The Final Word…

Thank you to everyone who has followed Martin and my progress through this blog. It has been wonderful to have your support and interest and your comments have spurred us on. I will just finish with a few thoughts about the experience before I’m back into farming and everyday life again.

What are some of the things I will I always remember?

My increased awe and admiration for the professional cyclists who RACED over this incredibly challenging course, (and who will probably be off to take part in other races next week..).

The yellow arrow men and their brilliant work signing all the routes.  They drove past us on the way to Paris and gave us a wave!

The stunning Alpine scenery, and the ‘How the hell did we get up here?’ feeling at the top of some of the mountains.

The support we had from the Tour spectators – the numerous shouts of ‘Courage’ and ‘Allez’ which were invaluable in helping us to keep going up the climbs.

The banter and hilarity from our back-up team – them making us laugh kept us going on many days.

The brilliant and unique Tour de France atmosphere.

The mad Tour ‘Caravan’ – have never had so many random product samples thrown at me from speeding cars before

Crazy French motorists, (and even crazier french cyclists who descended the mountain stages at speeds I wouldn’t dream of attempting).

More campervans to the square mile than I have ever seen before.

Wonderful french meals, (on those occasions when we made it to the hotel and the restaurant was still open..).

And most of all the incredible support we received – Ali, Andy, Rachel, Matt, Alastair, Mark and Georgie in the back-up team, Mr and Mrs Vet on the health and nutrition advice, my physio, Tony Farmer, for sorting out my knee and telling me how to keep it working all through the trip, the warmth and generosity of our hosts on the way – Dave and Jenny in Bradford, Gareth and Jacob in Cambridge, and Katharine and Daniel in Paris – the workers back at Liberty Farm for holding the fort and doing my work for me while I was away, (thank you especially to Marianne, who did the milking for 26 straight days without a break).  A big thank you to Martin – for being as crazy as me in agreeing to attempt the Tour challenge and for the loan of his brilliant, high-spec bike when mine started to fall to pieces.  Thank you to everyone who has sponsored us in aid of the RSPB and Bridewell Therapeutic Gardens. And finally – thank you Ali for everything you have done to support me to achieve my life-time ambition of riding the entire Tour de France route.  They said it was a crazy plan and it couldn’t be done by two blokes in their 50s but WE DID IT!

 

 

 

Stages 20 and 21 – filling in the gaps…

Stage 20:  Time trial from Bergerac to Perigeux (54 km).

Most years the Tour includes 3 time trial stages, the first of which, (the Prologue), is usually only about 15 km long, (that would have been nice!).  This year, to reduce the dominance of time trial specialists, the organisers decided to have only one.

We had to make use of clever map-reading to find the start as most of Bergerac was closed off in preparation for the official stage the next day.  Finally we located it but less than a minute after parking the van a gendarme came over and said ‘you can’t stop there’.  Mark used his powers of persuasion, and achieved a grudging ‘deux minuits seulement’ so good job we’ve now had a fair bit of practice at assembling the bikes and getting ready for the off.

Shocked by a total lack of yellow arrows – just some blue ones, which fizzled out well before the end of the route, (the blue arrow men obviously don’t have the committment of the yellow arrow men).  Although short, the stage was not easy, as there were plenty of sharp climbs.  We had lots of  cyclists for company today – where were they all on the mountain stages??  Many of them got lost with us towards the finish and a group of us rode one 20 minute circuit only to finish back where we started, (that’s a few extra km on the sheet).

Found Mark, parked opposite the Monoprix, (time for a quick shopping trip to buy some wine), and then we put the bikes in the van and set off to drive the 554 miles to Paris, leaving Mark by the side of the road to hitch 250 miles to Perpignan, (his idea, not ours!).  We found out later that it took him 23 hours, and he spent most of the night walking.  Definite nomination for greatest sacrifice shown by a memberof the back-up team..

With the help of Alastair’s sat-nav we arrived at the flat in Paris bang on time, actually 10 minutes before Ali, Jane and Ellen, who came over on the Eurostar. They were as much impressed by that as with any of our other achievements.  Happy reunion of cyclists and family.

