Another Adventure racing style wake up! Dragged out of a nice comfy sleep. The effort of 7 days racing, even at a moderate pace was getting more noticeable at times like this. I knew once I got going I’d be right back in the groove though. This time I was slowest getting up and ready, and the 2 lads were ready and waiting as I put the maps back into the map board, having had a good look at the task ahead before settling down to sleep. The other teams that had been at the checkpoint when we arrived were long gone.
It was the middle of the night now. Soon it would soon be Saturday morning and I’d still be racing. That certainly wasn’t in the plan before the race started. We were still one large map away from the finish. But I knew we were getting close, and I was looking forward to getting there. I was getting an unusually strong case of get-there-itis, or finish line fever. Probably because we were unranked I was prioritising getting to the sea, and the finish, as fast as possible in my mind. I was also hoping we’d get some more fun mountain biking sections on the way. After all, we had plenty of height to burn off.
I now had my proper bike lights on, so the trails were well lit up. We followed a forest road away from the check point. It brought us further around the forested hill, and then started switch-back descending. After a few minutes we found a singletrack trail we were looking for which descended steeply down the hill. It was like the inverse of the track we had had to push our bikes up to get here. It was also great fun to ride. About 10 or 15 minutes of lovely steep, and sometimes quite technical, singletrack brought us down to a junction with a lower trail where we found the next control as expected.
From there we turned left (and south) and took this flatter, but still downhill singletrack trail. Another fun section! Yet again this was turning out to be an excellent mountain biking section. After what seemed like 20 minutes or so the singletrack ended and popped us out onto a forest road. Unfortunately we now had to start climbing again, but at least this climb was rideable. 5 minutes of hard climbing later we were at a big forest road junction. There were clearances in the woods below the junction giving us a great panoramic view out over the hills. The lights of near and far villages and towns illuminated the landscape. In the far distance I could see the shadows of the hills disappearing… the sea! We were starting to get there. We were now at one end of the last big map in the race.
More forest road climbing eventually led us up to another singletrack trail branching away along the side of the mountain (This one, I think!). It was another marked red mountain bike trail. Even in the middle of the night I could see that we were very high up on the side of a steep hill, and there were huge drops away to our left. The trail was quite flowy, but would throw regular tricky technical obstacles in out path, so concentration was very important. As usual the lads were following along nicely, and riding the technical sections with aplomb. The level of concentration required meant I didn’t really notice time passing, and we seemed to just pop out at the junction marking the end of this trail where we found the next checkpoint.
We were making steady progress along the trail and across the map. The map indicated that the next trail we were looking for would be a left branch off the trail which climbed up and to our right from the control. We set off up the trail, which turned very steep very quickly. We were back to bike pushing. After 5 minutes of this I was worried that we hadn’t seen any trace of a branch of the ridge we were on traversing across the mountain to our left. I reckoned we should have found it by now. Altimeter readings also showed we were above where the junction was shown on the map. In the middle of the night there was no chance of visually sighting a trail in the distance.
I stopped climbing, explained what my thoughts were to the 2 lads, and we descended down, giving up our hard earned altitude, and checked for the trail. We ended up back at the control without having found a trace of it. At the control I could see another team approach along the traversing trail, but they seemed to be a lot slower on the technical ground than we had been.
About half an hour of navigational confusion followed, before eventually Anthony decided to follow the other team (which had gone past us) down the ridge. It turned out that this was indeed the correct track. I cursed the inaccuracy of the map! The trail was yet another enjoyable one to ride. After so long going back and forth without making progress the lads were suddenly on a mission and led out at a very fast pace, flying over the technical singletrack. Even with Anthony having one big crash it didn’t take us too long to catch up with the other team, even though they must have been several hundred meters ahead of us at the start of this section of trail.
The other team turned out to be the friendly Colombians, and we were happy to settle in and ride behind them along the singletrack. Shortly afterwards we crossed a bridge over a small river canyon and the trail began climbing again. Within a few meters we were all back to bike pushing. The Colombians were clearly frustrated with all the pushing, and about 5 minutes in urged us to pass by so they wouldn’t hold us up. We slowly climbed away from them, sometimes pushing, sometimes cycling.
