Monday, 29 July 2013

London to Paris - part 2 - Calais to Amiens

We slept much better, even with, or maybe due to, the background rumbling of the air-con. It was another early start for the longest day of the trip - 100 miles or so to ride. We wandered down to breakfast and filled ourselves with croissants, bread, ham and cheese - plus a couple of strong coffees and a glass of orange juice - once again our bags were collected and our bikes were out ready and waiting for us. Gary and I set off - Dave was having a lie-in.
waterstop
The first three or four miles around Calais were easy enough, then as we entered open countryside the terrain took on a more ungenerous nature - it was much the same as yesterday - an unrelenting panoply of steep hill and fast descent - each seemingly worse that its predecessor. The sun was hotter still and by the first waterstop we were soaked in sweat. We guzzled the cool, fresh water with a zealous haste and sought relief from the sun in whatever shady corner we could find.

As the day went on the climbing continued, including some long stretches of steep, narrow paths, no better than gravel tracks with edges bare and unprotected. I took my eye off the road for a second to reach for my bottle and rolled off the edge of the road, just enough to cause me to lose balance and within a second i was off the bike - thankfully I wasn't travelling very fast - but I lost skin on my elbow and knee and suffered a nasty bruise to my thigh.

Onwards and upwards the pitiless roads stretched out with dawdling bends and steady upward gradients. Riders are flagging now, sweat-drenched, emptying water bottles over themselves in an attempt to allay the effects of the torrid heat, the July sun, blazing on full power. We hear of a rider who has collapsed - the rumour is sun-stroke. We hear that he's okay and is resting and hoping to rejoin later. This is serious, hard-core riding. I don't remember any mention of the effort required on any of the material that was sent out when we signed up? - But we're here now, doing it, no choice but to keep going.
damaged elbow

Our lunchbreak is another village hall - this one beautifully cool inside - we collapse to the floor along with 30 or so other cyclists - and gradually cool down our core. After a rest of maybe 30 minutes, we press on, the terrain remains the same - there is a cruel rise immediately after lunch, so that the effort makes regurgitation a distinct possibility.

Now we're passing along roads covered with a canopy of dense trees, the sun shines through creating dappled diamonds and oblongs on the road, but it's essentially dark and difficult to see the variations in the road surface. I spotted a couple of interesting wildlife examples - unfortunately both dead. A mole and a red squirrel.

damaged thigh!
As we approach our destination, Amiens, the road flattens slightly - we are treated to a few miles of consistent, smooth road - and then we can see the city below us, we ride the last mile or so along a track next to the river. There is a young man playing an acoustic guitar - 'Don't let me be misunderstood' is the tune. And then we are in the city proper, a few streets and we arrive at our hotel - a Holiday Inn, not as good as the hotel in Calais - but nevertheless a welcome sight. We don't even bother getting changed or having a shower - we are straight into the bar - our faces blank, frayed and drained masks whose physical resource has being pared down to the quick - remember the old film - 'Ice Cold in Alex' where the soldiers are crossing the dessert in a truck - dreaming of a cold beer at the end - it was like that - Gary renamed it - 'Ice Cold in Amiens' - and that first beer was very welcome.

We showered and changed and came down for a supper of spaghetti bolognese - we heard stories of people dropping out and being scooped up - we could understand it - the combination of heat and difficult terrain made the day most demanding. After supper it was immediately to bed again - the effort of all day out on the road takes it toll - sleep is what we need. Gary and I have had problems in the past trying to get home after a few beers, but tonight was different, no excess of beer just extremely tired and a problem remembering room numbers. I went up to the room, Gary was following in the next lift.  Gary arrived at 'the room' and tried the credit card room key to no avail.  Gary knocked on the room, still no response, after more knocking and a few choice words from Gary, I replied, we had a conversation, I opened the door and saw Gary's back to me talking to the room door on the opposite side of the corridor !!!

Statistics:
Max speed: 36.2
Height gained: 5925ft
Max temperature: 105.8f
Miles: 99.52
Calories used: 9286

Ice Cold in Amiens!




The Cathedral at Amiens

Sunday, 28 July 2013

London to Paris - Part 1: London to Dover - and Calais

Tuesday 16th July 2013

We travelled down in the early afternoon. It was hot and sunny and our trip started with all the forethought and seriousness of a proper expedition; our bags were stuffed with enough Lycra to equip a Tour de France team and our bikes were firmly anchored to the roof bars. The journey was relatively easy, no stressful traffic hold-ups and almost before we knew it we were circumnavigating the M25 looking for Croydon.

Croydon is a pleasant residential suburb for commuters into London - it was the location of London's main airport until the second world war and there has been much regeneration since. But we were more interested in the roads - in particular the gradients. We noticed it was hilly. We drove up a long twisting rise that silenced us as we contemplated what the possibility would be of riding up such a gradient on a bike. None according to Gary.

Selsdon Park Hotel
We arrived at The Selsdon Park Hotel and Golf Course - a picturesque country resort, once the seat of the Bishops of Rochester, situated in 205 acres of finely manicured Surrey countryside. It's an impressive looking place. We booked in and took our bags up to the room - which was adequate - but sooooo hot! - it felt as though someone had left the heating on - I tried opening the windows but the security arrangements meant that the maximum aperture was only around 25mm - insufficient!

We adjourned to the bar - the air conditioning was working at full tilt in there and we felt comfortable. It was 4.00pm, we'd already had two pints - this might not go to plan.

