Eleven Days Cycling the Pyrenees and French Alps

Col D’Abisque

In 2017 I did a two week Bikestyle tour of the Pyrenees and French Alps, followed by the Alp D’Huez Long Course Triathlon. These are a series of posts I wrote during the tour. I’d normally write at the end of each day’s ride while the rest of the group watched Le Tour on tele and drank beer. The tour itself was fully guided with meals included. I hired an almost new Cannondale Synapse to save myself the trouble of lugging my five year old Orbea overseas.

13 July 2017

Today was a fairly brutal 105k day to the top of the Col D’Abisque then a 50k roll down to the finish of today’s Le Tour stage at Pau. Just after the start of the climb I heard a Jamaican steel band playing in the middle of nowhere. I later discovered this was actually the noise of cowbells on the local cows so they can be heard when the fog rolls in, thereby preventing damage to the cows from cyclists. The tunnel in one of the photos was about 400m long and scared the crap out me as it was dark and I couldn’t see the walls, potential potholes, lurking axe murderers or indeed anything. I had my GoPro camera running, which recorded my expletive laden rant on the uselessness of French road and tunnel construction skills.

I was thankful that one of the tour guides is a 23 year old Belgian semi pro rider who sat on the front into a nasty headwind for the last 20ks. That was fortunate, because as it was one of the guys didn’t take on enough nutrition during the ride and went a bit hypo when we finished. Fortunately two cans of Coke saw him come right.

Post ride, I retired to a pub and saw David Miller, the ex British pro rider who is a race commentator for one of the European networks downing a cold one instead of actually doing his job commenting on the race. I’ve taken this as a sign that the race is really boring today and that I should probably stay in the pub and rehydrate rather than jostling with haughty French civilians to watch the finish. I also missed the travelling parade where they throw free stuff into the crowd. Fortunately, one of the race sponsor reps came into the pub and gave me two plastic things, so I’m taking that as a win.

Edit: Saw most of the riders on their way back to the team buses. It was a great to be up close and cheering riders with no clue as to their names while being completely ignored in return.

Edit 2: Bus detoured through Lourdes on the way home. (The miracle Lourdes, not the cricket ground Lords) Was surprised to see a nudie statue which was a bit risqué. Fun fact: Lourdes has the second highest number of hotel beds of any city in France after Paris due to the volume of people wanting to be cured of their various ailments. After we drove through my legs still felt really tired. No miracle for me. I’m putting this down to 1: swearing in the tunnel today and 2: being a heathen who probably deserves a good thrashing.

Double ascent of Col du Tourmalet

July 14 2017

Instead of the option of riding to the summit of Tourmalet and down to Tournay to watch the race go past, I opted to do what turned out to be the toughest and most rewarding ride I’ve ever done. I do like watching the race on tele (which I’m doing right now) but watching it live involves hours of waiting around for the twenty seconds it takes the pelaton to go past. It’s like going to an AFL game, arriving two hours before the bounce then leaving after a minute.

I probably should have read up on the history of the Tourmalet before today, but fortunately got a message last night from a couple of friends to read up on Eugene Christophe. He was leading the race in 1913 by miles then broke a front fork. Rather than quit, he walked ten k to the nearest ironmonger who gave him a crash course in welding. (He wasn’t allowed to actually help because that would have constituted outside assistance.) After fixing it he resumed the race, finishing 7th despite a time penalty because the ironmonger’s son had puffed the bellows to allow him to weld. Sadly, his Peugeot team spread a story that the forks had broken because he’d hit a car, as admitting that their product cost him the win would have been bad PR for their company. As a protest, I’m never going to buy a Peugeot. #IstandwithEugene Despite being the strongest rider of his generation, Eugene was destined never to win Le Tour, a victim of rival teams who would gang up on him.

The first climb was from our hotel, 19k straight uphill. The first ten k I felt pretty good, but I started cramping 5k from the summit, so decided to put the bike in the van and be satisfied with making the summit once. Fortunately, I received a timely msg from a mate who did the double a couple of years ago that I’d kick myself if I didn’t try, so I loaded up on muesli bards and water and did the fairly scary 17k descent down the other side to Bagneres. I was keen to rest there, but the tour guide arrived just after me and advised that as the weather was closing in I might want to get a hurry along or I’d face the ignominy of being put in the van.

