Stage 1: Galibier – Granon

We arrived safely at our home for the period yesterday. Ben, Ying and I took all the kit in two cars while John and Andy took a train from the airport in Turin to Bardonecchia and then rode over the col to drop down into Briancon and on to the house from there. We found that there is a steep climb up through the village which is going to prove testing at the end of each day!

After stuffing our faces with pizza, we had a quick photo shoot before heading for bed, conscious of the challenge before us.

Andy, me, Ying, John and Ben

Who will earn the right to wear a polka dot jersey to signify the leader of the competition each day? And who will win the trophy outright at the end of the competition? As Head of Race Jury I considered awarding John and Andy time penalties for showing off by getting a sneaky ride in yesterday, but that might have been a bit harsh!

In the end, John started in the polka dot jersey on the basis that he had won the two-up “prologue” against Andy.

As for the stage itself, well let’s hear from the Cycling Podcast who are covering the event.

Richard Moore: Where are we Lionel?

Lionel Birnie: We’re in Briancon Rich for the first stage of the Briancon 2018 King of the Mountains challenge.

RM: I’ve not hear of that before, is it a new event on the UCI calendar?

LB: No Rich, it’s five amateur riders who have just come to chase each other up all the climbs in the area and it sounds like a bit of fun too. They have a handicap system to try and make a race of each climb and if it all works to plan there could be sprint finishes at the tops of mountains like the Galibier.

RM: That sounds innovative. Maybe the Tour de France could learn from that.

Daniel Friebe: Well chaps, I think you’ll find that the Tour is going to try something similar on one of the Pyrenean stages this year with their grid system.

RM: Good evening Daniel, and yes you are right of course. This competition could be an early indication of how that may work out.

DF: I doubt that very much.

RM: Anyway, let’s hear about today’s stage shall we? Lionel?

LM: Today’s stage featured three climbs. A category 2 climb up to the the Lautaret where the riders stopped for coffee and croissants and then another cat 2 climb up to the top of the Galibier. They stopped for lunch after descending back down into Serre Chevalier before taking on the hors category Granon and then going home for tea. Sounds like my kind of ride. Without the hard climbing obviously! After all it was only about 100km but with about 2,900 metres of climbing.

RM: That’s all very well Lionel, thinking with your stomach as always, but what happened on the ride? Give us the tale of the tour please.

LB: Well they all set off within 20 minutes of each other from the bottom of the climb, Ying first followed by Ben, John G, Andy and John E. It’s a long climb, 26km but fairly steady.

RM: And did they arrive on that order or did it end in a sprint finish like Ben the organiser hoped?

LB: Not quite. John G managed to pass the two in front of him without being overtaken and so took the 10 points on offer and also attracted a one minute time penalty to carry over to the next climb. John E also managed to jump up a place as Andy had briefly taken a wrong turning.

DF: That’s a bit of a schoolboy error. Didn’t he know that the art of mountain climbing is that you keep going uphill?

LB: Well that’s a bit harsh Daniel, Andy simply started up the Granon too early. But yes, the Lautaret is clearly signposted.

RM: So that put John G into the virtual polka dot jersey. What happened next?

LB: Well after the aforementioned coffee and croissants …..

RM: Lionel …….

LB: Sorry. Sidetracked for a moment. The summit of the Galibier is another 8km. Once again John G managed to finish first and gained another 10 points and a further one minute penalty. Ben hung on for second, then John E followed by Andy but Ying slipped back to finish fifth.

DF: You mean last.

LB: I think fifth is kinder. He worked very hard and was one of the riders to have a NVE?

RM: NVE? Is that related to a TUE or something?

LM: No. A Near Vomit Experience. A sign of just how hard some of these guys were working.

RM: OK so the polka dot jersey is really slipping from John E’s shoulders at this point?

LB: Yes, and it got worse for him on the Granon. Even though he climbed 4 minutes quicker than John G, the handicap system played into John G’s hands and he won again. As it was a HC climb, this was another 30 points in the bag for him, though John E is in second place.

DF: This John E, John G stuff is all very confusing. Can’t you just call John G the Welshman of something?

