We sit in the middle of a gymnasium parking lot, with nothing but our backsides resting on the tarmac. We eat pasta and vegetables out of plastic boxes. It doesn’t taste too bad – by French standards. We just filled our plastic boxes inside the gymnasium, out of large containers of food. It was bloody hot in the gymnasium and the smell of food was overpowering, so sitting in the parking lot is much better than dining inside. It is dark outside. The prologue of Tour de l’Ardèche started late. “This is just like the Tour de France!” Our team leader for this week, Christophe Edaleine, laughs. “The riders in the Tour have dinner exactly the same way like we do now. No kidding!”
Christophe Edaleine is thunderstruck. The French ex-professional rider, who used to race for Cofidis, Ag2R, and Crédit Agricole and finished the Tour de France three times, is for the very first time in his life at a women’s race. Not just today – he will be our team leader the whole week. The reason for this is that my teammates Emma Pooley, Sharon Laws, and I form a mixed team together with three riders who normally race for other teams. Our own teams didn’t want to go to Ardèche, so this is the only way we can get the opportunity to participate.
We thought it was going to be a race without any luxuries – a week without anyone to see to our food and drinks, a week without massages, no mechanic to check and clean the bikes, no spare parts, a week without a washing machine and also without a team leader. It turned out to be much, much better than we thought. The organisation and the other teams are helping us as much as possible. Yes, we wash our own bidons, we take care of our own food, and we clean our bikes ourselves, but team USA helps us with our laundry, Lotto Belisol checks our bikes whenever necessary, the French teams lend us one of their masseurs now and then, and the organisation arranged a van, a car and a team leader for us. That’s Christophe.
For him, this adventure was one surprise after another.
“I just cannot believe women are also capable of echelon riding and splitting the bunch in the wind,” he uttered totally flabbergasted after the first stage. The wind was very strong and after 10 kilometres, there was a 500 euro bonus sprint. That is a massive prize according to our standards. We happily ride our asses off for such an amount of money. Immediately, the bunch split apart. Christophe was ecstatic. “This is just like a men’s race! Incredibly exciting!” Four of us ended up in the first echelon, which made him even more happy. “Everyone told me I have a dream team, and it appears to be true!” Mind you, this was even before the climbing started – Emma’s favorite terrain. Emma, who is ex-world champ in time trialling and defending champion here in the Ardèche. When we hit the hills, Christophe got even more astonished. “The speed you make uphill is just madness. And most of you have such a great style on the bike,” he added in total disbelief. “So athletic. You look just like men, actually.”
But the thing that stunned Christophe the most is the fact that we don’t complain. Never. “You sleep in caravans, for god’s sake!” Okay, we do, but the campsite is very nice. The caravans are clean and well equipped. We don’t have to go to the laundry room to take a shower and we have plenty of space. “That food you get to eat is just terrible. So greasy!” After the race we shower in a gymnasium nearby. We dine there too.
Christophe’s right – they don’t serve us the meal of a master chef, it looks and tastes more like soup kitchen food, but the pasta is not totally overcooked and we get a lot of vegetables. I have had much, much worse here in France. “And the travelling! No professional rider would accept that!” We’re used to spending a couple of hours in the car before and after the race. Although yesterday’s two-hour trip through the hills was not the best of fun. The winding roads were very bumpy. But it’s not something to complain about.
Since yesterday, Emma wears the leader’s jersey. And we are the best team in the race. Christophe attended the podium ceremony with the biggest smile ever, taking photos of ‘his girls’. To me it’s pretty clear what he’ll be doing next season: he’s going to be a full time team leader.
With a women’s team.
Photo: Christophe Edaleine
Translation help: @cycletard