Wednesday, 24 July 2013


Two weeks have now passed since the Tour de Force rolled to a halt in the City of Light. I am pleased to report that despite the strongly felt anti-climax and cravings for post exercise endorphins, I have not started convulsing in my office chair or felt inclined to stick my head through my monitor just yet.

This is due to three reasons: firstly, my colleagues and friends have frequently indulged me by asking about the Tour, allowing me to continually relive the dream; secondly, I’ve had 15 stages of highlights packages to catch up on courtesy of Sky+ (the irony) and ITV4 – the yearly onscreen presence of Gary Imlach anchoring the TdF coverage settles any anxious veloist's nerves; and thirdly, I am just too knackered.

There does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel of tiredness. Having been reunited with the Colnago last Friday, now fully tuned and serviced, I tackled a couple of laps of the “Col de Richmond” on Saturday afternoon. A return to cycling the London streets was tortuous after the wide expanses of France and largely "Rapha MAMIL" free roads, but the legs produced some power and the heart rate barely raised an eyebrow as I danced up Richmond's measly ramps. It looks like the recovery is in full flow and there are some serious fitness benefits to be enjoyed.

This brings me neatly to answering the million dollar question that I have stalled on many times last week: so what's next? Well, here is my rational attempt at an answer. Immediately, lots of sleep and the growing sense of enjoyment of coming home from work, slumping on the sofa with the terrace doors open and letting the warm evening breeze into the apartment. Short to medium term, getting ready for Ride London on 3 August and seeing whether the Tour has made me a better bike rider, as well as re-learning how to appropriately socialise without wearing lycra. Long term, I'll be planning some goals both on and off the bike for 2014. I already have something brewing with a fellow TdF lifer, which will hopefully involve Italians, top-end coffee and some viciously steep mountains. Beyond that, who knows.

Having read some of the other riders' blogs it seems inevitable that this wrap up piece is going to tread a path of prophesying and emotionally charged musings. I will do my best, and who can blame us? The Tour de Force was an incredibly special experience to be involved with. For most of us it was our dream to ride Le Tour and immerse ourselves in the romance, beauty, drama and hardship of it all. The most intriguing part was always – could I really complete it? To combine this dream with fundraising for the WWMT proved a powerful combination. For us, the painful parts of the Tour thinly replicated some of the difficulties the kids face who are supported by the WWMT assisted charities. Whilst we all had each other to rely on when the going got tough, as well as our support networks back home, these vulnerable young people have nowhere or no one positive to turn to – a stark comparison and a sharp illustration of why WWMT’s grant giving is so important. The Tour de Force is WWMT’s flagship fundraiser and it is testament to the riders’ enthusiasm for the charity that the 2013 vintage is approaching raised funds of £400,000.

To finish this all too lengthy post, what did I learn from the Tour? For me this has not been a life changing experience, but more a vivid life enriching and affirming one. I was lucky enough to meet and ride with thirty-nine inspirational characters who rode the whole way to Paris. Whirlwind friendships were intensively forged in the peleton hot-house, yet serenely set against France’s cornfields, lush meadows and snow-capped mountains. As well as the cycling itself, these people helped hammer home three key points on the asphalt, all of which are transferable to my day-to-day living. Here they are, Baz Lurman style:

1. Anything is possible but it has to be earned. I've traced the seeds of my ambition to ride the Tour all the way back to 2007. It began with some fanciful thoughts, having been bitten by the roadie bug after some fairly amateur riding through France on my little brother’s rusty road bike. As I rode more and more, becoming stronger, better experienced and reshaping my build, these thoughts morphed into a pipe dream. As the ambition and passion continued to burn, along with the support of my girlfriend, friends, family and work, the stars aligned and I committed to ride the Tour in November 2012. After sacrificing a lot of time and energy, straining important relationships and pouring endless pounds into online bike shops, the pipe dream became a reality six years later. It has been worth every hard yard and penny spent.

2. Tread your own path and respect others doing the same. The Tour affirmed this in spades. Whether you are trying to stick with a group tapping out a pace which you know is too much for you or fancy riding with different people for the day who want to stop at every café to experience the regional variety of Magnum Blancs, have the courage to follow your instincts. Similarly, respect those with different goals to you. Laying it down on the tarmac everyday or cruising at tourist pace may not be your mantra but concentrate on your own riding and working with those around you.

