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!

Bastille Day – and our first rest day!

Monday 14th July – Rest Day

Alistair and Matt flew into Basel last night so there were 6 of us to pile in the van and head off up one of yesterday’s climbs to spend some time as Tour spectators instead of participants. Returned to one of the roadside spots where I tried to shelter from the rain yesterday – at least  I had time to identify it as a good place to watch the race. Thanks to Matt’s practical skills we made a bivouac structure to shelter under, (it was still raining). 

It’s fair to say that Alistair’s presence on the trip is fuelled far more by a desire to support  Pete and The Fox Cricket Club than by any sort of enthusiasm for the Tour itself.  When asked if he was enjoying the experience he said ‘So far I’ve stood in the rain for 2 hours while passing cars throw things out of the windows at me’.  He obviously didn’t appreciate the Tour souvenirs which the rest of us fought over. (This morning we acted as a pretend crowd in the hotel carpark so that some of the souvenir team could practice lobbing things at us…). Alistair was even less impressed when a truck came up the hill with a water cannon on the back – the purpose is to spray the spectators and cool them down – and he was the only one of the party to get soaked.. Was very good to relax for the day and have a laugh – the latter never in short supply when Andy and Alistair are around.

We managed to persuade someone in the hotel to wash all our kit for us.  Did attempt to say ‘don’t put any lyrca items in the tumble drier’ but not at all sure this was communicated successfully.  Hope we don’t return to miniature versions of our cycling gear. 

Radio Solent rang again, this time to conduct the interview with me for broadcast on the breakfast show tomorrow, (Tuesday).  I think you can ‘Listen Again’ so hopefully some of you will catch it on the Radio Solent website.  

 

The first mountain stage

Stage 10:  Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles

Our first taste of the mountains today – saw several sections of the stage described as ‘desperately steep’ and we wouldn’t disagree with that.  The major challenge today was coping, (or not), with the contrasts in temperature between climbing and descending.  On all the climbs I was too hot and twice on the descents I got so cold that I had to be rescued by the back-up van because of uncontrollable shivering which carried on for ages even once I was in the van, in the sleeping bag, with a woolly hat on and the van heater on full blast.  (Martin took one look at me and commented – ‘It’s the middle of July’…).  He was fortunate enough to be very near the van when the monsoon rains started so jumped in for shelter.  I was half way down the mountain when the deluge started and the van took a while to find me. 

Riding up the ‘Col de Chevreres’ we didn’t see any goats or female goat herds but I’m sure a goat could have climbed it quicker.  I was moving forward, but anyone watching would have found it difficult to tell. 

Today’s stage overlapped with yesterday’s at a crossroads on top of one of the climbs, and when we arrived it was total chaos up there – people and vehicles everywhere, and tipping down with rain. The French are great at waving bicycles through, so we were able to continue on our route.  At one spot Martin was set to follow a side turning marked with yellow arrows but luckily I realised that it was part of yesterday’s stage – we are not so keen that we want to repeat any of the stages….

Andy banned us from completing the final climb today having seen the  raging river running down the road, carrying copious quantities of rocks with it…  We cycled all sections of the cobbles which the professionals didn’t so feel OK with that.

I’m now riding Martin’s spare bike, (thanks Martin..).  Am planning to spend tomorrow, (Bastille Day and our first official rest day), on major bike repairs and maintenance.  Alistair and Matt fly in to Basel this evening and have a day to prepare themselves for starting their stint as back-up team.  I’m sure Andy will fill them in on the challenges!

A day of mechanical breakdowns..

Stage 9:  Gerardmer to Mulhouse (170km)

Today’s stage involved constant climbing and descending.  It was the second stage in the Vosges, an area which, like Yorkshire, has been keen to demonstrate that although they aren’t classified as a ‘mountain’  stage they still have plenty of challenging climbs.

Had a nightmare time with the bike today.  First my free-wheel mechanism failed, (which means you have to keep pedalling).  Luckily the back-up van appeared almost straight away and I was able to swop wheels.    All well for a while, until I then got a puncture.  What dawned on me then was that the replacement wheel has a wider rim, which meant that I couldn’t use my spare inner tube because the valve was too short.. 

Before I came away I bought an excellent  American bike maintenance book which I’ve had as bed-time reading for the past few months.  Time well spent as it turned out, as I followed the author’s advice for what to do when you have to ride on a punctured tyre but have no spare inner or any means of mending the puncture.  So – I stuffed the tyre with leaves, pine needles, grass and other vegetation from the side of the road which allowed me to carry on for another 10 miles.  I wouldn’t recommend this as anything except an emergency measure – cornering was very hairy.

To add to this, with all the uphill strain on the bike chain it has stretched and I can’t get into some of the lower gears.  I have a tool for taking a link out of the chain but I left it on the back door step at home.  We both have spare bikes in the van so should be able to put a working bike together with the wheels and bits from the bikes we’ve got. 

