Cingles de Mont Ventoux

Thursday

The alarm was set for 04:45 and I couldn’t decide if being awoken by cramp at precisely 04:44 was a good omen or not.  It did mean I could cancel the alarm before it woke up Rach, though my attempts to stretch had much the same effect.  Racing at Crystal Palace seems to be having a bit of a ruinous effect on my body.

Up and about I was already packed.  AndyC arrived a little early disrupting my carefully planned ‘just in time’ scheduling.  I chucked my bag in the back of the motor that we’d hired and set off to pick up AndyI and then off to DaveC’s popping the bikes on the back of the trailer thingy for our journey.

We swiftly made our way down to Folkestone and managed to sneak onto a slightly earlier train.  The Eurotunnel was on typically great form.  No hassle.  No queues.  No security.  No removing random items of clothing and other insults to my intelligence and dignity that I find impossible to bear at airports. And you can get a decent coffee.  What more can you ask?

The Garmin was up to it’s usual tricks.  Recommending innovative, alternative routes that, when rightly ignored, retrospectively calculating that the more conventional and straightforward options were indeed more efficient.  Is it possible for an English driver to travel any distance on French roads without passing favourable comment and speculating on the reasons for such stately progress?  Not in my experience.

Apart from an HGV driver learning the ropes on narrow, twisty rural roads the journey was without serious incident.  It was with just a little guilt that I somehow ended up the only one of the four of us that was not insured to drive.  Instead I was able to work away on a new website for a couple of hours on the laptop that will, almost definitely, be added to the growing pile of unfinished projects that form an unseemly pile in my past.

We found VeloVentoux with ease and got acquainted with Craig and Vicky who are like, er, famous in the cycling world.  The accommodation is beautiful and our welcome was very much according to the high expectations established from the books and articles they have appeared in.

We popped our bikes in the garage and unpacked.  We had two twin rooms separated by a shared bathroom which was an interesting arrangement.  Two unspoken rules seemed to establish themselves immediately – whistle while you work and any serious business should be done in the communal toilet on the floor below.

The view from the room was simply stunning.

We half listened to Craig’s advice on where to eat and we set off in search of a meal.  Whilst not our intended destination, we found a small restaurant and likely ‘made their week’ as we tucked in to a three course meal – not amazing by any means but decent enough and necessary fuel for the day ahead.

The original plan was to chill on Friday, maybe do a brief ‘loosener’ on the bike and generally prepare for the main assault on Saturday.  However, the consensus was that we would be better served to do the ‘bigun’ on Friday, leaving us free to see how we felt to ride on Saturday.  The weather was fantastic and it was a relief that we wouldn’t need any of the winter gear that we had packed.  We caught up with a couple of guys that had done the Bedoin climb that day and they confirmed that the conditions were fine.

Friday

Exciting.  Up at 7:00.  Look out of window – it’s a beautiful day.  The top of Ventoux in clear view from our room. Decent breakfast – yoghurt, muesli, crunchy, banana, coffee and cheeky croissant – one of the benefits of being in a cycling accommodation for cyclists run by cyclists.  Then pack – phone, brevet card, cash, camera, energy bars, gels, water bottles.

First stop Bedoin.  We had thought about driving out to Bedoin as it was a 25km ride, however the hassle of loading up the bikes in the motor was too much.  And it was a fantastic morning.  I haven’t been to Provence before, but if the bit around Ventoux is representative it is a beautiful place.  It was nice to stretch the legs on a ‘rolling’ course, through Malaucene (another of the starting points for the three ascents).  Every so often it was a privilege to be caught by a scene of such staggering beauty that the only response was involuntary laughter.

To qualify for the ‘cingles club’ it is required that all 3 climbs (Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault) are completed in one day.  This is ‘proved’, in a gentlemanly way, by getting the ‘brevet card’ stamped 4 times, at each of the start towns and once at the summit.  We dutifully got our cards stamped at the Bedoin tourist office and, after spending a few minutes getting the tourist shots done we set about the first climb.  Three of us (AndyC, DaveC and I) would be attempting to complete the challenge and AndyI content with carrying out a single ascent as part of his recce of the Etape route which he is completing in July.

Bedoin is the most famous of the ascents and is the one that is used in the Tour de France.  It roughly splits into three sections; the first few kilometres that are relatively flat, the forest section and the final 6km of barren moonscape.  The first bit is easy, varying a little between three and five percent and, for my money, shouldn’t really be considered part of the overall ascent.  It’s too flat and doesn’t feel like part of the mountain.  It also serves to flatten out the average gradient of the climb which is to do it a bit of a disservice.

