I think that my introduction to road racing in Europe was definitely bordering on the slightly bizarre side of things. I was riding with a Japanese team (Ready Steady - Go Japan!), and embracing the Japanese culture, while racing in France where English was minimal. I was trying to explain to people that I am a ‘Kiwi’, but that I am based in the UK and that my name is ‘French’, but I am not French . . . In general I think it was very unclear as to where I actually originated from, so just for the record I am 100% a New Zealander.
Tour Féminin En Limousin is held in France and is a UCI four-day tour that attracts a lot of big professional women’s teams, along with various national squads. Among the teams competing this year were the Russian national squad, Australian national squad, Canadian national squad, Belgium national squad, Lotto Belisol Ladiesteam, Vienne Futuroscope, S.c. Michela Fanini Record Rox, Team Pro Féminin Les Carroz and many more. All up there were 19 teams. The tour consisted of four stages between 100–126km that we raced around in the beautiful countryside of the Limousin Region: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?hl=en&tab=wl
It now feels like I spent a month in France when in fact it was only a week, but it was so action packed and such a big learning curve that I can hardly believe it was just seven days. It was a really fun week meeting a lot of new faces and getting to ride my butt off for four very hard days in which we covered 450kms and saw some beautiful landscapes of the Limousin region, but it was also a very exhausting week with the language barrier that turned into a continual struggle. At times it was lonely (I think I only spoke English for about 20 minutes every day) and I would resort to hand gestures to communicate with, along with my two trusty French phrases, ‘Do you speak english?’ and ‘I don’t understand what you are saying . . .’; and the racing was hard – really hard. It became normal to wake up each day with a body that felt like it had been taken to with a jack hammer and then mentally prepare yourself for another 100km or so in the saddle over undulating terrain. On the whole, though, I had a really good time – the most valuable part for me was how much I learnt, how differently things are done, and how much tougher the racing is in Europe in comparison to the States. The Japanese team were absolutely lovely and hilarious, the French organisers always made sure I had assistance when necessary, and my French team mates were an absolute pleasure to have with the Japanese team.
Our team was made up of:
Team management: Mutsumi and Musa
Mechanics: Patrick and Musa
Riders: Yukiyo Hori, Yuko Myochin, Chihiro Matsuda , Valerie Sapena, Mireille Robin and myself. On day two we discovered that Mireille is a masters mountain bike world champion and all our hopes went to her for the mountain stages. Mirielle was also extremely modest about her achievements, while our team was in total awe . . .
I also went a little camera crazy in France and there are now about 50 photos uploaded on the gallery, if they are not showing up very clear you should find them on flickr.com as well. There are also lots of photos on this website: http://courses.femininesassociees.over-blog.com/categorie-1228595.html
Stage 1– 105km Gueret
I had a good race in stage one despite a bit of hiccup 1.5 hours into it. The stage started in Gueret (a tiny village 90km from Limoges), and followed an undulating course around the town, finishing with a small circuit through the village centre and a 500m hill climb sprint. 102 women lined up and at 1pm we were off. I am used to racing with 50–80 women, but 100 of us on the road is hard going and I spent a lot of the race just fighting to stay near the halfway mark. There were three major hills in this stage, but it felt like we were climbing a lot more than this. The pace was very fast for the first hour with an average speed of 38km per hour, and at the 1.5 hour mark I was dropped from the main bunch. It absolutely heaved it down with rain at this point and my sunnies got totally clouded so I decided to take them off – bad idea. It was raining so hard that I could barely see where I was going and almost rode into another rider. I had to slow down to see the road properly and got dropped again by the chasing bunch. There were about 15 riders in the next group and we spent the rest of the ride together trying to get back on, but our efforts fell short and we came in to the finish 9.5 minutes behind the winner Grace Verbeke (Belgium). My placing was 78th. Fellow Kiwi Emma Crum had a very impressive race to finish 5.5 minutes in front of our group at 20th place.
After the race I remembered thinking that my bike felt very heavy and then my team manager Musa lifted it up and we could hear water sloshing through the frame, a lot of it, it turns out when I took the seat off that night that the equivalent to a bottle of water poured out of my frame! (see the gallery for photos). Apparently some specialised frames aren’t very good at flushing water out . . .
