There’s a chainsaw being revved mere inches from my ear. The Nun wielding the chainsaw is laughing maniacally and paying little attention to the proximity of his blade to my head. Yes, the Nun is a man. Welcome to World Cup Mountain Biking in France.
I’d seen said chainsaw wielding Nun earlier as I was warming up, and thought it would add greatly to the atmosphere on the course as I came sailing by. Nino may have gone sailing by, but I was stuck here, next to the chainsaw, as I watched the scrummage of riders ahead of me battle for one very narrow and slippery strand of dirt. A woman shouted ALLEZ at our assembled group of riders. Little did she realise that we were trying our best to Allez, but the traffic ahead seeming to be preventing all Allezing.
Soon it was my turn to file slowly up the hill. The armed Nun wasn’t the only novelty course-side. There was also a Gallic kilt wearing man thrusting his hips, and the attached cowbell, with vigour. The crowds in La Bresse were a different beast than Albstadt a week earlier. Although similar in numbers (roughly 15,000 people paid 16 euros each weekend to watch the races in person) the Germans took the opportunity to drink a beer, stand back and watch the racing in an orderly fashion. The French on the other got involved. It was the personal responsibility of each Frenchman lining the course to tell you that Julien Absalon was much, much faster than you. They did this in an entirely unintelligible mix of cowbell ringing, beer swilling, and general frenching.
My race didn’t go quite as well to plan as Albstadt, although I finished better in 95th place. And only two laps down this time, as opposed to three last week. The first (literal) roadblock happened on the start straight, as bikes went sideways and riders came to a standstill. I was too far back to be involved in the carnage, but it slowed me nonetheless. From there, half the field or more was up the road, and the energy I normally put into gaining places on the start was instead used to hold my position in the stringy remnants of the pack. The chainsaw incident happened soon after. The climb on lap one ended up being a mix of track-standing and all out sprinting.
The fans hadn’t actually lined up to watch us stand around on the climb. They, like the riders, had come for the descent. La Bresse is a small town in the Vosges Mountains of France. It’s reported the wettest area in the country. This has lead to an amazingly lush forest under which sits heavy dirt, moss covered rocks, and sinuous roots. From the town square you can see almost the entire descent, switch-backing steeply through the trees. It starts with some man made bermed corners. No problem there. Then some 3-4 foot drops to flat. OK, not much to worry about. Then a 180 turn, a sprint up a root covered climb straight into a huge rock slab with little room for error. Rinse and repeat. Unlike Albstadt where the descents were little more than a sideshow, the downhill here took the same time as the climb. By the time we got towards the bottom, hub deep ruts had been cut through berms revealing shiny roots underneath. Commit to the rut. But downhill.
I survived the first descent with nothing to write home about. It was the slowest I’d ridden it all weekend; held up by riders who were held up by riders. We careened back into the town square after lap one and saw that Julien was leading. That made the French happy. Happy French people are louder than sad French people. I was over four minutes down already, and could do nothing but pedal my hardest.
I couldn’t work out why I was riding so slowly. I was pedalling as hard as I could but gaining no ground. It wasn’t until I looked down and saw that my hardest actually was over 500 watts on the punchy ups, and everyone else was simply riding faster. The climb topped out at a big statue of Jesus that overlooked the town. It was here you prayed for more air, uncrossed your eyes and dived into the trail with abandon. It took me a few corners to remember how to ride a bike, but I was happy that I passed riders each time down the hill. A couple at a time made a difference, and by lap three I had a clean run down. The clock ticked to nine minutes behind as I crossed the line to begin lap 4 and I knew it would be my last lap.
In my bleary state I read that I was 102nd going through the start finish for the last time. That was motivation enough, as I could see two riders ahead of me. The elastic stretched as I pedalled up the climb, seemingly making no progress but also not losing ground. Toward the top of the climb the first rider cracked, almost crawling up the hill as if he’d lost his lungs and was trying to find them. The second rider was in sight, and then disappointingly crashed on the descent, robbing me from a valiant overtaking manoeuvre. I sprinted out the bottom of the descent and through town, and gained another place into the 80% zone. I found out later that I finished 95th, so I had read the sign wrong a lap earlier, but it motivated me, and made me work harder than I could have otherwise.
The spectacle and atmosphere aside, I didn’t race very well at La Bresse. I was too enthusiastic the days before the race, and ended up tired by the start line. An amateur mistake. Another amateur mistake would be to assume that better legs or better preparation would have vaulted me up the field. The gap in my fitness compared to those 50 places higher isn’t massive, but it’s more than I could make up on a good day. My skills to ride the course definitely weren’t lacking, but my experience racing terrain like that was. I have no idea how to thread together a blistering fast descent on the back of an all out climb. The best thing about coming over here and racing way above my pay grade has been the revelation of how much better I can be. I came away feeling fat, unfit and unable to ride downhill. I’m looking forward to being back in Colorado for the rest of the summer to do some fun events locally, get faster, and maybe even win something!