Breakfast: 05:45. Transfer: 0h30. Start time: 08:00. Distance: 212.5km. Terrain: typical Ardennes (=lumpy, 2,763 metres). Climbs: two Cat 3, three Cat 4. Finish: 18:59. Time in saddle: 8h15.
Suffer scores: John 3/10, Alex 4/10
We start in Belgium and spend the best part of the day riding through Luxembourg – from top to bottom in fact and then out the other side. We end up in Longwy and our first sight of French tarmac. Longwy remained part of France in the 19th century when other parts of Alsace-Lorraine became part of the German Empire. No doubt the ramparts (now part of a UNESCO world heritage site) had something to do with that. Pottery is a big thing in Longwy, but I won’t be replacing my water bottles with anything ceramic.
Tale from the Tour
Dropping due south, we passed a sign saying 950 metres to the Grand Duchy but there was no actual sign to show when we had passed into Luxembourg. We knew that we had arrived when the car number plates change and the villages went from being a bit scruffy to neat and tidy. Also the drivers seemed more impatient. We knew when we had entered France when it got a bit industrial and tired-looking.
After some fairly ordinary scenery, we had our best view as we were crossing a bridge and the shout went up to stop for photos.
The riding was great today, not just the scenery but a few of us have gelled really well as a group of riders and which makes all the difference. Inevitably I struggle a bit on flats and descents because I have less raw power and ballast, but I make that up on climbs if needed. By and large though the rotation works well.
One thing that has been striking on the Tour to date is the almost complete absence of visible signs that it is happening! Sure, there were some painted bicycles and a few signs in Düsseldorf and Liege but it contrasts poorly with last year. Admittedly that was in France, but Yorkshire put them to shame. They still have a week to go I suppose.
Tonight we went to a Chinese restaurant for an “all you can eat” buffet. They are lucky that we are not too far into the Tour and have yet to properly dip into calorie deficit else we would have descended like a plague of locusts and probably bankrupted them!
A word on the suffer scores. Overall an easier day because of the lack of wind and great group work, though Alex found the climbing a little tougher.
Breakfast: 06:45. Transfer: None. Start time: 08:00. Distance: 203.5km. Terrain: largely flat (1,400 metres climbing) Climbs: two Cat 4. Finish: 17:38. Time in saddle: 7h32
Suffer scores: John 5/10. Alex 5/10
Today we pass through the Neander Valley, from whence came Neanderthal man until he evolved into a cyclist! Liège is not the prettiest place on earth, but is the home of one of the “monuments” of cycling going out to Bastogne and back. A brutal 270km ride that I did in 2015. Bastogne wasn’t much better but if you like waffles, you’re in business in this area. Liège is called Luik in the Walloon language, and hence why I got lost once as I couldn’t see any signs for the former, though there were plenty for the latter! Prompted me to get a Satnav…..
Tale from the Tour
I was expecting this to be an undistinguished ride – life in northern (industrial) towns including a loop out of Düsseldorf and then back in again – but there were some moments. To start with there was the day’s first puncture – mine.
What characterised today was the strong headwind that was doing its best to blow us back to Düsseldorf, which would have been a real shame because having been there two days and escaping it once this morning only to have to return we really wanted to stay away!
We finally made it into Belgium and I was happy to get into the rolling Ardennes countryside which was more my kind of terrain and a lot prettier too.
The wind contributed to the splitting up of the groups, but the most unusual cause of a split was negotiating our way through a carnival which seemed to be celebrating the pig (what the pig has done for us over the centuries etc). I heard one mum say to her young daughter “vite vite cherie come and look at the slaughtered pig that has been cut in half and thrown on the back of a horse drawn cart”. That was the gist of it anyway.
We had earlier negotiated another road block where there were anti-nuclear protesters. I think I somewhat undermined the seriousness of their protest by getting them to cheer on our peloton as we rode up the street!
Note to Stewart. Alex’s “mean cup of tea” turned out to be coffee, and white at that. I think we’ll be ok though. The suffer scores are our entirely subjective assessments. We are expecting rides that are harder than today and hoping for some easier ones!
Start time: 17:00. Distance: 14km time trial. Terrain: flat. Climbs: None. Finish: 18:30. Time in saddle: 0h55
Think Düsseldorf, think beer and sausage. The stereotype is true perhaps, but apparently there is a great fondness for all things French here. There is a three day celebration of French culture and cuisine around the time of Bastille Day (14th July), but we will be long gone by then. Will have to make do with beer and sausage then!
Tale from the Tour
Well first up a group of us that had arrived yesterday went to see the rugby.