Stage 2– 115km Lussac Les Equlises
My goal for this race was to stay with the lead bunch. The course was flatter, but because of this it was very very fast. We averaged 36.5km an hour. Ten minutes into the race I punctured. Unfortunately, our team car was the very last in the following vehicles to come through and it took me 25 minutes to chase back on to the main bunch, by which point I was totally knackered. I actually didn’t think I would get back on, as for the first 20 minutes I couldn’t even see the bunch, and then once I did, it was a matter of passing 18 supporting vehicles. It’s lucky I got back on when I did as the pace speed up after this and about 10 riders dropped off. With 40km to go we had four 10km loops through the main village of Lussac Les Equlises. The bunch was so strung out here, it was raining, there was a killer side wind and three-quarters of the lap went through a very skinny back road that didn’t allow more than 2–3 riders abreast. I got dropped with 15 other riders in the 3rd lap, but we managed to put the hammer down and get back on for the bunch sprint. I wish I had had more omff for the finish, but I didn’t and placed 77th. Chloe Hosking’s racing for the Australian National squad came in 2nd, with Sjouke Dufoer from Belgium 1st.
Stage 3 – 100km Availles Limouzine
Well it was all over for me within two minutes of the race when I punctured again. I tried to chase back on but I was exhausted from Fridays time trail effort and ended up riding solo for 2.5 hrs at which point I was pulled from the race for being too far down. Not a good day, oh well, punctures are evil. Australia delivered the goods again winning the stage (Tiffany Cromwell).
It was a real shame to puncture on this stage as it was described as the easiest stage of the entire tour with basically no hills. It was also very scenic, I passed a lot of impressive vintage houses, sunflower fields and rolling valleys with hay bales – ah France – at least I got to appreciate all the school kids cheering us on too. Pity I didn’t understand what they were saying.
Stage 4 – 126km Ussel
Everyone was really tired by now, I was dozing in and out of sleep in the car on the way to the start of the race in Ussel and getting ready for the toughest stage of all four days. 126 kilometres, with six major hill climbs between 2km long, estimated finish time of 4 hours . . . this was a mammoth stage and it was hot, very hot. The temperature was sitting in the late 20s early 30s and we were starting it in the thick of the heat at 1pm. I was going quite well for the first 1.15, and was with the lead bunch and just hanging on in the hills, but I just didn’t realise quite how hilly it was. What the race organisers really meant when they said it had six major hill climbs, was that they were big ones and that the entire course was a series of climb/descend/climb/descend. In the space of 126km, there was literally only 10km of complete flat road. I got dropped after 1.15 and myself and around 15 other riders spent a good 10 minutes about 500m behind the lead bunch, but we just couldn’t get back on. Once we were dropped I was shocked at how much time we lost. I think our bunch got lazy, at times it felt like a Sunday training ride, people were just so tired and couldn’t be bothered. We would lap around for a bit and then a few would just stop and we would loose momentum again. At least I got a great position for the bunch sprint and managed to finish 4th, with a final placing of 59th. My goal for the tour was to try for top 50 finish in one stage, so this wasn’t too far off.
Full results of the tour can be found here: http://www.velostory.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=5828&...
Weird and intriguing things that I noticed during the week in France:
Because we started racing at 1pm everyday, lunch was served at 9.30am. Imagine eating ala chicken/rice combo at 9.30am, followed by apple pie desert – surprisingly my stomach seemed to like this pre-race food.
An authentic Japanese massage is like nothing you will ever experience – Mutsumi our race manager treated me to these massages every night. These were not 'sit back and relax' massages, but more so ‘attack the point of pain’. At one stage Mutsumi was standing on me with her foot pressing into my left buttock trying to relieve a knot – I was holding onto the bed rail screaming. These massages do work though, my body seemed to be coping well with the long stages, whereas in the past I would have found them very testing.
Sleeping without a pillow for a week is not good for the neck or back. All of the teams stayed on-site at a school in Gueret. We were given sheets, blankets, mattresses . . . but where was the pillow? This was unfortunately not on the bedding list. I couldn’t wait to jump back into my bed in Oxford.
There are a lot of people of owe thanks to for the week
Ready Set-Go Japan! – For all your assistance with racing, massages and general support, Team ESGL for assistance getting to Paris, Team Vienne Futuroscope for mechanical assistance. Patrick – for cleaning, repairing and general maintenance of my bike, as well as his supportive and encouraging nature.
Also thanks to my sponsors/associates, see them at www.genwhitson.com
That’s me done for the season, I am pooped. My legs don’t want to see a road bike for a good month and mine has been parked in the corner of my bedroom until the end of August. I am going to do a bit of running in the mean time and hit the dirt again – I miss the mountain biking a lot and this month is a good excuse to get off road. It’s also going to be nice to catch up with a lot of family and friends that I haven’t had the chance to really see in the last four months. I’ll get started again with base training in September, but for now, its all about rest and recuperation, alongside a glass of wine or two . . .
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