To be honest, I am not quite sure where to begin this report of the gran fondo 66 Degrés Sud. The scenery is stunning, with a varied landscape enclosed by the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the majestic Pyrenees in the background. Beautiful villages, vineyards a wine expert would love and excellent roads for cyclists. Where in many parts of Europe the temperature hardly exceeds 15 degrees, during this event that is the minimum temperature and daytime conditions can be called summery. Combine that with a 12.5 kilometer uphill time trial on Thursday and a 165 kilometer gran fondo on Saturday, and all the ingredients for a top event are present. Now it's really just a matter of finding the right recipe.
Photo: © 66 Degrés Sud
The event is only in its third edition in 2023 and its second as a UCI Qualifier. Last year, things did not go smoothly. But to be fair, last year's lessons have been incorporated into this year's organization. Last year the neutralization went completely wrong, now the participants left Sainte-Marie-la-Mer neatly behind the race car. The start was also no longer in the busy center of Perpignan, but in the smaller, more accessible - and in my opinion, much nicer - seaside village. This was followed by only 25 kilometers of chaos, dangerous situations and nervousness instead of 50 kilometers of falling, getting up, potholes and pole dodging at high speed in 2022. The downside now was that the peloton was almost twice as large (over four hundred participants in the gran fondo) so the chaos was still great.
Photo: Wouters start in the time trial (© Frederic Glorieux)
In addition, the outrageous descent from Casefabre in the 2022 edition had been removed from the course. This year, however, this road (which doesn't really deserve the name "road") had to be conquered uphill. Much safer for body and soul, even though a number of riders immediately hit the ground while turning up. Considering the number of riders with a wheel in their hands and steam coming out of their ears, it was still not a good choice, at least for the gear. It is a mystery to me why exactly this road keeps coming back, as there are so many better alternatives. However, from a kilometer before the summit there was beautiful new asphalt and the descent also had excellent road surface.
After this climb, the groups were much smaller, the roads much wider and better, and the number of villages to be crossed was no longer very numerous. I especially enjoyed the new climb to the village of Belesta. By the way, the villages with their bad roads eventually caused cycling friend Raymond Rook to puncture in the last 25 flat kilometers back to the finish. A DNF behind his name while he was fast on his way to a Q for the World Cup. In that respect our administrators Nicolien Luijsterburg and Pieter Frolichs did better. Pieter (ninth overall) was just beaten in the sprint for the win in M35, but won the time trial on Thursday. Nicolien won both events in her category.
Photo: recon ride in the wheel of world champion Nicolien Luijsterburg.
This year's time trial started from Collioure. Climbing via the Col de la Serra (5.6 kilometers at 5.1%), descending to the Col de Mollo (1.3 kilometers at -7%), climbing to Col de la Madeloc (2.7 km at 8%) and a short descent to the finish for a total of just over 12 kilometers 'contre-la-montre.' Last year I already liked the time trial, but this year it was even more beautiful. While climbing, you could see the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the vines on the other appearing over the first peaks of the Pyrenees. Gorgeous. After the finish, it was no punishment to have to cycle a big loop back to Collioure. Nice moment to check out the surroundings and the village of Banyuls in brilliant weather. I myself was too gutted to take it all in.
Photo: yours truly (left) with Frederic Glorieux (right).
All in all, another double feeling about this event. Yes, the organization is learning and there were a lot of improvements compared to last year. However, the biggest point for improvement remains the safety of the participants: the course may have fewer narrow village passages and the first mountain may be much earlier in the course. Provided it has a decent road to go up, of course. The communication to the participants could be earlier and better and in addition, as far as I'm concerned, the numbers colored by category belong to a UCI qualifying event. Now everyone had the same color and I couldn't tell who I was competing against. Given the descriptions on Strava of participants as 'GF Madness' or 'Lots of crashes along the way, constant braking and far too hectic due to upcoming cars and what else... Glad we started climbing' there is a lot of room for improvement for years to come.
All results can be found here.