Monday, 27 November 2017

No Age But the Mileage

A little poem I wrote in January 2015 just escaped being deleted when I was purging my emails:

No Age But the Mileage

No age but the mileage,
no miles but the ride
to the edge of the village
and the turn of the tide.

Old guys get the go on
to ride on ahead.
No age but the mileage:
the miles in your head -

the miles put behind you,
the miles still to ride.
No age but the mileage.
No miles but the ride.

©Roy Everitt 2015

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Downhill into Paris

Sunday morning was to be a gentle trundle into Paris, judging by the Google Maps profile, with lots of nice cycle paths to keep me safely away from the increasing traffic. On a Sunday it should be quieter anyway.

I thought I had ordered breakfast, but apparently not, so I had a couple of items from the snack machine and a takeaway coffee or two, as well as most of my remaining food. I would need a shop or a restaurant in Paris, but that shouldn't be a problem, even on a Sunday.

There was the issue of getting out of Plaisir, though. Apart from the usual challenge of finding the right road, as a cyclist it's usually best to find a minor road or path to avoid the traffic, and I thought I had one mapped out that would take me east and north along a quiet cycle path to join the road that would then take me past Versailles and onto the Seine at Boulogne-Billancourt. Then I would just follow the cycle route along the Seine to Notre Dame, where I would meet up with the rest of the team. Easy.

Naturally, it wasn't that easy, so it's as well that I didn't have to rush. Firstly, the cycle route east and north included a private road through an industrial area that was firmly locked, this being a Sunday. It might not have been accessible anyway, but I'll probably never know. It looked like I might be able to sneak through via a housing development alongside but this turned out to be impossible, too, with the only entrance being the one to the south that I entered by.

So, it was back to the road from hell that I'd been trying so hard to avoid for the last hour. And in fact, heading north this time, it wasn't so bad. I followed my instincts to go north and or east until I started seeing signs for Versailles, which wasn't long, even though I was riding through a fairly industrial area of Plaisir. Once I knew I was on the main Versailles road I could relax a bit, and concentrate on staying safe and protecting my brakes on a road that seemed more hilly than I expected.

It wasn't too challenging, just a bit stop-start, with traffic lights and a series of little climbs towards Versailles, so progress was slower than usual. But I had time in hand.

Versailles is spectacular, and some other buildings nearby are pretty grand, too, but I wasn't in a position to stop and admire them, so I didn't. Just after Versailles I had a decision to make. There was a less direct route that promised to be quieter, or I could take the main road and hope that the promised cycle path would appear. I opted for the latter, and the cycle path kept me away from the traffic, although it was rough in places, with a few nasty ramps and potholes.

I trundled along behind a cyclist who was going just slightly slower than I would have done, but not enough for me to make a point of squeezing past. Eventually, where the path spilled onto the road for a section, I overtook and got back into my own rhythm, before rejoining the path.

At some point, this path must have taken me onto a right fork, away from the main road. Whatever happened, I quite suddenly found myself in the middle of a small French town that could have been almost anywhere but the outskirts of Paris. I suppose settlements like this still exist around other major cities, too, where the through traffic doesn't venture and life appears to go on as it has for decades, if not centuries. This little town had a one-way system though, and after a circuit of the town centre and two sights of the Hotel de Ville I took what seemed the only road out.

A few hundred metres of quiet country road and I was suddenly confronted by the 21st century again, in the form of a busy street that clearly was part of a much bigger town. I realised I must be on the outskirts of Chaville (though not how I had got there), and turned left (north) to find the town centre and the through road to Paris, via Sèvres. From here it was a matter of following signs and riding along broad streets amongst the Sunday morning traffic, including a few local cyclists on their weekly club run, all stop-starting at the frequent traffic lights.

Suddenly, I was at the Seine at Boulogne-Bellancourt. I rode across the bridge, just for a look, then crossed back again and made my way towards the embankment and the cycle path. If this is the recommended cycle route, why are there so many pavé sections, steep ramps and barriers? At times, riding was pleasant and easy, at other times I feared for my bike. Pavé is much more uneven and trecherous than our cobbles, and I was glad my bike was known for its strong yet supple frame and sturdy wheels. At one point there was just a narrow, muddy grass verge beside the road; later the path was terraced by a series of high kerbs, parallel to the direction of travel but trecherous for anyone who slipped off the unmarked edge onto the next level down. And, of course, most of this was shared with pedestrians, runners, skateboarders and the occasional tour bus.