However, you soon know about it when you hit the forest section.  Suddenly you are in the trees and the summit with the characteristic weather station is out of view.  And the climb ramps up, rarely dropping below 10% and long sections of 11, 12 and 13%.  Our legs were still fresh as this was our first ascent and set a good even pace.  Bravado prevents a lot of riders going for the ‘soft option’ of a 34×27 gear setup but I challenge anyone to find themselves ‘spinning’ at the sort of speeds that this type of climb necessitate!  Give me a higher cadence option any day.

Bedoin is at about 350 metres, and the next waypoint is at 1400 metres; Chalet Reynard.  After nearly an hour in the twisting forest section it’s a relief to make it.  The climb seems to play funny tricks on your mind.  The Garmin (the good bike gadget, not the bad car one) gives an accurate guide to the current gradient of the climb; unlike it would seem my senses.  Often the slope looks no more than a few percent, but is nearly 15% and vice versa.  Seeing is not believing in this case.

Once out in the open after the forest section the challenge, aside for the climbing, is the elements; particularly the wind.  Mont Ventoux stands proud in Provence and, whilst not being the only hill in the area, does rather dominate and I presume this is the reason for the famed conditions.  We worked our way up the famous ‘moonscape’ towards the weather station which has a kind of beauty I suppose, not least as it symbolises the end of the suffering – unless you’re planning a couple more ascents of course.

The top of Ventoux was a bit grim really.  It was very windy and chilly.  There’s a gift shop and that’s about it apart from a few windswept tourists.  There is also a complete absence of anywhere to shelter from the conditions which meant that, rather than being able to relax and celebrate the first ascent, we were quickly on our way – not before my first Twitter of the day of course!

Brevet card stamped we were on our way.  Not after an initial false start; the Malaucene descent was technically closed, to cars at least.  Up until last week the road was completely covered in snow.  Fortunately the road was pretty much clear for us, apart from a lot of surface water and debris.  We had to negotiate a couple of barriers on the way down but the descent, overall, was glorious.  Wide sweeping roads with a good road surface and visibility even tempted me up to a record top speed of 80km/h (50mph).  And it goes on for ever!  Naturally it doesn’t escape your attention that every metre of wonderful descent will be matched by a subsequent ascent, but that was for later.  Live for now!

Our second visit to Malaucene and a quick stamp of the brevet in the bike shop.  All of the business owners seemed very gracious about being disturbed for a clearly unprofitable transaction.  A quick bite to eat, another Diet Coke – why was I craving Diet Coke so much! – and away.

The Malaucene climb is much the same difficulty as the Bedoin being both similar in length and total ascent.  However, it kicked up harder and sooner.  So another 90+ minutes of climbing began.  We bumped into AndyI on his way down and we had a welcome breather and a quick debrief before we ploughed on.

A slight difference in pace saw DaveC slightly drop off as we made steady progress up the hill.  The Malaucene climb is more forgiving in a way as there are a couple of places where the gradient relents allowing a little recovery.  Ducking the barriers at the top we made it without too much aggravation and still felt OK – though my Twitter looks otherwise.

So that was the two hard climbs out of the way, and just the easiest one left to do; from Sault.  The Sault ascent shares the same last 6km from Chalet Reynard and it was this we descended before taking the older road towards Sault.  In contrast to the other climbs, the Sault descent was a bit hairy.  The road surface was rough in places and in others freshly tarmacked but no less scary for looking a bit molten. However, no complaints; it’s always good to be going downhill!  Which was why the little kick up to the town of Sault to get a last stamp was a bit of a blow.  The tourist office was closed, but the guys in the cafe were more than happy to stamp our cards for the last time and we were on our way.

The Sault ascent is much longer, and therefore easier than the other two.  However, that somewhat depends on the pace.  AndyC had been itching to push on all day, with me just about hanging on.  We pushed each other the whole way up to Chalet Reynard, doing 25km/h or more on the 3% sections and motoring past other riders.  I was right on my limit, or rather, the limit that I wanted to go to.

