Sunday 30 June 2013

Stage 9 - St Girons to Bagneres de Biggore (and then some)

Just a quick post because it's late and I want to go to bed.  Tomorrow is a rest day (= day in a coach) so I can elaborate then.  But the basics are:

beautiful weather
fantastic scenery
v long day (>4000m of ascent)
a few spills with 1 broken collar bone
first use of the word 'epic' about a stage
strava link here

top of the last climb

Supplement:  on the coach northwards

The stage from St Girons started very early - with a 6am coach from Ax Les Thermes. The coach was late a Sarah looked dressed for the 1st time, which is amazing given what she is organising.

We started at about 8:00. The ride had 5 categoried climbs all cat 1, except the 1st - the portet de Aspet.  Conditions were perfect, with light cloud being burnt off by the sun.  

A steep descent passed the Cassertelli memorial, a large carved alabaster memorial to a talented young rider who died racing down that road in the Tour in 97(?).  he came off on a steep corner, hitting his unhelmeted head at about 100kph. i came down much gingerly - and safely.

The 2nd climb was the Col de Mente.   Breakfast felt small and a long time ago at the bottom, and I was very hungry by the top .  Here we learnt there had been some fallers.  Some guy had clipped a back wheel on the run in to 1st hill and brought and brought done some others.  Just road rash.  However, potentially more seriously a girl called Peggy had come off on a descent and banged her head.  She couldn't remember how it happened, but her day was over and she was put in the van under observation (she's fine now).

A long descent went past St Beat.  The village had been decimated by flash floods 2 weeks ago and there was still debris everywhere.  Some houses that back onto the river were virtually destroyed, with walls ripped out and mud everywhere.  Large clumps of debris were caught in trees some 10ft above the still high river levels.

Along the valley to Luchon before the col de Perysoude.  Having done this previously from the other side, I thought I knew it - but it longer and harder than I remember, with almost 1000m of ascent.  I plodded on at my own pace.  News of a couple more fallers at the top - 1 from a front wheel puncture on a descent, the other caused by taking a gravelly corner too quickly.  Both caused nasty grazing and 1 chap, Donald, decided to sit out the rest of the stage. But he'll be back.

Lunch (at tea time) was in St Lary, where Bridget , Lizzie and I went canyoning a couple of years ago.  The food was very well received - it seemed to have more flavour than the normal paste in green or beige.  

The 4th climb ( not final as labelled ) zigzagged up the side of the valley giving great views back to the Perysoude.  A very fast descent (80kph at times) required care because they had put gravel on some of the corners.  

At the base of the last climb, l'horquette d'ancizan, my legs felt extremely heavy, but after a few km grinding away lunch reached them and the last 1/2 of the climb sped past.

There was a long descent to the official end of the stage, and then a 20km bonus to get to our hotel.  Everybody was pretty tired at the end.  About 3km from the end, one lad, Shien (from Malaysia via Rugby) came round a corner to find a car reversing out of a drive.  He came off and unluckily broke his collar bone.  That's his tour over but he seems remarkably sanguine about it.

Yesterday's stage marked a definite turning point.  Corsica and the Pyrenees are done, and we have a few days before the next real test.  It's now just the 'lifers' on the coach and there's a sense of camaraderie building that I hope will see everybody through any tough times.

Saturday 29 June 2013

Stage 8 - Castres to Ax 3 Domaines

Today was a day of 2 parts - flat and grey and then sunny and v hilly.

It was a very early start to catch a cramped bus to allow us to start in Castres at 7:30.  The sky was leaden and the temperature downright cold, and the general mood in the peloton was a bit leaden too.  The first 75 miles were flattish, but the wind was helping us today because we've turned south.  I rode with the fast group for the first 60km, but then dropped back to save some energy.  4 of us then rode together to lunch, in the lovely village of Quillan, low, but set in a deep valley.

 Much of the morning was spent at not much more than 100m altitude, but the road now started to head upwards, at first very gently, then noticeably, through deep ravines besides a mountain river.  After what seemed an age, the actual climb started - 16km at 8% to the Col De Pailheres
 The scenery was sublime - the very epitome of the word bucolic.  Shepherds herding their goat, horses on the road, and snow-capped mountains towering above the pastoral valley.  Of course, all I could think of was how far it was to the top.

The road stretches down from the Pailheres.

After the enormous hill, came a screaming descent to Aix Les thermes, before another big climb to the ski station at Ax 3 Domaines.  At 700m of climbing, it felt relatively short, and allowed me backm in time to post this before supper - unlike some of the guys who are still out there.

