Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Stage 10 (2018 Tour de France, one day ahead)

Today's the day where it's tempting to put the altitude profile first, because we're now in the mountains, and it is the climbing we're doing that becomes the most interesting part.

Our day started with a half-hour drive from the outskirts of Geneva (though back in France), through to Annecy.  After yesterday's day off, the established routines were slightly rusty, and we rolled out at 0830 - about 15 minutes later than our target.

While the stage was billed as 158.5km, the organisers treated us to a 13km warm up, which we resented a little.  That said, we were treated to some stunning sights of the city initially, and then the lake.

Annecy was looking stunning, about 500m into the neutral zone
We despatched the first two small climbs without too much fuss, and then after a short trip up the valley through Thones, we were onto our first Cat.1 climb of the tour. 

These kilometre markers are either awesome, or horrible, depending on the gradient and your levels of fatigue
The traffic on the climb was moving slowly, and for a while I wondered if we'd be sucking in exhaust fumes the whole day.  Once we passed a stalled car who'd blown a gasket, things eased, and it seemed that the French women up the road were slowing things down a bit too.  I passed one, who was wearing "DO EPIC SHIT" socks.  I said "your socks are good" in French, only to find out later that she's American!!

There were a few folk camping out on the climb.  I was particularly impressed with the effort one fellow had gone to ensure his bed was level, and regretted not stopping for a photo for about 150m, before turning around...

We had a feed at the summit, and it was nice to see a NZ flag flying on one of the campervans.   Apparently our crew had suggested they wait for us and give us a cheer, but alas, they had a cafe to go to!

After a fast drop down into La Clusaz (I'd donned my rain shell, only to find it was plenty warm), we had a battle with a headwind for a while, and it did a fine job of neutralising the last part of the descent. 

There were Gendarmes preventing cars from going up the Montee du plateau des Glieres, though unfortunately they didn't stop us!  The first kilometre was pretty mellow, but then it kicked up to 12-13% right through to the top.  It was super hot, and hard to stay on top of my 36-32 granny gear.

About two-thirds of the way up, we were passed by a fellow in Global Cycling Network kit, who had the unmistakable voice of Simon Richardson (when told by Steven what we were doing, he reportedly said "you're fucking crazy"!). 

One of his companions slowed and offered some encouragement, and then pulled away.  I heard Simon call him Frank, and realised it had been none other than Fränk Schleck - many time Luxembourg national champ, tour stage winner, and with a third place overall to his name. 

Luckily, he'd been asked to ride the top 250m for a second time, so when he pulled to a halt at the top, I called out his name, and told him that Phil, Mike and Nick from Wellington had recently done a tour with him ("Oh yes", he said, "that was cool!").   Stuey told him we'd all been coached been Hayden, a former team-mate of Fränk's.

"Is he good?"...  "Well, we're all here...!"

Before we set off, I asked if I could take a selfie, which was beautifully photo-bombed by Stu!

Thumbs up, indeed
The next few kilometres were unsealed, but you could barely tell, and it was all very pleasant (especially since the climbing sections were single-figures). 

Another rip-snorter descent followed, and I managed to get the photo I was after on the third switchback down.

We had a brief stop in Thorens-Glieres when Steven's cleat started coming loose.  Luckily, Bruce had an allen key, and the missing bolt was located on the footpath where it must have fallen when Steven had unclipped.  Lucky save (on both counts). 

Then followed a climb which the organisers hadn't deemed worthy even of Cat.4 status, and over the other side of that we found ourselves in a very wide valley quite unlike the steep glacial valleys we'd ridden in so far.  It was a wonderful surprise to see Aaron, who'd done an outstanding job getting himself over the last hill, and it was fun to ride with him through to our second feed stop in Bonneville.

