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.

Stage 4: Reims to Nancy

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 05:45. Transfer: 0h40. Start time: 07:26. Distance: 215km. Terrain: flat (1,822 metres climbing). Climbs: two Cat 4. Finish: 17:09. Time in saddle: 8h18. Temp: 30C. Drinks: 6 litres.

Suffer scores: John 4/10. Wim 6/10.

Local lowdown

Reims (pronounced “rance” as in “manse” rather than “reams” as in paper) is of course the main city known for its champagne, with its 250km of cellars and chalk quarries. Meanwhile Nancy is another classic northern French city with a huge “Grand Place”, a bustling market and buildings that look even more impressive when they are illuminated at night. Although we are in champagne country, we will be passing through the aptly-named village of Bouzy which produces the northern-most red wine in France. We also pass through Bar-le-Duc, birthplace of the Michaux brothers who invented the “velocipede a pedales” (bicycle).

Big thanks to Pierre and Ernest

Tale from the Tour

Reims appeared on the horizon from the top of the double decker coach that took us to the start point slightly outside of town. Good job we saw the cathedral yesterday then.

We were on the road early this morning, just as various hot air balloons were taking off over the wheat fields. A bit difficult to capture in a photo, but I took it so might as well post it.

Great name, great place!

We rode steadily to the first feedstop at 42km, after which we divided up into our riding groups which are becoming more established. Today our group fluctuated between 8 and 12 people and we practiced good discipline all day. Riding two abreast, this made us more like a slow moving vehicle and so easier for vehicles to pass us on the wide, open and very straight roads. Yesterday we rode more as a long, sinewy snake.

The focus was very much about getting this long stage done. Scenery was not as attractive as yesterday and although the roads could be described as boring, the focus needed to ride in such a disciplined manner, taking it in turns to lead and then rotate off the front, meant that our concentration did not wander as it otherwise might have done.

Group photo at Commercy

The towns and villages we passed through have put out a lot of decorations already though we did not stop for many photos. Less of a touristy kind of day today. I did have the opportunity to take a few though.

Commercy was one of the high points. It came just as I was flagging towards the end of the fourth section (i.e. before feedstop 4), so it was a timely moment of respite. The final section had the last categorised climb of the day, which was not too bad but just as we approached the hotel we had a steep “bonus climb” before we could start the end of day routine – firstly with a massage for a body that has been put through the mill a bit, with a promise of more to come!

Not the Arc de Triomphe (yet)

I found today tougher than yesterday, I think on account of the scenery not being quite so nice and we did have some headwind and crosswind, though the way we were riding mitigated that to some degree. I think Wim just works harder and so suffers more. On the plus side, it means he is at the hotel and already showered by the time I get in, so the logistics work just fine.

Stage 3: Binche to Épernay

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 05:45. Transfer: 1h30. Start time: 08:18: Distance: 214km. Terrain: hilly (2,529 metres climbing). Climbs: three Cat 3, one Cat 4. Finish: 18:05. Time in saddle: 8h06. Temp: 26C. Drinks: 5 litres.

Suffer scores: John 2/10. Wim 7/10.

Local lowdown

We start in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Binche, renowned for its medieval battlements and Mardi Gras carnival. Although the finish in Épernay will give us the opportunity to stock up on champagne, we are a very long way from Paris in terms of the Tour (though only 120km away geographically).

Tale from the Tour

Today it feels like the Tour really started. No more riding to and from the hotel with no need to worry about packing. Instead we’re into the normal routine of early breakfast and main luggage on the vans by 06:15 so that we can take a coach transfer to the start of today’s stage. Thankfully there are no more cobbles either!

As taken by a fellow rider

One more photo from Stage 1 taken by Ray:

Muur de Geraardsbergen

After 12km we crossed the border into France and were met with mile upon mile of great roads. We formed a good group of about 10 people fairly early on and, rotating the lead on the front in a disciplined manner we just ate up the distance. For large chunks of today we were rolling along comfortably at 35kph, though a few climbs towards the end did bring the average down. In fact, for a supposedly flat stage we still managed over 2,500 metres climbing as a lot of the terrain was rolling. This meant we also had some fast, sweeping descents which allowed me to reach a top speed of 60kph without feeling like I was taking any risks. Great roads, great countryside.

