Chevauchée Pyrenees – Day #4: Time for Business

Chevauchée Pyrenees – Day #4: Time for Business

 

Ride 3, Sunday 24th June, 2018

Hautacam and Col de Tramassel

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                       40 km / 25 miles with 1,286 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                               2 hours 17 minutes

Average Speed:                      17.5 km/h

Temperature:                         27°C

Weather in a word or two:    Hot


Hautacam
Ride Profile

Sunday morning and we meet up at the campsite entrance ready for our last day of riding. “Time for business,” Caracol mutters, setting Crazy Legs off on a Flight of the Conchords song:

It’s business
It’s business time…

Hmm, business time indeed, but first we had to wait for the Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob to clear the campsite entrance with their farting, spluttering machines. Once they’d buzzed off, trailing a cloud of exhaust fumes and waves of pungent aftershave, we mount up and ride out.

It promised to be another hot, hot day, with traffic surprisingly busy for a sleepy Sunday morning, so we had quite a delay getting out the campsite. Not that we were in any great hurry, we only had one goal today, the Hautacam and back by the most direct route and preferably in time so the boys could watch the England vs. Panama kickball game.

We snaked our way through the village, crossed a bridge over the turbulent and swift-flowing, Gave de Pau and almost immediately found ourselves heading uphill. We were planning on passing through the summit of the Hautacam and its traditional Tour de France finish and pressing on, right up to the top of the Col de Tramassel. I would understand why when we got there.

So on the menu today was a hors catégorie climb of around 16km and up to a height of 1,190 metres, running at an average gradient of 7.5%. Kermit told me it no lesser a rider than Alberto Contador had described it as one of the hardest climbs he’d ever faced, although I couldn’t find any source to support this. Anyway, I would question Contador’s judgement, after he allegedly claimed OGL was one of the greatest descenders ever to ride a bike (that’s according to OGL anyway.)

Through the village of Ayros, the gradient stiffens and the signs warn the next kilometre is at an average of 10%. We’re already slightly strung out along the road, but at this point the gaps start to seriously attenuate. Caracol and Kermit skip lightly upwards, while I lumber in pursuit of the Hammer, closing in on the steeper sections, but falling back again when the road levels – (“levels” being a purely relative term, I mean of course where the slope eases ever so slightly). The rest of our group are strung out at various points behind.

Just after the village of Arbouix, Captain Black bridges across to join me and I share his company for the next few kilometres. The gradient hits 13% through some hairpins, as we catch and pass another couple of Brits. I beg them to tell me it gets easier, even if it’s a lie.

Following the road around the perimeter of a narrow field, a couple of bare-chested farm labourers are struggling to clear out some bushes. It looks like dry, dusty and hard work. Meanwhile, just by the side of the road, their small dog lies dozing comfortably in the shade of a leafy, green tree, seemingly intent on proving that it retains all of its mental faculties and feels no need to join the Englishman out in the (near) midday sun.

Thanks Nappy

I read somewhere that the Alps are more uniform than the Pyrennees because Napoleon (once an artilleryman, always an artilleryman) had their roads engineered with regular gradients. This was to ease towing gun carriages up and down the mountains, thus enabling his need to invade sundry other countries and kill lots of their citizens.

I’ve no idea if this is true, but even by Pyrenean standards the Hautacam seems to have a point to prove. It goes out of its way to be as irregular and erratic as possible, with ramps of various pitches all jumbled together within its kilometre sections, making the average gradients all but useless when judging how hard the next section will be.

At one point, a sign declaring a 7.5% average became somewhat more foreboding when it is immediately followed by a sustained and prolonged downhill section. We knew we would be paying for this brief respite just a little further on.

“In the granny ring yet?” Captain Black enquired as we topped another steep ramp. I assured him I was and had been for a long, long time. Despite this I seemed to be climbing out of the saddle with more power and without spinning my legs quite so futilely. I attributed to the extreme steepness of the slope. Hmm…

We hit sections of 15% and 16% and the Captain slowly started to pull away. I found myself alone, again. Naturally.

As a distraction, I start counting pedal strokes between the kilometre markers and reckon there was about 750 of them, although if I’d miscounted, or even double-counted I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised.

On one, aggressively steep section, I pushed the right hand lever hard left. It was already against the stops and I knew it, but I had to try anyway, just in case a new gear had miraculously manifested.

I then glanced down and found I was still in the middle ring. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but immediately dropped onto the granny ring, although the worst of the climb seems to be behind me. I was now out beyond the tree line, rattling over another Passage Canadien and could see the road twisting and turning across the open pastureland ahead and a long trail of riders clambering up behind me.

(In)Sole of the Mountain

Off to the right I saw the totally incongruous sight of a solitary, discarded insole by the side of the road Who? What? Why? When and how? Answers on a postcard, please.

The gradient has eased back to an 8% average and, as I pass the summit sign, the road yawns wide open. It feels like I’m riding across the deck of an aircraft carrier, a flat sea of empty, rather dusty, black and featureless tarmac, capped by nothing but a blank, blue sky overhead.

When the Tour de France finishes up here, this area will be transformed into a busy finish hub, with cars and caravans, coaches, tents, barriers, crowds and the works. Right here and now though, it’s all a bit disorientating, just a big empty car park. I feel as if I’m suffering a mild attack of agoraphobia and I stop pedalling and coast, looking around for where to go next.

The two Brits I had passed further down the slope work their way up and past me and I wait to tag onto their wheels and tentatively follow, trying not to make it too obvious that I’m not quite sure where I’m going.

They find a road out of the car park and we’re back on track and set to climbing again. Another 1.5 kilometres or so up the road from the Hautacam is the summit of the Col du Tramassal, and a café promising cake and coffee. What further incentive does a man need?

I’m still feeling pretty good, so roll the chain down the cassette and attack the last few slopes, rising out of the saddle and bursting past the two Brits, who must have wondered what the hell I’d been snorting back there in the car park.

Around a final shoulder of the mountain, the road zigs and zags upwards toward the cafe, a natural amphitheatre, where our front-runners are now sitting along the crest of the slope, enjoying the sun while they look down and cheering everyone through the final few hundred metres.

I join them to encourage the others in, take a few photos and to admire the fantastic views of the Col d’Aubisque and the other snow-capped peaks across the wide-open valley. It is utterly stunning up here and it only takes a thoroughly enjoyable ride to experience it.


IMG_0294


4 Days of Bullshit

We retire to the café terrace where the question du jour is why the bear in the TV series, BJ and the Bear, was played by a monkey? We decided that the pilot probably cast a proper Grizzly in the lead role, but it proved too hard to control and savagely mauled its co-star. We then imagined the Hollywood producer-types trying to determine how best to replace the Grizzly and save their series?

“I know guys, what about an alligator? Mountain lion? Ok, ok … how about a camel?”

I have a chat with Crazy Legs who asks if I’ve enjoyed the trip. “What, four days of unadulterated bullshit? What’s not to like?”

“Ah,” he suggests, “You’ve got a blog title already.”

Briefly Airborne & Then Done

For some reason, I’m the first off on the descent and lead the way for the first three-quarters or so, until the Hammer edges in front.  As we sweep through one of the villages, I hit a speed bump and become briefly airborne.

As the road straightens, Caracol surges past, pedalling furiously and we drop onto his wheel. The three of us ride full-bore all the way back to the campsite, opening up a big gap on everyone else.

And we’re done. I can’t help thinking I’ve got another mountain or two left in my legs, but I’m pretty sure that’s just bravado.

Lost in Translation

We retire to the bar to watch the football, where England record a handsome victory, albeit built on a rather homely looking performance.

We also get the short-end of a cultural exchange with the barman. We helpfully tell him Crème Anglaise is custard in English, but he fails to reciprocate in like fashion when Crazy Legs enquires after the French equivalent of the term “built like a brick shithouse.” I guess somethings get lost in translation.

We stayed long enough to watch the start of a Grand Prix, typically the only interesting bit of these races. Sure enough, there was the usual carnage and crashes off the grid. We left shortly afterwards to ponder why they had soft, super-soft and ultra-soft tyres (I guess hard, medium and soft doesn’t sound dramatic enough, but what they’ve chosen sounds like different grades of toilet paper?)

The campsite bar is closed Sunday evenings, so we need to head into town for ravitaillement. Goose wanders off as our advance party to scout out food and drink options, while the rest disperse to start packing up our bikes.

Reg breaks down and packs away handily and with surprising ease and I wander around the campsite just to fill in some time. Here I find Caracol, struggling to fit everything into his bike box, and looking gaunt and washed-out again. He cries off from the evening’s excursion and retires to his bed, still seemingly suffering the after effects of heat stroke and his exertions across the three days.

The rest of us congregate on a chalet porch to finish off any remaining supplies and then take a two mile or so walk into the town to find Goose.

Goose Gets Paella

He’s discovered in a bar with a friendly waiter who Goose insists is Spanish, despite the lack of any kind of supporting evidence. He’s now communicating with his “new best friend” in pidgin-Spanish, even though the waiter speaks perfect English (and probably Spanish too.)

The bar is good, beer is good, company is good and the menu looks good . The only downside seems to be a bunch of English cyclists, all uniformly dressed in tuxedo-printed cycling kit (hilarious and original) and straw Panama hats. Rightly or wrongly (and I’m still leaning heavily toward rightly) we take an instant dislike to them, but luckily they’re just there to pour a few beers into their faces and soon wander away.

After days of wanting a paella, talking about paella and how best to prepare and cook paella, Goose finally gets to eat paella, which he declares is very good, very big and suitably filling.

Along with Crazy Legs, I choose the cassoulet, which is also tasty and big enough for hungry cyclists. The rest have various pasta dishes, all of which are deemed at least adequate, except for Steadfast’s lasagne, which is about the size of a choc ice and soon disappears without touching the sides. We wonder if he hasn’t accidently ordered from the children’s menu.

Goose Invents Ebola

With a big clean-up of the chalets scheduled for tomorrow, Goose describes an advert, that seemingly only he has ever seen, of someone cleaning a kitchen work top with a chicken breast. He also revealed a dark and distant past part-time job as a “professional” cleaner. Apparently, he was somewhat less than diligent and claims to have inadvertently invented MRSA and maybe Ebola too.

Carry On Regardless, Part 1.

For some reason talk turns to Carry On films, which, through the power of Google, Kermit reveals number an astonishing 31 titles!

Unfortunately, he then starts listing each one individually:

“Carry On Sergeant, Carry On Nurse, Carry On Teacher, Carry On Constable …”

“Ok, we get the picture.”

He “carries on” undaunted.

“Carry On – Follow That Camel, Carry On Doctor, Carry On Up the Khyber, Carry On Camping….

“No really, stop now.”

“But, I’m almost finished. That’s Carry On! Carry On Emmannuelle and … [dramatic pause] … Carry On Columbus.”

He takes a deep breath, “Several other films were planned and scripted, but unmade…”

“No!”

We discuss options for a trip next year, perhaps somewhere we can fly direct to from Newcastle and doesn’t include a long car transfer. Perhaps that way I won’t suffer that first night travel-sickness-thing again? (Or whatever it is.)

We have lots of ideas, but nothing is decided, well, other than to cross off Goose’s suggestion of Chernobyl as a destination. I’m sure the roads are lovely and quiet, but there are sadly no direct flights to Boryspil Airport in Kiev and even if there were, it’s still a 3 hour drive from there to Pripyat.

We wander back to the campsite. Ably assisted by good food, red wine, beer and the cumulative efforts of several days riding, sleep comes easily.

In the morning, we clean out the cabins and handover the keys. Unlike last year, there’s no forensic inspection and no accusatory interrogations and we’re free to go without even a cursory glance at our, nonetheless spotless accommodation.

We plan and execute a quick detour to take in crepes atop the Col de Peyresourde. It looks like a fantastic climb from the west and it would make it onto my bucket list if I had such a thing. The crepes were good too. I’ll be looking forward to the Tour’s super short, Stage 17 this year, which starts at Bagnères-de-Luchon and immediately tackles this route.

Then it’s the long drive to the airport, arriving in plenty of time for check-in.

Carry-on Regardless, Part 2.

As we wait to check-in Kermit starts to get antsy about his big, red, oversized carry-on bag again, convinced he’s going to be stopped and charged for exceeding his baggage allowance. He starts eyeing up the ground crew, trying to determine which one looks the most benevolent and identifying the stern, stone-faced ones he hopes to avoid – a sort of baggage Russian Roulette.

