Rob Hayles remembers the Tour of the Mediterranean well. It was his first race as a professional with the Cofidis team in 2001. Tomorrow (Wednesday) his Endura Racing team makes its European debut at the same event and Hayles knows it's a step into the deep end.
Hayles was 28, a relative latecomer to the professional ranks, and although an Olympic medallist with experience of European stage racing, this was a step up. "I remember we were all sat in the bus before the start and the team manager said 'Okay lads, off you go'. I thought 'Is that it? Off we go?'"
Among his team-mates were David Millar, David Moncoutie and the late Andrei Kivilev. For them, the Tour of the Mediterranean was a relatively gentle season-opener. Short stages, a few climbs, a chance to get back into the swing of things. For Hayles it was a baptism of fire.
"I was bouncing off back wheels on the flat thinking 'this is hard'," he says. "I was seeing the drags coming up and thinking it was bound to ease off a bit, but it went even harder up the drags. I thought 'I'm not sure I can do this'."
The first stage from Antibes to Mont Faron, the steep little climb that sits above Toulon on the southern coast of France, was won by Ivan Basso ahead of Davide Rebellin. Moncoutie was third, Hayles was towards the back, but he survived it and towards the end of the week he was beginning to get to grips with it. He finished 114th, 17 minutes behind Rebellin, the overall winner.
ENDURANCE TEST FOR ENDURA
On Wednesday (February 10), the British Endura squad will make its European debut. Hayles, the team's captain, won't be with them on the road, but he'll be there in spirit. His training was hit when his bike was mislaid by Air France and he was unable to get his hands on another bike while he was away for a week. "I couldn't even buy a mountain bike where we were," he says.
"I was starting to panic a bit about my fitness. I've been there, I've done it, I know what it's like. The stages are fairly short and flat but it doesn't make it easier - 100-kilometre stages can be grim.
"There were other lads who were absolutely gagging for the opportunity so it would be unfair to stand in their way."
Garry Beckett will be in charge of the team for the five-day stage race, which starts in Carcassonne and finishes on top of Mont Faron on Sunday. Ian Wilkinson, Rob Partridge, James Moss, Ross Creber, Evan Oliphant, James McCallum, Gary Hand and the French rider Alexandre Blain, who joins from Cofidis, will line up for Endura alongside the likes of Caisse d'Epargne, Rabobank and Astana.
Hayles is under no illusions. "People have said 'what do they want to go and do that for? They'll get smashed,' but the way I see it, it's good we've got these races. Yes, it'll be hard, but I don't want them there roaring fit riding themselves into the ground. They are not in peak form for this race so we're not expecting miracles. If you can get into a race like this, why not? Just have a go and see what it's all about. For some of them it'll open their eyes up to what it's all about and it'll make them want more. For others it might not be their thing, they may realise they're happy where they're at, but as long as we're not reckless there's no harm having a go."
The invitation came through the Stephen Roche connection. Hayles and Brian Smith both mentioned the Endura team was on the look-out for races and the Irish Tour de France winner, who has a hotel in the region, had the contacts to make it happen. Endura are combining the race with a training camp and will then ride the two-day Tour du Haut Var (February 20-21) as well.
It's been a hectic few weeks, with the team launch and a first foray into Europe on the cards. The team's vehicles haven't been delivered yet, so they've hired a car and a van in the south of France for the two races. "Rochey said he'd sort us out a van," says Hayles. "But when our guys got down there they saw it and decided to hire one instead. It was some old French amateur team van. It looks like a builder's van, apparently."
Hayles, now 37, will be the team's captain on the road and will share managerial duties with Beckett. His hope is that the races in France, and the Tour of Murcia in Spain, which the team is also anticipating an invite for, will stand them in great stead for the domestic season.
"We're fit, but we haven't trained together as a team before this trip to France, so it's not a case of going and emptying themselves on the roads of the south of France in February and ruining the season," he says. "It's a big ask, but if they ride sensibly, they can get something from it and it'll give them a boost for when the domestic season starts."
The signing of 28-year-old Frenchman Alexandre Blain, who spent a couple of seasons with Cofidis after a solid amateur career, is intriguing. "I only met him at the launch," says Hayles. "But he blew the machine up when he did his test on the rig, so he's strong and early season seems to be his forté, apparently. He's on form and so I've told the lads to look after him and Rob Partridge, who should be able to get round okay.
"Then there's Evan [Oliphant] who's always strong in the early season races, and Wilko [Ian Wilkinson]. He was hoping to get something with Sky and he was in talks with them for a while but it didn't happen, so here's a chance to see if this type of racing is something he wants more of, because it's not too late for him to push on if he wants to."
In the meantime, Hayles thinks the Mediterranean experience will be the making of some of the Endura riders. "You adapt, but I hope they adapt quicker than I did," he says. "Mentally it's a bit easier for them because they're dipping in and out of this kind of racing. When you're doing it week-in, week-out it can feel like you're banging your head against a wall."
TOUR OF THE MEDITERRANEAN
Stage 1: Carcassonne - Sauvian, 95km
Stage 2: Peynier - Trets, 170km
Stage 3: Greasque - Six Fours, 115km
Stage 4: La Londe Les Maures - Biot, 160km
Stage 5: La Ciotat - Toulon Mont Faron, 126km
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Sports journalist Lionel Birnie has written professionally for Sunday Times, Procycling and of course Cycling Weekly. He is also an author, publisher, and co-founder of The Cycling Podcast. His first experience covering the Tour de France came in 1999, and he has presented The Cycling Podcast with Richard Moore and Daniel Friebe since 2013. He founded Peloton Publishing in 2010 and has ghostwritten and published the autobiography of Sean Kelly, as well as a number of other sports icons.
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