Sunday, November 23, 2008

Summer in London - but where is the sun?

We had kept waiting for summer to finally arrive in London - it never did, so to get our fix of sunshine, we did what alotof Londoners do .... head to the continent. Summer in London seemed to take on the same, but disapointing theme ... some nice warm days during the week, as Friday rolled around, the weather turned rather dire ... humid, cloudy and rain!

The one saving grace was the late sunsets - it was lovely after work, to head to a local park - in our case Clapham Common, grab some beers, or ciders ('the' summmer drink) and try and soak up any sun that existed. The beers gardens in pubs were full - people were smiling and actually polite - it is amazing what some fine weather can do to people!

So where to catch some sun ....hmmmmmm how about Italy?

So we decided to consult the massive map of Europe on our living room wall - there was an orange dot (orange dots = places we want to get to) just north of Milan right on Lake Como.

Susan decided it was time to to have a 'Lifestyles of the rich and famous' experience, so we bookeda hotel, on the lake at Bellagio - home to George Cloooney and site of a recent James Bond film.

Another rush to Gatwick airport on a Friday post work and on our carrier of choice (ok, the only one we can afford) EasyJet ..... a budget airline, which never runs on time and you can't quite be sure that they'll run at all. Afteran hour and half flight, we landed in the home of Italian glitzy fashin - Milan. We grabbed car and headed north. Lake Como is about 1.5 hours north of Milan, and as we landed after 11pm, we decided to keep the drive short and do a stop over in Varese.

Neither of us knew much about Varese - and as we were only going to have a sleep over, we didn't much care. Our hotel turned out to be an old medieval palace, so we pulled in, checked in and then slept. he next morning revealed what a stunnng piece of luck we stumbled upon - Varese is beautiful and the hotel we stayed in was outstanding. (the view from our room below)

As a further reason love Varese, is that it was the host ofthe 2008 World Road Cycling champoinships - ahhhhh Italy and cycling - what else could you ask for?

Well it just got better- we headed up towards Lake Como - but decided to take a bit of a detour via Lake Maggiore. The southern part of the lake is in Italy, the northern part in Switzerland - so we decided to take a quick trip in Switzerland on our way back around to Lake Como.

There are around half a dozen lakes upon on the border of Italy and Switerland - all beautiful. The scenary is alpine - funnily enough with the Swiss Alps as a back drop!

We arrived in Bellagio - the sky was blue, the temperate was mid 20s - this is the summer we were chasing!

Bellagio is a small village, on a promitory which is surrounded on 3 sides by Lake Como. The villas are bright yellows and pinks .... which conjures hideous visions of 1970s Surfers Paradise - but somehow, the Italians just know how to pull off tacky, in a way that has some charm

We walked through some tiny cobblestoned alleyways, past restaurants, bars, cafes and numerous wine shops/tasting rooms called enoteccas - these were a real highlight. You wander in, talk to the proprietor of the shop and explain the type of wine you like - hand over £10 and get to tast some pretty good vino. Most enoteccas also do food, usually local produce - which in the case of this region was lovely cheeses and stunning, thinly sliced cold meats. So after a fair few vinos - we settled on a bottled e liked and headed back to our hotel room - right on the lake, with a balcony which had a view to die for.

The roads around the lakes are extremely narrow and very winding - which makes for some 'interesting' moments when a bus or truck is coming in the other direction. The best way to get around the lake - unsurprisingly is by ferry. There are villages dotted all the way up and down the lake and the ferries run very regularly all day and through the night.

After a nice breakfast of breadrolls, meats and cheese - we jumped on a ferry and headed over to Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, which is a beautifully restored medieval villa - aka palace, with stunning gardens and views over the lake.

We then headed down to the village of Tremezzo for a spot of lunch ... unsurprisingly, breads, cheese, meats and icey cold Peroni beer!

Back onto the ferry and we just stayed on as it criss-crossed the lake - the sky was blue as was the water - it was just lovely sitting in the sun out on the water, looking at these stunning lakeside villas, covered in vines.

We jumped off at Menaggio, which is really pretty and seems to be the place where alot of cyclists and motorcyclists hang out - so, alot of lycra and leather and as you'd expect, heaps of cafes doing a roaring trade in skinny lattes!

After a cappuccino and tasty torte we wander around Menaggio and then back onto the ferry to head back to Bellagio for cocktails!

Most of the hotels on the lake in Bellagio have a restaurant/cocktail bar right on the water - ie literally on the water. So we found one on the water, which had a canopy of vines, shading the sun as we drank caprioskas as the sun set behind the mountains .. this is the life. After a number of drinks - it was time for some food and of course, vino.

We wandered up and down the steep alleyways past heaps of restaurants - finally settled upon one, which looked traditional and nice - and we were blown away by how good and cheap it was! We had a platter of cured hams, venison, wild boar with a range of different cheeses and olives - yum! Then some great fish for main course. All this was washed down with a bottle or two of very tasty northern Italian vino blanco.

If you are looking to get away for a holiday and lose weight - do NOT goto Italy. The food is always good and the servings are never skimpy.

So, we stumbled back to our room .. sat out on the balcony and looked over the lights across the other side of the lake - and of course, another glass of vino.

Unfortuntely, the next morning was time to head back .... but not before we nipped back into Switzerland and around the other side of Lake Maggiore ...... as we drove there was a sign to St Moritz (only 1 hour away.....) - we thought about not heading back to London and popping up to visit the ski resort - we could only afford to visit there in the summer!

Oh well - back to London, the humidity and rain ...... but our spirits were lifted and I was already plotting our next Italian trip!

A Weekend in Brugges - not the film

So, it has been a little while since we've updated this blog ... but with the weather turning rather chilly - snow overnight and -2, it is a good excuse to get typing

After the Tour adventure, we wee keen to keep travelling - we had been given alot of good info about Brugges, it is close, very cute and famous for beer, moules (mussels) and chocolate - so why wouldn't we go...????

