August 24-27, 2017
One benefit of winning the Road Race at the USA Cycling Masters’ National Championships this year was the invitation extended to me to compete at the 2017 UCI World Masters’ Road Cycling Championships August 24-27, 2017 in Albi, France.
Having participated in 2 previous UCI World Masters’ Road Cycling Championships, where I had won both the Time Trial and Road Race in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa in 2012 and again in 2013 in Trento, Italy, I was eager to return. The event has grown steadily, with over 3,000 riders from 62 countries competing in 2017. Great Britain had the most riders, with over one-third of the entrants, followed by France and Australia, then Italy and the USA.
Albi is a medium sized city on the banks of the Tarn River in southern France, about 52 miles northeast of Toulouse. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, known as the “Episcopal City” for its enclosed medieval quarter featuring the Cathedral de Sainte-Cecile, to be used as the site of the start of the Road Race, and the Palais de la Berbie, the home of the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. The countryside around Albi is spectacular with long, rolling hills with vineyards, fields of corn, sunflowers and wheat, dairy farms and forests. There are quaint medieval walled villages on hilltops throughout the region, and the roads wind over the hills and through the valleys. The Mediterranean climate in August is usually warm and sunny, perfect conditions for me for racing.
As few accommodations were still available by the time we made arrangements we ended up staying in a village about 14 miles north of Albi in Cordes-Sur-Ciel, a small medieval walled village on the top of a large hill. The town looked like a magic castle perched atop a hill. Although Cordes is a 30-minute drive away from the Albi race activities we decided to take a chance and are glad we did.
After an easy overnight flight we arrived on Monday the 21st in the morning, and drove to Cordes-Sur-Ciel, unpacked and checked out the village. All the buildings in the town were ancient, stone-walled structures with wooden shutters and it was a challenge navigating our Renault Scenic crossover on the tiny cobblestone streets that wound along stone walls and through narrow arches. Cars are strongly discouraged between 8AM and 4PM. We had a magnificent view of the hills and valleys from the outdoor dining terrace of our hotel. The hotel’s upper rooms were accessible through a circular stone staircase with thick roped banister guarded by a medieval armored knight we named “Roy”. We stayed up as late as we could to get on to local time.
The next day we were on pace to head to race headquarters at the Parc des Expos at the Albi Motor Speedway grounds only to discover the battery in our rental car dead. Avis amazingly had a local auto repair mechanic there inside one hour to break in and jump-start the car, but we still had to visit the factory Renault dealer in Albi to re-set the car’s electronic system. Now two hours off schedule, we luckily had no trouble finding the one of 2 dealerships in Albi. While waiting, I learned the manager of the Renault dealership was interested in meeting me having been told I was competing in the UCI Masters’ Worlds down the road. We thought it was just a general interest in a sport deeply ingrained in the French culture, but he went on to say his son was a cyclist, then pulled up a screen-shot on his computer of a rider in Direct Energie kit. The Renault manager then handed us his card explaining his son was Lillian Calmejane, the new French cycling sensation who won Stage 8 of the 2017 Tour de France from a breakaway! He was so proud and I of course was completely star struck and was very happy to have the opportunity to meet Lillian Calmejane’s father, turning an unfortunate breakdown into a good omen. You don’t run into the father of a Tour stage winner every day.
I had emailed GP Cycles, the official bike shop of the UCI World Masters’ event about renting a trainer for the Time Trial, but had not received a reply, so we drove by to see if anything was still available. With all the bike gear in the car needing to be guarded, I was on my own in the bike shop and thankful for the translation app on my iPhone to communicate with the staff. They had a new Tacx trainer for me for the Time Trial and some other incidentals. I made friends with Manu the mechanic there and learned the bike shop staff would be available at the Parc Des Expos during Masters’ Worlds so we could return the trainer there and they would be on hand for mechanical assistance.
We drove the Time Trial course that afternoon and I rode it twice. The full course was 22.5 km, 13.5 miles, and the only parts of the TT course we could not ride that day were the actual start & finish on the Albi Motor Speedway, because the track was being used for racecar practice. The track itself features several technical sinuous turns, very different from a big oval racetrack like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We watched racecars speeding around the track, their engines revving as they accelerated out of the corners.
The Motor Speedway was in the suburb of Le Sequestre, and the TT course headed out into the countryside toward the villages of Florentin and Rouffiac. The rest of the course was very technical, passing through several roundabouts and around tight corners with all kinds of curbs & “road furniture”. As the course progressed in to the countryside, the roads narrowed. About 6 miles into the course, there was a hill about 3/4 of a mile long, and then the course rolled for another mile along a ridge before diving down a steep descent with a tight chicane, and another plunging descent before a sharp left turn onto more twisting country roads. I figured there would be a lot of crashes during the TT.
That night at our hotel we met Pascal, a French rider originally from Montpellier in same region as Albi, but currently living in Perth, Australia with his wife and two sons. He had come to France early for family business and was pretty familiar with the area.
