It's the first
weekend in April which means two things. It's time for the Tour of
Flanders in Belgium and La Coulainaise
in France. The cycling season is now well and truly underway.
Bring it on!
year's edition when we had ten riders,
most undertaking their first ever sportive, this time we'd dropped
to three, with a support team of three wives and one junior
member. We made it a family affair, which is what cycling should
really be all about.
Due to injury (Mrs
flamme rouge was still
one clavicle short of a working skeleton), impending births (x2),
clash of dates, the opening of a cycle/coffee shop, and for Andy
Perree, being invited to the Caribbean
by work(!), our numbers had dwindled
ourselves with the quality of our entry, rather than the quantity.
So on the day we had Andy Boxall,
Mick Heald and
myself ready to take on the worst
the French could throw at us. With a new route from
last year, less climbs but more climbing and true spring classic
weather, throw things they did. It was to be day of character building for
Only in France
got to love the French. In this world of political correctness and
"Health and Safety" it's great to see the French holding out and
starting the race with a good old fashioned revolver! Vive la
Somehow, I managed
to find myself on row two for the start. Dianne and
myself have been coming here for the last
four years to start our "road" season (after we've been to Belgium
for the cobbled classics of course) but last year saw a new venue
for the start and route. The start was, shall we say, somewhat
exciting. It was only to be enjoyed by the brave or foolhardy.
incorporating lessons learnt from 2009, the start was tweaked to
prevent the Charge of the Light Brigade madness that saw around a
1000 lemmings all funnelling through the small town roads on the
outskirts of Le Mans. A solution had to be found, and it was. It
was now women, children and really old boys first, followed two
minutes later by the vets, then followed two minutes after that by
the young speedy pups.
Me now being 50,
(and some would say an old woman) placed me in start category
une. I was near the front and charged
like a coiled spring. When the gun went off, so did I. Within 500
metres I'm on the front driving the
line, tucked up behind the motorbike marshal. With no race
aspirations it was "go 'till you blow" and try to stay away for as
long as possible. And we did. Stay away and blow.
We managed to get to the 40k mark and the foot of the Col
de la Source before we were caught. I'd worked hard and even
managed to clear one of the previous climbs in the lead but I knew
it wouldn't last. The marauding masses of the vets were gathering
behind and they could smell the fear of our small group.
Just as we reached
the foot slopes of the biggie, where I was breathing through my
exhaust, Mr Heald
(vet) and his group caught us for his two minutes. We passed
pleasantries as he glided around me heading upwards. It was very
cold, very dark and very threatening. "Any minute now" we said...
About a minute
later, the heavens opened and hail stones the size of big hail
stones rained down upon us forming a
crackly, icy crust on the road. It wasn't pretty.
This was just the
break I'd been waiting for. I was getting tailed off big time on
the climb and was only able to watch Mick heading in to the distance
between gasps of breath. I was expecting Mr
Boxall to join us anytime soon but it
seems his day was to be even longer than mine.
Anyway, back to
the climb, or rather the descent. It's now a full gas trip to the
bottom of the climb with the roads covered in a carpet of hail.
Nice! I made great time and got back on to the big group that had
now collected in to a slow moving ensemble just as we reached the
split for the two routes; left for the big ride and right for the
50k run to home.
It was still very
cold, very wet, very dark and liable to get very worse. But I'd
already missed one event this year so there was no thought (okay
perhaps a little one) of taking the "soft" option. I needed to
prove my old woman doubters wrong. The 150k route, and left turn,
As we turned sharp left to head off on the extra 50k loop
around northern Le Mans, we were faced with a wall of franticly
waving gendarmes, marshals and de-velo-ed
riders. The road was literally an inch (2.5
cms in foreign money) deep in crunchy, frozen, glacier-like
hail. It was higher than the depth of the wheel rims and fell in
the course of a few minutes.
toppling over in slow motion everywhere and there were around forty
riders trying to walk on the glistening, crackly white road trying
to steady themselves by holding on to
their bikes as a crutch.
