Vallee du Bedat

Yesterday we were in Clermont Fd. for a race called the Tour du Vallee du Bedat and this year’s editition could only be classified as an epic day of bicycle racing. Upon checking the weather a few hours before departure, it was calling for rain storms, and only about 1 degree celsius. With that I threw in a few extra pieces of clothing and set off, trying to stay positive and reminding myself that I don’t mind the cold and rain as much as most.

On the drive to the race we were going through patches of snow, intense rain, and even some hail to mix things up a bit, but at the race start it was just cold with sunny skies. I was still breaking out the waterproof gloves, overshoes, vest and a few other layers just to be sure though! The day’s course consisted of 6 laps of a 21km circuit, with 2 pretty good climbs, both short but steep. Usually this isn’t much of a race for crosswinds, but today there was a good 4 or 5km straight road with a strong crosswind, and it came right after one of the climbs.

I could tell it was going to be a very long and painful day for me as soon as the flag dropped to end the neutral start. My legs were just not quite there, however that was completely expected after a long week of training with the pros. The first time over the climb was as much a shock to the system as jumping into a tub filled with ice – the legs just didn’t want to propel me and my bike forward. I found myself slipping back and back, but finally it ended and I could move back up a bit. Basically the first couple laps went like that, just suffering away and not able to do anything to really affect the race. I kept trying to tell myself that it would get better…unfortunately that never came true.

On lap 2, not 10 minutes after dropping my vest in the feed zone, the black clouds started rolling in and before we new it sheets of cold rain were coming down on us. With the speeds we were traveling, combined with the wind, the rain felt like someone was shooting us with a BB gun as it stung our faces. For a while I think it was even hail wreaking havoc on the riders. As we became more and more miserable, the morals of some started to fade, and that’s when races like this start. That lap, in the crosswind section a split happened which saw about 70 or 80 riders motoring away, and the rest left behind. I was in the front group, but was doing everything I could just to be there – I didn’t have the legs today to help my teammates as much as I would have liked to.

Every lap the group would get smaller, and each time I expected my legs to just stop turning on the climb. Somehow, each time I survived to fight it out again – but my only reward for this was that I would now have to convince myself to keep riding and not pull in at the feed zone and change into some nice warm clohtes. Laps ticked by, the rain kept falling, and nothing seemed to be getting any better at all, but I was surviving and the group kept getting smaller and smaller. Finally we were on the last lap. By this point my mouth was so cold I couldn’t even eat or drink without drooling it all over myself, and my eyeballs were so cold I could hardly see, but it was almost over and I could almost feel warmth just thinking about a nice hot shower. A small split happened on the last climb, about 5kms from the finish and I was on the wrong side of that one, but at this point I honestly didn’t even care about anything but getting to the finish line. I basically just crossed the line, slammed on the brakes and turned around to find the team bus.

In the end I was 40th or something like that, with Jerome having a good ride for 4th. Of the 180 starters I think 50 finished, the others seeking the shelter of team buses and cars. I was happy that I managed to convince myself to keep going every lap, and feel that if nothing else it was a good day of mental training. I knew going into the race that I would still be tired from the week, so I’m not all that concerned about feeling so horrible today. Now it’s time for some recovery and hopefully the legs will come around faster than before.