A quick rush to get the Eurostar across to Brussels on Friday after work and we were off. We decided to spoil ourselves and travel first class on the Eurostar - so after taking our plush seats, we were asked whether we'd care for any champagne - to which I responded 'Only one????' So after a couple of lovely glasses (yes real glass) we settled back as the train cruised out of St Pancras station and quickly accelerated through London and out to the east of England.

We were promptly delivered a menu to choose our entree and main course and naturaly the most important thing - the wine list. The biggest decision was whether to pair the rack of lamb with a Bordeaux or a Spanish Rioja - how terrible! The French waitress had me sussed out pretty quickly and after my third top up of wine - she decided to bring me 2 bottles each tie I gave her the nod.

We arrived at Brussels central and a quick change and out to Brugges - we were staying in a B&B in the old part of Brugges, and I had to phone Jacques (our host) when we arrived. I rang Jacques when we got to Brugges station - Jacques, I quickly learned, has 2 vocal volumes - very loud and zero. Although it was a 10 minute walk from the station to his B&B he insisted he picked us up from the station.

When we walked out of the front of the station, I had a feeling I was going to LOVE Brugges - I looked out over a sea of more than 1000 bicycles.

Jacques, was lovely, he gave us a quick spin around Brugges which lookd stunning at night and then took us to his B&B. Well, he informed us that his B&B was actually full and that we would be staying just down the street at a 'friend' of his .... ok, I got a little suspicious, but no problems. We arrived at the house, knocked on the door and waited and waited ... eventually we heard the pitter/patter of feet and the door opened. On top of dropping the suitecase, I also had to pick my jaw up from the floor .... standing in the door way was a lovely Belgian lass, blond hair, blue yes, very tanned (yes it was the sun bed type) and obviously she was getting herself ready for bed - she had a very, very skimpy pair of 'shorts' on and a singlet .... which barely covered a set of boobs that occupied their own postcode! See, I knew I'd love Brugges!

Anyway, onto the city - it was lovely, beautiful old churches, town squares, canals and people cycling around with beaming smiles ....... and the best bit ... it was lovely and warm!

We wandered around the town on Saturday - did a quick canel trip, which was just lovely. We managed to find a nice restaurant - a bit touristy, but I tucked into a big bowl of moules steamed in white wine and garlic and a large plate of frites (french fries) with mayonaise and of course a coule of glasses of very strong Belgian beer. The Belgains obviously have not heard of the 'mid strength/low alcohol' trend sweeping the conservative parts of the world ...... all oftheir beer is at least 7% alcohol .. and some of it upwards of 9% - so a few of these over lunch, sitting in the sun, makes for an intersting afternoon.

On the Sunday, Susan finally relented to my persistent moaning about hiring bicycles and touring around the city ... so we picked up some hire bikes from a one of the hundreds of bike shops and sought some advice on where to ride ... this was great. The shop owner told us about a cute village about 5kms from Brugges where you can ride along a canel, on a bikepath all the way - so this is what we did - and it was absolutely fabulous ..... Interestingly, if we kept riding for another 10kms, we could have crossed the border into the Netherlands - how cool, riding from one country to another! Like hundreds of other tourists and locals, we arrived in Damm, went straight to the local beer cafe and had a couple of beers and a plate of frites - YUM!

So Brugges was fabulous - very cute and full of tourists, but stunningly beautiful!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

my Tour - Part 2 (the War and Peace version)

Ok, it has been a while since my first installment of the ride through the Pyrenees, so here is the second and last - albeit very, very long!

So, it is Thursday night, the night before we jump on a plane and head to the Pyrenees. I’m packing and packing – taking my bike apart (quite nervous that I’ll leave a critical part of it behind, like the front wheel or the seat!)

We’re all sorted, packed and ready for our early flight the next morning. Given the potential duration of the ride – my estimate was 8 – 8.5 hours, Susan decided she needed some moral support. So we formed Team Spot and our good friend Nessy (Annette) decided she’d skip work for a couple of days and join us. How lucky am I? Not one, but 2 hot chicks staying in my room as my personal support squad!

We arrived at London City Airport, all ready for the flight to Paris and then onto Pau. Nessy’s husband, the gallant Sir Brett had done a sterling effort to get Nessy on the same flight as us and organise a hire car for the weekend. The car turned out to me more of a logistical nightmare to organise, what with 8,500 riders all descending onto Pau for the same weekend, Brett would have found it easier to hire us a chopper to take us around – but in true style, he came through for us!

The flight down was pretty uneventful – I was relaxed, had a beer or two and then a vin, and why shouldn’t I? I had trained and I was on ‘holidays’, so best enjoy the complementary beverage service, the French accented stewards on our Air France flight made it a crime to say no. I was relaxed until our descent into Pau – I turned to look out the window … there were hills, no there were mountains ……. Lots of them … actually, more like a range of mountains and they all had snow on them – oh how pretty. It did strike me as strange though, it is the middle of summer, it is 28 degrees outside and there is still snow on them mountains – how cute! That’s when my stomach tightened and I lunged for a French speaking steward – I needed a drink – a REALLY BIG drink – my god, those are the mountains I will be riding over …. Oh dear, what have I done!

So, after negotiating with the helpful lass at the car rental counter, we were ready to drive to our base – Lourdes. So, the three of us stood alongside this vsexy Audi A4, blue/silver colour – just lovely. We all stood back, looked at the bike (in a box), our luggage and ourselves and then at the car – ahhhhh nope it ain’t going to fit! We had gotten this far, I wasn’t going to let a small thing like this stop us! So Susan had the brilliant idea … we’ll unpack the bike, shove it in and then load the luggage and ourselves around it – how easy! So this worked perfectly, although poor Nessy copped the dodgy back seat with luggage, handlebars and carbon forks - at one stage or another all said items slid across and she was almost impaled!

