Stage 7: L’Isle-Jourdain to Lac de Payolle

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:00. Transfers: 1:30 & 1:30. Start time: 08:25 Distance: 162.5 km. Terrain: rolling, then high mountains (2.400 metres). Climbs: one category 4, one category 1. Finish: 17:15. Time in the saddle: 7:22 hours.

Scrambled egg and bacon for breakfast. Result!

Local lowdown

Lac de Payolle sounds very carnivore, with its Campan lamb and garbure. The latter is not as bad as it might sound – it’s meat and cabbage stew. OK, so maybe that does not seem so very enticing. There is some local blueberry jam to taste afterwards though.

Tale from the Tour

On the bus to the start

Deep into southern France now and nothing but the sound of silence and the gentle humming of the wheels as we started climbing the Aspin. The roads had been reasonably busy until then, but nothing like yesterday.
A tour like this examines you both mentally and physically.  Looking back now I realise that yesterday I had to dig fairly deep physically, though to a lesser extent mentally. This morning started with a different type of physical self-examination, following which Gary decided to wear two pairs of bib shorts. I won’t give any further explanation, you won’t thank me for it.

It comes to something when we describe 162 km as a short ride, but that’s how we see it in comparison with the others. This allowed us to do a second transfer after the ride to get to Pau, the start point for tomorrow. This will enable us to get away early on what will be the first of two monstrous days.  We had two buses arranged to pick us up and I was fortunate enough to arrive well on time for the first one, giving me more time to sort myself out this evening. I didn’t see Gary all day and he’ll come back on the second bus. I know that this is because he is managing his effort, his knees are still not right and he is looking forward to the rest day, when I fly home. Otherwise he’s fine and riding well, as you would expect.

(Update: Gary was lead astray by others and ended up doing extra mileage before being picked up and dropped off where he should been. As Gary says, at least he will beat me on Strava now!)

The ride for me today was all about getting into good groups and gives me a good opportunity to explain the feed stop strategy too. There are four feed stops each day at approx 40 km intervals. We see one van at stops 1&3 and the other at stops 2&4. This means we can add or discard clothing depending on conditions, rather than having to be self-sufficient for the whole day. I’ve even got a winter jacket in case I need it! There is always plenty to eat, with lunch at feedstop 3 and coke, chocolate and general sugar rush stuff at feedstop 4 to fuel us home (unless we also stop for an ice cream as some of us did yesterday). We always get a cheerful greeting from Sam and Heidi at 1&3 and from Ian (fellow Welshman – what will happen tonight against Belgium?) and Shim at 2&4. The girls can help sort out injuries for those that need it, though the main work is done back at the hotel.

We need to be organised as we need one bag for each van and doubles of everything kit-wise is a good idea. It’s no point having a rain jacket in 2&4 when it is raining at 1 or 3.

The rule is that no-one leaves feedstop 1 until everyone has made it in as  I may have mentioned. Today the long flat run to feedstop 1 was such that we all arrived together. The group of 55 ended up as two even sized trains. Not a group size that works in the lanes at home but which was ok here.

Once we leave feedstop 1 we can ride as we please. Between 1 and 2 I hooked up with Monty and Piers, members of the Wates family and both very strong riders (Hugh Webb will remember them). I was doing my stretches when they left feedstop 2 which was fine, so I hooked up with Scott, Nicole and Windy who were all ready to go when I was. This saw us through to lunch and, as with Monty and Piers, featured excellent group riding and we were really flying along, including a power climb led by Nicole over the cat 4. Great work.  After another excellent lunch, I was ready to go earlier than the others so latched on to another group of 5 for the short 19 km run to feedstop 4, the last before our first cat 1 climb of the tour, the Aspin. This I rode on my own through choice – 12 km at an average gradient of 8%. Unlike the mountains of Stage 5 which had similar averages, this was a steady one with nothing  over 10%.