We were very fortunate to be able to stay with Katharine and Daniel Singleton-Smith in their central Paris flat – great hospitality and support which was much appreciated.  Thanks very much!

 

Stage 21:  Evry to Paris, (137.5 km)

Having driven into Paris yesterday, it was today’s task to travel back out again with our bikes and to ride into the city to complete the final stage of the Tour.  Ali had previously given a point blank refusal re. any idea of her driving the van through Paris, so she researched getting to the stage start by train.  Luckily Evry is on the RER D-line, about 35 minutes from central Paris and you can take your bikes on the train without any need to book, (so much better than the ‘you can take your bike if there’s room’ policy on UK trains which is less than useless if you need to plan a trip with your bike).  Katharine kindly drove ahead of us to the Stadt de France – a good place to park the van free for the weekend, and handy for the train station. It was equally handy when we came to pick up the van later on – the stadium is hard to miss!

Travelled en famille out to the start. Ellen liked the ‘double decker’ train.  It was a gloriously hot and sunny day for the last day’s riding and it didn’t take us long to find the route, (hooray for the return of the yellow arrows).  Most of the stage was pretty quiet, passing through wheatfields and along small roads, until we got closer to the Seine when it got steadily busier and busier.  By the time we reached the Champs Elysees it was total traffic chaos – multiple lanes of traffic, (between 4 and 12 lanes in different sections), and an apparent free-for-all in terms of rights of way – cars, buses, taxis, police…  Ali wouldn’t have been able to take a photo of us without being run over.  The massive roundabout around the Arc du Triomphe has a ‘give way to people coming on to the roundabout’ rule – at least that’s what seemed to be happening.

We decided to take a break in the Tuilerie gardens for an ice-cream and to think about what to do next.  Martin sensibly decided that he didn’t want to risk being knocked off his bike on the last day of the trip so voted not to ride the 8 laps around the Arc du Triomphe/Louvre/Needles/Champs Elysees circuit.  I couldn’t bring myself not to do it, so set off to do one lap to see how long it would take me.  The answer was 35 minutes, which gave me an eta of 9pm for finishing my final Tour stage.   Not especially late compared to many of the other stage finishes!  The Tour spectators, (Ali, Jane and Ellen), weren’t so keen that they wanted to see me on each circuit round, (and Ali was not very happy to have additional stress re. my health and safety right at the end of the ride). So – we didn’t get to have the grand finish we had envisioned – no photo of us crossing the finishing line –  but the good news was that I didn’t get run over, and I did get quicker with each circuit as I learnt how best to negotiate the traffic lanes.  Achieved a personal best of 21 minutes for the penultimate circuit.

Ellen presented us both with a cycling trophy engraved with ‘Tour de France Hero 2014’, and Jane produced a ‘Well Done Martin and Pete’ banner, (which she was still busy sewing while on the Eurostar and on the train back from Evry!).

It felt unreal to have finally reached our destination – no more stages to cycle.  Huge sense of satisfaction and relief that we had both made it to the finish in one piece.  It’s been one of the best experiences of my life and a life-time ambition realised.

Later on, relaxing back at the flat, Katharine was asking Martin about the trip and about how much we had cycled together.  His response –  that we are ‘basically completely incompatible as cycling partners’ – amused her!   (‘You’ll have to put that in the blog!’).

Had a great rest of the weekend in Paris.  Daniel was concerned that our leg muscles didn’t seize up, and sent us off to Monmartre to climb the 300 steps to the top of the Sacre Coeur, (fantastic view over the city but very shaky legs when we got to the bottom again).

Mission accomplished!

Against all the odds we have arrived on the Champs Élysées today, completing all 21stages of the Tour de France, over 2300 miles in 3 weeks.  We can’t quite believe it. Thanks to everyone who has helped and supported us – we couldn’t have done it without you. What a great team we have had.  Now off to celebrate!  Thanks very much to Katharine and Daniel for your great hospitality here in Paris. Merci Beaucoup

The View from the Van…

What you’ve all been waiting for – Alastair Forbes’ account of the Tour from his and Matt Browning’s perspective while supporting week 2 of the venture…. (‘vigorous’ language alert!)