The long push up eventually ended when the trail hit a road. A signpost allowed us to locate ourselves accurately on the map. As we were checking the map for the route from this point the Colombians rejoined us. We followed the road for a kilometre or two, and then stopped at a trail junction to relocate. Tired bodies and tired minds meant we were being particularly careful with the navigation. We took the forest road leading away from the road, and having independently checked their maps the Colombians followed shortly afterwards. Even the gentle climbs are hard work this late in a race!
One or two junctions, and about ten minutes later we reached the checkpoint. The marshal there told us to skip the next control and go straight for the one after, and that we were also free to use a previously banned road route. Anthony spontaneously decided to get out the jetboil, heated up some water, and very quickly ate a freeze dried meal. Frank and I just waited. The Colombians stayed and talked for a minute or two, but then carried on up the trail towards the new next control.
The forest road led us on to the road again after about 5 minutes of cycling. We moved through and past the Colombians once we hit the road, as our climbing pace was much better. After 10 minutes or so of road climbing we hit the apex of this section of road which was followed by some nice zig-zaggy road descents. It was a bit misty at this point of the night, so it wasn’t as entertaining as some of the earlier road descents. On one particularly sharp hairpin bend we took a track straight off the hairpin, and found the control as expected a few hundred meters down the track.
Anthony declared that he was extremely tired and needed a power nap. My finish line fever was building steadily at this point, so I would have preferred just to plough on to the finish as fast as possible. But it was pretty much the time of night when we’re all at our lowest point in our sleep cycles, and falling asleep cycling is one of the most common causes of injuries in adventure racing. So we got the sleeping bags out again and had a half hour power nap. Well the others did anyway. I only half slept for the first 15 minutes or so. The Colombians came through after about 10 minutes (which was a big gap over a short distance).
The alarms woke us again. I’d managed a pretty deep sleep in such a short time period. Maybe my sleeping bag was too good and too comfortable! As a result it was an effort to restart yet again. I hoped this would be the last stop before the finish. A double check of the map confirmed that the obvious track out wasn’t in fact the one we wanted. We backtracked 30 meters or so and found a barely existing track that was marked with the red mountain bike trail markers. That was the one we did want.
This track took us to a road in less than a kilometer. But it was a very lumpy rocky track which ramped up its technical difficulty as we approached the road, eventually become beyond my ability to deal with it so soon after waking up. I had a nice little slow speed crash onto rocks, and wasn’t happy about it! It was a prime opportunity for a Basil Faulty moment, as I felt like throwing the bike away. That wouldn’t have been a good idea in the middle of nowhere though, so I got up and carried on more carefully.
The morning light was steadily increasing and after crossing the road to a dusty wide off-road track we no longer needed the lights. After about a minute more of climbing we finally started descending again. We came to a 5 way junction. I took us off down a wide more solid road, rather than on the more undulating official mountain bike trail. I could see the Colombians ahead stopped (presumably checking maps) on the mountain bike trail. We wizzed on down the solid track, until the next junction reached in no time. A quick check there, and straight through with a slight climb for another kilometer.
Now I could see another team ahead at the track junction on the col a few hundred meters ahead. They were still there when I cycled ahead of the other 2 to reach the col and re-check the maps. It turned out to be my new friend and kayaking partner Gui, along with the remnants of 2 other teams. They were all taking the full shortcut route, bypassing all the controls and going straight to the last transition at the end of the cycle. Their navigator (from the only German team in the race) had the short route marked out on his map, so it was easier to follow.
I had no interest in collecting controls, since we were all unranked anyway. And with finish line fever raging within me at this stage, I really liked the idea of switching to their route. Anthony and Frank arrived shortly afterwards. We told them what the other team (or collection of bits of teams) were doing, they were more than happy to go for the option of skipping past the remaining two or three controls and taking the (relatively) easy route to the transition.
We were now a bunch of 7 cyclists. I was happy to let someone else navigate for a while, and just relax and enjoy the trip. We were still extremely high. It seemed we had lost very little height overnight and were still over 1000 meters. So we had lots of height to burn off on our journey to the transition.
The morning light was revealing some great view from our location in the maritime alps. The last of the foothills were in front of us and being lit by the low morning sunlight. Beyond that was the welcome sight of the Mediterranean.
