Sunday, October 03, 2010

My First Race in France

Ok, the first rule of racing in France: Never ever, ever, ever believe a Frenchman when he says the course is "almost completely flat". To an Englishman flat is flat, with possibly a bit of a downhill finish. To a Frenchman, flat is at best "rolling" with a "small" climb of maybe 8% and, I swear I am not making this up, a finishing stretch of maybe 500m into the village along cobbles at 22%!!!! It also comes of the corner at the end of the circuit's climb, just to really spice things up.

Le Grand Prix de [small French town]. Thankfully, I rode the circuit first, and thankfully they wouldn't let me race Elite 1,2 and 3! Because I had only just registered with their association they made me ride 4 and 5. Police outriders at a local amateur race, a beautiful course, 10 laps making just fewer than 50k. Cat 4 and 5. Sounded do-able.

How did it go?

How can I put it?

Basically, I got raped. By 40 angry Frenchman. For an hour. Over and over again, whilst a new friend (the French cyclist who invited me to the race after giving me directions to go training earlier that week) laughed at my suffering. He said he hadn't been that entertained all year.

On the rolling section the peloton averaged 50kmph. From kilometer 0. Seriously.

Some wad attacked on the first lap, got about 20 meters on the peloton, and then we groveled for a lap, trying to rein him in. And as soon as we had, someone else goes (actually it was mostly the original wad attacking again and getting others to do the same), we rein them in, then someone else, and so-on and so-forth. By about lap 4 (I really had forgone the ability to count by now) I felt the inevitable happening. I was slipping back through the peloton. Losing wheels each time every fucker and his dog stepped on the gas at the top of the climb. I just wanted to make sure I wasn't the first to get dropped. Surely someone else couldn't take this punishment for much longer too?

So as soon as I see the old boy next to me start to shake his head, I am onto him like a flash. My new best friend. Please Granddad, give it up. I'll keep you company. It'll be our own little grupetto. We can share our horror stories, tell each other about the injuries that have held us back today. Now I did say he was old, maybe mid 50s if I am being generous to myself, but fuck he was stubborn. Every time I saw a gap ahead of him, I thought, "great we can relax now, and I can shake my head disapprovingly, point and blame you for being dropped". But no, he would summon up something from his leathery, ox like thighs and back on we would get. More pain, more racing heart, more burning lungs, more fucking lunacy. Why am I doing this? I am on holiday!

And then finally, it happens. He looks down at his gears (the eternal fail safe excuse for an impending crack), mutters something in French, shakes his head some more, and he's gone. I am not going to come last! Well, not if I can beat him up those cobbles at the end, or knock him off at least. I then have a bit of a second wind, inspired by my "victory" over a retired Frenchman, I manage to find a few more wheels for half a lap, a few more dropped, and then I am done. I wait for a nice stretch of road with no spectators, and I gratefully sit up and wait for the stragglers, and hope they haven't got too much fight left in them.

But of course they do. And actually there are quite a few I hadn't seen. About 12 of us. So I spend the rest of the race trying not to get dropped by some other losers, and suffering the indignity of the final police outrider laughing at my pain, and then finally we hear the bell. Should I go early? Hope to give myself a head start for the monster at the end? I give it a go. I fail. I give it another go. I fail again. Fuck it guys, we are racing for last! I am a tourist. Give me a break! So I sit in, try to save myself. And I needed to. Then end was brilliant. One of the funniest and craziest things I have seen in a bike race. Guys just stopping dead halfway up the finish. Guys walking. Guys running. Guys falling. Shouts of "putain" and "merde" filled the pretty little street on the lord's day, accompanied by the childlike, joyful laughter of the spectators. There were still remnants of the main peloton struggling up it when i got there. I was in the 27", took it easy and I thought to myself, If I don't have to get off, I won't come last.

And I didn't.

As I coughed up what felt like the remnants of a lung, I flopped over the finish line, into the village square, received a kiss on both cheeks from a beautiful French girl as she put my finisher's garland round my neck, and then found a nice corner to throw up in. It was fucking brilliant. Insane but brilliant. I can never return to racing in the UK with any real enthusiasm now. I had forgotten how well the French do all this. Every weekend! I had spent too long away from it. Too long. When i got home, after a two hour "nap", I began persuading my fiancée that we would be spending three months every year back in France so I could race "properly" again. Thankfully she had found the whole experience so funny, she was easily persuaded.

-contributed by a Pappillon reader

2 comments:

  1. that is a great story! I am just about to move to Milan for work, and look forward to getting my legs ripped off by the locals in a similar manner.

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  2. Great tale! lol
    This was my exact experience too- at every single race I did in Belgium this year.

    I used to complain about races in Ontario, Canada. A huge lethargic pack would roll along and wait for a bunch sprint finish, only animated once in awhile when some non-sprinters would try to break away. But "you should be careful what you wish for...". In Belgium, if you aren't attacking or jumping on wheels, you are off the back and pulled out by the commissaire. After 20 minutes...!!!!!

    @Barry- racing in Italy is brilliant, and the area north and east of Milan is amazing. Make sure you do some gran fondos too.

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