As we looked out over the car park we watched more and more cyclists arriving - the anticipation was becoming more noticeable - the palms sweatier. Two more pints and we are watching highlights from the days stage of The Tour on the big screen TV - we are joined by Stephen who introduces himself and asks if we are riding - we enjoy some chit-chat about bikes and training before he wanders off to join the group dining experience in the adjoining restaurant - we didn't bother booking in for that.

At about 7.00pm we are joined by Dave who is riding with us - he got held up at work and then had to get across London in the rush hour - we go down to register and pick up our luggage labels and route maps - and that's it we're about done. We retire to bed early - its and early start tomorrow morning.


Wednesday 17th July 2013

We're up at 5.30 and down for breakfast by 6.00am - the hotel room was unbearably hot, we didn't get much sleep - in fact the whole of the hotel is sauna-like (except the bar - best avoided at this time). The breakfast room is full with cyclists - cursory nods are given in the way of greeting and everyone stocks up on full English with coffee and orange juice.

After that we check out and take our bags down to the awaiting trucks, then get our bikes and join the masses at the front of the hotel. As you might expect there are delays, late arrivals etc and it is 7.20am before we start rolling out of the car park on route for Dover. It's baking hot again, even at this early hour, I suspect it will be tough by midday.

video

There are 150 cyclists suddenly spilling onto the busy roads of Croydon - motorists are impatient; it isn't long before horns are papping and I can hear expletives being exchanged. We make gentle progress through the leafy suburbs before heading into quieter country. The Ministry of Agriculture has to take some blame for what is happening down here - medieval copses have morphed into paintball playgounds or corporate bonding camps. Ancient barns turned over to aromatherapy temples, Hop farms into holiday cottages. As we journey along narrow, untidy roads the peloton forms into separate groups, we're part of a group of 40 or so, strung out single file, so that we snake through the countryside. There is a protocol when riding in a group like this, a series of hand signals to warn those behind of potholes or obstacles in the road, or simple shouts to warn of cars either approaching from behind or in front. The shouts went something like this:
"Car"
"Car up"
"Car"
"Badger"

A dead badger creates quite a hazard to a group descending a hill at maybe 30mph.

Oast Houses
There was quite a long climb up to the first waterstop - by now the field has thinned dramatically - I climb the final half mile alone - having somehow lost the others. We stop at a pub and fill our bidons with fresh water, there are energy bars, bananas and chocolate for those who need it. We fill our bottles take a banana and we're off. The sun is rising and gaining strength as we head deeper into the 'Garden of England'. It's a big shock to be honest; much hillier than we'd expected, and the hills are steep. One after another they roll on - like a natural rollercoaster, all taking place in a shimmering heat-haze. Gary and I get lost around lunchtime - somehow we missed a turning and have to retrace our steps to find the village hall that is our midday stop-off point. Lunch is excellent, a shaded bivouac with trestle tables containing an abundance of freshly prepared dishes for our sustainance. There's bread, cheese, lots of pasta dishes, salads, coleslaw, ham etc etc - plus a good selection of cakey things for dessert - it's all good and we relish a rest in the shade and off the bike.

Soon we're off again - more hills - it really is a relentless grind now - and each one seems a little harder than the one before - all the time the sun is hotter and everyone's pace is distinctively slower than this morning. We pass through a small village 'Wye' and decide to stop at a roadside pub - we have plenty of time before the ferry departure and the heat is making the temptation irresistable. We secure our bikes and step into the bar for a refreshing, cool lager-shandy - perfect. Other riders pass but none join us. We contemplate another but decide to press on.

Just another twenty or so miles to Dover - a few more hills and we're there - the last part of the ride is flat or downhill as we roll into the port and find a space on the grassy patch opposite the ferry terminal - now it's a question of waiting. Our ferry leaves at 5.30 - we have an hour wait. There are people arriving all the time - and a few in our bunch who are missing -  as time presses on I hear the organiser say he will have to go out in the van to scoop them up - just then they arrive in, the last few cyclists, visibly drained and looking tired. This was a tough first stage - and we've still got a few miles to ride in France to get to our hotel.



video


Riding onto the ferry was an experience - a bunch of 150 or so riders holding up the traffic and making its way over various roundabouts, ramps and obstacles before coming to a halt just on the edge of England - The white cliffs were right beside us as we awaited to be checked in/on. The last few yards had to be negotiated on foot, and we were given a complete bay to ourselves for our bikes. By now its about 5.30 - the sun is still strong and the sea calm as we set off across the Channel. We get to the restaurant but there's not much of a selection and I'm still feeling full from lunch - I opt for just a sandwich whilst the others get chicken and chips. Add on the hour time difference and it's near enough 7.30pm by the time we get off the boat in Calais. Then its a ride of about 5 miles to our hotel - This one has air-conditioned rooms (hooray!) - We queue for our room passes, get our bikes sorted, find our bags, get showered and its bed time - no time or energy for a drink at the bar - just need sleep!

Statistics:
Max speed: 30.1 mph
Height gained: 4859ft
Max temperature - 104f
Miles: 85.45
Calories used: 7582


Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Last minute preparation....

As the Tour de France heads South to the sun and the dizzying alpine heights we are preparing for our own trip across the channel - we'll be seeing the finish in Paris next Sunday and this last weekend has seen a flurry of activity.

