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Race to the Sun: in the heart of the peloton

Ivan Blanco

Español, por aquí

Yellow, a hashtag, cycling and photos… that’s how you win a VIP weekend with Mavic at one of the first and most exciting races of every new cycling season, the Paris-Nice.

Ok ok, not really so simple, add to it a dash of luck, special star alignment and sprinkle it with some cycling passion, ah, and posting an Instagram photo with the hashtag #RaceToTheSun; look right. That’s how I won a 3 day weekend with transport, hotel, food and a limited edition Paris-Nice cycling kit to live this French competition like never before.

But, however you cook it, I feel myself blessed with such an opportunity and together with the other 5 winners, I think we can agree that it was one of the most unforgettable experiences in our lives. Apart of the goodies, we had the chance of a lifetime to live a Pro race from the very heart: 193,5 km from Aubagne to Fayence and stage 6 of this year’s Paris-Nice.

But first things first, meeting the Mavic guys and fellow winners, usually you have to travel by either train or plane, to get to the different stage races that average between 150 to 200 km each, unless… of course, you do it like the Pros, racing. So it’s not something you have at the doorsteps of your home… you remember that previous dash of luck, well, with me living in Nice, and the 8 day competition finishing in this same city, contrary to most winners, my journey to our Rendezvous didn’t involve airplanes, but only 10 minutes… walk!

First encounters, Jacques from Mavic and event organizer, Anthony from Wales, the Greenest of the bunch, Maude from Cannes, self-proclaimed pain in the ass but still delightful companion, Jean-Pascal IT guy our French man (say it with some French accent for more authenticity) and Valentin student, long night gamer from near Nancy, and the kid in da bunch. So we only had one more for the 6 pack of lucky Mavic winners… Scott, from Scotland, nope, that’s no joke, true thing :) but with Lee as his first name, as a Police Raid officer, yes, the kind of things we only see in movies, you’d better do things right or he may smash your doors and windows.

Jean-Pascal, Valentin, Me, Maude, Lee & Anthony

As cinematic as this may sound, due to yet, another strike of a French transport company… if you think I'm exaggerating, then come live one year and you’ll learn that transport strikes happen more often than you changing gears on your bike… So it was that, with no previous info, we thought he was Dutch, because his diverted flight came from Amsterdam to Paris and from Paris to Marseille. He later told me that he had left around 8 that same morning to fly over to Manchester, from there to Amsterdam, then Paris and arrive in Marseille around 8 in the evening… he almost could have come faster cycling, however, I guess in the end it was well worth it.

Once all the winners reunited, we had one very big table for us 6 and the rest of the Mavic,  to meet each other and fuel ourselves for the long journey ahead. We’ve got to meet Peyo (sorry mate if I got it wrong, no clue how it’s written) who is in charge of the pro rider’s shoes; Mavic provides custom shoes to several pro riders from the World Series. We also met no one else than the boss, Francois, who sat just in front of me and is in charge of Mavic’s marketing and also one heck of a rider… more on this in my next post. Others at the table were Antonio, Yves, Patrick and all the Mavic guys who make neutral assistance possible in the Pro races.

When a rider looks up and sees yellow, they know that they’re in good hands
— Mike Wilson, Mavic Brand Manager, Americas

For the little history anecdote, back in 1972, one of the team managers had his car broken down at the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, to which Mavic’s chairman Bruno Gormand lent him his car. So simple, but magic, was how the idea of neutral assistance was born and making its official debut one year later, precisely, same as our adventure, at the Paris-Nice Race.

With the excitement growing more and more, what best than celebrate our luck with… beers! Anthony, Lee and me took away one sleep hour to get to know each other a bit more and cheer to our common cycling passion.

Waking up in the same hotel as the teams Fortunueo Vital Concept and Direct Energie, who has future climber’s jersey winner Lilian Calmejane in their ranks, we couldn’t be more immersed in the cycling world as this. With a quick breakfast and seeing how much preparation goes for the teams, which we saw working hard the night before too, and how immaculately polished their cars are prepared day, think of it cleaner than your fridge after doing a 200 km ride… seeing this was quite striking and makes you realize how much effort is needed behind each race.