More mountains and bucolic sweat tomorrow

Although the screen for my speedo is broken it can record my activities for posterity - if not current use.  Strava link here

Friday 28 June 2013

Stage 7 - Montpelier to Albi

Today was the last 'transition' stage before the Pyrenees start tomorrow - but it was a tough test in itself.  210km with 4 categorised climbs.  However what made it tougher was the strong mistral wind and cold damp weather.

The route climbed unsteadily out of Montpelier - lots on undulations with each up longer than the following descent. I managed to lose the entire route leaving Montpelier (having been in the middle), and arrived at the first feed stop 1st in glorious isolation.  The flattish section before the big climbs started was very windy and I was glad to be in the group

Sheltering from the wind

Once the climbs started, I reverted to my normal pace, and passed through the Col of 13 winds on my own (actually, all the winds seemed to be fairly well focussed!).  Another descent and the 2nd feed stop came before the biggest climb of the day up to 900m.  Anthony paced me up most of the climb, but the 15 mile section after that was hardwork.  Constant up and down, all around 800m with buffeting from the wind took it's toll and I was very glad of lunch - which was a veritable mountain of pasta.  From then on, I cycled with Anthony, which is less stressful than peleton riding, but less hard work than being on your own.  Intermittent rain kept us on our toes on the descents - but was also a bit chilly. Just before the last feed stop, I dropped my water bottle onto my garmin computer - breaking the screen.  I think all the computing electronics are fine - but the screen means the results stay locked in the little box.

We're now in Tarn region - steeped wooded hills looking quite like Devon in places.  Plenty of ruined history to wonder about
 The descent into Albi was lovely - little traffic until the last couple of miles.  Albi is a magnificent old city with an amazing cathedral.  Unfortunately we'll only see the Ibis hotel, which is less lovely!

Pyrenees tomorrow - could be a late finish!

Thursday 27 June 2013

Stage 6 - Aix en Provence to Montpelier

Today's stage was flat and fast.  At 105 miles, it wasn't particularly long, so was billed as 'recovery' day.

We had to get up even earlier than normal to get a coach from Marseilles to Aix - about an hour, but a bit dull at that time of the morning.  So it was 8:00am before we rolled out from a car park on the outskirts of the town.  The first hour or so was slower, with cars and few bumps, but soon a group of 10 formed working well together.  Going 2 abreast and being on the front for 2 minutes.  At the 1st feed stop, the group increased to 20 or so and we worked as a group all the way to the finish (except on the only categorised climb where I once again got dumped).
A familiar sight - the group disappear ahead as a climb starts.

The mistral wind piped up strongly from the north - every right turn slowed the group by 5mph or more, left turns were well received.  Crossing the Rhone, the wind was very strong, and everybody had to lean them well over to the right to stay upright (if you see what I mean).  When the route had a bit of south in it, and the group was working, we hit 30mph on the flat fairly easily.  The miles flew by.

Strava link here

Tomorrow will be different.  Longer and with 4 categorised climbs.  However, I'm feeling stronger than day 1, which is a good sign.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Stage 5 - Nice to Marseilles

Another great day - with lots of miles and lots of food.  At 230Km (143 miles) with 4 categorised climbs, it's taken everybody longer to finish than previous days - and I've got to rush this before dinner at 8:00pm.

The climb out of Nice was a bit trafficy, but after the 1st feed stop, things eased out beautiful countryside.  I should perhaps explain that there are normally 4 feed stops spread across the day evenly:
Stop 1 - basically 2nd breakfast, buns and banana, dried fruit
stop 2 - sandwichs and salted snacks
Stop 3  - lunch copius pasta/coucous or other carb
Stop 4 - coke and sugar fix to get home
Today however was different since we were riding with a local club from Fourges and the route passed through their town, feed stop was postponed to about 110km but upgraded to 'feast' status!  The space outside the town hall was cleared for us, the mayor said a little speech, a photographer took our pcture for the local paper and we all agreed that it was magnifique!  The food was certainly excellent, and I didn't really do justice to the food at the next stop.
I cycled alone for most of the afternoon - I can't find anybody who goes the same speed as me on tghe flat, and then slows down as much as me on the hills.  Just before the last stop, I had the 1st 'bonk' of the tour, when my speed declined almost instantaneously as I ran out of energy.  A gel got me to the food where 1/2 litre of coke fuelled me to the end.  The scenery is spectacular with lots of riding through fragrant forest underneath rugged cliffs.  The final descent into Marseilles was superfast with superb views of the city and sea.

Marseilles is, however, one of France's least attrative cities - but the room is comfy once I changed from a double to a twin.  Donald, with whom I'm sharing tonight is a nice guy - but he's bigger than me, and having us both in one bed wasn't going to work!

Strava link here

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Stage 4 - Team Time Trial

Many stages of the tour are great to do as an amateur, most are pretty beautiful.  Today's Team Time Trial was neither, unfortunately.  The ferry arrived at about 7:30 and we followed an approximation of the route as a group.  So it was as a team, timed and a bit of a trial!

