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Yesterday I had a good lie in after the exertions of Mont Ventoux, and an excellent breakfast, before a long train journey – Montelimar to Lyon to Paris Gare Lyon to Paris Gare du Nord to London St Pancras to London Paddington to Plymouth.   I was lucky with my connections in London and arrived home before 11pm.  It was a pleasant journey with much time for reading.

I’ve uploaded all my ride stats which show that I rode nearly 1000 km over five days, spending 44 hours in the saddle.  My legs feel OK, though my right shoulder is a bit sore.  It was aching after the rough roads of the Dartmoor Classic, and suffered further from my gripping the handlebars on all of those fast and thrilling descents.

I’m now enjoying watching the professionals tackling the roads I cycled a week ago.  Having experienced stages 8-12 myself, I’m able to admire the amazing speed at which they cover the course.  Today it was interesting to see what the top of the Col du Tourmalet actually looks like when not shrouded in mist and drizzle.   The scenery is stunning but I did enjoy the atmospheric experience of our ride.

This afternoon I’ve been celebrating my return with the family – Molly and Ka made an excellent cake, which was washed down with the west country’s finest sparkling wine.

I’m in admiration of my colleagues Nick and Indy and all of the other Lifers, who are now heading towards the Alps, having completed their 14th stage today.  Their achievements, resilience and dedication are amazing.

I’d like to thank all of my sponsors for their generous support. While I was in France I heard that we had raised more than £300,000 for the William Wates Memorial Trust, which will make a big difference in improving the prospects for disadvantaged young people.

Now it’s time to rest a little!

 

TDF Stage 12 – the road to Mont Ventoux

 

Today’s stage involved a hot, mostly flat run east from Montpellier before the final climb of the mighty Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence and the most feared of the climbs of the Tour de France.

Phil, our cycle guide, had briefed us the night before on the legendary qualities of the mountain and what we could expect from the climb, with its steep gradients, changing topography and vegetation, and harsh climate. Today we could expect heat, and were advised to arrive late to avoid the worst conditions. My plan today was therefore to ride as gently as possible for the 175 km to Ventoux base camp, cycling in steady small groups to stay out of the wind.

It was a pleasant day of cycling, through more vineyards, occasional towns and villages, and the odd field of sunflowers in full bloom. I saw hoopoes, rollers, alpine swifts and cattle egrets. We passed through the picturesque town of Beaucaire, with numerous smart boats moored on the canal, before crossing the broad waters of the Rhone. It was hot, and the temperature must have been in the mid thirties. Beautiful avenues of plane trees provided shade for about 20km, the sounds of the cicadas building to a tropical crescendo.

There was sufficient breeze to make the cycling pleasant, but we really felt the heat at the feed stops, seeking shade where possible and eating and drinking copiously. After lunch the road began to rise, passing the stunning village of Gordes, built in stone on the top and sides of the hill.  After a second categorie 4 climb the mighty Ventoux appeared in view, with its forested sides, chalky bare upper slopes and red and white masted weather station on top. This legendary sight made me quite emotional, and I stopped several times for photos as we approached.

I eventually reached Ventoux base camp by the village of Bedouin just before 5pm.  Several cans of pop, packets of crisps and chocolate brownies later, I headed for the fountain on the edge of town, immersing my legs for 15 minutes to cool myself from the heat. I started the climb at 5.55, passing first through vineyards on gentle slopes, and then onto steeper 10% gradients through pine woods.  This section was nicely shaded and pleasantly cooler than expected, and the climb was enjoyable.

The first Tour de Forcers had completed the climb and whizzed by on the descent, offering encouragement. The next section passed through oak and beech woods. Water was on offer, but it was not too hot and my two bottles were enough to get me to the top, so I didn’t stop. I was making steady progress and passed a few Tour de Force colleagues, and was overtaken by a young French club rider, clearly aiming for a good time.  Past Chalet Reynard, and the road traverses stony slopes. There’s a cool breeze and I can see the summit in front of me.  A sign warns that the gradient kicks up to 11% for the last 500 metres to the weather station. One last push and I’m there.

