Tour de l’Avenir: Dave Rayner rider Stuart Balfour’s diary of triumph and disaster in France for the GB team

Stage 1

The first stage started with a surprisingly relaxed start. Everyone was prepared for a long old fight for the break, but after two guys got up the road everyone was happy just to let it go.

The break went out to five minutes – a little too far for a short stage like that – before teams started to try to organise themselves to ride. I went up to ride with a few other nations in the hope to bring it back for a sprint for Ethan Hayter.

Later Jim Brown joined and the time to the break started to crumble rapidly as we hit a long stretch of headwind. Everyone became confident it would come back together until the Dane went off solo and started to hold the bunch at two and a half minutes. The peloton started to lose organisation and began to run out of road to bring him back.

We rode hard as a team and took it up earlier than we had planned to try and bring him back but sadly it was not to be as he went on to take the stage. In the run into the finish, coming off of the descent, there was a large crash in the peloton at high speeds. Sadly it was a nasty one, and never a nice sight as you try to pick your way through the carnage around you. Luckily for us, we had now one involved in the crash. The crash ended up having a big effect on the day with only around 40 riders getting past it.

Luckily for us, we had both Tom and Ethan ahead leading into the sprint picking up 2nd and 3rd on the stage. It was a solid day but left with a feeling of what if, after not managing to pull the lone leader back. With the team TT tomorrow, everyone is confident and in shape to put in a big ride so it will be an important stage for us as a team to take some time.

Stage 2

With the team time trial, everyone was confident before the start knowing we had a strong time to put in a decent performance and try and gain some time. The course started with a technical roll out before leading on to a stretch of main road. Quickly turning left picking up the first climb which lead into a grippy middle section, finishing with a fast last 10km. For us we knew we had some solid team time trialists in the team so it was a case of riding as a unit and getting the most out of each other to get to the finish as fast as possible.

For myself, it was a tough one and not a day I was particularly looking forward to. Having trouble sourcing a TT bike before the start. I managed to get the use of one last-minute thanks to some very generous and helpful people looking out for me.

With the first ride on the bike the morning of the race it was always going to be a tough one. The other guys in the team rode strong with some big pulls on the front and ended up fifth on the day.

It was a solid ride on the whole, in the end, maybe not totally the result we had hoped for before the start but as a team we did what we could and now we look on to the next few stages and try and get that win we are looking for.

Stage 3

Stage Three kicked off with a savage start as it was chaos from km 0 with attacks going all over. Myself, Fred Wright, Rob Scott and Jim Brown were set to follow attacks and we managed to be present in every attack always having someone there on the counter.

Eventually, on the first KOM of the day, two riders jumped away and I managed to bridge across to them. Later a Belgian managed to get across which gave us a bit more chance to spread out the work.

The peloton never gave us much time as the Swiss decided to ride early holding it at only a minute until the toughest climb of the day of 6km with 40km left to do.

Two of us split off on the climb and went off just the two of us. On the grippy roads after the climb, three riders managed to come across and put a bit of firepower back into the break. It was full gas then till the finishing climb as the peloton was chasing hard behind.

I emptied the tank trying to stay away but it wasn’t to be getting pulled back with 3km to go and then the legs went for me. Upfront it worked out perfectly for our two leaders as Ethan Hayter won the stage with Tom picking up 2nd. For us, we couldn’t have asked for a better day and hopefully, we can continue like this for the rest of the race.

Stage 4

Stage Four for me was a chance to try and get a bit of recovery in after yesterday’s efforts. It started off following moves trying to support Fred to get up the road, which he managed to in a group of eight.

With the Norwegians in the yellow and with one rider up front they were happy to control it but to let the break go to the finish.

Other teams had different ideas and tried to chance but it was not to be for them and the break stayed away with Fred taking the win. It was a bittersweet stage for us, having Fred take a great win but sadly losing Ethan in a crash 4km to the finish.

He suffered broken collarbone and out of the race. It is a big disappointment for him and the whole team and he is going to be really missed in the coming stages.

Stage 5

This was probably one of the hardest stages so far. With over 3,000m of climbing in most stage races it would have been a queen stage but here it was just another grippy stage. It started off with 24km of climbing and attacks went the whole way up. A lot of people lost contact over the first climb after the savage pace put on by the attacks and teams trying to split it. Some managed to get back on but some were set up for a long day trying to make the time limit.

