My preparations for my Le Loop/Tour de France exploits in June/July 2019 reached their peak on the middle weekend of May when I spent four days in the Vosges region of eastern France. This was spent in the company of fellow Bigfoot rider Rob and most of the same bunch of guys with whom I spent a happy few days in Briançon last June – John, Ben and Andy, plus Olivier who had not been able to make it last year. Sadly, Ying was not able to come this time.
But first, a quick training update. The winter’s work on the turbo in the garage seems to have paid off and I’ve been going well on the local climbs. I’ve been focussing on doing some challenging rides and on doing some long rides, finally reaching the point on the occasion of my 58th birthday in late April when I completed my hundredth century ride of all time – averaging 10 per year since my first one in May 2009, though of course the frequency of completing rides of 100 miles or more has increased in recent years.
I’ve ridden less distance than when I started half the Tour de France in 2016 (4,000 miles) and the whole Tour in 2017 (4,500 miles), but 3,100 miles year to date is perfectly acceptable given my “smarter” training programme this winter and I expect to be at around 3,500 miles when I head to Brussels on 28 June. One thing I learned in France just now is that my climbing speed seems to have increased compared with last year. Sadly, I still descend like a feather so I’m still going to be losing time there.
So on to the Vosges, which I also visited in May 2017, both to recce some of the route and to get some good climbing in. It’s not as high as the Alps, but you can still put in some 30-40 minutes climbs rather than the 7-10 minutes that you typically get in the North Downs.
Rob and I travelled down early Thursday morning, with the others not due to arrive until late in the evening. So of course we went for a little leg-loosener in the afternoon, heading over our first col of the day (Col de Grosse Pierre, at 955m) to Gérardmer where we cycled around the small, pretty lake before heading home via a second lake and a sweeping descent back into La Bresse, which was our base for the trip. We then went shopping for the essentials but forgot the milk. Kronenbourg 1664 with your cereals anyone?
Friday: Planche des Belles Filles
Friday, and we were all set for a big day. Very soon we arrived at the Ballon d’Alsace, which provided a first indication of how we were all feeling. It was clear that John was going well and that Olivier was going very well. However, our points scoring system was based on performance against our own individual targets (i.e. our climbing speeds), so we wouldn’t know until we got home who actually won any of the climbs even though Olivier always reached the top first. While I descend like a feather, he is as light as one and just seems to float away!
Next up was the Planche des Belles Filles. This also featured in the 2017 Tour, but on that occasion the route stopped on a flat section just after a 20% ramp. This year the route continues for another 900 metres or so and goes up a second ramp that is even more steep but affords a great view at the top. The especially tricky thing about that final ramp is that it is all gravel. Whether it is still like that by the time the Tour comes through remains to be seen, but if they don’t tarmac/sweep/compress the surface then it could have a big impact on the race. I was unable to get to the top without walking a bit, but full marks to Ben who rode up and down the gravel without stopping, to John who only had to put a foot down briefly but crucially was able to restart and to Olivier who cleverly rode on as much grass as possible, including taking the ski-run down! Andy was wise and left us to it, while unfortunately Rob had a mechanical lower down the climb and never got that far. In fact, he ended up having to limp back to the bike shop in La Bresse with a knackered bike, though they were able to replace a broken part so that he could ride again – on which more later.
Finally, up and over the Ballon de Servance, followed by a most marvellous Pâté de Lorraine from a boulangerie (think of a Cornish pasty, but stuffed with pâté and you get the idea) and we were back home. 123km with 2,600 metres of climbing.
Saturday: Munster – Calvaire
Ben had plotted a route for us that was much more of a holiday ride than the day before, though it was still 103km with 2,100 metres of climbing. After climbing out of La Bresse we had a long long descent into Munster (18 km). Feeling very German here, and that’s the language we heard most at our cafe stop. Well, this area has changed hands a few times in the past and that is also evident from some of the place names and the architecture. Climbing back out through Stosswihr (see?) and we ended up deviating from our intended route and ended up at the top of Col du Wettstein (see again?) and then on to Linge. Back down to our original route before climbing up to Orbey. The final climb of the day was up to Col du Calvaire and then there was a fantastic undulating plateau for about 12km where I was feeling really strong, especially compared with my sluggish start to the day pre-coffee in Munster.
