I was in Le Mans, and for the first time in a long time apprehension was languishing in my psyche. I had foolishly agreed to take part in the two wheeled version of the Le Mans 24 hour cycling road race, and was totally oblivious to the expectations, pedalling was obvious but anything else was a mere inconvenience. As usual, my preparation was dismal, I was going in blind. Firstly I had acquired a last minute medical certificate from my family physician (ok, my brother) whilst sat in a sopping tent in Dorset and secondly I had glanced an email which mentioned camping, conveniently I nabbed one of the children’s sleeping bags as our family camping escapade came to a close.
Thankfully I was not alone, three other journalists (Fiona, Lyn and Will) had somehow been duped into joining me, all were seasoned cyclists, albeit more touring than lycra obsessed roadies. Over dinner in the Cite Plantagenet we discussed the important matter of tactics, I’m no mathematician but 24 into 4 equates to 6 hours in the saddle for each of us. A simple, naïve plan was hatched on a napkin, and surprisingly we were quietly confident!
That night, my mind wandered, preoccupied by 24 HOURS OF CYCLING, it seemed a ludicrous proposition, I hoped I wouldn’t regret my inclusion.
The day of the race was greeted with an unwelcome heat, the event is extremely well organised, most competitors utilising the well equipped campsite. The area was dominated by colourful team garb, gazebos, team buses, static bikes, our simple tents dwarfed in comparison, we were so out of our depths!
After the mundane process of registering, we settled into pit lane 28 which was to be our temporary concrete home (shed). The basic amenities mirrored our basic equipment, water on tap and not much else. As the afternoon progressed our space was infiltrated by a mass of testosterone and lycra as a group of well equipped, shiny teams shared our floor space..
This was the 7th edition of the event, flicking through the glossy guide, I was astonished to discover that the team who won in our class (team of 4) the previous year averaged 41.78km per hour, what!, why?, it was preposterous? It was something that I wasn’t prepared to contemplate, crazy people!
The race is open to all bike users (triathletes, cyclists ultra cyclists, members or not of a Cycling Federation). You can compete as a single competitor, a pair, teams of 4, 6 or 8 riders. The only stipulation is that contestants need to be at least 18 on the day of the event.
As the race time approached I was surprised how nervous I felt, I had volunteered for the first leg which involved a running start. The heat was now uncomfortable, after a meandering familiarisation ride, I was stood trackside, the national anthems had finished, I eyed my competitors, all focused, slapping well toned thighs, a kaleidoscope of colours from their team jerseys. As 3pm neared, sweat dripped into the nape of my back, my focus was on Will who had the important task of holding my bike. The noise was deafening, adrenaline pumping, the countdown commenced, the crowds a mere blur. Please don’t fall over! .. Trios..Deux.. Un!
The next thing I recall is jumping into the saddle and pushing down hard, it had begun!
Each lap of the Circuit Bugatti is 4.1 km or 4,185 metres and is mostly on the flat with only a slight climb as you exit the pit lanes, there are a collection of sweeping bends and lengthly straights. The uphill altitude difference is 600 metres (from 3.5 % to 7%) and the downhill altitude difference: 1000 metres (2%) The camaraderie in our pit lane was memorable, all manner of goodies exchanged, gels, mats, sleeping bags and bizarrely a complete racing kit (go Fiona!). Unfortunately we had also been invited to watch the French beat the English in their preparations for the rugby World cup when we were all suddenly Irish it totally confused the exuberant Frenchman.
The riding was magical as the sun went down, the moon eclipsed by the lights of the track, it was my time to own the tarmac! Spinning smoothly, leaning into the corners with only a modest tap of the brakes. I was loving every moment! The 90 minutes flew by, I felt liberated. I entered the pit lane slightly disappointed, would Lyn notice if I continued?
Unfortunately our plans changed in several dramatic early morning minutes. The forecasted thunderstorm hit with ferocious force, the sky an explosion of activity. What to do?, limit the time in the saddle was the consensus. Fiona appeared in the pit lane sooner than expected (I was in the toilet!), drenched and deflated. It was my turn in the saddle. The sky was still dominated by vibrant red flashes, the rain now horizontal, expertly buffeted by a healthy wind – focus and determination was needed. Up ahead I could barely see the lights of the riders in front, the spray as I approached the first corner was overwhelming, a split second decision had to made, I lent tentatively, the wheels held tight, others were less fortunate.
The worst of the weather had passed as I completed my third lap, the surface still tricky but my confidence brimming. The imposing peloton the only hazard, as they swarmed past like energetic wasps, the buzz of the wheels an uncomfortable signal as they approached. I was thankful for my return, I was drenched, cold and exhausted, was it really only 6am?.
We stuttered through the next 3 or 4 hours, our schedule was in tatters, we improvised. Shorter rides to compensate for increased tiredness and the unwelcome wind.
Darkness was replaced by grey gloom, the residual water had disappeared, the temperature chilly, the crepes and robust coffee satisfied a plethora of needs.
As the race came to a conclusion, the noise from both competitors and spectators was a mix of excitement and relief. The finish was greeted with a foray of energy and exuberance from the tannoy.
We had achieved so much, the experience was a mix of pain, excitement, fatigue and surprising fun, and in the immediate moments after the finish, I claimed, “I won’t be in too much of a hurry to repeat that craziness”. However, I found an unusual competitive edge as I flicked through our split times, maybe the whole idea of sportives is something that might just grow on me!
“A successful edition, but tormented” was the response from Romain Gasnal who is a member of the organising committee and perfectly highlighted the arduous conditions and experience. “I congratulate all the contestants because the elements were unchained, we have known the heatwave at the beginning, the smoke of the forest fire nearby, the storm around 4am, and the rain just after”