637 Days To Go is my blog, which was originally started with exactly 637 days until the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. And now it's been re-started with 637 days until the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Taking in the Tour

As a partner post to my review of LeDomestique Tours and their Pyranees base, this post is all about my experience of seeing the Tour de France up close and personal. Please see my other post (Climbing to the Top with LeDomestique Tours) for details of the rest of my trip.

It's always been a dream of mine, probably since I first watched the Tour de France as a teenager. Seeing the crowds that line the sides of the roads on the big mountain stages, pushing in on the riders until barely one can pass through the middle of the heaving masses has always made me yearn to be there and experience it in person.

Several years ago I was in Paris for the final day of the Tour, but due to some scheduling problems, all I managed to see was the peloton whiz by me at high speed. They were gone in a flash and that was it. It was all very disappointing. But to be at the top of a steep climb, late in a stage and be able to watch the riders coming up in dribs and drabs and be able to see the pain on their faces as they slowly pass by is worth travelling to France for. As is riding up the climb yourself first to get to the top before they do!

And so recently, as a guest of LeDomestique Tours, I spent a week in the Pyrenees mountains, riding the big climbs and taking in 2 days of the Tour de France. The first day I arrived at their base and managed to get out for a quick ride, but the main action was to take place over the next 2 following days.

I awoke on the second day full of excitement and energy. Today we would be riding out to one of the big climbs and we planned to place ourselves near the summit to see the riders go by. We wanted to be at one of the steeper locations so we could see them go by as slow as possible. However, as this trip was more than a cycling sight-seeing holiday for me, I wanted to also make sure I got some quality training done each day. At breakfast I asked if any of the other cyclists wanted to join me for a ride before we headed out to the Tour.

After some cajoling, John (who had been there for over a week already) agreed to join me on a 'quick' spin up the nearest climb – the Col d'Azet – which we could see clearly from the house. It was almost across the road from our base and looked easy enough, although the road did disappear out of sight into the clouds rather quickly. Nevertheless we hopped on our bikes and pedalled out to the base of the climb no more than 10 minutes away.

The climb is around 7.5km in length and has an average gradient of 8.3%, gaining 2035 feet in elevation. At the time this didn't mean that much to me. We hit the climb at a steady pace and the road quickly headed upwards. The first 3km of this particular climb are quite hard. I soon found myself out of the saddle and my heart rate, along with the road, headed north steadily. At each kilometre on the climb there is a sign to tell you how much further to the top and the average gradient of the next kilometre. As the signs counted down from ten to five I could feel myself start to struggle. I was already drenched in sweat from the effort and having left home without a bottle (thinking I wouldn't need one for such a short ride), was also starting to feel the effects of mild dehydration.

We hit the halfway point and the road flattened out a bit before ramping up again steeply. As we came up to the sign for 4km to go, I saw the next section had an average gradient of 10% and I decided to throw in the towel. I was already wrecked and the thought of carrying on, and still having to do the climbs later in the day to get to the Tour, was enough for me to have some sense and turn back. I didn't want to end up getting stranded on a mountainside later int he day because i had blown my lights before lunchtime!

So we descended back to home base and I retired to my room to lick my wounds and get some fluids into me. I was not off to a stellar start. A short time later the whole gang assembled for the ride out to the Tour. Despite the failed ride of the morning, I was greatly looking forward to this. We set off down the road and as we cruised steadily along the valley I felt great once again. After a few miles we turned off the main road and started up the first climb of the day – the Horquette d'Ancizan. Some of the stronger riders immediately came to the front and started to tap out a steady pace up the climb. I tried to follow but within minutes realise they were going at a pace I couldn't possibly hope to sustain. I dropped back and carried on at my own pace knowing that I would get up the climb…eventually.

And for the next hour all I did was suffer. The road just went up, and up and up. At least this time I had fluids with me but the hot temperatures meant I was going through my bottles at an alarming rate. The other riders were long since out of sight and I was getting a little upset with myself for how slow I was going. Like the previous climb of the day, there were signs at each kilometre to tell you how much further to the top. With 1km to go I dug in deep and made the push for the top. I crested the final bit of road and nearly collapsed in a heap, much to the enjoyment of the other riders.

From the top of this climb we dropped quickly back down through some twisting roads, stopping only once briefly to avoid a herd of wild donkeys that were crossing the road. Another quick climb and then I was treated to one of the best descents I had ever experienced. The road swopped left and right but we barely had to touch the brakes. We found ourselves hitting the 40mph and almost 50mph mark in spots. It was breathtaking.