LB: They’re both Welsh Daniel, so we will have to live with this I’m afraid.

RM: Thank you Lionel. What else do we know about the ride? Daniel, you were positioned about half way up the Granon. What did you see there?

DF: Well I saw John G closing in on Ben and had taken back two of the four minutes head start he had given him. Is was looking like this race was going to go to the line Rich, when inexplicably Ben stopped. John G unkindly said that Ben should take his pictures on the way back down but from what I heard later I think Ben was just trying to manage his heart rate. Probably sensible but it did hand John G victory on a plate.

RM: But Lionel said that John E was quicker up that climb?

DF: Yes, but not quite quick enough. Also, John E had an ACTUAL vomit experience. Four times!

RM: Sounds messy. Is he OK?

DF: Yes, but his bike needed a good wash this evening. And his bidons.

RM: We’ve been joined by Francois Thomazeau. Good evening Francois.

FT: Good evening everyone.

RM: You were also on the course today. What did you see.

FT: Well the entente cordiale is still alive and well. I saw John G and Ying having a nice chat with a local rider about 2km from the top of the Lauteret. We are used to seeing people chatting in the peloton, but not when the race is on with points on offer.

RM: That’s good to hear. Was there a danger of John G being distracted by this and losing out to one of his rivals?

FT: Well you know not really because I could see he was keeping an eye out for what was going on behind.

LB: Yes and I should just say that although they all started within 20 minutes of each other and the gap did narrow, thus vindicating all Ben’s work on setting the handicaps to a certain extent, it did only narrow to about 8 or 9 minutes between first and last.

RM: So how do we see this panning our tomorrow Lionel?

FT: Well firstly let me just say that most unusually they have not settled on what the route will be. You don’t see that in the Tour de France!

DF: Quite so Francois. How do they get away with that? You don’t see Team Sky or Movistar or anyone else who might have had a bad day picking and choosing what they are going to ride next. There should be regulations about this!

FT: Quite so you know, but actually I don’t think UCI or ASO are going to be too bothered.

LB: To answer your question Richard, the cumulative time penalties that John G has incurred will pull him a little closer to John E who is currently lying in second place and a little further away from Ben and Ying, so it is going to make it harder for him to get the wins on whatever climbs they decide to do.

DF: I’m hearing that climbing both sides of the Izoard is on the cards so that they finish by lunchtime and can use the hot tub and sauna at their house.

RM: Interesting interesting. But Lionel, do you think John E can claim back the jersey?

LB: You know I don’t like speculation Richard.

RM: Quite so. Anyway, we’ve gone on long enough and we do have our own dinner to get to.

LB: Quite right too.

RM: Ahem. So thank you Lionel, thank you Daniel and thank you Francois.

LB: Thank you Richard.

FT: Thank you Richard.

DF: Thanks Rich.

RM: And maybe tomorrow we will be joined by Ciro Scognamiglio.

DF: I think Ciro is going to wait until they visit Finestre or Sestriere. You know he prefers the beach to the mountains, but at least if the mountains are on the Italian side he might make one of his fleeting appearances!

RM: Thanks Daniel. We really must end it there and we’ll reconvene tomorrow.

[Cue music]

Well I hope you all enjoyed that transcript of tonight’s episode. Let’s see if they are back tomorrow!

Meanwhile, some photos from today’s stage:

Briancon KOM competition

Something a little different this time. A group of five who like cycling in the mountains are heading to Briancon in the French Alps for four days of serious mountain climbing. We won’t just stick to France though as we are in striking distance of some Italian classics, namely Finestre and Sestriere, so it promises to be fun (in the way that I understand the word fun of course)!

We will also climb the Izoard, which was the last of the serious climbs on the Tour last year, hence my triumphant photo which some may recall!

The competitive element is the brainchild of Ben, who has put together a detailed race book that would surely be the envy of the Tour or the Giro. The book describes all the routes, climbs and rules of engagement. Specifically, as we are all of different abilities this will be a handicap race, meaning that we will set off at different intervals based on our relative climbing speeds.

