Coupe du France Enduro series round 5, Valberg

Coupe du France Enduro round 5, Valberg

There’s been a lot of race writeups on here recently, and I will get back to proper riding for the next post, but there was one last race in the Coupe du France so for one last time the Kangoo was laden with bikes and tyres. One last time we headed out through the Gorge du Arly. One last time we drove south with no air-con and one working window. One last time you get the idea.

This last one was Valberg/Guillaumes, star of online hits like Fabien Barel’s this, Yo Barelli’s that and Nico Quere’s other. All of these videos feature sections of the race track, and none of them do it justice.

Like a greenhouse without ventilation....

In the first break from tradition, a clue that this wasn’t going to be a normal race, 2 of the 8 stages went online on the Monday before the race with the instructions that they were now taped and open for practice. At first this seemed very anti the “spirit of enduro” as it would give an advantage to the locals, but it turned out that as the stages had been used for 10 years, it was to try and even the field for anyone that hadn’t raced them before. And could turn up on a school day to practice. Not sure if it worked or not, locals always have an advantage whether they know the exact trails or not, but I think I’d prefer if we just had to ride blind(ish)

Practice. It's just graft, graft, graft at these races.

Saying that, shuttling the tracks on the Friday was pure dead brilliant. Though the flip side was that shuttling up the side of a mountain gets through a small petrol tank quickly. At 1.70 euros a litre in the village garage, the entertaining roads had an obvious cost.

Making friends whilst shuttling.

After a lap of stage 2 & 3 for me & Nina, and an extra lap of 3 for Nina with Spence, we drank more petrol for the 25 minute drive up the road to the sign in and the next surprise. Instead of the fastest starting first, they’d be starting last. So rather than the usual 0600 alarm for an 8am start, I wasn’t rolling into the liaison until 1030. Which was the next thing. The 1st liaison started about 650m above the finish line, so you pretty much had to have a car to get there. Unless you were one of the 2 Italian lads who misunderstood and rode up to the start….

Which neatly brings us to describing the stages.

Saturday. 1850m of height gain, 2400m of descending and 45km of riding over and between 5 stages. If somehow you’re saying “aye great, but I NEED more video links” then the event video here will give a better idea.

Stage 1. After a pretty easy 30 minute liaison the opening stage was a short sprint into the trees and then lots and lots of dry, dusty, loamy singletrack. Sometimes freshly cut, sometimes fairly well established and mostly downhill, for a long long time until suddenly there was a flat pedally bit with a few short sharp climbs that I needed to push. After the timing gate you were along the road to the food tent and a 1hr window for….

Race day on stage 1, 100m in.

Stage 2 which began after a 310m climb in the saddle. This stage is now 10 years old, but ain’t showing it at all. Mostly on the signature grey shale rock of the region with sculpted features blended into natural terrain. The only way I could describe it is like the Rampage course for punters. So much fun to ride, and only slightly terrifying to race.

Stage 2 practice. It was pretty much this awesome all the way down.

Stage 3 was the same but bigger, with the liaison going past Stage 2 and up a total of 390m. Beginning with a 10m tarmac sprint, a 90 degree right into a steep bank and another 90 degree right, then wooded singletrack, a few pedals, lots of the grey dirt spines, then some super loose and dusty singletrack in the trees to finish. Again, just amazing to ride. The racing? More later (oooh, suspense eh?)

Stage 3 start, looks fine for 1 rider.....

Stage 4 was preceded by its liaison. The previous 3 pedals up had lulled us into a false sense of security. Leaving the feedstation the 2hr 10mins allocated for the 655m height gain looked ok, until 10 minutes in when you pulled off the tarmac and started pushing up a trail. And kept pushing. All the way. Still, the stage was another blinder. Longest of the weekend at over 760m of drop and featuring all that is good about woodland singletrack.

Back to stage 2 practice. Looks fun eh?

