SOMETIMES I find it hard to remember why I ever got into cycle racing in the first place, and this is one of those moments. The rain is tipping down out of a slate-grey sky. My two team-mates and I stand huddled around our bikes in St Junien’s market square, all secretly hoping someone else will be the first to bale out; to give us all permission to go home. There is just half-an-hour until the start of my biggest ever bike race: an 86km course en ligne with 120 riders, some of them semi-pros. But shivering and already soaked to the skin, François, Christophe and I can barely even persuade ourselves to go for a warm up, let alone think about making our way to the gallows, I mean, the start.
At last, however, a man blowing a whistle in a very earnest fashion waves his orange flag, and we are pelting helter-skelter into the wind and the rain: skidding, skittering, everyone yelling at the riders behind that someone is braking up ahead. This start from the town centre is billed as a départ fictif, so we have 2 or 3 kms to roll before the start proper, out in the open countryside. But the road twists and turns down some alarming descents – a personal bug-bear, where my lack of experience shows – even at this reduced pace, on rain-slicked roads, I see at least one of the leading riders fall; glimpse a pale, stick-thin figure in dark green lycra sprawled in pain. Later we will hear that he has a broken collar-bone. Another rider stands cursing in a ditch, his rear wheel punctured even before we have reached the start.
More shouting. “Freinez! Freinez! Brake! Brake!” And now this is the real starting line, somewhere in the rain-lashed middle of nowhere. As we stand and wait for the motorbikes to lead us out, I hear the sharp hiss of some of the more experienced riders releasing blasts of air from their tyres, in the quest for a little more grip at the expense of maximum speed. I gaze down at my own Schwalbe Ultremos, pumped up to a rock-hard 100psi, and decide to hope for the best. It’s going to be tough enough to keep up with the rest of these guys, without doing anything that slows me down. Relax, I remind myself. Try and keep your heart rate below 160 from the start, or you’ll never last the distance.
Another whistle, and now people are stomping their cleats into their pedals and pulling away. To my relief, I achieve the unthinkable, and clip into my own slippery pedals at the very first attempt. The pace is frenzied, but I pick a wheel to follow and manage to hang on as we crest the first hill. I glance down at my heart rate monitor: 175.
I just wish I could see a bit better. But my shades are spattered with rain on the outside, and misting up on the inside. There is a constant spray from the wheels hissing in front of me. And all I can think is: hang on, hang on.
For the first few kilometres, I manage to stay in about 20th or 30th position, but by the time we are half-an-hour into the race, I can feel myself having to work harder and harder to hold my place. Heart rate: 168. As I stand up in the saddle to force my way up another climb, I take a quick glance over my shoulder – and see that there is nobody behind me. Putain. So we have opened a gap of perhaps 30 metres on the main field, and they are falling back all the time. I experience a rush of elation. So this is it. Here’s my chance to cling on, if I possibly can, to the coat-tails of the big boys. Do so, and I could even win my category, for I’ve spotted only one other blue number – on other 3rd– category rider – in what has now become the leading group. I have to make the most of the hard work I’ve already put in. I have to stick in this pack.
26kms gone, and I’m still okay. Yes, the idea of continuing for another 60kms at this pace is unthinkable, but I’m still alive and there are even moments where I feel as if I can get my breath back for a while. Heart rate: 165. You’re descending well, I tell myself, because descending fast always gives me the willies, even when the road is dry, and I know I could be quicker if I were braver. Roughly 2 seconds later, I skid off the road into the trees. A tight corner has taken me by surprise and – rather than brake and crash, as I did in RideLondon – I decide to play it safe, and slide off into the escape lane.
Quick, quick. All is not lost. I haven’t lost contact with the group.
Shaky with adrenaline, I do my best to regain my rhythm as we hit the next climb, get into a muddle with my gears, and hear the tell-tale scrunch as my chain slips off the large crank.
No time to stop. Switching the front-derailleur back on to the smaller crank, I spin the pedals to pick up the chain. But it’s no good: the chain has already dropped down onto the frame. I have to pull in; dismount; yank at the grease-black metal with frozen fingers. And by the time I’m moving again, I’m all alone, apart from the cavalcade of cars and motorbikes that comes roaring past me, carrying wheels and officials and people who just can’t resist a procession.