Example of the exemplary preparation

This means that in theory the summit of each climb should see a 5-way battle for the win, as well as minimising the time we spend at the top waiting for all to arrive. It can be cold at the tops of mountains!

The idea is that as well as winning points for the King of the Mountains jersey, people will also incur time penalties for winning, to be applied to the start of the next climb. This should help even out discrepancies in the estimated differences between our climbing speeds and ensure fair competition throughout rather than early dominance being achieved and maintained by any one rider. We shall see!

John E making an early claim on the jersey

I am also looking forward to the inquest at the end of each day where other time penalties may be imposed for other types of infraction. I have been nominated head of the race jury and will do my best to be impartial despite my obvious conflict of interest!

Together we are Ben, John E, Andy, Ying and myself. We have all been preparing for this in our different ways and we will find out tomorrow how successful this has all been. For myself, I am hoping that my recent week in Spain is going to be of benefit.

Tapering ahead of the trip

First things first, we have a plane to catch.

Picos day 6

Today was another great day and our final day. It was also the coldest day. Yesterday we were OK in shorts for the most part, despite the presence of snow on the road. The following photos from yesterday are courtesy of Doug and Graham.

Today was definitely a case for full winter set up in the morning as, although the sun was out it was very windy – and also blowing in our faces too. I rode the first flat section and then the climb rotating the lead with Richard and Tony until Graham joined us – he had been suffering a Garmin malfunction which held him back at the start (and yes, I went on without him knowing that he would catch me anyway).

After about 35km there was an option to rode down the gorge to Caín and back before rejoining the main route. Though the legs were still burning from yesterday (and indeed from a week of significant climbing) and the “descent” included a short 19% climb as well as some 20% stuff on the way back up, this was an excellent move. We have seen lots of gorges this week, but this was the best one to gorge on!

Some great views before getting to the little village at the bottom. There was a short cobbled section of road there, so that was fun when climbing back up too!

I nearly stopped on a 20% section on the way back up, but remembering how difficult it was to get started again after stopping on the Angliru yesterday, I pushed on. Redemption time!

It had been 22 degrees in the sun trap that is Caín, but on the next climb the temperature plummeted to about 6 degrees (and it felt colder with the wind) and it started snowing! Only lightly, but it was snowing. Good job I also had my winter gloves and skull cap with me. It was actually snowing when I took the next picture, though that does not show up. Shame!

Ham, egg and chips for lunch. I have eaten too many chips this week, and also bread of course meaning that once again I now consist of 80% carbohydrate!

From there it was just one more push to reach the top of San Glorio. We had climbed this from the longer side on day 1 so were going to be descending from the summit back to our first hotel in Potes for the second time.

First, though, there was the optional extra 2km climb to the Mirador above San Glorio. This was well worth the extra push if only to see the bear!

I don’t take many selfies, but here is one of me with a bear behind.

A final long descent to the hotel and then it was time to dismantle the bike and box it up. There was a final optional extra of another 24km climb to Fuente De and back first, which Graham wanted to do but I did not. I’ve ridden about 800km (500 miles) with 16,000 metres of climbing and that’s quite enough for one week. It’s time to sort out my stuff in good time for dinner and in readiness for a 6am start tomorrow.

Now, I wonder what the gin is like here …….

Picos day 5

Today was all about the Angliru. There was the small matter of a warm up climb to reach the top of El Cordial first to make sure the legs were still working after the day before. They were, and now nothing was in the way of the Angliru which was the next climb on the agenda.

At the bottom of the climb you can see the mountain towering over the village and can just about make out the contour of the road snaking up to the top, though the photo does not do it justice.

The climb starts off as a “normal” climb if there is such a thing – in other words nothing more than 9% for a few km and then a flattish section before reaching the Mirador – my new favourite word, meaning viewpoint.

After that things got serious. Just 7km or so to the top, but the average gradient was now about 13-15% and there were two short ramps of about 20% in a couple of the early bends. So far, so good. Then for a while we continued with the 13-15% average gradient with no silly stuff and it felt fine. Finally with about 3km to go it really did get silly. First there was another bend with a 20% ramp which I was able to take, but I had no recovery time as the road then went straight into a 23.5% section. Had I taken a breather on the previous bend (from where it would have been possible for me to restart) then I might have been ok. But I didn’t, so I had to unclip and stop before falling off. From there I had to walk 500 metres to a point where I could restart. Shame really, but there we go. Puts into perspective what the pros do when they race up this mountain!

