Cosnes-Sancerre rollerski race report

19 Oct

Participants after the finish

Wow! What a great weekend. But you wouldn’t have known it from the start…

Dawn broke the Sunday morning of the Cosnes-Sancerre Rollerski Race with a dark, cloud-laden sky and cold, damp conditions. At least it had stopped raining.

As for me, I was just glad to have made it to Sancerre. France lay in the grip of an open-ended strike against pension reforms. That forced me to improvise my trip using rail and a rental car.

A common French proverb claims that “Le hasard fait bien les choses / Chance does things well”. In this case that must be in the domain of irony because the only vehicle I could get was a giant Panzer tank of a 4×4. Being a notorious car-hater, that is the last thing I would ever choose. Still, I got there, and that’s what counts.

After a copious breakfast at the Hotel Panoramic I walked up the last stretch of the hill climb to the finish line where the shuttle waited to take me to the departure point in Cosnes-sur-Loire.

Arriving in Cosnes those in the shuttle met up with the rest of the race participants and organisers at a local sports complex. It was warm inside and food and hot drinks were provided as we picked up our start numbers.

Then it was outside to warm up a little, line up, listen to a short speech from the town official responsible for sports, hear a few race instructions and finally take off.

The race was composed of two off the clock tour sections and two competitive stages. The first 7km were off the clock. We had an opener car ahead of us and a sweeper car behind us. As we started on our way we saw that good number of local residents had come out to line the streets to watch. It was great to have safety in numbers and not feel like a freak as we rolled en masse through the town centre.

The race organisers did a tremendously good job guaranteeing our safety by stationing a volunteer with a flag at every intersection. The race sparkled with good organisation and goodwill as all those generous people stood in near freezing conditions to ensure no one fell victim to traffic.

The only thing they couldn’t control was the weather. It was about five degrees and damp. At least it was not raining. The race organisers said they had never had rain in the 18 precedent editions of the competition and the 19th was no exception.

Still, the wet road was hard to negotiate with hard, fast polyurethane racing wheels. Next year I will do like the eventual race winners and bring a second pair of rollerskis with grippier rubber wheels for the tour stages and switch to PU for the competitive parts. I skidded at one point somewhat out of control when coming down a hill and through a tight corner. If you missed the turn there your next stop was in the Loire River. Happily I managed to stay dry.

Shortly thereafter we came to the zone where the against the clock stage would take place. Racers were released onto the course in 30 second intervals. I was ninth out. In the slippery conditions I stayed a bit spraddle-legged as I skated and also double-poled a lot. Coming from a very hilly country, I haven’t practised much high speed running on the flatter terrain with racing wheels.

Needless to say my time wasn’t brilliant. But as a nice recompense we were again greeted with hot drinks and food at the finish of that section. The finish line was very impressive and professional looking with one of those big, inflatable portals.

As far as my performance I can view it in two ways. The first would be the “sour grapes” logic of Jean de la Fontaine’s “Fox and the Grapes” fable. Since rollerski technique on flats diverges from skiing technique and comes closer to roller skating, I could decide that the goal of performing well in that stage isn’t worth attaining.

But I think the better approach is to view next year’s competition as an opportunity. Practising to become better won’t hurt my skiing. And it will be fun to try. My time was 8:34 , well behind my goal of 7:22. At that point I stood in 15th place.

After the flat sprint stage we headed off on the next tour stage. We took a very pretty back road going sometimes along the banks of the Loire which is the prettiest river I have ever seen and moreover a UNESCO World Heritage site. We fell naturally into little groups over the 12km stage and I rolled along with Hervé from Nevers. At one moment he pointed out the Sancerre butte that lay gleaming above us in a rare beam of sunlight.

After another break and more refreshments we came to the start area 3,3 kilometres and 150 meters in elevation lower than the finish line in the hill-perched medieval town. While I had been nervous earlier, the good rolling and pleasant company had calmed me down. The weather had become slightly better too.

When we lined up for the start I put myself in the second row, just behind the elite racers. This time I felt more confident. Many towns in France are twinned with others in Europe. I would also propose twinning rollerski hills. Something in the Sancerre butte reminded me of Grefsenkollen where I regularly train. The routes up both have an initial gradual start that becomes steeper as the road winds up to the top. So it was comfortingly familiar but new too.

The organiser counted down from ten and we were off. I stuck with the lead group for about the first kilometre. Hervé who started behind me pulled ahead, motivating me to hang with him. Coming under the dramatic stone arches of the old railway viaduct we were greeted with a stiff headwind heavy-laden with the characteristic scent of fermenting new wine. An interesting and unusual experience in a rollerski race!

Shortly thereafter the foremost peleton split in two parts. The lead group had five members and I found myself behind that in a pack of four. At that point my technique felt pretty good. I overuse V2 / dobbeldans where you pole down to each side with each step. But I’ve observed in races on TV that Norwegians tend to do that. It’s less energy efficient but very powerful. The pavement was still somewhat wet and I slipped some, but not uncontrollably. I had to keep my legs a little bit wide, but not excessively so.

I fell into a fairly comfortable rhythm and was running out the glide on each step in a reasonably powerful and controlled way. I avoided the vice of letting jittery nerves making me raise my step frequency too high. My equipment was working well giving me another boost in confidence. I had a fresh pair of carbide steel ferrules on the tips of my poles and, most importantly, I felt like I could fly on my Roll’x wheels.

Still, I had never skied up Sancerre’s hill and was worried about exhausting myself before the top. But when I saw my hotel I started to believe I would make it. So I cautiously upped my pace and took a decisive lead in the second group. However, the steepness of the last 50 metres surprised me and stalled my progress a little. But the cheers of the crowd motivated me and and I shifted down into a little V0 / enkeldans before going back into V2 to come over the finish line in proper Norwegian style.

When I arrived I didn’t need to fall over on the ground to pant or anything dramatic like that. So, I could have gone a little harder. But that wouldn’t have changed much in the standings. I was happy with a 6th place finish in the hill climb. I had only let myself get beat by competitors from the Vosges Mountains whose landscapes closely resemble those of Norway.

With the cold temperatures the prizes were awarded inside an adjacent municipal building. The overall winners and those of each class were given impressive trophies, gift baskets full of local specialities and bottles of the deservedly world-reputed wines of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Côteaux de Giennois. I was generously awarded a bottle of each as well clothes and gear bearing the logo of the Nièvre department that includes the town of Sancerre.

Summing things up, I could not imagine a better experience than to participate in Cosnes-Sancerre for my very first rollerski race. It is probably the oldest rollerski race in France. The organisation was impeccable, with many volunteers generously standing this time in numbing cold to ensure the participants’ safety. The formula with friendly tour stages, against the clock and mass-start hill racing is unique in its genre and brilliantly conceived. Beginners, world-class rollerskiers and everyone in between all found a happy place in this popular, inclusive rollerski race.

Norway would do well to copy the formula, giving credit where it’s due to Cosnes-Sancerre. May I suggest Grefsenkollen for the hill stage?

And, finally, I should not forget to mention the contribution of the participants to the great ambiance too. There were Bretons from the Breizh ski-roues club, Nivernais and Franciliens–people from regions of France far from any skiable snow, all passionate about rollerskiing. And the mountain people from the Jura and the Vosges were adorable and enthusiastic too (which won’t stop me from trying to exact my revenge against the latter group next year!!).

So to all involved I say thank you for a weekend full of emotions. Next year don’t change a thing (except maybe the weather)! Final race results here.

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