Setting off on Le Tour - Brest, Brittany

Setting off on Le Tour - Brest, Brittany
Ian (Left) and Matt (Right)

Hello and a very warm welcome to our blog.

We are two amateur cyclists who have decided to follow in the footsteps of our cycling heroes and ride the complete 2008 Tour de France route. This year the most famous cycle race in the world covers 3500km (2200 miles) over 3 weeks in July and takes in some of the highest mountain passes in the Pyrenees and Alps.

We will start two days after the professionals on 7th July in Brest, Brittany and ride the whole thing stage-for-stage, road-for-road, day-for-day as the pros will be. This will result in us arriving in Paris on 29th July, having averaged 100 miles per day. Please click this link to see what lies ahead of us:
http://www.letour.fr/2008/TDF/COURSE/us/le_tour_2008.html
Our aim is to complete the whole route and this means that we will not be racing round but riding at a sensible, sustainable pace. As a result, we expect to be in the saddle for 12 hours on some days.

Friends and family will be driving a support vehicle but we will not have the benefit of masseurs, soigneurs, chefs and team doctors that the pros have. And there will be no Testosterone, EPO or illegal blood doping going on in our Tour!

We hope to raise as much money as possible for two very worthwhile charities: Ian is raising money for CLIC Sargent and Matt for MacMillan Cancer Support. Please dig deep and support these charities via our justgiving pages on the right. Alternatively, please email us with your name, contact details and the amount you would like to donate and we will contact you after we complete our tour.

At this time, a friend of Ian's, Robbie Stuart, is fighting Leukaemia and is a supporter of CLIC Sargent's work. A link to his blog can be found here. Best wishes go to Robbie who is currently recovering from a bone marrow transplant.

Please tell you friends about our blog and what we are doing, and please send us words of encouragement and support.
We will update you with our training and we will be keeping a diary on here as we ride the event in July.

Best wishes

Ian and Matt

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Stage 21: Etampes - Paris Champs-Elysees 93km 29/7/08





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PARIS - The culmination of 23 days of hard cycling through some of the wettest, hottest, mountainous terrain we had ever experienced. After 9 months of training, through the bleak British winter (and sometimes equally bleak spring), after thrills, spills and bellyaches (sorry), we were approaching the finish.

I remember being sat on my stationary trainer in my flat in December - pitch black outside - tired after work and pedalling away watching highlights of Tours de France past and dreaming of what it would be like to come round the Place de la Concorde and up the cobbled street that is the Champs Elyssee, seeing the Arc de Triomphe crowning the view.

Today was the day to realise that dream - to realise what it was to ride the Tour de France. There was no doubt that the last 3 weeks have been the hardest we've ever spent, both physically and mentally, but that didn't seem to matter today. We seemed to float along the road, laughing and joking like we had done on the first day; the climbs seemed to have flattened out, the traffic to be inconsequential.

Certainly we got lost on the way into Paris (strangely enough, in the town twinned with the town where we had both grown up - I'm sure there is some kind of strange message there), but we knew where we were heading and passing through the Forest of Meudon we descended a dual carriageway and there, above the trees, was the Tour Eiffel. We cheered and shook our fists to the sky - no matter that we were still 15km from the finish, we would make it now.

We drifted through Issy-les-Molineaux (home to the headquarters of the Tour de France organisation - no doubt busy working out 2009's route, starting in glamourous Monaco) and Boulogne-Billancourt (crossing to the North bank of the Seine) before seeing the sign saying we were entering Paris (cue more cheering).

We hurtled along the road towards the Louvre where we had to turn left to get onto the Rue de Rivoli, all the while vividly aware of the insane Paris traffic and the potential (frequently realised) for the drivers to do something unexpected.

We called those waiting for us - all our support teams had travelled over to Paris (Chris, Paula, Kate H, Kate C, Jane(Kate's Mum), Peter and Liz) - to say we were nearly there.

And then we were on the Place de la Concorde. WHICH WAY IS IT??? - Oh - it was that way!Yes, even within about 200m of the finish line I managed to take us in slightly the wrong direction!

But no worries, there it was the Champs Elysse - although they didn't appear to have stopped the traffic for us (very inconsiderate). It was 15:01 on Tuesday 29th July and we had completed the Tour de France route for 2008, the 95th running of the event.

We cycled all the way up to the Arc de Triomphe where we saw everyone waiting for us.

Big smiles, unstoppable grins, photos galore. It all seemed to go by so quickly.

We were standing in bright yellow Le Tour t-shirts in front of the Arc and all of a sudden a tiny Japanese lady came and stood next to me to have her photo taken. Then a group of Spanish students huddled round to get their photo taken with us - it was all very surreal.

Some old family friends had come all the way from Normandy (Claudine and Serge) to wish us well.

That evening we had a big celebration meal with twelve of us (Claudine and Serge's son Herve also joined us) and afterwards a stroll to the Tour Eiffel, guided kindly by Herve. A wonderful culmination to a day which had promised everything we had hoped.

We would like to say a big thank you to all those who have sponsored us - who are far too many to name. Also thank you to those who contacted us while we were away to help keep us going. A special mention goes to Robbie for his motivational photos - I think that image is enough to keep us going on our bikes!

But the biggest thank you of all goes to the six people without whose help (both before, during and after) we could never have managed to accomplish this feat which has been a dream for many years.

To Team 1: Chris and Paula Ulyatt;

To Team 2: Kate Hewitt and Kate Cumming;

To Team 3: Peter and Liz Callaghan:

THANK YOU - WE DID IT!!! (And we promise not to do it again!)

Monday, 28 July 2008

Stage 20: Cerilly - St Amond Montrand 53km Time Trial 28/7/08





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After a night spent at a rather impressive Chambre d’Hote with swimming pool in the finish town of Saint Armond Montrond, we drove to the start at Cerilly which meant back tracking. Schumacher, who had won stage 4’s time trial in Cholet, had also won this one in just over 1hour 3 minutes at over 30mph average. We wanted to beat the 2 hours and yet keep our heart rates down to promote recovery.
There’s not a lot to say about this route other than remark on the lovely rolling scenery and the fact that we passed the forest of Troncais where they source the high quality oak used for barrelling Cognacs and Clarets. A fast course in places though there were some long drags which made the old legs complain. A nice long descent took us towards the finish, but we were unable to find the finish as it required a left turn at some traffic lights and this wasn’t made clear on the root description. We went straight on instead and ended up in the town square which provided a useful carpark to rendez vous with Liz and Peter and ended up being the correct distance. 1 hour 54 minutes for the stage with an average heart rate of 123bpm.
Bikes on top of the car and us changed, we were ready to begin the long transfer up north for the last stage, Etampes to Paris.

Stage 19: Roanne - Montlucon 165.5km 27/7/08





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This was quite fortunately a shorter stage as we were by this time totally knackered and a little jaded. With only three days to go to Paris we were by this time feeling that we’d broken the back of this Tour and it was almost a little hard to motivate ourselves this morning on leaving Roanne.
We left from the hotel adding on about 12km before reaching the start (we agreed to cut this off the downhill finish) to ensure we completed the right distance!
We were met early on by a very gradual 3rd Cat climb which we used to clear away the cobwebs of the previous few days – we seemed to be racing up the climb and for the first time in about two weeks we actually completed a sprint at the top of a climb! Great fun it was!
The route was an undulating one today and so another few kilometres later we hit a 4th Cat climb (only two more to go now until Paris!!) before a descent towards the town of Vichy (home to the exiled French government during the war). Seemed like a good place to hide out to me – if the Germans had ever got there they’d have got lost for sure and never found them (i.e. we got lost and ended up leaving on the wrong road)! At one point we even were on a road which was signposted to both Roanne AND Montlucon – very confusing indeed!
Anyway we found our way back on route and continued on our merry way across quite uninteresting rolling farmland to the small town of Bellenaves where the road kicked up on a long 11km stretch of unclassified climb in the searing heat which necessitated a cycle off the road and into the shade for Matt in order to cope with the excessive heat. Upon reaching La Bosse (no doubt they have a regular Bruce Springsteen tribute night) at 720m we had a mainly downhill stretch to the finish and the knowledge that we had only the time trial (53km) and the final stage (93km) to manage!
Huzzah! Off to Saint Amand for the night in preparation for the final two days of winding down!

