Originally, this trip was never planned. Going to France to celebrate my 50th with friends was a last minute decision. Booking into another Bikestyle Tour was even more last minute. I’d barely ridden my bike in 12 months as I’d been concentrating on running. Tackling the French Alps and Pyrenees on bugger all training was always going to be a challenge, even without the debilitating effects of a tooth removal two weeks before the trip. As always though, I had a bloody good time, even though my times up the mountains were slower than last year.
Day One, French Alps. July 18th 2018
I’ve arrived in Auris d’Oisans to begin my Bikestyle tour. We were collected from Lyon airport, with only one stop on the way because one idiot left Australia for a cycling holiday without packing a helmet or gloves. In my defence, I actually didn’t see a bike shop for the entire week I’ve been in France. If only the French would build bike shops next to patisseries or cafes I would have been fine.
The ride today was an 11k descent from our hotel, then back up. The idea was j…ust to test our legs and make sure our bikes were set up properly. I’m pretty sure the guides also use it to work out who can ride hills and who will struggle. They use the same system as school excursions, with one at the front and one at the back. On previous tours the tail guide has on occasion had to physically push riders up with one hand on the back. I’ve been worrying how I’d go due to my lack of riding and illness, but I got through ok. I’ve always been a muppet at descending and reached the bottom after the rest of the group. Fortunately I’m better at riding uphill than down, and was able to sit in about the middle of the group without too much trouble.
Tomorrow is a big day with a 76k or 97k option, including the famous Alp D’Huez. When we drove past today, the course was already lined with campers staking out their territory for when Le Tour goes past in two days. Different nationalities take their own corners on the 21 switchbacks, with Dutch corner being the biggest party. They consume massive amounts of alcohol, have music blaring and are happy to spray water on riders if it’s a hot day. Or if it’s a cold day and they’re bored.
Alp D’Huez, 19th July 2018
Our first big ride of the tour today was Alp D’Huez. I was last here 12 months ago in my near disastrous triathlon. After dawdling at the aid stations and making a wrong turn, I was DQ’d by an overly aggressive technical official at the end of the bike leg before sneaking onto the run anyway and beating the run time limit to earn my finisher medal. The medal is safely at home in my Huon Pine 25 year teaching service box where Henri L’Bastarde can’t get it.
Today wa…s a more relaxed affair, tackling the 21 switchback turns over 13k the day before the Tour de France goes through. Cycling purists regard this stage in much the same way as Test Cricket fans regard 20/20 matches: drunken unruly spectators camping for days by the side of the road in national groups before running next to the riders, throwing water (and other bodily fluids) on them and behaving in much the same way as cricket fans would if they weren’t restricted to low strength alcohol beer and had to camp at the ground for up to a week before watching a match that only lasted for a few minutes. Several years ago, a German fan fell off the mountain and died. His mates didn’t realise, and he was found several days later buried under a pile of beer cans. I’d like to think it was how he wanted it to go, but I doubt it.
Because we rode early, the roadside parties weren’t in full swing. The famous Dutch Corner only had a solitary dancer complete with durry and crocs, although they had their traditional folk music pumping in attempt to drown out the Belgian techno up the road. At the summit, I posed for the compulsory finish line photo, before beginning what I assumed would be a leisurely ride back down. Unfortunately, I hadn’t really read the pre ride briefing notes and map properly and was wrong. After a short descent over the back of Alp D’Huez, we were faced with a fairly hot and brutal climb to the summit of Col De Sarenne. At 12%, it was a very tough slog after already doing one summit. It wasn’t until I finally reached the bottom of the steep bumpy descent and saw cows with their cowbells that I realised I’d done this climb last year, and had forgotten to buy a little tombstone souvenir road marker. I didn’t make the same mistake twice, and I was nearly late back to the bus in my determination to find one and add it to my kitchen cabinet display. The bloke whose bike was chained to mine had just finished a fairly long lunch of a burger, chips and beer and wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of a hot 20k uphill ride to the chalet because of my urge for a spot of shopping. #bikestyletours
Cole du Lautaret and Col du Galabier. July 19th 2018
After feeling fairly ordinary for my first three rides, I made the sensible decision yesterday to watch the Alp D’Huez stage finish on tele rather than stand in the sun for four hours mingling with angry Frenchmen setting off flares, booing Sky Team and attempting to punch Chris Froome. As today was a climb to the Col du Lautaret followed by another climb to the top of the 2600m Col du Galabier, it was a sensible decision. As one of the highest roads in Europe, it demands respect.