As soon as we reached Chalet Reynard I knew the game was up and AndyC’s superior fitness was to win the day.  I backed off a little and composed myself for the last 6km with the gap to AndyC rather depressingly growing.  I actually felt that I was going OK and made my own stately way up the climb – though I doubt it looked very stately frankly.  The gap stabilised at about 150m as both of us tired.  150m doesn’t sound very much on a 26km climb but it is.  When we reached the top we were both shattered.  The weather had turned a little and it was cold, very windy and raining.  On top of a little exhaustion that was a bit much.  Anyway, we congratulated each other on a job well done and took shelter in the gift shop.  For all AndyC’s superior fitness and climbing ability I think I did better in the dignity stakes and managed at least not to sit down in the shop.  DaveC joined us and none of us were in any mood to hang around.  I was shivering at this point and the first bit of the descent was pretty grim – exhaustion, cold, high speeds and uncertain handling in the wind not combining to make a pleasant experience.

Our final descent was to Bedoin which, having suffered up through the forest, was an absolute joy on the way down.  AndyC decided that it was insufficient to kick my arse on the way up, and showed my the way to go down too.  Bombing past a convey of vehicles I tried to keep up as we swept down through the trees.  By this time I had warmed up and it was truly exhilarating making our way down.

Having arrived and regrouped in Bedoin we merely had to get back to our accommodation in Faucon.  Which was not quite as simple as it might sound.  Our map-meister, AndyI, was already showered and safely ensconced in the comfort of VeloVentoux and, having set off with a little more confidence than we could afford, quickly realised that we didn’t know the way back.  However, in a mixed trip for Garmin inc, the Edge 705 came up trumps and navigated us safely back.  To describe the ride back as purgatory would be to do it a slight disservice, but having completed the challenge another hour or so on the bike in rolling countryside was not at all what any of us wanted.

DaveC iced his own personal cake by winning the day; albeit by rules that only became apparent after his fine victory.  Apparently CTC rules dictate that a sprint to the last town sign is the official manner of determining the winner – and who am I, or anyone else for that matter, to argue.

It was with tremendous relief that we arrived back at the accommodation and whilst not quite having a Steve Redgrave moment (if you see my on a bike again…) it was not far off.  AndyI gave us a cheery greeting and had been happily planning our following day’s recovery session.

Has a shower ever felt so good?  Probably not, especially when the first flood of salt from my hair was washed from my eyes.  That was a tough day.  183km (113.5 miles) of riding and 5113m (16775 feet) of climb.  That’s more than the Marmotte albeit at a less spectacular pace.  But we had done it.  As I was to repeat over dinner the following day, it’s like winning the speedboat in Bullseye – nobody could take it away.

We regrouped out in the courtyard basked in evening sunshine and AndyI announced that he had planned a 150km Etape preview ride for the following day.  I assumed he was joking.

If there’s one thing that cycling’s good for it’s making you hungry.  AndyI kindly drove us to a nearby town and we enjoyed a top notch meal. Amazing surroundings, a nice glass of wine and a ‘local speciality’ pepper steak which was like a normal pepper steak but with much, much more pepper than usual.

We had a relatively early night and got too bed trying to recover for the next day.

Saturday

It turned out that the Etape recce was not actually a joke and that AndyI was seriously suggesting that we ride nearly 100 miles after the exertions of the previous day.  This seemed totally nuts.  Anyway, same breakfast, pack up stuff and off.  I got to wear my glorious new Cervelo Test Team jersey which gave me a little boost.  The legs were feeling pretty tired but not unbearable as we made our way through the Provencal countryside.

The plan was to ride part of the Etape route enabling AndyI to get more of a feel for what he was up against come July.  For DaveC, AndyI and I it was an opportunity to see more of the countryside and have a social, relaxing ride.

The route took us a north of Faucon and would enable us to cycle a wide circle around Mont Ventoux.  It included a couple of minor climbs that would soften up the Etape riders before the major ascent of Ventoux.

We arrived at Sault after 4 or 5 hours of relatively relaxed riding and sat down for lunch.

It was our original plan to finish a tour round the mountain and head back to the accommodation.  However, it was hard to resist the lure of one last ascent.  In the end, DaveC decided to do the Sault climb and AndyC and I to complete more of the tour through a gorge and then tackle the Bedoin climb.  AndyI stuck to his original plan and sensibly completed his appraisal of the Etape route.

We set off going our separate ways.  I think that AndyC and I had the best views as the gorge was a delight – it struck us both as odd that this wasn’t the route that would be used for the Tour.

A bit of climbing was followed by a long, sweeping descent of about 1 or 2% which seemed to go on forever.

