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When the Tour route was announced last year, I spotted straight away that, using Eurostar’s direct service to Avignon, which runs on Saturday, you could ride around at least two of the big Tour stages (stage 15 to Mont Ventoux & stage 18 to l’Alpe d’Huez), and, with a short hop on the train from Valence to Avignon, get the train back on Saturday. I mentioned that what I was thinking of on my local bicycle forum, and soon I had riding companions. In the end, five of us did the little tour of le Tour. The tour provoked a lot of thoughts in me, some of which I have put down here.

1. The Tour of France is a phenomenon that can overwhelm people.

It was instructive to be with someone for whom the bicycle race spectacle is relatively unfamiliar, whose knowledge of the event was almost at the level of Ned Boulting’s famous “yellow jumper” comment. The difference between stage winners and the overall, what does G.C. mean? Our companion was entirely entranced by the spectacle, despite not knowing all of the ins and outs of the race. This entrancement was, in my opinion, because of her proximity to the race (we camped on the slopes of Mont Ventoux the night before the race), and the scenery, the gigantic stadium which is le Mont Chauve, as the French call it, is amazing. I think it is impossible to look upon le Ventoux and not be stunned and amazed that any human would consider racing up its slopes in the stifling heat of a Provençal afternoon.

We then rode part of Stage 16, joining the race route at Montbrun les Bains, climbing the Col de Macuègne, and turning off before Gap to go over the Col du Festre. This took us the best part of 2 days. The Tour roared through this section in a couple of hours, taking less than 30 minutes to swallow a climb that had occupied us for nearly 2 hours. Even allowing for the fact that Chris Froome wasn’t carrying his own luggage, tools and food, you can feel how much stronger, how almost super-human these guys are in the sinews of your own legs when you ride the roads of the Tour.

The scale of the event, and the way in which the public who stand by the side of the road become the event, as much as the cyclists competing in it, is only really apparent when you actually come and stand by the side of the road. We camped just before the first bend of the Mont Ventoux climb proper, and on Sunday morning we watched a seemingly endless stream of people, lots of them British, but mostly French, moving up the hill, all shapes and sizes, some on bikes, some walking, some in lycra, some just in jeans and t-shirts, some with flags and elaborate costumes, some only carrying a couple of baguettes. For hours and hours, they came.

Eventually, the whole 15km from Saint-Estève to the Observatoire was lined, thronged with people. It was the same in Bourg d’Oisans, from where we watched l’Alpe d’Huez stage, people lining the barriers. But the people who stood on Mont Ventoux will not have been able to watch the stage finish as we were able to do in Bourg d’Oisans, but somehow they were part of the event, even those fools on the Irish Corner (were they French, Irish, Scottish, Flemish?) who dressed up as surgeons, in a way that those of us who retired to cafés and bars to watch television were not.

2. Normal standards are suspended when it comes to le Tour.

Objectively, as I said elsewhere, le Tour de France is a horrifying spectacle. The infrastructure of the race is carried around France on the backs of lorries, being torn up as soon as the race has moved through, and ferried ahead the race of itself in a vast fleet of vehicles. The finish line gantry and associated stuff arrived on Mont Ventoux as we were turning in for the night in our tents, roaring up the sinuous road beside us in great clouds of fumes and dust, rolling on and on through the night. The Tour is a vast cavalcade of motor vehicles of all shapes and sizes, with a sliver of athletic endeavour nestling, almost obscured, in its steely grasp.

The caravan publicitaire, which travels along the road in the hours before the Tour itself arrives, is one of the major sources of income for the organisers. If you haven’t seen the caravan in action, or haven’t read a description of what it does, it is a substantial motorcade, made up of at least a hundred vehicles (not counting the police and safety escorts), emblazoned with the logos of whichever product or brand being promoted.

The vehicles themselves are often further modified, either simply to allow people to sit or stand on the roof, or sometimes to permit persons to ride a static bike or gyrate from harnesses and swings. Nearly all the various sub-motorcades distribute free samples of the product, or, if the product will not scale down (as in the case of a mobile phone), some sort of cheap trinket, such as a key-ring. ‘Distribute’ is probably not the word to use. The free stuff is thrown from the cars towards the side of the road.

