Tour de l’Ardeche: Suicide Attacks
I’ll admit I didn’t have high hopes of actually enjoying the Tour de l’Ardeche. For me it seemed like the lesser of two evils; stay home and train alone or suffer with the masses. When it comes to training and the end of the season three is never a crowd, so the opportunity to race a hilly six day tour offered a great training alternative.
But the last two day’s have proved to be more than just gruelling training rides.
Today kicked off with a 6.8km time trial from Valvignieres to Alba la Romaine and wasn’t high on my priority list. With no time trial bike, time trial helmet or even a skin suit I was already at a distinct disadvantage. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t actually know when my starting time was.
A mix up in race numbers yesterday left the organisation – and everyone else – believing that my teammate Tayler Wiles had finished third in the first stage and I had finished in Tayler’s place. Convinced that this would be rectified by the start of the time trial Tayler and I simply swapped start times…
As it turns out we made the wrong assumption.
Fifty minutes before Tyler’s start time out director told us that we actually had to stick to the original start times. I kitted up and jumped on my bike faster than George Clooney changes girlfriends. Needless to say when I rolled down the start ramp I was a little under done.
Linda Villumsen put in a great ride to take the second stage win for Wiggle Honda, while Alena (Be Pink/Astana) finished second and Tayler finished third (maybe the organisers just knew something we all didn’t!). Rachel Neylan, riding for the Aussie national team, put in a great performance to finish 4th. I finished 62nd which I actually think isn’t terrible given my lack of equipment and questionable preparation.
While I would have been happy to pack up and head back to the pool for the rest of the day we still had a 70km road stage in the afternoon to come, and the profile definitely didn’t lend itself to a nice leisurely afternoon cruise.
With three GPM mountain sprints (one category 1, one category 2, and one category 3) and three Rush sprints there was never any doubt that it would be a hard stage. For me, I thought it would be my first visit to the laughing bunch for the week.
However, it seemed like others had a bit of a different idea. Our team director, Christophe who has ridden the Tour de France three times and is local in the Ardeche region, called us all together an laid the map out in front of us.
“You follow this road, with tail wind, for 8km before you turn right onto a very, very small road. From there it’s important to be in the front…”
He went through the entire parcours giving us little tips and hints before turning to me and saying, “I think you can get over them.” Well okay, if you say so!
The first climb of the day came 15km into the race and was a 2.5km steep pinch on tiny roads. There was one place you wanted to be and that was the front. Fortunately that’s where I had positioned myself and I was able to suffer over the climb with the front group. But it wasn’t the climb that ended up doing the real damage, it was the fast, technical descent that came immediately after.
I often shake my head when I watch things like downhill mountain biking. I can’t comprehend how these guys have the guts to throw themselves down a mountain like they do. But when you actually pause to think, what we do is ten times more stupid.
While they have body armour, full face helmets and have ridden the course multiple times before they race, we have skimpy little lycra outfits, tiny tyres, light as feather helmets and generally have never seen the descent before in our lives. Still we kamikaze down them with little thought.
By the time the terrain flattened out the peloton had split into even more groups than it had on the climb. But there was still the only category 1 climb of the day to come and the prospect of that seemed to settle the peloton somewhat.
The category 1 climb wasn’t steep, it averaged about 6 percent, but it was long. Dragging out for a bout 6km it came 30km into the 70km stage and it was clearly where the teams with the strongest climbers had decided to try and set the race on fire.
Rosella Ratto from Faren Mexico launched one attack, and then another, and then another before the peloton finally shattered into pieces. I had managed to hang on until about 1km to go so went in to ‘limiting my loses’ mode.
Finding a rhythm I managed to latch onto a group in front of me and as we reached the the second, and highest ranked, GPM mountain sprint of the day.
Having spent a lot of time dropped on climbs I know it’s a good sign when the convoy hasn’t yet passed you, which they hadn’t, so I didn’t panic. After a short chase we rejoined the lead peloton and I went straight to the front.
Christophe had told us that from the second climb onwards the roads were extremely narrow and he wasn’t wrong. Pretty much from kilometre 40 to 60 you couldn’t ride more than three across. I’ve never really been one to take in the scenery when I’m racing but today it was hard not to, the roads were breathtakingly beautiful.
Amazingly I found myself still in contention for the stage win with 10km to go so I immediately started searching for wheels. I was jumping between Tiff Cromwell’s, Elena Cecchini’s and Bronzini’s. Trying to find the most protected ride to the line.
With a downhill run into the finish the last 5km were so fast. So fast that I didn’t dare look down to check the speed. As the kilometres started counting down, 4km to go, 3km to go, I found myself alone, surrounded by teams and lead out trains.
Wiggle were controlling the front with the Australian National Team and Optum trying to take over. With just under 2km to go and a sharp left hand corner approaching I said myself; ‘you know what stuff this, I’m gunna try something different.’
And the next thing I know I’ve launched myself past the Wiggle train and into the corner full gas.
Glancing behind me I saw that I had a small gap on the field but glancing infront of me the right hand corner with 300ms to go seemed so far away. I kept pushing but Tiff was driving it on the front. With less than a km to go I swung to the side thinking; ‘maybe I can still sprint’.
Boom. Loren Rowny launched herself on the right hand side of the road and she was gone. Sweeping through the right hand corner and then the final left hand bend Loren held off Bronzini and Tiff who finished in second and third. I finished 5th or 6th.
In the end my suicide attack with a little less than 2km to go essentially acted as a giant lead out for the entire peloton; not my brightest plan. But it’s in races like this, when you’re racing on a mixed team, that you an afford to try something a little bit different. Today it didn’t work out but it’s better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.