Monday 15 July 2013

Stage 21 - to Paris

It was an even earlier start than normal. The bus left at 5:30 for the 6 hour drive from Annecy to Rambouillet. Nobody felt like riding anywhere, and Paul looked liked everybody felt with the 1000 yard stare of the returning veteran.

The final stage did not follow the tour route at all. 10 laps of the Champs Élysées is rarely feasible, and on Bastille Day afternoon it's barely possible to walk it once. So it was a 'representation' of the route, starting at a Goat Farm outside Rambouillet, going via Versailles and then finishing in front of the Eiffel Tower.

About 20 supporters - including James - joined with us for the run in to Paris. The early start and ong bus ride was soon forgtten, and the mood was celebratory and frivolous with champagne bottles popping as we rode along. We still had to cover the 60km, so the pace wasn't slow - but James could keep up, which he enjoyed.

At Versailles , we met Jo, Lizzie and Bridget. It was lovely to see them, and there were lots of hugs from supporters. It was a feedstop like the 80 or so previous feedstops: water, snacks bananas and buns - all for 100 people set up without fuss. After a brief hug and chat, we saddled up for the final run into Paris. There was a bit of a hill between Versailles and Paris - which was a bit of a shock, but gave a great 1st view of the city as we came over the top.

Fiddling through the avenues and boulevards, we arrived in front of the Eiffel Tower at about 4:00pm. Much emotion and more champagne - it was a great way to finish.

In the evening, we partied on the 56th floor of the Montparnasse tower, looking over Paris and the rest of France as the sun set and the Bastille day fireworks started

Now It's over. Finished. The End. As always with a personal achievement, there is a sense of anti-climax when it's over, but it has been a remarkable 3 weeks. Few people have cycled a grand tour, and the group spirit was tremendous. I would recommend it anybody - provided you can ride a bike well!

For what it's worth - Strava link here

Saturday 13 July 2013

Stage 20 - Annecy to Semnoz

Stage 20 - The last 'proper' stage of the Tour.  None of us can quite believe that we're here now.  Corsica seems an age ago - yet the time has flashed by

The morning came too early.  A late finish after a really long day yesterday had left everybody tired and focusing on getting through today.  That's a bit of shame really because it was a short and beautiful stage and should be enjoyed for itself.

Starting by the church as the sun rose over Annecy reminded us all what we'll miss next week when reality returns
After 4Km by the lake, the climbs start.  This route was chosen by the organisers for this year's 'etape' - this mass participation ride.   They don't choose easy stages - even though this was by some margin the shortest of the tour.

Climb and descent, climb and descent.  Repeat until told to stop.  The ascent of Le Revard, I found very tough.  It was hot and long - although not particularly steep.  However, the lack of markers to tell you how far to go was something I found very troubling.

The final ascent of Semnoz was OK.  The kms were clearly marked and it was wonderful to hear the cheers as I passed the resteraunt with 150m to go.

And then of the best beers ever.

There was lots of congratulations at the top - even a few tears - as we realised how far we'rd come as group, and how it's nearly at the end.

Jo and the kids are in Paris, and we've a horridly early start to get driven up there for a celebratory ride into the city.  I'm really looking forward to seeing them again - and to not riding up so many hills - but will miss the experience and the criac hugely

Stava link here.  Possibly the slowest ride I've done in 30years

Friday 12 July 2013

Stage 19 - Alpe d'Huex to Le Grand Bornand

Today was a   l o n g  day.

However, I should mention that yesterday evening I was awarded the 'chapeau' - given each evening to somebody who the previous recipient thinks deserves it.  I'm not really sure what I did to merit the award - I think it was probably mainly due to cheerfully being overtaken 5 or so times per day by the same people!

The day started with a long traverse contouring around from Huez, and then down to the start of the Col du Glandon -avoiding the busy valley road.  The Glandon is a lovely climb - a bit frustrating because it has quite a lot of descent in the middle - but the moutainscape is awe-inspiring

I actually felt fresher than I look at this point

A long descent led straight into the Col de La Madeleine.  21 km at 8% with virtually no let up.  Just grind away, waving cheerfully to the faster people as they pass!

