Well here we are, with April now upon us it means that I’ve successfully completed my first full month in exile and, as I hope you’ve been able to see from my various posts over the past month, I’ve had an awesome start to life out here! On Sunday, I went into the GP de Bologne (yes, I have spelt it correctly) with the hope of finishing the month on a high, but as you’re about to find out, it turned out to be quite an eventful way to cap my first month of racing …
As ever, Sunday was cold. And wet. Very wet. No matter how nice the weather may be during the week over here, it would seem that the sun takes the Sabbath day very seriously and is absent every week without fail. Apart from at Saint-Gratien … but then there’s always an exception every rule right? Anyway, the main sliding door on the van had a bit of a malfunction half way through the journey and wouldn’t shut properly after we’d stopped for a quick comfort break, so an hour and a half of cruising down the autoroute at 120 kph gave me plenty of time to get accustomed to the elements outside. Safe to say the seat by said door became particularly unpopular but thankfully we arrived at our destination without losing anyone from the van and after a quick reccy of the circuit, we changed, warmed up and assembled at the start line, ready to race.
As soon as the race rolled out, I manoeuvred myself to the front of the bunch where I stayed for the opening kilometres, paying close attention to the opening salvo of attacks and following in the wheels of any moves I thought had potential. As usual, the initial digs proved fruitless but when an attack from Antoine was closed down, I decided to chance my arm and counter-attack, going straight over the top as soon as he was caught. After a thirty seconds of driving it, I took a quick glance back over my shoulder to see no one on my wheel and clear daylight between myself and the peloton, who we rolling along looking at each other. At this point, it would have been rude to ease off so I put my head down and ploughed a lonely furrow into, yep … you guessed it, a whacking great crosswind.
After a few minutes, a cry of desperation mixed with pain reached my ears and I peered ’round to see Antoine AND Fabio toiling away in between myself and the bunch, so naturally I took my foot off the gas for a brief moment and waited for them to catch up. After all, three is a much stronger force than just one, especially when it’s those two coming across the gap! Once we linked up we settled into a pretty brutal rhythm of through and off, pushing hard to establish a decent advantage over the pack and when two other riders managed to come across to us, we gained the extra firepower needed to pull out a decent lead.
For the best part of thirty kilometres we worked well as a quintet and, although it was still early in the race, I really thought that this could be the winning move. Then, low and behold, just as had happened at Montataire a couple of weeks ago, another train stopped play!! As we stood helplessly at the barriers of the level-crossing with the rest of the peloton, who by now had caught us up, I was feeling pretty annoyed that we’d been halted and had our rhythm disrupted. Still, the commissaires would re-instate our advantage before they allowed the bunch to resume and the racing could continue as before, right? Wrong. Apparently, the commissaires decided that our lead wasn’t significant enough and it would be more hassle to stagger the restart than to just set us all off together. Having just bust-a-gut for forty-five minutes in order to build the lead which we had, I was somewhat inclined to disagree with this decision. Fair enough, there had been a big surge in the peloton just before the race was halted (which had actually caused a split in the bunch) and, yes, our advantage had reduced from what it had been a few kilometres previously, but there was still clear daylight and plenty of empty tarmac between ourselves and the chasing group behind so, in my humble (but right) opinion, we should have been given our lead back!
Still, these things happen and I didn’t have too much time to dwell on it because as soon as we got going again the attacks started in an attempt to form a new breakaway. As I’d done before, I stayed attentive at the head of the race and covered a number of moves until Fabio and Frederic, another of my team mates, managed to get themselves clear. This escape lasted for a couple of laps until some strong work from one of the other teams closed it down and, with everything now back together, Antoine gave the order for the team to take control of the peloton. Naturally, I headed back up the head of the bunch and set about contributing to the team’s efforts on the front.