Indeed, the poppy-ribboned wheat fields in the morning gave way to champagne vineyards peppered with roses along the way. Such stunning scenery, such a good group and this is now possibly vying as one of my top 10 rides, though I probably already have 20 top ten rides, such has been my good fortune over recent years. The fields were also strewn with wind turbines which tells you what it is like around here. The Tour organisers are hoping for a lot of cross-winds which would make racing interesting, however today was not too bad. Though there were some gusts that moved you sideways, there was nothing serious.

We passed through Reims and caught a glimpse of the magnificent cathedral there.

Looking back the other way having taken that photo was a sight that made us laugh. Perhaps that’s where to go for the best prescription!

If so, then perhaps this is the chemists:

A few more shots from the ride:

A variety of kit now on show

Champagne and roses for Babs

Last night we briefly discussed whether Le Loop is an event or a club. Given the camaraderie that reaches across the years and the numbers of people who come back, we quickly concluded that it is a club. A club where for us the membership cost is a light sprinkling of insanity!

Some of today’s core group, most of whom I rode with in 2017.

Wim and I have decided to continue rooming together – better the devil you know! It’s a good call, given the number of self-confessed snorers and messy people around. Wim is from Belgium though has lived in Scotland for 13 years, so I still have a Scottish accent to listen to! Sorry Alex, you have been usurped.

Wim reckons today’s suffer score was 7 on the basis of the heat (it did touch 32C this afternoon at times) and the effort put in to riding so hard. On the contrary for me, I was comfortable with the pace in our group and was ok with the temperature too.

Now, where’s that champagne?

Cheers everyone!

Stage 2: Bruxelles Palais Royal to Brussel Atomium

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 07:00. Transfer: none. Start time: 08:30. Distance: 27km. Terrain: flat (highest point 109 metres, 350 metres climbing). Climbs: none. Finish: 12:15. Time in saddle: 2h22. Temp 25C. Drinks: 1.5 litres.

Suffer scores: John 1/10. Roomie (Wim) 0/10.

Local lowdown

The atomium is one of the most popular sightseeing attractions in Brussels. If we had time, we would be able to go up and enjoy a 360-degree panoramic view over the city. Like the Eiffel Tower that we are ultimately aiming for, when it was originally constructed (for the 1958 World Fair) it was never intended to be a permanent structure. We have some locals with us for the first few days and they say there is a good restaurant up there and that parties of school kids can get to stay overnight at the Atomium, which sounds like fun.

The Atomium marks the end of the time trial route

Tale from the Tour

A very sedate ride today, averaging just under 20kph. We actually rode 53km because we first rode to the start from the hotel and then back to the hotel from the finish. Again, a lot was on cycle paths which are fine for getting about but a bit of a pain if you just want to ride. Never mind, we will be out of the city tomorrow and riding on open roads in France.

Official start at the Palais Royal

Before we started the official route, there was time to pop down the road from the Palais Royal to visit the Grand Place, whose cathedral we only saw from a distance yesterday. There was an option to stop for a coffee before embarking on the stage route, but Roly, Gerard and I opted to just take a few photos and then crack on. The thought of getting back to the hotel to generally relax and enjoy the swimming pool was too alluring.

The four sides of the Grand Place:

Although our route was slow, we could tell that the team time trial that’s going to take place here will be fast. Wide, flat roads that should be good to watch. The course is pretty too, with its tree-lined roads and excursion into a park.

Team time trial
Aero pose – in truth one of the few times we got any speed up

That’s about it for today. Bike is fully charged and the chain is clean and oiled. Going to go for a swim now. Early start tomorrow, with coach transfer to the start of Stage 3.

Wim is probably correct that the suffer score should be 0 today, but I’ve gone for 1 on the basis that there was a lot of stop/start.

Stage 1: Bruxelles to Brussels

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 06:45. Transfer: none. Start time: 08:00. Distance: 192km. Terrain: flat (some Belgian cobbles, 1,839 metres climbing). Climbs: one Cat 3, one Cat 4. Finish: 18:00. Time in saddle: 8h16. Temp: 36C. Drinks: 7 litres.

Suffer scores: John 5/10. Roomie (Wim) 8/10.