But off we went …… well sort of …. I looked at the car key … hmmmmm, this looks a bit different. I did remember the car rental lass saying something about the key operating just like a BMW key – she obviously looked me up and down and recognised a man of distinction and quality – definitely not a house wine drinker. She mistook my sheepish grin for a confident smirk! The key was just a lump of black plastic … no metal ‘key-ie’ bit. Ok, car is packed, Team Spot is all buckled in … if only I could find where to shove the key. I pretty much pressed every button (glad Brett didn’t book the car with an ejector seat!) Ah-ha, found it …… we’re right, so I push it in and the car coughs to life …. Hey, this is a manual isn’t it? As we kangaroo hop out of our carpark the answer becomes very self evident. I look in the back, Nessy is removing handlebar tape from her hair.

With all this sorted – we are off, finally! After a bit of an issue with directions and a few laps of the same round-a-bout, we were on the open road to Lourdes, driving a lovely car which had 6 gears – oh I have to give this a bash! So at 130 km/hr in 4th gear, cruising along comfortably, the dashboard display suggested that I change to 5th gear, so I did and off we went and then it ‘forced’ me to change up to 6th gear – yippeeee this is fun and very, very fast. We passed by a service station which had a huge steel statue of a couple of cyclists riding up a representation of the Pyrenees – the sight of this gave me a blood nose and the shudders!

Finally we arrived at Lourdes – what an ‘interesting’ place. Picture Surfers Paradise around the schoolies time – replace the board shorts and bikinis with nun’s habits and monks cassics and there you have it – thousands and thousands of very sober, Catholics flock to Lourdes to may homage to St Bernadette. Needless to say this was all a little lost on us. At least they weren’t skulling cans of XXXX and dancing to really bad music wearing fluoro hotpants at 3am in the morning!

After pushing the Audi through the worshipping throng, with their travel bags jammed packed with statues of the Virgin – we found our hotel and settled in for a good pre-race drinking session. A lovely 2005 Bordeaux really hit the spot – as did the second bottle!

We caught up with the rest of the group I was riding with, nice bunch, all damn tall, skinny, shaven limbs – looking like they had just done 5 years hard labour on a chain gang – I took a sneak peak at my belly poking out of the bottom of my t-shirt – oh damn, this is going to be hard!

So, they were heading off to the registration at the start town of Pau (pronounced ‘paw’) at 9am, for the sign-in and obligatory latte. So, after quite a long day of travel and scoffing down the last of the red, Team Spot decided to call it a night.

We all slept like the proverbial logs, it was one of the greatest sleeps of my life, we slept and slept and slept. Eventually Susan plucked up the courage to see whether anyone else was awake – we all were. I dived for my mobile to check the time – it was 9:30am.. hmmmmmmmm we did sleep well …… a solid 10 hours. After Susan and I ‘confirming’ and ‘reconfirming’ (much to Nessy’s amusement) that we both thought each other set our alarms, we got organised and set off.

We arrived at the etape de Tour ‘village’ – it was cyclist heaven. Lycra, carbon, supplements (possibly 3rd generation EPO – there did seem to be a number of Italians milling around), and espressos everywhere. I signed up, got my backpack, timing chip and then headed over for a coffee and a read of the big information board. I’m not normally one to read up on race logistics – over the years, I’ve managed to stick by good friends to tell me everything I need to know. The first thing that struck me was that the stage profile looked SO scary when you see it as a 5m X 5m poster and the big climb – Col de Tourmalet started 100km into the ride! The next thing that really spooked me was the word ‘Danger’ written in large red letters referring to a dozen or so points along the route – and in particular the descent down Tourmalet.

So with my confidence totally in tatters, I did what most good lycra bunnies do – I shopped! Picked up a nice Etape de Tour bike jersey and was angling for a really nice Orbea Orca or Look bike – but at £5,000 Susan decided my shopping spree was over.

So, I had missed my riding group, and we had a whole day to kill – hmmmm we are in France, the weather is not bad – a bit overcast, but still quite warm – it must be time to drink and eat! We jumped in the car and headed into Pau central and found ourselves at the Tourist bureau. The girls grabbed a number of maps, which we consulted very briefly – my eye immediately drawn to the number of wine regions, small, but very close to Pau – so off we went to try some southern French vin. And we struck gold, a stunningly cute French vineyard with farm building which had been converted into a tasting area – so we tasted and tasted. Luckily I had handed the driving duties over to Nessy, so the more the winemaker opened and poured, the more I drank – white, red, dessert vin was all good. Whilst I was trying to calm my nerves, the girls spotted some tins (closely resembling 44 gallon drums) of confit de canard – hmmm duck in a can, we were assured it came from a farm nearby, so what the heck – we bought a few bottles of vin and a tub or 2 of the confit.

With all the drinking and the confit firmly stashed under our arms, we decided it was time to partake in the second most popular French pastime – eating. We drove along some stunning country roads and came across a roadside restaurant. We popped in and proceeded to work our way through a 4 course lunch with a bit more vin – it was so good! Time for all the fun to stop – back to our hotel and preparation for the 4:30am wake up call (this time we all set our alarms!)

Prior to ducking (pardon the confit joke – oh I am so French!) off to bed, I had a chat with one of the group organisers as to what to expect tomorrow, what I needed and importantly what the weather forecast was – you see, the longer we were in the Pyrenees, the worse the weather was getting – rainy and cold. The group leader looked at me with bit of a smirk and said ‘at least you won’t get dehydrated tomorrow – the forecast is 13 degrees at the start line with rain and it won’t get much better during the day. Hmmmmm this sounds a bit unpleasant – but at least it won’t be horribly hot. I then asked a question I already knew the answer to, but just like a train crash about to happen and you can’t turn away, I murmured, ‘so what about Tourmalet?’ Another smirk, this time bigger and I could hear the cogs of his brain ticking away ‘Well normally it is a lot colder up top of the mountain – but you never know, sometimes you can actually ride right through the layers of cloud and emerge into a beautiful day – it’s pretty high up there, so you might be lucky.’ Lucky … lucky? – who the hell is he kidding, firstly it is going to be freezing and secondly he has reinforced just how high this mountain is – above cloud level. I broke out in a cold sweat and started shaking (just like that white dog on the Peugeot ad). I felt a sudden calling to the bar, but thought better of it and headed upstairs for a nervous night’s sleep.

