July 29: 168 km - 12 Cols - 3,457 m ascent - 7.19 hours in saddle(August 1 - 16:54)
Today Claire and I have a timetable to respect. The Cent Cols Club members of Annecy have organised the formalities of our arrival. This is definitely the beginning of the end of 29 days of freedom. We have lived with the mountains. Our lives have been governed by their rules. Harsh rules at times, but ones we never questioned. They have allowed us into their timeless world of infinite beauty because we have accepted their terms : we have shown patience, determination, strength, tolerance and belief in ourselves. They have given so,so much back in return. (And return we certainly will!!!)
But now it's over : we are heading back to the world from which we came and so we have a timetable.
I clean the bike lovingly and even put on a new pair of red tyres to match Redcar - oh the vanity : yes we really are heading back into the world from which we came!! I worry about being late.
Pete, my brother-in-law, has decided that if he wants to ride with me without messing up the timetable, he'd better give himself a head start. So he leaves an hour and a half before me! Good man!
Once on the road, I am back in the blessed state of grace as I look up at the mountains bathed in the morning sunlight. Just because it's my last day though, don't mean it's easy : there are a few big lumps in our way before we get to Annecy. On one of the first climbs I am joined by Julien, a soft-spoken local from Chambéry. Slim, young, totally relaxed on his bike, but totally in control as he climbs so gracefully and effectively up the climbs. This guy has Super-Rider aura. It turns out that he is training for his next race : although he races on his bike, he also uses his feet too (ouch, the pain!). He will be trying to run 90 km at altitudes above 2,000m on gravel mountain tracks in under 11 hours. He's hoping 10 hours 30!
We ride a good pace together and catch up Pete at the foot of the Maroclaz. Problem : the road is shut for repair work to a bridge. Yeah, but nothing's shut to cyclists! So we head on up until a local shouts out to us that not even cyclists can get through : they've put up a 5 metre fence. Very clever - they know that a mere 2 metres would be no obstacle to determined Riders, despite the almost deadly risk of torn Lycra in the process! Pete decides to take another route directly to Talloires. Julien takes me along back-roads to re-join my itinerary and even sets me off up a replacement Col before leaving me. But I have lost a tired and tearful Claire, have no phone signal and it's a 9km climb. And today I have a timetable. I start up it nonetheless. It beckoned me up its winding road! But nearly half-way up, and having got phone contact with Claire again, I make the very,very painful decision to come back down. I'll be back.
After a couple more long climbs I have my first view of Lake Annecy from the top of Mont Revard. Breathtaking beauty. Another view that deserves a thousand words to try and describe. But even then. The first of a group of Cent Col Riders is waiting at the top and welcomes me to the Club. Nice touch! We ride together to the last Col of the ride. There a larger welcome group applaud my arrival and my sons are there too. Emotional hugs, eyes wet. We all coast down to the exact town square where Claire, Claudiu and I set off from 29 days before. Unreal.
First a filmed interview with a local journalist. Then photos. More photos. Then into the 'Mairie' for a series of speeches and a questions/answers session. All very flattering but my mind is still really up there in the mountains. I wonder for how long!
The nicest touch of all was the speech made by the Founder-President of the Cent Col Club who began by saying "Member number 5,000 is Eddy Merckx. Member number 6,000 is Bernard Thevenet (another former Tour de France winner). Member number 6,391 is Philip Deeker" Yeah, I was proud for brief second!
I am surprisingly empty of emotion. A week into this ride my eyes would fill with the tears at the thought of this moment. But now they are dry.
All the joy, the pain, the sense of achievement had been expressed in that one very loud battle cry at the top of Mont Ventoux. Soaked in sweat, on my bike and surrounded by other cyclists who had all achieved their goal too. That was the best place to celebrate. I always knew it was going to be and had planned the ride round that. But that outburst of emotion was still a surprise to me.
One primal scream at the top of Mont Ventoux, in front of bewildered onlookers, had said it all.
I spoke about the work MAG do. I spoke of how fortunate I had been to have had no accidents, illness or technical set-backs. Yes, it had been hard. Yes I always believed I could do it. But that was all. Words are pretty insufficient when trying to express what I have been through.
For 29 days I had been an Extreme Rider. Now I was looking forward to becoming a Husband, Father and a Son again.
Until the next time.!
July 28: 199 km - 10 Cols - 3,840 m ascent - 9.16 hours in saddle(August 1 - 16:47)
The penultimate day and I really am feeling mixed up. This last month has been so hard, so intense and so emotional. It has lifted Claire and I way beyond our perceived personal limits. We have been part of such extraordinarily beautiful landscape for weeks now, passing through but absorbing so much. We are laden with so many images in our minds and are afraid of losing some of that baggage as soon as this is over. I had wanted to do something that I would remember forever. Done!
Pete and I set out together just after 7am and it's straight UP into the rocky but wooded monumental landscape of the Vercors . for 20km! It's a long climb up the Col de Rousset and Pete does well to stick at it. The views are a reward enough for anyone to be able to bear the pain. He's infected, totally, even though his body can't really cope. He wants more of this medicine, but wisely chooses to rest up after 80km, wanting to save himself for the last day.
As it happens, he quit just in time to miss the Killer Climb of the day : a climb of a good 12km up the Col Toutes Aures and on to the Praletang, at 1200m high. Steep, hot, relentless and yet my body coped once again. Even I am impressed! I held the bike at 11kph or more, despite the gradient often more than 10%. I had thought that it might have been a slightly easier day. Now why would I have thought that?! There are NO EASY days on this trip!
Our travelling team now consists of three support cars and six support crew - quite impressive for one Rider! We are all totally shocked by the immensity of the Combe Laval that reveals itself to us unannounced round just one corner after the Col de la Machine. It is one Mother of a hole : must be at least 1km deep, straight down. Vertigo victims stay away - you don't stand a chance! The whole team agree that their trip down has been worth it just for this. Pete reckons it's more impressive than the Grand Canyon. Words aren't enough for things like this, once again.
I arrive tired from the heat and the distance - once again two 200km days back to back. A couple of calls to organise things for tomorrow. We enjoy together a very good example of excellent French home cooking : no menu, just each dish presented to us as it's served. A few reflections on the journey. My mind is on tomorrow. It seems unreal. Tears will be shed. True Riders can cry and still look like Real Men! I consider myself a True Rider now.
Total stats predicted by the end of tomorrow :
Cols climbed : 319
Distance ridden : 4,580km
Height climbed : 82,300 metres
Hours in saddle : haven't worked that one out yet
26 riding days out of 29 (2 transfer days, 1 rest day)
July 27: 221 km - 11 Cols - 4,760 m ascent - 9.17 hours in saddle(August 1 - 16:43)
Look at those stats.! No wonder I feel tired tonight. Temperature in the high 30's too. BIG climbs today, one after the other, relentlessly.
After a busy transfer day - driving, cleaning the beautiful bike, e-mail work and even getting a quick dip in the hotel pool - this morning I decided to start at a civilised, sociable hour. Well, actually, there was a Col to go and get 9km up the road from the hotel, so I sorted that one out before coming back to the hotel for breakfast with Claire. I was savouring the anticipation of the Ventoux climb.
Please bear with me here. I will try and be as concise as possible in trying to explain why this climb, my 286th of this Tour, remains No 1 still on my list.
From Venasque, where we were staying, the beautiful Ventoux dominated the landscape : as it does for miles around here. As I approached Bedoin the mountain seemed to stand up and look down at me from an even higher standpoint. This mountain is so unlike any other. It is a pure loner. It is not part of any range, any group. It does not soar dramatically upwards towards the sky. It sits there contemplating and quietly assessing those who are thinking of climbing it. Only then, when you settle in to climb it, will it reveal its true might. Then it lets you into its secrets forever and you will never be able to look at it from a distance again with indifference.
I had decided to ride this 'for Giles', so The Rationals had a lie-in today, leaving Competitive Mind in complete control. I timed myself from Bedoin village square, hoping to climb the 23km from the square to the top in less than 1 hour 30. I settled into a good pace early on, holding the bike at between 14-16kph. Before I realised it I had got through the infamous steep wooded section and I hadn't dropped below 11.5 kph. I could go on for hours about this climb, but I won't here. ( In a special issue of Procycling magazine that listed the 'best' 50 climbs in the world, this is the climb that topped the poll..of course!) But I must just mention the magic of the moment when, after the Chalet Reynard where you say goodbye to trees and hello to a mineral, lunar sun-scorched landscape, a Rider only then has his first view of the climb : Provence - miles and miles and miles of Provence. Unforgettable.
I maintained my speed right up to the Tom Simpson memorial where it feels as if you are almost there. But there must be still 2 km to go and they get steeper, just when the summit looks deceptively close. I was giving it everything I could, despite the thinning air (1,900 metres at the top). I had not been overtaken once so far, but when I glided past a boy who looked no older than 16 years old, he came back on my wheel with a smile and after we exchanged a couple of short sprints he pulled away from me. With 100 metres left to go from the top, Giles himself seemed to have burst into Control Room : I click up 3 gears, stand on the pedals and sprint up to and past this kid and manage to maintain my speed up round the bend and ramp that leads to the 'finishing line' 20 metres later. As I do this I even let out a loud battle cry YAAAAAH!!, truly Giles-style. (What's going on here - such an extravert, un-British demonstration of joy has never happened to me before : thanks Giles!) But then I realise the kid has responded and I just have to let him cross the line first : not so Giles-style! We shake hands and have a laugh. A few minutes later I think I'm going to be sick. I understand why I had been so emotional at the top : I've done the 23 km from the square in 1 hour 19 minutes, my best yet - a little over 17 kph average. I had done the Ventoux justice. I still have 9 Cols to do and another 160 km!! That's what this challenge is about!
(I must just mention this : On my way up Claire was particularly proud when, as she waited by Redcar to take a photo of me, a rider ( little 'r', definitely) carried his bike up to her, seeing the spare bikes on the roof and the general 'Rider-Support Aura' of the car, asked if she could help him out with his 'major mechanical'. Claire soon diagnosed the problem ( amazing, innit?!) and... put his chain back on for him. This was a full-grown man with a brand new posh bike and Claire swears she is not making this up- she was as proud of herself as the little-r rider was ashamed of himself. He'll have to wait a while before becoming a 'R'ider!)
At the top of the next Col (d'Ey) my parents are waiting. They have come down for the last 3 days. My Mum bursts into tears with emotion. I nearly do too. A big hug with my Dad and then it's back to business. The Soubeyrand, the Roustants - more HARD climbs, and it's hot. At the top of a Col after Roustants another Rider is waiting : it's my brother-in-law, Peter. He's decided to have an afternoon 'warm-up' with me before riding the full length of the last 2 stages. The warm-up became sweltering after 5 minutes and then turned into a blazing inferno when we began the last climb of the day : Col de Pennes. From the south side it's a 7km climb and pretty much 9-11% all the way up. It's hard and I'm worried for Pete. He's breathing louder than a steam train and turning the pedals very, very slowly. But through sheer determination he makes it to the top. Full respect!
This stage is definitely up there in the top 5 hardest. My last day riding alone. It's taken us through the Drome and landed us on the doorstep of the Vercors, a region I know little of and I relish the prospects of tomorrow's ride : the penultimate day! Definitely a bitter/sweet moment when I think about it.
July 25: 143 km - 16 Cols - 2,465 m ascent - 5.38 hours in saddle(July 27 - 11:54)
The last day of this section. After a quite subdued final evening together, (all three of us probably a bit sad that this collaboration was coming to a [temporary?] end) the Dream Team enjoyed a more upbeat breakfast this morning before Claire drove Giles to the station.
He was on his way back to England with over 100 Cols in his bags in 7 days, having had, in his words, the best cycling 'holiday' of his life. A strange choice of words, you might think. The term 'holiday' is the last word Claire would use to describe July 2007!! But Riders would understand.
