Stage 17: Pont du Gard to Gap

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 05:45. Transfer: 0h30. Start time: 07:24. Distance: 206km. Terrain: hilly (2,275 metres climbing). Climbs: one Cat 3, one Cat 4. Finish: 16:54. Time in saddle: 8h01. Temp: 36C. Drinks: 6 litres.

Suffer scores: John 2/10. Wim 6/10.

Local lowdown

The Pont du Gard is just a stunning place to be – Babs and I were here last year during a week’s holiday to Avignon. The aqueduct is 2,000 years old and was built to supply water to nearby Nîmes. We will spend the day skirting Mont Ventoux – a shame in its way but we do have a lot of climbing to do over the next three days once we get to Gap, a gateway to the Alps, and meanwhile we can enjoy the best of Provence, including the towns of Orange and Vaison-la-Romaine.

Tale from the Tour

We started near Pont du Gard, but without crossing it again. Then, as ever, it was a case of rolling through to the first feedstop to regroup before setting off at our own pace. The stop was in Orange, but this time round I did not see the all the Roman remains that are to be seen there – the route did not pass by it.

Today, rather than being dropped by the group I typically ride with, I decided to play “hare” to their “greyhound” and set off as quickly as I could from the feedstops. This meant that they would catch me part way between feedstops, which was fine as it allowed me to take photos without disrupting the group and then when they caught me I could join in the rotation to get us to the next stop.

Another lovely ride today, as we crossed from Provence to the Haute Alpes region. The scenery varied from lavender fields to craggy rocks to orchards. The orchards are mostly covered with nets, so that it seemed to me like they formed a sea, or at least a series of lakes.

Craggy rocks and lavender

Mont Ventoux brooded over us for most of the morning as we skirted round it. The mountain seemed to be taunting us. “Why aren’t you coming up here today?” The answer’s simple – it’s not on the Tour route.

“Lakes” of apple trees

All sorts of other beautiful scenes too:

To end the day, we had a final Cat 3 climb, which I probably rode harder than I needed to given what is coming up, but I was feeling good so why not. The descent featured a couple of inclines and then, once at the finish in Gap, we had a short but unwelcome climb to our hotel (the “Mur de Hotel” as I have just heard it be called)! No harm done though, I was kind of expecting it when I saw Gap unfold in front of me, and there was a bad smell of blocked drains or something in town, so I’m glad to be up the hill a bit!

Pretty much a 1/10 ride, but I’ve scored it 2 because of the effort required for the final bit of climbing – and I was hoping for another Magnum, but could see nowhere to get one on the final run in. Oh well! the mental side of things made this a tough day for Wim.

Nice outdoor dinner tonight

Now for three days in the Alps, with tomorrow the “Queen Stage”).

Stage 16: Nîmes to Nîmes

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:30. Transfer: none. Start time: 08:02. Distance: 177km. Terrain: flat (highest point 250 metres, but still 1,702 metres climbing). Climbs: one Cat 4. Finish: 16:57. Time in saddle: 7h37. Temp: 36C. Drinks: 4.5 litres.

Amphitheatres: 1

Aqueducts: 1

Suffer scores: John 1/10. Wim 1/10.

Local lowdown

Fabulous Roman amphitheatre in Nîmes, France’s “little Rome”, which has also hosted the start of the Vuelta a España, the Spanish three-week grand tour. Although this is the closest we will get to the sea, today’s stage is all inland in the Gard region. One of the “unwritten rules” is that the Tour visits the seaside at least once so I had thought we might go south instead, but this is a very pretty area so I’m not complaining! And it shows the value of unwritten rules.

Tale from the Tour

Superb day today, and what a great stage for celebrating my 50th Tour de France stage!

With 90 or so riders it was busy getting out of Nimes, but we soon got to the Pont to Gard which was spectacular in glorious weather – 36C is the new normal, though first thing it was a bit cooler.

At feedstop 1 I usually eat a “toasted” ham and cheese sandwich that I made at breakfast – well it is hot all the time. I tend to prefer that to cake, though today I made an exception as the pastry looked so good!

After a couple of mouthfuls!

