“This is not a race. It is an adventure.” I revisited Samuel’s words over and over again. Samuel is the guy who mapped the 2200km (about 1370 miles) of blisteringly hot gravel roads, muddy singletrack descents and soul-crushing tarmac ascents that form the French Divide.

The French Divide invites a bit more than 80 riders to tackle the entirety of France within a maximum of 15 days. It starts at the English Channel and finishes in the glorious Basque country on the border to Spain. It also throws in about 35’000 meters of climbing (about 115’000 feet) along the way. It is not a race, it claims. But is it?

I had a lot of time to contemplate the subtleties that differentiate a race from an adventure, or from touring. My last seven days on the French Divide I rode without meeting any other racer. In the vast emptiness that the interior of France can be, this also meant hardly ever talking to anyone else.

french divide
Before the event I had sorted out my priorities. I was to stay healthy, get to the finish, and be reasonably fast, in that order. This was what ruled out racing in my opinion. To properly race, you have to take a gamble on staying healthy and finishing, as you test your limits in the pursuit of the ultimate goal of being faster. However, sometimes things are not as clear-cut as that. The start of the event was at sunrise at a beach in the very North of France. Riders made last minute adjustments to their gear, took selfies with loved ones and probably asked themselves one last time if they had what it takes. The night before, Samuel had told us that around half were expected not to finish. It certainly gnawed at my mind.

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The go was given and we rode behind a big rooster (an emblem of France) in safety car mode for a bit, until the route veered off into a gravel road and it all properly started. Some riders took off almost immediately, while I was stuck in the middle of the pack for a bit. I made the decision to cut to the front, heard “ah, now the Swiss attack” and left the chit-chat behind, pleasant as it was. I told myself that I did it to be safer on the gravel, not having to constantly eye the wheel in front of me, but in hindsight, it was a pivotal moment. It was the moment I chose to go faster than average.

After catching up to the lead group, even paying close attention not to draft, the pace at the front was lightning fast. Having roughly studied the route beforehand, I knew this was a good thing. The first half of the route is very flat — and about eighty percent of the hard climbing seemed to happen in the last third of the route as well. It was important to cover some distance in the beginning, to have some legroom towards the end.

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Some of the route in the North lets you bask in cycling glory as you ride the infamous pavé sections of Paris-Roubaix.

For the first three days in the North, I mainly rode with Benjamin. He is a 24 year old semi-pro cyclocross racer who made laughing stock of my offroad skills in the forest, riding a rather skinny tired gravel bike compared to my Salsa Fargo drop-bar 29er. The only thing that could stop him were big crowds blocking our path.

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Benjamin also introduced me to what many French think of the flat and depopulated North. “Le Nord, c’est la mort”. Coming from Switzerland myself, a country that celebrates its hills and mountains, I could understand the sentiment. However, the organizers surely knew to make the best of the uninspiring terrain, by picking out a good number of gravel road gems while still allowing for enough tarmac to get into the interior of France reasonably fast.

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After four days and closing in on the second checkpoint, it became clear that it was three of us that were plowing ahead of everyone else in our start group. Besides Benjamin and myself, there was also Sylvain, a quiet and super nice Frenchman, Transcontinental finisher and evidently one for the very long days in the saddle. Riding in the vicinity of these two other guys, I had to reconsider my priorities and strategy. I had realized that they were set on a fast finish, and much more in race mode than I was. It is something you start to feel riding with people, it manifests itself in the minutes not wasted in cafés, the riding after sunset, the pictures not taken. However, I also saw that they were having a hard, but good time, just as I was. And unimaginably, I realized that continuing this way, I might even finish below the magical ten days I had not even set myself as a stretch goal.

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Sylvain in the blurry back and a slightly confused Benjamin (why would anyone bring half a kilogram of camera equipment to this event?) in the front.

So I made a compromise with myself. I would not race these other two and refrain from checking their positions online (as I did not have internet beyond the sporadic wifi connection, this was easy). However, I would race to finish below ten days. Thus, I might have started racing after four days. But the adventure was just about to start as well.

