Raid Elite VTT Scott Chemins du Soleil 2017


After three years of our local Raid des 3 Vallées it seemed like a good idea to try something new: Manu -- my team-mate for the Raid des 3 Vallées -- had been itching to try the elite race of the Raid VTT Les Chemins du Soleil for some time as it starts in the area where he grew up in the Drome. This year, the route started at Taulignan with a nigh-time prologue followed by three stages stopping at Die, Veynes and finally Gap -- a total of just under 250km with about 8800m of vertical ascent. It all really became serious when we managed to get one of the 80-or-so places in the elite race in November 2016: places are limited and sell out within 24hours when they go online.

To say I was apprehensive would be an understatement, but after a good performance at the Radon Epic Enduro a month earlier, I had a bit more confidence in my fitness but I still had some concerns about riding four stages back-to back. The race takes place over the Ascension long-weekend with the prologue on the Thursday night. We left Bagnères de Bigorre for the five-and-a-half hour drive to Taulignan at 4h30 Thursday morning; Manu then had another two-and-a-half hour drive to Gap and then back to Taulignan by bus so that we would have our vehicle at the finish of the race for the drive home on Sunday evening.

Prologue: Taulignan (20km, 800m)

The prologue was a 20km loop around Taulignan with about 800m of climbing. All kitted out with lights and hi-vis jackets, the teams lined up on the start line at 21h30 and as to be expected, the pace on the front was hectic. We didn’t attempt to follow and stayed towards the back third of the pack where the pace was a bit more manageable, especially for Manu who had overindulged on the sausage front at the pre-race evening meal! The anti-clockwise loop to the north of Taulignan followed the limestone ridges and took us up to about 700m altitude at the Cime de Rozier. In the end we finished in 1h48 in 55th position 25 minutes or so behind the Swiss Mountain Tchopp team who won the stage.

Prologue start Night prologue getting underway

Stage 1: Taulignan-Die (91km, 3300m)

The morning alarm came all to soon at 5am and after some frantic packing and race preparation (not to mention a frantic search for a vacant toilet) we were on the start line at 7am ready for the toughest day -- 91km and 3300m of climbing. The prologue had been fun with a lot of flowy singletrack and not too many hike-a-bike sections, however as the day’s route would take us higher up into the mountains we were not really too sure what to expect. With this sort of race you don’t want to hammer the start too hard because you can never be sure if there may be a long hike-a-bike section or how oppressive the heat might be. During the briefing we had been told that that there was some carrying involved and that it would take the leaders only 10minutes or so (I’ve heard that before!).

Sleeping under the stars Continental breakfast was a bit sparce

At the gun, the start was again fast and we tried hard to get a good position and not get too held up in the technical singletrack climbs. In retrospect we probably set off a bit too fast, and although we didn’t get too held up Manu put himself into the red and paid for it in the longer, more sun-exposed climbs later in the day when the afternoon temperatures were hitting around 30deg; particularly the tarmac climb through Rimon Savel which saw quite a few riders stopped on the side of the road looking for some respite in the sparse shade. The initial climbing retraced some of our route the previous night but in the opposite direction and we were soon out on the ridge to the north of Taulignan above the Lez river. In the early-morning daylight we were able to appreciate the magnificent views properly!

Stage 1 start Mont Rachas above Taulignan

Every climb was well worth the suffering as the descents were always sublime singletrack: raging from flowy contour trails in the cool shade of the pine forests to steeper and (the occasional) more technical rocky chutes. Probably the most memorable was the final descent into Die which was about 9km of singltrack down from the Pas du Loup via the Col de Beaufayn, 800m above the town and included a somewhat exposed passage at the Pas du Corbeau with 50m of fresh air off to the right of the 6” singeltrack. Despite the long day in the saddle and sore legs this final descent brought out huge grins on both of us. We finished this longest stage in 8h30, in 61st place more than 3h behind the winners.

Topping out at Serre Delegue Saint Nazaire le Desert refreshments

Stage 2: Die-Veynes (81km, 2900m)

7am on Saturday saw us lining up in Die for the stage to Veynes -- another long day with two large hills and four smaller bumps to get over in the last 15km; a total of 81km and 2900m of climbing. Learning from our mistake of going off too fast the day before, we held back a bit and paced ourseleves with some of the teams which had caught up with us in the final ascent the day before. We hoped this would enable us to maintain a better average speed over the whole course. For me, the highlight of the day was the descent into Boulc -- a great mix of flowy, tree-lined singletrack with the odd technical bit thrown in for good measure -- I decided to let it rip and wait for Manu at the bottom (rather than wait for him to catch up every minute or so) -- what fun! all the more so because there were about four of us all chasing each other all the way down (and according to Strava, I had the fastest time of the day on that segment -- 6m39 for the 2.5km, 300m descent). After the food stop at Boulc we put ourselves under a bit of pressure to stay ahead of the Hope women’s team on climb. They were only a few minutes behind leading the women’s field. This climb lead to the Col de Vaunieres and the second main descent of the day: a “balcony trial” -- narrow singletrack 50m above the Vaunièrette river -- the sort of trail that could be ridden fast but for the considerable exposure which favoured a more measured approach! We didn’t stop to admire the splendid views, instead tried to catch the odd glance down to the river while trying to say focused on remaining on the singltrack! The last few hills into Veynes really took their toll on Manu as the heat of the afternoon heat started to build up, but we made it to the lake-side campsite in 7h47min about 10 minutes ahead of the Hope sisters. Manu was pretty wasted after the stage so while he lay in the shade with his legs up against a tree admiring the view of the lake, I collected the gear and erected the tent.