Francaise des Jeux training camp

Wow, what a week it’s been for my teammate Anthony Soares and I. We’re currently driving back to Roanne from a small town called Draguinon in the south of France. We spent the week at the Francaise des Jeux training camp training with about 15 of their riders and getting a taste of what life as a pro cyclist is like. We arrived Monday after and just did a nice easy spin after the long drive, anticipating a tough week filled with many kilometers of riding. That night we met all the riders, mechanics, directors, soingeurs, trainers, and even the groupies that are constantly hovering somewhere nearby. I have to admit it was a bit intimidating at first, not being sure how things would work and how we would fit in, but very soon we started to feel more and more welcome. Before the camp I remember reading an entry in Michael Barry’s blog describing how training camps really bring teams together, and even Anthony and I felt like old friends with most of the riders by the end of the week.
Every morning we would wake up around 8 and head down to the dining room for breakfast. Riders and staff would gradually trickle in over the next half hour and soon enough the room would be filled with the sounds of laughter as we poke fun at each other, discussion of the day’s training, and the copious amounts of food being consumed in preparation for the long ride ahead. By 9:30 or 10 we found ourselves clipping into our pedals and setting off into the rolling hills and mountains that surround town. Some days there were specific efforts, such as sprints, motor pacing or time trial work, and others are simply meant to be long endurance rides. Generally we would split into two groups for safety as well as different needs for different riders.
Winding through small towns would always attract stares and cheers from people walking, or leaning out their windows. As we would pass cyclists they inevitably try to hang on to the back of the group until they succumb to the speed that is natural for us, but fast for the majority of cyclosportifs. As we ride it’s interesting to chat with the riders and learn about their backgrounds. When you’re watching these guys on TV everything seems so distant, but after talking to them I started to realize that they all started off on teams like I’m on now.
The riders we did would last between 3 and 6 hours – passing the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. Within one ride we could find ourselves riding along a sparkling beach, gazing off into the distance at snow-capped mountains, or looking down into breathtaking canyons from the top of those same mountains. A 6 hour ride really flies by with the views and also the task of trying to have a quick chat with as many of the riders as you can.
Before we knew it the week had come to an end, but as much fun as we were having I think our legs are now very content to have a very easy recovery ride ahead of them. Not a whole lot of time for recovery though, as we have will be racing this Sunday at the Tour du Vallee du Bedat. Might be a bit heavy legged for that one but I think it was well worth it for the experience. A big thanks goes out to the whole FDJ team, from riders to staff for a great week! Hopefully someday I’ll be back for more than a week!

Stage Essor Basque

I just got back from a week long training/racing camp in the Basue Country with the team. There was no internet there, but I kept a journal of each day of racing we did. It’s long, but it has three days worth of exciting races.

Race 1: Boucles de la Soule
Today was the first official day of our big training and racing camp in the Basque Country. Essentially this week there are all kinds of one day races throughout the week in the Basque region, and many teams come to get their first races in and to make a bit of a training camp for the days when there are no races. We brought all 15 of our guys, but only 9 or 10 take the start line for each race. For me – I’m doing 3 of the 6 races and will get in good training rides with the others on the days in between.
