Czech Jaroslav Kulhavý followed up on his gold medal at the London Olympics in August by winning today’s highlight, the Roc Marathon (83 km long with 2,700 m of altitude difference). Sunny Fréjus saw Britain’s Sally Bigham defend her title ahead of France’s Hélène Marcouyre. Alain Prost and Sylvain Chavanel also joined the party, mingling with thousands of mountain bikers who came to ride through Les Maures massif and soak up the unique atmosphere of the Roc d’Azur.
A look of concentration on their faces, their eyes set on Les Maures massif on the horizon and, just behind them, the sun shining through a light mist. Over 2,000 riders set off in four groups this morning. More than 2,000 from all over France, from all over Europe, all of them ready to hit the trails of the 83 km Roc Marathon. It only took three and a half hours for the best, but sometimes eight or nine hours for the less experienced riders, who came first and foremost to live their passion, share a unique moment with their friends at the club, their family, or sometimes with themselves. They want to cross the finish line and be able to say: “I made it”. They want to go back home with loads of images that will stay in their minds for a very long time, with anecdotes and stories they will tell on the many occasions that they like to relive this unique atmosphere, looking forward to the start of the next edition. At 83 km long, the Marathon Roc is the longest and most extreme race in the Roc d’Azur.
Only the strongest riders can even dream of winning it. After signing up at the last minute, Jochen Kass thought for a long time that he might be the one. The winner of the 2009 and 2010 Roc editions of the Roc Marathon Jochen Kass spent most of the race alone at the front. But, over such distances, long adventures often come with a hefty price tag, and this was no exception. After passing Le Bougnon (km 58) with roughly a minute on his chasers, the German was caught and then dropped by the Team Specialized duo, composed of Czech Olympic champion Jaroslav Kulhavý and the Swiss Christoph Sauser, who is a two-time Roc d’Azur winner and the Roc Marathon defending champion. Once it was obvious Kass would not be coming back, the two of them stuck together until the finish line and, although Kulhavý crossed it first, this can only be described as a victory for teamwork. “I didn’t expect to be so strong”, confessed Kulhavý. I didn’t think I was in good shape yet. Things got complicated when I started to get loads of requests for appearances after the Olympics. I wasn’t able to train properly for the World Championships. But this is a beautiful race, one that’s very technical, in particular because there are lots of rocks on the descents.” But this was not enough to stop the Olympic champion, who rounded off a dream season by winning the Roc Marathon. “I trained like crazy in the run-up to the Olympics”, he confided. At times I felt awful, I suffered. But the Olympics are the race of a lifetime, and I had no choice but to pull out all the stops if I was to succeed.”
Hot on his heels, Switzerland’s Christoph Sauser was also 100% satisfied with his race. “I had to make a few tweaks to my bike at the beginning of the race”, explained the Swiss. It took me a while to get back to the front. I worked with Jaroslav to reel Kass in and then we decided to cross the finish line together. Personally, I’ll get a new shot at victory in the Roc d’Azur on Sunday. Last year I came first in the Marathon and second in the Roc d’Azur. I was second today, so if I win on Sunday…” A challenge awaits the Swiss, who will come up against Thomas Dietsch, twelfth and once again best Frenchman in today’s Roc Marathon. “I was okay on the climbs, but I didn’t have good sensations on the descents”, explained the rider who finished seventh in the world championship of this speciality last week. I wasn’t flexible enough and was having a hard time. After so many races in September, maybe this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. At the end of the day, twelfth is not half-bad. It’s a very pleasant circuit, even if you really have to push the pedals. I wanted to have fun and I did so.
