Race Across France - Race Report by, Ben Dodge
Not sure where to even start with this. Racing my bicycle across France was on so many levels beyond incredible. The scenery, the culture, the iconic mountain climbs, the weather, the crew, my teammate. Everything was incredible. Incredibly hard, incredibly beautiful, simply incredible. Words can’t adequately describe what I was blessed to see. Everything from the majestic Alps, to the medieval villages across France. This race was hands down one of the most beautiful and challenging races I have ever been blessed to be a part of.
Huge shout out to the two men responsible for this race, Arnaud Manzanini and Loïc Guenot. These two men designed and hosted an amazing race course. I know they had many volunteers and other staff members who contributed greatly, in fact too many to name. However, I can name these two. They were present at every moment. They were intentional about every aspect of this race. One of the more touching moments for us as an American team was immediately upon finishing the race we were discussing the beauty of the roads, and the course. Arnuad then described and explained to us that he specifically and intentionally chose small and narrow roads through small towns and villages throughout the country so the racers can feel France, can experience France. In fact, he mentioned that after our American team signed up he intentionally created the course to go through the famous Omaha Beach of D-Day fame from WWII. It was a special night to pedal through there and feel of those sacrifices of so many of our country men there on that hallowed beach. In fact, I looked for opportunities to always STAY on the bike and to only rest when my shift was over, but that sacred night I stopped and took a moment at the memorial to honor those brave men and women of WWII. It is a memory I’ll always have with me. Thank you Anruad and Loïc for an incredible course, and incredible hospitality.
Last shout out before I recap the race from my perspective. Having a teammate and a crew is the only way these races are even possible. Many a times we would comment to each other as teammates and crew how this race “was no joke.” The difficulty was real. The course challenging. The lack of sleep, etc. is all legendary and expected. In spite of all of these challenges I was blessed with a crew who gave all. They turned themselves inside out for us. Their never ending sacrifices on our behalf will always be a part of me now, a part of my very being. Dear crew, you inspire me. I am moved by you. Your efforts on our behalf literally bring me to tears of gratitude. Thank you Bob, Del Ann, Cecily, Ray, and Sonja. And to my teammate Jason, I couldn’t have done it without you. Your efforts and time in the saddle helped make this finish a reality. I honor you for showing up to a race of this magnitude.
Now, lets get on with the race! Some critical background info about the distance and elevation gain for this race is as follows:
Total Distance 1,573.19 Miles
Total Elevation Gain 104,350’
Total Time 5:11:03:15 (5 days, 11 hours, 3 min etc.)
After a few days of early arrival settling, and eating like kings (make no mistake about it – I live to eat and love food more than just about anything including my precious bicycles) – our race day was upon us. Not many of us had slept good as it was hot and our Air B n B didn’t have A/C. Lots of mosquito bites and sleepless nights led to the start.
Our strategy was to rotate as teammates on a 1-2 hour basis during the day and up to 4 hours during the middle of the night. This was to encourage better effort output during the day and better recovery and sleep at night. For the most part we did this. As was pretty expected, anytime you have a plan you must be prepared to adapt it completely once you have boots on the ground and can better see the needs of the team, race, route, weather, and crew needs. But in general, this was the schedule we kept to.
This race is essentially a TT race with zero drafting allowed. As teammates we couldn’t even draft each other, but we could of course take turns. So we did. I started out the first hour on the first day. It was immediately apparent that we would be in for some absolutely beautiful climbs. My first leg was about 14 miles and 2,000’ of climbing right off the bat. It never really let up. The Race Across France is a climber’s race for sure.
It was also immediately apparent that as Americans we would struggle with directions, and map issues for likely the entire race. In the first 10 minutes we took our first wrong turn. The race map and printed turn by turn directions were simply not that accurate. The GPS file provided to us was something we only learned later how badly we truly underutilized it. Our poor crew was stuck trying to make very quick turn by turn directions in small little villages and cities with what felt like billions of “round a bouts” as opposed to straight roads with street lights and clearly labeled street signs. After the race was over I looked back on the map issue with some reflection and can’t honestly remember a single leg on the bike that I did where we didn’t get lost a handful of times, or at least have to come to a complete stop a handful of times just to figure out which way we were supposed to go. From a racing perspective the minutes lost turned into hours over the course of a long endurance race such as this. In fact, there was several times that we were in fact lost so badly that we were stopped for 1-2 hours. In a nonstop race, that is just killing your finish time. HOWEVER, I can say that our crew did their very best and that is all that anyone can do. Missed turns, wrong directions, and getting lost just became a “normal” part of our race just as never ending climbs were already a part of it. We just dealt with it the best we could and kept rolling.
