Everyone’s a winner

I rode the La Charly Bérard with a girlfriend. It was the first time for both of us and we’d elected to ride the shorter course: only three hills. At the start, the organisers were urging all the girls to the front of the peloton. We declined. What was the point, we were only going to be overtaken by the boys. We knew it would be much better to get underway at our own pace, well to the rear of the peloton, out of everyone’s way. 

Five minutes after the depart réal, there was just the three of us: me, my friend and a guy 500 metres up the road. I managed to bridge up to him once past the steepish 2km climb to Falicon. As I drew alongside, I engaged him in polite conversation and soon realised that I was talking to the Wim Vansevenant of La Charly Bérard. Well not this year pal; it was going to be a three-way, tightly contested fight to the finish to be this year’s lanterne rouge.

It was a perfect day for a ride, sunny without being too warm. And, with the Broom Wagon keeping us company, we were in no danger of getting lost. I had cycled most of the route beforehand, so knew where to go and what to expect: for me, the perfect scenario. Just as well really given that the guy charged with removing the “fleches” (directions) was a couple of kms up the road from us.

So how did we fare? My friend won the Lanterne Rouge and Wim Vansevenant claimed the same prize for the medium course. Me, I was just glad not to be last.

However, I had won a prize in the tombola: a month’s cycle training. I was thrilled. I never win anything on tombolas or in raffles. In fact the last thing I won was a box of broken biscuits in a working men’s club raffle when I was playing in the bank’s ladies darts team. I know, is there no end to my sporting talents? 

Rain stopped play

I got back last Friday from a cold and wet few days at a major exhibition in Germany, looking forward to a few hours out on the bike. Goodness knows how I ever spent all those years working long hours in an office. I could never go back to it. Me, my bike and the open road: it’s such bliss. I even managed a couple of hours on Saturday before the rain arrived and settled in for the day.

Saturday afternoon, I settled down to watch Pippo Pozzato get the better of Tom Boonen at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen but most commentators failed to appreciate the uber smart ride from Astana’s Max Iglinsky.

Sunday morning I woke at 06:30 to discover it was still raining – game over. So much for setting off nice and early so as not to miss the pointage. Maybe it’ll only be postponed. I hope so, I have unfinished business with the Col de la Madone.

Lanterne rouge

You’re probably wondering how I fared in “The Gentleman”.  That Friday evening I had a call from M le President (yes, that’s what we call him).  He asked me whether I was riding the short or the long course on Sunday. I said I had thought that as a mixed pairing we would be riding the short course. It appears that my partner had also volunteered to ride with one of the youngsters on the short course and therefore we would have to ride the longer one. No problem, I said. Of course, I had been training all week for the short course. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I could hold my top speed for another 13km, even though I was getting a tow!

That evening I checked out the start list for Sunday and found that there were NO all-female teams! So, if I had managed to find a female partner the trophy would have been ours. Instead, all the girls had teamed up with chaps and were mostly riding the short parcours. That’s right; you know when they say “you should be careful what you wish for? Well, I was riding in the 100+ category with all the two-man teams. Either we were going to be last in that category or first in a category of our own.

My partner had only enough time to change the number on his back after completing the short parcours, where he and his partner turned in the fastest time in their category, before we were off into the strong headwind. What can I say? We finished strongly, my partner was hugely supportive and rode the perfect race, but I could have gone faster. We finished last. I wonder what we might have achieved if only we’d trained beforehand.

Lots of firsts

I’m a girl who believes in lots of planning and preparation. If I’m doing a cyclosportif, I like to have cycled the route beforehand. This is so that a) I know I can do it and b) I know when to conserve, or conversely, expend energy en route. It also gives me an opportunity to scout possible locations for a pit-stop as these generally tend to be few and far between. I prefer to wear bib shorts or tights, so there’s no way I can discretely slip out of my kit behind a bush. It’s a full-scale strip job, so you can understand my concerns and preference for a toilet.

I am currently training for the Charly Bérard which largely takes place on the course of my first ever pointage. A year or so ago, one the girls at the club invited me to cycle with her on Sundays, promising that we could go at my pace. She cycles with two of the club’s very spritely octogenarians who are both glowing adverts for the long-term benefits of cycling. I can only hope to emulate them when I’m their age.

When I told my husband I was going to do that Sunday’s pointage he was somewhat dismissive of my ability to get up the climbs. This time however I will have to ascend a tad quicker for fear of falling behind the dreaded “broom wagon” and having my timing device unceremoniously removed.

