The Art of Stem Chewing

La Cantonale

A look back at the art of suffering through the eyes of the rider.

UNGODLY is the hour you will wake up, you will pour coffee blacker than barge oil down your neck and progress on to the morning favourite, your not quite cooked, not quite cool enough to eat porridge. You will kiss your loved one/s goodbye. You will look in the mirror, shake your head, swear, grab your bag and roll out the drive.

Car banter is moderate, talk floats from Paralympian grading classifications thanks to Shaun’s hands on knowledge (what the hell is a C5?) to ‘what’s the latest you ever turned up for a race?‘ (Gordon, naturally, winning this with 1 min passed official race start, whole race waiting while he pins on his number) There is no mention of what is about to happen. What happens happens, and it happens the only way it can, hard, fast and very painfully! Everyone knows this so really no point dwelling on the obvious.

Our team this year was slimmer than previous years with Rookie Roy ‘Tinny’ Mcgregor set to have his first taste of the madness. Four times Cantonale veteran Gav Ryan feeling prepared even given a bout of the shinshitski’s earlier in the week, three times veteran Mart Garratt set to show what winter sabbaticals to Hog Hill can do. Another three times veteran me, my sole aim to stay straight, not crash and survive. And our heavy weight champ and resident warlord who actually manages to ‘race’ this race four times Cantonale veteran Ian (King of) Paine…you bring it, and he will bring it plus some!

As you may have gathered La Cantonale creates a bit of fever for racers, if you’ve done it, you need to scratch the itch again, if you haven’t you cant wait until you do. No amount of muscle memory seems to remember the nature of this jaunt across to Calais. But for the sake of our new friends lets do a quick recap.

You will go fast, wind/hail/snow or tectonic plate shift will not slow this race down… sorry I lie, crashes. If you crash be prepared to fly further and faster than you ever have before, like a baby sparrow grappling with gravity, the lessons shall be brutal. Your fellow competitors will stop, but then they will walk over you, your bike, or anything thats looks set to open THAT gap any bigger, after all, YOU are now the reason they will be gritting their teeth so expect zero sympathy.

Team cars, oh how we love team cars, we were privileged enough to have one this year, Shaun as wheels man/camera chief and DS. Pia was our one and only long suffering micro fan club and then we had the somewhat fazed and broken knee, hooligan car chucker Gordon/Dylan/Gordon Kenneway (yes folks this year he actually re-entered the UK as Dylan Kenneway…mmm). But my point was we had a car, its like an island of safety in a totally chaotic furnace, our relative sanctuary!

So as I was saying, with a road barely wide enough to squeeze six riders abreast you may have the displeasure of witnessing one of theses little ‘helpers’ move up the right hand side, in the gutter, coughing up stones and soil and blaring its horn as your own Garmin bends into the never never zone of 80kph! Then of course for some inexplicable reason afore mentioned team car will slam to a halt behind a stranded rider as behind him 160 riders fight tooth and nail for that little strip of hallowed clear tarmac that the car isn’t occupying! Talk about stressful, its no party in the peloton!

This race happens in a haze for me, so 20km is all it took to remind me to be on the ‘A’ game today and concentrate a little harder, from the minute we had lined up all about you these guys are itching to race, they creep forward on the start line constantly and the real game starts the second you clip in, no neutral section here thanks, just pedal, pedal hard! After finding a nice rhythm and a space to move in I relaxed. Riders suddenly hit the deck, nooooooo! Most of the peloton is now scrambling to link to the large unscathed group up the road, this entails initial panic followed by calm solid work for about 10km, somehow I get the dubious honor of closing the last few metres, this effort is completed right before the first climb, oh marvellous!

‘Scrambling’ is probably the best way to describe French hill climbing, riders chuck bikes around as if its a race to the top and the prize is a sports car and a summer holiday in Cannes, in reality the prize is a cross wind and an exposed flat with a break of 15 riders unbelievably tearing themselves off the front of this barreling fury and a peleton hell bent on bringing them back. Miraculously we don’t pull them back, how?!

Respite, we’re about 35km in remember, this has all happened and I’m only now managing to scratch my back for the first of many life giving gels, get up to Paine ’15 off the front, they’re gone’ Mmmm not sure what this will mean for the rest of us, all I know is the pace is getting re-aligned with that of the planets and we are off again. This is where you question how long you can hack it, will my legs hold, come on its only 35k in for Gods sake!

But the pace has claimed some victims. Our own Aussie monster Roy has slipped through somewhere nearer the back and Dulwich riders have been getting spat out the peloton like raindrops exiting a storm cloud. Gordon grits his teeth and looks off along the team cars to the echelons that are mashing across the French countryside ‘This is hell’ his sage-like wisdom tainted with jealousy.

The art of cornering is soon to be the next lesson, entering a cork burning right hander I’m sitting as close as anyone dare to Gavin’s rear wheel, his own leading wheel millimetres from a gangly French lad who may have chosen a slightly over zealous angle of entry. SLIIIIIDE, his pedal grinds the tarmac, massive evasive from all of us, left curb approaching, ‘JESUS, fucking fuck, phew’, unscathed, just drop that hammer and SPRINT, 52kph don’t stop till you sight anything remotely looking like a bunch and so on and so on.

