This, I announced, as I woke to the sound of my alarm at 2am on a Sunday, “is ridiculous.” Few things are worth waking up for so early, but a trip across the Channel with the bike always retains its value. Taking in the sights, the sounds and the scenery of a country so many professional cyclists call home is an opportunity just too irresistible to pass up.
The French Revolution sportive is one of very few on the riding calendar that offers so much diversity and variation in one action-packed day, yet its concept is simple. The riders are assembled at the ferry port in Dover, early enough to get into France for a respectable time, and everyone is boarded onto the same ferry while the start point in Calais awaits.
From the first few metres onwards, the transformation takes hold and the differences between the events back home and this are evident. The potholed roads and impatient drivers of England are long forgotten and instead, smooth tarmac lay ahead as far as the eye could see and the French go out of their way to be welcoming on the roads.
One man in particular personified the sudden change of culture, coming towards a pack of riders taking on an incline on a single-track road. The Renault Espace driver had right of way but still pulled over to let the bunch trickle through.
Short, punchy climbs were plentiful
Not content with being so kind, the man went on to hang out of his window and scream “Allez, allez!”, much akin to Française des Jeux directeur sportif Marc Madiot fervently willing on Thibaut Pinot in the 2012 Tour de France. A sea change of tolerance towards cyclists indeed, and this was one of a few hills that riders were faced with throughout the day.
The course was made up of undulating, punchy climbs and the route had much to offer for every kind of cyclist. Where there weren’t short sections of ascent, there were sweeping, fast bends and flat roads.
Cycling near the coast will always present the problem of having to deal with riding into headwind at some point and this was prevalent as soon as the ferry docked.
The first few kilometres lined the small towns and villages along the shoreline from Calais, through Sangatte to the cliff top, Cap Blanc Nez, which would usually offer picturesque views over the Channel and even England would usually be visible, had it not been for the misty conditions.
From the summit, the route led onwards along the blustery seafront before heading inland to the forested areas, where conditions were all the more bearable.
An uphill finish, happily blessed with a tailwind
Short climbs were rewarded with long, sprawling downhill sections and, for large parts of the course, the route stuck to rustic and deserted back roads, cars seldom seen and dilapidated farmhouses located kilometres apart. By definition, these roads were off the beaten track and the rolling, undisturbed road surfaces were a welcome break and easy on the wrists compared to many found back in the UK.
Blowing in the wind
Meandering through the sheltered back roads, the loop that made up much of the route soon completed full circle and riders found themselves faced with the only considerable climb of the standard course in Escalles, before rejoining the coast road in reverse direction and back towards Calais.
Having descended the tricky and technical downhill section in Escalles at the start of the ride, it was just a matter of time before it had to be scaled from the bottom up. It was more drawn out than steep, only fierce in sections, and the faded chalk writing on the road was a reminder that its gradient must be celebrated in French riding circles.
Lush woodlands provide a reprieve from the wind
Perhaps it seemed all the more potent because its summit was visible so far away, combined with the fact that it was at the end of the ride, while epic-route riders faced a worse climb earlier in the course in the shape of Mont de Licques.
Back on the clifftop roads, a tailwind pushed riders all the way back to the ferry port. Spinning away in a monk-like, Marco Pantanti-esque tuck for the last 15km, it was easy enough to reach high speeds with the help of the wind and cruising was near effortless all the way to the finish.
As soon as the finish line was crossed, riders were rewarded with a medal and guided by stewards back onto the ferry, through border control and the network of roads in the port in Calais. Ferries were timetabled every hour or so and the wait for the next sailing depended on participants’ finishing times.
Another tough Sky domestique shoulders the burden
All the riders that took part made for a jovial atmosphere on the way back to England as the event was heralded as nothing but a success. The ride nearly doubled in participant numbers from last year and long may its growth continue as an event to truly look forward to.
Sportive Sound bites
Brian Lewis, 59
Time: 4-32-02 (epic)
“I thought the ride was fine, no problem at all. I thought it was poorly organised last year but it was much better than this time around. On the subject of last year, I shaved 14.5 seconds off my previous time, so I’m pleased with that. The feed stations were well supported – although I was expecting croissants!”
Ed Davis, 48
Time: 4-23-27 (epic)
“Overall, I thought the event was really good. The course was quite challenging and it really sets a standard for other sportives. In fact, I think it’s one of the best you can do. I thought it could have been better organised, with a bit of a scramble for registration on the ferry, but on the whole the staff were good and I enjoyed it.”
Matt Smith, 37
Time: 4-33-33 (standard)
“I really enjoyed it, despite the weather’s best efforts to rain. This is the 10th I have done this year and it ranks among the best, just because coming over to France is something different and it makes a nice change.”
Steve Goymer, 38
Time: 4-21-17 (standard)
“This was my first sportive and I really thought it was excellent. I was fairly happy with my time, but I was aiming for less than 4-00. I started to doubt being able to achieve this halfway around the course and it really starts to play on your mind.”
This article was first published in the August 29 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!