Finally Stage 5 only needed you to drag your body and bike up 50metres to the start above the town of Guillaumes. 100m of yet more steep dusty singletrack spat you out at the top of the town where you raced through narrow alleyways, stairs, wall drops, tunnels and car ramp stepups to the town centre. Like pretending to be in the Italian Job, but on bikes. In France. With no gold.

Home, eat, drink, sleep, reset.

Everyone loves a street stage

Sunday stage 1. Only 280m of up for the honour of the worst stage of the weekend. Open alpages with slightly damp grass and rocks poised ready to destroy a rim or tyre or disk or dérailleur and your chances.

Stage 2. Had a chairlift! And then a surprisingly tight 120m climbing liaison which saw plenty folk arriving breathless and/or late for their start. Just as well they were warmed up as after a series of flowless freshcut corners through the trees you had 1/2 a km of flat or uphill fireroad. Better singletrack was followed by another hard pedal and then the final steep section to the finish next to the chairlift.

Fresh outta pics of Sunday, so here's more stage 2 practice for you.

Handy that, as you were back up it for stage 3. Fortunately the liaison was then 100% downhill to stage 3’s halfway height where you were telt you had an obligatory reccy descent of the lower part of the stage, before getting the pleasure of an obligatory push all the way back up to the start. This stage was a bit different (again, building suspense with a tease and promise of a big reveal, just to keep you reading) wide lines at the top, a short pedal, some unavoidable (tiny) gap jumps then multiple taped lines where you had to pick a route and stick to it for a while, then old school grass dual slalom stylee to the finish arch.

Whit a series of tracks, yet what of the alluded to surprises?

Surprise 3. Arriving at the start line of stage 1 I discover that rather than the usual 10 second gaps, we get 1 minute. But start is groups of 3. Yes, down super narrow consequence laden trails we were going to be racing 3 up, elbow to elbow, mano a mano (err, a mano).

The girls got to race 1 at a time, the guys were on these trails 3 up.

I got lucky. 1 of my fellow gladiators didn’t show and the other, Phillipe Widmer, had been an overtaking target of mine for the last few Saturdays, so we were already on familiar terms. Out the gate I had the legs for the holeshot and gained a lead through the initial techy corners. The terrain just kept getting more and more fun to ride and I was having a ball when I started to hear heavy breathing. That wasn’t mine.

“Allez, ALLEZ!”. I’d kinda forgotten it was a race and Phillipe was back on me. Best start pedalling again. The rest of stage passed in a blur of good line choices and that amazing feeling of being in the bubble where everything seems easy and fun. Until I hit the pedally section low down at least, but I’d built up more than enough lead by then.

Now that's what I call a liaison stages 2 & 3.

Stage 2 was similar. Got the holeshot, almost got overtaken on the 1st pedally bit, pulled away in the technical sections. But I just couldn’t shake Phillipe who pushed all the way to the line.

Stage 3 start, scene of plenty of carnage.

Stage 3 I was starting on the outside. The opening 100m which would have been easy as a individual were going to be interesting as 2. For 3 the starts were turning out in turns comical and painful. Phillipe got the holeshot, I got to the base of the slope first, we collided, laughed, and he was in the lead. Then the physical section saw him ramp up the gap. To cap it off I then made a daft mistake and crashed. Normally I’d have cruised down the rest of the stage, but having a distant speck churning up dust fired something inside me. I think it was competitiveness. Either way, I started pedalling, pushing on in the corners, the speck was getting bigger. The speck was getting closer. Dropping into the final tight and steep trees I was back on his tail and this time I was shouting “allez, ALLEZ”. Phillip overcooked a 180 degree hairpin and went down, 3 out of 3 stages.

By Stage 4 we had our mutual good luck start routines down. I didn’t have Phillipes power endurance, but at least I could outsprint him for the 40m it needed to get into the first rock garden in the lead and I pulled away from there. The first 1/2 of the stage felt like stage 1 had. In the zone and riding easily. The air was getting dustier and I was starting to catch the group 1 minute infront but then the days riding started to catch me. Everything was getting tired and I couldn’t hit the lines I wanted anymore. My legs would seize with cramp if I stood up to pedal and I felt like the bike weighed as much as I did. Still, 4 out of 4.