Firstly, it is just over a year since Gary and I cycled up Mont Ventoux - it seemed fitting then that we should pay homage with a special 'Ventoux Barbeque' - courtesy of Gaz and Val, and utilising his new Weber Smoker. To add to the sense of occasion the Tour organisers kindly arranged a stage of this years race to be run up The Ventoux on the same day - tres bonne!

Aaaaarrrrrrrr!
It was hot, almost stifling. And it was Sunday - work the next day, so massive quantities of wine were to be avoided - beer seemed the best bet - so massive quantities of that instead.

Gary and Val were dressed as pirates (as you do) as was Paul from over the road and his wife Angie - although she insists she was a Somelian pirate. The smoker, which looked like a bouncing bomb turned on end, was a thing of fascination. It's big and looks feintly industrial. It holds maybe half a dozen chickens together with a gallon or so of water and some oak for flavour - it sits there for half a day silently producing succulent, moist and tasty offerings - it kept us going for the whole afternoon and early evening.

a suitable tipple!
We adjourned to the lounge to watch Chris Froome climb up the Ventoux - a display of super human ability by unquestionably the best rider in the Tour this year. I do hope he manages to win - despite the apparent weakness of the Sky team.

As I write this report I'm about to depart for London. We cycle to Dover tomorrow and across to Calais, then a further 15 miles to our accommodation. On Thursday we ride to Amiens, through the Somme region, Friday to Creil and Saturday into Paris. The trip has been made with all the forethought and seriousness of an expedition. We are prepared against the possibilities of storm, drought and starvation. We might in fact have been going for a year and a thousand miles instead of a few hundred and a few days - but no matter - We will be there in Paris for the last day of the Tour, that will be something memorable.

No more posts now until our return - then you'll get the full details!


Paul from over the road

the smoker in action

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Great time-trial for Froome...


After beating up his rivals in the mountains on Saturday, Chris Froome took to the flat and pulverised all his major contenders in a short, fast test both against the clock and his own screaming legs in the individual time trial to move 3min 25sec clear of the field.
Chris Froome - extends his lead 
Was this a knock-out blow, Froome was asked and, just as at Ax 3 Domaines following his magnificent triumph on Saturday, the ever-patient thin man just protested: “No, no. There’s still a long way to go.” Then a moment of satisfaction. “But I’m very happy with the advantage I have.”
It was only the rest of us who felt just the tiniest disappointment that Froome, so impressive in this 11th stage from Avranches to the rocky island, should be beaten by Tony Martin by a mere dozen seconds and that he did not add a second stage win to the one he annexed so majestically in the Pyrenees. That, though, was just being greedy.
In the all-yellow skinsuit so irresistibly reminiscent of Bradley Wiggins powering to his decisive victory in the time trial in the penultimate stage in Chartres last year, there was just a moment as the yellow wonder hammered towards the ‘Wonder of the West’ and one of the iconic sports photos of the year that it looked as if the perfect script would be written.
Martin’s time of 36min 29.87sec for the 33km course had withstood 180 challenges for about five hours, but Froome was ahead of the time-trial specialist at the course’s two checkpoints only to tire slightly over the final kilometres on the sea front and lose out by 12 seconds to the world champion.
Tony Martin shows his injuries from stage 1
Nobody was about to begrudge Martin this particular garland, least of all Froome, considering that 11 days earlier in the opening stage in Corsica, after taking the most horrific fall of anyone in the crash just before the finish, the German had spent a sleepless night suffering from contusions to the lung, concussion and serious skin abrasions. This was a victory, then, astonishing for its resilience and courage.
Anyway, how could Froome be peeved when he looked at the damage he had just done to the men who have ambitions of beating him to the title?
Alejandro Valverde, the Spaniard whom Froome believes is now his major rival, lost two minutes to the Briton; Alberto Contador gave up 2min 3sec (3:54 now overall), Nairo Quintana 3:16 (5:18) and Joaquim Rodríguez 3:17 (5:48). This was a rout, one the climbers ill-suited to this hateful trial had feared.
A scene of rare beauty had greeted Froome for his gentle morning recon with Richie Porte. “It really was picturesque, amazing round Mont Saint-Michel,” Froome said.
Yet in the race itself? Behind his black helmet visor, looking for all the world like Darth Vader in primrose, he was locked in a world of his own, head still and not a trace of his Paula Radcliffe-on-a-bike impression.
“You don’t take any of the pictures in. You just go into tunnel vision.” To start with, it looked pretty plain sailing for the 28-year-old as, last to roll off the start ramp in Avranches, all the work testing his trialling position in the wind tunnel at Southampton University paid off.
Only vaguely aware of the din of thousands along the route, including those Britons who had popped here to Normandy after Tuesday’s stage in Brittany, Froome’s real test, the moment when the trial lived up to its billing as ‘the race of truth’, occurred as he hit a strong headwind along the bay with 2km left.
“I was struggling to turn my legs. I was just trying to get to the finish,” he said. “I had given it everything. I’m going to need every second I can get the way everyone is riding.”
If there was an element of frustration for Sky, it came with the sight of Porte powering to fourth in the time trial, just 1:21 down on Martin. He would now be lying in a strong ­second place but for his calamitous Sunday in the Pyrenees. “Richie showed today he’s certainly not out of this race. I’d expect him to be there in the mountains when we go into Alps,” Froome said.
Already, even with three stages to go before Mont Ventoux, he cannot help thinking of the assaults ahead because Wednesday’s race has left no other option for Sky’s pursuers. “Teams are just going to throw everything they’ve got at us,” he said.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Six times up Alpe D'Huez.....

