Ride bikes. Have fun. Feel good.

L’Ardechoise ride

I only found out about this ride following a regular posting on a cycling
by one of the organisers. Having given up all hope of
ever doing L’Etape, and with the Marmotte weekend booked up for an
unavoidable commitment, I investigated. Turns out it is the biggest
organised ride in France with up to 15000 riders, of varying distances
from 60-270km (and up to 500km over 2 or 3 days with pre-booked

see the video

In a period of pre-Christmas depression I decided to go for

it. I had just received the Bike Events brochure which featured a
package to it. Their prices for entry and transport were less than
inspiring (and I’m dubious of companies which give free entry in return
for charitable donations) so after a lot of searching of the French
website (the English version was out of date by a year) found the forum
which eventually led to an entry form, filled it in, posted it and
hoped. In the meantime booked Ryanair to St Etienne, 64km from the

Eventually sometime around mid February my name appeared in the list of
entries, I was in!
The good thing about the event is that everyone starts the same course
and loops back after their chosen distance. Having read a Cycling Plus
article about it I was apprehensive about choosing my route and
arriving at the cut-off point to be directed down a short-cut by
gendarmes. But a search of the rules showed that I had 3 ½ hrs to get
to the 50km mark and 4 to the 70. Easy by UK standards but what of the
terrain? April’s Elenith 300 actually involved more climbing albeit
over 300k so I was hopeful.
I soon gave up on the idea of bodging panniers onto my nice frame and
decided that car hire would be less dosh than the likely damage to the
bike; this also gave me the option for extras (see later).

The day duly arrived. I have done bike-on-a-plane a few times and am
used to travelling with bike, map, toothbrush. passport and little else
so it felt like luxury to have an entire holdall on one shoulder and a
bike bag on the other (especially as the bike bag is a recent
refinement, previously it was an old remodelled TV box and lots of
parcel tape and bubble wrap, binned at the other end and re-scavenged
for the return from various housing / industrial estates)

An on time landing, having to act as an American to English to French
translator at the car hire depot (what is a station wagon? also a word
of warning; check the fuel gauge before you drive off and if it is not
full get them to amend the booking form) and a pleasant drive up to the
HQ of the ride at St Felicien, which had become Lycraworld (Mr
Clarkson, when you are eventually found guilty of crimes against
humanity you will be forced to spend the third weekend of June for the
rest of your natural life here).

I arrived just as the 2 day riders
were pitching up in a cherry grove for the night so decided to join
them ; the registration hall having closed for the day. The next
morning I was awoken by frenzied activity as hundreds more cars
attempted to park on top of my tent and lots of very trick bikes were

I made the most of a large packet of pains chocolat and decent coffee
from the hypermarket and rode up to the HQ; where a very helpful lady
filled me in on the details and advised me to park down in the valley
in an idyllic spot near to a babbling stream (aka fridge) all free for
riders. I rode back with several litres of water for the “fridge”
and managed to overbalance and wipe out in the village (grazed elbow
and knee). I then went for a quick 45km spin to try the terrain, en
route I saw the Cycle Rides campsite; I think I came up trumps!

The next morning I was again awoken at 0530 to find my pleasant spot
filled with bikes cars track pumps and lycra (there is a truly awful
theme song for the ride which features more or less these lyrics in
French, which I was treated to a live rendition of later). I took
advantage of my privileged advanced start position as a non-French
rider and was at the head of the queue an hour before the start. Not
the best time to discover you have a broken Look cleat, but this is
France so that was all sorted pronto!

0730 and we were off; with the aforesaid theme tune piped through the
PA (as if to speed us on our way!) and no soon had we descended the
first 1km that we were on a 10km col; an awesome experience for my
first sportif; being passed by wave after wave of fully kitted club
riders on serious bikes reminded me that this was no Audax. The first
col was rewarded by a fantastic 15km descent to Lamastre which, in
common with all the other places en route, was decked out in the ride
colours of yellow/lilac (balloons, ribbons, flowers, old bikes,
sculptures, even people!).

At this point all the fancy dress that were
still with us riders peeled off on the 66km route (still very serious
by fun ride standards) and another two fast cols on closed roads took
us to the first drink station at Le Cheylard and 50k, where a lot of
riders peeled off for the 120km route; between here and the 70km 1100m
col I learned the knack of taking 3 cups of water at each station
whilst riding (two down my throat and the third over my head). At the
70km Col de Mezillac; where I rode with one of the Cycle Rides
contingent. there was a full on control, almost as long as the bar at
the GBBF, where there was full range of bread, cheese, cakes, fruit,
meat, drinks etc etc all manned by willing and enthusiastic volunteers.

It was at this point that I had the choice of continuing with the 216km
route or cutting short to 171km; but as I was 90mins up on the cut-off
limit I decided to do down rather than along. After this point I
realised why I found myself riding alone at times; at the bottom of the
valley a 650 then 800 col, and then le piece de resistance, a 700m 13km
hairpin (it was at this point that another thing uncommon on many AUK
rides, the sun, decided to remind us of its presence). A helpful local
was handing out free Pernod which amazingly a few took advantage of.

Several stops and another overcast but welcome feed stop later I was
snapped at the 1407m summit of the ride by an enterprising photographer
who pressed a flyer into my hand. And the second best bit of the ride;
a 25km 850m fast descent. Weeeeeh!. It carried on in a similar fashion
until 10 cols had been crested and several more cups of water had found
their way onto my digital camera before the best bit of all; the end of
the last vicious climb which had been fortuitously signposted with
gradients for the 66km’ers (and most of the musicians on each hairpin
had gone home by now) and a straight 14km back down the last col to
the finish. 11h 36 for the 216km, although as a Brit I was classified
as an anonymous tourist so got no placing. After a tense wait at the
podium whilst they gave away some serious prizes in the raffle;
(including a Cannondale Saeco) it was into the shower and back to my
nice (and by now deserted) camping spot. The next day dawned and just
160km away were 21 hairpins with my name on it (well not quite, some
much more famous names!) but that’s another story.

An excellent event, would I do it again? Ask me in a few weeks 😉