Being already pretty trashed, the second climb was bloody hard. I was sweating buckets and the day was quite warm, but figured if poor Eugene could do it on a steel bike with buggered forks when the road was a dirt track then I could manage it on a carbon fibre Cannondale with sports drink and a suppport van if I conked out,

3k from the summit I could feel myself getting a little light headed, along with massively sore everything else. With 2k to go I passed a couple of Canadian guys in my group who had hit the wall and pulled the pin to wait for the van to collect them. In the interests of national pride, there was no way I could stop after that, and was rewarded in the last k by overtaking a bloke pushing his electric bike which had run out of charge. He’d flown past me earlier in the climb as well as yesterday. I’ve also been overtaken by electric bikes numerous times at home, not to mention those awful noisy petrol ones that bogans ride when they lose their licences for drink driving, so it felt good to get one back. The whole ride took me a touch over five hours.

I managed to take a few decent photos (And one very dodgy one of a statue at the bottom of the climb who looks very happy to see someone. I’m not sure if he requested those proportions or if the sculptor was in a generous mood, but that’s the French for you) We’ve got an easy day tomorrow, so I’m probably going to try a French beer or two tonight.

*Edit: The statue is actually of Eugene himself brandishing his newly repaired front fork. If I’d realised at the time I’d have placed a muesli bar tribute instead of making smartatsed comments.

Bastille Day

The plan for today was a two hour drive to the town of Bastide, followed by a 21k ride to the top of a climb where we could watch the riders begin their descent while enjoying lunch in a hospitality tent attached to a mobile home. The Bikestyle tour organisers had parked it there three days ago to ensure a spot before the population of France descended and took the prime viewing spaces. It’s pretty common for people to arrive days before the race, park, wait and drink.

 After yesterday I was happy the ride was only 21k, however I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that the last 13k involved 1000 vertical metres of climbing. Combined with riding with a daypack to weigh me down and an insect bite on the head after 1k which meant I lost my group and had no fast Belgians to sit behind, it was very tough. So tough in fact, that when I asked a passing French rider how far there was to go and he replied; “Two kilometre, it gets steeper but we will keep riding.”, I decided that no, we wouldn’t. The tough thing about riding compared to jogging or walking is that on a climb there is a minimum amount of effort required to keep the pedals turning, and I reached the point where couldn’t. After 500m of the Walk of Shame a party of drunken picnickers told me I was almost there, so I saddled up and made it to the hospitality tent where I curled up in a foetal tuck until the race parade.

 Basically, the pre race parade is like the Christmas pageant on steroids. Or EPO in this case. The vehicles travel at high speed and peg items into the crowd at even higher speed, requiring the reflexes of Mark Waugh to actually catch anything or avoid getting a packet of biscuits in the face. My loot haul wasn’t bad, a cap, two swizzle sticks, a magnet, a biscuit, lollies, wrist band and a bracelet.

 The actual race itself was quite spread for such a short stage so we got to see plenty of close up suffering of the riders. How these guys put themselves through this for three weeks blows me away. It’s a brutal sport which takes a huge toll on their bodies. Unfortunately, just after the last rider went through the generator to the tv in the mobile home conked out so we missed watching a Frenchman win the stage. The joy of the French spectators still made it a pretty amazing spectacle.

 As an aside, I couldn’t help but notice that a bloke standing opposite me in a team Astana hat was an absolute dead ringer for Bad Boy Bubby. I resisted the urge to start quizzing him about cats or pizzas. Fortunately, tomorrow is a flat day for us, tonight we’re off to join in the Bastille Day celebrations in Toulouse, although it might be a fairly early finish for me.

Flat Road Recovery Day

Our ride today was 53k of beautiful undulating terrain through vineyards and poppy fields before joining the race course. Unfortunately I didn’t get many photos because we were on a tight schedule and once the gendarmes shut the course you’re stuck wherever you happen to be until the race passes for several hours.

