Tales from the peloton, October 24, 2004
Part of the year-long centenary celebration of the Franco-British Entente Cordiale treaty signed in 1904, the Paris-London charity bike race threatened to be a little less 'cordiale' with a 300-strong pack of amateur bike riders, evenly divided between France and Britain. Resident Gran Fondo expert Ben Atkins was flying the flag high for Cyclingnews and his mother country.
Saturday, October 23 - Stage 1: Paris - Amiens (then Calais), 148 km
Taking it all in
This morning was one of those days when you have to pinch yourself and try and take it all in. It's not every day that you get to ride your bike through the closed streets of Paris, in the company of Laurent Jalabert and Nicole Cooke (sadly Bernard Hinault wasn't riding; he was there though, dressed in his best ASO blazer and smile to wave us off).
We assembled at around eight o'clock at the base of the Eiffel Tower - where the opposite Pont d'Iena and surrounding roads had already been shut off to traffic - collect and checked our bikes and ready ourselves for the 10:30 rollout. This gave us plenty of time to look around and make the most of the occasion, one that not many outside the pro peloton get to experience.
At last the time came to get ready for the off, but first we had to sign on in the style of the professionals, on a large podium in the shadow of the Tower, announcers David Duffield and his French equivalent supplying commentary and the occasional interview. The rollout was fantastic; for the first time ever, I was in the front few riders - by virtue of my race number - alongside Nicole Cooke and within touching distance of the great Jalabert (don't worry, I didn't). A good-sized crowd had turned out to see us off and cheered enthusiastically as we crossed the bridge and rolled sedately along the Seine quayside.
The route took us across the Place de la Concorde - where the Tour passes each July - and on towards the Opera as we snaked our way northwards in the general direction of London. Dodging the many traffic islands and other assorted street furniture (apparently there was the odd crash behind me, but I didn't see anything), we left Paris on today's 148km route and headed out into the French countryside.
Beside me, Nicole Cooke was feeling the strain of these first 70km more than I was. We were travelling at a fairly constant 25kph behind the red ASO Skoda, a speed that I'm quite happy with, but one that she is unaccustomed to. Nicole only seems to have one speed, and it's a lot faster than this... I think she was having a great deal of trouble holding herself back!
Eventually we reached Mouy, a small village just under halfway between Paris and Amiens where the easy part would finish and the real race would begin. We were herded into a school yard where we were given light refreshments an given the chance to get ready for the race - many people shedding leg warmers and jackets - before being called up to the start.
I was chatting away to Ellis Bacon from Procycling Magazine when we realised that everyone else had gone, so by the time we made it to the start, we were the very last in the bunch - a bad place to be if you're planning to do well, so I knew I was in for a struggle straight away. I wasn't wrong; I tried to make my way forward but as soon as the flag was dropped, the bunch accelerated and moving forward became a less important issue than keeping up!
After about 10km of sprinting at 50kph, I managed to get into what I thought was a good position, and then the first hill appeared. My legs needed to recover from the efforts of the last fifteen minutes, but there was no chance of that as the group I was in sped upwards. It wasn't long before I lost contact.
By the time I reached the top of the hill, I looked around to se who else was with me; there were a few who - like me - had found the early pace too strong and we formed a loose sort of group for the descent. Halfway down we came across the nastier side of cycling: the north facing slope was shaded by trees and so still greasy from last week's rain; added to this were the early autumn leaves liberally scattered across its surface, making this a pretty treacherous descent. Two riders had come down on a hairpin not far in front of us and were still down as we passed them. The medical team was already with them though, and it turned out that no one was seriously hurt. Luckily we have with us the services of Gerard Porte - chief doctor of the Tour de France - and his team, and no one knows more about cycling related injuries than them!
The rest of the race was a bit of a blur for me, I managed to get together with four, sometimes five others, but progress was stilted as we lacked a certain cohesion which kept seeing us split on every climb - and even some flat bits. Thankfully the wind was predominantly from our rear and the sun was shining, so it wasn't as tough as it could have been, but the constant rolling nature of the roads - punctuated by the occasional short sharp climb was sapping any strength I had left in my legs. This morning's neutral ride had been fairly easy, but 70km is a fair distance at any speed and so it was beginning to take its toll as we ground our way north to Amiens.
Finally the kilometre markers began to count us in; first through twenty, then ten, then five as at last the end was in sight. With around two to go what I hoped would be today's last climb came into view and I ground up it in the only way I can when my legs are that tired (i.e. bottom gear, slowly!). Only on reaching the top did I realise that it was little more than a bridge over the Autoroute! Albeit a pretty high one.
We finally passed the red kite and I decided to have a dig on the final descent, but they all caught me pretty easily. I wondered if I should try and muster a sprint, but decided not to make a fool of myself, so I crossed the line the only way I know how: sitting up, taking in the applause. I'm sure there was some.
Thank God that's over. I rolled up to our coach to find some clothes to change into and handed my bike to the guys on the truck - I hope it makes it okay - then found some bread (only ham sandwiches available - oh, the life of a vegetarian in France!). Apparently the winner finished the 80km race in around 1:58, someone asked me what my time was, and I had to say I had no idea. All I know is that I made it! Having said that though, I was at least twenty five minutes behind, but I don't care. Tomorrow I think I'll have a go at the Lanterne Rouge.