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A Gravel Escape in the Massif des Maures
“Declining from the public ways, walk in unfrequented paths.” Pythagoras
Getting off the beaten track for the weekend can be the reset button we all need. We recently invited ten French and Spanish athletes to leave the noise of towns and cars behind; to travel down peaceful, sunny tracks, surrounded by the sound of cicadas and the fragrance of pines – the smell of summer in the middle of autumn. An irresistible proposition. The destination: the south of France, for three days of gravel riding.
The Côte d’Azur is better known for turquoise seas and the Cannes Film Festival than it is for its singletrack riding. And yet in 1984, mountain-bike pioneer Stéphane Hauvette created Roc d’Azur, an offroad race between the Massif des Maures – a range of small mountains in the Var region of France – and Saint Tropez. Seven racers took to the start line in that first event; thirty-five years later, it has become the biggest mountain-bike event in the world, with 20,000 participants over four days of racing. In the same pioneering spirit, a Gravel category was added in 2016. A gravel bike is the perfect tool for exploring – a complete bike, as happy on tarmac as on bumpy tracks, it is the ideal companion for cyclists wanting to head off the beaten track.
After the opening formalities at our base camp, a few kilometres outside Fréjus, it was time to check the routes of Saturday’s Mavic Gravel Roc. With our IGN maps and the Strava Route Builder to hand, and with the Massif des Maures behind us, everyone pitched in with their opinions on which trails to take, which bluffs to explore, and where to adventure. Once we’d sorted our routes, we were only sure of one thing: our peloton of ten would hit a lot of unexpected surprises.
Day 1 – The unexpected on the agenda
A beautiful day dawned on the Riviera. And after a morning strolling the aisles of the Roc start village, the desire to get out of the hustle and bustle, and test ourselves on the trails, mounted.
It was already 4 pm but we launched ourselves into the Massif des Maures. After a few hundred metres nature reasserted itself, on the sumptuous, steep and technical climb of the Chemin des Petites Maures trail. Carla, who had already clocked up 11,000 kilometres (7,000 miles) might be a gravel first timer but she got stuck right in.
On one of the early descents, Romain punctured, right on the rim. After an unsuccessful attempt to repair it, he had to leave the group and head for the local bike shop to be sure he would be able to start the Roc the next day. First mishap.
Rounding the side of the mountain the setting sun was a spectacular sight. The next round of punctures were a less welcome sight but we can't say we weren't warned: this year the trails were dry and there were thorns everywhere. Night was coming so we decided to cut short our ride.
The evening was dedicated to tales of adventure – everyone had a tale to tell from Paris-Rome to the roads of Kyrgyzstan via a crossing of the Alps. The world is vast and, together, we’ve seen quite a bit.
Waking at 5.30 A.M. was almost easy: race day. Oatmeal did the rounds before we did a last check of our tyres. Having bonded over the mishaps of the day before we decided on the start line to stick together the whole day. Rather ambitious on a gravel ride…
The weather was ideal and the kilometres passed in rather a halting fashion, but nobody cared. We simply took our time and enjoyed the views, pushing on only when the terrain allowed, for example on the 8-kilometre (5-mile) climb of the Col de Valdingarde.
We regrouped at the top of the hills. Romain was generally the last to arrive having punctured repeatedly. Maybe 32mm tyres weren't the best choice! Meanwhile, Dada leaked tubeless sealant and it took a collective effort to get him back rolling.
We were not the only ones; many other competitors were having a hard time of it. “Are you really part of the race,” joked the volunteers at the feed stations. The motorbikes closing the course remarked deadpan: “You’re last”. We were almost proud of that: the anti-performance. The first riders had already finished while we still progressed gradually through the countryside.
The kilometres crawled by. We saw few competitors, which suited us as we were enjoying total peace and quiet on the course. Carla advanced valiantly at her own pace, the descents scared her, but she held steady. After three hours of gravel, we passed through a technical section. Foucauld lost an inner tube from his saddlebag, which shredded in the spokes of his wheel. It was just one more mishap to deal with, but it kept us on our toes.
On the penultimate descent we spotted a yellow rise in the distance. It’s the final test – the famous Col du Bougnon, a brutal climb with a 17% average gradient – before the descent down to the sea. We finished the race together and were cheered by a group of volunteers blasting out classic rock songs in a small car park. We devoured some madeleines and welcomed Carla - who was very proud of finishing her first gravel challenge - a few minutes later.
Back at base camp it was time for barbecue with friends. The hardships of the day were quickly forgotten as we planned for future rides, not knowing the surprise in store for us the very next day. Beers were drunk, and there was, of course, a mandatory detour via the swimming pool on the way to bed.
“We stayed together, disregarding the clock but still pushing ourselves. The race became a ride between friends, from track to singletrack, from pedalling to carrying, from all-out efforts to making new discoveries.” Foucauld / France.
Fred Belaubre, an Olympic triathlete living in the region convinced us to change our plans and ride in the Esterel, the next-door hills to the Massif des Maures. Why not? We put our trust in local knowledge.
We made a 7 A.M. start, to head off the notorious mishaps that had been the trademark of the weekend. After a few kilometres of tarmac we climbed towards the Cap Esterel on magnificent wooded singletrack. The terrain was all red soil and dense underbrush - very different from the past few days - and we could sense the sea nearby.
More punctures, of course. The victims, Romain, Titouan and Anthony will never not ride tubeless again. On the coast, we were forced to carry our bikes up a small path, but the view was breathtaking.
Though our peloton was increasingly at ease on the technical sections, we left our GPX track and swung back towards tarmac, where we found our path frequently blocked by private houses. It wasn't easy, but we finally found the trails again, where a final wave of mishaps awaited. No matter though. We headed home to finish the weekend with a spontaneous pasta party, as is the tradition.
We were all out of our comfort zone, having this as my first gravel experience was great. We overcame all the punctures and mechanicals as a team and had an unforgettable adventure.” Carla Alfonso / Spain