About a month ago Gary told me about a cyclist, a friend of his boss from work, who was attempting to ride up Alpe D'Huez - six times in one day. Gary and I know what its like to ride in the mountains - this seemed mad.... unbelievable... it would be torture ... why would you?....

It transpired that the cyclist - Graeme Rolinson was attempting to raise money for a prostate cancer charity, we immediately decided to support this worthy cause - and to encourage this nutter to attempt something so utterly ridiculous!

We've now heard back from Graeme, and I've taken the liberty to post his message on this blog - thanks Graeme, you've done something unbelievably special, you'll remember it for ever, you've raised money for a great cause and, hopefully, inspired others to 'do something'.....




Hi Guys,

Thank you both very much for sponsoring my Big Challenge to climb the Alpe D’Huez mountain six times in one day.

My Day started at 2:30am with a quick shower and then on to the first challenge of trying to eat porridge, banana and golden syrup at such an unearthly hour. 

3:15am and I leave my apartment in the resort of Alpe D’Huez, under-dressed for temperatures of just above 0 degrees. Lights on then I was off with hundreds of cyclists descending the mountain. At this point I really wished I was a spectator because the sight was something to behold, even from my point of view on the bike it was amazing although scary at times as some peoples' idea of lights is about 1 lumin and flashing. Not mine I was like an aircraft coming into land.

After about 30 minutes of steady descending we made Borg D’Oisson which was to be our starting point. Here all of the riders gathered until approximately 4:30am when fireworks marked the start of the event. There were somewhere in the region of 5000 cyclists and runners taking part on the day and it took me nearly 25 minutes to crawl through the spectator lined streets of Borg. This is where I got the biggest case of goose pimples I have ever experienced. This is surely the closest I will ever get to experiencing the Grand Depart of a Pro Tour. The crowd, at 4:30am in the morning, are out and way more enthusiastic than we all were. I will never forget this.

At 4:55am I hit the first incline, clunk, clunk, clunk down the gears of my 50/34 12/28 Crank and Cassettes and try to get into a rhythm.  A great feeling but also a very scary one as I start to make my way through the sea of riders covering the right hand side of the road. I discover the best place for me is to float either side of the central white line dodging the descending riders some of whom clearly have night vision as they have little or no lights on.

Doing my research most people said that the first three ramps were the most difficult, with this I do not disagree, but I never found the information listing the fact that the next three are also very tough - especially on cold legs and when you can barely see where you are going and trying to avoid other riders with constant short bursts and changes of pace.

I try to count the hairpin bends down hoping to play mind games with myself. At about the half-way point I suddenly notice it is going light, this in itself gave me a real lift to the point where suddenly I notice that I am turning the last switchback and up the ramp to the resort. This can catch you out as there is still about 2k to go to crest the top and through the resort, but pure adrenalin and achievement wash over me. I pushed through the resort and over the finish line for the first time to loud cheers and applause from even more spectators.

Right then, One down five to go. This can’t be that bad can it?, it seemed like it was over in a flash.

I descend filled with pride as I watch an army of riders grinding out their first ascent.

When I get to the bottom I grab a small soup and set of for my next climb. I hit the first ramp again only this time it feels like they have increased the gradient of the climb. Of course this was not possible, I suddenly realised that the adrenalin was wearing off and now it was time to slug it out. It was much easier to get a rhythm, however it was at a slower pace than the first climb. By this time more spectators were coming out to support, in fact this continued all day and was so special.

Hairpin after Hairpin I count them down until coming into the resort. My wife and children are there waiting and shouting encouragement to me. As I swing past them and under the tunnel I am not afraid to say I felt very emotional, lump in throat and eyes welled up.  I started to think about why I was doing this challenge and suddenly the legs were back. Descending full of pride I started to think of all the people who had sponsored me per climb, I now believed that I could do this challenge and make maximum money for the charity.

Climb three, four and five were just hard work slugging it out and trying to distract myself with whatever support, entertainment or scenery I could look at. By this time I had got the mountain sussed. I knew when to take it steady, when to eat, when to drink, when to take those much needed wet sponges off the helpers at the side of the road.

At the end of climb five I saw one of my work colleagues who had come to spectate, he had been counting all of the teams ascents and suddenly realised that this was my fifth climb. I could see his excitement that I was well on track to complete the planned six and now had four hours to descend and make the final climb. With words of encouragement I pushed onto the top and took a short break eating and drinking whatever I could get my hands on from the volunteers in the resort.

I really enjoyed the last descent. Knowing I had completed five times and I was now on my way to my last ascent. We were staying in Alpe D’huez resort so I had no choice - once at the bottom, if I wanted to get home I had to climb!

I had plenty of time left to complete my climb and did it with a huge smile on my face. Like the first climb it seemed to be over very quick, I am sure this was adrenalin and euphoria. As I approached the last switchback I looked for my family and friends knowing that they would be waiting for me. I had a final kick and there they were, shouting and cheering me on. I had another overwhelming feeling of euphoria and emotion with the obligatory lump in the throat - I knew I was nearly there. I pushed on through the town and finished very strong.

Once off the bike the adrenalin quickly subsides and the tiredness moves in reminding me just how tough this challenge had been. At 8:30pm I hit the pillow and slept a solid eleven and a half hours without moving during my sleep.

Now back in the UK and fully recovered I still have a little smile on my face every time I speak to someone about the challenge.

