In 2010 we went to the World Road Cycling Championships in Melbourne and Geelong. For no particular reason we went on a package trip organised by an Australian outfit called Bikestyle Tours. We were so happy that we booked with them this year to finally watch the 101st Tour de France. Kirsten and I have planned to do this for 30 years but have always been too busy or too poor, or both!
Of the eight Bikestyle tours on offer we choose the 14 day Alps, Provence, Pyrenees and Paris - and they delivered a wonderful stress-free holiday. We flew directly into Lyon with our bikes and cabin baggage, and immediately began enjoying the French food and warm summery weather.
On our first day we assembled our bikes, and ambled out to have lunch in the town square of a small village on the southern outskirts of Lyon. After lunch we confidently headed off to return to the hotel, however my jet-lagged brain managed to steer us in completely the wrong direction. It was a pleasant ride, even though by that arvo I had done 90 km. We were surprised, and continued to be impressed by the courtesy showed to cyclists by French drivers.
The next day the group assembled, mainly from all over Australia, but including a couple from Boston, and a couple from Alberta. We did a group shakedown ride in the countryside - no sweat to such old hands as ourselves. Yes, there were sunflowers! The punters ranged in age from late 30’s to mid 60’s - but most were 5560 - with a surprising number of younger retired people. Of the 22 riders there were 5 doctors and a nurse.
We were accompanied by four guides, including the ex-professional Patrick Jonker, who has finished 12th in the real Tour de France (1996). Pat had a dry Ozzie/Dutch sense of humour and was a real asset to the tour. The group traveled in a comfortable bus, with a French driver (no English) and the bikes followed behind in an truly excellent trailer. We were also accompanied by a van, fully equipped to service bike racing, driven by a professional Belgian soigneur Bruno and his wife Else.
On our first day on the road we left Lyon and drove to Le Bourg d’Oisans, where we put in our front wheels, girded our loins, and conquered Alpe d’Huez! It was hard and hot (32ºC), but there were probably 300 other cyclists struggling up the 21 switchbacks at the same time. I soon discovered my 39 tooth inner ring was a pathetic show of mamil egotism - and I envied the rental bikes (Cannondale Synapses) equipped with girly triples! We were all too soon rehydrating with a cool beer in Bourg and buying souvenir clothing and novelty socks.
We carried on by bus (thank god) up the Col de Lautaret which was already filling up with camping vans in anticipation for the Tour stage in two days time. We paused at the summit (where the road to the Galibier forks off) to watch the stage end in a bar. Stage 12 actually ended at Saint-Etienne - we were in the bar! That night we rested our weary heads in a nice chalet style hotel at a pretty ski village called Montgenevre.
The morning bought a gorgeous crisp and clear day in the Alps, and we rode (plunged) down an exciting hairpin and tunnel festooned road to have lunch in Italy. It was a 1,656 metres descent to Susa. Oh, and on the way some of us detoured to ride up to the ski station of Sestriere - frequently a stage finish in both the Giro and Tour. Nice climb - great descent.
The following day we attacked the feared Col d’Izoard. I actually found the climb pleasant (riding with a smoker) and we pressed on over the top to look at the famous Casse Déserte. The summit was already buzzing with activity, so we returned back halfway down the climb, and watched stage 14 pass. Love the Caravane Publicitaire - you get to see 6-year-olds fighting grannies, risking being run over to score a sachet of washing detergent neither of them actually wants! As usual the race passes in a blur, with the pros making it all look so bloody easy. And 20 minutes later the sprinters puff past looking like the Manukau Vets on a bad day. Then comes the exciting/crazy descent back to Briançon to beat the pedestrians, and particularly the camper vans.
Next day we drove to the Village Départ of stage 15 in the small Provencial town of Tallard. It was great fun to watch the riders at sign-on and mingle with the fans screaming for autographs and selfies. Not that we would do that. After the tour departed, and we had wined and dined (rosé) in the town square we rode the first 40 km of the stage - nice and flat. We returned to our bus to find that Jack Bauer had broken away - thank goodness the incessant Kiwi baiting could stop. Of course we lost satellite coverage in a wee gorge and had to wait till after we had arrived at our next hotel to find the disappointing but not unpredictable news.