Most of the club events I take part in are self-timed. You tell the person writing the certificate your time and they put it on your certificate. Whether you finish first or last, your club gets the same number of points. You just have to finish. There are usually two courses on offer: one 50% longer than the other with more points for the longer course. Trophies are awarded to the clubs whose riders garner the most points. There are no individual prizes save those for the youngest and oldest male and female entrants to complete the course.

In preparation, this week I did my first ascent this year of the Col de Vence (963m). This has to be my closest and favourite climb. I did it for the very first time in early April of last year. Buoyed with my feat of climbing Col d’Eze, via the more strenuous Grande Corniche, I decided I was ready to tackle the Col de Vence. I rode the slightly longer but less strenuous route up to Vence via La Gaude before turning onto the Col itself. The first few kilometres are the steepest but it soon levels out and there are simply splendid views down to the coast plus some pretty pricey real-estate to admire as you pedal your way up to the Chateau du Domaine St. Martin and beyond to the open pastures full of sheep.

I took comfort from the road markers telling me how many more kilometres I had to travel and the average gradient (7%). The top is a bit of an anti-climax but I couldn’t resist sending my husband a text to tell him I’d done it.

Today I cycled the quicker, slightly steeper route via La Colle sur Loup. Under darkening skies and into a strong headwind, I managed to ascend the hill for the first time without stopping at all: another first. Col de Vence is my favourite col not because of the ascent but because of the descent. You can easily see what little traffic there is coming up the hill so you can throw caution to the wind, keep your hands off the brakes and pretend you’re Samu Sanchez.  With that tailwind, it was my fastest descent ever.

Made famous by Lance

Last year I arrived at the pointage at St Agnès  ten minutes after it had closed, thereby collecting nul points. Something which still rankles!

I had cycled almost the entire route on my lonesome. From my map, handily placed in my back pocket; it appeared to be a left-hand turn out of Menton. This pointage was the same day as the Monaco marathon thereby rendering any road in Monaco out of bounds (guarded by hoards of armed police) to everyone, including cyclists. This meant cycling up and around Monaco. Once back on French soil, the police were only too happy to allow me onto the marathon route, ahead of the runners.

I was somewhat unnerved by the general lack of cyclists en route making me check and re-check the map to ensure I had not gone astray. Eventually, I found the road to St Agnès and wound my way up it not realising that this was the famous Col de la Madone. Allegedly one of Lance’s favourite training rides.

On arrival, I was too tired to cycle up the final steep incline to the village. So I walked and once there enquired about the pointage. I was told it was closed. I was too tired to come up with a pitchy retort in any language.

Fortunately I was  rescued by the mother of a club mate (there had been a race there that morning) who put my bike in her car and drove me most of the way home.

This Sunday I will be collecting maximum points. I will be leaving well ahead of the club peloton, the Monaco marathon was held last week end, I’m riding with a club mate and I can confidently cycle the distance.

Chapeau Cav!

I recently told a friend that, while Mark Cavendish would never win The Tour de France, he would definitely win one of the big classics. Well that someday was Saturday, 21 March 2009. He won by a cat’s whisker in a truly exciting, heart stopping finish: yet another wonderful, wonderful day for British cycling. I was so glad I’d decided to go down to San Remo to watch.

The trick to watching live racing is to find somewhere you can both watch and hear the race unfold, plus see the finish. Of course, when I said see the finish, I should have said feel the finish. They just go past in a blur. This time it was a black and white blur.

Almost no one thought Cav would win this year. Quite rightly both he and his team downplayed his chances. But he looked as cool as a cucumber over the Cipressa and Poggio, quietly staying in contact until the final run in to the line where he pipped Heinrich Haussler to the post.

Interviewed after the race, Cipo said Cav had an “extraordinary talent” and Eddy was equally complimentary. But the most emotional response was from Eric Zabel, who had tears in his eyes. Smarts to Bob Stapleton for hiring Mr Z to advise Cav. Money well and wisely spent.

Sunday, lovely Sunday

My week’s training starts with the Sunday club run. Last Sunday morning (last stage of Paris-Nice) we were up and out early for the Super Cannes pointage (rendezvous for all the local clubs where points are awarded based on certain criteria). As usual, my husband had shot off up the hill leaving me to wend my way up with a small group from another club. We were all labouring under the misapprehension that one of us knew the location of the rendezvous point. It soon became apparent that none of us did but, after riding around in ever decreasing circles, a not uncommon occurrence, we finally chanced upon it.

