Raid In France 2015
It was not long after the ARWS world championship in November last year when we started getting that strange urge again to put ourselves through day after day of pain and pleasure, misery and joy. Available time was against us to consider the 2015 equivalent in Brazil but there was surely no reason why we couldn’t go for something a bit closer to home and half the duration. A scan down the fixture list made RIF look a tempting option so the first job was to muster a team.
Our previous two ARWS trips to Costa Rica and Ecuador had Christine and I pairing up with Chris’ friend Wendy and her husband Jo Inge but we understood their commitments at that time of year to be such as to leave us looking for a changed team.
There was no shortage of options and two of the first people we put the proposal to were immediately keen so, with permission from their wives, Eugene Grant and Simon Patton were to make up the four. Both are great athletes with abroad range of experience and the right temperament for adventure racing.
Plans were going well until about a month before when Simon’s work commitments left him having to pull out, much to the disappointment of us all. But we set about finding a replacement and, when asked, Wendy just couldn’t say no. In fact, it suited her work and family arrangements brilliantly and the team was finally fixed.
It’s a considerable drive to Ain in eastern France close to the Swiss border but that was the method of transport we chose over flying. It would take a full day but with the recent acquisition of a Renault Kangoo – a stylish van with windows and seats – the journey was relatively painless. With three bike boxes loaded onto the rear bike rack and a fourth one on the roof plus the boot space loaded high we did look like characters in a modern day Grapes Of Wrath but the Kangoo coped admirably and delivered us there on Monday 14th September ready for action.
The race was due to begin the following night at midnight so we had a full day and a bit to get to know a few things about Hautville-Lompnes where the race was headquartered. It’s not far from the town of Belley which I first visited as a fourteen-year old schoolboy on a French exchange, and I had been back to the area a couple of times in more recent years so I had a fair idea of what to expect. It’s an area not unlike our own Peak District, but the hills are higher and it’s generally warmer.
We spent Tuesday preparing our kit and practising our ropework, as this was something at which we were required to demonstrate a basic level of competence and testing things like our kayak trolleys and having our mandatory equipment checked off.
It wasn’t until the evening when the course was revealed to us, so once the course outline was published just before the briefing it was a case of studying what we had and distributing our food and equipment into the various boxes. That then left a couple of hours before the start to chill out and rest. The bustle of the afternoon and evening had suddenly subdued with people seeking out corners throughout the HQ building to wind right down in the knowledge that the next four days would consist of continual activity with little or no rest.
It had been disclosed at an early stage that the course would include some activities which would be new to us – stand up paddle boarding, speleology (caving) and something about barges intended to embrace the local culture. This last discipline had us all wondering just what we were in for with visions of us pulling a long boat along a canal or something. All very mysterious.
Ready for the start.
So as midnight approached the teams began assembling. The first stage was to be a street orienteering prologue around Hautville for which we had one hour. Anything longer and time penalties would be imposed. It had also started to rain and, as the next four days progressed, this became the dominant weather throughout. It wasn’t very warm either.
We chased off into the darkness on the stroke of midnight and took our first of many maps. This showed 14 controls dotted around the town which could be visited in any order. It all went well bar except for one bit where what looked on the map to be a thin line of woodland turned out to be an impenetrable mass of undergrowth which lad to us having to modify our route at a cost of maybe five minutes. Other than that we did alright and reached the end of the stage in almost exactly an hour.
Now it was on to the long stuff. The pace could be brought right down and we took our first set of maps before heading off into the hills on foot. The area is very green with forests filling most of the space between roads and towns and, as anyone who has orienteered in forests knows, plenty of opportunities for confusion especially when something shown as a medium-sized track could be anything from a wide ride to a narrow push-through. And it was dark. And still raining.
