Stage 1: Mont St Michel to Utah Beach


In cycling, the world champion wears the rainbow jersey. Er…..

 

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:45. Transfer: none. Start time: 08:00. Distance: 198 km. Terrain: flat (1300 metres). Climbs: two category 4. Finish: 16:55. Time in the saddle: 7:17 hours.

All measurements include riding to or from the hotel to or from the start/finish.

Local lowdown

The official Tour de France website contains  loads of information about the various start and finish towns as well as details about the routes and is well worth a visit www.letour.com . I’ve taken a look at this and some other local information too. Some things do stand out  which are worthy of note, so each day this section will feature some of the things that have appealed to me for whatever reason.

Normandy, where we spend two full days, is already well-known for camembert, cider and calvados, among other gastronomic delights. But the Utah Beach area where we spend tonight is specifically known for its oyster farms. And it is also the home of Norman Cob.  Who? Oh it’s a draft horse, apparently.

Norm, Norman, Norman, Norm! Have you seen Alan?

Tale from the Tour

Starting out from the bridge over not very troubled water by the picturesque Mont St Michel, today’s ride stayed with the Manche department in Normandy, “manche” being the French word for the English Channel. Could you imagine a French department having the name “Angleterre” in there somewhere? No. Neither can I.

We started off by riding over the boardwark

We stayed in one of a number of hotels along a strip where the pros will probably also stay next week. Who knows, perhaps the reigning champion Chris Froome will be able to say that he slept where I slept! Leaving the hotel we rode a couple of km along what was once a causeway and which is now a permanent bridge to the formal start at Mont St Michel.

Each town and village on the route prepare to welcome the Tour (and to get on the telly)

Riding with Gary, we had Bigfoot on the front until the first feed station at 40 km. Since that section contained the first Cat 4 climb I proclaimed myself the first King of the Mountains (that’s a competition within the main competition which is of course for the yellow jersey for the fastest overall time).

The second section was pretty nippy and we backed off a bit for the remainder of the ride. Going through Granville was beautiful with its pleasure boat bobbing sea. At the second feed station a local journalist happened to be there and was curious about what we were doing and why. As I speak French I was able to tell her and it should appear in the paper on Thursday. We will be long gone then but I have asked that the article and photo be emailed to me. The photo is of Will Wates’ parents, brother Rick and me. Bigfooters will be happy to know that I was wearing  the club shirt.

At one point we came across a huge number of riders of all ages, including some little ones who were kept upright by their parents so that they would not be blown over by the wind, on an organised ride. I asked one of the blokes what it was all about and it was basically a works outing from a local milk producer. 400 people taking part and 700 working there. So if there is no milk for my cornflakes tomorrow then I’ll know why!

After getting to the east side of the penisula, we dropped south to the finish at Utah Beach. Along the way there were a number of monuments and I noticed that the road names were all dedicated to specific soldiers. There will be stories there, to be researched another day.

Penseé du Pédaleur

“Train hard, race easy”. Well in my case it’s “ride easy” as I’m not racing anyone. Today was a good introduction and not as tough as many of my training rides. Distance was long, but flat to undulating and we could bowl along fairly well without “burning too many matches”.

Remembering the D-Day landings


A reflection on today’s ride comes from the fact that we ended at Utah Beach, where many lost their lives during WWII. Last year was the first time I had visited any battlefields, when I had a couple of cycling trips to Belgium and had the opportunity to visit Ypres and the surrounding area and some of the carnage of WWI was brought home to me (try visiting the museum near Passchendaele). Anyway, the point is that I was struck by the fact that I have had the privilege to scoot around on my bike this year and last in areas where it was so very different back then.

Arrival day

An impressive piece of ancient history, with Mont St Michel in the background!

What a difference a day makes. Today I am in Europe unlike the UK which has voted to leave. I say no more other than Wales want out of Europe and Northern Ireland want in. We will see how that plays out in Euro 2016 tomorrow.

An uneventful travel day thankfully, unlike the travel chaos in the South East yesterday and another air traffic control stroke in France then too. I did not need to resort to Plan B and head for a ferry.

I am hoping that the internet will behave so that I can share my experiences each day. Certainly I shall write something up, but the reports may get posted late and/or at odd hours.

