Guéret -> Châtelus-Malvaleix – 60kms
There’s good news, and bad news. First the good – Supawal has a new seatpost! He’s looking forward to riding the last stage, and has donned his best French kit to ride in. Now me – despite losing ground in the last few kms of both the earlier stages I’m still in line for 3rd on the podium in the over 40s category. Now the bad – the 1st and 2nd placed riders are so far ahead that it would take a mechanical or a miracle to catch them. Meanwhile there are quite a few ‘old fellas’ very close behind me. Which means it’s far from sewn up. Today is gonna be tough, no margin for errors or slacking if I want to hold my place.
Young Pricer has been telling me that he’s finding it difficult to judge pace. With his limited racing experience he’s used to doing laps, and knowing what’s coming next. I tell him that the most important thing is simply to ‘stick to the task’, work hard, concentrate, and not be disuaded. He’s got plenty of miles in his legs, it’s the last stage, all he has to do is let them out.
It’s an early start today. After a 5am breakfast, and a 7:30 round-up we’re riding behind the cars down to the 8am start in Guéret. The sun is shining, and it’s gonna be a hot one. We get a final briefing, then with a minimum amount of fuss, we’re off.
Tha pace is steady at first as we climb out of Guéret, then there’s a steep ramp that takes us to the first off-road section. The young guns sprint it, going like the finish was just around the corner. How do they do that? I go as hard as I can, trying to hold my place.
Next we’re on a shelf that runs the side of the hills. It’s fast sweeping roller coaster stuff. Bursting out onto the tarmac, and climbing again, there’s a rider glued to my wheel. Onto a long open track, still climbing, he comes past. It’s Pricer, and he’s going quick. Next Johnathan Cormier comes past. He taps me on the shoulder, I jump onto the small group he’s riding with.
Some steep tricky climbs now, and Johnathan has pushed on leaving three of us working together. A rider catches us from behind, now we are four. The big rider on the Cannondale is doing the lions share of the work, and he doesn’t like it. He’s a superfast descender, and every now and then he opens a gap, we claw our way back on.
Dropping out of the woods onto a fast farm track the big Cannondale rider has a good gap, and he’s going for it. We chase hard. He’s so busy trying to get away, and we’re so busy chasing him that we miss a turn. We fire straight on down to a road, there are no markings, now we know we have gone wrong. There’s nothing for it but to retrace our steps. It’s a blow, and my own words come back to haunt me, “stick to the task”. It’s too much for the big rider on the Cannondale, he falls to bits, disappears backwards, and is never seen again.
Back on course the three of us are working well together. We can see groups up ahead, and we’re gaining on them. We catch a rider from the VTT Gauriac club, he looks like a vet. One of our three is his team mate, but he rides right by him, I dunno what’s going on.
With over two and a half hours done we hit a long stony rutted climb. It’s baking hot, the sun is on our backs, all of a sudden I don’t feel so good. I’m staring at the wheel of the rider in front, sticking to the task with all the stickability I can muster. The younger of our three jumps to try and bridge the gap to the group in from. Me and the other fella can’t respond.
At the top of the climb there’s a welcome breeze, and a fabulous vista across the Creuse. From memory the stage profile shows a descent for the last 5kms, with a small climb to finish off. At last we start going downhill. It’s very fast, though not overly technical. Smooth fast trails puntuated with short boulder sections and zig-zag ruts. The odd water splash to cools me down. Some short tarmac sections, I crouch low, put my hand in the middle of the bars and pedal for all I’m worth. Every last half pedal turn counts.
A tricky section, I choose right, it’s wrong, I’m cross-rutted. My buddy sees it, shoots left, gets a gap and knows it. I’m suprised by the ferocity of the attack he puts in. Maybe he’s a vet, maybe he wants to take my third place. Powering along, Châtelus-Malvaleix comes into view, a sweeping singletrack brings us alongside the lake where we parked our cars forever ago. Up away from the lake towards the town centre, a short sprint of a climb, a right hander, a wall to climb! Spectators cheer, nearly there, I ride as hard as I can right up to the line. There’s a big cheer, as the commentator shouts “troisième’!