When invited to a week of riding bikes with Velo Roussillon in the hills of Asheville, North Carolina, I envisioned a week of sub-three-hour rides at a leisurely pace, followed by beers, hotdogs, and more beers. I could not have been more wrong.
On the first ride from the Applewood Manor Bed and Breakfast, I noticed a few of the two-dozen riders in sported red-white-and-blue cuffs to indicate previous national champions. Then there were the Velo Roussillon jerseys, with the motto saluez le blaireau d’attaque (“salute the attack badger”) and a bulldog image. And then I was thinking: Am I in over my head?
Velo Roussillon is a cycling club of sorts. It’s a week-long, invitation-only meet-up in its 10th iteration, created by Stephen Collins. The group of accomplished cyclists has been gathering annually in the Roussillon province of southeast France near Mont Ventoux, to ride bikes, enjoy amazing food and drink, and celebrate the camaraderie that cycling provides.
Collins was an executive with Colgate-Palmolive who traveled a lot for work in the early 2000s. He also traveled some for his hobbies; he did a Chris Carmichael training camp in France in 2001 and fell more in love with cycling culture. He and his wife Robin were exploring second home options and decided to not limit themselves to the United States. They both really like the south of France, especially a small town where Collins had visited previously in the late 1990s. Collins bought a house next to a hotel where he had stayed.
Collins’ dream of celebrating everything he loves about life was glued together through cycling. He invited his friends and colleagues to ride together, near the iconic climb so often identifiable with the Tour de France. That first year, guests were scattered between the hotel and his house, and there was no “team” cycling kit. There was no support van, no mechanic, and no chef to provide on-site meals. Rides were disorganized; every ride darted from one town to the next and Collins and his friends scrambled to stock up on food and water before shops closed for an extended mid-day break. It was stressful. Collins learned from this, and in the following years, routes were planned, support from VeloVentoux was brought on to ensure that a sag wagon and a mechanic were available. Wine, of course, was arranged, as were meals, and riders stayed at the hotel instead of on couches and floors at the Collins’ house.
Velo Roussillon grew from toddler to teenager quickly. It was no longer a dirty, dozen friends just showing up in May to ride the Giant of Provence, and hoping for good weather. The week-long camp was well planned. Collins brought structure and asked for a financial commitment of $3,500 to $4,000 (depending on multiple factors) to cover some of the costs associated with the week of riding, which included dining at Michelin-star restaurants.
In previous years, the annual event in France might have included as many as 40 riders and an ascent of Mont Ventoux, usually early in the camp. But with pandemic restrictions in Europe, as well as lingering fears of infection and travel difficulties in the United States, the 2020 edition did not happen. The 2021 Velo Roussillon was staged in Asheville, North Carolina, based out of Collins’ Applewood Manor Inn Bed & Breakfast.
Prelude to pain, rewarded
No matter where you ride in Asheville, you will gain nearly 100 feet of elevation for each mile ridden. And this is how the week started, with climbing, descending, hairpin closing-radius turns, and gravel roads to test the best bike handlers of the bunch. On the very first ride of the camp — a relatively short, 31-mile Sunday evening pre-dinner outing — I sat a few wheels from the front to take in who was strong, capable, and fast, and which wheels I should follow. My conclusion, after two hours or so of riding, was I could follow anyone and everyone in the group and be safe and fast and have a lot of fun.
After our evening shake-the-legs-out ride, my legs were already tired. And this was all before dinner on the night before our first of many 100-mile-plus days. The group assembled at the Applewood Manor Inn for dinner prepared by Andrew Atsumi. Asheville-local beers were at hand, as well as a wine selection provided by Todd Mathis of DNS Wines, who was riding a bike previously owned by Jonathan Vaughters.