Before we make it that far, an announcement informs us that the flight will be busy, so passengers are invited to check hand baggage into the hold for free. Kermit breathes a sigh of relief. Nonetheless, he gets a ticking off from the ground crew for having such a ridiculously large carry-on bag and somehow manages to feign both innocence and remorse, as he’s relieved of his big, red burden.

I’m the last to check-in and everyone else has disappeared by the time I make my way to the over-sized baggage drop off. Five minutes on intense, unfriendly scrutiny and unnecessarily prescriptive instructions from a taciturn, French baggage handler and the bike bag goes one way and I go the other.

Plain Sailing

I catch up with the others, just before boarding and notice we’re sharing the flight with some Panama hat wearing, English cyclists that may just have tuxedo-printed cycling kit tucked somewhere in their luggage. Crazy Legs even gets to sit in the same row of seats as one of them, but is luckily buffered from direct contact by another innocent passenger playing piggy-in-the-middle. As such, his curled-lip disdain goes unremarked.

Leaving the plane, I can’t help but notice all the HSBC adverts plastering the air bridge, welcoming us to Heathrow and extolling our “United Kingdom.” I can’t help wondering if this is supposed to be ironic, or is just very badly misinformed.

De-planed (as they insist on saying in the business) we all congregate at the other end, minus Steadfast, who has already taken a flyer into the seething morass that is a hugely overcrowded, glacially slow Heathrow passport control.

We’re about to plunge into this very maelstrom ourselves, when Captain Black spots signage directing us elsewhere for our connecting flight. We find ourselves in some kind of placid, quiet backchannel, quickly passing through a fully-automated passport control system and then smoothly released into the general departure lounge.

We stop in the Wetherspoons for some food and then we’re on the last leg and being hustled on to the plane for the short hop back up to Newcastle. Well almost, Goose gets stopped at the gate and we pause to laugh at his startled, rabbit in the headlights act as he screws up the facial recognition sensors and then desperately tries to get them to recognise him.

At the other end, our baggage arrives in dribs and drabs and we depart piecemeal. As such I’m well on my way home before Kermit realises his bright green bike box isn’t going to put in an appearance.

“It’s Big & Green and Nowhere to be Seen” : Kermit

Kermit’s bike box is eventually tracked down to Zurich and is finally returned to him a few days later. Before this, however, it seems to have been fed through a threshing machine and both box and bike are badly damaged. An insurance claim is on-going, while in the meantime, Kermit has to resort to his winter-bike, at a time when we’re enjoying the longest spell of fair weather we’ve had for years.

I have a feeling though that even this isn’t going to put any of us off signing up for similar adventures if offered next year.


Chevauchée Pyrenees Totals: 228 km / 142 miles with 5,570 metres of climbing

 YTD Totals: 3,741 km / 2,324 miles with 47,054 metres of climbing

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Chevauchée Pyrenees – Day #3 Do They Know Something We Don’t?

Chevauchée Pyrenees – Day #3 Do They Know Something We Don’t?

Ride 2, Saturday, 23rd June 2018

Col d’Aspin (west side) Col du Tourmalet via La Mongie

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                        125 km / 78 miles with 2,707 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                6 hours 4 minutes

Average Speed:                        20.6 km/h

Temperature:                           31°C

Weather in a word or two:   Baking


Day 2
Ride Profile

Early morning, feeling better for a good night’s rest – or at least a sustained period of unconsciousness – I still can’t face a proper breakfast, but cram down a cereal bar and as much water as I think I can hold.

Today is going to be our “Big One” – although not quite on a par to last year’s Circle of Death, it is going to be a long day in the saddle and promises to be red hot too. Hopefully I’ll fare batter. Kermit is up and fuelling on multiple bowls of cereal and the Breakfast Club are just returning from their sumptuous petit dejeuner.

We congregate at the entrance to the campsite and wend our way through a sleepy Argelès Gazost, crossing the bridge over the permanently tumultuous, Gave d’Azun. Its spray gives a pleasant, brief interlude of comfort cooling, then we’re through the town and out onto open roads under a hot sun.

The Hammer seems to be on a mission, or perhaps chasing a personal Strava segment, either way he’s winding up the pace on the front. It’s too much too soon, so in tacit, unspoken agreement with Crazy Leg’s, we give up the chase and back off to let a gap grow. Finally, the Hammer realises he’s ploughing a lone furrow and we slowly coalesce into a single group again, a cycling embolism … a slow moving clot.

Heading east, we pick our way through the anonymous commercial outskirts of a quite unremarkable Lourdes, well, at least the portion of it we traverse, well away from any of the religious razzamatazz and what we’ve been led to believe is a vast array of astonishingly nasty and tacky religious tat.

Then we swing south along a valley, following the course of the river L’Adour which Google tells me actually rises from our ultimate destination, on the slopes of the Col du Tourmalet.

We’re about 35km into the ride and the road is already starting to rise as we hit the town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and get caught behind traffic filtering into the town centre.

Ribble Rousers Meet Again

While queuing behind the cars, a group of cyclists’ weave through the traffic and pass us. It’s the two Ribble Rousers and the cheery Dutchman on his town-bike we’d met on the Col d’Aubisque yesterday.

We find a café by the side of the road and settle in for perfectly polite elevenses. Here we have a brief chat with the Ribble Rousers, one of whom couldn’t have been half bad as he was a fellow Vittorian.

They were on their last day, just winding down and pottering around before leaving for a 14-hour, 1,500km drive home (eek!) to the Midlands. This had to include a detour via a local bike hire shop, after one of them somehow managed to destroy his gear hanger on a descent, luckily quite close to where they were staying. Naturally, whatever gear hangers the local bikes stocked, none of them had anything that would fit a Ribble

Hold on there, Bald Eagle…

We settled down for a relaxed coffee or two, each one served with a slice of the local delicacy, nougat.

“Ah, nugget!” the Hammer proclaimed, adopting the full Geordie-kid pronunciation of “noo-garr.” Brilliant. In a small corner of my heart, it will forever be nugget. Toblerone? That’s nugget, mate. Snickers? That’s nugget too. And who could forget the short-lived Texan bar in the eighties, it sure was a mighty chew.

Goose was found once again rhapsodising over cycling caps, for him the revelation of last year’s trip. They are now an essential part of his kit, worn under his helmet to protect his bare noggin from the sun.

Crazy Legs queried if Goose would turn back the clock, given the choice and return to having a full head of hair.

“I’ll have to mullet over,” Goose quipped. Ba-boom. (A front-runner in the Bad Dad Joke of the Day competition, but not the winner.)

He then revealed he never did have a mullet (“business at the front, party at the back”) – but had been known to sport an outrageously enormous flat-top. Now there’s a photo I’d like to see – if only because I can’t imagine it.

By way of the Hammer complimenting Captain Black on his baby-smooth skin and obviously first class moisturising regimen, talk turned to Steadfast’s Arse-Butter™ – which he revealed came in two varieties – Standard or European. The difference, apparently was the European version gave you a bit of tingle …

“Ooph! Have you tired that Tea Tree Oil shower gel,” Goose exclaimed. “I can’t use it, it’s too nice!”

Did he really just say that out loud?

With enough nonsense talked to keep us going for a while longer, we paid our dues and got back to the serious business of the day. We were already climbing on grades of around 5% as we reached the small village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, where the group decided to split.

Still suffering horribly from his chest-infection and problems breathing, Crazy Legs decided to skip the Col d’Aspin and just ride the Tourmalet. The Hammer decided this was a good plan and having himself already conquered the Aspin, decided he’d tag along too.

As a vital prelude, they decided a stop in the bar on the corner of the village square for further ravitaillement was in order, before attempting the climb. Meanwhile, the remaining six Aspin virgins set off for the lesser of the two peaks.

Six Virgins of the Aspin and the Kenny Clone

As the road climbed out of the village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, we passed an old bloke in a bright orange jersey, riding a touring bike, his reflection glowering at us in his mirrors as he ground his way uphill. The road dropped down and while we saved energy and free-wheeled he pedalled furiously past, only to get caught and left behind as the road ramped up yet again.

He repeated this performance a few times, until the climb stiffened and there were no more downhill interludes for him to attack. We dubbed him “Kenny” in honour of our own Szell back home, whose particularly fond of charging to the front on downhills, before fading horribly on the subsequent climb and just getting in the way. I had a feeling we’d see “Kenny” again, before the day was out.

Up we went, with nothing too testing to start with and it was a very pleasant climb, even chugging along well off the back of the group.

The ascent from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan is about 13km long and adds another 650 or so metres to the height we’d already gained, at an average gradient of 5%. The Aspin tops out at 1,489 meters, the climbing stiffens at the top with the final 5km averaging about 7.5%.

It really is a pleasant climb to begin with, up through a lush, coniferous forest that provides lots of welcome shade. In many ways it reminded me of the Col du Telegraph, although minus the thoroughly annoying Harley bikers we’d encountered on that climb last year.

Passing through the ski station at Payolle, with about 6km to go, you are out of the trees into open pastureland, with the ubiquitous Alpine cattle clanging away on all sides. At the ski station the road briefly levels out to a false flat, before kicking up appreciably and then it starts to wind all about the mountain looking for the path of least resistance.

Despite these desperate manoeuvres, it still averages over 10% in places and a kilometre or so from the top there’s a final ramp approaching 20% just to test already tired legs.

Cow Lickin’ Good

There’s nothing really at the top, besides fantastic views down both sides of the mountain. Oh, and the cows, lining up to lick any, apparently delicious, salty-sweaty cyclist who gets too close.


aspin
View from the top – Col d’Aspin

We dropped into the grass at the side of the road, resting up and taking our fill of the scenery. It was at this point that someone voiced what we’d all been thinking, “Did Crazy Legs and the Hammer know something we didn’t and should we be concerned that the only veterans of these mountains had decided to skip their chance to climb the undeniably pretty Col d’Aspin?”

We finally pulled ourselves away from the views, donned jackets for the descent and started to retrace our way back down the mountain to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan and the route up the Col du Tourmalet.

As we tipped over the crest and started to gather speed, up huffed “Kenny” – he’d made it. Chapeau to that man.

At the village, we followed the example of Crazy Legs and the Hammer, stopping for a few drinks and a quick baguette in the bar just off the village square, before filling our bottles at the water fountain, where all the local cyclists were congregating.

With a Mighty High-Ho, Silver!

Then, with a mighty, High-Ho, Silver, or maybe just a tiny whimper, depending on what you want to believe, we started our ascent of the Col du Tourmalet.

If the Aspin reminded me of the Telegraph, then the Tourmalet was the crazed, bastard half-brother of the ferocious Galibier. Likewise, it was still marred by banks of dirty snow lurking in the hollows on its upper slopes, as sure a sign of thuggishness as the wispy moustache on the over-sized, over-developed, pre-teen classroom bully.

“The Col du Tourmalet is a legendary place for cycling, steeped in history and steep in slope” read one of the many descriptions of this beast that I found.  It was the first climb above 2,000 metres ever used in a race and is the most used col of the Tour de France. By the time the peloton crests its summit this year, they’ll have been up it on 86 separate occasions.

You’d have thought they’d have learned by now.

Bad Trip

Apparently, the name “Col du Tourmalet” is often wrongly translated into English as “Bad Trip” – it might be factually incorrect, but nevertheless seems entirely fitting. At an elevation of 2,115m it is often referred to as the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees.

Starting from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, the eastern climb is 17.2 km gaining 1,268 m at an average of 7.4%, while my Strava recorded a maximum of more than 18% on one of its many, variable slopes.

So, upwards we went and downwards we started counting the kilometre markers to the summit, again my speed seemed to vary wildly depending on the slope, or the thankfully light, but still noticeable wind.

We were soon split up and scattered over the road, and even though there was generally only a couple of hundred metres between everyone, this represented massive gaps in terms of time.

I remember passing the sign for 10km to the summit, glancing down and noticing I was riding at about 5mph and running through some quick and very rough calculations … 5 miles an hour … that’s about 8 kilometres an hour … that means it’s only going to take … another hour and a quarter.

Only going to take another hour and a quarter? Only? An hour and a quarter? Climbing all the way?

We must be mad.

At 7km from the summit, there is, apparently a memorial to Eugene Christophe at the spot where his forks broke in 1913. Nope, I can’t say I noticed.