Stage 5 start, Nina cunningly avoiding the tree I didn't.

Finally stage 5 and we were getting to start 1 at a time. I celebrated by riding straight into a tree about 5 seconds out of the start gate. After untangling myself from the bike I fired on down with squint bars, which at least gave me slight x-up style points on every air. This stage was just what an urban DH should be like, I just wish I could have ridden it without squiff bars!

Enduro racing is a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but for me, this day was what I was looking for in all the races I entered. A long hard day on the bike with some of the best trails you’ll ride, a huge variety of terrain and happy people to share it with. I just wish we could have raced it all 1 at a time.

The end of a long, long day.

With the racing done and dusty, we headed off to eat, get ready for day 2, and find out what was happening in the morning. This proved harder than anticipated, but instead we got to watch the kids get their prizes from Fabien Barel & Nico Vouilloz. If you’re wondering why the French dominate enduro, then this is why. For the last 10 years in the Mercantour, kids as young as 8 have been racing on the same stages, with the same liaisons, as the adults, they just do less of the stages over the day. Then getting guidance from the worlds best. Same recipe as British DH I guess…..

Drive by bike washing for the lazy.

Surprise 4. With no information to go on, we’d guessed that the start times would be the same order as Saturday. Yes and no, I went off as expected, but the girls were now in the general classification, so Nina’s start was with the mid pack riders and about 15 minutes before we even turned up! She managed to sprint up the liaison and just made her start.

The pace notes for Stage 6 mentioned that you could puncture easily. Before my start I got a text to say Nina had managed to puncture. Twice. Fortunately we were back to individual starts so I took it easy passing many others at the side of the trail who hadn’t.

You canny beat a good dust tan.

Stage 7 didn’t have rocks at least, just lots of pedalling and loose branches, one of which decided to get stuck in my cassette and dérailleur. More time lost.

Stage 8 start line. Bit of a surprise that one.

Stage 8, surprise 5. The startline was taped out like the mega-avalanche. Riders were going to start as per their current classification for the weekend. If you want to move up the ranking, you have to overtake! Francois Bailly-Maitre went out the gates, then at the appropriate gap for your time so far, so did the next rider, and the next. Suddenly the wider taping at the top of the course and multiple line choices lower down made sense! I managed to get the rider infront of me, but that was it, I’m not sure I’m cut out for the Mega.

Nina focussed on the finish.

And with that, the Coupe du France was over for the season.

Surprise number 6. I finished the weekend 8th. In category…. After a season of being in the same category as all the top guys (and in fact every guy from 19 to 39) they ran a Masters 1 category for almost-but-not-quite over the hill club of 30 to 39.

Nina might not have done so well here between the hard liaisons and double puncture, but she did well enough and got the 3rd step on the podium for the season title. An incredible result for her first season racing, and she only started biking 3 years ago!

France's number 2 & 3 ranked lasses, Nina and Anais.

Perhaps the best part of the prize giving though was seeing the 1st placed junior Sebastien Claquin hand his prize of a years factory deal with Giant to 2nd placed Valentin Escriou. Though as Claquin also finished 5th overall in mens, I guess he had his factory deal signed already.

One last time we packed up the car, got ready for the drive, complained about our aches and pains and headed back north.

When enduro comes to town....

One time more I’ll thank everyone who organised the series, the 130 volunteers involved in this round, the team that chose Saturdays stages (why is the EWS is going to Samoens when it could come here?), all the racers who made me feel so welcome over the season despite the occasional language difficulties, Nina for being a great race buddy, and Spencer for the driving, cooking, organising, mechanicing, taking photos and lending me numerous parts of his bike, all when he could have been getting riding in for himself.

Next season?

One last time back up the road