To be sure, moderating food and wine intake after nearly two hours of tempo riding on tough terrain was a challenge; I wanted to eat and drink with abandon. But with a week of serious and strenuous riding planned, exercising self-control was on my mind. (But having one more glass of wine wasn’t too bad.) The CEO of Big Commerce, Brent Bellm, and I chatted about many things, including his French wine collection. Someone mentioned that Brent had bought at auction one of Primož Roglič’s bikes from the previous year’s Vuelta.
As predicted: rain and smiles
The morning of the first full day of riding, after the egg-and-cheese-sandwich breakfast expertly prepared by Stephen’s wife Robin, and then deliciously chased with some oatmeal and tasty coffee, I checked in on my bike which had been racked in the driveway of the B&B by mechanic and all-around-nice-guy Philip Martindale. Philip had all the bikes — both private and the 3T loaners available to those who opted to not bring their own — set out more than an hour before the start of riding.
Philip is based in eastern Tennessee, and when not working with Velo Roussillon, leads bike excursions on the Natchez Trace. He’s owned a wheel-manufacturing business and bike shops, and knows his way around frames, too, having spent time at Litespeed. It was immediately evident that Philip was always ready to lend a hand just when it was needed. And as the week progressed, everyone at the camp recognized that Philip was always where he needed to be, exactly when he was needed for a clothing swap, bottle fill, feed, or mechanical help.
I made sure my tires were inflated to satisfaction for the paved road and gravel to come, and my electronics were powered up and ready to go. One of the very strong suggestions made by Collins prior to the camp, and also reiterated before the roll-out each day, was to upload the planned route to one’s GPS-enabled bike computer. For those who were familiar with how Velo Roussillon rides functioned, they knew that rides were not no-drop; if one was separated from the group, one relied on mapping and mobile service to find their way back to the start. Mobile service in the hills surrounding Asheville was advertised as “sketchy.” Since I couldn’t get my Wahoo Roam to display the route for the day (user error, not tech problems) I resigned myself to not lose sight of the front group — some extra motivation to keep up. This was not the first promise I made to myself and wondered if I could keep it during the week in Asheville.
After just a few miles on the first full day of riding, my legs reminded me of the previous night’s fun. They eventually loosened up — after some climbing and what seemed to be a switchback and what seemed like a 45-degree descent on less-than-smooth roads. And then the rain started earlier than predicted. After a very short while, the droplets were noticeably bigger and heavier than when then when the rain started. The drizzle became steady and soaking. At the top of a squishy gravel climb, we were enveloped by clouds. While wondering “Why am I doing this in the rain?” I reminded myself that some day in the future, this would be a reference point. I smiled.
With the planned stop for a feed after the halfway point in the ride, I kept eating and drinking frequently until I could fill my bottles and jersey pockets with more Torq nutrition — unlimited and provided to all, every day — fig newtons, and the like. Lunch was a Coke and a tasty sandwich, made on Robin’s fresh-baked bread.
The rain eventually abated, and we were under mostly sunny skies again.
By the time we finished the first 100-mile day with 10,000 feet of elevation gain at the base of the Applewood Manor Inn driveway, I was shattered. I racked my bike and slumped into a chair, sipped on a post-ride protein drink (before I cracked an IPA), and thought how am I going to do this again and again and again? That WackyWeed IPA, an Asheville-local brew, helped me contemplate this before a shower.
And then dinner, chat, wine, more chat, more wine, and then some much-needed sleep.
Ride, feed, rest, repeat
When I woke on the second morning of the camp, my legs definitely felt like they already had a lot of miles in them, and I again tried to convince myself that others felt like I did. The weather forecast was for rain, again, so I packed rain gear and a change of clothes in my day bag which was tossed into the van with Philip.
As the entire Velo Roussillon group was readying to roll out under darkening cloud cover, Christian Vande Velde — the NBC Sports cycling commentator and former wearer of the maglia rosa at the Giro d’Italia — drove into the parking, lot, retrieved his bike from his SUV, and joined our group. He looked as fit on this day as he did when he finished fourth overall at the Tour de France. Our guest rider was super-friendly and chatted with a few of us, and even joked about the storm clouds in the distance as we rode towards them.