We followed wide forest roads down, and down, and down. It was great to be finally burning off all the height in an enjoyable descent with fantastic views of the unfolding landscape surrounding us. It was also great to hook up with a new bunch of people. I had a great long conversation with the 2 racers from the German team.
I had a good chat with Gui as well of course. He suggested we team up again for the final kayak. I had originally been thinking about skipping the final kayak. I reckoned we’d arrive at the sea in the cold of the night, and the thought of getting into a soaking wetsuit to do a relatively short sea kayak didn’t fill me with anticipation! I thought I’d just carry on with my mountain bike to the finish and leave the other 2 to complete the kayak without worry. But now it was obvious it would be a kayak along the Mediterranean shoreline in the heat of the morning, so I was starting to come around to the idea, especially now the 3 man team problem had been solved yet again by Gui.
After 8 or 9 kilometers of fun descending we approached the village of St Agnes, and we found ourselves on proper roads again. The village itself was gorgeously perched on the mountainside. It looked like it had n’t altered in hundreds of years. The sea was much more directly in front of us now, although still a long way below us. I was getting the feeling of being back on the Cote d’Azur again, rather than being inland. Ever since I first visited the Cote d’Azur on my interrailing trip in my mid twenties I had loved it and considered to be a sort of paradise. There’s something about the sea, the landscape, the flora, and of course the weather that is just stunningly beautiful. I was soaking up the views from the height we were at and loving it all. Getting all this in the early morning sunshine was probably as good as it gets!
We carried on down the roads, heading towards the village of Gorbio. On the way down another vista opened up in front of us, as we caught the full view of the Roquebrune Bay and Monaco. The bay was jammed full of large yachts and ocean liners. Quite an impressive sight!
After a few kilometers we turned off the road and were back on technical trails again, taking us into the village of Gorbio. There was a very relaxed atmosphere among the gang of adventure racers, and we all took the descent at our own comfort pace, waiting for everyone to regather at a few points. One of those points was at the end of the most technical section. Frank pulled down the branches of a tree there, picked off the fruit from it branches, and offered it around. It was a wild fig tree, and the super-fresh figs tasted great!
One by one we made into the middle of the village. We waited for the last rider to catch up. It turned out our German navigator broke his chain, and took a few minutes to repair it. The rest of us happily waited and soaked up the morning sun and the relaxed atmosphere of a small Cote d’Azur village on a sunny Saturday morning. Frank and Anthony disappeared I guessed they must have gone hunting for a morning coffee somewhere, as was their style!
Since none of us knew where they’d got to, and they had their own set of maps, we just headed on towards the transition. Another kilometer or two of road took us to more suburban territory. I was still enjoying the ever-changing views and atmosphere as we progressed towards the wealthy homes in the coastal belt.
One last stinger of a climb brought us up to the transition, which this time was just a marked off car parking area on the side of a suburban street. It was still a street with a view out over the bay, the yachts, and Monaco beyond. About 20 minutes later Frank and Anthony rolled contentedly in. Teams were being released from the transition in 10 minute intervals. There were 5 or 6 teams of in transition. Gui arranged our departure time with the transition marshals of 11am, which gave us about an hour to pack our bikes away, gear up for kayaking, and generally chill out!
The Dancing Pandas came into transition about half an hour after us. From chatting with them it sounded like they’d had some interesting adventures and challenges since we’d last seen them, with one or two extra bike pushes being unintentionally added to an already long course! They were looking very tired, but were still in great cheerful form.
As each team’s exit time from the transition came up they lined up and walked/ran out to cheers from everyone else still at the transition. Of course when the time came for our team to leave it took about 5 minutes to convince Anthony and Frank that maybe it would be a good idea to leave the transition and do the short walk down to the kayaks on the beach 🙂
We eventually headed off. Frank’s feet were still killing him, so we made our way downhill at a very sedate pace. The Dancing Pandas caught up with us a few minutes later, and we headed downhill in a big conversational bunch together.
