The European marathon scene is now winding down after another big year for the sport, never before has there been so many stage races and marathons to choose from. This weekend marks the end of the season for many with many thousands of competitors making their way to the French Riviera for the Roc d’Azur cycling festival. There’s 5 days of events starting from the seaside town of Frejus including the UCI World Marathon Series round on Friday with 3000 participants, then the big XC event on Sunday with 5000 participants.
The UCI World Marathon Series has a long way to go until the overall winner is declared, the points are reset on the date of the World Championships, in this case 24th June 2017. However we can already see some strong results from last year’s winner Urs Huber. In last year’s series Urs won 5 rounds and was on the podium at a further 2. This year Urs has an unbeaten record (if we ignore his DNF at La Forestiere) having won O Tour Bike and Grand Raid. The Belgian rider Frans Claus is ahead on points and sits 2nd in the series having racked up an impressive run of 3 podiums. Arnaud Rapillard of Switzerland has an impressive point’s tally already having competed in 7 rounds of the series and finishing on 3 podiums, he leads the series.
Last year’s women’s series winner Helen Marcouyre again leads this year’s series with 2 wins and a second place. Expect riders like Sally Bigham and Ariane Kleinhans to close the gap when the series resumes next year.
The Roc d’Azur round of the series is the closest you’ll find to a World Champs level field. The front rows were a who’s who of cycling with pro roadies including Tour de France stage winners enjoying an end of season bash on the mountain bike, top World Cup XC riders and all the best World Series Marathon riders. I achieved the dream of being gridded on the front row of Roc d’Azur, it’s a pretty special feeling to look behind to see thousands of participants lined up behind you.
At just gone 8am the cavalry charge began as everyone tries to be first out of the arena before filtering one by one across one of the narrow bridges. Unbelievably I led out one of the biggest bike races in the world. Me, Florian Vogel and Alban Lakata side by side leading out of the Roc d’Azur arena with a train of thousands behind. I was buzzing!.. until we hit the first big climb! I dug deep, so much so my whole body went numb, legs, body, arms! Lactate overload. Never before have I felt like that. I had to be really careful on the following descent as I still couldn’t feel my arms. The front of the race got away from me at that point.
The course is made up of some long fireroad climbs early on but on the second half of the course has some really tricky rocky singletrack climbing. The descents from beginning to end are really rough, you finish the downs as knackered as having suffered up a climb. That’s if you successfully make it down the descents which many didn’t including the AG2r roadies. Up front the race quickly split apart. Eventual winner Julien Trarieux quickly established a lead with last year’s winner Samuel Porro. Alban Lakata would eventually catch these 2 but would struggle to keep pace on the descents. Realising this Porro launched his race winning move on the final descent opening up a lead into the beach crossing and last few kilometres of cycle path back to the arena.
Trarieux was 30 seconds back and then Daniel Geismayr in 3rd together with big man Alban Lakata. Lakata lit it up down the cycle path. Porro was dying. Trarieux, Geismayr and Lakata closing. In the arena Porro is caught and passed. Trarieux takes the win by 55 seconds ahead of Lakata in 2nd outsprinting Geismayr in 3rd. Porro finishes 4th.
In the ladies Sally Bigham took the lead early and didn’t look back storming to her 5th victory at Roc d’Azur. Cross country World Cup start Tanja Zakelj was 2nd ahead of Cornelia Hug in 3rd.
After my body cleared the lactate I settled into my rhythm. The best form I had back in September has now passed, today was not the top 10 I wanted by I’m happy with 20th place in this competitive field. How can you not be happy having led out the Roc d’Azur, raced 82 kilometres of fantastic trails under hot sunny skies, seen amazing sea views and been able to ride from the finish line to the gelato shop in minutes!
Next week is the final European round of the UCI World Marathon in 2016. La Tramun will bring the series to Girona for the first time. In its 18th year the event now gains UCI status. The event has earned a reputation with its challenging trails and beautiful landscapes.