Tour de l’Ardeche: Not laughing in the laughing bunch

Today we started up a 35km climb. The end.

I’m kidding, I wouldn’t do that to you. But it is a succinct way to describe my race today.

The 124km fifth stage of the Tour de l’Ardeche was yet another mountain stage and there was no easing into it. With three categorised climbs it was always going to be a ‘money in the bank’ sort of day rather than a ‘racing for the win’ sort of day for me.

I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one to find myself in the that situation, however. Astana/Be Pink clearly went into the race with the goal of decimating the peloton.

From kilometre zero the entire team were lined up on the front driving the pace for their team leader Alena Amialiusik. In yesterday’s stage Alena was distanced on the descent by race leader Villumsen and nine others, so I can only assume the teams tactic was to try and form as select a group as possible by the top of the 35km climb.

They definitely went some way to achieving their aim. By the top of the first climb only 12 riders were still at the front of the race with the rest of the peloton scrambling behind them.

For me there were no tactics today. No conserving energy. No playing with the convoy. I was in full gas survival mode.

As Astana kept pushing the pace my heart rate kept creeping higher and higher until I could feel the lactic acid pulsing through my legs. I kept glancing to the front and praying that they would blow themselves up and the pace would ease but it didn’t happen. I think there might still be a small mushroom cloud at around the 20km mark where I exploded and rapidly went backwards.

As the convoy passed me I asked the Danish team mechanic if there was a group behind me. Unlike yesterday, I wasn’t so confident that other riders had been dropped before me, but he reassured me there was. Still I rode the next 13kms uphill alone.

As I passed my parents who were 4kms from the top of the climb I shook my head. ‘What am I doing here?’ was all I was thinking.

Fortunately the Danish mechanic hadn’t been lying and I did find a group of 20 or so riders to suffer with for the remaining 90kms.

I’ll never really know why they call this group of dropped riders the ‘laughing bunch’ because in reality there is rarely any laughter. Most of the time we choose to suffer together in silence, occasionally yelling ‘piano’ aggressively if someone decides to push the pace even slightly.

While we were suffering at the back of the bike race, there were plenty of other riders suffering at the front (they were just going faster).

Only eight riders rode to the finish together with Alena claiming the stage honours. Villumsen remains in the race lead and my amazing teammate, Tayler Wiles, who is pretty much riding alone as my Dad kindly pointed out today is still in second overall! There were huge time gaps between groups, with Lizzie Williams who had been sitting in third overall before today’s stage more than eight minutes down.

After the stage Tayler told me that Alena had the race of her life. At some points in the race she was dropped by more than a minute because she simply couldn’t stay with the front riders on the long, technical descents that this race is famous for. Still every climb she clawed her way back to the lead group. That’s determination.

While I thought today’s stage was long – I stopped my watch at four hours and ten minutes – tomorrow’s stage is only going to be longer. The 140km queen stage will undoubtedly be another hard training day for me.

On that note, I’m going to bed. I need as much recovery as I can get.

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