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My Progress diary...

In July 2005 I travelled to Pau in the south west of France to take part in the thirteenth edition of Velo Magazine's l'Etape du Tour - a race over the same route as stage 16 of the 2005 Tour de France. On the day after the race I set out to ride back to Cambourne (a journey of around 1,200 km). Throughout my trip a daily diary entry was posted on this website - you can read it all below...

In addition to this diary you may also be interested in looking at my photos or reading my report.






Wednesday, 6/7/05


Well, the bike is packed and I'm ready to go! I fly at 10am tomorrow, so I'm going to get a good night's sleep and dream of endless French Boulevards.






Thursday, 7/7/05


Both the bike and I arrived safely in Pau only to be greeted with news of terrorist bombs back at home - I hope you Londoners are all ok.

So far I have had a walk round the town and a little 'leg stretch' on my bike. I rode up to the start town (a 56km round trip) where preparations seem well underway for the weekend's exhibition.

Other than that there is nothing much to report... Except perhaps the eight pages of soul searching in the sport newspaper l'Equipe relating to the Olympic bid!






Friday, 8/7/05


The sun is finally shining as I enjoy my substantial picnic supper in a pleasant park near the hotel. I'm surrounded by the clanking from the various petanque fixtures taking place and a fiercely contested football match (so far I have resisted joining in!)

Those of you with experience of long distance cycling will be very familiar with the importance of food in one's preparation... So today I have been mostly eating - croissants, steak, pasta, bread and cheese. All washed away with about a gallon of watered down grape juice (and just a small glass of vin rouge at lunchtime to prove that I'm not taking it too seriously!)

I have also paid a visit to the local swimming pool which meant an early outing for my slip des bains. For some reason the French have rules governing swimming attire, and they are big fans of the rather undignified skimpy speedo style. I understand that it may be a criminal offence to own swimming shorts. For now I'll take this local custom on the chin - at least I haven't taken to riding a moped in my pants!






Saturday, 9/7/05


I have achieved very little again today, with the notable exception of securing my race number and completing the registration formalities.

The start town was a veritable hive of activity with lycra clad cyclists swarming to pick up bargains and last minute supplies from the exhibition stalls. I made do with an official race jersey as a souvenir.

I planning to venture into the centre for my dinner, a pasta starter followed by a pasta main - maybe I'll force down some pasta pudding!

The number of bikes in the hotel lounge has multiplied significantly today. At least the the old lady in the alimentation next door now won't think I'm the only mad customer who pops in twice a day to buy Evian and cartons of grape juice.

I'm finding plenty of time to follow the real tour on telly... It looks like things could get interesting in the next few days. L'Equipe today said that Lance is watching Vinokourov 'comme le lait sur le feu' and I don't blame him!

More tomorrow - as the wait continues...






Sunday, 10/7/05


Many of the 8500 competitors in tomorrow's Etape gathered tonight for a final pasta marathon. As you can see from the photo, the meal was accompanied by a group of French gentlemen sporting berets.

My bike is now locked in the secure compound at the start, as I will catch the official bus first thing in the morning. The hotel is serving breakfast at 4am, much to the delight of the enthusiastic owner. He has personally overseen the preparation of each of his guests' bikes (and made exactly the same joke to everyone about searching our rooms for EPO).

Now I must sleep... I have 112 miles and 4 Pyrenean peaks to conquer before lunch tomorrow!






Monday, 11/7/05

The Big Day!


L'Etape du Tour 2005 - Mourenx --> Pau (176.97km - 7:27:41)

I triumphantly rolled across the finish line at around 3pm this afternoon, clocking an official time of 7hrs 54mins 06seconds (3,954th place out of 7,885 competitors). My own computer recorded a ride time of 7:27:41, but this only records actual riding time.

The climbs were long, hard and hot - with temperatures hitting 30 degrees. The first section of the race was slowed by the vast numbers of riders trying to navigate the steep narrow passes.

The descents required absolute concentration, as I hit speeds in excess of 40miles per hour - it is slightly unnerving going so fast that you have to overtake the ambulances fetching the injured riders off the mountain.

