Posted by Miles Arbour
Words by Anne De Smet (@fulsanne), Photos by Milopix & Louis Lambin
24th, August 2019. 11:00 PM. I’m on a big hill, a major hike-a-bike, in the dark. Earlier that evening a car passing by stopped to ask if I was okay. I said yes but I was looking for a place to sleep. They told me of an abandoned house nearby, but I decided to go on, and maybe continue through the night as I was only 70km away from the finish line. Not knowing the difficult sections that would follow….
I call my boyfriend Stefan for whom this bikepacking adventure was as intense as it was for me. I have a hard time, I fall. Silence for minutes. I should find a spot to sleep, he says. I send a Facebook message to Gert-Jan, who finished second. “Should I go on in the dark or is there technical stuff coming?” He advises me to find a spot to sleep as there is a difficult descent awaiting. But he remembers a chapel on top of the hill. I carry on and yes, I see this chapel. Relief. My body and mind come to rest.
It’s an example of the mental rollercoaster the French Divide has been for me. With ups and downs just like the track. The day of registration I set my alarm at 6:20 AM…on a Sunday! It would be my first big solo bikepacking race after finishing the shorter A-Cross the 3. I prepared a lot, but still wasn’t prepared to all. I had made a list of places where I could stop for food, sleep, the elevation profile. It occupied me after work: me, Mapsource and Google maps. That’s the part I could prepare for. The other part, how the track would be in real life, how I would feel, I could not.
The first days of the Divide I was so optimistic I thought I would be finishing on Friday. I was somewhere in the middle of the pack and everything went great, even though the first day was full of strong wind and rain when we took off in Bray-Dunes. But then, after the first week, the first little mental breakdowns came. I was riding alone for the whole time. An advantage as you can choose your own pace and when to stop, but mentally a tough one for me. My body was fine, tough tired, but that’s bikepacking, isn’ it? I was lucky that during the whole Divide I only had some saddle sores the first days and after that no complaints.
On a bad day I started making too many stops, made phone calls, sent messages. On the road I learned that even when feeling bad, I just had to continue pedalling. Even when slow. Every stop was one too many. I thought a lot about scratching, but I never wanted to. The will to continue was too big.
While there were mental downs, there were certainly a lot of mental ups too. Like the moments when encountering fellow riders out of the blue. Another rider in front. A short talk. Sharing experiences. Or that time that strangers await you with fresh beverages and fruit. They were fans of the French Divide and also once a former participant who told me the part to come, even though flat, would be a tough one as it was mainly riding in dry grass. Or that early morning when I wanted to set off and had trouble with my tire loosing air. I was at a hotel. While struggling with my tire suddenly Zoë, fellow female rider, pops up. She slept in the same hotel. Brief talk and she cycles away. I wouldn’t be far behind. And of course there were the checkpoints. Four of them. Each one a target to reach. But it was no easy feat. Before every checkpoint a very technical or steep passage was awaiting us. Arriving at the checkpoint made it feeling even better. I never stopped for long. Stamp on my card, refuelling, and on my way again.
Looking for a place to sleep
One of the bigger challenges for me was to find a place to sleep. At least it was before my start of the Divide. Unexpectedly, I never had any major issues with that. My sleeping spots varied from a cow hut, graveyard, chapel, to the garage of the most welcoming people. Once, I was in a hut on a hill when suddenly it started to storm and I discovered the hard way that the roof was leaky. Shit happens. Sometimes I switched to the comfort of a hotel. Being a rather long event, it was necessary to have a good night’s rest from time to time. But every day I started before dawn. Riding in the dark in the morning was something special. The first days I passed some riders lying in the grass in their bivvy, a wild boar family passing not far from them. Magic. But most of the time it was just me and my bike, me yawning until the sun would come out.
La Douce France
The French Divide is a wonderful adventure through France with constantly changing landscapes, a challenging trail with gravel, tarmac, and mountain bike passages. The Morvan and Auvergne being the most beautiful but at the same time hardest parts of the track. And as if the track wasn’t already hard enough in itself, there were these damn little flies in the woods that would be resistant to my stick and kept buzzing around my head. No to mention the temperature: cold nights and hot days. The French Divide experience is full of extremes. After crossing the most steep climbs on pavement I was so happy when I crossed the finish line in Mendionde where Stefan and Samuel were awaiting me. I was in my own zone. I still am a bit.
Congrats to Anne De Smet and the other participants of this year’s event. Dates are already set for the 2020 French Divide, so check out the event listing to learn more…