Crank up, roll down – repeat x6 (Stage 14)

Thursday 14 July (Bastille day) – Saint Gaudens to Plateau de Beille

Tour says “high mountains”, we say absolutely yes

Miles cycled: 105, Average speed (mph): 10.8, Max speed (mph): 34.4, Time pedalling: 9hrs 33

Another monster day in the Pyrenees – possibly our hardest day yet. It started pretty much immediately uphill setting the tone for the day which included six major categorised climbs.

Couldn’t start til 8.30 as we had a long transfer which always makes for a slightly nervy start when you know you have such a huge day ahead but there’s nothing like a brutally steep climb (Col du Portet d’Aspet) to get settled into the task in hand.

Photo: one breakfast is never enough

The weather was much better today, and we really appreciated keeping dry today (sweating aside!) & being able to see the views as we climbed up and whizzed down. There were lots of rushing rivers in the valleys & waterfalls on the mountains, which were beautiful densely wooded lower down and with spectacular jagged peaks.

Photo: rivers & mountains

As we ascended, you could see where the roads went up from all the white camper vans lining the roads, and we got a lot of encouragement from them.
Photo: one of today’s 6 Pyrenean peaks

Finishing on another “hors category”, 16km of grinding uphill with nearly 100 miles in the legs, was really hard. Even though it was late, there was lots of traffic and the tour supporters were all in beer drinking or dog walking mode, both of which were slightly hazardous to deliriously tired cyclists! We were very pleased to make it and FYI the “plateau de Beille” is most definitely NOT a plateau!

Photo: TdF finish line on top of a mountain

That’s the Pyrenees done! We are really looking forward to our rest day after one more stage, and then it’s only the small matter of the Alps to tackle…

See our route & terrain profile from today here Continue reading

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No beauty & the Aubisque (Stage 13)

Wednesday 13 July – Pau to Lourdes

Tour says “high mountains”, we say yes, glad just 1 big one today

Miles cycled: 95, Average speed (mph): 12.5, Max speed (mph): 31.8, Time pedalling: 7hr 33

Not the day we would have planned! We wouldn’t have requested a rationed breakfast for starters (what are we meant to do on 1 croissant, some baguette, ham & gherkins?) Nor would we have planned to cycle through heavy rain for the whole day getting more wet than we ever thought possible, and blocking out any views. And mon dieu, the organisers were definitely off colour when they planned the first 40 miles through industrial estates and dreary suburbs!

Hot chocolate was our saving grace at a couple of points, although one cafe owner obviously wasn’t thrilled with our dirty dripping appearance & ejected us onto her terrace because “customers” had arrived?! This was her terrace view from her “Bellevue cafe” today:

 

However, we perked up with the prospect of another Pyrenean legend, the 17k ascent of the col d’Aubisque, which looked like it should have been beautiful. Through the increasing deluge of rain, we glimpsed huge pine trees, a waterfall & a ski resort & just about realised when we were on the summit.

More hot chocolate, a change of clothes (thanks v much to Scott for lending Sarah extra) & we went via Col de Soulor down the long and freezing descent.

There were more gaps in the clouds & we could see the huge steep drop inches from the side of our road, which was etched into the rock & even went through a couple of rock arches and tunnels (one of the classic hovering helicopter filming the tdf shots), but were all fully focused on descending safely in the rain.

Very pleased to finish. Less pleased to spend lots of the evening washing the road off our kit.

Supper & sleep will sort us out! We’re hoping Lourdes will provide the miracle of sunshine tomorrow…

See our route & terrain profile from today here

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3 Pyrenean classics (Stage 12)

Tuesday 12th July – Cugnaux to Luz Ardiden

Tour says “high mountains”, we say – hell yes!

Miles cycled: 127, Average speed (mph): 12.5, Max speed (mph): 38.8, Time pedalling: 10hr 07mins

Today was huge. Correction: it was HUGE!

6am breakfast and everyone was already focused. We all knew today was our biggest challenge yet, and collectively, we were in the zone.

Another lay-by, another official start line. The marmotte express (Sarah & Max) locked onto the Leon TGV superexpress (Scott) who powered us all up through the first undulating foothills into a very stiff headwind. This got us 80 miles into the ride to the foot of the first mountain by just after midday, chapeau Scott. Psychologically, this was the first section of the ride ticked off.

