Travelling the world on bike and foot at a very average speed
I'm a primary school teacher who dabbles in triathlon and running. I spend far too much time cycling and running in Europe and having a wonderful when I should be paying off my house.
Cadbury Half Marathon
January 13th 2019
This was my fourth go at the Cadbury Half. In terms of numbers, it’s a popular event. It’s also very well organised and combines a marathon, half marathon, 10k, 5k and 1k kids race in one day. It’s always well supported by locals with a large number of interstate and a few overseas runners as well. It also doubles as the State marathon championship.
It’s fair to say that for the locals, it’s nobodies favourite event but one which everyone seems to do. Maybe it’s the post new year celebration lethargy, but most likely the course itself. Yes, it’s flat and fast apart from the hill at the end, but given the beautiful scenery we have in Tassie, it’s pretty much a tour of the boring bits of Hobart. This isn’t a criticism as in terms of logistics, the race is right where it needs to be. (I did the Botany Bay Trail run in Kurnell National Park a couple of years ago and couldn’t believe a National Park could be so ugly. Plus the course could barely be considered a trail, more just a run along beaches with the occasional sand dune thrown in.)
The start finish area is the Cadbury Factory in Claremont on the northern edge of town, and yes you do get some chocolates in your finisher bag to go with the medal. The full marathon starts at 6am with two laps of the housing estate. The half goes at 6.30 and does one lap before heading out into the burbs. The course is mostly flat and fast and goes through the suburb of Claremont before heading onto the Brooker Highway, past the Derwent Entertainment Centre before heading across the Derwent River via the Bowen Bridge, turning 400m past the end of the bridge then returning via the same route. A bonus for the half marathon runners is that you get to watch and cheer on the marathon runners as they head back to complete their first lap and also as they begin lap two.
My previous best in the half was 1.29.30 a couple of years ago. The 1.30 pace runner cleverly gave us a minute in the bank until the 20k mark as the last kilometre means running a 400m hill before the finish chute which causes average speeds to drop considerably. This year I knew 1.30 was unrealistic but managed to average 4.20 per kilometre for most of the race. I’ve had achilles problems on an off for a couple of years now, but fortunately they were behaving themselves today.
My biggest problem this year was courtesy of my new Adidas shorts. They are super comfy and light, but for some strange reason have pockets in the front where they would be on jeans. I had a gel in each one. They both fell out in the first kilometer. Fortunately, a spectator saw one of them bounce out and chased me down, so at least I had one to get me through which was enough. The usual fatigue kicked in around 15k, and I used my usual mental strategy of comparing the distance remaining to the distances I’d be covering on my normal training runs. When I hit 16k, I tell myself that I only have a Parkrun to go. This strategy works for me in all races except for the brutal Point to Pinnacle which has become the bane of my running life in recent years.
I was happy with 1.33. This time last year I wasn’t able to run at all and it wasn’t until April that I was regaining any sort of run fitness at all, so I’m ahead of schedule training wise.
I’m an interstate runner. Should I do the Cadbury Half or Full?
I’d say yes. Ok, the course isn’t particularly scenic but you do get water views. It’s a very easy race to access, being only 15 minutes from the CBD. They provide bus transport to and from there. In any case, Tassie has plenty of beautiful scenery which you can visit after the race. If you’re after a good time, the fast and flat course will help. The early start time usually means not much wind either.
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.
My transport for the next two weeks. It’s a Cannondale Supersix Evo, brand new and with Di2 electronic shifting. It doesn’t make you ride any faster but it’s much less effort to change gears.
Not a bad view from a bedroom window.
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
A big night out means a big fruit flan the next morning for the boys on Dutch Corner
The top of Col De Sarenne. I rode this last year at the beginning of the ride. After already climbing the 21 turns of Alp D’Huez it was more debilitating than I expected.
The Dutch Corner Dancing Ensemble were too tired to perform their usual routine so employed a relief dancer wearing Crocs and holding a durry while they slept.
Another tombstone for my kitchen wall cabinet display. I buy one of these for every climb I complete. A bit like McDonalds plastic toys only for bike freaks.
In the leadup to Le Tour going through, every bit of available space is taken for camping. Even the local cemetary.
Just a bit of showing off.
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.
On the way up, I thought the building below me was the summit. It wasn’t.
Middle of summer and there is still a bit of snow. The cows don’t mind.
At 2642 metres it gets pretty chilly even with the sun out, so after a few shots it was time for a fast roll down.