Our progress wasn’t bad. We all cover the ground pretty well and we were trotting along quite nicely to begin with, but then the terrain became tougher and the vegetation thicker and we were beginning to realise this was going to be no easy ride. Control number 6 was our first major stumbling block. Supposedly situated down the end of a mid-sized track it was becoming reluctant to reveal itself. A number of teams were now converged in a similar area of forest, each as clueless as the next as to where the elusive orange and white kite was hiding and each backtracking here, there and everywhere in the vain hope of dropping across it. The sky was starting to come light about 7am and there were fewer teams around as time went on. Either people were finding it or they were abandoning their search and moving on. The latter was never an option for us. We didn’t want to be out of the rankings at that early stage so we stuck at it until eventually we found it after about four hours of searching.
The Bonnie Tyler song “Lost in France” had been playing through in my head for much of the time but I don't think she was lamenting being clueless in a forest.
We knew it had not been a good first night but were glad to be moving on and took the forest roads out to a paved road in our quest to find the next. But again, this proved problematic. The map fitted what we saw on the ground but the control was not where we thought. More time spent head scratching and confabulating as time ticked by added to our frustration, but we found it after a while hiding not far away but on a path network which did not seem entirely accurate to what was illustrated on the map. Anyway, with no time to lose we headed off again and made a fairly decent job of moving on to the next area which involved some big climbs and more open terrain.
As the day went on the weather picked up and we were rewarded with some nice views as we played to our strengths and made good progress up towards the 1127m Monts d’Ain. A quick group selfie and we dropped off the top back into the forested slopes towards the valley of Nantua. Some paddle boarding was awaiting us at the bottom but we had a couple of controls to find on the way down. We dropped onto the first very accurately but not the next. Again, the mapping seemed to include or exclude tracks on the ground and, although not disastrous, time was spent backtracking and reassessing until one option eventually took us to where we should have been all along.
The descent was most welcome and we arrived at the shore of Lac de Nantua looking forward to our paddle.
Something we had not had much of was water, except that falling on our heads. Our bottles had run dry hours before and clean-ish watercourses had been in short supply and the transition are we had just arrived at only had a lake with no taps. We were carrying filter bottles and the lake water did look very clean so this was our first decent drink in many hours.
It was mid afternoon by the time we set off paddling. The sun had come out briefly but the wind had picked up. We hugged the southern shoreline trying to keep out of the headwind until a point when the crossing would take us over to the next transition on this 2.5km stage. When that time did come it tested our limited SUP skills as the side wind tried to push us back from where we had just come. One dramatic gust could be seen picking spray up from the surface as it crossed the lake towards us which blew Chris completely off her board and picked her board up as if it was a piece of litter blowing around in the street before dumping it a good 30 metres away. We all then adopted kneeling or sitting positions to complete the paddle to the opposite shore.
It was then back on our feet again and off up the next big climb. This was a nice trek up to a line of cliffs followed by a traverse below them and round the end of the mountain which then led us to the transition area where we would see our bikes for the first time. We had had about 17 hours on foot by then and were ready for a change.
Once we had prepared the bikes and had a bit of food we took off into the forests again hoping to make a better job of our navigation. It was not too bad to begin with. The tracks were rideable, if a little muddy at times, and generally matched the map. At times though there was a lot in the way of “brashings” on the ground: the result of recent forestry work, and it was to my cost that I rode over a lot of them. Just as darkness was falling my rear tyre suffered a rather dramatic deflation and a quick inspection showed up two cuts right through the tyre wall. Time to improvise. Cutting up a plastic milk bottle to provide a secondary tyre wall seemed to do the trick and we were moving again within minutes.
As it went dark mechanical problem number two soon followed, this time in the form of a broken chain on Eugene’s bike. Some say he has thighs like Mario Cipollini but he modestly dismisses this comparision and put it down to a poor chain. But again, we set to work on removing the offending link and had us rolling again within minutes.
After a bit more navigational difficulty in the forests we emerged at a road crossing roughly where intended and pushed on into the next valley through a little village called Samognat. Here, Chris’s back wheel had started making some painful noises and it was mechanical number 3 that night. Her brake had begun to seize on and no amount of force from a multi-tool was enough to push the piston back and to get it moving again. The only thing for it was to remove the whole brake. It didn’t take long though and we were soon moving again.
