Monday, July 28, 2014

Riding to the Tour Part 7 - Home Now

My wife's on nights and the children are both asleep upstairs. All back to normal after our little jaunt to France.

Whilst Ian retained his equilibrium, I had left Limoges a different man to the one who had arrived, with the sort of feeling only sunshine can endow.

The ride up to Paris was surprisingly painless, each 100 mile chunk evaporating effortlessly and we were soon riding into town. However, my bike began to play up once again, cutting out for no reason, leaving me coasting round city roundabouts, desperately thumbing the starter button. We made it, though the problem is no better and a visit to the dealer is on the cards.

Our hotel was poor. The room smelled slightly damp, the wifi was initially intermittent before disappearing completely, and the croissants were the worst of the week. So we did what you should when you have a bad hotel: we went out. We found somewhere for a couple of beers, before meeting some of Ian's friends for a coffee. After wandering around aimlessly for a while we managed to pay far too much for far too little food and drink, though we also sorted a table for me to work at the next day, before heading back to the hole.

I was up early on Sunday to cover La Course for Cycling Weekly. The event was a women's race organised as part of the final day of the Tour de France. Apart from my extreme sunburn, the day seems to have been a resounding success and a good step in promoting women's cycling. There are issues, however this is not the place for them.

I had two articles to write and met Ian in the prearranged bar and began to work. It was hot and sweat was dripping onto my keyboard. I had interviews to transcribe and two pieces to write, finally completing the task just as Kittel won the Tour stage one kilometre away.

Ian had sat with me while I worked but our partnership was finally broken on the way home when I absent mindedly missed the M25 junction, waving dumbly as Ian headed off. By the time I had nursed the bike home and into the garage, I'd ridden 2002 miles and learnt that I'll never be any good at motorcycling.

It was a great week, the highlight was probably watching Stage 17 from a position above the road on the final climb. I always love the high mountains and riding the Tourmalet was brilliant, despite my ineptitude.

It was my 14th consecutive year going abroad on the bike. Each has been different, places and personnel never the same. Some years have been better than others.
Each trip has become progressively more expensive, it's not cheap and next year time off will be at a premium. Whether there'll be another I don't know.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Riding to the Tour - Part 6

If the first day was about rain, then today was more so. I've ridden in worse rain, but never worse conditions, and that includes a ride from Norwich to Cambridge through snow flurries.

We knew it was coming but hatched a plan to take in reverse the route we'd ridden between Montauban and Lourdes. No, not pushing the bikes backwards.

Grey clouds were floating around Lourdes when we left and, for a while it was as if they were chasing us. They weren't, we didn't realise, but we were chasing them.

I thought for a while we'd get away with it. We rode from Tarbes towards Auch, dodging the rain, though the roads were damp in places. Finally, however, the rain came as we reached the suburbs of Auch.

This caused a change of plan which saw us head on major roads to Toulouse to get on the autoroute, as opposed to taking the minor one we had planned. Other than a lack of petrol stations it was OK to start, but at Toulouse the end of the world arrived.

Incredible rain and high winds are bad enough, but the flashing lightening was a massive distraction. Spray reduced visibility to about 100 metres and it was dark. Somehow spray reached the inside of my visor, so I was unable to clear it at all. Then, just before the motorway services appeared through the gloom, through all this chaos came the sweet smell of freshly sawn wood, like some sort if Devine approval.

We needed to stop to regain a sense of perspective.

Coffee and food saw us on our way, but only five miles later, under blue skies, on fast drying roads, at the péage. The bike cut out.

Calls to the breakdown company, to the BMW dealer and much swearing the problem was cured and we resumed the race north to Limoges. Behind us and to the left, the sky looked as if a child had brushed huge strokes of dark grey-black and we raced it all the way to Brive where it caught us.

After all that, to add insult to injury, there is beer but no bar in the hotel.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Riding to the Tour - Part 5

Another day at the Tour.

It started cloudy and never got much much better, though I still managed to get sun burn on those parts I hadn't covered. I have burnt ankles.