A hard earned hunger deserves a big burger. and the best big burgers are at the Col du Lautaret.
I’ve ridden quite a few tunnels in France, but fortunately not this one.
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.
The houses are beautiful but not sure if I’d trust the balcony.
The village behind the vineyard in our hotel is only 500m away. It’s said to be one of the most beautiful in France. I was so tired I’ll just have to take their word for it.
An example of the lengths towns will to to to get on tele during Le Tour coverage.
The waitress in saint Nazaire on her daily life of danger delivering food while dodging traffic. If there was such a thing as Extreme Sport waitressing, she’d be favourite for gold.
Bros and Belinda Carlisle were on high rotation in the team bus.
The hills in this region of France were a popular hiding place for the French Resistence in WW2. The mountains are steep, heavily forested and contain lots of tunnels and caves. as Monty Python would say, they realised The Importance of Not Being Seen.
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.
The final marker before the summit, where the vegetation has given way to rocks.
looking up to the summit.
The Tom simpson Memorial. I’m not sure why people leave plastic bottles here. The winds here are crazy and most of the stuff would get blown away. The bike is mine, not a tribute left by a lazy rich person who comked out before the finish.
The Douglas Adams series The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy had The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Mount Ventoux has The Mr Lolly Shop at the end of the massive climb. I didn’t see any riders buying any, you need energy to get up not down. According to our guide, if Mr Lolly isn’t there, you shouldn’t be either because you’re about to get blown off the top.
Obligitory posed shot at the summit.
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.
‘What have the Romans ever done for us? Nothing, apart from the aqueduct, wine, being safe to walk the streets, education and peace.
Bros and Belinda Carlisle were on high rotation in the team bus.
The Pont do gard swimming hole. Once again, despite large numbers of soldiers, security guards and coppers there were no actal lifeguards.
Mynew French name. Time to get my passport updated.
A couple of French blokes staring into space. every French town has them. These two were on the afternoon 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.
Mickey Mouse throwing out comics. I didn’t get one.
the finish of a King of the Mountain stage.
I didn’t get any water either.
And I didn’t score a chicken.
My substandard collection of loot.
One of Le Tour riders joking with a guide. ‘Did they go this way?’
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.
The cows obstructing the road. as I’ve eaten my fair share of French meat, it’s only fair that I was held up.
The annoying goats that woke me up.
The beautiful town of Port du Bales. the only disadvantage of a guided tour is that you don’t get much of a chance to stop and explore.
Donkeys. (I think)
My deconstructed cheese and tomato picnic I ate on the bus.
My new favourite tv show, N’oubliez pas les paroles. It’s basically an hour long karaoke show where people get to sing along to the studio band. If you stuff the lyrics up, you’re out. They also have random people dancing in the background, as well as backing vocalists. It comes on straight after Le Tour finishes each day and is a great way to veg out after a ride. It’s way better than Coco the Panda which I got stuck with last year.
These signs tell you how far it is to the summit and what the gradient is. 9% means it’s going to hurt.
Another meeting with Diablo, a legend of Le Tour. I didn’t have time for a selfie with him this year.
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.
1k from the summit, I took this shot of Johanne, one of our guides. A week before our tour, he participated in a downhill MTB race that started at the top of a glacier and went to the bottom of the hill. He hit 100kph and has qualified for the final. Because the riders all start at once, getting to the finish without crashing is considered a major achievement.
The donkeys of Hourquete d’Ancizan. Unregistered, holding up traffic and not wearing hi vis.
Indecisive French Gendarmes. The bloke on the left had tried to stop a rider, who promptly gave him a mouthful and kept riding. Earlier in the ride, I spotted one of their female colleagues blissfully not doing her job while chatting on her phone and smoking a durry.
Obligatory shot of the race going through. They’d already ridden up Tourmalet and had two more big climbs to go. This is my third Tour de France where I’ve ridden the big climbs and watched the race, and I’m totally in awe of these riders.
The pre race parade, with the locals demonstrating a lack of preparedness to go for the overhead pack park.
My collection of loot. Lacking in quantity but up in quality. The Haribo lollies are the number one item, apart from packets of laundry detergent which are keen sought by tourists.
I’m generally a law abiding person. unfortunately, if I’d stopped and pulled over when the gendarme told me to, I’d have had to wait for several hours in the sun with no food or water. I was only a couple of ks away from my hotel, so I fought the law and I won.
Flying with debilitating tooth pain: not recommended.