Maude took an early morning sprint and greeted us with thousands of goodies she received on a little team bus walk, she even came with the climber jersey winner’s flower bouquet… sometimes, being the only girl in the bunch has it’s advantages. So it was that after this sweet appetizer we went to the stage’s starting grid in Aubagne and toured the buses and riders that were doing their little warm ups here and there. Pulling in with the Mavic car and park just in front of the start was already a unique experience in itself.

I’ve also had a casual and emotional moment getting back to the starting grid, I’ve met Antonio, a fellow 83 year old Spaniard from Murcia who lives in France since 50 years and due to health problems can’t travel back… he was looking for Contador and we obviously spoke Spanish, which made him so happy that even shed some tears of emotion because he found a fellow national and could talk in his mother tongue. With no real relation to cycling, it was truly one of the most memorable moments of the day.

With little time to spare though, and the last riders signing on the usual race day log, we had to run over to the Mavic Assistance cars to get ready before the start and join the very heart of the peloton. I was in one of the 2 cars in front to assist the echappees when their sports managers weren’t there, our hosts were Yves and Antonio, the latter is quite an entity within Mavic and the cycling world itself, not only was he part of the Spanish Team Kas in the 80’s, he’s working since 25 years with Mavic… heck, that’s a quarter of a century supporting the yellow brand!

With this and other stories they told us, hearing the race radio and standings during it, and being in the very middle of it, you start to realize how much a Pro sport that has no stadiums, really involves. Both in organization and human effort, it is a remarkable feat that sometimes extends to almost 200 km that needs everyone’s attention and precision.

Landscapes, breakouts, water and more

A very very early breakout of some 10 riders gave us the chance to follow them and even assist with fresh water several times because all their sport’s managers were too far away. This was obviously one of the highlights of the day and gave me some of the most immersive photos; see left.

Quick sandwich and dessert in the car, courtesy of Yves and Antonio, we charged our batteries for one very exciting race. The echappee kept a very high pace all throughout the race giving us the chance to see them several times, especially on narrow roads where Mavic’s neutral assistance cars or motorbikes go the closest in order to assist not just one rider.

Unfortunately when we arrived to the finish line, we couldn’t witness Simon Yates’ epic ‘wall’ conquering at Fayence’s arrival with almost 20 seconds to the second. Equaling the overwhelming speed of the pro riders, we just had a quick pipi stop and off we went in direction of my dear home town: Nice!

Based in a hotel near the airport, we arrived with no time for shower, just to leave our stuff and quickly celebrate some early Christmas with all the goodies Mavic gifted us; see right.

We went for dinner to quite a familiar place for me, I had gone there just 2 weeks earlier to celebrate a friend’s new born child with fellow cycling friends. We were at the Villa d’Este, and boy, what a dinner!

However, the best dish of the night was the chance to meet our amazing Mavic ambassadors Mike Cotty, Nicolas Roux and exPro Fränck Schleck who would join us for Saturday’s cycling sportive Paris-Nice Challenge. Quite a special treat not just because of the new cycling kit and honour to ride in such elite company, but also the fact that it was coming back to my first ever sportive and the one that preceded my other dream experience with the Team Skoda; more info about my first sportive here and Team Skoda here.

Since you won't have much from our dinner, what about some more photos of the day?
Dig in!

Ending the day charged with carbohydrates from the pasta and full of emotions from such a unique day, it was time to literally recharge the batteries… of my GoPros and phone in fact.

Only one thing was still to do, bed and good night!

 

Stay tuned! This is part of my Race to the Sun series where you can discover
how it was to live a Mavic VIP cycling weekend and yet again an unforgettable experience.
Follow me on my social media accounts for more.

Louis Caput... when a name says it all!

Ivan Blanco

Para los amigos de Indurain, es por aquí

ka•put
(kɑˈpʊt, -ˈput, kə-)

adj. Slang.

1. ruined; done for; demolished.
2. unable to operate or continue; broken: The TV went kaput.
A German word meaning done for, used to mean broken, destroyed, or out of order.

Source: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/kaput

 

This is the main adjective that summarizes my latest cycling challenge…the Sportive event organised each year by the cycling club Etoile sportive de Villeneuve Loubet cyclisme (ESVL), in the name of the French legend Louis Caput.