Rode a little prologue with Gary just now to the magnificent Mont St Michel and then had a cheeky little beer in one of the bars that is decorated ready for  the tour proper next week.

A little bit of jargon-busting

The Tour de France spends a considerable amount of time in the mountains. This year it’s not just the Alps and the Pyrenees, but also the Massif Central in central France (surprise!) and Mont Ventoux in Provence. But not all the climbs are mountains of course as there is a fair smattering of smaller stuff. For those not close to cycling jargon, the climbs are categorised from 1 to 4, where 4 is the easiest. Then there are those climbs that are so tough that they are categorised as HC, or “Hors Categorie”, i.e. beyond hard (or to employ the overused cycling word, they are super hard). I’ll be referring to these categorisations in my reports so they bear some explanation.

There seems to be no hard and fast rules about categorisation. The comment that you typically hear is that the categorisation of the climb tallies with the gear that you have to select if you are going to be able to drive up it in that most iconic of French cars, the Deux Chevaux (2CV)! There’s quite possibly some truth in that, but in any event that notion helps you to get your head round it a bit.

I have also heard that it is not just the length of the climb and the steepness that counts, but the organisers also take into consideration the point at which a climb features in the day’s stage. So for example a particular climb might be category 1 if taken in isolation, but if it comes after the end of a long and tough day it could potentially be marked as HC instead. So it seems to be a mixture of art and science.

You will see that even the early flat stages have some climbs in them, but it’s all short, punchy stuff and not more than a category 3 or 4. By the time we get to the high mountains in the Pyrenees, we are looking at climbs of 10-20km with average gradients up to 8 or 9% and with some steep ramps that will exceed 10%.

Anyway, that’s enough of that and I will try and stay jargon-free.

Time to go for our briefing for tomorrow soon.

 

 

 

6 The riders

So that’s dealt with the when, who, why, what and how. Only a few days now before I set off, so finally a few words about the rest of the group.

As well as meeting some of the other riders at the visit to Westminster House, I had the opportunity to ride with 24 others one March day in Swindon, a place I would normally shoot by on the M4 on my way to and from my home town of Cardiff and with no thought of stopping there! It was a good day out and pleasing to discover that I was on a par with some of the others, so I should have a few riding partners of about my level and we can hopefully take it in turn to share the work at the front of a group, otherwise it’s going to be a long haul.

I look forward to meeting more people as we go along and this will involve many changes of personnel too. There will be 40 lifers who will be riding the entire three-week route, then others will be joining and leaving at different times depending on what stages they do. This probably means about 80 or so people on the road on any given day.

I will be travelling out with Gary, a fellow Bigfooter who will be doing the whole ride, lucky chap. We’ve decided to room together, so we should get used to each other’s annoying habits (if indeed we have any) rather than have to deal with new ones each day! Actually I see this as a master stroke because with Gary being a stronger rider than me, by the time I get in at the end of each ride the bathroom should be free and with luck he’ll have a cold beer waiting for me!

Having to leave the lifers in Andorra rather than continuing on to Mont Ventoux, the Alps and then Paris will be difficult I know. Either I will be wishing that I could carry on, or I’ll be wishing that someone would carry me home! Which will it be? Not long to go now before we find out.

5 Preparations

Having secured my place on the Tour de Force in early November, within seconds of the booking lines opening up, my thoughts turned to the training regime I would put in place to prepare for this. Now, I am not very good at applying the numerous “10 steps to prepare for the perfect ride” type of advice found in various cycling publications because I just cannot fit them into my schedule, but I took the point that something needed to be done. So while I similarly do not expect this section to contain stunning revelations for others looking for the ideal training plan, some have expressed an interest in how I have prepared so here goes.

Historically my approach to training has typically been to just get out and do what I can get out and do and let the rest take care of itself. Not very scientific. If I was a professional or a more ambitious amateur, it would be disastrous. However, my interest lies in enjoying the whole cycling experience – I do like to challenge myself, but I’m happy to switch into tourist mode too. I did think, though, that I should probably introduce some kind of structure this time round and beef up the riding as this was going to be a big endeavour.