At 4:30am I thought the world was coming to an end – Armageddon had commenced – luckily though, we were in one of the most holy Catholic sites in the world – we will surely be saved. What I wasn’t sure about was whether I would be admitted into the Ark, with church and religion not really being high on my agenda for the past, oh, 25 years? Four alarms all went off simultaneously – yep here it was, the BIG day. We all got up, still asleep, no words were said – it actually resembled a scene from the 3 Stooges – we all walked around, dazed, asleep, incredulous that we were awake at 4:30am on a Sunday morning – I’m sure we ran into each other numerous times without really knowing it! Unlike London, the sun is rather shy in the morning – it seems to like to sleep in a bit – at 4:30am, hell, who doesn’t????? So it was pitch black

Team Spot hit the road to Pau – about a 40 minute drive. We got there – I put my trusty steed together – pulled up my Borat pants, waved bye to the Team and off I went to the start line. Appropriately clothed in my Chianti (ok, not quite Bordeaux) jersey.

The pre-race information described the start point as having a village atmosphere, where riders can grab some food and of course coffee before setting off on a wonderful days riding – hmmmm the reality was a bit different, it was wet, very wet, it was dark, still very dark (ok, I did only have 1 eye open!) and it was cold. The travel brochure never mentioned the south of France as being like this is mid summer. And the village – well, yesterday it was fun, full of thousands of lycra clad warriors all with high expectations and a bit of nervous energy – today, at 6am, we were herded into a very large carpark and had to line up in our respective ‘wave’, in the dark, in the wet and in the cold – no frothy lattes or pain au chocolat to be seen. As a lot of you know, I’m not the best in the mornings (or evenings for that matter), so you can imagine my mood … not to mention the endless high pitched commentary of absolutely nothing (how can you get excited about 8,500 people standing around with their bikes?) screeching over a loud speaker in French. For those familiar with mass participation events, you’ll recognise the scenario – very early mornings and a ‘gee-up’ person, normally female or a male staccato wailing at you over a PA system reminding you that there’s only 1 hour to go until you set off – my mood was not improving – I REALLY needed café and a shot gun to silence the yapping Chihuahua!

Anyway, as the minutes ticked down to 7am (official start time for wave 1), the anticipation grew and I calmed myself – not too mentioned had the best bike perve I’ve ever had – Pinnarelos, Looks, Time, Colnagos, Bianchi, Cannondales, Cervelos, everywhere, oh and the odd smatteringly of holden/ford of the bike world = Giant & Trek (ouch – bitchy aren’t I?).

My sketchy handle of French picked up the count down to the start and then it happened – the first wave was off. We were set up in 4 waves of around 2,000 riders. I was in wave 3. Finally some action, it was really exciting – thousands of shoes clipping into pedals and the clicking of groupsets, ahhhhh what a beautiful sound. At 7:20, it was my turn … I edged forward, chucked a leg over the ‘Red Devil’ and then we were off – it was SO cool. We headed out onto this very narrow lane way all packed in like stinky sardines inside a can of John West’ finest.

The rain had eased a little as we headed through the heart of Pau – actually a lovely city. The best thing was the closed roads, no cars, buses, trucks, pesky pedestrians to get in your way and ruin your rhythm - just 8,500 other cyclists! Hmmmmm, not sure what is worse actually.

I was feeling really good, found a decent bunch to sit in and was pretty much cruising along around 22 miles/hr (sorry, my bike computer is only set to miles/hr – the Limeys have an aversion to metric system) with little effort. There were some wonderful sweeping, downhill turns through Pau and out onto the road to Lourdes – unfortunately, the rain stopped us really having a big go – but I was pedalling along, big chain ring feeling very, very easy. My spirits were beginning to settle and my confidence rising steadily – I can do this … no, even better, I can smash this! Then hiccup number 1 hit …. Flat tyre – oh bugger! But really, this was no bother – over the previous months I had plenty of practice changing flat tyres. London seems to be the world capital of broken glass on the road and it all seems to congregate in the bike lanes on the side of most major carriageways. So, off I popped, no drama and changed the tyre. Reinflated, both the tyre and my spirits I jumped back on the Devil and headed off …. Wow – who put that concrete in my legs?????? Surely my tyre wasn’t flat again, a quick look down confirmed this – why was it so hard to keep 12 miles/hr going …. Oh no, have I peaked too early? Is my race over after only 5 kms? Whilst I was only off my bike for a few minutes – the inactivity and the cold weather had conspired to ruin my ever growing chances of not only finishing the L’etape, but possibly scoring a podium place – I have always wanted a polka dot jersey (yeah, right.)…!!!!!!! Anyway – I spotted a group not far up and gradually made my way to their back wheels and regained my rhythm – it did help that there were a couple of ‘fit’ girls in the group.

So I was back and pedalling nicely …. Small village came and went – it was amazing, at all the villages, the local inhabitants were standing out in the rain, cheering us on. Tour de France banners were strung across narrow main streets and hand made placards with ‘Vive le Tour’ and ‘Poulet 5.99/kg – frommage 2.99/kg’ signposted along the road. Not to mention the 'odd' band.