I was on my way, at 9am, for a relatively 'easy' day ahead. Back to my just my own breathing for company, but it wasn't hard. Giles was still there in spirit with me all day. I check my riding style. (His parting advice being : "The most important thing is to try to look like a pro".) You're so right Giles! Clothes can only do so much. Your style and speed have to do the rest. Of course it's all relative, but boy does it feel good when you're firing on all cylinders!! I could still see his wheel in front of me and in his honour I actually did mini-sprints up to the top of Cols. At last I was winning! I have promised to ride the Ventoux 'for him' and hope to use tomorrow's transfer day to get some rested legs for THE MOTHER of all climbs. (Could arrange for a blood transfusion too. Nah! I told you, this is 100% Me!)
An unexpectedly beautiful last day's ride to Cluny via stunning forest roads around the Mont Rigaud, climbing almost back to the 1,000m alititude we had been at for so many days. Bagged just one extra Col and kept up a fast pace all day. I seemed to spend the whole day in forests on good roads where yet again cars were noticeable by their absence. (I did have one surprise section of a couple of km when I was back on gravel/stone track, pleading my bike to be patient once again with this rough off-road stuff. It came through with dignity unblemished.)
One BIG difference today was that I had to navigate once again if Redcar wasn't around to help. Oh, the stress! Giles had taken over this role and I had been so happy to just (try and) follow his instructions. He would have been happier if I had actually listened to what he was saying before saying "Yes,yes". Now I had to concentrate once again. All went (quite) well until in the early afternoon I managed to lose both route directions and map photocopies from my back pocket. Redcar had said "C U Later" and was heading for the hotel. Claire had to text me directions for the rest of the day and I only had to ask locals three times to eventually find the hotel. The last time I asked was for the hotel. The puzzled passer-by just asked me to turn round and look up at that sign on that building what I was standing in front of! Jeez, all energy is obviously being sent to the Legs Dept. and not much seems left for the Head Dept.!!!
The Club des Cent Cols have done such a good job defining these itineraries: they have taken us along roads that have served us stunning views in abundance, have shown us some of the remotest corners of France and they have chosen roads that are a pure delight for all cyclists. Fine work. Thank you so much.
One great climb of just over 1km of non-stop 15-20% in the forest. To be able to do this at 10-11kph all the way up shows me just how well my body has adapted to this incredibly hard regime of the last 24 days.
Thank You. I am so grateful to Life to have been able to do this.
The pain, the exhaustion, the stress, the lack of sleep, the hostile weather - none of these took anything of the incredible beauty of Nature I have seen away from me. None of these stole an ounce of the pleasure of riding my bike up mountain after mountain. I understand the Great Explorers and Adventurers. Challenges like this take you outside of yourself. Beyond your imagined limits. Thank You.
A day on 4 wheels tomorrow and then a highly-anticipated last 3 days riding in the Alps and the Vercors. Bring it on!!
July 24: 238 km - 16 Cols - 3,552 m ascent - 9.40 hours in saddle(July 27 - 11:47)
After a festive evening and another short night it was time to set out on what was to become probably the best day in terms of the Art of Cycling: the longest stage yet, the fastest average speed, the most extra cols added in, Competitive Minds definitely at the controls. This was Giles' last day with the Dream Team, as he had named our Super-Trio. His legs were on fire as soon as we were out of the 'neutralised zone' and mine were feeling OK too.
We flew up the first climb of the day side by side at 19kph. Only 6-7% but still a pretty hot pace to maintain for 5km. We had to be good today because we were meeting a member of the Cent Cols Club [Editor's note: Philippe Chazottier, Cent Cols Nr. 5178] 50 km into the ride. We were working out what we would do if we had to wait at the top of every climb for 20 minutes for him to catch up with us. How could we break the news that we were adding another 50km to the ride to enable us to get in another 5 Cols as a special last-day treat for Giles? Just how good do we thing we are ??!!
We met Philippe Le Frenchie as planned and after 5 minutes hanging on to his wheel, Giles looked round at me and said quickly in between frantic early-ride breathing : "I don't think we will have to wait for him, do you?!!" He had worked out the route for us and was delighted at our initiative to bag some more Cols. He was one of us. This was further confirmed when, as we were all being violently attacked by hailstones on a fast descent later in the day, he went by us shouting (well, it certainly wasn't 'singing') "I'm zinging in zee rain". Mad. He was one of us.
He was President of his local cycling club. A dedicated Rider. These days he was training for the Paris-Brest-Paris cycle event which happens every 4 years. He had just done his last qualifying ride of 600km in 25 hours. (Yes, that does mean that you don't go to bed until you've finished!) He was hoping to do the 1,200km in 65 hours. Actually, he was MADDER THAN US.
Our route took us along a roller-coaster road that run along a ridge with 100km views either side: Lyon and the Mont Blanc on one side; the Massif Central and the Puy region on the other. Once the morning rain had cleared the light was crystal clear and the views were incredible. Hard riding though, especially as we wanted to establish a solid reputation for the Rapha-Mag Team amongst the 100 Col-ers! We pushed Philippe le Frenchie all day and from time to time Giles would unleash his legs and disappear up the hill as he sprinted away for the last km of the climb. Awesome!
On one of the last climbs of the day I decided that I had better have just one try at a truly competitive climb with Giles. Unplanned really: I saw the opportunity and went for it. We could see the Col about 3km away and had already been climbing for a good 2km. One of the hardest ones of the day. Giles had decided that it was time to go for it and pulled away from us with ease. Philippe and I rode side-by-side in silence. Who was going to have a go first at bridging the gap? We are no longer on some unknown Col in the Mont Lyonnais, we are on the Aubisque and the overall GC of the Tour depends on this climb. No reaction from beside me so I add a little 'push' to each pedal stroke to see what happens. No one beside me. No more breathing. From here to the top I never look behind me. I've dropped le Frenchie. Giles is a long way uphill, but gradually I realise that his silhouette is growing. I'm gaining on him. He gives a quick glance behind him. Zut, he's got smaller again. He's reacted to my challenge and is too strong. Nevertheless I find even more 'push' in my legs and sure enough I am gaining on him. But it was not to be, of course. At the top he times the gap and congratulates me on getting it back to 27 seconds. Philippe comes up a good 3 minutes later. Reputation of the 'Grimpeurs Ongleesh' well established.
We leave Philippe with still another 30km to do and thank him for terrific company. His navigation has been superb and his efforts in English have kept us amused. He rides well too. The days ride finished with a long, fast downhill to Tarrare. Giles points out a car about 500 metres down the road and shouts out to The Universe his intention to overtake it. (To Giles' Mum : He IS wearing his helmet. I witness !!!) He swoops down on this poor innocent car like an eagle about to grab a new-born lamb. Not quite so elegantly does he eventually get his prey though, as he has to overtake it on the outside of the last bend of the descent. (To Giles' Mum : There were no cars coming in the other direction and I don't think he went across the central white lines . much!). I'm in his slipstream, well the last wisps of it, and grin with delight for him. The road flattens out within 100 metres of the last bend and the car of course zips back past Giles. But that doesn't matter. He still has both arms in the air in true Stage Victory fashion. I'm going to miss him!
July 23: 167 km - 9 cols - 3,183 m ascent - 7.41 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 14:10)
On the road at 7.08. Well done Giles!
Claire is woken by the sound of cleats clipping into pedals and Blokes on Bikes nattering away as we zip past the bedroom window. I'm never usually that talkative at this time of the morning, but we have to get the mad-chat going immediately - it seems to help turning the pedals once again, knowing that's what we'll be doing for the next 7 hours or so . again.
We realise that we haven't actually been through what you and I would call a town for 2 days now, and we would not see one today either. We were coming off the north edge of the Cévennes and into the Ardèche mountains. Very desolate, especially in the thick fog and drizzle that clings to us all morning. At least we are learning now and leave fully clothed for bad weather. Thanks to Giles' excellent navigating - I have passed on that role very willingly and he spends all day now just trying to get me to pedal in the right direction.
The problem is that after this long on the road my attention span to anything except tarmac, pedals, gears, eating and drinking, is about 7 seconds. So unless we set off again, after consulting the map at a junction, within 10 seconds, there seems to be a 50% chance that I still mange to pedal purposely down the wrong road. Giles is very patient with me though, and shouts at me each time without using many F words at all, considering. I think he is as worried about my mental condition though, as I am about his. You should hear some of HIS stories!!!
We cycle all day with rain gear on. This is July 23rd in the South of France!
Giles had hoped to 'recover' today after our two 200km+ days in succession, and had thought that only doing 9 cols today would be easy. He wanted to be in a flying mood for his last day with the Dream Team, (his name for us), tomorrow. Alas, there are no recovery days on this Tour. The road relentlessly throws us up and up after every little short downhill section. The legs are hurting us both after each time we stop pedalling (downhill). The lactic acid builds up a lot quicker these days and gets more painful each time too. We just scream to the trees and cows and tell them how much we LOVE cycling and then we feel better. Weird, innit ?!
We stay above 1,000 metres more or less all day, just dipping down to 600-700 metres from time to time. By early afternoon Giles is 'jazzed' (a polite word!) and begs for the hotel and a hot bath. I just pedal on keeping just ahead of him: enough to pull him up to my wheel; not too far to be demoralising. He still wins the end-of-stage sprint though, but I had done all the work for him!! He's a racer through and through which is why he finds it hard to keep a level head. Still pedals faster than most people who call themselves Riders though.
Claire has been very patient with us too, especially when I managed to tell her where I thought we were on the phone, which of course was nowhere near where we actually were. So once again she doubled back on herself and spent an hour looking for us before eventually working out where we probably were. Well, I've seen so many road signs and village names now, I've no idea where I really am - I'm just here to pedal. You can't ask me to think as well! We admire Claire's perfect cornering line as she overtakes us when she catches up. She too has become an expert round the hairpins and can throw Redcar around these lanes like a Pro rally driver now. Respect!
250 Cols and still counting. Giles is thrilled because he will go home after tomorrow with over 100 Cols in his pocket in six days! And he's still got legs on!
July 22: 172 km - 18 cols - 3,163 m ascent - 7.28 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 14:05)
9am this time before we are rolling. But it had been a late night before, and for the first time on this trip I had not opened up the computer after supper. (Part of the reason why my nights are short is because you mustn't forget that supper in France can take anything from 1 ½ hours to 2 ½ hours, depending on the service. Even if you go for a modest menu, which we always do!)
A beautiful sunny but cold morning. We are still above 1,000 metres altitude. We begin the day by grabbing an extra Col - just a 6km detour. Then head up to the Mount Aigoual for more never-ending views. On the way up we fly by 2 club Riders out for their Sunday morning usual. "You know what", says Giles, "We're as fit as F***!!" Sometimes Giles can be quite poetical. Other times he just gets straight to the point.
The F word was used again later on, by Claire, would you believe?! I'll explain why, and you will believe!
I allowed Giles just ONE MORE bright idea, knowing that he was here for just six days of this crazy challenge and wanting to catch as many Cols as possible. He had found on the map one extra Col that we only needed to pedal 5km each way for. I tried to contact Claire, who tries to place herself all day at places where she reckons we will be SO glad to see her, but had failed. Oh well, we'll be back on the road soon. Only 10 km. I agree. Not quite as flat as Giles thought though. For the next hour, once back on the itinerary road, we are expecting to find Redcar at tops of passes, at junctions, anywhere actually. Phone signal is rarer than petrol stations here. I try several times to send messages about where we are. Eventually Redcar and us meet head-to-head on a narrow climbing (of course) road. Claire is NOT HAPPY. She has been driving back and forth for ages. Giles melts away whilst the sparks are flying. Lunch is thrown at us on the tarmac. 2 Riders sit on tarmac and silently open the packets full of delicious, lovingly chosen French market food. Claire reckons she has made her point. We have made apologies. Peace is made. Half an hour of riding up the hill later I get a beep confirming phone signal and message received. I ask Giles to read it since I don't like cycling in reading glasses. He struggles a bit at first but then deciphers : WR F*** R U, U IDIOTS? !!! Best message I reckon I've ever received from my wife! Well, it was funny to us..
