Monday, August 25, 2008

L'Hexagonal VTT Tour de France :: August 7-12

Less than a month ago I received an email from Australia’s national mountain bike coach Neil Ross asking if I would be interested in racing as part of a team in the Tour de France mountain bike stage race, also known as 'L’Hexagonal'. At the time I didn’t know anything about the event, all I could make out from the website is that it consisted of 5 races, three of cross country distance and two time trials. I didn’t know whether it was an individual race or a team event, but Neil just said to make my way to Vittel in the northern part of France as I would enjoy the event, plus it would be a good block of training for me.

Before I knew it Ian was dropping me and my many bags in Toulouse....I never travel light. My adventure was about to begin, but I tried not to show my excitement because I knew Ian would miss me. I told him it would only be for a week, and I would be back before he knew it. But then I noticed a very cheeky expression on Ian’s face and I just had this feeling he was in a rush to return to Luchon. Then I guessed it, he had a downhill date with Russ. So it was a quick good bye as the two Potter’s went their separate ways....I for the cross country trails of northern France and Ian back to his beloved Pyrenees for some downhill action.

I now faced 12hrs of travelling that included three trains, plus a taxi ride through the streets of Paris. At 8pm I would arrive in Vittel train station where my Tour de France mountain bike experience would begin two days later.....well so I thought.

DAY 1 – ‘The Team Pursuit – one for the Poms’

The opening ceremony of the Tour de France VTT started with an exhibition race between each team who wanted to test themselves on a 400m course that included dirt jumps, logs and sand pits. Each team were presented to the crowd, before young children surrounded the riders for autographs. I felt like a film star, until I realised it was time to strut my stuff on this very interesting race course. I was part of Team Australia Composee that included two Aussie fellas (Josh Keep and Nick Both), a part time aussie-brit-frenchie (that be moi), and a lovely Austrian (Alban Lakata). The four of us decided to take it easy and save the legs, and possibly our heads too, as there was no room for error if we hit the jumps or logs too fast.
I knew I was the weak link, but there was no pressure for me to keep up with the lads as it was the top three riders who crossed the line that counted. Although my competitive brain didn’t want to be left behind either, so I was determined to try and at least keep the boys in sight. On the first lap I lost time on the logs as the boys jumped them very gracefully, where I looked every bit the spanner. However I had the sand pits nailed, almost riding over Alban across the first pit...who was sinking rather than moving forward I might add. I was trying to control my fits of giggling as I passed Alban, whilst struggling to breathe as I was well and truly in the red zone. The legs plodded on and by the time I reached the start of the second lap Alban had passed me and this time crossed the sand pits effortlessly.
It was the shortest race in the history of Kate Potter. I was just starting to feel better too as I crossed the finish line....oh for 100 more laps or better still some fast twitch muscle fibres :)
The British Cycling Team that included Ian Bibby, David Fletcher and Billy-Joe Whenman looked very strong and had made the semi finals along with the Australian Cycling Team (Dellys Starr, Daniel McConnel, Adrian Jackson and Andrew Blair). It would have been great to have a mountain bike version of the ‘Ashes’, but the Poms proved too strong overall and won both their semi and then their final, while the Aussie national team finished cheers all round for the British National Mountain bike Team!

Day 2 – ‘Vittel TT – KP beats world champ and ducks for cover’
A fast course that had more sand pits, tunnels, mud, rain, and even some hail for those lucky enough to start their TT later in the day. I was the first lady to sprint off, with some tough competition hot on my heels. I kept expecting to be passed, but managed a pretty faultless run and finished without any girls or guys passing me. Then the rain started and didn’t stop, thunder and lightning struck close by, and the hail turned everything white. The course had some difficult sections at speed even in the dry, but there were plenty of sections that were lethal in the wet. Aussie Olympian Dan McConnel felt the full force of the storm as he revealed huge red marks across his back where he was struck by the hail. He certainly deserved a medal for simply finishing. Christoph Sauser finished 2 minutes behind my I can actually say I beat a world champ :). In the end I finished third, 23 seconds behind the winner French national champ and Olympian Laurence Leboucher. I was pretty chuffed with my result, but I still can’t believe how painful racing for 15 minutes can be.

