More digging around in the loft in an attempt to de-clutter, and instead I'm back amongst all my old cycling magazines and souvenirs, having a bit of a nostalgic reminisce about my mid-eighties racing days. Easily one of the best events for many of us in the south-east, raised on a diet of parochial (yet admittedly excellent) Kent and Surrey League road events supplemented with Crystal Palace and Brands Hatch circuit races, were annual trips organised by Roger St. Pierre to go and ride the Circuit Cycliste du Port de Dunkerque each summer. For some reason - perhaps to add a bit of an overseas, err, 'sophistication' - he'd arranged it so that an increasing number of us relatively inexperienced have-a-go plucky Brits from the lower categories were allowed to travel over and mix it with some of France, Belgium and Holland's finest amateur roadmen. A brilliant experience for us, keen as mustard (that'd be Colemans English, rather than Maille Dijon then), and a baptism of fire into hard-core continental racing.
|First go: 1986, aged 20. Super excited, soon to be disappointed.|
Taking the Sally/Viking Line ferry from Ramsgate to Dunkerque (and a pre-race carbo-load thanks to their on-board restaurant's astonishing Smörgåsbord), we'd ride on to the old port - about 15km from the new ferry terminal if memory serves - where we'd get changed into proper racing kit, get warmed up for the 130-kilometre event, and even courteously sign autographs: being unknown quantities clearly allowed us the short-lived delightful luxury of pro-bikie adulation, and we all revelled in it, some more plausibly than others. Yeah you read that right too: that's an 80-mile crit, around the port and its warehouses with its multiple 90-degree corners, and worst of all, replete with numerous tramlines, almost magnetically drawing us off our racing line like some kind of insidious tractor beam. At my first attempt in 1986, we were already aware after our first warm-up lap of the potential carnage the tramlines on the first corner could cause; no-one wanted anyone to ruin their race and come a cropper so unnecessarily and so early on, but no: despite repeated reminders about it amongst our group, disappointingly one of our entourage - either not the sharpest of intellects, cack memory or just desperately unlucky - managed to ignore all the advice and snugly slot himself into one and ride with all the fluidity of a Scalectrix car for around 15 metres before being catapulted over the bars, right into my path. I avoided falling, but was held up, forced to undo a toe-strap to put a foot down, get out of the mess, and then get restarted with no chance of getting back on. Out the back after a full 200 metres of the race: angry doesn't describe it, and the stricken rider was lucky to not have his injuries compounded by a bruised and bleeding group of extremely disappointed coureurs britanniques. Muppet.
|Recognise any names in there? I can see a few ...|
Ironically the reason the pace had been so frantic right from the gun was the offer of a prime to the first rider over the line on the opening lap: a pair of Look clipless 'safety' pedals, still a bit of a novelty in the bunch, but by now a DNF was going to be the only result I'd register as the back of the peloton disappeared out of view. Still, I decided I'd come all this way, so I might as well ride a few of the 28 five-kilometre laps, and milk the crowd a bit. Best race face on, trying to telepathically communicate to the 30,000 crowd lining the route that I wasn't just another shit rider, and that I was out the back only because I'd been involved in a crash ... and yet I had sustained no evidence: damn! Can't you see the dirty marks on the ankles of my crisp, white Santini socks, or the scuffs on my pristine Biemme track mitts? No, there were no tell-tale marks, and no-one was really interested in any case. There was a bit of polite cricket-match applause as I struggled around alone, but it was only when the Mayor and a few other dignitaries were milling around the finish line during a lull and unaware of my lonely approach that I managed to gain a bit of support for giving a very Gallic indignant hand gesture, as if to say 'c'mon guys: I may be off the back, but don't I count?'
|Glutton for punishment - back again, older and wiser, in 1987.|
Next year I came back, determined to do more. It had been a better year for the bike - lots of long rides and races in the summer recess from college, added to by commutes from my mum and dad's place in Addington to Dauphin Sport (as it was then) at the top of Box Hill for work during the week and Saturdays - that's 40 miles a day, over 250 a week, with extra miles before or after work, plus racing on top. Unsurprisingly I was flying. And yet ... and yet. No crashes this time, but instead I managed to stay in contact until around half distance in what really isn't exactly my preferred cycling discipline (self-styled climber: it's the romance), thrilled with being part of the race, delighted at feeling comfortable in such a distinguished bunch, until big-hitter locals like Johan Museeuw, Francis Moreau, eventual winner Jean-Francois Laffillé and top Brits Neil Hoban, Harry Lodge and Steve Cook decided the racing had actually started. Goodbye.
|And even bigger and better field for 1987; this time I as marginally more successful.|
So, my race was over again, and despite not being in any way a protagonist, I felt I'd done well, or rather I'd simply enjoyed my 'Jim'll Fix It' moment, long before that whole concept went bad. Next year would be a full year racing in France, and also another 12 months of collecting race souvenirs like these. It's still my favourite waste of time, looking back though old magazines and race programmes, and recalling that I once rode - albeit fleetingly - alongside riders of the calibre of the guys above. Then again this was a top-class international event at the time for the 'Continentals' - other winners have included Jos Lieckens, Michel Cornelisse, Bruno Wojtinek, Britain's Peter Sanders and Lithuanian Arturas Kasputis - but thanks to the efforts of Mr. St. Pierre, even us little fish got to swim in the big pond for a short, magical, while.