Good day of climbing. Worked well together. But on one of the hardest climbs, when I had been trying to impress Giles by breathing through my nose whilst climbing a 10% stretch (try it next time you ride a bike uphill!), he decides to sprint for the top with 500 metres to go. I arrive at the top to find a car skidding to a halt and the driver rushing out towards and sprawled Rider and bike in the long grass at the roadside. "Don't worry" I shout" he'll be alive, but maybe needs a mental hospital" He eventually sits up and the driver believes me. Giles and I get on very well !!!
2 killer climbs finished the day. I knew they would be bad because they had been sponsored by people who knew them (last night's hotel and Mario Labelle - who had sponsored Port de Larrau, probably my hardest climb so far).
Col de Finiels was one of those ones who never want to let you win. They keep letting you think you are at the top but have more to fling at you round the next corner. Beautiful climb though. Thank you Mario.
Before our last shot of the day we stop at a bar to catch the end of the Tour stage in the Pyrenees. Just in time to see Contador win in front of Rasmussen. We loved it and took inspiration from it for the next 4 km climb at 10-13% all the way up. Giles managed a sprint to the top again. Amazing. Steady Eddy watched him go.
Finished the day with 26 km of flat. By working for each other ('drafting' - i.e. taking in turns to hide behind each other with 20 cms between our wheels) we managed to maintain a speed somewhere between 42-48 kph. Not bad we think.
July 21: 217 km - 22 cols - 4,206 m ascent - 10.16 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 13:56)
Don't know why, but I seem to have consistently under calculated the distance. This was supposed to be 160km today! Turned out to be the day with the most Cols AND the longest.
Since Giles has joined me, I have had to make certain compromises to my daily rhythm, given that since he's still young, he's not too good at getting up in the morning! He also says that his legs hurt each morning. Poor him! Makes me feel lucky though. He calls me Steady Eddy. I call him Gunner Giles, since when he wants to he can gun down all competition (usually me) on the up, down or flat. He's got beautiful legs (other Riders will know that this does not mean I have a bi-sexual tendancy!) and when his Rational Mind lets his Body Team go for it, they do. Big Time. He suffers afterwards though!
At 8.30am we are rolling. Giles had put his sun-cream on. Damn, the weather was going to turn bad again. Of course it did! Today I let him try out one of his 'bright ideas' and since he has become a hardened Col Chasseur already, he wanted us to take a route that would add an extra 5 cols to our bag. Not too many extra km either, he said. I have to admit that it was worth it for even more stunning views and some good climbs on VERY quiet roads. I'm doing OK but Giles is finding his legs painful and tired after the show-off sprints yesterday. But despite a low moment in the afternoon he does me proud again and we manage to keep up a good pace all day. Just as well, because even so we only manage to get to our hotel at 9.15pm! He's good, this nipper.
We climb side by side, often pushing the pedals and breathing in unison. Both bodies and minds seem to understand each other perfectly. We keep up a pretty fierce pace and seem to be able to sense when the other is having to make too much effort and therefore we stay in a relative comfort zone. But we also entertain each other. I managed that particularly well today. The true comical value of this gag will forever be hilarious to Giles and I, but you might find it vaguely amusing too. I will omit describing the full context, which definitely is funny ONLY to Giles and I.
We are going UPHILL, battling with another Col - and winning- when a car goes by (quite rare here) and I decide to use it as a 'lead-out' for my stage-winning final sprint to glory. "Here I go!" I shout as I thrust my right leg down with every ounce of strength in me. The result : wet gloves slipped on wet handle bar tape and the bike began a mad, drunken, zig-zagging, panic-stricken dash for a very rocky and deep ditch on the side of the road. I did try and steer it away, but in vain. In and down I went, splitting my sides with laughter even before impact with the rock tried to literally split one of my sides. My right hip slammed against rock and the 'sprint' was over. We were both laughing as Giles ran to my side and I looked up from the ditch. 1st concern : was the bike OK? 2nd concern : were my shorts ripped? 3rd concern: was I OK? Answers : Yes, No, Yes. Bruised and a bit bloody, but back on the road in minutes. Trying to climb the rest of the Col when we are both giggling like little girls was quite tricky! I had never expected to have an UPHILL crash. Giles suggests that I had better stick to being a climber rather than a sprinter.
Feeling a bit battered, we still had the Big Climb of the day to do up to the Col de l'Homme Mort. We find ourselves back on stony track and climb, sometimes steeply, on this for 12km. The views opening up around us are unbelievable. The rain had cleared and the evening sunlight was bathing the landscape in pure beauty. But that sunlight was fading and we still had 18km to go once we had got to the top. Claire had incredibly managed to find a way to get the car up to meet us by another way (long story, don't ask) and we stocked up with survival rations.
She went ahead to the hotel where they were going to keep the kitchen open especially for us, lay on a true cyclists' supper and generally make us feel important. Thank you Hotel du Parc, L'Espérou - they added on to their original donation too.
By hauling myself up the stairs with a lot of help from the hand rail, I managed to make the bedroom and Nurse Claire attended to my battle wounds. They were getting sore.
What a day! Neither words nor photos can describe the power and beauty of the landscape we had cycled through.
July 20: 218 km - 17 cols - 4,115 m ascent - 9.27 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 13:51)
An epic day. A Classic Ride. One more to be proud of.
After a sweltering night in Castelnaudary, (when Giles had wrapped himself in wet towels in bed to try and cool off his sunburnt skin), we were surprised to walk out into light drizzle at 6.45am. We had heard thunder storms rolling over the now-distant Pyrenees, but hadn't expected such an abrupt change in the weather.
Giles had coated himself in sun cream after his care-free attitude to the southern sun yesterday. We both decide to be prudent and set off with wind gilet and arm-warmers as extra clothing. Not quite prudent enough, as it happened..
After an hours' riding, Giles' sun cream was a soggy mess around his wrists and ankles as the light drizzle turned to light rain. The wind had woken up too and appeared to be in a bad mood. We were not warm.
After a quick stop in a dry Boulangerie, we headed away from the plain. When asking our way in a village, we are pointed towards "une route qui monte et qui monte". If it goes up and up, that must be ours. It was and it did. For a long time again. An hour later we were in thick cloud with a biting wind and where the rain wasn't so light at all anymore. We could see about 10 metres ahead. When looking for the Col, and not having seen a car almost the whole way up, we almost cycled straight into a line of parked cars on the narrow road we were trying not to fall off. (The fog was so thick, we had almost cycled straight into a lake!) A few more yards and a sinister monument grew out of the fog. Uniformed men carrying banners were getting ready to perform in front of an audience of about 100 people, blocking the road. No film-set, this was real life. Didn't feel like it to us though. We weaved our way through them and gathered that they were remembering those who had fought in the Resistance and who had paid with their lives up here. (We forgot to take off our caps, so were probably tut-tutted by them all.)
Redcar and Nurse Claire were waiting for us at the bottom as we were both shivering with cold and apparently still had feet hanging off our ankles, but we couldn't feel them. Yesterday we had been begging for water in 37°C. Today, we quickly changed socks and put on gloves and overshoes and then sprinted to the next village for a café to warm up in and get some blood into our hands and feet again. Lucky we put on sun cream before riding today!!
We are heading through the 'Montagne Noire' although these are no longer what we would call mountains. Steep, wooded hills and more beautiful quiet roads. In fact, make that : very steep and very wooded. Beautiful. Giles knows this area and is smiling with delight at being back. He's a strong Rider, (anyone who can ride the Alpe d'Huez in under an hour instantly commands respect in my book), and when he wants to pull away from me, at the end of a climb he leaves me standing. But he's a polite Rider too, and we work really well together and keep up a strong pace. He did have a less clever moment today though, when a gust of wind in a descent blew him straight off the road as we went into another sweeping bend. Luckily, there was a gravel sort-of-lay-by and he managed to bring his Beautiful Machine to an embarrassing but life-saving stop before he would have gone down and down and down.
But as a duo team we had our moment of glory when we totally unexpectedly found ourselves on a climb that the Big Boys had done just a couple of hours earlier. La Montée de Jeante, the main climb of this days' stage.
Downhill there was a 4km solid line of cars and camper vans, not really going downhill at all. They weren't going anywhere really for the moment.
Uphill there was Phil and Giles. 14kph up a long 7-8% gradient. It was hurting. The strength in our legs was dwindling but our sense of pride was growing. "Allez, allez" " C'est bien les gars" " Plus vite et vous pouvez encore gagner" were being shouted encouragingly at us by these die-hard Tour fans who were happy to sit in a 2 hour traffic jam after watching the Big Boys flash by. We climbed as if we had just been given the OK to go for the break by our Directeur Sportif and forgot we had already put 165km behind us today. Eventually the line of cars ran out and our legs ran out too. But we had shown 'em! We limped up to the top of the climb and got there just in time before the one steward left took down the last 'Champion' banner to mark the top of the climb. Photos. 'Who had gone over first?' we asked. The reply : 'I don't know-they went through so fast I couldn't see' Ah, The Super-Men.
One last Col after the race up the Jeante, and Giles does what every true 'domestique' knows he has to do : with the last 200 metres of the climb straight into a very angry headwind, he drops back to shelter me and bring me up to the top safely. What a Rider! We have ridden a long hard day with endless climbs, always riding together, 'drafting' for each other, laughing together and have a mighty respect for each other as we roll into the hotel car park 12 hours after leaving this morning's hotel. This day has yet again been all about why we Riders choose to do this. Other Riders know exactly what I'm saying here.
It's midnight as I finish this. Tomorrow, 20 more Cols on the menu. But only 160km!! Time for some sleep before we are up early again to clean up the bikes a bit, give them some TLC and get some food down to our bellies. Tomorrow also promises to take us into some of the wildest parts of this ride so far in the Cévennes.
July 19: 178 km - 19 cols - 3,388 m ascent - 7.45 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 13:42)
Giles Croft. A better shot in the arm than a quadruple expresso. A Kindred Spirit. Rider has found Rider. A Cat 2 racer and time-trialler and hungry Col chaser with many, many Cols already packed in his legs. Claire can hear us coming before she can see us. She can't believe how 2 blokes can natter away whilst climbing up a 13km 1st Category climb. She can't believe how 2 blokes can natter away without mentioning football once! She can't believe that 2 blokes can natter away about clothing. There's lots of things she still can't believe about Riders.
We are Kindred Spirits On Fire. Four legs pumping for MAG. Giles shouts out to the mountains just as I had on my first day. He's alive 'n pedalling, and it's brought new life into my jaded legs. I had become slightly bored with and tired of my own company (hard to believe, I know!) and Giles has arrived at a perfect time.
We ride pretty much at the same pace, but he flies down the descents like a Real Racer. I let him go since I don't want a ditch or a ravine to get in between me and Annecy on the 29th. Uphill we glide together. He talks, I breathe. I talk, he breathes. The Cols fly by under our wheels. By the afternoon though, he is feeling the long distance and the heat getting to him. All respect, mate. It's only your second day and yesterday he had managed to do 170km and climb 4,000 metres as a warm up! I am glad to let him 'draft' me for a bit. He asks if we can fit in an extra stop to get a shot of caffeine and some water. We take a turn off into the next village and just find 2 old ladies sitting on a bench who assure me that there is no bar, no bistro, no café, no bakery, no 'tabac', no... in this village. All there appears to be is one bench. That's all they appeared to need. Nice, the simple quiet country life, isn't it?!
Try the next village - each village of course being UP a hill from the road we were following. I ask the first inhabitants I come across again for a Bar/Café and again get a blank look. Then I spot the car number plate parked by the house. " English?"
This is how we came to meet Alan and Lesley Woolacott who shared their time between here and Glencoe, Scotland. They make Giles a coffee, invite him in (well, actually Giles invited himself in) to wash his face with COLD water and after a few questions begin to grasp what it is that I/we are actually doing. They find it hard to believe. They make a donation of a £10 Scottish pounds note (will you accept that Harriett?!), and we pedal away leaving them with an expression of bewildered admiration on their faces. That should probably read : compassionate sympathy for our condition.
