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VIP Views and Armchair Rides

24 Jul

In the airport in Biarritz on the way from our trip, and it’s hard to believe it’s less than 20 hours since we were peering through the mist at the top of the Tourmalet.

It’s been a hell of a trip, at ten days less than half of what the tour riders have to endure to reach Paris, and it’s a bit agonising to be heading home just a few days short of Paris because you start to get attached to this event. It’s been epic, to say the least, and the conditions on the Tourmalet on Thursday afternoon were entirely appropriate for the centenary celebrations of the Tour’s first visit to the Pyrenees.

After enduring a sleepless night of thunderstorms we were in no hurry to rush up the hill to bag our spot and took our time before breaking camp for the final time. We finally made the leisurely stroll up to the finish line and found a spot within a few yards of the finish line about half an hour before the riders were due. Given that there were people heading up the hill to grab a decent view since early morning we were pretty happy with how it worked out.

I found a couple of plastic chairs that gave us a view over the crowd and we were made up.

The only trade for our VIP position was a complete absence of internet coverage and with only rudimentary school French to help us decipher the commentary, our knowledge of the race unfolding in the valley below was as foggy as the mist that enveloped the hill.

From the commentator’s incessant patter we had an idea that it was all about Schleck and Contador and there was no surprise when Andy finally burst into view, crossong the line with arms aloft, his Spanish amigo and nemesis less than a bike length in arrears.

Within seconds the crowds around the finish line started to abate as the star gazers rushed to the podium to worship their heroes.

We thought there was more entertainment to be had, and respect to be given, in staying to cheer every one of the riders as they flopped, exhausted across the crest of the col. Not one of them had time for a smile and most looked absolutely shattered, not least Nicolas Roche whose 12th place finish was surely the best ride of his career and certainly an immense response to his difficulties of the previous two stages.

I say no one had time for a smile but that’s not strictly correct. Robbie McEwen, riding with broken bones for much of the event, celebrated the finish of the mountains for another year with one of his trademark wheelies across the line. Excellent…

After more than half an hour of riders appearing in ones or twos – no sign of a big Autobus  on this monster of a stage – Andreas Klier had the broom wagon for company as he coasted over the line, utterly spent, but still in the Tour and on his way to Paris unlike Simon Spilak of Lampre.

After filing back down the mountain for a couple of kilometres we jumped in our car just in front of the Saxo Bank team car ferrying Andy Schleck to a well earned massage and dinner. I let him by and then welded our Citoren Picasso hire car to the rear bumper in front for the perfect escort down the hill.

It was one of the highlights of the trip for me, though the DS, her head buried in her hands for much of the helter skelter 18km ride, wasn’t quite so impressed. Down the outside of the almost interminable queue for much of the journey we made up large dollops of time on our 200km commute to Biarraitz. We eventually incurred the wrath of an Astana official in an accredited car who wanted to know why we, the great unwashed (the term is not applied loosely here following four days on the mountain…) had infiltrated the privilged cavalcade.

In fairness, the cavalcade had caught and passed him so he shouldn’t have been quite so grumpy, especially after Bertie’s epic ride that day. I wasn’t the only punter in the cavalcade, either. The blue car behind was also an opportunist.

Anyhow, after a couple of kilometres of fist waving and car weaving from him, he eventually conceded defeat, though I expected a Skoda estate to come in through the back window at any moment in the next 20km.

That armchair ride off the Tourmalet gave us a head start on our trip to the luxury of the airport Ibis in Biarritz, our one and only hotel of the trip.

A real bed and a shower. What decadence!

I love camping but next year we’re getting a camper…

Tourmalet Weather Report: 12 Midday

22 Jul

The cows didn’t come out for their constitutional this morning.

Instead the familiar jangle of the bells was replaced by an incessant patter on the nylon tent roof which at the time of writing hasn’t let up for more than a few minutes at a time in 16 hours.

