“Once in a life time” opportunities usually only present themselves as labelled, “once in a life time”. Some people are lucky enough to have the good fortune of a once in lifetime experience and others are unfortunate not to. I guess if I look at the statistics then I should consider myself more fortunate than most because I have been afforded the opportunity to experience a “Once in a life time” opportunity not just once this year, but twice, all in the space of two months. In June of this year I was lucky enough to have been able to participate in the Grand Fondo Stelvio Santini 2015 (The Challenge), an event myself and Richie had planned and trained for over the past year, a once in life time event.
The second once in a lifetime opportunity occurred on Sunday July 12th when I felt that the day was going to be more of the same harshness the rest of the week had been. Boy was I wrong, I could not have been more wrong, waking to the news that I was going to spend a week cycling in the Alps and watching the Tour de France in person a hare’s breath away from the pro cyclists that were about to do battle for a yellow shirt, all seemed like a dream. I phoned Richie and asked him if he could get a week’s leave from work to join me on this fantastic journey? He was like a kid at Christmas, it hadn’t really sunk in for me yet, I was still in disbelief but I had a few things to sort out before it was signed sealed and delivered.
Sunday turned into Monday and my nerves were on edge, I’d decided not to ask my supervisor for leave until Richie had confirmed that he was going as in all honesty I would not go without my “wingman”, too many fears and too many bad memories of a previous trip.
Richie called me just before 9:30 am to let me know that he had been given the leave and that it was now down to me to see if I could get leave also. I went down to my supervisor’s office, Grace was on duty, and I told her that I needed a favour, I explained about the trip away and apologised for the short notice but she was very accommodating and wished me the best of luck on the trip. My heart was now racing with both excitement and fear as I was scanning my brain for all the things that I now needed to organise. First off was flights, a quick check online and I discovered that Ryanair were quoting nearly €1000 per person to fly return to Nice and that did not even include the cost of the bikes. I checked Aerlingus and received a more reasonable price of €659.96 for both Richie and me on return journeys to Nice including bike boxes. I contacted a lady by the name of Nicky to let her know that we would be arriving late on Saturday night into Nice Airport, a bit of an inconvenience but a small price to pay for such a fantastic trip.
Organising the other bits and pieces that one needs when going on a cycling holiday was not too much trouble, I’d only returned from a trip away a few weeks earlier so it was still fresh in my mind all of the accoutrements that I would need, but it did not make the thoughts of packing and flying any more bearable.
The next few days passed very fast indeed and it still hadn’t registered with me that on Saturday July 18th Richie and I would be flying to the South of France to cycle some of the most famous climbs and mountains in the world and to top it off we would be getting front row views of the actual Tour de France. I finished work on Thursday evening and it still felt like any other day of the week, it was taking a long time to hit me that I was going to be experiencing such an epic holiday, but it can only be as epic as you make it, can’t it?
Friday morning eventually arrived and I got up early to arrange to collect something that always makes travelling with a bike so much easier, bike boxes. I was collecting them from Brendan Corr of bikebox.ie . In fairness Brendan was looking after me because it was such short notice and I was asking a lot by not giving him much time, but as usual Brendan sorted us out and we had two bomb proof boxes specifically designed to fly our bikes over to France. I contacted Richie and told him I had the boxes at my house, we agreed he’d call later and we could pack the bikes away.
I think it was only when we started to pack the bikes away that it really started to hit me, less than 24 hours away and we would be flying to the South of France. I don’t know if it was fear or excitement that I was feeling but my stomach was doing loops. It had not been the best all week but now it was like I was on a rollercoaster. Friday passed very quickly, mainly because I’d agreed to participate in the Electric Night Run in Limerick with Catherine Tangney and Siobhan Ryan, I’d also been trying to persuade Richie to come too and he’d eventually given in.
Meeting Catherine down in Limerick was good craic and it took my mind off of the impending flight the following day, did I mention that I hate flying? Just in case I didn’t “I really hate flying”. It’s when you spend nights among good friends that going on these trips away leave you with a bit of an emptiness, a desire to bring all of your friends with you, not just so you can share the brilliant experience you expect it to be, but there is also strength in numbers.
Saturday arrived before I knew it and I still had my bag to pack. Our flight was not until late in the evening, 19:00 hours and I’d arranged to leave my house at around 14:00 hours and collect Richie en-route. Driving up to Richie’s house alone gave me too much time on my own to think and I guess too much time for panic to start setting in. Lots of things started to cross my mind, the last “Organised” trip I had participated in had turned out to be a badly run shambles and I had fared much better off going my own way. How was this trip going to go I wondered? Was it all too good to be true? Was it another person that hadn’t got a clue about organisation or a screed of compassion for other people that was running this? On the other hand, was it going to be run by some big tour operator? Would it be impersonal? Would it be run in a regimental manner? I didn’t have the answers to these questions so I decided to just wait and see, not worry about them, there wasn’t any point in worrying about something that I had no power to change, and it was going to be what it was going to be. The thing that was worrying me most now was the flight I would be taking in a few hours. The thoughts of it made me sick to my teeth, but I had no choice if I wanted to go on this journey I had to fly there. I had toyed with the idea of getting a ferry over but it was neither economical nor good use of the available time, so flying it had to be. Now that I think back on how much I dislike flying and the stress it causes for me, I remember getting an overnight train from Paris to Florence a few years ago, it cost three times more than the flights, but I did it just so I would not have to fly. Ahhh the fear…
So, after arriving in Naas and the thoughts of the flight of doom I was about to have, I called to Richie’s house. Richie always appears to be fairly laid back about travelling, well apart from when he stresses a little about what to pack and arriving at the airport on time. I always secretly hope we arrive late to the airport so that we will miss our flight but it never seems to happen, well, nearly never. It did happen once but I didn’t escape as there was a later flight.
Well, when I called to Richie he was ready as usual, ready and he even had time to offer me a cup of coffee. As always Richie was calm and collected when I was a bag of nerves. We discussed what we thought might happen over the coming week, we agreed not to expect too much and in that way we would not be too disappointed if things did not work out. My last experience of an organised cycling trip did not exactly live up to its expectations, but that’s another story.
Checking in was quick and I didn’t have the normal pre-flight nerves that I get as the whole trip seemed to be happening so fast that I didn’t get an opportunity to worry about it. With the bags checked in and nothing left to do but browse the products on offer in the airport shopping, The Loop, we passed the time drinking hot chocolate and talking about what a great opportunity this was and what we were expecting from the trip, albeit we were not going to expect too much. Richie kept saying how much he was looking forward to the trip and how h couldn’t believe we were going, he really was like a kid at Christmas after getting his favourite present, but I just couldn’t share his excitement, the worry of the flight was creeping in and the fear of the unknown had me very unsettled.
Then to top it all off the flight was going to be delayed, all because some lemon had locked themselves into the toilet and couldn’t open the door, and would you believe that lemon was the “Pilot”, they were going to trust this incompetent person to fly me over 30,000feet in the air and safely land in Nice? My heart sank and the beats began in my feet and pulsed all the way up to my eyeballs, I felt that anyone that looked at me could see the pumping of the blood going through the veins on my head and I was certain that my bright red complexion was caused by increased blood pressure and made me stand out like a sore thumb. The things that go through my head when I’m stressed are borderline crazy, checking my fellow passengers to see which are most likely to be terrorists, as if I’d know? But that’s stress and that’s how irrational it can make a person.
The flight turned out to be fine, a little longer than expected, but it was relaxed, comfortable and I believe the fact that beneath all of my fears I was secretly very excited about the idea of cycling the Alps and the endless personal achievements this trip would present to me softened the distain I have for flying as it was a means to an end for arriving in Nice.
Landing in Nice was special, the aircraft flew over the city, which was glowing in the night, out towards the Mediterranean and then circled back around to make its approach for landing. As much as I hate flying the sadist in me loves to look out the window during the whole flight, it’s kind of like watching a horror movie through your fingers, you don’t want to see what’s going to happen but there is a compulsion to look anyway. I watched the speckles of light turn to buildings as the plane began to descend, getting more and more distinguishable as buildings of different types, then cars and eventually roads and streets. Within minutes we had landed, safely, we were now in the South of France, in Nice to be exact and the journey was about to begin.
After a quick entry through Passport Control and a mistaken greeting of “buongiorno” instead of “bonjour” and a chuckle from myself at the easy mistake, we made our way to baggage reclaim and then on to arrivals not knowing what or who would be waiting for us. Nicki from journey begins had told me there would be a driver waiting in the arrivals with my name on a sign so at least it would not be too hard to identify them. I didn’t know if there would be language issues or what the situation would be, it was all a bit of an adventure really and I guess that’s how I like it as I did not ask the relevant questions because sometimes it’s nice to have the element of surprise, but only sometimes.
In the arrivals area there was an athletic looking man holding a sign with my name on it. He didn’t look a bit French so I had a feeling there would be no issues on the language side. He introduced himself as Mark and both Richie and I did the same as we made our way outside to the carpark. Loading the boxes into the back of the minibus the conversations started to flow and Mark began telling us that he was one of the operators of Journey Begins. The two hour or so journey to Pra Loup seemed to pass quickly as Mark told us about his experience both in relation to cycling and in guiding. We swapped stories of past cycles and of how the Tour de France was going, after all we were there to see that too. Mark explained how the week should pan out, he told us that it was “our week”, the other guests, Brent, Nigel and Rod, and that we would do what we felt we were capable of doing and what we wanted to do. The fact that the whole trip was not cast in stone made me feel that it was going to be an enjoyable experience, that coupled with Marks own knowledge and experience.
My first big fear of a hill that we would have to cycle came when we drove over Col de la Bonette. Even at night it was frightfully high, my ears popped as the van wound its way down around the hairpin turns and my fears grew when I glimpsed road markers shimmering in the headlights, road markers with information like 9% Gradient written on it… This was a formidable hill, no; this was a formidable mountain, the highest paved road in Europe.
Mark informed us, with a large degree of satisfaction that we would be tackling this hill on one of the days of our trip, Richie was excited, and I was nearly looking for a new set of boxer shorts.
When we got to the Chalet it was late and everyone else was asleep. Mark had told us that we would be leaving most mornings around 8:30am but that we could leave a little later in the morning on account of such a late night. I was super tired but I was also super excited as was Richie, I felt comfortable and I felt safe. I trusted Mark and believed he knew what he was doing as so far nothing had been any different than what we had been led to believe, in fact it was better than what we thought it was going to be.
The room we were given was a twin as requested, it was small but it was adequate for what time we would be spending in it, to be honest it was hard to gauge the room at such a late hour and sleeping was the most pressing issue on my mind. Mark left us to sleep and Richie looked over at me and smiled “I can’t believe it Steve; this is going to be great”. His words echoed exactly what I was feeling but I was trying to not get too excited as I didn’t want to jinx how perfect this was turning out.
Climb: Col de la Cayolle
Max Temp: 38°
The morning sun peeped in from above the balcony outside, a straight line down my face and across my eyes was the culprit I suspected for waking me up, but it was a happy disturbance. I didn’t wake in a jolt; I seemed to just come to. Richie was awake and suggested we go up and get ready as we didn’t really want to hold every one up, surely they were as eager to go out cycling as we were, after all we were all here for the same thing; cycling.
We shyly made our way upstairs to the dining room where everyone else was about to sit down to breakfast. We didn’t really know what to expect, Mark had given us some indication as to whom the other guests on the trip were, but you are never sure until you meet them. There were four men and a lady in the room. The lady, Fran was preparing breakfast, Fran was Marks wife and another one of the operators of Journey Begins, she introduced herself and welcomed us. Richie sat in on the bench nearest the wall beside Brent, a gentleman from New Zealand. I sat beside Richie, less awkward as I know Richie. Across from us was Mark, whom we’d met the night before and had collected us from the airport, Nigel or Nige as his friend Rob was calling him and of course Rob… Nige’s friend. After the brief introductions we started into eating breakfast, a fine selection of foods were available but it was music to our ears when Fran offered us good auld porridge.
So, we had a large breakfast and it was time to discuss the day’s events. Mark suggested that we cycle down to Barcelonnette and from there we would tackle Col de la Cayolle, our first taste of an Alpine climb on this trip.
It was about 9:30am when we finally got someway organised and began to take our first spin of a week in the Alps. Mark had described Col de la Cayolle as a beautiful climb, approximately 30km of climbing and a beautiful descent back down on the other side. Mark appeared to be very knowledgeable about the route and told us where the gradients changed and where it was less steep. He assured us he would be with us all the way up the climb if we needed any assistance or any supplies. We cycled down to Barcelonnette, actually I’ll rephrase that, we freewheeled for most of the descent down to Barcelonnette, a nice downward slope from Pra Loup was like Nitrous Oxide in our engines, zooming down the curves, leaning into the bends and smashing down the straights… That was until I got a speed wobble, it brought me to my senses very quickly and gave me enough of a fright that I was quickly reminded of a previous accident. I didn’t want to come off the bike again, not at such an early stage in the holiday, I wanted to enjoy this trip so I became a little more cautious, maybe a little too cautious.