But we feel the business. With our Rapha-MAG 'team strip' on, I feel part of a Real Rider Team at last. We fly into Castelnaudary after 15km at 38-40kph on our dials all the way, working together and feeling like we've just managed to maintain the breakaway and hold off the peloton right till the end.
Looks like I'm in for a few good days. Claire now has a team of two to 'support' and did it brilliantly today, despite having been bitten all over recently by some vicious nasty little, probably Andorran, spiders. (I hate Andorra!). She is the real star of the Rapha-MAG team and deserves a medal from one of our sponsors. !!!
July 18: End of "Cent Cols en Pyrénées"...(July 25 - 13:34)
A leisurely 8am start for another short stage today. All 3 of us actually had breakfast together, waiting for John M and friends who had planned to rode with us after their Etape du Tour two days ago. They don't show up so Giles and roll our wheels out onto today's route. One day wonders, I reckon. Still recovering from their One Big Day Out!
Giles Croft. Ah! It is immediately obvious that I have in front of me a young, accomplished Rider who has been starved of mountains for tooooooooo long and has two very fresh strong legs that are pumping with joy at the idea of long climbs and fast descents, and lots of them. Great. He's been through more of this than I have so we understand each other beyond words. Early in the day he spots a very wiggly road on the map that would take us just 20km out of our way and even had a bit of, oh joy, 21% gradient. But we could bag 2 more cols! Tired Old Rider replied to Fresh Young Hare : "Errr, do you mind if we don't? " He didn't, but I did say that I would be game on for his next idea. Silly that, I think, because I got a feeling that he will be having a few more of these enthusiastic ideas! Anyway, today we go different ways after an hour or so since he wants to explore a bit whilst I am sticking to my itinerary. We will meet again tomorrow morning a few km from the start of the epic climb up the Col de Pailheres.
Giles Croft cycled from Leeds to Istanbul a few years ago to raise money for MAG too. He has been out in Cambodia and Laos as part of his medical studies and had come across MAG's de-mining and social re-building work out there and was mightily impressed. So now MAG have FOUR legs pedalling for them. He too knows how it helps to hear about support from all of you. Thank you all again on behalf of us both.
As I mentioned yesterday, something has changed in me. The Body Team seems to have got itself perfectly organised. It can find a solution to each new pain that appears in the Legs, the Knees or the Back. It can find new strength when I thought there was none left. In the first week the Body Team was being hit all day with challenges it had never met before. Now it seems to be able to cope with what comes its way. Mind Control, however, seems to be going through a harder period. Probably needs more sleep. Or maybe because it doesn't have to try and manage the chaos in the Body Team anymore, it is less stimulated. In simpler words, I am getting tired and just going through a low stage. Nothing serious really. With Giles on board now and heading into unknown scenery in the Ardeche/Cevennes, I'm sure things are going to sort themselves out.
Today was a bitter/sweet day : we have wrapped up the Pyrenees 'loop'. As I pedalled along the last 10km to St Paul de Fenouillet this afternoon, in the upper-30 degrees C heat, I thought back to our arrival here 10 days ago. It seemed months ago! I had fallen off the eastern edge of the Pyrenees today and tomorrow we would be heading back over a last couple of giant Pyrenean climbs before turning North East towards the Ardèche. Unforgettable 10 days. Life-changing 10 days. I could try and find words to describe it, but maybe photos will say more. Thank God that there are still wild places in Europe. Places where Man can listen to Nature.
Not so much about cycling here : more about Life. But then, Le Vélo, C'est La Vie! Vive Le Vélo!
July 17: 135 km - 10 cols - 2,630 m ascent - 7.10 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 13:28)
Back to the usual thing : 6.38am I roll down a short slope back to the main road and then start a 9km climb up to the Col d'Ordino. Good road surface and quiet at this time of the day. A fair climb and no problems here, with rested legs. After this it's back on the busy road through Andorra and I start the long climb up to Port d'Envalira at 2,400m altitude.
A bit of a shock to be back on roads with cars and even lorries too! Not the best place to find Bike Nirvana, and I didn't - for 18kms! Still, nice to pocket a 2,000m + Col and a decent road for a swift descent down the other side, overtaking cars if they refuse to get out of my way. Most drivers, as soon as they spot this crazed windswept face in their back mirror, pull up or move out to let me through. Some try to hold their 'territory' on the road. Don't usually bother me long though! But I'm still being careful, Mum, of course!!
However, I can feel the efforts of yesterday and I'm not really enjoying this particular day out. This whole stage through Spain and Andorra has been hard work and I am relieved to be back in France. Gimme my cowbells, empty roads and other Riders who say "Putain" a lot.
Soon we, (I say 'we' now because Claire is getting better and better in her support role and is making this thing easier as each day passes : I have never really been riding alone.), are back in the hills and trees and things fall back into their place. I'm content on my bike again and the legs find their rhythm and strength and seem happy to carry me through another day. Phew!
Something seems to be changing though : I seem to have to make more of an effort to get motivated and overcome the growing sensation of tiredness. I know this is because of lack of sleep. But you are all obviously enjoying reading this rubbish, and I just can't switch my mind off at night without thinking back on yet another extraordinary day. So I have got used to shorter nights than what's on the Doc's prescription. Oh well, I'll catch up later - falling asleep at me desk at work probably!
Great timing, then, that as of tomorrow, I have a co-rider for 6 days - Giles Croft, a seasoned long-distance climber and who I am hoping will help my Team up a few hills over the next week! Better stimulation than caffeine, which I still haven't succumbed to.
I finish relatively early so go and collect Giles from Perpignan airport. A bit strange to be on FOUR wheels! It's been a long time.
July 16: 215 km - 4 cols - 4,738 m ascent - 6,123 calories - 10.02 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 13:24)
Despite nearly 50 years of practice at the Living Game, there is still a thick vein of naivety running through me. I guess this explains the optimistic and enthusiastic slant in my character. It probably goes a long way to explain why I thought up this challenge in the first place too!
So today's programme of just 4 Cols and an excursion into Spain was a pleasant change of style of riding in my mind. What was I thinking?! That the Mighty range of the Pyrenees would just vanish once I crossed the border? How wrong I was, yet again!!
5am alarm call : both Claire and I were out on the road at 6am today because the first 30 km of our route clashed with the end of the Etape du Tour route so we wanted to be sure of getting through before the roads were closed.
The Col de Peyresourde was a nice warm-up for the day ahead. As I descended I thought of the suffering that would be going on here later this afternoon. The first 2-3,000 Bike Riders would be pushing themselves to their limits hoping for a Gold or Silver medal. The other 4-5,000 riders would have been running on their reserve tank on the previous climb and by the time they got here would be pushing body and mind into unknown waters of physical suffering and delirious mind games. Great day out!
The Col de Portillon was an excellent climb : a short one at 6km but quite steep. Wooded and with streams and waterfalls it would be a fond memory before the harsh character of the rest of the day kicked in. A great, recommended climb. Nice descent too on excellent road surface. I scattered a middle-of-the-road meeting of red-ish deer as I came surfing round a bend. Glad that they can move fast!
Then it was along the valley floor. Gone the gentle Nature of the French side of the Pyrenees. Here the scenery became more arid, open and hostile as the day went on. I battled with a hot wind all day until the last 20km when at last I managed to get the wind BEHIND me. Only 2 Cols to do with just over 100km left to cover. Some Cols I can catch by pedalling just a couple of km. Today I was having to do about 50km for each Col remaining! And the worst type of Col : 20 km UP, 20km gently down (i.e. not enough down gradient to coast down - because of the wind I have to PEDAL down!)
Hard roads (in Claire's vocabulary, the roads on the map today looked like arms and legs rather than the usual intestines we've been going up and down!), wide and straight, no shade and no real pleasure to get to the top. Just relief that it's over. In the French Pyrenees the cowbells kept me amused with their chaotic sound that I likened to a totally unorganised jam session of first-year students of Caribbean steel band who had absolutely no musical sense and who were allowed to bring along their own drums, meaning that most of them were banging on dustbin lids of various sizes! Brilliant! Here, in Spain, the only sonic distraction was the 'clang,clang' of the crash barriers on the roadside as they expanded in the afternoon heat that was steadily climbing up towards the upper 30°C. 'Dur, dur. Putain!'
To end a hard unsatisfying day, we had to go through Andorra town. What a dump!
Hoping to get back to the real mountain climbs tomorrow, through Andorra and back into France.
July 15: REST DAY !(July 25 - 13:15)
(This is being written in the Laundromat !!)
Woke up restless at usual time and mid-morning I'm still feeling jumpy : how am I going to sit down at a desk after this month?!
Wireless connection connected. At last. Throat swells with emotion as I read your messages. Thank you so much. Will sort through and then save onto disc the 1,500 photos taken so far. Reply to e-mails. Big kind wash and service of Beautiful Bike. New bar tape. 30 degrees today at 11am. I love it! Etape du Tour Bike Riders everywhere : their big day out tomorrow.
REVIEW OF THE RIDE SO FAR:
==> BIKE going superbly - thanks again Stonehenge Cycles for tuning it up so well.
Vital statistics of my Beautiful Machine, for those who have tuned in only recently :
Titanium frame Omega (model 'Enigma) + carbon Look forks; Campag Chorus chainset (50/36 in front, 12/25 behind) ; Fulcrum Racing Zero wheels with Continental GP 4000 tyres.
==> RIDER doing well too - thanks again Torq because I still swig down and munch your stuff with pleasure. (Despite a regime of 6 - 6.5 hours sleep each night I am drinking no coffee or tea : just 100% Me and Torq!)
Still looking and feeling cool in the Rapha gear, although I have been sweating recently with the temperature going over 30 degrees.
==> SUPPORT CAR/WIFE - hanging in there well too. Claire was very chuffed at a donation to MAG recently in respect of what SHE was doing rather than me! It would be impossible to do this at this pace without a competent support car, and she is proving to be real professional!
==> THE RIDING ITSELF - after the stress of the first week, I feel I have settled into the rhythm of this now. The Body Team are well organised and seem very efficient at sorting out a sweaty, shattered, smelly mess of disgruntled parts and somehow pulling themselves all back together into a fresh and unified group after less than 7 hours sleep! I still have to be careful to ride within my limits, but I don't feel those limits are as fragile as they felt in the first week. I spend less time 'talking' to myself and more time just concentrating on the riding. I NEVER get bored. Constant stimulation from the road, the scenery, the weather and the Cols that just keep coming at me. I have no idea though what the same amount of riding again is going to do to me. Therefore your continuing support is REALLY IMPORTANT and SO APPRECIATED. Every little message. Lots more donations have come in, so MAG tell me. I promise you that each donation has the same effect on me as 4 energy bars scoffed down at once!!
THANK YOU !
July 14: 127 km - 5 cols - 3,827 m ascent - 7.25 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 13:07)
Start in the valley mist again. I love these first hours of the day: full of promise. Just as my body has miraculously recovered again from the previous day, so too Nature seems poised for a new day. Claire is still asleep. After breakfast - she has a slightly more civilised daily routine than I - she usually catches me up after I've been riding for 3 hours or so.
Today was the Day of the Pyrenean Giant Duo : Aubisque + Tourmalet
You want to know how hard yesterday was ? These two seemed easy!
I had climbed Aubisque 2 years ago in the Etape, along with 1000's of other Riders. This morning I had it to myself all the way up. I held the bike at a steady 10-11kph all the way up and only broke a sweat on the last few kms. At the top the first few camper vans were already dug in : there would be a Tour stage finish here in TEN DAYS time!! This time no wind at the top - what a difference.
On my way up the Col de Bordères I had my first puncture! Always a humbling experience for a Rider. Especially when you can't just get a new wheel off the roof of the team support car like they do on the telly. Even more humbling : Claire arrives, laughs and takes a photo.
