Duo Normand: the BikeRadar experience

Permission to use 'Brits invade Normandy'

The Duo Normand is a two person time trial held in the small town of Marigny in the French region of Normandy in September each year.  It's been running for 28 years and has the rare distinction of being a time trial that both professionals and amateurs can compete in. Same course, same day, same crowds, just different categories: over 300 teams take part each year. So if you and a like-minded friend have dreams of becoming a pro, this is an ideal testing ground. Likewise, if you just want an end of season jolly, then the Duo is also good fun.

The field is comprised chiefly of French and British riders, including a big contingent from the nearby islands of Guernsey and Jersey. There's also a smattering of Belgians. The geographic location of the race makes it easily accessible for riders from these three countries. But that didn't stop teams from Finland, Iran and Burkina Faso from taking part as well.

The time-trial obsessed Brits generally do well. In the professional category, Chris Boardman and German Jens Voigt still have the record for the 54.3km course: 1:04:47, set in 1999. In 2007, Brad Wiggins teamed up with Dutchman Michael Elijzen to win the pro event in 1:07:15. And in the other categories (there were 13 this year), British teams often take home the top honours.

It is competitive but it's also good fun.

Former Tour de France stage winner Thierry Marie (L) took part in the non-licenced category (Photo: André Quentin/www.ggfotovelo.com)

  A couple of teams from Burkina Faso took part (Photo: André Quentin/www.ggfotovelo.com)

The BikeRadar tilt

This year, BikeRadar decided to enter a team in the Duo Normand, consisting of myself and What Mountain Bike art ed and BikeRadar contributor Robin Coomber. Although we fancied ourselves in 2nd category, we were placed in the corporatif category by the organisers. Not really a problem as we still got to ride the same course as everyone else.

Robin had done the Duo three times before, partnering with Ian Osborne. Their best time was in 2007 when they clocked 1:23:40 to finish third in the corporatif category. I thought we could aim a bit higher, around the 1:15 mark. A little ambitious perhaps, but you need to set the bar where it's just reachable. I still had most of my form after winning the British masters and journalist world TT championships, and Robin had knocked several minutes off his 25 mile PB this year.

The first step was to get some kit. We approached Scottish clothing company Endura to make some skinsuits for us incorporating the BikeRadar blue and our Chippenham Wheelers club colours, orange. Our meticulous and timely planning meant that Robin had approximately 10 minutes to design the skinsuits during lunchtime on Thursday, a week before we needed them. When he'd finished, they bore an uncanny but purely coincidental resemblance to Garmin-Slipstream outfits. To their credit, Endura got them back to us in a week, and very nice they were, right down to the number tabs on the back, thumb loops and blue and orange chamois.

All dressed up...

The next step was to organise some travel. We opted for the overnight Brittany Ferries crossing between Poole and Cherbourg, which landed us in Normandy at 6am on Saturday morning. Another hour's drive to Marigny and we were there.

Another wonderful element of the Duo is that the locals will happily billet foreign teams, so that was our accommodation sorted. We stayed with Bobby Shelton, whose father was British and involved in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in the second world war. Bobby is a local legend and he and his family have been involved in the sponsorship of the Duo since its inception in 1982. They've hosted riders every year, including the extraordinary Jeannie Longo ('un caractère difficile' commented Bobby's wife Martine).

We were hosted by the Shelton family. Very convivial

Riding the course

After taking advantage of Marigny's main boulangerie, we jumped on our time trial bikes for a course recce. If you've not ridden it before, it's worth doing or you can come unstuck. The route already had boards out marking every kilometre as well as arrows telling you where to go. Easy.

The start is up a short hill that took us northeast out of Marigny. Then there's a good 10km of gradual downhill where we comfortably swapped off at 40km/h, feeling fresh but trying not to overcook it before Sunday. We noted the more exposed sections, worked out which side to come through in case of crosswinds, looked out for any potholes and checked the best lines to take through the corners.

