I could become a better all-round cyclist if I worked on my descending skills and could generate more power on the flat. However, in order to get through the Tour de Force I decided early on that I would focus on my (relative) strength, namely climbing. Climbing is when cycling tends to hurt most. Riding fast can hurt too, but you can always slow down a bit whereas the mountain is still going to be there! My aim is to enjoy the Tour and so I’m looking to minimise the pain and suffering in terms of time and effort required on the many cols and mountain tops that are to come. As of May, my total vertical ascent is now over 50 miles – that’s way above the stratosphere though not yet in space!
Early on I decided that I would recon some of the climbs that I don’t already know, so I planned this week of two halves, focussing on stages 5 and 9 of the 2017 Tour. I’ve written a lot and posted a lot of photos here. The narrative will help me when I get even older to remind me of this week and I am sure that some will just flick through the pictures. That’s absolutely fine! I am grateful for the interest shown and sponsorship received already and all I ask is that if you enjoy this blog (which is a taste of what’s to come in June/July) then you consider making a donation. All the money raised goes towards supporting the charities that the William Wates Memorial Trust supports (more on which I have posted earlier – see the Grand Slam post for example). That’s virginmoneygiving.com/johngriffiths5. Thank you!
The Tour spent a few days in the Vosges in Eastern France in 2014. I was captivated by the beauty of the landscape and it’s been on my “to do” list since then. Since stage 5 finishes at La Planches des Belles Filles (henceforth PDBF), I decided to go there first and also to ride the route of the “Trois Ballons” and to split all that activity over two full days, not cram it into one. My friend Matthew was with me for this part of the week as he is training for the Vatternrundun ride in Sweden (300km) and will be spending a week crossing the Canadian Rockies. We maximised time on the bike by getting in a short ride on arrival day (Friday) once the storm had cleared and got our first taste of the area.
On Saturday we headed straight for PDBF. At the café at Plancher des Mines we got chatting with Veronique, whose brother made this statue at the top. Not my best photo, but is depicts a belle fille – the legend is that this is a place where young ladies threw themselves to their deaths in order to escape unwelcome attention from the advancing Swedish mercenaries. However, it seems to be named after beech trees in the area – belles fahys in the local dialect. Indeed, there is a village called Belfahy in the area and it sits on top of a horrible climb. We know, because we rode it! Still, it got the legs warmed up nicely!
Veronique was not too keen on the Tour coming through because it not does too much for the area other than spoil it (it’s a massive juggernaut of an operation). She said that we were OK though because we were spending money in the café. But in a seeming contradiction, Veronique and the bar owner were excited to show us a newspaper cutting with a picture of Chris Froome at their friends’ café at the top of PDBF when he came through the previous week to do his own recon. That’s despite the signs commemorating his victory in 2012 when it took him a little over 16 minutes to complete the 5.9km climb so he clearly knows it rather well! We took rather longer than that – indeed Mr Froome would have had time to descend to the bottom and probably pass us as we got to the top!
The climb itself, by the way, was mostly fine. The first 5km is a fairly steady 10 or 11% but we were able to chat easily as we went up. Why is a 10% climb in France easier than a 10% climb at home? Road surface might have something to do with that, and so does the environment probably. There’s then a short dip and the final part of the climb gets steep (I hit 20% briefly), but it’s all over in a matter of a few hundred metres.
After a leisurely lunch at the café at PDBF, we then went on to tackle our first ballon – the Ballon de Servance. I think the term “ballon” is given to those mountains over 1,000 metres, otherwise there are many other cols dotted around which get to 600+ metres. This was a long, steady climb presenting no real difficulty as the gradient was mostly 6-9%. This made for a good descent the other side – not too steep and not too twisty. The last 20km home was ridden through a thunderstorm. We had seen it brewing for a while and had been circling it until it hit us big time, with hail as well just for good measure.
The next day we drove to Servance so that we could ride the rest of the Trois Ballons route, which included Ballon d’Alsace and the Grand Ballon (appropriately the highest of the three at 1,504 metres). With other cols dotted here and there, this was a day of constant ascending and descending. The two 15km climbs up the Ballons were just what I needed and it was a great ride. Rain jackets were on and off all day, but there was a lot of sunshine too. We were fortunate not to be out in the thunderstorm that followed. In the car on the way back we witnessed an even greater storm than the previous day. Hardly need for headlights with all the lightning, though the windscreen wipers needed to go at triple speed!