This part of the ride wasn't fun and I should probably have kept to the road, but then I would have missed seeing the river cruisers, pavement artists, bridges and other sights along the embankment, and I would never have known what I was missing. Next time I'll know!

Eventually, I reached Notre Dame, just before 1pm, to be greeted by our old friend Richard, who was having a few days' holiday in Paris and had come to see us off. It was great to see him and soon after we had settled ouside a nearby restaurant for lunch, I had a call from John, to say they had arrived, too. Fresh off the Eurostar at Gare du Nord, they had arrived at Notre Dame about fifteen minutes after I had arrived all the way from St Malo. It was almost as though we had planned it.

 After a pleasant lunch, time for the photocall, thanks to our friend Richard.

Once we had made ourselves heard above the traffic noise, and they worked out where we were, they joined us. The omelettes were excellent, as were the beers. Most importantly, the team had assembled, in one place, in one piece, and as ready as we ever would be to begin our next big ride.

What was day four for me was now day one of the real trip - Paris to the Pyrenees.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

So Far So Brilliant

I've hardly mentioned the weather in the first two days because there really wasn't any. That is to say it was dry and bright, not too hot and with hardly any wind. Perfect cycling weather, in other words.

But rain was forecast for Friday night, possibly with thunder, and I heard a rumble or two as I drifted off to sleep. There wasn't much rain overnight but I awoke to damp and misty morning, with fog shrouding the hill I expected to climb on my way out of Gacé.

I took my time packing up my slightly soggy tent, ate and drank some more and eventually headed out, using my new lights for the first time. Once again, escaping the town proved harder than I expected and it was only after I'd climbed most of the way up the nearest hill that I saw a sign that told me I was on the wrong road again. It was a good 'leg-warmer' (and I had felt okay climbing it) so I didn't let it bother me too much as I headed back to my starting point to find the right way out.

This time, I tried to follow the Google Maps directions to the letter and was doing very well until the little lane, heading in roughly the right direction, turned first into a semi-surfaced road, then a rocky track and finally a muddy path up through the woods. At this point I did have to get off and push, and I just about managed the slippery climb. I trusted my instincts enough to keep going, rather than retrace my steps and tyre tracks, and at the top of the climb, wonder of wonders, I emerged onto the road I wanted to be on. It was still misty at times but the sun was starting to break through, and soon I didn't need my lights at all, as I bowled along on a nicely undulating road past forests, farms and villages.

Americans, Canadians and Australians may not agree, but France is a big country, especially if you live in a small island like Jersey. What struck me, more than once, was that the vista in front of me, looking across a modest river valley perhaps, was often bigger than the whole of Jersey. I was cycling, in one day, over ten times the distance across the island. But I was making good progress now, and the distance didn't seem intimidating, even if the navigational challenges to come possibly did.

I seem to remember the day stayed mainly cloudy, but still very pleasant, and my only issue at this point was a decision whether to take a slightly longer but probably quieter northern route or one of two southern options that diverged at the town of Dreux. I spotted the start of the northern option as I passed Les Bards, but opted to stay on the more straightforward route towards Dreux, via Verneuil Sur Avre, which is twinned, weirdly, with Stowmarket in Suffolk. Stowmarket is where I lived when I met Jacqui, and has almost nothing in common with Verneuil, apart from a few timber-framed buildings.

Verneuil Sr Avre is a much prettier town than this sign would suggest

Verneuil is a very pretty town and the Italian restaurant where I had lunch made for a suitably relaxing break after about 50km.

The next stop was to be Dreux, via Brezolles. I don't remember much about Brezolles but Dreux is hard to forget, as I spent much more time there than I intended to as I once again couldn't find the correct road out of the town. It wasn't possible to follow the Google directions without knowing which roundabout was supposed to be the first one (there were several on the approach to the town, so 'turn right at roundabout' didn't help) and with a lot of the roads apparently unnamed. Dreux is a busy place with complicated one way systems and I faffed around for a while before I happily stumbled out the other side of it.