Since I often get left behind by the club peloton on these pointages, I like to check out the route on a map beforehand, and, if I’ve not been there before, may even take a copy of the map with me. As a minimum, I always take along details of the route. Sometimes, though, the details are so sketchy, presumably on the basis that everyone but me knows where it is (so not true).

Sometimes  I wonder how many points are “lost” each Sunday because individuals cannot find the pointage. The clubs with the most points win trophies and individuals collect points in a season long club competition. I must say I fully approve of the concept that turning up on a more regular basis than your club mates could win you a trophy.

This week, however, I have had a very short-term goal: preparing to compete in a local “Gentleman (two person) contre-le-montre”. Classification is done according to the sum of your combined ages, apart from the ladies, who due to paucity of numbers, are all lumped into a “Scratch” category.

Last year my partner and I finished a very creditable second (out of five) behind a pairing who are young enough to be our daughters. One of whom is the current French UFOLEP amateur road race champion.  Suffice to say, we would have been first (and the only ones) in our age group.

This year, I’m riding in the mixed category with a fellow club mate. He’s made the usual jokes about how he’s just going to be sticking to my wheel but we both know who’s going to be doing the wheel sucking in this relationship. We’re up against very tough opposition notably a couple of French amateur UFOLEP contre-le-montre champions, who have recently joined our club. So they’ll be turning up on Sunday with all the gear: the tri-bars, skin suits, pointy helmets and carbon rear wheels. I may just wear my aerodynamic shoe covers to give us that all important edge.

Watching and waiting

Spring has arrived and with it much balmier temperatures. I seem to have spent months muffled up like Michelin man but now I’m back into my ¾ bib tights with just a long sleeved shirt and gilet.

The last few week ends, thanks to the Tours of the Med, Haut Var and Paris-Nice, I have been able to combine training with watching live cycling. Generally, I like to ride to watch the riders sign-on and depart, then catch them en-route, preferably on an incline that I have just laboured up. On Saturday, the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice passed twice through Fayence.  So, having cycled around the undulating countryside, we wound our way up to the centre of town, to enjoy lunch and the final kms of the race.

On its first pass, the peloton was pretty much together but it split up over the subsequent Col de Bourigaille. I did note that with 40kms to go Alberto Contador was without team mates but didn’t realise that he was also without fuel. He should have said something; I had a couple of gels and an energy bar in my pocket. He would have been welcome to them.

We drifted up towards the finish to listen to race radio and heard the attacks unfold. All too soon Lou Lou Sanchez was racing towards the finish at a speed I could only hope to emulate cycling hard in the opposite direction (ie downhill). While Contador, who had quite clearly bonked, ascended the gentle climb at more my pace, with riders passing him in disbelief.

I can still recall seeing Contador take off on the Col du Tanneron in Paris-Nice 2007, on the penultimate stage of a race he went on to win the following day. He had come to my notice at the previous Paris-Nice when, at the start of the final stage, he offered me his Liberty Seguros cap and I directed him towards the small boy on my right who was only too delighted to receive this “trophy”. I wonder if he’s still got it, the former cap of a now multiple Grand Tour winner.

How did it all start?

One rainy afternoon in July 2004, I watched my very first road race. It was stage 6 of the Tour de France, from Bonneval to Angers, won by a young, up and coming Belgian rider in a bunch sprint. Although, this was my first time, even I, without fully appreciating his achievements, had heard of Lance Armstrong.

I watched the subsequent Tour stages through to their inevitable conclusion on the Champs-Elysees. A stage won once again by that young Belgian. I enjoyed every last moment of the Tour, absorbing all the technical details and historical background provided by the German presenters. Seeking more perspective, later that summer, I read Lance’s books:  “It’s not about the Bike” and “Every Second Counts”. I was impressed with the meticulous, even obsessive, planning and preparation he applied not only to surviving cancer but also his bike racing. I empathised with that control freakiness.

Quite rightly, my husband holds Lance fully culpable for my fascination with the world of road racing.

Header Image: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images



Whose idea was that title?

“View from the Back” was my husband’s suggested title for the blog. If truth be told “View from Off the Back and Halfway Down the Hill” might be a more accurate description of my place in the peloton.

While watching races on the TV, I wondered why it seemed so difficult for some pro-riders to get back to the rest of the bunch. Well, now I know how easily half a bike length becomes 500 metres, and more. They now have my total sympathy. It’s a lot harder than it looks, unless, of course, you’ve got a few team-mates pacing you back up or giving you a bit of a push or a very “sticky bottle.” Wait, that’s not allowed in the pro-peloton. Luckily then that doesn’t apply to me.