Climbing from Bedoin again was ridiculous.  Our legs were already tired and we were suffering a bit in the afternoon heat.  And we had already covered about 140km and done 3 categorised climbs.

We got off to a great start when a Belgian rider came sailing passed us with consummate ease.  Terrific!  We ploughed on, not quite grovelling but dignity was in short supply.  ‘Where is Chalet Reynard?’ was the unspoken question silently repeated over and again as we alternated sitting, standing, hands on levers,  hands on top of bars -  anything to ease the suffering a little.  Aggravatingly the forest section doesn’t even look that steep, but the Garmin confirmed the suffering constantly showing 10% or more.

Chalet Reynard was greeted with a silent cheer – ‘Straight on?’ AndyC asked.  Stopping was tempting but not a good idea.  Much better to press on.  Only 6km to go.  We knew at least that the toughest part of the climb was behind us and we slowly ground our way to the top.

I couldn’t decide whether constantly looking at the altimeter was a good idea but I couldn’t resist.  1,600, 1,650, 1,700 metres – I’d been reduced to counting integer multiples of the Toys Hill ascent remaining.

I’m sure if either of us had anything left we’d have attempted to push a little to ‘win’ the last climb.  But it was better in the end that both of us were shot and we both finished the climb at the same time with a quick shake of the hand.

All that was left was to enjoy the descent down to Malaucene and the final 12km back to Faucon.  It was a nutty ride but felt like a great achievement.  We’d covered another 174km (109 miles) and climbed 3224m and 10557 feet.

It was terrific to catch up with AndyI and DaveC back at VeloVentoux and I think all of us feeling rather pleased with ourselves.

We didn’t have far to go in the evening as we ate at the accommodation.  We had a great three course meal with a couple of beers and glasses of wine.

Sunday

Oh well.  The party had to end sometime.  We packed up and set off for Calais.  The guys did a terrific job of getting us to the Eurotunnel a good deal ahead of schedule and we were all safely home by 7:30.

What a great trip.  Granted we’d had some good luck with the weather.  One week earlier and some of the climbs would have been covered in snow.

VeloVentoux was everything that we had expected from their amazing reputation and was a perfect base for our trip.

Tour of Flanders ‘09 – Part II

The official pictures are up already.  Here’s one of me demonstrating how easy I found the climbs.  Here’s me hardly breathing :-) .

Anyway, we went back to the hotel and freshened up.  There are few greater pleasures than having a decent shower after a good bit of exertion.

We wandered into Aalst on the prowl for some lunch.  After a pretty good bowl of pasta and a glass of wine we wandered around town for a bit before deciding it was time for dinner.  A plate of meat and a pizza later we wandered back to the hotel for an early night.

We got up early for breakfast and checked out  hoping to find a nice bar showing some coverage of the race.  Interestingly the QuickStep team were checking into our hotel.  The life of the pro clearly isn’t that glamorous.  In fact, there was a bag clearly marked ‘Devolder’ – the winner of last year’s race and, what we didn’t know at the time, the winner of this year’s race too.

Setting off in convoy we went in search of a bar.  Bar found, we set about reading cycling magazines, reminiscing about the previous days ride and watching the GP with Dutch commentary.  At one point everyone dashed outside, we followed to watch the tail end of the ladies race.

Finally 13:00 came around which was the schedule for men’s race to come through the little town we’d settled in.  Finding a decent spot we waited for the sound of helicopters. 

And finally the riders came.  I’ve never really seen pro racers up close.  Torn between taking photos and taking in the scene I did a bit of both. I can’t really justify the experience with words, but seeing 190 pros power past was genuinely impressive.

An awesome display.  Pro cyclists are a funny breed – most of the guys do not have great, big muscles but somehow they seem to generate so much power.  Amazing.

However, great spectacle or nay, it was over pretty quickly.  We had to calculate whether to risk driving to another spot and seeing the race pass again as it was cutting it a bit fine to catch our schedule Eurotunnel crossing.  Sense prevailed and we joined the traffic jam to the next spot.

Perched on the side of the descent from the Koppenberg we waited for half an hour or so, enjoying the sight of the big cows and the spring sunshine.

We were treated to a much more fragmented field with the main breakaway really going for it.  Deeply impressive.  It’s hard to imagine what it must feel like to be ‘on the rivet’ in a breakaway in an important race – but it looked bloody fantastic.