We stopped at a cafe in Schlucht, just over the road from an old customs building as this used to be the border point, though we are a fair way from the current French/German border. It had been getting chilly, so here there was a chance to warm up by the stove and eat what seemed like half a pig each. Rob had not been with us this morning because he wanted to test out his repaired bike on the Grand Ballon rather than risk going for a longer ride. Although we were only about 15km from home at this point, Rob was unable to join us for lunch as another problem had arisen with his bike and he was planning to head off to a bike shop in Épinal, an hour away, as the local shop could not help. Fortunately, after lunch we all met up at the ski station in La Bresse Hohneck where we had to register for tomorrow’s event. This meant that I was able to call the bike shops in Épinal for him and learn that they did not have the part he needed, so at least that saved Rob spending a couple of hours in the car for nothing. In the end, although the jockey wheel was damaged, the bike was still rideable.
John had been keeping score in our little competition, though its rules and calculations remain a thing of mystery and confusion. Sunday’s ride was not going to count towards all this, so after dinner that evening John announced Olivier as the worthy winner of the main competition. There was another prize to award too, for the “Côte de la Loulou”. Loulou is the lady who looks after the house and let’s just say that she is a real character (“Foufou” is what comes to mind!). We had found this Strava segment that started from the main road and led up to the house. Rob was the winner with a time of 1:26. I was a few seconds back on 1:48. Well done Rob!
Sunday: Granfondo Vosges
Originally the plan was that we would just go for another ride in the area, but after we had decided to stay in La Bresse we found that there was a sportive event taking place on the Sunday, starting and finishing in La Bresse Hohneck, just 10 km away from us. We all decided to do this and had signed up for the Granfondo (176km, 3,600 metres climbing), though there was talk of some possibly switching to the Mediofondo (122km, 2,700 metres climbing). The forecast wasn’t great, with the threat of rain and even possibly thunder throughout the day. In the event, after a damp and misty start I just caught a few brief showers, but nothing significant.
Today was not a day for waiting for each other at the tops of climbs or anywhere else, but of completing the challenge in the best times that we could. I had estimated that it would take me 8 hours. Now since I was in France for training purposes it frankly shouldn’t really matter which side of 8 hours I came in (so long as it didn’t take too much longer than that), but with Gold time for my age group being 7h59, well that gave me something to aim for.
The ride itself was rather like the Kentish Killer on steroids! The climbs were as steep as some of those in the North Downs, but went on for longer. Initially there were floods of people riding past me, to the point where it felt like the entire field of up to 2,000 riders were going past. I had decided to save some time by not stopping at the first feed station which was at 40k. I had food with me and still plenty of water, so I decided to press on until the second stop at 94km, which is more or less where I tend to have my first stop when I do my longer rides at home anyway, albeit not on such demanding terrain.
Another steep climb after the second feed station and by now there were riders weaving in front of me to try and lessen the gradient. I was still feeling strong – indeed this was the fourth tough climb of the ride but I had been feeling strong so far and was on a mission. I had cleared that second feed station after four hours and was hopeful of completing the rest of the ride in another four to get Gold. There was a lot of climbing left in that second half though, and with an uphill finish so it wasn’t going to be easy.
Pressing on to the last feed station at 145km, where I again took heed of Rob’s advice which was to spend no more than six minutes on any stop. Discipline – pee, fill water bottles, grab food, stuff pockets with more food (jelly sweets in this case), go. Eat what you can while still stopped and finish the rest while riding away. I had managed this in six minutes on the previous stop, but this one I did in three! Thanks Rob, I would no doubt have faffed around longer but for that advice. But had I taken longer then it probably would have meant that I’d have finished my brie baguette more elegantly rather than having cheese spread all over my top lip – which wouldn’t have mattered had there not been an official photographer shortly after that stop.
