Rest Day 1: Albi

I’ve been trying not to focus too much on the rest day while cycling as I find it best to remain in the groove rather than having the mind starting to wander and potentially tricking the legs into thinking that they can start to wind down! However, we are in Albi now and I slept deeply last night knowing that there was no riding to do.

I still got up quite early as there is a lot to do on rest day morning. Got up at 7am, got the laundry done, had a massage, then breakfast followed by bike cleaning. All done by 10:25, so time to rest up again before heading off for a most enjoyable lunch – goats cheese salad followed by a tournedos (accompanied by a glass of Bordeaux because the local red was not deemed suitable by the chef for the meal I had ordered!)

An opportunity to reflect on the first half of the Tour. For a start, it’s been the toughest route of the three “first halves” that I have done. That’s because it has been 10 days rather than 9 and there has been a lot more climbing (or it feels like it anyway). To counter that, we have had the best weather even though it has been extremely hot at times. Better that than very cold – in 2017 I had needed my winter jacket for a bit but it is so far untouched.

I don’t seem to have suffered so much (yet!) this time, which has allowed me to have more fun on the bike rather than feel it’s a total slog. Although previous trips have been fun too, the key differences are: better weather: a better bike setup (a 50-34 compact with 11-34 on the back for those who know/care); and the knowledge that I have already completed the route of the Tour de France once before. The knowledge that this trip is within my capabilities is of greater value than simply a belief that it was, which was my starting point in 2017.

Thought I would share some quirky photos:

Baboon tree – making sure the bibshorts are properly aired off.
Often seen on the side of the road at a zebra crossing
It’s been Charles’s birthday this week. Eat your heart out Moonpig!
Tan lines are coming along well

This afternoon I played the tourist a bit to take my mind off bikes and visited the Cathedral. What an absolutely stunning place that is, both outside and inside. Will have to come back and pay it a proper visit one day.

Mappa Mundi

That’s it, time for a nap now, to be followed by early dinner and an early night. Must make sure my head is back in the cycling groove tomorrow, but the respite has been welcome.

Stage 10: Saint-Flour to Albi

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:30. Transfer: none. Start time: 07:57. Distance: 218km. Terrain: flat (3,094 metres climbing). Climbs: three Cat 3, one Cat 4. Finish: 18:51. Time in saddle: 9h29. Temp: 28C. Drinks: 5 litres.

Suffer scores: John 4/10. Ceri 7/10.

Local lowdown

Saint-Flour was the finish town of my first ever Étape du Tour back in 2011. Nowadays just doing one stage of the Tour seems so tame! That had been a cold, wet and miserable day and I was glad to get on the bus at the end of it. As I recall, 7,000 signed up, 4,000 started and only 2,000 finished, so it was a great achievement to complete it. Today, though, we finish in the beautiful town of Albi, another UNESCO World Heritage site by virtue of its Cathedral, apparently the largest brick building in the world.

Saint Flour this morning

Tale from the Tour

The last stage of the first “week” – 10 days of back-to-back cycling. OK, so Stage 2 was a time trial but we still rode nearly 60km that day and it all counts.

In terms of distance we must be over halfway, but most of the climbing is still to come with the Pyrenees and then the Alps looming.

With that in mind, I determined that I would not ride on such a way that my “suffer score” would exceed 4. Some use power meters to gauge their effort but I’m not that sophisticated!

The rolling nature of the terrain meant that I was likely to drop behind my group constantly and I did not want to spend the day chasing back on each time I got dropped. However, I still ended up catching them and we rode together on the flatter sections this afternoon. The stage is laughingly termed a flag stage – with over 3,000 metres climbing! Not one for the pure sprinters next week perhaps.

I enjoyed the solitude of this morning and maybe it even helped to recharge my mental batteries. Riding well together also means the concentration levels are high, particularly when on busy roads. This all takes its toll and a morning by myself seems to have started the rejuvenation process that is required both physically and mentally.

I also enjoyed stopping and taking more photos than usual, shown below.

“King of the Mountain” socks, reminding me to take it easy.
Another reminder!

At one point we descended 500 metres very quickly and I just love the graphic that was used in the warming sign!

A great example of the hay bale sculptures that we see
Although this one was facing the wrong way

The temperature was mostly a very bearable 28C, though when we arrived at Rodez it was like someone opened an oven door! The wave of heat that hit me registered 38.5C, though thankfully not for very long.

Rodez in the distance
Charles enjoying the fountain on arrival in Albi!

A number of people have commented on how mentally fatigued they are, and that was true of Ceri also, my roommate for two nights.