Louis Caput was a French cyclist that competed in the 1940’s and 50’s and had a remarkable track record that goes strongly opposite to his name’s Germanic meaning; French road bike champion, Paris-Tours winner or Sport’s director are just a few of his career’s successes.

With such a background, the last minute sportive I got proposed by a friend the day before sounded interesting at least: 146 km and some 2700 m of elevation gain, in an area of the Provence I didn't ride before; I love to discover new areas. Being used to have done more than that in the past, I accepted willingly… but poor me, optimism pushes me sometimes into a delusional mindset…

As with the Paris-Nice Challenge (read it here), these challenges always seem to have one moment where optimism and easy pace get struck by one unexpected and very hard climb or climbs… and of course, same case happened with my first Louis Caput.

In addition to riding from Nice to Villeneuve Loubet, where the sportive started, Armand, the friend who proposed it to me, is one very strong rider, his latest success was 41st at Cannes’ Triathlon last week, out of 777 participants! So dropping me off with his other Triathlete friend Richard, was very easy after passing the beautiful town of St. Paul de Vence and climb to the Col de Vence.

In my (small) defence, I came from 6 days cycling every day and putting all my power into my 40 km commutes, averaging at some points almost 36 km/h and totalling around 280 km. In any case, this new challenge taught me a lot mentally and physically.

The first part of the parcours brought us from sea level up to 1000 m till the Col de Vence through the mentioned St. Paul and what kind of looked like a Lord of the Rings scenery; see it below.

With or without the Ring to rule them all… my physical condition was of complete exhaustion from my 6 cycling days without rest, knowing this, stubborn as I am, something made me go for it anyway. In addition to this, the mental side was taking over and trying to play tricks with me… thoughts of changing plans and do just the 100 km parcours, thoughts of climbing just the Col de Vence and ride back, thoughts of not even climbing anymore and turn around… with around 150 participants in such a large stretch and no joint departure (1h gap to choose), unless you keep up with your mates, you end up riding alone for some larger stretches and that didn't help in this mental challenge.

150 kms, +2500m and 150 participants: Louis Caput!

Adding to this, my impulsive registration made me neglect a deeper study of an unknown route… which is like a violinist not going through his notes before one big concert. What resulted in some very hard and sufferable first 90 km where the mental game mixed up with some knee pain, the whole experience ended finally with one of the most beautiful and joyful rides I've ever experienced!

All the suffering and sacrifice became secondary when I met a local rider, Gilles, who rides a lot in the area. The flat area before the Col de Bleine allowed us to have one very pleasant conversation to which two other riders from the sportive joined; above the km, endurance, or races… one of the best things in cycling is the fellow companions with whom you share the adventure.

But again, that next Col made me get behind to a point where my knee started, at some points, screaming stronger than my determination… so I did shut it up with some water! Managing to finally get over the Col de Bleine and reach the last feeding stop, I started to chat with Bernard, one of the organizers and we discussed about my action cameras and cycling, to a point that I almost forgot to refuel myself. I also met Michelle and Olivier, who are workmates and were doing this sportive for the second time and we were to pass each other again several times.

With the Broom Wagon suddenly reaching the feeding station, we all rushed to get moving and realized we were doing more socializing and eating than actually pedalling... quick shot of coffee and off we went. Taking a bit of a lead, I soon lost Michelle and Olivier, specially in the descents where I like to go hard. Even so, at some points the sheer natural beauty of this region made me so ecstatic that I started laughing alone and crying out loud of joy with the landscapes and towns I was seeing.

I immediately fell in love with Gourdon as soon as I saw it, perched over its magnificent hill, the road seemed to surround it in the same awe I was, giving me the chance to photograph it from almost every angle… what else could I ask? An Icarus-like paraglider making of this one ‘free as a bird’ experience and making me remember that: the best things in this World are out there as long as we are willing to go that extra mile to reach your goals!

Descending through the meandering roads of Provence, the descent back to Villeneuve Loubet was of utmost pleasure and changed my initial perspective completely, bundling up moments of joy, camaraderie, shared passion and making it one of the most happy cycling moments ever!

In the memory of Louis Caput, you have here one very honorable sportive thanks to the cycling club Etoile sportive de Villeneuve Loubet cyclisme!

Merci beaucoup pour cette merveilleuse aventure !

