Transitions were never going to be a speedy affair. My race wasn’t going to be won if I shaved 30 seconds off by rushing, but it could certainly be completely ruined by forgeting something, so 6 minutes later I was pushing my bike out of T1 and onto the next stage: 180km of cycling the Normandy countryside.
20 meters later I realised I was still had my goggles on! I passed them to a random marshal and thought no more about them. But again the marshals proved their worth when, on returning to my bike at the end of the day, I discovered that he had made a note of my number and, later in the day, found my bike and hung my goggles around the seat post! Thank you!
A month or so before the triathlon I had a few beers with experienced cyclists, Rick Hollingsworth and Craig Fisher and spent the evening picking their brains. They both suggested I should invest in a set of tribars. They didn’t need to be expensive, but it would be worth trying them out and seeing how I got along with them.
So dutifully I bought a cheap set (£30 from Dyson’s Cycles in Dunstable) and gave them a go. Although they stayed on my bike for several weeks, I only actually used them for maybe two of three miles. So a few weeks later I gave them up as a bad job.
I am not too sure what changed my mind the day before we left for France, maybe I was in a belt-and-braces type mood, but I decided that, even if I didn’t use them, they wouldn’t have much of a negative impact on my race and that I might as well stick them on.
I don’t know whether it was the quieter roads or just that French roads are so much better for cyclists, but I hadn’t even completed the first kilometer before I was settling in on my new tribars like I was Bradley Wiggins.
And I was Bradley Wiggins. I had RunKeeper on my phone giving me 5 minute updates and I was flying!
My brain had told me that 2 minutes 30 would give me a 7h30m split for the bike leaving me one hour spare before cut off. Every 10 seconds slower would add half an hour, every 10 seconds quicker would save half an hour.
I had done London to Brighton with my mate Al Jose the year before in 3 hours 30 and that is half the distance and I didn’t feel too bad after that, so double it and add half an hour just in case would be fine.
So when the stats started coming back that I was going at a consistent sub 2min pace my big brain was very pleased indeed.
Of course my race-management brain was saying “hey calm down, you have all day and a marathon to run” but even though I tried to slow I kept finding myself settle at a fairly consitent 2.05 minute per km all the way round the first 90km loop. Not even a stop to fix my left hand tribar, which had worked itself loose and a detour, when I missed a marshall and a turning, into the outskirts of some random French village, made any real dent in my progress.
Even the hilly middle section didn’t disrupt the pace. Of course, I say “hilly” but really there was nothing too terrible. At 25km there is a sharpish climp up to a hill with a windmill on, but I don’t think it could have been more than a climb of 60-70 meters over about half a kilometer. It then undulated for the next 40 km before settling back down on the plain for the trip home.
Having told Clare I would be back through after the first lap about 12 o’clock and to look out for me then, I steamed through at almost an hour early, even though the last 20 km were into the wind (Ah! THAT is why I was so speedy on the first 20 km in the other direction) and took chunks out of my stats and energy reserves!
Whatever! This was going GREAT!
Nothing could stop me now, I love these tribars, these roads, my energy gels are delicious, I’m almost as fresh as when I came out after the swim, 3 hours ago… well almost.
When I was planning my nutrition, although I knew there were feed stations on the route, I decided to be mostly self sufficient. In T1 I shoved 4 gels up my right leg and three oat bars up my left leg and the same again in my saddle case.
So at about half way on the bike I knew I would have to stop and re-stock my legs. Rather than stop at the beginning of the second loop I thought I would stop at the first feed station, at about 20km. Have a stretch, a chat, see what was on offer and swap my booty around.
Apart from some difficulty in getting off the bike (how little I knew what lay ahead) it was a nice break. The marshals there were lovely: attentive, helpful, funny, friendly and keen to chat to the English guy that had come over to race in their race.
In the end I took on board some extra water and a banana and left with smiles and promises to see them all later. What little we knew of what was to become of us all!
Just after the feed station the course turns off towards the village through which I had enjoyed my earlier detour, before turning again and heading up towards the windmill. Just as I turned off, waving and thanking the marshals, as I did at every opportunity, I even felt a few drops of welcoming, refreshing rain to cool me down.
With a trisuit full of food and now running an hour ahead of schedule, everything was super duper in the world of Triathlon.
I looked up to feel the rain on my face. It was then that I saw the clouds.
On one of the forecasts I had read did mentioned the chance of storms, but not until much later in the day. This was barely even (come on big brain) lunch time!