When we left Barcelonnette for Col de la Cayolle the heat of the sun had already become very strong and I knew it was going to be a very beautiful but hot day. Mark had advised us of the importance of taking on plenty of hydration and wearing sun protection which really was important as the day had a maximum temperature of 38° to an average daytime temperature of 26°C, very warm weather for cycling.
A nice relaxed cup of coffee, actually a very small cup of coffee gave us a chance to take in some of the beauty that makes Barcelonnette a special little town before we set off on our journey to the top of Col de la Cayolle.
We began the climb up to the summit of Col de la Cayolle, a mere 2,326 metres above sea level. I was taking heed of advice offered by Richie and Mark so I was just spinning the legs, spinning, spinning and spinning. Rod and Nige were go getters and left like greyhounds chasing rabbits, they flew on up the road ahead of Richie, Brent and me as we tried to absorb the stunning scenery. Initially the climb begins with a tree lined road so it’s very hard to take in what’s going on either side, but the more you advance up the climb the more the road opens out and becomes a gorge like pass and it appears to wind itself around the outside of the rock face. The left of the road starts to rise steadily creating a canyon below, which is until you are presented with a bridge to cross over and the canyon then appears on your right side. It was amazing trying to soak all of this in, the magnificence of the gorge, the unusual formations of the rock face that is exposed, trying to understand the powerful forces that must have created all of it. We stopped at the first bridge to take a picture or two but the camera could come nowhere near doing the scene justice.
Mark popped up in the van to see if everything was ok or if we needed anything, but we explained we were just taking a picture. There was an expression of satisfaction on Marks face; you know the expression someone has when they get delight out of sharing something beautiful with you and watching your reaction to it? That’s it… that’s the expression. We pedalled on some more and up to now we had stayed as a trio, Brent Richie and me, but I could feel Richie was itching to push himself and see how quick he could make this climb so I dropped back a little towards where I had been cycling with Brent. I had no intentions of testing my limits, especially at this early stage of the trip and I was even less inclined to do so with the knowledge that we would be climbing a seriously big climb later in the week.
As we gradually ascended the Col, Brent and I chatted where possible, when we were not talking we were trying to swot horse flies away, we nearly invented a new sport, cycling tennis. Every now and again Richie would come back to us and he’d tell me he was recording me on the GoPro. It was as perfect as perfect could be for our first days cycling in the Alps.
After meandering around the turns of the Col for a couple of hours we eventually passed a little restaurant on our right which was an indication that we were not too far from the summit. The road markers on the road side were also good indicators and they reminded us of the distance to the summit, the gradient of the climb and the current height above sea level. As we ascended the summit, all of the gang were there waiting, Nige, Rod, Richie and Mark was there preparing lunch. Mmmmm lunch… At this point food was very welcome, jellies and energy bars begin to lose their appeal after the first few so something as simple as bread filled with meats and cheese is a very novel way of loading carbs without it being tasteless. Rolls, cake and coke never tasted so good or so refreshing, all simple foods but very effective.
We talked while we enjoyed our lunch, discussing the climb but mostly discussing the beauty of the views. It really was magnificent and it felt such a big achievement to have just climbed a HC climb. Now don’t get me wrong, it is not the first HC category climb I’ve ridden, but it is the first where I did not have any pressure on me to complete it and also the first where I did not have to ration my food or water because I had the comfort of knowing that the support van was with me all the way for anything I might need. The advice that Mark had given us before we attempted the climb was also spot on and it made the ride so much more enjoyable.
When we had our fill of lunch and finished taking some pictures it was time to go back down the descent, back down the windy road that we had climbed just under an hour before hand. The day was really beginning to heat up now and the thoughts of a cool breeze blowing against my face was giving me the little push I needed to get my arse into gear and start descending.
Brent and I were the last two that set out and we were blocking the way for Mark in the Van. The road was narrow for the most part, there was just about enough room for one vehicle to travel on it so overtaking was not ideal. Descending towards Barcelonnette was nerve wrecking to say the least, the long steep descents seemed very unforgiving and brakes were virtually useless as stopping required about 5 – 7 hundred metres of road length. Most people would not wish to stop, Nige, Rod, Richie and Brent flew down the climb fearlessly, like kids knowing no danger, but I on the other hand was not very confident in my descending skills and I used it as an opportunity to stop every now and again to take some pictures.
At times Brent would slow down and I’d catch up with him but then the road would get a little too dangerous for two people to ride abreast so Brent’s skill in descending would allow him to gain a good lead on me. Every turn gave a beautiful reminder of the massive gorge below, a stark reminder of how far down it was to get to the bottom and I doubt any of us wanted to take that route; it was a one way ticket. Scary and all that the descent was, it was also very exhilarating and liberating, the realisation that you were now on the descent of the Col and this was the first climb of the first day of the journey that had now begun really began to hit home. It was special; it was very special, the smells of the countryside, that feeling of warm air gushing past you as you zoom down the side of a mountain, completely bonkers, but so enjoyable. The more we descended the warmer the air became until it eventually felt like someone had opened the door of an oven and with the heat came the breeze. As soon as I tended to pass 40Kmph the wind kicked up and I found it a little more awkward to control my bike, I think the mix of using deep section rims and my own inbuilt fears of crashing were the main culprits but I was playing safe by trying to reduce the speed as much as possible by feathering the brakes, this came at the expense of painful hands, better safe than sorry.
As we neared the end of the descent Brent was waiting for me and we finished the spin together down the narrow road. At times it became a little precarious, one such incident was when three cyclists were approaching from the opposite direction and the more intelligent one was using his mobile phone while cycling, it nearly cost him his mobile phone, and whatever other casualties may have arisen had he crashed into us.
We rolled into Barcelonnette where Rod, Nige and Richie were waiting for us at the bus shelter. Mark arrived over and suggested that we might cycle back up to Pra Loup and if we were in agreement he would join us. The obvious answer was yes so Mark went off to get changed.
The spin back up to Pra Loup was not as hard as I’d imagined it would be, the heat was the biggest issue we now had to contend with. Rod found it a little more difficult but to be fair he had tackled Col de la Cayolle fairly aggressively while I had just taken my time on it, in my head I had planted the idea that I was not over here to push myself beyond my limits, I wanted to have the energy to enjoy what every day would present to me and past experience of cycling day after day told me that pace was everything.
Myself, Rod and Richie were the first of the group to make it to Pra Loup, Nige was very close behind but seemed to have disappeared and Mark was following us. When we all regrouped, the fact that Nige was not with us did not really cause much alarm as there were only two places he could have gone, Pra Loup or back to the chalet so we were assured that he was OK, Brent had decided to return to the chalet so at least Nige was not alone.
The heat must have been getting to us at this stage as we now needed something to quench our thirst and water with electrolyte tablets just wasn’t cutting it anymore so a real drink was called for. A visit to Newgrays Lionel bar to sample the local refreshments was called for. The order of the day was deux demi blonde and deux bière serious. Oh boy did those drinks feel good, the cool larger flowing down my throat, burning away the dust from the hours of cycling and quenching the thirst I’d built up. I’m not a larger man, I normally partake in the real drink of men, Clonmel Chardonnay, Bulmers Cider, that is when I am drinking which is a rare occurrence, but this bière serious was amazingly satisfying.
The owner of the bar was very welcoming and friendly he even kept an eye to our bicycles as we sat and drank the golden nectar he was serving from the brass pumps on the bar. We finished our drinks and made our way back to the chalet, it’s amazing how one loses track of time in these places.
Back in our room Richie and I reminisced over the day’s events and how wonderful the cycle had been. I confessed my fear of descending and that I was constantly worried of coming off of the bicycle again, I still have the niggling pain to remind me of my previous incident. We prepared for dinner, still a little shy about being around people we did not know, but to be honest our shyness was very subtle at this stage as the ice had been fairly well broken during the day.
Our main meal for the evening began with a salad of cheese, bacon and potatoes, covered in a sweet yet sharp dressing. If this was the class of food we were going to be eating we would be gaining weight instead of losing it, it was delicious. Tartiflette was the bones of the main meal and it was wholesome and very, very tasty. A traditional French dish from the region it went down so well and was so filling that it really hit the spot. Fran had taken command of the cooking and she was doing a superb job of keeping us all extremely satisfied. The wine was flowing and with it the tales of the day and of Plymouth were shared, but mostly of Plymouth, and they were entertaining tales, really entertaining.
Desert was another traditional dish, pancakes filled with banana and dressed in a beautiful chocolate sauce. Each bite was heavenly, each bite was savoured. The meal really was the pinnacle of our day, a brilliant days cycling topped off with a beautiful traditional home cooked meal. It was after dinner when the beers and wine were flowing that we really got more acquainted with each other. It was a nice environment where it felt like we all knew each other, and if we didn’t there was no reason why we would not get to know each other as everyone appeared to be very open and very approachable. To say that I felt welcome was an understatement; I couldn’t have felt more welcome if I was sitting at home on my own sofa.
Mark went through options of climbs that he felt were available to us for the next morning and again we reached a group consensus on what we would do. After a brief rundown of the climbs Mark suggested an earlier start so that we could get the most out of the day, so it was off to bed for a much needed early night.
I don’t really remember falling asleep on Sunday night, it happened very fast which I guess was a sign that I needed a good night’s sleep. This was the second day of our trip in France and I had a feeling it was going to be yet another special experience. The fact that I had not over exerted myself cycling yesterday meant that I felt really good and refreshed, exactly how I’d hoped I’d feel as there was a lot of cycling still to come in the days ahead.
Climb: Col des Champs / Col d’Allos
Altitude: 2,087M / 2250M
Max Temp: 37°
Category: HC / HC
Waking up in the room allocated to myself and Richie was a real pleasure, there were two doors in the room, one leading to the hallway allowing access to the bathroom and the rest of the chalet, the other opening straight out onto a wonderful wooden balcony. The external door to the balcony was a timber frame with a full sized sheet of glass making up its main panel, this allowed for a beautiful view of the mountains that cupped the valley from the moment your eyes opened until the moment your eyes closed again. This door was constantly open anytime we were in the room as it was nice and cooling and also we had a habit of going out and enjoying the views from the balcony.
After a quick shower I made my way upstairs for breakfast, again porridge was thankfully available along with eggs, toast, croissants, brioche, fruit, juices, coffee and tea. More than enough food to give a solid grounding for a day’s cycling, there were other cereals on offer which Rod seemed to avail of, he wasn’t too fond of porridge, but the rest of us were delighted with the oaty goodness in a bowl.
The climbs that Mark had suggested for Monday required a short journey in the mini bus to the top of Col de la Cayolle, the climb we had ascended the day before. Mark explained that it would be a nice descent and it would give us an opportunity to get a bit of a warm up in our legs before tackling the other two climbs that he had suggested for the day.
We arrived on top of Col de la Cayolle, it was warm already and I think it was about 18°C or 19°C or there abouts. It was warm in terms of sea level, but in the mountains it was going to feel very cool while descending in a short sleeve jersey. We got out of the minibus and began to prepare for the days cycling, ensuring we had all the things we needed, Garmins, energy Bars, Water Bottles and freshly pumped tyres. At 2326 Metres above sea level it was a nice height to start from and driving up to the summit was a nice reminder of just how much climbing we had done the day before.
A winding, twisting long descent down towards the town of Entraunes gave us a short respite before ascending again towards the summit of Col des Champs. The climb up Col des Champs was a little more challenging than that of Col de la Cayolle on the day before, Sunday. It was a long and hot climb to the summit. Initially we started out as a group of five cyclists with Mark offering support in the minibus, and then we started to find our own pace… Rod and Nige went on ahead; a little less zesty than the previous day, but still spritely enough that we were losing distance on them.
Brent fell behind a little which concerned me as I hate to think of anyone tackling a climb on their own, especially these climbs which are long, so long, on average 20km in length. 20km is a long way to cycle when you are averaging 10 – 12kmph so sometimes it’s nice to have a little company. As we slowly climbed up the road Richie mentioned how quickly we were gaining height after every switchback or hairpin we ticked off. I mentioned that maybe we should hold on for Brent but he explained that we would only fatigue ourselves if we tried to travel at his pace, then Mark appeared and asked us if everything was OK. We enquired about Brent and Mark told us he was doing fine, he was coming at his own pace and that he would make the climb.
As the time passed we could see our progress, we were getting higher and higher, the summit never seemed to come into view but the road that we had already cycled slithered like a snake down below into the valley, the tops of the trees became like a carpet below us as we started to pass above the treeline. While it was difficult to tell where exactly we were in relation to the climb we knew we were more than half way up, we had to be otherwise we were cycling a lot slower than our Garmins would have us believe.
Eventually we came to what was the steepest section on the climb; it was around 10% or 11%. Mark was waiting on the corner with his camera in hand taking some of those photographs everybody hates, you know the ones where you are red faced after going up the steep hill and you are grimacing? Yeah, that one.
We stopped and talked to Mark while he filled us with Coca Cola, it felt good to get some sugar into the body. Like larger, I am not a huge fan of Coca Cola, but it was a must on the long, hot, dusty climbs of the Alps. We asked Mark about Brent and he reassured us that he was doing OK, he told us he’d head up to the summit and set up the lunch as Rod and Nige were nearly there, after that he’d go down and check on Brent.
