I figured it would be hard, but I didn't know it would be that hard...
There were 7 of us, including teammate Russell Stevenson and Ian Terry from Seattle, who drove the 120km to the start of this local French road race. We were a bit concerned about being allowed to race, especially when we realized that none of the officials spoke english. Much to our relief, registration actually went smoother than most US races and only cost 7 euros! After warming up, we arranged ourselves at the start line. The seven of us, Jacob, Ian, Sean, Laust, Russell, Andrew, and I discussed team tactics. Techno music blasted as we looked around and were shocked to see 100 riders at the start line. There were a lot of serious looking racers and even a couple AG2R guys. Oh shit, this could be really really hard, I thought.
Team Premanon, ready to race.
I should also mention that I was rocking my cross bike, mountain bike shoes, and hairy legs. Images of the movie Breaking Away flashed through my head and I was fully prepared for somebody to stick a pump in my wheel...
The race got underway and the pace was hot. We did three 30km loops followed by a 20km finale loop with a huge climb in it. Each of the three main laps featured two low-grade climbs that left the field strung-out and shattered in the wind. Reminded me a lot of the first stage of Walla Walla, but in the Alps with Mont Blanc towering overhead. Several breaks formed but were brought back. On the third lap, a huge split of roughly 30 riders went away. Andrew put in a big dig to try to close the gap. A few minutes later, I followed a move and found myself with 3 others out in no-mans land attempting to bridge to the lead group. We hit the second climb and two of my compatriots took off and the other dropped back. Now I was really all alone in the wind. I rode probably 15km before I was relieved to be caught by another chase group. This group contained Russell and about 10 other dudes, one of which was quick to yell at me in French for not pulling. Well, at least I assumed that was what he was saying.
Yours truly with Russell 2 riders back. Survival mode on lap 2.
Now on the 20km finishing loop, our group pace-lined the next 10km until we hit the base of the big climb up Mont Saxxonnex where it became more or less every man for himself. The climb was really spectacular, following a steep ravine along waterfalls and huge limestone cliffs. I think it was only a 5km climb, but steep! I guess the average grade was around 12% which made me glad I had put my 28tooth cassette on. I kept thinking of yesterday's Vuelta stage, where Nibali had defended his lead on a similarly steep and painful-looking climb. I pushed over the top through a small village and began the descent to the finish. This part I really loved! Technical, fast downhill. I think I must be an ok descender because I caught and passed several riders, hitting speeds of up to 50mph in the process. After the fun descent, it was only 1km of flat into the finish. I could see Russell and some other riders about 20 seconds ahead on the finishing straight when I rolled in.
Leaders going over the top of Saxonnex.
Looking at my computer, I knew the race was hard because my average heart rate was almost 170 for 3 hours! The organization and professionalism of this race really amazed me. We had the entire road and there were course marshals with flags and whistles at all the traffic furniture and roundabouts, just like the Tour. The local spectators were even out in force along the road in every village we rode through as well as on the climbs. All in all, an amazing day on the bike! Thanks for reading and good luck to all you cross racers back home!