A curious river crossing followed and then it was a ride / push up a narrow riverside path to take us to the next transition area.
It was around 1pm when we reached this and the next stage was a river kayak. It seemed a good time to take a rest here and we boxed the bikes up, sorted out the food for the next stage, had something to eat and settled down on the ground with the alarm set two hours hence.
I slept blissfully for that short time and getting going again felt good. We went off to the river and took our sit-on-top kayaks out onto the water. After only a few minutes we all stopped to remove a couple of layers of clothing as it was feeling very mild all of a sudden and we paddled on down the River Ain in the darkness, Chris and I in one boat, Wendy and Eugene in the other.
Then it started to rain. And the clothes went back on. And the rain became heavier. Stair-rods were an apt description and it continued for the rest of the night. The soporific paddle strokes mingled with the rain and the cold was an odd combination. Momentary losses of consciousness followed by a sudden shivering and double vision before lucidity returned was a repetitive pattern as we reached our first portage point. The Ain is harnessed in a number of places for its hydroelectric potential and we were to encounter two dams. This was the reason for the trolleys. The kayaks were big and heavy and carrying them for almost 2km would have amounted to torture. It was good then to see that the newly purchased lightweight but heavy duty bogeys were up to the job and turned the whole business into a pleasurable yomp along the road. Light was just returning as we re-entered the water but the rain had not eased.
On to this second stretch it was much the same as the first, only we could see a bit more. It was a pretty river valley with a wide grey watercourse carving through it and our second encounter with a dam was, we thought, going to be as straightforward as the first. It would have been if one of the trolley wheels hadn’t punctured. The only way was to roll it along on its flat tyre leaving the rubber looking somewhat shredded by the end.
The final stretch of this stage involved a bit of confusion for us and a Belgian team near us. We had been given word at the portage that the stage had been shortened and that we were to finish it at the next town Poncin. Nothing was evident when we arrived there and we consulted with our Belgian friends before deciding we needed to call HQ for clarification using the phone each team was required to carry. The answer was that the stage had not been altered in any way and we were to carry on to the end. Quite how this had come about was never really established, but one theory is that the shortened option had perhaps been discussed at some point amongst the many staff and volunteers throughout the course until it had become folklore.
Anyway, we were glad that plan A was still in place. This lower stretch proved to be quite good as we passed through the town of Neuville-sur-Ain and the swollen river ran under the bridge and over the rapids. It was all fast flowing stuff and the kayaks proved themselves to be much more stable than the sit-on-tops we had been provided with in Ecuador last year, so we reached the end of the stage with only the water falling from above soaking us.
In transition the cold really set in. We had been drenched for the last seven hours or so and teeth were chattering and knees were knocking. We were glad to get on the bikes again.
The initial part of this stage should have involved fording the river but that was now impossible so we were diverted back up into Neuville and down the other bank. Remarkably, the race organisation had provided no drinking water and there was nothing with which to fill our bottles again. So as we passed through Neuville we were on the lookout for a tap. It was a very sleepy looking place and the only sign of a tap opportunity we saw was a café. And, yes, we succumbed to the temptation of a hot drink wile we were at it. Getting a decent sized cup of coffee throughout France seems to be problematic so a round of six cups and the filling of eight water bottles was the best we could manage before setting off again.
The chill was still deep inside us and it was nice therefore that the next stage involved a good climb and the easing of the rain. In fact, the sky began to clear and the sun showed itself on and off leading to quite a pleasant start to the stage. This was going to be one long MTB stage though. The original route was to have it split by a ropes and via ferrata section but the weather had left this plan in tatters. Nevertheless, we rode on into the high hills surrounded by much more open agricultural scenery than anything previously. We pondered the map and there were indications on certain road crossings of what was out of bounds. The route seemed to take us largely off road but a better one seemed to involve a big descent into a valley on some promising looking roads and then a track appeared to exist up the side of a river leading to the next checkpoint which, incidentally, was where the rope section would have been had conditions been better.
