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!


* * * * * 

This blog describes a fundraising project for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
  • Nearly 50% of New Zealanders will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, and one in five will have experienced a mental illness this year.
  • Depression is set to overcome heart disease as the biggest global health burden by 2020.
  • The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) is a charity that works towards reducing stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. We provide free support, training, and resources for anyone who is going through a difficult time, or for people who are supporting loved ones.
To make a donation, visit https://events.mentalhealth.org.nz/fundraisers/sifter.  Any contribution, big or small is greatly appreciated, and will be put to good use by the fine folk at MHF.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Stage 8 (2018 Tour de France, one day ahead)

With the stage to Roubaix looming, and then a transfer into the mountains, this stage seemed likely to offer some recovery time, ironic, given it almost clocks in at 200km.



After a missed turn leaving Dreux, we were soon heading out past some stunning old architecture.


We should have savoured it more, because the next 180km seemed to be endless rolling wheat fields, with the occasional small town.

Our first smoko break, at the 80km mark

This photo pretty much summed up yesterday's ride!
While the landscape was pretty uninspiring, the roads would have been benign had it not been for the fairly strong northerly, giving us a day-long headwind to content with.  Everyone was taking their turns today, which helped.

A large factory was belching god knows what into the skies above these wheat fields

Not often that you see a truck on a truck!
We arrived in Amiens at around four, and after a lap of the city, piled into the vans and drove to a nearby shopping mall for dinner.  We've discovered a restaurant named Flunch, which serves a modular buffet - somethings are all-you-can eat, while others you pay for by the plate.  It would be sacrilege to eat here on a regular trip, but abundant and prompt food has great appeal when we're spending so much time on our bikes and moving around in the vans.

The drive to our accommodation took just under an hour, but we're within easy striking distance of Arras for tomorrow's stage start.  The place is quirky, but kind of awesome!

The mansion has some guest rooms, but also is a family home

Getting bikes ready for cobbles and/or mountains!
I'm feeling pretty rooted, but I realise a lot of it is mental fatigue - I've done more bunch riding in the last week than the rest of the year put together!  Once we all get through tomorrow, I think the Alpine stages will be much more relaxing - we'll get more of our own space on the road, and definitely better views than we had today!!


* * * * * 

This blog describes a fundraising project for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
  • Nearly 50% of New Zealanders will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, and one in five will have experienced a mental illness this year.
  • Depression is set to overcome heart disease as the biggest global health burden by 2020.
  • The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) is a charity that works towards reducing stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. We provide free support, training, and resources for anyone who is going through a difficult time, or for people who are supporting loved ones.
To make a donation, visit https://events.mentalhealth.org.nz/fundraisers/sifter.  Any contribution, big or small is greatly appreciated, and will be put to good use by the fine folk at MHF.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Stage 7 (2018 Tour de France, one day ahead)

The rider I took a selfie with was Bernard Hinault, of course (and, I have to say, it looks much more like him in yesterday's photo, than the statue did in person)!!

We woke praying to god that it wasn't going to be a howling easterly wind for the tour's longest stage, a 240km monster from Fougeres to Chartres.  I was pretty excited to be finally riding into a place I'd been to in my 2013 Cycle-Tour de France.



Our hotelier was slightly unimpressed with our request for breakfast at 0630, but we were well fed then nonetheless.  We had about a half-an-hour drive to Fougères, which was as beautiful as the posters we'd seen in Nantes had promised. 

Once we'd parked up, we were met by Sheri, who is a fellow Wellington Masters Cycling Club member.  She wondered if she'd be able to tag along with us to Chartres, and Jonathan was happy to accommodate her. 

Luckily, the route wound its way through some of the more scenic parts of Fougères, and I gather Matty had a field day with the drone!

Stu too busy taking his own picture to pose!
The wind was not coming from the worst possible direction, but it wasn't far off, and for pretty much the whole day we were dealing with the wind crossing over the road (or coming right at our faces). 

Our first hour was pretty slow, and no sooner had we passed the French women and yet another huge peloton, than Bruce was slowed by a puncture.  A few older locals had hitched themselves to our bunch, and were hollering "crevaison" at us. 

Inevitable, but luckily rare so far
Mayenne was another pretty city, necessitating a quick stop for photos...


... and soon after that we were passing through a little town called Aron.  I contemplated holding everyone up to get a photo of Aaron standing by the "ARON" sign at the town limits, but managed to get a photo of him crossing l'Aron (the stream running through town). 

Aaron, sur l'Aron
We've had some pretty stunning scenery the last few days, and in contrast, passing through endless fields into a head-cross wind got a bit tedious. 

The women had obviously been in the media, since there were quick large crowds waiting for them in many of the towns in the second half of the route.  Some seemed very happy to see us, while others frowned over the top of their cameras, apparently unimpressed that we'd almost had them clapping by accident.

Just about everyone responds to us positively though, and it feels really nice to have people shouting positive things after us - a stark contrast to typical attitudes towards cyclists at home.  I noted two young boys, perhaps 10 years old, who seemed incredibly excited to watch us pass.  I imagined them wanting to be pro-cyclists when they grew up - there definitely seemed a romantic attachment to what we were doing, and it was very cool to see.