We had a quick lunch and told ourselves we were coming out with fresh legs for the second part. This was the real focus of the day, 3 legendary Pyrenean climbs, around 4000m of ascent, up, down, up, down, up.

First came La Hourquette d’Ancizan, a steady peaceful climb which we ground our way up enjoying fantastic views over the valley. The descent was a series of sweeping bends through beautiful pastures & pines that whisked us to St Marie de Campan, where we refuelled with espresso (with sugar, this was a serious day requiring rocket fuel – we ate cake & energy bars at every opportunity throughout the day).

Next up was the truly legendary Tourmalet, it felt like a bit of a pilgrimage as we have been wanting to have a crack at this classic for a couple of years.
Photo: ready to take on the Tourmalet

It didn’t disappoint, 17km of winding and hairpinned uphill, great views, lined with caravans of Tour supporters awaiting the pros in 2 days time, a real aura surrounding it. To add a sense of drama, as we approached the ski resort (yes, ski resort) of La Mongie, 5k from the summit, swirling clouds came in, reducing visibility to <10 metres at times, and then occasionally would clear momentarily for a view of the jagged rocks above us. Eventually we made it, the peak being literally a gap in the rock,

and within a single pedal stroke we were pointing steeply downhill. Another screaming descent to Luz St Saveur, very enjoyable once the first few steep hairpins were out of the way and we were out of the cloud.
Photo: descent off the Tourmalet

Normally when you have a mere 13km to go, you are pretty happy that you are within a whisker of finishing. When those 13km are up another mountain, ‘hors categorie’ (literally = off the TdF scale of difficulty) averaging nearly 8% incline, it is rather a different matter, particularly with 120 miles in the legs already. Let’s just say these 13k were a slog, a real slog, and it certainly seemed steeper, whether it was in reality or not. The tdf fans were starting to have supper in their camper vans. But we made it! Choruses of ‘we are the the champions’, ‘we could be heroes, just for one day’ etc flowed liberally

What a day, undoubtedly our hardest ever, we are pretty happy to have made it, because it has been looming for months as a day we really didn’t know if we would be able to do. All that remains to do is eat like kings, and sleep!

See our route & terrain profile from today here

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France fabuleuse (stage 11)

Monday 11 July – Blaye les Mines to Lavaur

Tour says “flat”, we say flat…ish, but mainly rolling

Miles cycled: 104, Average speed (mph): 15.5, Max speed (mph): 35.5, Time pedalling: 6hr 35mins

A day of idyllic beauty today – mediaeval villages, vines, avenues of plane trees and sunflowers as far as you could see.

It should have been relatively easy but the combination of up to 38 degree heat, strong hairdryer-hot headwind and unusually poor roads made it a bit more draining than we had hoped ahead of tomorrow’s

gigantosaurus of a day into the Pyrenees.

Still, we enjoyed the fabulous landscape, had nice relaxed stops in the shade, and went through Lautrec, which incidentally is a touch North East of Toulouse.

Photo: a welcome shady lunch stop

We planned a rare luxurious ice-cream stop at the attractive-sounding village of Puy Laurens to cool us down. To say that we were disappointed with the one-horse, one-downmarket-closed-pizzeria-town would be understatement of the day. Fortunately we were able to right this wrong at the finish line!

Our hotel in Toulouse has a pool so we have enjoyed being able to cool off after the day in the saddle, and now it is a matter of resting and recovering well for the challenges of the real mountains. Andy Schleck might say that his Tour doesn’t start until the Tourmalet, but frankly ours started 1,208 miles ago (not that we’re counting), so it is with a degree of excitement, dread and awe that we will set off towards some of the legendary Pyreenean mountains.

See our route & terrain profile from today here

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Game of two halves (stage 10)

Sunday 10 July – Aurillac to Carmaux

Tour says “flat”, we say yes with some great long downhills

Miles cycled: 99, Average speed (mph): 15.7, Max speed (mph): 39.2*, Time pedalling: 6hr 17mins
*new fastest ever for Sarah!

We woke up to the sound of hammering rain and there was notable procrastination by everyone over breakfast and getting the bikes ready, willing it to stop…but it didn’t let up at all and we reluctantly crept out from the hotel’s basement garage onto the deserted streets.

Photo: Short & soggy stop
There is apparently a saying in cycling that you should ‘always dine off everyone else’s plate before you eat off your own’, a metaphor for drafting as much as possible. Today was a rather literal interpretation of this, as we were spattered relentlessly with water and grit from each other’s back wheels on the flooded roads.