I guess they must be under strict instructions to make sure the airborne swag does not land in the road itself, to avoid the possibility of souvenir hungry spectators rushing in front of following vehicles. And I guess that after a couple of weeks the throwers get very practised at launching the stuff from the vehicles. We got the distinct impression that some of the throwers were aiming directly at our heads.

On television, when pictures are shown of riders lobbing stuff into the verge, you will sometimes hear the commentators say that every last scrap of jettisoned Tour trash is picked up by the spectators. This may or may not be true, but even though the spectators do seek out as much free stuff as possible, a lot of the promotional material ends up in the bushes, propelled beyond the grasp of even the most committed collector.

Then there is the normal accumulation of waste that 100 000 or 200 000, or however many spectators there were on the sides of Mont Ventoux, will generate. The rubbish, if it is bagged up and left by the side of the road, will be collected by the crews who come past the next day, but the – how shall we say on a family-oriented bicycle blog? – poo cannot. And there was quite a lot of it left behind in the trees on Mont Ventoux.

So in sum, a huge number of people swarm into a forest (did I mention that the forest is a nature reserve protected by law?), causing a 2 day, bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, have a load of rubbish thrown at them, some of which ends up lodge in the undergrowth, promoting consumer products they almost certainly don’t need., they wee & poo all over the forest, and then leave, causing another bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. As the dreadful cliché has it: what’s not to like? On the other hand…


3. Riding along the same roads as the Tour is an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Nearly all the team vehicles and some of the officiel vehicles toot & wave as they pass, nearly all the fans in camper-vans and the like toot & wave, and sometimes even put their hands out to clap you as they pass. People by the side of the road clap and shout encouragement. Some kids with big flags ran alongside us shouting and waving their flag, which was really quite inspiring.

A van pulled alongside James at one point, and the passenger reached out a hand holding a full water bottle. It was yet another blistering hot day, so a full bottle was more than welcome.

We rode down to Grenoble on Friday morning, and as we dropped down the Romanche valley away from the Tour, we were passed by team coaches and other Tour traffic heading for the motorway route around to the finish. Even though normally it isn’t something to be enjoyed, having large fast-moving vehicles overtake you on a single carriage-way road, when we got to Grenoble, where the Tour traffic went north and we went south west, one of my riding companions expressed regret that we were ‘leaving’ the Tour.

4. There aren’t any proper hills in the south of England.

Having ridden in the Alps, or even just around the relatively small hills of southern Provence, allows you to think and say unbearably smug and annoying things like “there aren’t any real hills in London – Highgate isn’t even 250 metres high”. Or “Box Hill? Mere bagatelle, my friend, mere bagatelle.”

Ditchling Beacon, or any ‘climb’ in the south east, simply is not impressive in any way if you have seen and ridden even minor climbs in the Alps. You can plausibly walk up Ditchling in 15 minutes. I saw people that were crippled by walking up and down Ventoux. The average club cyclist will take a lot more than an hour to ride up Ventoux, a lot more than an hour. The top pros are happy if they can get up in less than hour, as this means that they will be climbing with the leaders.

Riding up Swain’s Lane might hurt your legs a bit, and you can put yourself into oxygen debt riding up it if you try hard enough. But the climb to the first hairpin on the Alpe is twice as long as Swain’s Lane. James and Sam, who were by far the fittest of our group took over 80 mins to reach the top (admittedly, they weren’t rushing and there were a lot of peds walking around in the road).

5. Lycra shorts are totally vile.

This is something that has only become apparent to me as I have gotten older, and spent less time in the company of ‘real’ cyclists. When I was a kid, working as a messenger, I used to wear lycra all the time. So did most of my work-mates. I became desensitised to lycra, and found it extraordinary that the North American messenger crew weren’t parading around shiny, skin-tight clothing that left nothing about the wearer’s anatomy to the imagination of the interested observer. In fact, they openly scorned us, the Euros, for wearing lycra. What funny fellows, I thought. Lycra is so practical, I thought, why wouldn’t you wear it?