I said to myself during the cobbled sections "never again”.  But for all of the discomfort of the day, the positives were massive.  Seeing the pros race on the same roads that I did the previous day was brilliant.

Tour of Flanders ’09 – Part I

Phew.  Great weekend.  And great timing.  I’ve done a lot of training lately and not much in the way of organised rides which are great for providing a bit of feedback on progress.

Friday

Nice simple brief for Friday; get to the hotel in Aalst good time.  This involved finishing work a little early, picking up AndyC, bundling the bikes up in the motor and heading off to Folkestone to get the Eurotunnel.  Being a bit of a connoisseur of the Eurotunnel service of late it was astonishing to see it operating at something like capacity.

We arrived at the hotel and it did not match my mental image at all.  I thought it was going to be a nice town centre hotel right by the start line.  Instead it was a rather dull out-of-town place on the edge of nowhere by a dual carriageway.  Anyway, we got checked in and settled in for a very noisy and barely passable meal with a load of British riders who seemed surprisingly boisterous given the challenges that lie ahead.

We met up briefly with DaveC and PaulS for a quick de-brief and were soon off for an early night.  Alarm set for 5:40 which, without wishing to go on, was 4:40 as far as my body clock was concerned.

Saturday

Could that be the alarm already!  For sure too soon but it did end a miserable cycle of dreams foretelling a Clockwise-style day of administrative and organisational bungling.  We got to breakfast for 6 and helped ourselves from the buffet.  No porridge alas, but when you’re about to ride a hilly 140km you can permit yourself a pain au chocolat or two.   We jumped in the car and headed off to the start.  I’m not sure how many riders started this year, but it’s said to be 15,000 and the race numbers looked to go up to 30,000.  Either way, there are a lot of people around somewhat overwhelming the infrastructure of the small town where the race started.  We parked on the hard shouldery bit of the dual carriageway and got our kit on and assembled bikes.

Andy might have told me that I had a sign sticking out of my head!

We rolled into town and then to the start.  AndyC and I had to pick up our numbers and secured them to our handlebars.  Thousands of fellow cyclists were milling around and enjoying the banging house music, even if it was 7:30 in the morning!  All ready we headed off.

It wasn’t entirely clear where the official start line was to be honest but we dutifully followed the signs and got on the road.  There was not much in the way of hills for quite a while, but it was windy and this offered a bit of challenge.  We set off at a decent enough pace, spurred on not a litte by the constant targets in front of us.  No matter how many groups of riders we passed, there were always more just up the road.

The atmosphere on the ride was great.  The signage was (mostly!) great and there were plenty of marshalls and police along the way assuring a relatively smooth ride.

The route took in a mixture of minor roads, very minor roads, main roads, cycle paths and disused railway line.  It was a little way into the ride that I got a taste of what the ride was all about – cobbles.

(photo courtesy of DaveC)

At the foot of a climb we crossed a junction and then, wallup, a section of cobbles.  It was not as if I had not prepared for them.  Double handlebar tape.  Gel gloves.  But I was not prepared for them.  Christ.  The noise.  Poor bike rattling like crazy.  And the feeling of being shaken as if riding a pneumatic drill.    I had nothing to compare this too.  It was frankly horrible.  Fortunately this first section was quickly over but gave me a taste of what was to come.

We pressed on once back on the asphalt – ooh, has a bit of smooth road ever felt so good.  About time for a hill I thought.  And so it was.  A sharp right turn and then straight up. Cobbled, a little wet in places and steep.  But with a lot of people around the pace was only so-so and I was easily able to keep up.  And this set the scene for the rest of the climbs.  Mostly short, pretty steep and taken at a forced comfortable pace by the hundreds of other riders around us.

The weather is a major factor in how comfortable this ride is.  If it rains I imagine it would be pretty miserable to say the least – how often do you see pro cyclists walking up hills!  Fortunately, I think though the hard core looking for a real ‘classics’ experience would disagree, we had a dry day.  A little chilly first thing, and cloudy, but dry.

And so the ride went on.  Relatively flat of rolling sections, some asphalt (yay) and some cobbles (boo!).  AndyC lost a water bottle on one of the cobbled sections – not an uncommon event given the amount the bikes are shaken about.  I stopped to collect it for him.  Boy did I pay.  I struggled to get my cleat back in for ages and had to work hard over the cobbles for a good few minutes largely one-handed until I finally managed to catch up and hand the bottle over.