Stage 9: Saint-Étienne to Brioude

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:30. Transfer: 0h35 (post ride). Start time: 07:57. Distance: 170km. Terrain: hilly (2,808 metres climbing). Climbs: one Cat 1, two Cat 3. Finish: 17:01. Time in saddle: 7h40. Temp: 28C. Drinks: 4 litres.

Thunderstorms: 0

Feedstops next to water: 4

Suffer score: John 5/10. Wim 7/10. James 6/10.

Local lowdown

Le Beaujolais nouveaux est arrivé! That’s one of the famous wines from around these parts anyway, and at the end of today we will be one step closer to arriving at a well-earned rest day! Meanwhile, Brioude is the home town of French favourite Romain Bardet and apparently a number of his training routes have been marked on the road with a distinctive “RB” logo. I didn’t spot any on our travels today, possibly because they have been covered by new tarmac or the numerous stretches of gravel that I expect will be swept or compacted before next week.

The Magnificent Seven

Tale from the Tour

Just to pick up on where I left off yesterday with the hail. On the news this morning they were reporting from other areas in the region where hailstones the size of onions were coming down – 9cm in diameter! I think we were lucky in comparison! Despite the odd shower yesterday, this is still very much the “Sunshine Tour de France”.

Preparing to set off. You might need both legs Roly!

Started off feeling strong this morning, which is odd given the distances we have covered so far. This is possibly because I rode within myself more yesterday, or was just generally having a good day today. The temperature was lower after the storms of yesterday, but still managed to rise to 36C again just as we were on the final climb of the day. Still, we were in time for the first bus to our hotel at tomorrow’s stage start so that we can begin our recovery straight away rather than hanging around at the finish for a bit.

Regrouping at the top

The main climb of the day was the Mur d’Aurec sur Loire, a Cat 1 that we climbed just after the first feedstop. Only about 3km but very steep, as the name suggests. The roadside marker claimed the average gradient for the last 200 metres was 12%, but I never saw less than 15%, so that was a lie! We regrouped at the top before continuing together, as much of the rest of the day was more rolling and it’s great to ride as a group.

Feedstop 1

Indeed, this evening our group riding was recognised by Emily, our lead rider, who awarded the day’s “arrow” (aka rider of the day) to Rob and Jenny, who instantly said they were receiving this on behalf of the group of course, which they didn’t have to. Well done both.

Another good day, one of the main features of which was that each feedstop was in a picturesque location near water. A swim would have been nice, but there will be time for that soon enough.

Feedstop 2
Feedstop 3
Feedstop 4

This has been a really tough first week, designed I am sure to soften up the pros who will be coming through. And it hasn’t ended! Normally the first rest day would be tomorrow, but it’s not a rule and this time we have a tenth straight day to ride before resting up in Albi.

Finishing straight in Brioude

Feeling good for most of the day and just a little tired at the end with the return of the heat so a slightly higher suffer score, but still pleased with how my tour has been going so far. Wim found it tough today and James said that he probably pushed too hard, but then tomorrow is his last day so he might as well go for it!

Stage 8: Mâcon to Saint-Étienne

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 05:45. Transfer: 1h00. Start time: 08:07. Distance: 199km. Terrain: hilly (3,800 metres climbing). Climbs: five Cat 2, two Cat 3. Finish: 20:29. Time in saddle: 10h28. Temp: 34C. Drinks: 6 litres.

Thunderstorms: 3.

Suffer scores: John 4/10. James 4/10.

Local lowdown

Not really a “local lowdown” today, but this is noteworthy for being the stage I nearly didn’t do. Today is graduation day for Babs, who has been studying for a diploma in Counselling for three years. Given how close we were to Lyon, I saw that it would be possible to take the first flight out to Heathrow and then the last flight back to Lyon. More important to celebrate success I thought. However, although it was feasible in theory, the cost of taxis was just prohibitive in the end, never mind the carbon footprint.

One small item of local news – we passed through the Capital of the Saucisson!

Tale from the Tour

Clearly the main story of the day is that it rained! Or rather, we had three lots of thunder, lightening and hailstones.

We had awoken to stormy clouds overhead and a warning that rain was forecast for later on in the day. Not a surprise really, as the weather had to break sometime, even if only for a short moment.

At feedstop 2 I thought that the rain would be a way off yet so didn’t bother taking a rain jacket. A matter of minutes after leaving I felt the first spot of rain this trip and then there was a massive crack of thunder. The roads were awash, making descending difficult and the hailstones were stinging my arms. Fortunately that didn’t last very long. For a while I was then a little chilly, but not cold, and by the time I was climbing again I had dried out.

I was not with my usual group today – the weather conditions saw to that. So I spent the day either on my own or in the company of others that I had not previously ridden with.

