This past week, I was in France competing in the Tour de la Manche, a 5 day stage race taking place in the lower Normandy region, on the peninsular that sticks out into the Channel. As an “Elite National” race, some of the top French amateur teams were present, including the team of last year’s winner Alexis Gougeard who now rides for AG2R. In short, the competition was pretty hot.
We set off bright (more like bleary eyed) and early on the Wednesday to make the six hour trip to Granville, site of the opening afternoon prologue and the finish for the final stage on Sunday. The weather on the way over was pretty horrific at times, but the sky progressively cleared as we made our way westwards, arriving to sunny skies and a wicked wind blowing in off the sea.
After a quick lunch, we set about checking out the 6km prologue route which turned out to be about as hilly and technical as you could possibly get. It had a bit of everything: headwind straights, super-fast corners, roundabouts, a 1km climb, a steep downhill hairpin, and to finish it off, a double digit kicker from the beach back into town. It definitely wasn’t going to be easy that was for sure, but it suited me better than a dragstrip course would’ve done, especially considering I’d be doing it on my normal road bike.
In the end, I put in a decent time and felt like I’d gotten everything out of the system. I perhaps struggled in the last minute or so, possibly due to a lingering cold I’d picked up the week before, but my power numbers produced a few season bests so I’d obviously done alright.
Or at least I thought I had, until the stage winner Kowalski put a simply unbelievable 39 seconds into my time. Honestly, I couldn’t comprehend how someone could’ve gone that much faster on that course. Hmm, maybe this tour was going to be tougher than I had imagined…
At 168km, this was the longest stage of the race. Breakfast was spent staring out the windows of the dining hall looking at the carnage the weather was causing outside. In the background, Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be” was played on the radio: “There’s no place I’d rather be” looping for what felt like a million times. The irony was not lost of me, but it definitely wasn’t appreciated.
Arriving at the start town, we set up camp in a random garage that some poor sucker had left open, in order to escape the elements. Extra hot embrocation duly applied by our cigar smoking swanny, Kris, it was time to go.
Almost immediately, I regretted my decision to don both a wool base layer and a full waterproof cape, as the rain had temporarily stopped and I was now doing my best boil-in-a-bag impression while the race blew up. Strong winds, wet roads and the desire of seemingly the entire field to make the early break meant that the pace was on.
Too afraid to let go of the bars in order to remove my cape, I gradually drifted backwards to the sound of Gore-Tex angrily flapping about, stealing a few of my precious watts.
The view from the team car for most of the stage
The first 80km passed in a blur of road spray. A crash split the field just before a climb and a teammate and I (having finally pocketed my jacket) managed to bridge across to the front group. Just as we latched on, the whole race ended up coming back together as we turned right onto a big road and hit a crosswind.
Cue the sound of carbon meeting tarmac.
The split second after hearing this, you’ve an important choice to make, one that will determine whether you too will get a little too familiar with ground: do I go left or do I go right? I chose right, I chose wrong.
Before I knew it, I’d hit a grounded bike and was now myself flying through the air. Picking myself off the ground a good 10m beyond where my bike now lay, I was pretty surprised to find that I was still in one piece. With all limbs accounted for, the realisation hit that the race was riding away at full speed and there were still the best part of 80km to go. The thought of a DNF on the first stage and having to spend the rest of the week moping around the empty holiday camp that was our base for the race was too grim to even contemplate.
After nearly 2 minutes retrieving my glasses from the other side of the road and getting all the bits on my bike pointing in the right direction, I was back in the saddle chasing as if my life depended on it, which, given the suicidal implications of a DNF, it probably did.
Luckily, a fellow Belgian team BCV-Soenens helped motorpace me back to a group, but it was still a pretty solid chase for the best part of 10km. Upon reaching the group, which was obviously some way down on the front of the race, I spotted 4 of my 5 teammates there also. Shit, our DS isn’t going to be too happy…
A string of choice expletives let us all know that that was indeed the case as he sped past in the team car, and that we’d better all get on the front and ride as punishment. So that’s was we did: 80km of through and off while getting hammered by wind and rain, all for the pleasure of finishing 15 minutes down. I can honestly say it was the worst day on the bike of my life.
…no place I’d rather be…
Before getting into the knity-gritty of the stage itself, I thought I’d perhaps give a bit of an insight into a typical day “on tour”. Here goes:
7:30am – Wake up, shudder at the thought of having to actually race your bike
8:00am – Breakfast: some basic cereals (luckily I brought some muesli along) and bread. Lots and lots of bread. I sometimes managed to nick some fruit from the buffet restricted to the other holiday village guests.