As we sat a dinner, I noticed an attractive blond woman at the next table who looked just like a rider from Norway, Sissel Vien, who had won the TT and Road Race for her age group in South Africa. A few minutes later she stopped at our table and displayed a photo of me on the top of the podium in South Africa, and asked if that was me. It was really great to reconnect with her and we started chatting. Unfortunately, they had flown through Brussels where a baggage strike had delayed her bikes and she still did not have her bikes for the races. I hoped the airlines would come through and get her bike in time for the race.
Wednesday I felt “jet-lagged” more than the previous day, so we took it easy in the morning and headed over to the Parc Des Expos for packet pick-up, pre-race bike check and the Time Trial riders’ meeting. I was one of the first to go through the pre-race bike check & my bike passed easily. I attended the Rider meeting at 2PM to make sure I understood the details for the Time Trial the next day, and then jumped on my TT bike to ride the full course. The motor speedway was open for cyclists that afternoon to experience the start and finish.
My Time Trial start time was 08:39:00 on Thursday, so we left Cordes-Sur-Ciel before 6AM to arrive in Albi before 6:30AM. Each country was assigned pit stop “bays” alongside the track for warming up: USA had 2, so we had a nice, clean, covered bay to set up the trainer and get ready. I had a perfect trainer warm-up; 33 minutes on the trainer and still had time to ride the track portion of the course before going to mandatory bike check & heading to the start house. They checked the bike meticulously, and scanned the bike for ”hidden motors” with an iPad detector. I drank another bottle of water while waiting in the staging area. My “30 second person” did not start, so I had a minute wait from the rider before me, another American named Diane Schleicher from Georgia. I had a good start & was up to 28 mph with a tailwind on the speedway. The first technical element was exiting the speedway on to a small highway; a narrow ramp from the speedway down to the roadway & a sharp left-hand turn. I did not want to drop my bike in the first corner so I slowed enough to make it safely through, onto a few miles of flat to rolling roads with several tight corners and traffic circles. I never felt I could sustain a real “threshold” effort; with the acceleration and slowing, there’s no chance to hold a steady effort.
The hill felt harder than I expected but I stayed at an intensity I knew I could hold without completely blowing up. Once at the summit, I tried to hold the effort until I hit the descent. I grabbed the brake hoods & took the descent with as much speed as I could handle. In recon we figured out where to brake before the final sharp left-hand turn on to rolling farm roads. From there, 2 more hazards loomed; a fast slight down hill blind left corner with a sharp right turn dropping down a chute with about 5 miles to go, and a nasty roundabout with less then 5k to go. I did not win any prizes for speed on any of those rather hazardous, technical corners; I figured better to finish the race with the rubber on the road and I know I lost a lot of time in the corners.
I ended up 3rd in the Time Trial with only 7 seconds separating the top 3. Marti Valks of the Netherlands was first in 38.05, Nadine Niemerich of France was second at 38:06 and my time was 38:12. Not exactly happy with my performance, but considering there were a lot of crashes, I was fairly satisfied.
On Friday, Pascal & I rode the Road Race course from Cordes-Sur-Ciel back to Albi. After leaving Cordes, the course followed tiny farm roads that we would call “cow paths” here; narrow, winding roads through forests, farms and villages with doorways opening right on to the road. I was a little concerned about a big bunch trying to weave through this section. There were a couple of hills, including one deceptively long hill with a false summit that continued to climb. Past the 20k to go point, there were only minimal rollers, and the course dropped down into Albi, eventually ending up on the final kilometers of the TT course, but finishing from the opposite direction on the speedway. We were met at the Parc Des Expos and then drove the section of the course heading out of town; the first half of the course. At the village of LePerdiges, Pascal rode off to check out the 155km course & I followed the 97 km course. This section was the start of the longest & steepest climb. The afternoon was hot and I kept my effort moderate as I checked out the course. The first feed zone was at the summit and the 50km mark followed. The pavement was good on the long swooping descent but I took it cautiously since the roads were open to traffic. The next section led into the long climb up to Cordes-Sur-Ciel where Pascal and I started.
On Saturday we drove to Albi for the Road Race riders meeting and some bike adjustments by Manu. We then practiced the long descent from Feed Zone 1. I concentrated on choosing a good line and keeping my speed up. After practicing some key sections a couple of times, I felt much more confident and was hitting higher and higher speeds on the descent top to bottom.
Sunday we left early for downtown Albi & the race start. We planned to park in one of the underground parking lots near the Cathedral de Sainte-Cecile to get ready for the race. Riders were staged in 3 large holding “pens” prior to reaching the start at the Plaza de Sainte-Cecile. As fields of racers left the start at 7-minute intervals, the next field moved into the start area. As riders entered the 2nd holding pen, bikes were scanned with the iPad detectors for hidden motors. My field was over 150 riders, and included Women 50-54, 55-59, 60-64, 65-69 and 70+. All women age 35-49 started 7 minutes before our field, so I figured we would run into dropped riders from the younger age groups out on the course. Age groups had different colored numbers, so it was easy to identify each category. All I cared about were the women with royal blue numbers; I didn’t care about the women with yellow, green, orange or dark red numbers; I just had to keep my eye on the royal blue numbers.