Perhaps unsurprisingly we lost what is probably our best chance of a win in the Lions-NZ series but hey ho. At least we got to see it in the comfort of McLaughlin’s bar and no-one dared sit in front of us. We were very loud at time and would have deafened them!
After that it was back to the hotel for a spot of lunch at the superbly named Mangold bar. Now we are not all golden oldies and we are not all male, but there is nevertheless a fairly narrow demographic. We had dinner and a few beers there last night too, having first retrieved our bikes from the vans that had brought them out and stored them in the basement next to the sauna as instructed. This still seems to have annoyed someone using it at the time, quite possibly we had had the temerity to move the deckchairs to make space, one of which had his towel on it. Ever been confronted by an angry, naked German? First incident of the tour and we hadn’t even got on our bikes yet. Now I usually like to illustrate my stories, but this one not so much!
There’s been a triathlon event going on today, so in order to make life easier we held off doing our ride until 5pm as it wasn’t going to take long. This gave us plenty of time for a briefing and to meet other riders and the support team who will be vital to our success in this crazy mission to ride 3,500km over 21 days.
The best thing that can be said about today’s stage is that we have knocked it off the list. I’m not complaining, but commuting in London used to be more fun. And the Tour is the Tour after all (cliche alert). Ride leaders did an excellent job of getting about 50 people through busy streets where we also had to contend with tram tracks.
Oh, and I was honoured to receive the first “chapeau” award for having mentored one of the lads who attends a charity supported by the money we raise. Dequane will be coming out to ride stage 7 and I hope he feels encouraged by our ride together. Please do consider sponsoring me if you haven’t already. Http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/johngriffiths5. It’s for very good causes.
So, another beer, then dinner and one more beer for carbo-loading purposes and it’s time for bed before a proper ride tomorrow. As I mentioned at dinner, so far I have drunk more beers than I have ridden kilometres. There may be some journalistic licence in that, but not much!
I could become a better all-round cyclist if I worked on my descending skills and could generate more power on the flat. However, in order to get through the Tour de Force I decided early on that I would focus on my (relative) strength, namely climbing. Climbing is when cycling tends to hurt most. Riding fast can hurt too, but you can always slow down a bit whereas the mountain is still going to be there! My aim is to enjoy the Tour and so I’m looking to minimise the pain and suffering in terms of time and effort required on the many cols and mountain tops that are to come. As of May, my total vertical ascent is now over 50 miles – that’s way above the stratosphere though not yet in space!
Early on I decided that I would recon some of the climbs that I don’t already know, so I planned this week of two halves, focussing on stages 5 and 9 of the 2017 Tour. I’ve written a lot and posted a lot of photos here. The narrative will help me when I get even older to remind me of this week and I am sure that some will just flick through the pictures. That’s absolutely fine! I am grateful for the interest shown and sponsorship received already and all I ask is that if you enjoy this blog (which is a taste of what’s to come in June/July) then you consider making a donation. All the money raised goes towards supporting the charities that the William Wates Memorial Trust supports (more on which I have posted earlier – see the Grand Slam post for example). That’s virginmoneygiving.com/johngriffiths5. Thank you!
The Tour spent a few days in the Vosges in Eastern France in 2014. I was captivated by the beauty of the landscape and it’s been on my “to do” list since then. Since stage 5 finishes at La Planches des Belles Filles (henceforth PDBF), I decided to go there first and also to ride the route of the “Trois Ballons” and to split all that activity over two full days, not cram it into one. My friend Matthew was with me for this part of the week as he is training for the Vatternrundun ride in Sweden (300km) and will be spending a week crossing the Canadian Rockies. We maximised time on the bike by getting in a short ride on arrival day (Friday) once the storm had cleared and got our first taste of the area.
On Saturday we headed straight for PDBF. At the café at Plancher des Mines we got chatting with Veronique, whose brother made this statue at the top. Not my best photo, but is depicts a belle fille – the legend is that this is a place where young ladies threw themselves to their deaths in order to escape unwelcome attention from the advancing Swedish mercenaries. However, it seems to be named after beech trees in the area – belles fahys in the local dialect. Indeed, there is a village called Belfahy in the area and it sits on top of a horrible climb. We know, because we rode it! Still, it got the legs warmed up nicely!
Veronique was not too keen on the Tour coming through because it not does too much for the area other than spoil it (it’s a massive juggernaut of an operation). She said that we were OK though because we were spending money in the café. But in a seeming contradiction, Veronique and the bar owner were excited to show us a newspaper cutting with a picture of Chris Froome at their friends’ café at the top of PDBF when he came through the previous week to do his own recon. That’s despite the signs commemorating his victory in 2012 when it took him a little over 16 minutes to complete the 5.9km climb so he clearly knows it rather well! We took rather longer than that – indeed Mr Froome would have had time to descend to the bottom and probably pass us as we got to the top!