It looked like we were pulling off a master stroke of navigation here. Progress was fantastic and the riverside track was rideable and pretty. Eugene again overdid it with the pedal power and broke his chain again, but as our best discipline turned out to be bike repairs we were soon on our way again. Then, within striking distance of the checkpoint, we reached the foot of a beautiful waterfall, so big the top was nowhere to be seen. What hadn’t been clear from the map was that the top of the waterfall was where we needed to be, not the bottom and I think it’s about the highest waterfall in France. Added to the not-very-detailed 1:50000 scale of the map was lots of aesthetic shading which went a long way to obscuring the contour detail along with the overprinted checkpoints. It had us fooled. We needed to get up there somehow.
By now, it was looking very unlikely that we would be anywhere close to the cut-off at the end of the next bike stage which had been set at 0200 hours that night so we were resigned to the fact we would be short-coursed at some point soon. But we still had this obstacle of a wooded cliff face in front of us with a waterfall over to our left and, nice as it all looked, we weren’t relishing the prospect of getting ourselves – and the bikes – up there.
But we would give it our best shot, of course.
We began by hauling our bikes up a steep loose slope, often having to pass the bikes up the chain we formed, but it soon looked like it was going to land us in trouble. It was time for a bit of a recce up ahead. So, with everyone perched precariously I scrambled up ahead to see if there looked to be a way through. It wasn’t looking at all promising. There were rocky outcrops and a lot of loose rubble and I wouldn’t have fancied an easy passage without bikes. Just as I had reached the decision that this wasn’t an option I put my left hand on a rock with no more pressure than a mouse might exert on it and a chunk instantly fell away from the rockface. It was about the size of a toaster and I gave a shout below as it bounced off down the slope striking the front wheel of Eugene’s bike as it went and missing Wendy by a very uncomfortable margin. I then glanced down towards my feet and I could see my tibia. There it was, open to the elements through a nice clean cut which had opened up on my left shin. The rock must have had a sharp edge which had done the damage as it glanced by me on its way down.
Time for the first aid kit. Eugene scrambled up to join me and together we irrigated the wound with eyewash and bodged it closed with steristrips and wrapped it up. That forced us into the decision that we would be going no further that way and we picked our way back down to the bottom.
We needed to re-assess our situation. Fortunately the weather was unusually good at that point and we would be able to reach a main road in about half an hour so we rode down to there and called the event medic. As we waited we pondered our options. We were going to be timed out by the end of the stage anyway even if we had still been on course to find the next control and we weren’t sure about how the organisation would view the injury. There were still some fun bits ahead such as the barges, and we decided that we’d ask if we could return to HQ, take the mandatory five hours rest that night and set off again the next morning. We would have failed to complete that cycling stage and the trek which should have followed but we had now come to terms with the competitive side of the event being over and we wanted to enjoy what was left.
Within an hour the event doctor was with us. She was great and soon had me stitched up at the roadside and sent us on our way. We took a road route back to Hautville which turned out to be a good ride in itself, and we arrived at HQ after dark and in some pretty chilly temperatures. Hautville is named for a reason and is on deceptively high ground. We checked in and sorted out kit out and left everything ready to start again on the bikes after some sleep, but not before grabbing a quick takeaway pizza from down the road!
The rest room was a strange mass of slumbering bodies with a chorus of snores. It brought back memories of when we had been on the Californian coast a few years ago where we saw a huge herd of elephant seals all lazing around and grunting. We did our best to bed down with them but sleep didn’t come easily for me and it was a long five hours before we could get up and start again.