Matthew and I did a final ride together on Monday morning before he headed off to the airport and work tomorrow, poor thing! We followed the route of La Boucle de la Petite Finlande. So called, I think, because of all the lakes and pine trees. Once Matthew left after lunch, I had a power nap and felt ready to go again – I had been feeling weary on the morning ride. I explored to the north and west this time. Yet again there were more picturesque climbs and descents through forests, past lakes and streams and waterfalls. Is there no end to this beauty!
The Vosges fully lived up to my hopes and expectations in terms of scenery and cycling experience. Indeed, I feel like this is a cycling paradise, though you have to enjoy climbing which fortunately I do!
The climbs on Stage 9 of the Tour include Col de la Biche, Grand Colombier and Mont du Chat. After a long drive south on Tuesday morning, I arrived at Culoz from where I set out to climb the Mont du Chat. We go over the difficult side and descend into Bourget-du-Lac. The first sign you see is at 12km to go, but the climb kicks off in earnest from about 7km to go and the gradient soon gets to 14-20% and stays there. Ouch! With about 3km left to go, the gradient drops to around 12% which by now feels like a long-lost friend. The final run-in at 8% seems positively flat! But the view at the top is breath-taking. One photo does not do it justice but I can’t post my panoramic video here. With the lake down below and the Alps in the background, it’s inspiration enough to get me back up that climb in early July.
My return route via the D14 was blocked to cyclists due to work going on, so I either had to retrace my steps and climb Mont du Chat again, or add a few km to my day by going round the lake via Aix-les-Bains. Tempted as I was to do another climb, it was getting late in the day and the lake route was flat. Unfortunately so was my front tyre. I had two punctures today and was now out of spare tubes. With about 40km still to go I was concerned, but managed to blag a spare off a cyclist who I saw was at his car and packing up for the day. Result! There were no further blow outs but I felt better. On future solo rides I think I’ll take three tubes with me, though I’ve only ever had that many punctures once before I think.
On Wednesday I ventured out from my hotel in La Balme de Sillingy. It sounds like a lotion for curing daftness, but I think I’m a lost cause! It was great to set off from the hotel after three days of having a “transfer” first. It will be like this on tour, where most days involve getting on a coach first and those days where we can start directly from the hotel are a real joy. Not least because you can maybe have an extra 30 minutes in bed!
The Col de la Biche was tougher than I expected it to be, particularly at the bottom so that was good to note. Fairly unremarkable at the top and there was no café which was a shame, though I always carry some food with me.
Then it was on to Grand Colombier. Approaching it from this side offers two ways to the top. I plotted the right one on my Garmin, but dithered and ended up going up the climb that the Tour followed last year instead of the tougher one that we will do this year. However, the last 4km are the same regardless of the starting point so that’s OK. Where the two routes meet I did consider going down to Virieux le Petit and climbing again just to make sure I did the proper route (was fairly sure I was wrong by then), but I thought that would be excessive. Plus as it turns out there’s no café at the top here either and I was out of food by now, though with a descent into Seyssel coming up. In any case, having some “unfinished business” with a mountain can be motivational for next time!
In Seyssel, the bar had stopped serving food but I’d seen the sign that they had Affligem on tap – my favourite Belgian beer! When I was asked what I wanted, there was absolutely no thought of ordering a Coke or an Orangina – asking for a beer was a totally reflex action! I still had a little way to go to get back to the hotel, but I had a real sense of “mission accomplished” and a cheeky little “vingt cinq” wasn’t going to hurt!
I was previously thinking of going for a ride the next morning before heading north again for an overnight stay in Luxeuil-les-Bains (near where I had been staying in the Vosges), but all thoughts of that evaporated as I was having my beer. I think my body was telling me that I had done enough now. Indeed, it was crying out for a relaxing hour chilling out in the thermal baths, if that’s possible at 34 degrees. There were some aqua cycles in the pool, but I left those well alone! I’ve a little bit more training to do when I get back, then a holiday (no bikes!) and then I’ll just need to tick over gently until it’s time to come back out with the Tour de Force and experience the majesty of this region all over again.
I think I should have entitled this post “Beauty and Majesty”, for that is what it has been. But I think I’ve found my mountain legs (we’ll find out, won’t we!), so I’ll leave it at that.
See you in June…….