We continued on up the climb, it seemed to get a little more difficult, I guess at this stage the altitude meant that there was less oxygen so my lungs were working a bit harder.
When we reached the summit Nige and Rod were already enjoying lunch in what was a very surreal setting, it was like a scene from a Mel Brooks movie yet neither of the two of them seemed out of place. Two Lycra clad men sitting down to what looked like high tea with a backdrop of jagged mountain peaks. If it was seen on a postcard it could almost be taken as highly amusing.
Nige and Rod were just finishing lunch when Richie and I arrived so we spent a little time taking some photographs and even offering to take some photographs for other groups of people and cycling parties. We settled into having some lunch, again a welcome meal that was satisfying to the soul. It’s amazing how the climbs take so much out of you that even the simplest of food tastes good, but then again Mark had ensured that all of the food was bought fresh on a daily basis.
When Mark arrived there was no sign of Brent. Brent was about 2km back down the climb and was finding the day hard. The previous days climb was after knocking the stuffing out of him and I could clearly understand why, it had been a long ascent and todays climb was even longer, and hotter. When he eventually joined us Brent looked beat, he seemed a bit at odds with himself but the factors that he had no control over were a strong influence, the heat, the altitude, the gradient of the climbs, the sheer length of them… All were things that he could not change and all were things, like Richie and I had found out, were very difficult to train for unless you live in the Alps.
Brent decided not to descend Col des Champs, he opted to travel with Mark to regain some of his strength back and decided he would descend the next Col with us, Col d’Allos.
After a long lunch break we began our descent of Col des Champs. To say I was petrified was an understatement, the road was even faster than the previous day and the surface was less forgiving. I spent a lot off the time squeezing the brakes just to travel at what might be considered a responsible speed. Letting the brakes off would see the bike travel from 35kmph to 70kmph in a matter of seconds and these were not closed roads, and I also didn’t know the roads to have an idea of what hazards lay around each hairpin. I seemed to be so worried about descending that I was not concentrating on taking the bend on the line as I should have and spent many hairpins very close to the edge. All of the time I was conscious of the fact that a trip over the edge was a one way ticket into a readymade grave, it was frightening, it was fantastic, it was what the trip was all about.
Again Rod, Nige and Richie appeared to have no fear on the descents, I was envious of them, but then again I was just being cautious, the only thing holding me back was “me”.
After descending down the switchbacks towards what looked like a beautiful old walled town, a place called Colmars, we regrouped. Part of me wanted to explore the town, that’s my addiction on holidays, strolling around and seeing all the quirky streets the quaint towns have to offer, while the other part of me just wanted to keep going. Mark arrived behind us in the minibus accompanied by Brent and told us that we were heading right for Col d’Allos. Having climbed Col des Champs and now an attempt on Col d’Allos would mean we would have climbed two HC climbs in one day, this was definitely a first for me and I was eager, eager to have done it but to be honest, worried about what the climb might throw at me. Col d’Allos was a long climb, approximately 23km in length, a long winding climb up through a ski resort with an overall average gradient of 4.3% but sections of 7% and 8% it was going to be a nice climb, especially after just climbing Col Des Champs. Col d’Allos would feature on stage 17 of the Tour de France 2015 as the last climb the riders would face before battling for the stage win into Pra Loup, and here we were, getting to ride in the tyre tracks of our heroes that had sweated on these roads in the past and the heroes that had not been made yet. Who would be the champion of stage 17? We’d find out in two days, but for now we had our own heroics to contend with and one of them was 23km away, the summit of Col d’Allos.
Mark had given us a rundown of what to expect on the climb, a long drag towards the resort of Allos and then a rise up towards the Col. Again he suggested that we pace ourselves, if done well we’d make it to the top in one piece, if not we’d still make it to the top in one piece but we’d be a lot more tired. Myself and Richie took turns out in front breaking the light breeze that was pressing against us as we travelled along the road towards Allos. It didn’t really feel like we were climbing and you were only reminded we were actually going uphill when we’d occasionally glance down the side of the canyon wall to see the river slowly getting further and further away from us.
The sense of cycling on the flat did not last long, as we entered Allos the road kicked up about 5 gears and the climbing became so much more noticeable. Leaving the ski resorts main complex the road turned back on itself in a 180° hairpin. The local cycling enthusiasts had already begun to paint the names of their favourite cyclists on the road; this really added to the atmosphere and made me wonder what it must be like to cycle up with all of the fanatical crowds cheering you on, screaming your name, helping you along and even hindering you. It must be some experience. For now there was a little matter of a climb, that and the fact that Richie was gaining ground on me and the distance between us was growing with every pedal stroke. I was happy to let Richie off ahead, there was no point in trying to match his pace, after all he is fitter than me and lighter than me by about 19 – 25 kg, so keeping up with him was not a good idea. He has a tendency to latch on to other cyclists that are passing and try to pace himself off of them, I just have to try and find some sort of rhythm and keep spinning the pedals. If nothing else; this week would become a great lesson on pace and self-preservation when climbing HC climbs.
The scenery on display was amazing; every hairpin pushed me about 50metres higher with a new vantage point of a mountain vista that stretched up to meet the sky. It was magnificent and became even more awe inspiring with every metre climbed. The downside to this was every metre climbed eventually meant thinner and thinner air making it that little bit more difficult to turn the cranks and push on up the climb.
About two thirds of the way up the climb Mark was parked up and Richie was taking a breather in a picnic chair. Brent was there cheering us on while Mark was again snapping away with the camera, gleefully taking pictures of our best climbing faces. Mark had been talking to some of the spectators who were parked in their camper; yes they were parked there 2 days before the race would take place just to ensure they would get a good spot from which to cheer on their favourite hero. Well Mark had gone to the trouble of getting these local supporters to now cheer me on, I think one of them called me “Richie Porte” to which I replied “more like Portly Richie”. It was a bit of banter and to be honest it was very welcome to break the monotony of the climb. I’m not saying the climbs were monotonous but there were times when you thought you’d never reach the top, your head would lift up and you’d spy the Col between two peaks and you’d think to yourself “How the hell will I make it up there?”, but you do it, you do it because you want to, because you believe in yourself.
I reached the Col d’Allos and Richie, Brent and Mark were there waiting. It felt good; it was an achievement, two HC climbs in one day, a long day of climbing but well worth it.
We took a few more pictures on the top of the Col; it had become a tradition now, if there was a signpost with the name of the climb on it than we had to have our picture taken. How easy we were amused. Mark had spotted a large French man sitting outside his camper van, the van was adorned with memorabilia from previous Tour de Frances and the man himself was a large rounded person with a classic French moustache. Mark asked if we may have our photograph taken with him as he looked like a right character, the French man obliged and even unzipped his sweater to reveal a nice large beer belly, and I felt underweight towards him for once and didn’t feel the need to suck my belly in for the picture. Again it was all just having fun, soaking in the atmosphere of the build up to the Tour de France.
The descent down the Col d’Allos was one of the scariest of the trip. The uneven road and the less than protected road edging did not instil confidence in me as to how safe this road was. I again took every opportunity to stop and try and capture the beauty of what was before me with my camera and phone but they just could not do it justice. Richie, Nige, Rod and Brent were now getting into the habit of taking pictures when opportunities presented themselves. I love nothing more than looking back over the pictures and remembering what events unfolded around the times the pictures were taken.
The descent felt like it was taking forever, my hands were beginning to ache from squeezing the brakes and I felt that if I took my eyes off the road for a moment there would be no second chances, it was scarily fascinating and in all fairness it was actually very safe as long as you were not taking unnecessary risks, something I was not doing.
The views of the surrounding mountains on the way down were just stunning, sure there was none of the iconic snow on display, after all this was July and the average temperature for the day was 27° with a maximum temperature of 37° and a minimum of 18°. Now that’s hot in my books.
When we reached Barcelonette we opted to go and watch the remainder of the day’s stage of the Tour in one of the local bars, a good call. The golden bière serious were called for and we watched the events of the days Tour unfold. For some reason our own events of the day overshadowed the Tour and we began to talk about the climbs, the descents, the characters along the way, the day as a whole could not really be bested.
We didn’t take on the challenge of climbing back up to the chalet as we felt we’d done a fair enough amount of climbing already that day, somewhere in the region of 1900mtrs, so we packed the bike onto the roof of the minibus and made our way back to prepare for dinner.
Dinner was a little more subdued than it had been the night before, everyone was tired after the days cycling, but they were tired in a good way, an air of contentment was present in the room, a sense of achievement. This wasn’t initially evident, but when Rod’s “Troll” eyes were raised in banter everyone else confessed to feeling that bit tired and then the heat didn’t help either.
Fran presented us with another wonderful meal again, a salad consisting of apple and blue cheese kicked us off. It was delicious; the flavours just seemed to merge with each other, the sharp bite of the apple complimenting the blue cheese.
A main course of Salmon with courgettes and salad was very fulfilling and again the flavours oozed over my tongue. Cycling is similar to going out for a day’s labour, the meal always seems to taste better when you feel you’ve earned it and as far as labouring goes, we had earned it today.
The icing on the cake was the profiteroles that were served for desert, covered in chocolate sauce they were packed with a nice cooling cream that gave a sense of freshness with every bite. And I can’t fail to mention the wine, as usual the wine was flowing, red, white or a beer if you so desired. I was happy drinking the red wine, kidding myself into believing that it was good for the blood, but to be honest the beautiful taste of it was good for the heart, it was satisfying and relaxing.
When it comes to cooking, Fran knows how to keep us all happy, each meal was better than the previous one, as every dinner should be.
After dinner we sat talking and discussed how we were feeling after the days cycling. Mark then asked us something that made all our ears prick up and listen, he asked “how would you feel about attempting Alpe d’Huez tomorrow?”
Now this was what I liked about how Journey Begins operates, nothing was set in stone, the itinerary; the times all could be adjusted to suit the people on the tour and their capabilities. So Mark explained that although Ale d’Huez was not on the original itinerary he had planned to do it on Friday if we had wanted to do it. Alpe d’Huez, one of the most iconic climbs around, of course we would like to do it, we were taking hand and all.
Mark told us that if we wanted to do it that tomorrow would be the best day as after that there would be too many people on the climb and it would make it very difficult logistically. The catch was we would have to leave early as it was about a 2 hour drive to where he would drop us off, Col d’Ornon, a nice fast descent down into the town of Le Bourg-d’Oisans, about 10km of a descent.
We were all very excited about the chance to climb Alpe d’Huez, but Brent was being a little quiet. He was worried about his ability to climb such an iconic climb and maybe he feared he wouldn’t be able, all I know was with a bit of encouragement from Mark he decided he’d give it a go.
Getting to sleep that night was a little more difficult than it had been previous, a mixture of the heat, excitement and fear of what was going to be a memorable day was playing on my mind. I was enjoying the holiday, I was enjoying it more than I could have hope, but there was always the dark cloud of fear, fear of falling off of the bike again and the constant reminder of that niggling pain in my left shoulder just giving me that jolt of reality that it could happen again. This had destroyed my sense of courage on descending and I was now at a stage where I was blaming the bike for not descending fast enough, “the wheel doesn’t feel right”, “the brakes don’t feel right”, “I don’t trust the bike“ when really it was my head that wasn’t right. I was hoping I’d get over it before the end of the trip so that I could enjoy descents that I could never experience at home.
Climb: Alpe d’Huez
Max Temp: 44°
When we woke the next morning there was a buzz of excitement, breakfast was enjoyed but it was a little faster than normal. In a way it reminded me of when I was a kid and you were being taken to the beach for the day. You’d get up early, and an excited rush would happen where you’d start forgetting things, running in and out of your room to make sure you had all that you needed and at the same time forgetting what it was that you went in there for to begin with. Eventually everyone seemed to be ready, and Mark reminded us that there was a tendency for people to acquire “I climbed Alpe d’Huez” jerseys from the traders at the summit so it would be wise to bring some cash.
The journey to Col d’Ornon was a nice pleasant spin with beautiful views of the surrounding French Alps and a brilliant climb to amazing heights along the cliffs of Lac de Serre-Poncon. We were heading towards Gap which was also an added bonus as the Tour riders had been resting there and there was going to be a bit of a buzz about the town. Passing through a place called Le Village, just a few kilometres outside of Barcleonette we spotted the Bora – Argon 18 bus and kitchen outside of a hotel called La Lauzetane. I was particularly excited about this as Sam Bennett, an Irish rider cycles for this team and this was his debut in the Tour de France. I had high hopes for Sam but he was finding the tour particularly difficult as were a lot of the riders due to the extreme heat.
We passed through Gap and we could see team busses parked in the lots of Hotels along the way, Think Off Saxo and Mtn Qhubeka were sharing the Best Western Hotel Gap, I couldn’t figure out where Team Sky were staying but there bus was parked on the side of the road along with their maintenance truck which was not really helping with traffic congestion.
