I entered my first road race in the UK in 2010, and I was hooked. It’s such an adrenalin rush, and there’s nothing to beat the competitive scenario of a road race when it comes to leaving it all out there on the road. But it wasn’t until 2013 that I entered my first road race in France, in spite of the amount of riding I was doing down here; of course, it was fantastic, genuinely an unforgettable experience, and I strongly recommend anyone who enjoys road racing to include a race here as part of your trip to make it something really special.

You can find a list of road races available to enter here >>. Let me know if you are interested and we can discuss the formalities and logistics.

To try and give you a flavour of what racing in this part of the world is like, below is a write-up of my first race.

“Pale and hairy – my first experience of bike racing in France”

Having raced a lot in the UK over the last couple of years, and having ridden a lot in the South of France but never actually raced there, I thought I would bite the bullet and enter a race in France.

At first, it’s all very confusing. There are lots of associations all promoting races – FFC, FSGT, UFOLEP to name but 3. The FFC, whilst being the national association and hence equivalent to British Cycling in the UK, focuses mainly on national events for elite amateur and professional riders. So probably a little ambitious for starters.

The FSGT is the most unpromising acronym, standing for the Fédération Sportive et Gymnique du Travail – cycling not even mentioned – but a quick look at their website told me I had found the right place, and that there was a race on Thursday 15th August 2013:

“La 11eme Trophée des Grimpeurs Valdeblore La Colmiane Souvenir Raymond Lorenzi”.

It sounded a suitably noble endeavour, and I knew enough French to know that Trophée des Grimpeurs suggested there might be some climbing involved, and that Souvenir had nothing to do with picking up tat from the local tourist shop but meant “in memory of” Raymond Lorenzi, a reassuringly familiar naming convention for a bike race. I hoped I could honour Raymond’s memory appropriately.

road racing la colmiane

Where we were headed…

The race was in two stages. Starting at 9:00am, stage 1 was to be a 48km “course en ligne” – a standard road race – of which the first 31km was a steady drag up the valley rising about 500m, followed by the 17km ascent of the Col Saint Martin to the ski station of La Colmiane, a climb of 1025m. Other than the last km which is nearly flat, it’s an average of 6% gradient, up to 9% in places.

There was then a three-and-a-half hour break for lunch – this is France we are talking about – followed by stage 2: a 7km “contre la montre” TT from the village of Valdeblore back up to La Colmiane, basically the last 7kms of the morning’s stage…as if suffering it once was not enough.

At this point, it is worth a quick recap of the experience of racing in the UK:
– enter the race months in advance
– email the organizer to promote your cause…this is the race you’ve been targeting all season, you are on blistering form, lots of good reasons why you have failed to score any points thus far, etc etc
– cross your fingers that you get a start
– curse violently as you are offered a place as a reserve
– get up at some ungodly hour to reach some cold, dingy village hall and hope enough people have stayed in bed to give you a start
– part with your £20 for the privilege of riding in circles for a couple of hours
– avoid the 4th cat rider making their debut

I exaggerate to make a point, but there was quite a contrast nonetheless with the French experience:
– no need to enter in advance…indeed, no means of entering in advance, you just turn up and race
– email the organizer a couple of days before the race to ask if it is OK if I race under my GB licence; receive prompt email reply saying “oui”
– get up at some ungodly hour (some things never change) – but no village hall, rather, a dusty car-park by the side of the main road leading North out of Nice (note to self, next time, take some toilet paper for the WC Public aka “squat-bog”)
– (as an aside, whilst driving up same main road to reach the start, see a teenager being motor-paced at about 55kph behind a team car, literally centimeters from car’s bumper…scary)
– queue up for your number and timing chip
– part with your €5 entry fee (yes, 5 Euros, about £4.30)

It was all very relaxed at the start…lots of riders greeting each other in the traditional French way with kisses on both cheeks.

One other difference: all the other riders looked incredibly lean and sinewy, legs with a deep tan that comes from years of riding in the sunshine, and close-shaved. I felt distinctly pale and hairy.

road racing in france 1

Assembling for the start in the early morning sunshine

63 riders (including the motor-paced teenager referred to above – that’s one way to warm up) assembled for the neutralized start and at 9am headed up the main road. The race convoy was similar to that of the UK – a couple of lead cars, a few motorcycle out-riders, and then the Commissaire’s car behind the main bunch. But unlike the UK, and lending the race a semi-professional feel, there were a number of team cars following the Commissaire – the teams being the local amateur clubs from Nice, Antibes, Monaco etc. After 5kms, the Tricolor dropped and the race started.