We gave the feed station at about 50km a miss as it looked like too much trouble to get in amongst it so we pressed on.  My legs felt great and we took turns on the front driving the pace on a little bit.  Finding groups to work with and shelter behind, but never settling down too much.  The conditions or the temptation to jump along to another group up the road too much.

The hills came and went and I felt suprisingly underwhelmed.  The reputation of the ride is pretty fierce and the climbs didn’t really match up to this.  This is not bravado by any means; I’m nothing if not a coward, but the hills simply didn’t compare in length or difficulty to some that we regularly ride here in boring old Kent.

Even the great Koppenberg was tough but not really tough.  Admittedly the pace was slowed by the abundance of riders on the climb, many on foot, but by the time I got to the top I was whizzing (well, almost… in my imagination anyway!) between other riders to get to the top.

At about half way the four of us got split up.  AndyC and I tagged along with 3 Belgian riders who were setting a decent pace.  Totally mad.  Chatting, shouting.  Calling out to women spectators and generally being, well, very un-British.  We stayed with them for quite a few miles before they peeled off.

The high point of the race was the climb of the Muur; I think the toughest climb of the day.  I hit the bottom of the climb pretty hard so was labouring a bit at the top.  There were a whole load of spectators too so I thought I ought to turn it on a little.  By turn it on I mean grapple with my bike in an ungainly and undiginified manner setting no more than a mediocre pace.

AndyC had a better time weaving through the ‘human traffic’ than me and got a bit ahead.  Somehow both of us missed a crucial turn and ending up bombing down a hill for a couple of kilometres in completely the wrong direction.  Oh how pleased was I when I realised I had to climb back up the hill to rejoin the race.  AndyC, alas, had gone even further so ended up behind me.  I was not aware of this so pressed on hard for the last 15 or 20 miles of the ride.

Riding mostly on my own but forming brief alliances I made it to the end strongly and feeling great – aside from a bit of knee trouble.  The end was a bit of an anti-climax to say the least.  We rode the final section as the pro’s would passed the spectator stands but then had another weird few kilometers on busy roads and junctions before making it to the actual end back where we started.

I arrived alone which was particularly galling as I spotted within 2 beats that the next house tune was Moloko – Sing it Back.  Not that anyone would have been impressed but it’s nice when your feats of minor genius have third party corroboration I find.

For dull reasons I did not have my phone so I ended up doing a couple of laps around the finish area not finding any of the guys before conceding defeat and riding back to the car.

Overall the ride was great.

Cycling in Belgium is brilliant.  I can’t imagine living in a country that is so cycling-friendly.  There are cycle lanes everywhere and they are well designed and maintained.  The police brilliant and motorists incredibly tolerant.  I was speculating with AndyC on the way home just how much this is down to Eddy Mercx…

I loved the atmosphere of the ride and the sheer volume of riders.   The hills were punchy and good fun.  And the cobbles…  Up hill cobbles are fine.  On the flat and down hill – no.  Horrible.  Unpleasant.  Not fun.  Surely bad for bike, body and soul.

One slightly disappointing aspect was the lack of riders really going for it.  Maybe we started a little later than the more ambitious riders and maybe the event is treated more like a festival than a race, but there simply didn’t seem to be many locals pushing on that hard.  I don’t recall, but I could easily be wrong, being passed on the road by anyone (with the exception of AndyC up to his old tricks), but instead passing (literally I suspect) thousands of riders.

Part II to follow…

Tour of Flanders ’09

Well, I’m all packed up and ready to go.  Just two thirds of a day’s work then I’m off to Belgium.

I’m not sure what to make of the Tour of Flanders just yet.  Frankly I’m not in the league of brave cyclists and I certainly don’t enjoy the rougher surfaces of the tired Kent country lanes.  My winter bike is now equipped with double bar tape (crudely applied) and cool, green trim, Vittoria Pave tyres – on loan from DaveC.

Statistically it’s not that difficult – 140km or so, and only 1,300m total climb.   But it’s the difficultly of the climbs that should make it interesting as we’ll be riding on ‘pave’, ie cobbles.  Fortunately it looks like it’s going to be dry this weekend, as when it’s wet even the pros look to struggle!

The amateurs ride on Saturday (about 15,000 of them!!) and the pros do the longer course on Sunday.  Lance Armstrong was planning to do the ride but has pulled out which is a bit of a shame but it will be interesting to see pro riders for the first time on the road.