I've achieved the first part of my challenge. Now I've got to tackle the remaining 1,200 or so kilometres to get home... Sorry for the short message but my priorities now are for food and sleep! I will write some more about l'Etape tomorrow.






Tuesday, 12/7/05


Pau --> Bazas (174.61km - 6:46:09)

It's another beautiful day in the south west of France - the sun is beating down, there isn't a cloud in the sky and yet we have just a hint of breeze to keep it bearable.

I am writing from a typical bar in a typical town whilst watching the final part of today's tour stage. Pleasingly I have 112 km already under my belt today. My plan, after a little break, is to cover the remaining 65km to my scheduled stopping point for the day - a town called Bazas (south-east of Bordeaux).

My ride today has been very pleasant. I woke this morning after a wonderful 10 hours of undisturbed sleep, feeling good and ready to go. I set off on the main road out of Pau, and made some good early progress. Despite the wide roads and respectful French driving, the traffic was a little unnerving so I headed onto the back roads. I picked my way across country flanked by fields of maize, grateful of the occasional hosing down by a rogue irrigation sprinkler (I have been wondering how it can be economical to grow this stuff when it needs to be watered all day, especially when most of the effort goes into irrigating the road and sweaty English cyclists).

I stopped in a small town to purchase a small snack and to verify my directions. I think it must have been a quiet place because at one point there were six locals poring over my map debating my optimum route - two left in disgust when the outcome was reached and another man was despatched to fetch his van before escorting me (with hazard lights flashing) to the outskirts on my desired road.

The further north I have come the more vineyards I have passed, leading to greater temptation to stop for a little tasting session. I'm now well and truly in Bordeaux country so I might have to pop into a little dégustation this afternoon!

(and later on...)

The last 65km today weren't as easy as I hoped they might be... I bonked (cycling terminology for 'hitting the wall') with 10 to go. Anyway, I've arrived safely and found a room in an old chateau - what luck!

As I sit waiting for my steak I'll reflect on yesterday's race...

Firstly I should reveal my tactics... I was hoping to finish in a time that would secure me a silver medal - riders are ranked in three different time categories - I needed to average 25km per hour to arrive in the allotted time of 7hours 9minutes (realistically the average speed would need to be quicker to accommodate refuelling, and 'emptying').

From the start I was sure to latch onto a fast moving peleton hammering through the first 35km in excess of 40km per hour. Then we hit the first major climb. To my disgust the last 1km had to be walked owing to a traffic jam - too many people trying to negotiate the narrow pass. My good early effort would absorb this delay, but when we reached the Col de Marie Blanc the same problem appeared. My hopes of silver were dashed as the walking time was seriously eating into my target time. I was a little bit cross (especially as I was comfortably handling the steep sections of 13%), then an Italian toppled over in my path, taking me down as well - now I was angry! At this moment I decided on a change of tactics to ensure that I enjoyed the remainder of the event.

My new plan was to take it a little easier on the flat, to stop for a pause at each feeding point and most importantly to attack the biggest climb - the Col d'Aubisque. I stormed up the baking 17km pass (with an average gradient of 8%) in just over an hour and a half, overtaking countless riders and many more wretched walkers. I believe only a handful of cyclists had the gall to pass me. I reached the top a happy (and exhausted) man, and was rewarded with spectacular views of the surrounding mountain tops.

The rest of the ride was a mixture of treacherous descent and long downhill 'false flat' sections. The latter were largely into a significant headwind, but I was able to tuck into a vast peleton (this offers a different challenge to a rider who trains largely alone - i.e. the fear of a slight slip that could at any moment convert a slick ensemble of whirring metal into a heap of angry limbs and spokes). Two deceptive climbs popped up near the end to test my already weary legs, but these were overcome mostly by strong willpower.

When I arrived in Pau I was delighted to have safely completed the event, and pleased that I had absolutely nothing left to give - my pacing had been perfect. I was a little disappointed by my placing as I felt that I had overtaken many riders on route but I guess c'est la vie!