I loved this climb, though could hear the promised thunder in the valley below. It did not rain on me until 1 km from the summit, following which there was a 7 km descent to the finish. Pity those still climbing. It was interesting riding through the cloud and to see the cloud/mist rolling down the road towards me.

People bagging a spot ahead of the pro tour next week
View from the top

I joined the others who had already finished in a cafe at the top and had a hot chocolate while waiting for van 1&3 (and unusually today 5 also) to arrive with a change of clothing – very welcome as we had all got wet. I had cheated by going to the shop and buying a T-shirt and fleece as I did not want to wait, and am very pleased I did. If you think this blog is long today, it is because I  am warm and cosy and whiling away the coach journey to Pau. Makes a nice change from getting it done after dinner when I should really be thinking about getting some sleep!

In other news, wheat fields are giving way to maize and there were just a couple of sunflower fields. Hugh W – I wanted to take a photo for you, but it wasn’t to be. They did indeed bow their heads in awe as we whizzed past!

Will do my stretching exercises later – treatment has made a difference and is an answer to prayer. Felt really strong today.

Penseé du Pédaleur

Up we go. Only one climb today on the Aspin. I’ve climbed this before as part of my Pyrenees costs-to-coast journey in 2014. It’s a beautiful climb. Now I think it’s confession time. Just before I came out, one of my club mates Gerard questioned the gearing I had on the bike – was I really going to use a cassette that only had a lowest gear of 25 when surely a 28 would make more sense? For the uninitiated, the bigger that number, the easier it is to turn the pedals when climbing. It was not until that point that I realised that I had completely overlooked the fact that when the previous cassette had worn out, the bike shop had not replaced like with like, so I thought I was still riding a 28! How unobservant is that! It probably partly accounts for why I struggled so much when riding a stage of the Tour de France last year, though the heat then had a lot to do with that too. Thanks Gerard, you have saved me a lot of pain on the mountain stages we have had so far and in the coming two days especially. I owe you one!

Stage 6: Arpajon-sur-cère to Montauban

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:00. Transfer: 30 minutes. Start time: 07:30. Distance: 192 km. Terrain: flat (1,100 metres). Climbs: two category 3, one category 4. Finish: 18:20. Time in the saddle: 8:29 hours.

Local lowdown

Montauban seems to go for the sweet things, especially “bonbons flingeurs”. These are chocolate-based sweets, but sounds like a recipe for a messy food-fight!

Tale from the Tour

Another fairly long and winding road as we wend our way south west.

We again started as yesterday finished, with some climbing before we then spent some time in the Lot valley, which was again beautiful. By now you probably realise that what the Tour de France calls flat is in fact undulating and the climbing adds up.

We have a film crew with us for a few days and were asked to wear our Tour de Force kit. Mine was still damp from two days ago so I treated my self to some clean, dry clothing instead. More than one person commented that with the white fleck on an episcopal purple shirt I looked like a bishop!

The cycling bishop. “Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I did not oil my chain today.”

Gary is all taped up again today and doing his stretches. Last night we were in bunk beds. I took the top bunk on account of the fact I only have one dodgy knee so it was less difficult for me to clamber up. We both got through today OK though and are responding to treatment.

A good chunk of the middle sections were busy major roads and not particularly pleasureable. But we are following the Tour and that is what we signed up for. As the stage wore on, we returned to the countryside and some wonderful views.

Another view cyclists will like is this one below of newly laid smooth tarmac.

Smooth roads make the whole cycling experience much better and we are reaping the benefit of the work that needs to be done to prepare for the Tour.

The heavy machinery is out in force too, clearing stones from an otherwise dangerous descent.

Although I rode a good chunk of this on my own today, I ultimately latched on to Paul, Tim, Tony and Peter and bought the ice creams so that they would have the energy to drag me home! We then sat and shouted encouragement at the other Tour de Force riders going through. Allez Allez allez!

