The past two weeks have been full steam ahead: our third and final training camp, and our first race of the season. For the training camp we headed south again, this time to the medieval village of Venasque. We stayed just 20 kilometers from the foot of the legendary Mont Ventoux, a climb first included in the Tour de France in 1951, which was incredible! During our training rides we rode 10km of the 21km climb on our first day, and a bit further on our last day, as far as the Chalet Reynard ski station, until the road was blocked by snow. Reflecting a longtime tradition of cycling fans, many racers’ names were still visible in paint on the road from the last time the Tour de France completed the climb. I managed to set a few new power records that day during some maximal efforts, which was a nice confirmation of the training I’ve been doing, especially so close to the race season.
After a few days of recovery back in Chambéry, it was finally time to race! For me, this ended nearly 19 months without a single race: August 17, 2019 at the Junior Track Cycling World Championships in Germany, to March 13, 2021. Needless to say, that’s a long time without the unpredictable rhythm of racing and the feeling of riding at speed with 150 or more racers in the peloton. For our season opener, we headed ninety minutes southwest to the small commune of Bourg-de-Péage in the Drôme department. The race was 6 laps of a varied hilly circuit; the entire race totaled 140km. There was just under 2,000 meters of climbing during the race, but nothing extended. Some short sharp climbs and a lot of false flats made up most of the parcours — a french term that means more or less “shape and terrain of the route.” My AG2R Citroen U23 team fielded seven riders for the race, which had 187 riders at the start: the largest field I’ve ever raced in. Since it was the first race of the season, we had no designated leader or specific plan, but rather were directed to get used to racing again, ride together, and work as a team.
The race began calmly, save for the usual nervousness that plagues the opening hour or so of any large bike race. With so many riders in such close quarters, a few minor crashes and lots of braking is inevitable. Thankfully, I emerged from that phase unscathed. I spent the first hour and a half just getting used to riding in the field again as I had nearly forgotten the physicality of bike racing. That may sound strange, since cycling is of course physical. In any road race, there’s a fair amount of pushing, shoving, and shouldering going on as everyone fights to be at the very front of the race. The roads are narrow enough that you can’t always simply ride past everyone, but rather you have to navigate your way through other riders shoulder to shoulder. After so long without racing I struggled with placement at first, but was able to regain the feel of racing soon enough.
Unfortunately, just when I had settled in and had moved into a better position, the race blew apart. Let me explain what this entails for the non-bike racers out there. There were a few long sections of exposed road on the course where fierce crosswinds meant that if a split occurred in the pack, the riders who missed the split would have to ride through those winds to catch the group in front: all but impossible. The difference between riding in a pack and facing the wind alone can be massive. A rider who is well situated in the peloton can take as little as 5% of the wind resistance that the rider at the front of the peloton will take. So if you saw the race from a helicopter, you’d see the riders in separate groups, called echelons, a specific term for when the peloton is split up due to crosswinds. I ended up missing the key split just a few spots ahead of me. Thankfully, I had two teammates in the first group, Valentin Paret-Peintre and Jordan Labrosse, who finished solidly. For the rest of us in the second group, the rhythm quickly relaxed, enough so that I was able to chat a bit with the only other American in the field, Andrew Vollmer, who rides for another Division Nationale 1 team not too far away from Chambéry!
As the race neared its end, I rounded up the guys we had left in the second group to put together a small leadout for our sprinter, Henry Lawton. Between myself and Baptiste Lacroix, we delivered Henry to win the field sprint out of the second group (37th place), for whatever that’s worth. It was at least good to practice our leadout. I rolled in for 58th out of 96 total finishers, 4:29 back on the winner, who finished in 3 hours 24 minutes.
For the next few weeks, the team management has made it clear that there’s no expectation of massive results, but instead a focus on getting back into the rhythm of racing and racing cohesively as a team.
Next up is the Pelousey Classic this Saturday, three hours north of us, in the commune of Pelousey. The race will total 128km in length with 1,600 meters of climbing. The week after, I’ll race the 166km Annemasse-Bellegarde, one of the most prestigious events on the French amateur calendar. The race was first held in 1914, and includes many accomplished pros on its list of victors, including Thor Hushovd, Kenny Elissonde, Warren Barguil, Guillaume Martin and Benoît Cosnefroy. I’m looking forward to that challenge!