We got right to the finish point and wondered what the point of the road was as it was a dead end and there was no habitation anywhere or even radio masts like on the Big G yesterday. For people like us to hurt ourselves I suppose!

The descent was tricky – I am not a great descender at the best of times and going down steep twisty roads is a challenge.

The first shot below is looking back up at the 23.5% section while on the descent. The second shows that we had a fair amount of snow for company too!

Having safely got to the bottom, we then had a coffee before setting off on a 50km section to lunch. Graham was already long gone, but Joe, Hugh, Doug, Clive, Martin and I worked together to deal with that transfer back towards the climbs that would ultimately take us back into the Picos and up onto the plateau. Our home for the night would be back in Riaño, home of the best gin and tonic. A few more this time (though not all for me!).

That’s it for now. Should be a shorter day tomorrow, our final day before having to pack the bikes away for an early transfer to the airport on Sunday morning.

Picos day 4

Yesterday I did not announce my Pick of the Picos. Well it was a close run thing between the gorge shot with the river and the shot of the peak that we subsequently climbed above. But there was a late contender after I had published the blog, namely the goldfish bowl of gin before dinner!

Orange slices, not goldfish

It turns out that the old town of Riaño was flooded in 1984 to create the reservoir and dam. The old town is apparently beneath the bridge in the shot below, though there are many bridges criss-crossing the water which are quite fun to ride over.

The dam itself was impressive, with today’s shot being so much better because of the clear blue skies.

We spent a large chunk of today on the plateau. This does not mean that it was flat however as there were many “undulations”. We were at 1,000 to 1,300 metres above sea level for the first 100km or so, meaning that though the sun was out, when we were in the shade it was chilly and the wind was a bit nippy too. So we still enjoyed magnificent scenery from the limestone rocks that surrounded us and the various rushing streams and cascades. There was still snow clinging to the sides of the road as well as on the mountain tops.

In places there was more shale than limestone and there used to be a lot more mining activity around here. I took the following shot which reminded me of my home town – not that there were many mine shafts in the centre of Cardiff!

We reached our first cafe stop, after which it got a bit interesting. A dog decided it was going to chase Graham, but he got away. That left Joe, Doug and me to get past. I thought I had succeeded until there was a shout behind me. I looked round and sure enough there was a large dark shape barking and foaming at the mouth. Turns out it was Doug encouraging me to do a hill sprint to get away from the dog that was charging up the side of the road! We were OK, but unfortunately one of the other riders got bitten – nothing that needed hospital attention though.

The four of us had a decent lunch at a spot popular with truckers and with an owner who seemed determined to find it difficult to understand what we wanted to order.

After lunch was a short climb and then a 20k decent. Needless to say I was well behind the others on the way down, made worse when I got stuck behind a cattle truck for a while. After a couple of km of this, I finally had the opportunity to complete my first ever overtaking manoeuvre of a vehicle! That made the rest of the descent a lot more pleasant.

At the bottom of the descent we passed a turning for our hotel, but we were all planning to do the extras today and climb at least as far as the next 9km to Cobertoria and for some of us (including yours truly, naturally) the further 7km to Gamoniteiro. I had arrived at the right turn where the Gamoniteiro started thinking that I still maybe had another km to go before that climb began. So that was a pleasant surprise and also a relief as the average gradient was between 10-15% all the way up and I now only had 6km to go, even if the gradient remained steep.

Both of these climbs regularly feature in the Vuelta also, the latter being described as being the Ventoux of Spain. Those who know that mountain would probably recognise that as being a reasonable description. One key difference was a couple of sections of really rough concrete which made it difficult to navigate, whether going up or down.

But we made it, then it was a case of putting on more clothing for the final descent of the day to get to our hotel. This shot at the top of the Gamoniteiro has to be my Pick of the Picos for today – the mountain is known as The Big G!

