Sunday, May 8, 2011

Good, Bad, Ugly

The first race of the Paris triathlon league was run last Sunday 1 May, on a gloriously pleasant day in Étampes, which is about 45 kms south of the city. This also marked my first triathlon in France and my first race in four months. As it seems customary for me, competing in the triathlon was not simply about doing the race, non non mon amis, it also involved me undertaking my first driving experience in Paris, navigating the haphazard race day logistics and almost getting disqualified from the race on no less than three separate occasions.

My first French triathlon can be best described as good, bad and ugly, although perhaps not necessarily in that order.

Étampes is a little quaint town 40 minutes down the freeway, with the town’s church being its main attraction. The woman’s event was scheduled to kick off at the very civil time of 11:00am, which by French triathlon standards is actually early as most events don’t start until around mid afternoon.

That was almost the extent of my knowledge about the race. Prior to the event, I trawled through the triathlon’s website (each triathlon is hosted by a different club), and  I couldn’t get any more information, such as the actual address of where the race was being held, the registration process, or more importantly a course map. All I knew was that was advertised as a 750 metre swim, 20 kilometre cycle and a 5 kilometre run. I enlisted the help of the “Sports Director” at my triathlon club - Expatries Triathlon Club, and suggested that perhaps because of my weak French, I couldn’t find any pertinent information about the race on their website. He subsequently had a look and confirmed that there wasn’t any information (my French is better than I thought – good), and not to worry, this was pretty standard practice in France, ok then – bad.

He managed to contact the triathlon club that was hosting the event and they sent through a very basic map of the race which only consisted of five numbers and couple of coloured lines. The numbers represented the swim start, swim exit, bike start/finish, run start and run finish, but the map was so non-descript with the cycle course actually went off the page to return at some other point and there was no indication of how the transition area worked. The most valuable piece of information that I could glean though, was that the swim start was on the opposite side of the lake from the exit and I would have to factor in some time to walk there from transition.

Now, I could’ve taken a regional train (RER) from Paris to Étampes, but that would’ve required me taking a metro train to the RER train station whilst lugging my bike, and all my gear, and then most probably having to ride from the station in Étampes to the race venue about 10 or 15 minutes away – ah no thanks. So I decided to hire a car to drive down there. Well actually, for my friend Andrea to drive down there. Some of you would know that Andrea and I have experience hiring cars/vans in Paris, given that, on this occasion I made sure that the hire garage wasn’t on the Arc de Triomphe – good.

Andrea and I get to Hertz and perform our usual routine of me ‘pretending’ to be the driver. We receive the keys and go outside to the micro car that I’ve booked. We’re discussing under our breath at what moment we should do the swap so that Andrea could get into the driver’s seat, whilst I’m pressing the remote control trying to open the car, when the Hertz lady appears and points to our left indicating that the little blue car was ours. “D’accord, merci” we say and walk over to the car. Hmm, we can’t do the swap, I’m going to have to drive the car out. I jump in and Andrea asks me nervously a couple of times whether I would be able to do this reminding me of the experience where I directed her down the wrong way of a car park exit ramp. “Yep, I just stay right” I say, and add that I would just drive it around the roundabout into the side street and we could do the swap.

I adjust all the mirrors, rear view on my right ‘remember that’, I tell myself. Gear in neutral on my right – check, clutch still the furthest left peddle, of course – check, indicator on the left, some experience with this in Australia – check. OK, buckled in, ready to go, put it into first, rev the engine, drop the clutch and we screech off into the street. Vroom!

No, I’m exaggerating. I ride the clutch seamlessly, ease into the street ‘right around the roundabout, right around the roundabout’ I keep saying to myself. “Remember, you’re going right here!” Andrea tells me. At no more than 20kms/hr I’m veering right and turn straight into the first street and pull over - good. We had travelled no more than 200m and I turn to Andrea and say “That was fun”, she asks if I want to drive to her place in Asnieres just outside of Paris as planned, the GPS tells us it’s a 12 minute drive. Saturday afternoon, 12 minutes, yep, I can do that. “Oh this isn’t a one way street, is it?” I ask Andrea, and realise that I had pulled over to the left and the right, ‘doh!’.

