Emma Pooley lives in Switzerland where she rides for Team Specialized. She is a strong contender for one of the three spots in the British women’s road race team for the Olympics.
The Tour de l?Aude is one of the hardest, perhaps the hardest, women?s stage races on the circuit: 10 days long, mixed terrain, and well-attended. To avoid creating any false expectations, this is summary of how it went for me: I had a shocker, rode like a sack of potatoes, and was time cut on day eight.
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, I?d been looking forward to this race and I couldn?t quite understand why I was riding so badly. Anyway, this diary is more about my experience of the race and how it felt (get your handkerchief ready) than the results in general or how the GB team raced. You can read all that on the internet. This is a biased and self-centred account, I?m afraid!
Stage 1, Gruissan, 3.9 km prologue
Friday, May 16
It wasn?t an overly technical course but I cornered like a nun in a habit (actually that?s not fair; a nun would at least have had faith), and in a short little time trial like that you can lose a lot of time…
Stage 2, Rieux Minervois, 107 km hilly
Saturday. May 17
The first 50km were flat and boring, 3 riders got away in a sprint early on but we caught them as the climb started. It progressed from a drag to 15% for the last 2 km. I spent the first half of the climb fighting my way to the front of the bunch- once there, I breathed a sigh of relief.
The pace seemed pretty high but the bunch wasn?t strung out at all, and I reckoned I might have a chance of getting away. 5 km from the top I attacked and got almost out of sight, but they reeled me back again and I was caught just as we entered the steep section of the climb. At this point I realised I?d gravely overestimated my climbing prowess, especially as there was something up with my gears and the 26 sprocket was out of action so I was stuck as an uncomfortably low cadence.
Someone attacked just over a kilometre before the GPM and riders came streaming past me. I was out of the saddle, stuck in the 23, my legs screaming, and wondering whether I could actually make it to the top. I did, just. But there are few things more embarrassing than being bigged-up as a climber and then getting dropped on a hill. Going into the descent there were a few riders just in sight but I couldn?t quite catch them.
I ended up in a chasing group of 20 or so riders for the next climb, which was a struggle but not as bad as the descent that followed, with apparently suicidal Lithuanians aiming for the gravel patch on every corner. On the race radio I could hear snatches of the action up ahead, where my teammates were stamping their authority on the break and Sharon ended up leading Nicole out to victory.
Stage 3, Port la Nouvelle, 27 km team time trial
Sunday, May 18
It was very windy and I was relieved not to be on a disc wheel. Having not had much practice, we were a bit ragged on the drill and did a bit of leapfrogging at the start. It wasn?t helped by the fact that someone?s radio button was jammed in so there was a constant annoying buzz in our ears. We were 5th overall and Sharon is in the hills jersey, so it was quite a good day in all. Someone had the bright idea of a post-ride swim in the sea; cue a lot of Baywatch-style splashing around (but with skinsuits instead of the red bikinis obviously).
Stage 4, Lezignan Corbières, 111 km flat and windy
Monday, May 19
My least favourite kind of racing. All that was missing was cobbles for it to be my worst nightmare. I did a lot of yo-yoing until eventually I was dropped for good, wondering how everyone else could go so fast? my legs just didn?t seem to want to co-operate. Afterwards I tried not to sulk for the long transfer up into the Pyrenees.
As we got higher I cheered up though, the mountains and odd glimpse of snow made me feel at home (actually that?s not strictly true, I?m from Norfolk and it?s not exactly mountainous there. But I do like big hills). Accommodation turned out to be in rustic-looking, rustic-smelling wooden hutlets. They resembled caravans whose wheels had been stolen, but thankfully they were fully plumbed. As I later found out, the hot water supply was limited to about 2 showers. Still, a cold shower is halfway to an ice bath so I thought maybe it would do my legs some good.
Stage 5, Osseja, 100 km mountainous
Tuesday, May 20
Breakfast in the sunshine outside the chalets (they looked somehow grander in the morning sunlight) with stunning views of the mountains. A chilly breeze played around the start but the first 30 km is pretty much all uphill so I didn?t stay cold for long.
For once I managed to stay near the front all the way through the neutralised section, and hang around in second or third wheel for the first half of the climb. Nürnberg riders were taking turns to drill it on the front, and no-one else seemed to want to sniff the wind. I was actually a bit concerned because sitting on a sprinter?s wheel and suffering on a hill is a worrying state to be in. Finally the order came down the radio and it was my turn to set the pace on the front.