Temperature had dipped to below 20C, but on the two Cat 2 climbs after lunch I was in full sun and 34C again. So instead of my jersey being soaked with rain it was now once again soaked with sweat.

I could see storm clouds building once again as I approached the final feedstop. The first drop fell on me just as I was turning into it, and then it all clattered down. We took shelter in the van where there was a real cacophony of noise from the hail hitting the roof.

Before taking refuge in the van

We waited a long time for the storm to pass before we could see the skies clearing over the area we were headed. All thoughts of arriving at dinner for 8pm were abandoned, though we knew that a late arrival would not be a problem as the buffet would still be open.

Skies beginning to clear

Final stretch down into Saint Etienne to arrive at the hotel just as the first drop of rain from the third storm of the day hit me. Thank you Lord for your protection.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable day even if I was out for longer than anticipated. It was less fun for those unfortunate enough to receive the full brunt of the storms and ending up with bruised forearms as a result! For that reason, both me and tonight’s roommate James have given this a low suffer score. This is despite there being many more climbs than the seven categorised ones – maybe the route setters didn’t want to disclose their full hand concerning the challenges posed by this stage of the Tour.

Before I forget, in between all the thunder business, I did get to enjoy views of the Brouilly vineyards and passing through St Symphorien sur Coise.

As you can see, we had some decent weather too.

Stage 7: Belfort to Chalon-sur-Saône

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:30. Transfer: none. Start time: 08:05. Distance: 230km. Terrain: flat (2,600 metres climbing). Climbs: one Cat 3, two Cat 4. Finish: 19:29. Time in saddle: 9h16.

Suffer scores: John 6/10. Sharing with Daniel tonight. I know he’s back, but I’ve not seen him yet.

Local lowdown

A classic “transition” stage today, linking two bustling cities. We will pass through Ornans, which is the birthplace of Gustave Courbet in 1819 (happy 200th birthday Gustave!), a primary figure in the Realism movement. Babs and I are going on a painting weekend in August. She will be fine, being very artistic. I can barely do matchstick men! Temp: 36C. Drinks: 7.5 litres.

Tale from the Tour

Long, hot and uninteresting route today, but at least that’s the longest stage of the Tour out of the way. The best thing about today was the group riding between the seven of us that got us through.

So without much in the way of scenery or incident, this was a case of: Rotate rotate rotate. Feedstop 1. Rotate rotate rotate. Feedstop 2. Rotate rotate rotate. Feedstop 3. Rotate rotate rotate. Feedstop 4. Rotate rotate rotate. Beer!

Yes, it was as dull as that but there’s always one like this and now it’s done.

There were two highlights – two of the feedstops had fountains and water troughs where we could dunk our heads in to cool down!

Otherwise, the Coca Cola stop at some point in the afternoon really helped too.

On a more general point I have previously commented on negative reactions to us from some motorists. This is more than outweighed by positive reactions from many others. For example, the people waving to us and cheering us on from their doorsteps, the young boys holding their hands out for us to high-five them on our way past and the crocodile of primary school children in their high-viz vests (“gilets jaune”, but not the protester variety) all with big smiles on their faces and cheering us on.

Bill and Mrs Bill say “hi” too!

I think that mentally I am in a good place so although it was a hard day, it was one I was expecting. Had the weather been as poor as 2017, then no doubt my suffer score would have been higher. Wim said his score for yesterday was 9 to my 7. I still think there are harder days to come!

Stage 6: Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:00. Transfer: before stage 0h45, after stage 0h45. Start time: 07:38. Distance: 157km. Terrain: mountain (3,740 metres climbing). Climbs: four Cat 1, one Cat 2, two Cat 3. Finish: 18:16. Time in saddle: 8h57. Temp: 30C (25C in the forests). Drinks: 6 litres.

Dinners: 2. Tarte aux myrtilles: 2.

Suffer scores: John 7/10. Roomie – see below.

Local lowdown

We are very close to Germany (and indeed to Switzerland also) when we are in Mulhouse and the whole area has a very Germanic feel because, well, it was once German. Today we end up at the very top of La Planche des Belles Filles, with the final few hundred metres now having been gravelled. If you check back to my post from May this year, you will see that I did not like this final climb very much so it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen today.

Are we nearly there yet?

Tale from the Tour

Well what a superb day today was! Some early group riding again and we don’t seem to have annoyed people. After the first feedstop I mostly rode on my own as I gradually slipped off the back of my group, which was fine and to be expected. I can only climb and descend at my own speed and on this kind of terrain there’s not much drafting benefit to be had anyway.

Grand Ballon refers to the mountain, not the sphere

We approached the Grand Ballon via Markstein which I have only descended before. Decided to go into the cafe at the top where I had taken refuge from a thunderstorm two years ago. The tarte aux myrtilles was just as delicious as before.