Anyway, I eventually found my way to the east of the town (city?), where I stopped to read my map once again. At this point, a helpful French gentleman stopped his car and offered to help me find my way. The first step was establishing exactly where I was. He couldn't help me find the minor road I wanted to take but once I'd got my bearings, and he pointed out the main road and river I had to cross, I could probably find a way. And so it proved, although not without a couple of wrong turns and another rest and refreshment stop. I never did find the road I'd planned to take but, amazingly, I had stopped at the junction for an even better alternative,  quiet and easy to navigate (yes!) that would take me almost due east until the point where I needed to cross the autoroute to access Plaisir, my destination for tonight.

This was beautiful and unspoilt countryside, and even these minor roads had excellent surfaces. The weather was still obliging and I soon left the angst of Dreux behind me as I revelled in the peace and quiet and generally perfect conditions, making very good progress. This was a long day, though, and Dreux was only just past halfway, so there was quite a distance still to do.

Fatigue caught up with me as I turned north before I probably needed to and struggled up a nasty climb towards the autoroute crossing. I have no idea what the gradient actually was, but I was suddenly feeling it. Having made it up the hill I recovered as the road ran parallel to the autoroute before a junction took me under the main road and then parallel to it again, but on the northern side, through La Queue les Yvelines. It got much busier here but there was now a cycle path alongside the road, so it was less pleasant but not dangerous. Finally, I saw a sign for Plaisir, but only after I had diverted north to avoid the autoroute, into a scruffy-looking and forgettable village, then headed southeast along a road officially closed by roadworks, up a steep little climb and eventually was heading east again, on a road that would take me past the north of  Plaisir.

An unpleasant few kilometres along what was probably the Plaisir bypass and then I was able to turn right towards the town. At this point the F1 hotel (much cheaper than any nearby campsites) wasn't far away. I even saw a sign for it. I couldn't see the hotel itself, though, and I was soon completely disorientated. I hadn't realised Plaisir was quite so big. In fact, it has two centres (at least) and I made my way to the wrong one along a road I would much rather have avoided.

Even on a late Saturday afternoon the traffic was scary, and roadworks didn't help, with an uneven surface, some sliproads closed and the road not corresponding to my map. I eventually escaped up a sliproad to what I thought was near the centre of Plaisir. I rode around for a while, hoping to see a sign or someone I could ask, but time was getting on and I was starting to worry. I considered checking into the first hotel I could find, not that I had seen one for a while.

Eventually, I spotted a sign for a district that sounded familiar - ZI les Gâtines. In fact, it was part of the hotel's address, and of course French addresses are written differently to British (and Jersey) ones so I hadn't realised the significance of it. It meant I had to go back along the busy road that had scared me and which I was trying to avoid but it was a little quieter now. As long as I avoided the worst of the exposed drain covers and ramps it was doable. It had to be.

Having survived (again) I very carefully followed the Google directions this time, even though they seemed to be taking me the wrong way. I was wrong, though, and they were right. The area the hotel was in looked nothing like I expected and the little bit of old Plaisir I passed through now was really quite nice although the hotel itself was nothing special. I'd lost another hour, at least, looking for it, and added quite a few kilometres and a few grey hairs, but it all added up to a more interesting story, and I had survived.

I probably did at least 160km to Plaisir on day three, maybe a little more, instead of the planned 138km. 

And if twinning Verneuil ser Avre with Stowmarket was a bit odd, Plaisir is twinned with the Suffolk coastal town of Lowestoft, which seems even more bizarre.

There was nowhere under cover to store my bike at the hotel but I locked it to a bench out of sight and hoped for the best, taking all my luggage to my room. It rained hard overnight so, despite my problems finding it, and my reservations about security, a hotel was definitely the best place to be that night. The evening was fine, though, and there was one restaurant open in the village - Italian again - so I ate very well that evening, as well as having a celebratory beer (or maybe two). I checked my bike before going back to my room and slept reasonably well, with my tent and a few clothes draped around the room to dry.