After halfway (27km), the climbing starts with a drag up through the village of Feurgères. The next 15km back to Marigny is all up and down, and our average speed plummeted. There's a short circuit through the town, past the start/finish, then a final out and back section to Le Mesnil Eury. This bit had the best road surface and the climbs were longer and draggier, but overall it was fast.

We finished our recce in 1hr33 which boded well for a decent time on Sunday.

The sights of Normandy. Or not.

We were tempted to visit Mont-St-Michel that afternoon but opted for a snooze instead. Next year for sure. Dinner in nearby Saint-Lô didn't offer the same visual feast as Mont-St-Michel on account of it being flattened during WWII, but the food was at least filling. After dinner we walked around the medieval ramparts, which were obviously built to last. Amazingly, most of the Notre-Dame church survived the war bombings and is one of the town's few remaining ancient buildings.

If you do do this race, make sure you see more than just Marigny.

Sunday, lovely Sunday

Despite a forecast of rain for Sunday, it stayed merely grey throughout the day. The wind wasn't too bad either, probably a rarity in this part of the world. We breakfasted on bread, jam and tea. Perhaps something more substantial would have been better but we were ill-prepared on this front.

We were off at 10:42 which gave us plenty of time to get ready and warm up. We made our way through the crowds (there was an easier way but this was more fun) to the starting ramp and waited our turn. It's a great feeling being on the start line and the crowds at the Duo make it something special. We were nervous and couldn't wait to get going. But also had to be aware of not starting too hard up the hill.

Cinq, quatre, trois, deux, un ... and we were off!

We'd agreed I'd take the first turn up the hill and Robin could sit on until he felt ready to come through. That gave us a chance to get settled and not burn too many matches at the start.

We expected to catch a few teams but were still surprised to pick up our minute men after just 2km. We caught another two teams before we even hit the main road (km 7) and kept ploughing through the field until we were onto the non-licenced riders. Sometimes it was easy to pass, sometimes they or their following cars got in the way. There was one frustrating moment when we caught a pair coming back into Marigny. There were a couple of cars behind them but no space to pass until we got out of town. And they were slow! We hoped those 5 seconds wouldn't cost us.

The BikeRadar duo in action

The flat part was fun for me, not so much for the slightly built Robin. We stuck to our plan that I'd do most of the flat and downhills, and he'd take advantage of his power to weight on the uphills. It worked, and we kept up a good pace all the way around the big circuit until we reached Marigny. Robin was almost spent for the last 12km but still managed to pull out a couple of turns on the final run back into town. Both of us were spent at the finish - always a good sign.

Success and a reality check

We'd met our target time and finished with 1:15:22, which we knew was good enough to break the category record but weren't sure if any other team had beaten us. When we did see the printed results, it was confirmed that we'd actually won by 10 minutes! A whopping margin in a race that that long.

We needed a car to match the speed of the Russians...

We got a reality check later on when we followed some of the pro teams around. Particularly the winners, Russians Artem Ovechkin and Nicolay Trusov, who went through km 30 in well under 36 minutes, about five minutes quicker than us. They didn't look like they were slowing down much on the hills either. They eventually did 1:06:14, nine minutes faster than we did!

Fast forward to the world championship time trial four days later where Fabian Cancellara put four and a half minutes into Ovechkin over a similar sort of distance and it hit home. Professional cyclists are really really good. Especially ones called 'Cancellara'.

Well done Artem and Nicolay (Photo: André Quentin/www.ggfotovelo.com)

Podium time. Note the cider boxes behind the winners (Photo: André Quentin/www.ggfotovelo.com)

Still, we enjoyed our time on the podium at the Duo Normand: interviews, flowers, trophies, podium girl kisses (and a nice cheque). And we got to share the podium with plenty of other good bike riders. But it encouraged us to see that the pro winners won their height in boxes of cider. There is hope after all.

For more information on the race, visit www.duonormand.com

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