The climb itself, by the way, was mostly fine. The first 5km is a fairly steady 10 or 11% but we were able to chat easily as we went up. Why is a 10% climb in France easier than a 10% climb at home? Road surface might have something to do with that, and so does the environment probably. There’s then a short dip and the final part of the climb gets steep (I hit 20% briefly), but it’s all over in a matter of a few hundred metres.
After a leisurely lunch at the café at PDBF, we then went on to tackle our first ballon – the Ballon de Servance. I think the term “ballon” is given to those mountains over 1,000 metres, otherwise there are many other cols dotted around which get to 600+ metres. This was a long, steady climb presenting no real difficulty as the gradient was mostly 6-9%. This made for a good descent the other side – not too steep and not too twisty. The last 20km home was ridden through a thunderstorm. We had seen it brewing for a while and had been circling it until it hit us big time, with hail as well just for good measure.
The next day we drove to Servance so that we could ride the rest of the Trois Ballons route, which included Ballon d’Alsace and the Grand Ballon (appropriately the highest of the three at 1,504 metres). With other cols dotted here and there, this was a day of constant ascending and descending. The two 15km climbs up the Ballons were just what I needed and it was a great ride. Rain jackets were on and off all day, but there was a lot of sunshine too. We were fortunate not to be out in the thunderstorm that followed. In the car on the way back we witnessed an even greater storm than the previous day. Hardly need for headlights with all the lightning, though the windscreen wipers needed to go at triple speed!
Matthew and I did a final ride together on Monday morning before he headed off to the airport and work tomorrow, poor thing! We followed the route of La Boucle de la Petite Finlande. So called, I think, because of all the lakes and pine trees. Once Matthew left after lunch, I had a power nap and felt ready to go again – I had been feeling weary on the morning ride. I explored to the north and west this time. Yet again there were more picturesque climbs and descents through forests, past lakes and streams and waterfalls. Is there no end to this beauty!
The Vosges fully lived up to my hopes and expectations in terms of scenery and cycling experience. Indeed, I feel like this is a cycling paradise, though you have to enjoy climbing which fortunately I do!
The climbs on Stage 9 of the Tour include Col de la Biche, Grand Colombier and Mont du Chat. After a long drive south on Tuesday morning, I arrived at Culoz from where I set out to climb the Mont du Chat. We go over the difficult side and descend into Bourget-du-Lac. The first sign you see is at 12km to go, but the climb kicks off in earnest from about 7km to go and the gradient soon gets to 14-20% and stays there. Ouch! With about 3km left to go, the gradient drops to around 12% which by now feels like a long-lost friend. The final run-in at 8% seems positively flat! But the view at the top is breath-taking. One photo does not do it justice but I can’t post my panoramic video here. With the lake down below and the Alps in the background, it’s inspiration enough to get me back up that climb in early July.
My return route via the D14 was blocked to cyclists due to work going on, so I either had to retrace my steps and climb Mont du Chat again, or add a few km to my day by going round the lake via Aix-les-Bains. Tempted as I was to do another climb, it was getting late in the day and the lake route was flat. Unfortunately so was my front tyre. I had two punctures today and was now out of spare tubes. With about 40km still to go I was concerned, but managed to blag a spare off a cyclist who I saw was at his car and packing up for the day. Result! There were no further blow outs but I felt better. On future solo rides I think I’ll take three tubes with me, though I’ve only ever had that many punctures once before I think.
On Wednesday I ventured out from my hotel in La Balme de Sillingy. It sounds like a lotion for curing daftness, but I think I’m a lost cause! It was great to set off from the hotel after three days of having a “transfer” first. It will be like this on tour, where most days involve getting on a coach first and those days where we can start directly from the hotel are a real joy. Not least because you can maybe have an extra 30 minutes in bed!
The Col de la Biche was tougher than I expected it to be, particularly at the bottom so that was good to note. Fairly unremarkable at the top and there was no café which was a shame, though I always carry some food with me.
Then it was on to Grand Colombier. Approaching it from this side offers two ways to the top. I plotted the right one on my Garmin, but dithered and ended up going up the climb that the Tour followed last year instead of the tougher one that we will do this year. However, the last 4km are the same regardless of the starting point so that’s OK. Where the two routes meet I did consider going down to Virieux le Petit and climbing again just to make sure I did the proper route (was fairly sure I was wrong by then), but I thought that would be excessive. Plus as it turns out there’s no café at the top here either and I was out of food by now, though with a descent into Seyssel coming up. In any case, having some “unfinished business” with a mountain can be motivational for next time!
