UPDATE: Due to the popularity of this post from people looking for the course map, here is my Garmin race data with the actual elevation and distance.
In preparation for the Ironman Pays D’Aix 70.3, I decided to ride most of the course during a vacation nearby and share my experiences for those of you future riders of that same race or perhaps anyone wishing to take ride along in the beautiful Provence area.
As luck would have it, we chose a vacation spot this year about an hour away from the future Ironman Pays D’Aix 70.3 location in the famous Aix-En-Provence. It was therefore inevitable that I go check out the bike course in anticipation of the race September 25th.
I am probably a middle of the pack bike rider when it comes to triathletes but my strength is more on flatter courses. Chicago for example last year suited me well with its generally flat geography where I can get into a healthy tempo and push the pace. As a heavier athlete however, climbing is not my forte which, in an of itself, bears the question as to why on earth I signed up for this climbing course but that’s probably for another post whenever I truly find out the answer. Nevertheless, this inaugural race should be plenty challenging and is in a beautiful region of Provence in France promising a very rewarding event.
Getting There With Your Bike
Although we went to Avignon for our vacation, the next stop in TGV was Aix-En-Provence and therefore a very direct and short route from Paris “Gare de Lyon” situated in the East of Paris. The TGV or “Train a Grande Vitesse” (meaning High Speed Train) goes anywhere from 100 to 200+ mph and offers an incredibly smooth ride. The short two and half hour ride from Paris makes it an easy choice for those coming from Paris.
Regarding traveling with the bike on the TGV, there appears to be several TGV trains that will allow you to take your bike as-is on the train for a fee of 10 Euros. Those trains are typically those heading West, North and South West but more seem to be coming and information is available at http://velo.sncf.com. For most of you triathletes and cyclists however, you’ll be traveling with a bike case. The SNCF allows bike cases measuring up to 120cm x 90cm as regular luggages. This makes most bike cases legal including the popular Thule 699 (barely) and of course my own Pika Packworks which has become out fourth child on trips it seems. Upon getting on-board, I simply placed my bike in the same storage area as suitcases and despite the occasional grumble from French travelers the train controller was fine with it. In fact, on the way back, there was no space so I just left it in the hallway between train cars and nobody said a word.
The Ironman Pays D’Aix bike course is a point to point from Peyrolles-En-Provence to Aix-En-Provence with four major climbs. Because of the logistics during my bike reconnaissance, I couldn’t do the point to point so I started and ended up in Aix, therefore I cut out the first 10 mile or so loop of the course (and its first climb). As such, if you compare the official course map with my Garmin data file, Mile 13 of the race is roughly equivalent to mile 18 of my course and is where you can generally see the real course elevation (although I did get lost once after that point and had to backtrack). It is at this point, in the city of Joucques, that the second and longest climb of the day starts.
For the first 2 or 3 kilometers, the grade isn’t too steep, ranging in the 3-5% and remains manageable. The scenery is stunning with a beautiful green mountain range in front of you with vineyards all around. This brief moment of bliss quickly dissipates however when the slope increases and you realize that you have to climb this mountain you thought so beautiful moments earlier. For the next 4 kilometers, the grade ranges from 7-10% based on my Garmin data and it’s best to settle into a nice and comfortable tempo effort that you can sustain for a good 20 to 40 minutes depending on your skills (I’m more on the 40 minute range).
Once at the top, I immediately thought about enjoying the descent and hoped to improve my average speed. I quickly realized however that this first big descent is extremely technical and gives no reprieve from a concentration perspective and certainly did not improve my average speed as much as I wanted to. It’s important to note that I’m not a particularly good descender so my performance may not be representative of your own. I will note that although I’ll be riding a Triathlon geometry bike during the ride, those who are hesitating between a road and triathlon configuration should probably opt for a road geometry. Road bikes are known to corner better and this will be very useful for you during this race. Additionally, there will be very few times when the use of the aero position will be particularly useful during the race.
Nevertheless, you’ll get to the bottom quickly and after a hard left you’ll start going through the third major climb. The brief rest that your legs will get during the descent will be much needed as you face a shorter, but steeper climb. Half way through, during the climb, the grades peeked at 10-12% and were seriously tough. Though I could handle the 7-8%, 10-12% became much harder and I frankly came close to taking a break until I noticed a biker a few turns below me…surely I wasn’t going to let anyone see me quit so I kept pushing! Put it this way, on the final hairpin turn to make it up the hill cresting at 610 meters, cars pretty much stop before attempting the turn. The consolation price is that once you are finally at the top, you’ll enjoy a nice downhill for some time on your way to Pourrieres. If you have handle bars (as part of your Triathlon bike or on your road bike) this will be a nice time to get some speed. I will warn you a bit that some parts have some imperfect roads and I was surprised by a bump which came very close to causing me to wreck, so hold onto those bars tightly and pay very close attention to the bumps and gravel.
Pourrieres is a beautiful little town with a couple of tight turns before starting onto another 10 km of climbing. The climbs will be much milder this time and for once you will see a mountain range on your right that you don’t have to climb. The “Montagne Sainte Victoire” stands tall and has inspired many artists over the years including the painter Paul Cezanne, I hope it too will provide you some inspirations as you face this last significant climb amidst olive gardens and probably a bit of wind due to the local geography. On the way down, there will be some turns which you can mostly take at full speed except for a couple which should be well marked.
After a final hill (what’s a mere 200 foot climb after what you’ve already done…) you’ll hit some rolling terrain to loosen the legs and get ready for T2 and the half-marathon.
I completed the course at a relaxed pace in 4h15m and I’m confident that come race day I’ll be much faster but nevertheless, I should warn that based on the elevation requirements, weak cyclists may butt against the cutoff time of 5h15 including the swim. Swimmers with a 50 minute or more swim would only have 4h25 to complete the bike course. Cyclists who are on the slow side, or even those with mechanical issues may be impacted by the cutoff so keep that in mind. It may be wise to carry an extra spare tire in case of a double flat so that you don’t have to waste time on waiting for a support vehicle.
The course is as beautiful as it is challenging and though it will undoubtedly hurt many of us, it will also be the experience of a lifetime. Locals will clearly have an advantage with their climbing legs and knowledge of the course which will be a big plus in the descents. Strong cyclists will do well in this race and likely favor their road bikes over triathlon setups. Weak cyclists will feel this one but I’m also sure it’s why you’ve signed up for the race, to experience the challenge. It surely is the reason why I signed up for it.
Regardless of your skill level, pace yourself well, race hard but don’t forget to enjoy the scenery which will surely be unforgettable!
I look forward to racing with everyone and until then, I leave you with this painting of the Sainte Victoire from Paul Cezanne. It was clearly a source of inspiration for him, I hope it is for you as well.