There would be no great rush next morning as I was quite close to Paris, giving me plenty of time to re-pack. The dust would be throroughly washed from my bike, too.

Getting Lost then Getting Lucky

The bike shop turned out to be a sports club and there was no sign of another bike shop in town, so off I went, with 122km ahead of me, towards Gacé. 

Getting into towns is usually very easy. Finding the correct route out again is usually less so. So, after breaking camp in good time and fine weather, and checking out the 'bike shop' I meandered around the local lanes for a while, trying to find the route I had planned using Google maps. I probably wasted no more than half an hour, climbing a few minor hills I didn't need to and straying onto a much busier road than I wanted to spend any time on, before I took a chance on a minor road to the right and stumbled upon an almost perfect cycle path (not a road at all) that Google had intended me to be on all along. 

One thing about the rhythm of cycling is that it's a perfect way to sooth frayed nerves, so my early navigation-based anxiety soon passed. My legs felt really good, although I hadn't really tested them yet, and I hardly needed my brakes at all. From time to time, a handy rest stop appeared, with a map so I could assess my progress.

This almost perfectly smooth gravel surface (obviously an old railway line) went on for mile after mile, occasionally named as per the map but more often just straight on, across a series of minor roads and farm tracks. Often, there were barriers to stop motor vehicles accessing the track, and squeezing past these was about the only thing to break the endless rhythm of my pedalling. There was some lovely countryside, too, of course, and a few people walking, with and without dogs. The path was mostly dry and often dusty, so my bike gradually changed from deep maroon in colour to a kind of mid-grey. 

By late morning, I started seeing a few groups of cyclists coming the other way from what was obviously a significant town. This must be Domfront and it seemed like a good idea to leave the cycle path here to find some handy shops and maybe a restaurant for early lunch. In fact, Domfront was the only town the route would pass anywhere near for some time, so there wasn't really a choice and I was starting to think about food quite a lot, which is a good indicator to a cyclist that he or she needs to eat soon!

Domfront is a hilltop town, as I soon realised, and even though I had had a fairly easy morning so far, the climb up to the town centre reminded me how much weight I was carrying as I worked my way steadily down through the gears. I made it to the top, without pushing, but it was hard work and the road was busy and noisy, with a large number of lorries working nearly as hard as I was to make the ascent. They were big lorries and they were mostly passing straight through the town. Domfront could do with a bypass, I thought, although it might kill the town, as bypasses elsewhere have done.

I didn't see a restaurant or café at the top to tempt me but I did find a big supermarket. I bought more water than I could possibly carry and more food than I could sensibly eat, so I allowed myself a few minutes' rest while I drank what I could, including a pint of 'proper' milk, ate a little and stowed the rest of the food for when I reached a more pleasant picnic spot. 

After a hairy descent out of the town, including hitting a broken drain cover at a speed that would have burst a lesser tyre and buckled a lesser wheel (did I mention my brakes?), I rejoined the cycle route heading northeast. At an open spot where the path crossed a farmer's track, I stopped for lunch. It was very nice and very welcome, and a family cycling past wished me bonne appetite as I dined on fine cheese, smoked salmon and olives. This was fun!

Setting off again in a contented state of mind, I missed the right turn that should have taken me back onto 'proper' roads and found myself further north than I wanted to be. No problem, as I had maps, and I quickly worked out where I was and how to best rejoin the route. Uphill, of course, but otherwise easy enough. Except that there were two places nearby with similar names, and I followed the road signs to the wrong one before I realised. That meant another few extra kilometres and another hill or two before I finally got back on track. A bit more time was lost, too. Thank goodness I'd allowed enough daylight hours, and I reckoned I was probably riding faster than my worst-case scenario had allowed for. I calculated I would still have about two hours' daylight in hand when I reached my second camp site at Gacé.

Back on course, on a pleasant enough road, and back into a rhythm, I let the anxiety and self-criticism slip away again. This was what I came for - overcoming challenges and being self-reliant - or where is the achievement when we reach our goals?