In Seyssel, the bar had stopped serving food but I’d seen the sign that they had Affligem on tap – my favourite Belgian beer! When I was asked what I wanted, there was absolutely no thought of ordering a Coke or an Orangina – asking for a beer was a totally reflex action! I still had a little way to go to get back to the hotel, but I had a real sense of “mission accomplished” and a cheeky little “vingt cinq” wasn’t going to hurt!
I was previously thinking of going for a ride the next morning before heading north again for an overnight stay in Luxeuil-les-Bains (near where I had been staying in the Vosges), but all thoughts of that evaporated as I was having my beer. I think my body was telling me that I had done enough now. Indeed, it was crying out for a relaxing hour chilling out in the thermal baths, if that’s possible at 34 degrees. There were some aqua cycles in the pool, but I left those well alone! I’ve a little bit more training to do when I get back, then a holiday (no bikes!) and then I’ll just need to tick over gently until it’s time to come back out with the Tour de Force and experience the majesty of this region all over again.
I think I should have entitled this post “Beauty and Majesty”, for that is what it has been. But I think I’ve found my mountain legs (we’ll find out, won’t we!), so I’ll leave it at that.
Before I knew I would be riding the whole Tour in 2017, I had decided that my main challenge for this year would be to ride on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. The full pro race is around 250 km, starting from Compiegne (north west of Paris) incorporating 27 sections of cobbles totalling some 55 km. The day before the pros race, amateurs could choose to ride either 70km, 145km or 172km in order to experience some of the “Hell of the North”, one of the five “monuments” of cycling. I chose the middle option on account of the fact it started and finished in Roubaix, rather than needing to spend 1.5 hours on a coach to Busigny, where the longest of the challenges starts. That’s something I can do without, as there will be plenty of transfers to endure when I do the Tour de France! The route I chose still had 18 cobbled sections, totalling some 33km and included the iconic sections such as Trouée d’Arenberg and Le Carrefour de l’Arbre.
Weather conditions were good, meaning that the course would be dry and dusty, not wet and slippery, so that was in my favour. I had opted for slightly wider tyres than I would normally ride (28mm) and did not inflate them as much as I normally would in order to attempt the limit the bouncing (80 psi). I think it worked in that there were no problems in the saddle area – issues came elsewhere!
As we were starting in Roubaix and only joining the longer Paris-Roubaix challenge route after 51km, this meant a fast-paced ride out on clear, smooth roads and the opportunity to join other groups of riders. My pain would be experienced solo later in the ride. I started just before 8 am and once out of town it was misty first thing until the sun won through. So for the first few km I could only smell the muck-spread fields rather than see them!
I’ve experienced the cobbles that feature on the Tour of Flanders and expected these ones to be worse. I was not disappointed! First up was the Trouée d’Arenberg, 2.4km of cobbles that were graded a 5 star difficulty rating (out of 5). What a baptism! I hit the cobbles OK, remembering what I had been told about selecting the right gear beforehand and maintaining momentum. What I had not anticipated was that I would be unable to see properly – this was because my eyeballs were bouncing around inside my skull! Despite there being smooth sections of tarmac alongside the cobbles (which a good number of people were using), I was determined to see this through to the bitter end and was thrilled when I did so. I thought this augured well for the rest of the ride, given that there were only three 5-star cobbled sections in total, so the other 15 must be easier right? Well they were, sort of, but not by very much. The only real difference between 2-star and 4-star sections was the length I think, or at least it felt like it.
The next cobbled section was shorter and went OK, this time with perfect vision. Half way through the 3.7 km third section I realised that I was already starting to get blisters on my hands. This was not a good sign. My normal riding position is to have my hands on the hoods, not the bars, and I think my failure to go straight to the bars may have caused the problem – or at least brought the situation on earlier than it otherwise would have done. Oh well, there was not much I could do about it now but to grimace and bear it. In fact, in most of the photos that were taken of me during the day it’s clear that there was a lot of grimacing going on!
Over the next few sections I stayed mostly on the cobbles but did go for some occasional respite by riding along the side. In fact, riding on the hard-packed earth alongside the cobbles was almost as difficult most of the time as it was rutted, narrowed at times, and there were quite a few holes too. My honour drove me to stay on the cobbles as far as possible though, rather than copy the many who took whatever advantage they could. As the day wore on though, I was happy to start compromising a little more!
The feed stop provided welcome relief for a while. 6 sections down, 12 to go. I was making reasonable time, but I was staggered by the speed of the people who were able to fly by me. During the next sections I tried to push harder in order to get the pain over and done with quicker, but I clearly lacked the strength and/or technique and perhaps the sore hands were hampering me too, though the blisters weren’t giving me grief when I was riding on the bars.