Once through Luz St Sauveur, the Tourmalet climb starts. By now it was getting hot : nearly 30 degrees. I asked Claire to stop at a bar at Barèges on the way up. I may not have a Real Support car, but to have someone who lines up an iced tonic water on a bar terrace ½ way up a Col is even better! As I savoured the moment, a local Club Rider went past at a pretty fair pace. Competitive Mind woke up instantly. But Mind Control told him where to go! Still, I coolly slipped back on my Rapha riding gloves, slid on the shades, straddled my beautiful machine and let Competitive Mind and Rational Thought Army do battle. After 3km Club Rider was in sight. Competitive Mind blew the Rationals away instantly. 2 km later I drew up by his side, took both hands off the bars to make it look even easier and greeted him. (Well, I deserve a bit of cheeky fun from time to time!) "Dur,dur. Putain" was his reply! He looked young (early 30's) but had to spend more time trying to get oxygen down his lungs than chatting. So I did the talking. Explained what I was doing. He said his town (Lourdes) had once built a pyramid of old shoes to mark the number of people who had had legs or feet blown off by land-mines. I said I would tow him up the hill for a few km, but with 2km from the top he begged me to just go on. So I pulled away and felt like Lance himself! (I did this climb keeping at a steady 11kph, feeling really strong - Lance, Ullrich and Mayo climbed it in 2003 at average 26kph !!! Ah, the Supermen!)
Another fast descent down to Ste Marie de Campan and then up Col d'Aspin - choosing an easier road for both car and bike (2 cols down today - one at the end of a dirt track, the other on the small road we chose not to take. We have decided that it is better to be kind to the mechanics of both bike and car and do no more 'off-roading'. It's harder to find flat than up anyway, so we are spoilt for choice when we need to find a 'replacement' Col.
July 13: 153 km - 22 cols - 4,526 m ascent - 4,156 calories - 9.05 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 13:01)
Definitely the hardest day yet, but also some ultimate moments of Bike Rider Bliss.
'Have to Suffer to Enjoy' is definitely the name of this game.
Out on the road at 6.40am. Thick fog as I made my way out of St Jean Pied de Port. Luckily I was wearing my White Stripe kit from Rapha so I must have been slightly visible to motorists. (Rapha have been exploring all the possibilities of the 'colour' black for the last few years in their clothing range. Recently they must have been through a bit of a Zen (yin-yang) thing though, since they are now chartering the mystical waters of that other non-colour: white! Well that's OK with me anyway.)
I can feel the sun getting ready to melt away this cold fog and sure enough as soon as I gain a bit of altitude the temperature seems to jump about 10 degrees. I knew I was in for serious climbing today, and sure enough, the first Col-profile panel at the roadside confirms that: Col d'Iraty - 17km first km 10%. For the next SIX km the gradient marked on the panels was painfully similar, staying in between 10.5 and 12% all the way. I was up and 'dancing' (remember that term - nothing to do with Stupid Scissor Sisters - standing on the pedals 'cos you can't turn them round sitting down without bursting your kneecaps straight through your skin!) all the way for 6kms. What was I going to do for the next TEN?
The gradient actually mercifully cooled off but guess who turned up again next? Wild Angry BIG WIND. Out of some woods and round a corner and the 6% gradient I was now being served up may as well been 16%. Where the hell did this come from? The landscape was bleak and open and I was steering the bike diagonally across the road in order to go straight. No kidding. A couple of cows looked at me with total indifference. Alright for them : their weight would anchor them against any wind. But little flyweight me.. (Apparently this Col is notorious for the almost year-round windy conditions.)
The climbs up to Col Iraty/Bagargiak and then the next ones to Erroymendi and Port de Larrau were the hardest I have done yet. A combination of relentless steep gradient and the very angry wind.
Half way up the Erroymendi I thought that finally my legs had begun a Final Meltdown in disgust. What actually happened was that I had met some more road repair work and what looked like nice new smooth tarmac was actually so new that it was still just gooey and I was making a nice bike-tyre pattern in the road they were trying to get ready for the Tour de France's passage here in 10 days time. A 100 ton roller coming straight at me was going to sort my artistic patterns out quick, and would have sorted me out too if I hadn't moved out it's way - straight into some even fresher black stuff. Result : beautiful bike tyres covered in a very sticky layer of very fresh tarmac. Just got out of this without falling off and then had to get across a stretch of loose gravel that sticky tarmac just LOVES to collect up! The resulting noise to a Bike Rider is just as painful as when a Normal Person grinds sand in between their teeth when eating a sandwich on the beach on a windy day! Amazingly I succumbed not to a puncture and cleaned the tyres off best I could once the road had cleaned itself up a bit too.
Later on, going up the mighty Col de Pierre St Martin, I had a similar situation to deal with : more road care. (All this road repair is a mad rush to get the roads into shape for the Real Bike Riders coming through in 10 days time. As Claire said : "Next time we do this AFTER the Tour de France has been through!" You are all now witnesses - she said Next Time !!!) There was just a 50 cm strip of non-sticky stuff in the middle of the road. Despite loads of traffic (I found out why.) I decided to cycle up the middle of the road - a slow process when the gradient is again over 10%. Cars in both directions wove round me and NO ONE gave me a big "Get out the *****ing way" blast on their car-horn. They could see my problem and had total respect for Bike Rider.
So why was there suddenly CARS on a mountain road anyway? When I eventually got to the top of this Monster Climb I could see TV vans, parked camper vans and dozens of cars. So, word had got out !! I was Famous Bike Rider at last! I picked up the pace, zipped up the Rapha jersey and got ready for the applause...
No one batted an eyelid as I topped the Col.
They were all boozing in a very noisy marquee installed at the Col top. As I searched for the Col plaque for the photo, I saw a bizarre thing : a rugby goal post set in 2 enormous blocks of concrete just dumped in the car park. I could see a plaque there so I thought that would do the job for my Col photo. Then I read it : this was the highest rugby goal post in the world, the sign boasted, at 1,760m, and was put here to celebrate France holding the rugby World Cup in 2007. It was placed here on 13th July 2007. which was today. Aaaah ha, I see. Funny people, Rugby Players, especially French ones.
Superb wide road for descending and soon I was down into the valley. Just had one thing in the way before the day's end : Col de Marie Blanque, up the steep side. 5km of 11-13% and back up dancing again, very painfully. Now that is quite an impressive way to end a days ride! Soon forgotten though by the best descent of this Tour so far : 11km at 60-70 kph on a wide, perfectly surfaced swerving road all the way down to Bielle and our Hotel.
Great day. Hard day.
July 12: 183 km - 7 cols - 3,316 m ascent - 5,445 calories - 8.33 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 12:32)
After the excitement last night of being connected to the 'net and reading all your messages, I felt a bit tired today. It was nearly midnight when Justin S. stopped our e-dialogue by telling me, in such a touching motherly way, to shut up and go to bed! But your support gives me such a boost!
5 ½ hours later. Alarm goes. One hour after that I cycle about 400 metres on the flat in Argeles-Gazost, and then do 20km very much uphill! The Knee Bros. got a real brutal wake up call with very little time to get them in the mood for another day of very repetitive movement. But at the top of the Col de Curaduque, the world already looked a wonderful place to be in again. (This was an extra Col, one of two extras today because I thought they looked too good to miss.) The weather was going to spoil us today at last, I could feel it in the air.
Having got to the top, I was rather worried by the fact that it looked to be a dead end. Bit of a shame to have to go all the way down again and almost back to where I had started. Fortunately there was a young sort of scout guy, sharpening a bit of wood or something, sitting in front of a refuge. He told me that to get to my next Col ( Spandelles) I could take that track there and after 4 km it became my old friend Tarmac. OK, here we go again. Poor bike. Its thin wheels, its stiff frame, its price : none of them were made for wiggling my way through stones and pot-holes. But it was magic. Silence except for the odd cow-bell. The sun was bathing the mountain tops and the light was so pure. The track went down and down and down. But eventually Tarmac did come to my rescue. Turn left and..up and up and up. Came face to face with a group of VERY BIG mountain horses seemingly just out for a stroll. The biggest one in front sniffs me out (early in the day, so I guess the smell wasn't too bad!), and then signals to the rest that I seemed harmless. They move out my way and I get out of theirs as quick as I can. Col de Spandelles - what a stunningly remote place. A superb fast descent and even at 7.30am the first Bike Riders were starting to climb up as I sped down. A stunning start to the day, but pretty hard too.
On the valley floor below I picked up a non-conversational Frenchie wheel-sucker behind me, so Competitive Mind took over : I picked up the pace to 37kph and gave it all I had on the first 'bump', pumping in the Big Ring. Lost him no problem! What an idiot I was . the day was still young.
The other extra Col I gave myself today was the Ichère (south side). A tough climb - 6 km at average 9% gradient, but again quite magical in the sunlight that by now was doing a fine job of drying out the freshly mown hay all around. No cars of course.
After a picnic stop with Claire, (who said she almost felt on holiday. A bit of a shock, that one, since I thought we are supposed to be suffering every second of the day! Truth is that although the second half of each day is a real battle, the mornings do have their great moments), I hit the next climb straight away (Col de Lie). Very hard right after lunch. A short 3km but most of it at 10% and a real leg number of a climb.
At the bottom of the descent from this one I nearly had my first Skin-Fight with Tarmac. A stupid dog ran out right in front of me to try and bite off the front wheel of a van coming the other way and only a super-fast flick of the handle bar avoided a bloody mess. A few words about descending here:
This ride is as much about being able to descend as it is being able to climb. Requirements : total confidence in your bike; being able to pick your cornering line so you brake as little as possible; knowing just how much brake pressure to apply to each wheel; ability to shift body weight quickly and push down just as quickly on the outer foot as you lean into the bend; be ready at all times for a pot-hole(rare here fortunately), gravel patch, a car in opposite direction (also rare), a bend that turns out sharper and longer than you had thought, and so on.. I love it even though each time I know that, despite 100% concentration and not taking intentional risks, I am in the Arms of Destiny. With total concentration I believe I am playing it safe. Claire has tried to keep up with me a few times on these descents and says that I look as if I am in control. Well, if I wasn't I would have gone into a few ditches, or worse, by now.
Next a long stretch of rolling road, first through the Bois de Bager (a little like Forest of Dean without the traffic), then through a rolling valley going as far west as this ride was going to take us. I held the bike at 30-33kph most of the way for about 1 ½ hours. I was almost in a time-trial mode and really enjoying it. But by the time I hit the last few 'bumps' of the day, I was cooked. The last climb looked bad before I had even seen it : when there is a sign warning motorists that there will be an extra lane for slow vehicles, it don't smell good! Straight into bottom gear ( again!) and grind, and grind and grind. Knees Bros had been asking for the hotel bed about 25kms ago, so they were NOT happy. At the top there was even a name plaque, but it didn't begin with the magic word 'Col'. Didn't they know about this one?! I took a photo and will dispute it's case.
I laughed out loud at the top anyway because before me opened up another panorama of mountains again : I had been in the hills of the Basque Country most of the day. Tomorrow we would be going through the higher part of this beautiful area and would be going EAST - on our way back!! A very tough two days ahead before our rest day on the 15th that marks HALF WAY !
Big scare tonight as my Garmin bike computer suddenly 'died' as I was downloading the ride data. This is such a vital tool for this ride, recording all the details of each days' ride. A phone call to U.S.A. Help!line (thanks to the timezone difference they were still in office hours) got it sorted - I will spare you the boring electro-tekkie details.
No e-frivolity tonight : I'm going for a full 6 hours sleep! (Although I am actually riding 8-9 hours on average, each days' riding actually seems to take 2 hours more than this from hotel to hotel : Col photos, drink top ups, two food stops - since we have now relaxed a bit and I actually stop to eat- , map reading checking the route, the occasional chat with someone met along the way. All these add a lot of time onto the riding day.
Long, hard, intense, extraordinary, unforgettable, beautiful days.