At 6km to go, I passed through the first avalanche shelter. I didn’t trust myself to reach down and grab a drink, while keeping the bike moving in a relatively straight line, so I pulled over to the side of the road for a drink and a rest.

At this point Steadfast rode past me and I was last man, tail-end Charlie again. I remounted and rode on.

Riding with the Ghost of Gerard Manley Hopkins

At 5km to go I was passing through the ski town of La Mongie, on what I thought was one of the hardest parts of the climb. The streets were wide and open and steep and, try as I might, I couldn’t go fast enough to put the spectacularly ugly ski apartments behind me and out of sight.

Like a random collection of brown Lego bricks, dropped from a great height, this monstrous collection of jutting angles was an affront to the eyes and horribly marred the otherwise spectacular scenery. “When we hew or delve: After-comers cannot guess the beauty been,” as I like to think a suitably apoplectic Gerard Manley Hopkins might have commented as he rode past.

At 4km to go I notice an Italian tricolori off by the side of the road. A bit closer and it resolved itself into an abandoned pizza box and badly gnawed pizza. Even in my oxygen deprived, single-minded focus on keeping the pedals turning, this distracted me and raised some serious questions: Who would want a pizza out here? How did the Deliveroo rider react when told he had to make a delivery three quarters of the way up the Tourmalet? And who the hell is moronic enough to litter this astonishing landscape with fast food cartons. Arse hat.

Hot Foot to the Top

At 3kms to go, my right foot became almost unbearably hot and I developed a shooting, stabbing pain through the big toe. I stopped and let the pain slowly ebb away.

At 2kms to go, I can look up and see the summit and it’s lined with the dark shapes of a troupe of llamas, like an army of rapacious Zulus looking down on Rourke’s Drift. My wildly floating thoughts had become detached from their moorings, perhaps in a futile attempt to ignore the pain signals my body has been incessantly firing at it.  I remember hoping they weren’t an, as yet unheard of breed of feral, carnivorous llamas, then wondering if a dalai of llamas was a suitable collective noun. I know, I know. Sorry.

With less than 1 km to go, I pass a young ingénue with pigtails, looking suitably cool in a long-sleeved white jersey and pushing (?) her bike down (?) the mountain. I theatrically puff out my cheeks and slowly draw a finger across my throat. I’m cooked.

“Well done, keep going, you’re almost there,” she calls out in perfect, but slightly accented English.

She’s not lying just to encourage me, either. Round one last corner and I’ve suddenly reached the summit and the unprepossessing silver-grey sculpture of the Géant au Col du Tourmalet. It’s done.


tourmalet


I find the rest of the crew relaxing on the terrace the picturesque café at the top and wander inside to confront the horribly unfriendly staff and buy some food and drink. Even as a fully-paying customer, they refuse to fill my bidon for me, though they will sell me a bottle of water so I can do it myself. Pah!

I learn that Caracol had suffered on the climb even more than I had. Bordering on serious heat stroke, he’d been forced to take refuge in the shade of one of the avalanche shelters to try and recover. He still looked pale and raw-boned, but seemed over the worst of it.

Captain Black reported encountering the pizza-eating poltroon at a point that coincided with him unleashing a majestic and nostril-burning guff, a gaseous discharge of such epic proportions and expanding so rapidly from ground zero, that he then struggled to outpace it up the slope.

We decided the pizza-poltroon had caught a whiff of this unpleasant miasma, determined his pizza was suddenly on the turn and abandoned it in its half-eaten state. The Captain was immensely pleased to know that I though I could still detect a lingering, unpleasant smell as I passed the same spot, some minutes behind him.

As the slowest descender, Kermit begged the indulgence of being first off on the descent, reasoning we would catch him before the bottom anyway, so it would reduce our waiting time. Captain Black followed, then Goose and Caracol.

Still soaked from my efforts on the climb, I pulled on my light, windproof jacket, zipped up, counted to ten and set off in pursuit.

Down Side of Me

Well ,this bit was certainly fun, with the wind snapping at the sleeves of my jacket so they fluttered with a noise like ripping silk, I was quickly up to speed and leaning sharply round the corners.


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Ahead of me and still a couple of bends away, Goose and Captain Black were slowed by catching Kermit and, braking late, I rapidly closed the gap and followed them around him. I dropped into their wheels until I had a chance to slide past further down the mountain, just before the characteristics of the road started to change. Gone were the tight hairpins in favour of sweeping bends and long straights, where you could just let the bike run and quickly build up speed.

I tucked in tight and as low as I could get and started pulling back the flying Caracol, hitting 74.9km/h at one point and slowly closing the gap, churning away on the big ring whenever the pace threatened to drop. I was on terms before the descent ran out and then we were both braking hard as we swept into a built up area, before stopping to allow everyone to regroup.

Luckily, there was very little climbing left to do and the run back to the campsite was mainly flat or slightly downhill. We made good time and were very soon home and hosed.

After showering, we congregated on a porch for pre-prandial drinks and nibbles, learning that Crazy Legs had been bonding with his new chalet neighbours, a contingent of exuberantly raucous, French motor bikers, of the mid-life crisis variety. Eeh, the devils.

Around, 30 or 40 strong, the bad news was we’d be sharing the bar and our evening meal with them. The good news? The campsite was finally going to fire up the truly enormous paella pan that had proved so intriguing to Goose.

Wok-i-wok

We learned he was the proud owner of his own, oversized outdoor cooking apparatus. This he claimed was called a wok-i-wok, a cast iron behemoth complete with metre wide wok or paella pan, incorporating a giant pizza stone and barbecue grill, with the whole assembly easily convertible to a patio heater, potters wheel, garden waste incinerator or portable forge for some crude iron working.

All, shipped direct from China for a mere £150, although Goose reported that sadly, they no longer seem available. (I guess it would have been churlish of me to suggest I wasn’t surprised, as I could actually only think of one, single person who might be interested in buying such a monstrosity.)

But the revelations were by no means complete, as we then had a masterclass in the cooking the perfect giant paella in a wok-i-wok, giant paella pan. The secret apparently is all down to layering – all ingredients have to be prepared in advance and then layered into a extra large Lakeland, Tupperware pail (I think this was a grandiose way of saying a bucket) – but, and here’s the trick, they have to be added in the reverse order to which they’ll be used.

Talk turned to the local cattle, complete with their clanging bells, which Goose presumed were only put on the Alpha Males of the herd. It was time to strike for Bad Dad Joke of the Day and with no shame I accepted the challenge – “I don’t know why they need bells, they’ve all got horns.” (I don’t think I’ll be invited back next year.)

A suitable point to retire for dinner…

In the bar the giant paella pan had been fired up for the Mid-Life Motorcycle Mob, piquing the interest of Goose, who naturally had to get involved and share tips and secrets with the taciturn cook. He was especially intrigued by one ingredient a huge quantity of a bright red elixir, which he guessed was some super-exotic, local speciality, that would give the paella a unique flavour and character.

“Non,” he was told,”Ee’s just food colouring.”

Oh well …

The paella was just for the Gallic Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob, not for the British Mid-Life Crisis Cyclists, we had to choose from the standard menu, but had some consolation in prime seats to follow the Germany vs. Sweden World Cup game.

Crazy Legs seemed to have found a new hero in Polish footballer, Łukasz Piszczek, whose name he thought was brilliant. I felt it was a name that was likely to give Chris “Puff Daddy” Froome sleepless nights.

Meanwhile, Crazy Legs fell into conversation with a Dutch couple, who kindly queried after my health, having seen me looking like a zombie extra from the Walking Dead at dinner last night.

Match ended and paella despatched, the Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob broke out a guitar for an impromptu sing-along. Perhaps expecting some French culture, things got off to a bad start with a raucous rendition of Volare and then the Gypsy Kings Bamboléo.

“Well, it’s not Jacques Tatti,” Crazy Legs observed dryly (or Jackie the Spud as he’s known on Tyneside.)

Sing-along degenerated into massed chanting. A couple of “oggie, oggie, oggies” which then gave way to something that sounded disconcertingly like “Sieg Hiel.”

As the guitar was picked up again and the mob launched into an off-key, off kilter version of La Bamba, we suddenly remembered we had to be up early tomorrow to ride up a mountain and quietly slipped away.


 

Chevauchée Pyrenees #2 – Survival Mode

Chevauchée Pyrenees #2 – Survival Mode

Ride 1, Friday 2nd June 2018

Col du Soulour from Argeles Gazot/Col d’Aubisque east side from Soulour

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                         63 km / 39 miles with 1,577 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                 3 hours 15 minutes

Average Speed:                         19.5 km/h

Temperature:                            25°C

Weather in a word or two:    Hot and humid


day 1
Route & Ride Profile

Purge

It’s maybe two o’clock in the morning and I’ve been sleeping fitfully for the past couple of hours. It’s stiflingly hot and uncomfortable in the chalet and now I’m awake with a brutal, killer headache, as if someone’s wrapped a band of steel around my skull and is slowly ratcheting it tighter and tighter.

The pain intensifies horribly and flashing lights explode behind my eyes if I try to lie down, so I’m sitting up in bed, back against the wall, trying to forcibly scrub, or pull, or push the waves of pain away and out of my head. It’s not working.

I turn the light on, fumble through my rucksack, find some Paracetamol and choke a couple down, bone dry, chalky and hard to swallow.

At some point, I fall asleep, only to wake suddenly, drenched in sweat and stagger to the bathroom to throw up. I rinse and repeat the process a few times and every time my stomach heaves out its contents, the pain explodes behind my eyes. I choke down more pills and somewhere, somehow, as the sky starts to grey with dawn, I manage to grab a couple of hours of disturbed sleep.

Clanking and clunking from the living room wakes me. Surprisingly it’s not the ghost of Jacob Marley, but Kermit, in an up-and-at-‘em mood and starting to drag his bike outside to start building it back up.

I get up slowly, check the time and make to follow. We’d agreed a 10.00 o’clock depart for the first ride, so I had a couple of hours to try and pull both myself and the bike back together. One thing was certain, I wasn’t going to be making the breakfast we’d hastily arranged with the campsite the night before.

The bike had survived its transit without mark, or mar and slotted together without too many issues, although at one point I did have to abandon my post and hurdle over Kermit and bits of his scattered bike in a crazed dash to the toilet. After this, I was thinking I couldn’t possibly have anything left to throw up. But, I was wrong.

I finished the bike and checked it over. All seemed good, so I got changed into my cycling kit and slapped on some sunscreen. The day looked grey and dull, with plenty of cloud cover, but it was relentlessly hot and humid. Nevertheless, as I sat on the chalet porch and just tried to recover, I was chilled and shivering and pulled on some arm warmers and my fleece while I waited for things to settle down.

A few chalets along, the Breakfast Club had returned from their sumptuous feast and were preparing to ride. (I got good reports of the breakfast extravaganza, but wouldn’t get to sample it even once in the next few days.)

Extreme Weather Protocol

Crazy Legs swung by to inform us that in light of my bad case of malingering and, as a more gentle acclimatisation for everyone else, Extreme Weather Protocol had been invoked and agreement reached to swap around Day#1 and Day#2.

The revised agenda for the day was now the Col du Soulour, followed straight up by the Col d’Aubisque. The washed out roads of the latter meaning we’d need to trace our way to it directly from the Soulour, rather than looping around to climb up from the other side as originally planned. In this way, we just about halved the distance and the amount of climbing.

At 10.00, or thereabouts, we slowly gathered, clipped in and rode out, following the road through Argelès Gazost before swinging away left, up the valley of le Gave d’ Azun, to start the approach to the Col du Soulour.

As we passed through the villages, gaps appeared in the clouds overhead and the sun poured down. This gave a bright, oily sheen to the new and smooth tarmac that glistened under our tyres, an indication that the Tour will be following these very same roads in just a few weeks’ time and preparations are in full-swing. I often wonder if, a bit like the Queen visiting the provinces, the Tour peloton get a ridiculously rose-tinted view of the state of the nation’s byways and highways.

At one point we passed a group of workmen busy branding stark, white, markings into the new road surface. The intense chemical smell of the epoxy they were using almost made me throw up and I was glad to quickly leave them behind.

I’d adopted a survival mode, bunkered down amongst the wheels, taking occasional small sips of plain water and hoping to keep it down.