My training plan therefore was that, from December, I decided that each week I would try and achieve at least one out of three targets, and ideally all three. These were (1) to ride a total of at least 150 miles; (2) one of those rides should be at least 70 miles; and (3) total climbing should be at least 10,000 feet. All this is easy to monitor on Strava, although I do like a notebook too! I also factored in a number of 100+ mile rides, whether they were local sportive events, club rides to Brighton and back or solo rides to anywhere and back. After some of these I would try and get out again the next day for a shorter ride (2 or 3 hours) if I could. No overseas warm-weather foreign training trips. No turbo. No gym.

By and large I achieved these targets and I always found the cycling to be a joy, not a chore – how could you not when you get the chance to enjoy the beautiful countryside? A big part of meeting my goals was by adding a loop through the “Chislehurst Cols” onto my daily commute to work and before the Saturday morning club ride (and sometimes afterwards too, if I had not reached my targets). All in all, I increased my average distance covered each month by nearly 40% compared with previous years just by getting up a little earlier than usual and giving myself a little extra push from time to time. I never stressed if I missed a target – one poor week is not going to scupper my ability to complete my mission in France – though the fact that I had these aims in mind did help to galvanise me into making that little extra effort when I might otherwise have not bothered. Between January and May this year I rode 4,000 miles, completed 20 rides of 70 miles or more (including 9 centuries) and climbed around 240,000 feet. That’s Everest x 9. An unintended side effect was that I also lost a few pounds. That should help in the mountains.

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The dinner table in St Petersburg, and a view from it. 

Rest and recovery forms an important part of training, and I had a week off the bike at the end of May to go on a very definitely non-cycling holiday with my wife (visiting the palaces of Saint Petersburg and living like Tsars off vodka and caviar, but not so much as to do too much damage!). We’d been looking forward to this trip for a while which Babs certainly deserves, not least for putting up with all the hours I spend on the bike.

After our return from Russia and for the rest of June I went into maintenance mode, with targets abandoned. The daily commuting distance reduced as I reverted to the direct route and I restricted myself to club rides with no extras. That said, after a week off the bike and over the following three Saturdays I found that I ended up with new Personal Bests on Toys, Berry’s, Titsey, Bug and Sundridge Hills and only narrowly missed out on Star, Ide and Fox too. The North Downs are not the Pyrenees I know, but this all serves as a significant confidence booster and a sign that I must be doing something right. I think it’s fair to say that I am in the best shape now than I’ve ever been as far as cycling is concerned and if I have made my riding buddies suffer over the last few weeks in particular then I am truly sorry, but rest assured that you have really helped me get to where I am now. So all the hard work has been completed and I just need to stay fit and to get myself to France in one piece.

 

4 Route profile

TdF TT2

Since 2010 I have really enjoyed riding in the mountains in France. More recently I have tended to add in an extra big climb or two in the days before taking part in an Etape – an event where up to 14,000 amateurs can ride a single stage of the Tour de France a few days before or sometimes after the professionals. It was a case of me making the most of what is otherwise a long journey for a single ride. A cheeky little Alpe d’Huez here, a sneaky little Col de la Madeleine there. And just recently a trip up the Tumble before the Velothon Wales event too. 

But my original thought for 2016 was that, much as I love them, I did not need to ride in the mountains this year. The opening stages from Mont St Michel to Utah beach and then from Saint-Lô to Cherbourg looked particularly appealing, largely because of it being a total contrast to the riding I generally do in France I suppose, so that was a definite. Two days would not be enough for me though, so I was looking to add on a few more. How many more I did depended on where the route went from there and what “Tour Tasters” the Tour de Force organisers were offering. Well, there was a great selection but given that I did not have the time to do the whole route, the only way of combining the opening stages with anything else was to ride Stages 1 to 9, which makes me a “semi-lifer” and begging the question “What’s the half-life of a cyclist?” Well after nine days back-to-back riding, covering over 1,100 miles and no rest days, we’ll find out the rate at which I decay! The rides will range from 115 to 145 miles and the elevation profiles will range from sea level at the start of the trip to over 2,200 metres by the time I get to Andorra. The time I am out on the road will vary depending on the stage, the number of feed stops taken and the weather. 10 hours per day may not be an unreasonable average and I am mentally prepared for this, which is a big part of being able to meet the challenge.

