Finally – road season has arrived! Although with not quite with as much of a bang as hoped. Whether it was the cold weather, or the unfortunate cancellation of this year’s Channel Island Cyclocross Championships, but it sort of slipped in under the radar unnoticed right at the end of February.
I had been working hard towards the inaugural CI Cross Champs over Jersey in the middle of February, but a lack of interest amongst Jersey competitors at thought of only two riders coming over from Guernsey (seriously chaps – it’s double the number that normally race over here and besides, have you tried getting to and from Jersey on a Sunday in February?!?) saw the race cancelled without anyone from the organisers telling me, even though I told him I had booked my flights already. Cue much gnashing of teeth. Feeling guilty for encouraging my mate to come over with me for the race, I bought his plane ticket off him, changed the flights, and and ended up taking my son over to Jersey for the day instead during half-term so that rescued a few brownie points from the wife.
To make up for the disappointment, I hastily arranged a long weekend with my two-up TT partner over in Brittany at the beginning of March for a couple of road races. I found a website which lists various villages races in France and, which my bestest pigeon French, rang the contact numbers listed. The first race I found was the Etoile de Tressignaux on the Saturday, a relatively well know early season race just north west of St Brieuc. Having just about managed to work out that there was space in the D1/D2 support race (note to self – look up what the French for the ‘@’ symbol is before you start trying to exchange email addresses!), I emailed over our names and UCI licence numbers and the club president confirmed our entry.
Something for the Sunday was a bit trickier to find. There was a 3rd/D1/D2 race just east of St Brieuc, but they wouldn’t let us race unless we have a French Cycling Federation (FFC) licence. I found another 3rd/D1/D2 race just west of Rennes and having ascertained via the magic of Google translate that they’d be happy for us to race as long we were on the FFC’s list of approved foreign riders. Cue a quick call to British Cycling who promptly issued us with a nice letter in French detailing our insurance cover and passed our details to the FFC to add us to their list. Bingo – race entry confirmed!
In the meantime, the local road season started with the traditional 15 mile time trial. As expected for the middle of the English Channel in February, it was blowing a gale and freezing cold. In fact it was so cold that I opted to wear my ‘cross skinsuit, and rode up to the start with a winter jersey and thermal jacket over the top and two pairs of gloves in an effort to stay warm! Most people’s times were about a minute slower than last year, so I was pretty pleased to take 12 seconds off my time from last year and finish as first senior and 6th overall.
Roll forward 5 days, the wind had dropped enough for the ferry to sail and we were heading to France. We arrived at Tressignaux just as the race commissaire was setting up in the local bar and were greeted as long lost friends – “Ah! Les Anglais!”. All signed on, we did a course recce and set up the turbos in the rain for a warm up. It quickly became obvious from the odd looks we were getting that we were the only ones doing this as the locals just did repeated laps of the short 4.5km circuit.
Having initially tried to line up in the semi-pro 1/2/3 category race, we worked out our race was the following one, and 125 of us headed off into rain for 80km/17 laps of the undulating course. I struggled to clip in at the off, and found myself towards the back of the pack, seemingly having to dodge a rider lying on the deck at every corner for the first few laps on the narrow greasy roads. The pace was relatively relaxed and I gradually made my way up through the pack, but by the time I was on the front on the peloton at about 40km I had already missed a break of about 20 riders and my mate had abandoned with a mechanical. A couple of riders attacked the peloton going up the finish straight, so I sprinted across to them and another 10 or so came with us as we worked together in an attempt to claw back the race leaders. As the rain stared getting heavier, and my Garmin gradually ticked down to 0C, our group of poursuivants collected a few who had been dropped by the leaders but ultimately finished about 30 seconds down on the winner and I crossed the line in 25th.
Sunday’s 3rd/D1/D2 race was the main event that day in Cintré, and there were a number of junior races taking place as we signed on in the local sports hall. The crowd started to build as we did our recce lap, and we were even introduced to the crowd as “l’equipe de Guernesey” by the race commentator as we crossed across the start/finish line. It was a fairly flat 100km course, and the pace was noticeably quicker than Saturday as the 160 person peloton was strung out from the off. I really suffered for the first 15km and tried to hide in the middle of the peloton as my mate took turns on the front helping keep the pace up and not letting the early break of 3 riders get too far ahead.
Gradually my legs came back, but the peloton splintered after a couple of crashes in consecutive laps (just how do you ride into a tree on a dead straight section of road?) and I found myself in the third group of three and having to chase back on. Nobody was really working together so I found myself digging deep to drag our gruppetto back on to the main bunch. I stuck with it for another lap or so, but my legs decided that was enough for the weekend and I peeled off after 65km and trundled back round to the start/finish line before climbing off for my first ever DNF in a road race. As it turns out, my team mate was already back at the van having abandoned with another mechanical in the previous lap, so we grabbed a gallette saucisse each, got chatting with the locals, and watched the final couple of laps before heading off home.
All in all, not the most successful weekend in terms of results but I’ll certainly take a lot away from it. It was the first time I’d raced in such a large group (the biggest previously was about 40), and it took a while to get used to bumping shoulders at 50kph and how to make room to safely move up through the bunch. The races were also longer than the usual distances back home, albeit less hilly, so it was a good test of my early season form. Ultimately though, it was just a joy to be racing somewhere different for once.