Alice Cobb: 8 Lessons from a Stage Race

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Alice reports on the Tour de I’Ardeche. A gruelling stage race where she climbed alongside some of the peloton’s best over the mountainous terrain of France. Over the 6 days Alice batted it out with the leaders and rode consistently well; most notably achieving a 7th in the individual time trial and 13th on the historic Mount Ventoux stage. As well as being part of the winning team, Alice finished 12th on the general classification and 4th U23. A great achievement for a young rider who clearly has a bright career ahead of her.

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6 days, 7 stages, 630km and 11300m of climbing is a lot to cram into a race report so far the sake of reader sanity I thought I’d approach this post race blog slightly differently. (Any readers out there suffering from insomnia feel free to request a copy of my first draft – the kilometre by kilometre ‘race commentary’ might be just what you are looking for!)

Instead I thought I’d condense over 20 hours of racing into 8 lessons from a stage race.

1. The Bible. Don’t lose the bible.

The bible (a.k.a race manual) is like a prickly woollen jumper and comfort blanket rolled into one. You may not want to know what awaits you but studying and knowing the parcours is crucial if you want to be at the head of affairs. Whilst your team start with three copies you’ll inevitably have some ‘abandons’ so cherish that final copy and whatever you do – ‘don’t lose it!’

As a side-note, remember to always read the scale on the profile.  The 70km preceding Mount Ventoux will look relatively flat by comparison but a 500m Col can still reach gradients of 15%.

2. Sharing is caring.

Always take a bidon. Even if you don’t need it, when riding in 35-degree heat, someone around you definitely will.  I’m sure you gain a few watts from hearing the exasperated mutters of thanks as your dehydrated riding companion downs your bottle.

Although, to fellow riders please don’t hand me back the very last dregs (50ml is of no use to me) or even worse the empty bidon. Instead keep it as a memento of my kind offering.

3. Race belly.

We all know stomachs can be fragile during stage racing so let’s just say that the closer to the start of the stage the more optimal the ‘discrete bush’ option becomes. The condition of that one official and rather overused race toilet deteriorates very rapidly.

Oh and to the teammate that is consuming beetroot juice: please warn those around you. I appreciate the omission of toilet flushing to avoid waking me in the middle of the night but the horror of seeing a red bowl in the morning is rather disturbing!

4. Excuses.

Have them ready. Not only are they great conversation starters as you await to roll out but they can also initiate a friendship as you both bond over laments of leg pain.

Word of warning – for the best and most authentic excuse you need to start early and consolidate throughout the day. First, mention it in on waking up as a response to the inevitable ‘how are you feeling’ and then remind all teammates when setting off to the stage. On arrival reinforce said excuse by uttering it again and to ensure it is definitely established mention it one final time on the start line to all those in earshot (neutral zone works well too).  Depending on the outcome of the race you can then reaffirm your excuse once crossing the finishing line or, if the excuse proved unnecessary, just thank your Swanny for the ‘game changing musette’.

5. Bunch diplomacy.

With over 20 different nationalities approach the bunch like UN peace dealings. Form alliances and blocs with teams to glean parcour information, to acquire emergency gels and simply just to help with general survival as you tick off the kilometres. And while I don’t condone bribery, those bidons you shared definitely help you negotiate a working group when chasing a break. (I hear half frozen ones work even better as bargaining tools too).

I can also confirm ‘Brexit’ has yet to reach the peloton so pro-Europe deals are still relatively easy for British riders to broker. Whether that will be the case next year remains to be seen…

6. You never know until you try’.

My team won 2 stages both from breakaways. The historic Ventoux stage was not won on the slopes of the climb but rather in an audacious attack by Anna after just 25km.  Similarly, AJ – our ‘super splimber’ (sprinter-climber extraordinare) – won the ‘sprint stage’ in a solo move by attacking 30km out. In the words of our DS ‘why win from a bunch sprint when you can win in style?’

Saying that there are probably limits.  As a climber attacking on the flat with 6km to go into a block headwind on the final stage is probably only going to end one way – mainly painfully. I can confirm being caught just 700m out from the line worsens that feeling too.

7. Podium protocol.

Firstly, in the region of Ardeche etiquette dictates that it’s three kisses not two. Don’t leave them hanging.

Secondly, don’t be a prude; relax and go with the flow. Being on a podium at the summit of Mount Ventoux is a memory that will last a lifetime so enjoy it! Remember stage dancing is highly appreciated too even if your sense of rhythm is more akin to a toddler wiggle.

8. Organisers are special people.

Insider tip – thanking an organiser in pigeon French earns you the offer a free glass of local red. (Even for a non-drinker after 6 stressful days the offer becomes quite tantalising!)

Joking aside, thanking an organiser for their hard-work in creating an iconic race is a gesture that I think all riders should make. To see the broadening smile on the faces of the TCFIA volunteers (hopefully not laughing at my French) after thanking them just highlights how much effort and pride they put in to making the Tour de I’Ardeche a truly amazing race.

(The same can be said for the winning DS, Mechanic and Swanny. They already know how awesome they are and given that their heads need to fit into the micro-sized-Ardeche cabins next year, I’ll stop there.)