It was all very exciting now; it was all starting to take shape. We headed out of gap up a long steep road towards Corps and then onto Entrigues, Le Périer and finally landed at Col d’Ornon.
Col d’Ornon is not the highest col at only 1,360m above sea level but it is a nice descent down to Le Bourg-d’Oisans. As we clambered out of the minibus the road seemed to be swarming with cyclists of all nationalities. We preformed our usual pre ride rituals, making sure the wheels were running free, tyres were freshly inflated, energy bars broken up into little pieces and placed in our tri bags. A quick call of nature and we were ready to go. We had parked down from the sign at the crest of the Col and Richie and I wanted to keep the tradition of recording all of the Cols we had ridden up or down, so it was another photo opportunity.
While taking the pictures I spotted a man across the road who was wearing a jersey from Northern Ireland, the Chain Reactions logo gave it away. I went over and talked to him and he told me he’d just come from Alpe d’Huez, “it’s a beast, a real beast but you will be fine” he panted. I was nervous enough thinking of attempting such an iconic climb and then I was made even worse when he described it as a beast. Shortly afterwards his wife arrived up the climb and I asked her if she had tackled it too, she replied she had and I felt a little more at ease considering this woman who was a little overweight, not unlike myself, but older than me in years had just descended from Ale d’Huez. Then it hit me when he asked me to take a picture of the two of them under the Col d’Ornon sign and he refused to allow the bicycle into the picture. It was a motorised bike, this couple from Down in Northern Ireland had conquered Alpe d’Huez but his wife was on an electric bike. My dreams of an easy climb were dashed.
I re-joined Richie to begin the descent down Col d’Ornon, the prequel to Alpe d’Huez. It was a nice fast descent, but the road narrowed in parts, normally this would not be too much of an issue but the fact there was a rather large tour bus in front of us and it wasn’t safe to overtake it meant that the full experience of this beautiful descent could not be enjoyed; which was a shame really now that I was beginning to get over my fear of descending.
The bus getting stuck on one of the hairpins didn’t help much either, that meant grinding to a complete stop and then having to build momentum up again, and courage of course.
I eventually got to the cross road which signalled the end of the descent, well for the most part at least, Richie was waiting there, there was still a nice fast flat run into the village where Mark had said we would regroup. Mark, Rod, Nige and Brent were waiting at the outskirts of Le Bourg-d’Oisans and joined us as we made our way into the quaint little French town. Mark had decided that he would leave the minibus in the town and climb Alpe d’Huez with us which was reassuring for us and also a boost of morale for Brent as he trusted Marks advice on the climbs.
As we pedalled through the town there appeared to be cyclists everywhere, and for every cyclist a shop with a jersey to sell to them. Of course I was going to be one of those punters, but not until after I’d climbed it, I wasn’t going to tempt faith.
Richie had sowed the seed of doubt in my mind about Alpe d’Huez, telling me of a severe ramp at the beginning where the road seems to go vertical. This frightened the living shite out of me, but what the heck, I’d give it a go anyway.
We stopped at the base of the climb to take some pictures of the starting point and then the horror that is Alpe d’Huez began.
The climb up to the first three hairpins is about 11% and then it evens out to an average of around 8%. What makes Alpe d’Huez so iconic is the amount of dreams that were made and dreams that were broken on it; I was here on a dream that was going to be made. I got into the lowest gear on my bike and just kept spinning, and spinning, and spinning. I had a feeling this was going to be the offering for the entire ascent. Rounding the corners gave a new perspective of the same scene as you are literally climbing up one side of a mountain, not around it. Rounding each hairpin was unusually gratifying and every now and again I’d stop to take a picture or two, the hairpins are named after cyclists who have one stages on Alpe d’Huez, some hairpins had two names but I was only interested in the hairpin named after “Il Pirata” Marco Pantani, the current record holder for the fastest time climbing Alpe d’Huez.
The markings on the road left by spectators for the cyclist they were supporting were somewhat more decorative on this climb, as if there was a particular reverence associated with it, well that reverence left very quickly when we rounded a particular corner and Richie lost his virginity to a woman of the road. We were about three bends down from “Dutch Corner” and we could already hear what some might call music pounding out of speakers, I think it was some band like Scooter or Aqua, I don’t know, all I know was it was crazy but fun. As we approached “Dutch Corner” there was some guy wearing nothing only sandals and shorts offering to pour glacial melt water over passing cyclists, for some it was a very welcome gift as the temperature was touching in and around 44° and a getting cooled down by any means would be very welcome, but unfortunately I couldn’t avail of it due to having my camera left unprotected in my back pocket. We passed “Dutch Corner” and it was like a scene from the living dead, people zombified from the large volume of alcohol they had been consuming over the week, the techno pop blasting from big speakers, a hose that was connected to a water source somewhere was spraying out cooling water. For want of a better description it was like a rave in a gypsy camp, but it all lent itself to the atmosphere and experience that is Alpe d’Huez. About 100 metres up from there two elderly gentlemen were sitting rat faced listening to the Gypsy Kings blasting out Bamboleo, they managed an “allez” which was encouraging… it was nearly as difficult for them to utter that as it was for me to climb this “beast”.
Richie seemed to be staying with me on the climb today and at this stage Rod and Nige were way ahead of us while Mark and Brent were behind us. Richie suggested that we take turns on being in front and should alternate on every second hairpin. This worked for a short time but as I mentioned before, Richie has a faster climbing pace than I do so it was short lived, but we did manage to stay together up to the bars on top of Alpe d’Huez. Apparently the Bars on the climb created their own finish line so that the cyclists would stop outside the bars thinking they had finished the climb and celebrate accordingly. The real finish is up near the ski lifts at the back of the entire ski village, Mark had alerted us to this and Richie decided to have a sprint finish when he saw the bars. Unfortunately he bypassed the turn for the real finish and went off in the direction of Italy, I followed him up trying to alert him to the error and eventually he stopped so I could explain, too much energy in that man.
When we eventually found the right finish point, Rod and Nige were there taking photographs, we told them of our error and they chuckled at us. Rod was itching to descend and climb it all over again and he probably would have made it back down and up again in the time I’d have descended.
Shortly after arriving Mark and Brent joined us, Brent had a smile like a Cheshire cat, stretching from ear to ear. You could feel the sense of achievement he had after climbing such an iconic climb and he should be proud, it was a great achievement, it was a great achievement for any person to get on a bicycle and push themselves way outside of their comfort zones to attempt such a feat, but not only had Brent attempted it, he’d succeeded in it too and he said he felt “Greeaaaatttt” after it, a real Tony the Tiger Greeaaaatttt.
We headed back down towards the bars that litter Alpe d’Huez and filled up our water bottles, before settling down to have a “grande café”. Sitting there in the café felt really good and every person that rolled past us had that smirk of achievement, of contentment, the “I did it “ smirk. Alpe d’Huez is an Iconic climb, as I said previously a place where dreams are broken or made and these were the people whose dreams had been made.
Before we descended we had a browse in the shops. One shop in particular had some really nice cycling kit, Assos, Bontrager, Santini, all the top brands. One jersey in particular appealed to me and of course now that I’d succeeded in climbing Alpe d’Huez I could legitimately wear such a jersey. It wasn’t cheap and it left me with enough money in my hand to buy 2 “I climbed Alpe d’Huez” stickers, one for me and one for Richie.
The descent down Alpe d’Huez was fast and precarious, it was mainly precarious because a lot of the cyclists that pass you forget to tell you they are coming and sometimes even forget that they are not the only ones descending. I was being a bit cautious descending; I think I maxed out my speed at around 65kmph so I was going relatively easy. Passing the lunatics of “Dutch corner” and arriving at the corner where the man in the shorts had been pouring water over people earlier, which he was still doing, I noticed Brent, Richie, Rod and Nige had stopped to take pictures and talk to a couple of Kiwis that Brent had spotted. I joined the group and went about taking out my camera to capture some of the scenery, just as I was doing that a cyclist came around the hairpin at speed and the back wheel lost its grip for just a moment. It was long enough for the incident to frighten the cyclist and for others to take note; the tar on the road had begun to melt in patches reducing traction so cautious cornering was now imperative. As we exclaimed how lucky that cyclist had been to be able to retain control of his bike another man came hurtling around the hairpin, his front wheel lost traction in a similar fashion to the previous cyclists, but then his front tyre came away from the rim and he ended up in a heap on the road, his bike bouncing over towards us. Our initial surprise subsided very quickly as we went over to try and help the man off of the ground, we asked him if he was able to move and if he had any pain in his back to which he replied “No, just help me up, not on my left side, my right” I helped him to his feet with one of the Kiwis that Brent had been talking to. Brent moved his bike off of the road and noticed that his tubular tyre had come away from the rim, probably the cause of his mishap. The man had some nasty road rash to his left leg, left forearm and his left shoulder but he was more concerned about the large tear in his Rapha cycling jersey. I asked him if he minded me having a quick look at his shoulder and he told me to go ahead, his collar bone appeared to be ok, but the back of his shoulder where he had impacted the ground was swollen and gashed. He tried to move his arm and said it was sore but not so bad that it stopped him moving it, I told him it might be best not to move it for a bit and we moved him over to the shade.
A friend that was cycling with him then came down and asked what had happened, Brent and I suggested he go and get their car and we would stay with him until he returned.
Richie continued down the descent to let Mark know what had happened so that he would not be wondering where we were. After a short time Mark appeared back up the climb and came over to assess the situation. He told myself and Brent that he would stay with them man if we wanted to get down and regroup with the others. By this stage the injured man could no longer move his shoulder. My worst fears…
Brent and I left Mark with the injured man; I was having flashbacks of my own mishap last year which put me off the bike for over a month and a half. It played on my mind the whole way down and made me even more cautious than before when I was cornering. It was the last thing I’d needed to see when I was just starting to regain a little of my confidence. It brought back the worst memories and it kind of put a damper on what had been such a special day.
Reaching the end of the descent of Alpe d’Huez was a relief to be honest; a crazy Dutch tour van driver stopped dead in front of me on the way down and scared me stupid, so seeing level ground again was nice. Brent was waiting at the bottom and we started back to Le Bourg-d’Oisans where the others were waiting for us at a little café. Mark soon joined us as we cycled towards the little town and I enquired as to how the casualty was, Mark assured me that he was OK and that his friend had picked him up in his car. At least that much was off of my mind, but seeing it happen was still playing on it as it happened so fast and so simply.
When we got back to the minibus we had a bite to eat before the 2 hour journey home. Mark explained that there was a faster route but there had been a landslide so the road was inaccessible, for now we would be going back the same route we had used to get here.
Mark also told us that Fran had called and let him know that there were some pretty heavy thunder storms over Par Loup at that moment so to be aware on our way over. The trip back was quiet, mainly because everyone had a big day but also because it had become very humid now and the storm that Fran had told Mark about was approaching.
First the rain started, at least the bikes were getting a wash, and then the bolts of lightning forked down from the sky. I hadn’t seen a good thunder storm for a few years now so it was exciting stuff for me, Rod and Nige were more or less sleeping it out in the back of the minibus.
When we were passing through Gap we took an opportunity to wander over to the Best Western Hotel Gap and check out the Team Saxo Think Off vehicles that were in front of the hotel. We wandered around the hotel and at the back of it where the room windows were at hip level you could see some of the cyclists resting. It was a good taster as a prelude for the next day’s events.
It was nice to get back to the Chalet and stretch the legs out for a little while before dinner. Everyone was tired from the day’s events and the travel, but mainly the travel. A relatively early start with a two hour drive takes its toll and then a two hour drive back as well around winding roads is truly tiresome. It hadn’t really sunk in that we had climbed Alpe d’Huez but it had been a special day, even so, my thoughts were still on how that man was doing, I was hoping he was OK.
We sat around and talked about the day’s events, the experiences we shared climbing Alpe d’Huez and of course descending them.
Dinner that night was another first for me; the starter, a trio of pâté, gently toasted French bread with a light salad and balsamic vinegar dressing. It was simple fare but very pleasing and satisfying.
The main course, Spanakopita, a Greek Pie made with spinach, cheese, filo pastry, eggs herbs and other ingredients was served with a salad. It was mouth-wateringly good, the glutton in me desired more, but my senses told me to save space for dessert, and they must have been tingling because dessert was also delicious. A smooth chocolate cake served with ice cream, it was the perfect encore for our memorable day.
After dinner the electrical storms got a little more intense with huge forks of lightening zig zagging their way down from the heavens. It was enchanting to look at, the dark grey clouds enveloping the surrounding mountains. The rain became so intense that the mountains gradually disappeared, yet after 30 minutes or so it cleared as if it had never happened.
We took a stroll up to Pra Loup that evening to get an idea of where it might be best to watch the race from the following day, well, that and to leave our mark on the road. Mark and Fran had been very thoughtful by acquiring some spray paint to allow us to tag the road with whatever slogan we wanted. Nige and Mark went first by tagging “ESSA” on the road in huge green letters. I don’t know what ESSA means but it has something to do with the biggest cycling club in Wales, well in Nige’s heart at least. There were a lot of people out tagging the road, some more prepared than others, some had mini rollers to make big sweeping lines and were writing the names of their favourite cyclists, Nibali, Contador and so on…
Given that the paint was green the only thing we could respectably tag was a shamrock with the letters NAAS below it in the hope it might be seen from the air.