We had to negotiate our way around a shirtless, deeply-tanned, golden-maned native, riding one massive, barrel chested, bay horse while leading two others behind and looking like the lone survivor from a failed raid of warrior Gaul’s. He was certainly far too cool to acknowledge Crazy Legs’ cheerful greeting. (I suspect he secretly covets the role of Xenophobix in the local Asterix the Gaul Re-enactment Society and is actually really friendly and welcoming, but he’s a method actor and has to stay aloof to remain in character.)

I also think I’d just discovered my own Asterix alter-ego for the day, too – Monosyllabix.

And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Snot

Our group slowly attenuated and then broke apart, everyone finding a pace they were comfortable with. I dropped off the back, riding for a while with Crazy Legs, who was still suffering from a ridiculously long-standing chest infection that he can’t seem to shift. He was really struggling with this, his asthma and the oppressively hot and humid conditions.

I followed in the wake of his coughing, hawking and spluttering expectorations, quietly giggling at the cloud of flies he’d acquired, like a dark halo circling his head, while realising I probably had a corresponding, buzzing accompaniment orbiting my own helmet.

At Arrans-Marsous, the road jinked to the right and the real climbing began through a series of tight, steep hairpins. I was travelling too slowly even for an ailing, lung-shot Crazy Legs now, so he checked I was ok and pressed on ahead. I found myself singing that old Gilbert O’Sullivan chestnut, “Alone Again, Naturally” as I ground my way upwards, although, in my defence I don’t actually recall anything but the title-line, which I found myself repeating, ad nauseam.

I wasn’t quite alone, however. A quick lizard snaked up the road in front of me, like a miniature Alberto Contador on the attack and a little further on, it was the turn of an intensely bright, iridescent beetle. It taunted me with both its flashiness and climbing speed, and when, with a bit of effort, I just about managed to catch it, it disappeared into the undergrowth.

I felt more empathy with a large fat bee I found, dressed much like me in black and yellow, seemingly shell-shocked, hunkered, head down, arse up and unmoving in the middle of the road. I was tempted to join him, but kept going.

A farmyard cat then watched me pass, wary and wide-eyed, it’s pupils reduced to vertical black hairlines by the bright sunlight.

Off to the left a sign seemed to point toward Bun. Or, maybe that was just a wilful hallucination…

Toil and Trouble

As I climbed and away from the settlements, the meadows became dotted with cows and the constant jangle of their bells accompanied my harsh breathing. Meanwhile, high overhead massive buzzards effortlessly circled in the thermals, marking my crawling progress and perhaps wondering if I’d provide them with easy pickings before the day was done.

I was starting to get a feel for the characteristics of Pyrenean climbs, wide sweeping bends that lacked the tight hairpins of the Alps and a gradient that seemed to annoyingly change around every corner and jarred you out of any rhythm you’d managed to establish.

The roads were also much quieter, both of cars and other cyclists and there was little evidence of the usual, faded fan graffiti on the climbs that we’d seen last year in the Alps. Perhaps the weather here is so much harsher that the road surface only lasts a season or two?

I suspect the roadside signs were designed to help struggling cyclists, counting down the distance to the summit every kilometre, with each one helpfully spelling out the average gradient across the next stretch of road too.

Occasionally this proved a little dispiriting, especially when you knew you faced an 8% average gradient for the next thousand metres and then the road eased, or heaven forbid, dipped downwards. This was an indication that a bit further along you’d be paying for the moments brief respite.


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Depending on the gradient, my speed was like a Geiger counter in Chernobyl, wavering wildly between 6.5mph and 3.7mph. I was going nowhere fast, but I was still going. I have to admit I don’t remember all that much about the latter stages of the climb, I was in a sort of fugue state, not feeling particularly bad, just washed out, weak and powerless.

I finally made the top, saw a café by the side of the road and rolled through its car park. None of the parked-up bikes looked remotely familiar, so I re-joined the road and plugged away a bit more until I found the patiently waiting, motley crew outside a second café.

The Best Omelette in the Pyrenees … Allegedly

We trouped inside for lunch and were greeted by a jocular and friendly proprietor, who assumed we were Dutch. Crazy Legs surmised this because we looked far too happy and cheerful to be English and maybe he was right.

We were promised the best omelettes in the Pyrenees, which just about everyone plumped for, and a much needed round of drinks. I wish I could attest to the omelettes excellence, but I only managed to pick my way carefully through a few mouthfuls and I was done. Still, it stayed where I put it, so progress of sorts. Crazy Legs also struggled with the sheer volume of food, but made a better go of it, while the rest seemed to demolish their meals in short order.

Syncing Strava and the Bovine Menace

Outside, we set our sights on the Col d’ Aubisque, leaving Kermit behind as he fiddled with his Garmin which had annoyingly decided to play peek-a-boo with the satellites. The first part of the road was a descent down from the very summit of the Col du Soulour, with an unbarriered steep drop off to the right.

This was made slightly treacherous by the gravel strewn across the road surface and several large cows that seemed intent on meandering aimlessly across our path. Safely negotiating this moving, bovine chicane, we were soon rolling toward the gaping black maw of a tunnel cut straight through the side of the mountain.

Crazy Legs had forewarned us about the tunnel and suggested we take a leaf out of Sean Kelly’s book and close one eye as we approached, so it, at least, was adjusted to the dark by the time we got inside. I went one better and decided to close both eyes …

Ha-ha – only joking. The tunnel was as short and slimy as advertised and had a horrible ridged road surface that we all rattled uncomfortably across. I wasn’t looking forward to repeating that when we returned.

I managed to keep up with everyone on the descent, but soon the road began to climb again and I slipped off the back. Goose and Captain Black forged past and reported that Kermit was still missing.

I kept looking back to see if I could spot his red jersey, working its way up the ribbon of road that seemed to cling precariously to the steep mountain side, but nothing was moving behind me.

We were so high up that at one point I found myself riding along almost at eye level with a majestic, soaring buzzard. It seemed close enough for me to reach across to brush its wingtips, well, if I felt like leaning over the precipitous drop to my right. Then it tipped over on one wing and slipped silently away. Incredible.

As we climbed higher the clouds rolled in above and below, restricting what must have been spectacular views and I was soon climbing through a cool, muffling grey mist and wondering if it was worth turning my lights on.

Before I reached a decision, the air cleared again and then, somewhere along the way and much later than I expected, Kermit caught and passed me. He would later find his Garmin had failed to record his ascent of the Col Du Soulour and he even considered climbing it again, especially after we all convinced him that if it wasn’t on Strava ….

As the road entered a series of switchbacks, I was able to track my route by the progress of Kermit’s bobbing red jersey up ahead and judge just how far I had left and what was awaiting me around the next corner.

The climb wasn’t that hard and I don’t remember it being all that long either. At some point, I rattled across a Barrière Canadienne and wondered what it was the French had against Canuck’s that made them want to bar their access to the mountains.

Then we were at the top, hanging the bikes up in the rusting, creaking racks outside another café. A brief stop and then we gathered outside, pulling on jackets and gilets for the descent and stepping up for the obligatory group photo at the summit marker.


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The Dutchman and the Brits

As we collected our bikes, Crazy Legs found himself bonding with a couple of fellow Ribble Rousers from the UK. They suggested we took time out to cheer on their colleague, a big Dutchman who was powering up the climb behind them in T-shirt and sandals, grinning from ear to ear while cheerfully piloting a massive steel, sit-up-and-beg town-bike up the col.

A few scattered, desultory signs appeared to suggest the road ahead was, as we suspected still closed and no one had any interest in finding out if it the route was still passable by bike, so we turned around and headed back the way we’d come.

I had no trouble keeping up with the others as we made our way downhill, catching and whipping past a tentative motorist just before rattling and shaking our way back through the slimy tunnel.

We regrouped at the top of the Soulour, before tipping down again, then were full bore all the way from the bottom of the descent back to the campsite.

Living to Fight Another Day

I retired to the shower block, intent on draining the campsites hot water supply. I didn’t quite manage, but feel I gave it my best shot, emerging slightly more wrinkled than usual, but starting to feel a whole lot better.

We congregated in the bar again for dinner and I managed to slide down about three-quarters of a pizza. I left the crew watching a World Cup match and trying to decide what ice creams they wanted for dessert. Making my excuses, I made my way to the chalet for an early night, crawled into bed and was gone. I don’t know if I slept, or just fell into a coma, but I wasn’t to stir for the next 12 hours.

Tomorrow would be a whole other day.


 

Chevauchée Pyrenees – Day#1 Tripping Out


Planning & Prep

Encouraged by our super-successful, slightly-secretive, semi-selective, sterling-sojourn into the Alps last year (see: Riders of the Alps Bucket-List) – this time Crazy Legs had us targeting the Pyrenees for another raid, deep into traditional French cycling territory.

With his formidable planning skills to the fore, he picked a date, found flights and accommodation and then simply offered the opportunity up to anyone willing, able-bodied and crazy enough, to want to ride a bike up multiple mountain passes in searing heat.

All we had to do at this point was indicate our intent with a quick, “Oui” or, “Non.” Perfect.

Wholly unsurprisingly, all of last year’s sextet re-upped for a second Tour of Duty (or Tour of Doodie, if you happen to be American) – so that was Crazy Legs, Goose, Captain Black, the Hammer, Steadfast and me.

To these serried and honourable ranks we added some real climbing prowess, with Kermit, a sub-55kg, climbing spider-monkey and the larger, but somehow-even-faster-going-uphill, Caracol.

Buster hemmed and havered, but eventually gave a reluctant, “Non” – and so we were set – an octet of inappropriately optimistic, opportunists, intent on wrecking who knows what – legs? lungs? livers? … and probably, somewhere along the line, any hopes of post-Brexit, Anglo-French entente cordiale, too.

British Airways flights were booked to leave early Thursday morning, June 21st from Newcastle to Heathrow, where we would connect with Steadfast, before travelling on to Toulouse. The return was planned for the following Monday, allowing us 3-full days of riding.

As usual, the Hammer would travel independently (which our fevered speculation determined would be through a combination of private jet, chartered helicopter and chauffeur-driven limousine).

Due to arrive early as our advance party, he promised to gather the most basic essentials to fuel our trip, which, in order of importance, appeared to be beer, wine, beer, cheese, beer and pain au chocolat.

… and beer.

Crazy Legs had secured us four cabins at the Campsite du Lavadan, just outside Argelès Gazost and some 15kms due south of Lourdes. This would be our base of operations for our 3-days of cycling and would put us within the orbit of such famous Pyrenean climbs as the Tourmalet, Hautacam and Aspin.

Goose sought and negotiated transport from the airport to the campsite – one big, 6-seater-van and a large car, deemed sufficient for 7 skinny blokes and their oversized bike boxes. He and Kermit bravely volunteered to do the driving and we were not at all worried when Kermit kept asking which side of the road he would be driving on.

The flights cost £185, the car hire about £65 each and 4 nights’ accommodation was around £100, so the basic bones of the trip came together for a, fairly reasonable, £350.

Crazy Legs then devised and circulated a rough plan for the rides:

Day#1 – Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aspin – a 126km loop

Day#2 – Col du Soulor and Col d’Aubisque – a 120km loop

Day#3 – Hautacam – 40km – straight there and back again

Everything was agreed and booked by the time BA announced the cancellation of our return flights.  Luckily, the available alternatives actually helped, rather than hindered, with a more relaxed timing for the return.

Then, like last year, I more or less forgot about the whole thing until a few weeks before we were set to go.

There was a little last minute uncertainty when flash floods hit the western Pyrenees and destroyed some of the roads around the region. Indications were that the route from the Col d’Aubisque through the village of Gourette was particularly badly affected and likely to be closed, but we determined to play it by ear and adapt our route on the day.


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More seriously, any effect on the upcoming stages of the Tour de France, set to travel across the same roads for stages 19, remains to be seen.

Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag

Like an anorexic, bulimic teenager, weight became a bit of an obsession on two fronts as, learning from the previous trip, I planned how to travel lighter, both personally and baggage-wise.

The latter was much the easiest to accomplish. I swapped last year’s borrowed, rigid bike box for a cheap Planet-X bike bag, which I would load up with the bare minimum. This I determined was: one T-shirt per day, the clothes I would travel in, three full sets of cycling kit, a few energy gels, a set of allen keys for building up and breaking down the bike, a couple of spare tubes and a few sticking plasters (in case of emergency).

