La Course by Le Tour de France #Excerpt #WheelerNovel

26 July

Thousands of cycling fans had braved the cold drizzle to watch the second La Course by Le Tour de France. The women’s race consisted of thirteen laps, up and down Avenue des Champs-Élysées, from Place de la Concorde to l’Arc de Triomphe and back and scheduled to finish a few hours before the end of the 21st stage of the men’s Tour de France.

The riders all gathered at the judges’ stand to sign in and receive any last-minute instructions from the stewards. Each team was announced from the main stage and photographed, then released to head back to their ready areas to warm up for the race under canopies. Reporters and their photographers roamed between the team vehicles to take pictures and interview the women on their trainers.

Loren put her headphones on specifically to avoid being interviewed. She adjusted her mirrored amber sunglasses, catching a glimpse of Graham with Aria as they glanced in her direction. She didn’t want anyone to see the dark circles under her eyes. After returning to her room, she slept an hour or two before the nightmares began. It got so bad she stared up at the ceiling until dawn.

I just have to suck it up. This is a huge platform for us, and if I can put on a show, it’s gonna be a big fucking show. She ate several caffeinated cherry cola chews with her water before heading to the start line with the rest of her team.

***

La Course by Le Tour de France
Paris, France 89km, 13 laps of 7km

The drizzle had abated in time for the roll out of 142 cyclists, but it didn’t make for better conditions. The peloton stuck together, keeping the speed relatively sedate for the first three laps, but there were still several slips to the road.

On the fifth lap, there was a crash of more than fifteen riders, splitting the field into two parts. Loren, Ashley, and Chantal were in the middle of the pack, with Ashley and Chantal going down as two of the fifteen. Neither they nor their bikes were damaged and were able to get back underway quickly. While it is a courtesy for the lead group to let up to allow those who crashed the chance to regain their positions, Ashley and Chantal still had to push hard across the gap to reconnect with Loren.

With forty-five kilometers to go, Holly Parker took an early lead and held on for a lap before getting caught. At lap seven, another crash took down Ingrid and Cece, just as Loren crossed the line to mark the lap.

At thirty-six kilometers remaining, the main group strung out as the pace picked up on the long straights with speeds close to forty-three kilometers an hour. Several riders broke out of the turn at the Arc, working together to build a lead that topped out at thirty seconds. Team GoreTech, with Samantha Sharpe at the helm, dragged the main field up to the breakaway.

By then, the sun had started to shine however, the cobbles remained slick, with riders approaching the corners with caution, and jump out of the turns. Loren and Ashley kept Chantal at the fore and worked with other riders to keep the pace high and further competitors at bay. She glanced at the group around her.

Chantal is behind me, with Ashley ready to blow herself up for us. Two from GoreTech, one from PZI. The blonde from FusionTurnstep, she might have something. Loren drew her energy around her like a tornado funnel. I am the storm.

The peloton had just passed the Arc de Triomphe when Ashley attacked with Loren on her wheel, catching the other riders off guard. Shouts from behind told somebody going with her.

I hope Chantal remembered the plan and is behind me. Felix’s voice crackled through her radio then.

“Stand by.” He paused. “Let up! Let up! There’s been a crash. Just hang on.” She eased up on the pedals, glancing around at the five other riders who were being told the same thing. She then saw Chantal wasn’t with them.

Dammit. She glanced back. They’re not that far behind but once we go again–.

“Go! Go! Go!” Felix yelled in her ear.

Two riders took advantage of the hesitation and took off, with Loren hot on their heels, but leaving Ashley behind. The trio pushed hard to increase the gap to twenty seconds to take the turn at Place de la Concorde to mark the final lap.

Loren stayed just behind the other two, biding her time as the kilometers fell under their wheels. One or the other rider would glance back. She had little doubt they were being coached from their team cars on how to defend against her.

She sneered. I’m no rookie, ladies. I’ve got time, and while I wait, you two are doing all the work. She began to tick up her pace with the two riders responding in kind as they swung into the turn at the Arc for the final time. Felix was soon in her ear to confirm her strategy.

“Let them worry, mon trèsor. Let them think they can defend against your strength, then make them suffer for their arrogance.”

It is the ultimate game of bluff. If Loren twitched, one or both riders could be fooled into going early, or they could block her when she took off.

But like the man said, if you want it, ladies, you’re gonna to have to suffer to beat me. All three knew the peloton was closing fast and they still had two kilometers to go. Loren watched the riders closely, looking for signs of fatigue: a drooping shoulder, a lowered head, ribs expanding quicker with increased breathing. Her eyes narrowed at the rider in the purple jersey.

Yes, there it is. The PZI rider’s pedaling rhythm began to falter. If I swing out around her, the other girl might not see me until it’s too late. The trio passed under the one-kilometer banner, and the rider looked back at Loren.

You don’t have it, and you know you don’t. I know what that feels like. She had already shifted into a heavier gear when Felix was crooning in her radio.

“Wait for it. Start your surge… GO, GO, GO!”

At 300 meters, Loren jumped out of the saddle and slipped around to the right of the rider in purple, committing every molecule of energy to cross the finish line first. Her legs burned as her muscles consumed all available oxygen, but she forced them to go harder.

It was close, but the white line flashed under Loren’s wheel first. She sat up and pumped a fist in the air.

“YAH!” The rider from GoreTech crossing a tire width behind, and they glided down the chute together to the roar of the crowd. “That was fucking amazing! You were amazing!” Loren laughed to the other rider, and she grinned back.

“Congratulations,” the GoreTech rider said, patting her on the back. “You fought hard for the win, Mackenzie.” A flush heated her ears when she saw Ulrik waiting for her. Loren rolled to a stop before him, and he held her bike as she dismounted. They embraced, laughing and patting each other on the back. He pulled away, his brown eyes wet with happy tears.

“You did it! I am so proud of you!” He hugged her again. “Gabi would be proud of you, also,” he whispered.

“Thank you,” she replied and held him tighter. Her teammates called out to her and turned to into their hugs or to them bumping helmets with her. Ingrid pulled on her sleeve.

“I’m sorry, but you’ve been selected,” she said, not even hiding her glee. Loren looked up to see Aria waiting and pulled a face.

“Aw, come on! Really?”

“Come, Loren. Your wee cup is waiting.” Aria waved to her, trying not to laugh.

***

Graham stood off-stage as Loren was announced as the winner of La Course and watched her make her way across the stage. She accepted the offered assistance to don the winner’s jersey and bent stiffly for a medal to be placed around her neck. As she turned to accept a bouquet of flowers from a little blonde girl in a yellow dress, her eyes flicked up to the side of the stage.

“Thank you,” she mouthed to him, and his smile widened. Loren gave the child a kiss on each cheek then raised her arms as the crowd cheered. Movement caught his attention on the opposite side of the stage. A well-built, dark-haired man in a red IDC jacket stood there, his intense gaze locked on her.

Who is that? A young woman in a yellow dress and sash with Le Tour on it stood next to him, and Graham leaned a bit toward her. “Pardonnez-moi, mais qui est cet homme?

She smiled up at him. “That is L’Assassin, Felix Lalonde.” When Graham looked back, Felix was no longer watching Loren. His hate-filled glare was firmly fixed on him.

And so, the gauntlet is thrown. He leveled an icy stare at the challenger, every muscle in his body taut, his fists clenched at his sides.

I will protect what’s mine.

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