The Arrival of the Sunshine Team

Flew into Basle on Sunday evening about 9:30. Picked up by Andy Mac & Rachel, who spent the trip back to the hotel giving us invaluable but rather alarming tips as the best way to manage our Little Lambs.

Day One– The Rest Day

Most people end the week with a day off. We started with one. To give us a flavour of the extraordinary affair that is the Tour we all tooled off to watch the Professionals ride through. This took the form of walking halfway up a bloody great hill to stand at the side of the road for 2½ hours in the pissing rain with a succession of Skoda’s driving past with inanely grinning promo-people throwing useless crap out of the window. Eventually the real thing arrived and a series of bikes came past, most of them hidden from public view by police cars and outriders. After a further half an hour of waiting for all the stragglers to pass we all trooped back down the hill.

Day Two – Stage 11

The real thing now. No MCaney’s to advise us.

We left the hotel and drove ninety minutes to drop The Lambs off at the start point. A useful start in my mission to educate the locals as to the correct side of the road on which to drive. A little game of chicken with a 38 Ton Artic combined with my co-pilots squawks convinced me that the educational mission should be restricted to Anglo-Saxon abuse and gestures. We then went shopping for the frightening amount of food and drink needed to keep the Lambs pedalling. This is not as easy as you might think since most French shops seem like Brigadoon – only open once a century. We then made our way to the first stopping point .

Finding and feeding the lads was easy today and the Sunshine Team were coming to the conclusion that this was going to be a doddle. Our first hint of trouble ahead came when we found ourselves thundering up the motorway to our hotel for the night in order to book in and make puppy –dog eyes at the manager in order t o be allowed to sit down to dinner late. This accomplished we thundered back down the motorway to collect The Lambs before another charge up the bloody road to meet the deadline for dinner. We need to improve on the logistics. Yeah, right. We’ve got two chances – thin and sod all

Day Three – Stage 12

The van is developing a character all of its own. It smells like a Turkish wrestler’s jock strap. Had expected a certain odour bearing in mind the amount of sweat involved in this venture, but this stench is biblical.

The Sunshine Team dropped its first bollock today, (apart from a couple of roundabout hick-ups, which don’t really count – no one got hurt. Despite my best efforts). We had forgotten to add salt to The Lambs water on the previous day, so we decided to average things out by doubling the dose today. Good thinking, yes? No. The Lambs don’t complain much but they did today riding up Mount Horrible parched with thirst. Good thing they did moan though – we were planning on doubling the dose again tomorrow

Journey’s end today was St Etienne. It sounds a charming name, but don’t be deceived. If France had piles, that’s where they’d be. It is an armpit of a place. Again we had an untroubled day feeding and watering The Lambs but as yesterday the problems arose in the latter stages. In the evening we had broken away from the route to race to our hotel. Again we employed our boyish charms to try and keep the kitchen open, but without success. So we thought a meal in St Etienne would serve our purpose. Nine-Thirty in the evening and the entire shithole was shut. Back to the hotel where our brave boys had to content themselves with the remnants of the van food and the Sunshine Team contented themselves with half a dozen beers.

Day Four – Stage 13

Bit of a Dark Night of The Soul for the Lambs. After a trying day yesterday Pete and Martin were experiencing doubts about their ability to finish today. There was a plan to omit the first 50K and try and make it up somehow later. We of course had no doubts as to their capabilities but we were in no position to judge – after all we hadn’t ridden all day in the baking heat before going to bed without a decent meal. Happily they rallied and decided to give it a go. With the success that we had always known would result. Not that it was easy, today was hot. Very hot and humid.

On the brighter side a major source of the revolting van smell has been isolated and expelled. Turns out it was some soft cheese that Matt swears improves in flavour as a result of fermenting in a roasting hot van for two days.

We had been unable to contact the hotel by phone all day so decided to try and find something in Grenoble. Unfortunately we ended up in a two hour traffic jam. So, we had the Lambs being in vital need of regular pit-stops, and The Team running late. Thankfully Andy and Rachel were in the area so kindly did the shopping for us. Cheers M’Dears!

The whole affair ended for the Lambs with a sodding great mountain.