I found the bike bag much easier to pack than a box. It had integral wheel compartments and a ton of internal pockets that proved incredibly useful for stuffing things in and keeping them tied-down and in place. I also found the bike would fit in easily, with only one pedal removed – and the less assembling and disassembling I do, the happier I am, so a win all round.

Wheels out, one pedal removed, seat post out, handlebars released from the stem and taped to the top tube, I removed the gear hanger and taped the rear mech up inside the stays. I mummified the whole rear triangle in bubble-wrap, added a few pieces of foam pipe insulation to protect the frame and held everything in place with copious amounts of masking tape. That’s it, I was done.

If anything, the bike bag proved too big and capacious. Even fully loaded with wheels, frame helmet and clothes, it was still only ¾ full. I could actually have done with it being not quite as tall and, while eminently luggable, a set of wheels on the base would have been a real boon.

I’d been paying a little more attention to my own weight than usual and, as mileage ticked up, this started heading in the right direction too. I was hovering around 65kg’s on the weeks leading up to departure and starting to feel stronger and better for it.

That was until, the weekend before, when I developed a sore throat and tried the patented Crazy Legs cure of riding through it. (Hint: he’s called Crazy Legs for a reason).

Exactly one week before the trip, I climbed off the bike after a difficult commute home, admitted defeat and crawled into bed for three days, laid low by some vicious, random bug that left me thoroughly drained, caused me to miss a slew of meetings at work and, more importantly, the Saturday club run.

The following Wednesday, D-Day Minus-1, I finally swung a leg over the bike for a lone, last commute and my final ride before travelling to the mountains. Not exactly the ideal preparation, but I was good to go.

Priscilla, Queen of the Pyrenees

Early Thursday morning and having submitted my (hopefully well-packed) and protected bike to the tender ministrations of the ground crew at Newcastle International Airport, I tracked down the rest of the mob, already happily ensconced in a coffee shop in Departures and slurping down a selection of premium, hot beverages.

I think Kermit had surmised his baggage allowance also took into account personal weight, which gave him a massive advantage over every other passenger. To exploit this to its fullest extent, he was trailing quite the biggest and reddest piece of “hand baggage” I think I’ve ever seen.

We naturally queried if it would fit within regulation, hand-baggage dimensions, knowing full-well that if he did, by some miracle, manage to jam it into one of those baggage-guidance stands, it would never come out again.

Taking our concern to heart, Kermit triumphantly zipped up the expandable gusset, reducing the bags width by, oh, I don’t know a whole 5cms, maybe, and effectively reducing its overall footprint by almost 2%. It still looked massive and Kermit started to fret a little about getting it on the plane without having to pay an excess baggage charge.

Meanwhile talk turned to marginal gains, with Kermit admitting to taking a hacksaw to his seatpost to shave off a few centimetres and a few excess grams. There was some involved discussion about whether leg shaving constituted a marginal gain, while Goose and Crazy Legs bemoaned their androgenetic alopecia … of the legs.

Kermit worried we must have sounded like a troupe of old queen’s sitting round talking about leg shaving, but I assured him we were much too ugly for anyone to make that kind of mistake.

Someone mentioned Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and it was a short-leap from there to Priscilla, Queen of the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, I briefly pondered if there’s a collective noun for a transvestites – a camp of transvestites the best I could find.

Our flight was called and we made our way to the gate, half of us taking the escalator to jeers about “marginal gains” – which no doubt thoroughly bewildered other passengers. I felt I was doing ok, as, although I used the stairs, I was drafting Caracol the whole way.

On the plane, Crazy Legs found himself sitting next to a bloke who looked like a rugby prop forward, he was as wide as he was tall and solid. He initially took the aisle seat, hoping the plane wasn’t full and he wouldn’t have to squeeze into the middle of the row. No such luck, a late arriving passenger appeared to claim the aisle seat and the prop forward was soon pressed in tightly against Crazy Legs, blocking most of the light filtering in from the window and causing the seat in front of me to creak alarmingly.

Close proximity, coupled with abundant, natural Crazy Legs bonhomie, soon had the muscled-mass talking and it emerged he actually was a prop forward, from Leeds Carnegie Academy and travelling to France for a little continental seasoning at one of their pro clubs.

The Return of Hans

At Heathrow, with time to kill, we gravitated toward the Costa Coffee where we’d been sitting, talking our usual brand of unadulterated bullshit on the return last year, only to forget about the time. We’d had to dash to the gate, making it just as the last flight home was closing.

In commemoration of that anniversary, Captain Black informed the staff his name was Hans, which they duly inscribed on his coffee-cup, as they had the year before when he’d told them his actual name. I’m still at a loss to understand how they could have misinterpreted Captain Black quite so badly that they arrived at Hans.

We found five seats and Kermit perched on his big, red case to sup his drink. (Ah, so that’s why he brought it). British Airways announced our connecting flight was full and were offering to check hand baggage into the hold for free. Hoping to avoid any unwelcome arguments, Kermit gave up his impromptu perch and had it checked in. One less thing to worry about.

Jump Judo

As Kermit returned from the baggage drop, we were discussing the photos of Donald Trump alongside Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, which seemed to prove that the President of the United States was lying (yes, I know – it’s hard to believe isn’t it) about his height. The photographic evidence suggested that he isn’t the 6’3” he claims and, given his weight, can officially be classified as obese.

Still, I’m not sure if this matters, after all a wholly impartial, completely objective and scrupulously honest physician has already unequivocally informed us, that Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

Kermit only caught the tail-end of this conversation and then spent five minutes wondering what Jump Judo was and whether it was worth catching on Eurosport.

Dead or Alive?

A discussion about the Orange Dotard’s tiny hands morphed into a discussion about Jeremy Beadle and the Kenny Everett character, the spectacularly stupid, Brother Lee Love, who had giant hands. From these humble beginnings the trip tradition and a new game, Dead or Alive?  was born. The rules were quite simple, whenever someone moderately famous, or mildly notorious was mentioned, someone (usually me) would invariably pipe up to query: “He’s dead, isn’t he?”


bll


Backed up by Google, the most astonishing thing we found was how many people we thought were dead, were still hanging on, hale and hearty, and how many we thought were still with us that had, in fact long since departed.

France Bound

We eventually relinquished the seats in Costa’s and made our way to a quiet gate, where we could sit and people-watch. Here we enjoyed the drama of a futilely sprinting, late-arriving passenger pleading to be allowed onto a flight that had already closed.

(I thought he lost his case through over-acting, especially when he clasped his hands together in prayer and begged. At this point went from being a somewhat sympathetic character to overly-dramatic and slightly unhinged.)

Meanwhile, Crazy Legs tried to decipher the complex code behind all the rank markings on the epaulettes of the aircrews. The conclusion seemed to be they were mainly for show and generally meaningless.

At some point, we were joined by Steadfast, who lives just a short drive away from Heathrow and then we were all filing on board and bound for France. Goose snagged a Financial Times to read on the plane, but would later complain there were too few pictures to hold his interest for long.

On the flight I swapped seats so a pair of separated, second, or third time-around (I assume) honeymooning Americans could sit together and I managed to sleep through most of the flight.

At the other end, we queued dutifully for our bike bags with a motley collection of other Anglo-cyclists, then suffered through the seemingly interminable process of collecting our rental cars. Why such a simple process always takes such a long, long time remains one of life’s great mysteries. Finally, we were sorted and started to move.

We hit the van first, Goose and Captain Black finally remembering how we’d managed to fold the rear seats flat after a fair amount of pondering, head scratching and trial and error. We managed to load 6 of the bikes into the back of the van, squeezed in four passengers, with Goose as a driver and off they went.

The second vehicle turned out to be a new, very square, very big and very ugly, ultra-white Jeep. I would have been embarrassed to be seen in such a (# cough # wanker tanker # cough #) monstrosity at home and I think my bike bag felt the same as it curled up and hid, alone and a little lost in the Jeeps rear compartment.

I finally got to grips with a recalcitrant SatNav, tapped in details of the campsite and then Kermit got us moving for a couple of hours driving, with arrival scheduled at the campsite just as the sun was setting.

We made it to our destination without incident, bikes and bags were quickly unloaded into the cabins (all decent looking and a step up from last year’s – not that we’d ever do much but sleep and shower in them anyway.)

We picked up our advance party, the Hammer and all piled into the campsite bar. There, hard bargaining with a somewhat angry and prickly site manager, managed to make Brexit negotiations look simple, straightforward and positively jocular, but our unwavering stance finally netted us four buckets of moules et frittes and four platters of ham, eggs and chips. This seemed just about acceptable to everyone.

I stocked up on calories, washed everything down with a couple of beers and retired to the cabin, looking forward to a good night’s sleep, an early breakfast and the chance to calmly build up the bikes before we began our first ride tomorrow.


 

Ice Cold in Darras

Ice Cold in Darras

Club Run, Saturday 25th November, 2017             

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                  89 km / 55 miles with 885 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                          3 hours 55 minutes

Average Speed:                                 22.7 km/h

Group size:                                         12 riders, 1 FNG

Temperature:                                    4°C

Weather in a word or two:          Cold


 

25 nov 2017 icid
Ride Profile

The Ride:

Saturday brought a temperature that was about as low as you could get without the guarantee of encountering huge swathes of ice, lurking on every untreated and shaded surface. It was certainly cold enough to persuade many of my fellow riders that the roads would be too dangerous and the only sensible recourse was the turbo or gym.

I decided that, with a little prudent riding, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem, especially if we stayed on treated roads, at least until things warmed up a little (and a positively tropical 6°C was promised by mid-morning!)

It was definitely a day for wrapping up well though, an additional pair of socks, warmest merino base-layer and lobster-mitts to supplement tights, winter jacket and gilet. My hands got a little sweaty at one point, but for once I think I just about chose right.

I picked my way slowly down the Hill, hands constantly on the brakes to kill my speed, trying to stay as upright as possible around the corners and pick a straight line between all the manhole covers. There was a rime of ice in the gutters and banks of leaves, furred and bleached white by the frost, were spread across the pavements like cold ashes.

Dropping down toward the river, my new digital checkpoint on the side of a factory unit, flashed up brightly to inform me it was 8:11 and 2°C and it felt even colder with the wind chill.

The approach to the crossing was crowded with cars, there was a loud burble of voices from either side, accompanied by much clanking and clattering from the riverbanks and swarms of pedestrians were shuffling over the bridge. It looked like being a busy day for the Tyne Rowing Club.

I later learned I was in the midst of preparations for the Rutherford Head of the River Regatta, involving 278 crews and boats from all over the country. The event was still going strong when I returned the same way 5 or so hours later, the surface of the river dotted with boats, both upstream and down.

Reading up on the event, I especially liked the organisers stern warning: CREWS WITH INSUFFICIENT WARM CLOTHING MAY BE REFUSED PERMISSION TO BOAT. Given the prevailing conditions, I’m not sure what sufficient warm clothing would have looked like, or how they could have got it all in those skinny little boats.


Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:

I was pleased to see that G-Dawg had followed through on his promise to pack his brand new, fancy-dan, Sidi kicks up until Spring and had resorted to shoes he didn’t feel obliged to display and could cover with overshoes. I suppose his toes were pleased by the decision too.

Talk of overshoes lead to discussions about the knee-high, neoprene Spatz (spatzwear.com) overshoes that ex-pro, Tom Barras had developed, that looked like some kind of fetish wear. A snip and a bargain too at only, err £80 – which is more than I paid for my winter-boots. I did wonder if they came with a free gimp mask. There’s always one though – and the Cow Ranger declared he thought they looked ultra-cool and he wanted a pair.

OGL had lifted a pair of Giordana bibtights with wind proof panels from his own shop, much to Mrs. OGL’s chagrin (I think she grips onto the purse strings with a cold fury.) He declared they were exceptionally good, if anyone wanted to buy a pair.

“Yes” I suggested, “Especially now they’ve been broken-in for you.”

(Oops, apparently he didn’t mean the exact pair he was wearing.)

Carlton arrived, declaring himself just that little bit nervous about the ice, but talked himself into believing it was just “first ride nerves” and once he became acclimated to riding once again in frozen conditions he’d be good.

Plans to follow the posted route were abandoned, G-Dawg proposing a rough route, principally down major (well, by Northumberland standards) roads and more directly to the cafe, from where we could take an extended route home if conditions improved.