One more challenging stage until we reach our first rest day on  Monday.  Andy and Rachel continue to be completely brilliant on the back-up.  We can’t thank them enough.

First stage through the Vosges

Stage 8:  Tomblaine to Gerardmer La Mauselaine  161km

Today’s stage had the official classification of ‘hilly’ but the first three quarters of the route were flat, with the hilly bit saved for three significant climbs at the end.  When cycling on the flat I have the edge over Martin, being bigger and stronger, (and having stamina from years of experience of working long hours outdoors in foul weather).  It’s a different story when the gradient increases.  Today I just led Martin to the bottom of the climbs and then waved him goodbye and watched him streak away from me.  Luckily I’m a lot quicker on the descents, so can generally catch him up again before the next hill. 

Thought I was doing well on the first climb, (7km long but a steady incline to the top),  but then we hit the ‘Col de Grosse Pierre’,  (not named after me – I lost 2 stone before this trip…), which had ridiculously steep sections and hairpin bends.  If you stalled a vehicle on the steepest sections you wouldn’t have a chance of getting it started again.  The final climb, up to the the ski station at La Mauselaine was also incredibly steep in places.  When you check the stats for particular climbs it gives you an average gradient across the whole climb, which doesn’t at all reflect the reality. The scenery around here is stunning if you can lift your head from the handlebars to look.

No special birds spotted today but I did see the famous ‘Red Devil’ – a German man who is a permanent fixture of the Tour,  usually spotted wearing his red onsie and running along the side of the road waving his trident.  He hadn’t turned out especially for us – he drove past us in his campervan.

When watching local TV last night there was a piece interviewing a woman standing next to an enormous wooden cow, (double decker bus size).  Didn’t know what it was all about, but was easy enough to recognise it when we cycled past it earlier today.  Should have stopped for a ‘photo to publicize my sponsorship from OMSCo (the organic milk suppliers’ co-operative).  We are drinking milk at the end of every stage – it is a brilliant sports re-hydration drink.

Got a call in the middle of the day which I thought was Andy giving news on lunch but it was a chap from Radio Solent who wants to interview me next week.  Really hitting global media now!  Will have info about when it’s going to be broadcast early next week.  We are getting more coverage back at home –  (‘British riders leading the Tour, (because they started a day early’ ).  Please spread the word and encourage people to donate to the RSPB on my ‘Just Giving’ page and to Bridewell therapeutic gardens in Oxfordshire, a charity which Martin and his family are involved with.

Thanks for all your  support and encouraging messages.  We have two really tough days to come before the first rest day on Monday.

 

Cycling through fruit-growing country

Stage 7:  Epernay to Nancy (234.5 km)

A very long but much more enjoyable day today, cycling through the orchards of Alsace – apples, pears, and cherries- and up the Mosel river.  Vicky asked if I was bird-watching as I go along, (I am raising money for the RSPB, after all..), and today I saw a pair of herons and lots of finches, (feeding in the maize fields).  After a really heavy downpour in the first hour of the ride, (nearly called the back-up van for more layers), the weather improved quickly and this afternoon it was warm and sunny.  Makes so much difference to the experience.

We cycled through Verdun, site of one of the longest and costliest battles in WWI, and past the war cemetaries with their huge areas of memorial crosses.

We must say a huge thank you to Andy and Rachel, our back-up team for this week.  They are doing a brilliant job keeping us going with regular food and drink stops and invaluable encouragement and support.  Hang on in there – back-up Team B are flying to France on Sunday!

While I’m thanking people, thanks to Hilton Herbs for their TLC and Muscle Magic potions – I am converted to both for restoring over-worked leg muscles.  Thanks to Sarah Girling for telling me about them!

Martin has just pointed out that we are now a third of the way to Paris.  There have been several times when I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it to the end of a day, so it’s great to have got this far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The toughest day ever on a bike..

Stage 6:  Arras to Reims

We may not have reached the mountain stages yet, but I hope it doesn’t get much tougher than it was on the bike today.  The weather was atrocious – 13 degrees and lashing down rain all day. Even wearing 6 layers, including 2 coats, and my overshoes I was freezing cold and I just got colder as the day went on.  I had to push the pace flat out just to stay warm enough to keep going.  Every time a lorry went past it was like being drenched by a fireman’s hose.  Add to that the storm-force winds, and it made for a pretty miserable day in the saddle.  At least the wind was behind us, but when it came in sideways it was strong enough to nearly knock me off the bike.  Andy in the back-up van was so cold he couldn’t stop shivering – a quick foray out of the van to ask for directions left him totally soaked.  When we stopped for re-fuelling my fingers were so cold I couldn’t open the packets.  All around us on the route were fields equipped with a range of complicated irrigation systems….. they certainly didn’t need them today.

But however cold, wet and fed up we felt today, when we rode through the area where the battle of the Somme was fought we thought of the soldiers in World War I and knew we were actually incredibly lucky.