I felt great right from the start today, and was able to be the leader of the slow group and arrive first at our initial stop at Col du Lautaret. My ambition is to progress from fastest climber in the slow group to slowest rider in the fast group by the end of the tour. It’s important to set high goals in life. My descending is still slow and cautious, but after listening to the quick guys discussing their overtaking moves on camper vans at 60kph plus, I’m happy to arrive at the bottom of descents in one piece. My Dad once overtook a bus descending Mt Wellington, but I’m not in his league as a cyclist. The ride to Galabier was another 8k of climbing, and even in summer there were patches of snow. The ride wasn’t especially steep until the last 500m, but it was narrow and quite exposed. Because of the altitude the air was a bit thinner and although my legs felt great I had to back off a bit because I was starting to overbreathe a bit to compensate for the lack of oxygen. There were a few people walking their bikes up and one who stalled and toppled into the gutter. He got up ok and started walking.
Near the summit, there is a monument to the founder of the Tour de France, Henri Destrange. He was actually a newspaper owner who thought that organising a bike race around the country might be an effective way to increase circulation. This is in direct contrast to modern newspaper owners who try to increase circulation by demanding cyclists pay registration fees and carry number plates.
After queuing up with motorcyclists and people who rode up on electric bikes to get a photo of myself in front of the summit marker (I incorrectly thought the red and white cross of the Savoie region signified that I was in Switzerland) I rolled back down to the cafe at Lautaret, then mistakenly interpreted the instructions from the guide to get a quick coffee as “Order a massive burger, chips and salad. And make sure the burger has an egg on top for good measure.” Fortunately, it turned out to be a wise decision, as the meals at the cafe where the rest of the group had lunch an hour later were nowhere near the standard set by my burger. I was able to smugly drink hot chocolates while they decried the lack of chips on the menu.
Tomorrow we move from the French Alps to the Pyrenees. It’s about a five hour drive which will be broken up with a 50k ride at half way. Fortunately, we have an excellent bus driver, despite the 80s pop music he plays over the speakers. The tour group consists of thirteen blokes, with the guides, mechanic and driver also blokes. That makes 17 blokes. They’re all good blokes, but the conversations do get very blokey. Today, when Total Eclipse of the Heart came on, I almost interrupted a blokey conversation about the shipping and construction industries by blurting out that in Grade 9 I’d done a movement routine to the song in drama. Fortunately I restrained myself.
July 20th: Moving Day
Today was a transport day, moving from the French Alps towards the Pyrenees. As usual, the driver was on form with his music selection, which included some Bros and Belinda Carlisle. Thankfully, we got to watch Le Tour on the bus tele before Rick Astley got a run. To break up the drive, we stopped in the beautiful town of Saint Nazaire en Royans and rode 30k on some of the roads Le Tour went through yesterday. Some of the roadside architecture the locals built for the race tv coverage was still on display.
During lunch, we had another example of the relaxed French attitude towards OH&S issues. The seats for the cafe where we had lunch were across the road from the actual cafe itself. This means that the waitress gets to spend her working day crossing a fairly busy road carrying plates of food and drinks. No high vis vest, no special crossing, just lots of scurrying. To complicate her life, the roundabout near the restaurant actually has arrows pointing in opposite directions on one side, which I would think negates the entire purpose of having a roundabout in the first place. She also has to negotiate the ever present durry smokers loitering outside the shop, which would cancel out any fitness gains from the miles she walks each day.
