Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How to fill your mouth with sand in 3 hours

While France is the center of the cycling world for 3 sunny weeks in July during the Tour de France, let's not forget that there is racing here year-round in all kinds of weather. In fact, the one-day road race from Paris to Roubaix is famous for it's inclement spring weather and inhospitable roads.

While the weather around Poitiers is milder than in the regions of Northern France, there is plenty of rain. So it should come as no surprise that the annual Vienne Classic Espoir, the first date (Sunday, March 8) on the road racing calendar in the region was an extremely wet and windy affair.

Even though we were expecting my brother at the train station around 4 pm, I couldn't pass up the chance to catch a glimpse of French bike racing (although at a much lower level than the Tour de France). The draw wasn't the prospect of watching a bunch of plastic-wrapped riders race their plastic bikes, but the chance to see racing through the countryside I have become so familiar with lately.

route map (more detail)

After poring over the race maps and time estimations, I picked out a few spots along the route that might be conducive to taking pictures. I also had to find shortcuts so that I could meet the racers farther along, since they would be riding almost twice as fast as me.

The race start and finish were located just a few kilometers from Poitiers in Chasseneuil du Poitou. I arrived about 30 minutes before the start during the introduction of the teams. With the wet, blustery conditions, it didn't look like there were too many spectators.

The largest contingent present was the multitude of support staff. There was a fleet of motorcycles, official's cars, team cars and people manning the feed zones.

I left the start area before the racers left so I could make it to Chateau Le Fou before they got there. Unfortunately, I got a little lost trying to take a shortcut (maybe I don't know the area that well after all) and ended up in the Forêt de Moulière trudging down a water-logged horse path in the rain wondering if it was perhaps time to head home.

Luckily for me (and you), I found an exit over the next hill. I had missed the rendez-vous at Chateau le Fou and headed for Archigny for the next photo-op in the course. On my way, I passed through the feed zone with cars and vans parked on every driveway and side road awaiting the racers for refueling. Some of the denizens of the cars were looking at me a little funny. Maybe because I appeared to be the only non-racing cyclist anywhere near this racecourse. And while I had to fight the wind and rain to catch up with the peloton, they had to sit in cars and wait for the racers to come to them. I wouldn't want to be in their situation.

Once I had found a good spot for photos (around 50km into the race), I parked the bike and waited. After a parade of motorcycles and cars with lights flashing, the peloton finally came into view. There was a lead pack of around 20 riders, with the rest of the riders 15 seconds behind.

All of the riders were soaking wet and most were heavily spattered with dirty water coming off the bikes of the riders around them. When you're trying to draft off someone who doesn't have fenders you get a steady stream of waterlogged road-grit coming off their rear tire right into your face. Not very pleasant, and a good way to fill your mouth with sand over the course of a three hour race.

After the main pack passed, I took a shortcut back through the feed zone to Bonneuil-Matours to take more pictures at the bridge over the Vienne River. Once I found a spot, I could hear the radio of the race official directing car traffic. It was crackling every few seconds with updates on the time gap between the lead group and the rest of the field; Quinze secondes...Onze secondes...huit secondes...dix secondes...huit, dix, huit, dix. The peleton was slowly closing on the leaders (see the race play-by-play here at around 15:59).

Turning the corner at Bonneuil-Matours into the feed zone

The riders passed and I headed to Bonnes for the last time I would cross paths with the race course. They were faster than I had anticipated, and I had to pull over as I was overtaken to snap a few pictures.

Once everyone was out of sight I headed home. Their was a stiff wind in my face all the way to Poitiers, but the rain had finally let up. Someone eventually won the race, but I was at home by then and had more important things to worry about.

The final sprint (photo taken from the Nouvelle Republique)

Rebecca picked up Josh at the train station, and I made it home about an hour after they did. I got to take a hot shower and have a few snacks before we made baked oysters for dinner. A wonderful end to a wet day.

Jefe and Josh debating oyster (on the towel) opening techniques.

1 comment:

Jim B said...

Really good insights on Bike racing in France... the oysters must have been good too..