What a day though. We left the hotel and made our way past the bottom of today's final climb climbing the final descent of the race. At the top of the Col de Tourmalet weset up shop right by the King of the Mountains line.

Pre-race life on the Tourmalet
Sat on the wall above the road we watched the Tour world go by.
Recreational cyclists came and went, most wanting to have their photo taken at the top; gendarmes shouted at them and told them not to lean their bikes against the advertising hoardings. Crowds gathered outside the café, the caravane came and went in a barrage of disposable joy and families sat and waited.

Waiting is a major part of watching bicycle races. And we waited.

The distant cloud which had hung around over the bottom of the valley rolled in and became fog and we froze. Our leathers, chained to the bikes down the mountain, became objects of desire. I shivered.

Then Bernard Hinault arrived in his Skoda. And team cars. Soigneurs spread out on the road beneath us, their bags filled with bottles and newspapers.

The rider experience of the descent must have been a contrast from the ascent. They tumbled down the mountain alone, like a club run but with a few cars following, there were few people to cheer on one of the most dramatic parts of the race.

Tumbling down the mountain alone
Once the race was gone, we rode our bikes through pedestrians and cycles, all following their heroes through the beautiful wilderness. We fought with traffic and humidity, then drank beer, ate, chatted with the waiter and went to bed happy.

Who did win Stage 18?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Riding to the Tour - Part 4

After a night drinking Leffe, on Wednesday morning we were on the mountain to see our first stage of the Tour. 

Bearing in mind where we are, I can't complain too much about the large groups of cyclists riding four abreast, though it did serve up some incredibly tedious riding. even the descent of the Col d'Aspin was torturous. It's steep and tight, but the only overtakes possible were by bicycles, their skilled riders whistling passed us effortlessly, while we spent most of the ride in first gear too close to the stuttering bumper of yet another metallic brown Renault Scenic.

When we finally arrived in Soulan the simple act of purchasing food set the tone for the rest of the day, when it became one of those magic moments where people with no language in common make themselves understood with a smile. It was one of those times when the hassles of travel are made worth it. 

We parked and changed into our shorts, then carried our leathers up the hill to a place high  on a wall above the first turn on the Pla d'Adet climb, where we sat and baked gently in the boiling sun watching the crowd build and build.

Our view for  the day
The atmosphere was magic, every France TV car was cheered, many cyclists received a round of applause and a lone violinist standing by the road provided the soundtrack.

When the race arrived the applause, the cheering rose up the mountain, as if the competitors were riding a wave of noise, though I'm sure it didn't feel that way. As the the leaders rounded the bend the emotion was palpable. Real happiness, genuine appreciation.

The laughing group make their way through the crowds
Each rider, each group got the same; the leaders, the yellow jersey, the auto bus, they even clapped the broom wagon and its blacked out windows.  

With the riders all gone, before the stage was over, everyone began walking down the hill.

We found our bikes, said hello to Dave Brailsford and wound our way through thousands of cars, bikes and motorcycles to get back to Lourdes.

Well away from the race and it's followers, a group the green helmeted, Kawasaki riding moto regulators (you've seen them on the TV) forced their way past us. We tagged on, lost them at a péage, caught them on the autoroute and followed them for 40 miles of high speed formation brilliance.

A perfect end to a great day.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Riding to the Tour - Part 3

The light shining through the golden pattern on the curtains promised much, but instead we were greeted with cool temperatures and a flat featureless sky. The weather matched our mood, a mix of beer and wine had served to ensure we were not feeling our best when we left Cahors.

Cahors is a nice town. Built on a hill, it has that Mediterranean air and, despite the screaming two-stroke scooters blasting up and down the street, it also felt a little sleepy. That feeling was accentuated by the fact most of the bars and restaurants were closed as it was Monday.

Whatever, Ian managed to find a foie gras and duck pizza. I had lamb chops and we shared bottle of local red wine. Cahors is the home of Malbec, and ours showed nothing of the tough, tannic character of yore, so avoid the Argentinian tat and keep it local (ish.)

