147 mile stage through the Pyrenees

Stage 16:  Carcassonne to Bagneres de Luchon (237.5 km)

Today’s Pyrenean Mountain stage was also the Tour’s longest, so we started at 7am to give ourselves a fighting chance of finishing it before nightfall.  Just as well we did as the conditions did not help us – a gale force wind in our faces and plenty of rain. We also got lost along the way which cost us an extra hour. How could the yellow arrows have let us down?  As an additional test to our stamina we were without any back-up support for 5 hours while waiting for Mark to arrive and catch us up in the van.  He met me about 5km from the final climb, (the Port de Bales), which just got steeper and steeper.  Mark turned up just in time to provide some much-needed encouragement for the final push to the top – being able to tell me exactly how far I had to go helped me to pace myself and keep going and I felt surprisingly strong at the end.  Mountain legs at last???

Total mayhem on the way up the climb with campervans nose to tail all the way and lots of very drunk and happy partying Tour supporters.  Lots of shouts of ‘Allez, allez’, (or perhaps they were saying ‘move your legs a bit quicker’, a la Bob Imlac…).

Ali said she saw a montage of Tour clips on ITV4’s Tour highlights programme yesterday, (the official Rest Day), with a very appropriate song accompaniment – First Aid Kit’s ‘My Silver Lining’ with the lyrics ‘I won’t take the easy road – I try to keep on keeping on – I just keep on keeping on’..That about sums it up.  My ‘silver lining’ is the thought of riding down the Champs Elysees on Saturday with Ali cheering me on.

Another really late finish and we ended up abandoning the hotel we had booked and crashing on the floor of Mark and Georgie’s room instead.  In the morning we saw what a great spot it was – a beautiful farmhouse in the Pyrenees.  The owner was very chilled about us staying overnight in someone else’s room and we had breakfast with a view.

 

Hooray for another rest day

The professionals had a much harder time of it today on the stage we did yesterday, finishing in torrential rainstorms and with the wind in their faces rather than at their backs.  We were very happy to have a lie-in and a rest day while the thunderstorms moved in.

A westerly wind is not really what we want for tomorrow’s long stage but it looks as if it won’t be as strong.  We plan to start early, (7 am), to give us as much time as possible to complete it.

Good to have an uneventful day.  Matt fixed my bike, we got our clothes washed, dropped Matt and Alistair off at the airport in Nimes and drove to Carcassonne where we met up with Andy and Rachel again.  They are kindly stepping back into the support team for part of tomorrow before Mark and Georgie arrive.  Hope all goes smoothly tomorrow as we might be short of support depending on how soon Mark can join us.

We have 3 Mountain stages to tackle over the next 3 days.  Tomorrow’s stage is long as well as testing, but the other two are shorter which means we should be able to pace ourselves, (or walk up some of the climbs),  if we’re feeling tired.  After that we  have one more long flat stage, a 54 km time-trial and then the ride into Paris.  Just have to focus on one day at a time – each turn of the pedals is getting us closer to the finish…

 

 

A long stage with no hills

Stage 15:  Tallard to Nimes (222 km)

Not much sleep for any of us last night – we didn’t get to the hotel until 12.45 and had to get the owner out of bed to let us in, (Alistair pushed me forward and said ‘You speak French….’).  Didn’t need to understand the vocabulary, the tone of voice was pretty clear!!  When we booked the accommodation we were a bit optimistic about distances between places in mountain regions.

We were incredibly slow to start – both pretty shot from yesterday’s stage – and seeing how little distance we had covered in the first 2 hours and the distance still to cover I told the back-up team to expect to have to rescue us later in the day.

It was a route of three sections today in terms of the landscape.  First we went through an area of orchards, followed by miles and miles of dry scrubland and then suddenly we were in Southern European landscape with olive trees and red-tiled houses.  The middle section was like riding through the set of a Spaghetti Western – 3 hours of unchanging landscape with the sun beating down on us.

Our saving grace today was the wind – probably the famous Mistral – which provided us with a massive tailwind for the last 3 hours of the stage.  We started the day grovelling along at less than 10 mph  and finished whizzing along at 20 mph.