Local lowdown

Today we will be starting and finishing in Brussels and we have a time trial here tomorrow – a luxury, as it means no change of hotel tonight. We are here, of course, because the Tour is celebrating Belgian hero Eddy Merckx who won it five times. Chris Froome was looking to emulate him this year but is now out of the Tour following a bad crash, though a certain Geraint Thomas may have had something to say about that anyway. My my, we will also be passing through Waterloo, where we hope we won’t be defeated by cobbles or climbs but will win the war. Well, first skirmish of the 2019 Tour in any event. And now you have ABBA in your head!

Grand Place, from a distance

Tale from the Tour

Firstly, if you are new to the blog the welcome! If you are returning having followed my exploits since 2016 then welcome back! I do my best to avoid too many typos and other errors, but as I do all this on my phone then it can be a bit fiddly. So please forgive me if autocorrect makes a mess of what I have written and I have not spotted it!

I arrived yesterday and met up with some new people on the way and once at the hotel met up with a load of people from the 2017 Tour. It was great to catch up and to reminisce, but I think that by this morning we were all looking forward to creating 2019’s own story.

Typical roadside decoration, this one celebrating Eddy Merckx
This is a lock where boats can go uphill!

We were expecting a hot day and got one! It wasn’t too bad first thing, though the pace was slow as we had to navigate Brussels’ cycling lanes. Apparently it’s the law to use the lanes when they are there, which are shared with dog walkers, babies in buggies and other pedestrians – so plentiful scope for things to go wrong. What with that and crossing tram tracks and having to wait at a level crossing! Still, it made for a leisurely opening and the first section was otherwise fine. Main challenge was to drink enough.

Waiting for a train

We soon had our first view of the cathedral on the Grand Place. The Tour starts there next week, but we don’t play with traffic in the centre of town. The Grand Place will be the ceremonial start anyway (depart fictif) and then we always make sure we are riding before we get to the actual start. In fact, although the official Tour distance is 192km, we rode more like 209km as we start and finish at the hotel. A bit of background there for those new to this.

After the first feed stop we had the two cobbled climbs of the day: Muur de Geraardsbergan and the Bosberg. “Muur” means “wall”, but it wasn’t too bad.

Top of the Muur

On to the lunch stop and by now it was baking hot. You don’t notice it so much when you are moving, but as soon as you have to stop you realise that you are in an oven. Not as bad as elsewhere in Europe, but challenging none the less.

I was riding with some of the guys from 2017 plus a few others, but 20km after the lunch stop I could not maintain the pace so dropped back a little. Heat probably. This, though, added to my confusion at Waterloo. I thought it would be a nice place for a feedstop but also thought our actual stop was a few km further on. So I missed it and wait straight past. Once I realised what I’d done, I stopped to call Sarah so that no one would wait for me at the feedstop, bought an ice cream and some drinks at a newsagents and carried on. No harm done and I was back in time for a massage and do all those other things that are important: ring home, shower, wash kit, drink some more. And then dinner!

At Waterloo
This Magnum made my day!

Meanwhile of course we have done some cobbles. Not just the 1.9km mentioned in the roadbook (plus the two climbs), but six or seven “bonus” sections as well. I think maybe they don’t count if they are less than 1km in length, but taken together they at least doubled the anticipated amount of cobbles! But we are in Belgium after all, so that’s to be expected along with farm tracks and concrete roads. Occasionally some nice tarmac was welcome though!

Looking forward to a quieter day tomorrow as it’s only a time trial stage (which we don’t race) and a swim in the pool. Staying in a really nice hotel at the moment.

I should explain the “suffer score”, but first if you need a reminder about how the climbs are categorised, you can look back at my 2016 explanation! Simply put, Cat 4 are the easiest of the categorised climbs, rising to HC which are the hardest (“hors catégorie, or simply “hard climb”!). There are often many energy-sapping climbs along the way which don’t merit categorisation by the organisers though!

My suffer score increased during the day until I reckon that heat + cobbles merits a 5. Wim, my roommate for these first few nights went with an 8 because of extra issues such as mechanical problems and waiting in the heat with someone who crashed. Wim rode half the Tour in 2018 and is here for the duration this time. He has also had to cope with not getting his suitcase until past midnight last night due to it not arriving from the UK at the same time as him.

Finally, a note to those who like examining the stats (you know who you are Steve P!). For your delectation and delight I have added in litres consumed (in flight only, not counting recovery drinks and beer!) and temperature. You might also like to try plotting a World Cup Cricket-style “worm” and compare my aggregate suffer score at the end of each stage with 2017!