The Vosges never fails to disappoint. I have previously referred to it as the cyclists’ playground and it’s just got even better with so much new tarmac. Sometimes it’s so fresh that stones stick to the tyres, which ultimately could cause a problem. The trick while still riding is to put your hand on the tyre lightly and knock the stones off without slicing your fingers open!

The next major climb was the Ballon d’Alsace, which again I have ridden but from the opposite direction – today I think we did the steeper side. Hard work, but enjoyable.

Celebrating the first winner of the climb to Ballon d’Alsace in 1904. The organiser thought the climb would be impossible

Lunch, and time to eat again. Delicious as usual and I was ready for it – unlike this morning at breakfast when I knew I had to eat but had to force it down as my body just wasn’t ready for it. First time that has happened this tour.

Before we hit our final climb of the Planche des Belles Filles, there was the small matter of Col des Chevreres which I had overlooked. Only 3.5km (short for a Cat 1) but horribly steep and with lots of loose gravel which seems like it has only recently been put down. A real challenge, especially with the lack of shade and temperatures hitting 34C at times though mostly it was less than that today.

My time was nearly double that!

Then finally finally, the Planche. I was not quick up that climb, determined to keep something in reserve to at least have a crack at doing the top section. In the event, it turned out that the surface was now a smaller grade of gravel and closely packed. Wheel still slipped at times, but I was delighted with the condition of the road because I now thought that completing it was achievable – and I did it!

Thoroughly chuffed with my achievement

Only had 20 minutes to consume my dinner (which I wasn’t ready for), but on the plus side it meant that I was on the first bus down to our hotel in Belfort, from where we start our ride tomorrow, meaning that we get a bit of a lie in. Oh, and when we got to the hotel it was time for beer, burger and massage. Probably only one of those was absolutely necessary. I will leave you to work out which one!

I’m scoring this as 7 because of the unexpected toughness of the penultimate climb. Wim has left me for James to share with him for a few nights (they rode and roomed together last year, so fair enough). Richard, my roommate tonight arrived back more than two hours after me, so now is not the time to ask him foolish questions about suffer scores!

Stage 5: Saint-Dié-des-Vosges to Colmar

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 05:45. Transfer: 1h15. Start time: 08:23. Distance: 169km. Terrain: hilly (2,294 metres climbing). Climbs: two Cat 2, two Cat 3. Finish: 17:13. Time in saddle: 7h23. Temp: 33C. Drinks: 5 litres.

Suffer scores: John 5/10. Wim 8/10.

With Wim. Separated at birth?

Local lowdown

Saint-Dié-des-Vosges is apparently known for its International Festival of Geography and the author of the first known map of the American continent. The city features in the Tour for the first time and today’s route ends in Colmar, which coincidentally or otherwise is the birthplace of Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty. Today is the first full day in the beautiful Vosges region, what I term as a veritable “cyclists’ playground” and which has been the location for a couple of my training camps prior to taking on the Tour in 2017 and again this year.

Tale from the Tour

Opening kilometres fast, on busy roads. Drivers unusually intolerant of disciplined riders. Loud horn blasts aplenty. Is it “National No Cycling Day”? Never mind, soon on to quieter roads. A couple of climbs to get the blood pumping on what is going to be another hot, cloudless day. Unforgiving, relentless heat? Cool shade on the tree-lined roads through the forest, giving out strong, wonderful scent of pine into the air that has been warming all day. Gloriously reducing the heat by several degrees until reaching a most welcome 28C.

Mixture of group riding on the busy roads to near-solo efforts on the descents and climbs – losing too much time on descents to then climb with the group, but happy to be in the zone and finally going up some longer climbs. Two Cat 2s today, both about 6% gradient. Finding that rhythm that I really enjoy. Almost clawing back the gap to the group by the last feedstop, to lose it again on the next descent.

Passing through towns more German than French, with names like Grendelbruch, Scherwiller and Ammerschwihr, and with architecture to match.

Finally dropping down towards Colmar, the town – ugly from a distance with its dozen or more tower blocks – rapidly approaching. First, some tricky weaving in and out of surrounding villages until gratefully reaching the hotel and the massage that awaits for tired legs.

Wonderful day of typically beautiful Vosges scenery. In the villages again witnessing the preparations being made for the pro Tour next week. Where do all the bicycles come from that are painted in the Tour colours of yellow, green, white and red polka dot?

Today not as hot as Stage 1, but still too hot for Wim. Me? This is one of the stages I’ve been waiting for. Suffer score is subjective – heat and climate a factor, but possible to overlay with enjoyment of the Stage, so not feeling the effects like I might have done.

Promise of more tomorrow. Vive le Tour indeed.