6:15am. Dominique, the president of the local cycling club, rumbles up the vertiginous drive to pick me up, and is promptly savaged by Pike, my rescue terrier.
“Putain, he’s ferocious, isn’t he?” gasps Dominique, in French. “I’m glad you put the muzzle on him.”
“He must have thought you were someone else,” I lie, as I lift my Bianchi Via Nirone into the back of Dominique’s car. His scarlet Picot bike is already in there, alongside a pair of cycling shoes and a gaping bag full of water bottles and energy bars.
An hour later, a whole bunch of us are changing into our cycling togs on the side of a road in the middle of Limoges. The city is famous for its porcelain and its enamel, but today it has gone cycling crazy, as the setting for the start and finish of the 24th staging of La Limousine: a 157km sportive that winds through the steep hills to the south of the city, as far as the Dordogne and back.
Half-a-dozen other blokes from the club are here, pinning their numbers to their jerseys with safety pins; stuffing their rear pockets with dried apricots and gels; forcing a last shot of air into iron-hard tyres. Thierry and Philou, the athletes, rubbing cream into their calves and joking about the effort that lies ahead; wiry François, who used to race with the big boys, 30 years ago; big old Claude, who has brought along a barrel of vin rouge for his post-ride hydration, and his son, Christophe, fastest and shyest of us all. Everyone shakes hands, and they tease me for my keenness: not only have I strapped a bag laden with energy bars and miniature sandwiches to my top-tube, but I’ve also stuck stickers on my handlebars, listing the points en route where we will face the seven biggest climbs. They can’t believe how few layers I’m wearing, either: the French feel the cold something rotten.
The atmosphere is part-eerie and part-magical as we whirr towards the start through silent city streets, closed to other traffic for this one day in the year. I wave at pedestrians – bonjour, madame! – and our numbers swell as other riders appear from all directions, like some huge set-piece number in a Hollywood musical. Heart fluttering with excitement, I do almost feel like singing.
The din in the main square is appalling, considering that it’s only 7:50am. A man is shouting into a microphone, attempting to be heard over the doof-doof-doof from the speakers as a squad of scarlet-and-tinsel-clad majorettes fling their batons into the air and do their best to march energetically enough to stop themselves shivering, while 1400 amateur French cyclists chat to each other about what they had for breakfast and whether it’s worth giving up their place only 200 metres from the starting line for the sake of a last-minute pee.
“Trois…deux…un…C’est parti!” yells the man with the microphone. And we’re off. Except that we’re not off yet, because there are at least 800 riders in front of us who must be funnelled through the narrow start before we can clip into our pedals and start heading towards the record books, or at least a personal best. My own chances of a personal best are looking quite promising today, since I’ve never cycled this far in my life. At 103km, last Sunday’s club ride was my longest sortie to date, and today we’ll be going 54km further than that. My target is 5hrs 10mins, since that is the “gold” standard for my age category today, or under 5 hours, with a fair wind. My plan for achieving this is to see if I can stick with little François, who is 10 years older and about 10 times stronger than me. But it will mean maintaining an average speed of almost 32km/h. I am entering uncharted waters and, with 2050m of climbing ahead of us, have no idea if my legs will last.
We edge forwards on tiptoes, each of us trying to nudge our way through the jumble of cyclists. And then at last we’re away, and immediately François starts pedalling like the clappers: head down, elbows out, bum in the air. It’s all I can do to keep up with him. Doucement, François. This is meant to be the speed-limited section (22.5kmh max). We haven’t even started yet.
But on and on he goes. We are ripping up the road as we head towards the outskirts of the city, leaving dozens of riders riding sedately in our wake. I glance down at my Garmin 305 on the handlebars. Average speed 32km/h. Heart-rate already at 168, against a max of 190. I can already feel the stirrings of lactate in my thighs, and we’ve only just begun. I know I can’t sustain this. I can’t wait to slow down. Christophe the butcher – my unofficial coach – warned me, only 3 days ago, about the need to pace myself; to make sure I save plenty in reserve for the steep climbs in the final 30kms of the race. Everyone in the club has seen, all too often, my tendency to fly and die; to blow up because of tearing off too fast at the start. And here I am, five minutes in, and it’s already going horribly wrong.
Perhaps 20 minutes later, François begins to accelerate up yet another climb with another rider in tow, and I decide that it’s time to let them go. We have already gathered up a knot of perhaps a dozen riders, and their pace feels quite punishing enough, thank you very much, without trying drop them and push on in a heroic breakaway.
As the grey ribbon of road spools through the countryside, we gradually absorb individual riders who have been pressing on alone. Heads down, their grim faces betray no hint of the relief they must feel at being able to take shelter at the back of a group which will give them more speed for less work. I do my best to stay off the front, but take a couple of turns in the wind even so.