I really want to finish by thanking you very much for your support of a relative stranger and fellow cyclist. I can tell you that you have helped me raise in the region of £2,000.00 (money still coming in so I do not know the final figure) for a very worthy cause.

Many Thanks & Best Regards

Graeme


Wow! - fantastic achievement Graeme - well done 







Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Another amazing day in the mountains....


This Tour de France is developing into a classic - if they keep this up into Paris it will be one of the greatest Tours in recent years! On Saturday’s stage, Sky looked superhuman, on Sunday they were mere mortals – But one thing is for sure: we knew Froome could deliver a punch. Now we know he can take one.

He countered a day of brutal hills with stubborn determination and legs that stayed strong while his team-mates' went wobbly. Froome rode without protection for 130km of the loopy 168.5km route surviving numerous attacks on the way. Afterwards he called it "one of the hardest days I have ever had on the bike".
Meanwhile Team Sky's principal, Dave Brailsford, sounded almost thrilled that his riders had suffered a swift and sharp rejoinder following Froome's victory on the Ax 3 Domaines. "On Saturday night everyone was saying 'That's it', pulling long faces, game over and let's go and watch the tennis," he said. "That's why this sport and this race is so brilliant."

If Saturday offered giddy delirium for Sky, Sunday was the cycling equivalent of a vicious hangover – with the three riders that had worked hardest to put Froome into yellow suffering most. Peter Kennaugh tumbled down a verge after being clipped by Garmin-Sharp's Ryder Hesjedal. Luckily a bush broke his fall but he was still left with a bloody elbow. Shortly afterwards Richie Porte, who had looked so strong on Saturday, was dropped before coming in 17min 39sec. And Vasili Kiryienka, who had also put in some big turns on Saturday, finished outside the time limit and is now out of the race.

With Froome unprotected, the Movistar team of Alejandro Valverde sensed an opportunity. On the final climb of the day they sent Nairo Quintana, a classic Colombian escarabajo – (flying beetle) – who ascends for fun on the attack. He tried four times to wriggle free up the La Hourquette d'Ancizan, hoping to wound Froome so that Valverde could apply the kill. It never came.

"I felt quite within myself on that last climb but they did go for me," said Froome. "It is not easy to follow Quintana. He is a light little Colombian who can fly up hills so to cover his attacks definitely wasn't easy."
At the finish Brailsford was asked whether Sky's struggles on Sunday had showed his team were not superhuman after all. He nodded, adding: "That's what we keep trying to tell everybody. People don't want to believe it. Maybe they will after today. The bigger picture may not be such a bad thing."
He was supported by David Millar, who said he understood why Team Sky were secretive about the wattage their riders were producing in training and their methods. "If we had their numbers, we would be copying their training files and we'd know what to do to beat them," he said. "It's better for them to remain slightly enigmatic. If you have a recipe which obviously works, why would give away that recipe?"
But it was a day when actions spoke louder than words. On Saturday Sky seemed superhuman. On Sunday they were looking all too mortal.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Chris Froome on the Ax3 Domaines stage....

After my long ride, and a visit to the pub, I settled down to catch up on stage 8 - I'd seen the first part live whilst visiting my Mum, and the race was developing into a classic cat and mouse battle in the mountains - I hadn't anticipated quite how it would turn out though!

This was not so much a statement as a massacre. It took just five kilometres for Chris Froome to leave his rivals stretched so far down the road to Ax 3 Domaines they resembled coloured dots – and to open up a gap in this year's Tour de France that may prove permanent.

Up close, you could see the terrible suffering that Froome's savage tempo had wrought. Alberto Contador's face was contorted, as if undergoing a Chinese burn, as he crossed the line 1min 45sec back. Cadel Evans, the winner of the Tour as recently as 2011, looked all of his 36 years as he struggled in 4:13 behind. For others the pain – and the time deficit – were even worse.
Meanwhile Froome could hardly stop smiling. A plan to put Froome into the yellow jersey in the Tour's first stage in the mountains had worked to perfection. And beyond their wildest dreams.
"This is incredible," Froome said. "We have worked for months to be in this position. Once I pulled clear of the other guys with 4-5km to go, I knew I had to go into almost time-trial mode to take the biggest advantage possible. I definitely wasn't holding anything back. This is the Tour de France. Every second counts. I wasn't trying to save myself."
On this day last year, Froome won a similar stage in the mountains – and watched as Bradley Wiggins became the fifth British rider to wear the yellow jersey. Now Froome has become the sixth, joining Wiggins, Tom Simpson, Chris Boardman, Sean Yates and David Millar.
Everyone remembers last year's Tour as a procession for Team Sky, and in the end it was, but at this point in the race Wiggins led Cadel Evans by only 10 seconds. Froome, however, is already 51 seconds clear of his team-mate Porte and 1m 25 ahead of Alejandro Valverde, with Contador a further 26 seconds behind. It is a big lead. It could be a winning one. Naturally there will be caveats and cautions – there are still another 13 stages and 2,000km worth of racing to go. But the race is now Froome's to lose. He will be expecting to emulate Wiggins in keeping the yellow jersey from now until Paris.

