The Cevennes, in a remote and largely ignored part of the south of France, is a unique landscape for road racing. Riding here is beautiful but unremittingly hard. Geographically the area is defined by a series of spectacular deep gorges, separated by high plateaux. The climbs are steep and the ‘cols’ are often described as being ‘upside down’. You descend first into the gorges and then immediately start climbing. There is no relief at the summit, just a grind over the windswept ‘Causses’. Not surprisingly, this raw landscape is the scene for countless French races each season.
In September 2007, four riders from the Rapha Condor team set out to ride the course of the Tour du Mont Aigoual, the race featured in the Tim Krabbé classic ‘The Rider’. The 137km figure of eight loop from Meyrueis takes in classic Cevennes terrain, with three major climbs, dangerous descents and fast riding through the beautiful gorges of the Jonte and Tarn rivers. This would be the team’s final training ride before the Tour de Gevauden, held on many of the same roads. Their challenge was to ride the route faster than the winner of the race in The Rider: 4 hours and 30 minutes.
by Tim Krabbé
On the morning of June 26th 1977, a Sunday, my girlfriend Linda and I drove from Anduze to Meyrueis. It was only 80 kilometers, but in that kind of country, the Cévennes in Southern France, that is a two-hour drive.
A little past St. André de Valborgne we left the Gardon and branched off onto one of the map’s red-and-white dotted lines; Parcours difficile ou dangereux. Along the edge of a lovely abyss, over a pockmarked track just wide enough for my old Citroën 2CV, we climbed slowly, and when we reached the col, a forgotten world came into view – a lonely, soundless valley, yellow with broom, forbidding and inviting at the same time. We stopped, and looked in awe.
After a while, a dog appeared round a corner below, followed by a man – young, unshaven, in rubber boots, a gun slung over his shoulder. We said ‘Bonjour’, but he didn’t also say bonjour. He just stood there, the dog beside him, like two sentinels. Still, we did enter the valley, carefully, narrow hairpin by narrow hairpin, but when we reached the other side at Cabrillac, a hamlet on the main road at the foot of the Mont Aigoual, we felt somehow relieved.
We didn’t know the name of that col, or if it had one, but between us, whenever that drive came up later, it was Col de Man with Dog. I can still see those two standing there.
It was a moment I would remember in itself, even if what followed that day would make it a defining one for me – twice over. We went to Meyrueis for an amateur bike race I had entered, the 137 kms. Tour du Mont Aigoual. The Cévennes were the birth ground and still the homeland of my racing, and this was the big race of the season – I wanted to win it badly. And when a few months later, back in Amsterdam, I decided to write a novel about cycling, I chose it as the backbone of the story. Losing the final sprint had been a bitter disappointment, but now that was a blessing – success, especially your own, is not a good subject; failure is.
De Renner came out in 1978, my fourth novel, and the first that had any success. Almost at once, I started receiving postcards from Meyrueis, from people who had done the course ‘with your book in my back pocket.’ It would eventually be translated into six languages (becoming The Rider in 2002) and when it celebrated its 25th birthday in 2003, Dutch enthusiasts organized a five-day cyclo around Anduze and Meyrueis, crowned with the Tour du Mont Aigoual.
It was an homage a writer or a rider can only dream of, and through it, that day in June 1977 changed my life again. I had long since stopped racing, riding even; I was in no shape to take part. I did come as a guest – and when I saw the participants happily suffering on my roads, my cols, I suffered like never before. There was only one thing I could do: get back on the bike. I trained like a madman, joined the 2004 edition, and that devil wasn’t going to be leashed again: now, in 2007, I’ve just completed my third season with the 60+ Masters, adding 200 races to the 589 I did in my first racing life. I’ve since joined the cyclo every year – making sure the Col de Man with Dog is always included in at least one of the stages.
A rider is the slave of reality; a writer is the master of his story. Much of the race in the book ‘really happened’ – but when I thought reality could use a hand, I retouched, or invented. Most riders are themselves with a different name, but some never existed, and some I reassembled from parts taken from others – notably the winner, 19-year old Reilhan; he is a combination of two talented 19-year olds I met in my Cévennes races. This summer, when I looked up my old club president Stéphan, I was in for a sad and bizarre surprise: both Reilhans had recently died of illnesses, within weeks of each other, at 48.