The cows may have foregone the delights of a soggy hill walk but it hasn’t deterred the fans hiking to the top since early morning.

The riders aren’t due up from the western side until five pm local time but the ultra zealous eastern based Tourmalet pilgrims can’t wait to bag their muddy perch for the big Andy versus Bertie showdown. Frankly you wouldn’t see this level of devotion down the road in Lourdes. The Vatican should consider signing a couple of GC contenders on endorsement deals…

The bus shuttles aren’t running today so it’s shanks mare or, hilariously, the ski lift which many are opting for. The quick rinse over the long soak? Maybe they’re right.

The constant stream of fans heading for the summit suggests that it’s going to be packed up there but most of the walkers slept in hotels or camper vans last night so the DS and I have made a corporate decision to leave our departure to the last minute. We’ve got better 3G signal here than we’d have at the top so we’ll enjoy the Eurosport guys for as long as possible (assuming they can get pictures) before striking out for the ‘roof’ of the tour.

Frankly last night was one long sustained advert for camping cars. The tent stood up to the abuse pretty well but my airbed suffered a blow out just after midnight which made for a pretty uncomfortable and fundamentally sleep free night.

I know the pros work hard for a living but I don’t want to hear any moaning about bunk beds or the lack of air conditioning today!

Legends and Lightning

21 Jul

“C’mon the Paddies!”

The distinctive north Waterford hue to the accent of the bloke on the ancient bike as he grinded his way past on the way to the summit of the Tourmalet took us by surprise but it didn’t take long to make the connection.

“Go Kelly!,” we shouted in unison and quickly scrambled to clear the breakfast dishes so that we could make our way to the top of the hill to find out why the four-time Tour de France Points winner was riding a museum piece up one of the toughest hills in world cycling.

Kelly, we subsequently discovered, had answered an invitation from an Italian friend to ride the Pyreneean centenary ascent of the Tourmalet on vintage bikes in period costume during the second rest day of the Tour.

Thus we found ourselves in the middle of a marvellous melée of fans and heroes all celebrating Henri Desgranges’ momentous decision to send his 1910 Tour entrants up the most arduous and testing hills in the Pyrenees.

It was a chaotic and wonderful scene. Cyclo tourists who had spent the previous couple of hours in private purgatory arrived at the summit to a hubub fit for a Tour winner, only to find that they were in the presence of men who had claimed, by my calculation, a total of 12 outright victories in Le Tour, as well as Kelly’s four green jerseys.

There were also two people there who had ridden the Gorey Three Day but I suppose Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain and Laurent Fignon wouldn’t have known that.

Ronan Pensec, Jean Pierre Danguillaume and a few others I probably didn’t spot or recognise joined the party on what was a pretty special occasion for a cycling fan of any vintage.

Kelly gave Danguillaume a spin on his antique behemoth and it occurred to me that everyone should ride a bike older than them at some point.

It was a bit of a zoo but without the frenzy that accompanies your average stage finish. While Kelly gave interviews on one side of a very narrow strip of tarmac, Indurain reprised memories of his five wins for TV cameras on the other.

Meanwhile Fignon and Hinault milled with the crowds for a while before repairing to the famous summit cafe for a beer and some premier league autograph signing.

After a quick chat with Kelly, who revealed that the bike he rode up was extremely heavy – the word he actually used was ‘terrible’ – and equipped with just a 40×24 single speed gear, we nipped into the cafe and found a table beside the stars. While the DS snapped away to her heart’s content, I carbo-loaded on the single nicest sandwich of a filled baguette-filled trip in a wonderful atmosphere of bonhomie and cameraderie de la route.

It was by some considerable margin the highlight of the day. Since then the rains, which made a brief appearance last night, have returned in torrents, increasing in intensity as the day has gone on and regularly accompanied by thunder and lightening.

