Monday, 2 April 2012

La Boucle d'Artois

Cycling is a sport I've come to enjoy hugely - as a spectator, obviously. I'm too 'large', unfit and old ever to get involved.


A couple of days ago, a big French club race - the Boucle d'Artois - was due to pass my front door. Starting a few kilometres and a couple of valleys away in Fruges, finishing at the head of the Canche in Frevent


The Boucle counts towards the French Cup - teams and riders from anywhere can enter ... though only French teams can score points. We are but a short ride from Azincourt and the lesson of 1415 is learnt. 


The mass start at Fruges
Cycling is best watched from a bike (participating) or motorcycle (authorised) in the thick of it. Or from a couch turned towards the TV.
  
I decided I was going to try to 'watch' the Boucle live, dropping into big moments. The start. The finish. And the bit past my door.


If you've ever tried to follow a road race, you'll know that's easier said than done. 

Fruges, this year's start, is a small market town a tad on the grim side, even for the Pas de Calais. The Boucle is the biggest thing that'll happen there until the parade of the giants at the end of August.


There's something excessively macho about it all. More than just the priapic gear the riders wear. All the entourages - the team cars, the officials the gendarmes - have a role and they will fulfil it. With very serious faces.


They started. Looped around the hills of the Haut Pays outside Fruges. Not big climbs, but sharp. 
The leaders enter Royon
That gave me time to get back to the house to catch the leaders as they entered the village, Royon.

Unlike the big races, in the Boucle they close the roads about two minutes ahead of the bikes. And normal traffic hangs off the team cars at the back.
So when the race arrives, it arrives. Noisily. Swaggeringly. Lights, horns, loudspeakers. Then the leaders - this time, only a few metres ahead of the peloton that had split into two.


It is as macho as the pre-race preening and it is over in seconds. And the noise is unbelievable. A hundred and twenty chains and cranks whirring round half a metre away at 50kph plus.


I have time to gather breath. Eat a demi baguette with cheese then across the valleys - avoiding the main roads where the riders are - to the head of the Canche.
Sylvain Blanquefort sprints for the line
Frevent, the finish, is a dour place. There's a Cistercian abbey nearby at Cercamp and it dates back to the 12th century. But the town is relentlessly 19th century. And faltering.


The final sprint was a long, straight kilometre with a nagging rise towards the line.


We waited. There was a big screen and on it we could see two riders had broken away. Behind them, a small group of chasers. Then the peloton.
The two leaders rounded a bend of crumbling brick and came into sight, side by side.


Fifty metres out. Sylvain Blanquefort, star of the Top16 team from Poitou-Charente sprinted - it seemed too early. He gambled on the rise taking the legs out of Gert Joeaar, an Estonian rider who, therefore, didn't really count.
The peloton sprint
Blanquefort won by an easy two seconds. The small chasing group was about twenty seconds down. They passed the line.


There were still points on offer - to the French riders, at least. Fifty metres out, the peloton shivered into a mad, congested sprint for the line.
As they came up the hill, they pulled to the right. 


A couple of sprinters on the peloton's right shoulders who'd seen a gap now saw it close. 
And the inevitable happened.


I'd turned to watch the line. Behind me, the peloton's cranked crescendo. Until the dystonic clatter of the crash. 
The inevitable


I spun round. Half of them had come to a full stop. Just there. On one spot. Someone had clipped the barrier. Momentum mortified. 


It's a bizarre sight. 


There are riders lying on the ground. Two of them aren't moving. Others pick themselves up and step over the fallen. They check their bikes and roll the last twenty or so metres to the line.


Yet others come up the rise. They've missed the crash. They ride past. Curious but hardly slowing. Even if it's a team-mate on the ground.


Those two riders who are on the ground aren't moving. Really not moving.
Helmets do something but they're not perfect. Even I know that. The paramedics look anxious.


Slowly, movement. A leg twitches. You see a chest rise and fall. You breathe again, too. 


And then they sit up. And stand up. And there is applause. You clap too. You are relieved and feel slightly guilty at the childish excitement of it all.


Here's the full slideshow of the day.

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