By this stage in the race, the grizzly conditions and hard racing had significantly reduced the numbers in the peloton but luckily most of our team were still present, giving us a handy numerical advantage over the rest of the remaining field. For a couple of laps we set a strong pace on the front of the pack to discourage any attacks, and then rode even harder in the crosswind sections with the goal of softening everyone else’s legs. With three and a half laps to go, one lone rider decided to chance his arm and attacked us on the circuit’s only climb, gaining a small but controlled advantage. At the time, only myself, Antoine and Fabio were still working for the team and we’d just finished a big turn in the crosswinds, so it was decided that we would let the escapee suffer out ahead on his own for a bit, whilst we’d ride a strong but steady tempo up the climb before cranking the pace up over the top into the next section of crosswind, hopefully reeling in the rider ahead and also splitting the bunch up at the same time.
Unfortunately though, our master-plan was scuppered when one of our team mates who hadn’t been working with us attacked half way up the climb, sparking a big reaction from the other strong riders in the bunch who we’d been trying to nullify and serving to blow the now-fragile bunch to pieces. Still in oxygen debt from our huge effort just moments before, neither myself, Antoine or Fabio had the capacity to respond and as we crested the hill we found ourselves adrift of a ten-strong leading group. Although two guys from our team had made it into the break, this still wasn’t a particularly great representation for us considering the number of other strong riders in the group, and the fact that there was still us three not far behind in a chasing group of fourteen. With this in mind, we set about trying to bridge across the gap but because I’d had no time recover from my previous stint on the front, I really found myself suffering during the chase and it didn’t help that no one else in our group would share the work with us three. I was also very frustrated at having missed what was proving to be the crucial move of the race, particularly as I’d been feeling good all race and I’d been so attentive from the very start, not to mention the fact it was an attack by our own team mate who had put us on the back foot.
However, my afternoon was about to get a whole lot worse when I allowed a lethal mix of frustration, suffering and reckless determination to cloud my judgement, culminating in my first acquaintance with French tarmac. The heavy rain throughout the day, combined with slick road surfaces and oil residues left behind by vehicles, had turned parts of the course into an ice rink so when I steamed into a roundabout having just done a big turn on the front, there was only ever going to be one outcome. Before I knew what was happening, my wheels had gone from underneath me and I was sliding across the roundabout on my side. Much to my agony, this was by far the furthest I’ve ever slid during a crash and by the time I came to a stop just shy of the crash barrier, I’d watched most of the group ride past me! In a perverted kind of way, it’s actually quite cool to see a bike race from ground level by sliding alongside it.
As I gingerly picked myself up off the cold asphalt, my first emotion was one of relief that I’d not taken anyone else out. This quickly morphed into anger at my stupidity, and at the pain which had now hit me pretty hard. Naturally, I took my anguish out on my bike, rather vigorously punching my skewed hoods back into normal alignment. Once this was in order, I delicately remounted and set off on my way once more. Thankfully, our team car was still behind our group when I hit the deck so the one saving grace of the whole sorry affair was that I was able to sit behind the car and get a tow back up to the group that I’d crashed out of, which I re-joined after a couple of kilometres. By this stage though, all impetus and willingness to chase had been lost and with twenty-five kilometres still to ride, we were resigned to battling it out for the minor places. After sitting in the wheels until the final lap, I then attacked the group on the final climb, about 5 km from the finish, setting off in pursuit of a trio who had stolen a march on us a couple of kilometres earlier.
One rider locked himself onto my wheel but wouldn’t help give me a turn in chasing the group in front, so a kilometre from the line I attacked again and managed to shake him from my tail. However, another rider who had jumped away from the pack behind caught me just at the foot of the finishing climb with 500 meters to go, and he immediately attacked me. I gritted my teeth and gave one last push, just about managing to stay in contact with him before coming off his wheel and outsprinting him to line to take, all things considered, a credible 14th place, just 9 seconds adrift of the trio I’d been chasing and 30 seconds clear of the group I’d left behind.
After crossing the line, I traipsed rather miserably back to the team van to asses the damage I’d done to myself in the crash. I won’t lie, for the last 30 km of the race I’d been in a fair amount of pain, especially from my ribs which had taken quite a bang when I hit the floor. However, having slid along the road for so long, my hip and elbows were also smarting and there was a fair amount of blood so I headed off to get some medical attention. Having located the medics, I limped into the back of an ambulance to have my various injuries assessed and cleaned up. Regrettably though, my day took another turn for the worse when the paramedics deemed that the wound to my hip required further medical attention than could be given by them with the resources available at the time. So, not for the first time, my race ended with a trip to hospital in the back of the ambulance. Not ideal when you’re two-and-a-half hours from home and reliant on the team for a ride back.