It felt like the perfect warm-up: a nice run up the valley, white water running in the bottom of the gorge, the road carved out of a sheer rock cliff (and a road surface as smooth as a billiard table – no potholes here). A stiff headwind discouraged all but the most optimistic of attacks, but they were enough to raise the heart-rate and test the legs a little in anticipation of the climb to come.

But after about fifteen minutes, the attacks became more frequent and determined, to the point I was worried that my legs were going to be shredded before the real climbing had even started.

Finally we could see in the distance the road that we were going to climb, zig-zagging at what looked like a pretty fearsome gradient up the face of the mountain, and I think that tempered the enthusiasm of the attackers somewhat…the pace dropped a little as everyone downed a gel, and focused on lowering their heart-rate and spinning out as much lactate as they could.

So with a little under an hour of racing already under our belts, it was “grupo compacto” about 1km before the turn, at which point it all exploded. The guys who fancied themselves on the climb accelerated to get to the front of the peleton before the gradient ramped up, and the peleton was quickly stretched out like blu-tac. I was determined to hang in for as long as I could, so grabbed a wheel and found myself in the front half of the bunch.

Then a right fork off the main road, the road angled up, and we were on the climb.

The pace was fast. I had reset the lap on my Garmin at the turn, and saw that the power I was producing to stay with the leading group for these first few minutes was close to my 5-minute max power.

If only I could climb as fast as my heart-rate.

Caffeine, adrenalin and a wing and a prayer can only get you so far…it didn’t look like the bunch was going to slow down any time soon, and it was obvious I couldn’t sustain the pace for the duration of a 1025m climb and hang in so, somewhat disappointed, I dropped off.

road racing hilly

Sharp hairpins on the climb of the Col Saint Martin

With the tyranny of the peleton pace removed, it became a question of riding my own race. The next few minutes were hard. Having gone way too hard for those first few minutes I had “blown” big-time, and it’s always a hard balance to back off enough to recover, whilst maintaining enough pace to remain in the race – both physically and mentally.

I kept my head down and kept my focus – er, focused – and managed my way slowly out of the red zone. I watched both HR and power closely, wanting to measure my effort more successfully than I had at the start, and to maintain an even pace. I was overtaken by some, and overtook one or two others – but sadly there was more being overtaken than overtaking. I tried to grab a wheel as people went past, but it seemed that everyone preferred to ride their own race than form a grupetto (or more accurately “autobus” I suspect) and share the pace-making.

There was a surreal moment when, climbing with one other, the team car I had overtaken when driving to the start came past us at quite a lick, with the very same teenager motor-pacing behind. I had to laugh, but my companion was fairly incensed, and was shouting, cursing and gesturing loudly; you didn’t need a good grasp of French to get a sense of what he was saying. Car and rider disappeared into the distance, but rounding the next corner, the car was by the side of the road, and the teenager was off his bike and drinking from the water-fountain and in no hurry to re-mount. Bizarre.

After about 50 minutes of climbing, and with La Colmiane finally visible up ahead, I latched onto the next wheel that came past, determined not to lose more ground. I had found possibly the only other person in the peleton with hairy legs and took that as a good omen. Rather cynically, I let him do all the pace-making, then a short distance from the line, I kicked and dug in for the line, beating him by a couple of seconds.

road racing finish

A welcome sight…the finish at La Colmiane

My time for the whole of stage 1 was 1hr 50mins. For the record, Strava recorded the following for my Col St Martin climb segment:

– distance: 16.4km
– height gain: 1076m (a bit optimistic I think, it was nearer to 1025m)
– time: 56:45
– avg speed: 17.2kph / 10.8mph
– avg power: 269w
– avg HR: 170bpm (88% of max)
– VAM: 1137m/hr

The winner of the morning’s stage is now KOM on Strava for the Col St Martin segment – a winning time of 44:37 for the climb (over 12 minutes faster), an average speed of 21.9kph / 13.7mph, and a VAM of 1447m/hr! Chapeau.

Sitting on a wall after the finish to recover, I started chatting with a guy whom I think was the only other Brit in the race, an ex-pat living near Nice. He walked over to the organisers to understand the format for the afternoon’s TT, came back and reported that the riders would set off at one minute intervals in order of their bib numbers. With the first rider off at 14:30, and my bib number being 44, my start time would be 15:14. Given it was not yet 11am, and my car was parked back at the start about 50kms away, I decided it would be better to ride back down to the start now, grab some lunch, and then drive back up in time for the TT, rather than doing the TT, and then cycling all the way back to the start at the end of the day to retrieve my car.

