C’est Parti! Sur les Routes de l’Etoile

I guess I knew it would be like this, but all the training I’d been putting in over the last month may have fooled me into a false sense of greatness. Well, I’m humbled now. But let’s start at the beginning.

Shoko and I took the train up to Alès, start/finish point for the race, and I got my dossard. On the flip side of the bib is a chip that records your time, whether you want to see it or not.

This is me looking all confident.

A couple shots of people preparing their gear.

And the gear itself.

It was a showcase of seriously nice bikes and I can only say I’m relieved I bought a decent machine this year. As it was, I received a few approving glances from my fellow riders. I cringe to think of the scorn that could have been directed toward me if I was trying to race with my old cyclocross.

Then, all too soon, we were herded into our gates by group – a fitting beginning, since I did feel pretty ‘slaughtered’ when it was all over.

Then we were corralled out of our gates up to the start line, where each group was let go at 5 minute intervals. While we waited the announcer introduced a few distinguished figures from the French cycling world, including Raymond Poulidor, probably the best-loved rider in French history. This was something special and made the event feel like it really was something. On the other hand, there was a pro race just after ours so maybe they don’t pull out ‘Poupou’ for every cyclosportive.

Race Recap

I’d love to have photos to show you, but I barely had time to take a few sips of water and bites of my energy cake. Words will have to do.

The Start – The race began with a ‘false start’ – basically a group ride through the town – and as soon as we hit the outskirts of Alès the real race started. First, I have to say that today was a series of learning experiences – things you just don’t get from reading it in a book (or on a blog, I suppose…) – and my first came early. When the bunch hit the open road there was instant action. Riders were flying ahead of me to position themselves in the middle/front of the peleton and the speed was tremendous. We got up to 45 kph or more ON THE FLAT and it was all I could do to stay with the group. I thought I was going to be dropped even before the first climb, but thankfully they didn’t keep up this pace and I tucked in near the back and held my own till the climb started, about 15 km from town.

First Climb – From the wide, fast N106 our massive group turned off onto a tiny departementale that stretched us out pretty quickly. The climb started about a km up the road and, because I was at the very back of the bunch, I passed a few riders right off. Up ahead though, the main groups were long gone and I never saw them again. The climb was 8km long and not terribly steep, but consistently tough. I settled into my own rhythm and possibly passed a few more stragglers on my way up, BUT then about a km before the col I was overtaken by several small bunches from the group that started 5 minutes after us – yes, the 50-59 age group. So, my next little bit of learning happened on this climb, namely I need to do something about my climbing abilities. The first thing I have to do is lose a lot more weight, no question. I simply look like a different creature from the guys who were by now far, far ahead of me. Skinny arms – nope. Flat gut – ha! One chin – I wish. So, that’s No. 1. I just have too much weight to pull myself up mountains fast.

The Descent – At the top I had something to drink and shoved a muffin into my mouth, only to realize I didn’t have enough saliva to swallow it! So, mouth full of gateau, I started my descent. And that’s when I learned something again – you can really go very, very fast down mountains. I was cruising down at what I thought was a good speed when I was passed by a small group going probably 10 kph faster than me. I chased them down and stuck with them as long as I could, quickly learning that corners can be taken at incredible speeds without wiping out. My max speed was 59 kph, but this was on the very winding roads typical to the Cévennes. I’m afraid to think of what sort of speeds we can reach on l’Etape in the Alps this July.

2nd Climb – The next col was lower, but longer than the first – a 10 km climb. I passed a few more riders, was passed by many more senior citizens, and found a group or two I could hang onto for a while. Here was my next little piece of enlightenment. It is much easier to ride in a group than as an individual. Okay, everybody who watches cycling on Eurosport knows this little tidbit, but like many things in life, you might not really know it until you face it. I spent the vast majority of this race alone, searching for a couple of guys I ride with. I would find a group, but they would be too fast and I’d fall off the back, or I’d get another one and I felt I could go faster, so would ride off the front. Until near the end it was this unsatisfying search for a peleton I could call my own.