A full, self-aggrandising report to follow no doubt…

Packing List

I’m always a little paranoid packing for a cycling trip – one critical missing item could ruin the trip.

So I made a list.

Tour of Flanders

Wow.  It’s the Tour of Flanders next week.  How did that come around so soon!?

It should be a great fun ride.  The ride is only 140km or so and has a total climb of about 1,300m.  So modest by sportive standards I think.  But… it’s the cobbles that worry me.

Anyway, here’s a Rapha guide on preparing for the big day.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cfKuGacLpU]

Invicta Grimpeur ’09

Not the best named event of the year in the my view.  But maybe one of the toughest.  Actually, that’s nonsense – I just say and think that every week!

The ride itself is only 100km (60 miles) but takes in every hill surrounding Sevenoaks – twice.  The ride starts in Otford, does a 50km loop in one direction, back to the start and then repeats – but in the opposite direction.  There is a slightly odd psychology at play I think.  Each year, the directions are swapped in order, and this year was the turn of anti-clockwise first then clockwise.  This is arguably harder, not least as the 30% or so Yorks Hill is the final climb of the day.

We, DaveC, DaveM and AndyC and I, met up at the ludicrously named Green St Green and made good time to the registration hall in Otford.  All signed in, we have a nice cup of coffee and I sneaked in a couple of old-school biscuits – a custard cream and a bourbon – wallup!  The number’s swelled and it was nice to spot a few faces; not least PaulM who is the brilliant organiser of the Marmotte trip.

It was good to relax and build up a bit of anticipation for the ride for a change but it was great to finally set off.  Fortunately I had my excuses in early – with an interval session on Friday night and a reasonable length (120km) solo ride the day before my legs were not as fresh as they could have been.

And do cyclists like an excuse!?  As long as deep down the excuse does not mean that you’re a fundamentally shit cyclist, anything will do.  Tired.  Full of cold.  Bad knees.  Out the previous night.  Etc, etc – on it goes.  It’s a brave and reckless cyclist that turns up for any ride, pronounces that he or she is fully fit, that the training is going well and they’re well rested and expecting to have a great day :-) .

We set off at a reasonable pace, with a nice group of about 10 riders.  We took it reasonably easy for a while then after about 10 minutes opened up the legs a little.  Even without any serious hills to contend with we had a little shake-down and the numbers thinned a little.

Being an Audax ride, we had to deal with/enjoy the process of getting our card stamped at a series of checkpoints.  This has several drawbacks.  The first is that it’s a pain in the arse, fumbling around in pockets with winter gloves on.  Second, the level of competence of the very nice people that generously give their time is mixed.  Third, I managed to lose my keys somehow, doubtless during one of these stops.  And fourth, it allows dropped riders to regroup.  Which is good and bad I guess, but when you’ve busted your balls to build a gap on the road, it’s a shame to see it effortlessly taken back.

Given the hilly nature of the ride, you’d imagine that the descents would be something that I would happily embrace – and sometimes this is the case.  Just as often, however, descents are pretty terrifying – especially at this time of year.  I am particularly fearful of coming off for some reason.  Others seem to be able to race down wet, potholed, greasy road surfaces quite happily at speeds well over 50km (30mph or so).  I’m not quite at the level of being embarassing, but I can’t be far off.

I managed the first few climbs pretty well actually – despite my obviously tired legs from the previous days exertions :-) , though towards the end of the first loop AndyC was starting to put a bit of time into me on the steeper climbs.  Not enough that I’d be dropped, but enough to show a bit of authority (in my weakened state of course!) so I was relieved and knackered by the time we got back to Otford.  All four of us arrived together, with DaveM looking  strong, especially having been temporarily dropped earlier in the ride.

Another quick stamp on the card and a jimmy riddle later we were back on our way.  Straight into a tough climb.  When a climb gets beyond a certain gradient, it’s hard whatever you do.  Whilst the alpine climbs are doubtless difficult (says he with all of his vast experience!) they are rarely that much above 10%.  When climbs are above 15 or 20%, whatever you do, it’s going to be hurting.  In the saddle, out of the saddle, change down, whatever.  When you’re tired and the climb is steep – it just hurts.  Sometimes a lot.

