Ironically, seeing as this is the first week that I’ve actually had internet access at my flat since moving to France, I’ve been a bit slow to hit the keys. Nevertheless, I’ve finally taken the time to probe around the vast (empty) spaces inside my head and spew out a few words about last weekend, which for the first time this season, saw me in action on both Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately, Saturday’s race at Orrouer didn’t quite go to plan, however the disappointments I was harbouring were soon forgotten come Sunday afternoon, when I managed to pick up a very pleasing result amidst the swanky car showrooms of Saint-Quentin’s finest trading estate …
Saturday: Tour du Pays Courvillois
Ah, the Tour du Pays Courvillois – a race I don’t think I’ll ever forget, primarily because it’s probably, no … definitely, the craziest, most stressful, most full-on race I’ve ever done. Honestly, it was mental … just mental. Run over 130 km on a course comprising of one, large 110 km loop followed by three smaller finishing circuits around the rural village of Orrouer, I reckon I must have spent all but two minutes careering along hideously exposed, sickeningly twisty farm lanes that were only just about wide enough for one car, let alone 140 adrenaline-pumped Elite cyclists. And, even then, I couldn’t savour those two, brief minutes of respite on ‘proper’ roads because I was too was busy making the most of the opportunity to cram whatever food and drink I could down my neck, mainly, if anything, in an attempt to rid my mouth from the taste of the handlebar tape which I’d been chewing on since the very start.
Having begun the race right at the rear of the bunch (BIG MISTAKE), I was on the back foot from the off and, by the time I’d negotiated my way around the first left-hander to leave the relative tranquillity of Orrouer, I was already the best part of 200 meters behind the guys at the front of the bunch who seemed to be taking great pleasure in smashing it into the crosswind. Two kilometres later, having been riding at my limit just to keep up with the guy in front, I found myself straddling my top-tube, unclipped from one of my pedals and skating my way along the road, doing my best to keep myself upright having rear-ended one of the riders ahead of me.
Unbeknown to us poor folk scrabbling around in the gutter at the back of the race, a pinch-point in the already narrow road had caused the guys at the front to hit their brakes in order to negotiate the obstacle ‘safely’. Unfortunately, as is the case in any bunch, the effect of braking by those at the front is magnified significantly by the time the guys at the back realise that they have hit the brakes and, on this occasion, with myself and those around me having been sprinting flat-out to merely stay in touch with riders in front, the sudden reduction in speed caught us by surprise and for most of us their wasn’t time to scrub off our speed. The result; an unexpected and uncontrolled game of human pinball.
With riders all around me colliding and bouncing off one another, my ‘sturdy’ frame did a good job of deflecting a couple of brutal side-shunts but, unfortunately, I simply couldn’t prevent myself from piling into the back of the rider in front of me. Upon collision, the impact threw me down onto my top tube and wildly off-balance, yet somehow I managed to unclip my left foot from my pedal and use it so stabilise myself, preventing an unwanted acquaintance with the tarmac. In Bambiesque style, I skated along with my one foot for about 50 meters until I finally regained enough control to get myself safely back into the saddle and start pedalling again. Disaster averted … just.
Over the next 10 km, there were multiple pile-ups caused by the unhelpful combination of strong winds, narrow roads and gravel laced corners, and I winced each time I heard the awful sound of tarmac greeting carbon. By the time I finally made it to the head of the peloton, after half an hour of trying, our team had already lost two riders to seperate incidents, including Dave in a crash. Unfortunately for my legs and lungs though, we still had plenty of strong riders present so it was straight onto the front to work with the team as we attempted to split the race in the wind, or at least take the sting out of some of the other riders.
As the race wore on, things failed to improve from a safety, “Am I going to die?” point of view but after 70 km of constantly fearing for my life, my race ended prematurely after I punctured on one of the climbs, just as the pace was hotting up. Although I managed to get myself into the convoy of team cars following the now significantly reduced peloton, the narrow lanes and my lack of experience of riding through a race convoy meant that after seven kilometres of not getting any closer to the bunch, I made the rather painful decision to ease off and save my legs for the following day.