Monday was a rest day for the Tour - but not so for the tour. We drove to bustling Malaucene (where Norm, Alison, Kelvin and Bill are holidaying) and attacked Mont Ventoux - the Giant of Provence. I had been worried about the heat, but it was cool and sunny - ideal conditions in fact. We rode gruppo-compacto to Bedoin and then battle commenced. It was hard. I rode with an anaesthetist from Melbourne and we talked to pass the time. It’s basically just 20 km in first gear. It’s like the top hard bit of the Hunua Gorge road going on for two hours - a bit of a grind! Finally the welcome sight of the Chalet Reynard corner came into view, just out of the forest, and under the cloud level.
Everyday, two, or even three different rides were offered; or you could opt out and travel in the van. On this day nearly everybody was trying for the summit, so the non-riders had set up a feeding station at Chalet Reynard. The support crew had been to the top and were saying it was very cold and windy - so many riders were buying gillets and even jackets from the souvenir shop. I pressed on into the mist for the final 6 km to the top - it was cold, and man, was it windy! Apparently it was gusting to 100 kph, and there was zero visibility. I paused briefly at Tom Simpson’s memorial for a selfie, and then pressed on for the 700m to the top. At the summit it was very hard to stand upright, and extremely cold - so I just carried on. Moment’s later I had arrived back at Tommy Simpson again, and realised that I had headed off in completely the wrong direction. I turned, and summited for the second time - all around me people were being blown off their bikes, and even off their feet! Luckily on the North side of the mountain it was less windy, and I was soon in the shelter of the pine trees.
I quickly warmed up, zooming down the lovely smooth switch-backs, with an amazing view opening up below me - what a great descent! Back in Malaucene it was hot and sunny, so I had a little sleep in the car park, and then went for a wee town and around ride while I waited for the others to return. That night we had a lovely meal under the pergola by the pool of our charming 4 star hotel.
Next day was our big transfer, by bus from Provence to Toulouse - gateway to the Pyrénées. However we stopped about 50 km from Toulouse and completed the journey by bike on the piste cyclable beside the shady Canal du Midi. We regrouped on the outskirts and the entire Bikestyle peloton rode together through the streets to our hotel. As usual, immediately on reaching our accommodation there was a rush to get the cycling clothing washed, and we could pretty much ruin the ambience of any attractive hotel by adorning every window with drying lycra!
The next morning we bussed to the beautiful little hilltop town of Saint Betrand de Comminges. I remembered this town from my childhood philately - it featured on the orange 20 franc French stamp. The town has a current population of 257 - it was 30,000 in Roman times. Caligula exiled King Herod here in AD 39. Anyway, after some touristic endeavours we mounted up and set off for the Port de Balès. Or at least everybody else did. My brand new and frightfully expensive pedal broke. In an act of charity (winning the Mother Teresa medal) Kirsten gave up her left pedal and I set off 35 minutes after the group. At the start of the climb proper in the pretty village of Mauléon-Barousse there was a banner over the road saying: “Port de Balès - 19 km de bonheur”. Well, I think this was French irony - I’d call it 19 km of pain!
One-by-one I pegged back the back markers, passing golden cows with clanking cowbell and hoards of annoying flies. The grassy scenery was most reminiscent of New Zealand - and site of Andy Schleck’s infamous chain-gate incident in the 2010 Tour. Eventually I arrived at the gorgeous summit with huge griffon vultures circling above me - correctly sensing an imminent carrion opportunity.
In May 2013, a 52-year-old woman who was hiking in the Pyrenees and had fallen off a cliff to her death was eaten by griffon vultures before rescue workers were able to recover her body, leaving only her clothes and a few of her bones.