Stage 18: Bourg d'Oisans - Saint Etienne 196.5km 26/7/08





After a night spent in a hotel with magnificent mountain views, we awoke at 7am for breakfast prior to starting stage 18. We decided that as we had done an extra 5 miles the previous day, we would knock the last 5 flat miles off of this stage to avoid having to travel into busy Saint Etienne. Yesterday’s stage was really the decider and once through that, we were confident that we were going to finish barring mishaps.
A short drive from our hotel to the start close to where we had finished the previous stage and we set off from a carpark onto the busy main road all the way to through Grenoble ( I wouldn’t bother!) to the foot of our first 3rd cat climb of the day, Colle de Parmenie at 70km. So far the route had been pretty much downhill and flat but this 3rd cat turned out to be a long one. After a fairly steep start, it went on and on and with my legs complaining, I decided to take a breather just before the top. We were out of the mounatins now, and the landscape became more green and hilly, rolling rather than mountainous. A few more ups and downs and we had lunch after about 50 miles. I was not feeling good today. I couldn’t stomach the energy bars and I couldn’t manage solids. I think I had mild heat stroke from the day before and I felt decidedly queasy.
After lunch and heading for the 2nd cat climb, Croix de Montvieux at 163km, thunder and lightning started and the temperature began to cool. A quick pot of rice pudding at the foot of the climb fuelled me and I climbed better than I expected the 13km ascent. Matt felt better and summited a couple of minutes before me but I was relieved to have got to the top so smoothly. A wet descent, requiring care on the bends and a fairly grim trek through unremarkable towns to begin the ascent of 3rd cat Cote de Sorbieres, where we finished the stage 5 miles short of Saint Etienne.

Stage 17: Embrun - Alpe d'Huez 210km 25/7/08





An epic stage in Tour de France circles and the day we had been dreading! 130 miles over 3 of the most famous climbs in Tour history, the Galibier, Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez.
Christine had kindly set out our breakfast for us the night before as were had to be up at 5am. We knew the pro’s had taken 6 hours over this stage so we were looking at 11-12 hours plus stops. We shoved down as much food as we could to fuel us for this and set off from our accommodation at 6am. This meant an extra 5 miles added on to the ride as it was 5 miles to the start but it was unfair to expect Peter and Liz to get up at this hour. Immediately from the start my legs were complaining and we headed straight into a head wind following the same route from our Embrun-Cuneo stage, the difference being we headed straight on towards Briancon rather than heading into the mountains (yet!).
Luckily the wind died down as we headed along the valley to Briancon, and after a long 3rd cat climb, Cote de Sainte Marguerite, we reached Briancon along a horrible main road. The part of Briancon we saw was not very attractive and there was nothing open at 8am so we pushed on and had a pain au chocolat up the road in a small village. We then carried on nervous about the big mountains looming ahead of us and the fact our legs were suffering after yesterday. Climbing the 5% gradient of the Col de Lauteret (2058m), Matt began to feel it and dropped off the pace slightly. We rested at the top before turning right to climb the Gallibier (2645m), an ascent of 9km at just under 8% average. Although Matt was suffering, he set a good pace up this and we quickly caught and overtook a large Dutch chap before Matt opened up a gap between himself and me. Matt has always been a better climber, especially on the big stuff and I just had to ride at my own pace. About 3 minutes separated us at the top and the views were breathtaking. We met Liz and Peter at the top and, after a rapid descent where we over took cars, bikes and a horse and cart we had to climb the short side of the Col de Telegraph (1566m) which they didn’t bother categorising though we both felt it deserved a 4th. On the descent I got stuck behind a crazy cement mixer, cutting corners, and I regrouped with Matt at the bottom before meeting Peter and Liz for lunch at the side of a busy road near St Jean de Maurienne.
I wasn’t to concerned about the next climb, the Croix de Fer (2067m) because although it was 30km long, it was an average of 5%. I should have been concerned because it was hell. After the initial few kilometres at a solid 7-8% minimum it descended before climbing again. Descents are bad because you know there must be more severe uphill to make up the average! The heat was worsening and I was in all sorts of bother with Matt opening a sizeable gap. The tunnels provided some cool air and I was grateful for this but the sweat and flies were horrendous. After what seemed like hours and probably was I took a breather before the last few hairpins where Liz and Peter were waiting, having climbed through a very steep town. I made it in the end about 15 minutes after Matt and, although I don’t think I cracked, I wasn’t far off. I hadn’t felt this bad for some time and I still had Alpe d’Huez to contend with. After recovering and having photos taken we descended but the climbing hadn’t finished. We had to struggle up yet another uncategorised climb before descending to Bourg d’Oisans for the ascent of the Alpe.
Alpe d’Huez is one of the most famous climbs and has 21 hairpins on the 15km 1100m ascent. Each hairpin bears a winners name on it and the record is 36 minutes set by Marco Pantani. Carlos Sastre was fastest up it this year in 39 minutes. An epic climb starting at 11% and I suffered immediately. I must have looked terrible ascending it but was determined not to stop, though I wanted to. Liz and Peter were ready to hand out regular water and I found it really helped having it poured over my head to cool me off, as I had on the Croix de Fer. Hairpin after hairpin I struggled and finally made it to the ski resort and finish in 1 hour 30 mins, 11 minutes behind Matt.
An exhausting day, but thoroughly satisfying! 135 miles over three massive climbs and several uncategorised ones. Matt finished in 10 hours 48 minutes and I was 35 minutes slower, compared to Carlos Sastre (Esp) the winner of the this year’s Tour in 6 hours.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Stage 16: Cuneo - Jausiers 156km 24/7/08




After spending a splendid night at Malcolm and Steph’s (in the secret location we are not allowed to disclose!) we headed off following our hearty breakfast feeling well rested.
Many thanks to Malcolm, Steph, Carl and Sue for their exceptional hospitality and helping us to recharge our batteries before our assault on the Alps over the coming two days.
So – to the stage itself. This would see us climbing out of Italy over the 2,351m Colle della Lombardo (Col de la Lombarde) before descending through the ski resort town of Isola along the valley of the river Tinee and up the Cime de la Bonnette Restefond (the highest tarmac-ed road pass in Europe at 2,802m) before a sweeping descent down to the small village of Jausiers – and all in only 157km.
The road to the base of the first climb took in a few surprising little climbs but kept us away from the main valley road for quite some time and through some quiet little villages nestled in the foothills. The only evidence that the Tour had recently passed through was the occasional bit of tarmac writing extolling the virtues of Damiano Cunego and Marco Pantani (the latter slightly more surprising given that he’s dead!).
The manufacturers of yellow bunting had also been having a field day in the Piedmonte region as each place was heavily adorned with the little plastic triangles.
The pretty village of Aisone was typical of the area with narrowing streets overlooked by balconies filled to the brim with bright red geraniums. A very pretty picture it made!
Peter and Liz met us at the bottom of the climb of the Lombardo and we restocked drinks before setting off to tackle the 26km stretch of uphill starting with a winding section of hairpins to bring us into the valley proper. With 1,500m of climbing to undertake we went through a variety of scenery from cool shaded pine forests on the lower slopes through some small mountain side villages, through hotter and more sparse forests and then above the tree line into the most spectacular alpine meadows. The sound of cow bells clanging away as we weaved our way ever higher and towards the summit was quite surprising but very restful. The meadows showed a rich carpet of purples, yellows, white and greens which had me singing “The Hills are Alive…” until Ian pointed out we were in the wrongs Alps and so we broke into the Matt Monroe classic “Days Like These” - much more appropriate for winding Italian roads.
We crested the summit together, took in the view and then whistled our way down the mountain and through Isola 2000 and Isola to the valley floor. I never seem to notice much going down as I’m going so quick and concentrating so much on the upcoming corners that the scenery kind of becomes a blur. I can tell you that there were some horrible tunnels which made for tricky descending and a lot of very tight hairpins and technical sections. A brief stop at the bottom of the valley to wait for Ian and onwards for a quick lunch stop and on to tackle the Bonnette, following signs all the way reminding us of its noteworthy status!
The climb settled in fairly early to a steady but steep gradient of over 6% and was set to go on for over 28km. The key to attacking such a climb is to get into a strong rhythm and mental attitude and just keeping plugging away and to take plenty of time to enjoy the view which changes significantly as you climb up (especially if you are able to look back at any point and see how far up you’ve come).
The road passes though the odd habited village and also one group of houses which may well have been old military barracks (now thoroughly abandoned) before winding up to follow a ridge with spectacular views in all directions. The final 750m of the climb takes an unnecessary diversion to climb up to over 2,800m around what is effectively a shale cone at the top of the mountain. You could easily divert left and avoid this 15% stretch of climbing but we had to do what the Tour did and around we went. I nearly fell off my bike at the top and it was a good minute before I could open my eyes to enjoy the view – Ian wasn’t much better about 6 minutes later!
Fortunately the remainder of the stage was downhill to Jausiers and we enjoyed our descent before driving back to Embrun to prepare for the following days monster stage.
Before we left the UK we visited my (Matt’s) Grandad in Yeovil Hospital as he has been very unwell recently. He was a very keen cyclist in his time and one of the first people to tell me I was totally mad when told that I would be attempting this ride. I thought a lot about him as I climbed the Bonette and all of his cycling achievements and this helped spur me on. I placed a wee rock at the monument at the top of the climb to show that my thoughts were with him as I’ve been going around France.