We are in a far nicer hotel tonight compared with the ski chalet of last night where apparently the Lotto-Soudal team will stay too. I can’t imagine that Andre Griepel will have to sleep where I slept, but it’s entirely possible!

Once back at the hotel at an earlier time than last night , Shim the physio worked on my dodgy knee and showed me some exercises. It’s feeling better already.

I know, it looks like I’m practicing my ballet moves, but the photos taken during this session are to help me remember what to do

It was then time for dinner. I’ve not really mentioned this yet, but we hoover up a huge amount of food each day. Bed now for another early start tomorrow.

Penseé du Pédaleur

I have a particular affinity with the South West of France where we are now, though the town I know best is further to the west and on the coast – Arcachon. It was here that I spent 12 months as an 18 year old working as an “aid” to a former GP  (and who was from the Lot area where we were today) who was crippled with arthritis and needed assistance in getting around. It was quite a restrictive time for me in many ways, but spending so much time with a well-educated man meant that my French language skills, which I had studied to A-level, came on very quickly such that after a few months I was fluent. Some of that has faded with the passage of time, but I still feel comfortable with the language and totally at home in France, which does not seem foreign to me in the same way as when I visit other places.

Retaining the language skill has facilitated some roadside banter with the locals. “Oi, you are a week too early for the Tour”. “Yes but otherwise they’ll catch us up!”

Stage 5: Limoges to Le Lioran

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:45. Transfer: none. Start time: 07:30. Distance: 216 km. Terrain: medium mountains (4,200 metres). Climbs: two category 2, three category 3, one category 4. Finish: 20:30. Time in the saddle: 11:02 hours.

Local lowdown

In the region of Le Lioran they like their truffade (potato pancake with cheese). I can just imagine tucking into one of those after a day on the ski slopes when you really fancy something that sticks to the ribs. Cantal cheese also comes from this region, another favourite of mine.

In fact today I had both. Result!

Tale from the Tour

And so after four days of supposedly flat riding, today we are coming round to the mountains. But that was after a truly spectacular day that started in the Limousin in deepest France, la France profonde.

A picture of tranquility

Despite being in a cycling “bubble” at the moment, I  am aware of the chaos at home (following the EU referendum result), so the above picture is a welcome contrast. I think I will need it as a screensaver when I get back.

We started where yesterday left off, with some beautiful wooded descents. This is why we ride.

Today was huge in terms of climbing, not just the cumulative effect of undulations but the final three categorised climbs. The first two I had done before but were far tougher than I remember, the gradient rarely dipping below double figures. But I could not have enjoyed this stage more if I had tried, despite the lateness of the final arrival.

Now that I am midway through my tour it is time to take stock. I thoroughly enjoyed the first three days and I did enjoy day 4 too. Although that was not a “down” day, the cumulative effort did leave me somewhat fatigued and I was not bouncing like I was on day 3. Today I got my bounce back.

The other thing is that I was carrying a bit of a injury when I arrived. Basically tight muscles in my left leg and the small of my back. The Athletes Angels on tour are awesome and I have been fixed. But at the first feed stop today I said to Heidi that I wanted to show her my left knee. Not because there was anything wrong with it, but because it was a nice knee. I am sounding like my Dad now – I think it’s genetic!

Actually my knee is sore now, but I have some stretching to do and will be fine. May get a massage again tomorrow if there is time. It should be a shorter stage.

Putting my body back together

One of the logistical difficulties is getting dirty kit washed and dried. I sometimes have to put damp kit in my overnight bag, which is not ideal. However, I have a reasonable amount of kit with me so I am close to the point where the worst case is that although I have clean dry kit to wear, the bag will be stinky when I get home! A bigger issue is shoes. They do not always dry out overnight, and even when they do then they stink too!  Life on tour. Not that I’m complaining, just telling it like it is. In fact there is a lot to do at the end of the cycling day: call home, upload Strava, charge Garmin and phone, shower, wash kit (getting it dry is a bonus), eat, sort out kit and bag for next day, update blog, sleep. So if you see the T-shirt that says “eat, sleep, ride, repeat” forget it, it’s a bare faced lie.  You would need an XXXL shirt if you wanted to convey the truth!

