Words: Foucauld Duchange | Photos: Damien Rigondeaud
Marseille, Sunday, February 3rd. At the exit of the Saint-Just metro, an old man remarks to his wife: « Wow, it must be the Tour de France! ». No, the Tour hasn’t been brought forward so the Mistral can keep the riders cool, but the preparations for the first race of the season on the esplanade of the Conseil Départemental des Bouches-du-Rhône really give a foretaste for it.
Although the youngest riders are still almost teenagers, they are not the most boisterous. In this back-to-school atmosphere, a small crowd of pensioners gather round the Delko-Marseille-Provence team to admire the brand new Blade bikes. One of them climbs the steps of the bus but is stopped and gently accompanied back down by Frédéric Rostaing. Like a headmaster, the manager watches over his pupils. The only event to start and finish in Marseille, La Marseillaise Grand Prix takes place on his doorstep. No offense to the oldies, it’s a question of making sure the riders can shine in their own backyard.
While waiting for the start, we have a chat with a race official who tells us some good old yarns about his younger days. At the time, he was taking his old wheels to Italy to get new ones. Leaving the old ones in Ventimiglia, he used to return to France, making sure the new wheels look dirty so he would not be stopped at the border. Anything to declare? Nothing, sir. Perhaps it’s to redeem himself from these escapades that our friend offered his expertise to the organisers. Even at the highest level, this race can only exist with the help of enthusiasts. The other three hundred volunteers would not disagree.
Fabien Schmidt is the first rider to get off the bus. He want to test his bike and check the power sensors on his Exakt pedals. His coach reassures him. After some photos, the riders leave for the presentation. On the stage, the wind ruffles the skirt of Miss Vélo France. “Laura is probably thinking that it’s not as hot as Marcolès”, Daniel Mangeas jokes before chatting to each rider. Most riders already have a good tan. The training in Spain seems to have suited them.
It’s time for the start. Today, we are with Kevin Rinaldi, one of the team coaches, whose role will be to supply the riders.
As its name doesn’t suggest, Le Terme is the first climb of the race. It’s too early to stop, but some Delko fans have already lit their barbecue there. The smell of sausages makes our stomachs rumble. What a shame we must go on! At the first feed zone, Romain Combaud, who has escaped with three other riders, shows no interest in our water bottles, neither do the rest of the team. The mistral has dropped slightly, but the riders are frozen.
Although the second feed zone is not for a while, we have to get a move on to arrive at the finish before the riders. When we stop at Roquefort-la-Bédoule, we have already heard on Radio Tour that the leading quartet have gained ground over the last few kilometres. Behind, the peloton has upped the pace and its speed is not that of riders gently easing back into competition. Let it be said: the winter break is only a tradition of days gone by. Better go easy on the foie gras over Christmas…
With the mistral, the Route des Crêtes has been dropped from the race. Instead, we climb la Gineste in the raking light of the late afternoon. The descent towards the Boulevard Michelet suggests a fantastic finish. We park in front of the Vélodrome and make sure we avoid all the kids running from one bus to another in the hope of getting a water bottle or a pennant. It’s time to take our place near the finish line. Cut from the radio, we are just bike fans like everyone else, asking this existential question: who will win? Escaping early in the race, Romain Combaud and Anthony Turgis fought off their two nearest rivals and managed to hold off the peloton. The duel commences, unfortunately at the expense of the brave Delko rider who narrowly loses this unexpected finish. Moments later, another Delko rider finishes second in the peloton sprint. Julien Trarieux almost finishes third overall, confirming the excellent fitness level of the riders. The season begins on a high note.