Clearly, riding for 30 miles between stages was not ideal, but it was virtually all downhill and so a pretty easy spin. When I reached my car, I went to the local café and shovelled down what I thought was an appropriate mix of carbohydrate and protein, then got in the car and drove back up to the finish at La Colmiane and parked the car. By now it was a few minutes after 14:30 and the first riders would have started their TT. With about 40 minutes before I was off, I planned to ride down to the start, warm-up for a while, then find a café for a last-minute loo-stop and blast of caffeine.

As I rolled down past the start of the TT, the ex-pat Brit was sitting on the wall. He shouted over to me that I was up next. Ha ha, very funny, you said they were doing it reverse order of bib numbers. “No, seriously, you’re up, I got it wrong, they are doing it in reverse order of finishing the morning stage.”

30 seconds to my start. Unlike a UK TT, no one to hold my bike, so I stood astride the bike, one foot in the pedal, one foot on the ground. The organisers shook their heads (sadness? disbelief?) and pointed to the metal road barrier next to me. Ah, that’s what it’s there for. My stomach knotted with embarrassment, I held on to the barrier and clipped in. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the organisers exchanging looks, raising eyebrows, shrugging shoulders in a distinctly gallic way. I could sense Raymond Lorenzi start to shuffle uncomfortably in his grave.

15 seconds. As I leant on the barrier trying to overcome a mounting sense of panic, the organisers started pointing at my bike, gesturing boldly, speaking to me urgently in unintelligible French, and then looking at me with a mixture of expectation, pity and contempt, but I couldn’t work out what they were concerned about. The ex-pat Brit helpfully pointed out that I was still in my top gear from rolling down the hill, and given we were starting on a 7% gradient, I might want to change into an easier gear. Chastened and embarrassed gave way to feeling simply dumb. It occurred to me I should be wearing something pointy on my head – not so much an aero TT helmet, as a dunce’s hat. Old Raymond was well and truly spinning by this point.

A range of thoughts went through my mind in the early minutes of the TT, the foremost of which was how much I needed the loo. I even did some quick mental arithmetic. I had read somewhere that 1kg of weight loss equated to a time saving of 3 seconds per km on a climb. Given the TT was all uphill over 6 or 7kms, there was a potential time saving of 10-20 seconds if I off-loaded some ballast, but any pit-stop was going to take a lot longer than that…so I persevered with a full bladder and stomach.

I also cursed my lack of warm-up and caffeine. Going straight into an uphill time-trial cold, particularly after the morning’s exertions, was hard. My HR shot sky-high, and it was difficult to find a rhythm.

But after about 5 minutes, I found a rhythm of sorts and tried to bash it out as best I could. After about 10 minutes, the road opened up a little, and I could see the previous starter up the road; this presumably was the other hairy person I had latched onto on the morning stage and beaten by a couple of seconds. I couldn’t afford to lose more than two seconds to him, but I was encouraged by the fact that there appeared to be less than a minute between us. I looked behind once or twice…fortunately no rider to be seen catching me up.

It was all over in 19:58 (the winning TT time was 15:19, and new KOM on Strava). Average HR was an alarmingly high 176 (91% of max), and average power 294W, not far off my 20-min personal best, and not bad I reckoned given the morning stage and lack of prep for the TT. I actually think there must have been quite an adrenalin boost on the start line given the surprising turn of events.

My final result:

Stage 1 road race: 35th out of 63
Stage 2 TT: 23rd out of 33
Overall: 21st out of 31 riders who did both stages

The race was contested by all categories of riders (I’m guessing the equivalent of an E/1/2/3 race in the UK ) The winner of both stages and the overall by a convincing 2’ 30” to the next-placed rider was the suitably named Victor Langellotti from UC Monaco. He is a “junior”, which in France means he is 17 or 18 years old. Who knows, maybe a name to watch for the future.

In the UK, after the race it’s back to the village hall for a cup of tea and a cheese and tomato bap. Here, I sat on the wall in the sunshine at the finish, looking around at the Mercantour mountain peaks, eating watermelon and enjoying a glass of wine (no extra charge – all included in my 5 Euro entry fee!), reflecting on what had been, some minor humiliation aside, a great experience.

And finally the winners’ presentation: in the UK, a handshake and a brown envelope with a bit of cash. Here in France, a bouquet of flowers. And more kisses.

road racing prizes

Presentation of the winners of the various categories…sadly no prize for hairiest legs