By the time I reached the outskirts of my favourite little village the rain was properly coming down, the wind was getting stronger and wait… what was making that noise… ah that will be thunder! The lighting lit up the sky as if to congratulate my diagnosis!
Within 200 meters it had stopped being funny, or maybe it had started being funny, I’m not too sure which.
Within less than a minute the race marshals had changed from happy go-lucky race officials to drowned rats and I was wetter than I had been on exiting the lake just 4 hours previous!
Halfway up the hill with the windmill on top, I passed another triathlete hiding in the doorway of a barn. I didn’t really see him, more sensed his presence, because at this stage I couldn’t see much at all. My glasses were keeping the rain from my eyes but I couldn’t see through them. I tried peering over like a bemused and bespectacled geography teacher but the sheet of water falling off my helmet meant that it was like looking out from behind a waterfall.
The rain had turned the hill into a river and, even before I got to the top, my mind was leaping forward to what the descents would be like, with my skinny racing tyres.
The fact that other competitors were letting the rain win, spurred me on and I stood up on the pedals and powered up what remained of the hill to be greeted by a monstrous bombardment of thunder. I was King Lear on his heath. I was Ahab on the deck of the Pequod. But most of all I was me dancing, stark bollock naked, in my back garden singing and yelling at the rain and the thunder and the lighting, because quite frankly, that’s what I like to do (much to the amusement of my children who think daddy is a little potty!)
Whether Englishman are walking dogs in the sun or skipping in the rain I think it is this quality that got me through the first half of the climactic onslaught. It was that and the site of all the marshals, none of whom had been issued with umbrellas, seeing out the storm with typical French “c’est la vie”, holding traffic and waving through cyclists. Their smiles were slightly more forced and their humour a little more downbeat but we were all in this together – the only difference was I wasn’t doing it for them.
Thank you again, race marshal’s of Northern France!
As the lap wore on we all got wetter and colder. The down hill sections were no longer joyful, but dangerous and cold and the flat bits were full of puddles hiding the odd imperfections in the French roads (this would have been catastrophic on England roads). So, oddly, the uphill bits were the least effected! The bits at the top of the hills however, were still wet, cold and windy!
Changing gear became a lottery as to whether my fingers found the right lever and braking was done gingerly and early. Part of me wished I hadn’t chosen fingerless gloves to ride in, the other part knew that it probably wouldn’t have made much difference because now it was not just my fingers that I couldn’t feel, but the whole hand.
Fingerless gloves or no, I now could not unwrap my gels or energy bars, so I could only fuel at the drinks stations where I could either grab something that didn’t need opening or I could stop and ask someone to open mine for me – although my waterlogged brain couldn’t quite understand why the marshals were so reluctant to be handed these packets from out from under my tri-suit and asked to open them!
Somewhere around half way I made a decision. The job at hand was to get off this sodding bike. To finish this section as quickly as I possibly could and then deal with whatever the run threw at me when the time came. It probably wasn’t the best long term decision, but instead of taking the second half slower and taking advantage of the huge gain in time I had achieved on the first lap, I decided to push on.
Looking at the times I was actually slower but, for pure effort, I was like the incredible hulk and I would have to worry about whether my body still worked when I got off the bike at T2.
Curiously I have to say that I wasn’t miserable. I was frustrated and focused and interested about how the marathon would pan out afterwards but I wasn’t down-hearted and at no point on the cycle did I consider giving up… I’d have only had to cycle back!
As we got to the flat I thought the rain ceased, although a little later I noticed that it was raining hard again without knowing how long it had been doing so. One good side of the change in weather was that the direction, or it may just have been the strength, of the wind had changed and the last 20 km was easier going than I feared it might be and, by the time we got to the last 5k, I noticed blue sky ahead.
I could only hope it was hanging over transition.
By the way, if you are interested, I saw the leading cyclists heading home just before the rain hit. They wouldn’t have escaped it totally but at least they would have been off their bikes.
Fortunately there were no cameras to record the sight of me approaching the dismount point just before T2, gradually slowing to a stop, and easing myself out of the pedals and off of the saddle. If you see a triathlon on TV you will marvel at the graceful way they dismount leaving their shoes in place whilst barely dropping below 12km per hour. If you can imagine that, but change everything I just said to the exact opposite, then you might have an idea of why the marshal started laughing as I gingerly stepped over the line.