The alarm on my phone shows 4:30am on a Saturday morning. Gosh, why did I sign up for this? Earlier this year I got asked by Johannes, if I’d be down to join a Rapha Prestige in Vosges/France. Vosges mountains are less than an hour away from Freiburg/Germany, but the event begins at 7am and I still have to get my stuff together. Later that day, I learn that there are people from all over Europe and even beyond the great pond as well as from down under and wonder how much in advance they might have prepared?
Today, 30 teams consisting of 4 riders each are going to start for an almost 150 km long ride with close to 4000m of elevation, which means one should have ridden a few miles ahead of the event, if they don’t want to die trying. The promoters point out that it is not a race, but given the week-long Whatsapp exchanges of my teammates some of us may not have received that briefing.
Prepare for battle? Really??
The sun rises in the east
I love cycling and I can push in the flat terrain, but when it comes to climbing and despite my Berlin teammates admiration I just suck big time uphill! Looking at the team line-up prior race day and reading names like Tune Factory Racing and Canyon France doesn’t help to get rid of that nervous feeling that accompanied me for the last days.
Team Tune Factory Racing
It is still pitch black when our car enters the final forest road with no streetlights and we are massively impressed to see the girls from Paris Womens Cycling Club torching their way uphill. “Where did they start?” I ask myself loud, crossing fingers they won’t become victims to anyone as night-blind as me.
Team Paris Womens Cycling Club
Today’s also the calendric start of Autumn, but to me the temperature’s already feel like winter. I’m a wussy when it comes too cold. I don’t jump into lakes unless I know the water is 20+. Seeing people floating down river Rhine in Basel during summer has only my eyebrows rising, but not the ambition to do the same. So, while my teammates just wear regular bib shorts and thin long-sleeve jerseys, I extend for arm and leg warmers plus a wind breaker. “Damn!” I hear myself thinking. I forgot my gloves! My hands will fall off. Oh my god, I will die! Luckily teammate Chris has a second pair in the trunk of his car, while Johannes and Marc don’t bother to wear any at all.
The team captain’s meeting is at 7am and the meeting point is something special. Sun rises slowly behind our backs, while clearing up a gorgeous view on the nebulous Rhine Valley and over to Germany in close distance. Most teams are already there and although the baily looks comfy everyone prefers to enjoy free croissants and coffee inside the Brasserie. Here we also receive our ride cards including 3 stations we need to have cleared:
Checkpoint 1: Col du Petit Ballon KM 57
Checkpoint 2: Col du Grand Ballon KM 88.5
Checkpoint 3: Col de Bannstein KM 118
There’s also some chamois cream included, but with no discreet space available to apply and the restroom being permanently occupied as temporarily dressing room I return the Rapha branded bin and cream sample back to the astonished helper and strongly against my natural hunter and collector instinct. I just can’t use the extra baggage right now. And I’m already a Rapha Cycling Club (RCC) member, so no need for promo.
7:45 we’re starting. It’s not a race, right? My question is answered 20 meters after the start when I spot a team already taking pictures of themselves with the stunning Rhine Valley sight in their back. Pretty soon after this I realize that the only sight I’ll have in the next couple of hours will be the backs of my teammates. The Prestige starts with a short downhill and through a small village with the last mist being dissolved by the rising sun. We pass by some vineyards and are remembered that with living only 60 kilometres away from here we definitely need to show up more often.
Did I mention we didn’t bring a Garmin? “No Garmin, no rules” it says, doesn’t it? No need for it, since one of our own claims Davy Crocket-like pathfinder skills for himself, which unfortunately have us lost 5 minutes later for the first time of many and from “roads less travelled” to “roads no one needs to travel”. So assisted by Strava we fiddle our way back and try to stick to other teams that are blessed by digital navigation.
Petit Ballon (1.272m) is the first peak to climb today and slowly but surely we move to the entrance point. Since a few weeks I’m having a Stages Cycling Dash, a powermeter, not yet capable of navigation, but with all sorts of information I don’t fully understand, yet, and of which I focus most on avg. power (Watts), cadence (RPM) and heartrate (BPM). While my musical taste is comfortable around an average 89BPM, the one on my powermeter’s display is clearly in the area of Schranz or some other useless EDM. And who came up with the idea of putting up signs on each kilometre uphill telling me how far I have to go and how much elevation gain the next 1000 metres will have? This is not helping! NOT at all!
I have only ridden some 4k plus this year and it’s not the first time I ask myself, if I’m fit enough for this. My right bottom part starts to complain already and we’ve got still two thirds of the route ahead of us. My teammates are gone after the first turn and I start to do laps of one minute in pedalling upwards, changing between standing and sitting. With Petit Ballon and someone taking pictures in sight I try to hide as much as possible that I’m in ache and get out of my saddle, motivated by the support calls from the checkpoint’s team.
