The final long stage started badly. Coming out of Embrun I managed to clip a concrete verge and came off (again). There were riders all round me but fortunately no one else was affected. There was great concern for me but no real harm done. My bike had a slightly bent hanger which was replaced as I happened to have the replacement part with me. I was a bit bloodied and Heidi – one of the fantastic physios on the trip cleaned me up. I could have ridden on but decided to take a break and go on the van to the first feed stop. I realised I was quite shaken and my riding confidence was low and actually what I needed to do was get back on the horse again. But I had no enthusiasm to do so. Claire, another physio, quietly suggested I leave early from the first feedstop and gently cycle and regain some confidence. It was good advice and I set off ahead of the other riders and built some distance under my belt before the other riders caught up. Thanks Claire.
It was very hot with the Mistral blowing hard from Africa. For much of the day I rode into a difficult headwind or sidewind which was very sapping on the legs and morale. Two of the more experienced cyclists – Chris and Ian – scooped up some less experienced riders (including me) and formed a peloton. Ian rode at the front and took on the buffeting wind and created a draft effect for us all to use. Chris took up the rear and kept an eye out for cars behind and also rode up and down the line providing titbits of advice to each of us on our various riding techniques. Chris is a good teacher and I learned loads and my confidence was restored but I was getting very very hot and realised I would need to stop before I expired. We pulled over and I cooled off and drank lots of water before setting off again to the feed stop which was only about 400m away but I really did need to stop.
I was concerned about whether I could keep going in the heat and wind right through to the end of the stage. At the feedstop I joined another peloton as Chris and Ian needed to go faster. This was a much bigger group and we rode together for the full 40km into Salon de Provence. Again we had a collection of very strong cyclists taking on the wind and towing us along in their draft. Lots of communication down the peloton on possible obstacles, cars coming through, road humps and the like – interspersed with Dr Fiona yelling instructions at me as she kept a beady eye on me from behind. It felt good being part of this large group and being able to hold my own. By my standards we were going quite fast and on one occasion I was ‘dropped’ and it took a huge effort to make up the gap and join up the peloton again.
Riding in a peloton is an amazing experience. It is a bit like being a carriage on a freight train with powerful diesel locos pouring on the power way out ahead at the front.
Strangely I started to get stronger as the day wore on and we got closer to Salon de Provence. It seems there is a rythm to riding in a peloton and I felt I had at last tuned in to it – everything now seemed to flow more easily. From crashing at the beginning of the day I was thrilled to ride into our destination with a feeling of achievement and relief that I had made it.
Even though I missed the first 40km, I still rode well over 160km into a strong wind and fierce heat. I had also spent the previous two days climbing in the Alps. I was pretty happy with that. My first beer of the Tour that evening was in my opinion well deserved and well overdue.
The next day is a gentle ride around Marseille which should be fun