Born To Ride is Chilkoot’s gold standard annual ‘big one’. Like a mini-TCR that traverses a smaller part of western Europe, the name tag speaks about its participants almost as much as their riding does. PCR Gravier members Simon and Arthur decided it was time to commit and test their ability to keep on keeping on.
Last October Arthur and I we decided to join the famous Chilkoot Born To Ride Adventure. Entries sold like hot cakes and we didn't really take the time to consider if it was a good idea or collective suicide. We only knew that it was a solid but not insurmountable challenge, that the road would be beautiful, the views breathtaking and the sun would shine. Oh wait!
'Knock Knock Knock
-Me llamo Miguel, the storm!
1- THE NIGHT
Everything starts at night time in the citadel of Montmedy. It's almost 10pm. Men, women and bikes are sharpened like never before and after several hours waiting in a cold wind, the start of this BTR is like a deliverance. We will finally be able put an end to this (too) long period of preparation and jusg ride - 1200 kilometres further south towards Ramatuelle, in 120 hours maximum. You do the math.
The benefit of a group start is that there are a lot of wheels to help hide from the wind and also a lot of friends to chat with. So they told us.
Kilometre 1 of 1327
'Flap Flap Flap Flap...
- Simon, flat tire!”
The adventure has begun. Our duo registration makes sense at this very moment. The different groups pass us and here we are, the two red lanterns of this BTR. Good thing we didn't plan to sleep tonight!
We chase the entire field of other riders and find it intense and a little dreamlike as we ride through the night. Sunrise and the first bakery open in Chateauneuf. It looks like a war hospital full of broken riders who are already talking about quitting, sick of cycling after a 160km nightshift.
At that point Arthur and I make a promise to each other : to keep the fun going whatever it takes. Like beavers, we will create a small dam against bad vibes and we will follow the fun flow until Ramatuelle! We stretch our legs and smile. A new day can begin.
2- THE GREAT OUTDOORS
According to Météo France, the event’s first twelve hours of daylight may be our only sunny day, so we're going to make the most of it. We ride long straight lines to make progress, despite the head wind and find ourselves in a pizza party with a group that includes the famous long distance fixie rider, Thierry Saint Léger.
Post-pizza, the party splits into groups, maybe rated by speed of digestion. In the afternoon we are caught up by Elisabeth and some good riders for a prestigious ride to CP1 in Besançon via a fountain which helps wake up our legs. The riding is good.
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“This croque-monsieur combo won't be refused!”
Another party, this time a bar, this croque-monsieurs. Even if we love it, Arthur and I think this is not the time to chill. It’s 6pm and we depart towards Pontarlier through the best of what the Haut Doubs has to offer : liquid sunshine with some gravel tracks as a bonus.
The concentration of fun begins to dilute as the fatigue builds, but as the gps announces 360km, we find ourselves quite happy with what is our longest stretch in the saddle ever. We made the most of the good weather and reward ourselves with a hotel room.
3- THE RAIN
Fresh as unwashed bibshorts after only 5 hours of sleep, we started the next stage with a daybreak bakery robbery. It’s a storm of croissants and pains au chocolat
After leaving Pontarlier, we arrive in Switzerland via an amazing descent to discover that this country – at least at this time - is wet. So we equip ourselves: hood under the helmet, overshoes, leg warmers. It’s ‘no swag’ mode for the rain.... In fact, these outfits will be our party suits for the next 3 days. Wet is wet, you might as well just pedal.
We make it to castle of Gruyère, aka the second checkpoint of this BTR. There are cars and tourist everywhere and it rains to death, so we mark our arrival as best we can with soaked selfies. Time to escape for peace and some warmth during the ascent of the Grand Saint Bernard pass……FALSE! Our friend Julien, who has just arrived at CP2, announces that the pass is closed and we’ll have to go around. Race organisers send an official message to confirm the situation.
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'Riding here without taking the col is like having a Playstation but without the games, it's useless...”
An 8-metre-long kebab not far from the castle will clear our minds. We take the opportunity to dry a little and make an express map on Komoot towards Albertville along Lake Geneva. It’s the only logical option to bypass the big mountain passes but our adventure has just been extended by 150 km. It raises doubts about following ‘official advice’.
We stay behind the bars until 3am. The last 20km of a 300km day are the longest, but with a lot of patience we finally reach Albertville. Happy but relatively toasted, we have to sleep a minimum to avoid exploding the next day. The alarm will ring at 7 o'clock, then we will go break into another bakery, before the mountain. We're also going to recruit a new riding partner.
4- THE MEETING
One of the well-known beauties of long-distance cycling are the random encounters with unknown riders. We’d exchanged some messages then some face to face chat with Julien between the start and CPs 1 and 2. It was clear we shared the same outlook on this crazy adventure so when we learned he’d been abandoned by his fellow traveller it was obvious what to do. We stopped, ordered our 32nd BTR coffee and all of a sudden two became three.
Strength in numbers is good to get through the Maurienne Valley – it’s the gateway to a luxury playground for cyclists but the valley itself is so boring it would be boring to describe it….but at least we got to know Julien and set the goal for the day the CP3 aka La Sacra Di San Michele.
This objective was confused by a new message from the race organization, with the same theme as before – bad weather means we should avoid CP3, group together as a peloton and keep to the valleys for warmer conditions.