I celebrate with a cold coke and some photos. There are great views to the Alps on one side, and the lowlands of Provence on the other. The evening sunshine casts shadows of the weather station across the mountainside. • After a quick visit to the memorial to Tom Simpson, marking the spot of his death on the mountain in 1967, we’re plunging down a thrilling 70 kmh descent.

A quick shower and celebratory meal of chicken, chips and wine at the campsite at Bedouin precedes a coach transfer to Montelimar. It’s been a long hard day, and I sleep well.

TDF Stage 11 – Flat and hot!

An early  start this morning for a transfer to Carcassonne.   We skirt the town so miss its historic splendour, but we are soon in beautiful, gently undulating countryside, riding on quiet roads. We pass numerous vineyards. We are in the minervois region and the signs point alternately to chateau de this and domaine de that. There’s a nice tailwind and morning sunshine, so the km fly by pleasantly.

We stop for coffee and cold pop in a cafe in a nice village, and shortly afterwards find ourselves at the lunch stop for tasty rice salad, pork pie and coffee.

Some speedy group riding follows, then another drinks stop on a quiet, scenic road. The temperature has risen well into the thirties, so it’s more comfortable to cycle than sit. I catch a first glimpse of the dark blue waters of the Mediterranean, and begin to spot rollers flying  over the scrub.

The last few km into Montpellier are hot and noisy, as we encounter busy traffic, so I am pleased to reach the hotel campanile at 4pm, ready to watch the end of the exciting stage 4 of the tour on tv.

A relatively flat and short stage, with 167 km done in just over 6 hours, but I’m looking forward to a cold beer and a good feed

TdF Stage 10 – High road out of the Pyrenees

WP_20160705_10_17_55_Pro.jpgAn easier day today, although it started with the ascent of the highest paved road in the Pyrenees.

We set out from Andorra at 8am and immediately began the climb of the Port D’Envalira, a gradual 25 km ascent which took us to the summit at 2408 metres.  It was a cool, cloudy morning, and the ride wasn’t particularly pleasant, along the busy main road to France.  I rode with Nick for an hour but conversation wasn’t very easy, because of the noise of the passing traffic.  The climb was gradual, not getting above 7% gradient.

After a quick feedstop and photo, we descended on wide roads, which was good fun.  Soon after the summit we left Andorra and were pleased to be back in France, hoping for quieter roads and less traffic.  The border police did not stop us, judging that we had limited room for duty free cigarettes in our saddle backs and jerseys pockets.

The gradient reduced further down the slope, but we continued to descend for around 55km, getting in a quick group and pedalling at a fair pace.  After the second feedstop a red kite followed us down the road, and hoopoes and zitting cisticolas started to appear by the roadside.

I cycled with Indy for a long stretch, before riding on my own for 20km, taking in the scenery of sunflower country.  We had looked forward to fields of sunflowers, which characterise the southern stages of the Tour, but were disappointed to find that they were yet to flower, delayed by cool weather.

The roads were fairly busy but the ride became more enjoyable as we turned off a main road, passing a small range of hills covered in yellow broom flowers, and descending through picturesque villages. After a great lunch stop, I cycled the mostly flat kilometres to the finish in small groups of two or three, chatting and taking it in turns to ride at the front.  The sun began to appear more frequently from behind the clouds, and the temperature rose, but conditions for cycling remained good.

I arrived at the hotel nice and early, at 5.15, with 199km on the clock.  We are staying in an old abbey – Abbe Ecole de Soreze – with fine buildings and beautiful grounds – a fine place to stay the night.

TdF stage 9 – the Big One!

Stage 8 was pretty tough, but stage 9 was brutal! I was up at 0530 for breakfast and then a transfer into Spain, over a misty mountain pass, the weather clearing to morning sunshine as soon as we crossed the border.  We found our bikes and were moving from the start at Vielha by 0755.

