Sixty-five kilometres solo. It was the longest time trial of my life. Of course, it wasn’t actually a time trial, it was Grand Prix de Cuiseaux, a 120km road race. Lining up for a road race doesn’t usually mean you’re going to spend the majority of the day alone but after 12 of the 28 laps, that’s exactly what happened.
I had planned to stay out of the wind as much as possible, just like everyone else. The 4.3km lap included a dragging climb and 1km section of block headwind that was as torrent as the legendary winds in Cape Town. Each time we raced through the section the speed of the bunch dwindled as riders searched for sheltered wheels. Trying to shed the deadweight, riders constantly attacked one after the other and, sticking on good wheels, I found myself in a front group of nine.
A sprint prime later and it seemed like our group had hit reverse; four of our 9 riders had cracked. It was down to two Vaulx-en-Velin riders, a World Cycling Centre rider, and my teammate Panos and I. During a noticeable dip in the pace, the Veax-en-Vlan rider behind me attacked. With such a long way to go my first reaction was, “let him fry out there,” which was funny later when I found out his name was Romain Bacon. After assessing the situation more logically, however, a split second later I was chasing him down.
The split second I had given Bacon quickly turned into 45 and, with 65km to go, I thought he was on a suicide mission. I took a leaf out of Chris Froome’s book and started staring at my stem, settling into a power I thought I could push for the remaining 1h45min ahead. I was going to play the long game.
The course was tough in the peloton, alone it was brutal. The 1km stretch of headwind seemed twice as long, the 1km climb seemed steeper, I was vulnerable to the crosswinds and the only leg relief came gliding through the multiple corners. I may have been alone but so was Bacon out front so my strategy started to pay off. I had stifled his growing lead and was holding the gap at 45 seconds. Soon, the gap started to gradually come down.
Forty seconds. Thirty five. Thirty. Twenty. With the crowd shouting encouragement, time gaps, and some other interesting quips (one man told me I was more supple looking than the leader), the laps ticked by and eventually I could see Bacon.
The gap started to yoyo between 20 and 25 seconds for what felt like an eternity but we only had six laps to go. Pouring as much water over myself as possible to counter the afternoon heat, I clawed in another five seconds. I could see him suffering. But so was I. Even with my eye on the prize, it was my turn for a bad patch and the gap grew back to 30 seconds. With 16km to go, my legs started to falter and I started to wonder about the bunch behind.
The threat of the bunch kept my legs turning. No juice bottle or gel could summon anymore power out of my legs but each time I rode through the headwind I knew it was one less time. After enquiring with the commissaire, however, I found out our mano-a-mano contest up front had opened up over 5 minutes on the group behind. Nevertheless, I kept pushing but simply because I wanted to get the race over and done with.
Bacon took the win and I crossed the line in 2nd. My two Greek teammates then finished 8th and 10th, securing us the win in the team competition as well. As we all prepared for prize giving, I lamented to my teammates about not being able to catch Bacon. But then my French teammates told me Bacon was recently crowned French amateur TT champion. Turns out I was chasing a rather big carrot.