July 11: 134 km - 9 cols - 2,373 m ascent - 4,000 calories - 5.49 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 12:18)
After breakfast with my wife, a very civilised but strange way to start the day, she drove me back to where I left off yesterday. She is not letting me cheat for a single km even if I wanted to! Popped up the Col des Ares first to grab back the Col de Saet we didn't do yesterday and noticed that there had been a snowfall on the higher mountains overnight. No wonder I spent all day putting on and taking off my wind gilet. Summer is still just in a tiny little corner of the Cote d'Azur.
A comparatively easy day today in the rolling lower hills. Almost a day off! No big climbs, although the Palomières got my climbing legs going again. The day finished though with two climbs that are worth noting for any other Bike Riders coming down here. The first was the climb out of Bagnères-de-Bigorre up to Labassère and the second was the climb up to Neuilh. Both more like English climbs : no switchbacks just HARD all the way for about 4 kms each. Good training climbs! Body Team can handle anything now though, it seems, although Mind Control is still keeping a close watch on all departments. A long way yet to Annecy.
Claire bought me a delicious apple pie to celebrate my 100th Col, although I think I gobbled most of it down on my 102nd.difficult to keep count. I'm eating a lot, all the time. I get hungry really quickly. In the morning, despite eating as much as I can force down me in the evening, I can whip down a GIANT size bowl of muesli no problem at 6am! I can't be getting that light though because it's still really hard walking up the hotel stairs in the evenings!
The stress of the first week has cooled off now and our end-of-day routine is pretty organised. Claire has most of the work to do. She is just as tired as I am. Today she stopped to buy some cheese from a farm and the farmers turned out to be Belgians too so she had spent a while there. Got invited in for lunch, but told me her conscience pulled her back to Redcar, as she imagined me collapsing of thirst and hunger at the top of the next hill. Anyway, all the kids and their friends were rounded up to listen to our story as the parents thought it really important for them to hear what we were doing. All the cheese was given to us so that what we should have paid will be donated to MAG. This is what travelling is all about, isn't it?!
Followed the D26 almost all day today which helped on the map reading but unfortunately the local road maintenance dept. had also decided to make their job easy and just stick to one road at a time too. Result : sticky tarmac patches with fine gravel sprinkled all over them. I was regularly having to rub my right hand along the tyres, front and back, to rub off the sticky gravel as I went along. Interesting descending too as I swerved to avoid more patches, the odd car, the odd dog and also still take the right line into the corners. (Kept the speed below 50kph, and "Yes John M. I DO wear my helmet downhill !!!").
Cycled silently, downwind, for about 100 metres behind a fox walking in the middle of the road as an eagle (I think) circled high above me in the air. That's how wild things are up here.
July 10: 168 km - 15 cols - 4,345 m ascent - 4,831 calories - 9.25 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 12:12)
A different start to this day since I was joined by David Burchill, an English guy who had 'landed' here following a paid-off redundancy and who didn't look too rushed to go anywhere else, especially England, to live! He too had transcended from the status of mere Man/Husband/Father to the much higher one of Bike Rider (although he too had made the compromise of not having his bike in the bedroom in the interests of a sustained marriage). He had joined the local bike club and was revelling in the choice of great riding opportunities in this area. Recently he had ridden 'L'Ariégoise' and had come in a respectable 834th out of 4,000-ish riders.
Good and obedient Bike-Widow had got up at 5am to make Bike Rider hot porridge, drive him to our starting point and of course would be back wherever and whenever Bike Rider chose to have himself picked up. Nah, just kidding : we're not that macho, really! Well I can't be - Claire is playing a greater and greater role as every day goes on : morale-boosting when necessary; preparing food and supplements; taking yet MORE photos of the same guy on the same bike going up yet another same-looking hill ; and last but certainly not least : map-reading. And thank you so much, Helen, for driving your hubby over so that I had some company for a morning!!
This morning us blokes thought we knew where we were going. Me because I had looked at the route before leaving; David because he had done this route before. Can't understand how we managed it, but we missed THREE cols! Of course Claire is trying to find us and she is going the right way (Isn't it just SO annoying how often women are right?!). She called us cheats and said we had missed amazing views on the Col du Portel. Right. Better fix this. Luckily, going downhill the wrong way, we stumble across 2 signed Cols, so I prop up the bike and snap those. Just one more to find. This time I was ready to take on a proper Col since I wanted to test out David before he had to call Bike Widow to come and get him. Didn't have to look far, surprise, surprise: Col de la Core - 13km with average 8% gradient said the plaque at the bottom. Brilliant climb and views. David had a good climb and was just glad that he was stopping after that for the day. Claire caught up with us ("What are you doing up this Col - you're on the wrong road again!") just in time for more photos before the top.
After saying bye to David, it was back to serious business and more steep climbing. We opted to miss another one on purpose since the road was more track than road and said that I would do an extra one tomorrow to make up. Soon I was on the route of the Etape du Tour next week (8,000 riders will be testing themselves over 6 Cols and 180 kms.) and once I had got through a 'low patch' on a stretch of flat before starting the climb up the Col du Portet, the legs were pumping willingly. (Bum, whose full name by the way is Bone E. Bum, is really settling in now which makes a big difference to the whole Team).
Coming down off the Portet I was enjoying another super-fast descent when I noticed big nasty looking concrete bollards at the roadside. Then I saw the beautiful but sobering memorial statue to Casartelli, a Real Bike Rider, who lost his life there and from that day on all Real Riders had to wear helmets when racing. He'd gone straight into one of the bollards head first.
On the Col de Menté I enjoyed letting Competitive Mind out of its box for a while and let him cut and slash all the Rational Thoughts as I pushed up the pace with each of the last few kms of the climb : I had another Bike Rider on my tail. I opened up the gap and waited for the ecstatic screaming crowds at the top. Maybe I had beaten the fans to the top too?! My challenger turned out to be editor of Hi-Fi magazine UK and we had a good old natter at the top, accompanied with each other's Bike Widow. His office is just next to Cycling Weekly so he was going to put in a reminder to them to make sure they cover what I'm doing here. Thanks Paul! And good luck in the Etape!
As Paul descended from the summit, Redcar and I climbed up yet more. This time we HAD to take a forest track to get to 3 more cols, and I couldn't afford to 'loose' 3 more. I was soon down to 5kph, weaving my way through stones and gravel and for the next 8km I was standing on the pedals, hands gripping the brakes and somehow managed to stay upright AND not get a puncture. Going downhill at 8kph is NOT funny though. Nor were the 'Beware of the Bears' signs.. We were VERY remote! Claire kept me in sight as she was worried that bears had littered the track with tacks and were waiting for me to puncture so that they could come out of the woods and eat me. (Now just how would bears be able to get some carpet tacks, I ask you?!)
Views to die for again though. (At our hotel that night the patronne explains that the helicopter we had seen in the afternoon had been looking for a rogue, flesh-eating bear -no kidding! It had had 2 sheep for supper the day before and had been seen near some houses, perhaps looking for something more tender for it's next meal. So, Claire, thanks for looking after me!)
Anyway, much time lost due to off-roading and so a decision was made to get in the car for the last 20km to get to our hotel and that we would drive back to this spot tomorrow to. I had also spotted an extra Col for tomorrow to get back on tally. This first Col will also be my 100th, I think.
July 9: 193 km - 12 cols - 3,632 m ascent - 5,510 calories - 9.42 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 12:05)
Car-transfer day yesterday from Provence to the Pyrenees. Mechanical moment on the motorway - Redcar suddenly refused to go over 50mph and computer was saying 'No' to something. Pull in at next lay-by and ring Pete ( brother-in-law) for a quick word of advice. Claire not too impressed that I had managed to never add to the 'things to do' list something to cover a breakdown abroad. Anyway, Redcar decides to give it another go and agrees to get us to our destination. Could have been tricky there.
We stay the night at Cucugnan under the shadow of one of many Cathare castles : I thought I was tough doing this ride, but the guys who lived, and died, in these places were another species all together. Wild landscape. Arid, even this year. But somehow very mystical.
The 'Tramontane', Mistral's neighbour to the West, added to the sense of the harsh existence that Nature had to offer Man here. All night long a drunken choir of scrubby cypress trees partied outside our window, spurred on by the incessant wind. Apparently I did sleep because Claire said that I snored along in tune with the mad choir outside! But I felt as if I hadn't when the alarm clock rang! Up and ready to face a long day and a delirious headwind. I set off expecting the worst, and almost got it!
After struggling along in to the wind putting in as much power as when I was flying along in Provence at 35kph, here I was managing 17kph! At last I found shelter from the wind at the foot of the Big Hills and on the menu today for starters was the Col de Pailheres. I am glad that I will be doing this one again when we start the section in the Cevennes, because it looked to be another real Classic Climb. However today, I couldn't concentrate on anything much else than keeping my head down and fighting the elements. As I climbed higher and higher, the rain got wetter, the wind got stronger and the air got colder. Claire had gone to a garage first to get Redcar checked out (all seems OK), and eventually caught me up 2km from the top. Just in time to get some dry gloves, put on some over-shoes and my wind-gilet under my waterproof jacket. Then head off for the top.
The rain was crashing down on the road, bouncing off and being whipped away by the swirling wind. Although pretty threatening, there is something very exciting too about Nature when it gets this extreme. The temperature gauge in the car read 2°C! In 10 days time the Tour finishes a stage here. Today ghost voices called up at me from the tarmac as I read all the bike-hero names. Amazingly there were a few other cyclists up at the top, putting on everything they could for the descent. No friendly chatting going on up here! A dreary descent down the North side and fortunately, straight into a climb after 5 km. This time a small lane up to Pradel. A very intimate climb, highly recommended, and having come back down 400m from the 2,000m of Pailheres, the weather was much kinder. The rest of the day had a few more climbs and then a long roller-coaster stretch with fabulous views across the mountains (Route des Corniches). But after 7 hours in the saddle, fighting the elements, I was wrecked and just coasted the last 2 hours or so, eating energy bars and drinking: trying to stop going into reserve tank. Tomorrow is another day, and surprise, surprise : it's a tough one! Still, I'm going to going over my 100th Col somewhere soon along the route!!!
July 7: 191 km - 2,881 m ascent - 5,887 calories - 8.13 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 11:58)
I was looking forward to this day since it was going to take me through an area of Provence I know well and most of the days' route I have ridden before.
6.30am I roll out again onto the tarmac and for once the day started with a 12km gentle downhill as I snaked my way out of the dramatic Gorges du Verdon. For the first time I wasn't cold for the first hour of the day, but still had a gilet and armwarmers on even so. I could feel that today was going to be a day in Provence as it should be in July!
After Moustiers Ste Marie, the road to Ste Croix fights its way up onto the plateau : last year I did this and it got me gasping for breath. It's a 2km staircase at and average 16% gradient with 4 'chevrons' on the Michelin map! And there's not even a Col at the top! Well today I 'danced' it most of the way and only broke into a sweat for the last few bends - hey, the Body Team are really settling in! The reward at the top was greater than any Col sign for me personally : to the right stood the great Mont Ventoux. Probably about 50 miles away, but even at this distance it stills dominates the whole area. It fascinates me since it is not particularly grandiose in outline but it sits there, a slightly crushed, spread-out pyramid, almighty in its latent power : you have to have been up it ( even in a car) to understand this. Looking at it like this will reveal none of its secrets. Climbing the Ventoux will be a very emotional day for me on the 26th july and will mark the definitive Beginning of the End of this journey. I am intrigued to see if, after all the other cols I will have ridden by the time I approach its slopes, it will still remain King. (The Ventoux HAS to be masculine in my mind !!!)