From there, it was tempting to think that the bulk of the work was done, but there were still many km and m to do.  A strong headwind in the valley.  A steaming Col de Tamie; an easier than expected Col d'Epine that led to the final climb of Col de Croix Fry.  12km winding past innumerable chocolate-box chalets.
I actually felt much worse than I look at this point

A long downhill brought me to the hotel at 7:30pm .  Tired - but I think that's OK after nearly 17,000ft of climbing

Strava Link here

1 more mountain day, then Paris!

Thursday 11 July 2013

Stage 18 - Gap to Alpe D'Huez

This stage was definitely one of the highlights of the tour route when it was announced last year.  Alpe d'Huez not once but twice in a day.  Obviously, they thought you can't have too much of good thing!  However, that wasn't the only climbing today, with several other chunky climbs.

I was joined by James Heath today, who although not part of the Tour de Force, had been given dispensation to join us for the day.  He gallantly rode alongside me the whole way, even though he could have done it much quicker (he missed out the first climb out of Gap - that must be why he had so much in reserve!).

At the start of the day, we were in mist for quite a while - following the N85 north in the valley.  As we turned east towards the Col d'Ornon the sun broke through, and its was a lovely quiet climb up the valley, surrounded by steep-sided mountains, with some patches of snow still hanging around at fairly low altitudes.  The descent was beautiful - see below

Arriving at the base of Alpe D'Huez is always a bit daunting.  Knowing we had to do it twice didn't help.  As alpine climbs go, it's not the biggest or the prettiest - but it is the most iconic.  There are 21 hairpin bends on the way up, each signposted and this helps psychologically as you can always do one more.  Also, the steepest part is at the bottom, so getting the first 5 bends out of the way helps.
Looking down into the valley from about 1/2 way up.
Plugging away at the climb got us to the top and lunch.  Just another lap to do.  First there was the climb and descent of the Col de Sarenne - a little used road over the mountains going east from Alpe d'Huez. This really was a mountain road.  Steep, narrow with a very rough surface.  The surroundings were majestic - but the riding hard and a bit frustrating.  The descent was steep hairpins on a rough gravelly surface.  There was little opportunity for safe speed and I had to stop 1/2 way down to cool the rims of my wheels.  If they got too hot, the tyres could easily explode.  I hope the pro negotiate it safely next week, because I would really not like to race that road.

Once back in the valley, there was a strange sense of deja vu....except this time it was hotter.  This time we stopped a couple of times to cool down in the roadside streams - shame they weren't there on Ventoux! We finished with an average speed of nearly 20Km/h which I think is respectable given the 15,000ft of altitude gained

Compared to today, tomorrow's stage is a LONG day - so blog might be late.   In the meantime enjoy the view from the bedroom window 

Really looking forward to Paris now, seeing Jo and the kids.

Strava link here

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Stage 17 - Tme Trial - Embrun to Chorges

Today was a short time trial stage through the hills on the edge of the alps.  At 32km, it'll probably take the pros less than an hour.  It took me considerably longer, but then I did stop for photos.
The stage consisted of 2 cat 2 climbs and their descents.  The climbs gave wonderful views over the lake and the 2 descents was lovely and fast (the 1st was too twisty to go fast)

Sarah had prepared a treat for lunch.  I'm not sure where Nutella pies feature in a balanced diet - but they taste good!

I should write a bit about the organisation behind this trip.  I think I'm probably a pretty harsh critic of poorly organised events, but the organisation and logistics behind this enterprise are nothing short of brilliant.  Sarah (Perry) is the mastermind behind it all and has been supported by a team of masseurs, mechanics, physios and drivers).  She has arranged everything from the hotels, to the catering (e.g early breakfasts, getting the hotel kitchens to cook buckets of pasta for us each night), the transfers, the bike shipments - she appears to remember every detail effortlessly, and nothing is too trivial for her attention.  Without doubt, she is the fundamental reason why The Tour de Force is such a success.