The first day and night were one of the toughest time cut offs to make. There was more breathing room in the rest of the race, but by the middle of the first night we were supposed to be at the summit of the iconic Mount Ventux. I remember taking the first 4 hour night shift on the bike and our crew chief Bob telling me that I needed to keep a certain pace to try and at least get to the bottom of the climb for Jason to have enough time to get to the top of it during his shift so we can make the time cut off. I took this request as seriously as I could. I hustled. I put it out there and upped the watts both in my climbs and during my descents. My whole mantra was “I can rest later when I am off the bike, no need to coast now.” And it worked beautifully. In the past my ultra cycling racing has always been solo. This was the first time I tired an ultra race with a teammate. With a teammate I could enjoy the “off the bike” time as best as I could and recover and stretch, and fuel, etc. the best I could during my off the bike time. This led me to greater watt output capacity on the bike. I pushed hard during the night to get to the bottom of Mount Ventux. When we finally arrived at the bottom I had plenty of time still in my shift so I kept rolling up the mountain to get as far up as possible for my teammate and for the cut off time. I am not certain how far up I got but it is somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 way up the mountain. It was a great relief to get further than the goal and build that padded time for our team effort. Proud moments.
The next few days and nights all seem to merge together for me. I can say that we kept pedaling and kept moving closer to the finish. Soon we were squarely in the Alps. And I have to say, that these Alps are breathtaking. There really isn’t any words for the beauty and sheer majesty of them. They are kingly. Also, pedaling up them was no joke! Holy cow. They are often 9% sustained climbs. In fact, in France along this race route it seemed pretty lucky to catch anything less than about 6%. If you were on a 4-5% grade we called it flat. For those of you in Arizona, Mt. Lemmon is an average of about 5%. That would have been flat to us compared to the sustained grades in the Alps.
The hair pin turns of Alp d’huez were amazing. The iconic and legendary atmosphere was just awesome. The names of the pro cyclists who had just raced up that mountain last month in the Tour de France were still painted on the roads. SO AWESOME! It was evening and then nighttime as we climbed Alp d’huez. It was also raining and cold. And for anyone wondering, once you summit Alp d’huez there are more 3-4 more summits within riding distance of this amazing climb AND of course this course made us go through all of them. Alp d’huez for me will always be the gift that kept on giving. By this time is was early in the morning (1a-3a) and I was still riding a couple of hours longer than my expected 4 hour shift since our RV was a bit lost trying to get down the mountain an alternate and safer route. So I kept pedaling. I ran out of dry and warm clothes of any kind. With a few more summits to hit and being wet and freezing cold it began to just be funny. Ray Ray was in the follow car. I had asked him to scrounge up whatever he could find. I kept my bibs on and threw some rain pants on over my bibs and was ready to go without a jersey all together as there was no coat at the time. I figured shirtless and somewhat dry was better than a wet jersey. Luckily Ray found an old t-shirt so I put that on. It was a funny sight to see such a ghetto looking cyclist climbing through those Alps that night. But hey, I kept the climbing and the pace alive. I think that night I stayed out about 6 hours and climbed over 10,000 feet in just 46 miles. It was a rough, cold, wet, and STEEP night in the Alps. Lol
We also climbed and summited several other iconic and classic Tour de France mountains over the next day or two. All of them still freshly painted with pro tour team and cyclist names by loyal fans. It was amazing. Each time, the descents were equally amazing. I am HUGE fan of very fast descents. I will say this, on this course I took it easy. Many of them were at night for me and I couldn’t see, or it had been raining and was just wet and dark. My shermer’s neck was no joke as well and the pain from it would significantly increase on any aggressive descending position. But let me tell you my friends, the descents were still rad! Hair pin turns in the Alps are fun to climb but a lot more fun to descend! So cool. So fast. SO sketchy! A few times I locked up the brakes and had some rear wheel slippage. Scary for sure.