One flat field gave way to another flat field and each of them had another long stretch of cobbles with which to contend. These sections were coming thick and fast now, with only a handful of km between each of them in which to recover. And even then we were faced with a headwind to impede us in another way. You could see the foreboding sign marking the start of a new section looming in the distance – a sign to start mentally preparing for the next assault on the body. There was also another 5-star section to negotiate during this period, but eyeballs stayed in place this time.
Another feed stop, then the final 7 sections. The third last was Le Carrefour de l’Arbre, the last of the 5-star killer sections. I had pretty much had enough by now and was so pleased that I had not gone for the 172km route as I would have reached that threshold much sooner! To start with I could not face bouncing around on cobbles again so stuck to the sides for a bit, then stopped to admire the prowess of those coming through and to try and record what the road looks like. I was pretty exhausted by this stage.
Two more sections to endure, and then the merciful relief of knowing that there was just a few km of smooth roads to go before the end. I was happy, but not yet relaxed because the ride finishes in the velodrome. I’ve never ridden in a velodrome before and the last thing I wanted was to get it all wrong on the banking and end up in a heap! Entering the track was OK in the end and I soon moved to the flat on the inside – safety first after I had come so far. I felt triumphant crossing the finishing line. No mean achievement, and although it’s always possible to wonder “what if” with respect to how I could have done things differently, it is not one I shall be repeating, but don’t let me put you off!
With little over 10 weeks to go before the Tour de Force commences, it’s time for a quick update on how my preparation is going. This has included my most notable ride of the year to date (ever?) – the Paris-Roubaix challenge! More on that in the next post.
The training so far
At the start of the year I looked at my training diary for 2016 and felt somewhat intimidated by what I had achieved in the first few months of that year! I wanted to match that and by the end of February, despite some tricky road conditions that curtailed some of my efforts, I largely achieved it. I was sort of following my triple weekly objectives from last year (150 miles in total, one ride of at least 70 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing), but not slavishly so. This was because knowing that I would be leaving my job at the beginning of March I would have more time to focus on my preparation. In the event, March turned out to be a huge training month, clocking up over 1,000 miles but more importantly I was focussing on getting a lot of climbing in. The Tour will include a lot of climbing of course, but this year a number of steeper sections are on the schedule so I’ve been actively seeking out the challenging hills in the Kent/Sussex countryside.
My schedule seems to have fallen into a routine whereby I ride for four days and then take three days off. This should help build up my endurance while also giving me sufficient recovery time.
How appropriate for a rugby-loving Welshman to be contemplating his personal Grand Slam! Only in this case it’s not a case of Wales conquering the other five countries in the 6 Nations championship, but of one Welshman riding in each of the five mountain regions of France! I won’t be alone of course, as I will once again be riding with the Tour de Force with whom I had a fantastic adventure even though I “only” rode the first half of the 2016 edition, raising funds for the William Wates Memorial Trust.
Follow the links to find out more about WWMT and TdeF and if you would like to sponsor me for my 2017 adventure, then please go to my page at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/JohnGriffiths5. Looking at the stats for the 2016 blog I appear to have had over 400 readers, so if each one gave just £10 that would come to a huge amount. That’s less than 50p per report/day on the bike!
For those who did not follow me on my previous journey, you can still read about it on this site, where I also explained more about the ride and the rider. In summary, however, the overall aim is to raise funds to support charities working with disadvantaged people to fulfil their potential. This is all being done in the memory of William Wates, who lost his life to street crime tragically early.
The route is somewhat irregular for 2017, zigzagging around rather than assuming a regular clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. Starting in Dusseldorf in Germany, the route travels down the eastern side of France (taking in some of Belgium and Luxembourg too, for good measure) through the Vosges region and then onto the Jura. From there we switch to the west (looks like a 6 hour coach journey on our rest day – boo) and then travel down to the Pyrenees. From there we travel across to the Alps via the Massif Central. The last time the Tour covered all five mountain ranges was in 1992 and I am salivating at the prospect!
In 2016 it was great riding with some of William’s brothers and also to meet his parents who came out for the first few days. Here’s a photo of me (in my Bigfoot club kit) with Andrew, Rick and Sarah Wates, taken by a local journalist who was wondering who we were and what we were up to!
That’s probably enough to kick off the 2017 blog for now. It’s time to start on the training! In the meantime, there now follows a copy of an article I wrote which was published on the Tour de Force website to publicise the work of one of the charities supported and to provide an insight into the work that goes on.
Visit to Westminster House Youth Club
Three Tour de Forcers went along to the presentation given by three members of WHYT who completed their Duke of Edinburgh Gold expedition this summer. They were presenting to other members of the club, some of whom may well be working towards their own Bronze, Silver or maybe even Gold awards one day. From left to right they are Florian (5 time veteran of TDF), Ethan, Ore, David (2013 lifer), Josh and yours truly.
