A SUP guide to the Marathon International des Gorges de l’Ardèche

It’s the last event on the EuroTour 2021 calendar, the Marathon International des Gorges de l’Ardèche is above all one of the biggest events in the world of Canoe-Kayak with an average of 1,500 participants per edition and has been open to Stand Up Paddle participants since 2016, a fact that has gone a little unnoticed due to the 3 cancellations that have unfortunately taken place in the last 4 years. The Marathon nonetheless has big ambitions in SUP racing and will welcome this year at least two world champions, the New Caledonian Titouan Puyo and the Hungarian Bruno Hasulyo … and, last minute news, the Italian Paolo Marconi and the French Fanny Tessier are announced. These international stars will have next to them on the starting line, a true specialist of the river, the titleholder Michael Fargier! Big battles in sight! Luis Brisson, from the organizing club Vallon Plein Air, sets the scene for us with a flurry of questions and answers!

Hello Luis Brisson, can we start with your introduction?

Hello Mathieu, I have a state diploma in Canoeing. My core business is to be a sports educator. I train young and old paddlers all year round within the Vallon Plein Air Club, before some of them move eventually upwards, in more suitable structures.
Basically, I take care of the club throughout the year.

How is the Vallon Plein Air club structured?

The club was created in 1964. It is located next to the CREPS Rhône ALPES, which is a training center for outdoor professionals and there is a strong historical link between the two institutions. We are a kayaking and paddle sports club and therefore practice kayaking, Stand Up paddling and canoeing.

In 1984, to try to keep the association alive, an event was created: the International Marathon des Gorges de l’Ardèche with 100 people at the start in the 1st year and a peak in participation with 2000 registered in 2004. The event was quickly opened to canoes. And from 2016, we integrated SUPs.

We are 2 full-time employees throughout the year, two positions that can only be funded through this event. Fortunately, our partners have supported us during the last two years of the pandemic. This allowed us to stay in place and welcome the sixty or so members who come to practice every week.

There has been a few cancellations over the last few years? What is the current status around the event?

We are coming out of a rather difficult period with cancellations in 2017 and 2018 for climatic reasons ie a year with not enough water which was a first and then a year with too much water. We then had a “small” marathon in 2019 with 1000 participants and the 2020 edition was canceled due to COVID. So, three cancellations in 4 years. A stat that is not very good for us but for the 37th edition this coming weekend, the desire is still the same to organize a large-scale event.

I would also like to remind you that the International Marathon des Gorges de l’Ardèche is an event that was created by volunteers and that continues thanks to the commitment of 300 volunteers, including twenty who meet regularly throughout the year.

Are you sensing some enthusiasm for stand up paddleboarding from kayakists?

We have clearly noticed this in the world of Canoeing, with a very strong growth of SUP over the past 5 years. In the Ardèche region, for example, all the clubs are equipped. It is a strong trend that can be explained by the fun side of the discipline, with the added advantage of being upright and having a better reading of the water. And it works both ways. With more and more stand up paddlers who take to kayaking to understand how the river works.

To be more precise, stand up paddle boarding is very similar to canoeing, since both sports are used with a single paddle. And in river stand up paddleboarding, the link is even stronger since knowledge of river navigation is crucial in both cases.

Michael Fargier, the title holder, a former kayakist converted to SUP racing

What are the main events within the Marathon International des Gorges de l’Ardèche ?

We have 3 main races. The global event is called the International Marathon des Gorges de l’Ardèche and includes three races:

– The Ard River Paddle. As in 2019 and 2016, we start with stand up paddling on a 27 km race that starts at 9 a.m. This year, we are the last event on the Eurotour calendar, which must have motivated world champions like Titouan Puyo and Bruno Hasulyo to line up this year!

– The Challenge: it is the race which sets off the group boats and which brings together the largest number of participants so it is a very fun events with boats of 3 to 12 places, mainly C9 (9-seater canoes), V6s, traditional boats, etc. We have around a hundred boats on the Challenge, which represents around 700/800 participants who are not coming for a podium but to enjoy the atmosphere and the views.

These 2 events start under the Pont d’Arc, the emblematic arch which is located just after Vallon Pont d’Arc, at the entrance to the Gorges de l’Ardèche natural park.

– The 3rd start is that of the Marathon, the original race which rather brings together the real competitors, in single-seater or two-seater boats, who launch from Vallon Pont d’Arc, a little higher than the arch. Participants include Olympic medalists, world championship medalists in many disciplines of Canoe-Kayak.

– There is an expo village on Friday in Vallon Pont d’Arc which moves to St Martin d’Ardèche on Saturdays with around 10 and 15 exhibitors. There are many Canoe-Kayak specialists but we hope to welcome more stand up paddle exhibitors in the future.