However, I can now see that no-one looks good in lycra shorts off the bike, even elite professional athletes. Elite athletes only get away with it because they are singular physical specimens whose physique is so impressive that the viewer’s attention is taken away from the shiny leotards to their actual bodies. Lycra jerseys are just about tolerable, if the pattern isn’t too obnoxious, but shorts are not.

We stopped in Sault, at the bottom of the eastern flank of Mont Ventoux. The village was swarming with MAMILs. One or two had removed their jerseys, and were walking around in bib-shorts only. This type of deportment should be confined to single-sex changing rooms only.



I mentioned elsewhere that I first started following cycling after watching the 1987 Tour de France on Channel 4. Stephen Roche was the hero, and winner, of that Tour, and went on to cap a season equalled only by Merckx with a victory in the World Championships, as well as the Giro d'Italia. Along with Robert Millar, Stephen Roche did as much as anyone to inspire me to follow and participate in cycle sport.

Roche was, is, one of the pre-eminent figures in the English-speaking world. After the apotheosis of 1987, his career petered out somewhat, although he was still good enough to win one or two really big races before retiring. After retirement, he moved into the commentary box at Eurosport, forming a sublime double-act with David Duffield, with this passage, describing Pantani's epic ride over the Galibier in 1998, surely the pinnacle of their time together.

I found Stephen Roche's commentary on the racing illuminating. He described what was happening tactically, and surmised why, and also suggested, when nothing was happening, what the contenders ought to be doing. Having been a rider who liked to attack and shake things up, he was always critical of teams who appeared to be settling for a place on the podium.

He seems an engaging character, and, on the two occasions that I have met him, took the time to say hello and do more than just pass the time of day, even making more or less indiscreet remarks about a leading rider when I bumped into him in a petrol station outside Bourg d'Oisans, about 4 hours before the Tour was due to come through.

However, after all he has gained from the sport, and its supporters, people like me, he owes us more than the tripe that he is peddling regarding cycling's past. In an interview with Jack Thurston on The Bike Show last year, he equivocated, avoided and shamelessly evaded Jack's probing about doping in his era. Once again, quoted in Cycling News yesterday, he is up to the same thing, once again wishing to avoid difficult questions about doping. He even has the gall to suggest that it is only journalists that are interested in cycling's murky past.

It is impossible, in my view, and the view of a lot of ex-fans of cycling, for us to believe in the sport unless all those people still present in it, still making a living from our enthusiasm, who were present when all that dark stuff happened, stop lying by omission and come clean. I don't wish to see Stephen Roche brought down, but it's important that he, as one the leading figures in anglophone cycling, answers some questions, and participates in the cleansing of cycling's Augean Stables. He wants to remain a leader in the sport, wants to continue to enjoy the reflected glory of his sucesses. That's fine, but let him speak of what he knows.

Here's a couple of reasons why it's important that Stephen Roche speaks out:

  1. Stephen Roche rode on the Carrera team alongside Marco Pantani, who has been proven beyond most people's reasonable doubt to have been doping systematically throughout his career, and is arguably the highest profile victim of doping in cycling's history (for a full account of Pantani's life, career, and terrible descent into madness and death, see Matt Rendell's The Death of Marco Pantani). The association with Pantani continued after Roche retired, with Stephen acting as cheerleader in chief during Pantani's Giro / Tour double year. Stephen Roche is a clever, perceptive man, and I would find it extraordinary if he wasn't aware that a new 'preparation' was being used in the early 90s, on his own team, of which he used to be a leader.
  2. Stephen Roche was the winner of the one of the last Tours which we can confidently identify as being before EPO. Lemond, Fignon, Roche and Delgado, whilst still playing team rôles, were nothing like as infuential after 1991 as they had been. This wasn't a gradual descent into obscurity, a slow submersion by the incoming tide of age, this was more akin to a passage from light into shadow. Did none of them discuss with anyone why this might be? Fignon is fairly clear in his autobiography that he knew what was going on, but had no interest in participating in the new arrangements. Robert Millar has obliquely made similar intimations. There is fairly clear evidence that Stephen Roche's blood values were manipulated as part of an early attempt to systematise the use of EPO. Is he seriously suggesting that he knew nothing at all about this?