Flying along the plateau at 35kph above the Lac de Ste Croix the Provencal scenery is just so beautiful : the perfumes of pine trees and lavender fill the air and at this time ( 7.30am) the silence is total and magical. But just as I was enjoying the peacefulness the scene, I start to be aware of a few 'pings' on my helmet, and what look like flies, but bigger, flying across the road in front of me. Seconds later I gently stop the bike as I realise what's going on : to my right 5 hectares of deep blue lavender; to my left I eventually make out a long row of bee hives. In between the two: me and the road !!! And these guys are VERY busy and do not want anyone in their way! I gingerly take off my helmet and put on my cap thus trying to avoid bees getting stuck in my hair. For some reason I think that by 'lying low' on my bike I will be in their way less, so in this 'descending' position I gingerly pedal forward very slowly. Bees bounce off me and miraculously I get to the end the long straight without getting stung!
Back up to 34-35kph and I hold this speed amazingly for the next 2 hours on rolling smooth tarmac. Perfect cycling. The climbs come later in the day. Now I was enjoying the pure pleasure of speed on 2 wheels!
Since the Body Team could be left to themselves today, seemingly happy to get on with things on their own, Mind Control became totally focused on other things. This is the last day of the first section of the ride so there is a lot of reviewing to do :
This is HARD, really hard. This is INTENSE, really intense. It requires being totally and permanently focused - on the body, on the road and especially on the Mind. I would never be able to do this just as a personal challenge, not at this pace anyway. I feel confidant that I can do it purely because of M.A.G. and all of you. I didn't think that your support and your donations to MAG would play such a vital role in this. But believe me, I have already often drunk from the 'spiritual well' of each and every one of your donations. And I will be drinking that well dry as I tackle the Pyrenees I reckon! I honestly believe that there are not many people who could do this - its time to drop any inherent sense of modesty and be honest - : ask anyone you know who cycles 'seriously'. This is a MONSTER! So as I go on I will need more and more encouragement.
Now some of you have already sent me well-wishing messages (e-mail problems at present but at least I receive mails) but the ones that really count, that really boost me, are the ones that come from via Harriett at MAG. It is so simple to donate via the website and attach a message and it means so much to me. The success of this ride is just as much about the money I raise for the great work that MAG do as it about me being able to cycle up hills. Probably more! So if you are taking the time to read this then please also take a minute to send me a message via MAG, adding what you want - however little. Please also talk about this to people around you : Google '300 Cols' is all they need do on the web.
After a couple of hard climbs in real Provence weather : the cigalles are buzzing, so is my head, as the sun really kicks in and the temperature eases up over 30 degrees, I have a hard section of very slight downhill of 15km into Apt but on a main road and into a strong head-wind. Not ideal cycling. I start pumping the legs and as I fight the wind, Anger comes all over me from nowhere : angry at this stupid world with its stupid wars and their innocent victims ( look how much work MAG are still doing in Cambodia) ; angry at how often we want more when we already have so much. Blah, blah. My legs pump harder - I hold the bike between 33-36kph, really hammering - and I just get angrier all the time! What's going on??! I eventually get to Apt, shattered and ready to punch someone! Fortunately, no one was in my way!
Bad news : it's bloody hot and I had already done the total planned number of kms today but the sign says 'Sault 28km'. Oh well, on we go. Or rather UP we go. The last climb of the day to the Col de la Liguiere was very hot and very hard. A Hard Slog type and endless. But once eventually over the top the stunning panorama of the deep blue-mauve lavender-clad valley of Sault at the foot of the Ventoux was so beautiful. I had arrived at one of the three 'feet'of Ventoux and here we would leave the Alps. What a perfect place to do it. I had finished the fist section!
Technical summary of first section :
Thanks and thanks and thanks to :
RAPHA - your clothes are superb. Bum was moaning about the saddle, not about the shorts. ( What are CW doing only giving them 4/10??!) Most of me got wet and cold on the Croix de Fer, but not my core body, thank goodness, thanks to your 110% waterproof jacket. And so I could go on
TORQ - I drink 6-8 bottles of your energy drink per day; eat 3-4 energy bars, and drink a Recovery drink at the end of each ride and I still ENJOY your stuff! I don't think there are many brands I could say that about! No digestive problems either. 11/10 !!
STONEHENGE CYCLES - the bike is riding like a dream so far. Thanks again so much for your help in the workshop and for you general advice.
I should also mention that all ride data is being recorded on a GARMIN computer. I am using this on a 'cadence/speed' setting, rather than a GPS setting, since this actually proves that the bike wheels have been going round, and that I have not just been sitting in the car with the GPS on! (Believe it or not, I sometimes say to myself : what if people don't believe I have actually done each of these 1000's of kms?)
July 6: 167 km - 11 Cols - 3,045 m ascent - 4,775 calories - 8.10 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 11:47)
11.45 to bed last night and 5.30am alarm. I know, I know but it's so important for me to write this log and yesterday was a long , hard day - but popped 22 Cols in the bag so it was worth it! When it's a long day, it really is a rush in the evening for both of us ( and Claire had done 11 hours of windy-road-driving so she was pretty exhausted too) : clean bodies plus ointment all over legs - Claire does a great back massage for me before sleeping- , clean bottles, wash clothes, download Garmin GPS computer with ride data, download photos, put cameras, phones, computers on charge, etc. There is very little time to relax, which I hadn't imagined being the case.
Anyway, same morning routine : muesli, into kit and on saddle and guess what : straight into a 6km climb! ( have I not said that before?!) I thought the climb was taking us away from the Cote d'Azur which I far preferred seeing from a distance, but soon I was flying down a long descent into the industrial valley behind Nice. Eventually I took the road which led me back inland and into one of the big Cols of the day : Col de Vence. Back to the silence; the Big Skies; Monster views. And rhythmic pedalling. I felt good and 'danced' ( a cycling term meaning pedalling standing up) the whole of the last 4km of this steady 7% gradient. Great feeling.
But an hour or so later I hit my first 'Coup de Blues'. It had to happen soon and was due either to a lack of sleep or a blood sugar drop maybe. Anyway, Mind Control was loosing it. In fact today has definitely been about Mind rather than the Body Team, who were all in pretty good form considering yesterday (Recovery is the key to this thing and so far I'm doing OK.). I could hear the Body Team all sink with despair and mumble " Uh-oh!" as Mind Control started to feel sorry for itself and couldn't find Will Power anywhere. But then something happened that changed all that immediately. On the next Hard Slog I caught up a retired Dutch couple who were pedalling at about three times the cadence I was and going half as fast, but boy were their legs spinning : and they were both a little over 65. Turns out they were on one of their regular training rides and in September are doing the Paris-Dakar route ON BIKES !!! Last year they did 12,000 miles from Cairo to Cape Town. Mind Control learnt its lesson and things were looking up. Kees, the husband, said that when people were amazed that he had pedalled so far he said that it's not the 1,000's of km that's the problem it's the 20cms between your left ear and your right one that's the difficult part !!!
So Mind Control immediately changed mood and Body Team all sighed an enormous sigh of relief. In fact Mind Control actually went off the rails in the other extreme a bit and the Whole Body felt better for it : Mind suddenly realised the strange correlation between climbing a Col and making love to a woman! (Don't worry, this is not going to get dirty!!!) Let me explain : todays climbs were all the same Hard Slog kind - not especially long (6-10km) but no hairpin bends, lots of long straights and barren scenery where you see for miles. So different to yesterday, where the Cols revealed themselves bend by bend, leading you along intimately and discreetly and only revealing their deepest secrets once right at the top! Whereas today's were like a less charming woman with a very very short mini-skirt on and big straight legs spread in such a way as to leave no doubt about where you were being told to go and how long it was going to take to get there. Little element of surprise at the top and even less sense of achievement! I'll stop this analogy there!
Hopefully you shouldn't be haring too much more from Bum since I have changed the saddle. I brought three with me and started with the fast looking hard one but when I looked at how the little quantity of gel was on it had actually been pushed away from where it should have been padding me, I understood why Bum had been moaning! So the medium saddle is now on and I am sure there will be a big difference.
Finished at 4.30 this afternoon which makes so much difference, having gone through part of the Gorges du Verdon. Such impressive scenery but lots of tourists here : we're not used to other people being around!
All set for the last day of this first chapter and I'm quite excited about a day off pedalling and driving over to the Mighty Pyrenees.
July 5: 181 km - 22 Cols - 3,809 m ascent - 5,023 calories - 9.25 hrs in the saddle(July 25 - 11:42)
Muesli at 5.45 am. On the road at 6.30am. Straight into a 9km climb up to Col St Raphael. Stunning silence as I watched the sun rise over the mountains and the first real day of heat and sun promised. Mr Wind has decided to leave me alone, as a matter of respect I would like to think. A game of shadow play all the way up : my shadow in the morning sun rode most of the way up the col beside me and I admired the relaxed riding position and the rhythmic pedalling style. Great rider!
Up the top and along a ridge for once with views to forever - paradise. (The profile of the majority of the ride so far looks like a triangle, and I haven't been riding along the bottom much!) Still a bit cold though this early in the morning but I know it's going to be hot at last and I'm arms open ready for the heat.
The big climb of the day was the Col de Turini and for some reason I had expected this to be good without any specific reason why. Maybe the Italian name. 16km non-stop climbing. I will use this one to write an article called 'The Zen Guide to Cycle-Climbing' for Rapha magazine "Rouleur". It was a Classic Ride for so many reasons and none of them to do with suffering, since that is a word I have so far not had to use, despite all. Let me just mention 2 magic moments that couldn't be more contrasting : meeting a herd of bell-ringing cattle ambling up the road with their cow-herd, and slowly cycling through them ; arriving at the top and for once the Col is quite welcoming and invites riders to stop there for a while. Quite rare. Claire is excited because she has found a café here with wi-fi. So, at the top of the mountain pines, in almost total silence, I download 54 e-mails and send an update to you lot!! ( Actually, this bit will not be in my zen guide since it has little to do with cycling!)
Another good one today was the Col de la Madone, which was Lance's regular training climb. Amazing views over to Menton and towards Monaco. Deep blue sea with trails of motor boats across the vast expanse. Met a couple of English riders at the top who immediately offer to donate to MAG when they hear what I'm doing. I think there will be quite a lot more of this.
First navigation problem today as the road we wanted to take was blocked due to collapsed tunnel. I stop a white-van man who was looking at the Redcar with a bemused smile and he gives us a 'secret way' of getting up to the Cols we are looking for. He shows me on my photocopy map and promises us it will get us up there. But he does say that he thinks my map is strangely 45 degrees round the wrong way. I say that I would have thought that since ½ the map consisted of the Med Sea coastline, it was pretty easy to see that it WAS correct. Not too confidant therefore about his guidance. But he too was in awe of what we were doing, saying he used to race himself and hoping that he would see us on the TV later in the month!! So on that I decided to trust him. And he was right. I even bagged an extra Col on the way up.
Amazing views of Monaco made me feel I was gliding above it all in the silence as I could see an autoroute far below.
Fantastic fast descent down from Villefranche and Eze to Nice, which was not nice at all : roads full of cars.
A tiring last 5km up out of Nice to our stop here tonight. A long day 12 hours from start to finish because we stopped twice too long. I must try not to stop at all most days. So now it's 11.30 pm and time to sleep.
Just a last word about the Body team though : Bum seems to have accepted his role here and maybe his sulking has been cured by some very liberal applications of cream (I realised why I am suffering despite my training for this : when you spend so long climbing, you are sitting up a lot more than 'usual' riding. So I have even been kind a have tried to bring my back forward more from time to time.)
But now it's the Knees Brothers who are asking for some attention. Right Knee started to wimper a bit yesterday actually, and today has been even more vocal. So I asked Left Knee if he wouldn't mind pushing a bit more than his fair share to help his brother out. He has agreed and things seem to be OK. We'll see tomorrow. (HEY, IF YOU HAD SPENT NEARLY 10 HOURS ON A BIKE TALKING TO YOUR SELF, WHAT SORT OF RUBBISH DO YOU THINK WOULD COME OUT OF YOUR MIND ??? !!!)
