La Ronde Picarde 06

Overall Distance 135k Time Taken 3:56
Height Climbed not too much Overall Position 60th ~ Gold
Distance Climbed just enough Category Position 19th
Date September, 2006 Country France
Entrants 2000 Region Somme

This year's Ronde Picarde took place only two weeks and five training sessions after the debacle of my GP Plouay ride.  With last year being a non-event it seemed that this was set to be one of my all time bogey courses.

Coming off the back of the embarrassment of missing the turn at Plouay and being forced to grovel the "big" ride; which was further compounded by the added shame of a load of Jersey riders being there to witness my sham of a performance, the Ronde wasn't featuring particularly high up on my motivational achievement list. 

Still we'd been entered for a year, so the time had come to step up to the plate.  Dave and Steve had given me a climbing and spinning master class as they took it in turns to work me over during our weekend "training" rides.  With their punishment in my legs and some serious interval work I felt not too bad come the day.  However, loosely my plan was to give it my best shot, ride hard until I blew, then coast slowly back to the finish to build form for the last race of the year in Italy.

Chaud et Froid
Not to be confused with scheudenfreude, which would take place five minutes before the off; more of which later.

First we had the formality of signing on.  It's 24 degrees, baking hot but the middle of September which means one thing.  This time of year the mornings can be a bit chilly.  Especially when you factor in the "continental hour", 7am in France is 6am UK time and at that hour of the morning, it ain't hot.  So a quick wander around the clothing tents and I identify a pair of lycra arm warmers for the race at 20 euros.  The pair I've brought are roubaix material and will be far too hot when the action starts.  I'll get them after signing on.

I collect my number, test my transponder, you never know I might get lucky, and open the goody bag.  Inside it are energy bars, drinks, a bottle, a gel, a few mags and a pair of lycra arm warmers.  How good is that?  My luck's changing already, I've just saved 20 euros.  So it's off to the hotel and in the following order; a quick flick of the TV channels, (looking for Eurosport or an English station), a cursory check of the bathroom and find out where the food's served.

Dianne managed to survive the night without walking in to anything, so it was up at 6:00 am for a hearty breakfast.  Seeing as every other person in the place was doing the event it was quite busy.  I put our gear in the car and checked the temperature.  8 degrees!  It's still dark and only two hours before the off.  Fed, watered and ablutioned we left for the 20k, 15 minute drive to Abbeville.

Age & Cold
So, there we all are on the start line.  With the babble coming from the commentator I heard the names Jean Rene Bernadeau and Jimmy Casper mentioned.  That's nice I thought, getting flagged off by a 2006 Tour de France stage winner and a Pro Tour team manager.  Then I picked out more words and it dawned on me that they were actually taking part.  Not good!  That means all the young whippets are going to take off like lunatics at the start to impress them.  It's going to be a long day.

Then it was announced there would be a ten minute delay as the transponder mat was playing up.  All you could hear was at least a hundred clicks as cleats were turned from pedals in a geriatric unison.  Then the surreal sight of a hundred vets, running, and I use the term loosely, across a massive car park, in cleats, all heading for the sanctuary of the hedge and a comfort break. 

The early morning chill only added to the illusion as steam rose, all gothic-like, from the hedge.  Old men, pre-event nerves, coffee and cold weather just don't mix.  If there was anything the word scheudenfreude was designed for it was this.  Cameras clicked as though Tom Boonen had turned up and every one had a laugh at the incontinent's expense.  Me?  I held it in, I didn't want to dribble in my clean shorts.  Don't laugh it will come to you all one day!

Advantage, Me
The start was as fast and furious as I expected.  I was in the first hundred or so and was determined to stay with the pack for as long as I could.  The start heads out of town for 5K on slightly uphill, closed roads to Eaucourt, the eventual finish.  Already we were in a massive lineout.  Without a warm up I was on the edge and looking for assistance when it came in the most unlikely shape.