After our little stint of teenage vandalism we made our way towards where the finish line was situated, right in the heart of Pra Loup. The place was still a hive of activity with trucks arriving and unloading their cargo. It was remarkable the amount of logistics that went into this tour and the realisation that it had to be assembled and disassembled on a daily basis was a little shocking.
We went over to a bar, La Bergerie for a drink to finish the night off and as every disconcerting customer does, we had a peek in the window to assess how lively the atmosphere would be. When I looked in the window I had to do a second take, there amongst a group of people wearing Skoda polo shirts was none other than Irelands own 1987 Tour de France Winner Mr. Stephen Roche, the only Irishman to win it. WE entered the bar and I told the group that “Roche is sitting in next door; I wonder if I could get a picture with him”. Fran and Mark told me to go for it, that the worst he could say is no. I went into the room and he was talking to some other people from Skoda, I waited a bit as I thought it would be extremely rude if I interrupted him and that would lesson my chances of getting a picture with him. After about 3 -4 minutes of me standing there and a number of worried glances in my direction from the Skoda staff I eventually piped up, “ excuse me Stephen, sorry to interrupt you, would it be possible to get a picture with you?” He was very approachable and told me there was no problem. When we left him he told us to enjoy the race tomorrow and seemed very pleasant. We had a drink and Mark told us about the Route des Grande Alps, just something to whet our appetites for future cycles.
That night I didn’t really sleep very much, I guess the anticipation of seeing the Tour de France the next day and not knowing what to expect was on my mind; that coupled with the humid night. Richie was asleep in the other bed snoring, Richie never seems to have trouble sleeping, on planes, trains, cars and even strange beds, I guess it’s an occupational hazard with him but at times I’m envious of him. Like a light bulb, the switch goes off and he’s out cold until the following morning.
Climb: Pra Loup
Max Temp: 34°
Tour de France day arrived sooner than I’d expected which was good on one hand but not so good on another. It was great to finally get to see how the world’s most famous cycle actually comes together first hand, but it was also the halfway point of our trip to France which meant that the rest of the trip would pass very quickly too.
Richie was sitting up in his bed when I woke, “well, today’s the day Steve, I’m looking forward to this” he announced to me. We were both looking forward to the day that we’d built ourselves up to and now it had arrived. Before I go much further I’d like to clarify something, I’m not a very good sports spectator and to be completely honest I find it hard to sit and watch sporting events, I prefer to try and participate than to spectate so it was a unique situation for me to get excited about watching a road race, but then again this was the Tour de France.
Marc had mentioned that we could have a lie in as we were not intending on travelling to far on the bicycles; road closures, spectators and cyclists would mean utter mayhem and then there was the fact that we would like to get a reasonably good spot to watch the tour from.
The mood at the breakfast table was one of subdued excitement, we were all as excited as children at Christmas, but I think we were also a little shy about showing it. The original plan of descending down to Barcelonette and then cycling back up to the finish line at Pra Loup had changed. Mark explained that the gendarmerie were stopping people from cycling up earlier when he’d been down to the store and suggested that we instead descend to the junction of Pra Loup-Col d’Allos-Barcelonette and then make our way back up to Pra Loup. This seemed like a good plan, not too much cycling and a chance of getting out to see the Tour a little earlier than first planned was not a bad thing.
We got our cycling kit on and headed out as a complete group, Brent, Nige, Rod, Richie, Mark, Fran and myself made our way down to the junction to see the spectators gathering. The place was short of being chaotic, there were people everywhere, campervans parked on the edge of steep embankments, tents perched on gravel, people walking on the roads, cyclists coming from every direction, it was mayhem but there was a good buzz about it. We were a little more cautious than usual descending as no one knew when someone might walk out in front of us or an official T de F worker might suddenly stop his scut truck to adjust or place a sign on the roadside. When we reached the junction we had a look at the merchandising tents, there was nothing that I really wanted there, and I’d brought my own yellow jersey over with me, just in case I might bump into someone important.
A little down the road we noticed a van we’d seen the day before was still there and there was some activity at it, the van belonged to an infamous character of the Tour de France and many other cycling events, Didi Senft or “El Diablo” as he is more affectionately known, was taking a pee behind his van and of course we had to go over and disturb him just to get a picture of this character. Like all good characters he obliged us, but I think he was smitten by Fran as he didn’t seem to want to let her go. This was the first real time that it struck me that this was going to be a day with a difference, an exceptional day.
After our “impromptu Photoshoot” we headed back up the climb to Pra Loup for the finish line of the day’s stage, stage 17; just as we arrived at the turn for the chalet we were told by the gendarmerie that we could not cycle up and instead we would have to walk up behind the barriers, the road was to be kept clear. This put a bit of a kibosh on our plans to cycle up to the official finish line, but of course we couldn’t let this deter us. We walked up behind the barrier a little bit of the way, not too far down from the spot where we had painted the shamrock the previous night. There was a gap in the barriers and we used that opportunity to cycle up the remainder of the road. It was good craic, people were standing around and saying things like “Allez”, it was a bit of clean fun and it was also an experience, a small taste of what it must be like for the general tour riders cycling up the street with hoarding on both sides and crowds of onlookers…
There was an official from the Tour blocking the final section to the finish line and while he wouldn’t allow us up to the finish line he did allow us to take pictures just down from it, he even stood in for one of them. I guess you couldn’t really blame him for stopping people going up to the line as it would have been mayhem and there was thousands of Euros worth of equipment up there, in fairness we’d already been up there the night before so it wasn’t really an issue. We took a few photographs and made our way back to the chalet for a quick shower and a bite to eat.
Mark and Fran had suggested a BBQ for lunch given the day that was in it and it really was a good choice. It was nice to eat some “BAD” food for a change, you spend so much time preparing for big events, you cut out the rubbish food and the takeaways, so it always tastes better when you finally indulge yourself again, but in fairness Fran’s cooking was excellent regardless. The barbeque was a real treat and it would have won awards for best chosen meal of the day because of its naughtiness yet it was still served with healthy sides. The wine complimented the barbeque because we were in a drinking mood and I do honestly think that methylated spirits would have been just as welcome, we were all on a high thinking of the day that was to come.
We hadn’t finished eating long when we decided it was time to head back up to the viewing point in order to catch the “Caravan”. For those that don’t know what the Caravan is well a short explanation would be, a convoy of decorated vehicles or parade floats representing different sponsors of the Tour de France that drives the route of the Tour throwing out samples and small gifts to the spectators of the event. I guess the thinking behind it is to entice people to watch the race and also to promote their products. The passing caravan creates a frenzy of grabbing by the spectators where they fall short of murdering each other to try and get as much as they can, the most coveted items are the Tour de France hats, especially the polka dot ones, and they really are the top prize. We had a good craic at the passing Caravan, getting enough hats for each of us and other trinkets and things that are more a novelty than they are of any real value. I must say, the best hat was one Mark managed to get, a Festina one, it really was nice and it went to a good home.
We set up a camp of sorts just across from the barriers where we would have a good chance of seeing the race as it attacked up the hill towards the finish line. People were already starting to gather and it was promising to be an exciting finish.
Mark asked if anyone would like to go back to the chalet and watch some of the race on the T.V. as it would be some time before it would reach Col d’Allos and by the time they would descend it we would be back as the chalet was only a ten minute walk. Nige, Rod and Richie opted to stay in the sun and soak in the banter; we headed back to the chalet.
A few beers later we went back to the spot we had picked out to watch the race from and a fair sized crowd of spectators had gathered. We had picked the perfect spot for viewing the race and the atmosphere was beginning to build. The noise of the circling Helicopters above gave away the fact that the race was now drawing close to Pra Loup.
After what seemed to be an eternity of waiting, trying to suppress my own excitement that was being driven by the others around me, a lone cyclist appeared, making his way up the final stretch of what was a particularly gruelling stage. That lone rider was one Simon Geschke riding for Giant Alpacin who had broken away at some 50km before the finish and had retained his lead even after climbing the highest peak in the 2015 Tour de France, Col d’Allos, a pass that I had climbed just two days before so I knew just how difficult it was.
We watched as the other riders tried to catch up with him on the last part of the road but to no avail. There was a feeling of bitter sweet Irish pride on this stage as although Nicholas Roche ploughed through in 7th position he was also the first Team Sky rider home; unfortunately Sam Bennett had to retire at the beginning of the stage due to illness. My aim was to try and get the signatures of all three Irish riders on a yellow jersey I’d brought especially for the occasion, Roche, Bennett and Dan Martin, but with the loss of Bennett it would not be the same.
As the last of the riders made their way up the course we decided to try and reach the finish area.
I was rather surprised to see the cyclists who had finished the race make their way back down the route while there were still GC riders trying to compete; it nearly caused an accident on more than one occasion.
Walking along the route behind the barrier proved to be a challenge in itself with the majority of the spectators coming down the hill in the opposite direction, I guess they realised that the majority of the cyclists were now descending back down and not waiting around as their team busses were at the end of the hill. It was somewhere along this point that I lost Richie, it started to rain, not like it does here in Ireland, but serious drops of water, the kind that would have you soaked through in seconds, the kind that sends a river of water flowing through the streets after a brief shower, intensely wet rain. I realised at this stage I’d become separated from not only Richie, but also from Mark and the rest of the gang. I stood in out of the rain at one of the vending vans and then Mark appeared with Richie, they said they were going to get umbrellas from the merchandise tent and I waited where I was, I had a feeling it would only be a brief shower.
We made our way up around the finish line and Richie had vanished again, it wasn’t until we wandered around the back of the media area that we found Richie again. He was watching Greg Lemond shoot his show, Lemond on Tour. We joined in the spectating and I was very seriously tempted to stroll around the back of the shot so that the Deenside Wheelers jersey would get international airing, I decided against it as I thought it would be a cheap stunt and also because the continuity controller was keeping a very watchful eye on myself and others that were near to walking into the camera shot.
Because Sam Bennett had been unable to continue on the Tour, I felt it would be a wasted exercise getting the signatures of Martin or Roche as I really wanted the three of them on the jersey. I contemplated asking Greg Lemond to sign it and just before I had decided on it, who walked out to discuss the race only none other than Simon Geschke. I decided there and then that if anyone was worthy of signing the jersey it would be Geschke, although he had not won the yellow jersey he had won the stage and in an exciting fashion. I approached his director of sportives and asked him if it would be possible for Geschke to scribble his John Handcock on my beautifully fresh, new yellow Tour de France jersey. He gestured to me in a manner that I understood to mean “We will see” so I stayed around armed with my yellow cloth and a sharpie. After the interview, Geschke went to leave and was being ushered off by his director of sportives, I walked over to him and just asked him straight out to sign it, this started a bit of a frenzy of signature hunting much to the annoyance of his usher but in all fairness this was Simon Geschkes first Tour de France stage win and he appeared to be enjoying the 4 minutes of fame that was being bestowed on him. People were trusting their hats, gloves, anything that you could write on, towards Geschke, he was really lapping it up, Mark even got the Festina Hat signed for Brent, a nice memento to return to New Zealand with. Accommodating and all as Geschke was I then realised he had left with my sharpie, hmmmmm I asked him for an autograph and the fecker ended up stealing my pen, smooth but a fair trade off in every sense.
Fran and Brent had made their way back to the chalet earlier so our chatter as we walked back down the hill was all about the day’s events. I was beaming from ear to ear with my piece of Tour de France history safely stowed in my shoulder bag, of course it would be worth little or nothing on the open market, but to me it was priceless, it was another reminder of a very special day I’d spent with some really great people. The conversation continued when we got back to the chalet and we laughed at our prizes from the caravan, there were even some obscure breadsticks that one member of our group had picked up.
We had a few beers and waited for dinner.
I wasn’t overly hungry on account of the barbecue we’d had earlier, but to be fair to Fran you really could not resist her delicious cooking. An onion and cheese quiche served with bacon, cabbage and couscous was the main menu and it really went down a treat.
The dessert was a taste sensation, plums steamed with lemon and served with a vanilla ice cream, it was glorious, a real treat for the taste buds. In fairness to Fran, every meal she had served us so far was cooked to perfection; there was nothing I could fault, not one thing.
We discussed what climbs we might attempt for the next day over dinner.
Mark seemed to have Col de la Bonnette pencilled in, which was a worrying thought for me as that usually meant a significant Col and that we would most likely end up climbing it. Col de la Bonnette is classified as Europe’s highest paved road and we’d already been given a taste of it the night we arrived when we travelled from the airport to the chalet. Mark was intent on keeping his word when he said that we’d be cycling up it.
When the banter had settled a little and the food was starting to digest I asked Richie if he wanted to head up to Pra Loup for a stroll around. Up to now we’d stayed at the chalet every evening because we were usually a little tired from travelling earlier in the day by either bike or minibus but on this day we’d had no travelling as such, just the excitement of watching the Tour.