Team ŠKODA: meeting the cycling Pros

Ivan Blanco

Allez les bleus, par ici pour vous (bientôt)
Para los amigos de Indurain, es por aquí

 

How the heck did I end up in Paris with two former French Pro cyclists and 19 more passionate amateurs contending to enter Team ŠKODA…?

Lazy? Then scroll down and watch the video

If we go really really way back, we could say that my Kindergarten years and my always riding everywhere would be the beginning… But this isn't an autobiography so, fast forward to July 2015, in the middle of the Tour de France, I finally got myself my long desired road bike. Some of you may know that my return to the cycling World was with my 1st ever Saint James Pilgrimage, crossing Spain with my 30 something kg bike and bags to get home and live a life-changing journey; you can read all the 15 days over here.

 
Further and higher!
 

Hang in there

With the aim of going further and higher in my cycling goals, after long hours of internet scouting, and the Tour de France making me eager to get a new bike asap, I found one 3rd hand Cannondale Carbon bike which wasn't used more than 2000 km by its previous owners and was in mint condition, what a deal! What else could I ask, well, Serge, the seller (and with coincidentally the same last name as my mother…) was quitting road cycling due to a health condition, so he also sold me his completely new cycling shoes and threw in two free jersey and bib-shorts: what a way to start my road cycling adventure!

 
330 kms in one day?
Crazy?

Always!
 

I didn't take long to surpass the previous owners kilometric milestones and with just two big rides almost hit a quarter of that. Following goal after goal, my work commutes started to be mostly just on my bike and weekends opened up opportunities of travel and discovery never imagined, like a Col de Turini ride topping 180 km on my Strava (GPS tracking app), to just a week after hitting my still record ride of 330 km from Nice to Hyères (south-east part of Southern France) and back in one single journey; yes, some suffering and lots of food involved and, straight 11 hours sleep.

Another even more ambitious goal was attempted, but technical circumstances postponed it for a future momento… don’t be impatient, it will it will, you will know in time.

Committed to make it my main transport method, today I ride to work 20 km each way, surpassing already the 3k mark for this year, and close to the 10k for my still very young Cannondale. You truly know you love to ride, when you hit days of non-riding and feel that something is missing… or like Remi from Café du Cycliste said: you’re screwed mate, you’ve been bitten by the road bike bug!

True that, and loving it!

Cote d'Azur commutes

So without delaying more the initial question, on the final weekend of the Paris-Nice Pro cycling race, which I talked about here in another blog entry, I went for a pint and chill after one of my best cycling weekends up to that moment. Discovering a contest in CyclingHeroes.com via ŠKODA, I typed in the requested info an Bio and didn’t think much about it. Some kms had to be ridden via the Strava app, where my daily commutes did fulfill the needs more than enough.

Paris-Nice Challenge sunrise

I didn’t really think much about it anymore until a few weeks later… Checking the commercial tab in my mailbox, sifting through some electronics shop emails, Groupon discounts, Rouleur stories, photo gear emails, etc. Suddenly one catches my eye with “Congratulations” and signed by ŠKODA France… At first I thought, oh my, again an email where I might have won a car but need to give my details, bank account to some Prince in Africa… or else. But surprise surprise, I was among the 40 finalists to be part of the amateur ŠKODA cycling team!!! I couldn't believe it, I had to recheck what this was all about. The final 10 will win:

 
  • 3 weekends of exclusive coaching from Jérôme Pineau, 13 times Tour de France rider, 2 times climber’s jersey winner, and Florian Rousseau, 10 times track cycling World Champ and 3 times Olympic Gold medallist
  • All expenses payed
  • To ride a carbon road bike
  • Team equipment
  • Take part at the Etape du Tour, the most challenging sportive with 143 kms, 4 climbs of more than 1600m, gathering 15000 participants
  • ... and boy, this was just the appetizer!
 

