You know when you are a bit nervous, but at the same time excited, apprehensive but still wanting to go on. Pre-race nerves are something hard to explain, a strange mix of wanting something to start as soon as possible, but also of wanting it to end as quickly as possible. After racing in France for four seasons as an Elite Amateur on the French circuit I had experienced these nerves hundreds of times. In fact, racing week in week out, sometimes several times a week, these nerves start to wear out. Racing becomes more of something you have to do rather than something you want to do. This only began to happen on a bad run of form when you were tired. When you had some legs the nerves were always back in force. And on this particular day, I had legs.
The race was 140km around the coastal area of the south of the Brittany region in the North-West of France. The Tour du Rhuys is pretty much pan flat and winds around in several directions. Tracing the coast before turning back on itself several times, the race finishes on a short but sharp finishing circuit in town.
I had done it once the year before, but then I was in a state of fatigue after a long hard season my legs weren’t in any state to respond. This time I had come off the back of a serious knee injury early in the year and was just coming into some form. All I needed now was a number on my back and some roads to pummel.
The warmth of the day made pinning on my ‘dossards’ a pleasant job, something occasionally marred by bad weather that makes you wonder if you should just hand the numbers back and go home. I performed all the pre-race checks and rituals, shorts at the right height, socks at the correct length, tyres pumped up to the right pressure, quick release skewers tight enough, brakes nicely centred.
Race time. I lined up at the back of the bunch, confident I could quickly move up. Other races I wouldn’t be so confident, many a time I got on the front row in a fast criterium so I didn’t have to destroy myself to get to the front. We rolled away quite steadily knowing we had a good way to go, but the attacks soon started to come. I got to the front end of the race and followed a few moves to open my legs and lungs up. I knew I was feeling good right from the gun. Now I just needed to use it properly.
After sliding into the first real move of the day I pressed on the pedals and started to make myself hurt a little. I knew that if I was hurting then others around me would be in trouble. Our group was brought back but I countered straight away with 4 others and we quickly got a gap. I knew two of the guys with me were strong but after using the other two up, they quickly dropped away. I was on fire. My legs did everything I wanted them to and more. The problem is that when I reach this level of form, I ride like a complete idiot. I do far too much work trying to show off and forget that riding intelligently is as, if not more important, as having the legs.
The three of us forged on, holding between forty seconds and a minute over the chasing pack. Our time checks were given on a chalk board and each change in the gap was either helpful or disheartening. We started to get different splits at once, the bunch had split up, and three riders were coming across to us. They slowly made inroads on our gap and eventually we could see them behind us. It didn’t surprise me to see the three major race favourites turning the pedals and it signalled good news and bad news. The good news was that the race had been decided and as long as we worked well together one of us would win. The bad news was that now I had 5 of the most in-form riders in the region to beat if I wanted to win.
The good news was confirmed as we quickly settled into rhythm based on some of the unwritten rules of cycling. I would try and explain these rules but it would take at least three separate blog posts. As we pressed on my legs started to hint at the first signs of fatigue, hills began to feel a bit longer as the lactic acid made its way round the cells, but I still felt good. We hit the finishing circuit and the dung hit the fan. The first attacks came from one of the guys and our group split and came back together before splitting again. Although we weren’t working together we knew we were chasing the win so the speed never dropped and I started to feel the burn. I followed attack after attack and even dared to make my own once or twice. It’s at this point that your brain starts to go fuzzy with the details as your effort levels exceed your thought levels.
Eventually the group split with less than a lap to go, and I wasn’t in front. I wouldn’t be gunning for the win and I was disappointed. After a quick sprint I came in 5th. As per usual I had done too much work, everyone loved to tell me as much afterwards as well. I was cursing at myself at the car, when I heard my name over the loudspeaker from the podium. For some reason they wanted me to go there, probably so they could mock me for my race tactics.
Fortunately I had won the prize for the most aggressive rider; unfortunately this prize came in the shape of a tree, or at least a large shrubbery. Not something I had been hoping to win, but I appreciated it all the same. It was too big for me to take it home so I had to give it away.
Another race raced, another race lost…onto the next one.