On Sunday morning, we made the trek from Limoux to Pujol. It was about a 2.5 hour drive, and we made quite a sight cruising down the French highways with a 1975 Euro Van without power steering, and a follow car with a blazing sticker “USA Femmes Developpement”. If the French were not intimidated by us before, they definitely were now.
Pujol is a beautiful place set in the country side with a medieval town square on top of a hill overlooking the farmlands and valley below. The Hotel des Chenes was set back right on the race course, and when we arrived, it was welcoming and quaint with the last couple kilometers of Paris-Roubaix on the big screen. It was raining, and we needed to preview the circuit. Chris rode with us to show us all the places we needed to ensure to have good position and all the right lines to take on the corners. After the ride, we had dinner at a great restaurant that was inside this old medieval town. It was amazing to view the valley between the arches of the church.
Race morning was seamless. Not only did the hotel provide us with a great breakfast with strong ‘café’ and chocolat, but also warm croissants. The race was a Coupe de France, and called Pris de la ville de Pujols , which in English is a French Cup, and the Pujol Grand Prix. Since we were only about 1k from the start, we could roll out from the hotel and sign in for my first French Coupe race, the Grand Prix of Pujol. It was a 15k circuit that we would complete 5 times. The finish was on a pretty steady climb, about 2k long, but the last 1k was above 10%. With our team director’s guidance, we had a superb position in the staging of the race, about 10 minutes before the start.
I looked around, my knees shaking and my heart racing and tried to convince myself this was just like any other Velo Promo race. Not quite. I saw some World Championship stripes a multiple time French national champion, five Olympic appearances, several medals, and besides Jeannie Longo,–I saw 134 other women as well. The kits over here are even brighter and more outlandish then in the states. Hot pink, neon orange, and fluorescent bikes were everywhere. I suddenly felt very tall, and very blonde.
The race started, and when they start the race, they start racing. It hurt as I tried to continue to accelerate through the pack only to maintain position, if not lose ground. A twisty wet descent caused the field to stretch out over 1k long. The roads were lined with fans cheering, and the peleton was fidgety. On the first lap, I took note of a dog running alongside the peleton. On the second lap, the dog took out 4 riders. This is crazy! Chris told us to have good position on the climb, my interpretation might have been a little different then is meaning, but on lap 2 I led the climb up the hill as hard as I could. It shattered the peleton, and they counter attacked my effort, and I was able to jump on a wheel and end up in the break. Down the twisty descent, and back through the countryside, back through the town and back up to Pujol. Every time up the climb, the peleton was strung out and people would attack over the top to further initiate breaks and other attacks. One thing I did learn, the French like to go hard up the hills.
At one point, a girl wanted to get by me in the peleton, and she first tried to grab my hip, and then she grabbed the back of my saddle. I didn’t know what else to do but just pedal faster to get her off of me. That worked. The look on my face would have been priceless. With 15k to go, our group of about 50 was seeing a myriad of action. Countless attacks, bridges, and things were getting intense. I was jumping on wheels left and right. On the final climb, we had a USA rider, Devon Haskal, off the front trying to bridge up to a group of 3 women. My job was just to sit in and jump on anyone trying to bridge up to her. It was beautiful. Devon finished 4th,, only about 5 meters from the front group of the peleton! I was in the top 20 at the end of the climb—with a same time finish as Jeannie Longo. I was 14th! Mission accomplished!
It was unbelievable. I was so happy to not only “survive” my first European race, but to “race” my first European race. We even got some prize money! They had us on the stage to announce that we were there, and gave us food, flowers, and a lot of kisses. Once again, I felt very blonde and very tall, just a little more capable then 2 hours prior.