Rapha Festive 500 Challenge
On January 15th 2016 my partner, Paul and I got the keys to our new house in the Hautes-Alpes. We had quit our jobs and moved to France to set up a cycling retreat in a beautiful and undiscovered area within cycling distance of both Mont Ventoux and the Alps, Le Serre des Ormes.
We started the year in a whirl of DIY and French bureaucracy, but with a lot of hard work and a bit of luck we managed to open our doors to our first guests in June.
I was a newbie to Strava, having resisted for several years knowing it would drive my competitive spirit to do stupid things, and within one week I had already signed up to the Rapha Festive 500! However we knew it would motivate us to get out on the bikes during the festive period and it would be a great way to end a year that had been all about cycling for us.
We were raring to go and despite having a couple of non cycling guests staying over Christmas we decided that there would still be plenty of time to get the required miles in during the day.
We planned to do the challenge together but Christmas Eve dawned and Paul had come down with a cold and was not in any way up for cycling on the first day. I was a little disappointed having envisaged cycling together but I had signed up so undeterred I went out anyway.
Paul, unusual for him, stayed in bed. I willed the guests to finish their breakfasts so I could clear up and get going. The weather with us in France is admittedly probably better for cycling than our native UK but the mornings over the festive period were bitterly cold so I didn’t want to start too early. Fortunately it is such a dry climate the roads are dry and ice isn’t a big problem. Lots of layers are needed first thing but by the afternoon it is generally quite warm, a 20 degree difference is quite normal. For that reason I decided to take a rucksack full of clothes and snacks.
Our challenge this week was also to find flattish routes as we both normally love riding up the local cols, but not the best way to knock of the miles or the greatest in the cold. So I started out towards Sederon to take in the Tour of the Jabron which is a picturesque route mainly on the valley roads. Once I had warmed up I quite enjoyed cycling through the winter wonderland and up the gentle Col de la Pigière at the head of the valley, there was still quite a bit of snow at the side of the roads from weeks earlier but the roads themselves were ice free. I had a very early and very strong coffee, for a quick warm up after the descent from the Col, in a traditional French bar in Les Omergues. The local wild boar hunters were the only other people in the bar, also trying to warm up, but with Pastis. Buzzing with the hit of caffeine, I continued the next 30km of mostly descent into the Citadelle town of Sisteron. Sisteron is known as the Gateway to Provence and is an impressive town with incredible rock formations, popular with local climbers. I consumed a very ‘healthy’ selection of savoury pastries from a Boulangerie and decided I had the energy to put in a few additional kilometers. I headed up the canal towards Gap, with a great view of the snowy mountains of the Ecrins National Park as my backdrop, before looping back and up through the stunning Gorges de la Méouge. With 112.6km done I thought it was not going to be too much of a problem to finish the challenge and after all I had a great head start on Paul.
On Christmas day we planned to cycle through the Méouge Gorge to our friends house in Ribiers for Christmas lunch but Paul was still feeling unwell. Keen to knock of some more miles and build up an appetite for the feast ahead I put in a quick flat blast of 34km up the road. In Provence they traditionally eat 13 desserts after Christmas dinner, the desserts represent Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles. Although some of the desserts are things like nuts and dried fruits it is still a lot to get through after Foie Gras and roast dinner. Another reason to get out on the bike and burn of those calories.
Day 3, Boxing Day in the UK, Paul was feeling a bit better so finally we cycled together. Despite the extreme cold in the mornings the weather was spectacular, blue skies and sun everyday. The area has had the driest December since records began. We cycled North towards Aspremont, with the imposing snow capped Pic de Bure always visible, then back around and over some smaller hills to Col de Faye and a blast back home along the Canal with the strong Mistral wind assisting us. Another 110km knocked of the total.
The following day we decided that we wanted to go over a couple of Cols and have a look across to Mont Ventoux to see how much snow was on it. We headed out and up the North Facing and cold Col de la Pigière and Col de Negron. Fortunately by the time we headed down the South side the sun had warmed things up a bit. Coming back around Sault and up and over the appropriately named Col de l’Homme Mort I started to feel a bit worse for wear, the miles and the start of a cold were starting to take their toll but it was another 95.5km completed. We have tried to find out why it is called dead mans Col but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer, all sorts from an assassination and the death of brothers heading back to their farm in a snowstorm and subsequently being eaten by a wolf packs to a mis-translation when the cartographers for Napoleon did not understand the local ‘patois’ meaning of Col of the dead Elm.
On 28th January I finally succumbed to Paul’s cold and really could not do anything for the next two days and it was looking like it would not be possible to finish with 150km to go and feeling terrible. Paul used the two days to catch up with me with strict instructions not to do anymore distance than I had.
Friday we put in a fairly easy and flat 56.1km but I was not on top form. Going out cycling in sub-zero temperatures was probably not the best idea but I had a Strava/Rapha challenge to complete.
For some crazy reason and despite my ongoing cold we wanted to complete the challenge on a high (literally) and thought it would be good to finish on Mont Ventoux. It seemed appropriate to be climbing such an iconic hill on New Year’s eve. With the car showing -10 degrees we left at 8am and drove back across Col de l’Homme Mort to start in Ferassières. We needed to get in 30km before starting the climb and I think it is the coldest 30km I have ever done on a road bike. Fortunately after a coffee and pain au chocolat in Sault it was getting warmer as we started the climb up Ventoux. We met and rode with a crazy Hungarian who has been serving in the French Foreign Legion for 8 years. He had recently bought a bike having decided he would like to cycle back to Hungary for a “holiday” one day so was getting some good practice in. After a while we decided to press on and left him to ride at his own pace on his heavily loaded bike. Surprisingly we saw quite a few others on bikes but not the normal summer crowds. At Chalet Reynard there was a big classic car rally going on so we were quite glad we hadn’t come up the Bedoin side which was busy with cars. After Chalet Reynard the road was shut so there were just the odd cyclist and some walkers. The views were stunning with a cloud inversion to the South and the snowy peaks to the North. We enjoyed a sandwich at the summit chatting with other cyclists and after a cold descent from the top stopped to warm up with a chocolat chaud at Chalet Reynard. A vin chaud seemed more tempting but we still had 30km to go. I think it was the 26km of descending that brought back my cold. And by the time I reached Sault I was wrecked! The last 10km back to the car were brutal and every pedal stroke was an effort. Finally we reached the car though and knowing we had only just scraped over the line thought we had better do a celebraory lap of the village to make sure there were no GPS errors! We had done it though, the days ride of 94.1km and 1700m of climbing had taken us over the 500km mark and we had completed the Festive 500.
It was really good to do it and I definitely rode on days I wouldn’t have normally gone out just to get the miles in. I hope it bodes well for 2017 and we can encourage lots of guests to come to Serre des Ormes to cycle.
The challenge had completely finished me though and the return of my cold meant I was happier to enjoy New Years Eve on the couch in front of a warm fire before an early night. We woke up early on New Years Day and leaving our bikes behind went for walk in the mountains. During the walk Paul got down on one knee in the snow and proposed to me. He said he had considered it on Mont Ventoux but I looked too unwell, a shame as it would have been good for the story. Oh, I said yes!!!