Jaded as we were, the first part of our ride down to Lourdes was spent on the motorway. We turned off at Montauban, which owns one of the most disgusting and endless retail areas: mile after mile of car parks and plastic buildings selling stuff no one needds. The city itself looks lovely and the sun finally broke through, so it can't be all that bad.

Our great ride across country to Auch then Tarbes was sullied by increasing anxiety, as my bike began to cut out when slowing down.  Riding round a roundabout pressing the starter button is not a great feeling. It turned out I'd fed the thing too much 95RON petrol and good dose of Super sorted it.

Summer in France
The top of the Tourmalet was in cloud and it was cold, though there was no shortage to of people. All the way up from Campan camper vans lined the roads, hundreds of them, flags out, people sitting on deck chairs: an impromptu community all created for a bike race still two days away.

The descent to the base of the Hautacam has been resurfaced and is a delight to ride a motorbike on. It's fast for a mountain road and plunges down the mountain predictably, bend after bend to hone those skills and scare the goats. It could be the best road I've ever ridden.

Lourdes is full to bursting,people everywhere, out hotel is full. The tour is in town.

Today the weather and roads came together to create an great day on the bike. Tomorrow we hope to find somewhere to watch the Tour stage, near the bottom of Pla d'Adet.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Riding to the Tour Part 2

Two more contrasting days on a motorbike holiday you could not find.
Not quite true, but today's 257 mile ride through the Massif Centrale was a stark contrast from yesterday's motorway dirge, even our hotel in Cahors is a pleasant change, there are carpets and everything.

Kyriad Montluçon. Nice.
Yesterday's hotel matched the town, underwhelming used and slightly grubby. After a brief wander around, we found a restaurant where we ate a burger of questionable origin served by staff who nearly smiled.

This is France.

This morning we set off under threatening grey skies, the forecast had been a 60% chance of rain, so we were both prepared for another soaking. Fortunately it wasn't to be. Most of the day was spent winding through the hills and roads of central France, black clouds never quite getting above us and the roads stayed dry in spite.

Our route took us from Montluçon to Riom and the Volvic factory, then through the hills proper to Aurillac, where I put on summer gloves and the sun came out for the first time. It might have been the sun, but by the time we were beyond Figéac there was a change in our surroundings, the earth was redder and the vegetation more scrubby. It felt hot and it looked hot.

A missed turn meant we ended up on the Autoroute for a few miles before the sat nav, now reloaded with the maps it decided to delete yesterday,  took us down a tiny, steep, narrow road, the sort only a sat nav would send a traveller along.

Unusually it was beautiful, like much of the countryside we had seen today, and brought us out very near the city centre, where, for the first time today, the roads twinkled in the sun, soaked from a summer storm.

Tomorrow the Pyrenées.

Ian nails the exit of the day's first hairpin
I negotiate with the first hairpin

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Riding to the Tour Part 1

I started this blog a few years ago to write about our annual motorbike trip to Europe, though other things have taken it over during the last  few years.

In the last year other things have taken over from the blog and it has fallen by the wayside, so much so that I am yet to finish the write up of last year's motorbike trip and won't bother now. To make sure it gets done this year, I hope to blog each day, so make sure you follow our adventures.

Last year we went to the Alps to see the final week of the Tour de France. We visited every stage and became a little bit of slave to it, so this year will be different, we're only going to three stages including Paris, where I will have commitments around the women's race.

The final mountains of this year's Tour are in the Pyrenées, so today we set off at 4.45am on the long run South to Montluçon. It started well, the dawn revealing blue skies and summer mist resting gently on golden fields of wheat. It didn't stay that way.

Today has been a waterproofs on, waterproofs off kind of day. Some of the heaviest rain I've ridden in,  road markings disappearing beneath a silver maelstrom of water, droplets stinging my fingers and hammering on relentlessly on my helmet. It's been horrible.

In that weather, 520 miles is a long way to ride for a hotel on a tatty retail park.

What have we learned?
1. Trust the forecast on the Metéo France iPhone app. It predicted a 100% chance of rain.
2. Riding the Peripherique in Paris is better listening to Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd.
3. The miles and hours go faster when you accept they won't, when you welcome the discomfort and embrace the misery.

A beer please mademoiselle.