At the 9:30 conclusion we still had to drive to Grenoble and the joy of attempting to find a hotel. We eventually found one, but not before Pete had shown off his skills as a rally driver around the city. You think a van can’t corner on two wheels? Think again.

Day Five – Stage 14

Today is the day I think of as the Alps day. The Lambs had already been up some pretty dramatic slopes, but today we were pretty much up and down mountains all day. At breakfast Pete was surveying the map without joy as there were three hill climbs, one of them 32km in length. Hills aren’t his favourite subject. You’ll read in his blog about the wonderful scenery and its true; words can’t describe it fully. What you won’t have read was a particularly gruesome description of the blister on his arse that he treated us to over breakfast

Another gruelling day finished at about 9:30 but this time we had had the foresight to contact the hotel and tell them we were going to be late, so we enjoyed the first decent dinner in two days in Risoul. We then travelled for 1½ hours to the hotel. Which was in darkness. It seems that with our pigeon French we had failed to understand that we were supposed to use a keypad on the back door and then make our way to our rooms. Instead we knocked up the proprietress at one in the morning. She was in her night attire. She wasn’t best pleased. She was even less pleased when Martin dragged his case noisily across the flagstones and I slammed the van door with a crash you could have heard in Paris. Considered asking for a nightcap but thought better of it!

Day Six – Stage 15

I was fully expecting a bollocking from the Dragon Lady this morning. Fortunately she seemed to have calmed down. In any case I grovelled with a will as I paid the bill and all was peace and harmony as we departed Tallard. Mind you I don’t think I’ll be returning any time soon

The Lambs had informed us that today would be potentially even more challenging than the last few as it was long, the day was hot and there was a chance of the dreaded Mistral wind blowing. We were not delighted by this news as this was our last day on duty and we were buggered if they were going to countenance failure on our watch. I reminded Pete that I had purchased an Alpine walking stick, (you know the ones, a big knob on one end and a sharp spike on the other) with this very thought in mind.

As it turned out the only wind that blew was right behind them and what with that and the ever present threat of the spiked stick, our brave boys arrived in Nimes. For once the hotel was a) on the same continent and b) open, so we had already booked in and had the keypad system properly explained to us so we were able to relax for an hour or two in Nimes.

The Return

After an extraordinary week The Sunshine Team returns home today. We just had time for one more panic. For some reason both Matt and I thought we were flying at 2:00 pm and planned our morning accordingly. It was only on checking our boarding passes that we realised we were flying at 1:00pm.

In a way the last minute rush and hair-raising trip to the airport that ensued was an appropriate end to our week in charge of our Little Lambs!

I wrote this little epistle, and usually I wouldn’t presume to put words in the mouth of my co-conspirator Matt Browning, but I know I speak for us both when I say that we have both been filled with admiration and awe for what Pete and Martin have already achieved and will achieve. it’s been a privilege and a pleasure to be a small part of the adventure.

Thanks boys we had a ball, we really did

Stage 19

Stage 19:  Maubourguet to Bergerac (208.5 km)

With the mountains behind us and Paris in our sights we had an ‘all downhill to the finish’ feeling this morning which turned out to be a bit optimistic.  Although categorised as ‘flat’, and described by the Guardian’s William Fotheringham as ‘not super-demanding’, (I’ll bet he hasn’t ridden it….),  today’s stage was actually pretty tough going.  It was constantly undulating and the climbs, although short, were sometimes steeper than yesterday’s mountain roads. And it was hot – 32 degrees C or so.

We started the day as usual, with a cheery wave from the men in the direction arrow van – we know each other pretty well now!  I was keen to blag a few more arrows for our collection, (don’t laugh – they are very sought after),  and today the chaps were handing them out all over the place.  There was a farmer waiting to come out of a side road with some hay and the arrow man posted an arrow on the spike at the front of his tractor.

A big thank you to Mark Gough for providing this week’s back-up support.  He was plunged in at the deep end with driving in the Pyrenees and he’s been great, (apart from the time he nearly knocked one of us off our bikes…).

We are back in wine-growing landscape – very scenic, and on the last climb into Montbazilliac I recognised a hotel/restaurant where I had once had a great meal, (many holidays ago).

