DUMPED BY LADY LUCK
After a rather uncomfortable week of limping around following my crash at Bologne, I was really looking forward to a weekend away with the team at the Criterium des Deux Vallées last weekend, a two-day stage race down in the south of the country, half way between Limoges and Bordeaux.
Unfortunately though, my weekend didn’t get off the smoothest of starts when I broke a spoke on my rear racing wheel during a roller session on the Friday morning. As is the case after any crash, equipment can often suffer damage which isn’t immediately obvious, hence why I made sure I did a couple of sessions on my race wheels before actually racing on them again, but to break a wheel just a couple of hours before we were supposed to be leaving for the race was rather frustrating! Nevertheless, the team were, as ever, only too happy to help get me sorted ASAP and arrangements were made so that I could get the wheel fixed before prior to our departure on Friday afternoon.
Our digs for the weekend, along with all the other teams, was at a big college about 15 minutes drive from the start of stage 1 in Mornac. I have to say, the logistical side of the race was really well co-ordinated and as riders we were really well taken care of by the race organisers. On both the Saturday and Sunday there was a big breakfast laid on at the college, followed by a pre-race lunch at the town hall in Mornac. We also had a dinner ready and waiting for us when we arrived on the Friday evening, as well as on the Saturday following the completion of stage 1. Across all the meals, there was tons of food and it was all extremely tasty, so as far as I was concerned I couldn’t have really asked for more!
As I’ve already mentioned, Saturday’s stage 1 began in Mornac and initially the route took us north to the quaint town of St Oiers, before bringing us back into Mornac for eight, testing laps of a smaller circuit which featured a tough climb. With the stage being so back-loaded with climbing, I decided with my DS that I would target the days intermediate sprints, all of which came early on in proceedings before the serious ascending started, in a attempt to amass enough points to take the lead in the classification and earn the right to wear the sprinters jersey the following day.
However, from the moment I woke on Saturday morning I felt extremely anxious about what the stage had in store for me and, in particular, whether I’d be up to the level of racing. Because my sole focus for the week leading up to the race had been on trying to recover and get myself as close to normal mobility as possible, I was going into the weekend with very little knowledge of where I was in terms of form and condition. This feeling of the unknown, coupled with worries that my ongoing aches and pains would hamper my capabilities, was really playing on my mind and it lead to me stressing an awful a lot, obviously not an ideal state to be in just before a race.
One thing I was able to enjoy in the build up to the start, despite all my nerves, was the team presentations, something which I’ve never experienced being a part of before. A small podium was erected in the centre of the town and, one-by-one, the commentator called the teams onto the stage to be presented to the gathered crowd, giving a little insight into each team and introducing each rider. Once these ceremonial duties had passed and the race got underway, my anxiety began to subside a little as my thoughts and concentration became consumed by the racing and I began to focus on my plan of targeting the intermediate sprints. As I’d rather expected, a number of other riders had also started the day with the same plan in mind and this lead to a blisteringly quick opening hour of racing as whole teams looked to take control of the front of the bunch, in no mood to let any breakaways escape and pass up the opportunity of the points on offer. For the first couple of sprints I managed to get up in the mix, but I soon found myself suffering as a result of the relentless pace so I decided to ease back from the fighting at head of the race and take shelter in belly of the peloton.
Unfortunately though my rest was interrupted when, low and behold, another spoke went in my back wheel. Once I’d dropped to the rear of the pack and collected a new wheel from my team car, I began to make my way back through the extensive convoy of team cars, race referees and medical vehicles that tail every race over here. However, unlike my first experience a chasing back through the cars a couple of weeks ago, I was much more relaxed this time and instead of trying to drill my way through the convoy as fast as I could, attempting to overtake the cars at full speed, I stayed calm and relaxed, sat on the bumper of each car for as long as was necessary and only moved up to the next vehicle when there was a slowing down in the convoy. Whilst this meant I was in the cars for a fair while, it also meant I wasn’t wasting energy trying to out-race a motorised vehicle with a much bigger engine than what I’ve got!
Once I’d made my way back into the bunch, I had to act quickly to move up to the front for the start of the eight laps of the finishing circuit, and thus the first of the eight ascents we still had to tackle. For the first couple of laps, I fought hard to remain in the bunch over terrain that really isn’t my cup of tea, and it didn’t help my cause that my ribs and lower back had started to ache quite considerably by now. Eventually, after clinging on for as long as I could, I became uncoupled from the pack and I drifted back into the refuge of the gruppetto (basically a mini-pack of all the other fatties like me who hate climbs!).
Now out of contention for the win or a decent placing on GC, there was little point in pressing on so as a group we rolled calmly ’round the remaining laps in an attempt to conserve as much energy as possible for the following day’s stage. Sadly though, the weather gods decided that I hadn’t endured quite enough misery just yet despite my aching joints and muscles, lacklustre legs and broken wheel, and over the final 30 km we were subjected to an absolute drenching accompanied by an arctic wind. By the time I crossed the finish line down in 75th place, I was absolutely frozen. Thankfully though, the team van had been pre-heated for some time and it was ready and waiting to whisk me back to our accommodation for a hot shower!
