Sunday, June 30, 2013

Week 3, oui!

My third road week started with breakfast surrounded by Russian teenagers, on a school trip to Nimes and the surrounding area, I'd guess.

As with the previous day, today I'd just be cycle touring, and didn't actually have that far to cover. I was looking forward to seeing the Pont du Gard, an old Roman aqueduct, and was a bit surprised when my GPS bleated that I'd missed a turn.

The nice country lane turned into a rough driveway, which just stopped! Instead of doing the sensible thing and retracing my strokes, I walked and carried my bike for the next half an hour. A few minutes of bushbashing were needed to pick up some sweet singletrack, which of course I couldn't enjoy!

The bridge itself was stunning, and a real highlight of the non-riding side of the trip.

I got into Carpentras early, so hit up a laundromat, giving my kit its third wash of the trip. Between that and the rest, I felt like a new man when I rolled out the next morning.

I'd been nervous about this ride. I hadn't felt super in the Pyrenees, so three Cat 2 climbs followed by a Cat 4 one and then Mont Ventoux were intimidating. I barely gave a thought to the battle between Armstrong and Pantani on the same route 13 years earlier, and instead enjoyed one of my favourite days on the bike. The scenery was a bit less lush than I'd seen, and the Giant of Provence was often visible.

The main climb was long, about 1.40, but beautiful. Reaching the top at the end of a hilly 150km was satisfying, but no rest for the wicked and I had another 50km to ride to bed! At least a lot of it was downhill!

The next day was a 2013 stage, from Vaison-la-Romaine to Gap, which I very much look forward to watching them race when I get home.

This day too was beautiful, but in the more classical sense. The route passed through a stunning gorge, enhanced only slightly by the topless sunbather!!

The geology of this edge of the Alpes is absolutely amazing, with twisted, layered rock abound. After a long false flat, 40km worth, I had a steep descent into Gap, only to immediately leave town for a lap over Col de Manse. On the way down my rear gave an almighty squirm, causing my insides to do the same, on account of my first puncture since the outskirts of Paris, some 2950km ago!

The next day, I packed my bags and was off to Italy. Another stunning day scenery-wise, and while my legs had felt obviously jaded the day before, they seemed to have recovered somewhat.

The ride to Briancon was pretty easy, but things got steep after that with a Cat 2 climb into Italy, followed by the Cat 1 Sestrieres, and a nasty Cat 2 shortcut into Pinerolo. A highlight of the descent was recognising the carport Thomas Voeckler ended up in on that stage in 2011, and then finding a youtube clip of that same incident at the hotel after a shower!

I had what felt like an appropriately Italian dinner: pasta entree, pizza main course (which had me reeling not much more than half way through) followed by tiramisu!!! I was really busting at the seams on the short walk back to the hotel, but figured overeating would stand me in good stead for the next day's monster stage.

It all started well, and I was 40km in before I knew it. I got a bit reflective for a while. A feature of this trip has been a complete absence of symptoms of depression, and I got a bit freaked out at the looming transition back to real life. Kind of like getting out of jail, I guess!! The analogy isn't quite right in that I'm having an absolutely amazing time here, which I wouldn't expect in prison. But, things here are also arduous, and relatively unidimensional.

I convinced myself it would be what it would be, and resumed focus on forward momentum. And stopping every other minute to take a photo! I stopped at a village market for fruit, and only just managed to avoid getting taken home by a lovely old Signora.

A lunch stop followed soon after, about 1300m into the climb of Colle dell' Agnello. It got steep after lunch, with one section signposted as 14%. I was surprised that it felt significantly more manageable than similar gradients in the Pyrenees had. I have various theories, including legs not being thrashed from 250km days, potential weight loss, and training benefits!

The climb was stunning and I made regular photos stops. The border back into France was at the very top, but it was hard to enjoy on account of a very cold wind. I even busted out some of my evening wear for the descent, and was in better shape at the bottom as a result.

By the time I'd got over the next HC climb, the Col d'Izoard, and in to Briancon, the day had moved on. It was not only the 175km covered, and the roughly 4000vm climbed, but also the hundred photos, and multiple stops to pack and unpack suitable clothing.

The sun was low in the sky, and off the roads, and I decided I'd enjoy the final climb of the stage, the Galibier, another day!

The receptionist at the hotel had spent three months in Taupo, and convinced me Briancon would be a better place to rest up than Le Bourg-d'Oisans, my next destination, so I committed to two nights.

On Saturday morning I went for a short walk around the old part of town, and then put my feet up and watched the opening stage of the 100th Tour de France, commentated in French, by Cedric Vasseur and colleagues. I felt a bit bad seeing people ride past out the window, in what is a glorious sunny afternoon, but the rest was doing me good, and the significance of Saturday was more to them than me.

The next morning dawned with beautiful clear skies, and enjoyed the relatively mellow climb of the Galibier in mostly warm conditions. After a long descent to Le Bourg-d'Oisans, I ditched all but my coat, beanie, one bottle, pump, tube and patch kit, and gave the climb to Alpe d'Huez a good nudge with a bike that felt unfamiliarly light. It was cool to make the top within the hour. I then did an impromptu lap over Col de Sarenne, as per this year's tour.

I've now got 3495km on the clock after three weeks of riding (and a little bit of TV watching)! I'm feeling great both physically and mentally. My body's almost at 100%, with only the finger numbness to grizzle about.

