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Le 1000 du Sud 2015
Ride dates:September 2-5 2015
by Bob Koen

“A man has got to know his limitations.” Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

The 1000 du Sud is a legendary bike ride. It is randonneuring in its purest form; no support, no timed results, no glory, just a beautiful bike ride. It follows a different route every year but is always extremely tough due to insane amounts of climbing through Provence and the Southern Alps. And it is nothing like PBP. There are many challenges that make it so much more interesting and difficult than PBP. There are no cafeterias, no controls where you can get a shower and a cot, no volunteers to help you with language difficulties, and absolutely no support is allowed. The ride is the brainchild of Sophie Matter and the Provence Randonneurs. The start is always in Carces in Southern France, a beautiful town in Provence that is surrounded by vineyards and warmed by the Mediterranean sun.

I heard about this ride after the 2010 version where my friend Joseph from San Francisco attempted it. He didn’t succeed (something about too much wine and cheese) but did an excellent write up afterwards that got me fired up to give it a go in 2011.

The 2011 ride
After PBP 2011 I went touring for a while to kill time before the 1000 du Sud started in early September. Then I turned up in Carces and did the ride. I almost succeeded. I stayed ahead of the clock into the third day of the ride, but only by forgoing sleep on the second night. That wasn’t planned but I did learn an important lesson. The lesson being that nothing is open in small French towns at night. Without a room reservation you are not going to find an open hotel. Even with a reservation you need to get there before they close, usually at 9 or 10 pm. Only larger towns will have 24 hour inns. But this ride mostly avoids the larger towns. By the third night I had 12 hours left to cover 220 km with only 4 more mountain passes to cross. It was doable. But then the skies opened up and the rain poured down and did not stop. I was exhausted but ditch napping was out of the question. I knew my limitations. It was still early enough to find a room for the night so that’s what I did and then finished the ride in the pouring rain the next day. It had rained so hard during the night that there were rocks all over the road in some places, especially on the descents where I would not have seen them by headlight in the rain. There was even a debris slide where a creek had overflowed onto the road. I learned later that one person hit a wild pig on the road that night. He went down hard and broke some ribs. But he finished the ride. The condition of the pig remains unknown.

The 2015 ride
The 2015 version of the ride looked to be much harder than the 2011 version. This time it included a 400 km stretch in Italy, 100 km of which was mostly flat as it followed the coast of the Mediterranean Sea east from the French border. But that meant bypassing Nice through the notorious hills to the north. It also meant a 170 km stretch through the Ligurian hills after the route turned away from the ocean. And it meant a climb over the colle dell’Agnello at night. This is the third highest paved road in the Alps at 2744 meters. It may well be the longest climb in the Alps as it features over 2500 meters of ascent from the Piedmont plain. After that the ‘easy’ part of the route covers 400 km through the Alps and back into Provence with only 5000 more meters of climbing. This was going to be a beast.

Those who know me well know that climbing is not my forte. I get passed by slugs and possums on the uphills. Why would I even want to attempt this thing? Like Clint says, a man has got to know his limitations. The thing about limitations is that they can be overcome. If you don’t try you can’t succeed. I figured that the worst that could happen would be another unsuccessful attempt at a truly magnificent ride. And I would get the truly magnificent ride experience regardless of whether I completed in time or not. Let the games begin.

As with the 2011 ride the first order of business was a dinner hosted by the Provence Randonneurs. This was held in the community hall where the ride would start the next morning. It was a very nice way to meet the other riders, many of whom turned out to be German and most of those were Bavarian. This is a very popular ride with them as it’s relatively easy to get there from Bavaria. The other main groups were French of course and several Italians. There were a couple of Brits, one fellow from Ukraine, one Canadian (me), and Hugh Kimball from Seattle. There were 41 of us in all.

The second order of business was breakfast the next morning in the community hall, once again hosted by the Provence Randos. Many of the riders had slept there overnight on mattresses also supplied by the Provence Randos. Then the ride got underway at 8 am in two waves of riders who started 10 minutes apart. I think the late start was designed to get us to the Riviera section of the ride at night in order to minimize the amount of traffic that we had to deal with.

