|Saturday June 30 2007|
Out of bed I staggered at 3:30, threw clothes on, and walked down to the start of the Florac 160-km ride. Seventy-four horses and riders were out walking around, trotting, making last minute tack adjustments. It was pleasantly cool, in the 50's with a slight breeze, clear sky, full moon just setting. All horse collars were checked to make sure they were giving off an electronic reading; at least 1 needed replacing. Announcer Herve was still very enthusiastically speaking (in French). With four minutes to go, motorcycles revved up – you could hear them in stereo through the microphone framing Herve's deep voice. Horses circled around and around behind the line: “Du minute!” “Un minute!” The big crowd lined the start/finish line, trailing off into the dark out of the lights, pressed five and six deep right at the line.
“Cinq – Qattre – trois – du – un – they're off!” (or the equivalent), boomed Herve. Jean-Paul, organizer of Florac, in a car led the start out of camp, back up on the street to the main paved highway through Ispagnac. Out of the camp venue lights, it was a grand parade of warm excited equine bodies, bobbing headlamps, loud snorts, a few human yelps, clattering trotting shod hooves ringing on pavement of the town.
The trail took them past (closed) outdoor cafes, narrow streets of 3-story apartments, along the Mimente River to Florac, and beyond. As the horses left camp, the cars started up, and sleepy little Ispagnac looked like a professional car road race through one of those little towns, as crew people raced to the first vet check to await their riders. The last horse followed some 15 minutes behind, followed by a motorcycle escort.
I caught a ride around the course with Nicky Freud and Richard Allen, Brits living in France training endurance horses, and here at Florac to cover the ride as photojournalists. It was a 33.5 km loop for the horses and riders to the first vet check, where the sun was just coming up, and it was a chilly 44* with a stiff breeze blowing. All the horses were warm though – plenty of climbing for them already – and all the horse crews were putting water on the horses. The first hold was 30 minutes.
Next we raced – along with a thousand other cars, it seemed, on winding mountain roads to the highest point on the trail the horses would climb to – Mont Aigoual, at 1565 meters. It seemed we were on top of the world up here, with a 360* view around the planet from our perch. After the first 10 or so horses passed, we jumped in the car and raced along to the next vet check – along with a line of cars in front of and behind us, whipping around corners, winding up and down narrow one-lane roads, through medieval villages and spectacular scenery, with towering cliffs above the road, or a long drop to the valley floor far below. Looking out over the big mountains and valleys, it reminded me exactly of the Tevis Cup – beautiful, majestic – and TOUGH.
The second loop was 40.7 km, the vet check in the village of Camprieu. Announcer Herve was here, still keeping up the musical commentary for the spectators and the crews waiting for their horses to arrive.
After this stop we raced again to the busy village of, I think, Meyrueis, where the riders would ride right through the center of the village on their way to the next vet gate at La Citerne. We heard the riders wouldn't be coming through for an hour, so we sat down for a cappuchino at one of the sidewalk cafes. It was very refreshing... but I must say that was the TINIEST cappuchino I'd ever had!
The riders passed through, dodging traffic and tourists, and then we jumped in the car again and raced to the next vet gate. It was up on the Causses, a high rolling grassland plateau – a different world from the forested mountains the horses had just passed up out of. There were two vet gates here; after passing through the first time 23.9 km from the last, the riders did a 16.1 km loop back through this gate.
Then came not so much climbing, but a long loop of 34.5 km back to the venue at Ispagnac. Again, we joined a cue of cars, strung out along the winding roads as far as I could see in front of us and behind us, racing like bats out of hell, first to a long flat area where a little single engine plane was pulling gliders up into the air, then to a random junction in the 1-lane roads where the horse trail crossed the road. It was pleasantly and humorously crazy! Cars parked on both sides of the one-lane road, some parked leaning at a 45* angle to get off the road far enough, people everywhere, buckets set up, chairs, coolers, and along comes a tractor trying to squeeze through. When the horses came people ran alongside them, handing off water while the horses kept going.
Then we all got in and raced on back to Florac. We did stop briefly to look at a herd of Przewalski
horses, descendants of the original species rediscovered in Mongolia in the 19th century.
We got back to Florac and the venue around 5:15 PM to wait for the horses to come in off their 5th loop, then go out on a final 12.1 km loop out of camp and back in for the finish.
It was warm, about 82*, with 48% humidity. A large number of people were hanging around, waiting in the crew area, or waiting under the big tent with the horses during their holds, or hanging out at the bar tent, drinking beer and French wine and waiting for the finishers.
At 6:30 PM here she came: local girl Cecile Demierre, galloping across the finish line, serenaded by big cheers from the big crowd and by announcer Herve. The winning horse, Shaman, was by Persik.
Some 7 minutes later 2nd and 3rd place finishers, Catherine Boisseron and Pierre Souchard raced in neck and neck, to roaring approval from the crowd – some of whom almost got run over! It was quite the exciting finish.
Finishers steadily came over the line, including the Swiss girls Anna and Nora Wagner, in 9th and 10th place, cheered by mom, whose enthusiasm brought many observers out of their chairs in the bar area to the finish line to cheer them over. South Africans Mariaan and Gillese crossed the finish line with their horses, and held their breaths while they vetted through – hooray, they finished! Last finisher came in around 9:45 PM, just before dark, escorted by motorcycles. Not so many people were still around, but of those who were, a big cheer erupted as the horse crossed the finish line, and consequently passed the vet check.
The South Africans said this was probably the hardest ride they've ever done – and now they have an 8-hour drive pack to Paris, where they hop on planes, long flights and layovers, then get home Monday, drive to a ride, and climb on horses Tuesday for a 3-day ride!
A nice late dinner was served for everybody; ride winner Cecile Demierre got a great big cheer as she carried her plate of food to her table, much to her embarrassment. 29 of 74 riders finished; it's a matter of good preparation, skill, and luck to complete such a ride. It was very enjoyable to get to see Florac – very similar to the Tevis Cup in America, from my point of view – the horses, scenery, trail, atmosphere. Congratulations to all the lucky (and skilled) ones!