Today was race number one and I was on the list to take the start. Upon waking we were greeted by overcast skies, and the weather was only calling for worse. Nonetheless I was really excited to get to start my first race since Worlds way back in August! After a good breakfast we set off for the hour drive to the start line. The course for today was 5 laps of a 20km circuit with a little 3km climb and then one lap of 45km that was a bit easier (or just faster I guess) and then a bit of a sketchy sprint finish. We were about 140 sitting on the start line as the forecasted rain started to fall. Instantly the sounds of riders deflating tires, and scrambling to put on rain vests and heavier gloves filled the city centre. Finally we rolled off to take the start. It was a bit of a shock flying through town with so many other riders and having to fight for position a bit, but soon enough it all came back to me and felt pretty natural. There was a small break go of about 12 riders over the climb that comes 10km into the lap, and not far behind the pack had a bit of a split to see another 30 riders in between the two groups. I found myself on the right side of this split with my teammate Renault Pioline. The group was rolling along well and it seemed like we would soon swallow up the breakaway to make a huge 45-man lead group. However, on the slippery roads one of the riders near the front lost traction in a corner and brought many of the others down with him. Unfortunately I was one of them, after bunny hopping on bike, unclipping and sliding down the hill on the sole of my shoe, thinking I might be able to stay upright, and then finally flipping over another fallen soldier only to slide even further on my butt. Luckily I wasn’t hurt and was back on my bike before the main field even came by. With a slightly crooked handlebar and a very bent derailleur it made riding a little bit tricky, but I soon became very used to riding straight even though my bars were turned, and the shifting wasn’t as bad as I expected.
The result of this crash was that the peleton came back together, but the original break got a bit more room and quickly distanced themselves in the confusion. Luckily we had one rider in it, and although 1 out of 12 isn’t ideal it was certainly better than none. The rest of us tried to slip into moves that might bridge across, but nothing was really moving. As the race went on the gap was quickly dwindling, but it was certainly not certain to come back. All we could do really was stay well positioned and wait to see if it came back together, and then set up either Renault or Reijo for the sprint. I was feeling good and was doing better than I thought I would at holding position, but alas as we finished the last of the smaller circuits I got bogged down in a roundabout and lost a bunch of spots. At that point I should have put in a good effort to get back to the front, but I thought we were cruising along on a bigger road for the next while. That was the first mistake, as we were in fact only a few kms from the little 3km kicker and everyone was now fighting for position at the front. After a quick right hander off the wide road the pack had to bottleneck to squeeze itself onto the smaller farm roads that would take us to the top of the climb. All of a sudden I’m hearing the squeal of brakes, snapping of carbon fibre, swearing of angry riders and then the little voice in my head racing through all the thoughts before a crash “shit…crash, brakes, try to get around it, nope, bunny hop, nope – you’re going down” as my front wheel drives into the rider in front of me. Again I was on the ground, but this time at least in the nice soft mud of the ditch rather than the sand-paper like road. Again, I hopped up and got back on and started my chase. Eventually I got back to the main group, but at this point there were only 25kms left and the gap was still holding strong. It was pretty much over for us and when Benoit – the “capitain de route” on our team told me to just chill and try to stay on my bike for the rest of the day I was more than happy to just cruise in to the finish.
So, overall I guess you can’t really say crashing twice makes for a good day. I feel like I was just a little bit rusty at avoiding the crashes as I usually do fairly well, but it was nice to get a race back under my belt and I’m just glad I walked away with little more than a rash of my butt and shoulder. As far as how I felt physically I was really good in everything except the last 500m of the climb each lap, which kicks up a bit and is a tough effort for a minute and a half. This is pretty normal since I haven’t done a whole lot of high intensity efforts, but those will come later for the more important races.