When the race route for Le Tour is decided, the 22 race teams get notified first so they can have first dibs on accommodation. With around thirty in each team, including riders, masseurs, doctors, chefs and asthma medication specialists in the case of Team Sky, that puts a lot of pressure on nearby accommodation, even before tour companies get a crack. For that reason, our hotel for the first few nights can best be described as basic, with very small, crowded rooms. It was basically a ski lodge, although the food was amazing. Now that we’ve moved away from the race route to Provence for our assault in the morning on the fearsome 22km climb of Mt Ventoux, we’ve landed in absolute luxury. The hotel has a pool. And it’s own vineyard. Yep. And they offer tastings for guests in the afternoons.
An added and unexpected bonus for me is the fact that accommodation on Bikestyle tours is strictly twin share unless you’re willing to pay a single supplement, which from memory was shitloads. On my two previous bike tours, everyone has been assigned a roommate and it’s been fine. This time however, there are 13 in the group. I made a very late decision to book the tour, and as a result have been given my own room. While the other blokes have been complaining about the lack of personal space and making blokey jokes about the housekeepers moving their beds close together during their daily rounds, I’ve been free to spread my clothes, shoes and assorted junk wherever I feel like. Anyone who has shared a house or classroom with me will know what this looks like. When the discussion at breakfast or dinner moves onto annoying personal habits of each other’s roommates, I keep very quiet and stare intently at my phone.
Tomorrow will possibly be our hardest day in the saddle. Ventoux in summer is usually hot and windy. Last year I made the unfortunate mistake of descending the wrong route, despite the best efforts of one of the guides to get me to stop as he rode up. I thought he was just waving to me. Tomorrow I’ll make sure I read the course maps properly so as not to have to complete a bonus 25k while the rest of the group are having lunch.
July 23 2018
Although the mountains in the French Alps are incredibly impressive, the sheer number and size of them makes it hard to identify individual peaks until you’re actually on them. Mount Ventoux, aka The Beast of Provence is the opposite. From 100ks away, it’s a forbidding sight with the white rocky summit and huge mast sticking out of the top. It just looks like something that isn’t really meant to be there, and over the years quite a few riders have wished it wasn’t.
We started our assault with a 30k warmup on flat roads before beginning the 22 km climb. The lower slopes are the steepest with some sections going over 10% gradient. Fortunately, as soon as you pass the beautiful vineyards near the bottom, it becomes heavily forested and offers good shade. Although I found it tricky to stay with the group on the flat, riding up really steep hills uses similar muscles to running and it becomes more about aerobic capacity than leg strength so I was able to once again work my way to the front of the slow group.
The 6k to go mark is when the moonscape begins. The entire mountain used to be forested, but the need for sailing ships for the French Navy during the Napoleonic era meant that the entire mountain had to be logged and turned into warships so the English Navy could sink them. The lower slopes have grown back but the top never will, unless somebody discovers a way to grow plants from rocks.
I did a stop at the Tom Simpson memorial 1k from the summit for a picture. Tom was a champion British cyclist of the 1960s. His biography is titled ‘Put Me Back on the Bike’, which was the last thing he said before dying of a combination of exhaustion, amphetamines and alcohol. In the era before sophisticated government sponsored East German and American drug cheating, drug taking was legal and accepted. Unfortunately, it was also often deadly because they followed a more is better philosophy. Despite being choppered off the mountain, the drug/ alcohol cocktail had allowed Simpson to push his body to the point where his organs failed, and he died on the way to hospital.
Vent means wind in French, and on the descent it did get rather blowy, so I was glad we started early. The force of the winds means the road to the top is often closed and I’m fortunate to have been lucky enough to make it up both times I’ve started. At the bottom, we found a great cafe where I managed to break another glass, squirt prawn juice over my clean tee shirt and again order the wrong type of coffee. Tomorrow I’ll remember to ask for a cafe au lait grande which means a big coffee with milk. Not a cafe au lait, which is served in a thimble sized cup or an expresso which I need to wash down with a glass of water because of the vile taste.