A fine, dirty-dozen then, in all our windproof, waterproof, winter warming, hermetically sealed, thermally insulated, impermeable but breathable, high-viz, cold weather, protective gear, of wildly variable effectiveness, pushed off, clipped in and rode out. Bugger, but it was cold.


I found myself riding alongside the Garrulous Kid, who passed the time talking at me as we rolled merrily along. It largely went in one ear and out the other, so I can (perhaps mercifully) recall only snippets about Dundee University, perhaps a mention of football here and there, Dennis Wise, Stranger Things, Ant & Dec, foul-mouthed teachers, the worthlessness of history and how the Garrulous Kid could be drafted by the Armed Forces of Uh-merca in the event of  a global conflict. C’mon Trump, you can do it…

We stopped for a pee near the now abandoned Tranwell Airfield and (still) extensive bunker system and received a potted history lesson from OGL, which no doubt the Garrulous Kid deemed worthless.

We learned the airfield had been developed during the Second Big One (WW2) and, according to OGL, had been the joint home to an anti-aircraft training battery and a squadron of the Polish air force. This, he concluded, was why there was so many families of Polish descent now living in Morpeth.

The Colossus wasn’t the only one who sensed the potential flaw in the plan of having  trainee, trigger-happy ack-ack gunners sharing the same air space as foreign pilots, whose native tongue wasn’t English.

“I hope the gunners never got that good,” he remarked dryly.

History lesson complete, off we rolled again, although for the sake of accuracy I have to report that while Tranwell Airfield was used for anti-aircraft training, it housed a French and not a Polish squadron throughout the war. Where the Polish population of Morpeth comes into the picture is anyone’s guess.


NOVATEK CAMERA


We had swung around and were heading straight to the cafe now, realising we were going to be there much earlier than usual and pausing only briefly to check it would actually be open.

At some point, up ahead, Two Trousers slipped, or slid, touched wheels, or shied from a pothole, I’m not sure what happened exactly, but as a result he started careening across the road, narrowly missing the Colossus, who took evasive action, swerved, spun to a stop and, contorting his entire body, calmly unclipped and just stepped smartly off his now prone bike. I don’t think I could explain it any better, even if I could watch it a hundred times in slow motion.

The Colossus ended up stood facing the wrong way, one leg over, one leg through his frame, looking down on his bike, befuddled and wondering how it got there. MeanwhileTwo Trousers carved deep furrows across someone’s pristine grass verge as he swooped up, off the road and toward a waist high fence.

I felt for sure he was destined to explode through the woodwork in a crash of flying splinters, or the bike would just stop dead and flip him over the top, but somehow he wrangled back control and slowed enough to merely smack the fence with a meaty thud, bounce off and topple slowly earthward.

Our unlucky pair stood up, dusted themselves down and determined there was, by great good fortune, no real damage. Two Trousers bashed his handlebars straight again and onward we rolled.

There was a general quickening as we approached the cafe, but no full-blooded sprint today, although I did chuckle when G-Dawg and the Colossus took up primary positions on the front, where they could keep an eye on everyone else, while warily eye-balling each other.


Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:

One benefit of arriving early at the cafe was it was unusually quiet and we were able to dive straight into the queue and grab a seat beside the fire. One major downside however, was that G-Dawg and the Colossus had to forego their traditional ham and egg pie, which was still in the oven and wouldn’t be available for a good time yet. They had to go with the alternative, corned beef option, which apparently is still good … just not as good.

Cowin’ Bovril flashed a newly acquired, 100 trillion dollar bill and for one, brief moment I thought he was going to stand us a round of coffees. I didn’t realise we were in such exalted company and we were being accompanied by an actual trillionaire, although I assume if I ever time-travelled back to Zimbabwe, where his note was legal tender, I could rub shoulders with 16,684,615 more of them – and find Cowin’ Bovril’s note would barely buy a single cup of coffee, let alone a full round.

We found out the Colossus was coveting a new mountain-bike where, with one touch of a handlebar button, he could not only adjust the seat height, but actually change the bike’s geometry.

I suggested this was the kind of thing I’d only ever seen from Professor Pat Pending’s Convert-a-Car in The Wacky Races.

The Colossus  acknowledged the connection and declared all he would need to complete the picture was some hairy, Neanderthal cave-man to ride along behind, trying to bash him repeatedly over the head with a club. I looked pointedly at G-Dawg, possibly the prototype for the original Slag Brothers, but luckily he was pre-occupied fielding inane questions from the Garrulous Kid.

It was then the turn of the Colossus to answer the Garrulous Kids quick-fire questions, which tended to tumble out, one after the other and leaving no space for an actual reply:

“When you were at university, did you play pranks on your flatmates?”

“Were they all Scottish?”

Did you go to the lectures?”

“Did you enjoy the lectures?”

“Were the lectures, like, in a classroom?”

And then, a final zinger …

“Why is Newcastle full of Malaysian students?”

I cracked at the last and had to withdraw from further communication for a while. Luckily I was saved by a discussion about Shane Sutton amusingly colourful description of Bradley Wiggins during a rough period as “flapping like a dunny door in a gale.” This then led to talk of Wiggins’ attempt to secure a place in the British Rowing team for the next Olympics.

In his favour, OGL stated Wiggins knew how to train and prepare to a specific goal, had a great engine and long levers and was capable of changing his body shape, seemingly at will. He also cited the precedent (albeit the other way around) of Rebecca Romero leaving rowing to become a successful cyclist.

The only major negative we could find was his age, but as G-Dawg argued, it hadn’t been a hindrance to Steve Redgrave, you just needed to pick a crew young and talented enough to carry you across the line. (Sorry Steve, only joking).

The Garrulous Kid was having none of it, declaring Bradley Wiggins would be a “rubbish rower” because he only had twig like arms and no upper body strength. We tried to explain that rowing was as much about the legs and lungs and core as arm strength and that the seats in the boats actually slid backwards and forwards so you drove them with your legs.

This seemed too complex a concept to grasp and the Garrulous Kid flatly refused to believe that leg strength was, in anyway, necessary to row fast, or even that the seats moved in a boat.

The Colossus asked if he’d ever been on a rowing machine in the gym.

“Yes.”

”Did the seat slide back and forwards?”

”Yes.”

What was it called again?”

“A rowing machine…”

“Well?”

”But that doesn’t move … a boat moves on the water!”

I couldn’t quite grasp why this was such a difficult concept for the Garrulous Kid to wrap his head around, so tried to counter his objections in simple terms.

“So, if you’re in a plane travelling at 700 miles an hour and drop a pen, does it just fall straight back down, or fly backwards?”

Luckily as a physics student, the Garrulous Kid was able to correctly identify and apply Newton’s first law of physics. Although I’m not sure if it helped him understand the mechanics of a rowing boat any better, we had great fun imagining the mayhem caused in airplanes if this law didn’t apply and any dropped object would shoot backwards with the velocity of subsonic munitions.

The cafe remained resolutely empty apart from itinerant bands of frozen cyclists, popping in for a brief respite and chance to defrost. I suspected it was going to be a quiet day business-wise and began tormenting G-Dawg with the thought they’d never sell all the ham and egg pie now and maybe, just maybe, they’d let him adopt it and take it home.


It was still early when we left, pie-less,  but it had warmed up a few degrees, so all but the Garrulous Kid took a longer route back. The first few mile were hard and into a particularly chilly headwind that seemed to spring out of nowhere, but afterwards it was plain sailing. After looping round Darras Hall, I was within striking distance of my usual route back and struck out for home on my own.

Soon home, ice avoided, cold conquered and ride complete, it turned out to be not such a bad day, after all.


YTD Totals: 6,962 km / 4,326 miles with 79,909 metres of climbing

There and Back Again

There and Back Again

Day#3  L’Alpe d’Huez

Total Distance:                                25 km / 16 miles with 1,033 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                         1 hours 50 minutes

Average Speed:                                13.6 km/h

Group size:                                         3

Temperature:                                    31°C

Weather in a word or two:           Hotter


 

taba

The Ride


I awoke rather groggily to find someone had broken in during the night and filled my legs full of concrete and it took me a while to get moving. When I did, I found Crazy Legs busily flitting around and dressed to ride.

“Whassup?”

“I’m going to ride up the Alpe.”

I needed to ride to try and rediscover where my legs were.

“Wait, I’m coming.”

“How long do you need?”

“15 minutes.”

“Ok.”

As we reached agreement, Captain Black emerged, blinking and yawning. Rest had obviously done him good and Twatty MacTwat Face had reverted back to being Old Faithful. I told him the plan and he hauled his ass into gear too – 3 for the Alpe!

It wasn’t much longer than 15 minutes later and we turned right out of the campsite, pushed the pedals around half a dozen times and found ourselves once again on the first ramp up the mountain to L’Alpe d’Huez.

I took the first couple of hairpins out of the saddle and turning a modestly large gear, until feeling returned to my lower extremities and the stiffness stated to dissipate. I then dropped onto the granny ring, and plonked myself down to spin slowly upwards.

Behind me Captain Black got half way round the first hairpin and was shocked to find just how hard it was. Just before he turned round to head back, thinking he obviously hadn’t recovered from the day before, he finally looked down and realised he was still on the big ring. There was a sudden, resounding, clunking, wince-inducing clang of stressed and tortured metal that reverberated around the mountains, as he changed down under intense pressure and finally found instant relief and his climbing form.

The three of us worked our way slowly up the mountain, pausing frequently at various shady vista’s and viewpoints, picking out the past winners signs on the corners, taking photos and chatting with other cyclists.

The signs were a roll-call, highlighting some of cycling’s great and good (and occasionally villainous) – both past and present, ranging from the imperious, il campionissimo, Fausto Coppi in 1952, right up to Thibaut Pinot in 2015.

I found signs commemorating wins by Bernard Hinaut, Gianni Bugno, Stephen Rooks, Frank Schleck, Pierre Rolland, Carlos Sastre, Andy Hampsten and Hennie Kuiper among the more famous and celebrated of the winners.

Lance Armstrong’s name is still up there (twice) despite having his Tour victories annulled, along with two for the equally dubious and questionable Marco Pantani, who still holds the record for the fastest ascent of the mountain in an astonishing – no doubt rocket-fuelled, but still astonishing time of under 38 minutes.

I have to admit though, that even taking time to hunt them out and read the signs, I still missed one or two, including Joop Zoetemelk’s 1976 sign which I’d vowed to desecrate in honour of Lucien Van Impe. (Only kidding, nice Dutch folk!)

As previously mentioned, I found the signs totally underwhelming – so much so that I didn’t even bother photographing any of them – but here’s one I prepared earlier (or pinched from the Internet anyway).


huezs


As we were making our way around one hairpin, our bête noire from Saturday made a reappearance, as a bumbling Harley Davidson blatted loudly up the road and awkwardly around the bend, leaving a trail of greasy exhaust fumes in its wake.

“Your bike’s shit!” an indignant Crazy Legs shouted after the motorcycle, unfortunately just as another rider pulled up alongside him. This rider gave him a long, quizzical look before deciding he was in the presence of a sun-touched Englishman and he didn’t need to defend the honour of his Cannondale SuperSix. Just to be sure, he accelerated smartly away to avoid further insult to his bike and Crazy Legs can at least take a little credit for spurring one rider on to set a good time.

At the village of La Grade we stopped in a welcome patch of shade, where an elderly rider and his support-vehicle-driving wife were sitting enjoying the views. Our talk turned to decomposition rates as Captain Black enjoyed a belated breakfast banana and Crazy Legs described in intimate detail how the discarded skins turned black, slimy and wizened along the way. “Speaking of black, slimy and wizened,” he declared, starting to reach down the front of his shorts, “My knackers could do with a bit of relief.”

“Hey, nice day, isn’t it?” the support-vehicle-driving wife drawled, stepping in with a nice bit of deflection.

“Oh, hello,” Crazy Legs responded, quickly withdrawing his probing digits and thinking fast, “I thought you were Dutch …”

It turned out they were American, from California, on holiday so the husband could enjoy a second-crack at riding the Alps. We then had a brief chat which concluded rather awkwardly when the wife offered sympathy over the “terrible, tragic things” in the UK and we had to ask whether she meant the terror attacks, the Grenfell Tower fire, or being lumbered with lame-duck, Prime Minister who would sell her own mother cling to power.

