SA’s substantial “Foreign Legion” in Europe is both wide-spread and, seemingly at the moment, very up-beat.
Young Chris Esch is with a crack French club and  in his latest dispatch he says, “Things over here are going very well, and they are actually going much better than I expected;  I have almost done a complete 180 degree change as a rider.”

“All the hard work over the first three months of the year is definitely paying off”, and he credits SA’s national team manager, Tony Harding, with giving him the motivation to lose weight and believe in himself.

“Losing the weight has really paid of; I am classed as a top climber in the team! Surprised? Five kilogrammes less than last year, and the mentality of ‘I am here for me’, has really helped,” he continued.

Chris was unsure of himself during his first few races for the team and simply concentrated on doing his bit for the team and trying to earn their respect, which, fortunately, didn’t take too long.

“In my second race I drove a break of ten, containing myself and two teammates, for 130km and set my team mate up for a podium finish,” recalls Chris.

However, during the last few weeks he has changed the focus towards getting his own results, plus, especially for a South African, the weather has also started to warm up, which has really helped.

Chris says: “ I rode the coldest race of my life four weeks ago! It snowed on us during the 2.2 Tour de Nord Isere! I started Tour de Nord Isere as one of our GC riders but unfortunately the stages were changed due to really bad weather and therefore we did not do the big mountains.”
Two weeks later he was at Liege-Bastogne-Liege 1.2 Espior, a world cup round held in wonderful 30 degrees plus weather conditions.
His form was impressive although he missed an early move of ten riders. He was forced to ride on the front until the inevitable split came on the endless climbs.

He takes up the tale, “I rode comfortably in the chasing bunch of thirty, containing five Rabobank riders, and I went over the famous climb, La Redoute, as fifth wheel.”
“Unfortunately the sudden heat got to me with 25km to go and I cramped really badly on the third last climb, but I managed to hold on until the deciding attacks came on the last climb to finish a happy but disappointed 20th.
The next day Chris rode another 140km hilly race and he made the front split of twenty  which went on the climb of the 10km circuit. “I only managed a seventh place on the uphill finish sprint,” obviously still feeling the fatigue from Liege.
“My best results, so far, came in the four day Tour de Essor Breton. I unfortunately missed the crucial break on the first stage, and my team was not strong enough to bring it back so I lost almost two minutes and finished 11th.  Stage two was the team TT, which was a disaster for me because only two riders were strong enough to ride with me on the hilly course; one was the NZ national U23 TT champion.”
Chris says that “stage three was one of my best days ever on the bike! The stage finished in our sponsor’s home city with five laps of a very hard hilly circuit. I crashed twice on the stage and was forced to ride the team spare bike (which is never perfect), but when we got to the circuit I rode away with three others on the 17 percent climb in pursuit of a two man break away.

“We never quite caught the break but I attacked on the last climb to finish third on the stage and this put me seventh on GC.”

The fourth stage was a flat bunch sprint but the last stage was another character making day.

“I was 60 seconds off the U23 jersey and really wanted it. I attacked on the longest climb of the day with 60km to go and solo-ed across a three min gap to the break and I drove the break for a few kilometers but soon realised that I was fighting a losing battle.

“The six man break contained one rider from each of the two strongest teams and a rider from our rival team. They did not want me to be in the break as I was now in two of the jerseys on the road,” he writes

“When we got to the final circuits they took it in turns to attack me. They knew I needed to stay away and they also knew that the bunch would only chase until I was safely back in it. Eventually two riders got away and the bunch caught me with 10km to go but I finished with them. It had been a good day for me but no reward! I suppose that’s cycling!’