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:
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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.