July 24 2018
Today was intended as a recovery day, with a 65km small chain ring whole group recovery ride followed by a five hour bus transfer to the Pyrenees. While I find riding up mountains at my own pace quite therapeutic, I’ve never been a big fan of bunch riding. I find having to stay close to the wheel of the rider in front with another rider right next to me and another right behind quite stressful. The ‘recovery’ ride turned into a high speed train, with a guide at the front and one at the back. At one stage our speed on a flat section with a tailwind hit 55kph. This is faster than I’d normally ride downhill before hitting the brakes. I started drifting back from the rider in front. This was when I felt a gentle but firm hand in the back from the tour leader, with an instruction delivered in a thick Belgian accent to “Stay on zee wheel Rhod.” I stayed on zee wheel.
Once again, I hadn’t had a close read of the daily ride notes and completely missed the bit about visiting the 2000+ year old Roman Aqueduct at Pont du Guard. At the conclusion of the ride, our guide Eric mentioned something about having a swim in the river if we wanted to. As I was hot and tired, I was bang up for this and keen to jump in wearing my bike kit. I envisioned something like the old Campbell Town swimming pool where I grew up, which was a section of riverbank concreted. (Not the one next to the highway, that was built after I left.) I was therefore surprised when I saw two army trucks with assault rifle carrying troops and numerous cops with guns wandering around. Even if I had been expecting to see the Aqueduct, I would have been amazed. It is bloody impressive. The Life of Brian jokes began immediately. The idea that something built over 2000 years ago to channel water over 45 kms to irrigate farms could still be standing is quite incredible. It’s survived the collapse of the Roman Empire, multiple invasions, neglect, partial dismantlement to allow cannons to be transported and even vehicles being allowed to drive on the lower structure. These days it’s very well preserved and protected. As a swimming location, it’s perfect.
At the conclusion of our five hour bus trip, it was time for another hotel check in. Once again, I was wondering if I’d be lucky enough to get my own room for the third town in succession. When the receptionist began calling names out, she called out Rod Spar. As there is one Rod, two Robs and a Robert on the tour, I assumed I’d be sharing with one of them. When the rest of the group had all gone up to their rooms, I had a close look at the room ticket. The instructions from Bikestyle that one bed in the room was for Rod and the other was spare was misinterpreted by the hotel as my name being either Rod Spare or Spare Rod, depending on how you view the ticket.
Finally, an observation on French village life. During this tour, we’ve passed through many small and beautiful villages. One thing they all have in common is that the local tabac/ coffee shop always has a small group of blokes standing or sitting outside. Not talking, not eating, just staring at passers by while smoking the occasional durry. I managed to get a shot of two groups today. I’d love to know what the job description and application process is to become one of these blokes, and also what the pay is like. As they are always present and performing their important duties no matter where the town is, I imagine the hours must be quite long although the actual work itself would be quite undemanding. Unless they have some sort of interchange system system, with one group taking the early morning staring at people going to work/ buying breakfast baguette shift and the next group taking the more demanding staring at tourists looking desperately for a shop that is open to buy lunch in shift.
Beating Le Time Cut on Le Tour Course
July 25 2018
Yesterday, I had the privilege of riding on the Tour course before the race came through, including a Category 2 climb. It’s the cycling equivalent of being allowed onto the ground before an AFL match and have one of the players pulverise you as part of their warmup. The plan was to ride to within 4K of one of the summits on the race course then settle in at the Bikestyle marquee they had parked there three days ago and stocked with food and drink and a tele to watch the race. The only complication was the need to get there fairly quickly, as the police can be a little arbitrary as to when they close the road. Once they close it, you stay where you are, even if that’s a long way from where you were intending to be.
It was a hot day, and the climb was very steep. I was riding with four others in the slow group, and thought another of our group called Chris was behind us. Ten minutes later, I looked back and couldn’t see Chris. I alerted the guide that Chris had dropped off the back. He asked me if I was sure, and I replied yes. He told us to keep riding and went back to look for him. One of the other guys asked me who the f$&k Chris was. Then I realised Chris was actually still in the group, and that his name obviously wasn’t Chris. It was either one of the two Rob’s, or possibly Bob. I’m really bad with names. I began yelling for the guide to come back, but he’d already disappeared down the mountain looking for the imaginary Chris.