Day 3 – ‘Vittel XC – mud, sweat and no gears’
I have always believed in what comes around goes around. I shouldn’t have laughed when I found out I beat world champ Christoph Sauser’s time the day before. Now it was my turn to suffer, and suffer I did. The course was a total mudfest. Dellys Starr and I managed to check half the course out in the morning before we decided it was time to return and change to mud tyres. By the time bikes were cleaned, tyres changed and a new set of racing kit found it was time to line up. I was gridded on the third row, which was a terrifying position when I looked behind and saw mostly guys hungry to get passed me.
The start was on a tarmac descent, down to a roundabout, before heading into the park. I managed to be just behind Dellys going into the first piece of single track. From this point onwards my race was a tough one. Everybody was running the single track as the mud was deep and sticky. I struggled to keep my position as loads of men bounded passed me. As soon as I jumped back on the bike I discovered my gears weren’t working properly, and I only had first gear. The rest of the race was one of the hardest, most mentally challenging races I have experienced. I ended up running close to half of the course, and stopped several times to try and unclog the bike as the mud and wet grass refused to shift from the block.
On my final lap the storm intensified. I have always been terrified of being caught out in the middle of a storm...yes I am a wimp! Rain I can handle, but thunder and lightning do not agree with KP. The lightening felt too close for comfort. This race was not just a physical test, but it tested every bit of mental strength I had left in me. I had one lap to go and my gears would not settle down, one minute they were jumping all over the place, then the next I only had first gear. I stopped briefly in the pit to check my rear mech and ask Neil’s advice. Neil just smiled, and said it would be good training. So off I went with a new goal, to ride that mud and enjoy every sticky moment as it could only toughen me up.
When I finally crossed the line in fourth place I was a muddy mess, and I had blisters on my feet from all the running. However on the plus side I finished with a result, plus I didn’t hide from the storm. Facing a phobia that has been with me since childhood felt pretty good...but between you and me I was shaking in my shoes the whole way round. I lost over 18 minutes which meant I had alot of catching up to do over the next few days...sorry team.

Day 4 – ‘Recovery Day – training, intervals and racing BMX’
After only three races it was time to head to Paris. Once settled in at our hotel we took off for a recovery ride. Along the way we discovered a BMX track where we took on each other in the national Aussie rolling BMX champs. No pedalling allowed, and we had to see how many jumps we could roll over. KP makes it over one (doh!). While team mate Nick Both almost clears the entire track....very impressed. This is followed by more riding back to base where the Aussie coach spends time working on my technique. Then I’m fortunate enough to have one on one interval training with Neil....ouch! The exercises he gives me seem to wake up certain muscles in my legs that I don’t think have been used before. I return to my room with a strange new walk, hopefully some fast twitch muscle fibres have been found :)

Day 5 – ‘Montmartre TT – loving those steps’
Dan said that this will be one of the hardest races I ever come across. Now I’m scared. I don’t expect to hear comments like that from such a good rider. The race is a time trial and starts in the middle of ‘Montmartre’, a very popular tourist area in the heart of Paris. There is no mud, no dirt, not even a little bit of gravel....instead I have cobble stones, hundreds of steps and even pedestrians to dodge. It’s time for KP to pray, so I head to the famous church for a quiet word.....’help!’.
The rain has started again and the cobble stones are lethal to walk on in places. As Dellys and I line up we don’t know how hard we will be able to push it as I have seen plenty of riders slip off their bikes already. From a standing start we go straight into a steep section of steps. I lose balance and end up zig zagging down the steps, to my surprise I’m still attached to my bike. A short section of slippery cobbles follow before more steps, longer steps, where I just let go of the brakes and hold on. More cobbled roads, more steps, and let’s not forget those tourists who step out in front of you because they’re not aware there is a mountain bike race going on in the middle of the city.
I’m slow around the corners because I don’t trust my tyres on the wet cobbles, but I try to go as quickly as I can on the straights. The most painful section of the race course approaches as I have to run up over a hundred steps. The crowds are cheering, but I can only hear my heart beating and lungs gasping for air. When I reach the top it’s time to jump back on the bike and ride back down another much longer section of steps. However there is a cheeky smooth section of concrete to the side of the steps which I ride, but I’m bobbing it as my back tyre slides from side to side on the way down. This is not a good place to fall as there are people everywhere cheering riders on.
Then I discover I have caught the girl in front of me. This fires me up and I ride the next section of steps more confidently. There is a couple of metres of grass, yes off road terrain has appeared on course that I can ride....hallelujah! Then guess what? I have more steps to climb, and these steps never seem to end. By this point I’m gasping for air, legs are killing me, and I’m in a world of hurt. A hundred more steps to ride down before I head along more cobbled road that leads to some more steps to climb. Sorry that I keep mentioning steps, it’s becoming a bit repetitive I know, but there were seriously alot of steps.
The crowd seems to go wild and there are the Aussie lads cheering and encouraging me to ride the steep concrete slabs beside the next set of steps. I don’t know what to do....granny ring? Middle ring? Why didn’t I practice this section before...just go for can’t run anyway. So I stuff my gear selection up just to make my ride a bit harder. I manage to jump onto the concrete slabs and I’m riding it....YES! No! I slip. I’m gasping for air and trying to pick myself up. The boys are still cheering, as I jump back on the bike. There is about a kilometre to go, and this is where I have to make sure I don’t run over any tourists as the course weaves through the narrow alleys that are lined with restaurants and bars. I’m buzzing from head to toe, but my legs are killing me. Finally I cross the finish line and I’m not caught. To my surprise I finish in second place and Dellys takes the win. There are Aussie smiles all round.