Rest Day 2: Near Cuneo 23/7/08

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We had been looking forward to this rest day after some long, hot days in the saddle and we were blessed with perfect weather this time. We spent the day and evening with Malcolm and Steph, Carl and Sue in a small town near Cuneo. They asked me to keep the exact location secret as it really is an idyllic spot not yet discovered by British tourists! In fact, even the ski resorts, such as Prato Nevoso, are unvisited by the Brits. They were in the process of renovating an old Italian farmhouse, having relocated from the hustle and bustle of the UK.
We couldn’t have been a lot lazier on our rest day! We had a leisurely breakfast and gave our bikes a once over before heading to the nearby village for a coffee and beer. Here Matt spoke via phone to BBC radio Scotland live on air. They were interested on how we were progressing and had a Tour de France expert on the show. After this we wandered down to a local spring where locals had been filling up their water bottles for centuries!
After lunch and a well needed snooze we headed over to the local campsite to use the swimming pool. I had been dreaming of swimming in pools and rivers while we were cycling in the hot, arid conditions of the past few days and it was great to finally jump in one! A bit of sunbathing too though it had no effect on improving our ridiculous tan lines from over a hundred hours in the saddle through strong sunshine! We must have looked a bit silly in our swim shorts with white torsos and brown arms, legs and faces.
Dinner was spent at a local favourite restaurant of our hosts where we stocked up on beer and pizza ready for the next day’s two tough HC climbs, the second, the Cime de Bonnett-Restefond being the highest road in Europe at 2802m!
A thoroughly enjoyable stay with great people. We hadn’t even met them before and it was luck that Malcolm had seen the Bristol Evening Post article back in February. Thank you so much Malcolm and Steph!

Stage 15: Embrun - Prato Nevoso 183km 22/7/08




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We woke up for a 7am breakfast, nervous about today’s stage and its early-on HC climb (Col d’Agnel) that would take us over the border into Italy. Christine put on a great spread and we felt fuelled up for the stage.

Rather than drive to the start, we decided to cycle from our accommodation as it would only add a couple of miles to our ride. The first bit was along the busy N94 that heads to Briancon (we will be following this road on stage 17 to Alpe d’Huez). We took this section easy, allowing our legs to warm up and putting up with traffic hurtling past us. After 10 miles of this, the route turned off this road and became lumpy through Guillestre, heading through a nice gorge and tunnels cut through the rock. Rounding a hairpin bend and passing a memorial to Charles de Gaul we saw Liz and Peter at the side of the road at Chateau-Queyras where we refilled with water. A few kilometres further on we turned to begin the ascent of the Col Agnel, a huge climb up to 2744m, the highest I had been on a bike. The climb started gradually enough and I watched Matt ease ahead as I purposely kept my heartrate down. Matt having slightly higher gearing meant that he had to go faster or fall off! Through little alpine-style villages, the road steepended quite noticeably before levelling again. I could see Matt opening up the gapo ahead but I felt comfortable and maintained my pace. I overtook several riders but at one point some professional looking bloke cruised past me on his big chainring at a considerably faster speed. Towards the end, the climb began hair-pinning to allow us to gain height quickly. There were some very tired cyclists on this part and it was a nce feeling overtaking them. As I approached the summit, Matt was there taking photos and the view was spectacular. I finished the climb about 7 minutes behind him. We had a photo taken in front of the border sign.

The descent had been beautifully tarmac’d for the Tour and was considerably drier than when the Tour had come down it two days before. Pereiro had a nasty fall, his bike tumbling over the side of the road. Matt reached 79.5kph (49.5mph) on the descent, I was happy taking it slower and enjoying the gorgeous views and caught up with him somewhere around Casteldelfino at 78km.

Navigating was a little tricky as Italian road numbers are not on the signposts and sometimes signposts for the same place point in different directions! We met Liz and Pater for lunch at Rossana (115km) and by now I could feel a little cramp coming on. Food and rest helped and we cruised on through Cuneo and got slightly lost in Chiusa di Pesio where it wasn’t clear which road the Tour had taken! A radio call to Liz and Peter confirmed our route and they contacted Malcolm Brammar, who we were to stay with that evening near Cuneo. He had seen my article in the Bristol Evening Post and very kindly offered us accommodation for our two nights in Italy. Over the 3rd cat Colle del Morte (Hill of Death) and on the ascent we saw Malcolm and his friend Carl. We were going to stop and say hello but they waved us on as we were going at a good pace.

On to the climb at Prato Nevoso, a ski resort. This climb started off quite gradually with Matt and me keeping together but with 5 miles to go Matt opened up a lead and I hung back strictly keeping my heart rate low. By now the day had become very hot and we were going through a lot of water. I took my crash helmet off halfway up as I was overheating, and after a few hairpins made it to the top 3 minutes after Matt. Prato Nevoso is considerably more aesthetically pleasing than La Mongie had been on the Tourmalet! A few photos here, we put the bikes on the car and drove back to meet Malcolm, his wife Steph, and their friends Carl and Sue. A good days riding and we were ready for our rest day!

We completed this 120 mile stage in 8:18:24 at a 14.4mph average compared to S Gerrans (Aus) in 4:50:44

Stage 14: Nimes - Digne les Bains 194.5km 21/7/08




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We struck gold with our accommodation last night. The welcome, location and food was excellent. Its funny how variable Logis de France can be.

We anticipated today’s stage to be tough. The profile looked uphill for most of the 121 miles. This coupled with a long transfer to Embrun in the Alpes ready for tomorrow’s stage required an early start.

After a very humid night, we awoke at 6.30am, packed up the car and had a hearty breakfast. We remembered to put suncream on today, having forgotten yesterday morning. The official start today was Nimes. Our logis was in Remoulins and looking at the map the roads from Nimes and Remoulin converged at Beaucaire 18km into the route. As the distances to Beaucaire were identical we decided to alter the route to start cycling from our logis. This also turned out to be a quieter and safer road. We averaged almost 20mph to Beaucaire, a rather pretty town with a small marina on one of the branches of the Rhone. On to Tarascon and we picked up the busy main road D99 for 30km to Cavaillon. We two-upped this stretch both doing two minute intervals on the front against a stiff wind, gritting our teeth as we were passed by masses of high speed vehicles. Continuing on to Coustellet where we had arranged a rendez-vous with Peter and Liz for refuelling, we realised we were about 30 minutes up on schedule so we decided to push on to Apt at 85km. We covered these 53 miles in under 3 hours so we knew we were going well. After replenishing our drinks we decided to continue on a rather plush cycle path parallel to our route, an old railway path. A few miles along this and it veered off route so we got back on the road and summitted our first 4th cat climb of the day, the Col de Mane, at 128.5km. We met Peter and Liz just after the next rather pretty hilltop town of Forcalquier, having negotiated tourists and mad Belgian caravanners. 129.5km in 4 hours 40.

A picnic of ham and cheese baguettes, doughnuts and chocolate mousse at the side of the road and we were fuelled to push on for the next 40 miles. A lot of uphill and strong winds greeted us on our final leg but we managed to average 16mph along these rough, rolling lanes through places such as St Julien d’Asse and Bras d’Asse (what a load of Asse!). The last 10km saw us turning onto the busy N85 to Dignes up a long 4th cat climb ( Col de l’Orme) and then a winding descent into the town of Dignes les Bains where Peter and Liz were waiting at the finish line.

194.5km (121 miles) in 6 hours 54 in the saddle comapred with Oscar Freire (Esp) 4:13:08.

We transferred by car to Embrun after the stage and after some tricky navigating around the little town of Embrun, we were very enthusiastically greeted by our hostess, Christine, at Le Pigionner chambre d’hotes. The rooms were amazing with huge bathrooms and Matt was so impressed he actually took photos! Christine booked us a table at a local restaurant and we ate a huge meal ready fro tomorrow’s mountainous stage into Italy.

