The cold wind is cutting through my skull like a knife. I have to open and close my mouth like a fish, otherwise I fear my face will freeze up. It’s the same feeling as when you eat an icecream too fast. I’ve just reached the top of Croix de Fer and is now head diving back the way I came up. Going almost 80 km/h on wet roads in close to 0 degrees.
Behind me my two companions have opened a gap between us. Safety first. A reasonable decision considering the weather conditions.
I keep a tight grip around the drops, hoping that I have some movement left in my frozen fingers when I need to brake in a minute or two. The first hairpin approaches, luckily I have disc brakes on my Canyon Aeroad. Pew, I’m in luck. The fingers works! I survive the first corner and accelerates out of it just to keep my legs alive and get some warmth back in the upper body. My companions are more cautious going through the corner, so I push a little harder. Can I get away on the descent? Is that too crazy? “Don’t be reckless” Uli, the founder of GFNY, said, when we talked about the weather forecast the other day. Guess this borders to being reckless? My girlfriend would definitely think so.
Luckily, the weather have been perfect all week leading up to the virgin edition of GFNY Alpes Vaujany. I have participated in the GFNY Camp as preparation to the race. As part of the camp you get a week of specialized training for the special challenges of the race. In this case, you get used to climbing and descending. If you go to the GFNY Italy camp, you train gravel riding.
The camp starts a week before the race is based in Vaujany, just as the Gran Fondo. Vaujany is situated a third of the way up Col du Sabot, a mean climb that averages around 10% and the 5 km up to Vaujany are merciless.
This years camp have been what you call boutique, because of the COVID-19 situation. GFNY usually try to make the camp small with around 20-30 people, so they have time to talk to everyone. But with participants from mainly overseas nations like the US and a lot of european cancellations, this years GFNY Alpes camp have only 5 participants, almost as many as the number of GFNY guides. So they got us covered pretty good. The level is broad, just from the beginner who just bought his first bike and have never ridden in mountains, to the matured Gran Fondo-rider who travel the world each year.
The program for the camp bring us around the Romanche-valley and naboring mountain passes, with expeditions to Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier, Col du Sabot and route recon on Croix de Fer. The daily program is adjusted according to weather and the longest rides are early in the week, so that everyone will be fresh on sunday. Luckily, the weather have been perfect with little to no wind and temperatures in the middle of the twenties the entire week. But that’s about to change for the weekend. Sitting in the sun overlooking the Mont Blanc and Col du Glandon on top of Col du Sabot, race director Cedric Haas states “C’est l’Apocalypse” in a dry and dark matter, when we talk about the weather for the weekend.
And the apocalypse is for sure what the weather forecast is promising! Rain from friday to sunday with something that looks like a seven hour long thunderstorm on Saturday. Luckily, sunday looks like the best of the three days.
The GFNY-organisation have been working over time all week. Only half the staff could make it to the race so it’s all hands on deck. The bad weather forecast is a slap in the face to everyone in this crazy year and you can see the fatigue in their eyes. We enjoy the last day with sun and mentally I start preparing for the apocalypse on sunday.
Saturday its pourring down all day. I spend the day in bed, except for the half an hour where I sit in the sauna at the spa in Hotel V de Vaujany. It have a big panorama window overlooking the valley and the thunderstorms. In the television the pros are crashing around Nice on the first stage of the Tour de France. What a warmup for a rainy Gran Fondo in the mountains. If the pros can’t even stay upright, how about all of us amateurs? At least it’s been raining for two days now, so the slippery gu on the roads have been washed off.
In the afternoon there’s a stop in the rain. It’s my chance! I get dressed and hurry out on the bike. Just a quick opener. Down to Bourg d’Oisans and back up to Vaujany. The roads are empty. Only me and the low hanging clouds. The roads are wet but not slippery, thank god. It’s nice to get a feel of the grip before tomorrow and the conditions aren’t as bad as I expected. I even putted on too much clothes. But that’s the big question right? When riding through the apocalypse, do you wan’t to be boiling on the ascent or freezing on the descent? I still got time to decide.