On the eve of the first mountain stage Sky had predicted cagey sparring. Instead they delivered a knockout blow. Initially, while the riders' skin burned in the 33-degree heat, the race simmered for the first 140km. When four riders made a break within the first kilometre of stage eight they found themselves pushing at an open door; the main contenders for general classification bided their time and conserved their energy for what lay ahead. They knew that the 15km climb up the 2,001m Col de Pailhères, the highest in this year's Tour, would act as a natural brake.
It did. Soon the riders were stretched along the road like a piece of string. As the leading group went through the pretty mountain village of Mijanès there was a sign informing them they were 1,139m above sea level. That meant there was still nearly 900 painful metres to go.
At that point the Frenchman Christophe Riblon, who won the stage finish in Ax 3 Domaines in 2010 and was part of the initial breakaway, decided to attack, vaguely hoping for a repeat performance. There were also guerilla attacks from Robert Gesink and Thomas Voeckler that soon fizzled out.
However towards the middle of the climb up the Col de Pailhères Movistar's 22-year-old Colombian, Nairo Quintana, launched a break that had legs. When he was a child Quintana used to ride up a 16km mountain with an 8% ascent to school. The road up the Col de Pailhères was almost identical. No wonder he looked at home. Quintana had a lead of more than a minute going over the summit but that had halved by the descent as Team Sky's group of riders – Kennaugh, Froome and Porte – worked patiently. Behind them, Contador and his Saxo-Tinkoff team watched every move. By now the yellow jersey, Daryl Impey, had slipped back, unable to handle the pace.
With 7km to the summit of the day's final climb to Ax 3 Domaines, Porte steadily sweated up front. Soon Contador was cracking, while everyone else was grimly hanging on. Then, with just over 5km to go, Froome kicked for glory, jumping past Porte and then Quintana and racing alone into the lead.
At the 5km flag he looked around but his rivals were scattered. Now it was time to push on. His teeth were gritted now, the head rocking. As the crowds parted for him and his mouth opened to gasp more of the thin mountain air you could almost detect a smile.
"I was a little surprised at what happened," Froome said . "I expected attacks from more of the GC contenders but I know Richie and I are in really good condition and have been training for months to be in this position."
Afterwards he smiled as he received the yellow jersey before kissing two brunettes on the podium and punching the sky with flowers and his winner's trophy. He better get used to the experience. There will be much more of this in the coming days.

Tour in the mountains - I'm out for another 100.....


There was a shallow layer of humid mist as I set off at 7.30am on Saturday morning - my plan to cycle 40 or 50 miles, return home for a short break then cycle, a round trip, to visit my mother - a further 50 miles. I'm aiming at another 100 miler to add to my collection - my back aches and I'm not looking forward to labouring in the heat, but it's getting close to our Paris challenge - I need the miles.

As the sun quickly burns off the early morning haze, the temperature begins to rise. I pause to quench my thirst and am surprised at how hot and sweaty I have become. I set off again quickly, there is a kind of enervating airlessness, almost stifling and dragging - it is as though the air has been sucked away and we're in a brief vacuum of high summer.

I make good progress and roll back home for a welcome rest and to take on fluids. I remember this technique served us well riding Lands End to John O' Groats - a stop every 30 or 40 miles for half an hour, made each days journey bearable.

I set off to my mothers, taking the longer of the possible routes - now the sun is high in the sky, it is relentless, searching out weakness and punishing those foolish enough to be toiling under its gaze. I stop to drink and wipe my brow. Soon I am riding through Netherseal towards my old house when I am passed by a small car - then there is a relentless 'papping' of a car horn - At first I think it is someone in the small car who recognises me? - then I realise the noise is emanating from behind - I glance over my shoulder - it's Gary returning from a weeks holiday in Suffolk - he shouts through the window as he passes - amazing that we should pass each other. I stop by briefly at his house before continuing my journey - I've covered 60 miles approx at this stage.

It's a tough, sweltering ride through the lanes and villages to Barton under Needwood - i pause again at the top of a rise just before the descent to Walton on Trent - my back is sore and is made worse by the undulations. I lay down in a freshly mown hay field, the sweet smell is welcoming and the cut grass comfortable - I stretch out as best I can and close my eyes to shut out the stabbing sunlight. I'm in the middle of arable and pasture country, a great greenish-white sea of hay. My clothes are soaked from my efforts and the intense heat of the day, I feel my legs starting to cramp and ease off the stretching. There are the smells of cut grass, horses, oil and tractor fumes from the farm adjoining - the smells of animation in the countryside. I press on, not far now to another pit stop.

At my mothers I am greeted with a cold drink and some freshly prepared salad, I enjoy both whilst catching up with the Tour on TV. They're making their way up the first Col - a little Columbian is out front looking comfortable, not even out of breath, making it all look so easy, as the riders start their descent before the final climb to the finish it is time for me to head back - I'm inspired by my viewing and set off at a decent pace on the slightly downhill road through the village back towards Walton - I zoom past people sitting outside pubs enjoying the warmth and sipping cold beer - I decide I'll do the same - later.

The climb up from Walton is a drag - and once again I'm leaking fluids, the sickening blaze of the sun becomes hardly bearable and I welcome the deep violet tinged shadows of a group of trees - my heart is racing as I greedily swallow from my bottle. The next twenty miles are tough and I make slow, laboured progress, my speed fluctuating from around 9mph up the hills to 25 or so on the downhill stretches. I see a rider up ahead turning down the lane that is part of my route - I back off a little - its a question of whether to go hard, catch him, overtake him maybe, but then can I keep up the pace - or will he come back and overtake me? - I sit back, 20 or 30 metres, he glances over his shoulder, he knows I'm there. I estimate he's travelling at around 17mph - easy enough on this road - gradually I creep nearer and then decide to accelerate - all or nothing - I fly past greeting him as I pass - my speed on the increase - 23...25mph, the road is flat - I can hold this for a while - I press a little harder as the road rises slightly and then harder still as the road moves up to the junction. As I turn I glance back - no sign of him! 