It was amazing how quickly Pra Loup changed from a hive of activity to a ghost town in such a short period of time, in fairness I did think there would be more people out and about as back in Ireland after any event there are always celebration drinks to finish the night off, but in other European countries it just doesn’t seem to happen, once the event is over, it’s over.
We wandered around the centre of the resort watching the last remnants of the tour being disassembled and loaded into trucks so it could all go on again the next day in the next town.
At the main complex in the resort they were shooting a T.V. show about the Tour de France so we watched it for a while before I asked Richie if he fancied a pint. We’d been in a bar here on Sunday so we decided to head back there as the owner had been quite friendly and it would be nice to give him a little custom. When we entered the bar there were only two people in there, an elderly gentleman sitting at the bar drinking some sort of aperitif and another younger man who was talking with the owner.
After ordering “deux bière serious” we were offered a plate of crisps (potato chips), it would have been rude not to accept. As we were drinking the pints, well they were not quite pints, they were about a half litre, the owner of the bar, let’s call him Lionel, started to have a bit of banter with the younger man who had been at the bar when we arrived. Lionel went into the back room and reappeared with a biddon, a blue water bottle with Team Sky printed on the side, the drinking cap had black marker with a name on it that made it one of the most coveted biddons of the Tour de France, unless you happened to be French of course, Lionel was holding one of Chris Froomes biddons. He opened up the drinking cap and gestured to the chap at the bar getting him to sniff the inside of the bottle. Then he came to myself and Richie and made the same gesture, of course I could think of nothing to say only “EPO”. Lionel was obviously a closet Team Sky fan as he immediately responded with “Naawww, Naawww, Naawww, Non ÉPO” while laughing at the remark. It was very surreal in the bar, here were two Irishmen without the ability to string a sentence together in French having a conversation with a man who was unable to understand English, yet there was an agreed understanding of what each other was trying to communicate. Of course there were some points that were lost in translation but the main conversation happened and from it we learned that Lionel’s brother lives in Rochelle, he likes to party hard in Majorca, especially in the clubs and that he was a Team Sky supporter.
I think it may have been one of Lionel’s party pieces for visitors to his bar when he turned and took a chair and placed it in an open space in front of the bar. He gestured to the younger man at the bar to come over and sit, and then he took a large bottle that resembled a double magnum of wine in terms of size and had a spout on the top, not unlike what you would see on a bottle of olive oil. There was a huge collection of these bottles on another counter that I hadn’t really taken any notice of up to now. The young man sat in the chair and Lionel tilted his head back, he made a couple of gestures implying that the man should raise his hand when he had enough as he pretended to pour the suspicious liquid down the man’s throat. Then he did it, I think the man lasted all of two seconds before he raised his hand, this gave me the impression that it must not taste too nice. Lionel then approached Richie and beckoned him to sit in the chair; this was very amusing and Richie did last a bit longer than the previous man. I asked Richie what it tasted like but he told me I’d find out soon enough and as right as it rains in Ireland I was next up. It wasn’t an unpleasant taste and I nearly forgot to put my hand up, I think poor Lionel thought I was going to drink the whole bottle on him, but I eventually remembered to put my hand up. The suspicious drink was “Génépi”, a “digestif” from the region. Lionel was good fun and was up for good old fashioned banter. He went back into the rear of the bar again and re-emerged with some Tour de France baseball caps, he gave a few to passers-by and one each to myself and Richie, but that was on the condition that we pose for a picture which I never have a problem doing.
After we had finished our drinks we thought it might be a good idea to head back to the chalet as it was getting late in the night, well in cycling terms at least and we had a big day’s cycling in the morning. On reaching the chalet we found that everyone was already in bed so we tried to be as quiet as possible.
It was another night that I didn’t really sleep very well, I guess the fact that we were now halfway through the trip and all of the excitement of the day was still rushing through my blood didn’t help. I think I eventually dozed off around 3 or 4 am, not an early night by any means.
Climb: Col de Bonnette
Max Temp: 27°
I felt a little seedy the next morning when I woke up, not from the two drinks I’d had the night before but from the lack of sleep, but nonetheless there was some cycling to be undertaken and it was going to be a big day.
The previous night we’d discussed which climb we would be attempting, the chosen one was Col de Bonnette, the one I feared most and I believe I was not the only one who had reservations about this climb. My main fears were the gradients of the climb, some parts were 9 to 12% which is doable on a short climb but Col de Bonnette was far from a short climb.
After visiting a local bicycle shop to address a small issue with Richie’s derailleur hanger we started out on our journey to begin the days climb.
We set out for a little town called Jausiers, a short journey from Barcelonette , I think about 8KM. Mark had decided he was going to cycle with us and Fran was coming along in the minibus as support. We took it relatively steady leaving Barcelonette and I was loathe to push too hard because I was expecting the climb to be hard enough without going into it already after emptying my tank.
We gathered in the little square at the entrance to Jausiers, there were a few market stalls and the town appeared to be the same as my body was feeling, sleepy.
We left Jausiers after a short time and headed out of town up towards Col de Bonnette / Restefond. Col de Bonnette is a long climb of over 20KM, from Barcelonette it worked out at 32KM up to the summit of the Col with an average overall gradient of 6.6% to an altitude of 2,802m, the highest point the Tour de France has been to date; this was why I was worried.
I took my time leaving Jausiers and I had the good company of Richie for the most part. I felt bad because I knew I was holding Richie back as I’ve mentioned before he is much stronger at climbing than I am. Col de Bonnette was a long climb that was very beautiful. The road eventually opened out and displayed a beautiful landscape of rugged cliff faces ahead and beautiful mountains cloaked with clouds behind. The day was warm but pleasant at this stage, the only unpleasant thing were some annoying horseflies that just could not seem to understand “Feck off”. My first separation from Richie on the climb was just after I stopped to take a picture of the Sign for Col de Bonnette. Richie was just fuelled up to the last to try and give the climb everything he had and I really didn’t want to stop him, I think he had regretted not going up with Rod and Nige as they were really trying to push themselves up this infamous climb whereas I on the other hand was just trying to survive it. To be honest, I didn’t feel too bad considering I’d had just over 3 hours sleep, but I knew that if I was foolish enough to push too hard I’d have a very short journey on this climb so it was spin, spin, spin.
Richie had drifted on ahead again as we started into a series of small hairpins, just before the first coffee shop and I let him go on, there was no point in burning myself out by trying to keep up with him. I knew the days of the trip were coming to an end and to be honest it was quite nice to get a small bit of solo time to just take in the adventure so far, and to soak in the amazing scenery that was now surrounding us. As I rounded the last bend of the first group of hairpins I spotted Richie parked up on the side of the road talking to Fran who had stopped to see if we needed anything to eat or drink, if everything was OK and if the climb was within our capabilities. I stopped for a few moments and had a few Haribo jellies and a drop of Coca Cola. The need for sugar becomes very noticeable on such long ascents.
Richie and I set off again on the climb but it wasn’t long before he was itching to go along at his own pace and I didn’t mind being left alone either, it gave me the opportunity to stop when I wanted to and take pictures of the beautiful landscape around me and I knew that Mark and Brent were behind me if I needed to drop back to have some company. Now in fairness to Richie he didn’t go off to far and every now and then he’d be waiting on a hairpin gesturing me to cycle on saying “I’m recording you” while pointing at the goPro on his bike. We continued along in this fashion until we were about 4KM from the summit, there was a hairpin with some “pay for picture” photographers taking photographs of cyclists as they passed and then giving them a coded card so they could order a print of the image later, behind the hairpin was a nice little lake than seemed alien to the landscape, Fran was parked up waiting on Mark and Brent just to see if they needed anything, it was at this point Richie left me in his own personal attack of the summit of Col de Bonnette. I had absolutely no inclination of following him as I knew there was at least a day’s cycling left and the fashion had been that for every day that passed the climbs were becoming that little bit more arduous, they were not killers if you paced yourself accordingly, but you could be tricked into flying up full steam ahead and ending your cycle by blowing up before reaching the top.
I used the time alone to take in my surroundings, grassy hills stretching upwards towards what was becoming a lunar like landscape. Cycling up towards the Col there were still remnants of the Maginot Line, a series of concrete bunkers built just prior to WWII. At one hairpin there was an old garrison that appeared to be relatively intact, it was an overpowering fortification and yet someone had gone to the trouble to create large designs from stones on the grassy land across from it; designs featuring stars, unicorns, numbers, strange things really to see at nearly 3000 metres above sea level.
By now Richie was a good 2KM ahead of me and I could see him moving up the Col in the distance, we were about 5KM from the summit of the Col and it was after getting a lot cooler. Looking around you could see an expanse of Alpine mountains in every direction. A person could easily get lost on these roads and run out of energy very fast if they did not know where they were going. I just kept spinning my legs, slowly making ground, yes it was very slow but it gave me a good opportunity to appreciate the stunning beauty of the place and to make corrections for any mistakes I might make on the bike.
As I rounded the last bend of the main climb the summit came into view, the last piece of road from Col de Bonnette up to Cime de la Bonnette.
The story goes that an extra piece of road was added onto the pass in order to make Col de Bonnette the highest paved road in Europe, so the extra bit of road is really only a loop around the Col.
The road appeared to flatten out a little and there was a bit of a false flat towards the remnants of some old World War II bunkers, it felt a little odd gaining speed at such a high point but it was just an opportunity to rest the legs before the last part of the climb, the loop around the Col which was 12% in parts. As I neared the pass I spotted a familiar Jersey, a Naas Cycling Club one, Richie was standing there waiting for me to go up the last part of the climb. “you need to take it easy going up here, it’s steep in parts” he mentioned to me, there wasn’t much of the climb left but it was important not to get too excited as it still had to be cycled and then there was also the descent to contend with. Eventually we ground up to the top, slowly but surely with a waiting welcoming party made up of Nige, Fran and Rod. As usual we had to take the obligatory “SUMMIT PHOTOGRAPH” and then we chatted and waited for Brent and Mark who were not far behind us.
After a short time two figures appeared from around the bend and they were instantly recognisable as Mark and Brent. It was great to see Brent make it up; I like to think it gave us all a great sense of satisfaction and pride to see him beat the one mountain that struck the most fear into all of us on the trip. Mark was right, it was not so bad as long as you paced yourself but it was still 30+KM of uphill cycling but it was worth every pedal stroke for the immense feeling of self-achievement we got from completing it. We stayed around a little longer and took some more photographs now that the whole group was present, and then it came time to descend.
The descent was faster than the other Cols I’d been on as there was not as much fear of going over the edge of the road considering the sides did not appear to be as steep in most parts. There were parts where your heart would be in your mouth, you’d squeeze the brakes and it would feel like nothing was happening; you just keep rolling down into the corners, scary stuff but in a good way.
You know you’ve touched the sky when your descent down a climb takes you over 20 minutes to complete, and that’s at speed.
I really enjoyed the descent and I had the privilege of being buzzed by Rod about a third of the way down, Mark and Nige had been taking the mick by telling him he went up the wrong way on the loop and the side he’d chosen was the easy one, Rod being Rod just had to go and do the loop for a second time lest anything would be said. Just a bit of banter really and people were now really beginning to find their place.
We regrouped back in Jausiers at a coffee shop before having a bite to eat and preparing for the journey back to Barcelonette. I think the group were in a giddy mood as the practical jokes were really flying and everyone had really come out of their shells, by now it was if everyone had been friends for years. It felt good, it felt really good. Sitting in a car park with Mark telling us about other Cols and his escapades with Fran cycling up some of the Cols laden down with paniers, really made us want to stay there longer, but unfortunately that was not an option, this time. One could really get lost in time in the small French towns, laying down on the ground after a nice lunch, soaking in the beautiful warm rays of sun, not worrying about time, not worrying about anything other than what will the next Col be like? I can only imagine it was as close to cycling Heaven that one could be.
We packed up the waste from our lunch and put the table and chairs back into the minibus in preparation for the spin back to Barcelonette.
We left Jausiers at a moderate pace as we’d all felt the climb in our legs and he heat of the day was starting to affect us. We hadn’t travelled too far when the banter between Mark and Rod began, Rod was setting the initial pace an then suddenly Mark passed him goading him into pushing the pace up to where they were on the verge of racing each other. I didn’t take much notice at first as I was cycling behind Nige at this stage; Richie and Brent were behind me. I came alongside Nige and suggested we try and catch Rod and Mark before they got too far ahead but that was so much easier said than done. Eventually we caught up and were travelling a fairly fast pace, Mark came back alongside me and hatched a plan to try to drop Rod, as a bit of fun, so we pushed the pace even higher trying to catch Rod with some rotation, pushing harder and harder all the time increasing the speed up past 50KMPH in some parts. I was beginning to feel the work I’d already done in trying to initially reach Mark and Rod so I guess I was holding back a bit. After a lot of “Cat and Mouse” cycling trying to burn out poor Rod, but to no avail as he had youth and energy on his side, we eventually reached the outskirts of Barcelonette.