Getting from Tassie to France takes roughly 40 hours. I made a poor start, leaving the folder with all my travel documents on the table where I’d put it so I wouldn’t forget it. (Thanks for the mercy dash Mum) Still feeling the effects of a slowly healing dry socket, it seemed longer than 40 hours to the the point where if I’d had a TARDIS I’d have zapped myself back home to the couch. Long haul flights and dental pain is not a great combination. My brand new Lulu Lemon tracky dacks which had been awesomely comfortable on the plane were not so awesome when it came to sitting in sweltering train stations hoping the French train strike was finished. I was tempted to get changed on the platform, but having learnt from bitter experience last year that the French do take their dress standards seriously, I decided not to tempt fate by risking partial nudity. Fortunately the train strike was finished, and when I arrived in Blois my nursing travel buddies Jenna Chiffey-Gray and Stuart Debnam were able to revive me with the contents of their well stocked pharmacy. I felt better than Chris Froome after a few squirts of his asthma puffer. After an evening picnic of a couple of glasses of very drinkable €3 a bottle wine and some equally cheap but impressive cheese, I’m actually not especially tired despite having had zero sleep since leaving Tassie. The fact that it’s 10.00pm and still light probably has something to do with that.
French wine: It has medicinal properties which cure toothache
The psychadelic stairs of Blois
Picnicing in Blois
I had to work hard to get this shot
France Day Two: The Unfortunate Smashed Light and Freaky Death House
Last night, I had the option of sleeping upstairs in a sweltering room on a comfortable mattress or downstairs where it was cooler on an uncomfortable couch. I chose a third option, dragging the comfortable mattress downstairs in a semi inebriated and jet lagged state. Unfortunately, in the process of doing this I rearranged the furniture so it would fit and knocked over a lamp which smashed on the floor. Stu… reasoned that the best course of action this morning was for me to play the role of a clumsy imbecile who accidentally kicked the lamp over in my sleep. He mimed this to the owner while I nodded and grinned stupidly. Fortunately, he bought the explanation although the only time he’d previously seen me was the night before cheerily waving a wine bottle at him as I wandered past his game of boles.
Today, we had a 600k drive to Provence. To break up the drive, we decided to stop at a park half way. The Garmin in the car suggested one. The road soon turned into an overgrown goat track. As it was impossible to reverse all the way down, we continued until we came to an abandoned three storey mansion. It was in quite a scenic position on a hill and not all that far from the nearest town, but it did have a slightly disturbing feel to it. We still had our picnic and a bit of a snoop around inside, but have pretty much lost faith in the Garmin as a tourist guide. It would make a great location for a zombie movie but I wouldn’t place it on a list of top things to do in France.
Me contemplating the wiedom of continuing up the ‘road’.
Bottoming out the Mercedes rental car
The freaky death house at the end of the road
Watching the World Cup Semi Final
Until tonight, the worst thing that has ever happened in the town of Cabrieres was the 1545 massacre of the entire population by papal mercenaries for delivering a batch of substandard wine and being heretics.* Tonight, this tragic event was almost surpassed when the restaurant tv reception dropped out 15 minutes before the France/ Belgium kickoff. We made the decision to eat out after I wasted an hour today trying to get Le Tour on our B&B set.
Thankfully, disaster was aver…ted by an English tourist hot spotting the game on his phone for us. The entire staff seem to be watching the match, so I’m not sure who cooked the amazing food. The owners’ 13 year old daughter is the only one not glued to the screen, so maybe she cooked as well. The scallops were even better than the ones I used to have on a Thursday night at the Nubeena RSL.
Fun fact about the town: All of the buildings are made of layered stone set into concrete. This is possibly so that in the event of the locals deciding to ignore another Papal decree or ferment another batch of faulty wine, they can go into doomsday prepper mode, stock up on tinned food and wait out the attack in traditional French style.
The Amazing Castle of Buoux
Today we intended to make a short detour on our way to Aix-en Provence consisting of a short walk in the town of Buoux, followed by a coffee and croissant. We spotted a sign that said Fort Buoux and assumed it must be close to the town. After an hour of not finding it, we gave up and discovered we would need to drive. Our intended 30 minute walk turned into an epic historical mystery tour.
I’ve seen loads of castles, from tiny ones in the Scottish Highland to massive English …defensive structures and beautiful French chateaus. Today pretty much topped them all. At the base were Neolithic caves and burial grounds carved out of the cliff side. The actual 13th Century castle was at the top of a long climb with cliffs on three sides and is spread over roughly 800m. It took over 40 minutes to discover most of it. Although it was ordered destroyed by King Louis the Somethingth, there are loads of battlements, ditches, towers and remnants of the old village to explore. Attacking would have been pretty much impossible as the only way up is steep and covered fortifications. We were tired just walking it.