Stage 13: Narbonne - Nimes 182km 20/7/08




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We awoke early this morning for a 6.45am breakfast at the hotel. With thunder and lightning outside we were less than keen but it turned out that the rain had passed. The reason for the early start today was to try to cover as much distance as possible before the heat of the day because we suffered yesterday.

We gave our support crew Peter and Liz a lie in as the route passed close to our hotel and we were able to cycle out to join the route. Heading out on soggy roads we found ourselves peddling along at a good rate but we realised we were heading east towards the sea and not north-east. Damn French signposting and road numbering! Luckily we realised our mistake early on and Matt got us back on route, having covered an extra few kilometres.

A fairly uninspiring transitional stage between vinyards and fields although Capestand at 14km from the official start provided a rather pleasant canal/marina.

We met Peter and Liz at Cabrieres after the Cote de la Resclauze (4th cat climb) at 68km to refill our water bottles. Unfortunately Liz had had a bad night feeling sick probably after the heat of the previous day. As a result they had been in a rush that morning and had missed breakfast. It also turned out to be difficult to find supplies and fuel on a Sunday morning.

By midday, the day really heated up again and we realised we had neglected to put on suncream that morning. We stopped in some shade at the top of our second 4th cat climb, the Col de Puechabon, before descending to meet Liz and Peter again at Mas de Londres at 120km. They had found the only piece of shade along that stretch of road and we settle down for a picnic at the side of a field.

Our third 4th cat climb of the day, Pic Saint-Loup at 126km, seemed to finish almost as quickly as it started and we both wondered why it had even been categorised. From here the scenery became more interesting with big rocky outcrops and ruined hill forts and Villevielle at 156km provided a rather pretty little town and a long climb out of it up to the busy, rolling D40 to Nimes. We stopped 10km short of Nimes at Caveirac as we had done an extra 15km today already.

We covered the 187km in 6 hours 54 mins in the saddle compared with Mark Cavendish (Gbr) in 4:25:42.

That night was spent in an excellent logis, called Le Colombier, near the famous Pont de Gard at Remoulins. We were provided with beer immediately by the owner and then, after a thunderstorm, we stretched our legs by walking to the Pont before dinner. The French have really cashed in on this by charging 5 Euros to park by the river. Only a few people were seen splashing about in the river but it must get packed during the heat of the day.

After an excellent dinner we slept well from our efforts despite the humidity.

Stage 12: Lavellanet - Narbonne 168.5km 19/7/08





We started today outside of Lidl supermarket – very glamorous! There is nothing like the odd looks you get from people as you remove your outer garments to reveal nicely fitted lycra in the middle of a supermarket car park!

Team Kate were due to fly back today and so we arranged our first meet for only 2 hours into the ride just outside of Quillan. On the way we had passed through the charming village of Chalabre which was a quintessential place with tall poplars leaning over into the main street with a couple of bars and tabacs and a genial relaxed atmosphere which is so typically French in nature.

After saying our goodbyes to the Kates and thank you for all their help (especially given the circumstances following their arrival!), we headed on our way towards lunch outside of Maury. The day was beginning to get fairly toasty and drink was being consumed at an ever increasing rate.

As the landscape began to become more arid and the land flatter, the scenery turned dramatic – with a number of ruined hill forts and castles nestled on top of long, high rock structures which ran parallel to the road for many miles. My geological knowledge is not up on what the name for these ridges is, but they would certainly have acted as a splendid vantage point to keep out attacking forces – though I’m not sure (again) which way they were attacking/defending from – answers on a postcard please!

The stage was only 167.5km long but as the day dragged on and the heat rose, we passed into very arid terrain with bare rock next to the road which, along with the tarmac, simply radiated heat back up to us on the bikes and, struggling against a stiffening headwind, we were not feeling too chipper. After the uncategorised Col d’Extreme, we had to stop and sit in the shade for 5 minutes to recover.

How the professionals manage to cope with this heat (especially in the centre of the peloton) and race and drink enough and then sprint at the end I will never know! Still, Mark Cavendish managed to earn his third stage win on this stage – so he obviously coped admirably!

We met just short of Narbonnes and threw the bikes onto the car before the short drive to our hotel.

We completed 103.96 miles in 5:52:07 at an average of 17.714mph – so a fast day but a thoroughly unpleasant one with the heat and the arid landscape providing little cover or viewing pleasure! Mark Cavendish (Gbr) won it in 3:40:52.

The evening meal turned out to be the highlight though, as we went to a place near the hotel in the village of Vinassan. The restaurant was called Chez Poirrot (or something like that) – and Monsieur Poirrot has the biggest chez I’ve ever seen. The place was HUGE. As you walk in to what is a wholly al fresco place, all you can see on a site of at least 2 acres is tables of people eating. The restaurant must have bought up all the stock of green garden furniture in and around Narbonne because when we were seated we were at table 762 (I kid you not). Service was provided by athletic young types who sprinted to the kitchen, and rapidly walked back (they obviously hadn’t yet got round to sprinting with the food!). The food was of a reasonable standard considering the size of the operation and we spent most of the meal in awe of the size of the place. Certainly the most amazing place I’ve eaten in that regard!

Stage 11: Lannemezan - Foix 167.5km 18/7/08




Photos

It was to be on this stage that we were to meet up with our final support team (Ian’s parents - Peter and Liz) and so we all carted into the van for the last time and headed off for the outskirts of Lannemezan. A small town lying just in the foothills of the Pyrennes. The ride headed due East today so we always had that nagging feeling from the mountains on our right hand side. You were always concerned the road might take an unexpected right hand turn and you’d end up back in them!

So, feeling nicely refresehed from our rest day, we set off and agreed to meet 74km up the road in the village of Cazavet. On the way there we passed through some really gorgeous little villages which had pleasantly relaxed feel to them – at one point we passed through a market and had cheese almost thrust upon us by one stall-keeper – I wish I’d stopped now!

At about 20km we rounded a slight turn on a gradual descent and through the trees caught sight of a magnificent church on a hill with quite remarkable buttresses. The church was set high on the hill above the village of Saint Bertrand de Comminges and was built wholly from stone other than the upper portion of the tower which appeared to be wooden. As we passed below the walls, this was another place I was thinking that I’d like to return to.

We passed more scenic villages with sharply rising and dipping roads, tight and sweeping bends, moving in and out of woodland as we travelled towards and away form the foothills, until we met up with support teams 2 & 3 in the village of Cazavet as planned.

A quick catch up for everyone (I hadn’t seen Ian’s parents since before I had left Surrey – so about 6 years before!) and a hearty lunch and Ian and I set off towards St Girons and so to another 1st Category climb and one that would truly see us out of the Pyrennes.

The road followed a tranquil river valley through the village of Riverenet and the narrowed and steepened as the climb of the Col de Portel approached. It was so narrow that in order to let the van past, we actually had to stop at the side of the road – I hate to think how the Tour entourage would have got up the climb! Team Kate’s handling of the van around the bends was impressive! The views back down the valley as we occasionally popped out of the trees were splendid (as always!) and the summit came with Ian about 45 seconds in front of myself after some very strong climbing – he’s obviously found his legs!

We all stopped and had a rest at the summit (drivers and passengers included – pretty hair-raising stuff!) and surveyed the view which was pan flat to the North (obscured by plenty of haze and such) and rolling wooded valleys to the South.

We let everyone else off first to get pictures of our supreme descending skills and when I saw the photgraphers positioned I adopted an appropriate cornering pose, scoped out the corner, cranked the bike over to hit the apex, only to discover that the corner continued and tightened up and that I was going to fast and had to sit up and pull on the brakes! Fortunately the photos don’t show this last part, and we both look totally professional!

The road descended all the way to Foix, but this wasn’t the end – oh no! The evil organisers took us out North of Foix and up another 3rd cat climb and back in from the North East.

104.91 miles covered in 6:43:00 at an average of 15.619 mph compared to the K Arvesen (Nor) who managed it in 3:58:13.

Rest day 1: Bagneres de Bigorre 17/7/08

Photos

While the pros had spent their rest day at nearby Pau, where the previous stage had officially started, we spent ours based at Bagnerres. I had booked three nights accommodation here so that we could relax and not have to pack and unpack the van so much. It was also near the start of the following stage in Lannamezan.

After the previous two day’s glorious weather, we had high hopes of a sunny day: some sunbathing by a river or maybe even a gentle canoeing trip. Sod’s law it rained and rained and we were pretty much stranded with little to do.

