Posts Tagged ‘france’

Tourmalet showdown

Photo: Getty Images

Today’s stage finish up the Col du Tourmalet delivered a Tour battle to rival any I can remember. As @rich_mitch observed, it wasn’t quite Lance vs Pantani, but Contador vs Schleck, mano-a-mano through the mist, was tense and gritty stuff.

No-one but Andy Schleck could have restrained the accelerations of Contador, even though, in the end, the Spaniard made only one significant move. On the face of it, however, he didn’t need to win: with only 8 seconds separating first and second place, Contador’s time-trial pedigree means he’s sure to take overall victory on Sunday. Schleck had to attack, and he did all he could, riding a savage tempo up the mountain that had both riders grimacing in pain. Ultimately, they were so evenly matched that they crossed the line together – Contador generously, and wisely (given the events of Tuesday), handing the stage win to Schleck.


I rode up the Tourmalet in 2002, while traversing the Pyrenees on a week-long charity ride from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. On a day of drama that will mean nothing to anyone bar the protagonists, I can vividly remember flashes of that punishing 90-minute ascent (the same, tougher, side as the Tour went up today).

To recap, we were a group of 7, that included university mates Ewan, Si and Joe, plus some older blokes, one of whom was Mike B.

Mike was a keen club rider; we were an odd assortment of fitness levels, ranging from Joe, a natural talent, to Ewan, who despite radically transforming himself in recent years and completing an Ironman in 2008, was at that time shambolically out of shape. But it was a charity ride, so racing was hardly on the cards.

That is, until the first morning of the trip, a tough, drizzly leg out of Biarritz, when Blakeney rode off the front for 50 miles. Who did he think he was, Eddy Merckx? Suddenly, in the microcosm of the group, Mike B (who is actually a good guy all round), with his carbon Trek and beer gut, was the villain of the piece. Revenge was brewing, and the Tourmalet – which we hit on the Thursday – would be our showdown.


We stopped for lunch in a town not far from the foot of the mountain. I remember taking Joe to one side and briefing him for the climb: he was not to hang back with us, he was to ride at B’s pace, and keep up the tempo until B cracked. Joe and B rode off together, leaving us to await the outcome.

It goes without saying that the climb was hard. For the first time, I experienced all the usual side-effects of long, hot mountain climbs that I’m now pretty familiar with: the pins-and-needles face, the slack jaw, the aching back. I dropped Si after 20 minutes – a minor victory – and then it was me and the road.

I initially thought it was a product of my own super-heated brain when I looked up after 10km and saw Mike B, dismounted at the roadside, helmet off, pink-faced, puffy, a Dead-Elvis grin on his face. But he said something – it could have been ‘Help’ or ‘Water’, I can’t recall – and I realised with a surge of adrenalin that Joe had buried him. I was intensely delighted, not only by this reckoning, but also by the fact that I was now number two on the mountain. A celebratory hot chocolate was my reward at the summit.



Ride to drink.

Ride to drink.

Post-Marmotte, I’ve enjoyed a month of downtime. I’ve found this period invaluable in recovering both physically and mentally, not so much from the event itself, but from the six-month build-up to it.

January to June of this year, I organised my life around the bike. Now clearly, I like cycling; but, in the weeks after achieving the biggest goal I’ve (so far) set myself on the bike, being free from the mental focus of preparing for the event has been a serious load off. Just having the option of riding, if I feel like it, is a luxury. Being able to drink to excess is, once again, a guilt-free pleasure. The gratuitous eating of cake at office parties – a delirious indulgence.

Predictably, since I returned from France, I’ve been on excellent form, so I’ve certainly been out on the bike – but not mid-week, and not if I didn’t feel like it. Mainly, I’ve been hammering my busted commute bike (nope, still haven’t broken it yet) around town at high speeds. I’ve also been out for a couple of rides with Millsy (who’s heading to the Pyrenees this week following a strong performance in the London Triathlon).

I went out yesterday for a 5-hour solo mission, and again, felt strong. I’ve been refusing all requests to enter further sportives this year, but now I’m not so sure…

Team Time Trial Live

A rider from the Cervelo team fires out of the bend at Cournonterral.

A rider from the Cervelo team fires out of the bend at Cournonterral.

Last Tuesday I watched Stage 4 of the Tour – contre la montre par equipe – live in Montpellier. It was awesome, check out the full Flickr set.

I and a couple of others were stationed at Cournonterral, a spot about 27km into the 45km route. We’d been recommended the place by local Tour rider Stephane Goubert, and it was ideal: we could watch the riders coming at us, then looping through the bend, then heading back out up a slight incline. We cracked out the rosé and baguettes and settled in.

I spotted Cavendish in the green jersey, but sadly couldn’t recognise either Wiggo or David Millar. However I did see Lance powering the front of the Astana train. The highlight of the day was probably seeing Fabien Cancellara ride through in the yellow jersey amid his Saxo-Bank teammates. La Maillot Jaune really gleams in the flesh, it was quite a sight.

Here’s some vid:

La Marmotte 2009

Marmotte route.

Marmotte route.

It is finished. The results are in. Now never mention the M word again!


Mont Ventoux cyclo

A view from the valley

A view from the valley

On Saturday Jonny and I tamed the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux. And actually, it wasn’t that bad. 

I admit I’d been dreading it – I’d lost a bit of focus since the Fred Whitton – but on the day we had a tough, fast ride, amid some fantastic scenery, and in the end we placed respectably in the top 200 (out of 483 finishers). My finishing time was 5hrs 20 – a ‘gold’ medal, according to the organisers, although this was meaningless because the time barrier was set so low (7hrs 21 for gold) that all but a handful of the finishers achieved this. (NOTE: the organisers have since amended the gold time to 6hrs 15 for the Master category).

Every 2 years the Ventoux ‘cyclo’ switches its route between the two options for climbing the mountain: a longer 170km route that climbs via Bedoin and Chateau Reynard; and a shorter 144km route that goes up the steeper side via Malaucene. We did the latter. Here’s the Ventoux profile, which I climbed in 1hr 35.

Mont Ventoux profile (via Malaucene)

Mont Ventoux profile (via Malaucene)

Yes, it was long, but compared to the Whitton’s climbs it was very gentle, and there were plenty of sections where you could back off the top sprocket. I’m sure I rode it quicker in an effort to stay on Jonny’s back wheel, but I didn’t over-cook it, unlike the guy I passed vomiting at about 6km from the summit. 

The descent was eye-wateringly fast. There was no time to even spot Tom Simpson’s memorial. Once we made it down to forest level we formed a small 5-man grupetto for some fast-paced through-and-off. Before long we were joined by others, and became a larger group that pelted along the smooth, hot roads to the second feed station. 

Following the second feed the big group fragmented, and after a quick toilet break we latched onto the back of the tail end. There were two modest climbs to go: on the first one I felt strong and rode off the front; on the second I started to fade, and ended up losing Jonny, who finished in a small bunch a couple of minutes before me. 

All in all a fine ride that I would definitely repeat. We lucked out with the weather too: earlier in the week I heard the head-winds had been brutal, while the day after we had rain, a sure recipe for freezing temperatures on the mountain.

Tom’s Pyreneen route

View Larger Map

Tom Wood, my long-time off-road bike buddy, has been doing some more back-country riding in the Pyrenees this autumn. Above is the map of his latest trip and below are pics from the trip. Check out Tom’s Flickr.