A short ride later and we were at the bottom of the Col d'Aspin - the second last climb of the day's Tour stage. It's actually a fairly easy climb in comparison to some of the others I had already done – just an easy 6km to the top from where we were. As we rode gently up the climb, navigating our way through the throngs of people that had come to line the side of the roads and cheer on the riders, I was 'treated' to the constant jeering of "Cavendeeesh" by many of the spectators. This due to the World Champs kit (my own) that I was wearing. You would think that these great cycling fans would know the difference between a TT World Champs jersey and a road World Champs jersey! However, the brighter people in the crowd and other riders on the road, once they saw the carbon leg, did the math and realised I was a Paralympic rider. I got applause and congratulation and encouragement from these folks - and it was heartwarming.

Once we reached the top of the Col d'Aspin I had many people come up to me and ask about the jersey and the leg. In my broken french, I was able to explain who I was and about the Paralympics. SOme had photos taken with me, others offered beer or drinks to me (I declined) and all promised to watch for me in London. It turns out cycling fans are fans of all aspects of the sport, once you give therm a chance!

For the next few hours we parked ourselves on the side of the road, about 100m from the top of the climb. If you haven't been to see the Tour before, there is a publicity caravan that rolls through for about an hour well before the riders come through. It's a series of cars, floats and promotional vehicles that hand out all sorts of 'souvenirs' to the crowd. Everything from keychains to hats to chocolate milk mix. It's a good distraction to help pass the time.

After another hour's wait the helicopters started to appear overhead signalling the approach of the first riders. Looking down the road we could see the people suddenly close in and it was clear someone was com in cup the road. As the lead motorcycle opened up a hole in the crowds for the rider to follow, we caught sight of the rider who had broken away early in the stage. It was Thomas Voekler – a French fan favourite. Despite the steepness of the hill, he still flew by us rather quickly. It is then you start to realise how much better these guys are than yourself. The fact they can still fly up a climb like this, despite already having ridden over 150km, faster than you could if you had just started your ride!

And he was soon followed by more riders – some on their own and some in smaller groups. It wasn't long before the Yellow Jersey group of Bradley Wiggins came floating up the road. I leaned out in front of each group of riders, shouting encouragement (and trying to make sure the folks back home could catch a glimpse of me on the TV!). It was electric.

Another 20 minutes or so passed as the slower riders came past before the 'autobus' finally came grinding up the hill. This is the last big group of the day, usually comprised of sprinters, non climbers and riders that may have worked hard early in the stage for their team. It was followed by a vehicle indicating that there were no more riders on the road. Then came all the team cars and a host of other vehicles. And then… just like that… it was over. Fans began to disperse and the long traffic jam of caravans and cars that had driven up to watch the stage started their very slow descent off the mountain.

We hopped on our bikes and picked our way through the cars, making the long descent back down in to the valley. All told, it still took us an hour and a half to ride back to the house. We were tired, sunburned but it had been worth every second of pain and toil to get up there to watch. An everlasting memory was made this day.

The following day we did it all again – this time riding from our base, up over the Col de Peyresourde and down into the start town for the day. We found a cafe and sat in the cold eating omelettes and drinking coffee while we waited for the stage to start. At just before 1:00 they rolled past our vantage point and out of town for the second big climbing day in the Pyrenees. We retraced our steps back up the very long climb back up the Peyresourde. The riders would hit this same climb much later in the day so we were able to get up it before the road was closed. Once again, I found the climb incredibly difficult and at times didn't think I would get all the way up. I even had to stop to catch my breath a few times. But eventually made it up to our vantage point, about 1km from the top of this climb. The riders would be ending he stage only 6km from where we were so we expected to see some fireworks from where we were watching. We were also able to see quite far down the mountain as the road snaked it's way up from down below so we would catch some great views of the riders.

As with the previous day, we were first treated to the publicity caravan before the main event began. The wait was much shorter for us this time though and it wasn't long before the lead rider, Alejandro Valverde) came up the hill. He didn't have much of a gap though from the Wiggins group that came chasing soon after. In the end he would win the stage by a scant 40 seconds.

And so, my Tour experience was over. I had been treated to some up-close-and-personal action and seen the Tour firsthand. I had been close enough to the riders to reach out and touch them if I had wanted to (but didn't as I can't stand the spectators that push and slap the riders as they go by). Even when the stage was over, we saw many of the riders heading past us as the rode back down to where their team busses had parked. It just makes you realise how accessible a sport like cycling is to the public and how easy it is for fans to engage with the riders (to some degree) if they want to.

I am in debt to LeDom Tours for having me along and allowing me to experience all this. And my trip was far from over. I still had several days of riding and climbing to come! But that's a different story!