The men’s race may have yielded a spectacular duel, but the ladies’ race was a monologue by Britain’s Sally Bigham, who finished fifth in last week’s Marathon World Championships and took her third win in a row. “I wasn’t really focused”, she surprisingly said. I even fell three or four times. It was a good season, but now it’s… holiday time.” France’s Hélène Marcouyre finished second at 19’12’’ behind the unassailable Brit, but she is coming back for more and will be on the start line of the Roc Dames on Saturday, tired but happy with her second place in the Roc Marathon. “Like many others, I took part in the Marathon World Championships” (finishing tenth), pointed out the veteran of the Roc d’Azur, in which she has clinched a great deal of top places since 2 (including two second places). “I didn’t recover too well and during the first hour of the race I told myself at least five times that I should just give up and go home before I got too far. But then things started to go better. Not amazingly better, just enough to enjoy the race.” Denmark’s Rikke Kornvig rounded off the podium.
In between pictures with cyclists and greeting the volunteers, Alain Prost had a wide grin on his face in the Roc Marathon finish area. The five-time Formula 1 champion is more used to riding cyclosportive events, such as L’Etape du Tour. But he acknowledged he had had a terrific time riding on the trails of Les Maures massif in his first participation in the Roc d’Azur. “It is both a human adventure and a cycling race”, said the champion. I came with two friends and it was fantastic. I love the atmosphere, I love mingling with the peloton, although I’m still lacking experience in mountain biking” (before the Roc d’Azur, he had only taken part in the Cape Epic, a stage race in South Africa). In sport, but also in life, the main thing that drives people forward is having goals they want to achieve. This Roc Marathon was one of them. But I didn’t expect it to be so technical. I’m bad at riding downhill… I’m awful, actually. I lack the technical skills. I get scared and stiff, which makes me lose heaps of time. This is despite the fact that we, the racing drivers, are good at anticipating and seeing what’s ahead of us. But I get so stiff I’m unable to actually put these abilities into use. There was a certain moment when I was going so slow that my front wheel got blocked and I took a tumble. They say that, the faster you go, the easier it is… But first you’ve got to go fast! I have a great deal of respect for all the champions.”
1. Jaroslav Kulhavý (CZE), 3 h 23’08’’
2. Christoph Sauser (SWI), s. t.
3. Jochen Kass (GER), 3 h 24’07’’
4. Alban Lakata (AUT), 3 h 25’12’’
5. Héctor-Leonardo Páez-León (COL), 3 h 26’28’’
1. Sally Bigham (GBR), 4 h 12’07’’
2. Hélène Marcouyre (FRA), 4 h 31’18’’
3. Rikke Kronvig (DEN), 4 h 36’46’’
4. Muriel Bouhet (FRA), 4 h 38’32’’
5. Inne Gantois (BEL), 4 h 59’57’’
MASTERS ROC: Grosdidier makes it two and Chavanel finishes seventh
The 44 km long Masters Roc saw 31-year-old Frenchman Rémy Grosdidier take a back-to-back win. Same tactics, same result for the man who hails from the Vosges but lives in Alsace. “Sylvain Chavanel led the peloton in the flat section at the beginning, as the roadie he is”, explained Rémy, who raced for the French national team as a junior and under-23. We let him do it and then he was cool when he let us through, telling us to ‘go and have fun!’”. We rode the first climb in a group and then I hit the front on the downhill. With a margin of 30 seconds, I measured my efforts to finish at my own pace and enjoy this fantastic event. We left home at a temperature of 15° and when we got here it was 30°. It’s awesome!”
Sylvain Chavanel, fresh from winning the team time trial world championships with his Quick Step squad, clinched a great seventh place, only 11’26’’ back. It will certainly make the day of this “roadie” who has won several stages in the Tour de France. It was his second time at the Roc d’Azur but only his first in the Masters Roc. “I’m starting to get old”, joked 33-year-old Chavanel. I like to come here because it’s a break from my routine. I make a living on the roads but I also have to breathe some fresh air. Especially in an event like this one, full of conviviality and with a different state of mind from that of road cycling, where everything is glossy and rigid. I love the atmosphere of the Roc d’Azur. As for the race, I’m sort of in a holiday after an extenuating season, but I felt well on the climbs. But I obviously lack technical skills. I get too stiff and waste loads of energy. But seventh isn’t bad at all. Well, in theory I was expected to wait for some friends, but I found myself at the front, and my competitive spirit took over me…”