The weather didn’t make the day any easier with a thick fog which eventually just turned to rain made for some tricky descents in the last half.

A break went around 40km in and managed to get a gap up to four minutes and was too strong for the French to pull back and ended up staying out for the win. For us, we stayed together looking after Tom and setting him up to take the bunch sprint behind. It was a tough run-in but with some big turns put in on the front by Fred into the finish, Tom was well-positioned and took the bunch sprint putting him into the green jersey. It was a tough day but another solid day for us as a team

Stage 6

Today started off almost exactly the same as yesterday, with a short steep descent into the first climb. Again it went full gas from the start and with the terrible conditions, it split almost instantly. Me and Tom were in the front group and just following what needed to be followed and riding calm and out of trouble in the hectic group.

Eventually, a group jumped clear with Tom in it just leading to the long descent as the fog drew in. It was hard to see even 15m in front and there were riders everywhere. It was a fast descent hitting speeds of 80kmph in those conditions is always a risky one. The raced calmed with 20 guys up front and around 25 behind. We had Tom in the front and me in the second group. With an 8km climb before the technical descent into the finish. We were confident for the stage win with Tom upfront but sadly more misfortune came for us.

While leading into the finish Tom came down heavy on a corner and straight into a wall. It was worrying sight as we came past into the finish and saw him there. He was forced to abandon with a nasty cut to the knee and bad concussion. It was another big loss for us, after now losing both leaders going into the Alps after the rest day.

Rest Day

The rest day was well-needed after a tough stage yesterday and a lot of stress for the whole team. We spent the day in Mirabel where we managed to get a spin up the climb of stage 8 and then back for a massage and some very much needed R&R.

Stage 7

The first day in the Alps was a tough one. For us, we tried to get in the break but with wide roads and big headwinds it came to nothing. Sadly none of us had come out well from the rest day and lost contact with the main group. For me, it was definitely “une journee sans” (a day without) as the French would say. With not much power in the legs, it was a real hack from that first climb to the finish. It’s always a tough one after the rest day.

I felt more tired than I was going into it. It’s something I will have to look into making sure next time I manage to recover and come back ready for the day after.

Stage 8

This was the one we were all nervous about – a 23km stage from the bottom of the mountain climbing up to the top at 2,300m! For us, we all knew it was going to be a day to just suffer, almost the same prep as if it was a TT. It was well-controlled for the first half before it hit the last 10km with some seriously steep ramps.

I knew what was coming in those last 10km after the recon during the rest day. I would say I managed to pace it well finishing up 42nd. The sensations started to come back to me after a bad day yesterday.

It was always going to be a tough one but I was pleased to see I had started to feel more like myself after yesterday and I was confident going into the final few stages.

Stage 9

It was another tough one from the start as seems to be the theme in this race. We had Jim jump away from the start in the break before the first climb which was exactly what we were hoping. It was controlled by the Norwegians from the off who set a relentless pace slowly thinning the field out until only the GC riders were left.

I lost contact over one of the steepest KOM of the day. It was a tough one from there as we kept pushing for the rest of the stage for the long climb up to Tignes. I again felt better than the previous day and managed to recover and push again in the latter part of the stage. I finished up in a solid place holding top 30 on GC going into the final stage. Sadly we lost another rider with Rob pulling out during the stage, leaving just the three of us in the race.

Stage 10

It was one of the most controlled starts as people started to really get tired and there was a lot of riders worried about blowing on one of the four mountains of the day. I felt strong at the start so decided I would get up the road in the early break. It was a large group to start with and slowly thinned out on the HC climb that started the day off. I found myself in the second group over the second KOM with a couple minutes on the peloton.

I felt good and knew I could take it easy up the third climb and was slowly caught just before the top knowing I had an 18km mountain to finish it off for the stage. From there it was just full gas to finish. It was a savage day but I gave everything which is needed in a race like that. After a strong last day, I moved up to 26th on GC to finish up the Tour.

It was not maybe the race we had expected from the start with two bad crashes and other problems along the road but it was still a great race. It’s instantly gone to one of my favourite races I have done in my career so far. A lot of people have told me how amazing a race and experience it is and I have to say it lived up to the hype. It was a savage but amazing race across France with a great group of guys at British Cycling.

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