My travel day started bright and early, but I arrived in Marseille without incident, met a few teammates, and we were shortly picked up by the giant Giant-Shimano team bus. Seeing that beast come around the corner to pick us up, I thought, "Welcome to The Show!"
We were greeted at the hotel by a large box of new kits, a welcome sight after training the last month in my worn out Optum clothing. With the eleventh-hour sponsor shuffle, they've been working on making our new kits. They made everybody one kit for the pictures, then started on small batches in the order of who raced first. So we don't yet have all our clothing, but it's a good start, and enough to fill up my luggage for the return trip. And it's all so comfortable and well-fitting!
The race, a UCI 1.1, featured a mix of ProTour, Pro-Continental, and Continental teams. The race is the European season opener, so everyone, especially the French racers, would be excited and revved up for the race. With a start in the early afternoon, I made sure to have a big breakfast, but in the excitement of preparing for the race, failed to have a small snack closer to the race.
We got dressed in the comfort of the bus, then headed for sign-in where there was no shortage of spectators looking for autographs. One guy came up to me with my Optum trading card from last year, which was cool. We didn't race in France last year, which means this guy has done some traveling to races!
The race wouldn't be very warm to start, and we would do a lot of climbing, so I had to dress warmly. Thankfully the rain was done for the day, at least. The race was 140km, and was never really flat. We would either be climbing or descending the whole day.
At the start line, I was pretty cold, but I think nerves were contributing to the shivers. As is always the case, I just wanted to get started. Then all my nervous energy goes away as it is channeled into the bike. We had a 9k neutral rollout, but it wasn't slow. I worked my way to the front to be ready for the attacks to start, and it didn't take long for me to applaud my return to 42cm bars after 3 years of 44s. They're just so much easier to wiggle through the pack!
The race started at the bottom of a gradual climb, and I was at the front. 4 guys immediately attacked and I was wishing so hard that a few ProTour riders would jump on so I could join. We would be playing conservatively, only following the moves that were really dangerous. After they got some leash, the real attacks started. The climb wasn't very steep, but we were going so fast that we couldn't pedal through some turns. After averaging 420W for the first 6 minutes of the race, we finally settled down.
I was feeling pretty good, so I settled in, ate a bar, and reviewed the tape on my stem for the next climb. The first bit of the race went smoothly. I drifted back on the first descent, as it was wet and I was still getting a feel for the tires and the brakes with the Shimano carbon rims. I also had to get used to the flow of the field as we navigated the innumerable roundabouts and other various road furniture.
Everything was going smoothly until we reached the first categorized climb of the day (but really the fourth or fifth climb), at which point I found myself out of position. As it turned out, this would affect the rest of my race. There were a few contributing factors: first, I didn't realize that we were so close to the climb. I had drifted back during another wet descent through a town (during which I checked off the list: hop a curb and ride on the sidewalk), and lost track of how many kilometers we'd already ridden because this is my first race with an SRM PowerControl. Its default screen does not show distance, and I'd failed to reset it when the flag dropped, so I had to take my hands off the bars and press a button to see the wrong distance, then do mental math to determine where we were on the course. Complicated, right? So I didn't know we were almost to the climb.
When I did realize it, the road had narrowed significantly and I simply couldn't move up. I stayed with the main field on the climb, although guys were getting dropped behind (I averaged 380W for 15min). The descent, though, was just as narrow as the climb, and the road was just as rough. We strung out single file as we navigated the myriad switchbacks. We finally bottomed out on a straight road and saw that the field had split in half, and I was in the wrong half along with Dries and Warren. We joined in the rotation, trying to catch the field in the few kilometers before the next climb started, but weren't really making up ground.
We were about 30 seconds behind at the base of the biggest climb of the day, at which point Warren (winner of two stages of the Vuelta last year) torched it, with Dries helping. I was just trying to hang on, as I averaged 400W for the first 15 minutes before falling off the pace just before we caught the field. So I worked in the chase group just dangling behind the main field, averaging 350 for the next 15 minutes as the climb flattened out and the speed increased.
By the top of the climb, we were cold and wet. There was snow lining the edges of the road, which was covered with runoff and making my feet very cold. We crested the climb about 45 seconds behind the tail end of the field, I took on the only fresh bottle of the day (there was no official feed zone in the whole race), and prepared myself for the descent. Soaking wet roads, a technical descent, cold, and a field that's not getting any closer. Leroy Jenkins, let's do this! I dropped the rest of my chase group in the first 3 corners and set off on my own.
Here is where I insert a plug for Vittoria tires and Shimano brakes and wheels. The tires didn't slip once through dozens of switchbacks and hard turns, and the brakes had great feeling, were smooth, and quickly cleaned the rims of moisture. I just had to focus on good lines and proper braking technique, and how much fun I was having beneath it all. I pushed hard the whole descent, and by the bottom 15 minutes later was halfway through the caravan, which was very stretched out as riders were spread all over the place and the officials were diligently barraging us from the back of the field.
I reached the front of the caravan and joined a group of about a dozen just as the final categorized climb was beginning. We had just 15 or 20 seconds left to close on the group, and I could see that my team was setting the pace on the front. After 15 minutes at 360W, we caught the field as we passed beneath the KOM banner. I immediately rode to the front to join my team, and Roy instructed me to use what remained of my energy (I was starting to drag by this point) by rotating with Dries at the front. There was one rider away solo with a bit over a minute gap, so we were simply riding a hard tempo to keep the field subdued and keep things together for John, who stood a great chance in the field sprint after one smaller remaining climb.
Another 15 minutes of working at the front, and then we hit the final climb. I fought for 5 minutes before finally sitting up and riding in to the finish, where I learned that John had gotten 4th in a tricky field sprint on a slight downhill with a headwind.
I knew going in that this would be a learning year, and my first race has already proven it. Let's go through the race again hypothetically, had I done everything right. By being in the right position on the earlier climb, I would have been in the front split and not had to chase to the bottom of the big climb. I could have climbed at the lead group's pace, instead of the faster pace in the chase group. I could have rested on the descent in the group, and done the next climb at the pace of the leaders. Then I would have been fresher for my work at the front and held on over the final climb and been able to contribute in the field sprint. It's a ripple effect, for sure! I've already figured out how to configure my SRM screen to show distance automatically, so that's one problem down.
I finished the day with a 280W average for 4 hours (including the neutral section), and a normalized power of 325. By the numbers, I actually had a pretty good day, but I was using my energy in the wrong place--off the back of the group! I'm also excited that these numbers come from the first race of the season, because I improve quickly with a bit of racing in my legs. In 2 days, we start the 5-day Etoile de Besseges, and the weather promises more rain. C'est la vie, right?
Also, here's a video recap of the race. You can see in the sprint finish why you should just focus on the sprint and not go looking around...ouch!