A Honda GoldWing came alongside me with two of the biggest paramedics you've ever seen.  They were that big they couldn't see past themselves in the rear view mirrors.  Which was fine and dandy for me, because I jumped straight in behind them.  Not only was I now being slowly dragged to the front of the line, I was in the slipstream of a bus and getting hot air from the engine and exhaust to boot.  It doesn't get any better than this!

As we approached the roundabout at the end of our three mile jaunt I decided he's going to slow down so I should jump out from under the bike and across to the bunch.  I looked under my arm before making the move.  There must have been at least 200 riders in a lineout behind me.

Out of the roundabout it's another kilometre then it's in to back lane country.  I make up around another 50 places and can begin to see the front.  Then it all kicked off big time.

The first hills come thick and fast.  They're not overly steep or overly long but they do sting the legs.  Especially the speed we were climbing them.  I was going remarkably well, not getting passed on the climbs and making up places on the descents.  This could end up an enjoyable day.  Then we headed for the coast.

The temperatures started to rise in more ways than one.  It had warmed up to 12 degrees by the time we started so I chose not to use my freebie arm warmers.  Which was just as well because already I was heading for my jersey zip as I was beginning to overheat.  The pace was absolutely on the rivet.  And we rode in one of two fashions. 

They're Nice
Sometimes my naivety knows no bounds.  Our hotel was sitting in the shadow of two glorious wind turbines and the whole area is dotted with wind farms.  The reason for this was simple; there is a lot of wind blowing in this part of the world.  Which, according to direction, dictated the fashion in which we rode.  We were either in a massive lineout, or massive echelons.  Each has its merits, dangers and excitement. 

In a lineout you hold the wheel in front or it's a trip to the back.  It's simple, you grit your teeth and hold on, no skill required.  An echelon however is a different animal.  This is cycling hard man country and these old boys know how to ride.  You fight your corner for all you're worth.  Lose your place in an echelon and it's game-over.  Everyone knows it and nobody asks or gives any quarter.  It makes the last lap of the track look like a club run.  This went on for two hours.

At the front was a Dutch man, Jean-Luc van den Lucke.  His name was painted on his Orbea and he was massive.  He was the front of the lineout more often than not.  At one point I was third wheel and no one was going through to help him.  We're doing 24 mph and I'm reading 190 watts.  I'm cruising and feeling good, my heart rate is only 185.

Let Me Through
In a moment of weakness I pull out to give him a hand by working my way to the front as we round a corner.  My power output is now 465 watts, the speed is 23 mph, the headwind is taking my breath away and my heart is pounding out at 224bpm.  Not my max, but not far off.  I ride for what I think to be a not too embarrassing short time then slip back.  Point taken, lesson learnt.

Luckily we were only a few kilometres from Dargnes; the big descent to the coast.  The car count seemed to be picking up as we neared the town but the motorbike outriders were excellent at clearing the route with a virtual rolling road closure.  We entered the town outskirts and the start of a 10 kilometre, 50 mph descent right to the sea front. 

At one point I overtook the lead motorbike, which upset him a bit, but I wasn't going to slow down as I need every advantage I can get.  Because for every down there is always an up. 

As we screamed through the town the crowds broke off from their Saturday activities to cheer us all on.  I reached the sea wall and the sharp right, blind turn, flanked by cafe's and hordes of spectators, with a 100 metre gap on the massive group of chasers. 

Ronde Picarde ~ Flamme RougeI brake hard for the blind turn, scrub off all my speed then exit the corner to see the road going up at 45 degrees!  Not good.  Especially when I'm still in my 52x12.  How amateurish is that? 

I try to keep up speed, retain my composure, change down the block and not fall off all at the same time.  Six riders get past but I still have a fair gap on the hundred or so behind me.  Don't look back and grab the next wheel through.

To add insult to injury, this is the place the event photographer is standing.  Luckily the photo on the right doesn't tell the full story and looks quite impressive.  Me with a gap on a climb!