Arthur: 'Wait, didn't we come to do the BTR?”
Julien: 'What does it say in front of us? Is the weather that bad?'
Simon: 'Wait chief, I'm taking out my joker call to a friend!'
I speak with Matthieu who is ahead on the road, “do as you wish... but if you come, be prepared because it's real sh*t up on Mont Cenis!”
5- MIGUEL (the storm not Indurain…)
'F*ck it, let's go!”
Our decision to go against the race organiser’s advice is almost immediately validated as crazy. A 5-star rain shower leads to a rock fall just outside Fourneaux. After that I started counting the seconds between the lightning flashes in the sky and the heavy rumble of thunder.
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The storm: 'Lightning, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6... Grumble!”
Me: 'It's all right, guys, it’s far away, we’re at least 6 kilometers ahead!”
The storm: 'Lightning, 1,... GRUUUUUMBLE! :
Me: 'Ok then! Maybe we're a bit closer after all!” .
We decide to take a shelter for 10 minutes, to eat an energy bar and give this storm the time to get a few lengths ahead. It seems our plan has worked as we hit the ascent of Mont-Cenis. Nothing really insurmountable after all! The climb is hard, yes, but with a lot of music and peanuts, I tell you that you can climb anything. As we approach the summit, we felt like we have won a small battle against Mother Nature.
Wrong. The storm was waiting for us quietly on the other side of the mountain. Wind from hell, fog reducing visibility to 2 metres, below freezing temperatures and as a bonus, a very solid hail. What followed were the worst 30km of our cycling lives. We shiver and tense as we have to brake continuously for almost the entire descent down the road that resembles a river. Finally we start to regain 1°C here and then another one there as the elevation drops. We're warming up physically but mentally that was a tough one. One thing is sure, in the first town, we're going to take a hotel.
Susa, Italy. First street on the right, there is a 3-star hotel. Perfect. We hug each other, happy to be alive, as François Paoletti and Sylvain Renouf arrive behind us. Almost identical experiences led to almost identical planning between the five of us. In the end, it leads to a perfect evening: a life-saving shower and a big beer-pizza combo whilst recounting to each other all our misadventures of the day. We've rarely felt so alive!
The next morning, everything is softer. We will ride dry and at a good pace (thanks to the 'Paolletti express') to the most beautiful of abbeys: La Sacra Si San Michele to check CP3. We take a souvenir photo and a 5-star Italian breakfast next to the Abbey! But let’s not lie to each other; after 860 km by bike, most food is delicious.
6- THE MUD
The last checkpoint is located at Château Queyras, in the Guil valley which is located on the other side of the Col d’Izoard. The day before, during the storm, we receive another official message from the race organizer to say the Valley is blocked by five mudslides and therefore CP4 is closed, with its four volunteers stranded until authorities clear the road.
However, from our view the sky is clear and we’re told that the locals are working hard to shift the mud. It would be a shame to pass so close to the last checkpoint without checking it. Time to call Matthieu again….
'It's ok! Get over here and stamp this last f*cking checkpoint! There won't be many to check this one...'
It was the motivation we needed to go where others wouldn’t. We finish the climb to Montgenèvre with the famous tunnel, bomb down to Briançon before turning left to Guillestre towards our mud bath. Despite being painted brown from head to toe we make it to CP4.
Heavy rain combined with mudslides = a complete mudbath. We are three shades of brown but we still managed to laugh about it as the joke per kilometre ratio was maintained. Because there was only one other option : crying.
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Arriving at CP4, we saw a competitor arriving in the opposite direction. He looks all clean, so we ask him where he's coming from. He turns around and points behind him to the col Agnel and says: 'I went through the col da-da-gnélo I don't know what’s the name! I got cold up there!”
We laugh and admire him in equal measure – long distance audaciousness is all relative.
We check in at Chateau Queyras, then finish the armagnac flask to warm up the bodies before a muddy descent to the Serre-Ponçon lake for a last short recovery position around midnight. One day to go.
Four hours of sleep. It's raining outside. We’re trying to finish within the 120hr race time. We’re daunted and excited at the prospect of the final day.
Matthieu, François and Sylvain were waiting for us in Sisteron so we can ride to the finish together in style, but we will be too late for that. All the efforts of the past days and kilometres begin to take their toll. I am running on empty just two kilometers after breakfast: no more juice, nothing left and creeping doubts. Fortunately Julien ushers me with finesse to the café:
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'Ahaha, you look like sh*t dude! Come on, let’s kill some croissants and coffees!”
30 minutes later, with the bags full of food we left, and rode into a full summer afternoon. Short sleeves, blue sky. Everything is great. Except maybe for Arthur. His knee hurts like hell but with 100km to go, there's no way he’ll quit. He grits his teeth all the way to Vidauban for BTR coffee #126 before the final push, on the most beautiful roads of the Haut-Var, towards the sunset.
As all roads lead to the Ramatuelle for the last stamp to finish this BTR 2019 with a full Brevet card – we are three of only 35 riders to tick off every CP. Now for beers and a beach bivouac with our fellow riders in the pleasurable climate of the south coast.
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'The ultimate finish. Cheers!”
Distance : 1327 km
Elevation : 13276 D+
Elapsed Time : 4 days, 22 hours, 7 minutes