French Lessons

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There were less than three minutes to my allotted start time, and there I was - flying high above the village of St Felicien taking pictures from a helicopter. With 15 seconds to go I jumped commando style from the chopper and legged it across the field to my bike and made it two full seconds before the big off. I felt like I’d been in some kind of bizarre Ardechoise triathlon; the previous night I had some how found myself being carried around a small village by local hunters and then getting myself locked out of a convent, where I’d somehow ended up spending the night - sounds weird? Well it was.

Now with all of this stuff translating it’s self in my troubled mind I found myself hurtling down a narrow country lane as part of Europe’s biggest peleton (cycling group). As ever with these events you find an amazing mix of characters and differing ability - especially bike handling ability, so I always tend to be very alert for the first few kilometres, and true to form it was like the charge of the light brigade” - blood, guts and bikes everywhere

Despite a distinct lack of fitness and a two week bike-less road trip as a build up I’d somehow been coaxed into taking part in the event. And as is all too often the case I was beginning to wake up to what I’d signed up for, with the start of the climb acting as the first serious alarm call. I’d never been to this region before, and figured it would be a mix of rolling and flat stuff, quite leisurely really - or at least I hoped it would be, and how wrong I was about to be proven.

We’d only been of the road for a few fast and smashing minutes when the climb kicked in. Maybe 3 or 4 km was my reckoning of its sentence, but some 20 km into the ride and I was still climbing! Even in a group of this size you can’t hide your lack of fitness, and I was suffering more than I had done for years. Looking around at your fellow riders in these kind of events is like of a double edged sword; for every guy you see suffering more than you two more buzz past, often bearded guys in football shorts also thunder past - chatting away. As the climb ground on I’d settled into a rhythm, all be it a slow one. I was managing to hop the odd fast moving group, which was rapidly leap frogging me through the field, and then finally the climb ended.

It was pay back time! Thank my cotton cap that I can still ride downhill faster than most. Ahead lay twenty fast and twisty kilometres of downhill, all lightly greased by drizzle - perfect for a maniac on a mission. Suddenly the adrenaline and competitive spirit surged back through my veins, and I went for it. It’s amazing in such sizeable fields just how many people don’t have the first idea of how to descend. Like a huge great pinball I picked them off at double speed - “that’ll teach you not to blast me on the climbs” smugly passed through my mind as I clung vaguely to the Tarmac of twisty and wet drop.

The crowds were out in the thousands; every house, every village, and every bar, were crowded with cheering onlookers. Entire villages, lampposts, bridges, and fences, everywhere was fully decked out in the lilac and yellow colours of the event. Flowers, ribbons, paintings; it was truly something amazing to see, and to be a part of it was something extra special. Jazz bands jigged away at roadsides while people cheered and danced, it seemed at though the whole of the Ardech was on carnival.

They do say that all good things must come to an end, and true to the proverb so the descent ran out of steam, and so the road turned up hill again. Inside I was pretty sure that I was well and truly heading into the last 15 km or so, and that I’d already taken care of the races big climb. But oh, ohhh how wrong I was set to be. An after-the-fact look at the profile revealed that we had actually dropped to lower than the event starting point, and that to get back to the finish that we had to climb all of the way back up the side of the first col, and even on reflection I think it was probably better that I didn’t know this at the time. I was cooked, burnt, and not in any kind of state to deal with a 20 km climb, with added long and screaming sections of 15% gradient thrown in for fun.

By not knowing my fate I was still managing a respectable pace for the first few kilometres, then a cruel diversion lead us up to a medieval hill village, and through the narrow cobbled streets to a cheer from the local school kids and dignitaries. The bonk (hitting the wall) was now kicking in hard, but still working on the assumption that I had maybe 6/7 km of downhill to go I didn’t bother to stock up on food.

Somehow my fast descent had got me towards the head of affairs, and the fast guys were now starting to make their way up from their belated start times, and were coming past in drabs. One of the Credit Agricole professional team riders blasted past at a pace that now only lingers in my clouded and distant memory. Should I chase him down? Pointless even thinking about it. It was about as much as I could do not to climb off and collapse. I was swearing and almost crying inside when I saw the gradient and countdown signs. There were 3 or 4 of us yo-yoing together up the climb, and the air was silent, we were all in the same boat, it was autopilot without the batteries mode.

As the summit feed station came into sight my spirits lifted. Even though it was all downhill from here I had to stop; cakes, more cakes, sticky drinks and strange bars brought me back to life, and put me back in the saddle. It was wet, and downhill all the way home from here. The icing on the Ardechoise cake was to be left to me to apply. In the final 11 km I managed to pick off most of the guys who had grunted past on the climb, finishing things off with a little dignity, and on a promise to get fitter before I take on such a challenge again.