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Rapha-Condor-JLT are in the middle of a tough week in north-western France, where six of the team’s riders are taking part in the Tour of Normandy.
The first bike race I ever saw in France completely threw me. During a summer holiday in Brittany, my family and I stumbled across a town where a course professionelle was due to take place and we were, at first, delighted to have the opportunity to go and see a real professional bike race.
Arriving at the town centre on the day, however, I was taken aback. What I saw before me certainly looked like a bike race; it was a time trial and riders were setting off down the start ramp, their respective team cars accelerating out of the blocks behind them, claxons blaring as directors barked incomprehensible instructions from loudhailers.
Across the road in the town square, the team vans were parked up and the riders milled about, getting ready to start (or leave) while all around them, grown men clutching autograph cards skillfully and eagerly hunted their prey.
But things weren’t quite what I had been expecting. I had imagined the buzz of a professional race would have enticed huge and enthusiastic crowds. I had imagined a start village, TV crews, throngs of journalists, and cheering groups of flag-waving, chest-beating fans.
Instead, the only spectators seemed to be clumps of townsfolk. Looking on at the race, they were clearly not offended by its presence but they were not exactly excited by it either; most seemed to be wondering, in fact, not who was winning but how best to cross the road to get to the bakery. The rest of the crowd was made up of elderly folk, sat on the same benches I imagined they sat on every day, bike race or not. No one was pressed against the barriers, no one had travelled miles to watch – there was just the race and everyone getting on with it.
What seemed to make it worse was that I knew the name of pretty much every professional team in cycling and yet none of them were here. Instead, there were teams that looked like the teams that I knew. They had similar sponsors and the jersey designs weren’t too far-off but these weren’t the professionals I thought I knew at all.
Confused, I asked my old man if it was really a pro race at all. “This is a low-level pro race,” he said. “These guys will be top amateurs and small-time pros… there are races like this all the time happening over here.” I wanted to dismiss the race as something that I would never have to do and would never be interested in. When we left, after half an hour, I thought to myself I’d never waste my time at a race like that.
I was, as I learned later, wrong to judge the event as I did. There is an entire world of bike racing that has been taking place throughout Continental Europe for as long as bike racing has existed. Unglamorous and unappealing, they are the very races that have been uncovering the future stars of the sport for years.
The Tour of Normandy is exactly that type of race. Run every March for the last 35 years, the eight-day event is one that, unless you know someone who has ridden it, you may well never have heard of. It’s the kind of race whose only real fanfare is a few lines in the local paper, or a poster in the local butcher’s window, placed next to private adverts and the regional football league fixtures.
There are no particular difficulties to make the Tour of Normandy especially hard. The route winds its way anti-clockwise around this rolling region, stretching through damp, empty fields and snaking through tiny villages. Here, the only signs of life among the silent, stained stone of ancient French houses is the yellow glow of the boulangeries, or the murky light of PMU bars.
But the Tour of Normandy is hard, nonetheless. It is hard because there are very good riders taking part, and it is hard because it’s March in Normandy, where the weather is at best unpredictable and at worst wetter than the sea. It is hard because the riders in it are hungry, and it is hard because there are no distractions and no comforts; the hotels are rickety, rooms cold, and the food as lifeless as only food in budget French hotels can be.
But this sort of race is exactly the kind that the young riders in the team will need as they start to become real bike riders. There is nothing for the riders here but the racing. It is in these races that cycling is stripped to its core, and in these races that a young rider can learn to become a real cyclist.
In Normandy, the Rapha-Condor-JLT riders will learn where to ride in the wind, they will learn what to wear when the skies are grey, and they have a 200-kilometre stage that starts in crosswinds. They will learn how to deal with the dull, exhausting ache of having to battle all day on the flat, their bodies being pounded by the wind, and their minds wrung out by the stress of being swamped on every corner by burly, yelling Belgians.
The young Rapha-Condor-JLT riders may be up against a bunch of riders no one has ever heard of; even a committed cycling fan will struggle to name more than a few riders from the rosters of Bretange Seche or Concordia Forsikring. But you can be sure that each of those unknown riders is doing his damnedest in this race to make himself a well-known rider.
The racing here matters not because the peloton passes a retail outlet belonging to the team sponsors, or because there is a nice TV package and thousands of fans by the side of the road. The racing here matters because this kind of racing is what every aspiring bike rider needs to help them develop, and every established bike rider needs, now and again, to help refresh their memory.
The Tour of Normandy is not the pinnacle of the sport. It’s not pretty but it is bike racing at its hardest, its most enduring and its most grounded. It is the kind of race that has been running since, seemingly, the dawn of cycling, with no greater ambition each year other than to provide the very French spectacle of a regional bike race. It is the very roots of the sport and, despite how it might seem to the casual observer, it is cycling at its very best.
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