Saturday, 29 September 2018

The Tour du Leman that wasn't

Lake Geneva is mostly calm as well as enchantingly beautiful at the end of September when the 160km Tour du Leman a l'Aviron takes place, and I've had some dream sculling experiences there on mirror-flat water surrounded by stunning scenery. However, because it's so big, and surrounded by mountains, it also has its own microclimate, which can turn nasty in quite a short space of time, before turning back again, as if to say, "Storm? Me? No, you're making it up!" Frustratingly, this often seems to happen on a Saturday.

Over the 13 runnings of the event since I first did it in 2006 and including this year, there have been no fewer than five occasions when the conditions were so awful that either the course had to be shortened or most of the crews sank (like us) or pulled out before they did so. Despite this unpromising statistic, the lure of the Lac pulls most of us back again and again to take on this relentlessly hard challenge, in the most gorgeous of surroundings.

This year, the eighth time I'd entered, the organisers were faced with every event's worst nightmare: by a few days beforehand, the forecast was windy as heck, particularly for the Geneva end of the lake. Apparently conditions would be reasonable up the other end, but the problem was we couldn't row there.

On the plus side, at least the decision wasn't even marginal (60cm high waves and rowing boats are not a good mix and because the trouble was all being caused by "la bise" a wind from the North East, it was going to be worst at the Gemeva end of the lake) and the 100 rowers from all the marathon-rowing countries of Europe (plus the UK) who started assembling at the Societe Nautique de Geneve (SNG) in balmy autumn weather the day before the race all understood that. But they also seriously wanted to go rowing.

What to do? After months of planning the equipment and people needed to run a race round the lake, including individual cruisers that act as safety boats for each of the 20 crews, and timing teams for the 13 control points (spread round the 160km perimeter of the lake, of course), the organisers abandoned all that and set about (after a totally essential cafe noir, of course) planning a completely new event in a different location to start less than 24 hours later. The safety boat people were reportedly very disappointed at being redundant, but better than being over-employed, eh?

We left them to it and set off for a 28km sightseeing paddle up the French side of the lake which we usually never see when racing past in the other direction in the dark.
The calm before the storm.
Hermance: a charming place to stop for an ice cream (though not when it's 9pm and you're still racing back to Geneva, obvs.)
In the meantime, the organisers had devised a cunning plan. Conveniently, the rowing section of the SNG has a second boathouse on the Rhone, which is is fed by Lac Leman at Geneva, and this would provide a base for the revamped race which would involve four 20km loops up and down the river.

Early next morning we walked down to the club in the dark from the nuclear bunker dormitory accommodation up the hill. Although we could hear the wind, it was only when we reached the road that runs alongside the lake and saw large waves breaking over the esplanade wall, that we realised quite how accurate the weather forecast was. 

Compared with the main club, which could reasonably be described as "proper posh" (and where rowing is clearly subsidised poor relation of the sailing and motorboat sections), the corrugated metal boat shed from which SNG's eights and other boats train, had a familiar functionality to it, although challengingly only two toilets.

The organisers had come up with a F1-style grid for the start, which was almost totally ignored by all crews. A video of the haphazard departure can be seen here

Sheltered from the storm raging on the lake by the river's high, wooded banks, the view from the boat while racing was a bit boring compared to the usual Tour, but on the plus side we quite enjoyed seeing all of the other crews as we passed them going the other way (either ahead of us or behind us), which also allowed us work out what place we were in (13th out of 20 but first of the three women's crews by a very long way), something that isn't usually possible as the boats spread out round the lake, sometimes separated by eight hours from first to last.

There was a little bit of jostling for position over the first loop or so, during which we had the somewhat depressing experience of being overtaken by a boat sporting fluffy St Bernard dog (one of the members of this Swiss crew was called Bernard, and seemed surprisingly attached, for a middle-aged man, to his toy). 

Other features which kept us entertained were a detergent factory or a commercial laundry that had a lovely soapy smell, although we never saw it because it was behind trees; and an abandoned factory that had become a hippy commune with a banner outside it announcing, "We're building a world without prison." Nope, no idea. Even more bafflingly, a floating platform was moored outside it that featured two home-made water wheels, and a piano. Really no idea about that.

Despite the jolly cheers of the teams at the timing points, the novelty had really worn off by the third loop, though. Afterwards, one of the organisers commented that the local swans had been pretty surprised to find their usually tranquil existence disturbed by so many rowing boats. 

Let's hope we don't need to bother them again.

More "Rowers of the Rhone" than our team name, "Ladies of the Lac".

Still (mostly) having fun quite late on in the race.
Not a breath of wind at the prize giving the following day, of course.

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