Saying that should not diminish the contribution of Phil Deeker.  A slightly greying wiry - ageless, but probably older than all but a few people on the trip.  He covers more miles than any of us.  Sometimes riding with the fast guys - and capable of beating most of them, he'll then drop back and help the back markers before helping to take down the route markers at the end of the day.  On the Mt Ventoux day, he was one of the 1st to the summit, yet was last back having been most of the way down and gone back up with the back-markers.  There was no room in the bus to come down, so he appeared in the hotel after dark, soaked but still in good cheer having down a phenomenal ride!

  I'm still pretty slow up the hills but I'm getting quicker (about 750 vertical metres per hour, compared to just about 600 m/hr in Corsica).  More importantly, they feel much easier - I can just get into the rhythm and the km just tick by.  That's fortunate, since we have 3 enormous mountain stages coming up with 4 cat 3 climbs, 5 cat 2 climbs, 3 cat 1 climbs and 5 HC climbs.  I find it helpful (but sometimes a little daunting) to convert the climbs to multiples of Kop Hill - one of the biggest climbs near home with 130m of ascent.  It's a standard Cat 4 climb.  Category 3 is 2-3 Kop Hills, Category 2 is 4-5 Kop Hills. Cat 1 is about 6-8 Kop Hills and HC climbs are 9-12Kop Hills.  Some very rough maths means that the total climbing over the next 3 days is very approximately the equivalent of 100 Kop Hills.  Actually, I wish I hadn't just worked that out!

We have 20 new people arriving this evening.  Its a bit od seeing them arrive fresh-faced for their adventure, while the lifers are definately think about the end, looking forward to getting through the last 3 days and reaching Paris.

Strava link here

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Stage 16 - Bedoin to Gap

After a relaxing rest day yesterday, it was back to the routine today.  A lovely stage going from Provence into the High Alps.  Great scenery throughout.

 Although the real tour route will start from Vaison La Romaine, a few miles north of My Ventoux, we started from our hotel in Bedoin and round the shoulder of the mountain to join the route after a few miles giving ourselves some more 'bonus' miles.  There were some fine views back to Ventoux before we moved out of Provence and into the Alps.

Although surrounded by steep mountains, the road picked a gentle gradient down and then back up over 40 miles before arriving in Gap. From Gap, there was an entirely unnecessary loop up the Col de Manse and back into town.  I rode with the lead group for much of the afternoon, before getting dumped on the final climb.  However, that did allow me to get in before the rain started - and it really is coming down in sheets.  Lots of thunder and lightning filling the whole valley.  The last descent is pretty technical along a narrow road with hairpins - I just hope that those out there now make it back safely
Back before the rain

I'm definitely getting stronger as the weeks progress - and am starting to really look forward to Paris .  However, there is the small matter of 3 big alpine days ahead.

Strava link here

Monday 8 July 2013

Stage 15 - Givers to Mt Ventoux

Apologies for the late posting of this.  Yesterday was a long day and I knew we could relax on the only proper rest day of the tour today.

Regular readers will know that Stage 15 was 'the big one'.  242 km finishing with Mt Ventoux.  The last time the Tour de France had stage this long finishing with Mt Ventoux, Tommy Simpson died 2km from the summit from a potent mixture of over-exertion, over-heating, amphetamines and cognac.

It was another brutally early start.  Breakfast at 5:30am, bus left at 6:00 and we were on the road by 7:00am.
7:00am in Givers

 We knew from the outset that it would be scorching hot day, so the initial 130 miles was all about  pacing - regular drinking and eating and not pushing too hard on the hills.  The terrain was beautiful and rolling - lots of lavender fields, vineyards and olive groves - it felt a thousand miles from the damp, grey of St Malo only a few days ago (in fact it's not much more than 650 miles).  The mountains to our left as we went south gave warning that stage 16, to Gap, isn't going to be flat!