We get to Asnieres, it took longer than 12 minutes, and a few aggressive moves against a Fiat motor home that didn’t seem to like me, and realising that when I had my foot on the break, and the gear in neutral that when I took my foot off the clutch the car engine would switch off, but not the electrics. It would turn back on as soon as I put the clutch in to select first for take up. That would’ve been a handy thing to know back at Hertz – bad.

Driving around Asnieres trying to find somewhere to park the car, we’re cruising up and down the streets. ‘Boof’, I hear a slightly muffled thump sound. A further 50m down the road, I ask Andrea what that sound was. “You hit a kid” she says. Another 50m down the road... “Oh”, I say. We reach the end of the street, still no car park to be found, “Where did I hit him?” I ask, “With the side mirror on his shoulder, while he was sitting on his bike” she says. I turn into the next street, “He’ll be right”* I say in typical Australian fashion, Andrea laughs – bad. (*I was going extremely slowly)

Bingo, found a parking spot. Ok, now to parallel park the car, remembering this is completely on the opposite side of everything. Now, you wouldn’t think it would that different, but for some reason, cognitively it requires a lot of effort. Lining up the car, I make my first attempt, nope, do it again, uh ah, third time lucky – ugly. The unattractive scene even made news at HSBC France where Andrea works, when a random guy approached her on Monday morning and told her that he’d seen us on the weekend in a blue car trying to parallel park...for a while.

The next morning Andrea meets me at my apartment, and we begin our road trip to Étampes. We get there at around 9am and find the triathlon venue. With all my gear the first thing I want to do is find the registration tent and put my stuff into transition so I can relax and survey as much of the course as possible. That was the plan. Arrive at registration, I have to look my name up on a list to find my competitor number ‘440’, then approach the desk. I show my French Triathlon Federation membership and receive my race back and a disappointing cotton race t-shirt.

Check the pack, timing band – yep, swim cap with 440 on it – yep, two race numbers – yep, that’s it. Hmm, how do the monitor bike security if there is no bike number? That doesn’t seem right, don’t really like that. I noticed a few people eyeing off my bike, one of maybe two or three time trial bikes on the day – bad. Ok, I just have to deal with this, ‘it’ll be fine’ I tell myself.

Pretty lake, but kind of manky

It’s 9:30am, I go over to transition and want to rack my bike. “Non”, I’m told by an official, you have to wait until the duathlon is finished and then you can do it. An agonising 50 minute wait, I finally get to set up transition at 10:20am. Hold on, Andrea points out that everyone has a race number for their bike, where’s mine?

Race back to registration, and thanks to Andrea we explain that I didn’t get one and then one of the registration people disappear for what seems like an eternity, tick, tick, I’ve got so much to do in such a short time. Finally she returns with a printed number, bang it onto the bike.

To enter transition, I’m required to wear my helmet, standard practice, but an additional requirement is that I need to also wear my race number. Right, I get my race belt out and hurriedly fasten it, and try and proceed. “No, no you can’t” says the official in French. I try and explain (in bad French) that the two clips will be sufficient to keep it in place and he insists that it’s regulation for me to have three safety pins. I walk off thinking it’s not a big deal, until he appears in front of me at my transition area with a safety pin in hand.

Knowing that I’m one of the slowest people in the world to get a wetsuit on, I pull my suit on half way in transition, the quickest I’ve ever done it, and walk out to meet Andrea. It’s 10:40am and we start walking around the lake, we pass a girl with a serious look on her face and an ultra triathlete’s body which means she super skinny and has no hips, doing sprints up and down the track. “She’s the girl to beat” I announce to Andrea.

As I’m looking at the lake trying to work out how the course is meant to go, I spy a familiar look of polluted water with a purple/multi-colour slick – eewww – bad. We approach the start line, I think it’s the start line, except there are a whole bunch of guys fishing, with they’re lines in the water. ‘Only in France’ I think.