Our little pack of 12 riders has grown to a peloton of perhaps 20 when we spot the thing: a huge black crow, splayed like a broken umbrella, lying dead in the middle of the road. Heads down, shoulders hunched, everyone is spinning or stomping on the pedals as they attack the day’s second big climb. We are 80kms into the ride; only just past halfway. Average speed 32.8km/h. Nobody wants to lose it here; nobody wants to be dropped. But it’s hard not to glance, just for a moment, at the angel of death in our path.
“Ugh,” grunts someone in front of me. Another waves behind his back, signalling the need to swerve around an obstacle. I try not to think of the bird as a sign: a portent of doom, aimed at one of us.
Bit by bit, I establish a rhythm. I begin to settle into the ride, enjoying the speed of our paquet, and the fact that – somewhat to my surprise – I am able to keep pace with these other riders who look far more toned and professional than I feel. A sign appears for Ravitaillement: the first feeding station, at last. With a pang, I realise that we are going to speed past the tables laden with lumps of banana and chocolate and dried apricot. I’m certainly not going to be the one to jump off this fast-moving train. I have plenty of energy bars and gels to see me through. But I’ve already slurped most of my water, and there’s still almost half of the race to go. A man appears at the side of the road, holding out a water bottle. I fixate upon the gleaming plastic object in his hand, ready to snatch it from him as I pass. That bottle has my name on it. It’s mine, all mine.
Wha…? A rider at the front of the pack slows and grabs the bottle. A few riders and grunt and swear. I stick out my right arm, gesticulating at the man. Another! Another! He bends to pick up another bottle. I want to brake, but there are too many riders bunched up behind me. The man is extending his arm. I snatch for the bottle. Surprised, he fails to let go.
The effect of this is immediate and brutal. Beneath me, my bike cartwheels violently to the right while I shoot straight over the handlebars. I have a snapshot image of my front wheel, pointing sideways. I shut my eyes, and wait for my head to hit the road.
Crack. Ah, that was better than I feared. But now comes the jarring and crunching of carbon and metal colliding behind me, and the sound of French cyclists crashing and swearing. It must be a mass pile-up. And it’s all my fault. I keep my eyes shut; play dead.
When I open my eyes, a bizarre sight greets me. The road is empty. Nobody has stopped. Even the man who held out the bottle has vanished. I am quite alone.
I examine my bike and climb, creakily, back on to it. Now other cyclists are beginning to whirr past me. Despite various gashes and grazes – right hand, right knee, left inner thigh – I am surprised to discover that I have avoided major trauma. On stiff legs, I start to pedal. I glance at my Garmin. Average speed: 31.8km/h. BANG. Has my knee exploded? No, it’s just the front tyre. I whip off the wheel and feed in a new inner tube, my fingers shaking with adrenaline. Come on. Come on.
And then I’m off again – faster now, desperate to make up for lost time – and a kindly motorcyclist draws alongside me to say that there is a group not far behind which I’ll be able to join. Average speed 30.9km/h. Before long I can see them over my shoulder. But they’re faster on the flat; I’m faster on the climbs. So when a lone cyclist slowly passes me, and I can tell from his shaved legs and chiselled calves that he is serious, I latch on to him, and start pedalling for dear life.
“My chain broke,” he says over his shoulder. “Want to work together?”
“I’ll do my best.”
So that’s what we do, albeit that he does 90% of the work in the wind, while I take over for rare bursts that leave me feeling spent almost as soon as I have accelerated into position in front of him.
I have no idea who Number 475 is, but he soon feels like my best friend in the world, as he drags me in his slipstream and tempers his pace up les Cars – the longest, steepest climb of the whole ride – to allow me to stay with him. Three other riders join us, and they, too, begin to share the workload of leading our grupetto.
Average speed 31.5km/h. I am going to make it. We are all going to make it. By the time we pass the 10km to go sign, my legs feel strengthened with the thought that we are almost there.
“The worst is done,” says Number 475, giving me a thumbs-up. And now we are flying through the outskirts of Limoges, up one last hill – a final, murderous sprint – and being funnelled, half-dead, into the finish. Is that it?
“I’ll bet you’re glad that’s over, aren’t you?” yells a helper, in my ear, over the deafening drumming of my own heartbeat. All I can do is gasp and smile, because the words won’t seem to come.
I shake hands with my new best friend, Number 475. If he only knew how much he helped me today. And then Thierry and Philou are ushering me into a Red Cross ambulance parked a few yards away. I don’t remember much about the next few minutes. I only know that a very pretty lady is telling three men how to fix my leg and knuckles, while I just sit there, glugging from a can of Perrier that somebody has thrust into my good hand. And then, with little François, I limp over to the results board, and search for my name.
I shut my eyes. It feels good to be alive today.
© Michael Wright