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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.