The French Divide enters a region know as the Massif Central after around 1200 kilometers. This is where the first proper climbing starts. Unfortunately for myself (and Benjamin and Sylvain as well as I found out afterwards), it was also where the first proper rain hit. Suffice to say, I did not take off my rain pants for two days, my beloved camera was inundated and destroyed (a feat not even the Scottish highlands had managed to pull off a year before) and had I not found a hotel room at the end of a particularly freezing evening descent, my French Divide could have been over just then. Make no mistake though, the region is also incredibly beautiful, even judging from the foggy glimpses I got of it.

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After leaving the Massif Central, you soon close in on the third checkpoint. The checkpoints are the one thing that really make the French Divide an outstanding event. You get to have a good meal, drink a coffee and feel a certain degree of accomplishment. But above everything, it is the presence of the race organizers at the checkpoints that were an enormous boost to my morale. It is a hard event. Hardly anyone you meet can properly understand its magnitude. On top of that, you hardly ever meet anyone anyway, besides your average friendly baker (speaking of which, the bakeries are the greatest asset of rural France besides fresh water at cemeteries). So, meeting up with the race organizers again, being encouraged by them, and simply talking to someone who knows what you have been through is invaluable. It also helps that the organizers are incredibly nice people to boot.

Sometimes, racing comes down to only a few right choices. I was lucky to take them in my race towards the ten day mark. First, I had told myself to avoid night riding whenever possible, but one special evening, with a heavy tailwind and very quiet roads in front of me, I made an exception. This basically got me seventy free kilometers in three hours of night riding that were invaluable in the end. Second, I decided to keep on riding, when, with about a third of the route still in front of me, I broke two spokes on my front wheel. Not repairing the wheel was a gamble that paid off, as the wheel did not cause me much trouble and I saved a lot of time I would have spent in a bike shop otherwise. Third, I had brought two front chainrings with me, to modify my single ring setup on the fly. I carried an all-round 34 tooth ring for the flats and most of the route, and a 28 tooth ring for the climbing days. I solely credit this tiny ring with getting me through 10 000 meters of climbing during the last two days. And I am still in awe that Benjamin managed with a 40 tooth ring. I would still be pushing my bike up the Col de Tourmalet.

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Time for a smaller chainring.

The most emotional moment during the last two days of my French Divide was the aforementioned Col de Tourmalet. It marked the end of an amazing but never-ending climbing day in the Pyrenees and the highest point of the route. I never shed tears on top of a pass before, but I am not ashamed to say that I did on top of this impressive col steeped in Tour de France history.

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Descending from the Col de Tourmalet, the highest point of the French Divide.

After the Tourmalet, I made the mistake of thinking it would be all downhill to the finish. It is not. After the Las Vegas of Catholicism that is Lourdes, the last 70 kilometers of the race contain another 2500 meters of climbing that are bound to rip your soul to pieces. Good thing the Basque country is such a nice place, where the local restaurant owner will have your beer ready when you arrive at the finish line in the middle of the night, and a good one at that.

Et pour finir en beauté cette journée du lundi 14 août, Mario Angst notre petit suisse préféré arrive avec son sourire r…

Posted by French Divide on Tuesday, August 15, 2017



I won my race — I finished below ten days, one of four riders. And thus I had to reconsider my feelings about what differentiates racing from touring. I am pretty sure almost every single rider on the French Divide rode some kind of race. Against time, himself, the rain, the desire to quit or maybe even against another rider that proved to be a perfect sparring partner.

Sylvain surely won his race — he finished with an incredible effort in the last 24 hours that left me speechless when I heard about it at the finish line. I am also pretty sure Benjamin won his race, posting the third fastest time in his first long bikepacking event. And looking at the pictures of other riders that made their way to the finish when I was already home in Switzerland, it seems a great many won their races too. Endurance events are special to me in this regard. They are places where you can find all participants winning a race regardless of when they finish, with the fastest ones often the most humble. And let us not forget, so many people even giving up their races and still looking back proudly on their decisions, having found smiles and adventure along the way.