After a lie in,listening to the rain outside, and leisurely breakfast, we headed into town and found a laundrette to wash our smelly kit. While this was taking place we popped across to a supermarket to stock up on provisions.

A little look around our quaint hotel, revealed a very old fashioned drawing room/lounge and we had lunch in there. We laughed at the old fashioned decorating, stained headrests on the chairs, and the way the carpet had been roughly cut to fit around the furniture! On the bookshelf was a telephone directory from 1965! Indeed, our rooms were also something out of Fawlty Towers with wallpaper on the doors! That said, the place was comfortable and served us well but really could have benefitted from a clean. At one point we saw the chef painting the hotel sign and reminded me of Inspector Clouseau: “What is this? A chef who thinks he is a gardener??!”

That afternoon we felt we had to do something, so we made a trip up the road to a local cheese shop we had passed a couple of days earlier. After finding the local caves shut we decided to go and have a go at crazy golf before getting some food at a local pizza takeaway.

It was sad that the day had been so miserable but the golf had definitely been a highlight!

Stage 10: Pau - Hautacam 156km 16/7/08




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This was a fairly early starter as we had our first two Hors Categorie (above categorisation) climbs – the most climbed Col in the tour – the Tourmalet (2,115m) and then the Hautacam (1,520m).

As we had overhit the distance the previous day, we decided to start a little way from the real start (about 10km in) in the small town of Rebenacq - very close to the pleasantly named Reataurant La Bastarde, which is what we thought of the Tour route organiser!

Straight from the off we had a short sharp little climb which really made us feel where we had put in the effort the previous day. So, both feeling very sluggish we pottered on through some rolling countryside over two 3rd Cat climbs which took us across a couple of valleys and through the “tat-central” town of Lourdes, which was over-stocked on dosey tourists wandering around in the middle of the road. Having negotiated the dopey buggers, we continued on to and through Bagneres (where we were based for the three nights) and to the small town of Beaudean, where we stopped for a shaded lunch stop 25km shy of the summit of the Tourmalet (or 10km from the base of the climb proper).

The road climbed up the valley through Campan and Sainte-Marie de Campan before the climb proper started at a gentle pace before beginning to kick up through a couple of tunnels and into the trees and some very welcome shade. Team Kate was once again present to furnish us with drinks, gels and bars as required and provide moral support, including letting us know we were going at least as well as some other people on the climb. I (Matt – so Ian doesn’t get in troubleJ) caught up with a woman mountain biker whom I have to admit to slipstreaming for a little longer than was necessary! You have to find some way to make these climbs easier, you know!

As the tree line thinned the ski-resort town of La Mongie appeared in the distance and the road kicked up to an evil 10%+ in stretches. Indeed as you climb these cols, there are markers at the side of the road telling you how far to go, your current height, and the average percentage for the coming kilometre – this doesn’t often make for pleasant reading!

La Mongie I have rechristened La Mangy as it is one of the most hideous eyesores ever constructed on the side of a mountain and ruins a beautiful view back down the valley. Eejit constructors!

The arrival of La Mongie heralded the last 4km and these were twisty-windy to the top and ever steepening with increasing numbers of Tour riders’ names adorning the tarmac – some dating back many years (Fignon, Virenque, Jalabert) – this really is an epic climb.

Team Kate were there to meet us at the top with fresh drinks, food, warm clothes and plenty of encouragement. The feeling of cresting this massive climb was, once again, staggering and all the effort appeared worthwhile. We had our photos taken at the top of the climb with the statue of Octave Lapize (the first Tour de France cyclist to crest the summit in 1910, who famously labelled the bystanding timekeepers as “assassins” before heading off down the mountain). Conditions on the road have considerably improved in 98 years and while we were fairly all-in, I don’t think either of us was about to keel over, thank goodness.

The descent was a fast one as always and Ian and I regrouped in the village of Saint Luz to tackle the more gradual descent through the gorges towards Argeles and the foot of the climb to Hautacam. This would be a spectacular road to cycle, but for the constant stream of traffic, which of narrow roads with overhanging rocks, makes for an altogether more nerve-wracking experience!

The foot of the climb found and we dumped all the gear we could with the girls and headed off up the climb – 13km of climbing to rise to 1,520m at the ski station of Hautacam. This climb has been the site of several recent tour spectacles, including Bjarne Riis’ attack on Indurain in 1996, and more recently of Lance Armstrong in 1999(?).

The climb was an odd one consistently flattening and then steepening which took away any rhythm from the pedalling and we probably looked like we were being controlled by some manic puppeteer as we sat down and then sprang back on the pedals only to relax back down again with head almost resting on the handlebars and with shoulders swaying to get as much force into the pedal stroke as possible.

The day had cooled down considerably and constant water supplies were not as necessary – though Team Kate continued to help out with cheers and such. The summit of the climb came surprisingly quickly (after the longer ascent of the Tourmalet, this isn’t a surprise) and a last minute dash of the line for both of us left us feeling that we had well-earned our rest day the following day!

10 days in the saddle without a day off was quite some amount of cycling to do! We had completed the stage in 7:23:05 (with 10km off at the beginning – so add about 25 mins) at an average of 12.404mph compared with L Piepoli (Ita) in 4:19:27.

The first 10 days had seen us cover 1,090.49 miles in 70:35:38 at 15.447 mph average compared to Cadel Evans (Aus) 42:29:09. We felt good – but very tired!

Stage 9: Toulouse - Bagneres de Bigorre 224km 15/7/08




Photos

Left hotel at 06:10 due to length of stage. Also Team Kate’s first day of supporting and they had to get van from Toulouse.

Really didn’t want to get lost today and unfortunately the road numbers disappeared after about 25km and we added an extra 2km by the time we corrected our mistake.

Shortly following this Matt punctured on a roundabout and the replacement tube used was faulty leading to extra time being lost while this was replaced. The road down to Lezat-sur-Leze was an unpleasant and busy road but did pass through some nice towns on the banks of the Garonne. We stopped in the small town of Carbonne for some breakfast of croissant etc and duly headed onwards to our arranged meeting spot with Team Kate outside of Figarol.

By this point we had covered three 4th Cat climbs with one remaining plus one 3rd Cat and two 1st Cats still to come.

The route from Figarol took us through the town of Aspet which sits at the foot of the infamous Col de Portet d’Aspet (site of the untimely death of Fabio Casartelli in the Tour in the mid 1990’s). Our route today took us up the less well known 3rd category climb of the Col des Ares which wound nicely through wooded slopes at a gentle gradient and allowed us a pleasant respite from the rapidly increasing temperatures out of the shade.

A sweeping descent took us back to the banks of the Garonne (I believe!) and we headed towards Luchon and our lunch stop with the two Kates. This was taken up a steep hill (which we negotiated in the van!) with wonderful views up the river valley to the snow capped Pyrennes in the background.

Having sated ourselves it was onwards to Luchon and the base of the Col de Peyresourde – a climb the Tour visits on a fairly regular basis. This was steep from the start and the prescence of recent roadworks made the steep gradient all the more taxing. Ian soon opened a sizeable gap and was going well. The bottom of the climb rose from the valley into some small roadside villages which were fairly pretty before the trees subsided and the sun really started to make an impact.

The extremely hot conditions meant regular stops for the girls to exchange bottles and water and energy drink with us as we used them up within a matter of kilometres. The climb was long at 15km and an average gradient of over 7% (a climb of over 1,050m – about the same as Ben Nevis from sea level).

However, as the kilometres counted down and the summit approached I found renewed energy (aided by a couple of SIS energy gels with added caffeine!) and passed Ian to crest the summit in about 1 hour and 10 mins. The emotion of coming over the top of one of the famous Tour cols and realising that I could do it was all a bit much and I did shed a tear or two – Ian on the other hand is not nearly such a soppy bugger and just had a big smile on his face!

Team Kate greeted us at the top and we dressed for the descent which took in some wonderful sweeping bends and down into the town of Arreau from where we started the final ascent of the day of another famous Pyrennean col – the Aspin. This started off in a much more forgiving manner and twisted and turned a lot more than the Peyresourde while remaining more in the shade.

So with helmets discarded for the climb and with drinks and gels were dispensed again at regular intervals to aid us on our way we plodded on up the climb. Once again Ian headed off up the road before I found my hill legs and caught him up again.

When you remember to stop struggling against the pain and heat of these climbs and take look to your left or right you are really greeted with a fantastic scene. The Pyrennes stretching into the distance all around and above you, and the small ribbon of road below you which you have successfully conquered.

