Written by Bram de Vrind, @defietsjournalist
With a course over the Col de la Croix-de-Fer (2068 m) and Col du Glandon (1924 m), GFNY Alpes Vaujany brings the be-a-pro-for-a-day feeling for cyclists to the French Alps. I experienced an epic day during the gran fondo, which was dominated by harsh weather conditions.
Throbbing escort bikes line up in front of the peloton. The green start arch and ponchos of the riders give color to the grey village square of Vaujany. In the background, the Cascade de la Fare waterfall roars 200 meters high. Exciting music resounds. “Let’s go, you are on fire,” shouts the speaker with a heavy French accent.
GFNY Alpes Vaujany
It is the 30th of August. The rain is falling from the sky while I’m standing together with 150 other riders in the starting corrals for GFNY Alpes Vaujany. It’s my first gran fondo of the year: I’m looking forward to finally racing again! However, the organization and the participants probably imagined the first edition of this event differently. On the program was a 118 kilometer course to feast on: with the alpine giants Col de la Croix-de-Fer (25 km/5%) and Col du Glandon (20 km/7.2%), followed by the unknown but tough climb back to Vaujany (4.6 km/8.6%).
The weather had been sunny for the past few weeks but changed during the race weekend. It has rained almost continuously for the past few days and with temperatures not exceeding 14 degrees in the valley. The result: snow at the top of the mountains and gravel washed onto the mountain roads. Of the 400 registered riders, many were not able to get to the race due to Covid travel restrictions.
Yesterday came the inevitable message: the course will be shortened to 60 kilometers. We’ll only climb the Croix-de-Fer and then descend the same way to the valley to climb back to Vaujany. The descent from the Croix-de-Fer to the foot of the Glandon is too dangerous due to a landslide, according to GFNY founder Uli Fluhme: “We want to keep the participants on one side of the mountain for safety’s sake. This is a disappointment for the participants, but especially for the organization that has made an extra effort to make the event corona-proof. “But yes, we’rein the unpredicatble mountains,” Uli sighed.
GFNY World Series
GFNY Alpes Vaujany is the 22nd event on the GFNY World Series calendar. As fanatical cyclists, Uli and his wife Lidia Fluhme founded GFNY (Gran Fondo New York) ten years ago to bring a granfondo to their hometown. Since 2011, the event has taken place on a 160 kilometer closed circuit from the Big Apple to Bear Mountain and back. It is a success: with some 5000 participants annually, it has become the largest granfondo in the Americas.
Be a pro for a day
GFNY has been building an international calendar with the World Series since 2014. The slogan of the events is ‘Be a Pro for a Day’. All GFNY races have a group start, chip timing from start to finish, rankings and podium prizes by category. Traffic is regulated and the organization hands water bottles so the fastest participants don’t have to stop. The field of participants ranges from professionals who live for the race to recreational cyclists who join for the camaraderie and challenge of riding a tough course. All participants get a racing jersey from the event to underline their equality and shared love for the race. With a 52 euro (early bird) entry fee, GFNY Vaujany is at an average entry rate despite the high level of service.
As a cyclo fanatic, there’s nothing I like better than riding in competition over the most beautiful courses. I have good memories of GFNY. In 2017, I took part in GFNY NYC. The start with 5000 participants on the closed to traffic George Washington Bridge in the Big Apple was magical. That year, for the first time, I had trained specifically for an event that paid off with a proud 28th place overall. A year later, to my own surprise, I was in the leading group of GFNY Deutschland. The 8th place at that event is another personal highlight.
The ponchos come off, the announcer is counting down to zero: it’s on! The descent from Vaujany is neutralized, we ride the first five kilometers behind the race director car. That leads to squabbling: many riders want to start at the front of the climb of the Croix-de-Fer.
“Go!” At the foot of the col, race director Cedric Haas lifts the neutralization from the car’s skylight. Due to a severe injury, a top classification is not in place for me today. The peloton is moving and I immediately feel that I can’t follow the fastest.