Finding places to meet up with the back-up can be tricky as the size of different towns is not very clear on our map.  Sometimes we’ve chosen a deserted place without a bar or a shop and sometimes a place that’s so big we struggle to find each other.  Rendez-vous-ed at a small cafe today where the water supply came from a local spring and was wonderfully, almost freezingly cold – made the most of it and filled up all the containers in the van.

So – rescue party not required after all and we made it to the finish, a great spot overlooking the wonderfully-preserved Roman Amphitheatre in Nimes.  Found a great little restaurant nearby and sat on the terrace to enjoy their brilliant value 13 Euro 3 course set menu.  Alistair and Matt  had already checked into our hotel and collected the keys so no need to incur the wrath of the owner this time…

 

 

Last stage in the Alps

Stage 14:  Grenoble to Risoul (177 km)

BRUTAL!  That’s all I can say about today’s stage.  At one point we had been cycling uphill for 2 solid hours, when we passed a sign indicating ‘uphill for the next 34 km’.  Another very long day, we didn’t finish until 9 pm.  We are undoubtedly getting stronger, but we are also getting more tired as well – it’s really hard to predict at the end of each day how we’re going to feel at the start of the next.  The first couple of hours this morning were hard for both of us but once the legs finally warmed up we found we could keep pedalling and both completed our second Alpine stage.  We started at about 700m and spent the day climbing up to 2000m, down to 1100, back up to 2000m etc, etc….  Beautiful Alpine views and snow sparkling in the sunlight.  Being at higher altitudes the temperature wasn’t so high – 28 degrees much preferable to 36.

We are incredibly grateful to the official Tour staff who drive round putting up direction arrows in time for each of our day’s rides – what would we do without them?  This morning I stopped to speak to them and asked if I could have a couple of arrows for souvenirs. The chap was very friendly and interested – ‘pas de problem’ – and handed me the arrows. Seeing them on the side of the road I hadn’t appreciated quite how big they are – no chance of sticking them down my cycling top.  So I found a place to hide them by the side of the road and rang Matt in the van to ask if he could pick them up on his way through, describing the place as clearly as I could.  Amazingly he went straight to them!

Alistair and Matt fly back to the UK on Sunday.  Thanks to them for their fantastic encouragement and support.  Alistair has ‘photos which he can share with Ali so hopefully I can include some in the blog next week.

 

 

The longest day in the saddle so far

Stage 13:  Saint-Etienne to Chamrousse (197.5km)

A roasting hot day, (36 degrees C), and a long and challenging stage, finishing at the top of a mountain.  Both Martin and I had reservations about our ability to complete it and had considered cutting some of the flatter section short and adding the missing miles to another day’s ride.   However, encouraged by Matt and Alistair to ‘give it a shot’, we decided to do just that, and are really chuffed to say that we both succeeded in riding the whole stage, (finishing at 9.30pm….).

The 2nd to last climb, (the Col de Palaquit), was shockingly hard – the race guide described it as a 6% gradient but failed to mention that it went down and then back up in the middle, making most of the climb about 8%.  At one point I thought there was no way I was going to be able to finish due to the intense heat and the steepness of the climb but I was saved by a small cool stream at the side of the road which I knelt by and scooped as much water as I could over myself.  That and the copious jugs of water which Alistair tipped over my head whenever he saw me kept me going.

On the first Col of the day I was climbing steadily, thinking I was doing pretty well when I looked round and saw someone cycling up behind me.  When they got a bit closer I saw that it was a girl of about 14 years old riding a ‘sit up and beg’- type bike in her plimsolls…..  She looked as if she was just off for a quick ride round the block – no apparent effort involved at all.   Definitely spurred me on – she rode behind me for about 5km and I was really keen not to be over-taken.

Martin took a tumble in Grenoble when taking a short-cut across a kerb,  just before we tackled the final climb. which meant a 45 minute stop to visit the pharmacy where they patched him up and sent us on our way, (after which he pedalled off at speed and left me behind!).  So we’re now even on the number of times we’ve fallen off, (once each).

For the last 4 km of the last climb there was a real party atmosphere with groups of people camped at the sides of the road cheering us on and shouting encouragement, (or telling us to go faster).  One rather inebriated man ran alongside me trying to interview me but his lack of English and my lack of French made it quite challenging!