After a couple of small bumps – 400m each, the first major milestone of the race was Lourdes (where we were staying), around 66kms into the ride. The previous day, Team Spot had consulted on the best vantage point for the support crew to cheer me on (did I mention that this weekend was ALL about me?). The first problem with this was that the ride actually didn’t go along the road we identified and the second problem was that with the rain – it was a tag difficult to identify your support team when every support team had the same black umbrellas. Team Support had strategically located themselves on a downhill corner leading into Lourdes - but made a very quick move after they saw the carnage caused by weary riders, waving madly to their loved ones, whilst turning a downhill corner in the rain. So as I weaved my way through the streets of Lourdes, I spotted the support crew – all smiling and waving furiously – you can’t imagine what a fantastic feeling that was. I returned the joyous exuberance, with a short nod of the head (being the professional I am, can’t give anyway too much emotion) I steamed on off towards the ‘lunch stop’.

This turned out to be bedlam …….. imagine this, if you can – thousands of starving high school kids all told that the food in the tuck shop was free and in limited supply – the chaotic scenes of thousands of ravenous cyclists all trying to stop, eat, relieve themselves as quickly as possible was truly awesome – and not in an inspiring way. After 3 ham sandwiches, a banana and a couple of fruit jellies (ok a lot, they were yummy). I was off and on towards the mythical beast that is Tourmalet.

From the food station, the terrain got greener (if this was at all possible) and steeper, so the climb had started, the next hill to climb was at Cote de Loucrap at 522m (Category 3 climb). This wasn’t so bad, but a sign of things to come (yes, a lot worse), after a good feed and a nice warm up, the hill was a bit more challenging than I had imagined…. But I found a nice tempo and just cruised on up it. The descent on the other side was great – it was not as steep as the ascent and the road had dried out a bit, so I decided to push the Devil nice and hard – big chain ring. I was flying past heaps of others – unfortunately, with all the rain, my bike computer was dropping in and out, so couldn’t quite get a good speed reading, but at one point, I hit 37 miles/hr (about 60km/hr?).

Then the fun was over and the slog started … on the way down the descent, there was a bit of chatter/banter amongst the bunch I was in – unfortunately all in French – but is seemed quite light hearted, as though the hard part of the day was all done and we were cruising as comrades to the finish - if only…… The road started to rise, quite steeply from about 80kms into the ride. The bunch went quiet all at once, as if we all knew what was about to hit us and we had to conserve as much energy as possible. So head down, find a nice tempo and just punch it out. The rain had picked up and the temperature started to drop – all this before we hit the official start of the mountain. This was going to be horrible.

The official start of Tourmalet was 100km into the ride – for me, this was pretty much the longest distance I had ridden in the weeks leading up to the event, so whilst the first part of the ride had been a doddle – I knew that pain was in store for me. As the climb started we pedalled through a cute little French village (is there any other kind?), I saw a sign Boulangerie/Patisserie …. Hmmmmm maybe I could duck in for a quick pain au chocolat and café? Well, by now I was feeling more like a nice hearty beef burgundy, frites and 2005 Bordeaux. The Red Devil veered to the side of the road, the lure of a warm, dry place to get some sustenance and rest these weary legs of mine … instead of wandering inside, I popped behind a bush to answer a very, very important call – of nature. So with bladder now empty, a quick stretch of the legs and a power gel in my stomach (the menu posted on the window of the little café did seem a hell of a lot more appealing – could I fit a bottle of vin rouge in the back of my lycra space suit – hmm, probably not), I was back on my trusty steed and progressed onwards and definitely upwards.

The information provided at the start village informed me that Tourmalet was a 20km climb averaging 7.5%. Ok, 20km, that is pretty long – but at 7.5%, not horrible. I’ve ridden grades 10% and more, so 7.5%, even over a long stretch should be ok – oh how wrong was I ……? The one saving grace with all the cloud cover, was that you couldn’t see too far in front of you, so the massive monolith which I was about to ascend was totally hidden. At each kilometre there was a sign informing the traveller (in this case fool-hardy) just how far it was to the summit - 20, 19, 18, 17, 16 and so on. I told myself not to rush (hahaha), find a nice tempo and just spin my legs upto the top – note to self, this is not the only mountain I have to climb today – no point blowing myself up on the first mountain

Now, a quick lesson in Tour de France/cycling terminology (well my summary anyway) – school is in – concentrate if you can ….. each hill/mountain is ‘categorised’ from 4 being the smallest/least gradient – these are ‘generally’ a rise of around 300 – 500 metres. Then there is category 3, usually a bit longer climb and possibly steeper, then Category 2, Category 1. Both Tourmalet and the finish point at Hautacam are classified as Haut Category – ie above category, or in normal speak – too big, too tall and too steep to put into a category! These are the types of mountain that any car built pre 1990 or with an engine with less than 6 cylinders or constructed in the former Eastern bloc - just should not bother to attempt for fear of blowing one or many gaskets.

The other piece of information on the signs was the gradient for the next kilometre, which actually was the most depressing piece of information – just when your brain gets used to how long it takes to ride a kilometre uphill (try adjusting from a nice 35 km/hr on the flat to 9 km/hr – OMG!), the information about the upcoming slope is a further red-hot skewer into your brain, eye, lungs and legs ……. To make matters worse, my brain had gone a bit hazy when it comes to geographic/topographic phenomenon – in particular, the slope at the base of a mountain is generally pretty tame – it is only the middle/top sections that really star to kick up. So, after a finding a pretty good tempo for the first 4 kms and thinking I had this mountain licked, I peered at the 15 km to go sign and noticed the upcoming gradient - 3% - great, only 3% this is really nice – then the 14km to go sign – 3.5%. Then, like a flash from the heavens or a knock on the head from a statue of the Virgin, I realised what this meant – if the average gradient is 7.5% and so far I have only been doing 3% - the rest of the climb is going to be 9.5 – 10% - and it was. So, I kept going, passing a few stragglers and being passed but a lot more ……. What was really hard is that as the gradient kicked up, I kept looking down at my speedo – it was going the wrong way, from a reasonable 10km/hr down the lower slopes, I watched as it went backwards – 8km/hr, 6km/hr and this start messing with my brain – I now had a good (albeit terribly depressing) insight into what it must feel like being stuck in a dessert and seeking that wonderful palm tree covered, cool oasis up ahead – but it never gets closer.