After that, I pretty much rode on my own, but it was an easy stage though with some head and cross winds. Thankfully, not as strong as the wind yesterday, which was probably the tail end of one of many mistral winds that blow through these parts.

I really enjoyed the scenery and in particular the sound track to today, which was cicadas chirping along practically the whole time until we got back into Nimes.

Along the way there were many typical Provençal scenes, especially the appearance of the red tiled roofs and pastel coloured shutters.

The Tour stage will start at the amphitheatre, but logistics meant that we finished with it.

Home in time for a quick swim and a massage before dinner. Early start tomorrow as we take a short transfer to the start and then another long hot day through Provence to get to Gap for the start of the Alpine section.

Being well acclimatised, I wasn’t really troubled by the heat, especially as there was no serious climbing to do. Just a beautiful day out.

Rest Day 2: Nîmes

Thought I’d use rest day to catch up on a few things that have not so far made it to the blog.

Firstly, and most importantly, thank you so much to all who have sponsored thus far. It is very much appreciated by me, the William Wates Memorial Trust and the charities it supports. Indeed this week we have enjoyed a visit from Regenerate, one of the charities supported and which gives young people opportunities they may not otherwise have. For one of the teenagers visiting us, not only has the project given her employment opportunities but her visit to see us in action was her first trip outside the UK and her first air travel experience. Things we tend to take for granted. We are expecting a visit from another charity next week.

Although I have now reached my minimum fundraising target, it would be great to raise even more and if you have enjoyed the blog and would like to do so, then please visit http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/johngriffiths5. Thanks again, and also to all those who have contacted me one way or another and offered encouragement.

A big feature of this trip has been the involvement of Bella Velo, a London-based ladies’ cycling club. Two of their members are riding the whole Tour and various others come out to join them throughout the trip. This is indicative of Le Loop’s desire to increase the levels of female participation in what is traditionally a male-dominated sport. Certainly the efforts being made show how accessible Le Loop can be. Of the 47 people riding the whole Tour, seven are female. Last time I did this in 2017 there was one. So there has been a step in the right direction. I don’t know the stats regarding those coming out to ride a few stages only. I say “only”, but that should not be seen as diminishing the achievement. After all, I happily say that in 2016 I “only” rode the first half of the Tour!

A common concern – shared by any gender – is whether doing multiple stages of the Tour de France is beyond them. That is certainly a valid concern, though what I have seen is that steps are taken to give people options to shorten the route where possible on the toughest days. Either by jumping people forward to feedstop 1 or 2 or by suggesting a short cut to avoid a certain climb. Whether shortcuts are taken or not, they are still tough days. Yesterday for example we could have avoided the final climb and gone straight to dinner in Foix. Some did that, which was absolutely fine. You may be unsurprised to hear that this was not an option I really wanted to take!Yesterday was just about on the limit of what I could achieve, given the lateness of the start and everything else I wrote about. While I may wish that I was a stronger cyclist, I am thankful to God that I am strong enough.

So on to Nimes, a very Roman city. I will see more of this at the start and finish tomorrow. As for today, after arriving just before noon I went straight for a good lunch at a restaurant 200 metres away. Poached egg and ratatouille to start, followed by steak and chips and then a cafe gourmand to finish. After that, back to the hotel to clean the bike and to have a massage and a swim. I was peckish again, so a croque monsieur was just perfect for filling that little hole. Then it was time to watch the end of today’s stage on TV and have a little nap. Woke up just in time to go to another “all you can eat” buffet. Chinese this time rather than the Moroccan we had the other day (nice) and French the day after (OK, but not truly satisfying). I think I’ve made up for my missed dinner of yesterday now! As you can see, food and rest was more important than sightseeing today.

Otherwise, nothing noteworthy other than perhaps Dr. Julian’s Superman demonstration at the rest stop during the coach journey to Nimes. Or he might have been demonstrating a stretching routine.

Is it a bird, is it a plane, or is it Dr Julian?

Well, I needed a photo and have nothing else today.