Sharon was on my wheel as planned, but glancing over my shoulder I could see everyone else massed behind her. On the descent we regrouped, and on the next climb Ljungskog attacked and soloed off to glory. I blew up with a bang as my legs refuse to accelerate, and traveled rapidly backwards though the groups, finally being left in no-man?s land on my own.
50 km further down the road, I was thoroughly tired, lonely, and depressed by the onlookers? pitying cries of ?La pauvre, elle est toute seule?? when a couple of other riders finally caught me. I was relieved just to have some conversation! I was out of radio range but later found out that Sharon had another strong day up a the front.
Stage 6, Toulouges, 112 km hilly
Wednesday, May 21
This stage is somewhat blurred in my memory but I vaguely remember a very draggy climb and frighteningly fast descent. The latter was marked in my memory by one of the USA team riders yelling encouragement at me as she sped past: ?Hey, you kinda suck when it goes down don?t you!? To be fair, she had managed to overtake me despite puncturing near the top of the hill.
The descent was followed by a mad chase back to the front bunch. The group I was in nearly came to a sticky end when some idiotic driver ignored the police motorbike and pulled out into the road right in front of us, causing a lot of swerving, braking, and a stream of high-volume verbal abuse. I was struggling to hang in the bunch and depressingly I got dropped again on my own on the flat, just a few kilometres from the end. But I was getting used to it by then.
Stage 7, Rennes les Bains ? Axat, 117 km mountainous
Thursday, May 22
The first climb came early, starting after only 9 km. I relished the opportunity to find the USA rider who?d mocked me the day before, and as I rode past her point out that uphill it?s a different matter?. Unfortunately I wasn?t actually climbing very well and I only just got over the top in a straggling group behind the main bunch.
On the descent, Teutenberg came hurtling past me like a cannon ball. My group chased for a while, egged on by the knowledge that the bunch was only 90 seconds ahead. But we never made it, and after a while the group stopped working effectively and we were just caught by riders from behind. By the second climb there was a veritable horde of us, and I realised with relief that for once I was in the majority!
Unexpectedly, it was a nice sociable ride- I caught up on some gossip and it was only marred by a brief spell of chilling rain on a nasty descent. I was suddenly distinctly hungry but somehow slurking a gel seemed ridiculous when we were just bowling along slowly. Cath, in a gesture of extreme selflessness and generosity, gave me one of only two fig rolls she?d brought along. It was a bit damp from the rain but nonetheless delicious. I was so delighted that I gobbled it all down in one mouthful, almost choking myself in the process. Must remember to be more careful next time.
Stage 8, Castelnaudray, 108 km rolling and windy
Friday, May 23
Holland-style narrow winding roads and Holland-style strung out fast racing caught me on the hop. Gasping at the back, my legs stubbornly refusing to co-operate, all I could do was hope that whoever was on the front would ease off their ridiculous pace and stop making me suffer. No chance. I lasted all of about 5 km and then, once again, I was on my own with team cars passing me. At this point I realised just how strong the stinking head wind was. 100 km seemed like an awfully long way?
Luckily for me, I caught up with a few others and we worked pretty effectively- with the exception of one rider, a Russian girl who appeared to be labouring under the illusion that she was in a break rather than off the back. Occasionally she?d attack and ride away from us, only to be caught again a few hundred metres later. Very strange. Even with that to entertain me 100 km was a very long way, especially with the broom wagon lurking ominously just behind. In the end, we were about 4 minutes over the time limit- the Russian?s sprint from 1 km to go didn?t help her there. Race over.
Postscript: Montreal World Cup
Saturday, May 31
Happily, after a week?s proper rest things picked up again for me in Canada. The world cup course there is fantastic- 11 laps with a big climb. By the last lap I it felt positively alpine! The weather was atrocious, with so much rain we couldn?t actually see the road (really not a good thing especially on the streets of Montreal- there seemed to be more pothole than tarmac). It was a race of attrition and I was pleased- and surprised- to find that I could hang on without too many problems. I couldn?t quite stay with Arndt and Luperini when they got away on the final climb, but I hung onto my little group and just squeezed into the top 10.