When we reached the half way point of the ride, I stopped for a photo of the King of the Mountains sprint banner. The guide, probably not terribly impressed that he’d wasted time looking for my imaginary friend Chris, told me to get a move on, “Because zee police are closing zee road Rhod.” There’s nothing like a disapproving guide and the prospect of spending five hours in the sun with no food, water or shade to make the legs work a bit harder. After reaching the bottom of a really steep descent well at the back of the slow group, I pushed extra hard and made my way up to second last in the fast group, which is my PB for the trip. And I made it to the marquee in time, which was a bonus.
An hour before the race goes through, they have the pre race caravan. It consists of sponsor floats who throw stuff into the crowd. The aim is to find a position where lots of stuff will get thrown but there aren’t too many people. You have to be prepared to go in hard for the good stuff, such a the Haribo lollies or packets of laundry detergent. I’d ridden up with a pair of thongs in my jersey pocket, as they are better for running in than bike shoes. To be honest, this year wasn’t my best effort. I scored two pens, a small clementine cake, a few fridge magnets, a badge with a picture of an orange, a car sunshade (very handy on a cycling holiday) a cup and two lanyards. Through some hard nosed bargaining, I was able to swap some magnets for a couple of key rings.
Before the riders went past, we saw the horrendous crash of one of the riders flipping over a wall after losing control on a descent at over 80kph. After he emerged and kept riding, we all made sure he got an extra loud cheer when he rode past us looking extremely banged up. This really brought home what a brutal and dangerous sport professional cycling is. I’d gone down the same climb at snail pace earlier in the day. It was incredibly steep, and I couldn’t conceive of how anyone could be brave enough to race down flat out. A few years ago, a racer except lost his life on the same descent after hitting a bollard. Professional cyclists earn a fraction of what elite footballers or tennis players earn for massively increased risks. Broken bones, gravel rash and severe bruising are an inevitable part of their lives. They race for up to eighty days a year, sharing budget hotel rooms with teammates and living on the road. The elite female cyclists take the same risks and earn nowhere near what the elite men earn. It’s a bloody hard sport, and I’m in awe of what they do. You can see the pain on their faces when they ride past, and even though most are only in their 20s, they age fast.
Finally, a tip for boiling eggs at high altitude. Our hotel is at around 2200 metres. At breakfast, they have eggs set out in a basket, with a tub of boiling water so you can boil your own. I left mine in for ten minutes, and as you can see from the picture of my egg cooking fail, eggs take longer to boil at altitude. I’ll try again tomorrow and post the results.
27th July 2018: Port Du Bales and Annoying Goats
I’ve been setting my alarm for 6.40 each day to head down to breakfast, and was surprised when it went off at 6.00 today. I soon realised however, that it was goats with bells outside my window. Although Saint-Lary-Soulan is a busy ski resort in winter, in summer it’s a lot quieter and the goats do some free range foraging around the village during the night, which explains the number of goat droppings all over the road. Fortunately, my room is on the first floor so they can’…t eat my lycra.
Our second last ride today was the hardest and most rewarding of the trip, consisting of a 15k warmup followed by two regular Tour de France climbs, a 19k climb up Port de Bales, then a descent followed by a 6k climb up the Col du Peyresourde. While some of the other climbs I’ve done this tour seem to be as popular with motorbikes, camper vans and sports cars as bikes, the climbs today were largely largely traffic free until I once again heard bells. This time it was cows grazing happily by the roadside and not all that keen on moving. Fortunately the riders in front coaxed them off the road and they were placid enough to pose for some photos.
The average gradient of Port du Bales is 6.5%. Unfortunately, the first few kilometres are only around 2-3%, so the higher you go the steeper it gets. Once a climb hits 9-10% it’s just a matter of spinning the legs in the easiest gear and sucking down plenty of water. Riding up steep climbs is an effective although painful way of learning about percentages, angles and temperature as it maxed out at a touch over 40 degrees on the last climb.
