24 May, 2012

France: take three, and four.

The Tour de Loiret was next up, and having done it last year I was hoping that I could excel using prior knowledge. I got in the break on day one which was great! Then I got a bit sick during the stage, which wasn’t so great. Then I was sick and went out the back of the break with 30km to go. I hung in the second group on the road, just doing my best to get to the finish in one piece and then my flipping pedal seized up! The team car was with the break so there I was mashing along on a bike that felt like it had araldite bearings. With three kilometres to go an attack went in front of my wheel so, naturally, I followed despite being on my last legs. One un-expectedly sharp corner later and the guy in front had put me off the road, forcing me to hop a ditch and ride across a park. You couldn’t make this up. Hindsight makes everything funnier!

Stage two consisted of excessive hub staring after two teams decided to hit the front in the crosswinds after 7km. Yes 7km! Somehow all of the team were caught out at the back and thus we spent the first two hours reaching new levels of self harm in order to stay in contact. The next day it was payback time and we were determined to get some positive racing done, so early on we forced a break off the front with three Terra riders and the yellow jersey in. Kinch was up on GC too so we had every reason to make this split of fifteen work. Inexplicably I was feeling incredible so I absolutely drove it. We got over a minute on the bunch but the danger was apparent to the guys caught out behind and they put two full teams on the front. We were hauled in. Kinch was feeling good for the sprint so I gave him a full gas lead-out with 1km to go and got him to about 250-300m. He secured a solid 3rd.

In the afternoon there was another stage which was effectively a criterium. Gus snuck into the early break which did very well to stay away until the end, where he was just outfoxed in the last kilometre when an experienced rider escaped. He convincingly won the sprint for second: a great result!

Three days later and we were off to the Tour de Franche Comte; a pretty hilly four day tour. This race convinced me of the benefits of training in the mountains, because racing up them really is a shock. It’s a different sport. I was dropped on the final climb on the first two days and made my way to the finish with a few other stragglers, often Belgians similarly bemused by the speed with which dwarfish Frenchmen can ride uphill. Day three was 55km in the morning and 110km in the afternoon, and far flatter, which meant I was able to infiltrate (by brute force alone) the break on both occasions. In the morning I actually attacked on the final climb of about 4km (I know right?!) in a bid for freedom, before being caught on the false flat descent. I attacked again with about 2km to go, down the technical descent but was fooled by the final left hand hairpin with 800m to go, and swept up shortly thereafter.

In the afternoon Josh Hunt and I both got in the break of twenty or so and worked well to get over four minutes, before the bunch picked up speed again. With 25km to go we had just over a minute and hitting a short sharp 1km GPM climb the attacking began. It was still a long way to the finish but it was relentlessly aggressive none the less. Without exchanging words Josh and I knew the plan: attack, counter attack, counter attack… Somehow 20km and perhaps thirty attacks later it was still together. I launched one last cramp inducing, lactic fuelled attack with 2.5km to go, timing it so that Josh could let me go and give me a few seconds of surprise advantage. I rode through the chicane and final roundabout with zero concern for personal welfare and told myself it was my day.

It wasn’t. I was caught with 600m to go and managed to lose six seconds once the sprint started. Hunt managed an impressive 5th place with a lung bursting final sprint. The final stage was a real mountain beauty. I tried for the early break, but it didn’t happen and I found myself unable to retain contact on the first climb, 25km in. I rode as hard as I could over the top and got back on on the descent. This pattern was repeated twice more on subsequent climbs, before it flattened out for an hour or so and I was able to recover, a little. As we hit the second to last climb, I hit a wall of reality and realised I wasn’t a climber. It was a monster. A shout of “Gruppetto” was all I needed and the bunch was a receding memory. Nevertheless, it was still an absolute ordeal to get up, well over 20% at points, and the team cars were struggling as much as we were, wheel-spinning and clutch burning. Down the descent and now joined by Hunt and several other hardnuts, we hit the final climb thinking ‘how hard can 5km be?’ Pretty hard. You know it’s going to be a bugger when the climb finishes with a dead end because there are no other roads that high!

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