2017 Albi Gran Fondo World Championships

On top of the podium at Albi Gran Fondo Championships

Becoming a World Champion • by Richard Barville

We arrived in France about 10 days before the event, and joined a small crew from Bikestyle Tours to spend a few days in Toulouse, a few days in nearby Castres, then into Albi on the Thursday before race day. The weather was mostly fine and warm. We acclimatised to the time change and did several hilly rides in those lead-up days, then did a recon ride of the last 65km of the course on the Friday – checking out the main hills and the last few k’s into the finish.  Saturday was mostly a rest day, but I did check the first and last 10 km of the course again, so that I knew where all the hazards were (road furniture etc) and what the finish looked like.

Sunday – race day.  At the start location, in the centre of the old town at the base of the Cathedral, we all lined up, with the youngest groups going first – they were doing the 155km course – and then the groups from 60+ onwards, we would ride a shorter course, 97km with approx 1000m climbing.  It was bedlam, everybody pushing forward to get to the front in little narrow cobbled streets.  I got there around 8am – but it meant a lot of nervous standing around, trying to maintain position.

The groups were set off at 7 minute intervals, from 08.30 onwards, and it was about 09.20 when my group started.  We were all mixed in with the 65+ and the 70+ riders – making a bunch of about 150 altogether.  Some of the other groups had more than 250 riders!   The ladies groups were behind us, I was expecting to be caught before the finish by the younger ladies.

The first 2.5kms were supposed to be neutralised, to get us safety out of the city centre, but it was still pretty hairy! Lots of road furniture and parked cars; marshals and police blowing whistles and waving yellow flags. The bunch wound its way through the town and all the spectators, moving fast, just like the Classic races on the TV.  After about 5km we were out into the countryside, on closed roads – the big bunch filling them completely, travelling along at about 45-50km/hr.  I had looked for other numbers in my age group at the start – we all had different coloured numbers, depending on the age group – and was trying to locate them as we went along, to make sure nobody was getting away from me, but it wasn’t easy!  You had to really concentrate on the wheels all around you in the bunch to make sure you stayed safe.  Not everybody did though!  After 9km we had the first crash!  It came at a swooping downhill right hander and then a sharp left over a narrow bridge. Someone in an Aussie jersey was on the floor at the side of the road – accompanied by lots of warning shouts, skidding noises and the smell of brakes as we went past.

Soon the road started to go up hill – the whole course was undulating, with 2 significant climbs coming at about 35kms and 55kms – and the bunch was starting to stretch out.  Time to get nearer the front and make sure I was not caught out when the splits started to occur.  As we went up the first climb at 35km I realised that my only other age group rival had disappeared backwards, and our race was splitting into smaller groups and individuals, spread all over the climb.  I concentrated on following the wheels and managed to stay on as we regrouped over the top.  It was then a matter of hanging on through to the next major climb where it all split again. By now I had realised that I seemed to be the only one in my age category left with the leading riders and I was fairly sure there were none in front, but I couldn’t be certain.  The rest of the remaining 45km to the finish was tough, continual undulations that did not allow any rest.  By now our bunch had dwindled to about 20 strong, a mixture of mostly 60 & 65+ and a few 70+.  I had several anxious moments – nearly overshooting on one fast downhill left hander, and then later, being in the left hand gutter, off the road, pushed outwards as the bunch went round a right hand bend.  But then further up the road a guy immediately in front of me caught his front wheel in the right hand verge and started to fall to his left, right into my path!  I managed to give him a shoulder charge to get him out of my way and got past.  He fell, I didn’t!  I had to fight hard to stay with my bunch, but I kept digging in, I could see that not many were willing to take a turn on the front. That’s when I knew I would be ok. It was just a matter of staying focussed and maintaining the concentration needed to stay safe, keeping clear of any riders not able to ride straight or follow a wheel.

Soon we were into the last few k’s, approaching the finish, so I kept drifting back, checking my bunch, making sure there were no surprises, nobody else from my age group, I didn’t want to get beaten!  Nobody had caught up, so it was just me in with lots of 65 year olds.  There was no sign of any other groups catching us, not even the younger ladies, the roads looked clear.

The finish was on the Albi car race circuit, (we had to do about ½ a lap) and I had already worked out where to start the sprint from, it needed patience on the wide track as I knew the long finish straight would tempt most of the sprinters to go too soon!  I was on the wheel of one of the stronger guys and I waited and waited until less than 200m to go and then went full gas.  I nearly won that sprint, but there were several other strong riders all doing the same as me, so I ended up in about 4thplace in the bunch sprint – but more importantly, first in my age category! But I could not be sure right then, maybe there were others in front of me?  I heard my name mentioned on the commentary over the loudspeakers so I was hoping….

But it wasn’t until I got back to the pits area where the rest of the Bikestyle Crew were waiting, and they were saying- ‘yes, we think you did it’, that I started to believe it.  Lots of people, friends from previous years, fellow competitors, lots of people, were congratulating me.  Wow, what a feeling!  Next came the wait for official results to be printed and posted.  And also to check if I was required to go to the Doping Control! They had previously announced at the race briefing that all World Champions and selected random others would be required to attend the Doping Control.  After about an hour, it was clear that I was not required, they said anybody over 69 would not be required to attend the control.  Strangely, I was a bit disappointed – in some ways I was looking forward to it!  But then I was glad I didn’t have to bother.  I was quite happy to sit quietly in the shade, drinking lots and recovering. I was a bit tired.  I had covered a hilly 97km in 2hrs 42min 49sec at an average of 35.74 km/hr.

And so to the podium ceremony.  It was held indoors, in a large arena.   Wow, the ceremony went on and on.  What an experience!  All the medal winners were sitting backstage until it was their turn to come out the front and stand on the podium.  I couldn’t remember the words to the Aussie anthem, but I sure enjoyed it!  Then we rode back to the hotel in the city centre – about 5km.  With me wearing the rainbow jersey, the gold medal, holding the flowers and feeling pleased and proud.  What a day!  And thank you Bikestyle Tours for making it all possible.