After a brief lie down and reviving swig of warm water we had to race down the other side of the mountain to intercept the real Tour de France climbing the Col de Peyresourde on stage 17. This was an hugely impressive fast open descent - long smooth straights and tight hairpins, some through close-walled villages. To spice it up the tar was melting! Anyway, three of us followed Pat Jonker down and got to the D618 with big grins, just in time to see the real men do their usual annoying fast effortless climbing. We then retired to a bar at Bagnères-du-Luchon to watch the finish on TV (and rehydrate - so important).
That night we were relocated to Lourdes - where a former domestique of Bernard Hinault fixed my stupid pedal in the local bike shop. Lourdes is a wild and crazy town - a kind of Catholic Las Vegas - complete with praying and neon! 22 half-crazed Antipodeans in smelly lycra fitted right in. Actually a lot of the Tour entourage were staying in Lourdes so it was even crazier than usual. We enjoyed a lovely meal with lashings of cider, and then checked out the candle-lit procession from the Grotte.
Stage 18 was next on out itinerary. Another CaNibali benefit as it turned out. The valley to the South of Lourdes is blessed by a magnificent rail-trail, La Voie Verte de Gaves. This flat and pleasant 26 km greenway connects Lourdes to Cautarets, and along the way are jumping off points for many of the famous Pyrénéan climbs. We rode as a group to the hypermarché Carrefour at Argelès-Gazost and then stocked up for a pique-nique en campagne with smelly cheese and even smellier sausage! Kirsten and I then climbed halfway up Hautacam, until we spotted a nice shady spot for lunch with a good view of the race. We were helped up the grassy bank by a friendly French family and enjoyed relaxing and watching the whole world go by. After the Fin de Course vehicle passed there was absolute bedlam to get down the mountain. We walked, rode, stood still, and shuffled for over an hour to get back down to the valley floor. And of course French vehicles with sirens tried to push through the rock-concert-density crowds!
On our last day in the Pyrénées, once again rode up the Voie Verte to Pierrefitte-Nestalas. From here we carried on up the gorge road (a bit like Coromandel) to Luz-Saint-Sauveur - but the weather had broken and it was raining steadily. At Luz we repaired to a cheery café, but the heavy rain, thunder and lighting alarmed our guides and they thought a descent from the Tourmalet would be too dangerous - so we disappointedly returned to Lourdes.
The following morning we had planned to travel to Paris by TGV, but due to potential strikes we bussed back to Toulouse and then flew from Blagnac to Paris-Orly. This at least got us to our hotel nice and early. The hotel was in Bercy Village and right by the Parc de Bercy - a very pleasant part of the city. We had our last group dinner at a restaurant specialising in mashed potato! Yummy - we got other foodstuffs as well.
Aligot is a dish made from melted cheese blended into mashed potatoes (often with some garlic) that is made in L'Aubrac (Aveyron, Cantal, Lozère, Midi-Pyrénées) region in southern Massif Central of France. This fondue-like dish from the Aveyron department is a common sight in Auvergne restaurants.
Very early the next morning we assembled and retrieved our vélos that had been driven overnight to Paris, and set out on our last ride. The tourist sights of Paris at dawn was magnificent, and we even knocked off a lap of the Champs Elysées before they threw us off the course. Later that day we metroed back to the course and enjoyed stage 21 from the comfort of Espace Triomphe. This was a covered hospitality stand about 200 m from the finishing line. Recommended if you can handle eating and drinking all day, and watching the women racing in La Course flash by, and later on of course the men.
After the race was over (Nibali won, in case you’re wondering) the teams did their victory lap, and amusingly some of the extremely well-lubricated denizens of the Espace Triomph jumped the barriers and engaged in a lot of bemused selfie action with the riders! Some of whom were already drinking themselves.
So that was about that. All in all I had climbed over 7,600 vertical metres.
I cleaned both our bikes in the hotel bath, which left an EXTREMELY oily ring around the tub. But the hand-held shower-head did a lovely job!
Kirsten and I then took a break from cycling and had a couple of days tourism in Paris, and now it’s back to the daily winter grind in Auckland.