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I haven’t written a preview of the 2013 Duo Normand, principally because both of us have had particularly lacklustre seasons this year for reasons of pressure of work and of illness and injury. However, on a recent joint holiday to Normandy, we did seem to see the vague signs of returning form. I built on this by riding five events between coming back from Normandy and returning for the Duo Normand. Everything seemed to be falling into place. From my perspective, at least.

Things began to change a few days before we were due to leave for the Duo Normand – Gerry reported he’d picked up a cold. What was worse, it appeared to be quite severe. Not to worry, I observed, it’ll probably pass before the race itself. But I found myself sharing a cabin on the overnight ferry to Caen on the Wednesday before the race with a severely bunged up and coughing team mate. It was looking a bit bleak for our tenth outing at the Duo Normand.

By the time we rolled out of the ferry and into the dark Norman countryside, Gerry seemed a bit better. By which I mean the coughing wasn’t quite so body-wracking as the night before (we tried our best to ignore the awful possibility that I might contract the bug in time for Sunday’s ride). We made our way to the small collection of farmhouses and cottages among which was the house we’d booked for the weekend. That was the easy bit, the problem we had was identifying which was the one we’d rented! Eventually, we figured it out and extracted the key from the key safe. But inside it was a bit dusty, and the water, gas and electricity were all turned off. Further investigation revealed that the house was completely unprepared for our arrival, but a few phone calls brought in the previous caretakers – no longer responsible for the house – who were very kindly and (quite unnecessarily) apologetic. While the house was being readied, we popped out to a local supermarket for supplies. One other thing: we seemed to be staying in a cellular blackspot and could only get a phone signal with one of our phones, and even then only while standing in the garden. And no signal at all with Gerry’s mobile WiFi router. Thus, we found ourselves limited to driving elsewhere for internet updates. Among other things, we wanted to keep abreast of changes to the weather forecast. At this stage, Thursday and Friday were forecast to be dry, sunny and warm, Saturday heavy rain and Sunday light rain.

Back at the house, we settled in, got the bikes sorted, had lunch and popped out for a quick spin round the Duo Normand course. This was quite revealing, as Gerry really wasn’t firing on all cylinders – while our changeovers were working like the well-oiled machine that is the Team Grumpy 2-up team, Gerry was finding hard cycling rather an effort, and kept having to ease off with severe bouts of coughing. Through all this we tried to keep a brave face on the upcoming race. For my part, I was feeling great with no sign of impending illness. The evening was spent entertaining ourselves with a modest quantity of official Team Grumpy energy drink and some of the videos available in the house.

For Friday, we decided to do a local ride to check out Gerry’s replacement of a chain and a cassette. Oh, and check his health, though on first appearance he did seem to be recovering. Alas, his ability to churn out the power on the time trial bike was still somewhat diminished. In the evening, we discovered a hornet in the kitchen. This was despatched with the flyswat. Unfortunately we then discovered ourselves to be under siege by quite a swarm of the beasts, in scenes reminiscent of a Hitchcock classic. The hornets appeared to be massing outside the kitchen window, and were making quite a racket as they headbutted the glass! (This was probably the noise I heard the night before in my bedroom.)

Saturday dawned dry but unpromising. We nipped out for a very short ride to make final checks on gear indexing, then went out to replenish our supplies of energy drink. We also needed some zip ties to attach the frame numbers that we anticipated receiving at signing on. Being completely ignorant of the French for “zip tie”, we were unable to ask for assistance, but searched in vain in a major supermarket and a sports store before I suggested the garden store. Thus satisfied, we returned to the house for lunch before heading over to Marigny to sign on for Sunday’s race. While all this was going on, the heavens had opened, with absolutely torrential rain. By the time we returned to Marigny for signing on, things were a bit drier. I don’t suppose that was much comfort to the riders we’d seen checking out the course who were looking rather bedraggled. Signing on was the usual tedious process of queuing. At least these days it’s out in a marquee in the square. Back in 2003, this involved queuing along the street then up several flights of stairs in the Mairie.

This done we beetled off home via the Marigny Carrefour (and used the Wifi router in the car park there). We attached the frame numbers to the bikes, made final decisions about the skinsuit choice and loaded the car up ready for heading off to Marigny in the morning. Fortunately the hornets chose not to make a reappearance, and we had a quiet evenign contemplating our likely performance. Frankly we were doubtful we’d pull off anything spectacular – the team we expected to win had UK domestic performances this year that considerably exceeded ours, and it was quite clear Gerry was still under the weather.

Sunday dawned. It wasn’t raining, though it clearly had done so during the night, and quite heavily. It was however pretty foggy, which can’t have been too great for the early starters. The first team started 8:01, we were due to start at 10:15. We arrived in Marigny and parked in our usual spot quite close to the start area. We wandered down to look at the unlicensed category starters. And to see if UCI regs were being applied – they weren’t, which was a relief as this would have required some last minute modifications to our bikes. The roads were wet but it wasn’t raining, just rather misty. Back to the car and, to a rising sensation of butterflies in our stomachs, we got the bikes out. Tyres pumped, and last minute checks completed, we sorted out our race ‘uniform’ (this year, white Assos skinsuits) and set out to warm up. By the time we lined up at the start ramp, we had both become quite relaxed. The team in from of us, 266, had not appeared, so we started our computers when team 267 started, two minutes before us.