The initial weather forecast had the rain showing later in the day, but we were soaked before we had passed the 20-mile mark. The skies had opened to steady rain and thunder rumbled no-so-quietly in the distance. Although there were photographers in our chase van and separate cars, the flashes we saw was not from their cameras. At a stop in a small town just 21 miles into our ride, with the rain steadily pelting down, Christian pulled the plug on the ride for the day — I guess he’d had enough rain rides through his career to not need just one more — and turned back, while rest of our group continued to stall under the canopy of a coffee shop for what seemed like nearly half an hour.
After discussing options of if and where to cut the day’s route short due to weather we got back on the road at the urging of my boss’ boss. Robin Thurston, the CEO of VeloNews’ parent company, Outside, is a former pro cyclist and national team rider and rode with the skill and apparent ease as one might expect of an athlete of his caliber. This was Robin’s first Velo Roussillon, but he was not shy about going hard when the time was right, and also sitting up when the time was appropriate for going easy, too. Robin was no stranger to riding in adverse weather conditions, was excited to have fun no matter the weather. He urged us on. And so we were rolling again.
The second of the two toughest climbs of the day we faced featured a switchback descent. We were cautioned about the wet, steep, narrows off-camber hairpin turns. Water sheeted across the road. Taking the shrinking-radius hairpin turns with rain on my glasses was enough to slow my roll on the seven-mile drop from the top. There were just a few of us on the front, and the weather conditions further separated the group on the descent.
Some 30 miles and several hours later we regrouped for lunch. We ate sandwiches and drank Cokes. Of course, there was some chatter, but less than during the lunch stop in the rain the day previous. A few of us shed weather-resistant layers which after several hours in the rain had soaked through. Someone made the suggestion to cut a gravel climb in the pouring rain from the route late in the day. But we still had the better part of 28 miles and nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain to go. As it turned out, just two of the entire group of 25 opted for the gravel climb at the end of the day. I headed back to get dry, and to get a beer.
Broken on the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway
The next morning, on the third full day, we were greeted by cool temperatures, a breeze, and sun — a nice change after two consecutive days of rain. The route for the day featured a few small bumps before an 11-ish mile climb, followed by a descent, some slight elevation gain, and then a 20-mile descent. I was able to stick with the top climbers on the bumps before the big climb, and I even battled on the front for a good bit of the big one, until I came unhitched just 1.25 miles from the summit at the Blue Ridge Parkway. This was not a super-steep pitch, but the steady elevation gain was attritional. Even after I was popped off, I kept sight of the four on the front until about half a mile from the summit when I just cracked.
When I got to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the three ahead of me had already put on some warmer clothing for the descent and were knocking back cans of Coke. Philip was quick to hand me a can; he noted the expression on my face. I quickly downed two small cans before I took on a 70-minute descent to the valley below for the lunch meet-up. I was able to keep my wits about me on the way to the bottom, but even after downing some food, I was fading. Once we met up in the valley below, Dan offered to tow me still with 10 miles remaining before the meeting spot. I tried to take a pull, but the pace was not happening coming from my legs and he came around me; I had to work to stay on his wheel. Dan told me he was OK with this.
Most of the rest of the day was really fun riding—until I was dropped from the front group on the return trip with some 20 miles remaining. Sam and Robin were excellent riding company, and while I ached a bit, and my legs were quick to let me know when to back off. The remainder of the day was just amazing scenery; the evening’s food and wine pairing, again courtesy of the brilliant work of Todd and Andrew, was equally brilliant.
While the riding this day was a single, very tough climb it was just one climb. We all made the climb at our own pace. And there would be more climbing, side-by-side, and single-file, some racing each other, and some just happy to have a companion to share suffering.
