After a couple of race free weeks to finish off a good block of training and get properly settled into Belgian life, it was time to pack the bags again and head off to France for Cholet Pays. Even though we’re only three races in, we’ve had a short commute from home to each of these, so it felt weird to be getting ready for a long road trip and a few days away. Fortunately, us riders get to sit back with our feet up so can hardly complain! Travelling two days early meant we could have a chilled day before the race, and had a chance to pre ride the course which was great.
With the race not starting until lunchtime, our team meeting held the night before, all the plans for the race laid out, numbers pinned and kit ready to go, we had a nice relaxed morning before getting ready and heading off to the start line!
The race itself consisted of four laps of a 29km circuit, with two siginificant climbs on each, and sprint points and hill primes on the last three. This, along with quite a stiff wind and generally heavy roads, meant it was set to be a tough race where we could really look to break things up.
With no sprints or hill primes on the first lap, and nobody wanting to commit too early, the pace wasn’t crazy in the opening stages of the race. The pressure only really being applied over some of the smaller rises. The main focus at this time was on positioning so no splits or breaks were missed, and the team worked well to keep me at the front of the race. It’s great to have a team around you to help you move around the group and keep on top of things; and a road captain there to tell you to calm down when it’s needed!
The race was really on as we headed into lap two; with the sprints and hill primes starting and some miles already in the pelotons legs. Following the first climb, where the pressure was on but no real breakaway attempts were made, there was a flatter windy section leading into another wearing climb. Having noted this as a potential point to force a split, myself and a few other riders attacked here. We gained a small gap, but the group came back together as we neared the top of the climb and a counter attack was launched.
With only two riders (one from hitec and another from Poitou Charentes Futuroscope 86) in the break, there were enough teams with incentive to chase that we decided not to attempt to bridge and didn’t need to chase it back by ourselves.
The pace remained high in the peloton and the break dangled out front until we reached the second, and more significant, climb of the day. This was a longer and steeper climb through a narrow residential street, which then plateuad as the road opened out and the wind hit, before turning and kicking up again for around another km of climbing.
It was as we began this climb that the pressure was really applied. As I got out of the saddle to kick up the pace with the attacks, there was a touch of wheels in front of me and I was down! I would call it a crash, but it was more of a topple. Wouldn’t want to be overdramatic! Although unscathed, it meant I was now off the back of the lead group. Upright, adrenaline pumping, with no time to think about getting my feet in the pedals, I set off to try and bridge to the riders which had gapped the, now very spread out, peloton. I put my head down and just went full gas. No time to think about saving any energy at this point. I knew that this could be the break that stayed away; with a good gap going into the windy section, climbing still to come, and lots of teams represented. I focused on the back wheel of the breakaway up ahead, and managed to gain contact just before the second section of the climb. With my legs screaming from the effort of bridging, I knew I just had to dig in and ride out the next few kms.
Once we’d descended and were coming into the flatter section through Cholet to complete the lap, the group of 19 which had formed started working well together; through and off to establish a gap. The peleton were still in sight, but I could see that the gap was stretching out. By the time we got to the first climb of the lap again, we had a 50second advantage.
The break continued to work together in this third lap, with the gap stretching out to over 3minutes, until we reached the big climb of the day again. With a substancial lead by this point, thoughts switched from working together to beating each other. It’s at this point that I’ll be honest and say that my inexperience started to show! With 19 riders in the break, and only 8 teams, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that I was a bit outnumbered! As attack after attack was launched, with teammates working off each other, I burnt a lot of matches going with the moves and chasing everything down; even when that wasn’t my job! Nothing stuck at this point though, and we were all together going into the final lap.
Once again, things remained quite settled throughout the first part of this lap; and after (eventually, much to their frustration) taking advice from my team car, I felt much more comfortable in what I was doing. Another lesson learned and in the experience bank there.
With only a few half hearted attacks, everyone was clearly waiting for the final climb to play their hand. The attacks came thick and fast from the bottom, and the group shattered. I was more selective with which I chose to go with this time round, and let those with teammates do most of the chasing where I could.
As we came into the second section of the climb, a smaller group of 11 riders had come back together, and the attacks started again. A couple of the gaps looked like they might hold, and I left everything out on the climb to try and get away, but as we turned back onto the run into town the group was back together.
More attacks came at this point, with two riders going clear, and Audrey Cordon, the eventual winner, bridging just behind. I went to respond, but was just too late and the wind was already in the gap. I kicked, but looked behing to see the rest of the group strung out behind me and Jolien D’Hoore on my wheel. With nobody willing to come through, and Jolien being Audreys teammate, I knew I would be wasting my energy to try and pull them back at this point. With 2kms to go, I would drag the whole group with me and undoubtedly have no energy left at all for the finish. I decided to drop a few wheels back and recover for a minute; switching my attention to finishing in the best position possible from here. As we turned into the final straight, the pace wound up and the sprint was on! With my matches well and truly burnt by this point, I just put my head down and pedalled as hard as my legs would let me. I crossed the finish line and knew I’d left absolutely everything out there.
With 5th in the sprint, and 8th overall for myself, and the team leading Christina out for 2nd in the bunch kick, and 19th overall, it was a successful day all round! Another big learning curve for me being in the breakaway, and a great race for the team to build on.