 So, it was head down and try to stay on the wheel of the Belgian guides. (According to Phil Ligett, riding in a pack saves 30% of your energy.) I’ve never been to Belgium as it’s not really a glamour country and is mainly famous for its chocolate and unfortunate geographical location which results in it occasionally being invaded. However, it also produces bloody good cyclists who are happy to ride into headwinds for hours towing along packs of middle aged Australians, Americans and Canadians.

 We reached the racecourse with just enough time for a 5k flat out blast, being cheered on by spectators who had been waiting there for hours. It was a great feeling which unfortunately came to an end when we were stopped 2k short of the race feed station where the proper racers refuel and our support van was parked.

 The trick for spectators with the feed stations is to position yourself a couple of hundred meters after the riders collect their musette bags full of goodies. They often throw stuff out they don’t want, including sought after team drink bidons and not so sought after half eaten energy bars. They also tend to use just after the feed stations for ‘natural breaks’, so you need to be a little careful where you stand or fall asleep.

 The first gendarme we encountered instructed us to dismount the bikes and continue on foot, so we waited until we were out of sight then remounted. The next gendarme was more serious and watched us to ensure we stayed on foot. Rather than damage my new shoe cleats, I foolishly decided to walk barefoot. When I was a kid I never wore shoes in summer and developed hobbit like leathery soles. Sadly these have long since gone and I now have painful blisters on both feet, making riding tomorrow look doubtful. We’re having a crack at the legendary Mt Ventoux in three days, so a recovery day pondering my stupidity will probably do me good.

 

The Tarn Gorge

18th July 2017

After my enforced rest day yesterday, it was great to be back on the bike today. Courtesy of stupidly walking on the hot road in bare feet, I spent the day barely able to walk with large fluid filled blisters across the balls of both feet. I spent my time pondering whether my cycling adventure had come to an abrupt end while Googling the infection risks versus benefits of popping them and watching Coco Caline the dancing panda on television in my hotel room. Coco was very unconvincing. Not only can you clearly see the zipper in the photo I took, at one stage the guy inside removed the head for a breath of fresh air. I don’t remember Humphrey, Fat Cat or even the incredibly shithouse Howie the Yowie doing anything that appalling. I wonder how many French kiddies are now scarred for life.

 

Fortunately, one of the guys in our tour is a 65 year old retired NZ doctor who rides like the Terminator. (Or at least like the Terminator would ride if he couldn’t steal a Harley from a random thug in a biker bar.) He recommended popping and said the infection risks were very low. So, after dinner, armed with a medical kit and fortified by a beer and three glasses of red, I went to work with sharp scissors, antiseptic spray and tissues puncturing, draining and cleaning. (No pictures included, it was pretty gross.) The results were perfect, meaning today I was able to ride 65k of the spectacularly beautiful Tarn Gorge pain free.

 

Even the Belgian tour guides who normally regard taking photos of the scenery as a sign of psychological weakness took some. (Unlike me they didn’t actually stop, just pulled the camera out and snapped while riding without even a slight break in pedalling cadence.) They are all very impressive riders. I’m not sure if it’s a general Belgian trait, but they tend to use questions as statements. For example, “Are we ready to ride?” is translated as, “We are leaving now, start pedalling.” “Who would like a coffee break?” means “We are having a coffee break.” “Who is doing the long ride instead of the short ride tomorrow?” means, “Go hard or go home.” It’s a great way to inspire mental toughness in those of us who don’t have it in naturally large quantities.

 

The Tarn Gorge had several villages along its route. Many of the houses are built into the side of the mountains so it’s difficult to tell what is natural and what is built. While ideally suited to cycling, motorbikes, or car trips broken up with plenty of stops would work as well. There are also a range of water activities from canoeing to climbing along the route. Tomorrow I’m having a crack at the forbidding Mt Ventoux, so an early night is definitely in order.

Edit: Off topic, but I’m gobsmacked at the stupid controversy over whether it’s right that the new Doctor Who is to be played by a female. (Jodie Whittaker) The Doctor is an alien from the planet Gallifrey. With two hearts. Who flies through time and space in a big blue box. As long as the storylines and writing are up to scratch (they’ve been shaky the past few years) I think it’s great. She was brilliant in Broadchurch. The only potential problem I can foresee is if she meets one of her previous or future incarnations and accidentally goes the pash or worse.