Finding some shade at lunch  
Provence prepares for Le Tour

I've mentioned before that I tend to go at my own pace - generally fastish on the flat and through the stops but slowing on the hills.  It has now become rather a joke that I am sometimes overtaken by the same people 4 or 5 times a day and yet I never seem to overtake them.  The impossibility of this has led to various theories such as  I use a car to get ahead or (more fun) that  I bend the fabric of space-time to get ahead while travelling slower.  I tend to think the answer is more prosaic - I stop less and for less time.

Arriving at the bottom of Mt Ventoux at 4:30pm I felt in reasonable condition, but the temperature was scorching - variously recorded at between 36deg and 42deg at the base of the climb.  I started the plod up the hill, very glad to be able to dunk my cap in a well after a few km.  The climb starts gently for a few km before heading steeply (9% average ) up through woods for about 12km.  This section had caused me problems before with the stifling heat and unremitting climb.  However the sky had started to cloud over and as I climbed there was an occasional breath of breeze.  1/2 way up, one of the vans was parked with water and peaches (very nice), and I treated myself to a large caffeine gel before grinding on.

At Chalet Reynard, the road leaves the trees and heads diagonally across the rock-strewn moonscape that caps the mountain.  The top looks an impossibly long way ahead at this point, but it was a case of knocking each km, one by one.  About 5km from the top I was overtaken by Lee - a tiny Scottish lady who must weigh as much as my right leg.  She skipped past with a cheery 'You're amazing, Rob' - very encouraging but it did betray genuine surprise that anybody could haul something the size of me up the mountain.

Jo rang with about a km to go, so after a brief exchange concerning the tennis, I mentioned that I was bit busy and could I call a bit later (I was still pedalling).  In the end, I did reach the top to find a motley bunch of survivors there already.  Some had clearly gone beyond normal limits on the climb and there were tears of relief and exhaustion from a few (only from the men, though - the women are much tougher).
Having the sign attached to my helmet cost me hours!

The sky had clouded over and the wind picked up, and it was time to leave.  As we started the descent, lightning flickered over to the east and I started to feel drops of rain.  The descent is wonderful - very quick and comparatively safe, but I did feel like I was racing the wind down the mountain.  Those who were even a few minutes behind had a freezing cold and very wet descent.  

In the end everybody made it up the mountain, although some were bussed back down to avoid the darkness and rain.  It was a lovely relaxed atmosphere back at the hotel, having conquered the longest stage and with the prospect of a day off today.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Stage 14 - St Pourcain Sur Sioule to Lyon

Today is all about preservation and preparation.  120 miles with 7500ft of climbing in temperatures that touched  and the aim is to finish in better condition than when I started to give me the best chance to finish tomorrow's monster stage in good shape.

An early start today with an hour's transfer from one rather anonymous bit of central France to another.  As you can see from the photo, all the riders were eagerly enjoying the scenery
 At the start, the fields were covered in mist, and it was bit chilly.  I started alone, but was soon joined by 'L'autobus ecosse' - the well-drilled group of Scottish riders.  I was honoured to be allowed to lead them for 15km to the first feedstop.

Then rolling terrain makes it tricky to find a group going at my speed, so I did much of the day alone - losing time on the climbs and making up some of on the flats, descents and feedstops.  Lunch was at the highest point - some 2500ft up.  The temperature started to climb so it was important for today - and tomorrow to keep fully hydrated

It was a long down run into Lyon, and then some irritating climbs around the city to mimic the tour route around town.  Having seen much of the city, I don't think I need to see more.  Much of it appears to be a monument to modernist town-planning from the 1970's.

Back in time to see Frome grab the real Tour by the scruff of the neck.  The pace at which he climbs is astounding!

Strava link here

Tomorrow will be a late finish - even if all goes well.  220 km and 4 categorised climbs BEFORE tackling Ventoux.

Friday 5 July 2013

Stage 13 - Tours to St Amand Montrond

Through The Corn Belt

The stage today was another day of long straight roads.  It was shorter - at 176km, and the sun was shining so the general mood in the peloton was lightened compared to yesterday.  We're 2 weeks into a 3 week event and yet have a lot more than a week to go - which doesn't seem to add up somehow. 

