For Tour de France contenders, the mountains are where you win the race and the flat plains of France are where you’ll most likely lose it. ‘Stay safe’ is the key in those big bunch sprints. And as any bike-race watcher knows, you stay safe by staying at the front. Even the accident-prone Andy Schleck never managed to find a way to be wiped out by a crash that happened behind him.
I’d like to say this, though. The front of a bunch sprint is the most terrifying place anyone ever went to stay ‘safe’. If you’re the kind of person who would avoid cold toes by abseiling into a volcano, doubtless you’ll be tutting away at me, but bunch sprints are for the suicidal only.
My experience is not extensive. I can plead nothing but lack of talent and extreme cowardice. The first bunch sprint I got involved with was by accident — I didn’t realise the race was on its last lap. Suddenly the speed and the testosterone curves roared off the top of the graph.
It was a terrifyingly purposeful chaos. It reminded me of the time when I was about four years old, and was swept off my feet by a giant wave on Portstewart Beach. I had no choice in the matter. It was all the horror of crashing without the relief of an actual impact.
Or at least, that was the case for a while. In all the excitement I made the rookie error of watching the wheel in front rather than looking at where the road was going. As the road curved gently to the left I thundered, head-down, off the right-hand side of it at about 70kph.
There was a thump as I hit the verge, and a bang as the ditch flicked me upside down. For what felt like several seconds I had an inverted view of the sprint unfolding. Then there was the noise of a thousand twigs snapping as I crashed through a hedgerow.
Then there was blissful peace and a view of puffy white clouds. My bike was nowhere to be seen, which suited me just fine since I had decided to retire from competitive cycling while I was still upside down and six feet off the ground.
That was my first sprint. It was not the last. But the second one was. Somewhere, there must a photo-finish picture that shows me placing third in a bunch gallop. Don’t be fooled. I had launched a Steve Cummings style 4km-to-go pursuiter’s ambush, and been caught on the line.
The contrast in speed was considerable. There was a whole sequence of photo-finish images. I was in the same spot for all of them. A bit like a bollard, yes. The effect was like falling backwards down a multi-coloured crevasse.
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After that, I took to a much more rational approach. When a race passed 5km to go, I retired to the back of the bunch. It was delightful back there — knowing that not 100m away all hell was breaking loose, and that I didn’t need to have anything to do with it. Occasionally you might hear a loud bang, and some swearing.
When the team manager asked me what would happen if there was a crash, I told him I would eat tarmac without complaint, and he could eat my grapes when he came to visit me in hospital.
“And if you lose time?” he said.
“In that eventuality I will simply ride faster in the time trial stage tomorrow,” I said.
And actually he seemed quite happy with that.