On the start ramp...

On the start ramp…

All too soon the start guy did that odd ‘finger countdown’ gesture and we were off, slipping once again into the tried and trusted routine where Gerry leads up the rather steep starting lane, with me passing the front once we crested the top. Unfortunately, this is when the Team Grumpy problems first surfaced. Gerry’s cold had clearly left after effects, and it wasn’t until a few kilometres had passed that he could even hold my wheel. We managed to get this kind of sorted out as we descended into the misty bocage lanes. It was fortunate that we had a motorcycle rider in fluo yellow ahead of us, because we really couldn’t see where we were going through the mist with any degree of confidence. All of a sudden, we reached the sharp left turn onto the D900, and we were flying, pounding along the main road as though all our troubles were gone! This state of affairs continued as we raced down the lanes, across another main road at Les Champs de Losque, through Tribehou and across the marshes. Unfortunately, we became a bit more ragged as we turned towards Feugeres. I was taking long pulls on the front, and could hear some severe coughing from behind. As we’d worried, the cold hadn’t completely cleared, and Gerry was suffering. This really could only end badly, and I did my best to accommodate the situation.  It’s a mark of how practiced a 2-up team is in these circumstances, and I think we handled this pretty well. We communicated well without speaking, though I suppose the coughing was quite effective in that regard! The climbs through Le Mesnilbus and up to Montcuit were particularly hard for Gerry, and quite frankly I was surprised he just didn’t just give up. Of course 2-ups are different from solo events in this regard. On the climbs, we were falling apart somewhat, but astonishingly were better than usual on the curving descents, even on the wet roads. We were particularly pleased with how we handled the infamous ‘Ghoul corner’, which we took at >37mph.

Through Marigny...

Through Marigny…

One thing Team Grumpy prides itself on is staying together as we pass through Marigny to start the final 12km hairpin section, so I made sure Gerry led us through the town. We negotiated the drain covers that are sprinkled liberally over the Marigny main street and head out of town. This section boasts a steady climb, and a descent to a dead turn on the D900 and the reverse on the way back. The road is also coned down the middle which often causes us problems as we catch teams, or rather as we try to pass their following cars. This year was no exception. Just as Gerry seemed to be finding a second wind and put in a fierce stint at the front, we needed to negotiate a following car. Unfortunately, the driver seemed to panic (probably quite understandable given Gerry’s facial expression this far into a hard Duo Normand) and accelerate as we approached some “street furniture” in one of the villages. Still, we made it past, and pressed on to the dead turn.

The return leg was more of the same. Gerry suffering, then having bursts of energy. After what seemed an eternity, we crested the final climb and the road descended into Marigny and the finish line. One team had to be passed – their driver got out of the way, but I don’t think the riders knew how fast we were coming! I roared past on the other side of the road, rejoined the carriageway, to find Gerry using up the last vestiges of his energy to drive us across the finish line. Screeching to a halt, we couldn’t really converse for a few minutes, but it seemed clear that we had at least gone quicker than in 2012 – we estimated 1:25:30 or thereabouts. Which is not bad considering the issues we’d faced this year.

I have never seen Gerry so exhausted and just plain shattered. He’d put himself through all manner of hell to try not to let Team Grumpy down – a bystander was sufficiently concerned that she asked if he was OK. We shakily made our way back to the car, wondering how we’d done in the overall category standings. It took us some time to get things together, change and pack the car. We wandered down past the start ramp and had a look at the results being posted. The corporate category wasn’t up, so we went and bought a couple of photographs. I had my usual grilled sausage in a baguette (and some frankly soggy and unpalatable chips), and we wandered over to the marquee.

It transpired that we had come second with 1:25:29. We were quite pleased with the position, if not the time, especially since we’d never previously gone faster than the winning team did (who, on UK time trial times, looked to be the out and out favourites to win the category). We probably only made second due to those late bursts from Gerry – only a handful of seconds separated us from the third and fourth placed teams. As Gerry observed, it’s always a good idea to never give up!

We went back to the house to grab a picnic lunch, then returned to the course to watch the later teams, particularly the elite category, ride up the major climb on the circuit. This turned out to be a popular spot for spectating, and quite a large group formed. I have to say, however, that if I ever have the misfortune to ride with a following car bearing some berk hectoring us with a megaphone, I might just stop, climb off, and beat the culprit up with his megaphone.

Once this was all done, we returned to the car and did a spot of internet checking before returning to the house, where we conducted the ritual post mortem of our ride. All things considered, we felt pretty pleased with our ride, which might well have turned out really rather badly. We ate dinner, downed a few energy drinks and found our tired eyes closing. A resumption of the Hitchcockian hornet attack entertained us, though it continued after I’d retired to my room – they seemed intent on getting in there as well.

After a fitful sleep, we breakfasted on freshly bought baguette before finishing the packing, cleaning up the house and setting off for the Marigny Carrefour for some food-related presents, and then to the Caen-Ouistreham ferry port for our return crossing.