The were two controls to collect on the walk down. The first one was picked up quickly enough at the end of the initial trail down through some scrubland in the suburbs. The walk through Roquebrune took us through the old town with its small narrow stepped streets. Just as we got out the maps to figure out exactly which street we needed to head for we heard a call out in English ahead of us “Which team number are you?”. Ha! It was my girlfriend Helen out on her morning run being helpful to random teams, but stumbling across us!
Of course, strictly speaking, it would be illegal to get outside help, but as we were unranked it didn’t matter at all! Helen joined the two teams and walked down with is for a while, with introductions and storytelling all round. Soon afterwards we were joined by Tiffin, Thomas’ wife, had also been out and about and was leading another team who had got lost in the streets of the old town back on track. We now had a large motley collection of adventure racers being escorted downhill to the beach by team 35’s supporters!
Helen stayed with us all the way down to the beach, and left shortly afterwards to make sure to get around to the finish line, which was now just a short paddle away. Unfortunately when we all got to the checkpoint on the beach there were no kayaks available. We would all have to sit on the beach in the sun, looking out at the luxury yachts ahead, Monaco to our right, and Cap Martin to our left, and wait until kayaks were transported from the finish line back to here. Oh the horror!
After about 30 minutes one pair of kayaks arrived, and the fully ranked team were given them. We were having a very nice time on the beach. I was enjoying chatting with the pandas. Anthony and Frank were snoozing happily in the sun, and Gui was chatting away with the checkpoint crew. Time seemed to fly by. Probably half an hour later again another delivery of kayaks brought 2 pairs to the beach. The Pandas and ourselves were called up (By now the Colombians were also on the beach, but sitting on the shade further back).
Thankfully we were told that we didn’t need to put on our wetsuits or helmets (nominally mandatory gear), and that the only thing we had to wear was our PFDs and race tops. It must have been at least 25 degrees by now, so that was a relief. This paddle was going to be great! The Pandas were still in race mode, so they were pretty efficient at getting going. Gui on myself got our boat not long afterwards, with Frank and Anthony just behind us on the beach.
Gui offered to let me steer this time, but I was more than happy to stick with the winning formula from the long kayak stage. It was also nice to just be able to simply paddle, without worrying about rocks or rapids, and be able to fully take in the amazing views of the Cote d’Azur all around us. Since I don’t own a luxury lot that I could moor on the bay this was a view I would be unlikely to get very often! The coastline was stunning. The blue skies were reflecting in the crystal clear water.
Gui and I were working very well as a pair again, and we passed the first of the panda’s boats not long after leaving the shore. We paddled past a few of the luxury yachts, sometimes exchanging greetings with any sunbathers on deck. As we rounded Cap Martin itself we got into conversation with the panda’s boat which was now just a few feet ahead of us. They thought we were their other boat, and were a bit surprised it was us. They told us to look down. The water was amazingly clear. You could see the seabed very clearly. They decided to wait for their teammates, and we cruised on by.
We looked behind to check on Frank and Anthony. They were two or three hundred meter back, but were paddling away happily. We decided to cruise on. Finish line fever was raging at this stage! We rounded the last headland to see Menton stretching along the coast a few hundred meters ahead, and the Italian border beyond it.
I had just memorised the map before starting, and was winging it finding the finish line. It should be obvious enough. We cruised along about 100 meters off the shore. After about 5 minutes we could see the banners of the finish line and made a beeline for it! Conditions were so good I could have paddled out here all day, but boy was I glad to finally get to the end of the race. We belted to the shore and beached the kayak.
The race crew and supporters cheered us over the finish line, where Pascal, the race director, opened popped a bottle of champagne and sprayed the pair of us before congratulating us and handing it over.
Helen came over to join in the celebrations, followed not long after by Tiffin. Phillipe also appeared, looking much better after having a few days recovery. Two or three minutes later the pandas came in and got the champagne treatment. I was glad to be at the finish line to congratulate my friends on finishing ranked. A few minutes later Anthony and Frank arrived in for yet more champagne!
I heard a familiar voice in the distance. Thomas had hobbled over from the car a little way towards the finish line. I trotted over to him. It was great to finally catch up! Helen brought along my post race treat of coke and ice cream… yum! We stayed at the finish area, relaxing and chatting for another while. This was possibly the most refreshed and least battered I’d ever felt at the end of a multi-day expedition adventure race. Wow, what a race!