It’s raceday! Finally. The route was changed last night. GFNY have decided to drop the descent to Maurienne and ascent of Col du Glandon, which means the Gran Fondo is now only 60 kilometers to the top of Croix de Fer and back again. And furthermore, the start have been moved to ten instead of eight. The weather conditions was simply too extreme for the organizers to send people out on a 110 kilometer Alpe marathon in rain and close to 0 degrees.
Wise decisions if you ask me. Looking out the window at seven o’clock the changes makes the race more digestable mentally. Now it’s just a race to the top and back. Only one long and cold descent. It also solves the dilemma of what to wear. I’ve decided to go with bibs and no leg warmers. A Gabba-kind-of jersey, arm warmers and the GFNY Alpes Vaujany-jersey as my outer layer. And VeloToze of course.
The GFNY-jersey is nice, with two extra pockets on the side. Perfect for reaching for a gel and getting rid of trash in rainy and cold conditions, with cold fingers.
Half an hour before the start I get into the start grit. I have an old rain jacket I brought to France just in case. Pulled it out of the box with retired cycling clothes. It’s handy now, keeping me warm and dry before the start. Looking around I see a lot of rain jackets and umbrellas. People are freezing but not me. I don’t know if its the excitement or all the koffein. I sure hope it’s not because I have overdressed. In this weather you either die from overcooking on the ascent or freeze to death on the descent. I fear for the latter, coming from a flat country, descending in rain and cold isn’t that appealing. I push the fear away and focus on the challenges ahead. First thing is to get to the bottom of the Vaujany-climb behind the master car without too much drama.
I’m at the front of the startgrid so I don’t have to fight for positions on the first, short descent. At my side I have the GFNY SoMe manager Mathias van Aken and my roommate from Italy, Zacchi. Both of them points out some very strong belgian and Italian guys, that sure look like real bikeriders. You know, men that look like boys with thin hips and shoulders, sticks for arms and huge legs. Theres trouble in the air.
3, 2, 1, start!
There goes the start! Behind the race car down the slopes of Col du Sabot. The roads are like yesterday, wet but not slippery. Theres respect in the peloton so no one tries to get in a better position and we get to the bottom without the soundtrack of carbon hitting the tarmac. Only the evergreen with whining disc brakes is being played.
Cedric Haas, the race director, gets up through the sunroof of the car and waves the flag. Depart réel and the race is on. Immediately the pace is turned up and we go 40 km/h before the climb really begins. And then BAM! Somebody threw a handgranate into the peloton. The Italians are on the war path and attacks from the front. There are several casualties and I’m afraid to look at my watts. The gunfire keeps hitting the front group but suddenly there’s a ceasefire. I look around and there’s around twenty guys left in the front. Have their gunpowder gone wet? The pace is still high, but not merciless high. My heartrate drops a bit as we go through the village on the first fourth of the climb to the iron cross and we hit the first small descent. And then bam, again! The ceasefire is over and now they are using bazookas. We hit a steep ramp with over 14% and the front group is split to pieces. Me and som other guys are left bleeding in the trenches by the madmen who have gone up the road.
I haven’t exploded but I could’t follow the pace either. My roommate is also here and together we find a good rhythm. The others who tried to surge and follow the hard hitters have all blown up and are scattered across the road in front of us. Zig-zagging to stay upright, they only see the backs of us.
Approaching the damm we have caught an Ecuadorian guy from Germany. He seems fit and is still going well. We pass the turnaround for the Medio Fondo where the climb flattens a bit. We ride on the big chainring and the pace is high. Maybe we can catch the front after all? But no, all hope is lost shortly after the cottage and the left turn to Col du Glandon. A rider is approaching. It’s the raceleader, already descending. Solo of the front. And we still got three kilometers to go before the turnaround point. And just before we cross the bridge two kilometers from the top, we meet the chase group. I try to count the numbers of guys coming down the mountain and it seems like we are still racing for a spot in the top 10.