Whilst I have been writing this message a pair of French fellows have been bemoaning the failed Paris Olympic bid. This lead them to analyse their president's comments about English food...

"Feesh and chips, quelle horreur!"

With the exception of bubble and squeak I'm inclined to agree with M. Chirac - my dinner was lovely!






Wednesday, 13/7/05


Bazas --> Cognac (176.47km - 7:16:14)

When I woke up this morning I thought today would be a real struggle... Two pain au chocolat later and I was at least ready to face the bike. Some essential maintenance to my front derailleur was conducted under the watchful eye of the chateau patron and I was all set to roll.

The first part of the day lived up to my early trepidation... It was hard going across rolling countryside. I seemed to be crossing many rivers which inevitably meant that I was descending into and climbing out of valley after valley. Despite the sweaty toil involved I have begun to enjoy the endeavour of a challenging climb. Meanwhile I find the cheap thrill of the descent rather unfulfilling, with the requirement for total concentration something of a burden. Perhaps my cycling style is comparable to that of Frederico Bahamontes - a Spanish hero (otherwise known as the 'Eagle of Toledo') from the early Tours de France... In his ability to ascend mountain passes he was unequalled, but such was his fear of descending alone he'd oft wait at the top for his rivals to catch up. Fred would usually be tucking into an ice cream by the time the race came panting round the final hairpin, but on one occasion he was lurking behind a rocky outcrop ready to pounce and soak his enemies with water.

I lunched at a disappointing 65km just after crossing the Dordogne. Then things seemed to get a little easier... Although I stuck to a steady 25 km per hour average, I was able to tick off village after village stopping only to fill my bidons with grape juice mix. One of my water bottles seems to growing a culture of some description - no doubt owing to the heady cocktail of warm fruit juice (and only partially because I forgot to wash him last night!). Anyway it's just natural vaccination... I bet Edward Jenner didn't wash his bidons!

With a final push I arrived in Cognac and quickly found a suitable hotel near the centre. 176 km on the clock for today - That's three rides in excess of 100 miles in as many days.

My kit is washed and drying in the window... Now it is time to sample the local specialty!






Thursday, 14/7/05

Bastille Day!


Cognac --> Parthenay (125.21km - 5:02:20)

The irony of Bastille day in France is that the shops are all shut... So there is still no bread (or even cake) for the peasant cyclist to eat. With this in mind it was my plan to spend less time on the road today and to stop and enjoy the festivities.

With 125km covered in a leisurely 5hours I rolled into Parthenay. Now you were probably unaware that this is the home town of former president Francois Mitterand, and one of the first settlements on the continent to open trading arrangements with England (dealing in woven cloth). The town is also twinned
with Tipperary and from the heavy feeling in my legs today it still seems like a long, long way from home... The reality however is that I have now negotiated more than half of the French leg of my journey.

On first impression Parthenay seemed like a bit of a dump, but upon entering the old town I was treated to a feast of mediaeval ramparts, ruins and narrow cobbled streets rich in character and history.

All the residents have come out to play... Quite literally, as there is a 'festival des jeux' taking place - hundreds of board games - mostly large carved wooden sets - have been arranged in the streets. There was also a parade with a mixture of jesters and hobgoblins on stilts, but something may have been lost in translation. Later there appear to be fireworks planned near the ancient citadel.

As usual I write from my dinner table where moments ago a waiter floored an entire tray of wine glasses... Hey, just put that anywhere pal!






Friday, 15/7/05


Parthenay --> Saumur (91.98km 3:35:27)

Today has been a rest day of sorts... I left Parthenay at 7 this morning and put in a brisk 90km, almost without a pause. My effort brought me to the river Loire and the bridging town of Saumur.

The first half of my journey was through flat farming countryside, and even from an early hour the locals were hard at work carting their grain. There were one or two occasions when I had to dart onto the verge to avoid collision with an oncoming tractor - I suspect they were also surprised to be greeted by a cyclist on quiet country lanes at such an hour!

Towards lunchtime the wheat gave way to welcoming vineyards resplendent with hanging crop. The Loire region is perhaps my favourite, and the presence of a turreted chateau in each town brought great delight.