Shortly after being admitted to hospital (I have no idea which one or where it was) at 6 pm, Antoine and Eric (my DS on the day) arrived to act as my translators and carers. Now whilst my French is rapidly improving, it’s still far from perfect and I’ve very little experience in conversing about medial issues, so I was extremely lucky to have their support, especially as none of the doctors or nurses were able to speak English or understand my pigeon French! Once they’d made sure everything was OK and explained to me what was going on, they helped me to change out of my blood-stained cycling kit and clean myself up a bit, before they headed off with the rest of the team to grab some dinner and discuss the racing calendar for the rest of the season as planned.
For the next two hours, I lay in my bed in the corridor where I’d been left by the nurses. I have to say, the standard of care to begin with was pretty poor. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I wasn’t a priority, nor did I expect to be, and I guessed by the number of other patients dumped in the corridor with me that they must be busy, but in the whole two hours I lay there in my bed, not once was I checked on by any of the passing nurses. Since stepping into the ambulance back at the race, I hadn’t even been asked if I’d banged my head which, considering I’d just crashed my bike at a relatively high speed (about 20 – 25 mph my Garmin reckons), I’d have thought to be a pretty standard question.
Finally, at 8 pm, I was wheeled into a room where I thought I was going to be treated. Instead, I was left again for another two hours. Once more no one came to check on me so at about 9 o’clock, I ventured out onto the ward to try and get some water since it’d been over three and a half hours since I’d last had a drink! I managed to find a nurse who said she’d bring me a glass, but by the time Antoine and Eric arrived back at just after 10 pm, I’d given up on any hope of it actually arriving. Thankfully though, they’d bought me some food and a big bottle of water which, needless to say, I saw off pretty quickly!
After four and a bit hours of waiting, I was finally seen by the doctor at around quarter past ten. As it turned out, it was a good job I went to hospital in the end because the wound I sustained to my hip was actually quite bad. Not only was it pretty deep, but it had also collected a fair amount of the road surface so it was pretty mucky indeed. In fact, after initial attempts to clean it had failed, I had to have an anaesthetic to numb me so that two doctors could have a go at scrubbing it with a variety of tummy-turning instruments, such as a sponge with two inch, nail-like bristles. To my dismay, these measures still proved insufficient and the process culminated in what appreared to be the ward’s head honcho being called in to assess me. Next thing I know, I’m being given gas and air and FOUR doctors have set to work on me! Fair to say that the ‘gently gently’ approach was now well and truly out the window, and they proceeded to scrub my wound with the vigour that you’d use to to remove a stain from your favourite t-shirt.
Although pretty drastic, it did the trick and after a few minutes my hip was thoroughly clean. They then turned their attention to the injuries I’d sustained to my derrière, which are proving to be most uncomfortable and inconvenient, before bandaging me up. I was then sent for x-rays on my chest and ribs before undergoing a test of my kidney function and when all this came back clear, I was finally discharged at 11.45 pm with a prescription for antibiotics and various dressings for my cuts. After the long drive back to Corbeil, I arrived home at 2.30 am following what I hope will be the longest day of my season.
At this point I must say a humungous thank you to both Antoine and Eric, to whom I’m extremely grateful for taking such good care of me. The whole saga was obviously a huge inconvenience for them but not once did they complain or make me feel like a burden and, once again, I’ve realised how lucky I am to have found myself in such a supportive, kind and friendly team.
Obviously, I felt pretty tender on Monday but news from the team that I’ve been selected for the Criterium des Deux Vallées this weekend, a prestigious 2-day stage race, was a big boost to my spirits and by Tuesday I was back on the bike. After a good four-and-a-half hours in the saddle yesterday, my legs aren’t feeling too bad and hopefully I’ve loosened myself up enough to at least be of some use this weekend. For me, I see my inclusion in the team for the weekend as a reward for the hard work and solid performances I’ve put in so far this season, and it’s a big confidence boost to be representing the team in what’s an important race for us. Let’s just hope I stay upright this time!