She meant the tower fire, which is obviously a cataclysmic tragedy, but not something we were ever likely to be personally invested in and it seemed an odd, discordant thing to bring up with total strangers on a bright sunny day, half-way up a mountain in France.

We kept going and stopped again at what we think was Dutch Corner, afforded the opportunity to look down and appreciate how far we’d climbed, the vista opening out to show the road below, twisting and turning sinuously through multiple hairpins as it snaked up the mountain. Crazy Legs recalled watching the Dauphine from this vantage point in 2010 as a rampant Alberto Contador made multiple impressive attacks before breaking clear to win the stage.


alpe
Reg in repose © Clive Rae

As we pushed on the other two slowly drew ahead and I was happy to trundle along at my own pace, slowing down and swinging right across the road to peer myopically at the signs on the hairpins and try to pick out past Tour stage winners.

More snaps from the photographers, the long drag upwards, a sarcastic slow-hand clap from the inflatable King of the Mountains and I was across the finish line and taking a seat next to Crazy Legs and Captain Black in the same café we’d stopped at the first time up the Alpe. Captain Black won the race to first beer of the day.


me
© Griffe Photos

And then we spaced ourselves well out for the fun of the descent. It was to be this, more than anything, which gave me an appreciation of just how big a task cycling up a mountain actually is – it took almost 15 minutes to whirr down to the bottom and every hairpin I thought was the last one was followed by another and then another. Looking back around the corners was also the first time I appreciated just how steep some of the ramps actually were, it’s not something you get a good impression of while struggling up them.


alpdown
Captain Black assures me that tiny speck in the road is me descending the Alpe © Anthony Jackson

And then, sadly it was over, we were done and back at the campsite and climbing off for the last time.

By this time my legs no longer felt like concrete, maybe more like hard cheese – a Cheshire or a Red Leicester perhaps. Either way an improvement of sorts. We broke the bikes down and packed them up, then picked up Steadfast and wondered into town for a few drinks and a late lunch.

The patron of the bar was apparently quite upset she couldn’t offer us any food, “Je suis desole!” but we were happy with baguettes and cornets des frites to accompany the beer. The Hammer joined us, fresh from a ride up to Allemont and then finally Goose appeared after a day alternatively spent walking and lazing by the pool. A few beers and we wandered up to the Dutch restaurant for the last supper.

All this time we talked an unending stream of nonsense (as usual): how Pierre Latour somehow acquired the name Roger, the immorality of any sport that needs judges to decide a winner, Tyneside legend Dave the Dwarf, once spotted drinking in the incongruous company of towering Scottish lock forward Doddie Weir. This led to an attempt to calculate how many dwarves you could reasonably expect in China’s 1.4 billion population and serious concerns about where all the Chinese dwarves are hiding.

We learned that Goose had been inspired by tales of a granny who was arrested for pointing a hairdryer at speeding cars in her village during a (seemingly hugely successful) attempt to get them to slow down. He revealed he had then taken this as inspiration for his own brand of traffic vigilantism, patrolling the streets around his home and leaping unexpectedly out at any motorist he suspects of speeding, arm raised, hand out while intoning a very simple, authoritative and stentorian: “No!”

We managed to calculate bills and work out a way where no one (hopefully) felt out of pocket and discussed doing something similar next year, or the following, although Crazy Legs declared he’s more or less done with the Alps, so we thought up a few alternatives such as Spain – the Pyrenees or Basque region, Tuscany, or perhaps, radically even somewhere flat like the Netherlands.

And then we wandered back, packed and slept, woke and showered, loaded the van, endured an unfriendly chalet inspection, settled our bills, waved off the Hammer and set out for home.

Swiss custom officials were strangely no happier to see us go than they had been to see us arrive and Heathrow customs officials managed to outdo them in terms of inertia, apathy and glowering disaffection.

We bade “bon voyage” to Steadfast, returning to his home along the south coast and the Goose wandered off in search of the best deals he could find on Toblerone. While we waited for our connecting flight, Captain Black stood us a round of coffee’s and had to double-check the price several times before he realised he wasn’t in Geneva airport and didn’t need to take out a second mortgage to pay for them.

The “barista” asked for his name and he momentarily confused me by saying Ant rather than Captain Black, or just the Captain. He obviously confused the barista even more as the coffee’s arrived with “Hans” carefully scribed on every cup.


hans
©Anthony Jackson

“Oh no,” I suggested to Crazy Legs, “That makes you Knees and me Boomps-a-Daisy.”

We then sat around discussing the worlds woes and how to correct them, until Crazy Legs looked at the flight board and realised our gate was closing in 10 minutes and we were in real danger of being left behind!

A quick, power-walk through the terminal had us tagging onto the very back of the queue, before clambering aboard our connecting flight to Newcastle and home.

At the other end we kept an intent and anxious watch on the baggage carousel, waiting for the arrival of bike bags and boxes and getting a little concerned as time dragged on, the crowd started to thin and the conveyor belt slowly emptied. Then Goose took a step backwards and fell over our bikes which the ninja baggage handlers had delivered by hand and stealthily dropped off right behind us.

Home, safe and sound and largely intact.

So, two days of travelling, Thursday 15th June and Monday 19th June bookended 3 days of riding, the Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Over the three days we were out on the bikes for 22½ hours, rode 251 kilometres or 156 miles in around 14 hours with almost 6,900 metres of climbing including, L’Alpe d’Huez (twice), the Sarenne, Lauterat, Glandon, Croix de Fer, Télégraph and mighty Galibier.

BA Flights form Newcastle to Geneva via Heathrow cost £160 each.

Budget Car van hire, plus fuel was £478.24, or £95.65 per person (5 people)

Two chalets at the Cascades Campsite, Bourg d’Oisans, cost £698.41, or £116.40 per person (6 people)

The total cost for my trip was around £372, plus meals, food and drinks.

Having been back a couple of weeks now, I can honestly say if someone offered me the exact same trip, with the exact same rides (even including all the pain and misery of the Circle of Death) I wouldn’t hesitate and I’d sign up immediately.


YTD Totals: 3,844 km / 2,304 miles with 46,068 metres of climbing

 

The Circle of Death

The Circle of Death

Day#2 Saturday, 17th June, 2017

Col du Glandon | Col del la Croix de Fer | Col du Télégraph | Col du Galibier | Col du Lautaret

Total Distance:                                  168 km / 104 miles with 4,246 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                          9 hours 8 minutes

Average Speed:                                18.4 km/h

Group size:                                         6

Temperature:                                    26°C

Weather in a word or two:          Still Hot


CoD

The Ride

Relive the Ride


Part One. Reservoir Dogs

Day#2 of our grand adventure was all about the Crazy Legs master-plan, a long, looping clockwise ride around the area, taking in 5 major cols, including the fearsome Galibier. We were expecting a long day and had accordingly planned an early start, rolling out at just after 8 o’clock when the air was still relatively cool and pleasant.

The first few pedal strokes were absolute agony on my back, which I think I must have damaged lugging the bike box around in supremely ugly and inappropriate ways. The pain was so intense I wondered if I’d even make it out of the town, but luckily it settled down to a dull throb and occasional sharp twinge once I got a bit warmed up. Later Captain Black would set himself up as our “main man” and started dealing from his precious stash of Nurofen. He had many takers and became the most popular person in our group that day. I’m sure the two were in no way related.

We slipped out of the campsite and took the road north from Bourg d’Oisans, following the course of the wild flowing La Romanche all the way to Allemont. The roads were wide with a plush (by British standards) cycle path, shaded by trees and relatively traffic free so early on a Saturday morning. It was a very agreeable start to the day and we made good time, with Crazy Legs in particular driving hard on the front and seemingly eager to get going.

Reaching Allemont, the Hammer and Goose stopped off to look for an ATM, while the rest of us started the zig-zagging ride up the face of the barrage. At the top we paused to look down and heckle our returning companions, before regrouping and rolling across the top of the dam and turning up into the wooded hills that skirt the reservoir.


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This was the start of a long, shaded and pleasant climb up to the village of Le Rivier d’Allemont, where we stopped for a leisurely coffee and to allow Crazy Legs to endear himself to the café patron with his valiant attempts to ask for a strawberry ice cream in French. He was quite proud when his language skills were judged to be “not the worst” that had ever been heard in the village.

As we were leaving we spotted a public drinking fountain and stopped to fill our bottles, only to back away from a hastily scribbled notice that warned tests were underway and that we roughly translated as meaning: “drink this and you’ll probably die a horrible death.”

We actually had no shortage of intestinal distress already and needed to take no further risks in this area. Just past the water fountain, Crazy Legs spotted a public toilet and ducked inside. We thought he’d just gone for a quick pee and rode slowly on, not realising we were witnessing a Dumoulin moment and our own defegate, until the French equivalent of a NEST team turned up in hazmat suits and quarantined the whole area.

Our whole round trip can then probably be traced by all the now radioactive toilets we desecrated and devastated at each stop, in what the French authorities would later declare as a major act of eco-terrorism so horrendous that even ISIS wouldn’t dare claim responsibility. They’re still hunting the perpetrators, who somehow managed to slip the police cordon. Truth be told, I think we were all suffering from a combination of the heat, hard work, foreign food and far too many gels, energy bars and isotonic drinks.

 


Part Two. Toad in the Road

We were now on the Route Des Cols and a quick descent hustled us across the river and onto a short, sharp ramp to begin our climb toward the Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer.

We became spread out and I was climbing on my own, as the road rose to top another barrage and then continued, up and up until the surface of the Lac de Grand Maison was a glittering, blue-grey mirror far below. Another rider caught me up and started chatting away immediately in English. I’d wondered how he knew my nationality, but Crazy Legs and Steadfast had already been laughing at the less than subtle branding that had the quintessentially English name, Holdsworth stamped across Reg’s small frame in at least 14 different places. Alternatively, maybe he just guessed?

Anyway, I learned he was riding following surgery for a prolapsed disc (which put my own back pain into perspective) and was the rabbit being chased by a couple of friends down the road. He pushed on not wanting to be caught (I only remember one other rider, who was obviously a local passing me, so presume he managed to stay out in front.)  He pressed on the pedals and accelerated away in that strange mountain climbing time perspective, which meant that after 10 minutes of hard effort he’d gained about 50 yards on me.

The road topped out and I began a long, fast drop through a valley pass. I couldn’t help hating this descent, which frittered away a load of hard won altitude I’d sweated to accumulate. At the same time it shattered any climbing rhythm I had managed to find. By the time the road started to rise again toward the summit of the Glandon I felt like I was starting from scratch and a nagging headwind added to the difficulty.

I negotiated a photographer in the middle of the road who snapped away despite my distressed countenance and then pressed his card into my hand.  Not sure those pictures are worth buying, mate. I soon found myself skirting a massive flock of brown, alpine sheep whose bells tinkled away merrily and then the climb stiffened under my wheels and up we went again.

After a bit more climbing the road split in two and I guessed wrong, following a rider down the right hand route toward the Croix de Fer summit, only to be called back by Crazy Legs behind me. I back-tracked and joined him, Steadfast and Goose on a short detour and quick haul up to the top of the Col du Glandon, in what apparently was the ultimate BOGOF (buy one get one free) offer on French summit finishes.

At the Glandon, we press-ganged some friendly Dutch cyclists into taking a commemorative picture of us next to the summit marker and heard all about Crazy Leg’s highlight of the ride, a massive, crisp and limbless toad he’d spotted baked black and pressed flat into the tarmac.


glandon
© Angus McMillan, 2017

We dropped down again and picked up the hairpins heading up to the Croix de Fer, where we waited for the Hammer and Captain Black, who’d beaten us up the Glandon, but had stopped off in the café there. Reunited again, we coerced an English cyclist into taking the obligatory commemorative photo with the summit marker and there, at the point of no return, discussed our options.


croix de fer


We agreed by a vote of 4 to 2 to press on toward the Télégraph and Galibier, rather than turn back to re-trace our steps. I was one of the two voting to turn back, figuring we could run the Galibier the next day. Damn, don’t you hate democracy!

We then began a fun, high speed drop down from the Croix de Fer, while keeping our eyes open for a suitable lunch venue. We finally spotted a suitable candidate, a crêperie with decking that extended out over the mountain and ducked inside. Here we had a pleasant and relaxed lunch while watching the buzzards riding the thermals around the peaks on the opposite side of the valley.

Back on the bikes, the descent continued, but was more gradual now as we followed the course of swift flowing, turbulent L’Arvan  for a few miles, before scrambling up a short climb, whipping past a group of very tentative descenders and rolling down toward Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.