It was getting cold and the rain had started and it was getting harder and harder. About 14kms into the climb the legs decided they had enough – cramp in calves and quads, feet so wet and cold that I couldn’t feel my toes anymore. So like many others, I jumped off, had a stretch, some food and water and then walked. Bugger it, as long as I get to the top, who cares how I did it – well certainly not me and the 100s of other who had also cracked. I would normally do anything to avoid walking in my cleats – I’d ride up/down stairs, in the front door of a café to order my double shot latte, over small animals/children, but the immense relief to walk – even if i did look/feel like daffy duck was just wonderful. So it was now time to switch to ‘give it to yourself’ mode – there was only one way to go and that was up, and my walking speed up the steep, slippery road was only 2.8 miles/hr (yep, 4.5 km/hr), there was no way I could keep walking for another 6 kms – maybe it would take so long the weather would improve, or the real Tour would pass by – but no, time to toughen up and get going. This was a bit easier said than done. Whilst the blood had starting flowing through my legs again, it was now a distant shade of blue and not that normal reddish colour which we are all accustomed to … but on I got and off I went. I turned off my computer and just kept going and going ….. 5km/hr, 6km/hr and then I hit a nice tempo, the legs warmed up and the oasis did eventuate – a feed station at 17kms.

Oh yeeeeesssssssssssssss – thank goodness. So I rode into the feed station, very wobbly by this stage and shoved anything and everything down my gob – bananas, cake, jellies, weird pieces of coloured things – oh yes, that is what fruit looks like. I would have killed for a hot bath and alcohol – any type would have done the trick (maybe even house wine!) The plan was to spend 5 minutes, eating, drinking and stretching and then push on. However, like most of my plans that day, they weren’t well thought out, nor ever going to eventuate – just then a familiar red official Skoda car drove up and through and ear-piercing megaphone, that same yapping Chihuahua/poodle who really pissed me off at the stat line all those hours (days???) ago, informed the couple of hundred tired, beaten road warriors that we had to go, as the elimination (the dreaded blue Skoda) car was only 1 minute behind and that if we didn’t get going, we’d be eliminated and could not ride any further – bugger that, I did come all this way and put myself through this misery not to at least conquer Tourmalet.

Normally, hearing any mademoiselle speaking to me in a beautiful French accent sends me into raptures – but on this occasion, if I had the energy I’d have picked up my bike and chucked it at her! Back on the bike, head down and let the grind begin once more – only 3kms to go – all at 10.5% … but with a bit of food and the fear of being ripped off my bike by a gendarme (not to mention having to face my devoted support Team) and shuffled into a paddy wagon, I found that elusive tempo and went … and went and went … hairpin bend after hairpin bend – my speed even quickened, a little. And then, the sign which brought tears to my eyes Summit – 1km – right I thought, after well over 2 hours and almost spitting the dummy a couple of times, I was going to hit this summit and show it who was boss – so out of the saddle I got and dragged myself and went for it – the names of all the famous Tour climbers revolving through my head and then it was mine ……. Amazingly the last once of adrenaline found its way to my legs and off I went and there it was – the banner ‘Summit – Col de Tourmalet 2115m’ , I have reached my nirvana – this is what I came to do. To make things even better, the next 20 odd kilometres were all downhill (albeit very steep), so time to take a break, relax and do what I love doing – going very faster down hills.

So a quick drink break and absorb the moment at the summit and then off it was down the over side of the mountain and onto a short flat part before the last climb into the finish of Hautacam – this one would be easy, only 15km at 7% - ha – nothing! So, I popped the Red Devil into big cog (big chain ring on the front to go really fast) and peddled like mad … for about 50 metres and then slammed on the brakes! The summit was like pea soup, the descent was very steep and contained what felt like thousands of hairpin corners. Visibility was at best 20 metres and to make things a little bit more ‘exciting’, there were absolutely no guardrails on the side of the road and what appeared to be very steep drops in places. I couldn’t believe it, after over 2 hours of brutal, grinding climbing, the fun part of climbing – ie the descending – was stolen away from me. And just to rub my nose in it further, it was absolutely freezing – my arms were shaking, teeth were chattering, fingers and feet were numb from the cold. So I precariously inched my way down the mountain until the terrain flattened a bit and I just let things go …. 35, 37, 42, 45, 48 miles/hr – now this is what I call travelling! I was flying – my arms were gradually recovering from ripping the brake levers for dear life for 18 odd kilometres. The wind was tearing at my long, flowing locks ….. on my back. Things gradually flattened out to normality, back to 22 miles/hr and only 7 miles to the base of the final climb – and that when it hit me – I could do this, I could finish and not only that I AM going to finish this. All my evil thoughts I had on the way up ands then down Tourmalet had been erased from my memory. A very quick stop for a final slurp of water and energy gel and my mind was set and focussed – time to complete my mission. A quick text to Team Spot to get ready, cos the express train which is the red Devil is coming through and it ain’t stopping! A text reply came through that I must have missed them as they were near the base of the climb and hadn’t seen me – this was a bit disappointing – but not to worry, I had a job to do!

So over the last little hill and them onto the climb. I came over the rise and looked down the road at a mass of cyclists and race officials and cyclists going in every direction. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Team Spot (pardon the pun) getting up and coming towards me … time stopped or went very slowly, my legs were going, but brain had stopped (usually it’s my mouth which goes without the brain). I pointed the Red Devil towards the team and coasted gingerly to a stop. Susan had a very strange look on her face – bewildered, almost scared. Then she said ‘They’ve closed the climb, you’ve missed the cut off time.’ She stepped back slowly, waiting for my reaction …… I looked down at my computer, 97.1 miles and the time was 15:40 … I pulled out the sodden information card from my back pocket – which disintegrated in my fingers.. ‘This can’t be right I thought, the elimination was 17:00.’ Hmmmmmmm note to self – read the information in more detail (or do what I normally do, give it to someone else to read for me!). The actual elimination time at the foot of the last climb was 15:30, 17:00 was the elimination time at the finish line – details, bloody details. After actual riding time of 7:15 minutes, I had missed the elimination by 10 minutes. So I looked back at my computer, then up at the mass of cyclist, officials and gendarmerie and across to Team Spot ….. and went ‘oh well – there’s always next year, I hope it is in the Alpes – they’re a lot harder!’