The locals tried a fireworks display earlier but that fizzled out quicker than yesterday’s stage, never having had a chance against a higher power…

Perhaps it’s all the work of Octave Lapize orchestrating from above, eager that the current riders should have some idea of the suffering he and his cohorts went through in 1910.

If so, he’s 11 hours early and I and the DS would like to know why he has to bring the fans into it, shivering as we are at the time of iPhone screen tapping in our increasingly soggy tent and contemplating a night in the car if the rain finally breaks through the nylon walls…

Dairy Diary

21 Jul

The cows wake us each morning on the Tourmalet.

t appears that the DS’s carefully chosen camping spot 1.5km from the top on the La Mongie which offered a perfect view of the riders as they came past yesterday afternoon is also a direct path for a herd of brown beasts on their morning commute to a clump of grass on the other side of the valley that requires daily grooming.

On Monday morning they tip toed daintily across the tent guy ropes on the way to breakfast, only the infernal clanging of the bell around the neck of the boss cow waking us from our slumber, whereupon the DS peeped out for a recce, her gaze meeting another at a proximity that would have allowed her to lick a pair of big wet pink nostrils had she so chosen. Instead she gave a barely muffled shriek and a startled shooing motion which, thankfully, had the desired effect, thus saving me from rising from my slumbers to make a direct intervention.

The cows took a slightly altered route the following morning displaying a gift for pragmatic compromise that we could all learn from.

Speaking of pragmatic compromise, (watch for the neat segue…) Andy Schleck’s half nelson induced rapprochement with his old mate Bertie live on French TV no doubt made for great viewing but convinced no one at Camp Poursuivants: The scrawny little goofball may look like he’s afraid of getting sand kicked in his face by that rough Spanish boy but I’m certain he’ll reassert himself on the Tourmalet tomorrow.

Whether he can get enough time ahead of Saturday’s test is another thing but Les Poursuivants and a bunch of mad Luxembourgois hanging around La Mongie will not be happy unless he throws a few major shapes tomorrow afternoon.

Yesterday’s stage fizzled out a bit after a frenzied beginning but that will have been a relief for Nicolas Roche. We gave him a shout as he slogged past in the jersey group over the Tourmalet but one senses that Paris is the main focus now…

Burning Ears

20 Jul

There was a lively discussion between the DS and myself over a glass of rose in the tent on the Tourmalet last night following Nicolas Roche’s disappointing 37th place finish in Stage 15 to Bagneres de Luchon.

It was one of those conversations where both participants are getting more and more wound up while completely agreeing with each other.

Suffice it to say, John Gadret’s ears will have been burning after it following his speculative little attack on the Port de Bales climb at just the moment that he should have been helping pace Roche back to the group after his team leader’s puncture.

There was much speculation in Camp Poursuivants about Gadret’s motives for his apparent selfishness. Maybe he’s off to a new team next year, maybe he just doesn’t get on with Roche or perhaps his ear piece ‘just fell out’?

Perhaps it was just blind ambition from a man 23rd overall and having a pretty good tour. Suffice it to say, we weren’t best pleased but it turned out to be just a footnote to a much greater controversy involving Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.

I was probably a little hot and bothered myself after climbing up that infernal Tourmalet. I’d been up the Aspin before it and stopped for a sandwich in Sainte Marie de Campan on the way back to the Tourmalet where I bumped into all manner of people including Cycling Ulster’s dynamic duo Tommy and Marian Lamb.

I chewed the fat for a while, took a snap at Eugene Christophe’s famous forge, filled my bottles and then could put off the inevitable no more. Off I toddled up the 17km to the top of the Pyrenees’s most famous and certainly one of its most arduous climbs.

It’s not outrageously steep, just bloody long and, having been up it from the other side a couple of years ago I know that you can’t go bald headed at it. I plodded all the way to the top past my tent then got my pic taken at the top by an Irish couple before whizzing back down to La Mongie to watch the stage on the big screen.

It was a bit of a stinger to have to climb a few kms back to the tent afterwards but I was fuelled by the anger that Roche must have felt to the power of ten so I made it back in double quick time.