The rest of the day was spent on well-signposted roads and, although I still had over eighty kilometres to ride, it mostly passed without incident, even though there was a thirty kilometres stretch of quite major dual carriageway towards the end. Before then, the road meandered through lovely open countryside, with very little traffic, a good surface and only gentle undulations as far as Briouze. I ate some of my food and had a drink here while I checked the map but I didn't linger.

From Briouze, the more major road was wide and straight, with a cycle lane or hard shoulder along much of it, and smooth. It was busy enough but there was plenty of room. It just meant I could keep up a good pace. I counted down the kilometres to Argentan, then Le Pin-au-Haras, before the final run downhill towards Gacé. A left turn at a major new roundabout took me up the main road into the town. Despite being near the town centre, the municipal site was once again quiet, beautifully kept and very cheap. It was also nearly empty, and there was no one on site to take my money. 

I set up camp, showered and went to find food. Having shopped, eaten and shopped and eaten some more, I settled down in my tent for the night, only to be distubed by the site-keeper's young daughter calling out "Bonjour monseur". I took the hint, put my shorts back on and visited the office to pay my four and a half euros for the night.   

With the 'diversions', I had probably cycled about 140km (I had planned 122km) on day two and I was tired but not in any pain. My legs still felt like they'd probably be okay after a night's rest, although I knew they would have to wake up quickly next morning for the climb out of Gacé. I'd certainly taken on all the fuel I could, in preparation for the longest ride of the whole trip on day three.

A Second Once in a Lifetime Experience

Almost exactly a year from my last post, and seven years on from our big Paris to Venice adventure, I have another once in a lifetime experience to recount.

A reunion of the old gang was long overdue, even though we have had a couple of smaller adventures since the Venice trip, and planning for this year's ride started formulating on the road back from Le Tourmalet last year. Frankly, we needed to do more of it!

So, where next? Various ideas were floated before we fixed on a plan to 'connect' the two biggest rides so far - Le Knees (the Pyrenees trip) and L'Express (Paris to Venice) - by starting from Paris and briefly following the Paris to Venice route before heading south and slightly west to hit the Pyrenees somewhere around Pau.

Naturally, we would have to include some extra mountains if we could, and the ride would take in part of the '100 Cols' route to make sure. We would also be unsupported again, meaning we would camp most nights and carry all our equipment and daily rations of food and water.

'Les Cols' was on.

A big ask? Well, it was scary enough to be exciting and to leave us all with a nagging doubt about whether we could do it, especially as we're all seven years older. The perfect challenge, then!

JR duly plotted, replotted and fine-tuned a route that would take us from Notre Dame to Pau or Lourdes, via some interesting geology (mountains, gorges and even a river valley or two), including the Massif Central. He allowed a fairly consistent daily distance of around 100km, and about 1000 metres of climbing, although this would vary greatly depending on the terrain. Generally, the climbs were small to start with and became progressively bigger, until an easier last couple of days before the Pyrenees, where we hoped to spend the last two days.

Not content with riding about 1300km and climbing 14,000 metres, I decided the best way to get to Paris from my home in Jersey would be to get the ferry to St Malo and cycle alone to Notre Dame over three days. That added almost 400km and around 1000 metres to my ride.

For me, that was the scariest part. Not just the distance, fully loaded for the first time in years, and without any rest days, but navigating my way to Paris. Now, Paris is on almost the same latitude as St Malo, so it's hard not to hit it if you just head east, and there are plenty of signs for Paris on the main roads, but I was trying to stay away from the biggest roads (and bikes are banned from motorways, of course), so I had to plan a route that was rather more wiggly. I tried to avoid the biggest hills, too, in case I arrived in Paris completely exhausted before we'd even started the real ride. Worse still was the possibility I might have to get off and push.

That's my excuse for spending many hours poring over maps and replotting my route. That, and the anticipation, plus studying the maps and profiles helped me to stay motivated enough to keep up with my training. It also justified my replacing my bike twice in the ten months leading up to the trip, which in turn partly explains how I arrived in France with almost no brakes.