During the presentation we saw photos of stunning scenery and heard tales of early starts, long distances taking between 8-11 hours each day to complete, getting wet and not drying out, consuming large amounts of food, the odd navigational error, determination to succeed in the mission and being encouraged and inspired by your friends. So far, this all sounds very familiar to anyone who has taken part in the Tour de Force, but this was a 100km walk over 4 days in the Brecon Beacons. Key differences were that we have wheels and they had 20kg rucksacks to carry. We can stop every 40km for well-laid out and plentiful refreshments, whilst they could only eat what they could carry. Restocking at any local shops would have invalidated the expedition. On balance I’ll stick to the bike, but full credit to the guys who completed this expedition and to those who helped them prepare for it.
Ethan and Ore are giving their time to WHYT and were direct entrants to the Gold award i.e. they’ve never done anything like this before, whereas Josh has been at the club for some 8 years and already has Bronze and Silver to his name. They should all complete the remaining tasks within the coming months and then a visit to Buckingham Palace beckons. The work done to support and encourage them by Katie, Louisa and Mark, who we also met this evening, is outstanding.
Being able to undertake the award scheme is not cheap – at least £1,000 for each person who goes on the Gold expedition – and it’s good to see how some of the money we raise goes towards supporting people who otherwise do not have the chance. I heard that others on the expedition came from private schools and were dropped off and collected in posh cars. Having finished the expedition, our guys had to run for the train carrying the pizzas that they had time to order, but not eat, with them – and what a sorry state those pizzas were as they boarded the train!
It was great to be able to go along and support the evening and to have a good chat with them all afterwards. I’d really recommend visiting one of the charities we are supporting to really learn what WWMT is all about.
Homeward bound, but I wish I wasn’t. I guess you knew that line was coming. Well I am glad that I’m coming home, but I do feel that I could have carried on, which is one of the reasons why I did this “tour taster” to find out whether I could.
So I’m sat in Toulouse airport waiting for a flight home. I’m with Kirsty and Shim the physios who are also going back today, to be replaced by another team. As well as getting the ball rolling on sorting out the tight muscles I had after all the prep for this trip, Kirsty has been in the signing van and the baggage van too. I have learned a lot more today about what goes on in the background and I am sure there are many stories that could be told there.
As cyclists we can easily take the route marker signs for granted and expect to just pick up our bags at the end of the ride and get cleaned up and ready for the next day. But signing the route is not without its own stress. They want to be two hours ahead of the riders, but as soon as we start rolling then the pressure is on and the clock can tick down. Yesterday in Andorra for example was so tricky with the border, the busy roads and the lack of obvious places to stop that the lunch stop was only set up minutes before the riders started coming through. Then in other places the police ask a lot of questions though it is generally fine (unless we are in Spain as we saw yesterday). I heard another story of being told that we could not use a particular route through town as there was going to be a parade at the time the riders would be coming through. Rather than be awkward, the police indicated an alternative route, which was brilliant. I think mention the Tour de France and you can get a long way.
So there are a lot of unsung heros involved in this trip, people we may never get to see or interact with because their schedule is so different to ours. Without them we would not have half the fun we did so all I can do is express my great gratitude to those involved and who may also be giving up their own vacation time or taking unpaid leave to support us.
Finally, as my flight is about to be called and I leave France before the Welsh football team does (who saw that coming?), if you have enjoyed following my travels then may I gently remind you that as well as being a challenge for me, this trip is also about helping those who face a whole different set of challenges in their daily lives and face far more daunting mountains than we did on this trip.
Breakfast: 05:50. Transfer: 45 minutes. Start time: 07:55. Distance: 180 km. Terrain: high mountains (3,700 metres). Climbs: one HC, three category 1, one category 2. Finish: 20:15. Time in the saddle: 10 hours or so.
The eagle eyed may spot a discrepancy. You are correct, I did not do the final climb in the end which would have added say 1,500 metres climbing on a 15 km climb. With the subsequent descent, I would not have got back to the hotel until at least 10 pm.
Brown trout is a favourite dish in Arcalis, Andorra, but that sounds quite ordinary compared to the fact that we are near the Madrin-Perafita-Claror glacial valley here, which is a UNESCO World Heritgae site. It’s not the Eiffel Tower, but nevertheless an impressive place to finish my own personal tour of France.
Tale from the Tour
We started today on the border between France and Spain, starting in the Spanish town of Vielha val d’Aran.
What a total turnaround with the weather conditions! Clear skies, glorious sunshine and temperatures that soared into the mid thirties, even nudging 40 degrees at one point. You can expect extremes of weather in the mountains, but nevertheless it seemed odd that the temperature did not seem to drop as we climbed, though there was the occasional cool breeze and some shade.