Now I was moving again, but straight into a bank of mist and then a short, sharp shower. I was thinking that if it stayed like this the rest of the day then I was going to have a horrible time as I was now also a bit cold. But the mist cleared and the rain stopped and I started on my mental arithmetic again. I figured that if I got down into La Bresse by 15:30 then I would have half a chance of getting through town and up the final ramp by 16:00 for Gold. I had not properly noted what time I started, but I figured that I had not rolled over the start line until about 5-10 minutes after 08:00, so I probably would have still had a few minutes in hand, but not many.
Still two more climbs to go before La Bresse though, and that section panned out in the same way as it had since just before half way once all the fast riders had gone through. Lots of people passing me on the descents and then me catching and passing them on the climbs. Up the penultimate climb – the Col de Grosse Pierre – but from the other side to what Rob and I had climbed on the day of our arrival. Summit at 15:25, but still 6km to descend into La Bresse. An arrival time of 15:30 was clearly not going to happen, but with the roads now dry again and some newly laid and smooth tarmac I didn’t do too badly. Heading through town, head down, powering away. Past the turning for our house, but no thought of calling it quits. I knew from the start to yesterday’s ride that the climb up to La Bresse Hohneck wasn’t too steep, but it was long at nearly 10km. How long had it taken me yesterday, albeit with fresh legs? Couldn’t remember, but I thought it was about 30 minutes. That was from the house though wasn’t it? Oh boy, this is going to be close. Telling myself that it didn’t really matter because I was only there for training and this organised event was never the main focus of our trip and our participation was a pure coincidence rather than being planned. So what if I did finish in 8h05 rather than 7h59? It just didn’t matter in the overall scheme of things did it? Did it? LIAR!!
I was just emptying the tank now. I had scoffed more gels and jelly sweets than I had ever before and it took quite a while before I realised that I was still powering along in the big ring rather than having switched down to the smaller ring and spinning up. OK, so the gradient wasn’t so steep for the most part but this was still a big, sustained effort. Feeling a need to pee. No time for that – I can wait a few more minutes. Flying past others who were slowly grinding their way up. I just wasn’t tired and had felt good all day. Maybe that was the adrenalin that I’m feeling again now as I write, because I was both tired and buzzing at the same time later that evening. Two inflatable arches come into view. Which one do I need? I hope the end isn’t going to be complicated. The route has been well signposted all day, but do I aim for the farther red one, which is where we started? Or the closer, less obtrusive and smaller pale green one that was just past the roundabout that I was now approaching? It was the green one! Great, seconds saved, and with a final surge past another rider I was over the timing mats to finish. Time now 16:04. That’s enough isn’t it? I’ve done it, no? Yes!! I had stopped the clock at 7h57! To cap it all, I had done that last climb in 14:32, more than a minute quicker than yesterday morning. Proper chuffed.
Crossing the line and happy to receive another medal to put in my drawer when I got home. I had seen Andy and Ben coming down the climb on their way home, having completed the Mediofondo. I was pretty sure Olivier and John would have finished ages ago, so the only person I was likely to see at the “Pasta Party” was Rob. However, where the routes diverged Rob had decided to switch to the Mediofondo and was already at home. Good job he had driven up to the start, because the over-enthusiastic chap putting a medal around his neck did so before he came to a proper stop, causing Rob to fall over and for the rear derailleur to snap off good and proper this time. Broken bike. Bloke disappears. Whether he was sorry or not we will never know. Rubbish end to a good ride from Rob though, who would have got Gold for the Mediofondo even in a much lower age group. Chapeau for that and for putting up with some misfortunes.
Belly full of pasta and a cheeky beer, it was time to head back down the mountain and dinner. Côte de Boeuf and Crozes Hermitage all round.
I now declare myself ready for Le Loop. Just need to stay healthy and keep ticking over without overdoing the cycling, even though it’s still probably a tad early to be thinking about tapering.