Personation in Picardy. An account of a Neville Chanin organised ride from Abbeville.
Being invited by Nev on any event is an honour. So when the call came to ride La Ronde Picarde with Mr Chanin, I replied promptly and affirmatively.
Neville, knowing about such things, had entered early in the year to ensure that we got low numbers and a place near the front of the peloton. Which is how four of us came to be standing in a make-shift enclosure with several hundred other cyclists, waiting for the signal for off, and cursing both the rain, and the riders with higher numbers who were climbing the barricades to push in front (it offended our orderly British sense of the queue).
At eight we were off, slowly gathering pace, elbow to elbow and nose to tail. A circuit of the town was first; gingerly over wet cobbles (the pavé), shouts indicating corners or parked delivery vans. The peloton veered right at the central crossroads, cutting across the pavement and dodging the bollards, benches and other obstacles. John, blindly following, just avoided the glass doors of a phone kiosk. We gathered pace out of the town, still filling the road. On-coming cars braked and swerved for the verge. The rain came down again, and then it hailed. Back wheels locked on the descents. A couple of riders came past at speed, with brake-levers hard against the bars and strange expressions on their faces. Someone hit a wall.
The mass of riders gradually stretched and thinned. Smaller groups formed. The rain stopped and the sun glimmered through the clouds.
Paul Whitehead —who was unable to come, and thus was represented by his understudy, Mark Waters— had been making good progress up ahead until slowed by a puncture (a good bit of 'business' by Mark, very much in the Whitehead character)*. John Miller was going as strongly as ever. Too strongly for me, unfit as I was after an injury lay-off. (Actually, I've always found the Miller's tail difficult to follow). Neville was somewhere behind, practising his French and gently warming up.
We swept, speed undiminished, over junctions manned by police armed with lollipop signs and stern expressions. Although, to tell the truth, my speed was diminishing, and I stopped to remove my cape, letting John diminish into the distance.
The first control was after about 90kms. I made a vain attempt to replenish my energy stocks. Shortly afterwards, Mark came flying past, comfortably twiddling a low gear, as he always does (Not like Paul at all— nearly gave the game away). Then a booming, "Permission to pass", signalled the arrival of Nev, and I jumped on his wheel.
Twenty kilometres or so went by with me hanging on Neville's wheel and watching the bemused expressions of those we passed. Then a hill snapped the thread that bound us and he disappeared inexorably into the distance.
I found John, stationary by the roadside. He soon caught up and went by, cursing punctures as he passed. Then the countdown signs, 20, 10, 5 kms, and I went under the flags to the finish and a waiting Mr Miller—Just scraped inside the time for silver.
Nev wandered off to check the results; Mark and John were busy cleaning their bikes; I went to sleep and woke myself up by snoring. We followed Nev into the compound—crowds, stalls and noise. Mark and I dined on beer and chips; and he charmed the woman behind the bar to such effect that she searched the entire area to find someone willing to give him a cigarette. He kissed her hand.
Nev was already at the Formule Un when the we arrived to shower and change for dinner. John and I watched for hints on technique as the other two chatted up the waitresses at the café. Mark and I shared a bottle of wine and he braved our glares to smoke his cadged fag (I am sure Paul doesn't smoke).
Sunday morning was well advanced by the time we arose. We had a leisurely breakfast and then spent some time (at least Mark and I did) puzzling over how to fit all the luggage on to the bikes. It was cool, but the sun was emerging as we left. A quick check at the finish failed to yield the three missing certificates (Mark had charmed someone sufficiently to obtain his—Paul would not have done that.), so we would have to trust the post.
We did a 100km tour back to the ferry, with stops to argue the route, or for Mark to adjust his rubbing mudguard (he was remembering his part again)— It was a contrast to the journey out: The ferry had been over an hour late, and we had ridden hard through torrential rain. At the hotel the driers in the showers had been pushed to their limits drying clothes and shoes— But now the sun was out and the ferry was on time (at least in starting).
We parted after the customs shed at Newhaven, and I headed for Andy Seviour's place. He had been kind enough to look after my car and sundry luggage over the weekend. All that remained was the drive home, and I will not bore you with that.
Some statistics (Nev insists): 187km; fastest time 5:05:39; fastest woman (Leigh Lamont, UK tester) 5:53:42; fastest Brit (Tim Ashton) 5:37:50; Us: Paul (played by Mark) 6:50:41; Nev 6:52:00; John 6:58:19; Ian 7:06:34. 1200 starters.
*Substitute entries were not allowed, so Mark had to pretend to be Paul.