It was a long way to drive for a small race but for amateur riders every chance is an opportunity. I squeezed in the car with four riders and ten wheels and, being the least entitled to leg room, I was in the middle. For almost four hours we drove in convoy, our Fiat with 250,000km struggling to keep up with the lead foot of the Direteur Sportif driving ahead with the rest of the team.
We arrived in the small town of Vence, a town engulfed by the city of Nice. After quenching our French company’s need for “cafe” and the best possible parking spot, the team set out to explore the race circuit and prepare their own bikes. We had arrived over two hours early but soon the riders were disappearing one by one to warm up. I heard each one of them checking to make sure their race numbers were supposed to be pinned on the left side of their jersey while the Polish rider gave me some sweets. He doesn’t like the fruit pastilles the team gives them to race on, only the gels.
The DS calls a team meeting and he speaks French so quickly I wonder how these riders, half of whom had no knowledge of French at the beginning of the season, are managing to understand. Every once in a while one, however, of the Greek riders will look to Edward for an English translation. The DS gives everyone specific instructions and after 15 minutes they ride off to the start line while I’m left with the French-only speaking DS.
Doing my part, I grab a set of spare wheels and we walk in silence until we attempt to agree that the weather is nice and the town is beautiful in a mix of his basic English and my butchered French. We reach the circuit, claim a spot on the course, and I venture off to watch the start. The start area is a chaotic mix of riders, spectators and organizers. While the announcer is bellowing out the winner of the junior race that has just finished, I spot the boys in the bright yellow and blue of UC Aubenas. They looked relaxed, despite the 56km of physical torture ahead.
As the riders clip in and roll off for a neutral lap, I make my way in reverse down the circuit. The race takes place on a 1.8km loop which is basically a steep uphill and a wickedly fast down hill. Despite being a neutral lap, as the riders come past me I can see some trying to better their position before the racing actually begins.
The next time they come around, the motorcycle has gone and the speed has doubled. The attacks have started and, as the commanded in the team meeting, Edward is chasing down the early move. I’m excited seeing the UC Aubenas colours in action but, as with most early attacks, it doesn’t stick. Two laps later and everyone is back together, waiting for the next rider to drop the hammer.
I continue around the course, hearing the locals scream “Allez! Allez!” each time the peloton passes and clap less enthusiastically for the one elite women who started with the men. She doesn’t last one lap with them but I can hear her breathing hard throughout the whole race, earning her guaranteed victory. I arrive at the bottom of the descent and the current break away is flying toward me. I scan for the blue and yellow the boys are wearing but they aren’t in the break. Moments later, the bunch comes screeching around the corner at a speed that makes me nervous and one by one the UC Aubenas riders swoosh past me.
With the bunch gone for another 1.7km, the police allow some local cars to be escorted across the closed road. Suddenly, I realize one of the officers is shouting something to me across the road. Startled, I meekly reply: “Je parle pas Francais!” I hear them chuckle and I decide to relocate higher up the climb, away from anyone else who might strike up conversation. When I reach the top of the climb, I can’t help but ignore the race for a moment as I take in the sight of the sea to my right and the snow capped mountains to my left. “Tres jollie,” as I have just learned.
I hear the riders changing gears at the top of the descent and I turn around to see them fly past. I start counting, curious of the time gap they have built. Silently, I practice my French numbers waiting for the bunch but, as I reach “huit,” there is a UC Aubenas rider flying down the descent solo. It’s Edward.
It takes two laps but he bridges across to the break away. Perched on the top of the climb close to the finish, I can hear the announcer getting more and more excited. The loud fast French is impossible for me to understand so, unsure of how many laps are left, his voice is quickly building my adrenaline. On the next lap, there are two riders off the front and the rest of the break away is scrambling. I’m nervous and excited. I can feel the crowd building with excitement and I hear myself yelling along with the locals, urging the riders on when they pass.
Finally, I hear a bell signal the final lap and follow the crowd to the finish. Everyone is anxiously waiting to see who will come around the final bend. To my disappointment, there hasn’t been a miracle on the back of the circuit. The two who were in front kick for the sprint but I don’t really care and squint to see who is coming next. The second group of three sprint for third but I see no blue and yellow. With the podium filled, I see Edward swing round the final corner and give a half hearted kick for the line. The rest of bunch start to trickle in a minute later, sprinting it out for lower positions.
The team gathers at the finish, each swapping stories but Edward remains quiet, clearly disheartened by his performance. His Polish teammate Kamil breaks the silence offering him congratulations, eagerly waiting to hear his final position. “6th,” Edward replies and then continues to explain the constant attacks of the final laps. The rest of the riders chatter away in a mix of Greek, French and English and one by one they leave to ride back to the team cars.
I finally make it back at the cars, slower than the others without two wheels, and by the time I arrive most of bikes are packed, the numbers are unpinned and they are awkwardly changing wherever they can find some privacy. No one seems to look very hard, however, and I inadvertently see what’s lurking behind their precise tan lines as they slip out of their sweaty kit. The DS doesn’t seem impressed by the team’s results but doesn’t seem angry either as he hands out ham baguettes and apples and hears everyone’s version of what happened.
As the sun sinks lower, we all pile back into the now smelly car and set out to make the long drive home, leaving the venue as the winners collect their prizes. The car has been packed less carefully because of fatigue and the ride home is a bit more cozy as I cradle my backpack. The whole way home someone always seems to be eating and soon I join them, tucking into my croissant I saved from breakfast and the fruit pastilles I scored earlier. Eventually we arrive home in the dark and I feel just as tired as the riders do after the 12 hour day. We fall out of the car and they each collect their wheels, bikes, and bags. As they all walk in to their shared residence Panos, one of the Greek riders, jokes, “See you next race,” as if life in between the races doesn’t even matter.