What was surprising was that apart from warning signs reminding people not to go near the cliff edges or climb on top of unstable structures, there were no safety barriers, railings or fenced off areas. The French have an incredibly relaxed attitude towards OH&S compared to Australia. You’re free to make your own decisions regarding personal safety, as long as you’re happy to accept the consequences of making bad ones. Overall, I suspect they have higher levels of health and fitness compared to Australians, despite the inevitable odd person falling off unstable castle walls and their cheese based diet. My diet today consisted of muesli tipped into a bottle of warm milk in the car because I’d neglected to make myself a salad roll before leaving the house. I think the French would approve of my poor decision making.
The castle ruins extend for over a kilometre
These were storage holes but would have made handy prison cells as well
My lunch of champions
Today we made the most of the beautiful weather and flat conditions to explore the coastline in a 20k kayak trip. Jenna and myself shared a sit on kayak/ ski thing while Stu made the trip on a stand up paddle board. During the pre trip briefing, the relaxed French attitude towards OH&S was again apparent. “When you meet a big boat, even if you ave right of way, zey will not respect you, so be careful.” Basically they show you a map, tell you which bits to be careful in and let you go for it. The company do have rescue boats to come and collect people unable to complete the return trip, and judging by the lack of paddling technique in a few of the boats I’d say they would get a fair few call outs. I’m not sure if they charge extra for a tow back.
I decided to call our craft the Gerard Depardieu. I’m used to a skinny ski. The Gerard had the acceleration of a steam engine and handled like a shopping trolley full of bricks with a broken wheel. I also kept bashing my thumbs on the side because it was so bloody wide. Due to the heavy traffic of tourist boats which caused a bit of swell, I was grateful for the stability though. The beach at Calanque d’En-Vau was crowded but the water was amazingly clear. I’m still to get to grips with the lack of sand on European beaches, pebbly gravel is really painful to walk on. When Slartibartfast designed this part of Europe, he really should have spent more time on beach entry and exit points. The cliffs and caves we saw along the way were also very impressive, so if you ever get a chance to visit Cassis, I’d recommend booking a boat for a day.
The Gerard Gepadieu
The cliffs around Cassis are magnificent
Pebbly European beaches: Not great for walking or lying on
Thankyou so much for all the wonderful birthday messages everyone. It’s lunch time here, and I’ve already managed a 5k run and a swim to counter the effects of my celebrations last night. We were looking for a vegan friendly place for dinner and weren’t sure if the restaurant selling ‘real sheep food and packets homemade’ meant bags of grass or some kind of pie, so went the safe option of a busy pizza place. After several wines I decided that the pizza I ordered was in fact t…he best one I’d ever eaten, and told the slightly bemused chef how impressed I was.
I’m pretty lucky that in the last ten years I’ve visited places and competed in events that in my younger days I would never have contemplated, and I’m fully intending to keep doing that as long as I can. My guidelines for maintaining optimal health include four runs a week, lots of porridge, Greek yoghurt, salads, small amounts of red meat and little to no alcohol. On my excursions to France I bend these rules to allow copious amounts of cheese, processed meats, croissants, anything in the window of patisseries that catches my eye regardless of how full I am and plenty of red wine. There’s an enormous lolly shop 100m from where we’re staying and in the interests of dental health have restricted myself to just looking and reminding myself that I’m not eight years old and that diabetes probably won’t help me lower my Parkrun PB.
Possibly the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.
We decided to forego the Sheep Packets Homemade
World Cup Final
Today I had the good fortune to watch the World Cup in the country that actually won. I’m pretty confident in saying this will never happen to me in Australia, so I made the most of the experience. Rather than jostle for seats and standing room in a crowded pub or cafe, we opened the windows so we got the crowd noise and match commentary from downstairs and turned our tele on. This was quite a strange experience, as the pictures on our screen were on a ten sec…ond delay to what was being screened downstairs. When France scored, we got an advance warning of what was about to happen from the deafening roar. When Croatia scored, all we heard was a strangled scream followed by silence.
Having been subjected to many years of Australian commercial media soccer hooligan stories, we were expecting a lively night on the town when we went out for dinner. Fortunately, most of the locals were happy to do a bit of chanting and let off the odd emergency flare on their yachts. No smashed glasses, no scuffles, and even the cars with flags draped out of the windows were doing below the speed limit.
