramping up the difficulties bit by bit. Thankfully it opened out a bit after that, and we arrived at the control in the canyon two or three minutes later without any further swimming. From there we had to climb out on the left side of the canyon. This was no longer a cliff, but a steep forested climb without any trails.
The Colombians led out and found the bushwhacked track that other teams ahead of us had made. We were happy to follow them, and they did a great job getting us up out of the canyon area. We reached vineyards high up in the hills. One of the local farmers was out and about with his dog. Anthony and Frank engaged him in conversation, explaining what was going on, and he gave them directions on using his tracks to get out. These tracks popped us out onto a road corner.
We came across one or two teams cycling up this road. They had been to La Tour and were on their mountain bikes on the next stage. We followed the road down to the next hairpin bend, where we found a track leading straight on that would take us to the next control.
Unfortunately that track didn’t turn out as we expected it to, and it appeared we were too high up the valley. The control was at a trail bridge over the river at the foot of the valley. We turned and explored heading straight down to the valley floor. Any trace of a trail disappeared within 100 meters. The Colombians decided to go back to the original trail and explore it. Anthony was in bushwhacking mode and crashed on down the side of the valley. I was dubious about this, as we didn’t know how far from the control we were, or whether it was up or down the valley from where we were. But Anthony ploughed on, and as he approached the valley floor he saw the control 50 meters to his left. We were lucky! We had been on the wrong track, but our correction was as good as we could have managed.
A very good trail led in and out of the control, and we followed it upwards to take us to the village of La Tour, where the transition was located. We arrived into La Tour late in the morning. It was a beautiful village. The transition was at the edge of the town, and had a magnificent view out over the surrounding landscape. It looked fabulous under the blue skies in the hazy light. There were quite a few teams in the transition in various states of repair.
The transition staff filled us in on what was happening from here. We were being short-coursed onto the first alternative course. That involved taking a defined route along roads, skipping the controls of the next cycling stage and bypassing the final big trek. We would then pick up the next mountain bike stage and continue along the normal course from there. I was glad to hear that. Any teams that left after 2pm would be on an even shorter course that would bypass the control of the 2nd mountain biking stage.
We came across Team Dancing Pandas in the transition getting their bikes ready to exit. They were in their usual good form. The Danes were also in transition, and were talking with the transition staff figuring out where they could go from here. They were officially retiring at this point and were trying to figure out how they would get to the finish.
Anthony and Frank went through their usual transition routine. Food was made and eaten. Bikes were readied. Frank also did a long repair job on his Feet. With a long bike leg ahead he was no longer thinking of retiring, which was great news. The lads also decided to just hang around and rest for about an hour. I was a bit frustrated with this, as the weather was fantastic and I was looking forward to cycling some classic alpine roads in the southern French heat. To kill the time while they rested I went off and had a good chat with the Danes.
The lads eventually got themselves ready to go and we left the transition with about 20 minutes to spare before the cut-off for the even-shorter-course, and headed out onto the cycling leg. We were going to be on roads for quite a while. But what roads they were! We had a classic alpine zig-zagging descent out of La Tour and down the valley towards where the last control had been placed. From there we had to climb back up to the point where we had joined the road earlier in the morning. This took us to the top of a col where we had a great panoramic view of the next valley.
Another great road descent took us along the side of this valley, before the road started climbing again. And what a climb that turned out to be. We had to climb to a high col to cross into the next major valley system. In the mid-day heat this was brutally tough. But, having come from a rain drenched Irish summer I was relishing the experience. I hadn’t spotted that there was a short tunnel at the top of the climb which meant we skipped about 100 meters of climbing, so that was a pleasant surprise when we got there.
A quick downhill spin took us through the village of Utelle. That lads wanted to stop for a coffee at roadside cafe they spotted, but I convinced them that there was a bigger town coming up later and it would probably be better to stop there.
The views from the far side of Utelle looking down into the Vesubie valley and gorge far below us were absolutely stunning. Equally stunning was the sight of the zig-zag road winding its way down the mountain into the valley. Man, this descent was going to be an absolute blast.
