Some observations: first, French canned beans are far superior to canned beans in the United States. Laissez-faire in all they do, the French seem to care not a whit for things like dietary concerns or vegetarian niceties. Their canned beans cheerfully boast meaty additions, and they also make sure to include salt (the French are practical about seasoning the way that Germans are practical about transport or money—there seems to be a general cultural attitude that doing the right thing is expected). The resulting product is so far removed from the bland product we Americans call “beans” as to be a meal in itself. I could subsist on them, happily, for months.
Second, as practical as they are with their salt, the French are maddeningly unspecific about roads, crosswalks, and bike paths. Everything, it seems, is fair game for travel. If it’s paved, it’s for any kind of locomotion: foot, rollerblade, bicycle, small scooter, giant scooter, motorized scooter, motorcycle, car, truck, or train. Crosswalks are merely advisory for motorists, and the “walk” symbol (a misleading, casually strolling green man) does not guarantee safety. Pedestrians take advantage of bike paths as convenient places to roll their luggage, and cyclists zoo bomb sidewalks and promenades, excusing themselves with repetitive ringings of manic bells.
Third: I have never experienced a nation so at peace with the promotion of beauty. Americans crave personal beauty but feel terrible about their cravings, simultaneously wanting and deriding the same thing. The French, I’d say, cheerfully elevate themselves and their surroundings to mythic, film-like proportions in all they do: cigarettes, yachts, dresses, tailored suits, arches, mullions, pressed-tin ceilings, mirrors, marble, oysters, wine glasses, coiffure, jewelry, shrugs, legs, fine paper—and they do so without the slightest whiff of guilt. Imagine a nation of people frozen at the age of five, when all you wanted was a frosted birthday cake and the streamers on your bike just so, and you get a sense of the glee with which most of the French conduct their daily existence (business is far too harsh a word).
So how does on conduct a triathlon—and not just any triathlon, but an Ironman—in this food-obsessed, aesthetic, directionally obtuse climate? Amy and I are in town for Ironman France, way down at the southeastern projection of the country in Nice (pronounced “niece” to our ears). Monaco is only a few miles to the east. To the south lies the Mediterranean Sea, which is bluer and saltier than I imagined it. To the west and north are places like Spain and England, which to the French mean the same thing that Canada signifies for Americans.
Ironman France celebrates its 10th anniversary and it’s 11th edition this year, which seems oddly young, as there has been an important long-distance triathlon here for ages. In the 1980s and 1990s, Nice rivaled Kona as the center of the triathlon world, offering a slightly different distance (4k swim/120k bike/30k run) but pretty much the same level of competition: Mark Allen won here ten times straight; other greats competed here many times. It is an important place in the history of the sport. If you’re going to make the pilgrimage, here’s how to do it.
Where to stay: aim for Vieille Ville, which basically means “Old Town.” You’ll be within walking distance of the swim start and transition area (and, more importantly, you’ll be within walking distance of your flat after you finish the race). If you’ve taken the train into town (see “Transport,” below), Old Town is only a few stops from the train station on the tramway that services downtown Nice (“Centre Ville,” in local parlance), so you’ll be able to get to where you’re staying easily, even if you’re rolling bike boxes, set up camp, and enjoy your stay once you’re there. We found one on Airbnb for 8 nights at $1250, which is pretty good. Most of the proprietors keep their prices pretty similar during Ironman week, and you can usually start booking rooms about nine months before the race.
Transport: you really don’t need a rental car for Nice. Amy and I are getting around Europe on a Eurail Pass (see the other articles I’ve been writing for Lava Magazine, European Racecation, for how-to information on navigating the Eurail system), so we trained into Nice and then took the tram from the station (“Gare” in French) to our flat. If you fly into Nice’s Cote d’Azur airport, you can either grab a taxi to Old Town, which will run you around 25 euro, or you can nab a bus, which is 1.50 and gets you on the tram, too. A bus/tram pass is good for 74 minutes, and you validate the pass when you board. Once you’re into your place, everything is within walking distance, but you can also rent bikes from the local bikeshare program, Velobleu, for around a euro an hour. The reservation system takes a little time to navigate the first go-round, but once you’re in, it’s pretty remarkable how easy it is to rent a bike.