Although I tried to squeeze up to the front of the holding pen, I was several rows back and I could see one Australian rider in my category a few rows ahead on the left, and the 2nd place rider from the Time Trial, the French rider, Nadine Niemerich, up a couple of rows on the right. I was worried that if there was an early split in the field, there might be a rider in my category that I would not be aware of. I would hate to lose the race because I didn’t realize someone in my category was up the road.
The first 2.5 km were neutral through twisting cobble streets leading away from the Cathedrale. Once we hit the highway, we were racing and heading west out of Albi toward Marssac, aided by a tailwind. We were hitting speeds of 27 mph and I realized we might finish this race earlier than I expected. We made a right turn at Marssac and headed north. A few km’s later we hit a short hill and I easily passed the Australian in my category. I could see the French woman a few riders up, but she was not gaining any advantage on me. On the flats, the group with the Australian came back, but I saw no other riders in my category in the front group. Just before the village where the long and short course diverged, we hit another climb and the field really shattered. I pedaled frantically to pass dropped riders and bridged to the front group noticing the Australian was now gone and the French woman was the only person in my age group.
When the 97km course turned at the village the climb began and the field thinned even more. I weaved around dropped riders and latched on to the wheel of the French woman. She was holding a steady pace up the climb; it was hard but I never felt I was pushed to my limit or was in any danger of being dropped by her. Near the summit we picked up some riders from the earlier start as well as riders from our starting field. We ended up with a group of around 12 riders including mostly yellow and green age groupers. My strategy was to stay with the French rider in our blue group. I could have attacked to get an advantage, but did I mention it was very hot. Why waste energy when best to conserve in case you need it for later in the race? Keep your allies close and your rivals closer.
Just before the Feed Zone 1, the French woman had someone stationed along the road and she got a fresh bottle. I noticed she never had more than 1 bottle on her bike.
Our group had picked up a few more dropped riders as we climbed up to Cordes with about 30km to go. We had set up for a bottle feed along the road into Cordes, but I was on the wrong side of the group so didn’t get a bottle but learned that there was no one in my group ahead of me. Leaving Cordes we followed the ”cow path” roads through the country to Feed Zone 2 and again, the French woman had a soigneur stationed along the road, picked up a fresh bottle; never carrying more than one. Most were relying on neutral feeds provided by the event.
From Cordes to Albi, there were some tight turns on descents through a couple of villages along the way. I took the corners cautiously because I didn’t want to go down in the last 30km. Lynne Anderson, one of our American friends in a younger group, was in a break, slid out in one of those turns and went over a barrier. Dazed but unhurt, a spectator got her chain back on, helped her onto her bike and gave her a push. She finished 2nd to a racer who passed her just as she got going.
During the last 20km, men from the earlier 155km races were catching and passing our group so we had to be aware of riders flying by. I kept riding smoothly and focused on holding my position. With about 5km to go, we were back on the last part of the Time Trial course and I realized things could get dodgy if riders from the other age groups starting duking it out. I was on the French woman’s wheel as we entered the Motor Speedway, and riders in the yellow and green age groups indeed started to sprint for minor placings. Stepping it up as we rounded the corner into the wind with 300m to go, I realized my only opponent was fading a little so I stood up with about 200m and sprinted in solo.
I was happy with the race and reported to doping control. My age group had not been selected for testing, so after double-checking with officials, I was free to go. Not so for Jeanie Longo or my friend Sissel Vien; with bikes coming in well under the UCI weight limit they were DQ’d.
The podium ceremonies are very elaborate. The top 3 riders are called to the stage, introduced and awarded medals. Then the riders take the podium steps, riders are given bouquets and the national flags are displayed while the national anthem of the winner is played. I was the only winner from the USA in the Road Race, and never happier to belt out the ”Star Spangled Banner”, which I am told, could be heard in the back of auditorium.
During the podium ceremony, there was a special award presented to Robert
Marchand, the 106 year old French rider who set the World Hour Record for the 105+ age group earlier on the year. While we were waiting backstage, the officials brought Robert Marchand up. He was quite nimble and gregarious, smiling and shaking hands with all the medalists. After the awards I was thrilled to have the opportunity to get a photo with him. This was one of the highlights of the event for me; truly an inspiration to meet someone who is 106 year old and still excited about cycling!
Having raced at many Masters’ Nationals and UCI Masters’ Worlds, I have met and raced against riders from all over the world, that year after year show up at these events. I’m so grateful to have made friends with many of these people. Bravo Masters! I look forward to seeing you and to making new friends in Varese, Italy at next year’s event.