Something drew me, I didn’t now what, to register for ‘The Grand Depart Cycling Sportif’ one of the events organised to prelude the Tour de France starting in the French department of the Manche. I had taken part in mass cycling events, for charity, in the past but, probably 25 years ago! This time the word ‘sportif’ worried me a little.
Not dwelling too much on what sportif might require from my legs, the regulations stipulated that the only timing involved was a reasonable target time to finish by, basically before everyone went home. I have been cycling a lot more than I used to, the question was how have 25 years effected performance? All the cycling I now do is recreational with no real time targets. Even Janet and my John O’Groats to Land’s End ride in 2013 was planned, without an end date.
The event was split into three sections to cover the whole of the 1st stage of the Tour de France, starting at Mont St. Michel . The whole route was 189km, with a second start at Lessay with 80km and a third at Montbourg with 44km to the finish at Carentan.
With my doubts on ability, I decided to go for the 80km, the 44km was wimping out too much and the 189km involved some fairly tough climbs on the way to Granville. I had about 6 weeks to the event and I told myself that I would embark on some additional ‘training’ rides to get myself conditioned. Riding 80km in a day did not phase me at all, we have completed 100+ kms in a day several times – but there was this hint of a time schedule and the competitive element of a mass ride.
As the time drew closer, I did increase my training, never actually completing 80km but concentrated on keeping on the move, not stopping for rests, or other distractions. The bike itself, my trusty SURLY LHT, did have some new parts fitted, new chain wheels, cassette and chain, a new gear cable after finding the old one had started to fray – other than that all I changed was to fit some old clipless pedals – the bike is excellent having clocked up more than 14000kms. I did not even remove the front and rear luggage racks – I was riding a heavy touring bike, just taking the racks off would make it feel as though I was taking the whole thing seriously. If I did that, there would be one less excuse for not arriving at the finish in time!
We took both our Surlys up to the start at Lessay, and booked into a hotel in La Haye du Puits – about 9kms north and also actually on the route. I had to sign on in Carentan, the day before to ride, so we thought we would make a weekend of it. Janet was not going to do the actual route as her ankles are still a little delicate after her accident last year. She was going to watch me through La Haye and then ride the convenient 23km voie verte to Carentan to watch the finish of the ‘Sportif’. After the finish we would both return to the hotel by the cycleway, which would mean Janet would have ridden at least 46kms anyway! my total, by the end of the day, with riding the 9kms back down the road to Lessay and riding back to La Haye after the event meant that I will have completed 112kms.
The Grand Depart weekend arrived, Harris was checked into his hotel we were off to the start, all my worries seemed to disappear, I was left with thoughts of why was I actually paying money to ride roads that were not going to be closed. Added to which I would be riding with a lot of other cyclists that were probably far more experienced at competitive events. No, this was NOT a competitive event but the whole ambience of the event is competitive – or perhaps it was just me?
I felt pretty good riding down to the start, apart from the build up of grey clouds and dropin temperature as I arrived. I was in good time and the 9kms had made me feel quite relaxed, so much so that I forgot to unclip my pedal cleats after nonchalantly riding directly into the starting area! I managed to free my foot just before crashing to ground in embarrassment that what would have really made my day! With the clouds still building, I looked for my waterproof coat, only to realise that it was not in my bag! A call to Janet warned her that I would have to make a quick ‘pit-stop’ back in La Haye to pick the coat up. I did not fancy doing to whole ride in the wet without it. I was able to chat with several other ‘solos’ and ‘duos’ but most of the ‘mass’ was made up by groups. Arriving on time I managed to get myself in the start ‘grid?’ near the front. cyclists were going to be released directly into a roundabout in groups of 25-30 – it seemed OK but by the time for the ‘off’ I swear I had other peoples handlebars in my pockets, other feet on my pedals, well, don’t think I have ever been so intimate with so many people at the same time! – there was even one recumbent bike that I am sure went between my legs!
Somehow I made it onto that roundabout, in one piece, without anyone else’s pieces and everything calmed down. So it seemed, I realised I was travelling quite a bit faster than on my normal rides being swept along by riding with others and the wonderful smooth tarmac! most of the roads used by the Tour De France get resurfaced prior to the race! After as few kilometers I managed to attach myself to a largish group and started to pretend that I knew what I was doing, it seemed to work, as long as I stayed an inch behind the man in front it was easy to cruise along at 30-35kph. I just had to remember to keep an eye on the riders 5 or 6 ahead because if they changed their pace, or worse still, braked we would all end up in a heap. It seemed no time at all when we arrived back in La Haye and I pulled over to where Janet was waiting with my rain jacket – I was buzzing and my senses were telling me to hurry up and get back into what seemed like a maelstrom going by, it was, to me, just like you see when the professional cyclists pull over to have a wheel changed, an instant and I was on the go again; reality hit 25 metres up the road when the traffic stopped for a red light, along with others I pulled along the outside of the line of cars waiting at the lights, to my amazement one of the drivers actually opened his door to ask in a very friendly way, what route we were taking but the light went green and all the cyclists were off, I couldn’t wait, a quick ‘desole’ and I was chasing for my position. This was the town we stayed in last night, so I knew where I had to go, a roundabout was coming up – to my surprise the roundabout was marshalled by gendarmes who stopped the trafic to wave us through! This terrific service continued on for the rest of the route – not one junction did I have to stop, being positively beckoned on to traverse the junction at probably a greater speed than I was originally doing! Along with this, groups of actual spectators were cheering a clapping us all the way to the finish!
After 30kms the groups started to thin out and I found myself riding virtually alone. With losing the groups my average slowed down dramatically, then the motorcycle photographer came by taking specific shots of me?? – yes motorbike with photographer sitting backwards on the pillion… this must be just like the real thing! This injection of vanity spurred me on to the first feeding station, which was just short of 50km – but I was feeling fine, it looked crowded, I’ve got my own supplies on my overweight bike – lets keep going, my inner competitor said!
I settled into my own rhythm at last, just enjoying the ambience, wondering if I was the only participent that was shouting ‘bonjour!’ to every junction marshal. Just as I caught a couple of fairly serious looking riders, I was ashamed to realise that they were just slowing to take in the appearing view over the sea, pontificating what a wonderful day it was! Soon we turned southwards along the coast at Quineville heading towards Utah Beach and the final feeding station. Apart from the head wind down the coast, it was very pleasant riding with the sea in permanent view. Passing the 60km point still feeling good also helped! Utah Beach came up soon after, where again I took the ‘straight through’ route, still feeling good. We were now on a road that I know, having cycled it back in 2011 with Janet on our Tandem, returning from a trip back to the UK. It did not give me any advantage, except knowing where we were likely to lose the head wind. Funnily enough it was where I was to meet several competing tandems, one of which I was able to draft for a while, before I realised that perhaps I should do some work and overtook, surprisingly I actually left them behind, without realising. I was within 3km of the finish when suddenly both my calf muscles cramped at the same time, standing on the pedals – I slowed and gradually eased the pain away, only to be caught by the tandems again and given a knowing oh!oh! and a small smile! The legs recovered enough to get into the finish at Carentan, picking up my finishers medal ‘T’ shirt and half a banana! More importantly a welcome hug and kiss from Janet!