It was somewhat frustrating to have no phone signal to call home and only intermittent Wi-fi access with which to contact the outside world, but I will catch up.

We have the beast that is the Angliru tomorrow. Various short-cut options were proposed for other sections of the ride which will be the “queen” stage – 170km again like today but with 3,600 metres of climbing, not “just” the 3,100 of today. I have put my name down for doing the whole lot on the bike. Of course. It will be a 6am alarm for 7am breakfast (in a well-negotiated break from Spanish tradition!) and 7:45 start. Just like old times!

Picos day 3

What a difference a day makes! Today was wonderful from start to finish. But first, to finish up from yesterday, here’s a photo of Graham arriving at the top of the Covadonga cling. Frankly it could be anyone, anywhere.

Each day we have the option of “classic” or “challenge” route. Today the challenge route involved an extra climb at the start of the day, not the end, so there was no wimping out this time – not that I regret yesterday’s decision.

The morning was truly stunning, riding through limestone gorges again to the accompaniment of the rushing rivers. Some of the rock formations were great to behold if you like that kind of thing.

There was a good coffee stop just before one of the climbs reached its steepest section. All bought coffee (served in Estrella beer glasses!) and some bought food so the owner didn’t mind that it looked like I was setting shop outside with the grub from the van. Naranjo slice anyone?

After that climb there was a nice descent down to lunch, though there were a number of places where we had to avoid rock fall. The netting that is put up catches some of it, but not all. Good job nothing came down while I was riding past!

Just before the lunch stop was this cascade. Spot also the rope bridge and steep steps up the right hand side!

The view at the lunch stop itself was arguably better. Certainly the fact that I managed to have lunch today made it all better! Asturias bean soup – haricot beans, and very tasty. Another option was soup with pieces of liver. No!

After lunch there was another 20km+ climb to add to those from the day before. Gentle at first, but challenging all the way. Being able to see the scenery made it all the better. We rode towards and then essentially through this one, and on coming out the other side the route took us even higher so that we were overlooking it. Quite a view!

After the climb we were essentially on a plateau where the landscape was a lot more open. We passed a village that was rebuilt some time back because the original was flooded to build a reservoir. We are staying in a nice hotel in Riaño overlooking the reservoir tonight, and will be back in two days’ time.

Loads of wildlife to see today, including the ubiquitous donkeys, cattle, sheep, chickens, goats and birds of prey (not sure which). Thought I’d get a close up of some of the flora too today.

Overall this was 106km (65 mile) ride, but with 2,750 metres of climbing it made for a very long 106km. The distances and climbing increases from here on in. Eek!

Never mind, apparently they do the best gin and tonic in Riaño and it’s time to go and find out!

Picos day 2

By way of explanation I should say that the week has been organised by Marmot Tours. It’s like a mini TDF thing except there are two people doing all the work rather than a team of 15 or so. Also the distances are not as challenging, but we are doing 6 consecutive mountain days so there is a lot of climbing, which is, of course, my “thing”. I only decided yesterday that I would add this to my existing blog, hence a slightly different style – less stats and research beforehand – but still aiming to share some good photos and to find a humerous take where I can. And I am well aware that humour, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder!

Today started with a beautiful, gently downhill ride through a gorge to the town of Panes (gorge and gorgeous same root word?).

The weather was not a patch on yesterday’s – somewhat damp in the air but pleasant enough. Had the sun been out then I’m sure I would have taken more photos. The above is one of Graham’s as it was better than my effort – thanks Graham!

The plan today was to get something to eat at a cafe in Las Arenas rather than just before the day’s main climb which was the Lagos de Covadonga – another 20km special with a steep middle section. It’s a climb that features in the Vuelta a Espagna, so it’s a good one to tick off the list. We should be in good time for lunch at the top before coming back down to the hotel.

After leaving Arenas, we passed through some small villages, including this one.

Graham and I aren’t sure how many people on Marmot tours stop for a photo here or whether it is just us!

