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10-08-2023 | Peter Koens

Unplanned adventure: conquering La Madeleine gran fondo

I have not prepared specifically for any gran fondo this year. No months of training schedules, no intervals, nothing like that. Of course, I do cycle a lot so I have a certain basic level of fitness. Let's see how that would play out on Sunday, August 6 in the gran fondo La Madeleine.

Three distinct routes

The La Madeleine gran fondo offers three courses:

  • La Croix de Fer: Covering 135 kilometers and boasting a 4,700-meter elevation gain, this route traverses Col du Mollard, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Chaussy, and concludes at Col de la Madeleine.
  • La Madeleine: Spanning 115 kilometers with a 3,750-meter elevation gain, this path encompasses Col du Mollard, Col de la Croix de Fer, and culminates on Col de la Madeleine.
  • La Montvernier: A 60-kilometer journey with a 2,650-meter elevation gain over Col du Chaussy, finishing at Col de la Madeleine.

Despite my initial choice of the longest route, I found myself reconsidering my decision during the race. Nevertheless, the course was a visual delight, and its significant elevation change made it an ideal playground for dedicated climbers. Notably, the ascent of Col du Chaussy included the famed Lacets de Montvernier, featuring 19 hairpin turns over a 3.5 km stretch at a challenging 8% gradient. The road seemed intimately bonded with the mountainside. The ultimate climb towards the finish involved tackling La Madeleine from the south side, renowned for its complexity, encompassing 16 km with an average gradient of 7.7%.

Intimate organization

Uniquely intimate, this gran fondo welcomed fewer than 500 participants across its various routes, with over 200 individuals opting for the longest distance. Consequently, the ambiance during number collection was tranquil. Ample parking space and a stress-free start box experience provided a refreshing contrast to the bustling events featuring thousands of participants. The smaller numbers also ensured serenity at the feeding stations, which showcased a distinctly French flair—offering cheese, baguettes, chips, savory biscuits, chocolate, gingerbread, and bananas. While water and cola were readily available, sports drinks and energy bars were notably absent. The stations were manned by spirited women well over the age of 60, one of whom kindly rushed from behind the stall to offer me a coke, realizing I was too exhausted to reach for it.

Curves of the Lacets de Montvernier
Photo: Captivating curves of the Lacets de Montvernier.

An unexpected bond

Commencing the race, a flat segment spanning over 25 kilometers allowed for swift progress in a sizable group, averaging 37 km/h. Nonetheless, concerns crept in—I realized that the remaining 110 kilometers would harbor the 4,700 meters of elevation, translating to an imposing 42.7 meters of ascent per kilometer!

Upon reaching the base of Col du Mollard, I intentionally detached from the large group, embarking on the climb at my own rhythm. Monitoring my power numbers on my bike computer, I aimed to maintain a pace just beyond my aerobic threshold, reserving energy for the final ascent. While a few cyclists overtook me initially, the pace settled after half an hour. I found myself trailing a fellow rider whose tempo suited me. Midway through the climb, he initiated a conversation—I learned he was Belgian and conversed fluently in Dutch. Thus, a camaraderie blossomed. His name was Wout Bernaert, an almost whimsical connection to Wout van Aert, the renowned cyclist. Expressing the need for a brief pause, I shared my intention to visit a care station at the summit, to which he kindly offered to wait for me.

Lacets de Montvernier
Photo: Another perspective of the Lacets de Montvernier.

Our conversation unfolded, and when he inquired about my age, my response—59—elicited an audible 'amai' (Belgian for 'wow'). He then disclosed his imminent 22nd birthday and confessed that this marked his inaugural gran fondo experience.

At the summit, I suggested we descend together. While Wout had practiced descending in the Ardennes, he graciously let me lead the way. The journey continued as we tackled the ascent of the Croix de Fer side by side, followed by the extensive and somewhat perilous descent of the same. After a brief traverse through the valley, we confronted the Lacets de Montvernier. While these iconic hairpins appeared spectacular from a distance, the cyclist's perspective left much to be desired, offering more of a valley view. Amidst this, my legs started showing signs of fatigue.

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Navigating through suffering

As the descent from Col du Chaussy unfolded, my Belgian companion caught up to me. I chose to follow his lead downhill, and he proudly inquired about my assessment of his descending prowess. In an attempt to secure his assistance for the final ascent, I showered him with compliments. However, that glimmer of hope quickly dimmed. The initial moments of the Col de la Madeleine climb marked by an agonizing cramp seizing my left leg. Inevitably, I had to relent and let Wout forge ahead. Approximately five minutes later, the cramp relinquished its grip, yet my condition deteriorated. I soldiered on with a crawl.

After a few kilometers, the notion of turning back to La Chambre where my car awaited flickered in my mind. The summit seemed impossibly distant. Energy had all but deserted my body and limbs. Solitude became my only companion. However, I reminded myself that I was here for a purpose, committed to enduring two hours of torment. A fellow cyclist, immobilized by struggle, appeared around a bend. His predicament mirrored my own. I halted briefly, administering gels and bars while replenishing my hydration.

Summit of Col de la Madeleine

Summoning the courage borne of desperation, I trudged onward. My pace hovered around 8 kph, a snail's pace. It took a while for the sugars ingested to circulate, for my brain to transmit the signal to my weary leg muscles, coaxing them back to life. The rationale behind the struggle faded, replaced by a surrender to the suffering. At the aid station, a mere five kilometers from the summit, a cup of coke provided a glimmer of revival. Somehow, I unearthed hidden reservoirs, and a modicum of vitality returned.

With only 2 kilometers separating me from the peak, I crossed paths with Wout descending towards La Chambre. Recognizing me, he briefly squeezed his brakes, shared an encouraging gaze, and called out a spirited "Salutes."

At the summit, where the journey concluded, an icy chill enveloped the air. A warm cup of tea offered respite in the mountain restaurant before embarking on the bone-chilling descent. Along the way, more ascending riders came into view. I realized I wasn't the last to reach the top, and that realization was its own triumph.

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