Day 1
The ride started with a gently rolling section that gradually climbed into the hills of the Alpes-Maritimes and then the Alpes de Haute-Provence. Carces sits at an elevation of 137 meters. By early afternoon we were 1000 meters higher and riding through an incredible gorge. It was quite warm by this point and we could only look on in envy at the people enjoying tubing and boogy boarding down the stream that had cut the gorge. We had miles to go and hills to climb and couldn’t stop to play in the water. Would someone please remind me why we do this stuff?

The first control was in the beautiful perched village of Sigale. Joseph was there signing control cards and offering encouragement.


I was riding with Hugh all during this day and we were among the last to show up at the control. Part of the reason for that had to do with the two flats that Hugh had suffered in the morning. But in general we just weren’t getting that far ahead of the clock. Too much climbing. But we were moving at a steady pace. After Sigale we started getting into the hills north of Nice. Hugh had driven the route the week before and kept telling me that “Nice is not nice”. He was right. We climbed up to another perched village and stopped at the town water fountain to fill our bottles. By now it was in the mid to high 30s at around 4 pm. I filled my bottle and then dumped it over my head. That felt good so I filled the bottle again and dumped it down my back. That also felt good and I started thinking about chafing and cleanliness and all those sorts of things. So I filled the bottle again and dumped it down my shorts. Most of the villages in the mountains of southern France had these public fountains. It means that while the weather may be uncomfortably warm for much of the day, getting water is never an issue in this part of France. Italy turned out to be a different story.

After this we dropped down into a river valley and then did a long steep and very populated climb up the next ridge. Then we dropped down into another river valley and did an even longer, steeper, and more populated climb up the following ridge. From here we got our first views of the Med and of Nice down below. We also got nightfall. This was the last of the Nice hills but it was supposed to take us up to 950 meters of elevation. Thanks to the elevation column on the route sheet and my preference for having an altimeter bike computer I knew something was wrong when we started descending at the 700 meter mark. We turned around and went back up and found the turn we had missed and then did the last 250 meters up to the summit of the climb. Here we found a secret control where we were once again among the last to show up. There had been a French rider in our general vicinity during the climb and we worried about him when he didn’t show up at the control before we left. We found out later that he abandoned the ride. There was a faster rider who got there in daylight but missed the turn that we had missed without noticing and ended up getting disqualified.

From the secret control we had a lovely 950 meter descent down to sea level. Or it would have been lovely if we had been a little faster and been able to do it by daylight. At the bottom we were at the Med and the beginning of the advertised 100 km of flatness (which did not live up to the advertising). We were maybe an hour ahead of the clock and hoping to make up time on this stretch. After only a few km we crossed into Italy and shortly after that we came upon a beautiful “rails to trails” bike path that took us for 23 actually flat km along the ocean. Immediately upon entering Italy the road quality deteriorated noticeably and the drivers became much scarier. One of the first incidents involved one motorcycle passing another. The passer was doing a wheelie for the entire operation. Someone I talked to later described Italy as a ‘racetrack’.

It was very tempting to stop and go for a swim. How often do we northwestern North Americans who live beside a cold ocean get the chance to swim in a warm ocean? But no. Gotta keep moving. No time for such frivolity on a rando ride. We rode on through the night. At 4:30 am we reached the end of this section and the start of the Ligurian hills. We decided to stop for a nap in a grassy area and try to sleep until daybreak which was a little over an hour away. This was when I discovered that I did not have my leg warmers with me. Either I had failed to pack them or I had dropped them somewhere along the way. That was going to make the next nights ride over Col dell’Agnello really cold. I put on the rest of the clothing that I had and laid down in the damp grass. I figured the grass was damp from having already been sprinkled by the system that was currently watering a different part of the park. That may have been the case, but maybe not because I was rudely roused from a not very good rest an hour and 15 minutes later by a shot of cold water to the head. The sprinklers had come back on. These were the kind of sprinklers that throw a lot of water a good distance in a rotating arc. The landing zone for the water was perfectly situated right on my head! Hugh had chosen a better spot and missed the fun and excitement of it all. But it was now getting close to 6 am and time to get going again anyway. So we packed up and headed up a 950 meter climb into the Ligurian Hills. At the pre-ride dinner riders were saying that this was going to be the hardest section of the ride. They were right.