After I got back from the previous year's Tourmalet trip I was able to unpack my new bike, it having cleared through customs while I was away. It was a good bike, especially for the price - a Specialized Sirrus, which is a hybrid with a good range of gears, the ability to take a pannier rack at the rear, decent 32mm tyres and even 'aero' wheels, which looked pretty sturdy, all for just over £300. It's not light but it's not especially heavy and even though it's not the liveliest performer it can keep up a decent speed once you get it moving. It has flat bars and a fairly tall front end, which makes it more comfortable than aerodynamic. I lowered the bars as much as possible and although it wasn't my dream bike I was quite happy to use it for the trip.

Then I visited my local bike shop. I had mentioned to Jacqui, my wife, that my bike was very nice, but not absolutely ideal and probably wouldn't wear well, with its low-end components, and she encouraged me to get a better bike that might even last me a lifetime, if I saw one.

In the shop was my dream bike of a decade earlier - a lovely Dawes Super Galaxy. Not just a Galaxy, but a Super Galaxy, with its traditional steel frame, Dura-Ace components, touring gears and even a leather saddle. Plus, drop handlebars that would make for more easier high-speed (or into-headwind) cruising. It was my size and this was surely fate. It wasn't a bargain but it didn't occur to me to haggle and I put down £100 deposit there and then, to part exchange my Sirrus the next day. This was early July and my ferry to St Malo was on 24 August.

Having agreed to buy it, I researched Dawes Super Galaxies online that evening and saw the only criticism was with the brakes. One review said they were 'feeble'. They're not great, that's for sure, especially compared with the discs you get with most tourers these days. They were adequate with the bike unloaded, and didn't look very worn, or I would have had the bike shop replace them.

After collecting the bike next day I set off on a 30 mile test ride and the bike very quickly felt like an old friend. 

 I put in over 500 training miles on my new bike, gradually increasing the load

The rear brake was weak, though, and after riding about 500 miles in the next few weeks I intended to at least change the blocks before I set off. I hesitated over this, because cantilever brakes like these are notoriously tricky to get right, and they did still look okay...

 On my way. Leaving the house at, with working brakes at this point...

Which was how I suddenly had very noisy brakes about 300 metres after leaving the house on my way to the Ferry, and how I had hardly any brakes at all by the time I left St Malo.

Despite not looking badly worn, the front blocks were suddenly down to the metal. At first, I thought I must have some grit trapped in the blocks, because they looked fine. Eventually (somewhere in Normandy), after skimming a little more alloy off the front rim, and using mainly the rear brakes, which still had rubber on them, I had the bright idea of swapping the blocks over, front to rear and vice-versa, just until I could find a bike shop.

Once the blocks bedded in a little on the front brake, they were at least adequate, as long as I was careful, and the wheel rim was now odds-on to last the trip, and the rears were pretty useless anyway. But you don't want to be relying on your front brake only on a steep and possibly slippery descent, so finding a bike shop became a preoccupation, at least every time I had to stop. But now I was in France...

Although I wanted quiet roads, I would also need some food shops, which is a perennial issue in many parts of France, so I had to include some towns on my planned route, as well as locating camp sites for three nights. The first one was fairly easy to choose, a municipal campsite that was a comfortable afternoon's ride east of St Malo, in a reasonable-sized town. Camping de la Sélune, at Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët, was pleasant, quiet, convenient for the town and very cheap. It was even easy to find, even though I approached it from the southwest rather than the north, as I'd planned. 

First lunch stop was by this windmill, in sight of Mont St Michel

Navigating along the north coast of Normandy was predictably easy, once I'd escaped from St Malo, although the minor roads were quite confusing as I approached Mont St Michel, adding a few more kilometres to the day as I meandered among them. Once I turned inland (or the coast turned away to the north), things got more tricky for a time, and I ended up on a bigger and busier road than I'd intended. Still, it was smooth and direct, and the cycle lane meant it wasn't too intimidating. I was trying to conserve my energy for the unknown challenges ahead, but I made good progress during the late afternoon and was quite proud of my intuitive navigating to find the site at the end of the day. I reached my campsite in good time, having covered about 95km at a comfortable pace. 

The office was closed but the site keeper wasn't far away, and I dragged him away from his mower to take my four and a half euro site fee. After setting up camp I walked to the town, where some shops were just closing, the patisseries were still open and doing good business, and a café-bar near the centre promised a faily cheap evening meal a little later. I bought and consumed some food and drink while I waited for it to open (and bought some more later for the morning, although not all of it lasted until then). 