Where to Swim: You’re aiming for Piscine Jean Bouin, 2 Rue Jean Allègre, which is a 10-15 minute walk from Old Town, or a four stop tram ride from the Ópera stop to the Palais des Expositions. Not to be outdone, Piscine Jean Bouin is in a sports complex called “Palais du Sport,” which, I believe, translates into “sports palace.” It’s a nice 50m pool, albeit indoors and somewhat dimly lit. Lane etiquette is bonkers (everyone ignores the prescribed paces clearly marking each lane: there will be people floating on their backs in the “Rapide” lane), but people are very comfortable with you passing mid-lane, even if someone else is coming the other direction. Admission is 3.80, and they have a small collection of pull buoys and kick boards.
Where to Ride: you’re in the south of France, so you pretty much ride wherever you want and it will be amazing. That said, it can be a little overwhelming at first. A great ride begins by climbing up to a town called Eze, which overlooks Nice and Monaco. From there you wind your way north through the French countryside. The roads are amazing, and drivers know how to deal with cyclists. They pass quickly, but with purpose. I never felt worried or endangered. One nice thing about riding around here is that every town shows you, clearly, where the next towns are, and Nice is usually an option, so if you get lost you simply start following the road signs back to the city and you’ll be home soon. If you’re in town to do the race, you probably won’t ride the course in your final taper week, but if your partner is also an athlete and isn’t doing the race, he or she should definitely ride the course. It’s a little short (my Garmin came up with 108 miles), but is without a doubt the most beautiful Ironman course I’ve ever ridden. There is 6000 feet of elevation gain, but most of it comes during the major climb on course, up to the Col l’Ecre, which is 13 miles in length. After that ascent, you only have a shorter 4 mile climb to tackle, and the course is predominantly downhill and fast.
Where to Run: For running, you’re somewhat constrained. I did all of my training runs along the Promenade des Anglais, which is the major beachfront/boardwalk in town. There is a bike path that cyclists are ostensibly supposed to stick to, but see observation #2, above. You’ll definitely have to keep your head on a swivel running here, but once you get a little to the west the traffic eases slightly. This is the run course for the race: you make four down-and-back trips from Old Town to the Airport, about 6.55 miles each round trip. So participants and support crew are likely to get many looks at the run course during race week. If you run east, you’ve only got about a mile-and-a-half of running before you dead-end in Nice’s Port.
What to Eat: food everywhere in France is remarkable, but the Nice area is know for Nissard or Niciose cuisine. Things you should try are Pan Bagnat (basically a huge roll stuffed with eggs, tuna, anchovies, olives, radishes, lettuce, and tomato), Salade Nicoise (tuna, egg, anchovies, tomatoes, potates, green beans, white beans, lettuce), Pissaladiere (an onion tart with olives and anchovies), and Socca, which is a chickpea crepe. Socca sounds boring, but provides one of those “holy shit I can’t stop eating this stuff now it’s all gone and I want more” eating experiences. It’s cooked on a huge copper crepe pan to crispy flakiness, and then scraped off and dumped into a cone of paper. Basically it’s the local version of French Fries, and it is amazing.
Where to Shop:although you can get what you need at the expo, you’re in for long lines during the heat of the day if you go there for equipment and mechanical support. Hit The Triathlon Store (unoriginal name, but very simple to locate via the Internet), at 5, rue de Lépante. They were friendly, supportive, engaged, and wholly without any of the attitude that can infect cycling stores in the US. They helped us with little items (tubes, CO2, valve extenders) and mechanical issues. One of their workers was participating in the race, so it’s one of those shops that walks their talk, too. We cannot say enough good things about them.
So that’s it! Ironman France should go on your bucket list, for sure. The race itself is amazing, and the location cannot be beat. On Monday, the day after the race, Amy and I rented two Velobleu bikes following the award ceremony (which was the quickest, best-catered award ceremony I’ve ever attended) and rode back to our flat along the Promenade. The moon was out and shining on the Mediterranean, and Nice itself was lit up, the streetlamps making a glittering necklace curving away in the night. Cigarette smoke hung on the air, but not in an oppressive way, which is how I would describe France in general: things that might oppress you in your normal life seem to matter less here, with a warm clear ocean nearby and an amazing meal in your stomach.