8:30am – Pin race numbers on. Pack race bag
10:00am – Still bloated from all that bread? Tough, here’s a giant plate of overcooked pasta to get down. Maybe some ham also.
10:45am – Get in the team cars to drive to stage start
11:45am – Arrive at stage start. Hide from the wind and rain in the cars as long as possible before venturing out for sign on
1:00pm – Race
5:00pm – Finish race. Get a quick face wipe and try and force a sandwich down, before jumping in the car for the journey back to the holiday camp
6:30pm – Arrive back and shower
7:00-8:00pm – Massage, or as I like to call it: ITB pummelling time
8:15pm – Dinner. Yep, you guessed it! More overcooked pasta and ham. That bloated feeling you’ve got isn’t going away any time soon, so you’d better get used to it
9:00pm – Some time to actually sit down, relax and read a book. I’d brought along “Gironimo”, Tim Moore’s latest about riding the 1914 Giro (the toughest ever they say) on a period bike. A good book to put your tribulations into perspective.
10:00pm – Bed. Try and ignore the wind howling through the shutters outside and your heart which is doing its best to jump out your chest
So there you have it. Despite only racing for 4-5 hours each day, there isn’t all that much time to actually relax. The constant race stress coupled with the twice daily helpings of pasta and lack of any sort of vegetable at all, soon wear you down as much as the actual racing does.
The 142km stage kicked off with a ceremonial start at Utah Beach to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Again, the wind was howling. Again we missed the early break. The leader’s team did a pretty good job of controlling things, so the majority of the stage was actually pretty easy and relaxed.
Doing our best to stop our hair blowing away
A super steep climb (I think I heard some riders’ Garmins autopause as I weaved my way through the carnage) at 90km split things up for a bit, but it was largely all together apart from the early break as we hit the final 30km on the finishing circuits.
At this point, the pace slackened just a bit, and using my momentum I jumped off the front on my own. Almost as soon as I did so, I secretly hoped to be caught soonish, a feeling compounded when a motorbike outrider rode up alongside and informed me that there was still a minute to the break (crap, I thought it was closer). But, the field was obviously happy to let me go and I was joined a few kilometres later by another rider, so there was nothing for it but to keep on ploughing forwards.
Gotta love a good suicide break
We made good time initially, but soon the effort was taking its toll on me and I was having to let the other rider do most of the work. After 12km, we made it up to the break, at which point, almost immediately, the bunch brought us all back anyway. 3km later and I was out the back with a couple of others.
One of the upsides of having effectively killed any GC hopes on stage 1, was that there was no reason to keep on pushing hard once the incentive of a good stage result was gone. As a group, we shipped a further 8 minutes in those final 15km and I really couldn’t have cared less.
Day 4 featured a split stage (why, WHY?!): 76km in the morning, then 86 in the afternoon. This meant getting up at 6:30am for breakfast, before rushing off to make the stage start at 9am. Those precious few hours of sleep lost were sorely felt, but on the positive side, the early race start meant we didn’t have to suffer through another plate of pasta at 10am.
The stage itself kicked off in yet more rain and 30+ km/h winds. To make matters worse, the roads in the opening kilometres were almost uniformly narrow and covered in mud from the surrounding fields. On the greasy descents, I was doing my best Wiggins impression by dragging my brakes and, generally, completely bottling it. This meant that I was constantly having to jump across gaps as riders better positioned dropped the wheel infront.
If I close my eyes, this will all turn out to be a bad dream, right? RIGHT?
Luckily, I had pretty good legs so I’d somehow managed to scramble my way into the front group by the time we hit the two finishing circuits, which were the same as those used for the finish yesterday. Predictably, there was a crash on the off-camber s-bends and I found myself chasing once again, having just about managed to control the urge to grab a fistful of brake, instead, trusting in my ability to thread my way through the obstacle course of downed bikes and riders.
It took the best part of 4km, but I was back with the leaders, only not for long. Those needless efforts due to my poor positioning came home to roost, and I was dropped on the penultimate lap, coming home 2 minutes down in 29th. Nothing to write home about, but a step in the right direction compared to the previous stages; if only I’d had a bit more confidence in the conditions, I could have easily made to front group of 20 or so.
