This was the stage that always going to be hard psychologically. 163 kilometres of flat, straight, big-sky roads across northern France with long stretches between villages, exposed to the elements - rain, mist, sun, rain and then sun again, but fortunately not too much wind. Most of the guys had their iPods on, just concentrating on eating up the distance, at times a really tough call: a numbing slog from just outside Chartres, through Voves and on the D10 to Artenay, then crossing a flat wilderness, bypassing Orleans, over the Loire river at Jargeau and then finally over some more undulating, rolling roads and into the village of Fussy just outside Bourges.
The earlier straight sections did, fortunately, afford us some fast, fun riding, with Jamesy and I taking the initiative to ride tight-up behind the van with Steve filming, trying our best to do a Madiot (him, elbows out, tongue out) and Mottet (me, shortarse with bad pudding-bowl haircut), drafting Guimard's Renault, at half-speed obviously. It's amazing how a camera can make you ride harder, dig deeper and still have the wherewithall to concentrate on looking 'pro'. Rapha top? Check. Flat back? Check. Poker face? Check. Ah - we could've made it, right Jamesy? Ken and Doreen told us so. Sprinting for town signs also helped to break up the monotony, as well as the group - naughty. Knowing Jamesy was much better prepared than me, and much fitter, I decided to try and gain a certain psychological advantage by winning all the town sign sprints. Or indeed any sign - normally without alerting the others to the fact that it counted towards the day's award for best sprinter. All a bit of fun, but I do remember one where Mike and I were matched for straight line speed, but a final coup de reins saw me steal a late advantage, like Hinault in Roubaix. Jamesy's comment, "You've still got it, Curtis", was one of the nicest things he's ever said to me.
Best food yet at L'Echalier tonight. Home-made pâté or prosciutto (shouldn't that be jambon cru?) to start, then steak (as usual) or lamb couscous. Can't remember what we had for dessert, but I do remember going up to bed feeling damned tired, the first time I'd ridden three days in a row since the RAID in 2005. And the mountains start tomorrow.
Les and Jamesy - the latter no doubt hanging back because there's a town sign coming up - and the wide-open sky above.
Andy and Jamesy skillfully photographed by Iain on the move. Look out for the oncoming car!
Paul and Mike imagining they've still 'got it'.
I hope the farmer wasn't too angry with our juvenile humour.
Drafting the van on the interminably long straight roads. Good fun. Shame I can't get this to centre align like the pics though, eh?