Looking up towards Mont Blanc
 After Bonneville, I made the fatal mistake of chasing Dr Fish, and paid for it dearly when we hit the climb of Col de Romme.  It was nice to be back on this spectacular road, having ridden it in the reverse direction on 3 July 2013

Stu, Steven and I were joined by Glenn Rewi, who helped take my mind off things for a bit.  He managed to convince Steven to ride the climb seated in his big chain ring, and Steven did a great (if not foolish) job of lightening Glenn's wallet.  To Glenn's credit, he let Steve off the hook well before the summit.

Yep, that's #GFR.  Cluses in the valley below.  Committed road-building straight ahead
Near the top, Matt and Cam went past in the van, and I handed them a full 1L bottle, immediately noticing the difference. 

Tour fans waiting for the race at the top of Col de Romme
Unfortunately, I'm a bit dumb, and when I'd finished grovelling up the Col de la Colombiere an hour or so later, I once again had a full bottle in my cage...  I'm still not used to this supported-lark.

I really buttoned off and used the descent to loosen up my legs, and after a lap of Le Grand Bornand, was getting ready for the drive to the hotel.  Stu, Jason and Steven were already there when I arrived, and everyone else was there within 25 minutes or so.  Bloody impressive how we're all holding up.

By virtue of today's rest day, there was a lot of activity at the finish line, but alas, not the finish line itself.  It just goes to show how magic it was to be able to ride it on our first day, and we can now add meeting a celebrity to that and our tour of the Roubaix showers to our list of remarkable bonuses. 

It's the biggest show in town, that's for sure

In all, we rode one HC climb, 3 Cat.1 climbs, a few small ones.  We covered 171km in 8h20, with just over 3850m of climbing.  If there'd been a bike shop at the finish line, and our mechanics hadn't spent all day yesterday driving, I'd have snapped up a 34-tooth chain ring (or an 11-34) cassette.  But, I'm going to see how I go - we have two big mountain stages yet to come, but the average gradients are lower, and I'm not going to do anything silly any more...

If you have access to tour coverage, the Montee des Glieres climb is an absolute cracker.  It might be too early in the stage for the race to blow apart, but the top is very beautiful (as well as the road being hard).  Highly recommended (unless you're on an under-geared bike, with fairly tired legs)!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Stage 9 (2018 Tour de France, one day ahead)

When Hayden asked us all at the first team training camp in Cambridge, "what are you most nervous about?", I answered "the cobbles in Stage 9".  And here they finally are, 21km worth, sprinkled amongst a 160km parcours.

Cobbled sector ratings, determined by roughness and length.  We're spared the 5-star sectors which feature in Paris-Roubaix
Once we'd finished breakfast, we had a fairly short drive to Arras.  Once there, I swapped out my HED wheels for a pair set-up tubeless.  I was a little worried about them, having noticed that while incredibly fast on the road, the Schwalbe Pro One tyres cut up incredibly fast too...  For the time being, the sealant was doing its thing, but at our first nature break on the outskirts of Arras, I spent the time putting a bit more air in the rear tyre.

Matty, making good use of the passing lane
As per usual, the women had got away earlier than us, and we passed them about 45km into the stage.  Soon after, we hit the first of fifteen cobbled sectors.  Roger had recommended we ride on the crown, and to keep our speed up.  Initially, these were both fine, but when the road tipped up slightly, it became somewhat of a challenge keeping on top of the gear.  Once off the cobbles, my quads squealed the first time I tried to stand up off the saddle.

Our first food break was before the second sector, and that was an opportunity to put a bit more air in my tyre.  It survived the second cobble sector, but on the third, ironically numbered "13" (traditionally the sectors are counted down to one), I could feel my rim occasionally hitting the cobbles.  The roadside was sandy, so I was able to ride to the end, where fortunately Matt and Bill were filming, and I was able to swap the wheel out again.

The boys were waiting in the shade a kilometre or so later, and we rode together for a bit, but I kept being distanced in the cobbles.  Some in our group seemed to genuinely be looking forward to them, and while I wasn't particularly dreading them, I certainly wasn't enjoying them.  As my level of commitment waned, so did my speed, and that made things worse rather than better. 

