The beautifully rugged Mediterranean island of Corsica doesn’t just serve up beauty on a plate but throws it straight into a melting pot with French baguettes, brie and Italian pasta. We seized the chance of the Explore Corsica ride to better acquaint ourselves with the island and find out the true story of its Kulturkampf with George Orwell.

Run by the masterminds of Le Tour, Explore Corsica is a three-day event that weds cycling with cruise ships. With daytimes dedicated to riding on dry land, the evenings are spent dozing on deck and being lulled to sleep by the waves. For amateurs, the competitive riding set-up consists of three stages with timed sections positioned along the route, while non-partaking family members can join hikes or more leisurely guided bike rides each day. Recreational vibes are therefore sorted, so those harbouring competitive dreams won’t be beseeched with concern about family duties. As the route includes sufficient kilometres between each timed segment, there’s ample opportunity to take in the views – well, that’s how it all looked on paper. Keep reading to find out how this promising-looking scenario panned out for me.

When George Orwell wrote his bestselling 1984 in the late 1940s, the book focused on the all-encompassing power of a totalitarian surveillance state to control the thoughts and opinions of its citizens. On those three days in Corsica, with its countless climbs and solitary moments in the saddle, I was constantly struck by phrases from that particular Orwellian drama. ‘War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.’ My heart was thudding at 198 beats per minute, coursing blood through my veins as the tires ground their way underneath me, inching upwards. As I pedalled out of the saddle, I found myself almost apathetically murmuring, again and again: ‘War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.’

Three phrases that hit home, albeit somewhat differently than they’d done for Orwell. Brandished in this new interpretation, they summed up this special journey across the island, no longer just a symbol for a system that polarises the freewill of its folk. Who else could sense such a trace of sadness and melancholy when faced with the breathtaking natural spectacle of Corsica? Have a go and come and experience it for yourself.

Colour-coordinated chips …
… and your next GRAN FONDO start number hack

Having accepted the invitation from Mavic to take part in the Explore Corsica race, I now found myself on the start line about to embark on 350 km across Corsica’s finest tarmac and cover 6,500 metres of climbing in the process. The event is run by Amaury Sport Organisation, also known as A.S.O, who are also the brains and the brawns behind the scenes of the Tour de France. Sleeping arrangements, I was informed, would be on the boat. No matter where the race stage ended, if I found the port I’d find my belongings.

War is peace

The first stage headed inland from the north-western spot of L’Ile-Rousse, first towards Col Bocca di Battaglia before the Col de San Colombano then back to the start. At 115 km, this first stage would also pack in 2,200 metres of climbing so I had no second thoughts when helping myself to lashings of pasta on the eve of the race. Having observed the obligatory meet-and-greet on the start line with ex-pro tour icons like Fränk Schleck and Cadel Evans, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the pace went off fairly quickly. Within an hour, it dawned on me that I’d set off at an unsustainable pace if I was to survive the three days. A glance at my bike computer confirmed that my heart rate was averaging 180 bpm, so it wasn’t just my chain that slipped down into the easiest gear but also my own race position.

The goal at Explore Corsica isn’t to finish the stage first, but to clock your quickest possible times on the segments. However, it seemed that my fellow riders had not read the memo and set off at a blistering pace. At the start of the first Grimpeur segment, I took a nature break – glad of a decent excuse to pull off from the group I’d found myself with. Back on the bike and grinding my way up the climb, I work hard, grabbing moments of respite on other people’s wheels. Riders cut the gradient on the hairpins, looking to get up as quickly as they can. There’s no more polite signalling for potholes. This is war. I feel like I’m on a train hurtling towards its destination. Like an super-sized Pantani with the summit in his sights. Il Pirata had a red beard, the knife between his teeth and found solace in the searing pain of his lactate-filled legs, the metallic taste on his tongue and burning in his lungs. War is peace.

Freedom is slavery

Despite barely managing to prop my eyes open at dinner, I’m shaken to the core when I see the imagery that has been shot that day. Corsica, it dawns on me, merits more than the restricted vision I had today of my bike computer and a narrow 2-metre strip of tarmac ahead of my wheel. The views currently being paraded in front of me on other people’s cameras are impressive, but they aren’t registering with the ride I’ve just had.

Golden hour in the evening is a time to reflect, and spot the seagulls in the photo

Day two promised to be marginally more difficult with 120 km and 2,400 metres of climbing. The Col Bocca di La would be followed directly by the Col de Bavella, meaning we’d be spending a lot of time going uphill – 20 km at a 7.4 % average.

While we crested the mountains from Porto Vecchio to Propriano, the cruise liner headed around the southern point of Corsica towards the same destination. As the first 50 km traced the coastline on a flat road, we were escorted as a peloton and flanked by official police outriders. Held on open roads, there was still regular traffic around us but clearly some riders felt the need to take unnecessary risks to move up from 141st to 131st.

At the end of the seemingly never-ending climb, the field had well and truly split and I found myself riding solo for the remainder of the stage. No more enforced pace-keeping. No more suicidal overtakes. Alone with the landscape and the freedom. Yet I realised that my hand unwittingly kept straying to my jersey pocket; a video for my friends at home, a photo for the guys in the office, an Instagram story for all my followers. I seemed incapable of doing anything but share the freedom I was experiencing with other people. I was a slave to it. Freedom is slavery.

The I-was-there selfie for workmates – always down to business

Ignorance is strength

At breakfast the next morning I proudly display the wares of my photo stops. While my content creation may not have helped my position in the general classification, I’m able to impress my rivals with my savvy media techniques. The final 130 km stage departs from Propiano with 2,200 metres of climbing before reaching Ajaccio. From there, we head back towards Marseille. I tuck into porridge and an omelette, drafting a plan of how I’ll find the balance for my final ride, somewhere in the middle of day 1’s race mode and day 2’s picture book publishing – my own Golden Country.

On paper it looked well suited to me–after all, big guys climb better on fairly mellow gradients. And with the descents on newly tarmacked roads, my motivation each time I hit the bottom of a climb was rocketing. Shortly before tackling the climb segment, I reached a feed station, opting for an energy gel over a baguette and brie. Having learned from my misjudgements of the previous day, I planned to crush the climb without bringing indigestion into the game. I had a rough idea of the length of the climb, but it took a long, long time until I was granted sight of the summit. The road was labyrinthine, snaking its way up through endless forests. Not knowing where or when the climb would really end meant that I changed tact and rode sensibly, changing down a gear. The easiest gear and another sip of fluids. Textbook bonking prevention methods.

I spot a group ahead of me up the road, but they’re stationary. Laughter resounds back down the road towards me and I figure it must be the feed zone at the top. It opens a mixed bag of emotions. The frustration at not having given everything on the climb and finishing the segment in a time well below my ability rapidly fades into euphoria at seeing the view from the top. Smugly cramp-free I get off the bike. Time for brie. I feel strong and satisfied. Ignorance is strength.

I leave Corsica with a smile, confident that I’ll be back to discover the rest of the island. I’ve learned how to suffer, uttered too many swear words and whooped for joy at times. For me, Explore Corsica ends with the knowledge that I’ve explored more than just the island – I’ve also found out more about myself.

Video: Explore Corsica 2018 – Best of

This article is from GRAN FONDO issue #009

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Words: Photos: Benjamin Topf, A.S.O.