By John Bamford
At the early stage of planning the Alps Challenge, the Castellane – Castellane circular route around the Gorge de Verdon was seen as a ‘must do’ day on the bike so it was always going to form part of the 7 day challenge. Having now completed the challenge it is easy to see why this particular stage was added to the route.
The Verdon Canyon is billed as a unique site in Europe and considered by many to be the most beautiful canyon in Europe. It’s crossed by the river Verdon and it is located in the midst of the region of Provence, Alps and the French Riviera, covering the regions of Var and the Alps of Upper-Provence.
We had arrived at the hotel in Castellane knowing it was the only place where we would have a two night stay….. a chance to unpack the kit bag and make the room homely for a couple of days. It also meant that Day 6 was also seen as a potential rest day to give those aching legs some well needed recovery time.
Over dinner Craig was explaining to all the Challenge riders that this was a day on the bike not to be missed and that along the route we’d all have the opportunity to have a swim in the river so we should pack our speedo’s (swimsuit for Shelley :p). Gavin offered to drive the support vehicle and carry all the usual itinery for each rider plus all the swim gear.
We had a later breakfast than usual, mainly due to the hangovers from the previous night’s antics, and all agreed to ride as a group around the Gorge. I have to admit I was feeling a little worse for wear, all self inflicted I might add, so the thought of riding an 83 mile route with 9,000ft + of climbing, was something I was trying to lock away somewhere between the ears that was dark and remote until I was feeling human again!
We set off, turning right out of the hotel in a rather large peloton, with a handful of challenge riders staying behind to get ready for a day at the local pool where they would sunbathe and generally frolic about whilst frequently whatsapp’ing piccys of themselves doing just that. That just isn’t cricket!!
It was a glorious day, the sun was beating down, motor vehicles were few and far between and we sped down the road following the track of the river for several miles at a decent pace. I remember thinking we’ve been going down hill for a while now, what felt like a good 20 mins, which meant we had to climb for probably 40 mins on the way back……. Again I tried to lock that thought away!
We soon took a left turning and then the road levelled off and actually started to climb again in places. For the next few miles the roads were undulating and pretty ordinary, still very nice scenery but no WOW factor I was expecting. We passed the small town of Trigance taking a sharp right hand turn and then the road really started to incline, rising steadily at first and then increasing in gradient as we swept around several hairpins and bends in this twisty section of road.
The road eventually straightened out, still climbing though, and what was left of the group stopped at the T Junction in the road to take a natural break, catch their breath and to re-group with the other riders.
I must admit at this point I thought we were in the gorge, and what was all the fuss about… Craig had been overselling this day for sure, and so maybe I should have taken the opportunity to recharge the batteries and give the legs a rest.
Once re-grouped we were on our way again, heading towards Saint Maymes. The road was quick and we were making hay whilst the sun shone. We eventually started to descend, the landscape was opening up and we were getting glimpses of what was to come. We arrived at a point where we could see the gorge to our right, the river down below and a bridge in the distance… it was a must stop and take in the view moment. We all took piccys and then remounted our steeds to continue the journey.
We eventually arrived at the Bridge over the river L’Artuby. It was picturesque, the bridge stood 180m over the river, and from it we could see up and down the gorge, and below us the river was reflecting up a translucent cyan colour and pedalos were carving their way up and down the river. In the centre of the bridge there was a bungie jump station with brave folk ready to launch themselves off into the abyss for a 20 second adrenalin rush. No thanks.
We made the bridge our home for the next 10 mins whilst we took in the view, took the obligatory photos, and watched the next eager thrill seeker. We were then on our way and the next 15km or so was a mixture of climbing, stopping to take photos, climbing, stopping to take photos, climbing, stopping to take photos.
The road eventually eased, which is more than I can say for my hang over, and so a fast and spectacular descent began. The gorge always to our right, we swept around all the bends gathering speed and heading for Aiguires, our designated lunch stop. Some of the speed junkies ripped up the road ahead, whilst I rolled down at a more leisurely pace.