On arrival I sought accommodation at the campsite - it was my intention to hire a mobile home or tent for the night. Unfortunately they were fully booked but the next door youth hostel was able to offer a private room (with 4 bunk beds!) for the bargain price of 14 euros.

I checked in, then dived into the neighbouring outdoor swimming pool (yes, the slip des bains were once again 'obligatoire' - and made more amusing by my ridiculous tan). After two hours relaxing around the pool, reading l'Equipe, I headed off in search of a local cave for degustation.

The cellars I visited hold more than 4 million bottles in over 2.5 km of passageways... More than enough for an afternoon. The Saumur speciality is a range of sparkling wines very much like champagne in all but name. I can particularly recommend a sparkling red... Sadly they were unable to send directly to England and I'm too lazy to transport any back in my jersey pockets, so you'll have to take my word for it (or come and get your own!).

The next two days are likely to be demanding in terms of distance, but I'm pleased to have rested a little. I'm aiming to be underway early again tomorrow so as to miss the heat of the day.






Saturday, 16/7/05


Saumur --> Mamers (153.69km - 6:03:30)

I had my first tantrum today, which given I have now cycled some 1,000km in the past 10 days is not bad going. The reason for my vocal outburst may come as no surprise... because it would be directed at the person or persons responsible for road signage!

I don't understand how this disgraceful body of incompetents are allowed to persist with the all encompassing 'toutes directions' indicator. For one, by definition it is plainly a lie. Secondly what they really mean is "follow these signs all around town and then we will deliver you back to the road on which you arrived".

So... I have an alternative - I can follow the equally ludicrous 'autres directions'. Surely if where I want to go is not in the 'all' category (and Venn will be turning in his grave at the very thought) it must come under 'others'.... Nope, I'm back to where I started.

The next thing to wind me up this morning was the terrible quality of the road surface. As a cyclist the tarmac is my canvas, and you cannot underestimate the benefit of slick, fresh bitumen for increased pedalling efficiency. I have experienced all varieties on my journey, although none so fine as the virgin surface that I encountered early today - admittedly I had to lift my bike over the 'route barree' signs to get at it. You don't expect me to follow needless French diversions when they just finished laying a new road do you?. Anyway, after this wanton criminality I was punished for the rest of the day by a series of horrific surfaces. From the potholes (which shake the whole body), and loose shingle (like riding on marbles) to the worst of all... molten tar!

My only other observation from this ride, is that unlike in England where relatives leave floral tributes at the site of road accidents, here some councils erect wooden cut-outs. The number of silhouetted 'people' presumably represents the number of individuals who died in the accident. Whilst I'm sure there is a very sad personal tragedy behind each of these signs and that they presumably act as quite a poignant reminder to other drivers, I couldn't help thinking that a set would be useful for my football team to practice taking free-kicks around.

With 153km covered I arrived in a pleasant small town called Mamas. There were no rooms available in either of the two hotels so I retreated to the trusty campsite. I have hired a mobile home with all mod-cons, all for the price of a hotel bedroom. I sit now on my very own veranda, having enjoyed a pleasant picnic tea. There is a swimming lake (complete with beach) and to wrap the whole deal there was an amateur cycle race on in town. Amid shrieks of excitement a local fella snatched a tight sprint finish!

Over dinner I watched two angry youths try to look 'hard' whilst playing table tennis - I believe they failed.

Tomorrow I have probably my longest day, but with a ferry booking late in the evening I should have plenty of time.


Sunday, 17/7/05


Mamers --> Le Havre (185.67km - 7:18:13)

I'm now within striking distance of le Havre... I rode 127km this morning to get within a further 55 of the port and my ferry back to England.

I've stopped in a bar to watch today's tour stage... I'm currently struggling to keep my eyes open, which is more than can be said for the only other person in the bar who is snoring away behind me (with ever present roll-up fag still in place in the corner of his mouth!).