The sport of cycling will not change unless it learns from the past. It cannot learn from the past if the witnesses stay silent.

 

As the cliché has it, you can't take a penalty at Wembley, but you can ride up l'Alpe d'Huez anytime. Well, anytime that the road isn't closed by snow or ice. This is part of the magic of the Tour. It will come down a road near you, or go up a road that you have ridden on, if you live in France or have passed time there, as most British people by now have.

For instance, my mother's family lived for a number of years in the Crau, an arid, stony plain between Arles and Salon de Provence. The Tour has passed through the village in which they lived once in my memory, and has passed within a few kilometres at least another 4 times, including Thursday's stage from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier.

If you can't actually be there, by the side of the road, as the cavalcade passes, there is a vicarious thrill in seeing familiar thoroughfares and corners rush past on the television, as a backdrop to the unrolling drama (or in the case of the Crau, flat as it is, almost always a rolling intermission as the Tour transits from Alps to Pyrenées or vice-versa). That vicarious thrill is heightened if you have actually ridden down the roads, and doubled and redoubled if the road is a classified climb or, even better, a summit finish.

Eros Poli on his way to winning the Ventoux stage in 1994Having ridden up Mont Ventoux the year before, I thrilled to Eros Poli's crazy and magnificent solo breakaway up Mont Ventoux in 1994. The fact that Poli, at 190+ cm, is no-one's idea of a pocket-rocket jack-in-the-box climber, made it all the more enthralling.

Watching his obvious travails, I was reminded of my own plodding efforts on the mountain quite vividly, even down to the final hairpin at the foot of the Observatoire, which caused Poli to almost stall, and come to a dead stop on the ramp. The exact same thing had happened to me the year before. Admittedly, I was in the granny ring, pushing a much much smaller gear, whereas Eros was probably pulling a 39 or bigger, but as they say, it doesn't hurt any less when you are fitter, you just go faster.

This Tour de France is going to be very thrilling for me, as I know the roads of 2 of the key stages really quite well. As I wrote elsewhere, I have been up Ventoux several times. I have also ridden Alpe d'Huez 4 times, as well as the first climb of the following day, Col du Glandon, a few times.

This isn't particularly remarkable, as many hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of cyclists have ridden those same climbs at least once, not least because l'Alpe d'Huez and le Col du Glandon form part of the course of the oldest and most famous (outside of the UK) cyclo-sportive, la Marmotte. The event dates from 1981 and, although it isn't quite as big as the largest of all European cyclo-sportives l'Ardechoise, it is, in my opinion, the best of them.

La Marmotte, unlike a Tour stage, but like most cyclo-sportives, describes a circle, and the finish is close by the start. It encompasses le Col de la Croix de Fer (or sometimes the Glandon, as the two climbs share exactly the same route from the south), the Maurienne valley, the Col du Télégraphe, the Col du Galibier, then descends through the Col du Lauteret, down the Romanche valley for a distance of 50km, at an average downgrade of 6%, to the foot of l'Alpe d'Huez. The finish is in l'Alpe d'Huez.

At 167 km it is almost as long as what is described as a Grand Tour 'Queen' stage, i.e. the hardest mountain stage, and has at least as much vertical ascent as you might expect at nearly 6000m.

It is, it goes without saying, a serious undertaking, for which you need proper physical condition, and during which you need to husband your resources. The first time I rode it, I was in ok shape, not really race fit. (I should point out, so as not to mislead any of my readers, that as a bike racer I was extremely mediocre, very much of the type of bike racer described somewhat unkindly as a career 3rd cat).