I took off downhill with the lads in pursuit. It was as enjoyable a descent as it looked. It took us hours of hard work to get to the heights of the col, but we had it all burned off in no time in joyous descent. At first the lads held back a bit, and I had to wait for them after 5 minutes of flying down the hill. But after that they were hot on my tail all the way to floor of the valley.
We then crossed the Vesubie river over an old span bridge, which we stopped on to take in the views of the gorge in both directions. A left turn had us climbing again to head up the valley to the town of Lantosque. This road was a lot busier, and was a rare unenjoyable section of the race. It went by quickly enough though.
As we hit the outskirts of Lantosque I was keeping an eye out for a cafe for the promised coffee stop. However we had to turn away from the town more quickly than I had anticipated, and we never came across one. We now had to start another serious climb out of the Vesubie valley which would take us up more twisty zig-zaggy roads up through small picturesque villages higher in the mountains.
As we climbed up the zig-zags I could hear a team talking behind and below us. After about an hours climbing we arrived at the village of Saint Colomban, where we stopped for a rest and a water resupply at the public fountain. Just as we were readying to leave the team behind rolled in. It turned out it was Team Dancing Pandas again. We cycled out and on to the next village together for while.
They were still in great form. I guessed they had stopped for a rest along the way, as it was unlikely they would have ended up behind us otherwise. Chatting away with them made the climb to the even smaller village of Camari seem to pass very quickly. From Camari were on off-road tracks again, thankfully. It was good to be back mountain biking properly!
Unfortunately it wasn’t long before the track out of Camari up through the valley ahead became too steep to cycle. We had to push our bikes for a kilometer or two, with just the occasional cycleable section. The views in the late afternoon sun were fantastic as usual! We weren’t in the mood to put a huge effort into the bike push and kept the pace fairly moderate. Dancing Pandas and another team rapidly left us behind as they pushed on at a harder pace.
About halfway up this forest trail climb we came to a fork. Both trails would take us to the next checkpoint. The left one was longer, but on the map it looked like the upper sections could potentially be a lot more rideable. The right branch was direct, but looked very steep and zig-zaggy, so was probably a push the whole way. Decisions decisions. Anthony then spotted that the road we would have to take at the top of the left branch was out of bounds. So the nasty right branch it would be.
It was a gruesome bike push all the way up, with the terrain getting progressively worse as we climbed. We kept the pace steady but it still seemed to take an age to reach get over the brow of the hill to the road we could cross at the top of the climb. By the time we reached there the light was fading fast, and the heat was dissipating rapidly.
Another team came up the road from our left and headed into the trail in front of. The checkpoint was only a few hundred meters up this trail. We followed them up. I didn’t bother to take the time to get out my powerful helmet mounted bike lights, so used my small commuter light to light the path ahead. It was good enough. About 5 minutes later we rolled into the checkpoint. There were 2 or 3 other teams there, including the Dancing Pandas. It turned out our route choice must have been by far the better, as we had arrived at the same time, or thereabouts, despite having a notably slower pace.
The race rules for short coursed teams said we wouldn’t be allowed leave this checkpoint until 11 hours had passed since we left La Tour at the start of the cycle. We had only taken about 8 hours to get here. I guessed that there was no way the race organisers would stop teams leaving that were this close to the timeouts so late in the race. That turned out to be correct, so all the teams were free to leave straight away. However, I knew that once the lads had it in their heads that we would have to stop here that food and sleep would be on the agenda! And of course it was.
Dancing Pandas had a little conference, where they went through the remaining controls on the course ahead, which was the most of the 2nd mountain biking stage. We were nearly onto the last of the big maps (Map 14 of 15) though… we were getting close. This was going to be our last night of the race no matter what.
We agreed to take a 2 hour sleep and got into our sleeping bags on the forest floor without putting up any tents. On the seventh night of the race I think we all got to sleep in seconds!