I wanted to answer a question, has anything changed? Has anything changed since the last time we popped over the pond to do battle with riders a fair few rungs above us on the cycling pecking order. The short answer, no. The long answer, pull up a chair mate…
So here we are, 2018, has it really been 5 years already? Good grief, hope I still have the minerals. You never know until you try right? Yep, I needed a few cliches to actually answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘are you doing it’ when mention of our once yearly jaunt to the south of Calais seemed to be back on the calendar. I’m 40 frikkin 2, I could be half these kids dad, sod it, I’m in!
The last time I had raced La Cantonale, the early season staple for any French or Belgian feeder team, I had honestly experienced everything there is to experience in the short space of 3 hours of batshit fury that is this mini classic for us the the great unwashed amateurs. The organisation, it’s officious, it’s quirky, it’s massively endearing, the locals are proud of their town and their race and it shows. Then there’s the speed, sweet tormented micro fibres, this was a race to every corner, every straight and up every climb, you do not stop, attack attack attack, or so it seems when you can’t ever find respite. And finally the roads, honestly I could write sonnets and sing to these sinuous, well maintained marvels or civil engineering, utterly perfect. There’s more of course, so much more.
My last race had ended in a hail of team cars, yelling, and ultimately a broken gear cable that meant as fun as the 53 x 11 was, I was a dribbling mess at 90km and had to call it a day, meh, racing. So I was keen to just be slap bang in the middle of it all again, the beauty of the chase and the challenge. We had packed up the cars early doors Sunday and made our way across the channel. We donned our new team kit and lined up with a 5 man team in Ray, Ian, Gav, Jamie and myself. It felt great, sun was shining, I was back, back to what I loved, lets really do this. The Mayor counted us down and as ever we were off before he could get to ‘deux’, wham its on.
Trying to relax as you hit 70kph in a bunch of 200 twitchy fired up riders isn’t easy, I kept saying ‘stay calm, relax, enjoy’ this may have been the wrong mantra. Brakes! Squeal, riders in the field. Oh for f*** sakes its 1km in, we compress we straighten out. I enter the first corner not daring to touch the brakes, hop the pavement, shoot around some riders ‘go on my son’ I feel like I’ve punched my ‘experienced’ ticket. Oh god, we are so at the back. Huge gaps are opening and the guys getting shelled already and in full red light panic mode, no one is working together everyone is just scrambling past then blowing up as the dial is fully locked at 12.
Big split, big disappointment
You can’t chase a bunch by yourself, you can’t even do it with some help from your friends, you need a bit of an army. As much as we tried, the five motivated riders pulling our bunch to try get us back onto the arse of the main bunch was making zero progress. I was so in the red at this stage I hadn’t thought to drink, but again, this is a mere 30km in. No…..nooooooooo the team cars are getting told to push through, you are kidding me, how did this happen? I’m not even….its horrible, we are the laughing group and its been a humbling lesson in ‘never think experience can compensate for good positioning’. We were simply out of it, balls!
By the time I hit the big climb of the day I was receiving conciliation applause from the marshalls and bystanders and have decided there are definitely worse places to get shelled. I roll past a few riders who look like they’ve just done a ramp test, no doubt expendibles from teams who had initially cranked the pace, I don’t feel so bad. Alas there is a ‘beep beep’ behind me, argh, broom wagon….I roll to an indignant halt, number unpinned and I set off alone to complete the last 10km to HQ.
For the rest of the boys the race unfolds in familiar fashion, unrepresented riders pulling breaks back and EVERYONE wanting someone up the road. Ian is in his element, he finds himself slap bang in the middle of the action, fighting for wheels, bridging gaps, even taking station on the front for a little bit of ultra suffering. Gavin meanwhile makes the fatal error of not quite following what is happening up the road, thinks he’s in the laughing group so pulls in at the HQ only to find his small group had actually been rather select and ahead of the main peloton! Honestly I can see why race radios are so needed in pro racing, FACE PALM!
I park up at the HQ to watch the final laps of the closing circuit and yell for the couple of Brits we know who are still out there. The bell lap and 5 riders have torn themselves off the front while the dregs of the peloton start to regroup and give chase. By now riders look more like they’ve covered 200km with the effort of the last 110km etched on their faces and the concentration at maximum. Finally an agonising sprint unfolds with Baptiste Gourguechon taking the win and a hugely impressive result for young cyclocross sensation Ben Tulett in 5th, the first of the British riders. Today was simply brutal!
No race in France is complete without something going comically and catastrophically wrong, let’s spare a thought for Ray. Having missed a turn at the 20 mile mark, Ray set about pedalling furiously through the countryside trying to figure out where exactly he was until he remarkably popping out ahead of the main race before venturing off into the unknown for another 80km, again rejoining the race, then getting dropped just before the finish loop….you can’t make this stuff up!
All in all, racing in France is as brilliant and bonkers as it ever was. It requires a lot of ‘crazy’ at times, be that in terms of effort or simply skill but you walk away from a weekend like that and feel a certain renewed level of connection to your sport. It’s a breath of fresh air in terms of racing simply for the joy of racing, no points, no podiums just mates making up the numbers and ripping their own legs off, utterly fantastic thank you again La Cantonale!