Did make it to our own hotel tonight but not sure how much sleep we’ll get as there is a massive outdoor cinema screen in the field opposite which is showing ‘How to Tame your Dragon 2’  with maximum volume audio to a huge audience of children, (at 11.30pm!). Must be the school holidays.  Enjoyed a fabulous ‘menu terroir’ in the restaurant earlier though – my first taste of ‘razor fish’.

Ali is coming out to join me in Paris for the weekend so there may be a hiatus in the blog depending on her access to wi-fi – will hope to post a ‘Grand Arrivee’ message!

 

 

Last stage in the Pyrenees

Stage 18:  Pau to Hautacam (145.5 km)

The last mountain stage of the Tour today and for once everything went to plan and we both reached the top of the Hautacam with time to enjoy our achievement – felt quite delirious as we stood there in the mist.  Mark timed his arrival to perfection, getting to the summit in the van when we were about 200m from the top.  At last all the mountains are behind us.  Martin would have been significantly poorer today if we had installed the ‘swear box’ we threatened when Alastair joined us….  We have now both conquered the Tourmelet twice – we rode it as part of the ‘Etape du Tour’ amateur race several years ago.  We had lots of company going up it today, with most cyclists setting off much too fast at the start.  They all passed me at the bottom of the climb and I caught them up and overtook them further up.  Not many decided to carry on to climb the Hautacam.

Cows everywhere today, grazing in the mountain pastures.  They seemed quite chilled about the invasion of cyclists, campervans and people.  Came upon a small traffic jam caused by a cow standing in the middle of the road.  Lots of people trying to shoo it away and it just stood there staring at everyone and chewing contentedly – this is my pasture – who the hell are you?? One thing I do know is how to communicate with cows and it was happy to let me past.

Another day with masses of support from Tour spectators – real sense of carnival with ‘pop-up’ cafes and creperies on the mountain verges.  Skies full of birds of prey – I saw about 50 or 60  Red Kites, (I think!).

The back-up team were tasked with purchasing some more chamois cream for us today, (Ali researched this before we left, thinking of how many hours we would spend in the saddle and Martin quickly joined me in using it every day).  Georgie wasn’t sure how to communicate what it was she needed, and ended up saying ‘Mucho cycling – derriere rouge…’   She did end up with the right stuff!

Overlap with the official Tour..

Stage 17:  Saint-Gaudens to St Lary Pla d’Adet (124.5 km)

Our second stage in the Pyrenees today – 100km shorter than yesterday’s, so we were optimistic about finishing at a reasonable hour, with time to savour the experience and enjoy a leisurely meal.  But that’s not how this week is going so far…  We hadn’t realised that Stages 16 and 17 overlapped slightly – not by very much, but it was enough to hold us up for 3 and a half hours, while we waited for the road to re-open. Never seen so many cyclists in one place! Was great to be able to see the professional riders again, but we had hoped we could sneak past once they had gone through, (as we did last time this happened).  However, the gendarme on duty was a ‘more than my job’s worth’ type who made it clear that if we knew what was good for us we would do what we were told and wait until he said we could go.  The good news was that I amassed a great cache of Tour souvenirs -T-shirt, hat, bag etc!

So – yet another really late finish, with a long and ‘unremittingly steep’ climb up the St Lary.  That was the least of the challenge – being so late meant that we got mixed up in the convoy of articulated lorries carrying all the official Tour equipment up the mountain, (the barriers, finish structures etc).  Complete mayhem.  Then one of the lorries jack-knifed on a corner bringing everything to a standstill, (and causing Martin and his bike to fall slowly sideways into the ditch when he couldn’t get his shoes unclipped from the pedals in time.  Luckily there were no further injuries to add to the ones he suffered last week).

We then had to travel in the van back down the mountain as more Tour convoy went up, (think we were on the receiving end of a fair amount of abuse..).

Farcical end to the day when we reached the town and Mark ran ahead to get a table in one of the restaurants with us to follow.  Communication between us to find out where he was proved difficult when I found I had mislaid my phone, Mark had left his in the van and Martin couldn’t work out how to operate his….. who says we are organisationally challenged? (I DO… (Ali)) We did eventually find each other and luckily the meal was well worth the effort.

Only 338 miles to go.