We ended the day driving round Grenoble looking for somewhere to stay – the hotel we booked wasn’t contactable on the ‘phone all day and we couldn’t face driving out to it only to find it shut.  Ended up in a rather posh place with a room about the same size as the downstairs in my house.  Thanks to Andy and Rachel, who were also staying in Grenoble, for doing a shopping trip for us, which meant we did have something to eat when we finished – always a bonus!

Another Mountain stage on Friday and then a flattish one on Saturday before we get our second rest day on Sunday when we’ll be driving to Carcassone for the start of Stage 16.

 

 

The Tour hots up…

Stage 12:  Bourg-en-Bresse to Saint Etienne (197.5km)

True to form as a farmer, having complained about the weather being too cold and wet last week I am now complaining that it’s too hot.  It was 34 degrees today as we cycled on a constantly undulating route through vineyards and past wine caves, (no chance of stopping for any sampling).  Today’s climbs were long but steady – a constant 3% gradient which you can get into a rhythm with. 

Like yesterday, there was hardly anybody about.  Matt was a bit over-keen when adding salt to our waterbottles, (good for re-hydration on hot days), and we had quite a job trying to find a shop or bar which was open so we could top them up with water.  When we did, the owner kindly let me use the hose he was watering his flowers with to hold over my head. Wildlife mention – loads of crickets everywhere – all over the roads, which adds to the concentration when trying not to run over them. 

A very big thank you to Martin for the on-going loan of his spare bike.  Was hoping that Matt could buy some bike parts/tools in St Etienne today since it is the former capital of the French bike industry, but when they arrived not only was there no bike shop but nothing else was open. Not even a small shop.  We drove all round the town looking for somewhere to eat, (too late for the hotel restaurant), and all we found were two dodgy-looking kebab shops.  So – opted to eat up the food we had left in the van – bread and pate and cheese.   

Must say a big thank you to Marianne and Flo who are doing the milking between them back at Liberty Farm all the time I’m away. Hope the cows are behaving themselves.

Here is the link to the Radio Solent broadcast for anyone who wanted to hear it but couldn’t find it:

Stage 11:  Besancon to Oyannax – 187.5km

We had an hour and a half’s drive to the start of the stage today so plenty of time for Alistair to practice driving on the right before he got launched as official back-up.  He’s threatening to start his own blog – the view of events from the van – which should be very entertaining, (if full of expletives…).  Watch this space.

 We had a good day on the bikes –  weather warm and sunny and the route went through glorious scenery.  Think we’re in the Jura region, with spectacular limestone outcrops and river gorges.  The route was flat to start, and with a tailwind – a good way to ease our bodies back into the saddle after our day off. 

You see thousands of campervans but surprisingly few people – we cycled through quiet towns and villages with just a few people sitting at cafe tables.  On the wildlife front we saw a huge stork sitting by the side of the road and at another point two snakes crossed the road just in front of us.  No idea what sort they were! 

The stage finished with a series of tough climbs, and we counted 3 extra climbs which we weren’t expecting.  Near to the end Martin rang me to say he thought he was lost as he hadn’t seen any yellow arrows for ages. I was having the exact same thought, but I told him to stay put and caught up with him a few minutes later. On mountainous stages the arrow putter-uperers seem to just put an arrow pointing up the hill and then leave you to it.  Have a horrible fear of descending down the wrong side of a mountain….. Matt and Alistair went round in circles in Oyannax, and were just wondering what to do next when they drew up at a junction at the exact same time as us. 

Today’s stage went better than I’d expected.  I might actually be acquiring my ‘mountain legs’ at last.  I find any gradient of 6.5% and above a real challenge though.  Tomorrow’s stage looks OK but I am bracing myself for Stage 13 which has the first serious mountain-top finish (at 1,730m).  The final climb (Col de Palaquit), is incredibly steep, with five of it’s 10 km at over 10%….

Ali tells me that she had problems finding the Radio Solent broadcast. It was on the Dorset version of their breakfast show, hosted by Steve Harris which I’m not sure is available on the internet – Sue and Mark found it somehow – please tell me how!