Anyhow, enough of that nonsense as we were soon into the serious business of the day. The road was getting steeper, but earlier in the day the general dampness had upset my Garmin which thought I was 150 metres below sea level. As it dried out, the Garmin rapidly started to correct itself to the point where I was gaining height rapidly on gradients of up to 150%! I should correct the stats on Strava I suppose, but since it also gave me a top speed of over 100mph I might leave it!

We did not get the benefit of the view because we were soon riding in heavy cloud and poor visibility. Thankfully the sides of the road (which had little in the way of protective barriers) were painted with strong white lines. As the visibility worsened, I was confused by what I thought were dotted white lines. Turns out it was a small flock of sheep being brought down the hill by a shepherdess!

Eventually I could see no more than 5 or 10 metres in front of me. The last 1km was on poor roads and once at the top I decided to forego lunch and head back down to grab something at the hotel instead. Going down took a long time – just too dangerous for me to come down with any kind of speed until I could see where I was going, which took a good 10km or so.

Eventually though, it did clear and I got a good shot of the church that was built to commemorate the site where the Catholic Church started to push back against the Moors. It’s an impressive site, though the area outside is typically touristy. It’s the Basilica de Santa Maria la Real de Covadonga.

The picture is my Pick of the Picos day 2 – yesterday’s Pick was the one I took of the stag. Sounds like a new feature and I shall have to choose one for each day!

On getting back to the hotel there was an optional extra to climb up to Riensena. Perhaps I would have seen some more beautiful mountain scenery had I done so, but given what is still in store I decided to give it a miss and rest up instead.

Oh, and the slow descent meant I never got any lunch. Never mind, dinner at 8:30pm which I shall probably demolish.

Stats today – 116km riding with something like 1,500 metres ascent. I’d ask my Garmin, but it’s still confused.

Picos day 1

From terror to terrific

Before I left for six days in Spain I was feeling terrified that I was going to mess up my shiny new bike because I had to partly dismantle it to get in the box for transporting via Sleazy Jet. Only a few bits to worry about, but I am aware of my own incompetence! It was equally terrifying on arrival, putting the bike back together again.

Although I have slipped back into multi-day bike riding mode quite easily, there were a few faffy rough edges this morning. For example, I came back to my room to look for my Garmin when it was in my back pocket the whole time! Then I couldn’t find either of the multi-tools I had been using to reassemble my bike and had to borrow one in case I needed it on the ride. Turns out they were both in my day bag all along! I also managed to lose the first half of today’s ride on the Garmin and you know what they say – if it’s not on Garmin then it didn’t happen!

Well I did get to Piedrasluengas and here’s the proof:

After that it was time to descend back to Potes. It would have been possible to get some lunch here, but since there was another big climb this afternoon I decided to start the climb and have coffee part way up before pushing on. There would be time to get up and down before lunch service finished at 4pm. In total there are 19 riders on this trip and most stopped for lunch in Potes but my room mate Graham and also Clive and Doug had pressed on. Not to be first, but because it was hot and we wanted to get it done. In fact, at Piedrasluengas this time last week it was snowing but today it was 30 degrees!

Both the climbs today were about 25km, so that’s a long way up but two enjoyable descents too, when I could stop and take some photos.

Doing the TDF proud

These ones were taken on the descent off San Glorio:

I particularly like the last of the above. It made me think of a Sphinx-like nodding dog, except his head had fallen off!

Some great scenery, and I don’t think that one of the villages we passed through should be taken as a fair description!

So, not bad as a “warm up” day. All eyes are on Day 5 when the mighty Angliru is on the agenda. More of that another day. For now it is time to relax before dinner, which being Spain means 9pm! Tomorrow will start about 9:30 or so as it is not possible to get breakfast anywhere in this region before 8:30. Makes a nice change from last year and the 5:45 breakfasts and 6:30 transfers though and it’s a whole different mindset.

If “terror” and “terrific” have the same root word then it’s funny how contrasting they are! The bike held together and I held together and it’s been a great first day.

Rollercoaster: The book of the blog

In fact it’s called a “blook”. Clever eh?

You know how, as soon as the final episode of a TV series has finished, they instantly start advertising the box set and you wonder “why would I bother, I’ve just seen it?”, well it’s the same here!