Penseé du Pédaleur

The Massif Central, the first of the “medium mountains”. I’ve been here twice before. The first time was a South Glamorgan Schools skiing trip to La Bourboule. Never mind just loving France, this is where my love of the mountains first started. For a number of years I enjoyed being able to ski down them in the winter, but now I prefer to ride up them in the summer.

The second time was in 2011 when I rode a stage of the Tour de France for the first time. The course was right up my street, with a series of punchy climbs in the middle of a very long stage (208km). I was told that the views from the various climbs were spectacular, though I saw nothing on account of the rain, hail and heavy mist. I got to see the scenery this time and was not disappointed.

Stage 5: extra


So tonight was quiz night back at work in London and I had been asked to provide a photo of me as a child for the picture quiz. Did you spot me in the line up? I think there was a big clue there!

I’ve maybe got in too late to do my full blog tonight, but wanted to say thank you for all the messages I’ve received and to which I may not have responded properly or at all.

Suffice to say that I have a good appreciation of how tough the Tour de France is. No wonder they call it the hardest sporting event.

I feel like I’m being watched!

I was very touched by the good luck card I got from work and it is travelling with me!

Marie – if you are reading this, then I hope the op went well and that recovery is underway.

Stage 4: Saumur to Limoges

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:00. Transfer: 45 minutes. Start time: 07:50. Distance: 242 km. Terrain: flat, then undulating (2,500 metres). Climbs: one category 4. Finish: 20:05. Time in the saddle:  9:56 hours.

Local lowdown

We did not have time to spend in Saumur, which is a shame because one of the local features of note is the vast labyrinth of caves which gives rise to “troglodytisme”. Yes, you too can pursue “la vie en troglo” if you were to purchase a “troglogîte” as, say, a holiday home! We spend the evening in Limoges, famous of course for its porcelain. But it is also known for clafoutis, which is one of my favourite desserts. It’s sort of like a sweet Yorkshire pudding but with fruit in it (cherries, traditionally) and I think each person’s clafoutis comes out differently, just like Yorkshire puds seem to.

Tale from the Tour

We started off being bussed to Saumur for the start of today’s ride, so we did not look back at Angers but got on with the longest stage of the whole Tour.

The ride passed without incident today, though it was the longest of the Tour. It was notable for (1) a bend in the road (it was so straight that this feature was called out from the front of the group as being worth pointing out) and (2) we passed the 500 mile point for the trip. As we are in the Fun Bus, this prompted a chorus from the Proclaimers. Obviously! The other notable thing was notable by its absence – there was a distinct lack of decorations being prepared for the Tour which will pass next week compared with the first two days in the region of La Manche. There’s still time.

Half the bus has gone through and the other half will be along in a minute

Today Paul and Tony chose to join the Fun Bus. They did a sterling job and insisted that they were happy doing all the work on the front and stayed there for about 200 of the 240 km today. For this Tony was given Rider of the Day award by our ride leader Phil. Since I was otherwise struggling to determine who should get the “chapeau” for the day (it was in my gift as the current wearer), that made it easy to decide to give it to Paul for his equally heroic effort on the front.

Very Norman Wisdom

We had rain on and off for most of the morning but it was a fine afternoon and getting warmer as we headed south. The landscape changed as the day progressed from wide open spaces, to wheat fields, to towns and villages and then finally to beautiful wooded areas and I am going to let the pictures tell the story.

Penseé du Pédaleur

The last “flat” day before we start seeing mountains looming into view, which again we saw from a distance. I’m expecting those to be a challenge after the riding we have already done, but not too daunting as I have ridden there before. But I’m not going to let complacency set in.

