Gran Fondo World Series Final – Albi, France, Sunday 27th August 2017
So after the misery that was the failed attempt to qualify at the Tour of Ayrshire in April, I rode theTour of Cambridgeshire in early June, turning up in much better shape and health. Resulting in finishing 76 th out of the 420 or so riders on the start sheet, getting me fairly comfortably inside the 25% qualifying figure. The event was a great day of racing, 3 and a ¼ hours for 80 miles resulted in some serious suffering, it was also pretty nerve racking riding in a such large numbers, with lots of changes of directions, wind and crashes. But I’d done what I set out to do at the start of the year and that was to qualify for the finals in France.
The UCI and World Gran Fondo Series refer to it as the World Championships, I’m not really
comfortable with this. There’s only one World Championships and it’s not ridden by aging ex 3 rd cats from York.
It’s pretty cool that you have to wear a jersey that represents your country of origin, but I did hear of people claiming to have been ‘selected’ to ride for GB at the ‘World Championships’. Qualifying took a lot of commitment, substantial cost and even more suffering on my part. But I qualified and chose to self-fund to go to the final race in Albi, as every other rider did, but at no point was anyone selected…
Anyway, the race was a mix of fortunes, but definitely something I’ll remember.
In total 2267 riders would take to the roads from 53 Nationalities, in my 40 to 44 age group there would be 250 on the start line. Just getting to the start was chaotic and disorganised, with riders starting in later races already clogging up the only way in to my start pen (age groups set off at 7 minute intervals), with a few minutes before my official start I decided enough was enough, lifted my bike over my head and pushed my way through, getting to the line with 2 minutes to spare and probably lining up in the last 80 or so riders.
Not an ideal starting position, but I wasn’t turning up in the best shape having struggled with injury and illness in the weeks leading up to the event, and with the level of riders taking part (spot the ex- pro), my day was only ever going to be about trying to finish and enjoy the atmosphere, I was going to press on the pedals and not just cruise round, but finishing was more important than hanging on to a group until I blew.
The course was 97.5 miles (155 kilometres) with 2000 metres of climbing, nothing over 500 metres, but just up and down pretty much the whole race, with two 10 kilometre climbs.
The first 2.5 kilometres were ‘neutralised’ to get us out of the twisty back roads of Albi.
I have ridden slower criteriums, resulting in the inevitable near misses and finally a crash before
we’d even hit kilometre 0. I found myself slipping backwards to the rear of the 250 strong group unwilling to risk crashing and just not really having the nerve to fight for position and try and move up the group.
10 kilometres in we hit the first of many climbs and the race goes to pieces, there’s clearly a very mixed range of abilities and at this level I’m definitely in the lower end. I look up the road and see I’m just hanging onto the second large group after the first climb.
I won’t go into kilometre by kilometre, climb by climb detail, suffice to say I paced myself pretty well, trying hard when it would benefit me to stay in a group, but not going so hard I’d run the risk of blowing up later. I really wanted to finish and finish strong rather than limping back with cramp. Despite the feeds running out of water by 60 kilometres, which resulted in me rationing my remaining bottle and then running in to a bar (sadly just for water) to top up the one bottle I had left, this would have to last me the remaining hilly 30 miles in temperatures over 30 degrees.
By the last 50k there were bodies everywhere, the heat and effort some people were putting in early on clearly taking its toll. Riders from varying age groups mixed in small bunches, some of these old boys still look like pros and have some serious pace about them. 7k from the finish I decide to attack the 20 strong group I’m in, I hold them all the way to 400 metres before the line, I probably looked a bit of a knob as they caught and passed me, but I enjoyed it and wanted to fully ‘empty the tank’ before the finish. Mission accomplished.
The 40 to 44 race was won by Samuel Plouhinec from France, taking 3hours and 47 minutes! Nearly an hour quicker than me, he was actually the fastest time of the day. My official result was 186th in a time of 4hours 41 minutes (this excludes the neutralized criterium, I mean start). I’d hoped to do a bit better, but even turning up in my best shape I think I’d do well to finish around the 50% point. So I was just pleased to have finished in one piece and average over 20mph on a tough, hot course.
I don’t think it should be called a World Championship, I prefer and refer to it as the Gran Fondo World Series Final. It’s no Mickey Mouse event as some UK retired pros have called it, although I noticed they were only brave enough to slag it off, not actually ride…
The Belgians, Italians and French take it very, very seriously. Have a look at the facebook page of the guy who won the 19 to 35 age group, his photos show him in breaks with guys from the BMC team and winning lots of races, he’s a serious bike racer riding for a Continental level team in Belgium, Cibel-Cebon.be, check out Bjorn De Decker.
Next year’s Final is in Varese, Italy. There are 2 qualifying events in the UK, but you can qualify at any of the events in the Series which take place all over the world. There’s also a Time Trial event that runs alongside the road event. I don’t think it’s something I’ll try and do every year as it’s pretty stressful and expensive, but I’m hoping to qualify for next years as who doesn’t love riding a bike in Italy! Ciao.