Here's the view of the sea.

We'll spend the rest of the day doing laundary and preparing for the next tough 5 days into the Pyrenees

Monday 24 June 2013

Stage 3 - Ajaccio to Calvi

A stunning stage. 145km but very up and down along the west coast.  Big rolling waves landing on the beaches and then climbing high into the hills overlooking the  sea, with big drop-offs down the cliff.

Some fantastic descents, with good gradients and sweeping curves .

We're now in Calvi,waiting for the ferry, having had a swim, beer and pizza - so things are pretty good!

As the group dynamics develop , the quantity of humour grows - but the quality declines .  I suspect that after 3 weeks, our conversations will be unintelligible to outsiders.

Strava link to here

Sunday 23 June 2013

Stage 2 - Across the middle of Corsica

Stage 2 was billed as being shorter, but with some proper hills.  In fact it turned out longer than advertised ('Viper' had 'improved' the route), nut was properly hilly.

The 40km neutralised section gradually became less neutral as the young guns - who have yet to establish who is Iceman and who is Maverick - couldn't resist raising the pace.  After the 1st feed stop, the gloves came off.  Along the flat, I'm fine keeping up with them, but when the road turned up, they seemed to barely slow down - but I did, and immediately ejected from the back of the group.I would like to say that they are all 1/2 my age and weight - but its not true.  The picture shows one of the team doctors, Col, having a coffee waiting for everybody else 1/2 way up the climb.

The climb meandered on - mostly at a fairly decent gradient - through scenery like this to 1100m height.

The decent was very quick, with sweeping bends and a good surface. Lovely.  However on the valley floor there was a strong headwind, and I was very glad to be in a group of 3 working well together.  We kept it over 20mph into the wind but when we arrived in Ajaccio I was finished.  Which was a shame because there was an extra 12km loop rising 200m above the town before finishing along the seafront.

The group is gelling well.  2 awards each night - a plastic rocket for 'unbecoming' behaviour and a 'chapeau' for kindness/helpfulness etc.  So far there have been no serious 'rocket' events - although its awarded every day anyway.

Tomorrow is a shorter - but very undulating stage north the Calvi.  Should be time for a swim before catching the ferry.

Strava link here

Saturday 22 June 2013

Top Gun...

Scene: The briefing room overlooking a swimming pool.  Moon starting to rise over the mountain.  Excited chattering from everybody.  This is a verbatim description of the briefing (maybe)...

" My name is Sarah, codename Jester, and I'll be looking after  you for the next 3 weeks.  In charge will be Phil Deeker - codename 'Viper'"
"Good afternoon gentlemen [and ladies]. You are the best of best - the top 1% of British cyclist - Our job is to make you better.  Over the next 3 weeks you'll be put in over 20 stages with points awarded for successful completion of each mission - at the end, the person with the most points will be awarded the 'Top Gun trophy'. Good Luck.

OK, he didn't really say any of that, but the atmosphere was similar - everybody scoping out each other.  Shaved legs vs hairy.  skinny vs (ahem) less skinny.  Lifers (i.e. those doing the whole thing) c.f. the rest.  The are 40 lifers and about 35 here for a shorter time.

Stage 1
Stage 1 was long - 212km, but basically flat.  The first 60 km was a loop around the south of the island before returning to Porto Vecchio.  The first hour or so of each will be 'neutralised', which means everybody willl cycle as a group (or in 4 groups) and at a pace that everybody can maintain easily.

The road then turned north and went along the east coast of Corsica for 90-odd miles to Bastia.  There was a cross-tail wind that flattered the average speed, but even so, I felt pretty good.  I was in a group of 4 and we took turns on the front.  Gradually, the others seemed less interested in going to the front, so I finished slightly ahead of them, a few minutes behind the 1st group to finish.  This stage played to my strengths, and I have few illusions about maintain that formed when the road heads up!

Full details available here

Bastia is lovely - very quaint and run-down in a chic Mediterranean way.  We're staying in an ancient hotel overlooking the harbour

Tomorrow we head across the mountainous centre of the island - shorter but slower

Monday 17 June 2013

Better now than later

Final preparations for the trip.....
While cleaning my back wheel, I found a worrying crack in the freehub.  It might last a while before failing completely, but I'm not going to take the chance.
So I spent this morning hunting around London looking for a decent wheel that would suit 'the larger rider', before handing my bike to the guys at 'on your bike' to be taken to Corsica.

Meanwhile, jo's cousin Alistair has been cycling from Lands End to John o Groats.  64 hours in, and they have reached Brora - about 50 miles short.  He should finish in about 66 hours - which is an awesome achievement.  I know which feat is harder, and it's not my French trip!