Today’s stage started with a Category 1 climb, the Port de la Bonaigua, rising more than 1000 metres to 2072 metres. It was a pleasant, gradual climb in morning sunshine, with good views of rocky mountain tops and forested slopes, tree pipits and serins singing.  The descent was fast and thrilling, on broad, dry roads – going fast downhill for 20km we realised how high we had climbed.  The first feed stop was by a pleasant lake, then we headed down a scenic river valley, watching white water rafters speeding down the rapids to our right.  There was a bit of a headwind and I started off riding in a group, but then chose to ride at my own pace and take in the scenery, aware of the many hilly miles to come.

The weather was warming up when we turned left onto the Port del Canto, another 1000 metre climb. I didn’t enjoy this one at all – the sun was overpoweringly bright, even with dark glasses, my eyes filled with a stinging mixture of sweat and sun cream, and my right foot was rubbing painfully on my shoe.  In a brief moment of clear vision I saw a red-backed shrike on a roadside wire.  I arrived at the summit, cursing the hot weather – I was one of the few of us missing the damp, cool, misty, atmospheric conditions of yesterday. I perked up with coffee and sandwiches then enjoyed an exhilarating, twisting descent.

Soon afterwards we passed the border into Andorra, following a busy main road through the valley, passing through a ribbon of sprawling modern development set inside a mountain fringed valley. The busy main road did not make for a relaxing ride, but the cycling was not unpleasant, with a gentle uphill gradient and slight breeze in the afternoon sunshine.  I rode for many miles on my own, following the tour de force signs without seeing another cyclist.  The third feedstop was beside a river, with a pair of nesting dippers gathering food for their young, and crag martins hawking insects overhead.

The afternoon was well advanced as we took on the short but steep 2nd category Cote de la Camella,  where locals were partying in a hilltop park, before dropping a couple of hundred metres and climbing the 1st category Col de Beixalis.  This was the hardest climb of the day, with narrow steep roads, including one kilometre that averaged 12% and ramped up to 16-18% in places.  Feed stop four saw me greeted by a collection of almost broken bodies, riders crashed out in the shade, taking in fuel and trying to summon the energy for the final climb of the day, the hors categorie ascent to the ski resort of Andorra Arcalis.  After a rapid descent, I began the climb at 6.15pm, with more than 100 miles in my legs.

The slopes were now in shade, which was a pleasant relief, and the gradient ranged between 6-9% over the 18km to the summit. It was a slow, steady climb, which didn’t seem too difficult, but quite a grind after 10 hours and 170km in the saddle.  Flags – alternately yellow then white with red polka dots – advertised the coming of the Tour de France on 10 July, reminding me that Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana would be battling for the yellow jersey in a week’s time. After such a tough day, it was not hard to believe the predictions that this, the fifth and final categorised climb, would be a real decider of the winner of the race.

I counted down the kilometres, taking a drink after each one, and finally arrived at the top at 8pm. I hugged a fellow cyclist in relief, and we exchanged photos before heading back down the valley, shouting allez-allez-allez! to Tour de Force colleagues still battling the slopes.  I reckoned I was about 20th to the top, and about 35 more riders were still on the slopes below me, others having headed straight for the hotel on entering Andorra.  I was able to count down the distance of each rider to the top, and it was clear that many would struggle to make it before dark – a big issue for the Lifers aiming to cover every mile of the Tour.  I spotted my colleague Indy at 8.23pm with 11km still to climb – I shouted encouragement but was concerned that he would not make the summit.  I later found out that he just made it, before being transported back down the mountain in a van.

From the bottom of the slope the TdF signs directed us several km further down the valley to our hotel in Andorra la Vella. I reached the hotel at 9pm, with 215km on the Garmin and after 11 ¼ hours in the saddle.  This day broke all cycling records for me – distance, time, metres of climbing – the lot.  Strava reckons I climbed 6265 metres but I think it may be exaggerating.

I enjoyed a big dinner, beginning to replenish some of the 9,000 calories I had burnt, and a few glasses of red wine, to celebrate having made it.

Monday is rest day – I’ve only done two stages but I think I need it!

TdF – Stage 8 – Col du Tourmalet and more

What a day!