The climbing of these cols is really a mental as well as a physical struggle and you need to find something on which to focus the mind, whether that be singing a little tune, chanting a little chant and summing a little sum (or anything else for that matter!) Simply looking upwards and going “Crikey, it a long way and it’s awful steep” won’t get you up there. The feeling of immense satisfaction of having done it is staggering though - and so worthwhile (especially when you have people with you saying “I don’t know how you did that – it was hard in a van” – does boost the ego a little J).

So from the Aspin it was the matter of a simple 26km descent into Bagneres de Bigorre and to bed for the night (except that there was a bike race in town and we couldn’t get the van in)! Irony, eh!

147 miles in 10:05:58 compared with R Ricco (Ita) in 5:39:28, though he was later kicked out for doping!

Stage 8: Figeac - Toulouse 172.5km 14/7/08




Photos

We set off in straight from our hotel in the morning and in thick, thick fog. This necessitated an extra climb out of the town of Figeac before we actually reached the route which was a shame but did help on the old warm-up (though the downhills were distinctly cool!). Matt’s parents set off later (after finding a launderette to try and dry some of our clothes which we had attempted to wash the previous night in the bath) and were due to pick up support team #2 (Team Kate – made up of Ian’s girlfriend Kate and her friend Kate!)

The stage included two 4th cat and two 3rd cat climbs overall, but stacked towards the beginning of the day. As the fog cleared the day became increasingly hot – it was good to feel the sun after so many days of distinctly average weather.

We aranged to meet after having completed all of the day’s climbs and managed to do so for lunch after the village of Cestayrols. A little spot by the countryside road next to a field of corn and overlooking some blooming sunflowers provided a very pleasant setting and a first meeting with Team Kate.

The roads today were very quiet due to the fact that it was Bastille Day. We didn’t see any evidence of celebration but maybe everyone was steeling themselves for the forthcoming evening.

Over the course of the day the landscape changed noticeably to become more Mediterranean.

From lunch we set off to cover the remaining downhill and flat miles to Toulouse and accomplished this ahead of schedule – all in all a good day. We had passed through Gaillac – a noted wine region, some of which we later sampled a couple of bottles of in an excellent Moroccan restaurant with very poor service!

We were late to bed which was a shame as we had to be up very early the next day to set off on the mammoth 224km stage from Toulouse to Bagneres de Bigorre in the heart of the Pyrennes.

It had been unfortunate not to see more of Bastille day celebrations but we were too tired and knew we had to be up early.

Finished in 6:49:33 (average of 16.3mph) compared to the pros (led in by Bristain's Mark Cavendish, picking up his second Tour stage) who finished in 4:02:54.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Latest Update 23rd July

Matt & Ian have not been able to update the blog due to lack of internet availability at their various overnight stops. Everything is on schedule with over 1600 miles behind them in just 15 days! They have successfully negotitated the Cols of the Pyrenees and 40 degree heat on Stage 13 to Nimes. Today they are enjoying a well earned rest day after completing Stage 15 to Prato Nevoso (Italy). Tomorrow features two Hors Category climbs one being the highest paved road in Europe at over 2800 meters. They hope to be able to post further details shortly.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Stage 7: Brioude - Aurillac 159km 13/7/2008






Photos

After a night in a rubbish Logis de France (really wouldn’t recommend them – unless you are a fan of restaurants that close at 8:30pm and have no staff present between 10pm and 8am the next day). Anyway enough of my moaning.

We set off from Besse at about 8:50am for the 70km trek down to Brioude aiming to start at about 10:20am for what looked like a shortish stage which we could just knock off. Alas, this was not the case.

Right from the start, the road headed uphill and we had our first 3rd category climb of the day at 11km – this meant that we were slogging along at a very slow pace which was fairly depressing and Matt was certainly feeling very sluggish and mentally and physically fatigued after a hard day on Stage 6 and a late night.

After only 19km we missed a turning which was not signposted and headed off in the wrong direction – it was only when we descended sharply into the amusing named St Poncy (well I laughed) and climbed steeply out of the other side that we realised that we had gone wrong. A quick call to the support team and we were directed the best way back to the route – another wrong turning had Matt jumping up and down and swearing at the consistent failure of French roadsign makers – a distinct gap in the market for those of you with a signmaking bent!

Anyway, after struggling up more hills we met for lunch at the top of a hill somewhere outside St Flour and regrouped. The next part of the route took us on three sides of a square South of St Flour with a little climbing but nothing significant and we were able to get into more of a swing of things.

Matt started to perk up and was soon singing away and waving at cows again as seems to be a common theme during the daytime! I’m sure this is a sign of madness which has been enhanced through excessive exercise and too little sleep.

A short catch-up stop in the unpronounceable Valuejols and we knew we only had about 36km until we crested the second of two 2nd category climbs in short sucession. The support met us at the top of the Col d’Entremont (or Col d’Entrapment according to Ian) to hand out rain jackets as the temperature plummeted and the rain came down – France in the summer appears a little too much like Scotland for my liking – we had not booked weather like this!

Anyway after the descent into Le Peuch (another source of laughter for Matt), we had the 7.8km ascent of the Col du Pas de Peyrol to contend with. This started nice and gently and then with 1.75km to go a sign informed us that the average gradient to the ascent was 9.72% with a brutal hairpin in. As Ian and I crested the summit together it really felt like we had arrived on the Tour – the summit was shrouded in mist with a little hill top station for provision of sustenance to walkers et al. We grabbed rain jackets for the descent of 31km to Saint Simon which was to be our finishing point for the day (our detours of the previous day having added 13km and the detour on this stage having taken in an extra 3rd cat climb we were happy to stop 11km short if the town.

Total time: 6:34:01, 14.2mph average compared to L Sanchez (Esp) 3:52:53.

Stage 6: Aigurande - Super Besse 195.5km 12/7/2008






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Today was my (Matt’s) Dad’s birthday and as a present he had decided that he wanted to ride the stage with us. This was very welcome as it gave us someone else to ride with and share the load and it had been a long time since I had been able to spend his birthday with him.

We drove to just outside of Aigurande and Mum saw us on our way on forgivingly rolling roads. After yesterday’s very dull scenery, it was pleasant to head into more interesting countryside and more into the type of landscape which was typically French. Small villages of winding roads, stone-built houses and pretty little churches all surrounded by golden fields of crops, rolling hills and old French farmers wearing black berets, sporting grand moustaches and driving ancient tractors!

The cycling wasn’t half bad either and we met up with Mum for a top up of drinks after 2 hours almost exactly to schedule.

The terrain from here was a little lumpier and continued through lovely scenery with short sharp climbs from villages with names as diverse as Crocq, Giat and Verneugheol – not typical French names!

We stopped for lunch atop a hill in Fernoel witth views overlooking the distant Massif Central – our destination for the evening in the ski village of Besse (having first climbed to the ski station at Super Besse).

The ride became increasingly tough for Dad as the distance began to tell. We descended into La Bourboule for our third meet up of the day.

Our first 2nd Cat climb of the day followed which was a nice gradual ascent, providing us with a good level of comfort over our prospects for the coming days. Matt’s Mum provided support for us on the way up and with cool weather we all managed up OK. At a distance covered already of over 100 miles, this was the furthest Dad had done in a while.

The descent down was stunning with sweeping turns all the way into the valley. Due to poor route directions we got lost on the way to Super-Besse and this led to us being over an hour later than estimated into the ski station. We arrived at top of the very unpleasant climb to find that Mum was not there as she had got worried and left to go to the hotel in the hope of finding us there.

We were supposed to be meeting up with Team Kate but an accident on the road up to Besse on the motorway led to them being stranded and unable to reach us. Fortunately they were OK, although their van was not so well and they ended up spending the night in a grotty hotel in Brive apparently.

The Logis we stayed in was awful with lousy service – the standard of these things has really not endeared the network to us for future visits!

Time for the stage was 8:51:36 for 130.39 miles of travel (including getting lost) at an average of 14.717mph compared to the R Ricco (Ita) who took 4:57:52. He was later kicked out for doping.

Stage 5: Cholet - Chateauroux 232km 11/7/2008






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The longest stage of the tour today and we predicted 9 hours in the saddle for the 145 hours. We awoke at 6am to a miserable morning – rain and a little wind. The forecast was for a south westerly which would help us on the route which travelled almost due east.

