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The French Divide

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The only way to describe this mildly insane event is to show you the numbers: 2,100 kilometers, 70 percent on unpaved roads, with 39,000-plus meters of climbing and up to 15 days to complete it. French Divide 2016 started from a sacred place of cycling, Flanders, and followed the organizers’ GPS track, splitting the country of France from north to south, to finish in the Basque Country. For the most part, they said, “You’re alone, arrange for yourself.”

Words/images: Paolo Ciaberta

This was the first edition, and British lightweight bike-packing company Apidura asked me to photograph this brevet (an unsupported randonnée) through the beautiful landscapes of France. I followed the riders by car but, because most of the roads were unpaved, I took my gravel bike so I could stay with the riders where cars were not allowed. It was long, hard, frustrating work, but full of satisfaction. Along the way, I saw so many beautiful places: the North Sea, the Arenberg forest, fairytale villages, the Champagne vineyards, the Massif Central, national parks and solo cyclists passing by.

To best describe the French Divide I asked two competitors—Frenchman Clément Stawicki, 32, a Lille bike shop employee who lives in nearby Nomain, and Spaniard Joan Carrillo, 38, lives in Reus, near Barcelona—to discuss their experiences.

Why did you choose to ride the French Divide?

Stawicki: Because it started close to my home [in northern France], I’m French and I’m friends with the organizers!

Carrillo: A friend of mine talked about the French Divide as a race inspired by the Tour Divide (which follows the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Alberta, Canada to New Mexico along the Continental Divide). I want to race the TD some day, so I thought it was a good event to start my training.

What kind of training did you do for the French Divide?

Stawicki: I always ride for fun, never really to train. I ride everyday to work (a total of 60 kilometers or more), I trail run with my dog, and I race BMX with my son.

Carrillo: I did no a special training. I do a 30- to 40-kilometer ride two days a week and some long-distance rides on weekend. I have done some brevets—350 kilometers by MTB, 400 kilometers by road and the CAT700, which is a 630-kilometer MTB brevet.

Tell me the best thing that happened to you during this trip.

Stawicki: I met and rode with some great people.

Carrillo: The best thing was to finish in fourth position and to be able to meet great people with much more experience than me.

The worst part of the event?

Stawicki: Saddle sores and some knee issues just 300 kilometers after the start.

Carrillo: Having to push my bike up impossible climbs for hours very near the finish. That was disheartening!

What was the daily schedule like to make sure you finished in the 15-day time limit?

Stawicki: I didn’t make it to the end because I had to stop for a family reunion. What worked for me was waking up at 5 a.m. and riding all the way to 10 or 11 p.m. I tried to always be riding and not stop much.

Carrillo: I didn’t have a routine, but I tried to look for a target to get to every day, like a city or one of the four checkpoints. I used to get up at 5 or 6 a.m. and I’d look for a place to sleep at 9 p.m., but I would normally go to sleep at midnight. I also tried to sleep close to a climb, because I prefer to start the day climbing as opposed to a descent, so I would stay warmer. I did try to eat once a day in a restaurant, but it was not so easy, so I would often eat meals I bought in the small supermarkets I found.

What bikes did you ride and what do you think about bike-packing brevets in general?

Stawicki: I rode a new 2017 Bombtrack Hook EXT. It’s a “monster-cross” like a ’cross/gravel bike with 27.5 × 2.1 tires, no suspension. I love bike-packing brevets; you live like a homeless person, but a fast homeless person…with a credit card! You come back to the simple things in life: moving-eating-sleeping.

Carrillo: I ride a Trek 920, a “monster-cross” with 29-inch wheels and no suspension. I love bike-packing brevets; it’s the most interesting way to ride for me. I’m able to ride for hours, see great places, enjoy every little thing crossing my way and move myself very long distances.

There are difficult moments along the road; where do you find the motivation to continue?

Stawicki: I kept my eyes on beautiful things, or I’d catch a smile from a mate or a stranger. I feel fortunate to do this kind of adventure; some people can’t.

Carrillo: Well, I don’t really know, but I think that the motivation is in every pedal effort, so being able to ride for hours and move yourself across a country like France is a great sensation. I tried to think about what I was doing there and what did I want to learn on this adventure. I just wanted to be able to make my own challenge and be able to create some memories about the good moments and what I experienced.

What’s next for you two?

Stawicki: The Highland 550 in Scotland for 2017; invite a good friend on his first biking adventure (1,000 kilometers in France); and maybe re-doing the French Divide in 2017!

Carrillo: TCR (the 4,000-kilometer Trans Continental Race from northwest Europe to Turkey) for sure!