Don’t be reckless
The rest of Croix de Fer is rather uneventful and we reach the turnaround together and start the cold and long descent. Some concerns had been raised on the GFNY Alpes Vaujany Facebook- page last night. Pictures showing debris on the road and others were concerned with the new route, that now would have riders going up and down at the same time. But as Uli rightfully replied, people are more aware and carefull in bad weather conditions. And the GFNY- organisation have been removing all debris. Despite all concerns I fell super safe. There’s a motorbike following us and at every challenging corner there’s a marshall with a flag and whistle. We passes a lot of riders still ascending and everyone is staying in their own lane.
And then we are back at the beginning of this story. The deep dive down Croix de Fer in two degrees celcius, drenched in rain. I’m freezing cold. I’m 100% focused on the road ahead. In my head I keep repeating Uli’s words of wisdom: “Don’t be reckless, don’t be reckless”. We get to the hairpins halfway down and the marshall signals to us that there’s three more coming up.
I notice through the corners that I go faster than my two companions, so I push the pace a little harder and manage to create a gap. On the last third of the descent the roads are straight with good visibility. I pedal to get my legs going again before the tough climb back to Vaujany. I go really fast and manage to make a gap of around 10-20 seconds to the others. Perfect!
On the climb I have time to find a rhythm before I’m caught. Our trio is now a fourmann group. A young guy on a Specialized Tarmac have gone insanely fast on the descent and caught us. He immediately try to attack but without getting away. After his third attempt he reckons, that he won’t be getting away from us. Instead we climb in a reasonable pace. I’m sitting at the back and have time to take off my arm warmers and gloves. Short/short for the finale just like in a real race.
The climb only flattens for a short while in Vaujany. The Specialized-guy sees the moment and attacks with my roommate in his wheel. The finishline is placed around a tricky corner where the road narrows. My legs is too cold to sprint so I finish last in our little group. But I’m content. The entire race is done in two hours and nineteen minutes which is fast enough for me to be 15th overall. An amazing result.
Here comes the sun
After the finishline, everyone is handed their GFNY Alpes Vaujany-medal and a rather delicious postrace meal consisting of pasta with tunafish and a loaf of bread.
And while I’m standing there, on the square of Vaujany, the sun breaks out.
GFNY can definitely be proud of their new pearl in the necklace. Against all odds the whole organisation have made a tour de force and created a great event. Despite of COVID-19, bad weather and a last minute change to the route. I’m full of awe for Uli and Lidia Fluhme, and Cedric Haas, whom I’ve witnessed working really hard all week to make GFNY Alpes Vaujany happen in a year, where almost every Gran Fondo have been cancelled. It’s easy to see, that these guys are driven by passion and love to cycling. It would have been so easy to cancel the race, but their passion was strong enough to carry the event despite monumental adversity.
And just as the sun shines on the last participants to finish, the future for GFNY Alpes Vaujany looks bright. With a date late in august when the season is almost over in the Romanche-valley, the participants get to enjoy the quietness and tranquillity of the Alps. The route is manageable, even if it’s your first time doing a Gran Fondo or riding in the Alps. Or if you are looking for something different than La Marmotte.
Cedric Haas takes a deep breath after the award ceremony. They made it. It’s over, the sun is shining. The award ceremony haven’t been announced anywhere. Due to COVID, it’s only the three fastest guys and girls invited with their travel companions. I’ve crashed the party.
Next year the race will be back. GFNY have made a three-year deal with the city of Vaujany, so the future is secured. It’s easy to fall in love with GFNY. The races have a lot of loyal participants who travel the world to experience the different races and countries. And after a week in the great company of the GFNY-family I really understand why. The GFNY-camp with Uli, Lidia and the GFNY guides have sure been a week to remember and have awakened my appetite for more experiences.
The sun sure shines on a bright future for GFNY Alpes Vaujany.