I briefly stopped when I saw Bruce replacing a tube, and I rode with him through to the second feed stop, by which stage we'd over-run the three marking vans.

There are three teams of these guys, who typically make an early start and leap frog each other through to the end of the stage
When we set off, we were still ahead of them, and only Stu and I had the map loaded on our GPS units.  I wasn't far off Stu, Steven, Bruce and Mike, but Aaron and Paul were behind me, so I slowed to ride with them, lest they be stuck without a navigator.

Now THIS fellow had the right idea - a full suspension MTB suits these "roads" well

While the three of us were riding together, we started noticing old Paris-Roubaix direction markings painted on the road.  When Jonathan had stuck to the road, they proved a useful clue that Aaron had picked up on.  We were saved extra distance by Stu's group backtracking after seeing the end of sector 3 sign, and by the time we made the correct turn, they'd shot past it and were too far away for us to holler at them.

It had been good to set off with the others, with one benefit that I hit the cobbles a little bit harder, and that helped snap me out of my reluctance.  It was still incredibly rough at pace, and flicking from the crown to the gutter or vice versa, seemed like rolling the dice, but, aside from what sounds like a cable outer bouncing around in my frame, the bike seemed to be handling it all with aplomb.

At the last sector, we stopped for a few photos, before knocking it off together.

Aaron and Paul at the start of the final sector

Um, yeah...  Not great riding on 26mm tyres at 95psi
It was nice to get off the cobbles, and we had a relatively straight forward run into Roubaix.  Since Stage 1, there's been no sign of a finish line, but we found Roger parked up on a side road, between the old and new Roubaix velodromes.   The gate was open, so the three of us did a couple of laps before Roger put our bikes in the van.

The others turned up soon after, and while they were doing their spin round the velodrome, I heard a New Zealand accent, and ended up having a nice chat with Brian, who's doing an epic cycle tour through Europe, with the current focus being on a bit of spectating.

Nice to meet you, Brian!
We all got changed, had a bite to eat, and then were treated to a visit to one of cycling's hallowed halls - the Roubaix showers, featuring plaques of all the winners of Paris-Roubaix (and the lanterne rouge from 1968, curiously). 

It was incredible to wander around, seeing names like Boonen, Cancellara, Sagan from the modern era, and names of legends like Coppi, de Vlaeminck, and of course, Le Cannibal, Eddy Merckx
It truly was an amazing experience, even through the haze of an hour post-stage (at the end of nine days of riding in which we've covered a whopping 1645km)!  I thought a lot about my dear friend Oli, as I wandered around, knowing how much more he would have appreciated this incredible place.

After about 15 minutes wandering around the stalls, we retired to the clubrooms and had a cold drink, while admiring the Paris-Roubaix memorabilia around the place.

Here, a visitor's book signed by Greg van Avermaet, vainqueur in 2017

Our incredible team-management:  Matty, Jonathan, Julie, Bill and Cam
Dinner beckoned, and we piled into the van, and treated ourselves to a completely non-French dinner in honour of Bastille Day (at Buffalo Grill, yee-haw...).

Of the three blocks in this year's tour, I genuinely believe we've done the hardest one.  The first rest day is tomorrow, which we'll be spending on trains through to Geneva.  Then, we're into the Alps - while 2-hour-plus climbs are tough physically, I am certain the beauty of them will make the days fly by.

Today, I covered 167km, in 6h45 elapsed, and it was a relief to complete this gnarly stage with all my blood on the inside, not to mention my bike and wheels in one piece (I think - I'll be inspecting my bike in a day or so, and writing Graeme Pearson one hell of a reference if the stay he repaired a couple of years ago looks just like a bought one!

I've long held high respect and admiration for the world's top cyclists.  Having experienced those cobbles today, the levels just got bumped up a whole lot!

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