Climb, grimace, recover
Thursday’s route was 2019 Haute Route Asheville stage 2, and the course profile looked intimidating. Philip was planning on driving ahead of the group and meeting us at the summits of five, very steep climbs. And like the previous days, we were provided with the route in advance to load into our GPS units. We were also provided with a few, simple words of encouragement from Stephen. “VERY steep climb on Crabtree,” Collins wrote to the WhatsApp group. This was considered to be fair warning.
We rolled out of town on familiar roads with some undulation and mostly stayed together until the first climb. Justin in his purple Velo Roussillon jersey pressed me, just like he did on every other climb so far throughout the week. I pressed back. And then we came together on the descent and rollers leading into the second big climb. While we said we’d not go hard on the roads between climbs, we didn’t soft-pedal either. The fun thing about Velo Roussillon is camaraderie off and on bikes, on climbs and on flats. The group rides hard together. And sometimes against each other. And laughs together. And sometimes at each other. Justin and I rode with each other and against each other, on these roads. Justin is from eastern Tennessee; I am from eastern Pennsylvania. I have never ridden in Tennessee. So we chatted about the differences in cycling culture and roads around our respective homes, and compared notes; our experiences were not too dissimilar.
As we rode upward, we encouraged each other. I swore at the road and my legs and the steepness of the pitch and at Stephen for putting this climb in our way. Justin and I both “paperboyed” our way to the top of one of the most challenging climbs of the week. At the top of the climb, a 24 percent stretch greeted us for 200m before the final 100m flattened out. And of course, Philip was right at the top to greet us too. Justin and I dropped our unneeded cool weather gear in the van and we were handed Cokes and snacks in exchange. Velo Roussillon riders are treated as professionals.
One final evening with Velo Roussillon
Drinks and then dinner on my final night with the group were in some ways just like the other nights — pre-dinner drinks, dinner, fun conversation with a lot of laughing — but then Stephen gently and firmly stopped the group from talking away and drinking more wine before we dispersed or had more to drink. He presented a lavender jersey to Robin and to me.
Earlier in the week, Stephen explained that these special jerseys could not be bought (well, they list for $1,000,000 in the Panache team kit store…) and that this jersey had to be earned. The criteria for earning one of these specially designated cycling tops were never disclosed in detail, and Collins indicated that he bestowed the jersey on deserving individuals at his discretion.
Word got out that Robin and I would not be riding on the final two days due to other commitments. And even when we were being presented these jerseys, we both already missing not riding the final two days. I spent a lot of the evening chatting with an Asheville-local coach, Heath Dotson who was a guest on several rides during the week. We took in a few glasses of wine in the light offered by the firepit around which several of us had gathered. Heath’s a student of the sport and we talked about pursuing the most speed with the least amount of work; fit and position; narrower and lower handlebars, results of wind tunnel testing.
In the rear-view mirror
I started the week with Velo Roussillon doubting if I could hang with these accomplished cyclists for a day, let alone a week. Much of the confidence I gained throughout the week came from riding with some remarkable athletes who were encouraging, fun, funny, in excellent shape, and all remarkable people. To be sure, this made the week with Velo Roussillon even more enjoyable. That the majority of these cyclists have been associated with Velo Roussillon for some time and for multiple iterations of the camp in France spoke volumes. There were a lot of inside jokes and references to previous camps. And now there were new inside jokes and shared memories. And from the first roll-out days before, I was immediately made to feel a part of the group and brought in as a friend. There were so many faces and names and jerseys and bikes throughout the week which went into making the Velo Roussillon experience so thoroughly enjoyable — even while riding uphill, on gravel, in a thunderstorm — that nearly every moment instantly became ingrained in my head as another amazing cycling memory.
But the thing with Velo Roussillon was that I could not have just shown up and started riding with this group; the inclusion in the week-long experience was by invite. But now that I’m in, I’m in. I was promised several times that I’d always be invited to future editions of Velo Roussillon — to eat amazing food, drink excellent wine, and ride a lot of miles — in the south of France and in Asheville. And I’m looking forward to the next time where my legs will be torn off by the nicest people one could meet.