Drink, Anyone?
A wheel never came and I had to lead the chase to the six ahead that weren't waiting for anyone.  Off the top of the hill we headed in to the sand dunes and a full on blast through some very windy, slippy. twisty, beach front roads.  It was brilliant.  In the midst of all this was the feed station.  Some well meaning helper was at the very front of the feed trying to hand up bottles of Evian.  Not a chance.  They must have been new to this.  The place to stand is at the end of the feed where people are expecting it and can adjust their speed and position to grab a bottle.  To be honest, I don't think he gave many away.

With 20k of flat before the next big climb it was back to echelons and lineouts.  The rider behind me in the photo above was huge.  He teamed up near the front with old Jean-Luc to form a combine.  Guess where I was?  These two formed the biggest wind-break in the group and were more harvester than combine.  I fought with virtually every rider in the group for the next 20k to sit in their shadow.

The last place of note was the town of Ault and their cobbled High Street.  We raced right through the middle of their town centre down a one car wide cobbled road flagged with shops, cafes and spectators cheering on either side.  What a buzz.  When we got spat out the other side it was to head back inland to hills, shelter and the finish.

We were still around a hundred strong when we hit the 20k to go marker.  The battles for the front begin.  I do everything I can to stay in the top twenty or so.  At 15k the desperate attacks start; too far out for my liking.  I keep near the front and aim to be in the top ten with 5k to go and the top five with 3k to go. 

Coming off a roundabout as we head for Eaucourt I look across and am amazed at the size of our group.  I can't see the end of the line.  I have no idea where we are in the big scheme of things I just want to be near the front when it kicks off.  The attacks continue remorselessly, surely a break must go away soon?  Should I be part of it?

The Finale
All of a sudden we brake furiously and turn right to leave the big wide main road, dropping down in to a small, high-hedged back lane the width of a small driveway.  I immediately realise where we are and move from my tenth or so place in the group to get right up to the sharp end.  Every twist and turn of the tiny lane sees me move up another place then all of a sudden it's 500 metres to go.  Who pinched the 1k marker?

The FdJeux clad rider in the photo above screams past me in a full on attack.  I jump on his wheel.  We dive in to a 90 degree left and someone attempts to come across my front wheel.  I stick an elbow in his hip and he just eases off enough for me to jump in the gap he's left.  I'm now third wheel. 

The road heads slightly down hill.  I'm already in my top gear and spinning out but I can normally maintain a push for around twenty-five seconds or so and can usually muster a second kick.  I feel my PC energy system come in as those next to me begin to falter.  Just before I crack we cross the finish line three abreast.  With our FdJeux rider easily getting the decision by half a wheel.

What a fantastic days ride.  How can fortunes change so quick?  Of course I put it down to my training partners and my intervals.  But some days it just all comes together and this was one of those days.  When you give your transponder back at the finish tent you get your Brevet printed out with your time.  I was quite chuffed to find I'd not only hit the Gold standard for my age group but was ten minutes under for the scratch gold time as well with a 3:56 ride for 135k.

When I got home and internetted the results, I'd been classed as 19th vet, 60th overall and was second in the bunch sprint.  Happy days!

Double Gold
Dianne had a fantastic ride also and showed that her training had paid off by picking up a Brevet d'Or or Gold Medal ride in the ladies category.  As well as starters and deserts we might just break out a celebrationary bottle of wine (well, half a bottle) with our evening meal.

After the finish, we had to find some shade as the temperature was now around 25 degrees and not a breath of wind.  What a strange day.  We rode the 5k back to our car and headed off home.  Jimmy Casper?  Never saw him.  I think he might of been behind me!

The Picarde is a well organised race that goes through some fine countryside.  The trouble is it's so fast you don't get to see much of it.  There are more brits here than there are at a UK event, for those in Kent it's almost their home event.  Not sure if I'd rush back, but it was well worth a visit as an end of season jolly.  Stick it on your list of things to do before you hang up your wheels.

website Ronde Picarde

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