We cycled through what was probably very beautiful winding gorge roads, but you retrench into yourself in this kind of weather and low cloud made for minimal visibility anyway.

Then, almost at a stroke the rain stopped bang on half way and it got gradually hotter, comfortably in the mid-30s by the time we arrived. There were 3 categorised climbs but some magnificent curving downhill stretches that meant that the (now short for us) 100 miler flew by.

Another stadium finish in a town that by its rather dilapidated appearance “needs” the Tour.

We’re staying in a really beautiful town nearby called Albi. Great to be finished in time to watch the Tour on tv looking like they found stage 9 hard. Followed by a so far unprecedented quick potter round the lovely old town, complete with tasting of local sparkling wine which has completely finished us off.

See our route & terrain profile from today here

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A day in the life… (Tour rest day)

We’re all very excited to be having a much-needed rest day (not just for us – same as the pros!) We did a very short & easy 30min pedal on our bikes in an attempt to keep some leg stiffness at bay, cleaned our bikes, got laundry in & did lots of stretching.

Photo: much-needed rest day

 

We thought it would be a good moment to reflect on our typical day on our Tour:

5.40am alarm, suncream on, pack main bags and day bags

6am take bags downstairs & hit the breakfast buffet hard. We’ve realised the trick is to talk less to allow time to eat more

Photo: the serious prep starts here

6.30am load vans and leave asap

Photo: vital morning bike prep – drinks on, speed on, marmotte on, pain au choc to go.

 

7-8 am depending on whether a transfer is required (during which sleep/ catch up on email in the van, try to put on cycle shoes without elbowing your neighbour too much), arrive at Tour start line,
fill up bottles with energy drink, put wheels, speedos, Garmin GPS devices on bikes, load pockets with couple of gels, jelly babies, extra croissant from breakfast etc.

Photo: Preparing to start.


 

Final brief on the day from leader Steve, final check, point bike in the right direction & go!

Photo: David O, Bart & Steve planning the support stops

 

All day: pedal! Keep eating & drinking on the bike (energy bars, gels & sweets). Chat, tell stories, take photos, enjoy the landscape, don’t forget to keep pedalling. Comment on how great it is to cycle on immaculate fresh tarmac – “Tourmac” as we all like to call it – and roads freshly swept for the Tour. Complain when above not applicable. Enjoy France’s superior weather. Complain when previous comment proves not to be true: too windy/ cold/ hot/ wet (delete as applicable). Pedal. Shift around on saddle to try and get comfortable, shuffle again as this never works. Wish for new pair of legs. Comment that Alberto (Contador) has it easy because he just drafts and has everything done for him. Repeat.

Photo: refuelling at a stop

Every approx 25-35 miles or at the top of a major climb: meet the vans driven by David & Bart to top up drinks & decide what flavour power bar to eat  (preferred flavour order is chocolate, followed by caffeinated coconut which sounds awful but tastes good, and last is cranberry twist which tastes like Wham bars and isn’t so good now that we’re no longer 10 years old). Once sick of power bars (about 11.30am most days), start eating baguettes bought for us by drivers, or anything that we have smuggled out of breakfast: squashed pain au chocolat, good; sweaty cheese sarnie, great; crumbling Breton biscuit, perfect!

4-6pm: reach the finish ecstatic & slightly dazed after a long hard day. Get clapped in by Steve, Bart & David, feeling like Tour heroes, bikes magically get put in the van while we eat and drink Power Bar recovery stuff (including a very yummy Lion Bar recovery shake!)

6-8pm depending on transfer time, arrive at hotel. In any time before supper, priority order is: get the TdF on the tv, shower (& laugh at how bad our cycling tans are), stretch & ice muscles, attend to body parts worst hit by cycling (yes, you know what we mean!), post our blog & maybe check a couple of emails

8pm supper: 3 or 4 courses, 5 or 6 pieces of bread, elicit look of surprise by asking for butter, 7 or 8 glasses of water, and some wine. Any food tastes great after cycling, but being in France, the food has been amazing. Speed is as important as gastronomic flair: we’re all way too hungry at the start & way too tired by the end for any fuss / delay. Reflect on the day, laugh at the inevitable dramas, plan the next, talk about how the real Tour is doing.

10pm: get kit ready for the next day, any final email/blog admin, final French tv news check of Tour highlights. Touch head to pillow, sleep in <5 seconds.