At the top of the first climb, I managed to arrive not far behind the quicker riders, so one of the guides decided to give me a masterclass in descending. It’s something I need to work on, so today he rode down right behind me and I wasn’t allowed to put my brakes on until he told me to. I got to the bottom much quicker, and as a result was able to again stay with some of the faster riders up the last climb. I was pretty exhausted at the summit, and was fairly pissed off that the shop only sold crepes and not the miniature roadside markers I’ve been collecting for my kitchen. I smashed 5 crepes anyway. Because we were later than expected getting to the finish of the ride, we had to do a supermarket shop for lunch. Rather than pre made sandwiches, I attempted to construct a baguette on the bus out of a huge chunk of bread, a whole Camembert wheel and a punnet of tomatoes. It was too difficult with the bus bouncing around corners and my fatigued state, so I just ate it as a deconstruction one bite of each ingredient at a time.
July 28: Col Du Tourmalet
The good thing about cycling a famous climb on the day Le Tour goes through is that spectators are already lining the route and are happy to cheer on anyone on a bike. The more you look like you’re trying, the louder they cheer. One poor bloke who had hit the wall and been reduced to walking was given a good old fashioned spray by the crowd. The downside is that the Gendarmes can be notoriously fickle as to when they decide to close the road and make everyone either stay where they are or travel on foot. Last year after a road closure, I made the unfortunate decision to walk barefoot rather than in my bike shoes and paid the price with a horrible blister on my foot that necessitated a day off the bike moping around the hotel watching French daytime television.
All up, today was an 80km day with two big climbs, the second of which was the Col du Tourmalet. Whereas yesterday we had cows on the road to contend with, today it was donkeys. Or asses, or mules. I never learnt the difference. They weren’t too keen on moving for anyone. Bikes were able to slip through, although I was wary of getting kicked as that would have been a sad way to finish the trip.
As a rule, on race day the Gendarmes close the road to cars first then bikes, then pedestrians. Once the motorbike coppers and official vehicles with sirens start flying past, it’s a sign that you need to get a serious hurry on. Fortunately, as awesome as the French are, they tend to be a little ad hoc in their organisation. As a keen student of history, I learnt that in the Second World War, the French built a magnificent line of fortifications called the Maginot Line along their border with Germany, which the Germans simply went around by attacking through Belgium. One kilometre from the summit, I was able to use a similar tactic. While the Gendarme was instructing the rider in front of me to get off and walk, I went round the outside of him while he was arguing the point. The actual summit was total chaos, with hordes of riders approaching from either side of the climb attempting to sneak past the coppers who seemed to have a fairly random approach as to who was or wasn’t going to be allowed through. Fortunately, one of the tour guides spotted me and told me to go as hard as I could, as the descent was 19km and our hotel was at the base. Although Gendarmes are positioned every 1k of the course, I got to within 3k of the hotel before one of them pointed to a caravan park to pull into. (Poor quality GoPro photo included as the hotel wifi is too weak to allow me to download it properly.) I waved compliantly, indicated left to pull in and kept pedalling. I was the last one of our group who made it to the finish without being pulled over and made to stop and walk. Well aware of my slow descending skills, the guides had been making bets on whether I’d make it.
After a hotel check in and shower, I had another crack at collecting loot from the pre race caravan parade. Although the quantity of my loot was down on three days ago, the quality was up, so I’m declaring it a win under the Duckworth Lewis/ seasonally adjusted terms rule. Although the French are fantastic at football as evidenced by their World Cup win, their overhead marking skills are pitiful. The crowds were much bigger than the other day, so I positioned myself at the back and collected the crumbs. The result: A Tour de France Donald Duck comic, a slap band and a much sought after pack of Haribo Spicy Pik lollies. All were crumbed from the ground Brett Allison style, and will be up for grabs as class prizes when I get back to Tassie. I thought briefly about giving them to a young kid in the crowd until he had a massive tantrum and kicked his dad in the leg after being restrained from running onto the road to retrieve a fridge magnet he’d dropped.
Thanks to everyone who has been following my travel blog. I’ve had an amazing time, and it’s been great to have had some much positive feedback from my daily collection of random thoughts. I’m extremely lucky to have been gifted a strong Vo2 max from my parents that has allowed me to ride some of the most amazing climbs in France with very little bike training. I’m heading to Bordeaux tomorrow for three days of rest, so this may be my final post, unless I find something interesting or exciting to do like an extreme wine tasting course.