Whilst I hate to give up and not finish a race, something that (thankfully) very rarely happens, on this occasion it didn’t make sense to keep banging my head against a brick wall when I had another undoubtedly testing race in under 24 hours time. And, whilst I was disappointed that it was a mechanical issue that put paid to my race and not necessarily a physical one (although my legs were stinging!), it was actually quite good for me to get my first experience of chasing back on through the cars. So I guess 70-80 hard, race kilometres in the legs and a valuable learning experience can’t be called a total waste of a day, even if it didn’t quite pan out as I’d hoped before the race.
Sunday: GP de Saint-Quentin
If Saturday was crazy, then Sunday’s race at Saint-Quentin had the potential to be borderline ridiculous. 174 riders were registered to start on a circuit that was only a shade over 6 km long, so there was every chance that the riders at the front of the bunch would catch those at the back in no time at all, potentially giving us a real headache with establishing who’s where in relation to front of race. Thankfully, as it turned out, the roads were very wide and it wasn’t a particularly technical course, so the bunch was never going to be so strung out that this eventuality could occur.
Eager to ensure that my race got off to a better, and calmer, start than Saturday, I made sure I got myself a good position on the start line and, once the race started, I was quick to move right to the front of the bunch at the earliest opportunity. For the first couple of laps I stayed attentive and kept myself in the first ten riders at all times, so when Antoine gave me the word, I was well placed to latch onto a breakaway that was forming over the top of the climb on the third lap. Initially, we made good use of the following section of crosswind to establish ourselves a small gap over the peloton and following a couple of laps of really hard work, we managed to put the peloton well and truly out of sight.
Similar to the break I found myself in at Saint-Gratien, the group was large in numbers (around twenty five or so) however this time I had two team mates for company, Antoine and Geoffrey. There was plenty of cohesion in the group and for the next hour and a half everyone in the escape relayed continuously without any attacks, sharing the workload pretty evenly amongst us. Yet despite the constant tempo, the pace was high and, when combined with the testing climb we faced once a lap, it proved too much for some riders during the second half of the race we started to shed one or two guys every lap.
With three laps to go and the finish getting closer, a couple of teams in the group started getting twitchy and this resulted in a couple of big digs on the climb, which served to blow the group to pieces. Both myself and Antoine found ourselves distanced from the head of the race and with just one other rider for company, we buried ourselves for the best part of two laps, relentlessly pursuing the leaders. A series of attacks and subsequent chases in the front group didn’t aid our cause but eventually, just as we crossed the line to take the bell for the last lap, we made contact with the back of the group which was now 13 riders strong.
A kilometre later we hit the climb for the final time. Unfortunately, I paid dearly for the big chase back on from which I’d had no time to recover and, although I fought tooth and nail to stay in touch with the group, I was tailed off about half way up the ascent. Nevertheless, I battled my way to the top and chased the group, by myself, all the way to the into finish, where I crossed the line in 12th place, absolutely spent.
I needed a fair few minutes to gather myself and get my breath back, but once I had I felt enormously proud of what I’d achieved in the race, both in terms of performance and result. In spite of a little lingering fatigue in the legs from Saturday, I’d ridden strongly to make the breakaway in the first place before then having the determination to successfully chase back on when it would have been easier to sit up and accept my fate having been dropped. Furthermore, I’d had to dig deep and battle hard on the climb on a number of occasions throughout the race just in order to keep myself up in the break, yet I managed this whilst plenty of other riders fell away. But above all though I was pleased, no … delighted, that I’d proven to myself that I have the motivation, determination and character to bounce back and turn a potentially disappointing weekend into a very pleasing one, and this is something that gives me a great deal of self-confidence going forwards.