July 4: 163 km - 9 Cols - 3,190 m ascent - 4,605 calories (max speed : 76 kph)(July 25 - 11:35)
An excellent moment with our friends last night and a great meal. When choosing I hesitated about the Sisteron lamb, but Eric soon sorted me out : he was surprised that I didn't know that the lamb from Sisteron was the best in the world! Well he should know, after all he's French! Thanks Eric anyway, it was delicious. The only drawback to this evening was that it meant that yet again I failed to get more than 7 hours sleep, so tonight, as our evening routine is starting to get organised, I'm going for a 9 hour-night : I can feel I need it.
5.13am : text message from Dave Thomas, oldest of my future co-riders later on, who was obviously so excited about just getting on the 4am ferry from Dover to drive down to the Pyrenees, that he felt he had to tell me about it!!
6am : Get up. Bowl of muesli and out on the road at 6.50am. 3km of flat then 21km of climbing. But guess what, we've just found Summer! At last some sun and blue sky. Our first since the morning in Annecy - which seems so long ago already!
A beautiful steady climb up the Col de Fontbelle but very cold up the top as that old enemy of mine, the Mistral, was just clearing it's lungs for what looked like a busy day for it. ( I was right.) Down the other side and after 36km of typical smooth French tarmac I had seen 7 cars. 2 more than I had done last year when I did the same ride, but that was in March and now we're July - hence the increase in traffic!
Speeding down the valley I arrive at the N85. Woops, that means I've missed a Col. Did I think of turning back and looking for it?... I have added a few extra Cols into my route in case this happens from time to time. I was a bit disappointed though, but then it was only a little one, not even with a 'Col' name (Pas de Bonnet)
Found Claire waiting at a café at Digne and gobbled down a croissant, a brioche au chocolat and a hot cup of tea. Shut my eyes for a moment and soaked up the Midi sun thinking that I could spend all morning like this. "Get behind me Satan!"
Anyway, the next col was Corobin which I had climbed several times last year and for some reason really like. A 9km climb with Tour heroes names on the road again and where you get first to the Pierre Bass ecol then look up to the real top. After 4km of the kind of hairpins that all cyclists fantasise about ( loads of them and not too steep) I'm at the top. So is the Mistral who obviously got out of bed the wrong side today!
Down the other side and Mistral is doing his best to throw me off or at least over to the other side of the road, which creates new sensations when travelling at 60kph on a light bike! Safely down anyway and this time I had down 19km with NO cars at all.
The scenery is stunning today and got better as the day went on.
Mistral tried to lull me into a false sense of security as he blew me along towards the Parc du Verdon and he even helped me get up the first Col in the Big Ring (for non-cylcists this is the one you usually use for going fast on slight downhills!)
After a brief baguette stop, where our sticker-covered car and my bike caused some friendly chat with the locals, it was off again to find the last 3 cols of the day. After the 2nd one was in the bag, I happened to spot a sign for "Col du Buis 4km". Aha! This was not on my list so here was my chance to make up for this morning. Also, this one had a proper Col name AND a proper Col green sign that says "OUVERT" in the summer. I waited for Claire ( I always go first downhill since I go faster!), and then set off for a quick 4km. Or not so quick actually. It turned out to be the steepest 4km I have probably ever ridden, certainly on this trip anyway! 'Gently does it' was still the rule of the game and I managed to keep calm. Now I usually always tackle my climbs face-on, believing that to weave across the road to lessen the gradient is a mild form of cheating. But near the top I was tempted to do a bit of weaving. No sooner had I turned the bars, Mistral saw me and threw all he had at me and before I had time to pull the brake levers he had whipped me round and sent me back off downhill! I managed to uncleat my shoe and stop after 10 meters and just laughed at Mistal and told him I wasn't done yet. But I couldn't get back on. I had to wait until he thought it was fair to let me get back on my bike to finish the climb. He did and I did finish but not before a fierce fight with him! Claire was waiting at the top pleading me to come and look at the view from the top of this grass bank/hill - I can see fine from here thanks- No come and see from here. So I climbed up yet more ( by foot, which is VERY hard for a cyclist) and yes it was worth it. The view was amazing. This whole trip so far has actually been a visual feast and the beauty alone has kept me going each day.
How are The Team doing? Well all members of the body are happy still since they are only being asked to work within their comfort zone, except perhaps a bit of tiredness in the Head Dept.
( More sleep should sort that out). But we do still have one rebel member : The Bum. I do accept that of all the Members he probably has the least enviable role, but I am going to have to get him to play the game soon somehow or he's going to spoil it for everyone else! More cream. At least the Private Jewels Dept aren't complaining - OK, I heard that shout of "Too Much Detail" from the back!
By the way, I heard yesterday that Claudiu is cycling back to Romania! Poor guy.
July 3: 138km - 6 Cols - 2,221m ascent - 4,400 calories(July 4 - 18:15)
After an overnight stay in Risoul with a superb view of the mountains around and 7 hours of good sleep, I felt ready again. We are trying to get ourselves organised in the evenings so we have less bags to carry up the stairs (very hard on my legs!) and try to organise all there is to do - clothes and bottles to wash, bodies to wash, legs to massage, next day route to study..No wonder the Tour de France guys have a whole team around them! So evenings a bit stressful still, but we know what to do to change that so it should soon get better.
Weather dry and cool. Just right and we can definitely feel Provence approaching. Small roads, no Tour heroes names painted on these climbs, no cars, just me and Redcar and Claire smiling and taking pictures. A relaxing day after the intensity of yesterday. I talk constantly to the different parts of my body : it's as if we are a team and I'm the leader. Well, the team are in good shape. Bum complained less today too!
Up at HQ (my Mind) it's really noisy though. My mind is buzzing with thoughts. I shut out those not related to today and that mostly leaves all of you who have replied to my sponsorship plea. You are ALL with me all the way and it's something that I hadn't thought about at all before starting. The cyclists at Annecy who gave me the send-off really knew what they were doing when they organised that for me, because it has given me enormous strength. When my legs complain a bit I tell them to think of the guys who stepped on a landmine and have no legs to feel anymore. That shuts them up pretty quick! Have I got an annoying song in my head yet? Well, I did sing a few times "Take Me To The Next Col" to the tune of Al Green's "Take Me To The River" but it's such a good song that it hasn't become annoying yet!
Finished in style today with a 35km gentle descent to Sisteron and checked in to the Hotel at about 3.30pm I think. Time to check the bike a bit and re-arrange the car and our luggage in an attempt to simplify our post-ride routine. Claire made her first bowl of excellent pasta and this evening we are even going to dip into the real world by having an evening with our great friends Eric and Melina and their girls who are coming here to eat with us.
July 2: 196km - 4,522m ascent - 9 cols - 10.5 hours in the saddle - 5,588 calories(July 4 - 18:11)
Probably the hardest single day of the whole Tour.
Today was going to be tough whatever.
6am alarm goes off. Not enough sleep. Rain. Hard rain outside. Had told Claudiu that he had to be ready to go at 7am because we had one of the 2 hardest days to do today. But I was already very worried about him - there was no way he was going to be able to do this, and Claire and I didn't really know what to do about it.
Meet the patron downstairs who tells me that he had wanted to climb the Glandon with me but he had to go into town and so couldn't. I almost believed him too!
7am. No Claudiu. I start climbing. For one hour. Get to the top of the Glandon soaked and very cold. Sorry no photos - fingers too numb to get the camera out of the pocket. But trust me, I was there! Further on up to the Croix de Fer. Still no photo. Harder rain. Colder wind. Colder body. Then the descent. At the bottom rider and bike are shaking due to rider being frozen. Difficulty controlling the bike. So glad to get to the next climb and try and warm myself up. Rain stops eventually, but feet and hands are still numb. Get to the start of the climb to Telegraphe / Galibier - welcomed by the cheerful sign saying : Col du Galibier 34km UP! I'd forgotten it was THAT far.
Hands still blue with cold.
Find Claire + car waiting with Claudiu's bike in the back : he had eventually turned up from having camped nearby to start the day at 9am..holding a can of beer which Claire judged to be his second for breakfast. Now I have nothing against people who drink beer for breakfast, just that they are not riding their bike with me! Claire drove him to the nearest station and gave him 100 euros for a train back to Annecy . So "Then there was ONE". Claire and I both feel relieved although a bit sorry for this guy, whoever he really is. Right from the start I could see that in cycling terms Claudiu was still a boy and, excuse my lack of modesty here, this here thing I'm doing is definitely a Man's game!!
Stonehenge Cycles : I can now thank you for having a decent spare bike!
Up to the top of the Galibier in a climbers' trance and the day was almost won. Just the Izoard to do ( 2,360m high!) What a beautiful climb it is. Definitely the best so far. La Casse Deserte was magical in the sunlight. By this time the sun was drying me out and I was able to enjoy the thrill of descending for 15km at 60-70kph as every climber should without getting too cold. ( I had promised Claire I would not go fast on the descents, so I did my best to go slowly - pretty hard actually!)
I am not afraid of now doing this on my own since Nature here is SO beautiful : I never feel alone. And anyway, the red team car regularly draws up beside me handing me bits of orange, or whatever, with a BIG smile and I'm good again for the next...50 metres! Even Lance never had Sheryl handing him drink bottles with a blown kiss!
So, The DAY WITH THE GIANTS is done and I feel OK, if a bit tired! Actually this evening it was a struggle to eat because I was so exhausted. I knew it was going to be one of the hardest days, but it's built my confidance rather than broken it. I stayed in my 'comfort zones' all day despite all : in other words I never pushed my heart, lungs and legs into pain and never had any lactic acid build-up in the muscles. One part of my body though that was definitely way out of the comfort zone was my bum! The painful and inevitable process of shedding Man Skin and growing 2 patches of Crocodile skin in its place has begun. Thank you Sarah and Rupert for the cream and thank you Neals Yard for yours too as well as for your specially made vitamin pills - hope they speed up the croc skin process. ( Don't know what's in those pills, but I feel pretty good on them so far!!!!!)
Good bits : being accompanied up the Galibier by a procession of historic Rolls Royces - dozens of them. Magic. A brilliant distraction.
Bad bits : Croix de Fer in driving rain and freezing wind.
Trying to get more sleep. Easier day tomorrow - I need it!
July 1: 185km - 2971 m ascent - 7 cols - 9.5 hours in the saddle - 3,177 calories(July 4 - 18:04)
20 cyclists + local dignitaries send us on our way with a ceremony of presentations and speeches that went on 45 minutes. Very late start but such kindness and enthusiasm deserved total respect. We ambled off at tortoise pace chatting and admiring the fabulous place that Annecy is.
First proper col and more cyclists waiting for us at the top. More photos! And the first : "Putain, ils sont fous ces anglais"!!
Claudiu : you should go slowly on the first day. Me: I AM going slowly!!! My first impression that this thing is going to be too hard for him.
Col du Frene : overtook a guy going UP the Col on skis! ( Cheating though - he had rubber wheels on his skis. Pretty impressive!!) His girlfriend was trying to keep up on a bike)
Col Grand Cucheron : rode all the way up with lightning and thunder all around. Soaked and freezing at the top. Welcome to the Real World of cycling in the mountains!
Hard moment : the last 4 kms of the day up the first ½ of the Glandon. Getting hungry, had enough for the day : it was 8pm by then and a day of 9 ½ hours in the saddle to cover 180 km. It had been an emotive but drawn out day.
Problem : Claudiu - I had to wait for him very often. The intensity of this challenge has taken him by surprise. Not sure how this is going to work out.
Good moments : smiling to myself and then shouting out to the mountains and the trees with joy. Forget the pain, I WANTED this and at times it the magic of the moment felt totally overwhelming. Scenery has already been sublime.
Late to eat, late to bed. I know I won't have enough sleep for the big day tomorrow.
Claire has done a fantastic day for us and each time I saw the red car waiting at the top I felt a wave of relief and joy.
June 26th getting ready(June 26 - 10:54)
Just four more days before we set out from the Dorset valleys to travel down to Annecy for our first glimpses of the Alpine Daddy's that will engulf us for the first week and I am finding it harder to sleep peacefully at night!
It will be good to leave this dreadful weather behind and find some stimulating warm mountain air!
Legs are twitchy!