La Vie en Vosges

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.

Olivier, Ben, Rob, Andy and John

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.

Birthday present!

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.

Thursday: Gérardmer

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!

Looking out over La Bresse
Considered the finest climber of the Tour de France – first up the Ballon d’Alsace

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.

 

Happy to get to the top
Just as tough going back down
Though there’s always the ski-run option!

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.

 

Market day in Munster

 

Some traditional and some not so traditional war memorials in Linge …
… at Wettstein …
… and on the Ballon d’Alsace

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.

He’s behind you!
Pork knuckle cooked in straw

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!

Côte de la Loulou. Sharp left at the top house.
A tricky left turn to get to the top!

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.

Determined from the get-go

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.

Cheesey moustache

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!!

On a mission

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.

Sad ending
Happy ending

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.

Le Loop 2019

Yep, so I’m riding the whole Tour de France route again this summer having clearly not learned my lesson from my experiences of the 2017 Tour, the events of which are also catalogued on my blog. Good news is that there are quite a lot of us from that year taking part again, so we are guaranteed some great camaraderie already!

There’s not a lot to say just yet, so I won’t say it! If you are a new visitor to this site, then I’ll just explain that if you scroll right to the bottom then you will see reports from 2016 when I rode the first half of that year’s Tour. The most recent posts are from 2018 when I spent a week in the Picos in May (including the Angliru, arguably the toughest climb in Spain) and then four days based in Briancon in the French Alps in June (including an excursion to the Italian side to ride up Colle delle Finestre, where Chris Froome effectively won the Giro d’Italia that year).

I’m currently enjoying being out on the road again having spent a lot of the winter on the turbo in the garage. That doesn’t make for exciting blogging, so I’ll wait until May when I’ll be heading off to the Vosges for a few days to recce the Planche des Belles Filles, which will be the first of our five summit finishes.

That’s it for now.

Stage 4: Jafferau

Today will go down as one of my ten favourite rides. I might have 20 rides that fall into that category if I tried to list them, but this is definitely one! I think because yesterday was such a tough ride and featured the climb I had most been looking forward to, today it was more for the pure enjoyment of cycling rather than another day of forcing myself up one of the toughest climbs in Italy.

Yes, the competition was still on but since Ben and Ying did not ride today, the only question to be settled was who would finish second and third between John and Andy. In the end John remained in second and Andy moved up to third place. Final points were:

Me 141

John 125

Andy 110

Ying 84

Ben 42

The final result was quite close as far as the podium is concerned. If John had not needed to pop home to answer a call of nature before the start of the Izoard (north) climb and Andy not opted out of the Izoard (south) climb on Stage 2, then it could have all been very much closer. That I prevailed may have a lot to do with how the initial handicaps were determined, but nevertheless here I am on the podium this evening receiving my trophy – and a kiss from the random polar bear in our garden!

Today started with a gentle climb up to the first categorised climb of the day, the Col de l’Echelle. I say gentle, but John and Andy were really pushing it and I was just about able to hang on. Good fun though. Andy beat John to the line to win the climb. From there we passed through a beautiful meadow where the fragrance of the pine trees was strong, both early in the morning and especially when we returned on our way back in the afternoon.

A coffee stop in Bardonecchia (Italian side of the Alps) and we were then onto the main climb of the day, the Jafferau. This was a tough climb up through the forest but very pretty. As John and Andy were racing each other for points I think they were not able to appreciate that so much! Andy won that climb too and ultimately claimed more wins than anyone else. I ended up winning 3 climbs out of the 12, Ying 2, John 3 and Andy 4. A fair spread among four of us at least (sorry Ben).

We redescended to Bardonecchia for another coffee before doing the last climb back up to Col de l’Echelle. John won this one and that was the end of all the competitive climbing. Or was it?