Breakfast was at 6.15, which I am told is a lie in on the Tour de Force, as we didn’t need to make a transfer, we just rode from our hotel. I filled up on bread, cheese and coffee and was ready to set off with the rest of the group at 7.40.  It was cloudy, not too warm, with a light wind – good cycling weather to begin with.

The 45km to the first feed stop were steady to allow everyone to chat and get to know each other. I chatted to Charlie, who lives in Nigeria, and Indy, who lives in Birmingham.  The cycling was easy on flat roads and the conversation good.  The landscape was agricultural and quite pleasant, with wooded hillsides in the distance rising into the mountains.  A hoopoe flow across the road and black kites soared overhead. We passed through the historic town of Lourdes, and Indy and I stopped for photos of the chateau.

After the first feedstop (cake, hazelnuts and banana), we passed through woodland into a stunning river gorge, with rapid flowing turquoise water and steep wooded rocky sides. After 70km we started on the first major climb of the day – the mighty Col du Tourmalet – a 19km ascent taking us to 2100 metres.  The first 10km were surprisingly easy – a steady gradient of between 5-9% on well surfaced roads enabling me to tap out a good rhythm.  The climb got progressively tougher as we rose above the treeline onto rocky slopes, the gradient rising towards the top.  Much of the climb was through damp, misty clouds, so we missed out on the best of the views, but the landscape was still wonderful.  I was pleased to reach the 2nd feedstop for coffee and sandwiches, and a much needed rest before the descent.

Rain jacket on, I plunged downhill, through the clouds and onto the 17km descent. It was fast, but the poor visibility, damp roads, coated in animal poo, and occasional presence of animals in the road caused me to moderate my speed.  The descent was exhilarating but freezing, causing me to sing out load to take my mind off the shivers.

We were soon at the bottom, and ready to tackle the next climb, the Hourquette, which was mostly through pleasant woodland, with variable gradients. Another summit, another feedstop (chocolate covered marshmallows being the highlight) and then another descent – this one narrow, twisty and a bit drier – quite fast but technical – and the highlight of the day for me.  Next climb was up the Col d’Azet, which twisted through pleasant woodland and scenic villages, cowbells jangling in the air.  A pair of Egyptian Vultures passed over the trees, on long, black and white wings, and black redstarts were around the buildings.  Another fun descent took us to the final feedstop by a nice lake, and then the last climb of the day, up to the Col de Peyresourde – a bit of a drag of 7km on 8-9% gradients, quite tough on tired legs.  A long, fast but wet descent took us into Bagneres-de-Luchon, where we found our hotel and enjoyed a warm, refreshing shower.

I returned to the hotel at 6.08pm, having set off at 7.40 this morning – so a very long day. 9 hours in the saddle to cover 186km, and (according to Strava) 5249 metres of climbing!

I now feel remarkably good, but I’ve only done one day. Chapeau to those Lifers who completed today’s ride as their 8th consecutive stage, and must now have 1000 miles in their legs.

Tomorrow is going to be equally tough – but I’m really looking forward to it.

Ready, Steady, Pau!

 

After some lengthy train journeys I’ve reached the foot of the Pyrenees – or at least a hotel on a trading estate on the edge of Pau. I took the train from Plymouth to London yesterday, worked in the ICF London office, caught the Eurostar to Paris last night and then a nice fast SNCF train from Paris to Pau today.  The countryside flew by, but was not particularly interesting, so I’m happy to have bypassed the first few stages of the Tour in order to take in the scenic bits tomorrow.

I’ve been reunited with my bike, which was transported from London on Monday, met up with other Tour de Force riders over dinner, and received our joiners briefing. In a minute I’ll go and look for my ICF colleagues – Nick, Indy, Daniela and Gene – to hear about their ride over the Col d’Aspin today.

I’m very excited about starting my ride tomorrow – which takes in the Col du Tourmalet, Hourquette d’Ancizan, Col de Val Louron-Azet and Col de Peyresourde – before a rapid descent to Bagneres-de-Luchon.

The weather should be fairly cool, with the odd shower – I was worried about the heat but am now more concerned that it might be very cold and wet in the high mountains – but it’s a bit hard to predict.

Can’t wait for the adventure to begin!