The team seems to be functioning really well, for the most part.  I definitely feel very comfortable from a safety point of view, and was super impressed with the work done by almost everyone today.  A couple of nights ago at dinner, Jonathan said that his aim was to get us all to Paris, and it would be nice to think each of us has that aim too - the group was always pitched as a team, and as such, we're all there to look after one another. 

For my part, I spent a bit of time in the wind, and also gave Aaron a helping hand up a few of the rises. We had a slight downhill run into Chartres, and it was really cool to see him hammering into the wind with us all tucked into his wonderful wind shadow.  Knowing him, he would have been proud of his work, and glad to contribute, and it put a smile on my face.

In all, we covered 239km in 9.5 hours elapsed, with an average moving speed of 28km/h.  For a profile that looked pretty flat, there was a surprising amount of climbing - nearly 3000m again, but well spread out over a lot of road.

We get a slight sleep in tomorrow, and will then crack into our last "easy" stage for a long while...


* * * * * 

This blog describes a fundraising project for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
  • Nearly 50% of New Zealanders will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, and one in five will have experienced a mental illness this year.
  • Depression is set to overcome heart disease as the biggest global health burden by 2020.
  • The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) is a charity that works towards reducing stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. We provide free support, training, and resources for anyone who is going through a difficult time, or for people who are supporting loved ones.
To make a donation, visit https://events.mentalhealth.org.nz/fundraisers/sifter.  Any contribution, big or small is greatly appreciated, and will be put to good use by the fine folk at MHF.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Stage 6 (2018 Tour de France, one day ahead)

Funny how 190km with 2000m of climbing can look like it will be an easier day...!  But, that was the state of the nation after an epic Stage 5.



Jonathan had booked us all into an amazing hotel overnight, and while my bed wasn't huge, the fireplace in the dining room, and the dining room itself, certainly were!


The start in Brest was a 60km drive from our amazing digs (built in 1642)...


... but true to form, we got away from the hotel just before 0800, and with a bit of fiddling with bikes (and camera angles), we rolled out at 9am.  It took a wee while to get out of the city, slowed somewhat by a fair bit of smashed glass and an awkward route. 

Our first lunch food stop was after 60km mark, which we knocked out in a bit over 2 hours.  While we were eating, the women rode by with a massive peloton.  It's great to see that people are engaging with their cause.  I wouldn't be surprised if we ride with them a bit more in the mountains.   We're definitely moving faster than them on this flatter terrain, despite their numbers. 

Before the second stop, we passed by four statues of tour winners on bikes.  I could resist taking a selfie with one of them... 

Name this famous cyclist!

Every stop is put to good use, whether it's filming, filling bottles, or taking photos
Our second stop was at the 140km mark, and as usual, Jonathan, Julie, Roger and today, Cam, had set out a great feed for us.  It was a nice surprise to find Matty suited up - he hadn't yet ridden with us. 


We had headwinds to contend with for much of the day, but while we ensured decent progress, we definitely eased back a bit, with a tough day behind us, and the longest (distance-wise) stage of the tour tomorrow. 

On a couple of short inclines, I gave Aaron a bit of a helping hand, which seemed like a much better use of my strength than beating him to the top of the hills.  It was interesting to note how much it helped, not only on the climbs themselves, but also on the roads that immediately followed - it really goes to show how small gains can make big differences in cycling.

I was looking forward to the stage finale, which was a couple of ascents of the Mur de Bretagne - the "wall of Brittany", the first climb of our Tour that I knew of. 

After passing through the town of the same name, a short descent took us to the base of the climb, and it did indeed look like a wall.  The road was closed, and there were many pedestrians and cyclists making good use of it.  The adjacent paddocks were full of campervans - the peloton passing twice gives them a unique perspective tomorrow.


Our bunch had splintered by this stage, and I rode pretty hard behind Stu and Steven, only to let go of them near the top.  I chased back to them on the first part of the descent, but a bee had made its way into my shirt, and I decided I'd better get rid of it before I got stung.  Once they were gone, I realised it was a nice opportunity to cruise to the finish.   Bruce came flying past, and for a minute or so, I forgot about my plan, but then came to, and left him to it. 

The second ascent was as lovely as the first, just a bit slower.  The crowds were lovely, and I reached the top just as Stu and Steven had finished up an interview with UCI TV.  It turned out they only wanted amateur predictions of tomorrow's stage winner, rather than to hear about our cool project. 

Not long after, we'd all ridden back down the way we came up, and were sitting in the van with fullish bellies, and making the long drive to Rennes, within striking distance of tomorrow's stage start in Fougeres. 

Our ride was 192km in 7h45 elapsed, with an average moving speed of 27.2km/h.  We scaled one Cat.4 and three Cat.3 climbs (two, I suppose, but one twice).  In doing so, we've brought our total up to 1050km for the first six days of the Tour.  I've had a gigantic dinner, so am looking forward to a good day tomorrow.

* * * * * 

This blog describes a fundraising project for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
  • Nearly 50% of New Zealanders will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, and one in five will have experienced a mental illness this year.
  • Depression is set to overcome heart disease as the biggest global health burden by 2020.
  • The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) is a charity that works towards reducing stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. We provide free support, training, and resources for anyone who is going through a difficult time, or for people who are supporting loved ones.
To make a donation, visit https://events.mentalhealth.org.nz/fundraisers/sifter.  Any contribution, big or small is greatly appreciated, and will be put to good use by the fine folk at MHF.