As the train rumbled north through the Catalan countryside toward the Côte d’Azur, I gazed out the window as my headphones pounded a beat and my thoughts spun through the last months and the coming weeks. Now that the new season is underway I will be moving relentlessly throughout Europe from race to race. There was serenity in the rhythmic motion of the train, which I haven’t felt in ages as I have traveled to races by air since my debut as a professional. Although the scenery outside was a blur of color it was quiet and calm inside the train.
This is the first off-season where I haven’t jumped between continents and flown between training camps. As I start the season I feel relaxed and ready.
Over the last few weeks, since the Team Sky training camp in Valencia, Spain, I have settled into a routine at home in Girona. I rode for hours over the Catalan roads, which twist through the lush sprouting green pastures and the blossoming forests. It is an ideal time of year to ride as the roads are now void of the summer tourist traffic and the weather is pleasant. Soon after the sun rose and we had dropped our boys off at school I was on my bike, only returning when the sun was low and it was time to pick them up.
As the weeks passed the efforts on the bike have progressively intensified as my body slowly adapted to the workload. During the camp I became comfortable with the fluctuations in cadence and speed as we trained in groups, rode in pacelines, and practiced lead-outs. I arrived at the hotel after riding for most of the day feeling tired but eager.
As the train reached France and sped through the small southern towns my thoughts rewound to my youth when I raced for a small French club based in the heart of the Alps, in the town of Annemasse. Like the generations of northern French cyclists who had made the same journey in the early spring, we would pile into the old Renault team cars to head south to escape the snow and train along the warmer Côte d’Azur. We rode the same routes Louison Bobet rode in the 1950s, Richard Virenque grew up training on in the ’80s, and thousands more have ridden to find fitness.
There was an exotic and romantic element to the trip. Our training rides took us through St. Tropez, we raced into Cannes, and finished other races in Nice — they were places that were alluring and intriguing to a young Canadian.
Since my amateur days I haven’t had the opportunity to start a season in France. Twelve years later I am now racing in the professional events I once watched from the sidelines as an amateur. Ironically, one of my teammates on Sky, Calzati, was a rival back then and our team coach Rod Ellingworth rode for another French club.
La Marseillaise, the race that opens the French racing season, started in the center of Marseilles in a concrete square beside a stadium. The crowds who were bundled in their winter parkas and scarves looked on as we readied our bikes for the first race. The event is a hilly one-day race sponsored by the local paper with a course that loops around the countryside over 140 kilometers and finishes back in the center.
The new jerseys of this season’s peloton colored the gray square in the low afternoon light as we set off to cheers and applause. Under the neutral flag of the commissaire we left the city center, rolling along and chatting with friends not seen since the end of the last season. Being the first race of the year there was a nervousness in the peloton—everybody seemed eager to make an impact early, to show off the hard work they put in through the winter, and to prove their worth to their team.
In the first kilometer of the race we attacked a climb and the peloton was quickly forced into a single line that snaked up the hillside. The change in rhythm felt odd to my legs, which have become accustomed to efforts in small groups or solo efforts on the road alone. Racing is completely different as the peloton surges and slows unlike training where efforts are usually gauged and premeditated. For the first hour my legs were slow to adapt; in the cool winter air my muscles ached and my lungs burned with each surge. But, as the race wore on, I found comfort on my bike, power on the climbs and they adapted to flow of the peloton. Each rider in the peloton goes through the same changes — some are slower to find fluidity depending the work they did through the off-season.
Not only did our bodies feel different in the race, but we also could feel the sharp transition to our race bikes — changing from a well used workhorse of a training bike to a new race bike is like chopping tomatoes with a worn kitchen knife and switching to a high carbon steel chef’s blade. The tubular tires glide and grip, the race wheels are stiff and smooth and the bike is clean and crisp.
The team was present at the front throughout the race, and in the finale, my teammate Steve Cummings charged up the final ascent with 20 kilometers to go. Pushing into a fierce headwind the group of nine riders who had followed his attack held off the chasing peloton. In a headwind attacks are dulled and efforts are curtailed as riders give into the wind. Up front, the nine strongest men persisted and sprinted for the victory.
La Marseillaise was not only the first event of our season but also the first race of our short campaign in France. We will remain in southern France for a five-day stage race, Étoile de Besseges, before heading straight to a training camp in Valencia where we’ll join the majority of the team for another week of focused work.
As a new team, we are also discovering our roles and our direction. We are progressing quickly as everyone seems open, eager and fit. In Marseilles we were tested as a team, found our place, and knowing our strengths can attack the next races with confidence.
To increase the day’s load, we rode the hilly 30 kilometers back to the hotel from the race finish with a team car close behind. Pedaling under the setting sun we were content. After months of preparation the season was underway.