Earlier today I stopped to refuel, and took off my gloves and balanced them on my saddle before entering a little shop to buy water. After exiting I moved to some shade to reorganise myself... and I noticed my gloves were gone! Now I probably dropped them somewhere, but I prefer to blame a thief (there was an old lady hobbling away from the scene of the crime with her baguettes). Fortunately I don't need them, and they had begun to smell revolting... if someone did pinch them, then they are very stupid indeed because had they looked a little harder they might have found the expensive racing bike lurking beneath the sweaty gloves.

I have passed lots of other cyclists today - I guess because it is Sunday. Unfortunately they all seem to be going the other way... although this is almost certainly an artefact of our relative velocity. Pleasingly I haven't been overtaken by any fellow cyclists on the journey from Pau, meanwhile I have passed two idling peletons, numerous lone riders, three tractors and one old man on roller skates.

In passing many farms I have encountered plenty of dogs. Being a cycling friendly nation seems to have brought about a pronounced canine neurosis - they all want to chase me. The fenced in ones speed along their boundaries barking frenetically, whilst in towns they tend to dive headlong towards my spinning wheels (on several occasions I have closed my eyes to prepare for the inevitable spoke mincing - fortunately it never came!).

My journey to date has been pleasant and without major incident... I hope I can now complete the final French leg just as painlessly.


Monday, 18/7/05


Portsmouth --> Cambourne (235.32km - 9:11:35)

You have all been left in suspense since my last email yesterday... and are probably wondering whether I made it to Le Havre? Or whether I managed to find my way to the car ferry terminal in one of Europe's largest ports? Perhaps you were lacking confidence in my ability not to cycle into the sea?

Well now I can reveal all... I did indeed make it to Le Havre with plenty of time to spare. After an hour of cris-crossing the town, I even managed to locate the ferry terminal, without having to go on the motorway (which I thought, at one point, I'd need to do as there seemed to be no other way in!). As the sole cyclist aboard, I was afforded the privilege of being the first passenger to embark... and I immediately treated myself to an upgrade - to a cabin (rather than a space on the floor) to ensure that I'd be well rested for the final push home. Before sleeping I reflected on the film the Poseidon adventure, and decided that I would try to find the Purser if anything bad should happen (it also occurred to me that in my lean shape I wouldn’t last too long in the cold channel waters!)

The ferry docked safely at 5.50 this morning, and I was ready to roll off and begin my journey back to Cambridge... and I'm pleased to say that is where I sit now! I made it! After a mammoth day of 235km (which took 9hours and 11minutes) I wheeled the bike into the garage and plonked myself into a thoroughly deserved bath!

Today's stage has been quite some challenge. Although I have conditioned myself over the past week, a ride of this magnitude is never easy to accomplish. Particularly demanding was the mental challenge of cycling past numerous stations without giving into the temptation to let the train take the strain. On the physical front I was treated to some terrific inclines (Britain tends to offer much steeper, but very short, sections of road than the endurance climbing in France). On a remarkably steep climb this morning a grumpy man in a car coming the other way, helpfully flagged me down to ask for directions to a certain pub. Of course I was unable to help... but more importantly I was unable to remount the bike cleanly - with one foot clipped into the pedal, and one foot free I began to topple... unfortunately it was the clipped in foot that I need to put on the floor, so I fell off. I trust the sight of me sprawling into a heap in his rear view mirror cheered the miserable fellow up!

The final 30km of my ride would have been difficult had in not been for the regular sugar burst I was receiving from a pocket full of confectionary, and a favourable tail wind. I was able to sail in at an invigorating 40km per hour, along one of my regular training routes.

So, I have ridden from the Pyrenees through the farmyards, towns and cities of France to the Hampshire downs, Chilterns and Hertfordshire wastelands of England - a voyage of some 1,453km in length, lasting more than 57hours riding time.

In the penultimate village prior to Cambourne, a child appeared at the side of the road and bizarrely shouted:

"Keep cycling!"

He could not have known where I had come from, or what I had achieved... in fact it was difficult to gauge whether he was clutching for words of encouragement or a pithy put-down... perhaps he was unimpressed and simply wanted more.

Thanks for showing an interest in my trip...