WHEN THE LIMIT IS THE BOGEYMAN. IN THE GRUPETTO OF L'ETAPE SLOVAKIA
Spurter. A few years past his zenith. With a few extra kilos. That's probably how you could describe the cyclists at the tail end of the starting field waiting for the opening shot at the Slovak L'Etape 2023. From these positions, there will be no attacks on victory or jerseys for the kings of the climbing and sprint events or categories.
The greyhounds are pushing at the front. Half an hour before the start, they were already rushing into position in their allocated corridors to set off at seven o'clock sharp. Yes, the start is early in the morning. The starting field includes legendary hockey player Zdeno Chara, a 206 centimetre giant who boasts a Stanley Cup triumph, and footballer Marek Hamsik, former star of Naples.
ROMANCE WITH A VIEW OF THE SLOVAK CASTLE
The beginning of the long route of 112 kilometres with an elevation gain of 1700 metres is breathtaking. Not only because of the speed. The peloton follows the lead vehicle over the Slovak National Uprising Bridge over the Danube, with the Slovak Castle on the left hand side in the rising sun.
But the morning romance is quickly banished by the need to push the pedals. Although at the tail of the peloton, there is no waiting for anyone. And as the electric Skoda Enyaq, from which Christian Prudhomme starts stages at the Tour de France, whizzes off into the distance and the race has actually begun, the peloton has stretched out a lot.
Thirty kilometres is on the flat. There are four tough climbs along the route. Two in the second category in the climbing competition, two in the third. The plan for the stage is simple. Get to the finish before the limit. Summer training has been commensurate with work and family commitments. I'm guessing most of the members of the Slovak L'Etape 2023 group are in a similar position.
"It's a trip for me. For a reward, for my birthday," says Peter from Nitra between his teeth. The road starts to rise. A prelude to the climb up the first summit of the Strmin. The hill is 2700 metres long with an average gradient of nine percent. A relatively large group in a matter of seconds resembles beads spilled from a niche. Some of the riders dismount and push. They search in vain for gears that will allow them to ride to the top.
At the first refreshment station, which the greyhounds on the front undoubtedly flew through unnoticed, everyone in the group stops and refills their bidons and gets something to eat. "What's the route?" asks a man in his forties, spilling ion liquor. "Long? Can be shortened," he secretly expresses doubts about the group's ability to "survive" a long route.
Just after the refreshment break, the participants split up. The descent of the long route is in the shade. And there are a few guys on the side of the road, where the rescuers intervene. That's also why they descend even more cautiously. A group of elderly cheerleaders in red and pink outfits in front of Lozorno bring smiles back to faces somewhat frightened by the previous scenes.
THE PEZINSKÁ BABA FOR A REWARD
The passage through Jablonova and Pernek is quickly dwindling. The ascent to Pezinská Baba? Beautiful asphalt, wide and closed road. A 5,300-metre climb with an average gradient of 4.4 per cent. Even for many on the tail, a nice ride. Even managing to overtake the dropouts from the front groups who overestimated their capabilities. Some are suffering, dismounting and stretching.
"Very difficult, very difficult," laments José Perdomo, a fifty-two-year-old Spaniard. The convention is a reward. Another romantic moment in the battle against time. Different from the one at the front, where Tomas Kalojíros of the Pierre Baguette team beats Peter Fiala of the Xeelo Cycling team by four hundredths. They spent three hours without a few seconds on the route of the Slovakian L'Etape 2023. Denisa Slámová, as the winner of the main women's category from the Czech Cyklotrénink line-up, needed thirteen minutes more.
While there are celebrations at the finish line, there is still a lot of work to be done for the participants at the tail end. Passing through the vineyards overlooking Pezinok requires maximum concentration. Lots of turns, and especially lots of sand and dirt washed away by the previous rains on the narrow roads.
The longest climb of the day is approaching. It's 8,800 metres to the top of the Big Javornik with an average gradient of 3.9 per cent. Before the climb beyond Limbach, a panel section of road takes the edge off. In the steep ascent it is then impossible to ride from the saddle. The humidity in the forest of the Small Carpathians Protected Landscape Area is so great that the rear wheel slips when you lighten up.
The metres, both in altitude and on the trail, add up frighteningly slowly. The average speed is flying down. The idea of a car with an "End of Race" sign spins the pedals up to a higher intensity for a short period of time. But the summit is only just approached. A wasted shot... I'm out of the torso of the pack as quickly as the starting shot went off.
The water from the bidons is gone. It is necessary to devour anything from the accessories in the pockets, but the over-sweetened body accepts everything only very reluctantly. It's lucky that, like most hills, the road to Velký Javorník is mercifully shaded most of the time. The refreshment station is more of a deliverance than at any time in the past.
L'ETAPE? LOVE REMAINS
The sight of the computer brings me closer and closer to the collection truck. The story of Fabio Jakobsen comes to mind. The boy who survived his own death in the Profipeloton. Then the Dutch spurter returned to the Tour de France, won a stage and dreamed of triumphing in the final act in Paris. He suffered in the mountains. And in a stage with a finish at Peyragudes that was only 129 kilometres long, but with four tough climbs, he only managed to finish within the time limit by a few seconds.
The fact that another participant of the Slovakian L'Etape 2023 is also coming to the refreshment station adds some peace of mind. A portion of watermelon and plenty of water brings back the energy. And on the flat asphalt carpet in the second half of the downhill and in sight of the departed "colleagues" from the group.
In the endless descent I'm going to run past. Knowing that for empty legs it will be nice not to go into the final climb to Kamzik with a head start. I'll take the hardest passage alone. And some of my grupetto contemporaries will catch up just as the slope of the asphalt surface becomes more favourable.
Crossing the finish line two hours behind the best is a relief. And a joy. And a participation medal as a seal on the experience of a race that bears the name of a Tour de France legend. "We all suffer the same. At the front, as much as at the back," a friend who suffered ninety minutes less along the route tells me in the finish area, where Czech cyclists and cyclists dominate the podium.
"See you next year," smiles the Spanish grupetto partner, that the love for L'Etape by Tour de France remains despite its roughness.