I had ridden the mountainous, but not monstrous, Mégève – Mont Blanc sportive the month before, and been taught a lesson by 2 middle-aged French guys, who were riding 1980s bikes, and not because they were rocking the vintage look. They were much, much better bike riders than me, and were also enjoying themselves much more than I was, despite the fact that we were riding only a little way in front of the back-markers. I rode away from them on one of the early climbs, only to find myself clinging to their slip-streams later on on the next climb, having been caught on a descent.

As always seems to be the case with older French guys with legs and arms the colour of leather, they descended like the proverbial stones and were laughing their way around the course, taking pleasure in their surroundings and the company. They understood better than I did the importance of sitting back and pedalling, to use Stephen Roche's phrase. I was still riding stupid.

UnfortunateIy I hadn't learnt my lesson, and I was taught it again, and received extra punishment for failing to pay attention on my first visit to the Alps. Alpe d'Huez was my educator.

I can still remember the awe with which I was struck when I turned onto the climb to Alpe d'Huez for the first time. It's not like Mont Ventoux or other climbs that have a gentle introduction. You turn off the flat valley road, go over a small bridge, turn left and there it is, rearing up in front of your front wheel, like a black cliff, impossibly steep.

The first time I rode up it as the finish of la Marmotte, I was utterly destroyed by it. I was over-geared, over-cooked and had stupidly used up what little I had left after climbing the Col du Galibier on the descent of Lautaret, messing about trying to share pace-making with guys who probably got to the finish an hour ahead of me. I got about half-way up the climb to the first hairpin, and I mentally cracked. The famous 21 hairpins – 21! – I couldn't even see the first one! I didn't know that the first lacet of the 21 is one of the longest, if not the longest.

I had already submitted before I even saw the first bend, and pretty soon was sat by the side of the road, trying to get my heart rate down. I can tell you that there is very little in this world that is more demoralising than watching other people ride bicycles up a climb that has forced you to stop, and climb off yours. I seem to remember that I stopped once more, and then finally managed to haul myself up into the village and across the finish line. 9 hours 40 mins or something around that mark. 90 minutes to get up the final climb! Nearly 3 times Pantani's record! Nearly an hour off a Gold time! The internal reproaches went on like this for a bit.

But apart from my time, and a few bad moments on the last climb, the experience had been magnificent. The start is in Bourg d'Oisans, on the valley floor at the foot of the cliff above which sits the village of Huez and the famous ski station itself, often known only as 'the Alp' by anglophone cyclists, as if it were the only mountain worth talking of. The road out of Bourg towards the valley that leads to the Col de la Croix de Fer runs straight and flat for around 10km.

I have ridden all sorts of cycling events, large and small, from Critical Mass in San Francisco to the Essex Road Race League, and I think that there is nothing in the wide world of cycling that is anything like the start of a really big, multi-thousand rider cyclo-sportive. The strongest sensation I felt was complete unvulnerability, mixed with a powerful sense of awe at what I was seeing on the road ahead of me.

I would guess that the first 500 starters (riders are allowed in this group by invitation only) are already starting the first climb to the reservoir above Allemond, some 20km away, whilst the back-markers are still crossing the start. The road is a river of cyclists, an amorphous mass of wheeled humanity humming along, occupying most of the road. A road closure, marshalls, police outriders – for the main field of la Marmotte, normally tens of thousands strong, all such things are irrelevant.

Louison Bobet leads Gino Bartali on le Col de la Croix de Fer (north side), Tour de France 1948

La Marmotte follows a really superb course. The Col de la Croix de Fer, even if it is climbed from the much easier south side, and the Col du Galibier, two 2000+ metre climbs upon which all of the giants of the sport have written their legends. The Galibier is climbed from the north, also far harder than from the south, and then after cresting the pass, always smeared with snow-banks, for it is cold even in summer at 2645 metres, a mind-bending 50km descent, through unlit tunnels, with hundreds of more or less gifted and crazy descenders weaving in and out of the groups that form on the drop down the Romanche valley from the Lautaret.