Swim start

10:45am, no one is at the start line and no one is in the water warming up. We confirm with an official that the start line was indeed where we were, and David, a Scottish official assured us it was. “ Where are all the competitors?” I ask, “They’ll come” he says. 10:55am, still no one, I don’t want to get into the water just in case it’s against the regulations (which I think it is). Typical French style, 11am, the girls all arrive, we’re told to get into the water which is a balmy 13.8 degrees, and swim to the start line. I couldn’t discern from the smell and taste of the water whether it was algae or ecoli – ugly.

Ready, set, go!
Bang! A minute later we’re off. A really slow swim for m, which still involved passing the usual French breast stroker, and swimming through the blackness and furriness of some unknown water plant (I hope), I’m being helped onto the exit ramp, as they do for all competitors, for my run to transition.

Not having done any transition training in months, my legs are all shaky and I’m trying not to fall over pulling my wetsuit off. Finally, it’s done and racing with my bike to the mount line – ah shite, I have traverse over gravel with my bare feet – bad. I jump onto my bike awkwardly – ugly, and take off.

Cycle leg

The cycle leg is to be one giant 20km loop. The surface is dodgy at parts, with massive pot holes, so I have to pay super attention. Then at around 7km I’m instructed to take a right, at which point I probably should’ve transitioned to a mountain bike, as I start climbing what looks like a trail road in a forest. Out of the saddle, ever so slowly climbing the trail, I look ahead and can only see the sky as the horizon the road is that vertical. Legs burning, I finally grind to the crest and the trail opens up to massive expanse of flat meadows as far as the eye can see, not even one cow in sight.

I eventually take a left and know that I’m heading back towards transition, not before a huge downhill section where I hit about 50km/hr, shivers, I don’t know this road, need to slow down. I’m nearing the 20km mark but I know that I’m still a few kilometres from transition. It turns out that the cycle wasn’t 20km as advertised, no, it’s 22km, so French – bad. I see ‘No-Hip Girl’ in second position going out on the run, as I’m coming into transition. Told you!

Near collision!

Off my bike seamlessly - good, finally something going my way. I steer my bike into transition and almost collide with a girl trying to reverse her bike onto the rack “Attention, attention” I’m yelling (this is what you say in France when you want someone to watch out). Chuck my bike onto the rack, I’m pulling on my runners when an official comes up to me and telling me in French that I have to rack my bike from the saddle otherwise I’m going to get disqualified. I keep putting on my runners, he thinks I’m not listening to him, but I just want to finish one thing first. I grab my bike and turn it around. ‘Ridiculous, illogical and stupid!’ I’m thinking.

About to get disqualified

I’m just about to exit transition when the officials are trying to stop me. It’s regulation, my number has to be on the front on me. ‘Oh for Pete’s sake!’ I swivel my race belt around and run through. That’s when it really starts hurting. The type of hurt that tells me that I hadn’t done enough quality training sessions. I had been battling the beginnings of a cold in the week prior to the triathlon and my lungs felt like they were going to explode.

It too turns out that the run wasn’t exactly as advertised. It happened to be a two lap course, and not one as originally indicated. Oh and there were no drink stations, which by this stage in the middle of the day at 26 degrees I could feel the heat bearing down on me. “TaliA SikozhA!”  I hear announced over the PA system as I cross the line.

Finished - good!
‘Thank goodness that’s over’, I think to myself – good. Motivated to do better training – good. Find out that I came 7th in my category (of only 10 competitors), just missing out on 6th spot and 50 prize money – bad, ah well, next time. Although I managed to “chick” ( time was better than theirs) three guys from my triathlon club, he he – very good.

Although the bad and uglies out number the goods, it was a still a great experience and I’m glad I got out there and went around.

Huge merci beaucoup to Andrea, who was my supporter, my interpreter, my photographer and my driver on the day. Couldn’t have done it without you!

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