Actually I was wondering how to keep a permanent record of my blog and came across which could do this for me. It might well be that the blog falls off the edge of the Internet at some point after all. A by-product of doing this was that an ebook was also produced and is available for sale on their site (in the “Blookshop” no less!). So if you would like a nicely formatted, tidied up, easier to read version then this is what you need. I’ve only corrected errors and inaccuracies but it is otherwise unchanged as I want this to remain a “warts and all” account of what I went through.

It could make an ideal gift for someone! A hard copy is available but expensive (the publishers want a lot for it) but the ebook is reasonable. Either way, I make a few Euro on each sale, all of which will ultimately find its way to the William Wates Memorial Trust.

The full title is “Rollercoaster: The highs and lows of the Tour de France” and charts both the physical and emotional journey that I have had.

Happy reading!




I’ve been home for nearly a week now and I feel the time is right to wrap this all up in some way.

Cycling summary

Total distance: 2,270 miles (3,632 km)
Total climbing: 152,774 feet (46,565 metres), or 5.25 Everests
Total riding time: 161 hours (add approx. 2 hours per day to get elapsed time)
Average moving time: 14mph (22.6 kph)

What you will notice is that distance and climbing are of course the same as the pros, but the riding time is considerably less (Chris Froome finished in 86 hours). But as I am fond of saying, I am twice their age so I can take twice as long!

The return

Firstly, when I got home on Monday I burst out laughing when I opened the front door and saw this:

A yellow arrow

It brought home the point that we had not been following “yellow arrows” at all. We’ve been referring to our signs in this way for three weeks and it never occurred to me that the arrows should be described as black!

An arrow sign

Nevertheless, I of course followed the arrow into the living room where this sight was waiting for me:

Note the deliberate absence of a white jersey – that’s reserved for the best young rider!

Cool huh? The evening got better as we were all together as a family for dinner in the garden – chilli con carne and champagne! Then my friend Pete came round with another bottle of champers. Hic!

The recovery

My week since then has consisted of sleeping, catching up on Tour de France highlights, snoozing and watching some live stages. I did get out of the house to collect my bike and also to clean it, but that was more or less it. On Friday I thought I was recovered, but a short ride to the pub where Babs was celebrating the end of term, plus a pint and a burger, meant that I was once again snoozing in front of the TV in the afternoon! I think I’m OK now – certainly I don’t want to sleep the summer away!

Route reflections

To Saturday then, and a warm welcome from club mates as I turned up for my first Bigfoot ride since coming home, which was much appreciated. The inevitable questions got me thinking how can I possible answer “how was it?” in a few short words. I was initially at a loss as to what to say as so much has happened!

I think my overall summary has to be that it was a rollercoaster of an experience. Pushed to the limits of physical and mental endurance one day, followed by some of the best-ever rides and great times on a bike the next.

I was asked “did I enjoy each part of every ride?”. No, I did not, but then it would have been unrealistic to think otherwise. I expected that some sections, or even whole days, would be a long slog and they were, especially into the wind and rain in the first week. But that just helps you appreciate the good days all the more. The same is true of the accommodation and to some extent the food provided by the hotels too. With a trip like this, if you can’t take the rough with the smooth then you shouldn’t take part.

Another common question was “would I do it again?”. The words that tumbled out of my mouth were “there’s no need”.  And there isn’t, though I know of people who have repeated the exercise years later.

“What’s next then John?”  I have no idea, though I will take part in Ride London 100 as part of a Bigfoot team next weekend. Cycling for pure enjoyment will be the order of the day for now though and I have no plans to ride across America or anything silly like that! Saturday’s club ride was great, smashing my PBs on some local climbs just for fun. In a few weeks’ time my fitness will have waned a bit, so I shall enjoy it while I can!

The events of the tour are all fused into one in my mind and I will have to go back to my blog and the photos in order to differentiate between many of the days. What has stayed in my mind are the following highlights and, for balance, low points.