During the days we also saw so many of the Alps and the little ski villages nestled all over them. They were simple. They were beautiful. Life up there seemed slower and more simple. I found myself instantly connected to the whole country and culture though my bike. The journey was more than a race now. It seemed to create a connection in me to the culture and country of France. I’d be the first to go back into some of those smaller towns in the Alps or even in the French countryside and just vacation for a week or so. They seemed to just draw you in. They are like a magnet for the soul. I loved it. Just loved everything about it. A piece of me will forever be there. And a piece of it will now forever be with me.
The next few days were crushing it after the Alps. We tried to hustle as we were under the impression that our cut off time was Friday morning at 9:00a. We hustled. We all gave a lot. We rolled through many French towns and villages. Each so unique and beautiful. Fresh bread baking in the background, fresh flowers hanging from pots, cobblestone roads. The whole thing was just magical.
What wasn’t magical was the pain in my shoulders and neck. It began creeping in just as it had in Race Across the West 2 years ago. It became just so bad. A few times when I finally got off the bike I would collapse or fall into the side of the RV and beg for a crew member to just dig into my back, shoulder, and neck with their elbow. These elbow massages kept me alive and kept me going. The pain was so severe that at times I would just lean into the massage and tears would stream down my face. But hey, that is part of Ultra Cycling. Dealing with pain is always a priority. This pain crept in after the 2nd day or so. By the end I couldn’t even really squeeze the brakes that well and would sometimes seize up in my shoulders with a massive spasm while pedaling, It would stand me straight up non the bike and I would grunt in pain and stretch it the best I could. Then turn it off the best I could and keep pedaling. I am proud to say I never took a break just to stretch or rest from pain. My rest and my pain stretching was entirely off shift. I kept going at all costs. It was a personal best and an awesome thing to look back on with gratitude for the strength I had built leading up to this race. I am not sure where I heard this, but I 100% believe it: Hardship doesn’t build character – it reveals it. I was blessed to experience this race and all of its adversity with character that made the hardship easier to bear.
One of the biggest hardships in these ultra races is the total lack of sleep. We had rented an RV hoping to get some sleep in it. But I am not one that can sleep in a moving motorhome. Holy cow those tight and narrow roads along with the hair pin turns and round a bots everywhere made sleep a precious commodity. I estimate somewhere between 4-6 hours of total sleep during those 5.5 days of racing. Just had to deal with it like any other challenge and keep pedaling.
One huge highlight for me was when my sweetheart of almost 18 years now flew out to France and surprised me on the course. Things were hard. She knew it. She got in touch with Ray and jumped on a plane and surprised me the last two days of racing. It was awesome to have her with me. I got off the bike and I knew something was up as our camera man was out there with the camera on me and this little black car rolls up behind the RV and she steps out. SO cool. We embraced, and cried a bit. I was and still am so grateful to have her out there. She brings a strength that I can appreciate. She gets me. She knows me. She is my better half for sure and I am incomplete without her. Having her there was beyond amazing. She then jumped right into crew rotations and provided some much needed crew relief the next two days and nights. So epic.
As Friday morning neared it became evident that we would miss the cut off time. After we had pushed so hard and we ended up missing it I was disappointed. I remember calling Bob over as crew chief to have a discussion with him and the crew to gauge where their interest level was in finishing despite we missed the cut off. I felt I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone, yet I didn’t feel like I could demand we keep racing after the official cut off time without their support and buy in as crew and even more importantly the official nod so to speak from the race director. The last thing I wanted to do was to be some selfish and stubborn American deciding to race in spite of the fact that they may have only purchased permits for a certain time period, etc. We decided as a team to keep racing and in the meantime to get permission from the race director to also keep racing.
To my great surprise Bob came back to me sometime later (maybe only a few minutes, I really don’t recall) and informed me that we were mistaken on the official cut off time and that instead of Friday at 9:00a it was Saturday at 9:00a. WHAT A RELIEF! Now we knew we would be official finishers! Such a happy moment!
We kept racing. We finished sometime that late afternoon. As Jason and I rolled across the finish line we were both probably a bit in shock as we were literally and legally official finishers of the first ever Race Across France. So grateful to be a part of this first one. We had a blast. We raced hard. It was epic. Now on to the next one… 😉
My finish stats from my Garmin:
Total Miles Raced 896.97
Total Feet Climbed 69,101’
Total KJs burned 34,347
Average Power 162 watts
Average HR 146 bpm
Average Speed 15.12 mph
Moving Time 60:22:13
Ben Dodge, Esq., Endurance/Ultra Cyclist
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