It wasn’t until we went out for dinner that we encountered the drunkest man in France, AKA Airhorn Man. Topless apart from being draped in the flag, Airhorn Man and his entourage spent the evening entertaining us (I use the term loosely) and our fellow diners in the narrow alley our restaurant was located in by letting off his airhorn. Repeatedly. After a few minutes, we were hoping the can would run out of propellant, however he either had an extra can stashed somewhere or had gone for the upsized version. By bogan standards he was annoying but harmless, however we were forced to endure his entertainment for half an hour after our meal as the waitress was run off her feet and possibly quite deaf as Air Horn man would give her a blast every time she walked past on her way to deliver another meal. After we left, he continued on his merry way, sharing the airhorn love with other eating establishments around the town until I expect he is either arrested, passes out or runs out of propellant in the can.
Sadly, today was my last day in Cassis. Tomorrow I head to Lyon to join my bike tour while Jenna and Stu head to the West Coast. I was incredibly sad to hear about poor Ritchie Porte stacking today. Last year he crashed five minutes after I arrived in my Paris hotel, this year he didn’t even make it to the Alps. I’m hoping next year is his year, although at 34 and with his numerous injuries I fear it may never happen.
Normal maritime rules don’t apply if your country wins the World Cup. Life jackets are not required, but letting off flares is fine. This is why Australia will never win. In Australia, these guys would have been arrested and publicly shamed on Today Tonight as an example of Soccer Hooliganism.
The beautiful harbour of Cassis, completely intact after hordes of delirious football fans failed to destroy the town.
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.
Riding through tunnels can be daunting. You tend to come up on them fairly rapidly and once inside there is very little natural light. Especially if you don’t have time to remove your sunnies. They can also be wet and the noises made by cars and trucks tends to reverberate. I’m alsways happy to come out the other side.
Mandatory photo at the top of the Col
A group of Le Tour riders heading back to their hotel at the end of another tough day.
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.
The very unflattering photo of Eugene Christophe. I initially thought it was a statue of a farmer holding a pitchfork.
This is the view towards the top of Tourmalet. The last few kilometres ate the steepest.
The view from the top of Tourmalett
The big climbs have these signs every kilometre. They tell you the gradient and how far you have to go.
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.
The pre race sponsor caravan has 18-20 year olds throwing free stuff to the spectators. The parties at the end of each day must be quite epic.
As loot hauls go, this was above average
watching live, you get more of a sense as to how much the riders are suffering compared to tele.
An innovative caravan float.
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.
Another magnificent French town. The Tour organisers often select the most picturesque plces for the race to go through.
Poppy fields and vineyards are common sights throughout the beautiful French countryside.
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.
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.
The moonscape view from near the top of Ventoux
The Simpson memorial
Paying homage to the Gods of Ventoux
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.
The Alp D’Huez Long Course Triathlon is the most physically draining event I have ever completed in. With a 2.2k swim, a 120k ride over three brutal climbs and a 21k run over an undulating cross country course, I’ve done longer events but none match this due to the heat and draining climbs. The race was a bucket list event which was never in my bucket. In fact, I had no idea it even existed until I received a message from my old training buddy Jenna asking me if I’d like to do it. As it had been over a year since my previous triathlon and the thought of training through a Tasmanian winter for a race in July in France wasn’t high on my list of priorities, my initial reaction was no way. After a couple of weeks of persuasion, coupled with the fact that I could combine the race with a twelve day Bikestyle Tour of the Pyrenees and French Alps, I caved in and agreed. Sadly, after all that, Jenna had to miss the race due to a blood clot lodged in her thigh from an old knee injury. Thankfully, her and husband Stu made the trip anyway to act as my cheer squad.
The swim was in Lake Vermey, a hydro lake normally forbidden to swim in as the turbines would mince people up. To help swimmers enter and exit the water, thick runner mats were laid down and teams of volunteers were on standby to haul you out at the end. At 15.9 degrees the water temperature was on the chilly side, but an extra swim cap and the fact that Tassie water isn’t exactly tropical meant I got through it ok.