The mountain stages obviously stand out favourably for me as one who prefers climbing to descending, particularly those which I knew from past experience or my recon mission in May – step forward Stages 5, 9 and 17. I really enjoyed Stage 17 (the Galibier) stage but what surprised me was how little I enjoyed the following day in the mountains – Stage 18 to the Izoard – despite it being one of the prettiest. I think cumulative fatigue played a part here, and particularly all the traffic, but the climb itself was a good one. Commentators have been saying how hard the Izoard climb is. That’s true, but it’s harder if you are racing it whereas I was just pacing myself, so in fact that climb was the best part of that particular day for me.

Other stages I really enjoyed were the short Stage 13 – not because it was short but because of the challenges, the Mur de Péguère in particular. Also the flat “holiday” ride in the Dordogne (Stage 10) stands out, as does the arrival in Le Puy-en-Velay (at the end of Stage 15) where we were treated to a magnificent view of the town before descending from the top of the final climb. And of course the last two rides in Marseille and Paris were pure pleasure.

On the other side, I mostly remember the first week as being a soggy, windy ordeal (except for Stage 5 and the Planche des Belles Filles and Stage 9 with its three HC climbs). Last year I rode the first 9 stages and I think that overall those who rode just the first 9 stages of the 2017 edition got a raw deal in comparison. The first “rest day” was also tricky because of the long transfer from east to west that we had to do, which put real pressure on us to get done all those things that we wanted and needed to do, such as getting clothes and bikes clean.

Rider reflections

I did not ride this in a vacuum of course. I was in the company of a great team of riders and support crew and the camaraderie we all enjoyed played a massive part in the success of the tour and I will be forever grateful for that. That, in fact, will probably be my abiding recollection, long after more painful memories of wind, rain, cold, heat, steep climbs, tricky descents, busy traffic, dull roads, tiredness and shortness of time have dissipated. Notice that I never mentioned hunger. I never went hungry! And I hope I never forget the beauty and majesty of God’s creation that I witnessed too. Some of the places we were privileged to ride through were truly spectacular.

Also, I did not ride this “blind” in the sense that I knew from previous experience on the Tour de Force what was coming. After riding half of the tour last year, I put into place all the various learning points that I had recorded. Notably, I did take care of myself during my training, going for massages and doing more stretching than I’ve ever done (which admittedly wasn’t difficult to achieve!). Taking a washing line and pegs helped deal with wet kit more efficiently and having two pairs of cycling shoes meant I never had to start with wet feet! This also helped on the day when my cleats failed and I was simply able to change shoes at the next feed stop, leaving cleat change faff to a more convenient time.  I was mentally prepared for late finishes, safe in the knowledge that Sarah does an excellent job of making sure there is food for everyone, no matter what. Consecutive late finishes still take their toll though and it’s great when the pattern is broken and there is time to enjoy the occasional dip in a pool before dinner.

I took less energy bars and gels because they were not needed (except for on a few mountain stages) and instead I took my winter jacket, which came into its own on Stage 9 (I should have had it in my day bag for Stage 8 too in retrospect). Taking a portable charger was very helpful and enabled me to maximise time on the coach for writing my blogs without the phone dying. It also meant I could get to sleep at a reasonable hour rather than staring at a screen late into the night.

One point I noted last year and which I ignored was that I still took a book – an easy to read biography rather than a complex novel, so it was easy to pick up and put down when I fancied, which admittedly wasn’t often.

Finally Stage 7 will be an abiding memory because this is when Dequane and Martyn visited from Westminster House Youth Club and rode with us in some horrible conditions. If you have heard the Team Dimension Data riders on the Tour de France speaking about how much they appreciate the strong link to the Qhubeka charity (changing people’s lives, mobilising them by providing bicycles), the cynic might think that they are contractually bound to say that. However, having had a close-up view of the good that the money raised by the Tour de Force does for the William Wates Memorial Trust and the charities that it in turn supports, then I can well imagine that this wider perspective is valuable to them. After all, and as I have already said, it is only a bike ride, albeit one that helps disadvantaged members of our society fulfil their potential.

I’m grateful for all those who have sponsored me so far and as I write I am just a little bit short of my target, so if you have enjoyed the blog and would like to add to the cause, then my page (below) is open until 31 August 2017.