 First camp - now I was really touring.

Life was good. I even identified a bike shop in the town square where I thought I could get some brake blocks next morning.

So far, so (fairly) easy. The next day would be much longer, but how much harder would it be? 

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Missions Accomplished

At least it's less than a year since my previous post, so this update is still topical.

As I mentioned last time, I had some interesting plans for my sixtieth year to heaven, and I'm pleased to report I manaaged to get them all done, and more.

Firstly, the 48 mile round-island walk (Collas Crill Walk as it now is). The friend who planned to accompany me had to pull out but was able to cycle around the island on the day, meeting me at most of the rest/refreshment stops. Jacqui, my wife, also met me at each of the stops from around half way - it does start at, so it would have been asking a lot to catch up with me any earlier!

I completed the walk over two hours faster than last year so I'm recording that as a definite success. Training went pretty well and although I started with a blister on one foot this year it was nothing like as bad as last year. I wore my running shoes this time and was much more comfortable. I also had a high-fat, low-carb diet to keep me going. One way or another I seemed to get it more right this time than last time.

The second walk, in August, was about 16 miles, so much easier. Intermittent drizzle started soon after we started walking and gradually became heavier and more persistent. By the end we were thoroughly soaked but it was worth it for a good cause, and I was greeted at the finish line by a troop of  Star Wars stormtroopers, which was a bonus. I'm wearing the bright orange tee shirt from the event as I write this.

Finally (so far), the big cycling event of the year. In the end we opted for the Pyrenees and my chance to earn the right to wear the Col Du Tourmalet tee shirt that I bought nine years previously. Three of us were able to ride and another friend (the same one who drove around the island) joined us as support driver. I left it too late to order a new bike - it actually arrived on the island on the afternoon before I caught the ferry to St Malo, but I didn't get the email from customs until it was too late. Anyway, by that stage I was better off on my familiar old mountain bike. It got me from Paris to Venice so it would probably survive the Tourmalet...

I met the other two cyclists in St Malo and we loaded their bikes and kit into the car and drove down to Pau on the Thursday, arriving after dark and with zero petrol in the tank and the low fuel light burning brightly for the last 50 miles or more. Fortunately, it lied, and we had enough fumes left to get to a petrol station next morning.

Just the legs to worry about, then. JR had plotted two routes for Friday to get us to Luz St Sauveur, at the foot of the Tourmalet, for the big ride on Saturday. A short one that included a "smaller" col, or a longer one that didn't. Naturally, we opted for the Col. The Col de Soulor, in fact. Now, the Soulor may not be as high as the Tourmalet, or as long (12km versus 19km), but it starts lower and is steeper. It averages nine percent over those 12km, so it was quite a challenge. What also made it harder was the fact that our support driver had had a "mechanical" and was stuck somewhere in the middle of France. That meant we had to carry enough kit for an overnight stop and hope he would catch up with us at Luz. So, for a day at least, we were unsupported - just like Paris to Venice but on a smaller scale.

Despite the pain and the increasingly slow progress, we all reached the top, just as the weather closed in. After a fortifying hot chocolate and chocolate waffles (yep), we ventured out into the rain and began the long descent to Luz. It wasn't all downhill and when it wasn't I definitely knew about it. The last few kilometres were a struggle and I was seriouly doubting my ability to do the big climb next day by the time we struggled up the last little hill to the delightful Hotel Ardiden. We had ridden about 58 miles, so not far short of 100 km. 

I was very pleased to know that Richard had arrived already, in a loan car, so we would have support tomorrow. That, and a very good meal (and a drink or two) improved my mood no end.

And Le Col Du Tourmalet?  Actually, it was easier than I expected. As in, it was doable, even by me, although, as JR said, it does go on a bit, averaging 7.4% and kicking to 15% or so at the very top. But if I ever needed inspiration on that two and a half hour effort, all I had to do was get my head up and look around me. The Pyrenees are stunning, and every bend opens up a new vista. Frankly, if you're not inspired by that kind of scenery you're probably dead already.

