When the UCI announced the death of the world marathon series at the end of 2008, it left a lot of the world’s best long-distance racers apparently bereft of a series to target with their respective seasons. The end result was that marathon racing again became a more provincial concern, with some racers choosing to concentrate their efforts on races in their “back yard”, and a renewed focus for many on mountain bike stage racing.
For three seasons, the world has been without a marathon series, so many racers, both professional and amateur eyed the new “UCI World Marathon Series” announced late last year, and the associated world marathon champs qualification criteria with intrigue.
The criteria make it less the subjective choice of your particular governing body, and more a question of simply being good enough. This has thrown the spotlight once again on races that have been quietly running successfully for a long time. The Roc Lassagais has run every year since 1991: only the Friday Night Summer Series in the UK can claim similar history!
When Rachel and I read about the new marathon series, we started making plans with former team mate and friend Tim Dunford (Cannondale). We intended to abandon our respective families for the Easter break, and head to the Cevennes for the second round of the new series, held in Thomas Dietsch’s particular back yard.
Before we knew it, April was upon us, and it was time to head for the Tunnel and then south through the heart of France to the sleepy town of Severac-le-Chateau. A couple of good day’s weather and riding around the town left us all feeling positive about the location and the race. Rachel and Tim were both hoping to get a top-20 placing, and to punch part of their ticket to the worlds, I had the more modest aim of rolling around to finish before dark!
We were sharing our gite with four more competitors, three of whom (Mike Blewitt, Will Hayter and Collyn Ahart) were fresh from the Absa Cape Epic, having picked up Stu Spies in London. Unfortunately with the other half of our party arrived the rain, which settled ominously over the region the day before the race. Much talk was of what to wear and how to stay warm in 4 degrees and drizzle, but in the end race day dawned cold but dry.
A quick check of the grid-plan revealed that I was on the 6th row (better try not to get in anyone’s way!), and after a brief warm up to make sure my legs were awake, we were off! The course revealed itself to be some of my favourite sorts of riding, a pleasant mixture of the Surrey Hills in winter and the Peak District in summer, with some short but brutal climbs.
As the day wore on, I learned many useful things:
Whilst a capable summer tyre for dry, dusty trails, a Maxxis Aspen is not a great mud tyre.
On the day of Paris-Roubaix, French race organisers are likely to include a homage to the Queen of the Classics – better attach my spare tube more securely next time.
A totally dry XTR chain makes a very unpleasant, very expensive-sounding noise.
Closing a flip-top gel sachet on your lip really hurts!
Losing your second bottle in the first 10km is not very clever.
The pro riders probably avoid the inside of the corner for a reason so you should not be surprised when your ‘clever line’ ends in a big wheel swallowing rut.)
I finally rolled across the line a little over an hour after the winner, Perikis Ilias, in 57th place. Rachel managed 11th in the women’s race, and Tim worked his way up to 12th in our race before blowing up and having to use only his granny ring to finish 40th. Without doubt though, my coolest moment of the race was getting a smile and a nod from the fifth-seed as he called it a day at the halfway point, it’s not often that you hear of a race being too hard for Christophe Bassons.
As you may have inferred, this race is not for the faint-hearted, it packs in 2,800m of climbing into a saw-tooth profile over 85km (65km for the ladies), and has the potential to eat bikes and riders alike on a wet day. Staying with a group of seasoned marathon racers who have competed all over the world our post-race discussions brought out where this race differs from many others and what made it so tough.
There are lots of little climbs (one every 5km-ish) rather than large extended ones, making it tough for a group to stay together and share the work. In addition, it was run off over a real mix of trail types which made for an interesting course, but also required a lot of concentration. Finally, add in some of the best marathon racers in the world, including a smattering of national champions, and it’s not surprising you get a pretty spicy race.
As the time marched on, it proved nigh on impossible to measure your effort well, and almost everyone in our group described having ‘blown’ at some point. However, the challenge is why we all do this and this makes the Roc Lassagais an even more alluring challenge to me. Marathon series or not, I want to come back again next year to race in Thomas Dietsch’s ‘hood!