The rain had returned and it was no warmer. We headed off into the dark again up into the forested mountains above the town, unsure at first which road we were actually following as the town was right on the edge of the map, and were thankful when it came light. However, it only revealed a dull sky from which the rain continued to fall and we pedalled on up one hill, down into another valley, up another hill and down into another valley. We managed another navigational howler at one point, leaving a summit 180 degrees in the wrong direction, but corrected it before too mach damage had been done and eventually began a voyage across the Retord Plateau. This coincided nicely with an improvement in the weather and the middle part of Friday was much better for the spirit. We had some lovely views, the sun was warm and we didn’t get lost. We eventually dropped down into the lower wooded hillsides until eventually reaching a checkpoint deep in the valley at Chatillon-en-Michaille. From there it was up in all directions, but the beauty of Ain was now clearer than ever before and we climbed up towards the Jura border with tremendous mountain views everywhere we looked. The rest of the afternoon was more of the same and we descended as darkness fell to the end of the stage where we now decided to see what we could negotiate with the organisation to have some fun. By setting off on the next trek we would again be well outside the cut-off at the end of it and would completely miss out the barge section which, through curiosity as much as anything, we were keen to try out. We managed to explain that and it was kindly agreed that we could be leapfrogged on to the end of the trek where we could pick up the barge stage for the beginning of the last day. 5.00am was going to be when the last barges would be able to leave so we packed our bikes away and were taken by road a few miles to the Fort l’Ecluse which was the fortification built into the mountain side where we were to descend the 800 or so steps through the rock to emerge by the Rhone and join the barges. We had until 5am, or so we thought, and decided to take a break for a couple of hours in the hope that setting off later might lead to a more pleasant barge trip than one in complete darkness.
We did the castle steps bit and went down to the river and set up our tents fully expecting it to rain some time soon. As we were bedding down we were told we had to leave there and then by one of the staff, but we managed to get our point across that we would be up in a couple of hours to take a barge by 4.30am. I don’t think our message from hours earlier had quite reached this point without undergoing some modification, but when we went to find a barge we were told the only ones available were for teams who were still on course for a finish. That appeared to be non-negotiable but no-one else showed up and 5 o’clock came and went with us warming ourselves round a camp fire on the river bank with the marshal lady.
We then had to work out what to do next. It was coming light and we could see the two lonely barges forlornly moored up with no-one to take them away so eventually decided we’d round our Raid in France off with a walk back to somewhere from where we could return to Hautville. We explained our intentions to the staff but were then told to wait and we could join the bus they had called for the teams who were still out on the course and we would be taken to the beginning of the final MTB stage. So we put the kettle on, idled around a while then walked back up to the Fort to catch the bus.
We were taken to a forest high in the hills and, bizarrely, pointed in the direction of a track and told to go to the transition area where we would find our bikes. This had an odd feeling to it as we walked on along a track which had clearly not seen a vehicle for some time and no-one seemed to know where we were on the map. We were amongst about six other teams and it wasn’t until someone worked out we had been sent up completely the wrong track that we corrected things and marched off to finally find our bikes in the woods.
Instructions were, wisely, to head back to the penultimate checkpoint just outside Hautville sticking to the roads. The original course should have taken us on another long stage but, as the day was now well advanced, we needed to be back by the time the event was due to close.
Ceremoniously punching the last control.
It turned out to be a lovely ride back. The sun came out and the scenery was magnificent and we still had enough energy for some brisk riding up the hills. We finally reached checkpoint 33 above Hauteville and were sent on the final descent through the woods and into town. We rode into the finish to be greeted with a spray of champagne and made to feel like it had all been a very satisfying trip with a happy ending, despite the reality of our misfortunes along the way.
A lovely late afternoon and evening was then had by all with a presentation dinner, enjoyed by those who could stay awake, and an overview of the whole event revealed through a series of speeches, videos and photographs.
As always with these adventure races, the organising team could not be praised highly enough for their work. Raid in France 2015 had involved well over 100 volunteers working over the course of the week looking after the needs of everyone and a dedicated team of professionals bringing the whole grand operation together for an incredibly modest entry fee. Support from the town and various sponsors had been invaluable in achieving the aims of the event and, despite the weather, Ain had been revealed as a fantastic part of France.
From our own perspective, we didn’t have a particularly good race although we were pleased with our early determination to persevere in finding the elusive controls. Only three teams completed the whole course and we were amongst a large number of unranked teams. Most importantly, we thoroughly enjoyed it despite the obvious disappointment and our thanks go to Pascal Bahuaud and his team for providing such a memorable experience.
When’s the next one?