Definitely not a one dimensional character

I’ve been getting to know people a bit more too. On Day 1 all we really know about each other is that we ride bikes. But none of us are one dimensional so it’s good to have a chat about other things. As I said in my very first blog “my name is John and I ride a bike”, but there are other sides to all of us too – at work I’m one of the bosses and in my choir I’m one of the basses! At the church where I worship the God who has made all this possible for me and more besides, I’m the guy who looks after the money too (so that’s why I always wanted to be an accountant from the age of 14 – it was part of a greater plan!). Mountains tomorrow, which will focus the mind.

You can just about make out the Massif Central on the horizon

Stage 3: Granville to Angers

Now I know why my wife Babs says I’m too skinny!

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 05:45. Transfer: 1 hour. Start time: 08:00. Distance: 223.5 km. Terrain: undulating, then flat (1,500 metres). Climbs: one category 4. Finish: 19:10. Time in the saddle: 8:58 hours.

Local lowdown

We started in Granville, where they like to put scallops and cream on their pancakes apparently. But today we left Normandy and are now in Angers, which lists Cointreau among its specialities. Now I quite like scallops, but on balance I think I’d prefer to take the best of each area and order a crêpe suzette, as it’s quite fun setting fire to your dinner deliberately! If you like Rillauds d’Anjou (pork belly), then Angers is the place for you.

Tale from the Tour

Today’s ride started on the beach at Granville. Well, nearby anyway and in persistent rain that lasted most of the day. So I’ve used a photo from earlier!

We were a select band today, just the 30+ lifers and 4 semi-lifers like me, as those who joined for the first two stages have now gone home and the next influx will not be until Stage 5.

Not great at first, but that all changed with the day’s most entertaining moment which ended up with the rider being awarded the “nelly” prize. His crime? He had not properly rinsed his shorts and so when they got wet, foam started appearing from his backside and was blown towards us. It was like cycling into a blizzard!  If I could have videoed it, I would have called the film “Blazing saddles, foaming bottom”!  From then on it all changed and we laughed out loud every time we thought about it during the rest of the day.

Was that Bill or Ben at the feedstop? Someone suggested it might be Norman!

I rode in the last group with Annabel, Jenn, Gene and, until injury struck, Tim. This group is known in cycling circles as the “grupetto”, or “fun bus”. We also kept our spirits up by singing a whole load of songs, mostly to do with rain (Eurythmics, Supertramp among many others) and marked the half way point of a long stage with Bon Jovi and the 2/3 point with Meatloaf!

Another highlight was when we drafted behind a tractor for a while. It was warmer there too!  I was quite disappointed when I saw it turning off, but it was turning into the Tractor shop and so I was able to grab a photo!

Jenn and Annabel coming past the tractor shop

Our grupetto was commended tonight for our group riding. We stayed in perfect formation for most of the ride and that really helped the miles tick by. Our group had formed early on when I spotted that the ladies had disappeared. I had assumed that this was because they needed a cafe (us blokes have hedges, nuff said), but anyway after I checked which was our exit off the roundabout (signage is excellent on this tour), I went back for them.  This was just as well because the last of our vans had just gone by and was not aware we had stopped (we should have told him), and his job was to take down the signs! Panic averted, because I could just about see Andy in the distance taking down further signs. Quick sprint, and I caught him so we were safe! Lesson learned. For this I was honoured to receive the “chapeau” award tonight, so I get to wear the flat cap until I pass it on to the next winner tomorrow. And I just thought I was doing what anyone would, looking out for my fellow cyclists.