We will have an opening ceremony, where we welcome the participants and where we present the best on stage, who are part of the world elite, in an atmosphere friendly and festive.

Saturday evening is a meal-concert, very festive and very friendly.

Which category matters the most at the Marathon?

There is a ranking by category and all categories are rewarded. But as this is a mass start, what is the most attractive and the most-watched event is the arrival of the first boats and therefore the scratch victory of the two-seater kayaks which remain the boats that go the fastest. The crews get together precisely to be competitive for the scratch victory in this event.

What does the finish line look like?

It is often a sprint finish. We have put the finish line in front of the spectators, with a first passage in front of the crowd, then a last buoy turn which is very often decisive and a finish in front of the spectators.

How many participants are expected on November 13?

We have already reached more than 2000 participants. This year we expect between 1300 and 1500 participants which would already be a very good edition.

Can we rent equipment on the premises?

On site, there are rentals, but mainly two-seater kayaks for the general public, which are mainly used in summer to enjoy the scenery not as high-performance kayaks. In terms of SUPs, we do not have SUP Race board, but we do have all round paddles available. As it is a race that can be done in touring mode, you are welcome to contact us to rent this type of board.

Can you talk about the course and its technicality?

It is a river which launches on 27 kms of descent with about thirty class 2 rapids on a scale of 5. They are not very difficult rapids, in general rather short rapids, some have turns, some have wave trains. We are fortunate to have had a partnership with the EDF dam for 30 years which allows a large release of water if necessary. Which means several things, more speed, less chance of hitting stones with your equipment. It is a descent that is easily done under 3 hours and the first SUP racers win in 2 hours.

Safety wise, we put in place a safety crew on the water that allows you to cross all rapids with confidence. You still have to have a basic knowledge of whitewater if you don’t want to fall into the water. But if you do, you will be safe.

The water flow is estimated at 6 to 10 m3 per second in summer which corresponds to a water height of -70 / -80cm below the measuring scale in Vallon Pont d’Arc, while during the race we will be at + 30 / + 50cm, and a flow rate of about 100 m3 / s.

What stand up paddle crafts can join the event?

All stand up paddle boards are welcome. We have individual registrations, tandem SUP (two-seater), Dragon SUP (4 places) or Big SUP (6 to 8 places)

Can you remind us what are the mandatory pieces of equipment?

A floatation vest is required for all whitewater practitioners. Then, helmet, shoes and thermal clothing adapted to the weather, at least a Long John. The leash is prohibited in the river. This is not a restrictive component as we are on small rapids followed by large flat stretches of water. This means you can easily recover your board or paddle after a rapid if you fall.

What to do in the event of a fall?

In the event of a fall, the priority is to try to fall on your board. And in the event of a fall in a rapid, it is best to fall flat, on your back (ie not feet first) to avoid sinking and touching stones or other obstacles in the water that could injure or trap you. It is also advisable to try and keep your board close to you to have a floating device.

It also seems important to me to indicate that on our race, there is no rule on the way you paddle or the number of strokes when you are not standing. You can therefore pass the rapids on your knees or lying down on your board if you feel the need.

Can we do a rec0 of the course before the event?

In kayaking, many people do a trial run the day before or the day before, which is also possible with a paddleboard, even encouraged. There is a bank holiday here in France and many people take a 4 day weekend. This is the opportunity to do the run several times over several days before and after the event.

What is the choice of places to stay near the event?

Participants stay around Vallon Pont d’Arc or St Martin d’Ardèche which is the arrival village. The advantage of Vallon Pont d’Arc is that it is a flagship tourist destination all summer and which welcomes many people with campsites and lodges which are empty at the time of the race. The event kind of wraps up our summer season.

What are the nearest airports?

For international flights Marseille and Lyon are 2 hours away. Closer we have Montpellier at 1h30, Nîmes at 1h have low-cost flights.

Is it possible to enjoy the Gorges de l’Ardèche run on a paddleboard the rest of the year?

Yes, it is a course that is done in the summer but under very different conditions. Either under supervision with a specialized company or independently. We see more and more people who have a good level of paddling and who do the descent alone.

That said, with the low water level in summer, the descent can take a long day, some paddlers even do it over two days with a bivouac in the middle.

Thank you Luis Brisson and see you on November 13 at Vallon Pont d’Arc for a LIVE start and follow-up on TotalSUP!

You still have time to register!

About the Author

Mathieu Astier

Mathieu is the hyper-active founder of TotalSUP and a multilingual online marketing veteran with more than 20 years of experience working for top international internet companies. His love-at-first-sight for Stand Up Paddling in 2013 led him to build one of the leading online media dedicated to SUP in English and French and to turn his family lifestyle towards the ocean.

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