The Granfondo Gassin Golfe de St-Tropez, the season opener for the series of cycling events organised by Sport Communication, took place on Sunday 10th April. Having previously completed other Sport Communication events (Marmotte, Morzine and Vaujany) we knew that it would be well organised and very popular. It also tied in nicely with our latest trip away, taking place at the end of our week in Provence and less than 3 hours drive from where we had been based.
With a choice of 3 courses, we decided that the 132km “mediofondo” route with around 2300m of climbing would be enough – we trod a fine line during the week, trying to do all the rides we wanted in Provence whilst trying to save some legs for the race on Sunday. In previous European sportives we have ridden at a conservative pace, not wanting to risk blowing up towards the end; for this one though, the strategy was to try to stick in the fast groups and get round as quickly as possible.
On Saturday, we had to pick up the race packs from the pretty hill top village of Gassin.
This was probably the most scenic event centre we have been to with spectacular views over the Mediterranean and St-Tropez.
It is always annoying when the start and finish of an event are in different places. Luckily, it wasn’t as difficult as it first appeared – our hotel in Cogolin was just 10km (or, just one lap of Richmond Park, my preferred unit of measurement) from both the start in St-Tropez and finish in Gassin.
The following morning, we set off from the Ibis Hotel in Cogolin at 7am for the ride to the start in St-Tropez. As it was just getting light, it was still very cold – only 7 degrees but with a warm and sunny 20 degrees forecast by the early afternoon which made clothing decisions a little tricky. After much debate (and driving Mark crazy), I decided on my dynamo jersey, base layer, arms warmers, shorts and long sleeved rain jacket for the ride in.
It was an easy flat ride into St-Tropez.
Waiting around at the start next to a line of luxury yachts was a unique experience. I don’t know how the organisers managed to persuade the well heeled locals to allow several hundred cyclists invade their town.
Hundreds of cyclists bundled into the start pens shivering from the cold. Everyone looked fit and lean.
At 8.15am, we were off! The pace at the start was manic through the narrow streets of St Tropez. This felt like a race rather than a sportive. People trying to get to the front by any means possible, cycling the wrong way round the roundabouts Tour de France style, except unlike the TdF, there the roads weren’t closed. It took all my wits to avoid the various bits of road furniture that would unexpectedly appear. There were several slightly scary moments when cyclists suddenly squeezed back into the group onto the right hand side of the road to avoid oncoming traffic.
The initial 40km were undulating, mainly following the coast, and it paid to be in a group. I had to work hard on the small rises and enjoyed swooping down the little descents.
I was relieved when the first climb appeared – it meant that I choose my own pace. The Col De Barral (372m) did not look like much on the route profile – just 5km or so. However, the initial ramp of 18% caught many people out – luckily I had managed to understand enough French when the waiter at dinner the night before talked us through the route and I was glad of the advance warning! The rest of the climb was quite short – around 5km – but steep, with several sections over 10% before a false plateau which was followed by a lovely descent with more views of the sea.
The route then headed inland towards the hills. The next climb, the Col de Babaou (414m) was more gentle. The course followed small, twisty roads with few cars. However it meant that the road surface was not great, often a patchwork of tarmac with potholes and gravel. Apparently the race is notorious for accidents. On the descent of the Babaou I came across another one, the second in 60km – a man lying on the side of the road who had overshot a bend – the police were just pulling up and the wail of the ambulance just a short distance away. The group I was with noticeably slowed down a little after seeing this accident.
Unfortunately, everyone else in the group decided to stop at the feed station at the bottom of the Babaou, around 79km into the race, at Collobrières. I went on by myself and was soon on the climb up the Col de Notre Dame des Anges, just a few kilometres away. At 680m the Notre Dame des Anges is the longest climb on the route, gradually winding up a small road over the next 10km.
By now, it was really warm and sunny. I did wonder if some people had read a completely different weather forecast as I watched them sweltering in their long sleeved jerseys and winter tights.
The descent from the Notre Dame des Anges was long – on a narrow mountain road with signs of “virages dangereux” and “chaussée déformée” warning of the obstacles and hazards ahead. This was a really beautiful section of the route but with a very big drop on the right and no crash barriers. None of this deterred the local riders however, some of who descended like maniacs. I was very pleased when I overtook some people myself – something that would never have happened on a downhill a few years ago!
At the bottom of the long descent was another short 5km climb up the Col de Taillude (411m). By now, only 3 laps of Richmond Park left! Just outside Grimaud at 120km was the final food stop. Again, frustratingly most of the group stopped. The waiter in the restaurant the night before had also warned about the need to be in a group for the final section because of the wind. I still had a little water left and plenty of food. Ahead was just one cyclist, Man in Blue, who I had already seen several times during the race so I pushed on and caught up with him.
I was glad of the warning… and the company. There was a very strong headwind for last 10km to Gassin so it was good that there was someone to work with although my 53kg versus his 80kg meant that after 4 turns at the front I really wasn’t much use and was struggling just to hold his wheel.
After turning off the main road to St-Tropez, the road started dragging up. By now Man in Blue was having to slow down to wait for me so I waved him off with a very loud thank you, hoping to save some legs for the short climb up to the finish in Gassin village.
Finally after another few hundred metres, it was the left hand turn to start the 2km climb into Gassin. I felt bad when I caught Man in Blue and over took him on the hill. I did however manage to tell him in French he was very strong in the wind and said another big thank you.
The climb was over quickly, but there was a final surprise at the end with another steep ramp up to the finish line. Oh well, never mind, no ramps can now compare with those at the end of the Taiwan KOM. Mark and Tor were already at the finish line waiting for me.
Tor had an incredible race whilst recovering from a cold and riding a bike borrowed from a friend – catching the other main contender at the bottom of the Gassin climb and shadowing her all the way up the climb before out-sprinting her up the final ramp to win the women’s race (4 hours 24 mins).
I was pleased to finish 8th overall (5 hours 10 mins) and 3rd in my age group.
Mark also had a good race and was 19th out of the men (4 hours 11 mins).
There is always good post race food included in the entry fee at the Sport Communication events. The GF St-Tropez trumped all the other events however with these giant pans of paella.
This was a well organised event with a lovely scenic route on the hills around St-Tropez. It is a shame that we don’t have any photos during taken during the race. Although there were no big climbs, the constant up and downs and headwind made it challenging. The road surfaces were not great especially once we left the coastal road but there were very few cars on the climbs and descents. I didn’t stop so can’t comment on the feed stations but based on previous experience at other Sport Communication events I assume that they would have been well stocked with sweets, bananas, baguettes, cold meats and cheese – enough to make a picnic lunch!