AndyC was once again setting a really good pace and we quite quickly dropped first DaveC then DaveM.  It turned out that DaveC (club legend – I’ll properly introduce the guys in another post) was running a ‘standard’ chainset (which has standard, and big, front rings) so he’s probably now nursing thighs that look as though they belong to Arnold Schwarzenegger!  DaveM caught us again briefly, but then he was to be seen no more – this left just AndyC and I.

There was just one guy left in front of us – who turned out to be a thoroughly decent chap (as most cyclists are I find) when we met up at the end of the ride.  He’d set off a little before us at the changeover, and we caught him pretty quickly.  He was quite a big rider,brilliant/fearless on descents but not so great on the ascents (he’d been racing at Hog Hill the day before ;-) ).

(Image courtesy of Adrian Fitch – the full image can be viewed here)

After the next climb AndyC and I dropped him.  We still had 3 tough climbs left.  Fortunately AndyC started to tire a little – thank god! – and was climbing at a pace that I could just about manage.  We worked well together – of all of the riders in the club, we seem to be the best matched I think and we struggled, moaned, laughed over the next couple of climbs and pushed on a bit on the descents and flats.

The last climb, Yorks Hill, loomed.  Normally I manage a good laugh, literally out loud actually, as the road turns and you think you’re done and you find yourself facing yet more 30% or so climb.  We both managed to climb with me just about in the ascendency, grace completely out of the window, Paul Sherwen would have doubtless said “he’s all over his machine” several times.  But we were done climbing and just had a nice descent and a bit of flat back to base.

I felt pretty strong and was keen to push on.  On a small hill I looked back and saw AndyC and he’d dropped back a little.  I thought with a mile or so to go that it would not be bad form to press this advantage a little so I pushed on.  What I didn’t realise was that he’d been caught at the roundabout.  Therefore my impressive end of ride ‘sprint’ actually represented a small betrayal as I was exploiting his misfortune.  But only a small betrayal :-) .

I finally rolled back to base and got my card stamped for the last time.  I helped myself to a coffee, a ham roll and a cake, which cost a princely sum of 40p!

I think, but I’m not sure, that I was the quickest rider of the day which I was pleased about.  Nothing to get excited about though – this type of ride is not a race for a start.  But it helped ease the pain a little.

AndyC finished a couple of minutes behind me, and DaveC a little further back completing a bit of a miracle ride given his somewhat contrarian choice of gears ;-) .  DaveM was MIA.  Leaving a text, aborting the ride and heading home!

Just a 20 or 30km ride home left.  Horrible strong and slightly scary winds and a little rain greeted me but I made it home in one piece.

I can try and explain how tired I was when I got back.  We have a nested occasional table set – when about to eat my lunch, I racked my brains to try and think what I called the one I normally eat off.  I had to ask Rach in the end.  The answer : table.

Weekend Rides

Two good rides this weekend, a glorious flat 120km on Saturday with the club and a harder ride to Ditchling Beacon and back today.

Today’s ride was meant to be a 100-miler but I ended up, Don Bradman stylee, doing a mere 99.3 instead.

The links to the rides are to one of my ne’er-to-be-finished websites – logmyride.  It takes data from my awesome Garmin 705 and plots the route on google maps and a few charts too.  All clever stuff.  If I didn’t spend so much time on the bike I would even finish it I reckon.

Protected: Plans for 2009

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Mont Ventoux

In addition to the regular organised rides this year, I’m organising a trip to Mont Ventoux.

The plan is to join the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux.  This translates, I’m reliably told, to the ‘club of the madmen of Mont Ventoux’ and, to join the club, the mountain needs to be climbed 3 times in one day.  The climbs start in the towns of Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault and in total the ride is 138km and consists of 4,300 metres of climbing.  That’s enough to get half-way up Everest!

It should be an interesting day in the saddle as

  • We’re planning to do the ride in the second weekend of May.  This is a full 2 months before the Marmotte so getting the fitness right is going to be tricky.
  • Mont Ventoux is a tough climb, even to do once.  It’s widely considered to be the toughest climb featured in the Tour de France.
  • The weather is notoriously changeable and difficult.  ‘Ventoux’ means windy or thereabouts and legend has the maximum recorded wind speed of 193 mph.
  • The mountain has witnessed much action in the Tour de France, not least the death of Tom Simpson in 1967.
  • Two of the three climbs are properly hard

The climbs breakdown like this

Bedoin 21.4km, 1,600m climb, average 7.5%

Malaucene 21.5km, 1,570m climb, average 7.3%

Sault 26km, 1,210m climb, 4.7%