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Massif (stage 9)

Friday 8th July – Issoire to St Flour

Tour says ‘medium mountains’, we say more ups and downs than an episode of Eastenders

Miles cycled: 131, Average speed (mph): 12.6, Max speed (mph): 39.0, Time pedalling: 10hr 21mins

A tour highlight, comfortably the most epic day of cycling we have ever had. We were cycling before 7am as we have known for months this was going to be one of the Tour’s particularly tough days: a long route in the Massif Central, with no less than 8 categorised climbs to really fire up the Tour contest. This stage is also one of the 2 “etapes” this year that amateurs can take on on closed roads. (The other is Alpe D’huez – more iconic but arguably less hard – we’ll let you know what we think!…)

Today was very rural through the Cantal area of the Massif Central with hardly any villages, so a day majoring on natural beauty rather than tour decorations. We set off on beautiful undulating terrain with some sunflower fields, and were grateful for Stevo’s trusty trailblazing to shelter us from the strong headwind. We had a long stretch along a gorge, complete with river, hilltop chateaux, rising sun…perfect.

After the first categorised climb, we reached a tantalising junction…left to shortcut 50 miles of the route, right to get down to the serious business of 5 categorised climbs, a relentless series of steep ups and downs (worth seeing the stegosaurus-back route profile – link at the end of this post). We went right, of course. It was hard work but we kept each other entertained, the landscape was fantastic and we enjoyed melon, coffee & blueberry tart, and coffee & magnum to recuperate at the peaks and Bart made us feel like we had pro support as he met us in the van on all the peaks & lots of key turns en route, cheering us on all the way.

Completing that brutal part of the course and rejoining where the shortcut would have come in was a great milestone, celebrated of course by another steep climb almost immediately. We were just beginning to wonder what murderous frame of mind the route designers were in, and whether the punishing ups and downs would ever end, when we were stunned into forgetting about it all by an incredible castle perched in a gorge. We were treated to a 360 degree show of it as the route seemed to wind round it, above it, below it. The film crew on board the Tour helicopters will have a field day.

Eventually our destination St Flour appeared on the road signs, always a good moment in the day, and we descended rapidly towards it, only to be greeted by…you guessed it…another punchy categorised climb to the finish.

We arrived in euphoric mood, we had made it, a great team effort of sharing the wind, keeping momentum, and keeping each other motivated and entertained all day. And it really was all day, 12 hours out on the road, what a monster of an outing!

See our route & terrain profile from today here

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Stormy skies, switchbacks & ski resorts (stage 8)

Thursday 7 July

Aigurande to Super-Besse Sancy

Tour says “medium mountains”, we say -spot on!

Miles cycled: 118, Average speed (mph): 13.4, Max speed (mph): 35.5, Time pedalling: 8hr 46

Another 6am bumper breakfast smash and grab, and then drive to another inconspicuous lay-by (Aigurande official start) and we were pedalling just before 8am.

The route was beautiful winding and undulating roads through pine forest. We barely saw a car, and it felt like we had gone back a few centuries as the only life we saw was a man drawing water from a well, followed by a man chopping wood, followed by a man brandishing a burning metal rod (yup, that last one was a bit disconcerting, we took a very wide berth!)

Geese & stormy skies

We went through a lovely market town, and grabbed a coffee. Spirits were high. We had a great ‘French Revolutions’ moment (must-read book by Tim Moore) when navigation was a bit

tricky and we were confronted by the legendary French signage of ‘toutes directions’ one way and ‘autres directions’ the other…

 

The daily Tour prep continued – more new Tarmac, more great bike decorations, more road sweeping & today our first work parties scrubbing down road signs!

Soon lunchtime was upon us – the gastronomic credentials of our lunches have been soaring in the last few days, topped (or maybe there is even better to come?) today with an inspired dauphinoise potatoes en croute, along with baguettes, melon etc

Well-fuelled, we took on the afternoon’s hillier terrain, in particular our biggest yet, the Col de la Croix Saint Robert, a proper 6k hairpins effort. It was a cracking climb, with dramatic clouds, which unfortunately let rip into a storm so we got our first drenching so far. However we only had another 30k to go, so we pushed for the finish up some further testing climbs, and we had made it to a ski resort, cheered on by camper van inhabitants who were already parked up lining the final climb.

You can see ski lifts in the background of today’s finish photo (the newspaper was for protecting our fronts on cold descents – new tip from Steve!)