Its hard to believe I'll be at Paris airport in a little over a week. Some sweet riding between here and there, no doubt!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Week 2, phew!

I made the last post at the end of my first week in France, and subsequently forgot. So this brings me through to the end of the second week of riding.

My first mountain stage was a beauty! It featured the hors categorie Col de Soudet, which had a really uneven gradient, and had stretches well over 10% which had me wishing for a triple chainset.

Col de Marie Blanque, which followed, had me really struggling, and I had to stop for a few minutes before tackling the final 2km which ascended 250vm. Ouch! What goes up, must come down though, and I enjoyed a nice fast run into Pau.

The next stage was to Lourdes. It started with a nice loop in the countryside, during which I was glad for my commuter instincts at a roundabout in Lacq. After a couple of small climbs, I really enjoyed the Col d'Aubisque. It took me ages, mostly on account of all the photo stops!

I spent that night in Lourdes, and the next morning set off with minimal gear. I was riding a loop west to Bagneres de Luchon, before coming back via four massive climbs. The rain started at the top of the first, the Col de Peyresourde, and by the top of the Col d'Aspin, the thunder had started. While the Col du Tourmalet was closed to cars, I'd been told it was possible to get a bike through. Nonetheless, yet through, and chilly after a long descent, I decided a thunderstorm was not the time to take on this beast, and dropped back to Lourdes via Bagneres de Bigorre.

The next day was wet, but I decided to give the Tourmalet another chance, this time from the other side.

I headed up the valley to Luz St Saveur, but by the time I got there, I knew Tourmalet was out of the question. The river was up, and the cold air riding it down was intense. I'd misses Luz Ardiden the previous day, too, and despite that being a lesser climb, I ruled that out too.

Just as well. I got out of the gorge below Luz less than an hour before the road flooded. By the time I got back to Lourdes it was clear all hell was breaking loose, and before long they were in a state of emergency.

The next day I moved west to St Gaudens. The weather was better, but I couldn't access the base of the Port de Bales climb. The next valley along, that of La Garonne, was seriously affected by the heavy rain and late snow melt.

I went to see La Grande Boucle, a French comedy about a bike shop assistant's lap of France. I didn't understand all of it, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

The next day was tough. It started on the Col de Portet d'Aspet and went up and up from there! I met a friend of some friends at the Fabio Casartelli memorial which was a hoot. It also offset my shock to realise he'd died on the very last corner of the descent.

By the time the sixth climb of the day came around, my legs were toast, but I pushed on up to Plateau de Beille. I should really have left my gear at the bottom, but I was nervous about losing it, so hauled it up the 1200vm climb.

The next morning was the reverse of a 2013 stage. I had to ride up to Ax-3-Domaines first of all to being the stage from the hilltop finish.

The Port de Pailheres was a lovely climb. I started behind a tour group, and rode through almost the entire bunch. I also saw a Garmin rider coming down, followed by a Garmin van. Hesjedal perhaps?

I got very cold on the long descent, and the afternoon's ride to Castres dragged on as a result. I think I lose a lot of energy when it's cold.

Yesterday was Castres to Montpellier, another stage in the reverse direction. I really enjoyed the climbs, and thought I had the pick of them. It was cool to see various road closure notifications. The Tour's coming back to town!

Today was a tiki tour in the Camargue. I've given myself two days to get to Carpentras for the Ventoux stage. I saw a wonderful fortified town soon after the pretty gross seaside resort, La Grande Motte. Despite expecting to see thousands of flamingos, after a 40km side trip, I was happy to see a flock of 20 or so. 

The headwind into Nimes more than made up for one of those two HC climbs I missed out on in the Pyrenees!

In total I've covered 2532km since leaving Paris two weeks ago! All's well, upstairs and downstairs!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Week 1, done!

I've had a great first week in France. My bike missed the London connection, and so didn't arrive until Saturday evening. By that stage, the travel agent was closed, and so I couldn't leave my bike bag there until Monday morning. So, a day in Paris on Sunday!

I decided against going to Le Mans. Instead, I headed south from Chartres, doing the 2012 final TT stage in reverse. Very cool to see the Wiggo encouragement painted on the road. Bonneval was closed, so I pushed on to Chateaudun for the night.

After 200km the previous day, 295km to Poitiers was hard work. The first 190 was into a headwind, but at least I found accommodation without too much hassle. And, I'd made up the two day delay.

The ride to Bordeaux got longer than intended, with poor mapping and hotel difficulties. Not only did I spend 3 times the usual rate, but was north of town, heading south the next day.

Which, was wet!!! But dead flat. Dax was a welcome sight, but earlier than the previous days, by virtue of only covering 180km vs a 250km average.

Today, I cruised out to Biarritz on the coast, and then rode an hour towards the hills, and Cambo-les-Bains, where I currently sit. I have 1050km on the clock, but only a tiny amount of climbing.

My gear's been great, though I might buy some eye-drops yet. Two fingers on my left hand are numb, but all else is fine. Mood-wise, I feel decidedly normal, in the other person's normal sense. Cool!

If you want to be in on the regular photo action, befriend John Randal on facebook, temporarily is fine.

Into the mountains tomorrow. Will be interesting to see how that goes!!!!