Jerome Pineau in the center

But nothing is set yet, and the first stage was a Skype call with one of the coaches and someone from the organisation, and why not, on a Saturday, the same precise day two of my best friends got married and I was to be their photographer in the lovely town of Antibes. Due to this, I was unable to make it for the first call, so we rescheduled one after lunch… Exactly when we left the restaurant and with a few rosé wine glasses more, call came in and we had one great conversation about my cycling history, motivation, gear and some football chat about Madrid or Barcelona… Yep, the coach I got to talk with was Jérôme :)

If things were to go well, one week later we would have to meet at the famous Paris-Roubaix start. On Monday we would have the results and logistics would have to be deployed or not. No news on that day, so I simply started to think on some alternative weekend ride and was glad to have a nice chat with one of the Pros… But, next day an email came in: Congratulations! I had made it into the last 20 and had to start booking my tickets with destination: Paris! Unbelievable! I didn’t really sleep much that week and during half of it my head was looking forward to one unique weekend. This, bringing our bikes and ourselves, the hotel where to go, and the time we had to meet was all the info we were revealed.

What, I’m in the last 20 out of 900?¡?!

Having to work the day of travel, Friday was a late arrival for me, building up my bike, and some late dinner available at the reception’s microwave… Intrigue, jitters and excitement mixed up with some vague attempts of self control… eventually, sleepiness took over.

Day 1 hit the agenda and as well as during my Saint James Bike Pilgrimage, I praised myself to get one fulfilling breakfast to jumpstart the ‘race’ for a spot in the first ever Skoda Cycling Team. Talking about team, my first acquaintance was Mikael and we started talking about what might expect us, our cycling marks and he also graciously lend me the key to unscrew my pedals, which ended up being the only thing we would need that day. Seeing young Antoine overhearing us, I invited him over so we could meet as well. This started to look very promising already!

Destination Compiègne, legendary starting point of the Paris-Roubaix

After a quick refresh and bag check, the first ride of the weekend was going to be… On a bus. With some very far away photos of the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre, I had enough evidence that I 'was' in Paris. We went direction Compiègne to the starting town of the Paris-Roubaix pro cycling race, also known as the Hell of the North due to its treacherous parcours, on the same day the Pro teams were to be presented. With no clue of what was expecting us, with only pedals in our hands, my dreams of a cobble ride soon vanished. We however arrived to the very cobbly center with one big production film and photo crew awaiting us right from the exit of the bus. Each of us, more or less, was a bit overwhelmed by such attention and amazed when we finally got to face our coaches Jérôme Pineau and Florian Rousseau… After... of course, a few repetitive takes :)

The agenda for the morning ended up being pretty Media oriented and among Paul Barrocas, Skoda France’s Marketing Department Chief welcoming us for the upcoming press conference, interviews, some shootings and little revelations came to light like the fact that not only would the last 10 keep their shirts but also the gorgeous looking Lapierre Carbon bicycles that stood shiny and very desirable over that other pretty looking Skoda they were on... Hmmm... if I were to make into the final 10, I’d be happy to propose some kind of trade offs…

 
Enough, it’s time to pedal!
 

However, as exciting and glamorous this day was being presented, we weren't asked to put on our cycling garments just for the looks. The more challenge relevant task was to assess our power and put the base for further improvement if we were to join the final 10. First, home trainer sessions of 2 min gaps with max bpm (heart-beats per minute) -30, then -20 and -10, to end up in a very intense 10 secs at full speed. Never having done this, I don't really know if my data is worthy or not, however, for the data addicts among you there you go: my max bpm is around 193, at -10 got almost 400W and at the 10s sprint got it up to 720 with max bpm only at 185. 

Taking the opportunity of a dream come true, I escaped over to the presentations area and got the cherry on the cake for what was already one unique cycling experience. I saw again one of my favourite riders, Peter Sagan, who was presented together with his mates from the Team Tinkoff Saxxo, and I probably met his biggest, ‘little’, fan too:

We concluded this first long journey with one delicious buffet dinner back at the hotel and some nice mingling with the rest of the contenders was on the table. The best about it? The great camaraderie atmosphere and passion for the same sport, without the competitive mode that could be expected, was among all of us and it rather seemed to be a gathering of cycling friends coming back from a long day ride and share the same table with one big smile each... we were at that moment, the Skoda family! 

 
¡One big family!
 

One last thing was another photo shoot and a very early Saturday night's sleep. The next day was heavier in cycling and my first ever Time Trial was about to happen…

That’s all for now, with episode 1 already available, you will have to wait until episode 2 to discover who will be part of the #TeamSkoda and hit the #RoadToMorzine! 

If you wish to see what this all looked like and take the opportunity to revamp your French, then watch the video below and stay tuned for our 2nd and very exciting day!