French Divide
I still do not know if I raced or toured the French Divide. But I know that I positively surprised myself in many ways and won my own race against the ten day mark. And I also know now that neither racing nor touring rule out adventure. This is especially true on an absolutely beautiful course such as the French Divide with an organizing team that is just beyond incredible. I will continue kidding myself and call it touring at beyond average speed and I know that I will not stop doing it so soon. So long, and thanks for all the croissants.

French Divide

French Divide

French Divide

14 Comments

  1. Great description of thoughts and feelings. Good job, pal!

  2. Love your article ! And you’re so right d’Henri you say that every French Divider won his or her race ! It’ s a tough route to giving the best of oneself, but so worth it! Thanks for sharing your experience of it!!!

  3. brubru le hérisson

    The true middle of the french divide is the point where in a bakershop you switch from “pain au chocolat” to “chocolatine” .

    • Haha, I never reached that subtle linguistic point. I honestly had trouble enough persuading them that I really intended to eat five pain au chocolat and five croissants right on the spot :).

  4. It’s almost like he could have used some kind of mechanical device that switches between different sized chainrings.

    • Mario Angst

      Hahaha I could have :). But honestly I only needed the small ring three out of ten days and therefore preferred having baasically two different 1x setups and the simplicity that comes with it rather than a front mech.

  5. Great write up Mario. It seemed you wen the big tyre no suspension option. If you were to do it again would you use a bike with suspension?

    • Hi Sean! Thanks :). I went tubeless with 2.1 tires, carbon fork, and never felt the need for a suspension fork. So I would definitely go with this setup again. However, I think it all cancels out somewhat as the course is quite long and varied I think. For example, Benjamin ran something like 40mm tires and a rigid fork and Sylvain a pretty standard MTB setup and they were both pretty fast :)….

  6. Alfredo Betancourt

    Hi Mario and congratulations after all for your race/touring/adventure and for your beautiful pictures, I’m a photographer myself and the compliment is really honest, thanks for those quality pictures, to me is no surprise that you took a camera, seeing the result you got from it, I personally won’t do the French Divide without a proper camera, I have to have a camera and take pictures, it’s par of it, not negotiable. As many others I’m thinking on doing the FD one day, thanks for sharing your journey, it helps and inspires many like me, for sure. It looks like the FD in therms of gear/bike matches the GD, you can do it on any bike, the best for you, the one you trust most. Did you use a tent or a bivy as a shelter? What would you do different if you do it again? My favorite picture is the one from the descent of the Tourmalet, just wonderful and timeless image, print it on a good size and hang it on a wall, it’ll take you back there everytime you’ll look at it.
    Cheers,
    Alfredo.

    • Hi Alfredo

      Thanks a lot, that means a lot – taking pictures to me has become an essential part of these adventures and I strive to always keep a fresh mind about it and improve. In an event such as the French Divide this also creates some special challenges as you obviously do not always have an enormous amount of time to compose and find fresh angles if you ride at speed. And it is beautiful to hear that it inspired you, that was the goal.
      Another special challenge was that my Fuji X100T broke in the middle of the event and I had to get by with the smartphone for the rest. Definitely made me faster because some light situations, I did not even care taking the phone out. What is funny is that all photos in this articles were taken with the “proper” camera, except two. One of them is the one at the Tourmalet, haha :).
      In terms of equipment, I would not do a lot of things differently. I had a slightly heavier setup than the other guys at the “front” but the added piece of mind was worth it. However, I would not take the tent again, even though the Exped Mira UL without the inner tent did not weigh me down too much. But in the end I used it only twice and could have found shelter somewhere during these nights anyway. There are many barns along the way and farmers always did not mind or never even knew I was there.
      As this topic has come up a couple of times now, I might post a short gear list at some point and post it here in the comments if I get around to it.
      Best,
      Mario

  7. Congratulations Mario!
    Which bags are you using on your bike?
    I see you have an interesting system in your saddle bag.

    Best

    • Hi Alvaro

      It was a real mix-up that has accumulated over the years. Porcelaine Rocket handlebar system, Revelate and Alpkit Feedbags (both reached the end of their lifespan at some point), Revelate Tank bag and Jerry Can, Rogue Panda Frame bag, and a Porcelaine Rocket Albert saddle bag. The last one is absolutely awesome, best saddle bag I have ever had.

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