The rest of my team seems at ease and recovered while I still try to find ways to lower my heartrate. A Cola, some wine gum, and two minutes later we take the first real descent. THIS is what I love most. Just floating down a hill. If I’d knew the road and where I’d had to go I would have gone completely bonkers down there, but I pace myself at 70 something km/h max.
Now it’s up to Gran Ballon (1.325m), which I’ve only climbed once before, but from the other side. So again it means climbing for another 10 kilometres, but the pain in my right leg becomes intolerable. My lucky guess is that the dusty ring on my lower seatpost shows that I must have assembled it a centimetre too high and by readjusting it my whole riding experience becomes instantly better. But building up pain for 70 kilometres doesn’t just fade away as I learn at that moment, too. I push it away and even manage to become pretty fast and lead the team on the flat part before the final climb to Gran Ballon’s peak. This is way better than the 14-kilometre ascent from the other side I note to myself for future excursions. Then comes the final kilometre with me falling behind as usual.
Rapha’s placed their mobile cycling club up there and their espresso is accompanied by pretzels, cake, Cola, wine gums, water, energy drinks and other. I wonder, if my team is always so fast to move on, or if it’s just the fact that they’ve had 5 minutes more than me to recover? With the descent ahead they snatch some newspaper from a restaurant and start to create windshields the old-fashioned way. I’m happy with my wind breaker, which btw I haven’t taken off most of the time. I’m freezing, remember?
The downhill is amazing. Together with my bike I form what feels like a cannonball peaking at 90km/h. This is so much fun and much needed recovery time for my legs. We’re all smiles surfing down to Soultz and join the team around Alexander, whom I’ve met at another event and am very happy now that he’s not only leading the way through the village, but also providing slipstream to me on his Surly. It feels like we’re reaching the last on-road checkpoint in no time and we get our third stamp.
The Final Test
As we continue and turn around another corner with only 10 kilometres ahead we see another team in the distance vermiculate up a hill. We prepare for the worst only to learn that this was probably them fooling around, since this doesn’t prove to be a real test. I remark to the others that if the official elevation info of 3.857m is correct, we’d still have around 1000m to climb on the last 9 kilometres. #saywhut?
Shortly after this we enter the final uphill and I enter a state of trance. With the finish up close my team is gone. No one left to motivate me. I manage to do one pedal stroke after another. I’m really not enjoying this. It hurts. How could I really think about doing the Gold Route of Schwarzwald Super or Ötztal Marathon next year, if I start whining about this already? I would laugh at myself, if I had some power left for it. Why aren’t the others suffering? Are they just better in hiding it? I sense the dark side forcing its way through me and start to hate them. Why couldn’t we have done this in a more relaxed way? Like stopping at cafés and having proper breaks? Maybe even lunch? Although Tune Factory Racing could have probably trashed any of the teams they took two hours longer than us, because they RELAXED. At what point did I leave that path? And I want cake! Now!!! Why did we have to become fucking Team Telekom? What is wrong with me? Is this how aging feels like?
Looks like I wasn’t the only one who suffered
I realize that I’m pulled into a massive crisis here and by the time I get overtaken by another team I have my final breakthrough: It’s not the format that is wrong, but the way I participate. I should have stuck to my pace and my idea of cycling. I’m not a competitive guy. And I should have never had this sold to me as a competition. I usually take what feels like 500 pictures a ride, because I simply like to freeze frame my surrounding area. But today I can’t even remember any of the sights apart from the start at the Castle and Petit Ballon. This is wrong and I just learned it the hard way.
Are we there yet?
I’m welcomed by my teammates shortly before the finish and together we enter the yard that we’ve left 8 hours before. Those already there welcome us with applause, but I’m not ready to cherish it, yet. I just want to get rid of that thing on two wheels between my legs. Franziska hands us a Prestige branded musette including a cap of same style and both in today’s Prestige colours. Blue and light blue. My favourite colour. In an unexplainable, but comfortable way the sight alone starts to relax me. I’ve made it. What may be a regular Gran Fondo to others feels like I’ve just mastered a Transcontinental. I need something to drink. It is a fixed Prestige custom that each team brings a six-pack of beer to be shared with fellow participants afterwards. But it is still hours to go until dinner and before we’ll exchange our local brewery specialties so I just grab one from the bar.
Sun starts to fade away shortly after our arrival and with the exhaustion all of our team starts to feel cold now. Although we would love to listen to some stories we want to get rid of our filthy gear and grab some real food now. Half an hour after our arrival it seems like I’ve completely forgotten my critical meltdown at the end of it and I’m all smiles again. We leave the yard with a heavy heart, because we would have loved to stick around, shared some stories and enjoyed the beer tasting, but we’re done.
- Sort out in advance, if you want this to become a race or a tour du jour
- Register early for a Prestige and chances are high you’ll participate
- Reserve a bike directly after the announcement of such service or otherwise chances are high you won’t get one
- Find yourself a team of coequal riders so you don’t feel like you’ve trashed your friends’ ambitions
- It’s ok to say “no” sometimes
- Embrace the surrounding country
- Stick to the promoters briefing