Around another bend and the view that hit me was stunning….. I had to stop….. The creamy blue river below, a crystal blue lake in the distance, fluffy white clouds not too far off eye level and Mont Ventoux on the horizon. What a view…. One that the photos just doesn’t do justice to as the view seen by the naked eye.
I continued the descent and at the bottom I arrived at a small roundabout where Si was directing us to the right to make sure we didn’t take a wrong turning. Again we re-grouped and then made the short distance to the café for lunch. After a nice spag bol and several coca colas the group was ready to continue the route so we filled our bidons and got ready to roll.
The road continued to descend and Lake Le Verdon, which had been nothing but a dot of blue in the distance was now looming large, we crossed a bride at the edge of the lake and took some more piccys. We had descended to around 500m by this point and we were level with the lake, so as sure as eggs are eggs, this meant we had some more climbing to come. By this point we had ridden one length of the gorge and we were now making our way back along the other side. We could see the route we had taken on the other side of the vast expanse of space carved out by glaciers millions of years ago no doubt.
I have to admit it was at this point I started to feel tired, drained, ready to climb off the bike. The heat was intense, and the climbing legs had never really made the journey to the Alps with me. Rather than a large peloton the group was now split into several smaller groups, each setting a pace they felt comfortable with. I rode with several of these until another photo opportunity presented itself and several of the groups stopped to admire the view.
I decided to ride straight past. The thinking was I’d get a bit of a head start, so that when the group caught me, I’d be towards the top of the climb and then just jump on the back and be dragged to the top. Good in theory, rubbish in practice! The group caught me after several miles and like the last rider in a breakaway who’s be out front all day, I was gobbled up by the small peloton and spat out the back without a cursory glance. Bah humbug!
I eventually ground my way to the top and was thankful when the road started heading down again to the afternoon café stop at La Palud. When I arrived everyone there was tucking into ice creams and generally looking jovial. I wanted to feel like that…. Instead my legs were screaming, my lips were sporting 3rd degree burns, my chest was feeling tight in the heat, and my head was doing an impression of a bongo bongo drum! But I was still happy to be here. :O)
I purchased a coffee and then sat down to join in the discussions about whether the extra loop within the loop, was going to be ridden or whether we’d head straight back to Castellane for a spot of skinny dipping. For some it seemed a difficult decision, 1) head back by the most direct route and have enough time to head to the river for a swim and relax before our evening meal, or 2) do a 20 mile loop back to the spot we were at now, with more climbing and a stretch that Craig was describing as 25% gradient plus. For me it was a no brainer…. My trunks were in my jersey pocket and I intended to use them!
About six riders, including the Balshaws, John Myburgh, Ste Feeney, Tony Lowe decided to do the full route so chapeau to those guys. From what I heard it was hot and a lot of climbing, needless to say I was happy with my descision not to go. Meanwhile, the rest of us decided to head back and meet the rest of the guys at the campsite that had a swimming pool and access to the river which was about 10km outside of Castellane.
We went our separate ways and with the road flattening out, some of the TC riders decided to hit the front and pick up the pace. It was brisk for the next 10-20km before we eventually spotted the support vehicle parked at the side of the road, just down from the campsite. We stopped and saw some of the challenge riders sunbathing by the pool and having a nice relaxing time. We made our way to the river through the campsite and parked up our bikes. Everyone started to remove themselves from their salt covered lycra in anticipation of taking a well earned plunge into the cool waters.
It was getting late by this point, and with the sun still beating down, I decided to make an early exit and ride back to the hotel. Mark was at the entrance to the campsite ready to head back so we buddied up for the 10-15km or so ride back to the hotel. We seemed to have the wind on our backs so what I was expecting to be a slog back up to the town, given the quick speeds we managed in the morning on this stretch of tarmac, turned out to be a pleasant quick ride. We chewed the fat and before we knew it we were at the hotel. We rolled into the garage, parked the bikes up, job done.
A hard ride, but what a ride!