Due to the fantastic scenery and quiet roads here in southern France, I have been riding more and more over the last three years, but for one reason or another it had been over 10 years since my last race!
Whilst I simply enjoy riding and staying fit, I really miss the competitive element and thus my “master” plan was to begin racing again in 2015. This is something I have been building up to this summer, getting more serious and doing more and more structured and high level training rides.
This training has being going well and my fitness is now well above what I had projected it would be by the end of this season. Even so, I was still a little surprised when the manager of the race team of the club I ride for (CYCLO 4 Haut Agenais) asked if I would like to give it a try and participate in what would be the last race of the season:
Sainte Bazeille Criterium
A pan flat town centre crit in Sainte Bazeille in Lot-et-Garonne department in south-western France: I knew it would not suit me and being right at the end of the season, I also knew that the field would be battle hardy. On top of this the chances of the weather being bad were pretty high, the prospect of which was something I really did not relish.
But I still jumped at the opportunity as it would be a great way for me to check exactly where my levels were compared to others in a fully competitive environment and hopefully all going well, it would give me the motivation I needed to continue training during the long winter ahead.
Anyway the day of the race arrived and I was off to a good start as even though the forecast was not positive, it was sunny and hot, although it was also very windy.
I was impressed with the 3rd Cat field size (I would say there were at least 40 to 50 starters) and I would have 3 Cyclo 4 team mates with me, Denis Gouget, Cyril Dalleau and Samuel Nicolas.
Denis, is a very good sprinter and someone who I know very well having ridden with him on a number of training and club rides over the course of the summer.
In my very bad French, I suggested that if the bunch was still together at the end and if I still had the energy, I would attempt to lead him out, which he agreed to.
The race commissioner spoke for what seemed like an eternity before the start, but through it I managed to pick out that there would be a prime sprint every 3rd lap with the overall race being 15 laps long which equated to a race distance of about 60km.
The race got under way and as I really did not know who to look out for, I decided that rather being caught at the wrong end of a split, I would stick near the front as possible (even though this would mean using far more energy).
I also knew that if it came down to a bunch sprint I would have absolutely no hope, so my overall plan was to somehow instigate or get into a small break and take it from there thus in order to have an chance of this happening, staying towards the front was important.
However these were all best case scenarios in theory. Remember I had been away from racing for a VERY long time and I really did not know how well or badly I was about to perform and at the back of my mind I just wanted to make sure that I did not make a fool of myself!
Anyway the race got under way and after the usual scurry, it soon settled down and as planned, I kept myself towards the front end, never really dropping further back than 15 or so places.
I was feeling good and whilst it was no surprise that it was really hard racing, with many short, hard accelerations that you commonly get with a criterium, I was encouraged that I did not feel that I was out of my depth.
So immediately after the first prime sprint (which to conserve energy I did not take part in), I got myself into a small break of about four of us. We all worked together and even though it was short lived, it once again gave me a little more encouragement.
A I mentioned the course was completely flat, but it was a VERY, VERY windy day with the headwind leading all the way up the finishing straight, which made this section of the course really hard. What made it worse was that there was a sharp, almost switch back corner leading into this headwind, which meant you had to start it at quite a low speed.
On the plus side, if you were strong, this and especially the strong almost 90° crosswind on the section before it made it much harder and thus gave the opportunity to split the bunch.
So on most laps I made sure I was really near the front on the cross wind section and on more than one occasion took turns with a couple of others to really put the hammer down and place everyone behind us in the gutter. Then on one lap and directly after the switch back corner, I accelerated and to my surprise I was away.
Once again it did not last too long, but it was fun and I was really enjoying finding my limit and racing again.
Ultimately the race did end in a bunch sprint, I started to cramp up on the last lap so did not partake in it (even without cramp I would have had no chance anyway), but nor could I help out Denis who finished ahead of me but out of the placings.
Whilst you always hope to break away and solo to the win, all in all the race went as good as or even better than I expected and I was really happy with the fact that not only did I finish with the main bunch, but I was competitive as well. Roll on summer 2015!
Thanks: I would like to thank everyone at Cyclo 4 for their kindness and encouragement since arriving in France and for inviting me to race for them, but especially to Joel, Denis, Cyril and all the other management team for their help.
Photo Credit: Almost all photos on this page were taken by CYCLO 4 Haut Agenais