Race #2: Ronde du Pays Basque
After a couple days of training (could be translated into getting lost in Spain and ending up riding way longer than planned) I found myself back on the starting line for my second race of this 10 day camp. On the day’s agenda was about 110kms of tough racing, with incredibly strong winds and 3 passes of a 4.5km climb called the col du Gamia. Basically when you weren’t climbing or shooting down a ridiculously fast descent on small farm roads, you were tasting blood fighting for a spot in the gutter to get out of the cross winds on the rolling roads that will only lead to more suffering on the Gamia. There was really no place to recover on this circuit at all, and when you throw 150 guys who are all looking to impress in the early races, it makes for some tough racing!
Right from the start it was a bit nervous with people trying to get into the early move – either to get a head start on the Gamia or to actually try their luck in the wind for the whole day. In any case it made for a quick start, but luckily all our yellow and blue jerseys were well placed and following the moves well. I got into a small group that gained a small lead about 5kms from the base of the Gamia, which was quite lucky because I was in a spot of bother on the ascent. Inevitably, the pack was breaking into small groups everywhere, and with my small head start I was able to get over the top in the second group. After a descent that scared me half to death and some horribly painful chasing in the following crosswind section, we brought the front group back and formed a new lead group of about 50. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to share my interest in a few minutes to chow down on some fig newtons, and the attacks came pretty much instantly.
Soon enough we found ourselves at the base of the Gamia once again – only this time with a much smaller group than the first lap. I was feeling pretty good as the kms ticked over, but going into the final 500m it kicks up at around 17-18%, and I fell back a few places in the group. This wasn’t that big of a deal, but it did mean I was starting the kamikaze descent pretty far back. By the time we got back onto the bigger roads and into the wind, we were seeing groups of 10 everywhere. The sight of numerous echelons lining the roads in front of you is one of the worst I can think of in the sport of bike racing. It essentially means the race is getting away from you and unless you and the other riders in your group can dig into the depths of their souls and come up with a superhuman effort, then your chances on the day are certainly slimming, if not gone. The winds just shattered what was left of the already feeble field. After some desperate chasing by my 20-man pack our motivation was starting to fade. By the third and thankfully final pass of the Gamia, we were now just riding to finish up the day and hopefully recover for the races to come.
I can’t say I’m super happy with how I felt once again, but overall it wasn’t a terrible day. I’m trying to remember that it’s early, but it is certainly frustrating when you’re not able to follow the moves. I’m not worried for the season, I know the fitness to be among the top is just on the horizon, but it’s not easy waiting for it!
Race #3: Tour du Pays Basque:
Yesterday was my last race for this week long camp in the Basque Country – and the cycling gods had me going out with an epic one. On the forecast was more wind, cold and rain and on the race handbook was a tough course with 50kms of rolling hills before attacking a 6.5km climb called Squich, then 20kms of rolling before another ride up Tuesday’s climb – the Col du Gamia. After that whoever was left would have about 45kms to go with one little 3km kicker to really separate the men from the boys with 20kms to go. One lap of a downtown circuit would be the last chance for anyone to separate themselves from the others before the finish – but compared to the earlier difficulties on the day it looked like that lap would be more ceremonial for whoever was remaining.
In the start town the great debate was what to wear. With sunny skies in one direction, but ominous clouds in the other there was a clear split among the riders, with some in rain capes, waterproof gloves, booties and cycling caps, while others were in just arm warmers and a bit of warming oil. I was in the latter group, with hopes that the rain would hold off – but with all my rain gear tucked in the team car in case the skies did open. In the end it came down in sheets but only for about 15 minutes at a time, but at least we were already into the action when it started.
The first 30kms were very nervous and fast – averaging close to 50km/h. Everyone seemed to want to sneak into a move to get a head start on the climbs, but with speeds like that there was nothing sticking. It was good to see so many yellow and blue jerseys represented at the front and making sure nothing could move without a few of us there. All too quickly we were seeing Squich towering in front of us, with clouds and fog hovering around the top. I made sure I was well placed at the front so that I could afford to slip back a little if need be. I honestly was expecting to suffer and lose places like I had on Tuesday, but to my very pleasant surprise I actually gaining spots as the kms ticked by. I think I gained a bit of confidence every meter of that climb, and going over the top in the front 15 riders was a much better feeling than seeing that group ride away from me on Tuesday. Looking behind me to see how many we would have in our group I saw that the pack had gone from 170 strong at the base to maybe 70 guys. Yep, race was on now. The 20kms of relative respite were fairly uneventful, with a small group gaining a few seconds heading into the Gamia. Once again I found myself near the front going over this 2nd climb of the day, and when we got down the other side I looked around and saw that I was in the lead group of about 15 riders, with 5 teammates around me. Usually if you have 2 or 3 guys out of 15 you’re doing great, but with 6 we were golden – time to just drive this group as best we could. Unfortunately, when your team makes up over a third of a group, not many of the others are willing to work with you, so it was really only us in the wind. Although we had so many riders, it didn’t make much sense to drag a bunch of other guys around for the rest of the race. We tried to whittle it down by sending a few guys on the attack, that just slowed our group down in the end and we were swallowed up just as we hit the final climb.
Now, with 25kms left in the race and this final difficulty, the race was going all out. No need to hold anything back now – it was just whoever had something left in the tank. We ended up getting 4 guys in the front group of 15, and another 4 in the second group. That’s where I found myself, and not really able to do anything but sit tight and cover anything that tried to bridge to the leaders. As the finish approached we could see that we weren’t going to see the front of the race again, but it was a good situation for the team. I just sat tight and rolled in with the rest, while Maxime was duking it out up front to finish 5th.
In total it was another improvement for the whole team. Personally I was much happier with my day than the previous two, and I’ve gained a bit more confidence for the races to come. Next for me is a few days of training before heading to training camp with Francaise des Jeux for a few days of long, probably tough rides. Can’t wait to see how things work on a pro team and to meet some of the guys I see on TV and in all the cycling magazines! Going to be a pretty cool experience!