Stage 15: Limoux to Foix Prat d’Albis

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 05:45.Transfer: before 4h00, after 1h15. Start time: 10:45. Distance: 185km (plus final 11km descent in the dark). Terrain: mountain (3,822 metres climbing, though Tour stats claim 4,700). Climbs: three Cat 1, one Cat 2. Finish: 22:39. Time in saddle: 10h36. Temp: 20C. Drinks: 4 litres.

Suffer scores: John 10/10. Wim – also very high!

Local lowdown

Limoux is another place we know from 2017, though bizarrely having been travelling west to east today we will be travelling westwards before looping around Foix, another town with a magnificent castle on a hill.

Tale from the Tour

Well it had to happen sooner or later. Today was one of the toughest days on a bike that I can remember, only this time for reasons other than cold, wet weather and a horrible route. In fact the route is a good one and the temperature was around 20C most of the day.

To begin with, last night’s dinner did not really satisfy the cravings of this hungry cyclist. Then I slept really poorly because my bed was so uncomfortable that I ended up sleeping on top of my duvet on the floor. Breakfast was more a case of grab what you can get in the 25 minutes we had before boarding the coach for a long transfer easy to the start in Limoux – 4 hours in total. When we did start cycling it was into a headwind (we were now travelling west again – ASO the race organisers went somewhat against the norm here, especially as after the stage we now have to travel east again to Nimes).

At the start in Limoux

I was totally lacking in energy as we went up the first little climb, the Col de Montségur, but was then able to join a small group and together we battled through to feedstop 2 (thanks Steve for getting the group organised). I was not the only one struggling a bit as it turned out. Coffee at the feedstop really helped though, and I felt much better. I was not so concerned about the Cat 1 coming up (Port de Lers) but was remembering how awful the climb after that was (Mur de Péguère). Also, given that we had started so late and I was going a bit slower than I wanted too, I was concerned that I would not have time to complete the final climb (Le Prat d’Albis) which overlooks Foix but would need to go straight to dinner and coach transfer to Carcasonne where will be staying overnight.

Thankfully, while that climb is still awful, I had a reasonably OK time on the Mur and then I felt as if a switch had been flipped and I was back to enjoying myself again. It was probably the relief of getting that obstacle out of the way and now having a shot at the final climb.

Not looking quite as tired as in the equivalent photo in 2017

I enjoyed the decent and the subsequent climb to the final summit, but of course we still had to get down again, and now it was dark. I was with a group of six so there was safety in numbers, though such traffic as there was was very kind to us, sitting behind the group and giving us the benefit of their headlamps to further illuminate the way down.

Foix, before the final climb.
Sun setting (thanks for the photo Robin)
On arriving back in Foix (Bastille Day)

Safely down, but with no time for dinner, I shall just have to have double breakfast before a two hour transfer to Nimes for our rest day tomorrow. And I’m going to rest!

I’m not complaining about how the day went because the logistics meant that this was always going to be a challenging day and I knew that months ago. Cliche alert, but the Tour is the Tour and it’s what we signed up for. I’m so grateful to Sarah who is an absolute star in seeing a way through the logistical challenges and making this all possible.

PS (Monday morning 7am after a decent night’s sleep): The above was written on the coach on the way to the hotel, where we arrived at about 00:15. Some cheese, bread and fruit salad was available, so at least I got something to tide me over until breakfast, where I shall be heading shortly.

Stage 14: Tarbes to Tourmalet Barèges

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:30. Transfer: none. Start time: 08:05. Distance: 117km. Terrain: mountain (3,261 metres climbing). Climbs: one HC (Col du Tourmalet), one Cat 1, one Cat 4. Finish: 16:19. Time in saddle: 6h48. Temp: 30C. Drinks: 4.5 litres.

Suffer scores: John 6/10. Wim 6/10.

Local lowdown

Often on the route, but rarely being the site of the finish line, today’s stage ends on the top of the Tourmalet. I’ve here twice before and have ridden it from both sides, but never really seen it on account of the weather! Will today be any different? It’s the first time this Tour that we will rise above 2,000 metres. Only another six to go then……

Yep, could see all the way up. This view is looking back down.

Tale from the Tour

Another memorable day, made all the better by great weather. I reckon I’m properly acclimatised now and so with a max temperature of 30C on the Tourmalet and 25C on the Soulom before that in he morning, this was not far from perfect. In fact it was a perfect day’s cycling. Quite short at 117km, which meant I was home and hosed shortly after 4pm.