Day 2
At the top of this climb we encountered Sophie and Bernard at the second secret control of the ride. They had the usual ham and cheese and stale baguettes for us, plus coffee. I particularly liked their car top camper which looked to me like a giant Coleman cooler.

Just think how much beer you could get in that!

This started an all day long series of descents and climbs through the Ligurian Hills. These were all 300 to 500 plus meter climbs and usually featured grades of 8 to 10 percent. At the top of one hill later in the afternoon we encountered yet another secret control. The Provence Randonneurs certainly did put on a well supported ride for an event that was advertised as completely unsupported. The support at these controls was much appreciated though since much of the ride went through small villages with no stores.

All those climbs began to take their toll on me. My legs were fading badly and I was having difficulty keeping up with Hugh. I began telling him that he should not worry about me and go on ahead at his own pace. At this point we were behind the clock by about an hour. Sophie makes it abundantly clear that intermediate control times will not be strictly enforced. She encourages everyone to carry on and try to finish the ride, and she promises to homologate anyone who finishes inside of the 75 hour time limit. And she runs the clock in a non standard way for this ride with the clock running at a mere 8 km hour for most of 100 km where the ride goes over the third highest pass in the Alps. Even with all that I was pretty sure that if I was an hour behind the clock at less than the half way point in the ride then I wasn’t likely to have much chance of finishing the ride in time. A man has got to know his limitations. I thought that Hugh (who had already twice finished the 1000 du Sud in previous years) did have a chance though and I didn’t want to be the anchor that caused him to fail. Eventually he must have agreed with me because he disappeared up a steep hill in the middle of the afternoon and I never saw him again until after the ride. In the end he finished the ride with something like 45 minutes to spare.

By this point I knew most of the riders who were riding in my general vicinity. There was David from Britain who had vastly underestimated the difficulty of this ride. He had a plane reservation to get to on the evening before the ride finished. Ultimately he managed to reschedule. There was Alain and Doris from Bavaria riding steadily along. They were a bit slower than me but always around because they were so steady. They were obviously very experienced randonneurs. Then there was Boris. He was another German who had an American wife so he spoke excellent English. He was a very strong rider but was having trouble staying on the bike. I would pass him while he was napping. Then he would zoom past me. Then I would see him napping again. I had very similar issues at PBP where I took 11 naps in addition to 3 nights of sleep so I applauded him for making the wise decision to nap whenever necessary rather than risk falling asleep on the bike. Then there was Philippe the Frenchman. He was another strong rider who was probably strong enough to finish the ride had he been focused on doing so. But he wasn’t; he loved to talk. There were many times when I passed him while he was off the bike chatting away to some person or another, in either French or English. He was probably the most unfocused randonneur I have ever met. He told me that his plan was to finish this ride and then tour back to his home in Brittany over the next 7 days. His home in Brittany was about 1800 km from Carces which makes for an average of about 250 km a day with full touring gear. All this after riding the most brutal 1000 km brevet imaginable. I wonder how that worked out.

By evening I made the last descent from the Ligurian Hills and came out onto the Piedmont Plain. It was now time for a reality check. I had ridden 500 km with about 7800 meters of climbing in 37 hours with one hour of sleep. My leg muscles felt like bricks. I was riding slowly and walking all grades over about 8 percent. Next up was a 2500 meter climb where the last 9 km averages 10 percent and there are sections of 14 percent. I would need to ride this at night with no leg warmers in what was likely to be freezing temperatures at the top of the pass. The reality check seemed to indicate that there was not much chance of success. I knew my limitations.

The next town that I came to was Narzole. Here there was a hotel that was open. I didn’t know what was ahead in terms of towns that might have hotels but I did know that in France if you are going to get a room you had better do so by 9 pm. So I got a room. In fact, I got a fabulous room. It may have been the best room in the hotel. They gave it to me because summer was over, the place was not very full, and this was a ground floor room that had room for my bicycle. I showered and then put on my smelly cycling clothes (It’s an unsupported ride. These were the only clothes I had). Then I had a 4 course meal in the hotels fancy dining room, followed by some grappa. Then I slept for 10 hours. Before sleeping I phoned Sophie to let her know that I was not going to finish the ride in time and to not expect me at any more secret controls. I did tell her that I intended to complete the ride but would surely arrive well past the cutoff time.