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Just before joining the main A43 carriageway to head south east, we were stopped by a gendarme to allow a pro race to pass through. This was the Tour de Savoie-Mont Blanc, which would be won by the latest Colombian climbing sensation Egan Bernal, allegedly on his way to Team Sky for next season, where he can be carefully neutered, roboticized and stripped of all attacking intent.

This stop also marked the first sighting of what would soon became our arch enemy; hugely fat, sweating, middle-aged, pretend biker gangs on Harley Davidsons. A suitably unimpressed motorcycle gendarme disdainfully escorted a swarm of their ridiculously noisy, filthy, rumbling, farting and belching, noxious machines off the road to let the cyclists through.

The front of the race whipped quickly past, spearheaded by a break of half a dozen, with an AG2R rider in desperate pursuit. Then the main peloton followed, already a couple of minutes back, a gleaming, multi-coloured cavalcade that whirred cleanly away at high speed and in a blare of horns and sirens.

We were released onto the road and followed the perimeter cycle-lane, dodging the occasional discarded bidon or musette left behind by the rampaging peloton.

 


Part Three. Hog Hell

At Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne we found the town centre swarmed with more fat, hairy, utterly boorish, pretend- bikers, hooting and hollering and revving their stinking, too-loud engines to screaming excess, chaotically slaloming down the road and generally being as noisy and anti-social as they could possibly be.

In direct stark contrast was a woman in cool looking cream leathers, riding a gleaming white and chrome motorbike that emitted a rumble like a purring snow leopard. She glided serenely through the chaos, like a swan parting a crowd of squabbling and squawking ducklings and then was gone.

We dropped into a café for a quick drink and to see these huge, bloated bikers close-up, red-faced and sweating in their dusty leathers, shovelling food and swilling beers into gaping maws, while swaggering around like the hard-asses they undoubtedly weren’t. Attila the Stockbroker, anyone?

Having had enough of the aural assault, we rode on, swung south, crossed the river and were immediately of the climb of the Col du Télégraph. Even here though we couldn’t escape the stupid bikes and bikers that reminded me of nothing more than being stuck in a room with a swarm of fat bumbling, annoying bluebottles that continually buzz around your ears.

They were intent on roaring up and down the mountainside, often passing deliberately and intimidatingly close, racing each other around blind bends and occasionally grounding and grinding away bits of the road as they tried to guide their own monstrous, ungainly, fume spewing machines around the tight corners.

 


Part 4. Ingénue Ascending

We were now on a steady climb of 12 kms at around 8%, winding up to the top of the Col and the Fort du Télégraph.  On reviewing the ride, I think we were all surprised at just how much this route twisted and turned as it climbed, but the views are generally closed in with trees and you never get the open vista revealing the line of the road you’re following.

As we started up a slender, dark-skinned, French ingénue in Liv pro-team livery rode up alongside Crazy Legs.

“Ça va?” she enquired.

“No, I’m English … and it’s too bliddy hot!” Crazy Legs replied smoothly.

She laughed, turned the pedals over lightly and started to pull ahead and the Hammer followed like a puppy on a lead. He later revealed that up ahead he’d almost had to do a track-stand as her team car forced its way in alongside her, blocking the road, before handing over a bottle, which she took a tiny, delicate sip from, before handing it back. What was the point in that?

Approaching the top of the Télégraph my Garmin beeped loudly to announce low power and eventually shut down just before the summit. I had to ask Crazy Legs to share his file for the ride and he would later compare our two efforts side-by-side and concluded we were remarkably similar riders!


telegrapge
© Angus McMillan, 2017

The café at the top provided more liquid refreshment, before we found someone willing to take on the most risky of photo-assignments yet, capturing our collective clustered around the summit sign, while simultaneously dodging the stupid Harley’s that still buzzed and bumbled loudly up and down the road.

 


 Part Five. It’s Like You’re Riding Into the Sky*

And then we went on, heading toward the famed Galibier, a climb 20km longer than l’Alpe d’Huez and rising twice as many vertical metres to 2,645 above sea level, where the oxygen starts to get thin. It’s just 100 metres shy of being 35km in length and there is 17km of climbing at over seven per cent, with a real sting in the tail – the steepest ramps are in the final 2 kilometres.

Dropping down off the Télégraph and once again lamenting the loss of hard won height, we first had to thread our way through Valloire, which proved to be the source of the infestation of stupid Harley bikers. The town was holding the Punta Bagna Festival, advertised with the words: “bike show, run wild, custom culture.” Huh? There were thousands of big, ugly bikes crowded into just about every space available, and plenty of big, ugly bikers too.


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Off the bike and having to rely on their own locomotion, they appeared particularly inept, unable to cope with traffic unaided and we had to weave our way around several rotund, stationary forms, seemingly frozen into indecisiveness in the middle of the road.

Finally out of town we climbed up the long straight valley following the tumult of La Valloirette river for about 10km, a long, boring uphill grind. At one point we passed a field with signs advertising helicopter rides up the col for €50 and I have to admit to giving it very serious consideration.

A few scattered wooden structures at Plan Lachat marked the end of the valley. A bridge was thrown across the river and from there the road twisted and turned, climbing with serious intent now, as it soared up the mountain. The Hammer had gone on ahead, but the rest of us agreed to stick together as all the initial skirmishes were put behind us as  and we began our battle royalé with the beast of the Galibier.

Round the corner, with the snow mantled peaks above us, we passed the rather incongruous sight of a couple sunbathing on a picnic blanket by the side of the river. Then we swept over the bridge and started climbing, trying to stay away from the right hand verge, where the land fell away precipitously.

The seemingly indefatigable Steadfast led and I got the impression he could continue riding this way for hour upon hour yet. Goose and Crazy Legs followed his lead, while I dragged along at the back with Captain Black who was beginning to cramp up and almost looked to be suffering as much as I was.

Up and up we dragged ourselves, but accumulated fatigue was soon making itself felt, breathing becoming more demanding and I think we were all struggling. We took to pausing at every kilometre marker for a brief respite, which not only let us rest for a moment, but also let us appreciate the spectacular views, both up to the snow-capped summit and back down along the twisting, torturous route we’d followed to get to this point. It was absolutely wild, beautiful and stunning and gave us a real sense of accomplishment.


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Col du Galibier © Jeff Wilson, 2017

At one of our stops we spotted a fat marmot, happily frolicking in the grass at the side of the road. At another, agonisingly, the kilometre marker was missing and our exhausted brains couldn’t make the decision to stop without a visual reminder. Crazy Legs was insistent we then rode three whole kilometres without a rest stop, Goose and Steadfast were adamant it was only two. I wasn’t bothered as long as it got us closer to the end.

Finally, we reached the point where the odd patches of snow thickened and all merged together to give the landscape a thick, uniform and glittering white coating. The snow exuded a welcome chill, piled high in crusty hummocks either side of the black, glistening road and providing a constant stream of runoff that trickled away, happy to succumb to gravity rather than fight it like an idiot cyclist.

Someone said only two kilometres now and I looked up … and then up some more, to see the summit was really close, almost in touching distance. Then my heart sank, as I realised it only looked so close because the last stretches of road raked up at a completely hellish angle.

Still, nearly there. I let the others ride on ahead, took one last, deep breath and pushed on, struggling with even basic tasks like clipping in. I remember nothing about that last 2,000 metres, no pain, no elation, no wonder, no big sense of accomplishment. One moment I was below the summit, the next I was at the top, grinning and lining up for the obligatory photo, before pulling on arm warmers and a rain jacket for the descent.


galibier
© Clive Rae, 2017

I looked around, content and enjoying the view, trying to imprint it on my mind – “Look Ma, top o’ the world!” – but it was too cold to hang around long and I followed Crazy Legs as the road tipped down and we began the long, screaming descent.

* “It’s like you’re riding into the sky.” Andy Schleck’s description of climbing the Galibier.

 


Part Six. Christ on a Bike

I let the bike run and was soon picking up speed, the rain jacket fluttering, flapping and snapping in the wind and the freewheel whirring crazily as I followed the winding road down and around all the bends.

At one point we passed more Harley bikers spluttering up in the opposite direction and seeming to want all of the road surface to play with. Several where sticking their inside legs out stiffly into the middle of the road as if dribbling a football alongside their bikes. What the hell was that all about – are the Harley’s so unbalanced and ungainly they need a counterweight, or is it just to take up more room and intimidate passing cyclists? I pressed a bit closer toward the cliff face on my right hand side, but ahead of me a thoroughly disgruntled Crazy Legs decided enough was enough and planted his bike firmly in the middle of the road in a game of chicken.

The bikers flinched first and gave ground. Crazy Legs flashed past them, then I did too and we were around another bend and far away before their indignation filtered through to their dullard brains and one of them finally leant on his horn in futile rebuke.

Following behind us, the Hammer reported one of the idiots had then stood bolt upright, arms stretched out to either side, like Christ on a bike, all the while trundling along inches from the edge of the road with a long, long drop to his right. Ass hat.

At the top of the Col du Lautaret, we stopped to regroup and the Hammer disappeared into the Hôtel des Glaciers and returned with a round of ice cold Coke’s for everyone. Top man. Off we went again, racing the oncoming darkness with the sun already starting to dip behind the mountains and throw out long shadows.

The descent down from the Col du Lautaret was utterly brilliant, on wide empty roads, with long sweeping bends that encouraged you push on ever faster and dare not to brake. Despite the fatigue I hit the big ring and hammered downwards as fast as I could go, sweeping through tunnels and villages, crouched low over the bike and whooping with joy.

All good things must come to an end though and we were soon back in the valley of La Romanche and pushing toward home. With the Tunnel Du Chambon closed following damage in 2015, we crossed the river and took to a (remarkably decent) temporary road, which skirted the southern edge of the lake.

A few, slight inclines reminded us of our accumulated fatigue and stung the legs and Captain Black fought a series of debilitating cramps as we plugged on. There was a distinct feeling of twilight encroaching on us as we hit the last stretch of road and here Goose accelerated off the front with a startling injection of pace. At first I thought he was responding to an emergency call of nature and dashing back to the campsite as quickly as possible, but Crazy Legs reassured me it was just his way of riding on the front and shepherding us all home. We finally closed on him, sat on his back wheel and he brought us, at long last back to camp.

We’d been out for over 12 hours, ridden for at least 9 of these, covered over 100 miles and encompassed over 4,000 metres of climbing. In that period, we’d gone through every single emotion on our “cycle of acceptance” and then some.

An exhausted Captain Black was perhaps in the worst state, declaring his bike had let him down bigtime, he never wanted to see it again and he was changing its name from “Old Faithful” to “Twatty-Mac Twat-Face.”

 


Part Seven. Ice Cold in Bourg d’Oisans

We showered and changed and headed into town for some much needed food, aiming for the first restaurant we stumbled across. Someone mentioned spaghetti bolognese and once the thought took hold it spread like a forest fire, becoming an instant fixation and the only thing that would satisfy our needs.

The walk seemed incredibly long and impossibly hard on our exhausted bodies, but we finally found a likely-looking restaurant and circled the seating area like a starving pack of skinny, feral dogs. A waitress with blue hair approached and Crazy Legs cut straight to the quick.

“Do you do spaghetti bolognaise?”

“Yes,” she smiled, looking somewhat bemused.

“Ah, good. Table for six, please.” It was a demand, not a request.

She wondered away to sort out a table and I scored some menu’s and handed them around ,while we quickly confirmed what already knew we wanted.

The waitress got us seated and returned with menus, which we waved away and made our order, not wanting any further delay. Six grand biere’s arrived for the conquering heroes and Crazy Legs spotted and claimed the only tankard with a handle, so he could indulge in some proper wassailing.

“Salut!” the glasses clinked together and in a real “Ice Cold in Alex” moment the beer slid very, very easily, down 6 parched throats. Perfect.

The spaghetti bolognaise filled the craving and was good, but surprisingly no one seemed to have a massive appetite and we were all quickly replete, ready for the long walk back and a collapse into bed.

Vague plans were made for our last day, with a relax by the pool, or a short ride out for coffee all mooted. Captain Black was all for sawing his bike into pieces and introducing it to the river, while I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew I’d be out riding. Again.


YTD Totals: 3,651 km / 2,269 miles with 44,466 metres of climbing