After a good breakfast and saying our good byes to the Dugast’s for their generous hospitality we headed out to Cholet again in the car and parked in a LeClerc supermarket carpark. Setting off in pretty grim conditions we were surprised at the speed we were maintaining. In the first hour we covered 18.5 miles along a rolling main road with a tail wind. Swapping turns on the front, two-up time trial style, meant that the guy behind got soaked. This and the spray from the rain and the traffic made it quite difficult to see. We sped through Maulevrier, Argenton and Massais and met Chris and Paula well over half an hour up on schedule just past Richlieu. We maintained the 18.5mph average, deciding to get on with it as the road was busy and the scenery pretty uninspiring really. At least we were covering large distances in minimal time. By the time we met for lunch at Dange St Romaine, the weather had improved. A quick stopped for a pee led to me being bitten by a caterpillar on my neck. It seemed to be a day for it as later on a wasp flew into my cycling helmet and after me trying to persuade it to get out, I was stung on the ear. Along with this my tendon in my lower shin started to give me jipp again and Matt’s achiles tendon was aching so we made a right pair. This didn’t stop Matt slipstreaming an old gentleman on his moped which was pretty comical really. I couldn’t be bothered to sprint after him so just pootled on watching the old guy nearly skid his machine on a roundabout at about 15mph. Later we were speeding along at such a pace that we did a double overtaking manoeuvre of two tractors on an uphill stretch. Lunch was a nice picnic of bread, cheese, ham and tabouleh by the side of the road overlooking a sunflower field and set us up nicely for the remaining 104km.

By now the weather was really on the up and we enjoyed lovely descents between fields of hay bails, speeding through small deserted villages. Through Descartes, Abilly and Le Grand Pressigny we continued on to join the D925 which we powered along all the way to the finish for a good 50km, counting down the distance markers at the side of the road.

Overall, a pretty boring day scenerywise but we did cover 232km(145 miles) in 7 hours 45 minutes on the bike. This stage in Le Tour was won by our own Mark Cavendish considerably quicker in 5:27:52! I would say this was by far the easiest ride of this magnitude we have ever done.

That night was spent in a dated hotel in the middle of Argenten sur Creuse south of the finish in Cateauroux. Lugging bags up narrow spiral staircase set off my tendonitis quite badly and I was ordered to rest! Dinner was very tasty: Pigeon foix gras and roast duck, the restaurant having an interesting array of paintings of cows on the wall. Not sure who was in charge of the decorating!

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Stage 4: Cholet - Cholet 29km 10/7/08














Just a 29km time trial course to cover today so we didn’t need to be up early. Therefore, we were able to take full advantage of yesterday evening with our hosts M and Mme Dugast. We arrived late at 7.30pm at their “Chambre d’hote” near the town of Cholet, south east of the previous stage finish in Nantes.

Immediately very welcoming, they showed us around there abode, a converted barn with original beams and contemporary touches. The sort of impressive kind of building you would see on Grand Designs. That evening, they invited us to dine with them and we were treated to fine wine and excellent cooking. After some home made walnut wine which was extremely tasty, a little like Port, and a few glasses of red wine I was more confident to try some of my long lost schoolboy French. With Matt’s help and our hosts speaking very slowly we communicated pretty effectively. The food was excellent. We started with a sweet chestnut salad and moved on to slow cooked home-reared veal on the bone with tons of pasta. Dessert was “Une flotante” a meringue floating on Crème Anglais. They had prepared this meal with our cycling in mind – lots of protein and carbs. They had even recorded the time trial stage of Le Tour for us to watch.

So that’s two nights in a row now where we have been welcomed into our hosts’ home and treated to dinner wit them. I am amazed and humbled by the generosity of these people!

Waking this morning I felt tenderness in the tendon at the front of my lower shin, causing me discomfort when flexing and extending my foot. Tendonitis is one of those things you can’t really train for. Muscles feeling really strong, it’s the joints and tendons that complain! I expected saddle soreness to be worse that it is so far (touch wood!)

So it was a case of slapping anti-inflammatory gel on to it and then heading out to Cholet to start stage 4. On the way we stopped at a bureau de poste (post office) to pick up our pre-arranged Powerbar delivery. Next door was a pharmacy so I picked up one of those gel packs you put in the freezer for use on my ankle later.

Cholet isn’t the most picturesque French town by any means. We parked up and set off on the anti-clockwise circuit. Once out of the town it stayed on main roads and all junctions/roundabouts had yellow arrows marked on the tarmac so map reading was not necessary. There were a few gradual climbs, one quite long and some fast descents. I reckon you could reach close to 60mph if you tried on one of them! We had decided to ride at a low heart rate to promote recovery and we covered the 18 miles in 1 hour 10 minutes, averaging just over 15mph. The winner of the real thing two days ago was Stefan Schumacher of Germany (no relation to Michael or Ralf!) in 35:44!

After this short ride we got changed and met up with Tom and Marion, family friends of Matt, Chris and Paula. They were staying in Saumure, about 35 miles away. On the way back to our base, the heavens opened again and when we got back the washing we had hung out earlier was soaked. Let’s hope it dries before tomorrow. We don’t want soggy shorts!

So far that’s 599km in 4 days. Tomorrow is our longest stage of the tour: 232 km, nearly 145 miles. Let’s pray for a tail wind! This will be our last flattish stage before the big mountains. We’ll keep you posted!

Stage 3: St Malo - Nantes 208km 9/7/08










Photos


Today looked like being a tough day – 208km due South from Saint Malo on the northern Brittany coast to Nantes in the Loire-Atlantique region.

We were accompanied by my Dad for the first 3 hours of the day which was of great assistance for both pacing and a wind-break! We set off at 9:00am (one hour later than intended after a rather leisurely breakfast).

After 11km we passed by the B&B from the previous evening where we were given a cheer on our way by the owners which cheered us up and put a smile on our faces. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards I had an excruciating pain in my left kneecap which required me climbing off the bike for a short time. It felt like I would not be able to carry on, but I was determined to carry on and with a bit of encouragement from Ian and my Dad I carried on and it gradually got better over the next two hours or so.

We passed through the lovely walled town of Dinan after an hour or so and it would have been lovely to stop but a telling headwind and a long day meant this would not have been feasible.

The stage was without categorised climbs but the first 50km was surprisingly rolling and we passed the highest point of the day – the pleasant village of Becherel at 50km.

We met up with Mum, who was driving the support vehicle solo today, after 75km by a lake in a little sport/adventure complex to grab an few more cakes and drinks before agreeing to meet up two hours later about 50km up the road for lunch.

The road continued through some fairly flat, if unremarkable, countryside and with both Ian and I in quite some pain from various ailments, there was minimal chat. This was proving to be a very hard flat day, and the temperature was creeping up. Lunch was a welcome respite from the trials of the day and we sat on the grass to take baguette, cheese, ham and taboule.

Moving on from here we knew we still had 55 miles to go to Nantes and with the wind still in our faces we plodded on. We were fortunate enough to have considerable shelter form the wind thanks to some fairly wooded areas and the terrain certainly flattened out. We made it to the outskirts of Nantes in 7:52:45 on a stage which had taken the pros 5:05:27 (with the day’s winner being Sammy Demoulin of France).

We were shattered and feeling worse for wear, but packed into the car and off to Cholet, safe in the knowledge that the following day’s stage was only the 29km time trial.

The hardest day to date – but very pleased with our 15.8mph average for the day.

Stage 2: Auray - St Brieuc 165km 8/7/08














Photos


Well, we’re just settling down for the night after a splendid dinner courtesy of our hosts Rosie and Paul (www.aupontmevault.com/uk/pages01.php) and a German family who were also staying in the Bed and Breakfast. A sumptuous four course meal has fully sated us and prepared us for the forthcoming day of 208km (thankfully with no hills).

So to the story of the day. Having stayed overnight in the start town for today’s stage (Auray) we set off direct from the hotel to the start at 8am. We were making steady progress until 11km out when Ian’s bottom bracket (the thing that holds the cranks and pedals on to the bike itself) undid itself. This required a call to the support team who were just raising a well earned coffee to their lips.

1 hour later, with problem solved (and feeling rather guilty for having again taken Mum and Dad away from a well-earned coffee), we went on our way through more rolling Breton countryside. The route took in 164km, including our first 3rd category climb – a really killer called the “Wall of Brittany” which just went directly up and over a steep hill – very painful I have to say.

Ian and I were both suffering a variety of complaints – some mentionable and some not so – which will add to the horror and pain of this ride as time wears on.

Anyway, we met up with my parents for a substantial picnic lunch on a green hillside overlooking a small cottage and pond. A very pleasant respite indeed. On we went and said we would meet up again at the finish (103km up the road) in Saint Brieuc.

