Velo Club Moulin

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Rider

"Good riders?  Bad riders?  You can tell good riders by their faces, bad riders by their faces too - but that only goes for riders you already know."

In the spring of 2015 I was studying a map of France in anticipation of a family holiday to the Ardèche.  Familiar names leapt out at me; Ales, Anduze, Nîmes, Uzès.  Cycling clubs described in Tim Krabbé's "The Rider".

If you're not familiar with The Rider then beg, borrow or steal a copy.  It's a great book which happens to be about cycling.  It describes Krabbé's attempt to win a fictional road race: The Tour of Mont Aigoual.  But the map suggested that this imaginary account borrowed real terrain.  A kernel of an idea began to form.  Was it possible to ride the route described in the book?

A closer look showed that Mont Aigoual lay in the heart of the Cévennes to the east of Meyreuis, the start town of the race.  I had never considered that it might be possible to step into the world described in a work of fiction.  The prospect was exciting.  Would I be able to climb like Kléber, descend like Reilhan, ride like Lebusque or would I be climbing off early like Sauveplane?

Hours spent poring over a well thumbed book revealed enough detail to piece together the two loops of the race.  The first loop seemed to fit the map but I just couldn't make the second loop work.  Had the roads changed?  Were the maps I had not good enough?  Had my plan of recreating a fictional route run into the hard barrier of reality?

Satisfied that I had enough information to ride at least half the route I started to work out logistics.  Meyreuis was about 2 hours drive from where we would be staying so with an early start that would be quite achievable.  I was able to hire a bike in Prades, close to the route, which I could pick up on the morning of the ride.  Now I just had to keep my fingers crossed for good weather, the Cevennes in summer is one of the wettest areas in France.

After arriving in France I bought a 1:25000 map of the Cevennes to complete the route planning.  I was in luck.  The route described in the book fitted the map perfectly, every place name and junction seemed to fit.  This was going to work.  

The south of France was in the midst of a heatwave with the mercury hitting 40 degrees most days.  As luck would have it the day I had arranged to hire a bike was forecast to be the coolest of the week with an overcast start and a strong wind.  With the weather in mind I elected to modify the route slightly.  I would start in Les Vignes at the foot of the first climb.  Hopefully this would allow me to minimise the climbing in the hottest part of the day and would leave me to finish with 50km of descending and easy riding.

Tim Krabbe The Rider
Route planning and daydreaming

After an early start I found myself on a magnificent driving road.  Mile after mile of sweeping bends and no traffic provided an enjoyable start to the day and I arrived in Prades earlier than expected.  I collected my steed for the day, a weighty but perfectly set-up Giant Defy.  Driving though the amazing setting of the Gorges du Tarn I arrived at my starting point.

"Meyrueis, Lozère, June 26, 1977.  Hot and overcast.  I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together.  Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes.  Non-racers.  The emptiness of those lives shocks me."

It was overcast, windy and relatively cool as I started the first climb of the day.  The hairpins of the climb wouldn't have been out of place in the Alps but as I gained height the view back into the Gorges du Tarn was unique.  Six hundred meters abover my starting point I reached the Causse Méjean, a vast limestone plateau.  A remote and desolate landscape even on a fine summers day.  The frequent stone shelters at the side of the road gave an indication of how hostile this environment could be in a winter storm.  Riding here was fantastic with no cars, no people and an amazing sense of isolation.

Gorges du Tarn Les Vignes
Looking back into the Gorges du Tarn above Les Vignes
Causse Mejean shelter
Stone shelter on the Causse Méjean

After a gradual descent I turned onto a slightly larger road heading south towards Meyreuis.  Mile after mile of false flat was eased by the warmth of the sun on my back as the sky cleared and the day warmed up.  The traffic was still incredibly light and it was ironic that I got stuck behind one of the few cars on the road as I descended into scenic Meyreuis.  I took the opportunity to fill my bottles before setting out on the next remote section.

The heat was really starting to build and I was relieved to discover that much of the steep climb out of town was shaded by trees.  Reaching the Causse Noir was stunning and my abiding memory of the day is riding through this amazing landscape with a strong tailwind speeding me along. 