Rather than just drop back into Briançon, we decided to take a slight detour to Nevache and back as there were apparently nice views from there. It’s not as if we have been lacking in such views this week of course! As we rode along, it was clear that this little spur was going to involve more climbing than we thought. Although we thought at that point that Ying had decided not to ride today, we could not be certain what he had done or what the final points situation would be. I was reasonably certain that John was secure in second with Andy third, but mischievously suggested that this unofficial climb could turn out to be a tie breaker! That was enough for John who shot off straight away, but Andy was cooked by then. I chased after John determined to try and win a climb again, even if it was unofficial. The time penalties I had picked up for my earlier successes had made this difficult (that and fatigue and the other two getting stronger). I just failed to beat John by about 10 seconds. I would have done better not to announce that this was to be a race as we would have just ridden together and I could have pounced metres from the line to claim an ignoble victory! It was all fun and games though and after a short break to admire the views we returned home.

A long way to go to church this morning

Plenty of time to enjoy a sauna and a hot tub before Colin, who helps manage the property, came round to prepare a delicious barbecue. We’ve had great weather all the time we’ve been here, but just as we started to eat there was a little bit of rain. We stayed put. Very British. But the rain came to nothing and so all was fine.

Time to pack the bike away now, enjoy the rest of the evening and get ready to return home tomorrow.

It’s been a great few days, superbly organised by Ben but we all played a part in making this an enjoyable as well as challenging experience.

Stage 3: Colle delle Finestre

I think I’ve pushed the podcast approach far enough and it’s taking me twice as long anyway!

John, Andy and I set off to do the full ride at 6am this morning, with Ben and Ying deciding they would drive 60km to Susa to do the Finestre climb, redescend and then come home.

Early start

It was our toughest day today, 140km and about 3,700 metres of climbing (4 climbs). The first climb took us to Montgenèvre, just before the Italian border. The three of us rode the day together and since we all crossed the line at the same time, on the handicap system this meant that this was a first win for Andy, with John and I sharing second place. Had there been points for a sprint finish, then Andy would have won by a tyre’s width over John who left his surge slightly too late, though he disputes this!

We then had a long descent into Susa where it was time for second breakfast. Well it was still only 8:30!

The apricot croissant was the best!

Finestre is a HC climb and the one on which Chris Froome basically won the Giro, so it was great to experience that. John and Andy pulled away from me on the paved section through the forest (10km) but I saw them stopping for water just before the start of the 8km gravel section. I rode past without wanting to stop but they soon caught and passed me.

Forest section
Gravel section. Quite hard to capture how tricky this was in places

The total ascent for the climb is an astonishing 1,683 metres (average of 9%). Going through the forest you don’t really get to appreciate this until quite late on and it is stunning to be able to look so far down into the valley.

That’s more than 1km down!

On the way up we passed Ben and Ying coming down to Susa where they had left the car. I didn’t envy them having to descend on that gravel – the road surface was unpaved, hard packed earth with plenty of loose gravel so you had to pick your lines carefully. Sometimes you could feel the wheels sticking a little on the damper sections, though we were blessed with a dry day, but there had been some overnight rain in the area.

John, Andy and I finished within 6 minutes of each other, but it was not until we got home and analysed data that we realised that on the handicap system Ying was the winner, with Andy beating me by 50 seconds and John in last place having set the fastest time! Seems unfair, but they were the rules of engagement.

Thankfully the descent off Finestre towards Sestriere is a proper road surface. The road is wide enough for a car to pass a cyclist but not much else, so it’s fairly tight. Again, this shows the skill of the professional riders, being able to control their bikes at such speed on narrowish roads which fall away steeply.

After a few km we were forced to stop and wait for 30 minutes because there was a so-called super-car rally taking place. A few Porsches, a Lamborghini, a Mercedes and a couple of random others that joined in. Don’t know what that was all about and it didn’t seem especially “super” either, so we just chilled out for a bit.

The rest of the descent and the subsequent climb up to Sestriere was uneventful and unremarkable. John took the win here, with Andy second and me third. Time gaps were small though once handicaps were taken into account, once again showing how this method of scoring was levelling the playing field.

Sestriere is a typical ski village, so nothing really going on or to recommend it other than the lasagne we had for lunch, though Andy had Stinco. Would you order it? Andy speaks Italian so knew straight away what it was. It’s basically ham hock and looked pretty good.

Not far to go now before we completed the loop back to the base of Montgenèvre. Another uneventful and unremarkable climb, apart from the tunnels. Andy took his second win here with me again in third – apart from one joint second place this was the story of my day as far as the KOM competition was concerned today. Overall though I only lost one point to John so the current standings are me leading by 36 on 123, John 97, Ying 84, Andy 77, Ben 42.