Chapelle de Vaunieres Cooling off at Chatillon en Diois

Crupies Pasta for 500

Stage 3: Veynes-Gap (53km, 1900m)

On paper, the final stage looked quite straightforward -- 53 km with 1900m of climbing but it took us into the high mountains so we were uncertain as to how technically challenging it would be, especially as we had been warned that there were five or six very exposed sections which we must walk and not attempt to ride as a fall off the narrow singletrack would leave you 100 or 200m down the mountain side! The start from Veynes village centre was half an hour later than normal to give us a bit more time for the 3km ride to the start from our lakeside camping ground. From the start we headed up a quiet tarmac road though Glaise to the Col de Tourette where we then turned off and carried on up on narrow singletrack to the Col de Pierrefeu. There was then a fun singletrack descent which took us to the bottom of the main climb of the day up towards the Col de Matacharre. This started as a technical singletrack climb up from Montmaur which led us to the first food stop at Les Sauvas, from there, as we approached Col de Matacharre and we left the woods and headed off in the direction of the Col de Conode the landscape became more and more rugged and we eventually found ourselves on a narrow contour trail with some very exposed sections which we were required to walk (with the accumulated fatigue only the very foolhardy would have attempted to ride these sections, and besides we were under strict instructions from the organisers to dismount -- apparently the year before one rider had fallen off the trail though miraculously without injury!) From the Col de Conode there was a slight downhill followed by a very technical traverse covered in a mixture of mud, rocks and roots -- mostly ridable under normal circumstances but a combination of fatigue and frustration of having been held back by slower moving traffic earlier led to more than one less than glamorous exit from the trial! Still, I eventually made it through that section with my pride hurt more than anything else. I had put some distance between myself and Manu on the traverse and final short climb to La Barre at 1600m elevation. As soon as I verified that he was OK and not far behind I headed off on the rocky descent before too many slower riders had set off in front of me. I still caught up with a couple of riders quite quickly and the narrow top part of the descent made it hard to pass, as the track widened with multiple line options, I was able to take advantage of the EPO descending prowess and take the rougher lines and still pass quite a few riders who were riding at a more sedate pace on the smoother line. Strava later showed a top speed of well over 50km/h on this trail (550m of vertical descent over 3km which took me 8m49). Manu and I regrouped at the refreshment stop at La Barre which left just the final 15km to the finish line in the outskirts of Gap: some fun singletrack descending and then a technical climb before a somewhat anticlimactic finish on tarmac (I had been expecting a fun singletrack descent to finish off with). We crossed the finish line with a total accumulated time of 22h44mins in 57th place, almost 8hours behind the winners.

Somewhat exposed Col de Conode

Manu and Pat focused on the trail (bit of a void off to the right!)


On the whole a great raid and very well organised. We had fantastic weather, made new friends and rode with a lot of like-minded people. I discovered a part of France with some exceptional riding which I’d like to visit again and explore further. I’m not sure I would do the race again as it adds to the pressure and it would be nice to be able to enjoy the riding and share the experience with a bunch of friends without feeling that you have to keep pushing all the time. The route was very good, especially for the night stage and the first two days: each long ascent was repaid with interest with great singletrack descents; and the climbs themselves were varied, some on tarmac but also an interesting mix of doubletrack and singltrack of varying technical difficulty. There were some sections which we walked but these were relatively few and short-lived and would possibly have been more ridable with fresher legs! The final day’s trials were a little disappointing (but only really in comparison with the previous days’ riding which had been exceptional) but the spectacular mountain top views made up for that, it was only really the last couple of km descent into the finish at Gap which was a bit of a let-down.

The EPO performed really well, no mechanicals and it took everything in its stride whether it be technical singletrack climbs or white-knuckle mountain descents on loose rock-strewn singletrack. This time I had it setup with a 22/30/40t triple chainset, I felt this was better than the 22/36t double I had been running previously as there was much more chainstay clearance and I didn’t get any chainsuck (something that had been quite a problem with the double-ring setup). Some riders were running mono-chainsets but with huge rear cassettes, with the triple and an 11-36t rear cassette I was able to keep decent chain tension on the descents and so, despite the often very bumpy descents, never really had any problems with chainslap or the chain coming off the front chainring (something I’m pretty certain I would have had had I been running a 30t mono chainset with a 11-42t rear cassette). I was running the fork at 130mm travel which still climbed well but provided plenty of margin for less than optimal lines in the descents (useful when overtaking slower riders!) The Vittoria Mezcal tyres (2.25”) were awesome, we rode past plenty of riders fixing flats at the side of the trails and despite the abuse that I dealt out to them, the Mezcals held up to everything that was thrown at them from gnarly, rock-strewn gulleys to loamy singltrack to loose shale -- In similar previous events I’d been regularly shredding sidewalls on MAXXIS Icons.

Canfield Brothers EPO

I'm not sure Id do it again as a race -- with such long stages you have less time to savour the singletrack, especially towards the end of the stages where fatigue is starting to set in. But to return with friends or family to explore the trails in more detail of a few days is really appealing, especially as the regions sunshine record almost guarantees good weather -- they don’t call it the “Les Chemins du Soleil” without good reason!

The full results can be found here, I was in Team PATMAN (Chaix, Couser).

PATMAN: Pat Couser, Manu Chaix (left-to-right)

Main stages

Some other writeups

Some more pictures and writups (in French mostly!)