An old saying, but certainly true the last weekend of April in and around Perpignan. For everyone! For me, for the organisation, for my CycloWorld colleagues' trip to Spain and for the gran fondo riders at the 66 Degr Sud. A new gran fondo on the UCI calendar.
At the beginning of this GF season, my goal was to qualify for the World Cup of the UCI Gran Fondo World Series. For the first time really serious training, watch my food and join a cycling club to improve my technique on the bike. So well on weight, nice VO2max, highest w/kg ever and A+ on Zwift I travel to the southeast of France on Tuesday. Well in advance, so I can take in the TT on Thursday.
This is the first time I've had a time trial in my life. The qualification for the time trial is a kind of side issue for me; 10 kilometers of uphill pounding and the exception to the saying. On Wednesday, when I arrived in Perpignan, I immediately checked out the course and found that it was made for me: 3 kilometers straight up flat, 3.5 kilometers of sloping climbing (average 3.7%) and finally 3.5 kilometers of more steady climbing to La Force Real (average 5.6%, with the last 400 meters above 10%). No descent, few turns, just classify well and pedal really hard, I can do that... So on the first climb I quickly overtake riders who started before me, which gave just a little bit too much extra morale which caused me to pedal past myself. The final number 2 had started a minute before me and was becoming a great target. Completely broken, but really completely, I swathed the last 200 meters up and over the finish line. Once I recovered I turned out to be 14th in the overall classification, but first in my category!
During the GF itself it quickly became clear that A+ on Zwift and a TT straight up a mountain don't mean that much if you also have to cycle 169 kilometers in a peloton, there are 2200 meter of descents and you have to take difficult turns at high speed. Technique and the ability to steer is also an essential part of cycling. The beginning of the fondo on Saturday was therefore the most difficult part for me.
Maintaining my position in a large unorganized group, cycling on bad roads with difficult traffic situations and turns costed me a lot of energy. As literally the last rider in the peloton, it was all about avoiding falls here, closing the gap there, full braking and all that 4x per kilometer for 55 kilometers. So I was happy, but much more tired than necessary, when the first real climb of the day began. I don't even count the very first climb of 5 kilometers at 3% average because of the enormous pace.
The climb to Castelnou is over 10 kilometers at an average of 4.2%. There the peloton falls apart. Nice climb with especially a beautiful village in the first part for anyone who still had an eye for it. Then a descent where I lose a lot of time but is doable. And immediately followed by the Col de Saint Marguerite (6.3 km at 6.7% average). The climb I really like, the descent of this col really dramatic. The first part is full of holes and lots of gravel, but that is still fine if you compare it to the middle part. That was a farm road where a tractor would not even want to go. Once down, there are two short climbs in the last 70 kilometers, but they are doable. The rest is downhill and French flat. I myself eventually finish 6th in my category. The best 20% qualify and that would be 5.2 given the number of starters. It's very close but I manage to qualify!
In that respect, my CycloWorld colleagues Nicolien (4th overall) and Pieter (8th overall) did a lot better. Both finished 3rd in their age group and thus qualified for the World Championships in Trento anyway! Why their start was difficult then? They became our administrators of Spain and Portugal and therefore left for Spain for a year (or vice versa). 66 Degr Sud was a nice place to stop and pick up on their trip there. However, they leave Perpignan with 2 more medals, but also mostly suitcases and numerous valuables less. During the gran fondo, their camper was broken into and emptied. Incomprehensible given the (closed) parking lot for the participants.
It was a difficult start for the organization in in general. The environment is really fantastic. The mighty Pyrenees in the background, the Mediterranean Sea sometimes visible and beautiful views over the plains around Perpignan. However, for a rushing peloton there are better choices of roads to ride on. Many villages with all kinds of traffic obstacles. Fortunately, many poles are flexible otherwise some crashes would have ended worse. The descent of the 2nd real col should really be different, it struck me that I only saw 1 participant picking the stones out of his bloody elbow. To say nothing about the real start , the first kilometers out of Perpignan should have been neutralized according to the earlier - very limited information that could be found. However, the cars and motorcycles were wrongly positioned so that the peloton was out before the vehicles to accompany the peloton. This resulted in more dangerous than safe situations.
However given the environment and the fact that 66 Degr Sud was only organized for the 2nd time (1st time under UCI flag), the organization of the TT and the idea that all beginnings are difficult I would still give them the benefit of the doubt. Given the date on the calendar, it's also a nice addition for everyone who is already in shape at the beginning of the season. I end up with a 6.6 for this edition, but I'll definitely be back and might just hit a 10 here.