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Not a bad place for a rest stop!
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One of the beautuful scenes along the Tarn Gorge.
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Another vineyard
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Coco Caline the incredibly shite dancing panda.

Mont Ventoux

July 20, 2017

Today I completed one of my life goals, the 16km climb up the 1911 metre Mont Ventoux. Described by various cycling philosophers as a damned terrain, the spirit of dry, the essence of hell and a God of Evil to which sacrifices must be made, it was a nervous bus trip to the town of Malaucene where we began 12k warmup to the base of the climb at Bedoin.

Ventoux has been the place of many epic Tour de France stages, but is perhaps best known for the 1967 death of champion British cyclist Tom Simpson. In his era, performance enhancing drugs were a relatively new development in sport and were not banned. On the day of his final ride, Simpson was tired before the 211km stage began and consumed a combination of amphetamines and alcohol to ease the pain of exhaustion. A few kilometres from the finish he began weaving erratically across the road before slumping over his bars. He instructed his mechanic to give him a push to get him going again, but collapsed unconscious and died in a helicopter on the way to hospital. The combination of drugs and alcohol had allowed him to push his body to a point where he wasn’t able to recognise his level of exhaustion. Today there is a memorial at the spot where he died where riders can pay respects. I’ll try and add the YouTube footage of his last ride in the comments section.

The climb itself starts off in forest. Hundreds of years ago the whole of Mont Ventoux was forest, however the need for timber to build navy ships resulted in it being denuded of trees. Fortunately they have grown back on most of the mountain, however erosion at the top has prevented regrowth and given the last few kilometres a forbidding moonscape appearance. I wasn’t out to break any records and managed a steady pace, keeping up my fluid and food intake. The second half of the climb is not as steep and I was able to push the pace a bit and even get out of the granny gears a few times. At the Simpson memorial I took my Dad’s old orange cycling cap from my back pocket and took a photo of it on the memorial. (I didn’t leave it there, although people leave all kinds of tributes.) Dad was a champion cyclist in NZ as a youngster and used to wear the cap under his helmet when helmets consisted of a few strips of rubber foam that offered extremely minimal protection. Dad’s cycling these days is restricted to an indoor recumbent, however one of his cycling exploits when I was a kid involved a high speed descent on a rudimentary mountain bike with back pedal brakes down Mt Wellington, overtaking quite a few cars and a bus on the way. It was good to be able to honour him by riding the last section of the Mont wearing the cap.

Originally I had intended to catch the van back down, so didn’t really pay attention to the instructions for the descent. Our main guide told me how he had ended up in a tree on a Ventoux descent once and I’m not a great descender which convinced me. As I felt good and the road surface is quite smooth by Tassie standards, I changed my mind and decided to have a crack. After a few ks of descending, I spotted one of the guides riding up as tail end Charlie. He called out to me and I assumed he was just saying hi…. When I reached the bottom expecting to see the support van it wasn’t there. I consulted the map and noticed it said ‘Mont Ventoux loop.’ As I’d ridden down the same way I’d ridden up and there are three different routes, I became slightly concerned. I rang the team driver who informed me that I had indeed ridden down the wrong road and that the others were already back in Malaucene ordering lunch. I, on the other hand had another 12k of riding in front of me on what was a 30 degree day. He offered to collect me but as it was my fault, I had plenty of water and felt good I saddled up and kept riding. An added bonus was the beautiful scenery and the fact that I got to add an extra two mountain Cols to my day of riding. When I met the group I discovered that their descent had been horribly windy, one had been involved in a minor scrape with a car that slammed its brakes on for no reason and another had to stop because his front tyre started delaminating at high speed. It turned out my error had been a good choice.