Penseé du Pédaleur

Not Chartres

On these long straight, flat roads you can see for miles and miles. Today I recalled the time when I was supposed to be studying for my initial accountancy exams but headed off to the Loire that week instead because I only had two to do and had covered most of the topics before, but had not managed to get an exemption. I had visited Chartres, which you can see  really well from a great distance. The above photo is not Chartres, but illustrates the point to a degree. So today we were riding in an area I had been previously and when I had absolutely no clue as to how the gears worked! A basic lack of technical competence that I probably still possess. At least on that day it did not matter very much. And I passed my exams!

Stage 2: Saint-Lô to Cherbourg

Team Bigfoot

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 05:45. Transfer: 30 minutes. Start time: 07:35. Distance: 186 km. Terrain: undulating (2,300 metres). Climbs: one category 3, three category 4. Finish: 16:55. Time in the saddle: 7:25 hours.

Please forgive any typos and formatting issues as I am having to do this all on my phone and it’s a bit fiddly. I might sort it out on my return. [Update: done]

Local lowdown

The Cherbourg specialities include a couple of odd things. “Demoiselles de Cherbourg”, literally “young ladies of Cherbourg”. But these are small lobsters cooked in broth and are probably not very demure when they are first lobbed into the pot. Then there is also “Le veritable Cherbourg umbrella”. An odd thing to list perhaps. Must have something to do with the proximity to the UK.

Tale from the Tour

Today’s ride also stayed within La Manche and we were sailing along (albeit mostly into a headwind) heading north, where across the waters you can see Jersey.

You can just about make out Jersey, boys

We have got into a good routine already it seems, after a bit of faffing on the first morning. The night before, we have our main bags packed ready for loading in the morning and which we won’t see again until the evening, and day bags ready too. We can access those at the feed stations to retrieve/deposit extra kit if we want. That means that we can get up and down to breakfast in about 20 minutes now, which is good news given the early starts! I feel like we are already old hands at this and it’s only Day 2.

There are four feed stops each day at approx 40 km intervals which works well and this divides each ride into five. Nobody leaves the first one until all have arrived, to make it more sociable. The stops are always welcome and are well stocked.

Feedstop 1
Abbaye de Hambye

The first section was the prettiest, passing through wooded areas. It also contained the first two cat 4 climbs (pimples really). Fans of Asterix may know this area as Amorique and on one of the climbs I could just imagine the Gaulish village of Petitbonum nestling in the valley below!

Section 2 I road mostly on my own as I kept stopping to take photos of the views and of the various decorations put up to welcome the Tour.

For the rest of the ride Gary and I worked well together and looked out for each other. Great teamwork, though at one point I was aware of being a little late coming through to take my turn as I was mesmerised by his socks!

Gary’s hypnotic socks

Section three was long and flat and straight and windy. For a few km we were on the same road as people riding the stage we did yesterday as the two crossed briefly. We caught up with a couple who had missed their turn and now had to retrace their steps for at least 10km, making their long ride even longer. Poor them.

Section 4 followed the coast but the busy roads made this road more functional than enjoyable, especially when the sea was masked by the dunes. We did enjoy the mechanical cow below though – watch out for her on TV next week when I am sure she will be pedalling!

Entering Vasteville – not a big town, but very pretty


One of many giant constructions along the Tour route

In the final section was a cat 3 climb that has not been used by the Tour de France before or indeed any race. For me this was an average climb with one 14% bend, so not too taxing.

Back in time for a massage before a cold beer and some dinner.

Pensee du Pédaleur

We ended today in Cherbourg. In times past, this was the first port of call on my way from Cardiff to Nantes as part of a school exchange. So began my love of France. Looking ahead at the route, I have a feeling that I will be reminiscing somewhat on what different parts of the country mean to me. One thing that sticks in my mind from my first visit was my friend Adrian buying a tin of snails to take home and eat, much to our horror! Many years later I was round Adrian’s house and we were rooting in the kitchen for some snacks to go with our beers. Guess what was lurking at the back of the cupboard! Yes, and there they stayed! Youthful bravado, and now of course I am indulging in some rather less youthful bravado. But still, that’s two days safely completed.