On Sunday 6 October Tim Dunford and Ben Thomas travelled the long journey in the comfort of the Vauxhall Vivaro team van to the Jura region of France to compete in the latest round of UCI Mountain Bike Marathon Series, Extreme Sur Loue. Here’s how they got on.
As titles go Extreme-sur-Loue might conjure up visions of huge drops, cliffs, maybe some gnarly forests… Having ridden the World Marathon Championships on the same course the year before we knew the title was very fitting! The course is based in steep sided wooded valleys and climbs to the top of the gorge offering amazing views over the river Loue far below. Some of the trails have a stone base where as others, particularly those in the forests are clay. While most of the climbs contoured their way to the top, the descents were very technical and often took the most direct route back down using narrow hiking trails which were in a challenge in the dry. In 2012 an overnight deluge turned the course into a quagmire, the rocky sections became slick with a nice covering of mud for good measure and the clay sections became, well, cloggy! It had been a huge challenge just to stay up right and get down in one piece. But time really must be the biggest healer, as the terror of 2012 had faded from my memory and I was looking forward to another go!
We arrived in nearby Pontarlier on Friday afternoon and had time for a quick evening spin. If you’re ever nearby this looks an amazing place for riding, we rode out of town straight up a big hill/small mountain through alpine meadows where cows lazily chomped through more grass than they knew what to do with, before plummeting back down to town. We’d have stayed out later but bad light stopped play. Most importantly the trails were dry which left us in a happy place. Saturday morning we headed out for a quick look at the first loop of the course. One of the great attractions of Euro marathons is they’re generally a single loop, which is fantastic as you really feel like you’re on an adventure not just a race but does mean pre-riding is not always an option. Despite overnight rain the going was good. The first descent was pretty slippy and I managed to fall off 3 times in about 50 metres but I put this down to a funny five minutes. Overall things were looking good…. And then it rained. Starting around midday on Saturday it hammered down for the rest of the day and most of the night. In fact when we set off the next morning for the race it was still raining. We were not in that happy place any longer!
Nevertheless we lined up Sunday morning ready for 84km of Extreme action! One small section had been removed. Just as well, as this section was off-camber singletrack clinging to the cliff top. With no safety barrier, a big slip would not have ended well. It felt mild at the start but I remembered how cold I’d got the year before so I decided to keep the knee warmers and long sleeve shell on. I felt a little overdressed as one of the Swiss riders on the front row was wearing just a short sleeve skinsuit, well ‘ard! At 9.15 we set off down the fireroad for 6km of Puddle Terror©. Riding in the pack this was like riding straight at a giant dirty hose, by the time we turned right up the first climb I was soaked in attractive brown slop.
I was passed by a couple of riders on the first climb. I wasn’t too concerned, I reckoned it was going to take around 5 hours plus to do the 84km. I focussed on keeping it smooth and then making it down the descents in one piece. Helped by my choice of aggressive Schwalbe Nobby Nics I started gaining places in the sloppy top sections. Even so I was pretty amazed to make it all the way down the first descent with only one dab. With the diesel now warmed up I pushed on. Despite the torrential rain the course was still mostly rideable. One particular highlight was a muddy singletrack climb which stretched for perhaps a kilometre up into the forest. In my easiest gear I slowly inched my way to the top, rear wheel spinning, frame clogging with mud. By the top it felt like the weight of my bike had doubled! Starting the last loop after four and a half hours of pushing on through the slop the energy reserves were starting to run low and I was out of USN gels…Fortunately there was a feedzone at the top, I scoffed dark chocolate, apricots and prunes…a great combination. The marshalls told me I was 22nd and with one rider in sight I hit it hard. Our battle was pure comedy, a couple of the top sections were across fields nicely churned up the cows, knobbly tyres spun and the bike slowed to halt. It was then a pushing race past the cows who looked at us in amusement. I took a few risks on a wooded descent to bring the rider to just a few seconds. Unfortunately he was stronger and on the next short rise and he pulled out a few more seconds only for me to pull them back on the last descent into town. In the end I was 23rd in 5h35 … After two mudfests in as many years Ben’s vowed never to return, but I have a feeling I will be back.
Like migrating birds, we’re heading south now where hopefully it’ll be a bit drier and warmer for the next round of the UCI marathon series on Friday at Roc d’Azur..can’t wait!