The Long and Winding Road to the Finish – from the bottom of the 2nd climb, the route followed a river valley down-ish for a while. It was here that I had a good group that carried me along at breakneck speeds…till the road went up. Here I re-learned that I have to do something about my weight/power. In this case I just didn’t have the juice in my legs to keep up. It wasn’t a cardio thing, but there was nothing in my legs to lift me up hills (at race speed anyway). I’m sure I lost lots of time because of this, so more training is in order, for sure. There was one particularly evil hill that was purposely put right near the end of the race to make you suffer. This is where I met two other guys who were hurting as badly as me, so we grouped together and made it up as a bunch. From the top we stayed together for the last 12 or 13 km, taking turns at the front, just like you see on TV. This was a lot of fun and, since I don’t belong to any club yet, was the first time I’d had the chance to work as a team like that. A sort of camaraderie is formed without words and working as a unit (except the one lazy git at the back, I might add..) helps you move along at a much greater speed. Exhilarating.

And then it was back into town and the long sprint to the finish. This is me and the other hard worker. The ‘git’ had been dropped a while back.

Post-race photo. I look like I’m saying something, but I was still trying to catch my breath 3 minutes after the finish.

And finally, a nice contrast photo to the pre-race me at the beginning of this story. Not so confident now, are we Mr. Patterson..?

You want stats? My average speed was 27.88 kph and I placed 278 out of 367 riders. More importantly, I finished 105 out of 127 guys in my age category. Well, you’ve got to start somewhere, I suppose. It’d be no fun if it was on top!

OK, enough blogging, I’ve got another race in 3 weeks. Need to start counting calories…



27 thoughts on “C’est Parti! Sur les Routes de l’Etoile

  1. I would be happy to be on your cycling team/peleton , just like on TV.

    I’d be right next to you, encouraging and coaching you from my motorcycle.


  2. Great ride report. You’ve got me excited for my one and only sportive of the season and that doesn’t happen until June. If you become overly concerned about your performance, consider how much worse it could have been. You could have been forced to wear those hot pink cycling uniforms. Now THAT would have been a disaster!

  3. Hi Gerry, don’t be dispirited, a good effort!

    I am 5’7″ and 63kg and race B grade and I still feel fat when I see pros. It’s shocking.

    You need a training plan that is intense. You have 5 months left till L’Etape and that is plenty. Maybe check out the training guide on letape2011.com if you haven’t.

    Maybe hit the gym (squats, lunges, Hindu squats etc) and do some running too, if you really want to smash it (this is what I am doing, aiming for top 200).

    Are you doing L’Etape Alpes or Issoire?


    • Tim, thanks for the tips and I’ll check out the site today. I’m just putting together something a little more intense now. Doing this early-season race was good, in terms of a ‘reality check’.

      Top 200 sounds like quite a goal. You’ll not be able to snap pics like the other years you did l’Etape!

      I’m doing the one in the Alps – same as you, I think. Or are you riding both?

  4. Great report! I, for one, enjoyed the verbal description much more than watching a video from a headcam. I don’t race, but I love to get out there and just ride with friends or other riders that I meet up with. Best of luck on the prep for the next race!

  5. Hi Gerry!
    Nice reading about this first French tour experience!! Nice bike too!
    Good luck loosing some weight (maybe 10 kilos is a bit much??) and trying to get those legs to bring you up those mountains joigning the 25 – 35 group ahead 😉
    Bisous et à bientôt!!

  6. 10 might be a bit too much, you’re right. I’ll aim for getting under 70kg, which shouldn’t make my pants fall down 😉

    About joining those younger guys…I’ll be happy to just not get passed by too many older ones this year. They are a hardcore group, these French riders.

  7. Give yourself a pat on the shoulder – you finished the race! Well done! The thot of someone doing down a slope at more than 10km/hr is unsettling.

  8. Reblogged this on The Vicious Cycle and commented:

    A rare ‘reblog’ for you today because it has been exactly 10 years since my very first sportive / gran fondo, sort of coincidentally in the same area I rode yesterday.

    I’ve come a long way since that fateful day, when I learned how to descend down a mountain and hold a wheel in a peloton, but sadly I think the weight is not far off what I was then…just differently distributed.

    The best part is that a couple of you made comments on this article a decade ago. You have impressive staying power, friends!

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