Saturday, August 16, 2008

L'Hexagonal VTT Tour de France :: Day 1

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. 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.

Before I knew it Ian was dropping me and my many bags in Toulouse. My adventure was about to begin, but I tried not to show my excitement in case Mr Potter started crying. I told him it would only be for a week, I would be back before he knew it. I pretended to have tears in my eyes too as I was certain I would be missed! But then I noticed a very cheeky expression on Ian’s face and knew 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 would face 12hrs of travelling that included three trains, plus a taxi ride through the streets of Paris. I arrived 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’

There were two Australian teams, and I was part of ‘Team Australia Composee’, that consisted of fellow Aussies Josh Keep and Nick Both, plus an Austrian by the name of Alban Lakata who raced on the Dolphin Trek other words he was a proper pro. Our Team manager was Aussie elite racer Rosie Barnes who would be in charge of our team logistics and feeding. The other Australian Team included Daniel McConnell and Dellys Starr who are representing Australia at the Beijing Olympics, plus Adrian Jackson and Andrew Blair.

While Rosie and Neil attended the manager’s meeting I relaxed on the grass with both teams and suddenly became rather nervous. It suddenly dawned on me that the world champion Christoph Sauser sat close by, plus there were several teams arriving in their team cars looking every bit the pro part. The British Cycling Team had also turned up and just about every person I came across had a campervan or large vehicle with not just their name printed on it, but their faces too. I felt like a fish out of water, or rather a koala out of a gum tree. I wondered if the national coach knew what he had got me into, as there were some very classy riders turning up, and suddenly I doubted if I were even good enough to be here amongst all these international bikers. At least I had 48hrs before the first race to relax and find my confident brain which I started to think I had left behind in Luchon.

When Neil and Rosie returned we were informed there would be a racing exhibition on at 8pm that night following the team presentation. At first I was really excited to check the event out as I was thinking it was going to be like a downhill street race. Then I was informed that we were going to be the entertainers....I had in fact less than 4 hours to find my confident brain and remember how to ride my bike. This was news to everybody as there was no mention of racing this evening on the event website. However before we could practice the course and discuss the format of the race, we had to find our accommodation that the organisers arranged for every team as part of the entry fee. It was a lovely 40km trip along rolling hills and countryside to an industrial area in what felt like the middle of nowhere. A quick change into race kit and then we headed back to Vittel again where we discovered that the first race was in fact a team pursuit.

The main street outside the train station was closed and there were large mounds of dirt piled high, and logs of different widths along the street. At first I thought there must be a dirt jumping and trials exhibition on also to entertain the crowd, but then I noticed lycra clad cyclists riding up and down the street and realised that this was part of the course.....gulp!

The loop started down the tarmac road and as the bike picked up speed I quickly had to touch the brakes in order to ride the huge dirt jump smoothly, without nose diving. The jump wasn’t shaped that well, and there were quite a few guys landing on their top tubes with rather painful expressions on their faces.....ouch!

The next series of obstacles were logs that were quite close together, and even though I have been practising bunny hopping with Ian, the kind where you manual first before lifting the back end of the bike, I was looking rather pathetic as I tried to find my timing and knew I was losing speed on this section of the course. The road continued downhill and on to a roundabout where you had to ride across the roundabout, jump onto a footpath curb and then hop onto a bridge, before a small drop off where you landed on the other side of the roundabout. Then the course turned to a gravel path where the next obstacle was like a huge long sand pit. It must have been close to 10m long and you just had to pedal as hard as you could and prey that momentum would carry you through it. It was very easy to sink or find yourself sliding sideways.

Then it was back on to the gravel path before hitting a series of dirt mounds that were fairly easy to pump through, before another long sand pit to ride across without sinking. The course then turned up hill and back on to the tarmac road where more logs were in place to slow you down if you couldn’t bunny hop properly, before a short obstacle free sprint across the finish line. I was laughing so much as I rode the course and realised I no longer wore my nervous head on. I was really enjoying the course and felt like I was attacking the obstacles confidently.....until I decided to wipe out on the gravel path. I managed to stick my leg out just in time and somehow saved my skin from a nasty gravel rash.

Before each team lined up to race against the clock we had to walk on stage and be presented to the crowd. The cheers and excitement from the onlookers was amazing. Young children were approaching us for autographs and we were treated as though we were film stars. It was just so surreal. Then it was our turn to race. Each team had to race two laps of the 400m course and then the fastest four teams overall would go into a semi final. It was only the third placed rider’s time that counted, so it didn’t matter how far back the fourth rider finished or how far in front the leading riders were. Our Austrian team mate Alban Lakata was focusing on trying to win the yellow jersey and didn’t want to risk injury, so we all agreed to cruise the course comfortably to avoid any risk of injury that would stop us from racing the next day.

As we lined up the Alban asked me if I wanted to ride in front of him because he said he was just taking it steady. I was quite happy to cruise so insisted he remained in front of me as I didn’t want to hold him up. As we took off I soon realised that my steady is quite different to the steadiness of my elite male team mates out in front. All of them could bunny hop beautifully, where Mrs Potter was not the most graceful when it came to jumping over logs. A gap had appeared and I tried really hard to catch my team mates up. Luckily I had an advantage of being a lighter rider in the sand pit and I sprinted to the other side of the pit almost running over Alban in the process, who had sunk fairly deeply into the sand. I was all giggles as I tried to avoid a collision with my team mate, and of course puffing for breath at the same time as I was still trying very hard. By the time I reached the second section of logs on the uphill straight once again a gap had appeared. I was also completely in the red zone, as I’m not used to racing for such a short distance. I had one more lap to go and even though it was only a 400m loop it was so painful.....and I thought we were taking it steady :)

When we finished I was in really good spirits and I couldn’t wait to cheer both the Aussie National Team and the British Cycling boys on. It was awesome to watch both team’s race and it looked like it might even be a mountain bike version of the Ashes, as both teams were looking very strong. In the end the British Cycling Team proved the strongest and came home the winners, with the Aussie National Team finishing in third.

As it turned out Dellys Starr (National Australian Team) and I were the only females to take part, as there were a few missing faces who were saving themselves for the next day. However it was definitely a race not to miss as I have never raced a course like it, and even now I burst into giggles when I think of those darn sand pits that we had to cross without sinking.

The Tour de France VTT would begin the next day with an opening time trial through the park and streets of Vittel. I will bring you that report shortly, as it truly deserves a report of its very own.....especially since I can actually say I beat a world champion :)

So stay tuned......

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