Even though we are getting into the longest days of the year and the light hangs around until 11pm, it seems the French want to ignore the 18 hours of daylight and race in the dark, or so the aptly named Nocturne Criteriums suggest. The night crits feature on the calendar solely in June and July and this past week I ventured to Martigues for my first Nocturne. Little did I know, the name was more literal than figurative.

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The race consisted of sixty laps of a 1.3km course starting in diminishing light at 8.45pm. The route was on a super windy coastal road and, with a home straight being negotiated at 55km/hr, the 78km race was fast and intense but that wasn’t the hardest challenge of the day. Without a doubt, Martigues was the most confusing race I have ever ridden.

As with any criterium, the first laps are crucial. With attacks coming left, right and center the last thing you want to do is be left behind in a bunch that has given up on the race. So, as we raced through the first 15 minutes, a good group of 5 riders forged ahead and, seeing them open a bit of a gap, I decided to jump across.

Without a sprinter’s bone in my body, “jumping across” for me is more of a gradual gain, crossing the gap over a few laps. I got stuck in between the groups and eventually I was reunited with the bunch. The bunch, now much smaller, rode aggressively and continued to attack to keep the pace high. Our hard work paid off and we managed to catch the leading group. Or, what I thought was the leading group.

The riders we actually caught were a similar sized group that we were lapping and my assumption proved to be a big mistake. However, thinking I was in the front split, I was more concerned about the descending darkness. As the sun glasses all came off, we were left with only memory to negotiate the pot holes, speed bumps and grates.

As we entered into the final 15 laps a group from behind caught up to my “leading” break of 8, including some riders from the actual leading group. Suddenly I realized what was going on. I went from plotting my victory to racing for a top 10. Bummer. I’m not exactly sure what the protocol is in these situations and it seemed some riders thought we should let the leaders go, while others were attacking to stay with them. Needless to say, I wasn’t the only one confused.

With it now being officially night time, I stuck with some riders I had been with most of the race and waited for the last lap. Maybe it was just difficult to hear French at 55km/hr but the darker it got, the more intoxicated the commentator began to sound, and, being one lap down, we weren’t sure if we should sprint at 0 laps and finish +1 lap on the leaders or complete the extra lap and then sprint. We passed the finish line at 1 lap to go (for the leaders) and, with no indication from the commentator and no bell, I assumed we had 2 more laps to go.

Our last pass through the start/finish area, the lap board was reading “99” so I reaffirmed it had to be the final lap. I launched my attack at 600m to go and hung on to win from my group. With no ruling from the commentator and such a confusing race experience in utter darkness, I had no idea where I placed. The fact that the officials still havent released the official results, however, makes me think I wasn’t the only one who was left wondering.

I finally made it home at 2am, wound up from the adrenaline of my first Nocturne. I still don’t know exactly what happened but, I have to say, I quite enjoyed the craziness of racing in the dark. 

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