SVR Team Rider - Phil O'Connor
The finals of the UCI Gran Fondo Age Group World Championships took place in Albi, Southern France in late August 2017. It was the culmination of 17 qualifying Gran Fondo events around the globe where the top 25% of each age group were then able to participate in the finals. For some, qualification and attendance alone represents a major achievement. But regardless of ability, the finals is an opportunity to take part in a truly great event with the added caché of rainbow stripes on offer for the winner in each age group.
The event is a replacement for and merging of the Amateur and Masters World Champs, neither of which have been run for a while by the UCI. It’s an interesting exercise for the organisers, dealing with a wide range of abilities in a competitive event. Those at the sharp end of the race were very capable and experienced road racers, often ex-pros. Mixed in with this were many strong amateur racers and an even larger number of sportive riders who, while perhaps not racing regularly were still keen as mustard to ride hard and put in a good performance. It was also remarkable how many Brits were present. Around a third of all the Gran Fondo riders were British!
2 members of the Shutt Velo Rapide race were in attendance. Gareth Harvey in the 19-34 and myself in the 45-49. Gareth had qualified well in Cambridge despite having to start in the ‘sportive’ pen and miss the benefit of a fast peloton. While I had managed a podium finish on a tough day at the Tour of Ayrshire, neither of us really knew what to expect in terms of standard at the finals, but the 93 mile race had plenty of tough climbing so we knew we’d be in for a hard day out one way or the other.
Albi was packed with around 2,500 cyclists from all over the world. My girlfriend and I had a couple of days there before the event to soak up the fantastic atmosphere in what is a very beautiful city centre. I managed to check out the full course in the days before the race and it was clear that the first major 8km climb after 60km was going to be the big selection point. Overall the course seemed much more hilly than the profile had suggested with a plenty leg sapping drags in the last 50-60km.
Trusting that there would be a fair ‘first come first served’ gating system, I turned up early and organised to guarantee a spot near the front of the 320 riders in my age group. The empty streets around the starting pen soon filled up and there was a bit of a crush and confusion as late comers tried to push through to make their start time. A couple of UCI scrutineers were picking riders at random to check bikes for motors and there were a few idiots jumping barriers to get a better starting spot. It was all quite hectic and could have been better organised. In the end I managed to enjoy the spectacle and was fairly happy to be starting in the first 30 or so riders, especially as we had such a long neutralised run out of town to move up a bit.
For the first 90 minutes the mix of abilities in the group, coupled with nerves and adrenalin, were really obvious. You had to be very alert in the pack and trust no-one. There were a few silly crashes and near misses in the tightly packed bunch and no serious climbing or very hard riding to help spread things out a bit. Thankfully, I survived unscathed and found myself arriving at the bottom of the main climb close to the front of the peloton.
Now the pack accelerated, fighting for position through the junction onto the climb. I got onto the climb with around 50 riders ahead and all that was in my mind was to hold the wheel in front – an approach that turned out to be the wrong one that day. A very, very tough pace was being set and after a few minutes I made the mistake of looking down at my power meter numbers – “Holy sh*t! There is no way I can keep this up for another 10 minutes”. A gap opened up, I closed it. It opened again, I closed it again. I was really struggling now, a few riders went past me and a bit of panic started to set in. A quick look behind and I could see carnage behind me. At least I wasn’t the only one in trouble! Rather than chase the peloton that was now pulling away from me and risk blowing up completely, I decided it was better to get over the top in one piece and see what happened.
Going over the top there were a few scattered 2s and 3s that grouped up on the descent and we had around 15 riders along the valley floor to the next climb. We kept driving it on, sharing the work fairly well and hoping against hope that the leaders would come back into sight. Eventually the road straightened out and we could see no sign of the leading group or anyone chasing us. Having realised we were all now stuck in our own little race we tackled the remaining climbs at a hard but sensible pace, no point in breaking up the group too early.
After the disappointment of my performance on the first climb I was able to re-set and enjoy the race I now found myself in. It was starting to heat up and thankfully I was able to grab bottles from the side of the road whenever they were offered. There were official bottles being handed out to those racing but the feed zones were also full of friendly supporters. I think I got most of my bottles from them!
As we pushed on we picked up the a few dropped riders from front group. Many of these went out the back of our group, having blown trying to stay with the leaders (looking back I realise this could easily have happened to me had I pushed harder on that first climb). With about 20km to go we were around 20 riders and I was now racing for pride against a fantastic array of nationalities: British, French, Belgian, Canadian, American, Japanese, Ukrainian, Danish, Norwegian, Australian, Swedish, Dutch and Peruvian!
With a few small climbs left before the final flat 10km, the leaders of 50-54 age group came up behind us. It was a group of around 40 riders and a few of my age group (identifiable by our blue numbers) picked up the pace to sit in with them. I had learned a valuable lesson from my qualifying event and knew this was allowed in the Masters road racing. As long as I was careful not to interfere with the other race, there was no way I was going to let my rivals disappear up the road with them. I started watching those around me like a hawk, making sure I was always 2nd or 3rd blue number in the pack. We got a bit of abuse from some of the older riders who didn't like us riding with them, but thankfully I’ve got a thick skin and I can handle myself in a peloton. With around 3km left the pace really picked up and some of the older age group started attacking. This helped us stay out of their race and the peloton was starting to get stretched as it entered the famous Albi race track for the finale.
Thankfully my rivals had respected the other race as well with no-one chasing a small group of leaders as they battled it out for a world champion’s jersey. I came round the final bend near the front of a large bunch with only a couple of ‘blues’ in front of me and smashed it. All my frustration from the first climb went into my sprint and I managed to pull clear to finish first from our mini-peloton. It was a small consolation, but it came with the prize of a very amusing photograph of my “angry sprinting face” crossing the line.
This secured me 77th/320in the race, which turned out to be the 9th placed British rider from 120. The best placed British rider was Jason Roberts at 33rd. Jason is a well-respected racer in the UK who had beaten me into 2nd place at the Tour of Ayrshire. He later described being ‘beaten up’ on the last few mini climbs – this was clearly a very strong international field.
Meanwhile Gareth had ridden a strong first half to his race, getting in an early break and managing to stay with the leaders over the first climb (a good effort for a sprinter). However, the tough parcour in the middle third of the race and a strong pace set by the pack of current and ex-pros was his undoing. He ended up paying heavily for his earlier efforts and found himself in a small group of mostly British riders coming into the finish, also managing to win his sprint for pride.
All said and done, it was great to be part of this event. There was a friendly and very international atmosphere before and during the race, and the local council had laid on lots of entertainment and created a real festival atmosphere in town. Albi and its surroundings were lovely to discover and explore. I would definitely attend a future Masters UCI finals, but with 2018 being hosted in the hills around Varese in Northern Italy I might need to try and dodge the scrutineers to get my e-bike past them!