Still a bit misty by the time we got to the first feedstop, but it soon burned off.

On the statistics front, I have now ridden 100,000 miles since I started cycling in 1995. I reached that point at the top of the Soulor (give or take a few miles maybe as I’m not claiming scientific rigour here, but who cares!). I’ve probably done about one third of those miles in my Bigfoot club jersey, so that’s what I chose to ride in today.

100,000 and counting
On the way up the Soulor

Lots of other stuff going on at the top of the Soulor too, as demonstrated by the photos below.

Don’t you just hate it when someone parks their sheep too close to your car?
Coffee Ian just hates it when someone leans their bike against his van. Whoever leant their donkey against it is in trouble!

Later, on the way to the Tourmalet:

Wallace et Grommet?

Then at the summit, the obligatory glory shot.

I am grateful to Steve back at Bigfoot for analysing such data as I provide for giving the sort of feedback that I really appreciate. Specifically, he has found that I get a better performance benefit from Tarte aux Myrtilles than I do from white Magnums. Sadly, while the latter are available everywhere, the former tends to be ubiquitous in the Vosges. I’ll have to see if I dare better with hazelnut Magnums!

By the way, if you saw the Tour de France ride into Chalon-sur-Saône yesterday, you may have noticed that in the kilometre or so before the end they were travelling at 68kph. That’s more than I can manage going downhill – top speed today for me was 65kph!

The relatively short course and decent climbing conditions meant that this stage was not as much of a sufferfest as it could have been. Tomorrow might be a different story.

Stage 13: Pau

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 07:30. Transfer: before 0h45, after 0h45. Start time: 10:25. Distance: 27km. Terrain: gentle hills, then flat (412 metres climbing). Climbs: none. Finish: 11:53. Time in saddle: 1h22. Temp: 25C. Drinks: 0.75 litres (a one bottle ride).

Suffer scores: John 0.5/10. Wim 0.5/10.

Local lowdown

The Tour comes to Pau so often! Indeed, this is the 71st time since 1930. However, we are staying in nearby Tarbes, so today we are doing a hit job on Pau for this short time-trial so that we can have two nights in the same hotel. Both of my two previous Tour de Force/Le Loop experiences have included an overnight stay in Pau and although the hotel itself was fine, as I recall the breakfast wasn’t up to much. This is a key concern for a hungry cyclist! Thank goodness for well-stocked feedstops!

Tale from the Tour

A perfectly pleasant recovery ride today, which the pros will ride at least twice as fast as me because it’s a time trial. I took 1h24 to ride the course (including the bit back from the finish to where our coaches were picking us up). What will the winning time be next week? 30 minutes?

A quick word on temperature. Every day starts off around 18-20C and hits the mid-30s somewhere each afternoon. I tend to record the highest temperature we typically have to ride in, rather than all the highest points necessarily because times of ridiculous heat (e.g. riding into Rodez) tend to be fleeting. The exception was yesterday where I spent a good bit of time cooking at 41C, so that’s the temperature I recorded. Today’s ride was completed in the morning, before it got too hot.

To begin with, we left the park where there are yellow monuments erected to celebrate each of the wearers of the yellow jersey. Quite a sight against an imposing backdrop. The course then snaked gently upwards and on the road were painted the names of all the winners of the previous Pau stages. I of course had my photo taken alongside Geraint Thomas’s monument.

A lovely wooded course followed, which had a number of ups and downs including at least a couple of sharp right turns where the pros will have to take care not to overcook the corners. Then there was a long straight road into Pau to finish.

Got lots of positive comments about the Bath Rugby cycling jersey that I wore today. My brother Gareth who got it for me warmed me that the jersey might not be popular in Pau because that’s one of the few European teams that Bath have defeated. I looked it up and that win was a few years ago now, so I felt pretty safe.

That’s it for the riding today, so it’s almost like a rest day. Just as well, because we now have two big stages to come. No suffering of any description today.