I felt really good on the first climb, which commenced the moment we got off the bus. Though I must be feeling cumulative fatigue, it wasn’t evident. The first climb was punctuated by the Spanish police stopping us and making a fuss, presumably because of the 80 or so riders on the road, but by the time they stopped us we were already split up into small groups anyway. I guess they could see a long line coming up the mountain and reacted to that. After some discussion, they let us continue provided we were in groups of no more than 20. Ridiculous – we were already in groups of less than that size and the mountain soon splits us up anyway. Hope that they don’t pull the same stunt next week or the pros will have something to say about that!
During that whole climb we were rewarded with spectacular views. Everyone seemed to be going well, the mood was great, celebratory almost even though we still had a long way to go. Again, this is why we ride.
I am not the greatest descender but was pleased that the descent off the climb (which peaked at 2,075 metres, so not far short of yesterday’s Tourmalet) was not technical. In other words it was not too twisty and I was able to go down at speeds of up to 60 kph. Others can go much faster than me, but that’s about all I seem to be comfortable with. It’s a great feeling swooping down at such speed while also feeling in control.
There was a longish gap to the next climb, at the top of which there were again great views. On the way down I started to feel like I just wanted to shut my eyes as I was so tired – I had not had a coffee at the previous stop as Ian was away getting extra water. We were all chugging it today. I was looking out for a shop or cafe and then lo and behold I saw the primary exponents of the art of stopping for coffee – Paul and Tony – sat outside a cafe drinking ice cold cokes. A few others had followed their lead and I did likewise. Good call.
Feeling refreshed, we set off towards feedstop 3, the lunch stop (stop 3 = lunch even though it was actually 4:30 pm). By now the temperature was at its peak. By the time we got to lunch most of the riders had gone through but there were still about a dozen behind. I had felt good at the beginning of the ride and the two cat 1 climbs had passed without difficulty. I used Gary’s trick of wearing two pairs of bibshorts for comfort, which helped, but had to discard one of them at lunch because it was far too hot to continue like that.
I was with the original founders of the fun bus that had got us through the long, wet stages on days 3&4 and we had a discussion about the rest of the ride. We were now in Andorra with a cat 2, a cat 1 and an HC still to go. At the briefing this morning were were told that at the point where the HC climb began, there were also arrow markers direct to the hotel. As Jenn is a lifer, she joined Nick, Ivo and others and they all ultimately got to complete the ride. Massive chapeau all round.
Annabel and I were never going to Paris and our ride was finishing in Andorra come what may. We decided that we would complete climbs 3&4 (going direct to the hotel was also an option at that point) and then skip the final HC. Had I been going to Paris then I think my mindset would have been different, but this was our Paris and I wanted time to unwind, have a glass or two of wine and generally savour the moment.
So onto the last climbs. The first (i.e.third of the day) saw us baking in hot sun and grateful for the shade when it came. The last climb of our day was an absolute pig. Only 6.6 km, but much of that was in double figures in terms of gradient including a 1 km section at an average of 12% with some 16% ramps. OK so we do this at home – think Toys Hill – but the run into Toys is much more benign in comparison! One final smooth descent before the final run into town, dropping off the bike for return transfer to London and collecting my bags and room key.
I am so glad that I gave myself permission not to thrash myself unnecessarily on that final HC. You could argue that none of this was necessary of course, but that’s a different story. Do I feel that my achievement has been diminished as a result? Not a bit of it.
So I now have a little trophy to commemorate this, made by people learning practical skills at a project in Scotland. It can stand proudly with my Wiggo and Cav shirts.
The buffet dinner was great that evening and bears listing out. I had chicken, mixed veg and salad followed by a big plate of various fruity and chocolate desserts. Followed by entrecôte and potatoes and some more desserts!
Despite still carrying aches and pains in various places, to his great credit Gary completed the whole ride. Now you never for a moment thought he wouldn’t, did you? I think Gary and the other lifers are now really well placed to go on to Paris. They will be so strong after a rest day and in addition to a further rest day next week, there are also two time trial days to come. Even if they decide to smash round those two courses, they will still be much shorter days in the saddle and will offer some more recovery time. Bonne continuation.
Gary and I then retired to the bar for a beer with a few others. It’s a rest day for them tomorrow, so they could afford to indulge. I managed only one, but by then it was midnight and enough was enough.
Penseé du Pédaleur
And so ends my odyssey. It’s been an amazing journey through France (and a little bit of Spain and most of Andorra) and has brought back many memories as well as creating new ones that I will cherish for a long time. So until I find the time to be able to ride the whole Tour (maybe!) its “au revoir” and not “adieu”.