Day 3
In the morning I had perhaps the best hotel breakfast that I have ever had. It included a full pot of high octane Italian coffee. The roads and drivers may not be that good in Italy, but the food is terrific! Then I set off to tackle the Colle dell’Agnello. But now I was going to do it on rested legs, in daylight, with some degree of warmth. I am sure that it was much more fun than it would have been the night before. In the end it took me 8 hours to cover the 100 km from Narzole to the summit. It would have taken much longer than that if I had not stopped for the night. I managed to ride almost all of it although I did walk a few times. I stopped to get a stamp in my control booklet at Sampeyre just on the off chance that I could still rescue the ride somehow. I went into a small supermarket and bought some food and then asked the checkout clerk for a stamp. She went absolutely apeshit when I produced my control card. She grinned from ear to ear and shouted ‘mi importante’ to all who were in the checkout line. Then she photocopied my control card, had someone take a picture of me and her, and gave me a sticker to put on my bike (which I did). I think she thought that I was a rider from the Giro d’Italia or perhaps the Tour de France. It was the highlight of my ride that day.

It was 4:15 pm when I finally reached the 2744 meter high pass. I was about 16 hours behind the clock at this point and was almost certainly not going to finish even in the same day as the end of the event. But it was a very cool place with stunning views into France. Italy was shrouded in mist. I took a few pictures and headed down. It was a superb descent that would have been scary as hell in the dark. And by this time the disk brake pads had worn to nothing on my rear wheel. I still had some little braking force there and the front was working well so I left the brake alone. I couldn’t imagine doing this descent at race pace like Ryder Hesjedal did when he came third in a Tour de France stage a few years ago.

The road to France

The descent went on forever. At one point I went by a road junction that led up to the col d’Izoard, another of the higher passes in the Alps. Sophie must have a heart after all for not sending us up there. After this the road passed a magnificent old chateau at Queyras. Then it passed high above the Gorges du Guil on a tremendous road that is unlike anything we have in North America. By now I was completely enjoying the ride and marveling at the stunning scenery. In a way I was glad that I was no longer doing this ride at a brevet pace. I had time and energy to enjoy it rather than rush through it all at breakneck speed. The route went through Guillestre and then joined the N94 a little further on. This is a very busy road that was also a part of the 2011 route. After about 20 km of highway the route then left the N94 and climbed up a little bit to Chateauroux-les-Alpes. It was now well into the evening and there was an open hotel here. Time for another reality check. I had now ridden about 650 km and had 350 km left and about 15 hours to do it for an official finish. That just wasn’t gonna happen. I could ride through the night and likely finish by the following evening. Or I could stop and sleep and then do the same the following evening and finish about 24 hours after the end of the ride. I had a map with me and consulted that and found that I could ride about 200 km from where I was back to Carces by completely abandoning the route and taking a shorter way back. So that’s what I did. I got a room and had a nice meal and some interesting conversation with the hotel owner and with a Belgian couple that was on a motorcycle tour. It was fun to give them advice on the roads that they intended to ride. They were suitably impressed with where I had been and the distances that I had covered.

Day 4
The following day I fixed my brake and then toured down to Embrun and then followed the 2011 route to Digne and from there I took a cross country route to join up with Sophies route at Riez. From there I followed the last 60 km of the ride into Carces where I arrived at about 7 pm. Along the way I caught up to Klaus who I had ridden with in the early part of the ride. He was finishing the complete route about 8 hours outside of the time window. Chapeau to him.

Finishing this way (with a shortcut) allowed me to catch up to the members of the A team who had completed the ride on time. A bunch of us went out for a nice meal and then came back to the Salle Polyvalent for a massive drinking session. It was great fun. It was certainly a lot more fun than riding through the fourth night of a three day ride strictly for the pleasure of knowing that I had completed the entire ride.

I left Carces the next morning to begin my travels home. At that point Boris and Phillipe were still 90 km away from finishing the ride but were still riding. Too bad I wasn’t still there when they arrived so that I could congratulate them and hear their stories.

Matthias starting in on his second dinner


Go to: Bob's 1000 du Sud Photos (Google+, 52 images)


October 9, 2015