We made a few stops on the way up, to refill water bottles and grab a bite to eat, but we didn't linger. The longer you stop on a climb like that the more it hurts when you start again. 

I'll admit I shed a tear or two when I finally crossed the line at the top of the col. I was tired and emotional in the truest sense!

Then we turned round and went back the way we had come, We stopped for lunch at the deserted ski station, then coasted most of the way back to Luz, where we stopped for a coffee.

Juat another 80km or so to go then, to get us back to Pau. We had a stroke of luck when we found a dedicated cycle path that took us all the way to Lourdes, away from the traffic and an almost constant one percent downhill. It was so smooth and easy that it actually got a bit boring, but it saved us a fair few miles and a lot of time, as well as keeping us off the main road.

Lourdes was interesting, in a tacky kind of way, but the ice cream sundaes we had there were superb. Richard, meanwhile, had driven ahead of us a little way, so we would catch up with him about an hour later. By this time we were on ordinary roads and had left the Pyrenees behind us.

We met Richard and topped up again (water bottles and bellies) and had a short rest, before setting off on the final leg. 

As we headed west, though, the mountains were constantly on our left hand side and we stopped for a few photographs once we got to a quieter stretch. No sooner had we done so than we heard a great commotion approaching from behind. It was some kind of 2CV owners' club, headed for a festival of some kind that we had seen advertised two days before. There were about 30 of the noisy beasts, of all versions and vintages and they certainly made themselves known.

It was easy to keep up with the traffic for the next few kilometres to Nay, after which we retraced our route from the day before, to Pau. It didn't seem possible that it had only been the previous day that we'd set out, but it was.  

Pau seemed bigger and hillier than it had the day before - as places tend to do when you're tired - but we found our way back to the first hotel. My car was still there and we were done, after about 73 miles (117 km) on day two. Just the celebratory meal to sort out. There wasn't much open nearby but the steak house we walked to was really quite nice, even for a veggie like me. I had the fish.  And a few beers.

Next day we split up, with John and JR catching the train north to Paris and the ferry from Caen. Richard and I headed off to Tours, in the Loire valley for a couple of days before we too went our separate ways - he towards Calais, while I headed back to St Malo and home.

How did I train, I hear you ask? Well, for the walks I did much as last year, gradually increasing my distances to about 30 miles, taking in the cliff paths and steps as much as possible. 48.1 miles is still a step up but it went well.

For the Tourmalet, I followed the training plan in my book, as far as possible. It wasn't possible to get as many rides or miles in as I would have liked, especially in the last two weeks, but it was enough. I was able to "convert" my walking fitness to a reasonable level of cycling fitness in about two weeks, then worked on increasing my power and endurance. All those steps and steep roads on the round island walk gave me a good base, I think.


Monday, 11 January 2016

We Can Be Heroes

It seemed only fitting on the day Bowie passed away to do what so many have done and steal one of his most potent lines as my theme for a blog I've not so much neglected as abandoned.

Anyway, I'm still here, and heroes or not, we can all do something bigger or better than we've done so far, at least until our bodies start to fail us. So far so good for me, so I have some plans for this year.

Firstly (although it won't come first it is the first big one), I'll be doing the round island walk again this year. At 48.1 miles, it's a long walk in one day and a genuine achievement for most of us who do it. I'm hoping to have a companion or two this year, too. That's in June. There's another much shorter walk in August that I also hope to do.

Second, and more in keeping with the theme of this blog, a few of us are planning to attack the Alps again, if only for a few days. With luck we'll conquer two of the biggest TdF cols. I would love to be crossing the Alps or the Pyrenees on my 60th birthday this year, but as it's in October, getting something done a little earlier in the year will be a good backup for the memory store.

On our Paris to Venice ride we crossed the Timmelsjoch in mid September, with overnight snow persisting beside the road near the top, so a few weeks later might be tricky.


You can guess I've already started boring my grandchildren (and anyone who'll listen) with tales of the Pyrenees (coming up for six years ago now).

If I'm going to do the walks and the rides, I will need to get on with some training! I'll get there, though, using the tried and tested methods described in my book :-)

So, while I wasn't completely idle in 2015, I do plan to do quite a bit more in 2016. What will you be doing?