The day had really become hot now so we decided to head into the centre of Barcelonette for something to cool us down. We sat down and ordered a round of beers, the usual order after a hard day on the bike, it was great for clearing the dust from our throats, well; that was our excuse at least. We sat and drank the beers while going over the day’s events and occasionally glancing at the T.V. screen in the bar to see what was going on in the Tour. A young jazz band started playing music, now they were not really that bad but the long day’s cycling and the heat of the sun told us it was time to leave, it had nothing to do with the fact that they were just not that good. Someone had the great idea of cycling back to the chalet, I think it was Rod; we were all set to do it until the sky gave us a little warning. A loud rumble of thunder and a sudden downpour of rain quickly stopped any notions we had of cycling anywhere. We stood in under the canvas umbrellas outside of the bar for shelter; space was at a premium at this stage as all of the people that had been sitting outside were now cowering in under them for fear of getting wet.
It was while we were standing in under the rain that a woman seated next to us noticed that we were not French and she struck up a conversation with us. She asked me and Richie where we were from and of course we replied “Ireland” and briefly told her that we were here on a cycling holiday before introducing Mark to her. The person that really caught her attention was Brent, it turned out that she was some sort of journalist who was writing a piece for an article in a local magazine. She was writing about the attractions of the area and why people would travel to Barcelonette so Brent was perfect as he had travelled all the way from New Zealand, the furthest point away from France I’d guess. Brent spoke with the woman for some time and then she asked if she could take some pictures of him for the article and also of the group as a whole. When all of the celebrity duties had been fulfilled, we decided it would be best to make our way back to the chalet as Fran was preparing dinner for us. We all opted to go back in the minibus as there were still some pretty angry looking clouds in the sky, all of us apart from Rod that was, Rod was loathe to take the minibus back as there was not a lot of cycling left on the trip and we were nearing the last day, that and the fact that I think he was going to race the minibus back.
We loaded the bikes onto the roof of the bus and Mark drove us back in the direction of Pra Loup. The rain appeared to have held off but that wasn’t going to save Rod, we’d concocted a plan to cool poor Rod down when passing him in the bus by spraying him with our biddons, nasty I know but it was only a bit of good old clean fun. Eventually we spotted Rod, pressing on up the climb towards the chalet and in fairness to him he was giving it a good pace. When we pulled alongside him and began spraying while shouting “Allez, Allez, Allez” to him which made his pace quicken even more, we thought he was trying to out run the bus.
He had a heart of iron and pushed on back to the chalet, well done to him.
When we got back to the chalet we were all looking forward to dinner after a long day’s climb and a great day of cycling, and it truly was a meal worth waiting for.
Dinner started with goats cheese on toasted French bread served with a nice sweet pesto and balsamic vinegar. It was a lovely fresh taster for the beautiful meal that was to come.
The starter was followed by beautifully cooked chicken wrapped in bacon with a cheese and pesto filling which was accompanied by long grain rice and khmer beans. Every plate was cleared and no one needed to be asked a second time if they wanted more, it was delicious.
A dessert of plum and apple crumble lightly flavoured with lemon really hit the spot and the vanilla ice cream that was on the side really softened the sharpness of the lemon, all of the ingredients for a mouth-watering meal, crafted brilliantly by Fran to create a culinary masterpiece.
Over the dinner we had the usual après-cycle and discussion of where we might go the next day for our final day in the Alps. Mark suggested a few Cols, but it was when he suggested one Col in particular that all of our ears picked up, one very iconic Col… Col d’Izoard, of course we all agreed that we would love to finish our journey on this very iconic climb. Mark got a good kick out of the fact that I was calling it Col d’ Lizard, but it was all a bit of craic.
Sleeping wasn’t an issue for the most part and I barely recall my head hitting the pillow just after I’d plugged everything into charge, a nightly ritual at this stage. 3 video cameras, a pocket camera, a phone and a Garmin all got plugged in on a nightly basis. I wanted to capture as much of this special adventure as was possible and I hoped all of the gadgetry would help.
Climb: Col d’Izoard
Max Temp: 33°
So, for the penultimate time we awoke to another beautiful morning in the Alps, another morning of the sun peeping in the door to the balcony, another morning of preparing to go and do what I was now enjoying most, cycling, but not just any cycling, cycling up the Alps. It was a bitter sweet awakening as this was our last day of cycling and it really had been an exceptional trip, a memorable journey and a fantastic adventure. Today was not going to change that, if anything it was going to add to the experience, it was going to add to it greatly and we were excited about this last big Col, Col d’Izoard.
As usual we began the day with a hearty breakfast, but you already have a fair idea of what we had been eating for breakfast so I won’t go into details. We loaded the minibus with supplies and bicycles, today Fran was going to cycle alongside us and Mark was going to drive the minibus as support.
Our destination was Briançon, this was the town from where we would begin our steady climb up Col d’Izoard, a 20KM climb averaging 5.8% overall.
We started out from a shopping centre on the edge of town and followed Mark in the minibus down some streets until we came to a much more picturesque area of town. Mark was waiting at the roundabout and directed us left up the road to the Col d’Izoard. Rod and Nige were going to make the most of this climb as it was the last one of the trip, so they headed off at a pace I was not even going to attempt to keep up with so it was a group made up of Fran, Brent, Richie and myself. It was nice to cycle as a group but I must admit there were one or two sections that we had to single out due to cars passing, other than that it was a relatively quiet road. We cycled along at a moderate pace and I was enjoying the conversation in the group as well as having a great opportunity to take in the stunning surroundings. At one particular point we passed an old mountain inn / chalet, it was spectacular, old wooden beams, stone walls, timber being stored against the external walls, it was like something from a fairy tale, rundown but yet somewhat handsome, masculine but inviting, these were the things I had hoped we would see on our journey, we did not go unsatisfied.
We had been cycling for about two hours now, constantly uphill, even if parts were only 2% or so it was still constant climbing and we hadn’t realised how hot the day had become until we hit direct sunlight for a few KM’s. We stopped for a moment in the shade of some trees on the rounding of a hairpin and it was then that we decided a cup of coffee or something cooler was in order. There was a beautiful little café at Cervières, a small little village about 12KM into the climb.
It was nice to just sit and relax for a while in the café amongst the good company of Brent, Fran and Richie. We sat there and chatted for a while, and we got lazy, and we chatted some more. When we decided to leave and climb the rest of the Col we met two Austrians we’d had the pleasure of meeting on Col des Champs by being asked to take their photos. We greeted each other and went our separate ways, but it was a nice feeling to meet strangers and feel a connection between them and us, the connection being cycling which reaffirmed that it really is a social sport. The rest of the climb was very enjoyable and eventually we crossed paths with Rod and Nige who had also stopped for coffee at another café not too far from the summit. A few hairpins later and we had conquered Col d’Izoard, and boy did we celebrate? Coca Cola all round. I went to the gift shop that was strategically placed across from the monument marking the top of the Col to see if I could pick up a memento or two. After parting with a few Euros I re-joined the group who were now getting ready to make their descent. One thing was common in all of the gift shops, souvenirs were not cheap, in fact they were greatly overpriced but when you are on the buzz of achieving such a climb silly things get purchased for silly prices, what is it they say? “A fool and his money are easily parted”, true, but I treasure those souvenirs now as they all have memories attached to them.
The initial descent was very fast with winding S-bends and long stretches of road. Richie was trying to record footage of me descending, but it didn’t last too long as my nerve finally went and I began to reduce my speed, for some reason I just did not feel like ending up as a stain on the roads below me. Eventually he overtook me and sped off down the descent trying to catch up with the others. This took the pressure off of me regarding speed and allowed me to stop every now and again to take some pictures. The landscape on the descent was very different to the side we had ascended as it resembled a lunar landscape as opposed to the grass covered land on the other side.
As I continued to descend I noticed there was a monument in honour of Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet to my right, another photograph opportunity. “Some of the reasons we were doing these climbs was to emulate past cycling legends, why not honour them too and take a picture for the memories?” I thought to myself. I continued on down the descent and eventually caught up with the rest of the group who had stopped on one particular S-bend, there was a beautiful vista that allowed us to appreciate just how high up we were. After a short time taking some more pictures we started off down the remainder of the descent, more long stretches of roads with S-bends that nearly made the road go back on itself, that was until we reached a little town called Brunissard.
The road then changed to a long stretch with only a slight curve to it but a serious camber, it was great not having to worry about switch backs and S-bends but being so open the wind was playing havoc with my wheels. When I eventually reached Arvieux, Mark had begun to set up for lunch. We sat there in the little square beside the water font, there was a large picnic table that we had commandeered and we talked about the descent. It seemed the rest of the group had descended so fast they did not even see the Coppi monument, but there will always be next time.
While we were eating lunch Mark wandered over to a little café/bar/shop/inn that was across from us, he began talking to two people and would you believe it was the same two Austrians we’d met a few times before, a small world even in the huge Alps.
It was soon time to begin the last part of the descent towards Guillestre. The road down took us through a fantastic gorge with tunnels cut into the cliff face to grant us passage through the sheer rock. The more we descended the more it became grey, as if we were cycling down into the clouds, and eventually we were below the greyness and the blue sky that had been our friend all day appeared to have suddenly left us. Then the drops began to fall, sporadic at first, then clusters, large drops that made a big splash when they impacted the ground, big enough splashes that you could see their crowns clearly. We pulled in at a layby to let the shower pass, and then it was hell for leather. We descended at serious speed, the roads were wide and the rock face was on my near side so I was not a bit nervous, it felt amazing to zoom down getting faster and faster, the only time we stopped was for red lights at tunnels or for directions at roundabouts, it was a pure adrenalin rush.
We eventually regrouped in Guillestre and got ready for the short journey back to the chalet in the minibus.
There wasn’t a lot of conversation during the drive back to the chalet; I guess the mixture of tiredness from the long day and the fact that the mood was now a kind of sombre one as we were going back to our own homes the next day. It hadn’t really hit people up to now that it was the last day, sure it had been mentioned but I don’t think it had really sunk in and I personally believe there was a big element of sadness over having to leave, but all good things must come to an end and great things always end sooner.
Dinner that evening was another first for me; initially it appeared to be an experiment in seeing how many electrical appliances could be plugged in before blowing the fuse board but I quickly learned what Mark was up to.
He’d plugged in some sort of hot plates, Raclette was the main course for the evening and I was looking forward to it. Raclette is a dish based on melting cheese on a hot plate and adding meats and vegetables like potatoes, pickled onions etc. It was a good choice for our final meal as it really epitomised what the week had been about, spending time together as a group. In addition to the great choice in food Mark had a treat in store, well some thought it was a treat and others believed he was trying to poison them when he opened up a bottle of “Génépi”. Personally I enjoyed it, some of the others were not too keen on it but it was very thoughtful of Mark to crack open a bottle of it for us, a nice memory to a very special week.
Tart Tatin and cream, a traditional French dessert was served and our eyes lit up. Like all of the food that had been cooked for us over the week this was also delicious, the crumbly pastry and soft warm apples really tasted special. It was so nice that it was quickly consumed and seconds were not refused.
A night or two previous Mark had been discussing the logistics of our departures. Rod, Nige and Brent were all going in the direction of Geneva, I felt a bit bad because we were dragging Mark in the opposite direction towards Nice. Fran and the others would have to get up at 5 am in order for Rod and Nige to catch their flights so their journey was well and truly over after the descent of Col d’Izoard. Brent was staying in France near Annecy, so he still had some holidaying left to do. Mark had asked us about our flights, for timings and the likes, we told him 11pm and he’d mentioned something about getting a few more Cols in if that was the case. I hadn’t really paid him too much attention as I thought it was just rhetoric, how wrong I was and I found out when he broached the subject again. He suggested driving to a point and from there we could cycle about 90KM taking in two climbs and a stint at the sea front in Nice. I was game for this and so was Richie but I had one reservation, where would we shower? I didn’t want to stink of sweat on the plane for the journey home; as much as I hate flying I’d have felt even more uncomfortable if I was self-conscious for the flight. As usual Mark was quick in resolving that problem when he turned and said “you can take a swim in the Mediterranean”. Problem solved. I was thrilled, an extra days cycling and the opportunity to have a splash in the Med, cycling from the Alps to the sea… brilliant. A part of me felt bad for the rest of the lads, I could feel that they would have loved the same opportunity but time had run out and there was nothing they could do.
After the meal had settled a little, I asked Richie if he wanted to take a stroll up around Pra Loup for the last time. We wished Rod, Nige and Brent a safe journey and said our goodbyes, exchanged email addresses and the promise to keep in touch before going out the door.
Pra Loup was busier than previous nights but it was still akin to a ghost town, it was hard to imagine how people earn a living there but they do.
We wandered around looking at the buildings; no one would have known the tour had been there just two days previous except for the markings on the road and the occasional promotional sign that had been saved from theft or removal to someone’s collection of Tour de France memorabilia. I suggested a quick beer but Richie said we should get back as we had an early start and a long day ahead of us the next day.