Back at the house there was a unanimous decision that no-one wanted to do the long climb up to Sestriere tomorrow via a different ascent to today’s. Instead there would be just three climbs and 80km to ride rather than 120km. I felt it only fair to point out that the maximum points on offer if John won all three climbs was 36, thereby meaning that I just needed to complete one climb in order to be the overall winner. Victory conceded. So the battle now turns to who else will be on the podium and in what order? Will Ying hold on for third with a trademark strong showing on the first climb of the day (before fading or going home) or will it be Andy who seems to be getting stronger and is certain to complete the whole ride? Surely neither can catch John and relegate him can they? Can they? Poor old Ben who put so much effort into organising this has been feeling a bit rubbish and seems destined for lantern rouge.

With all the race results settled and plans made for the next day, it was time for the hot tub before then heading into Briançon’s old town and a restaurant within the castle walls.

8am start tomorrow for John, Andy and I who will again do a group ride and sort out the maths later rather than start off with the time differences determined by our handicaps and time penalties for winning or placing on stages. Ying and Ben will probably start out a bit later, if they can be bothered!

Stage 2: Izoard double

This is the Briancon 2018 King of the Mountains challenge brought to you by the Cycling Podcast in association with, er, no one in particular.

Richard Moore: Where are we Lionel?

Lionel Birnie: We’re in Briancon Richard as well you know. All the stages start and finish at the competitors’ house.

RM: Ah yes of course. I expect they all enjoy that?

LB: Well speaking with John G I know that he is more than happy to be in one place as he has done a lot of moving around between hotels on previous bike trips. Says it’s great to have been able to unpack all his kit for the duration and not have to worry about getting his bag on the van before breakfast.

RM: So what happened today Lionel? Give us the tale of the tour.

LB: Well Rich, as Daniel would say using his football analogies, it was a game of two halves today and gave the race jury something to think about too.

Daniel Friebe: Are you trying to steal my thunder Lionel?

LB: No not really, it’s just that this time a football reference seems to make sense!

DF: Touché.

LB: Anyway, today was a 67km stage with two ascents of the Izoard, first from the north and then from the south. The first climb saw Ying set off, followed by Ben 13 minutes later, John G 7 minutes after that. Andy was a further 3 minutes back and John E a further 5 minutes.

RM: Those are big time gaps Lionel!

LB: Yes, but you know it showed how well the handicap and penalty system worked. Well partially anyway.

RM: What do you mean by that?

LB: Well the first three to set off all arrived at the top of the climb within 3 minutes of each other, with Ying taking the honours and John G just overhauling Ben in the final kilometre of a 19 kilometre climb to take second. Andy was a further 5 minutes back and I think he is suffering from the initial climbing speed assessment, or VAM as it’s known.

DF: Yes that’s an Italian acronym which means …

RM: Yes thank you Daniel we may come back to that later but we need to complete the round up first.

DF: Sorry Rich.

LB: Anyway, John E brought up the rear a few minutes after Andy, which is kind of an appropriate turn of phrase in a way as he had internal problems of a different sort today, though thankfully he did not end up with a Tom Dumoulin moment on the side of the road.

DF: Did you have to mention that Napalm? You know how squeamish I am about such matters.

LB: Well it’s kind of relevant yes, as it had a bearing on how the day panned out. The group had first descended 2 kilometres into Briançon for the official start of the climb which then actually went Back up past their house. John E decided to start with Andy as he knew he was going to have to pop home to use the facilities.

DF: Oh I see. And did that have a bearing on the chaos and rebellion that followed?

LB: I think so. John E was in a sorry state at the top and there was a suggestion that he should just go back to the house instead of doing the southern ascent. He insisted that he was going to do the descent but not muck about at the bottom waiting for his start time and instead come straight back up again. Meanwhile Ben and Andy declared that they were going to go home so that they could save themselves for the big Finestre day tomorrow. John G was always going to complete both sides of the mountain which left Ying wavering a little. In the end, and probably flushed with success from his victory on the first climb, Ying decided to follow the two Johns.

DF: Such anarchy is unheard of in the Tour de France surely!

RM: It does sound chaotic and highly irregular. How did they sort that out? I take it we are now talking about the second half.

