Friday, 5 October 2012

My Demons from France, Broken Days.

It's been quite some time since I last wrote a blog, not since April when I was still living in France with my team mate Gregg. Some might see that as laziness, or perhaps a sign of nothing going on or very little to say, but nothing could have been further from the truth. This a blog about dark times that I've found it hard to write about for quite some time.
The final month of my time living in France was a very difficult time, within the space of 10 days I had gone from being incredibly hopeful and looking forward to 3 stage races in a row to being unable to ride - but let's back up a little.

We had headed up to Mid-Eastern France for a fairly mountainous stage race, where stage 1 was a short prologue of about 2km in a twisty town centre. A strange affair where my start time was past night. Even worse was Gregg's time of just before 10! However we made a good go of it, Gregg cracking the top 10 and myself just a few seconds outside. Stage 2 was 130km on a damp day, with a fair few categorised climbs and one I had been looking forward to. We let a small break go, and all day I stuck with the front half of the peloton, easily dropping more and more riders throughout the day until about 15km to go, where I followed an attack which brought us up to the lead group bringing our number to 12 riders. This is where it all started to go wrong.

10km from the finish we went round a 90' corner, and the rider in front of me wiped out. With nowhere to go but over the top of him I soon found myself on the road. Scraping myself off the road as soon as I could meant that my group were 45 seconds down the road - funny how quickly time can pass in those moments. All day I had managed to stay upright on the wet descents and I was taken out on a flat corner! Still, continuing on as I had to, a few kilometres later I slipped off again of my own accord. I wasn't happy by this point! Up once again to the final incline of the day, shifting down and my rear derailleur blew to pieces, obviously damaged from an earlier crash. 7km from the finish and no way of getting back, I had to wait for a neutral service car to pick me up as Gregg had been in the group just 30 seconds behind at that point, and the team car had to follow him. Race over.

So one week on, and whilst my team bike was being fixed by the mechanic, I rode around on my Wilier in training. Friday was to be the closest town centre criterium of 90km in Riom, and had only received my bike back that morning, everything seemed okay - if a little noisy. Part way through the race after never being outside the top 10 I lost use of my 11 and 12 cog, not ideal but still manageable. Then it happened, shifted out of one of the corners and the entire rear wheel locked up, throwing me from my bike. At first everything seemed in order, a few cuts but nothing overly serious. After 10 minutes, my elbow became very sore and immovable - a trip to hospital to check whether it was a swelling or something more sinister. And so began 3 hours which felt like an eternity.

X-rays finally returned - double fracture to the elbow and would need surgery; I just could not believe it after all the hardship of France, this was just a massive kick in the balls. What made it even worse is we were to be travelling to a stage race the following day, and without me to make the team of 5 no one would be allowed to race - I felt I had let everyone down. The next few weeks were incredibly depressing, and I had to make a decision as to whether to stay in France or return home. In the end a return home was the best option, not knowing how long it would be before I could race again.

So that's the story of how I went from racing in France, living the dream, to coming back home and back to the UK scene. As this blog is already becoming a bit of a tl;dr I'll finish here today, it feels good to finally write about some of my demons, to some such things might seem inconsequential - it's just cycling and it's just a broken arm. To me it felt a lot more, especially after sacrificing so much to come and live in France, big risks but I'm still happy I took them, even if it meant I didn't go as far forward as I'd hoped.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

A little piece of French culture

This week instead of talking about myself, I would give an insight into what it is actually like living in France. It’s not just all velo, velo, velo

The English saying of ‘France is great, until you meet the people’ has actually been very wrong. Everyone we’ve met has been incredibly accommodating, kind and always willing to help you out – and not just in the cycling world. One thing I have noticed is the French are very ritualistic. All the bonjour’s, the ca va’s, the endless handshakes and kisses on the cheek at every meeting, if you decided to stick to your stubbornness of being English you could easily become sick of it all and ignore all the pleasantries – which of course would be considered very rude and you would quickly become ostracised.

Despite all the niceties, it is still painfully obvious that the French do not speak English at all, at least not in this region! I have been making a serious effort to speak French as much and as often as I can, although what you learn at school can only help you so far, you have to be around the language to gain a grasp of real French. I can see why many English riders who have tried to make it over here have become lonely and disillusioned – you really have to the make the effort in order to get by.

Aside from that, the stereotype that the French always eat bread, cheese and wine is… definitely true. Although when one of our local friends told us she didn’t like cheese I couldn’t help but laugh! Having at last got out of our somewhat (too) quiet village into the local city Clermont-Ferrand, we discovered that even in a industrial zone you can retain a great deal of vive de la francaise. Beautiful cathedrals, quaint cobbled streets, ancient architecture - even the industry sector it’s still incredibly euro - The Metro, Michelin tyres gift shop (no, really!) and magasins de mode. Oh, and of course the beautiful French women taking in the sunshine.

Back on the bike, last weekend was both good and bad. My teammate Gregg was involved in a bad crash that left him needing stitches, he’s gone home for a week leaving me on my own but he’ll be back. On the plus side I was in la tete de la course all day, finishing off with a solo break in the final 2km. I was caught in the last 200m which was disappointing, but the 8th place was my best result so far. At least I know how to make that front break and will be there much more often in the upcoming races.

Next week I’ll be talking about what happens inside an Elite French race, how it works and the differences to back home, hope it's of interest to you all.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

A birthday, 2 crashes and the form is coming.