The peloton snakes up the mountain like an elongated ribbon. From here on it’s every man for himself. 25 long kilometers to get to the iron cross at 2067 meters altitude from which the pass takes its name. A rider in a flapping GFNY poncho passes by. The rain splashes on the asphalt and creates water currents on the road. The surrounding peaks are powdered with snow. I try to get into my rhythm and waste as little energy as possible.
My heart rate is quite high, but I decide to keep pushing because we ‘only’ have to race for 2.5 to 3 hours. When the climb flattens out in the village of Le River d’Allemont, I make myself small to be in ‘time trial’ position. During a short descent I overtake the guy with the flapping poncho again. He who is not strong has to be smart.
At 15 kilometers before the top I slow down a bit. My heartrate has been around threshold for more than half an hour and I want to avoid falling short on the final climb. I ride together with German fellow journalist Sebastian of Roadbike Magazine. He rides a black Specialized with green decals and handlebar tape that color matches the green GFNY jersey perfectly. He could win the beauty award for best-looking rider today.
A second flat phase follows with a view on the opal blue Lac de Grand’Maison. In the distance we can see the road winding endlessly to the top which is hidden in the clouds. I have good legs.
Five kilometers before the summit we end up in a wild landscape with rocks and meadows. I start feeling the thin air. BARDET’ ‘BARDET’ is painted with block letters on the road surface as an encouragement to the French audience.
Cycling history is written on this col. Since 1947, the Croix-de-Fer has been included in the Tour de France eighteen times. During the last passage in 2018 Steven Kruijswijk played a starring role. My fellow Dutch started a long solo at 19 kilometers from the top. He reached the col with a 3 minute lead. Unfortunately it would turn out to be too little for the stage win: on the final climb to Alpe d’Huez, Kruijswijk was caught.
The leader of the race comes flying down with the honking car of the race director in his wake. “We can forget about the final victory,” I joke to Sebastian. After the junction with the Col du Glandon, we tackle the final 2.5km to the iron cross on the col.
Once we get to the top, it’s gloves on, gel in, and off we go. On Sebastian’s wheel, which turns out to be a good one for the descent, I dive down in the whining rain. We try to descend as hard as we can to save time, without taking irresponsible risks.
We made the descent safe. The organization did a great job by removing all the gravel from the descent in the previous two days and again early morning of race day. However, I do get anxious when the rain turns into hail that stings in my face. We shouldn’t have to deal with that at speeds of up to 70 kilometers per hour! Fortunately, the hail disappeared quickly.
Climb to Vaujany
Once at the foot of the last climb (4.6 km, 8.6%), I know what to do: wring out everything left in me. Sebastian soon lets me go. The climb is steep with peaks of up to 12%. I am tired of the pain as my heartbeat rises far above the tipping point. A sign along the road says: “It’s only a hill. Get over it!”
Meanwhile, the road remains empty ahead of me. I had hoped to catch up to other participants, but apart from a rider parked aside the road in despair, there is no one to be seen. Then the little church of Vaujany comes into view, with the roaring waterfall in the distance. I encourage a few lost spectators to support me. “Trento-septième place, Bram de Vrind!”, the announcer calls out as I roll under the arch. 37th overall, not bad! But above all, I’m glad that – despite the harsh weather conditions and the shortened course – I was able to experience the be-a-pro-for-a-day feeling again.
Conclusion? The weather, especially in the mountains, is not in your hands as an organization. Once in a while, your event can fall into the water. Unfortunately, that was the case this year at GFNY Alpes Vaujany. The choice to shorten the course for safety reasons was painful for both organization and participants, but it was the right call. The fact that the organization has personally removed all gravel on the descents shows once again that they have a heart for the course and the participants. The service level was, as I am used to from GFNY, high. There are very few events where you race on closed roads and receive water bottles from the organization. With a route of 120 kilometers on the Croix-de-Fer and Glandon, GFNY has found a legendary course as a base. In short: this event deserves a bright future.
GFNY Alpes Vaujany: The climbs
Col de la Croix-de-Fer
Col du Glandon
7.2% on average
8.6% on average
GFNY Alpes Vaujany Route + Profile