Just 10 miles or less to cover now - my mileage shows 91 for the day - I'll make the 100 for the fourth week on the trot - I've moaned about the bad weather - today has tipped the balance beyond what is comfortable for me - I'd like it to be cooler! I climb the final drag up towards home - slowly but consistent. No need to push too hard now - my water bottle is empty, my mouth bone dry, I think about that cold beer and wonder what has happened in the Tour. As my mind wanders I'm passed by a rider who crept up from behind - didn't hear him, he's moving fast - already three or four lengths in front - I instinctively kick but its no good - I'm empty now - drained. I let him go. It wasn't the guy I passed earlier and my scoresheet for the day is more overtaking that overtaken - I don't care anymore! - less than a mile from home and computer says 102miles - It's 5.00pm - I need the shower and then.... the pub. I'll catch the highlights of the Tour later.

.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Tour de France - the mountains....

The 100th Tour de France features six high mountain stages including four mountain-top finishes. Here's a guide to where the Tour might be won...or lost. Settle down in front of the TV - ITV4 - and enjoy!

STAGE 8: Ax3 Domaines
The significance of this one isn't its steepness (not too steep, relatively speaking) nor its length (not too long). It's all down to location, location, location. This is the first mountain top finish of the 2013 Tour, which is the point when the race will truly take shape. The critical factor is that for a stage finish here, the spectacular, narrow and steep ascent of the Port de Pailheres can be included immediately beforehand, with only the descent to Ax-les-Thermes separating the two - quite a combination

STAGE 9: Col de Pevresourde
There are longer Pyrenean climbs and many that are far steeper, but few boast the scenic splendour of this one; the long, sweeping hairpins across a verdant high mountain meadow. the Pevresourde harks back to the first true mountain stage of the Tour in 1910 - when it crossed in the other direction - the long steady climb up from Bagneres de Luchon has been a regular feature ever since.

STAGE 15: Mont Ventoux
A standalone peak south of the Alps, climbed 14 times in the Tour. The Giant of Provence is unremitting from the wide bend at the foot to the final past the observatory at the peak, with dizzying 360 degree views of southern France. It's also unique; a Tour climb that goes up a mountain from the foot to the very top, rather than to a ski resort on a plateau, or over a pass between higher peaks. It's horribly steep with no place to rest - just a direct pull straight to the summit - Gary and I know what this one feels like!

STAGE 18: Alpe d'Huez
If there is one place that sums up the madness of the Tour de France it's the Alpe - the craziest crowds, the toughest gradient and a wealth of history. What's special this year is the riders get to climb it twice, using a newly refurbished descent out of the resort over a second climb, the Col de Sarenne. Ther's no run-in to the Alpe, the peloton comes along the valley then the riders hit the first, and steepest, hairpins - like a wave crashing against a cliff. That instantaneous suffering puts Alpe d'Huez in a class of its own.

STAGE 19: Col de Madeleine
First climbed by the Tour in 1969, the Madeleine has become a regular feature as one of only two routes between the maurienne valley to the south and the Isere to the north. It's evenly graded but unremitting and runs the full gamut of mountain scenery: forest at the foot, flower filled meadow worthy of Heidi up top and a ski resort in the middle with craggy slopes at the summit.  

STAGE 20: Annecy Semnoz
Very, very steep - with a nice restaurant on the top. Spectacular views on a clear day - the final climb of the Tour is also the steepest - like the Ventoux, there is nowhere to rest, no respite as the road twists up the hillside at between 10 and 16% - this one comes when the entire field will be wrung dry after three weeks of racing.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Tour de France - a British institution?....


As the Tour makes progress I was reading some interesting reports: The Tour de France has become a British institution?....

Despite its scandals cycling's big event is now as integral to the UK's sporting summer as Wimbledon and The Open

On it goes, this British love affair with the Tour de France. Perhaps it is time we considered it permanent. The Tour is now wedged snugly into our sporting summer, somewhere between Silverstone and grey clouds, Wimbledon and the Open, Tests and transfer sagas that loop like hamsters along a wheel and get about as far.
Over the past few days in Corsica union flags and English accents have been seen and heard. This is still a novel experience for serial Tour watchers. Cycling News' Stephen Farrand, who has been covering the race since 1998, says that until five years ago one would rarely see more than one or two British flags along a stage route. Now they stand proud and tall in their dozens.
The riders have noticed it too. When Chris Froome spoke to the British press recently he admitted that he was surprised at the swell of support. "The enormous energy and support we have had really is mind-blowing and it's great to see how many people are behind us now," he said.

So, is the Tour becoming embedded firmly into our sporting consciousness, developing roots that will endure when Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish finally retire their cleats?
The evidence is numerical as well as anecdotal. TV viewing figures for the Tour are climbing with the energy of a polka dot jersey contender. In 2012 Wiggins's final-day procession in Paris was watched by an average of 2m viewers on ITV1 and ITV4, compared with the Open's 2.4m on the BBC the same day. If we consider the Open part of the British sporting summer, then surely the Tour should be too?
Those figures were given a sharp uplift by Wiggins wearing yellow and anticipation that Cavendish would win the stage, which he duly did. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. But it is worth noting that ITV4's numbers for the 2011 Tour, when Wiggins crashed out at the end of the first week, showed a 33% rise – greater than in 2012.

