Saturday, 13 July 2013

Back to life, back to reality

My five and a bit weeks of unpaid irresponsibility are coming to an end, and it's time to reluctantly start thinking again about clients, suits and meetings rather than boulangeries, grimpeurs and croque monsieurs.

However, I'll try to pick the bones out of yet another trip to France first. This time the focus was on two things: watching the Tour de France in the Pyrenees, and riding my bike in the Pyrenees. The two coincided last Saturday and Sunday, and we've since had another five days of bike riding. The other facts are these before I reflect more on the sights, sounds and experiences. I travelled with Guy, buddy of cycling and many other things, from Bristol to Toulouse and back. We were part of a group of 15, comprising 6 Brits, 1 Canadian, 1 New Zealander and 7 Australians, (14 blokes and 1 woman). Our hosts were Pyractif, a travel company specialising in cycling holidays, and very excellent they were too, as always. I rode 428 miles, relatively little for seven days, but they were tough miles - we climbed well over 40,000 feet and the temperature rarely dropped below 30c, rising at times to 38 or so. Above around 28c I sweat so much I lose the electrolytes that stop you cramping, so keeping their levels high has been a constant battle this week.

Anyway, I'm going to try as usual to avoid this being a Dear Diary of the week. Instead, I'll split it into two - the madness of the Tour last weekend, and the riding since. The Tour; across here (I'm writing this at Toulouse airport), it's not just a sporting event, it's as much part of the culture as, say, a Royal Wedding or complaining about the weather is in the UK. Whole families turn out to watch it; they turn up hours in advance to stake their claim to a spot on the road; they bring picnics, wine, face paint, jollity, and their elderly maiden aunts who've been locked in the attic for years. It's a day out, a celebration of France, its countryside, and the fact that some the world's eyes are on it, albeit briefly. And the watching of 180 or so men in lycra ride past on a bicycle is, if more than incidental to the enjoyment of the day, at least not at its core. That core consists of the being there first and foremost, and the publicity caravan secondarily. The 'caravan', as it's generally known, is a procession of 200 vehicles adorned to varying levels of bonkers-ness in their sponsors colours. Supermarkets, countries, washing powders, newspapers, bookies - all of them are in their. I may have mentioned this last year, but my favourite is Cochonou, dried sausage makers, and their fleet of 2cv's, including a stretch 2cv, of which I got a cracking picture this year - see my Facebook page for that and many other delights.

But the caravan does more than provide visual entertainment - it gives stuff away. Washing liquid samples, caps, sun hats, key rings, bottles of water and all other manner of assorted tat are hurled from the vehicles at anything between 20 and 40 mph. And the French just can't get enough of it. They turn up with empty rucksacks, elderly shepherds take their crooks for hooking wayward items from the undergrowth, and middle aged women are perfectly prepared to wrestle drunken Dutchmen for big green foam hands, or at least that's what I witnessed on the Port de Pailheres last Saturday. But it stays good humoured, and a healthy barter-based market builds up at the roadside - "I'll swap you my small packet of Haribot for a polka dot cap". It's daft and it's pointless, but it gets everyone talking, sharing drinks, stories and views of the race. Which then comes past an hour later, a whirl of bright kits, dozens of team cars, police on motorbikes, race commissars in their red Skodas, and anything up to 8 helicopters low enough to deafen you, providing TV pictures around the world. It's a few minutes of a chaotic, noisy, exciting whirlwind. And when it's gone, there's a scramble to get home or to the nearest bar to watch the climax of the days racing.

We were lucky both days last weekend - the race was well and truly on, the peloton in many parts, broken apart by attacks both tactical and kamikaze. And on Sunday we could not have been closer to the riders as they got to the top of a tough, hot climb. It was reassuring, having done exactly the same climb as them three hours earlier, to see the same pain and distress on their faces as there was on ours at the same point. Less reassuring was realising they'd done in 30 mins what took us an hour. But we knew that already - from our vantage point we'd been able to see them battling up the climb for several kilometres. It was a brilliant day, the sort you can't really plan. Unbeatable. 

And so to the riding. In addition to the two days of 50 mile rides to our Tour viewing spots, we did one one extremely difficult day (made worse in my case by some self-inflicted idiocy, as I shall describe), one difficult day, one quite hard day and two relatively easy days. We bagged some classic Cols, including the giants Tourmalet and Port de Bales. I'll say no more; it was hard and hot on the way up, fast and exciting on the way down. But my idiocy; on Monday I left my phone and money at a cafe at the top of the Col de Mente, and didn't realise till some time later. There was only one way to retrieve them (for they were still there of course, this being rural France), and that was to go back up the Col: 10km of very hot road at a 9% gradient after 3 earlier climbs. What took me 40 mins in the morning took 55 at 1pm. I was indescribably hot. When I got to the top retrieving my valuables was a distant second priority to sticking my head in a bowl of cold water, which I did to the slight bemusement of the  cafe staff. When they found out what I'd done they insisted on giving me a Lion bar, despite the fact I'd just eaten two, and that it was so hot it would melt before I was barely out of the door. Still, bless them.

And then later that day came one of the monster climbs, meaning that by Monday night I'd ridden 96 miles and climbed just under 12,000 feet. I could barely hold my knife and fork to feed myself. But it wasn't the distance and the ascent that were the killers; it was the heat. I wasn't complaining though. After the rain, snow and wind of the last few months it was just part of the fantastic riding environment down here. But all that's at an end now. There's another week of the Tour to act as our methadone after this week's heroin, but it'll be cold turkey well and truly a week on Monday. Still, what a high.

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