In a way, it’s a relief to be able to slow down. The sense of easing up, for all of 3 seconds, is mental as much as physical. And then I start to push again. Even if I cannot catch the group in front, I can at least do my best to stay ahead of the riders behind. I glance over my shoulder; can’t yet see anyone behind me.
It feels odd to cycle alone, in silence, after the jostling, barging, hurtling frenzy of the first 45 minutes of the race. Perhaps 15 minutes later, a lone rider comes up behind me, and proceeds to hang on my wheel for the next couple of kilometres. I slow to allow him to take the lead for a while, and notice that he is a 1st category racer, with a black number 133 pinned to his back. He should be towing me, not the other way round. But he soon drops back again, leaving me to take the lion’s share of the wind.
“If you want to do a bit of work, that would be great,” I tell him, over my shoulder. Number 133 drops his head; says nothing. And then, on the next flat section, he comes past me; slips into position just in front, and we work together like that, taking turns, for the next few kilometres.
At the halfway point, with 43kms gone, a motorbike comes throbbing up beside us, and I recognise the smiling face of Claude, one of the veterans of my club, whose son Christophe has had an excellent season in the 3rd category races. “Michael, there’s another group perhaps 2 minutes behind you. Both Christophe and François are in it” he yells. I’m not sure if he’s telling me to speed up or slow down. But I take the modest lead we have as motivation, and dig in for another turn on the front.
For me, this is the best part of the race. The descents are less panicky, with just two of us sharing the whole width of the road. There is a feeling of companionship, rather than competition. And the pace is manageable; I appear to be stronger than Number 133 on the climbs; he can out out-roll me on the flat.
Claude returns on his motorbike a while later; reassures us that the gap hasn’t changed. So they aren’t yet managing to reel us in, and now there are only 20kms to go. We might just make it.
Little by little, however, I can feel myself beginning to run out of steam. Now 133 is the one having to wait for me at the top of the climbs. My heart and lungs are fine, but my legs just seem to have lost all their metal; I feel as if I’m pushing on balsa-wood sticks. Soon another 1st category rider joins us from behind. And it isn’t long before the two of them are pulling away from me.
“Come on,” shouts a steward in a flourescent yellow coat. “You can catch them easily.”
“Oui, oui,” I pant. I think: if only I could.
A few minutes later, I hear a familiar voice behind me. It’s François, sounding a lot more urgent than usual. I am ever so pleased to see him.
“Michael, hang on to my wheel,” he barks. “The wagon’s about to arrive.”
“Good to see you,” I puff.
“Never mind that, just roulez.”
Before long, both François and I are swept up by the chasing group of perhaps 15 riders, and I am grateful to be carried along at a pace I can sustain, at least until we hit the last few climbs, when I am forced to drop back on my balsa-wood pins and then accelerate hard when we return to the flats. I think about what might have been, had I not succumbed to hubris at the start, and instead ridden with this group who are more at my level in terms of fitness and strength. But it’s too late for that, because now we are in the last few kilometres, and people are beginning to jockey for position, with Christophe well-placed amongst them. The final climb has begun.
“Michael, Michael!” yells Claude, from his motorbike beside me. “You can’t crack now. You’re almost there.”
I am pedalling as hard as I can on my jellied, aching legs. But the tank has run dry, and I think I am actually going backwards. No, there’s another rider on my wheel, so at least someone else has faded even further than me.
I can only watch as this latest group begins to pull away from us up the hill. And now I can see St Junien church and I’m turning the final corner, climbing to the right, and the young bloke behind me has the cheek to try and make a dash for the line.
I’m not having any of this. I stand up on my pedals and manage a wobbly kind of sprint on my broken-down legs. It’s not fast, and it’s not pretty, but it’s enough. Crushed, my rival vanishes behind me and I hear the commentator saying something about cycling being very hard as I flail across the line.
How blissful it feels to stop pedalling.
The rain has stopped, too.
A man carrying a clip-board jots down my race number. He pulls a curious smile when he sees my expression. I attempt to smile back. But I don’t have the energy to move the muscles in my face.
François and Christophe wander over, and we congratulate each other over having finished at all. Grinning at the state of me, François wants to know if I’m planning to cycle the 30kms back to Bellac, rather than drive. I think I just about manage to smile as I shake my head. I’ll do better next year, I tell myself, out loud, as I haul myself off my bike.