Not just racing this week, it was my team-mate Gregg’s birthday! We couldn’t go crazy or all night partying sadly, trying to live like saints to gain the best results means you have to make some sacrifices! However there was cake… and 1 beer. Absolutely off the rails!

Birthday Cake, comedy candles.
At St Pourcain the opening kilometres were frantic, and marred by not 1 but 2 big crashes. Unusually they were at the front of the peloton rather than near the back. This meant that despite mine and Gregg’s good position we were both caught up in the aftermath, but worse for Gregg as a broken wheel was the outcome. By the time he’d returned to the car for a new one, the marshals deemed it illegal for the convoy to return him to the peloton on the back of the car. Showing true grit he rode for 70km trying get back in the race but it wasn’t to be.

For me it meant I had to chase on for 15km in the convoy, which with the wind made for a big big effort. By the time I got back on I knew it meant I had burnt a little too much into the red, but decided that I would make the very best of the race. Moving up the front of the peloton AG2R-Chambery and St Etienne were driving the pace and trying to form a break that would stick. After numerous efforts of going with everything that looked dangerous a 15 man break including riders from the big teams –and myself- began to put time into the peloton. Very positive for my 3rd race in France, where I wanted to be. The group rolled along well, with few not taking their turns (although there are always a couple of riders who only come through every now and then!), with the wind taking it’s toll I just made sure I wasn’t overdoing it, giving myself a chance in case the group was pulled back.

Unfortunately with about 20km to go everything rejoined, disappointing but you have to accept that’s just racing. I just didn’t have the legs once we rejoined, and found myself out the back – along with a sizable group – of the fast moving peloton over one of the climbs. Without enough in the tank to rejoin I had to settle that today wasn’t my day and I came in somewhere in the 60’s, not bad considering the 180 that started, but not exactly good either!

Gregg and Team President, Frederic Champion
This weekend is the double; Durtorcha on Saturday which is an Elite National consisting of 5 laps that include a 7 kilometre climb, ouch! On Sunday a circuit race, 25 laps of about 4km, apparently it’s quite hilly but we will see.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The fastest so far.

Onto the 2nd week of living in France, and again our early season fitness has been tested. Le 4 Cantons, a 167km Elite French race based around a beautiful town called Moulins was the order of last weekend. Consisting of a 140km loop, followed by 3 finishing circuits around Moulins of 9km each. What I didn’t know is just how fast this race would be, along the flats we were hammering along at over 70kph and the entire race averaged at 49kph including a few climbs and drags. To make the race even harder there is a brutal headwind as seen in Paris-Nice this week, that can really split the peloton.

Last weekend at Le Bedat, yes that is AG2R
All this made for the fastest race I have ever done, and appears to be a harder race than the Premier Calendar series in the UK. It’s no wonder that the French do so well on the world scene. No results to set the world on fire yet, for now we are just learning how these races work, getting stuck in where we can and adapting ourselves to be more efficient so at the pointy end of the race we can be part of the action.

Outside of racing, Gregg and I have been putting our language to the test. The view that ‘Everyone speaks English’ really isn’t true. We have yet to find anyone who speaks good English, so we have to feel our way through the language barrier with ‘Mal Français’. A fair way off fluent, but you can certainly increase your confidence because it forces you to dig into your deepest knowledge – not actually all that different to racing.
Start line of Le Bedat, Elite French race
The weather has been better than home until the weekend, but this week hasn’t been so great. It could make a difficult race this Saturday in St Pourçain, another rolling circuit like the 1st race Le Bedat. However having gained a couple races in the legs I have confidence in a positive result!

Monday, 5 March 2012

J'arrive en France

It’s a been a while since I’ve felt the need to keep a blog of what’s been happening in my life, but with some serious changes I felt it was time to begin anew and reach out a bit.

In 2011 I had the call from a friend of an offer to race with a French team. After the 2nd half of the race season marred by a broken collarbone, it was an opportunity not to be missed. To come to France, arguably the most cycling-centric country in the world and home to the biggest cycling race on the calendar, is a dream to me and many others. I’d heard it was a hard life by a few friends who had made a similar trip, but ultimately could be rewarding if I stuck it out.

On the 18th February I took a flight from Bristol to Lyon, plus dragging 2 heavy suitcases around the train stations of Central France with my new and only English team mate, Gregg Shrosbree, to meet our team manager Frederic Champion. The next few days were spent settling into our accommodation (which by the way, is fantastic), picking up our new race bikes (Massi, with Fulcrum wheels and Campag gruppo) and putting some miles in on French roads.

On the training bike on one of the local 7km climbs
Our 1st race was the Bedat, a 160 strong Elite French race on a 120km course, with 2 sharp climbs per lap (6 laps in total). What a course! Combining this with twisty descents through French towns and strong winds meant for tough racing, including many riders from feeder teams to Pro Tour and Pro Continental squads. A sharp wake up for a debut race of the season, a bit different to my usual jaunt at the Springtime Pursuits! Today was all about gaining some experience, to start off with Premier Calendar level race meant we both only finished in the peloton this time but already I can’t wait to get stuck into the French season.

Getting online is a little difficult out here as we have no Wi-fi in our accommodation, but I will endeavour to give you all an idea of what it is like racing full-time in France as often as I can. A bientot!