When we got back to the chalet the lights were off bar one to let us see our way in, I guess everyone had gone to bed so that the long journey would not tire them out too much. We went down to our room as quietly as possible trying not to wake the others. I really hate having to pack up the last night of a trip away, it’s just not the same as when you are preparing to go on a journey, there’s an anti-climax to it, sure it’s nice to get home but there is always that part of you that wishes the trip had lasted a little longer. I didn’t really pack up my things, I just organised them into piles so they would be easy to put in my bag the next morning as there were still a lot of things I would need that would have to be packed first.
Sleeping was really difficult with the excitement of the extra day of cycling and the little bit of anxiety over the flight home, it was very late in coming, but it did come in the end and the next thing I knew was when I woke up in a room baked in sunlight. When I eventually managed to rouse myself from the bed Richie was already preparing for his shower, he suggested that we try and get ready and have breakfast so we could get on the road.
Climb: Col deTurini / Col de Castillon
Altitude: 1,607M / 728M
Max Temp: 33°
Category: HC / 2
When I finally made it upstairs for breakfast, Richie and Mark were sitting there enjoying the breakfast that Fran had thoughtfully left for us, she really did go out of her way to make us feel at home. We asked mark what the plan for the day was and he told us he just needed to tidy the chalet a little and then we could go on our way. Now don’t get me wrong, Mark was not expecting us to tidy the chalet, far from it but as the old adage goes “many hands make light work” and that was true to form. After a short time we closed the door of the chalet for our last time and set off in the smaller van for Col de Bonnette.
This was out third time to traverse Col de Bonnette, the first time was on our arrival from the airport in the middle of the night, that was the journey that scared the life out of me when realising I’d have to cycle up this climb; the second time was when we cycled up it the day after the Tour de France had visited Pra Loup, stage 17, and today when we would be driving over the Col in order to return to the airport for our flights home. Driving up Col de Bonnette is a very different experience to cycling up it, you notice different aspects of the climb and you recall parts of the climb where it was particularly difficult, you look at the road in a very different perspective. When we reached the actual pass we realised the road was closed due to some sort of religious ceremony that was taking place a little bit further down the other side. We used the delay to our advantage; our previous visit to the Col de Bonnette had not allowed us up to the viewing point on the uppermost peak as the surface was shale and rocks which wouldn’t agree with cycling shoes or tyres. We were fortunate enough to have our runners with us so Richie and I rambled to the highest point of Col de Bonnette and soaked in the 360° panorama at the top. The weather was stunning; with very little cloud you could see the mountains stretching out for miles where they met with the horizon. The clear sky also meant there was a bit of a chill in the air, especially at nearly 3000mtrs above sea level.
We made our way back to Mark who had stayed with the van, a quick bite to eat saw our energy levels pick up again before we got back in the van to check and see if the road had reopened. After a few minutes of waiting the Gendarme allowed us to continue through the pass towards Isola and then on to La Colmiane / Col Saint Martin where Mark dropped us off to begin our final assault on the last two Cols that stood between us and the Mediterranean Sea.
Driving up to Col Saint Martin was nail biting stuff; we had left the M2205 and joined the smaller M2565 just before La Bolinette, a narrow winding road snaking its way around the edge of the cliff face that quickly rose above the road we had been on previously.
After about thirty minutes or so we arrived at Col Saint Martin and we unloaded our bicycles out of the van. Mark told us that there was a beautiful descent down towards Lantosque and after about 20KM we would reach a junction in the road to begin the first climb, a draggy 15km pull up as high as the point we’d just descended from to Col de Turini, about 1600m above sea level.
The descent from Col Saint Martin was a beautiful one, the surface of the road was very good for the most part and the shade from the trees on either side of the road protected us from the heat of the sun. The climbs were not quite as high now that we were getting closer to the sea but they were still as gruelling to ascend, the steep gradients coupled with the heat made them a formidable challenge.
The beginning of the climb up to Col de Turini did not seem too bad but as we ascended it became a little more difficult, altitude was not much of an issue as we were not as high as previous days, I guess it was just the heat and fatigue from the previous days of climbing. As we rounded some of the hairpins we could see the beauty of the little villages from new perspectives, rising above them and seeing the tall steeples of the town churches descend below us, we were getting a real bird’s eye view of the quaint little French towns. Cycling up the climb was more difficult than the previous days which I was again putting down to the heat and fatigue from the previous days of cycling. Richie was still full of energy and as we progressed up the climb he slowly edged his way further and further away from me until at one stage he was on the other side of a gorge to me where he was taking pictures to emphasise how small we appeared on these huge climbs. From this point I did not see Richie again until I reached Turini, a small Col with some café come shop business’s that were also guesthouses.
When I eventually arrived at the Col, Mark and Richie were waiting and suggested we have a bite to eat before tackling the descent down. We sat outside one of the cafés and had coffee while enjoying the sun and the opportunity to rest off of the bikes for a time. Before we descended we took a few pictures of the Col that has been made famous by the Monte Carlo Rally, the “night of the long knives”, Sebastian Loeb and when Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear went in search of the greatest driving road in the world, I’d already cycled that one in June but that was another story.
We refilled our water bottles and prepared for the descent down to a little town called Sospel, a descent of about 25km. The journey down was fast and cooling after the heat of the climb but it was also very scary in parts with some of the hairpins having turns greater than 180° it was dizzying going around the bends. The sides of the roads had stone parapets along either side that made me feel like I was cycling on top of a castle wall. It was surreal, it was scary, it was exciting, and it was a ball of emotions rolled into one. It felt a little safer to go down this road at speed as there were now two lanes on the road with a central divider marking, not that all of the cars adhered to it but it did restore some confidence within myself that I was less likely to meet oncoming traffic on my side of the road. Each turn in the road had something new to look at which made concentrating on the road rather difficult. One such sight was Notre-Dame de la Menour, a church that was perched high up on a rocky outcrop with and arched wall stretching across the road I was cycling on giving visitors the only access there was to be had. It really was beautiful countryside. By now we were no longer as high as the tops of the mountains but instead they were rising way above us, engulfing us and the roads we were descending until they were all that we could see, replacing the horizon. Mark had waited on the outskirts of the town of Sospol to direct us in so that we would know which direction we were heading for and eventually we made our way into Sospol, a sleepy Mediterranean town that appeared to be as Italian looking as it was French. Some of the old houses that lined the banks of the river were decorated in murals and paintings, similar to what one might see in Verona. It was a beautiful little town.
We had decided back at Col de Turini that we would stop for lunch in Sospol as there would be less climbing left before we arrived at Nice so we pulled into a little piazza just beside Route d’Erc, the beginning of our next climb. We sat for a while eating lunch consisting of sandwiches, Haribo, chocolate and of course some Coca Cola; to compliment the lunch we finished up with nice cooling ice creams. Mark ran through the details of the last climb, a short climb to Col de Castillon of about 7KM with an average gradient of about 5%.
Mark suggested we should go in order to have a bit more time in Nice so we began our assault on Col de Castillon. Of all the climbs we had ascended over the week, Col de Castillon appeared to be the least dramatic, it was very similar to some of the really long drags here in Ireland only with sun instead of rain. Richie and I stayed together on this climb as there were not a lot of scenic things to take our attention so a chat was the best way of occupying our minds for a climb that took about 35 minutes to complete, and as usual Mark was waiting at the top for us to make sure we were ok and had anything we might have needed on hand. We took one last obligatory “Col sign” picture before we made our descent down to Menton. The descent was beautiful, after travelling halfway down a road dotted with little houses and long sections of shelter from the sun under the tree canopy the road eventually opened out to reveal the gorge we had been navigating. A beautiful vista appeared on the road ahead where the valley opened its sloping walls to give us our first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea.
Even the air had now changed to one of a salty taste with a hot breeze carrying the smell of seaweed up the valley. The thoughts of having completed the journey of not just that day but of the whole week now began to really excite me and I did something that used to thrill me as a child, as soon as I saw the sea I shouted to Richie, “hey Richie look, there’s the sea, the sea Richie”. I think we were travelling too fast for us to be able to hear one another but it was obvious Richie could see it, he was on the same road as me but it was just one of those moments that sparks a memory of your childhood, and now it had become one of my adulthood ones as well.
Mark was waiting for us in Menton and he told us that he may get separated from us going through the town due to traffic but gave us directions to the Italian border. One of the most exciting parts of this days cycling for me was the fact that we could cross the border from France into Italy as it was only 4 or 5 km from Menton; childish it may have seemed but in fairness how many times does an Irishman get to cycle from France into Italy, this was only my second time to be able to seize this opportunity and I was not going to let it pass us by.
We cycled along the sea front like men possessed, it was great fun and we were making good speed, a quick stop at the French Italian border for a photograph or two saw our mission complete. We had now cycled two extra Cols and had also cycled from France to Italy, the sense of achievement I felt was immense.
We regrouped with Mark at the border but he was unable to stop so we agreed to meet him back on French soil, when he re-joined us he told us the Border Guards had asked to check his van for stowaways, I got a great kick out of this. We headed back up the road for the last part of our journey, a refreshing dip in the sea before we prepared for our flights home. I was a little nervous initially getting into the sea as I’ve never swam in the open sea so this was another first, but Mark reassured me that it was OK as he was qualified as a lifeguard. After a few minutes of letting nature clean us we packed everything back up and got back in the van, our cycling was over but the experiences were not;
Mark drove us high up above Monaco to give us a look at the city without the headaches of traffic congestion. The drive up saw us pass super car after super car, Lamborghinis, Porsches, Ferraris, you name it they were driving around and we were envious of them until Mark confirmed what we were thinking, they were really too big for the roads they were travelling on so there was no real pleasure in driving them.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the airport which was a bit of a shame really as Richie and I had wanted to treat Mark to dinner but time had unfortunately slipped away from us. We thanked Mark for the experience he had given us and made a promise that we would return again, it’s a must do and a promised we had every intention of carrying out as this was an experience that had far surpassed any other. I cannot say that it was better than the Gran Fondo Stelvio as they were two very different emotional journeys and two very different challenges, but if I was to compare it to any other multi cycle event the Journey Begins Tour de France package was the best, hands down. I had two regrets about the last day, there were not enough hours in the day for us to do all that we wanted to do but that just whetted our appetites to come back and do more, and the second regret was that we did not have our other cycling buddies with us, Rod, Nige, Brent and Fran; it would have been nice to finish the journey we had begun with them but unfortunately logistics didn’t allow for that.
To sum the whole adventure up all I can really say is that it was a perfect experience, it all just seemed to click into place, everything that had been organised went so smoothly and things that were ad-hoc also went smoothly so you forgot that they were not actually part of the original plan. Mark and Fran really knew how to look after us both on and off of the bicycle, Marks local knowledge of the climbs and routes was priceless, it saved us so much time and energy as we never got lost, we were never under pressure for time and every climb was achieved at a pace that suited each rider individually, there was never an occasion where anyone was told they would have to hurry on.
Fran’s cooking was delicious and I think we all looked forward to it after every day’s cycle. The food was nutritious and so moreish that weight gain was becoming a fear but the cycling gave us an excuse to eat a little more than usual. It really was the high point of the evenings and it allowed for conversations and stories to be shared at the end of each exciting day.
What made the trip work for me was that everyone seemed to be in or around the same level, while some wanted to push themselves that bit more they were still never really waiting longer than ten minutes or more for the group to reform after any of the climbs. We had complete faith in Mark and Fran and they never did let us down, they were at every turn in the road, every junction and at every climb in case any of us needed something or we just needed a break. The support they showed us was second to none in perfection and it really built up a great sense of trust between all of us.
Sitting here now writing this “blog” of sorts brings a smile to my face when I think of the experiences I have enjoyed during that week spent with a good friend and a motley crew of strangers, we had days of laughter, feelings of huge self-achievement, comradeship, pure elation and even the old touch of cycling sadism. There were so many aspects to the trip that if anyone was to plan it all it would never have worked out so perfect, even meeting Simon Geschke, it could not have been planned but in fairness to Mark and Fran they may not have arranged the meeting but they provided us with the opportunity by choosing where to watch the stage and by allowing us the freedom to wander around Pra Loup after the race. We were never pressured for time, that’s my one pet hate with tours and group holidays and it’s something I am very thankful to Mark and Fran for. I have so many memories of the week built up that if I was to write it all here it might take forever to read it so this is really just a taster of what I experienced. I would invite anyone who has taken the time to read this to follow in my foot steps and cycle in France; there is no excuse not to when there are tour operators like Journey Begins, Mark and Fran allow you to achieve what it is you are capable of achieving you just need to begin that journey.
I guess that all that is left for me to do it to thank Brent, Nige, Rod and Richie for cycling alongside me and making the trip such an enjoyable experience, a big thank you to Fran and Mark for looking after us so well and making us all feel so welcome, I’d also like to thank Brendan Corr of www.roofbox.ie for providing the boxes for our bicycle transport, this journey has ended and now the next journey begins, thank you so much.
If you are interested in cycling in France as a member of a group, a solo cyclist or as a charity, Mark and Fran of www.journey-begins.com offer fully supported cycling tours of the Alps, Pyrenees, Tour de Grande Alps and general guiding. I cannot recommend them highly enough and to say their knowledge is unrivalled is an understatement.
If you’ve enjoyed this account of my experience of cycling below are some similar pieces I have written of other journeys.