 

See our route & terrain profile from today here

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Heading South into a headwind (stage 7)

Wednesday 6 July

Le Mans to Chateauroux

Tour says “flat”, we say yes but windy

Miles cycled: 134, Average speed (mph): 16.1, Max speed (mph): 32.9, Time pedalling: 8hr 15

We found it a pretty tough one today. We didn’t have the adrenaline of yesterday when it was the longest stage, but today was only a handful of miles shorter. We also had the unwelcome arrival of both strong cross-head wind and poorer road surfaces, which made it very draining. Fortunately we made a real team effort with stronger riders, particularly Scott and Stevo taking the lion’s share of the wind. Sarah & Alan didn’t drink quite enough and so struggled from 80-109 miles (between stops) but managed to correct it and finish feeling good.

The scenery continued to be very rural interspersed with pretty villages – lots of sunflowers today & of course corn. We passed several chateaux and crossed the Loire over a beautiful bridge. Sarah had 3 outfit changes – not due to any celeb tendencies, but instead following rain last night and watching the sky which had dramatic dark clouds looming overhead all day, although thankfully we didn’t get more than a few drops of rain (except Stevo who got a soaking earlier).

On a day like today, any encouragement is great to receive so we always enjoy american Bart’s shouts of ‘aah-lay, aah-lay, aah-lay’ wafting through the air as he goes past in the van or claps us at road junctions, and the breaks every 25-35 miles to stop & refuel are very welcome.

We had a great finale weaving our way into Chateauroux and with Sarah sharpest on the navigation at the critical moment and by chance wearing her final outfit of a yellow jersey, she found herself being given a maillot jaune award ceremony by Max and Stevo.

Another stade municipale, another finish line. We were all delighted to finish and all took up Bart’s offer of going in the van to the hotel rather than cycling the final mile!

See our route & terrain profile from today here.

 

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Long, hot & epic cycle (stage 6)

Tuesday 5 July

Dinan to Lisieux

Tour says “flat”, we say – tres long

Miles cycled: 143*, Average speed (mph): 15.9, Max speed (mph): 37.4, Time pedalling: 8hr 57
*No, that’s not a typo, one hundred and forty-three miles!

The longest stage in mileage terms – can’t quite believe we’ve done it!

A 6am assault on the breakfast buffet (best yet including Spanish omelette, a new cycling superfood, not sure the hotel were used to bringing out a fresh one by 6.10 am), had us ready to pedal out over cobbles & through the old city walls & into the dawn

Our friend Stevo joined us this morning in classic Stevo style, having arrived into St Malo late last night and cycled down to Dinan. True to form (understated superathlete), after 30 miles in the saddle, Stevo let us know he’d shoot ahead to get some breakfast, and then once refuelled with some banana & peanuts, took the wind for us all on the perfect straight drafting roads for the entire day without batting an eyelid (this meant we were able to go much faster, working as a team, although superstrong Scott cycled most on his own today).

An early highlight was seeing the very beautiful Mont St Michel which kept in view for ages (will make for some great TdF filming!) 

We spent much of the day on dead straight smooth rolling roads which let us get into a great rhythm. Sarah tried out the team emergency stop with a scream – they all thought she’d fallen off and didn’t seem impressed to hear it was “only” a wasp sting, after it had blown into her shirt at high speed, a fairly common cycling hazard.

We tried a coffee stop in the style of the Tour de France of old, bursting off our bikes into a cafe, ordering 5 espressos and hoping to be on be on the move again before the pedal had even stopped spinning, but sadly the lady didn’t quite know what kind of whirlwind had hit her…there will be plenty more opportunities and maybe we should throw in a cognac (or calvados as we were in that region for much of today) to make it really authentic!

We also went through the dramatic hilltop castle town of Vire, which gave Max a flashback to childhood Normandy holidays, and seeing his first bike race with the peloton flashing through Vire at full tilt. They also had a fantastic display of bikes on rafts on the river.

Temperature was mid 30s today – this photo is cooling off after 120 hot miles at the top of a climb:

It was a great team effort today – from riding together, to our trusty support vans manned by David & Bart, and spirits remained high all day, taking in 3 categorised climbs en route and notching up the longest ever ride for the majority of us.

We even timed our arrival to perfection as the first rain drops of a heavy storm hit us as we drove off in the van.

Finish photo: Always a great moment reaching the end (and did we mention it was 143 miles?!)

See our route & terrain profile from today here

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