Of the still living, I am now first in the race.
Stani Kléber, a major character in the book, is what he was – a 21-year old, 57 kilo bank teller – the proverbial climber. In the kermesses (the tourniquets or vire-vires as they call them there); the frenzied criteria with their prime sprints, he was a displaced person, but in the long and hard road races, he was really good.
We became friends and training buddies, and when the Tour du Mont Aigoual appeared on the calendar, we went to Meyrueis together for a test ride. I mention that in the book, but not what happened on that ride.
We went in my car. The course was two different loops, with start and finish in Meyrueis – the first down the Jonte and Tarn gorges, up the steep wall at Les Vignes and then over the medieval, barren highlands of the Causse Méjean back down to Meyrueis; the second one up the Causse Noir, down to dreamy Trèves, and then via Mont Aigoual, Cabrillac and the Col de Perjuret to the finish line in Meyrueis.
It was a grey, drizzling day, and during the second loop, ‘it stopped raining softly’, as the Dutch expression goes. It got colder and darker; we had started late. Somewhere between Trèves and the Mont Aigoual, we lost our way and found ourselves on the wrong side of an endless valley, with no living soul in sight to ask directions. Then Kléber had a puncture. That wouldn’t have been a problem if we hadn’t both already had punctures – no spares left. The Point of no Repair, where you just continue on a rattling rim, was nowhere near – it was at least 30 kilometers to Meyrueis. Trèves was closer, but what if there was no bike shop there? We decided I should go on, get the car and pick Kléber up – in the meantime, to keep warm, he would walk.
I did find Mont Aigoual, where a wet, cold cloud had enveloped the forest. I could barely see beyond my front wheel, I was soaked to the bone, my hands were freezing, the horror of a new puncture was just a sharp pebble away – and suddenly, I discovered I was completely happy. This was the suffering I had yearned for, the glow of exhaustion that doesn’t need to wait for a finish line to become pleasure – and behind me, the road was full of imaginary riders falling off their bikes, freezing to death, abandoning in despair, speechless with awe for that lone rider in front of them, on his way to victory.
When I got my car in Meyrueis and drove back to pick up Kléber, I never saw him. Had I missed him? Had he lost his way again, found shelter somewhere, gone back to Trèves after all? When I went there, the Gendarmerie and the Mairie were dark. Now, I’m glad it was only 1977, and we were years away from the mobile phones that would have spoiled our adventure, but then we both would have welcomed one. I drove back and forth without seeing him, and finally I gave up and went home.
Linda and I had no telephone in our place in Anduze, and I didn’t know where Kléber lived, or how to reach his family, so I was much relieved when around 2:00 AM, there was a knock on the door. It was him, with a friend; he came to get his car. He had reached Cabrillac where, miraculously, he had found a house with a phone; the friend had come to his rescue. I still don’t know if I did the right thing then, but fortunately, the episode didn’t affect our friendship, or even his racing form; Kléber did very well in the race – and even better in the book.
I kept coming back to the Cévennes, and race there. In 1980, the last year of my first racing life, I had a race in St. André de Valborgne. When it was over, a rugged-looking man approached me.
‘I know you,’ he said.
He was the man with the dog, the herald of a watershed day in my life. Of course I recognized him, but I was amazed he remembered me, after three years. Perhaps his valley had really been a forgotten world, where people lived slower, with less for distraction; and a tourist appearing at its gate had been as special to him as he had been to me.
When, a quarter of a century later, we included that col in our cyclo, I discovered it does have a name, Col Salidès. To me, it will always be Col de Man with Dog.
Tim Krabbé is a cycling enthusiast and one of Holland’s leading writers. He lives in Amsterdam. His many books include The Vanishing, The Cave and the cycling classic The Rider.
Photography by Ben Ingham
A regular collaborator with Rapha, Ben’s photographs have won praise throughout the industry. Ben is an accomplished reportage photographer – and his work perfectly captures the spirit behind road racing. His current mode of transport, a beautifully restored Pagani fixed wheel bike, is a delight.