In summary, after those two opening days there will be two long flat stages heading south, then a “medium mountain” stage in the Massif Central followed by a day of more rolling terrain in the South West of France. Then follows three days of “high mountains” – the Pyrenees. Day 7 will take in one major climb with the last two days each featuring over 4,000 metres of climbing – together that’s about the height of Mount Everest! I’ve done these sorts of demanding rides before, but never two consecutively. And especially not after having been softened up by a week of long rides beforehand.

In the picture above you can see my route heading down the west side of France. I’ll be returning home while the “lifers” will be heading back into France from Andorra and then turning east towards Mont Ventoux, Switzerland and the Alps and then finishing in Paris.

3 Organisation

WWMT

The William Wates Memorial Trust was established in 1998 in the memory of William, who lost his life on the streets of South America aged 18. The intention was that this would be a grants giving charity that would help young people from deprived areas achieve their potential and not get dragged into a life of crime. The Trust supports many projects which further this aim and in March I, along with a number of fellow riders, had the privilege to visit the Westminster House Youth Trust in Nunhead, South East London where we witnessed first-hand the excellent work and achievements of the team there. Very impressive. Further information about the Trust can be found here.

 When I was looking through the list of charities supported, it included one (JusB / ElementY”) which meets at the primary school where my sons went to school – Burnt Ash in Bromley! So that brings it all closer to home for me. Famously, and of no relevance to a blog about cycling, a certain David Jones aka Bowie attended there too many years ago, though we think it was only for one term…

 One of the ways that the Trust raises funds for this work is via the Tour de Force, which is now in its tenth year. This gives people with a wide range of cycling abilities the opportunity to ride some or all of the Tour de France that the professionals will be riding one week later. Better not dawdle though, as we can’t have them catching us up! Other than actually ride the bike every day, all we need to do as cyclists is to get ourselves to and from the start and end of our respective tours as everything else will be taken care of – bike transport, hotels, food, transport to each morning’s start and doctors (for both bike and body). The time and effort put into organising this logistical challenge is also very impressive. Further information about this year’s event is here and details about my own fundraising activity for anyone who would like to sponsor me is on my Virgin Money Giving page here. 

2 Rider profile

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I started commuting to work by bicycle 20 years ago, largely because of a threat of significant train strikes like there had been the year before and I was not going to be told when I could or could not go to work! The following summer I did my first London to Brighton ride organised by the British Heart Foundation. At that time, riding 54 miles was a major achievement for me (as it still is for many) and it took 6 hours in total, partly because of the number of riders on the road and the congestion that this caused at various pinch points, but also due to my lack of experience. Climbing Ditchling Beacon took me about 30 minutes including stops and I was overtaken by Batman and Robin on a tandem!

How times have changed. Over the following years I did the London to Brighton ride many times in the company of my two sons, Will and Tom. These were great times – particularly the final crowd-pleasing family sprint competitions along Marina Drive at the end of the ride – but by 2008 I was looking for further challenges. That is when I discovered Bigfoot Cycle Club in Hayes, near Bromley in Kent. Of course the irony was that Bigfoot organises annual rides to Brighton! But these days I’ll ride to Brighton and back and see it as a normal outing. Ditchling Beacon now takes me a little over 7 minutes on a good day, and I’ll only stop if I fancy an ice cream at the top.

Since I started riding with Bigfoot I have been inspired by the adventures of those with whom I have ridden and this has lead me in turn to head to the Alps and Pyrenees among other destinations. My fellow Bigfooter Hugh and I rode our first Marmotte together in the French Alps in 2010, and when he subsequently found out that it was possible to ride the Tour de France as an amateur, it was with a growing sense of inevitability that I knew I would one day be taking up that opportunity too. Although I will “only” be riding the first nine stages unlike Hugh’s complete set of 21 in 2014, I’m not ruling out doing the whole Tour one day. Indeed, my wife Babs has already rumbled me on that score!

So that’s the background. As to what kind of rider I am, well I am a 55-year-old who probably ought to know better but whose ambition has not yet exceeded his ability. The group with which I ride on a Saturday morning typically averages 15-16 mph over a variety of lumpy 45-50 mile routes in the North Downs, featuring up to 1,000 metres of climbing. So I see myself as a solid but not stellar performer, built for endurance and not speed and who is a better climber than descender. On the results lists of the sportive events in which I have taken part, you will typically see me somewhere around mid-table. The coming trip will be a real test of my ability, but more about my preparations for that later.