Falling, falling down the watercourse towards the final climb. Past the Chambon reservoir, past Les Deux Alpes, and into evocatively named Gorges de l'Infernet. The road twists and turns here, clinging to steep valley walls, and then climbs away from the river, through a tunnel and then, at last!, turns into the wide open valley in which is le Bourg d'Oisans. The road along the valley perfectly straight, following the cliff on the right, up which the riders know they will have to ride. The turn out of the Gorges de l'Infernet made all the hair on my body stand up, even the second time. The drama, the majesty of the physical setting is overwhelming.

I was better prepared in my second ride in La Marmotte. I trained harder. My brother gave me a pulse-meter, and I learned how to use it, so that I could better measure my effort. I rode La Ventoux – Beaumes de Venise and did a Gold time, having enough strength left on the Dentelles de Montmirail to catch and drop other riders. I was in good shape.

I had ridden conservatively, trying to hide in the bigger groups and restrained myself from any show-boating or wasted effort. Arriving at the turn towards the last climb, I knew I had roughly 75 mins to get to the finish line to get my Gold time, a time I knew I had done a couple of days before. There was no stopping by the side of the road this time to put my lungs back in my chest.

I rode right on what I knew was my aerobic max, and backed off immediately if I went over. I took drinks only when I was riding on the flat part of the bends to avoid putting myself into oxygen debt. And I watched the time. 8h 50 was the time I was aiming for. It was going to be close.

The Tour normally uses a different route to enter the ski station proper these days, so doesn't pass Virage 1. La Marmotte does, and the final kilometre is another wall. I was out of the saddle a lot on this section, as I knew I was nearly out of time, and it didn't matter if I blew up. I reached the roundabout, 200 metres from the finish and was showing 8 hours 49. I sat up, and coasted over the line (actually a mat that registers the passage of a chip tied to your ankle).

I was too impatient to wait around to get my certificate, so I went and had a beer, got washed and changed, had another beer (or maybe it was a glass of sparkling wine? Or probably both.), and then went back and got my certificate. It was wrong. The time was right, 8 hours 49 minutes and 2 seconds, but the colour was wrong. It said 'Argent'. It should have said 'Or'. Not Or, as in equivocation, but Or as in unequivocally Gold. I turned around to ask someone to change the colour, as they had got it wrong. Then it slowly dawned on me. They had not got it wrong, I had. The Gold time for my age group wasn't 8 hours 50 minutes, it was 8 hours 49 minutes. I had missed it by 2 seconds. The time I had lost when I sat up and coasted over the finish line. 2 seconds.

Ok, it wasn't anything like as devastating as losing the Tour de France by 8 seconds on the last day of the race, but I did feel pretty stupid. At dinner with my riding companions from the Gastrobiking organisation that had organised my trip, we encountered Veloventoux, also hosting some British cyclists, from the north of the country. On hearing my story, one of them piped up: two seconds? Might as well have been two hours!

This post was sponsored by Eureka Cycles, suppliers of Orbea, Moda and Ridley bicycles

 

It’s not a big secret that I am a big fan of The Bike Show.  I occasionally listen to other cycling podcasts, and have yet to find one which is as consistently entertaining and enlightening as the Bike Show.  Even if you haven’t been involved in the Bike Show directly, I think it must be obvious from the continuing excellence of the show that Jack is constantly striving to take his listeners to places they might not have gone left to themselves, and alway pushing himself to maintain and exceed his already high standards.  It is sort of superfluous for me to publicise the Bike Show, as I’m sure that most regular readers of this blog also subscribe to the show, but if you’re not, you should!

The latest edition is one of my favourites, and ties in with my last post about my neighbour’s Claud Butler, as she mentions that her first ‘proper’ racing bike was a CB.  An interview with the amazing and inspiring Eileen Sheridan, the first British female professional cyclist, who, like Reg Harris, was a star of the 40s and 50s, which period is widely accepted to be the Golden Age of Cycling.

Eileen Sheridan: The Mighty Atom | The Bike Show – a cycling radio show and podcast from Resonance FM.