 

 

Meeting Diablo

21 July 2017

I had a huge surprise one kilometre from our lunch stop half way up the Col du Glandon today. I saw a group of cyclists stopped and assumed it was the gendarmes putting an early halt to our attempt to ride the course. (It can be quite random as to when they decide to close the road. Vehicles are stopped the day before, bikes around three hours before the race but this can be earlier depending on the mood of the senior cop in charge of each section.) On closer inspection, the holdup was due to none other than Diablo. Anyone who has watched the Tour coverage on SBS over the past twenty years would have seen this guy on mountain stages running next to the riders as they ascend. He’s an icon of the event and was greatly missed last year when he was too unwell to attend. Whereas there are strict rules about where spectators can park their vans, Diablo is allowed to do pretty much whatever he likes. I joined the queue of adults behaving like kids waiting their turn to sit on Santa’s knee for my turn at a selfie with the great man. (I didn’t sit on his knee, just the photo.) if I’d known he was going to be there I’d have had a shave this morning and peeled the Coles Bay Half Ironman race number off the front of my helmet which has been there for 18 months.

 

At the pub one k up the road we had the option of either attempting to complete the last 10k to the summit of Glandon before the road was completely closed, then waiting for hours with no food or drink for the race to go past and the road to reopen at whatever random times the gendarmes felt like it, or alternatively stay at the pub which had a BBQ out the front. As we still had a ten k descent followed by a climb to the top of Alp d’Huez to our accommodation for the next three nights, it was an easy decision.

 

An added bonus was that by texting my brother I was able to tell him the exact spot I was standing and he was able to record me on Tele as the race went past. (Red jacket next to red cars.) I managed to take a few decent shots on the climb up the Alp d’Huez. This part of the Alps is much damper than the Pyrenees and therefore greener, although the climbs are just as tough.

Conquering the Alp D’Huez

Today’s ride gave us a chance to tackle the famous 21 switchback turns of the Alp D’Huez. The mountain has often featured in the Tour, although it’s not a favourite with cycling purists. As it’s a ski resort, the mountain has a lot of accommodation, so spectator numbers are often huge and unruly. It’s not unknown for riders to be knocked off or shoved by over enthusiastic (and drunk) spectators. To put it in cricketing terms, it’s like comparing one day or 20/20 cricket to Test matches. Imagine a one dayer at the MCG with a full house where the spectators had been in the ground for two days before the match started, the seats and railings removed and no alcohol restrictions and you’ve got the idea. The author Tim Moore described it as; “A squalid, manic and sometimes lethal shambles.” One year during the cleanup operation after the race, a dead spectator was discovered buried under piles of empty beer cans after he fell off the road and none of his mates noticed. (No memorial for him, not even a sculpture in the shape of a pile of empties.)

 

The actual record for the 13km climb is 36.40 held by Marco Pantani, another cycling great destroyed by the sport he loved. Pantani died of a cocaine overdose in a hotel room at the age of 34 after battling depression and a feud with cycling authorities and Lance Armstrong. (There is a Netflix doco on his life, well worth a look.) Obviously his record ride was completed with a bit of ‘extra assistance’, however it’s still an incredibly fast time.

 

As our accommodation was in the village of Ap D’Huez, so before attempting the famous climb we had to ride down the beautifully scenic but little known back route. This started with a short climb up the Col de Sarenne. (I’d always assumed Alp D’Huez was the actual summit, it actually keeps going up…) The climb took us past the local airport which has the most ridiculously short runway I’ve ever seen. Definitely not the place to have an aborted landing or takeoff.

 

In contrast to my ride here three years previously where it was bucketing rain at the bottom, my shoes filled with water and one of our group burst into tears before we even started, the conditions today were perfect. I’d been taking it fairly easy for most of the climbs so far, happy to just stay at the back of the group, make it to the summit and take a few shots on the way. As the bike leg of the long course triathlon Thursday finishes with a climb up the famous 21 switchback turns, I decided to have a decent crack and push as hard as I could. I started at the back and managed to overtake all of the group by half way, using the slightly flatter hairpin turns to ease off a bit before the next climb. As there was only one more day of riding after this there was no point leaving anything in the tank. I managed to reach the summit in 1.12, which I was happy with until I discovered our Belgian guide Ruben smashed everyone with 44 minutes. He did however fall asleep and start snoring loudly in the bar afterwards while we were all watching Le Tour on the tele. Combined with the fact that he’s 26 years younger than me, I’m counting it as a win under the Duckworth Lewis system.

 

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