Tuesday, 16 July 2013

French cycling at its best

Day 2 dawned much as Day 1 had ended. Very warm, bright sunshine, and a building full of excited cyclists. We had travelled back from Foix to the base of Pyractif in Bertren, and awoken to the tranquil sounds of an erratic church clock and an errant red male chicken.

This time the atmosphere out on the roads was a little less febrile, perhaps because we were away from a main town, or perhaps because it was just earlier in the day. All the talk was of how Froome and the Sky boys had already won the race, but if you saw that Stage 9, it turned out to be an exciting and tense affair, suggesting that the race may not be as one-sided as had been thought.

We all cycled up the long valley to Luchon, through the sprint point, where naturally Stuart had to win the mock sprint, and then for us at least, into the town to get some water.

The roads were by now closed to traffic, and this was some 5-6 hours before the race was due to come through. I had cycled down this side of the Peyresourde before, a couple of times in fact. I remembered it as being quite short and pleasant, but of course, going up an 11km climb is not quite like that. The heat was intense, and there were loads of spectators, encouraging us from the roadside as we made our way up the climb.

It's a contrast to the boys from South Wales who lobbed stones at me on the Dragon ride in June, this genuine warmth and joy at others cycling up their mountains. The main obstacle, besides the heat, were the gendarmes. They must have been given instructions to stop all cyclists and make them walk, and we had to do this three or four times, before getting back on and riding another kilometre or two to the next set.

Eventually, just in front of the col sign, we were forced to stop for good. Stuart and I chose a spot amongst the French and settled in to wait. Which we didn't have too long to do, for the Tour de France caravan was soon upon us. Lorry after lorry, cars dressed up as tyres, or houses, or 2CV, came rolling past. Tremendous excitement, engagement and a massive scrambling for tat ensued, as freebies of minimal value were viciously fought over by the crowds of grannies, old men, kids (big and small alike). Our closest rival for swag, a 70 year old French patriarch, was very adept at skewering the goods with his pointed stick, before stashing them in a large rucksack his wife had brought for the purpose.

It's hard to imagine the cynical English having such a fun day out with so little to show for it. That's what I love about that day, the sheer exuberance, the fact that whole families make a day of standing by the roadside, even if the understand little of cycling and they know their man won't win! It's French cycling fun at its best.

After that it was a case of waiting for the main action, the Tour de France. Which duly came and went, and by now you will all know what happened, the Sky team had a bad day, but Froome was strong enough to stay at the head of the field and preserve his lead.

Plenty of good photos though. As you can see, we were withing touching distance of the riders, in fact some of the team cars passed frighteningly close and frighteningly fast. The racing was interesting to see, especially the speed that they charge up the mountains.

Spare a thought if you will for a certain Mr Cavendish, cleverly hiding in the cars to pull him the last few feet up the mountain, and suffering in the Gruppetto. You can spot his UK national champions jersey in the penultimate photo.

After that it was time to re-trace our path back down to Luchon and then on to Bertren, and catch the the highlights later on the TV. Avoiding thousands of spectators was a bit hairy, but once down a couple of kilometres we were able to let rip and enjoy the fast, sweeping descent on a mainly closed road.

The rest of our trip consisted of day rides from Luchon, and you can see the photos of that on my Facebook page. It was a great trip, plenty of climbs, a trip to Spain, lots and lots of funny moments, but mainly just messing about on bikes for fun. I rode about 400 miles, so around 50+ a day, and the Tourmalet, Mente and Port de Bales were as tough as ever.

But Pyractif are supremely helpful, well-organised and know both their cycling and their landscapes. We had a mix of escorted, supported and solo rides, a cafe trip one day to Aspet, a re-enactment of a Tour stage (where I famously cycled up the wrong valley (who cares it was a nice gentle climb), and virtually no rain at all. One shower on the descent of the Port de Bales and that was it, the temperature never dropped below 30C and the sun shone for 7 glorious days.

Oh, and the food is to die for! If you want to go to the Pyrenees, go there, you will have a fantastic time. I'm thinking of organising a trip there for the ACG next year (and anyone else who is interested). If we can get a group together of up to 9-10 of us we can make it great value. The cycling isn't all HC climbs and epic days (although there are plenty of those too), there is rolling countryside too. But I can guarantee you great food, pleasant motorists, and wonderful scenery. And the company will be good too.

Interested? It will be fun. I've come to think that the best rides are the ones you do with your friends, no matter where you are, but if you can do it somewhere warm, pleasant and different it's a bonus. I'll be canvassing your opinions very soon.

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