I was on a high from last week’s success before the Ronde des Combattants, a race with four stages over three days in Verdun.

Teams were competing from Luxemburg, Germany and even a team from the CCM (UCI World Cycling Centre) in Switzerland (who host riders from poor countries without the support of large national federations).

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Ronde des Combattants

The opening stage was a TTT-prologue around the cobbled centre and riverfront of Verdun, which was bathed in glorious evening sunshine.

It was run in a pursuit style, with our local rivals the DN3 Macadam Cowboys Team attempting to chase us down on the circuit. 

The stage was shortened by several kilometres without the news reaching our team before it was too late.

We had the bell for the last lap a lot earlier than expected, and as a result posted a very mediocre time. However, I thought it had been a success; We had managed not to drop any of team, dodged the ridiculous amount of road furniture, and held off the charging Cowboys. 

Ronde des Combattants
Photo©Anthony Vienne

After a night at a local boarding school dormitory listening to euro-trace music through the cardboard walls, it was up bright and early for some overcooked chicken thighs and rice before stage two.

There was driving rain and blistery winds to meet us at the sign-on. 

I managed to get through the first hour without getting caught in the crosswinds, despite not being able to see much apart from spray from the wheel in front.

The race headed into narrow forest roads where the bunch was strung out over some sharp climbs. After a few hours of suffering the remnants of the peloton hit the finishing circuit whereupon the German Embrace the World team stuck it in the gutter, catching out those napping towards the back. I was one such victim.

And as the red mist cleared and my heartrate stabilised, I rode tempo to the finish with a small group, contemplating at the irony of the German team’s name… I thought Germans didn’t have a sense of humour? In all seriousness though I was disappointed; we had recced the finishing circuit before the stage so I had no excuse to be caught out and my stupidity had undone the previous three hours’ hard work.

I had lost 7 minutes and my GC chances were effectively over.

After a similarly unrestful night, Sunday greeted us with equally abysmal weather. Attempting to warm up in the 5 degree-rain, my legs felt astonishingly ruined.

However, once the flag was dropped I was in the zone and so desperate to hold the wheel in the gutter that I completely forgot about how bad they were.

The peloton was strung out on the climb and I was one of the last riders to make it over the top with the front group. We lost a handful more on the descent when some of the Macadam Cowboys decided to ride into a parked car.

On the last lap I was distanced on summit of the climb but managed to chase back on through the convoy. Apparently I had survived the stage, and treated myself to extra fromage at the lunch buffet as a reward. 

Ronde des Combattants
Buffet. Photo©James McKay

The cruel gods of cycling had saved the worst of the weather for the last stage that afternoon.

My housemate Yordan and I searched for clothing yet to be soaked through, keeping our spirits up with very dark humour. I managed to salvage two summer baselayers, a jersey and two gilets before heading out to the start.

The race was strung out in wind, but surprisingly this was no problem for me. I had the best legs I’d had all race. 

As the single line of riders shot down an exposed false-flat, one small rider ahead of me collapsed sideways. It appeared his bodily functions had shut down. The speed we were carrying meant that he made an impressively loud bang hitting the deck considering his diminutive size. 

It really bucketed it down on the second, and final lap. Despite some heroic training in the Beast from the East snowstorm last year, this was the coldest I’d ever been on a bike.

My thoughts turned to pure survival.

Calculating that the quickest way to get warm was get to the finish ASAP, I pushed the pace in the group. Nearing the final kilometres, I was fancying my chances in the inevitable sprint, but was swamped with 2km to go.

Given the conditions I didn’t feel like getting elbows out to fight for wheels and sure enough, there was crash on a roundabout before the finish. I rolled in towards the back with no time lost.

With so many DNF’s, just finishing the Ronde had been an undertaking. It had certainly put some hairs on my chest.

Ronde des Combattants
James McKay

* * *

Chatilllon – Dijon

Two days of mostly sleeping followed, before Chatillon-Dijon – my first elite national race.

It was a total of 170km but with the appearance of blue skies that I barely recognised and wide smooth roads, we averaged 50kph for the first hour. Despite the speed I managed to take in some of the beauty of the race, point-to-point across beautiful French countryside. 

After approximately 60km my GPS froze, rendering my stem-notes rather useless. I didn’t know when to move up and was badly placed as we hit the first climb on the circuit. But I managed to hang on to the group.

