Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Magnifique Florac

Thursday-Friday June 28-29 2007

In the heart of the Cevennes is the setting for one of the best-known, toughest rides in Europe: the 160 km Florac endurance ride. The base camp, or venue, for the ride used to be in the little village of Florac, but, as happens many places, the ride has gotten too big and the town too small to accommodate it. And so, the venue has been moved 10 km down the canyon to the smaller village of Ispagnac.

And a beautiful setting it is – big green open space in the middle of a valley surrounded by big green mountains, and set right beside the le Mimente River. It could have been in the middle of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado – I don't think I've ever seen a more beautiful base camp. There were stables and a big area for electric-fenced horse pens to be set up, a very wide lane with a long gallop to the finish line, and several big tents for meals and a bar, and registration. Another big covered arena was set up for the horses to pass their vet check times in the shade, and another set up for the vets and the trotting out, with plenty of room for spectators anywhere.

There weren't any huge live-in horse trailers like are common in America. Most were 2 or 3-horse trailers, with the riders staying in convenient, inexpensive hotels, or camping in tents in the campground next door.

Every time I walked through the ride camp, I was amazed at all the good looking horses I saw. I mean, ALL of them looked strong, substantial. I guess you have to be for a tough mountain ride such as Florac. I saw one skinny one, but that's the only criticism I could come up with!

The Florac ride is steeped in history from the beginning. Whereas with the Tevis Cup in America, where the name Wendell Robie is synonymous with that race, here it is the name of a horse, Persik, which is famously known. We were, in fact, in Persik-land – and the riders would be wearing jerseys with their number and “Persik-land” on them – because Persik was the winner of the first two Florac rides in 1975 and 1976, and was one of the most influential endurance sires in the world. Many of his offspring won Florac and placed in the top ten. (We'll look at Persik later.)

As with any ride, there are great stories, such as one of the man back in the 70's who rode his horse 2 days to get to Florac, rested him 3 days, then won the Florac ride, then rode 2 days back home.

Riders continued arriving throughout Thursday, including Mariaan Liversage and Gillese De Villiers from South Africa, here to ride for the first time in Florac, on Stephan Chazel's horses. The evening's rider meeting was very enthusiastic (and all in French); after long talks by officials, every rider's name was called, enthusiastically as if they were coming down to participate in a game show: “Jean-Phillipe, Come on down!” The riders came on down to get their rider number vests to warm applause and cheers from officials and participants. While there must have been some nerves about the upcoming ride, the atmosphere was festive – like one big horse camping party.

The ride would begin at 4 AM on Saturday; at 3 PM on Friday the vet inspections began. The horses were all put into stalls, and the vets came around to each stall to examine the horses. Around 4 PM the horses all made their way to the trotting lanes, where, in numerical order, they were all trotted out for the vets. When they passed, and were cleared to start the ride, the horses were fitted with electronic collars, which they would wear throughout the ride – all the timing at the vet gates would be done electronically through these collars. A very sophisticated system which makes things much easier for officials and for riders!

Meanwhile, everything is going on around me in French, which we all know I don't understand at all. Alice is introducing me to so many people, and between trying to understand the pronunciation of their names, (I have to write them down), and remember who is who, what they look like, what they do, where they are from... my head was spinning. I think many people were amused at my lack of comprehension. And tomorrow when the riders are wearing helmets, I knew I wouldn't recognize any of them! All I could do was laugh at myself! One important thing I did learn to say was: “coke avec glasso” - a coke with ice!

There were a total of 74 entries, with participants from South Africa, a mother and 2 daughter team from Switzerland, Spain, and the Netherlands.

One can never get enough sleep at these big rides, and so, as per usual, I went to bed about midnight, and set my alarm for 3:30 AM for the start of the Florac ride!

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