I’d looked at the bike course profile and read the course notes translation from French. The side elevation of the first two climbs didn’t look too daunting as neither of them was as high as the final climb up the Alp D’Huez. This was a serious miscalculation by me, as the first 25k was pretty much all downhill, meaning I hadn’t factored in the extra climbing. The first climb, up the aptly named Col du Morte was 13k at an average of 6-7% gradient. It was a tough slog but I got up ok and reached the first major aid station. Unlike most triathlons where volunteers run next to the bikes and hand out drinks, bananas and energy bars, this was a very relaxed affair with most competitors parking their bikes and helping themselves to a smorgasbord. As well as the normal items, this one strangely included ham, cheese and sausage. As a rule, you’d normally avoid stuff like this the day before a race let alone during, but I guess this is France. They take their food very seriously. After a short descent, the course climbed again but only for a short distance. I mistakenly assumed this was the top of the second climb and that I’d get a nice decent to the bottom of the final climb. How wrong I was. Take home message: always read the course notes thoroughly. Or buy a Garmin with the course pre programmed so as to avoid surprises. When I eventually reached the second climb, I was gutted. It was also 13k, and although not quite as steep as the first, the heat and lack of shade caused me to suffer. I started to worry as to whether I’d be able to finish or just end u broken and weeping by the side of the road. When I reached Bourg D’Ousins, the town at the base of the final climb I accidentally took a wrong turn and rode 1.5k before realising my error and turning back to rejoin the course. It was my own stupid fault for riding straight past a course marshall, but I wish he’d made some effort to call me back. I didn’t realise until later the implications this would have on my race.
I had been warned the the final climb up Alp D’Huez to the start of the run course resembled a battlefield, and it didn’t disappoint. Broken riders were slumped over their handlebars, leaning against the barrier wall staring vacantly into space and a couple were even attempting to walk the 13k in their bike cleats. I used the Robbie McEwen climbing method of not looking up and concentrating just on breathing and pedalling. I was lucky to have my amazing cheer squad of Stu, Jenna and her Mum Janice to encourage me when I reached the last six turns. I was a couple of hours slower than my estimated arrival time, and they had used the down time to consume a fair amount of alcohol. Stu even gave me an illegal push.
When I reached the run transition, I was surprised to see two race technical officials blocking my way in. One of them said, ‘finish, no run.’ Apparently I’d missed the bike finish cutoff by 15 minutes. In case I didn’t get the picture, he removed my race number from my race belt and tore it in half before letting me in to rack my bike. I was absolutely gutted. After racking my bike however, I figured that I still had my race timing chip attached to my leg and numbers on my arm and leg in texta. I’m a much better runner than cyclist and decided to risk starting the run and hope I didn’t get caught. I totally understand why cutoffs exist, race volunteers have a tough job and can’t be out on the course all night. As I could see quite a few competitors walking however, I backed myself to push the first couple of laps hard and make up the deficit to put as many people behind me as possible. Fortunately, it worked. I started unlapping myself straight away. At the end of my first lap, the girl handing out wrist scrunchies attempted to give me one for completing my second lap. (They hand these out to ensure runners have completed their laps before entering the finish chute.) I indicated I had just finished my first, and she pointed me to a second girl in charge of the first lap scrunchies. She looked surprised as shee had clearly knocked off for the day, but gave me one anyway. I was worried that an official would wake up to my missing race number and pull me off the course but figured that as long as I was running strongly the chances would reduce the further I got. By the second lap I had made up the more of the time deficit and started overtaking quite a few who had stopped to walk.
Inside the last few kilometres, I was worried that the officials might have a list of who should and shouldn’t be on the course. I had visions of Jane Saville getting pulled off the walk in Sydney 2000 in sight of the finish line, and decided my best chance of slipping through would be to finish in a group. Unfortunately, in the last two ks, every time I caught someone they’d stop to walk. I tried to encourage one guy to run with me but he stopped, waved me on and told me he was broken. Fortunately, the plan worked. I found a guy to stick with in the finish chute. He looked a bit confused as to why I was cheering him on to beat me, but I as soon as I crossed the line we both grabbed our medals and finisher tee shirts. There’s a good chance I won’t be included in the official results, but I don’t care. I finished and had plenty of people behind me. A 2.04 half marathon on a tough hilly course after a brutal ride is something I’ll always have to my name.
When my cheer squad found me wandering in a fugue state as I exited the finish area, I had a reasonably teary meltdown. I cursed the French and their ridiculously strict cutoff times and the unfairness of my disqualification. They pointed out to me that: A- I had my finisher medal and tee shirt and that B: I had actually completed the entire race and that there were still competitors on the course. We then spent around an hour looking for place to eat dinner with me being led around like a tame zombie.
As a post script, when the results came out, I was classified as a finished. I’d love to send a photo of me and my finisher medal to Henri L’Bastard the nasty Technical Official one day.