We struggled initially with a tough crosswind and very rolling and agricultural terrain, before some sweeping descents and a strong tailwind brought us to Saint Brieuc and the finish where we managed (luckily) to meet up with Mum and Dad in what was a very sprawling city.

The countryside to date has been very attractive and while the attention tends to waver somewhat as the day wears on, cycling certainly is a great way to se a country.

We are learning as we go in terms of organisation and the role of the support team has been key as this allows us to get the miles done in an efficient time and also helps in complicated towns as they can go ahead and help us through via our walkie talkies which we are carrying.

A hard day’s ride at an average of 16.2 for the 103 miles – taking 6:23:00 compared to the pros 3:45:00 – led by Thor Hushovd.



Stage 1: Brest - Plumelec 197.5km 7/7/08


Photos


After a very rough crossing on Saturday night, we drove down from Roscoff to arrive in Saint Renan, near Brest yesterday afternoon. Most of the afternoon was spent snoozing after a really tasty lunch in our hotel, catching up on disturbed sleep from the crossing. A brief walk around the village revealed what felt like a ghost town. There was nobody around but that evening we found a really nice pizzeria where we stocked up on high carbohydrate food (pizza!) and some beer.

After a good night’s sleep we woke at 6.15am to uninspiring weather, overcast with rain in the air. After packing our kit into the car Matt and Paula popped to the local Patisserie for some croissants which we scoffed on the way to the start of the first stage in Brest. We had checked out the start yesterday so that we knew where we needed to be.

We started on one side of the old bridge in Brest parallel to the new road bridge. Crossing this we really felt the cross wind and saw sailboats speeding on the water demonstrating the strength of the wind. Sticking to the route, we passed through Plougastel Doulgas and Loperhet and then proceeded to turn left rather than right at a crossroads. Luckily we realised our mistake and turned round to continue to Hopital Camfrout and La Faou to the start of our first climb of the day, a 4th category called Cote de Ty-Jopic. Categories of climbs range from 4th (easiest) to Hors category (outside category – hardest). They are based on the gear that an old car would need to be in to get up it. 4th category-4th gear, HC climbs such as Alpe d’Huez are so big that a car would not have been able to get up there! Our first rendezvous with Chris and Paula was at Lannedern after 49km and we stopped for a banana and to restock on energy drink, energy gels and flapjacks.

On to Gourin at 90km after our third 4th cat climb of the day (Col de Toullaeron) and we met Chris and Paula just in time to jump in the car before a huge downpour! After munching on a ham and cheese baguette we were ready to continue. On our way to Plouray along the D1 we found a French cyclist hanging on to our back wheels. This guy overtook us, dropped behind us, crossed over to ride on the wrong side of the road and then rejoined us! Not entirely sure what he was up to but he seemed friendly enough and was impressed by our tour. Luckily he lived in Guermene sur Scorff where we passed through and hew was able to show us the way which was lucky as the route was not at all obvious there. Around here the heavens opened and I have never cycled in so much rain. We got absolutely soaked but luckily it was warm rain and we carried on in this for around half an hour before it eased up before our last 4th cat climb of the day (Cote de Guenerve). A quick rendezvous with Chris and Paula just after Remungol, which we reached half an hour before schedule, and we pushed on through Locmine and Bignan. Chris and Paula very helpfully showed us the way through these towns by overtaking us and waiting at the side of the road for us. The trouble with the published tour route is that it is not always clear where it goes through little villages where road signs are scarce and the TDF signs from the race are taken down/stolen as souvenirs straight after the stages. The last 7% climb up to Plumelac after a sweeping right-hander over a narrow bridge had us struggling a little, in contrast to the sprint finish in the real Tour.

We completed the 197.5km in 7hrs 36 minutes riding time at just under 27kph average.
Alejandro Valverde won the stage two days ago in 4hrs 36 minutes at a 42.1kph average! A great day’s riding over a rolling course. Let’s hope for better weather tomorrow!

Saturday, 5 July 2008

The Big Day Approaches

Well, we've ordered the food and drink from SIS and Powerbar to ensure we can keep going on the bikes, we've pestered people for sponsorship, we've plotted the route and directions, we've bought (some) new kit, we've cleaned the bikes, and we've packed - well, nearly - the car is being hoovered out as I type!

We head off from Hereford at 13:30 to get to Bristol to pick up Ian, then on to Yeovil to say cheerio to my Grandad and Nanny before we plot our route down to Plymouth to catch the Britanny Ferries ferry to Roscoff.

The Tour proper has just left Brest and in 2 days, so will we have! It's all very exciting now and the terror of last week has been overtaken by nervous excitement and a desire to get going. I'm pretty sure Ian is the same.

After over 8 months of training, we're finally ready. It's been a long journey - over 8,000 miles all in for the two of us, so I think we're fully prepared and trained up.

A massive thank you to everybody that has sponsored us - we now have over £3,100 pledged - that's nearly £1 per kilometre so we shall be counting them off as we go. It would be great to reach £1/mile so tell all your friends about the two crazy guys you know and what they're up to this summer!

Anyway - until we next find an internet connection, that's it from me.

Fingers, toes, eyes and legs crossed - and keep an eye on the telly - we shall be trying to get an honourable mention on ITV4!

Matt

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Get Ready...Get Set...

Well folks, the time has come. We've cycled over 8000 miles between us over the last 6 months, come rain or shine. We have got up early at weekends when most sensible people are enjoying their nice warm beds. We have driven thousands of miles getting to events all over the country. We have ridden some of the most picturesque roads in the country. We have crashed and have the scars to prove it. We have trashed our bikes, one of mine reached the point of no return and ended up in a skip! And to top it all off we have shaved our legs. I remember as juniors when we used to race bikes, we were the odd ones out becasue we refused to do it. Now we can see scars and blemishes that have been hidden under hair for 15 years! Its an odd sensation but I feel its a chance to put the myth to rest. Cyclists do not shave their legs for aerodynamics. Its simply that when you come off at high speed, hairs have a horrible habit of getting caught in the tarmac and ripping off large chunks of flesh. Also it makes massage much easier and you use considerably less sun cream. It is a little disconcerting though when your smooth legs rub together in bed and you realise that they belong to you!!

We are setting off for Plymouth on Saturday and will be getting the night ferry across the channel to Roscoff to arrive Sunday morning. By this time the pros will have completed stage 1: 198km from Brest to Plumelec. We will start on Monday two days behind them. For as long as I can remember, the first stage has always been a prologue timetrial of about 7km and this decides who will wear the famous yellow jersey (maillot jaune) on the next day's stage. Typically, the year we decide to ride the Tour, the first stage is a fully blown undulating long stage! What a warm up!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for supporting us and encouraging us over the past few months since we decided to do this. What started off as a fun idea has developed into a massive undertaking. The amount of training and organisation involved has been immense. In fact I think the organisation has outweighed the training! Booking accommodation, travel, car hire, plotting the routes, contacting companies for support, contacting media to help to get the message across. It really has all come together and we have been lucky to have such understanding friends and family to support us. So a big thank you to everybody!

Chris and Paula (Matt's parents) will be driving us down to Plymouth and to the start in Brest and will accompany us for the first eight stages down to Toulouse. Chris is planning to ride a stage with us too on his birthday (12th July). My very understanding girlfriend, Kate and her friend Kate (go Team Kate!!) will officially take over from here but will be joining us a couple of stages earlier. They will watch the pros come in to Toulouse and see how the best cyclists in the world do it(!) before they come and help us. My parents, Liz and Peter, will meet us in Foix ready to take over support on Stage 12 and will continue to support us right till the end in Paris on 29th July and then transport our equipment back to England. Without all this support, riding something of this magnitude would be almost impossible, certainly on the schedule we have set ourselves. Indeed, there is 1000km of transfer between stages and the thought of carrying our kit in panniers up those mountains beggars belief!

Thank you also to Ned and Nat at the Portcullis pub in Clifton (my local!) for putting up the article about our challenge in the pub. I will need a beer when I get back!

Please send words of encouragement while we are out there. We plan to update the blog regularly as we progress around the 3500km (2200 miles) route. We are going to suffer at times (most of the time!) and it really helps to have kind words of encouragement to get us through those days. We are not just doing this for ourselves. We really want to raise as much money as we can for CLIC Sargent and MacMillan and the kind donations we have received so far have really motivated us in our training. So far we have raised over £3000 and we haven't even started the ride yet.

So that's it. Next time you hear from us we will be in France so keep an eye on this blog and follow us on Le Tour.

All the best