To professional cyclists, it is ?le plat français?, French flat. It sounds like the perfect terrain for a leisurely ride in the countryside.
But French flat is flat in the same way that sweetbreads are sweet. Sweetbreads are, as anyone who has had the misfortune to eat them knows, nothing of the sort.
French flat is the name given to the roads of northern France ? rather than weave around the undulating hills, the roads take the shortest route possible, usually in a straight line. And the result is an endless series of drags, hills and decelerations. It?s not any individual hill that gets you ? it?s the repetition.
My own relationship with the French flat of Nievre, home department of the Look, bore a distinctive resemblance to a doomed love affair. I powered up the first few drags, daring riders to come around me, and my giddy emotions entertained thoughts of winning the event. Then, our relationship left the dizzy highs of the first hour and things between us became more routine, more humdrum. My legs ached as yet another short drag filled the horizon. Dropped, I was no longer going to win, but a top-25 finish was well within my capacities.
The first hints of an argument between me and the surrounding countryside came soon after. As I started settling well into my own pace as soon as the road went up, French flat and I were no longer in the first flush of love. And things deteriorated irretrievably about three hours in when I entered the arena of the knackered.
But all this was in the future as I joined several hundred participants in the Parc Salengro in Nevers for one of the first sportives of the year.
Hills, not mountains
The profile of the Look holds no terrors for the seasoned challenge rider. Far away from the Pyrenees and Alps, 200 kilometres north of the Massif Central, the Nievre is a region of rolling hills, dense forests and fields of bright yellow rapeseed.
The high point of the event is at 400 metres above sea level, and even the constant repetitive grind of French flat cannot hide the fact that the Look is a gentle introduction to the French sportive season. The scenery is rustic, and while it lacks the spectacular Alpine grandeur of the Marmotte, the forests of Nievre have a humid and fecund atmosphere which gives the Look a character of its own.
From the off, the Look was much faster than most sportives, and the lack of difficult terrain meant that large groups formed, generally with 10 riders rotating at the front, and up to 60 or 70 ambling uncooperatively in their slipstream. Once these groups had formed, it was very difficult to either get along without them or move between them.
The first 10 kilometres along the Loire were reeled off at a healthy clip, while the early-morning mist hung above the river. At Fourchambault, 15 kilometres in, we turned away from the river, and hit the French flat. Occasional hills slowed the progress of the group, but for the most part, the first hour and a half were spent at a very comfortable cruise.
The wrong crowd
On a level of one to 10, where one means ?I?ve had plenty of time off, and I?m going to start training next week or the week after? and 10 is ?I?m Laurent Jalabert?, I was at one. Maybe less. Staying with the group was no problem ? I had decided to ride with my head, not my legs, and hid about 30 riders back, just at that point where it feels like you are riding behind a double-decker bus at 23 miles per hour. But I had heard bad things about the two climbs in the middle of the ride, so I wasn?t going to waste a single watt of power.
As it happened, my problems started before the climbs. I got caught out by a split in my group, and found myself hanging around with the wrong crowd. I wanted to be with all the cool, fast riders, who were disappearing up the road about 200 metres ahead. So I took off. Just when the road really started undulating.
Lost in no man?s land, 100 metres of empty space in front of and behind me, I looked up and noticed that somebody had chosen that moment to attack. The front group was lined out in single file and was moving rapidly away from me. I spent the next five kilometres gasping my way up the drags through the forest, sprinting down the other side and repeating the process, while making no impression whatsoever on the group ahead.
Resigned to spending the rest of the day alone, I slowed down just as the road started twisting. Half-waiting for a group to catch me from behind so I could start wheel-sucking again, I came round a corner and the group were right there in front of me, having slowed down even more than I had.
The group retained its cohesion until the two steep climbs, which came at 95 and 115 kilometres. Suddenly, 50 riders were spread unevenly along the road, and I was somewhere near the back. Hunching my back like a crab, I toiled my way up the first climb, stopped for a drink, then descended alone.
The big one
I couldn?t see riders ahead or behind me for the biggest climb of the day, up to the telecoms tower above La Merle. The day had now warmed up, although the humidity of the morning had not gone away, and I was sweating uncomfortably as I began the final 40 kilometres of rolling roads.
Of these 40 kilometres, 35 were spent in splendid and occasionally demoralising isolation, before a small group came to my rescue and gave me some much-needed shelter for the
run-in to Nevers.
Refreshingly, apart from minor unfitness-induced fatigue, at the end of the Look I had none of the feeling of having been beaten around the upper body and legs with a cricket bat that is the usual result of riding a more mountainous sportive.
Challenge rides don?t all have to try and outdo each other with the steepness of the hills or the toughness of the terrain ? while the Look was hard enough to make me wish I?d been fitter, it was also an ideal way to prepare me for the season.
THE Look is the first event of the Sportcommunication.com Grand Trophée series, which also includes the Marmotte and the Ventoux events. To enter one or more of the 11 events in the series, go to www.sportcommunication.com and follow instructions.
Events cost between 30 and 35 euros to enter.
Nevers is fairly accessible ? Londoners should consider taking the Eurostar (with bikes bagged to avoid the disapproving frowns of the guards), then crossing Paris to the Gare de Lyon (two stops on the excellent RER service). Nevers is two hours south of Paris by train.
Alternatively, fly to Paris, and hire a car for the drive to Nevers.
More info: www.sportscommunication.com.