Breakfast: 06:15. Transfer: none. Start 07:40. Distance 186 km. Terrain: high mountains (4,000 metres) . Climbs: 1 HC, 2 cat 1, 1 cat 2. Finish 20:15. Time in saddle: 11:08.
Climbing is approximate as my Garmin was having an off day and I’ve not corrected it on Strava yet. But with four major climbs you get the picture. [Update: climbing was somewhere around 5,000 metres in the end.]
So after a hard day in the saddle, there’s nothing better than arriving at Bagnères de Luchon and having a nice hot shower using the local Pyrenean soap. But the pétéram (tripe) for dinner? No thanks – I’ll stick to the pistache (cassoulet)! Actually the hotel laid on some great food but I think table manners are going a little bit out of the window as we all stuff our faces more and more as the tour progresses. Appetites are huge at the moment and we can’t wait to devour our dinner.
Tale from the Tour
Today was the turn of the Tourma-Tourma-Tourma-Tourmalet. Actually the song I heard being sung last time I was here went “Allez, allez, allez, monter le Tourmalet”, sung by a cheery bunch of people who were under cover while we were getting soaked. Today was also somewhat soggy but nowhere near as wet as it was then.
First things first – Ian, Sam and Stu on the excellent support team are all from Wales so we had a great time watching the football last night. I’ve made Gary an honorary Welshman as he was getting caught up in it too. So now it’s Bale v Ronaldo. Tidy.
Riding along with Nick W at the start he mentioned how our various aches and pains are “rotating through our bodies”. How true that is. If it’s not the back it’s the knee and if it’s not that it’s the achilles. Gary suffered from that today, but it got better as the day went on and he finished well. Of course all these ailments have the same root cause – cycling! My body is holding up and I had no real discomfort (other than what you would normally expect on a day like today).
We started by passing many more fields of maize on a route that also took us past Lourdes.
After the last long flat section that I will do, we had a climb up the Tourmalet, the first HC climb. I actually saw a 2CV coming down, and how it got up the other side first I’ll never know, especially as it was towing a trailer (see under Arrival Day, which now seems light years away). Weather was clear at times to get some shots though.
The next climb was a very pastoral Hourqette d’Ancizan, where it wasn’t just donkeys we had to avoid but cows and horses too.
On the next climb, Col de Val Louron Azet, we could see almost nothing. I rode most of the middle section of the ride with Nick and we literally had our head in the clouds for a large part of the day.
At feedstop 4 I changed into a dry jersey – my “Cycling Bishop” one, which was a blessed relief and I was then a bit warmer for the final section.
The Peyresourde was the last climb of the day and which I rode on my own. One thing which helps on the climbs is where signs are put up saying how far there is to go, how much climbing there is and what the average gradient is over the next 1 km. This is very helpful and lower down the climb gives me the info I need to do mental maths, as I can work out whether, after the next km the gradient looks like it will get harder (boo) or easier (yea).
Others like to listen to music, chat with their friends if they have the energy or just generally let their minds wander. I’ll do those things too, except listen to music. Why would you when you can hear the sounds of nature, the rushing water in the gorges and the cicadas which seem to get louder the further south you go?
I was one of the last to finish, which is no surprise but I did finish in time for dinner which is the main thing. Although there is one day to come, I already feel very proud of my achievement and anything I can manage tomorrow will be the cherry on the top of a very large cake. The enormity of it hit me with 5 km to go on the last climb today when I realised that yes, this stage was in the bag too.
Tomorrow I am torn between completing the ride on two wheels, and getting back in time to celebrate properly. I shall aim to do both! It is, though, highly likely that I won’t write up Stage 9 until I am on the bus to Toulouse on Monday morning.
Penseé du Pédaleur
So today’s reminiscence relates to the iconic Tourmalet. I was delighted to have the opportunity to climb this from the west today, because when I was here in 2014 the road was closed for resurfacing. The road had been in pitiful condition, but when the Tour goes through, then the roads get either resurfaced or top-dressed. The pros were going to descend that at top speed, so pot holes are no good in those situations. Had we tried to ride it, then we would have found the tar sticking to the tyres and would have to stop every few metres or so anyway to clean them off else the bike is going to get wrecked. A few weeks later I returned to the Pyrenees to ride that stage, so was able to climb from the east side and descend a beautifully smooth road. However, the weather was again atrocious with the conditions so bad that I took it easy on the descent, despite the risk of going hypothermic. So today it was good to be able to do that climb at last. I wasn’t bothered that it was wet. You have to accept whatever comes your way in the mountains and to be prepared for it. If you don’t respect the mountains you can get into a lot of trouble.