On the second lap I paid for my earlier efforts and was dropped by the front group.

Although I hadn’t started with the intention of being a passenger, I was pleased to finish given that a year or two ago I wouldn’t have lasted the first hour.

James McKay
James McKay

The team wanted me to race again on Sunday but I managed to convince the DS I needed to get some steadier miles in my legs. I need to work on my endurance a bit after being limited to short turbo sessions for a while, but mainly I was a bit worried about managing the fatigue of so many races in a short time.

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Saint – Avold

However, a week later I was back in action again at Saint-Avold, with having just 36 hours notice after being subbed-in for a sick teammate. 

This was my first Coupe de France race (a national series featuring all the DN3 teams), having missed the opening round in March when I was injured.

Not being entirely sure what to expect, I got stuck in straight away. After spending the first 120km in the break in the pissing rain, attacks started when we hit the finishing circuit – almost 60km out from the finish.

I probably did too much work closing some of these down, and even had a few digs myself, but I paid a high price when we were caught by the peloton.

The storm really closed in and the last hour was a downpour of suffering. Somehow managed to clip off the front of the bunch with a small group and was 3rd in the sprint from that.

37th doesn’t sound amazing on paper but had a lot of positives to take away from this. The form was there.

NB. Zero photos from this race – apparently the weather was too awful / the photographers all drowned.

* * *

Ronde Nanceinne 

The next day I spent a few hours turning the legs in the continuing bad weather. Keeping warm and the big day out in the Coupe de France probably burnt a fair few calories and don’t think I paid enough attention to refuelling. As such, the first stage of the Ronde Nanceinne didn’t go to well. 

I had decent legs at the start, attacking solo after about 20km. But this was short-lived. And after I was brought back I felt empty.

It was Operation Get-Round, managing to drag my body to the finish despite being cut-up by a rival and forced into a ditch in the last few kilometres.

Fortunately, the commissaire had seen the incident and I was awarded the same time as the peloton. I rode straight home since the stage was so local for us, ate volumes of carbohydrates and hoped my legs would return for tomorrow.

After the mystic powers of cornflakes had done their work, I felt strong warming up for the second stage on Saturday morning. It was a savage circuit: a climb followed by a fast tailwind descent and exposed cross-wind section.

The côte and wind took their toll with the peloton splintering each lap into echelons. I positioned myself well and going into the last hour I was sitting in the reduced front group.

On the penultimate lap I was too tired to move up on the climb and was punished in the following inevitable echelon. I had nothing left to bridge the gap and ended up losing a few minutes on GC… disappointing but nowhere near as bad as some riders who had lost over 10 minutes.

That afternoon we had the third stage: eight laps of a circuit featuring a brutal 1km wall-of-death climb.

After signing-on in the town hall, torrential downpours and wild winds hit. Barriers were blown over and at one point I thought they might cancel or shorten the stage.

I put on all the layers I had and laughably tried to “warm-up” before the start time. I made it to the line considerably wetter and colder than before but motivated nonetheless. The peloton looked a bit smaller – the manic weather presumably giving the riders who had lost lots of time that morning the excuse not to start. 

Once the race was underway, the group exploded on the climb. There were small groups all over the road. I had no idea where I was in the race but knew I had to keep going.

On one lap I saw a rider ahead of me on the climb drop seemingly dead. A spectator ran forward to collect his body from the gutter which was flowing like some sort of cobbled water-slide. After riding the last three laps solo I crossed the line.

Later it materialised there were only 25 finishers which moved me back up on GC.

The next morning was a 90-minute criterium. I dodged the inevitable crashes and even won a 30 euro prime!

James McKay
James McKay

I ended up finishing 12th overall, 6th in the points classification and 3rd in the team prize which made for some extra pocket money too.

I also won ‘best local rider’, earning me a stupidly large trophy and a random electrical appliance. If anyone would like to buy a cordless, handheld window cleaning scraper please do get in touch.

Ronde des Combattants
James McKay

My team manager was pleased with my performances in the Ronde and Coupe de France race, earning me selection for the Tour de Mirabelle at the end of the month, which is a UCI 2.2 three-day stage race.

Until then I will be racing one day races on consecutive Sundays meaning that I’ve thankfully got six days R&R to soak in the form from this block. 

‘Til next time, James.