Most were falling
after s l o w l y bringing their bikes to a halt then trying to
unclip. The frozen ice in their cleats wouldn't let their feet out
of the pedal and they either yanked it out, unsettling their bike
and toppling over, or literally losing balance through going so slow
and being unable to get their feet from their bindings. It was
I pedalled on, passed around fifty riders, stayed upright through
the at least a full kilometre of ice
carpet and joined Mick and his battling group, just as we exited the
whiteness to get back to black, but wet, roads.
It settled for a
while with everyone riding tempo to pass the
kilometres and just trying to keep warm. Then someone had a
rush of blood and attacked at the foot of the Mont St Jean. Here we
go I thought, just as Mick rode off in lone hot pursuit of our
quisling. Everyone else looked at everyone else. Then it started.
Which for me is where it ended.
huge group split in to two and Mick was in, and driving, the front
group. My team mate was in the front pack, so I played the selfless
humble domestique and blocked for him as
best I could! Okay, I was dropped good and proper. It was now a
case of survival with my own group as we headed in to lumpy country.
Mick was having
his own battles up front. At the end he said even though he was
dead on his feet, he fought to hang on as he was too scared to get
dropped and have to ride alone to the finish. How ironic that
proved to be!
As we entered the
heart of the middle section of the ride the very strong wind became
almost gale force. And a difficult day was about to become even
more challenging. The last thing you wanted to be was on your own.
one point, as we headed towards the Moulin de
Charbonnet, we rode in to a pitch black cloud and it got
very, very, very dark. It was mid afternoon and cars had their
We all expected a
drenching and were discussing such when an enormous bolt of
lightning cracked across the sky with a simultaneous and equally
enormous clap of thunder.
Then it rained as
though it was the last ever rain storm in the world. Or at least it
felt like it. To add insult to a slap in the face, it got windier.
What a day.
Andy (above) was
having his own problems. He'd punctured and the repair wasn't going
well. With freezing hands and a howling gale it took a lot, lot
longer than it should of done.
As he stood at the
side of the road, rider after rider passed him by. Which,
considering he started at the back in the senior, speedy, young pup
group, wasn’t a good sign.
Back to me!
I got drenched, as
did the other boys, I got wind-blown, as
did the other boys and I got dropped. Which
makes me the moral loser. I lost the wheel of the group as
we entered the feed station at the top of the climb at the Montreuil
le Cherif. The elastic snapped and
despite sprinting twice to get back on, I got tailed from the group
with 50k to go, in to a gale force head wind.
Mick was valiantly
hanging on at the front and Andy was fighting to get to the finish
having spent far too long fighting with a recalcitrant
crevasion. I spent an hour and a
half on my own giving it full gas to ride at 30 kph in to an Artic
head wind. I felt soooo sorry for myself but managed to keep
Once again, my
nemesis (ex-Credit Agricole and
Francaise de Jeux pro) Eric Lebachler
powered to the line to take the honours
in an unbelievable 4:22. Mick cleared the line in a fantastic 5:02
to be 74th Vet. I rode for 50k without seeing a single
soul until I got to the finishing straight to finish in 5:29 and was
75th Super Vet. In 2009 I did it in 4:44, which gives an
indication of how hard the day was.
Andy came in
around the six hour mark after the timing equipment was brought
down. A long, hard day and scant reward for the excellent training
he’s put in over the winter. Still, he’s got the Hubert
Arbes to look forward to in July.
Should be warmer then.
It was just one of
those days that was harder than it should
have been but gives you loads of great stories for the rest of the
year. We were so cold and wet that we didn’t even go back to the
presentation and food fest afterwards.
It was changed,
back to the hotel and seeing as it was now gone 6pm a quick shower
and out for a meal with the girls that had stood in the cold waiting
for us to return. At least we could keep warm by pedalling harder.
A big thank you to them for supporting us,
Not a day you look
back on with fondness but one of those days you’ll never forget. We
should do it more often!