Lunch was pasta (what else) but this time we actually had some sauce to go with it! The stage itself was pretty uneventful as the leader’s team very impressively controlled proceedings. With only 80 or so riders left in the race, it was a relief after the stress of the morning stage to be able to just chill at the back of the group and soak up some much needed UV rays.
The final circuits in Avranches featured a super-fast descent ending in a 90 degree turn (to give you an idea of the braking involved, I managed to melt the tub glue on my rear wheel), followed by a steady 1km climb up to the finish. Things kicked off with 2 laps remaining when the most dangerous challenger to the yellow jersey decided to spice things up. I was feeling good and responded to the attacks, summiting the climb inside the top 10, just a few seconds down on the small group of favourites.
Working with the 2nd place rider on GC, I managed to bridge up to the lead group (disclaimer: there was still a man up the road, but I’d no idea at that point) just after the descent, but we were in turn caught by a group from behind so it was a 40 strong group that started the finishing climb together. In the end, I did alright finishing 27th, while my teammate Jelle was just outside of the top 10 in 11th. I’d now finished each stage in a better position than the last, and hoped to continue this trend into the final day.
Uphill sprints, not my speciality
Number 1 on the agenda today was just getting round. As it was the final stage, the chances were that anyone dropped from the front group would pull out, potentially leaving you high and dry and having to make your way to the finish solo – there would be no grupetto today. If this happened 40km out, then it was pretty much game over.
As usual, the weather did its best to dampen any potential enthusiasm at putting ass to saddle; a bout of sideways rain had us changing in the car. Indeed, the wind was stronger today than it had been the whole week.
By this stage, the leader’s team had been working on the front for most of the previous 3 stages, so anticipating the potential for a breakaway to stick to the end, the opening kilometres were full gas as everyone tried to make the early break.
I managed to sneak into a small counter move, which I then attacked to try and bridge to 4 riders who had gained a few precious seconds over the bunch. It was a good move, but I didn’t have the legs to stick it – the tailwind and slight false descent meant that I dangled within 20m of the move for the best part of 4km, never quite manage to close the gap. I was hoping, praying even, for a bit of incline so I could make the jump across, but it never came and in the end, I had to resign myself to getting swallowed up by the bunch. Commentators talk about riders burning matches – well, that was my one match and there wasn’t much left of it.
That 4 man break contained a rider close to the leader of GC, and once he was forced back to the bunch by his breakaway companions, the leader’s team sat up, and things calmed down. Things stayed calm for most of the stage as the course tended towards the coast, directly into the 40km/h headwind, only getting dicey when we happened to make a 90 degree turn.
And by dicey, I’m talking about riders getting blown off the side of the road. At points, it wasn’t so much a case of holding the wheel in front, insomuch as just staying upright. Coupled with the occasional hail shower, I can’t say that I was having a lot of fun, even considering some of the amazing views of Mont Saint-Michel we were getting.
All that changed however as we hit the finishing circuits in Granville, as the sun came out and with only 5x5km to go, finishing the race was almost guaranteed. With the ability to actually feel my legs now that the temperature had crept above frigid, I was feeling pretty good and hanging in with the front group as it was whittled down by successive short, sharp climbs.
On the final lap, there were less than 30 of us left, including my teammate Jelle. Given his result the previous day, he was obviously more suited to finishing climb, so I brought him up the side of the group on the back straight, and slotted us into a top 10 position. Unfortunately, the final kilometre featured a technical passage through the centre of town which meant we became separated. Having hung back as long as possible to pick him up again, I had to go for the sprint myself and would have done alright if I hadn’t had to check the breaks just at the 200m to go point. 18th was the best I could manage in the end.
Overall, I was pretty happy with how I’d managed to survive the race, even getting stronger towards the end. That first stage crash killed all hopes of a decent GC (and has left me with what I suspect is a fractured elbow), but I had a go on a few stages and come out of the race feeling like I’m a different rider.
For the next few weeks, it’s back to the routine of kermesses a couple of times per week, interspersed with the odd interclub. In June, the team will be riding the Tour des Pays Savoies, a stage race in the Alps with mountain top finishes on nearly every stage, so I hope to be selected for that as it looks like a pretty unique race.
Thanks to the Dave Rayner Fund (@DaveRaynerFund) for supporting my 2014 season in Belgium with team Terra Safety Shoes. In addition to the blog you can catch my day to day ramblings on twitter: @liamtglen