After a quick lunch back at the hotel, I decided to take a taxi into town and get my washing done. Only three days’ worth, but a master stroke (so I believe) because it means I can get to the end of the Tour without having to go to a launderette in Nimes on our next rest day! Given that we will have to spend a few hours getting to Nimes on the rest day (otherwise known as Monday in the world outside the cycling bubble – we inside it lose track!), it is likely that cyclists with sweaty kit will be putting high demand on available launderettes. With eight days left and six sets of kit, I can now get by with a minimal amount of hand washing. Actually, my action this afternoon can be said to benefit the others too, as I will be out of their way.

After getting that job done, I had a quick look around the town centre, a beer with a few fellow riders and a taxi back to the hotel.

We have a Moroccan “all you can eat buffet” tonight and I’m starving already with two hours to go!

Stage 12: Toulouse to Bagnères-de-Bigorre

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:30. Transfer: 0h40 (post ride and dinner). Start time: 08:01. Distance: 202km. Terrain: mountain (2,987 metres climbing). Climbs: two Cat 1, one Cat 4. Finish: 19:15. Time in saddle: 9h47. Temp 41C (max). Drinks: 5 litres.

Crepes (Sucre):0

Magnums (white): 1

Suffer scores: John 4/10. Wim 6/10.

Local lowdown

We could easily get swamped in Toulouse, being the fourth largest city in France. Can you guess the others? Probably, but which one is fifth largest? Would be nice to know the answer to that one! From Toulouse we head to the spa town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre for the start of our adventures in the Pyrenees. Although we are not climbing it, I love the idea that for a concert hosted on the nearby Pic du Midi (altitude 2,800 metres), someone once flew in a piano by helicopter! I imagine that students who now attend the academy there transport their instruments by more traditional means.

Tale from the Tour

What a super day today turned out to be again. First we had the drag of getting out of the Pink City, contending with busy traffic and roadworks. Toulouse’s nickname arises due to so many buildings made out of that colour of brick, which we saw not just in Toulouse but in the surrounding towns and villages.

The ride was pretty uneventful until about halfway, when we started to climb the Peyresourde. The climb was made tougher than it needed to be because the temperature hit 41C, with the heat radiator the walls and us being in plain sun. We passed a number of water fountains but I kept going until I saw one where I could be sure the water was drinkable. Time to cool my head down, chug some cold water and make sure I had two full bottles for the rest of the climb. There was not much shade – when there was the the temperature dipped a little, but not much.

Peyresourde in the distance

Quick descent after that, which was followed by a much more pleasurable climb – shorter, but much the same average gradient. The Hourquette d’Ancizan climb was mostly in the shade, the maximum temperature being 30C and most of it being at a perfectly acceptable 25C. My secret weapon, though, was the white Magnum I had before the climb and the can of Orangina that I slipped into my pocket to drink further up the climb.

I nearly didn’t get a drink in that village, though, because the shopkeeper seemed to have no change! He showed me an empty wallet and a handful of coins such that he could not change a €10 note. Apart from that, entering that shop seemed to set me back 50 years, not the 5 minutes I was expecting to lose!

Ice cream stop
Looking up at the Hourquette d’Ancizan

I enjoyed seeing the rivers that ran along side the roads we descended. And coming off the Ancizan it was fun to see the donkeys, cows and horses that I had been expecting in the national park that I have ridden through before, but from the other side.

In fact “fun” is the operative word for today. Not so much at the beginning but the fun factor definitely increased as the day went on, culminating in seeing the preparations for the Fete des Mariolles (life-size figures) in Campan. They were everywhere, seemingly cheering us on!

Because of messing around taking photos I missed the first sitting for dinner and the bus to Tarbes by a few minutes. Never mind, I was happy to have taken my photos and it also meant that I had a massage while waiting for the second sitting. This is more likely to be tricky to get now that our numbers have swollen from 55 or so to 90 with an influx of people looking to do the four Pyrenees stages or the second half of the Tour.

While the heat did make the Peyresourde harder than it would have been, I am really happy with my hydration such that I again rode within my abilities. Indeed, the Hourquette d’Ancizan climb went so well that after a short while I found that I was powering up at a strong, consistent tempo which has given me a lot of encouragement.