Whilst I had been suffering my way through the day, my team mate Fred had done an exceptional ride to get himself into the breakaway that finally stuck and, in the process, had accrued enough King of the Mountain (KoM) points to top the standings and win himself the Polka Dot jersey (for the leader of the KoM classification) to wear for stage 2. Additionally, Piero had also done a fantastic ride and finished the stage as leader of the the best (ie. highest placed) Second Category rider competition, so it had been an extremely successful first stage for the team had one which left us leading two of the race’s classification. Or so we thought. As it turns out, the commissaires had actually miscalculated the KoM points won on the first stage and, as we readied ourselves for the start of stage 2, it emerged that Fred was actually in second place in the standings, one point behind the actual leader. Rather embarrassingly for the race officials, Fred had to unpin both his number from his leaders jersey and hand it back!
Nevertheless, as he was only trailing the leader by a single point we stuck to our original team plan for the day of making sure Fred won the classification outright by the end of the race. So, for the opening kilometres of the stage I had my orders to stay right at the front of the bunch, follow any and all attacks that didn’t involve Fred and, if I did manage to get into a break without him, win any KoM sprints in order to stop other riders from collecting any points. Thankfully, with so much at stake for the team today, my energy-saving tactics from the first stage seemed to be paying off and my legs felt much, much better. This meant I was able to carry out my assigned role successfully, shutting down moves and disrupting breakaway attempts until Fred finally managed to escape in a move that stuck.
With Fred up the road and in a prime position to mop up the available KoM points, my focus now switched to protecting Piero’s lead in the best 2nd cat competition. However, I never got the chance to see this job through as my race came to a rather abrupt and painful end after just 30 km when, for the second weekend in a row, I hit the deck. Having just crested the first big climb of the day, the race turned left into a big crosswind and naturally the bunch strung out into one long line as riders seeked to gain protection from the wind. As was the case for most riders at the time, I was right on my limit and fighting tooth and nail to gain some kind of protection from the rider in front of me, so when the edge of the road suddenly fell away and the guy in front dropped off tarmac and into the sunken gutter, I was stuck with very little room to manoeuvre. As I followed his wheel off the road and clattered into a big hole, my front wheel clipped the edge of the now-raised road and I came crashing down for my second rendezvous with French tarmac. Unlike at Bologne, there wasn’t much sliding involved this time – this was much more of an up-in-the-air-and-back-down-in-a-heap kind of crash – and I ended up doing some kind of ungainly commando role, going over my bike and landing heavily on my back, as well as my already injured left side.
As well as adding a few fresh cuts to my collection and shredding some more kit, I’d also re-opened old wounds around my left hip and my existing bruising and swelling had taken a big knock. After a few choice words and curses I painfully re-mounted my bike and began to pedal after the disappearing peloton, but this time there was to be no salvaging of my race. Having lost it in the head and in too much pain to continue with any impetus, I reluctantly pulled over to the side of the road and climbed into my following team car, smarting from the crash and livid at the run of bad fortune which I’d experienced over the past seven days.
My abandonment did, however, mean that I got to follow the race as part of the convoy of cars for a bit which, on reflection, was a cool experience and one I would have enjoyed a lot more if I hadn’t felt every vibration from the road and had my cuts not been sticking to the car seat. I have to say, the skill of some of the driving in the convoy is exceptional. It’s such a hectic, full-on environment with the potential for such disastrous consequences should something go wrong, yet in typical European style they’re so relaxed and nothing seems to faze or rile them, where as in contrast my stress levels were going through the roof and I wasn’t even driving!
Once I’d been kicked out of the car as we passed the team van, I got myself changed, cleaned my new wounds, attended to my old, re-opened ones and then headed up to the finishing circuit to help Nico, my regular DS, hand out bottles to the rest of the guys. Once again, the lads put in heroic performances on what turned out to be another brutal day and which saw a staggering total of forty-four abandonments! By the time Fabio, our best finisher on the stage, crossed the line in 10th place, Fred had already sewn up the KoM classification and Piero was about to clinch his title as best second cat.
In the immediate aftermath of the race, I was feeling really deflated and, quite frankly, utterly miserable. In the space of just one week, I’d crashed and been taken to hospital in an ambulance, trashed a load of kit, broken two spokes, crashed again, trashed a load more kit, suffered more cuts and bruises, undone all the healing work I’d done on my previous injuries and, as I saw it at the time, missed out on a huge opportunity to showcase myself against a top notch field in a well respected race. And, to top it all off, the race was a huge success for the team and the rest of the lads had all gone and done top-class rides which, and I know this sounds very selfish and self-centred, made me feel even worse about how I’d performed! Having said that, I was, genuinely, extremely proud of what the team had achieved and I was delighted for Fred and Piero, who are both top guys.
Now that I’m over feeling sorry for myself I’ve had the time to reflect on the weekend, I’ve realised that, in all honesty, I probably placed far too many expectations and far too much pressure on myself over the course of the race, as well as in the days leading up to it. Had I not crashed on stage 2, I would have at the very least finished the race and even though my performances and results wouldn’t have been, and weren’t, what I would have liked had you asked me after Saint-Quentin, I would’ve still made it through a tough two days against sterling opposition, just a week after a crash that actually banged me up a fair bit more than I’ve perhaps cared to appreciate over the past couple of weeks.
This week though I’ve started a new block of training and it’s begun really well – to my surprise my legs have been feeling really good and super strong. Most of the swelling on various parts of my body has also gone, the cut on my hip has almost, almost, healed and a small bit of tightness in my back is now the only discomfort I feel when in the saddle, so all-in-all I’m feeling really positive right now and I’m super motivated for this weekends race at Saint Cyr la Riviere! Hopefully I’ll have a more race to report on!