Nail biting, if my own hands weren’t now molded to the handlebars I’d have nibbled those suckers right off, my second heart attack comes as I hit the most mis placed patch of gravel on a 70kph left hander, feel my front wheel slide and in the lunacy of that moment and feeling I just escaped a fight with the armco, I smile, I’m getting into this ‘Holy shit Gav, Gav‘ ‘Did you see that guy‘ ‘No I just slipped on some gravel‘ ‘HAHAHAHA‘ Clearly we are now racing.

Here I must digress, a moan, development squads. Now I’m all for nursing the next crop of Boonens and De Volders but lets face it, 1 in 10 of these guys is going to hack it, so lets spend a little less time fluffing their pillows and get back to the basics, if you can’t take a bottle from the side of the road, carry two! If however you insist on handing bottles lets try do it where the pace isn’t 55kph and the feeble attempt to move a half kilo projectile from 0 to 55 in 0 seconds using the equivalent of a willow branch will end in so many tears I will personally stamp on you Cosmics and set fire to your team bus, FLANDERS stop doing it, you do it in the UK you do it in France for the sake and safety of the riders dodging your multitude of fallen bottles and swinging arms STOP!!!

Enough bleating, action Spies action!

At 70km you start entertaining the thought that this is just like any other road race and you can do things like; pedal up through the pack; chat to a team mate; pedal through someones high velocity spit EEEEW! But of course there is a lull before every storm and a vacuum before every explosion, and this one is the Le Boobies A-bomb climb (Le Boubers) with its 90deg left into a 16% rear mech destroyer.

At no point should Le Boubers be done at anything less than 110 cadence and with the 25 tooth engaged, spin spin spin, bob and weave like a flyweight facing Tyson, you make it over, mercifully with 15 odd up the road and this climb featuring twice in this years race the gauntlet is not laid down as per last year as you summit, dare I say it some self preservation from everyone ensues, wow!

Martin moves up next to me ‘One down eh Mart’ ‘*wry chuckle*’ Martin moves across a Juniors front wheel as if to reciprocate the little upstarts switching of me seconds earlier, this all happens silently, battles are fought every mile, every metre, you must concentrate and you must be nonchalantly confident.

Things start unravelling and coming together for us in equal measures, the hammer smash corner exits have proved one too many for Mart as he loses a wheel and drifts into the cars, his home for the next half hour, for the rest the attritional nature of this years racing is suiting the old hands rather nicely, we’re here to finish, there ain’t no promise of stardom and podium girls for this bunch of haggard die hards, we want nothing more than to go fast and wreak whatever damage we can given the bucket fulls that get handed to you in the opening sectors. Its Paine time!

Dulwich still has some riders, Kev Knox from Viscious is still there plus his team mate, Mark Perry and we suddenly have a moment of unbridled UK team cohesion (albeit for about two seconds) as we all telepathically work together when Mark shoots off to join a split, the bunch is having none of it, they drag, they counter, its like murder leap frog, jump-kill-bang, jump-kill-bang. I see Ian’s wheel, as ever a good one to follow, the caffiene must be working as I feel nothing but the pressure on the chain as it ratchets up, I move up the outside on Ian’s wheel, for some strange reason we are given some undue respect, riders glance over and make their own way to the left to try gain some advantage from the pace change, there’s a massive lull suddenly at the front and some riders have popped off clear. Ian reaches the front of the bunch and I make my bid to catch the groupetto, oh man thats a bad move, yer all alone between a 6 rider strong ‘attack’ and a patient pit bull biding its time, its all over too quickly Le Boubers again!

Thunder, thunder the mass drills it over, back in saddle, settle, breathe we’ve made the 100km mark and Ian’s back at the front, this time I’m nowhere near him, he decides to keep the gap ‘respectable’ between what is now a 30-40 rider strong peloton that we are in and the two groups up the road. Ian is there for an age, has the man gone mad? Gavin comments after the race that he was less than enthused by Ian dishing out his own special brew up front as just getting to that point had almost killed him! I’m seeing my own warning lights, I need a confirmation, the Garmin is lying, Ian’s finaly back with us ‘How much further mate’ I gasp, ‘Mmm about 6 or 7 k’ comes the calm answer. I’m gonna frikkin make it, right bitches, lets party (it all went a bit Mad Max).

Sprint time, Ian now back at the front, a fight erupts behind him for his wheel, handbags and shoulders at noon, why I have no idea, he’s leading us into the final climb at breakneck speed and these kids can’t wait, I’m at 55kph again I feel a respectful butt shove to aid me on my quest to be nearer Ian, I’m strangely comfortable, the road ramps I feel something I didn’t expect, energy? Swooping down into the town to the chorus of yells and whistles and Martin shouting ‘NAIL IT STUEY’ I give it all I have, we storm towards the line sprinting purely for honor, we’re done! I surpress a micro vom and feel my skull fill with blood, awesome, its over, we (collectively) rule!

Thank you so much France, thank you so much mates!!