Off we all trudged to the finish village, for a bit of food ... and of course, the chance to buy to cider!

It was a fantastic event, very long, very hard (a lot harder than I imagined both physically and mentally), very cold (apparently it was 2 degrees at the summit of Tourmalet – with wind chill on the way down and rain it had to be below zero). A bit more (ok a lot more) training is needed – particularly in hilly terrains and a sneaky piece of information I picked up along the ride was that a lot of the riders had changed their back gears to make them bigger – and hence a lot easier/faster to ride up the mountains. Oh, and read the race instructions …. Details – smetails…!!!

A huge thanks goes to Team Spot – Susan, Nessy and Spotty for coming along and standing in the rain and cold to cheer me on (and sharing a bottle or 2 of good red) – a number of times as I was walking up Tourmalet, thinking of them waiting for me at the end was what made me determined to keep going. Another big thanks to Brett for admirably fulfilling the role of Head of Logistics.

So, am I going to do it again – YOU BET! I got a lot of satisfaction a few days after, when the real Tour came through and I watched those guys go very fast, but struggle up Tourmalet and Hautcam. The post race interviews with a few riders were they said it was a terribly hard, long climb and something they never wanted to go through again – wimps!. I have already developed my training plan and was back on the bike riding a couple of days after my adventure. I only wish London had some real hills …… maybe I’ll need a 2 month training camp in Switzerland or northern Italy next year to prepare …….

Monday, July 14, 2008

my Tour - what Mountains - Part 1

Many, many months ago, when we decided we were definitely coming over to London – I had a dream, well I had many, mostly involving travelling throughout Europe. But, there was one passion which I had to quench – the Tour de France. Well we were going to be over here – may as well pop on over the channel and spend some time watching very fit, smoothed legged, lycra clad dudes riding, conveyances which these days have more technology packed into them than the space shuttle – yippee, this was going to be way cool. And then, in a moment of inspiration, I remembered something about being able to ride a stage of the Tour – OMG – I could actually being riding my pushie, hairy legs and all over the same pieces of terrain and tarmac as some of the biggest drug addicts in the world!

So after I bit of internet research – I found what I was looking for and signed up – well, I was fit and can ride a bit, how hard can 165km over 2 of the largest mountains in the Pyrenees be? Ok, they maybe the natural divide between France and Espana – but surely it can’t be that hard. To add to be burgeoning confidence was the fact, that when it comes to hills, I might not be super quick, but can generally keep going and going and going – I had driven my trusty stead up Mt Coot-tha hundreds of times – pushing big gears to get some strength in these skinny little Aussie legs, grinded my up the range from Landsborough to Maleny, whilst road workers stood on, watching, shaking their heads and eventually plucking up the wit to comment ‘don’t you have a car mate’, as I was on my third climb of the morning. So Pyrenees – show me what you got – bring it on!

With my entry to the race accepted and all the details in train – I examined the route map. Hmmmmm we will be riding over Stage 10 of the Tour …… I jumped on the website, downloaded the stage information and profile. 165km, ok not too bad, I hadn’t ever managed (or be bothered) to ride that far, but have done a number of 100km rides and didn’t find these too taxing … so distance – no worries. Then I had a look at the elevation profile …. Hmmmm 2 mountains, a couple of nice decents (my mind drifted back to my previous conquests, Coot-tha, Maleny). This shouldn’t be too bad ….ok, I looked a bit more closely – got myself into detail mode. The first thing which struck me, was the Col de Tourmalet. I do remember watching this stage last year and being in awe of the pros grinding their way up this mountain. So I checked out the height – OMG it is 2115m with an average grade of 7.5%. This is a bit higher than I have ever ridden before, by a factor of 10! Then I scanned my way to the end of the stage – a nice hilltop finish in Hautacam, this one only 1500m. Phew, well after conquering Tourmalet, this should be as piece of cake! Then reality really kicked in…. Tourmalet, 2115m, the climb commences 100km into the stage and the summit is 20 kms further on – it is straight uphill for 20kms! Similar story with Hautacam, this time the climb starts 155km into the stage and we ride uphill for 10kms. Of course, this is all after 3 other climbs of 400 – 500m along the way. Ok, I can do this – I just need to get some (ok a lot) of hill training in.

Check out the stage profile ...!!!!

So off to London we go. No problems – I love hills! This is where my confidence started to deflate somewhat ……

Problem 1 – I have no bike, it is February, winter and NO bike …….

Problem 2 – after a quick browse on google earth, London and surrounds is flatter than the surface of the moon – there just aren’t any decent hills!
Problem 1 – ok, got this one solved, after many sleepless nights, trying to work out how I could get my bike over here quickly and for less than what I paid for it, my Knight in shining armour delivered to me a sweetest message I have ever heard ‘Hey, I’m in Brisbane next week, flying business class, how bout I pick your bike up and bring it back?’ I almost choked on my own excitement. Sir Brett, the chivalrous knight was going to deliver my trusty red steed to me – Yipppeeeeee!