Day 6 – ‘XC – strong legs, but pathetic arms’
Yesterday my legs were killing me, seriously hurting, but today was a different story altogether. I have a two lap race on a 20km course to look forward to. During practice I ride the course with team mate Josh and notice my legs feel kind of buzzy. It’s like they want to take off, and no matter how much pain you throw at them they feel like they will cope with it. I take my position on the grid, close to the front of the pack again...nerves start big time. My goal is to try and find a group to work with as the course is fairly flat, except for one section that I will describe shortly. I’m over 18 minutes behind Laurence Laboucher who wears the ladies pink jersey, but our team star Alban from Austria has had three fantastic results and holds the yellow jersey. Our team is not too far behind in the team mixed category. So long as I don’t lose too much time to the girls in front then there is still a chance our team may finish on the podium. The race starts and I manage, to my surprise, to be riding with Dellys. The two of us work together and I realise that perhaps I could help Dellys chase down the pink jersey. I feel like I can go faster, and really dig deep to try and help Dellys as much as I can.
Then we reach the most frustrating section of the course because we have to ride a steep descent into a dried up river bed, which is impossible to ride out of. It’s times like this I wish I had ‘Go Go Gadget legs’, I mention Gadget because every time I threw my bike over the bank I would whisper ‘Go Go Gadget ARMS’...because you had to try and lift your full body weight to the top, as it was a muddy sheer bank that was above my head. There were quite a few sections like this, and then a really steep climb that most people ran. As painful as it was, I loved this section because it really tested your whole body. I discovered my biceps were still working, although they definitely need some strengthening.
On the second lap the Aussie chicks (that be Dellys and I) had caught Josh my team mate. Poor Josh still had two more laps because the men had to do three laps of the course. Josh was a star and worked really hard with Dellys and I, wheel to wheel, to chase down the pink jersey. In the end Dellys and I came through together. Dellys in second and I in third. Neil said we had made up time and were within 15 seconds of catching Laurence Leboucher. I was on a total race high, and buzzing from the experience.

Day 7 – ‘XC – Aussie smiles all round’
Unfortunately I started this race feeling very tired....only four hours decent sleep. I couldn’t sleep properly the night before because I was still buzzing from the race yesterday and overheating big time. Every time I closed my eyes I was still racing, and no matter how much water I splashed on my face I couldn’t cool down. I even caught myself turning in my sleep as though I was riding a corner in the race.
The race started early today as there would be presentations following the race and a huge feast to celebrate the end of the competition. I felt like I was in a daze as the race started. There were two starting loops and then four laps of the course. I thought I had a fairly good start, but I still felt like my head wasn’t really attached to my body and my legs didn’t have the same buzz as they did yesterday.
The course was another great loop where skill and speedy legs were required. First there was a long straight dusty trail along the River Seine, before plenty of single track action that ranged from bumpy grass to some interesting steep muddy sections beneath the trees. The theme of the week was ‘let’s throw obstacles at the riders to make them run, climb and really suffer’...I was loving it! There were more sections that were impossible to ride, including a long wooden construction that I even had trouble walking up. Luckily I always had a rider behind me who kindly held me up and stopped me from falling as I slipped backwards into their arms....just don’t mention that to Mr Potter.
There was always somebody to try and chase down out in front, and I felt myself becoming stronger on each lap. I had passed the pink jersey at one point, and dug deep to try and stay out in front. Dellys had taken the lead early and looked strong. If she could make up some time on the pink jersey, not only would she win the stage, but end up winning the overall ladies competition too as there was less than 5 minutes between them both. My goal was to try and make up time for our team. If Alban had a good race, and I could stay in front of Leboucher then there was a possibility we might end up on the podium. I managed to finish in second place, but waited to see how much time I made up on the pink jersey.
When I was told I had to clean up to be ready for the podium, I forgot all about it. Until a little later on when Neil revealed that Team Composee Australia had won the mixed competition. It was smiles all round as Dellys had won the pink jersey and our lovely Austrian Alban Lakata, who could be called an Aussie as well....but just with a different accent, won the yellow jersey. I was pleased to finish in third place overall in the ladies pink jersey competition...we were all smiling high!

It was a fantastic opportunity to join two Australian teams for the L’Hexagonal Tour de France VTT. Thanks to Neil Ross for all your support and coaching during the week, and special thanks to Rosie Barnes for being our team manager. It was an absolute pleasure riding and racing with Josh, Nick, Albert, Dellys, Dan, Adrian and Andrew. Also a huge thankyou to Jake for your massage and gofer duties, you were such a star! I really hope to race this event next year as it was a brilliant race, and as painful as racing can be, the Tour de France VTT was definitely worth every sore muscle and bruising that came my way.

As always Special thanks to –
Cotic –
Bontrager –
A Quick Release Holidays –
Torq & Torq Australia –
Magura Forks –
Hope –
Skins –

And co-sponsors Crank Brothers, SRAM, Catlike Helmets, Lumicycle, Bigfoot bags, 661 gloves, Sundog eyewear, Ergon bags and Purple Extreme Lubricants.

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