LB: Indeed Richard. John G, as Head of the Race Jury quickly decided that while the time penalties incurred on the first climb would stand, there would be no time penalties on the second climb. Ben and Andy needed to be penalised in some way for their actions and this seemed to be a reasonable way to deal with it. Anyway, everyone agreed.

RM: If you ask me I think Ben and Andy got away with it lightly.

LB: Quite possibly so Rich, but of course they did also forfeit their opportunity to score King of the Mountains points. So the format of the second part of this stage was that the three riders who were doing the second climb just started when they were ready, which meant that Strava had to be interrogated to determine what times they each recorded rather than have the winner decided on the mountain so to speak. The cumulative penalties that had been incurred prior to that were then taken into account with the result that John E was declared the winner, with John G second and Ying third. This was a real resurgence in form for John E and sets the final two days up nicely.

RM: So what’s the points situation at the moment?

LB: John G is still leading with 92 points though there were no wins for him today of course, John E is still second on 65, then Ying has surged from fifth to third with 54 points, followed by Ben on 36 and Andy on 29.

RM: So the gap between the two Johns has widened then?

LB: Yes but if you look at the schedule for tomorrow, with John E seemingly recovered it could be game on.

DF: Sounds like a mouth watering prospect. Could the Finestre again be the turning point like it was in the Giro d’Italia recently when the leader Yates cracked and Froome made what turned out to be the race-winning break?

LB: It could well be Daniel, though as the day is only 120 kilometres I don’t see an 80km break going away but you never know. All the signs are that John E is not going to mess around waiting for his start times. He’s going to shoot straight through and let John G do all the calculations later.

RM: And is everyone going to take part on the whole stage?

DF: I’ve been speaking to John G and he thinks it likely that a car is going to be involved.

RM: What else did the race leader have to say about today’s stage?

DF: Given the time gaps, I think he would have settled for maintaining third position on the first climb, seeing no one either ahead of him or behind. In the event he saw Ben about 300 metres ahead of him with 3k to go. He knew it was possible to reel him in, but had to bide his time. In the end the catch was made just in time of course as we now know.

RM: And what does he think about tomorrow?

DF: Well John E trounced him on the second climb despite having been unwell and declaring that he was taking that climb easy. So John G is a bit concerned. It’s a far cry from this morning when the others all seemed ready to concede victory to him.

RM: We’ve said before and will say again that it’s not possible to win a stage race on day 1, but it is possible to lose it. We’ve been joined by Orla Chennaoui. Hello Orla! I though you were covering the OVO Energy Women’s Tour at the moment? That race clashes with this one does it not?

Orla Chennaoui: Hello Richard and indeed it does. But you know that we women are far better at multitasking.

RM: Steady on, I’m covering the Women’s Tour with you as well!

OC: Indeed you are Richard. You know how I like to wind you up sometimes! Anyway, I really liked today’s stage in Briançon. It was similar in length to La Course which the women rode last year, only instead of a warm up before the Izoard climb these guys did them both. A tough day in the saddle. Although as we have already spoken about, the women could easily have done the full stage that the men did last year.

DF: Yes, today was a tough day for those who could be bothered to complete the whole thing.

OC: Indeed so Daniel. I must say, though, that this has been a terrific event and I’m all in favour of innovation. It keeps the racing interesting. The only suggestion I would have for Ben is that he considers doing a Women’s Briançon next year.

RM: We’ll pass that on to him, thanks Orla. We had better let you go now as you have another podcast to record.

OC: Thanks Richard.

RM: So I think we should wrap it up there chaps. Is there anything else we need to say before we do?

DF: Just to say Rich that it’s going to be an early start for the riders tomorrow and they are probably in bed already. It’s a 4:30 alarm for a 6am start so that they can get up the Finestre before it gets too hot and can get back in time for a sauna and a hot tub.

LB: I believe only Andy managed a sauna today did he not?

DF: Quite so Lionel, but there were no points on offer for that, or even penalties!

RM: Right, that’s quite enough from us, we’ve gone on long enough. Thank you Lionel. Thank you Daniel.

LB: Thank you Richard.

DF: Thank you Richard.

[Cue music]

Well I hope you enjoyed that podcast. Just to finish off from my side, here’s a few photos from the day.

I might be on the podium, but as you can see I’m a long way from the top step that the pros would be on.
Andy approaching the finish line
A reprise of last year’s “power pose”. Well, it had to be done!