Meanwhile British Eurosport, which has covered the Tour for more than 20 years, has a similar story to tell. It says its figures for cycling in 2012 were not a one-year spike, off the back of British yellow jerseys in Paris and gold medals in London, but the continuation of a trend since 2007. It was in 2007, of course, that the Tour invaded the south-east of England like a conquering army. The signs were perhaps obvious then, in the hot crush of that weekend, that cycling had legs as well as wheels.
Three million people dressed the streets in bunting and chalk and then willingly invaded each other's personal space to watch the peloton speed past. Of course there will be some cycling aficionados who sniff that watching the Tour – and ignoring the rest of the sport's rich history and calendar – is the equivalent of tuning in to the World Cup and calling oneself a football fan.

It is true that many people who watch the Tour would not know Roberto Ferrari from Michele Ferrari or be able to name a spring classic. But is that any different from someone who goes to Wimbledon yet would not know a single Masters tennis event? Or a once-a-year gambler who revels in the spills of the Grand National yet thinks the King George is the one who went mad?
What is remarkable is that this growth in cycling has come while the Tour is still trying to extradite itself from the needle and the damage done. Pick your year, name your scandal. Festina in 1998, Operación Puerto in 2006 and the Lance Armstrong revelations last year have all seemed like crushing hammer blows, yet the sport survives and even thrives.
As Sir Dave Brailsford remarked last week: "People still love the Tour de France, despite everything that has happened. When something takes a lot of hits and still keeps on going, it shows it's got resilience."
That is certainly true. But in Britain cycling is not just showing resilience; it is undergoing a renaissance. And with the Tour coming back to these shores in 2014 to visit Yorkshire, Cambridge and all stations en route to London, one suspects it is not going away.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

As the Tour gets underway, I'm on a hat trick....

Gary is away. I'm riding solo this weekend and have a plan to make it three 100s in a row. The idea is sound enough although my eagerness is somewhat dampened by over indulgence at the pub on Friday night; it felt good at the time but the brightness of a fine summer morning and the dry, clagged feeling of my mouth make me realise the error of my ways.

Its 10.30 before I am ready for the grand depart, I have worked out a route that takes in some of what we have ridden for the past couple of Saturdays but also takes in a visit to my dear Mum - I figure I should get to her somewhere around 65 miles, I can refill my water bottle, have a cup of tea and with any luck she'll have a few slices of pork-pie and a couple of egg custards left over.

I set off at a gentle pace, too much alcohol has left me dehydrated and somehow drained - I soon realise this won't be an easy ride - but at least it's warm, no indication of rain, it's a wide green world with acre upon acre of crops pushing upwards to the sun. Riding along past the remnants of a rape field I hear the familiar jangling sound of a corn bunting, no sign of the bird but the sound is enough, ornithologists often describe the corn bunting's song as being like the jangling of keys, the simile holds true.

Up a head I see a group of riders and before I know it I've joined their tail end - they are travelling even slower than me, I decide to just hang at the back and take advantage of a welcome rest. They drag me up the steepish hill to Market Bosworth before veering off to the right. There's a market in town today and I pause to view the hustle and bustle, as people gather and queue for seemingly guilt-free consumption under the banner of a 'farmers' market', a temple to localism, regionalism and specialism. I look at the milling of the weekend crowd, eye-gazing the stalls with blank fascination. Food really has become the new fashion. These people aren't shopping for everyday staples as much as foody stuff: honey and liquorice flavoured mustard, a melange of cheeses, sourdough bread and value-added bottles and jars. People seem happy buying something dribbly with pine nuts and rapeseed oil.

I head off towards the sun but into the wind, my pace quicker now but feeling better than I did an hour ago. I enjoy the silence, no traffic along these quiet lanes, just the slumbrous broken moaning of wood pigeons in the great canopies of sun-dappled leaves. Of all the notes this is the note of summer - the monotonous, soothing, drowsiness of high noon. There is something in it that drugs the bllod and deepens and stupefies the silence of the day. After another hour of riding in the sun I stop and wheel my bike into an open field. I quaff eagerly from my bottle and lie on the dry edges to stretch my aching back. I feel like I could go to sleep - I close my eyes for a second and realise that if I don't move on I will drop off.

I reach my mothers house at around 2.00pm - much later than planned. She's in the garden deadheading and moving plants around. A cup of tea, a cheese salad roll, the obligatory egg custard and half an hour watching The Tour live on TV and its time to set off again. Its harder now - the combination of a long sit down, food and drink and the still draining effects of last night leave me particularly lethargic as I pant up the hill at Walton on Trent. I pick up some momentum into Netherseal and then through to Measham - but my mileage is nowhere near enough. I head back on the first part of the journey from this morning - up into Bosworth for the second time and round to Daddlington and Stoke Golding.
Time to stop at the pub for a pint of whatever they've got - Goats Milk today. I sit outside on the bench adjoining the bar and swallow in the beer in a seemingly continuous, hungry gulp. Time is moving on and I've a fair way still to go. Onwards then through Upton and Shenton, to Far Coton and Congerstone - my calculations show that I'm seven or eight miles short of my target - I carry on past my turning for another four miles, then turn around and head back. At the journeys end I've clocked up 100.7 miles - and I feel tired, weary and grateful to be home. My back is sore and I'm in need of the shower and bed!