Causse Noir
Enjoying the tailwind on the Causse Noir

Causse Noir view
On the Causse Noir

The race doesn't follow the main road to Mont Aigoual and I turned onto a minor road that passed through Lanuéjols but there was no-one there.  I had barely seen another person since I left Meyreius.  The descent into Treves began.  Krabbé, the self confessed worst descender in the race, struggled here and so did I.  He was overcome by thoughts of flying off the side of the mountain but my worries were more prosaic; greasy roads, gravel, blind corners and the overwhelming sense of being a long way from other people.  Krabbé was dropped here but he quickly regained the lead group on the next climb.  I stepped out of the novel for a moment and stopped for a coffee, une treve (a rest or let-up) in Treves.  There was only one cafe in the tiny village but it was a perfect fit to this ride.  A rustic, quiet place from another decade where I enjoyed an interesting chat with the owner who was was amazed to discover that her village formed part of the backdrop of a well known book.

There was no gendarme to wave me down the correct road but it wasn't difficult to find.  The road started to climb into a narrow gorge with a strong headwind funnelling down it.  I struggled to recall the description of this section but it was clear that I had underestimated it.  An hour of climbing on heavy roads that didn't suit me.  Not steep enough to be a real climb but enough to hurt and an ever-present headwind.  I was starting to wonder if I had misjudged the route.  It was now fiercly hot, I was barely half way through the 140 kilometres and I had been riding for close to 4 hours.  I had to trust that the climbing was front loaded and the last 60 kilometres would be fast.

"Another four kilometres to Camprieu, another four kilometres to climb.  Why am I whining about Camprieu?  After Camprieu there are two kilometres of flat road, then an eight kilometre climb.  Camprieu is a fallacy, an overgrown kilometre stone.  Another four kilometres to Camprieu."

With no Lebusque, Kléber or Cycles Goff to share the work I was on my own and it was with a degree of relief that I reached Camprieu.  After an hour of daydreaming about lunch my appetite abandoned me in the heat.   Nothing seemed appealing and I ended up ordering a crêpe au citron and two scoops of vanilla ice cream.  At least it was quick and I was soon back on the road, somewhat apprehensive about the climbing to come.  But even suffering doesn't last for long when you don't have to worry about reality and a combination of smooth tarmac and a strong tailwind meant I was able to make short work of the climb. 

Climb to Camprieu
Climbing towards Camprieu

Mont Aigoual cycling recreating the rider
Looking back towards Mont Aigoual

Mont Aigoual cycling recreating the rider
This is why I ride

Col du Perjuret cycling
Approaching the Col du Perjuret

The descent from the top to the Col du Perjuret was punctuated by several small climbs but rather than feeling like hard work they offered a chance to enjoy the fabulous scenery.  As I rode through this terrain it occured to me that the book reads like a genuine account of a road race taking almost no notice of anything outside the small bubble of the race.  Most of the descriptions in the book deal with how the landscape affects the race and the few comments on the world beyond the road are offered with an element of detachment.  Another dimension which the riders do not have the capacity to be troubled by.

On the long and straightforward descent off the Col du Perjuret I started to slip out of the story.  My ride wouldn't finish in Meyreius and I certainly wouldn't be contesting the sprint.  None the less I kept looking ahead for the 'CULTE PROTESTANTE' sign that marked the start of the sprint but it's long gone, or perhaps it was never there.

Several hours after my last visit I was back in the same shop to top up my water supplies.  The temperature had risen significantly as I descended from the summit.  The Gorges de la Jonte was beautiful but the headwind was strong enough that I had to pedal reasonably hard to make progress on the gentle downhill slope.  The heat in the gorge was incredible, riding into the headwind felt like opening an oven door.

As I suffered in the heat my thoughts were dominated by the prospect of the sting in the tail; 20km into a headwind up the Gorges du Tarn.  Again I was on the right side of the thin line between fiction and reality and when I reached Le Rozier I was greeted by an uplifting roadsign:  "Les Vignes 10km".  I turned into the Gorges du Tarn and it became clear how hazy my recollection of the final part of the route had been, the walls of the beautiful gorge provided shelter for an easy spin back to the car.

Recreating this route was one of my most enjoyable cycling experiences and I've struggled to get the same satisfaction from similar rides.  The blurred boundary between the novel and real life allowed me to become part of the story.  The heroes of this race never existed so there are no fallen idols to cast any shadows.

On a more practical level these were wonderful roads to ride offering lots of climbing in near solitude.  Outside of Meyreius I only saw a handful of people all day, at one point riding for over an hour without being passed by a car.  

After riding this route I discovered that others had made the pilgrimage before me.  CyclingTips wrote an excellent article on their adventure, it looks like they stopped in the same cafe in Treves as I did.  The fantastic InRng blog featured Mont Agioual as part of the Roads to Ride series.

Gorges de la Jonte cycling
Riding through the Gorges de la Jonte

"One more kilometre to climb.  It's so incredibly pitiful that I ever wanted to do this, but now I'm stuck with it."