So, April was a tough month for me after my crash at Tour of the Reservoir kept me off the road for 4 weeks. During that time I was spotted in some very strange places sitting on my turbo trainer with my left arm firmly strapped to my body. At times during that period I believed that my whole season was scuppered and all that hard training over the winter would be lost.
The results of my ultrasound scan in early May was a big turning point as we established there was no damage to my rotator cuff tendon. This was good news and led to a different mental approach to pain management; no longer should I believe that pain meant damage, instead it was something that was just there and could be worked through just like pain in legs, lungs and every other part of your body that hurts when you ride your bike hard. A conversation with my wonderful physio Femke and we agreed that we would get my shoulder ready to race 10 days later (at which point I hadn't even ventured back out onto the road). 8 days before the race I managed an uncomfortable 30 minutes on the road, 7 days before this crept up to 75 minutes, and 6 days before I went and hit the hills for just under 3 hours. If nothing else, the mental approach to pain management was working.
We had decided that driving to Nevers in the Loire Valley was the best travel option, leaving British shores early on the Friday morning. The plan was to get there with enough time before the race to fully recover from the journey and have some course recce time. We also wanted to enjoy the scenery and each others' company. After some pretty miserable weather in the weeks preceding, we were blessed with glorious sunshine all weekend although the wind was strong if you were caught out on the road alone. We had time for a couple of hours on the hilliest section of the course on Friday afternoon, although I managed to find a lovely specimen of 'rue blanc' to get me back to the car. Then on Saturday we rode the last 25k which also had a tasty climb in it and a very fast run in to the finish. As we went to register on Saturday afternoon the excitement was growing and we even found some other Brits who had made the trip, including Nikki Juniper. Not to mention some superbly good deals in the Look shop. Saturday night was all about getting bikes and bodies ready for the next days ordeal.
Sunday morning dawned bright and breezy, and after a quick breakfast we jumped on our bikes to head down to the start. Organisation, and toilets, seemed to be somewhat lacking, and as usual everyone was going into the start boxes early to get the best possible position. Contrary to what was expected, start boxes were by race number rather than category, so it was impossible to see who you were racing against. Given the size of the field, I knew it would be the 'top 3' criteria rather than the 25% that would apply to my age class so I had to try and keep an eye on where all the other women were.
After a long wait, we were off. I had a good start but it was surprisingly fast right from the gun. Very early on Nikki and Nick came past, shouting at me to jump on their wheel. I tried to follow them through the flowing peloton for a while but decided it was using up too much energy that I wanted to save for later. There were some interesting moments early on when the road narrowed for one reason or other. There were some dreadful squealing brakes which made every dicey moment sound much worse than it was. The hills soon enough started to spread the field out, and I found myself climbing better than those surrounding me. There were two other girls nearby who I was keeping an eye on. By the time we got to the village of La Machine the peloton had broken up into a number of smaller groups.
I was with 2 other women in my group and we could see two more groups on the road up ahead. No one else seemed interested in bridging to them, so I went into time trial mode, cruised up to and past the first group then onwards towards the second group. About 3 other guys came through to take a turn and I didn't dare to look back to see how many others we had dragged across the gap. Amazingly, that group then bridged to another (I presumed front) group just before another climb towards Saint Saulge blew it back apart again.
By now we were onto the section of the course that I had pre-ridden with several tough climbs. I put myself into a good position at the start of the first two but towards the top of the second I started to struggle and didn't have time to recover before the third and longest of the day. This meant I started in a bad position and drifted backwards through the bunch then out the back. There was little I could do to respond on the climb so instead had to descend fearlessly to chase back on. Fortunately the chase was successful, despite my compact chainring which was proving to be a disadvantage.
I sat in for a while then moved up through the bunch again as I knew there were some tricky descents coming up along with a bugger of an 18%er that I wanted clean road for. During this period I managed to have conversations with the two other girls to establish they were both also in my age group. This meant I needed to start thinking tactically about how to beat them.
One last nasty climb saw me drifting backwards again and a speedy chase back on once again saved my bacon as it was critical to be in a group for the last 10k burn-up to the finish. Again I was looking to move up, and had decided to go for the tactic of sneaking away off the front before the mad cobbled sprint. It was hard to get through the bunch by this point as no one wanted to give an inch. Remember that this is a 50+ strong bunch where only a maximum of 10 people are really racing for anything significant (women and 60+ men), very frustrating!!! Eventually I managed to get through and went for my diving attack off the front. It was countered immediately, not by the girls but by several of the guys who weren't really racing for anything. Ok, I thought, that's fine. Let's just make sure I hold my position in front 10 and there may be a chance the other girls won't get through. That was hard work but was going fine until a roundabout less than a kilometre before the finish where I got squeezed slightly and lost my position. On the final uphill kick it probably wasn't a surprise that I didn't have much left for a sprint and ended up finishing 4th woman out of 3 in our bunch (yes there was one female in disguise who I had missed completely for the majority of the race).
Several anxious minutes later I was very pleased to find out that although I finished 4th in my race age group (35-49), I had still finished 3rd in my UCI age class (35-39) hence qualifying for the final in Slovenia in august. Sigh of relief, lots of tactical lessons learnt and now the build for Slovenia can start with a vengeance.