I was in a group of 3-5 people for most of the day; I think a larger group is more efficient (less time at the front).  Nevertheless, we were finished by 2:30pm giving plenty of time for a snooze and even a swim before an early supper.

As an aside, I should mention the story of Adrian - who is riding with us and also posting videos on Youtube about the ride (somewhere - can't find them at the moment).  When on holiday in the Channel Islands aged 9 some 34 years ago, he put a message in a bottle and threw it in the sea.  Some time later, he received a reply from a 9 year old french girl, Emmanuelle who had found the bottle on the beach and replied to Adrian's address.  They corresponded for many years but for one reason or another never actually met - until The Tour de Force came to Mont St Michel a few days ago.  Finally, after 34 years of waiting, they met each other in person!  See the reaction here

Strava link here

I didn't take any pictures today, but you can see an assortment from other people from previous days here

Tomorrow is a bumpier day with 7 categorised climbs over 191km, finishing in Lyon.  None of the climbs are big, but it'll be important to finish as fresh as possible considering the monster day on Sunday.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Stage 12 - Fougeres to Tours

The Long and (not) Winding Road

This year's Tour De France has many beautiful and wonderful stages meandering through fantastic scenery.  And this one. At 134 miles, it was a long stage and despite the lack of classified climbs, it undulated up and down 5,500 feet over its length - but it was the straightness of the road that was amazing - disappearing 5, 10km into the distance.  I think everybody found it a trial and was glad to arrive.
The road goes south-east

I was in a quite a large group for most of the day - the second group on the road.  It consisted of several people who should be in such a group (such as me - provided it was a flat day), plus quite a number of the fastest riders who just couldn't be bothered to ride hard today.
From Left to right (click the picture to enlarge):  Slyvain, Jamie, Elton, John, Doc Col, Gareth, Matt, Tim, Paul, Simon, Larry, Chris, Phil, Sean, me and Luke.

Incidentally I gave a brief talk to everybody last night about Chiltern Lighthouse Mentoring which seemed to be well receieved.  I think many of the guys would make great mentors, but there aren't many charities like ours around.  Food for Thought.

Strava link here

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Stage 11 - Avranches to Mont St Michel

The weather today is definitely more British than it was down in Provence and the Pyrenees.  Cold with rain squalls blowing in from the west meant that that 20 mile time trial was more of a trial than it needed to be.  The ride itself was fairly uneventful - much like cycling into a strong wet westerly in Devon.

We started early, with some people deciding to race to get a good time while others grouped together to get round efficiently.  A few started off fast and then decided than racing into the wind and rain was too much like hard work.

Just finished the time trial.

After the ride, we all retired to the cafe for a hot drink and a criossant or 3 before heading to Fougeres, where we're holed-up in a motel at the edge of town.

Strava link here

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Stage 10 - St Gildas des Bois to St Malo

The tour felt different today.  After a day off and a night at a very plush Chateaux, we had recovered from the hardships of the Pyrenees and felt ready to face the next week.  The focus of this stage and the next 4 is to get to base of Mont Ventoux on Sunday afternoon in a good enough condition to get up it without problem.

Today we split in about 5 groups and spent the day working together.  This was sometimes 2 abreast with the leader dropping back after a couple of minutes; on the busier roads we went single file, with a minute at the front and when it was safe we did 'through-and-off', riding in 2 columns with the fast column moving up one side to the front, then slowing and drifting back past until you join the back of the fast column again.  We got it working very well, keeping quite a speed without significant effort - but it requires concentration and clear roads, so 15 minutes max.

The banter in our group, 'Group 4', was fast and fun - although it diminished as the miles rolled by and everybody wanted to get to St Malo.  Overtaking the fast group with 15 miles to go was a mistake - they blew our group apart on the climb through the village of Concale and I was left out the back to do the last miles into the wind on my own.  However, 115 miles with 5800feet of ascent at 19mph (including villages etc - excluding stops) is fairly good for me.

The day finished with a dip in the channel - looking a bit grey and overcast compared to Nice, where the pros are today.

Strava link here