Hope Nico can channel his rage into the pedals in a measured way during today’s epic…

McChicken Nuggets of Wisdom

18 Jul

Pressure off Roche?

Another McChicken lunch, another blog post. The never ending quest for reliable air conditioned WiFi once again inevitably leads to McDonalds to enjoy the exciting battles on Ax3 Domaines. It’s the final pitstop before the Pyrenees proper for Les Poursuivants as we head for the Tourmalet unsure whether we’ll even be able to get up it.

As I write several thousand very red faced Etape du Tour riders are wobbling towards the crest of the big monster that is the Tourmalet ready to collect their medals and a bus down the other side.

That’s the side we’re hoping to go up some time later tonight. Not sure if it’ll be open when we get there but if it isn’t there are plenty of other big hills to camp on while we wait for les geants de la route.

Today’s stage made great viewing on the iPhone using the almost entirely excellent Eurosport Player.

Nicolas Roche produced another battling performance to finish 18th on the stage, within two minutes and 27 seconds of his stage winning team mate Christophe Riblon and just a minute and 19 seconds behind the yellow jersey group of Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.

Riblon’s victory, greeted with an arms aloft celebration by Roche as he rolled across the line, takes the pressure off AG2R and surely means that Roche can focus on his own quest for GC glory without worrying about any team commercial considerations.

Roche’s response to Riblon’s amazing win will presumably be to feel pride and a shared sense of achievement in the breakthrough win but it will also be a useful spur to his own riding in the critical few days to come.

It’s really boiling up nicely in the Pyrenees – one uses the term advisedly given the temperatures are back up in the mid thirties after yesterday’s ‘rest day’ for the weather gods – and it’ll be interesting to see whether Schleck and Contador’s fourteen second gift to Sammy Sanchez and Denis Menchov turns out to be of any significance by the time they get to Paris.

Gut feeling says we’ll probably have forgotten about it by the time we get to Luchon tomorrow…

Racing Butterflies

16 Jul

The pros are missing out. Watching them on TV you get very little sense of the extraordinary speed they race up Tour de France hills. With their gaze fixed on the brake bridge ahead of them they rev like spin dryers up gradients the rest of us find it tough to walk, and all in a gear ratio the rest of use for flat training spins.

It really beggars belief and only experiencing it first-hand gives you any sense of the gulf that exists between fit but talent-free amateurs and the elite of cycle sport. Still, you’ve got to feel a bit sorry for them.

They scream around France for three weeks every July and none of them really has a clue where they are at any given moment, their minds instead focused on the bike in front and a never ending series of calculations about distance to the top of the next hill, to the finish, time to the group ahead, to the group behind etc, etc.

The privilege they enjoy as members of an exclusive club of competitors in what is always referred to as the world’s biggest annual sporting event comes at a price: only the slow amateurs who make the pilgrimage to the mountain passes the pros use as the pulpits for sermons of circular motion can truly sense the beauty of the extraordinary surroundings.

There was plenty of time to contemplate the truth of this unremarkable notion as I plodded up the Col du Noyer a few days ago ahead of Stage 10. A few hours after my meandering ascent of what the tour organisers classified as a Category Two climb, Nicolas Roche hared away from the slumbering pack and glided up the hill in the big chain ring in what was probably the fastest ascent of the day

For me a 39×25 seemed more appropriate and as I ploughed a 23 centimetre furrow through the melted tar with only the local butterflies for company. Only the fittest and most committed butterflies could stay with the searing pace I set but there was still plenty of time for us to share the beautiful secret about what for most of the year is a fairly anonymous tarmac track in the midst of some pretty amazing topography.

For an hour last Wednesday there was no more beautiful place on planet earth and the dizzying reality of it almost made me fall off the side. The butterflies were in on the deal, though, and they kept me upright as I zig-zagged to the top like a drunk at closing time.

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