Now for Problem 2 – no hills, winter, cold, snow, rain – typical London really. With bike positioned firmly under my lycra clad bot, I headed out to the renouned Box Hill. Many a cyclist I had struck up conversations with whilst cruising around Richmond Park, frantically avoiding squirrels, deer and the usual spaced out pedestrian, had told me about Box Hill – it was the Holy Grail of hills in south England and the best bit, was that it was a short 40kms from our place. So on a bright, but cold March morn, all kitted up – I head for head Box Hill. It was a lovely ride down there, few a few little villages, loads and loads of greenery. Then there it was, Box Hill – well the sign to it anyway. Luckily there was a café at the bottom of the hill, so I decided it was time for a latte break and then off I went, slight nervous – a hill with such a fearsome reputation had me more than a little bit worried. So I rode….. and rode …. The hill gently rose in front of me …. A few twists and turns … a bit more of a rise. Oh this is rather pleasant I thought ….. hmmm, I wonder when it really starts to kick. So as I came to each hairpin corner, my anticipation rose .. and then ebbed … and then rose … and yet again ebbed. I had been ‘climbing’ (ok, it was more like the rise from the Queen St Mall to Central Station) for about a mile ……. And still was looking to get that usual lactic acid burn in the legs. So I came to the next blend, the road was covered by a canopy of trees, with sunlight dappling through, it really was so English, I rounded the bend ready to start the massive kick to the summit – and instead, came to the carpark, café and the top of Box Hill! I felt cheated – how can you call this a hill? I was of my mind to ride back down to the Box Hill sign, pull out my spray can (which I carry for any random acts of vandalism required) and spray over the word Hill and replace it with Bump!

So with the weeks ticking by, I got out and rode and rode – albeit flat, but pretty countryside, and the madness of the suburbs of London. It was now only 2 weeks before the big ride. I was starting to feel my confidence grow.

Phew, I’m worn out just thinking about it! Well, am off to watch the highlights of Stage 10 – the stage I rode and the one that has just seen Cadel snatch the maillot juane .

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Matt and Sue - Birdwatching walkers?!?

Remember Jane Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies? The spinster, academic, birdwatching secretary to Mr Drysdale? Who on earth would like to be like her?

Well, apparently us. Matt and I have entered the world of the UK "Ramblers" i.e. people who take meandering walks through the countryside - both on and off trail. Now not one for being a big walker/hiker/adventurer ... (who are we kidding) ... excerciser in Aus I never thought I'd be up for one of these gigs (not mentioning the fact that it sounds daggy).

However, Matt's friend David (and his lovely girlfriend Lisa) are of the rambling type. They even have full on trekking/mountaineering shoes and have been trying to convince us for a while to go with them. Considering my exercise regime of late has been one yoga class a week and sitting on the couch looking for jobs I was a wee bit nervous to say the last.

Matt was well prepared, he'd gone out to buy his walking shoes the day before. He loves them .... apparently they're 'approach' shoes (so he's now decided he can wear them to approach anything - especially the local cafes, golf courses, pubs etc), are blue and grey and even have a cool name (Chameleon Wraps) ... all things very important to Matt. Didn't have the heart to tell him how muddy these walking tracks could be ... he's not big on getting him or his attire dirty.

Anyway, the four of us met up at Clapham Junction station to set off on our walking adventure. I was relieved to see that Lisa and David were not in possession of walking poles (a popular accessory for the rambler). After mentioning this to them, to my dismay, Lisa said she was keen to get some (just as well she has so many other redeeming features and we love her dearly). So with our trusty TimeOut guide to England Walks we headed out to Gumshall (about an hour on the train from London). At this stage, I was uncertain of the distance of the ramble ... concerned it could turn into a 'dragging-feet-and-whinging' (not that I mentioned this to my rambling friends).

After a nervous journey to Gumshall - concerned not only about the walk itself, but whether David and Lisa had binoculars and bird books in their backpacks - to my relief, I found out that our walk was rated only 3 out of 10 for dificulty (no pikes or triple somersaults required) and that it was only 15ks (about 4 hours walking - not counting stops along the way).

I hate to admit it, call me Miss Hathaway if you wish, it was very pleasant. The weather was great, not too hot, but sunny (apparently perfect rambling conditions). The walk, imaginatively titled Gumshall to Guildford, passed through a few villages, a forest, green fields with sheep/cows, local horse properties and along the River Wey (with canal boats, rowers, ducks, weeping willows, etc). We even managed to feed (by hand) some very tame and hungry horses .

We stopped at a tea-house for morning tea, where instead of getting a breakfast tea and fairy cake, I was served a 'breakfast' (the works - Sausages, eggs, bacon, toast, etc.) After the lady at the tea-shop came out to tell David that he'd really ordered a breakfast and kept trying to make him admit it, weird, we set off again. We wandered through some lovely fields and then a forest and happened to stumble upon a village pub for lunch, popular to the local rambler because of its location - midway, on this particular walk. After a neighbourly nod to our fellow ramblers, a lovely lunch, a Pimms and Lemonade and with my confidence brimming as to the ease of the walk we set off on part 2 of our adventure.

Not too long after leaving the pub there was a different path to an old Tower, up a wee hill, which David wanted to explore (slight panic setting in now ....). After a communal decision to explore the Tower ... bugger ... we started on the path to our new destination. Yes, you guessed it, a zig zagging path up a hill (i'm calling it a mountain) .... where every time I turned another corner I hoped (in vain) that the tower could be seen. David and Matt flew up the hill and Lisa took it slow to keep me company (not that she said so directly). Embarrassing when you're trying not to breathe like a crazed stalker, so you try not to breathe at all, which only makes things worse. Red faced I did make it to the top of the hill - where of course, by the time I arrived, the boys were ready to head back down the hill.

We picked up the pace on the way to Guildford until we hit a muddy part of the path ... oh no, Matt's shoes ... I can just imagine the tantrum. I then watched Matt claw and tip-toe his way along a barb-wired fence so his new shoes wouldn't get too muddy. He arrived on the other side with shoes clean, but a nice little scratch on his arm from the barbed-wire, but he thought it was worth it. (Since when does personal injury rank higher than muddy shoes? That boy has issues.)

We ended the walk sipping champagne at a pub on the River Wey and watching canal boats ... now that's more like it.

Apparently, we're up for ramble number 2 this weekend ..... eek ?!?