3. Embrace the suffering. I have not come across any experience like being depleted on a twisting mountain road, where the only solution to end the ordeal is to keep pedalling up. It strips away all of life’s flux and presents you with a simple yet deeply divisive dilemma: stop or continue? Regardless of all the negative thoughts and screaming muscles, always continue. The suffering will stop –eventually – quickly transform into raw elation and relief, before dissolving into quiet satisfaction.

Actually I am mistaken; there were four points and the fourth is easy to succinctly state – whilst I’ll never be as fast as the Froome-dog, I love riding my bike.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

J'arrive a Paris!

On 14 July, Bastille Day, and whilst the pros were facing their demons on Ventoux, I rolled into Paris to complete the 100th edition of the Tour de France.

All 21 stages, a week before the pros but on the same scheduling, had been undertaken.

It was a surreal day which started at 5am with a six hour coach transfer from Annecy in the Alps to a goat farm 25 kms outside of Versailles. Once off the bus we were treated to a fantastic rustic French lunch by the goat farmers before saddling up in their barns for one last hurrah.

En route to Versailles, where friends and family were gathering, the peleton rolled at a relaxed pace as the champagne bottles in the riders' jersey pockets were popped and the bubbles were dished out. It was a beautiful sunny day and a chance for us to enjoy riding with each other for one last time and revel in what this group of riders had achieved.

It was an emotional moment coming up to the Versailles Palace as family and friends of the riders had gathered to applaud and cheer their loved ones into Paris. Knowing that my girlfriend Emma was going to be there was a great feeling but I was bowled over further by seeing my Mum and brother who I had no idea would be present. It topped off what was already turning into a fantastic day. Once they had all been given sweaty hugs, the peleton re-assembled and started making its way slowly to the Eiffel Tower. I couldn't help but chuck my water bottles as we peddalled, my one last re-enactment of being a pro rider, although I doubt the local Parisians will be fighting over them as souvenirs. Shame on them.

The final reckoning came as we swung right across the pavé onto the Place Joffre from the Avenue de Suffren and wheeled to a halt opposite the grandiose Ecole Militaire. Large numbers of friends and family had turned out to welcome us at the finish line as well as those that had hot footed it from Versailles. Cue more DIY banners and signage, champagne spraying, hugs, tears of joy and photo shoots. The atmosphere was electric and to have the sun shining down on us, as well as the Eiffel Tower glittering in the background as the French prepared to celebrate Bastille made it all the more special. It is a scene that will be emblazoned on my memory until the end of my days.

After soaking up the atmosphere we all made our way to our final hotel in Montparnasse and dug out our three week creased shirts from the bottom of our bags in an attempt to look respectable for the end of tour party. The tour organisers could not have secured a better venue for the night - the 54th floor of the Montparnasse Tower. The panaramic views of Paris in the sunset were glorious and we had the best seats in the house for the Bastille fireworks exploding over the Eiffel Tower as darkness fell. However, and most importantly, we had a private venue where we could celebrate our achievement together, thank our friends and family for all their support in getting us here and sign off with some heart warming speeches from Rick Wates (one of the trustees of the WWMT and William's brothers) and our lead rider, the mountain goat, the one and only Phil Deeker, without whose generosity of spirit, humility, sense of humour and leadership the TdF would have been half the experience.

But, as is the same with any transcending experience, the bubble has to burst at some point. In an act of sheer brutality, and much tougher than any moutain climb, I popped my bubble at 8.43am the next day as my Eurostar to London pulled out of Gare du Nord. Sitting at my office desk yesterday lunchtime, I could not believe that 24 hours earlier I was preparing to finish my TdF odyssey. Dazed and confused only touches upon it. The reoccuring questions yesterday afternoon - where is my bike and which foodstop am I heading for?

It is too early to reflect on what has so recently come to pass but I am sure to wrap up this blog with a debrief and "what next?" in the coming days. For now it is a case of re-adjusting to reality, dealing with the accumulated fatigue, marvelling at how much quicker the pros will ride the exact same route this week into Paris and to stop eating six times a day. That will be challenge enough.

Friday, 12 July 2013


In a similar vain to Hannibal and his elephants in 218BC, we have spent the last few days on Tour conquering the Alps, but swapping tusks and trunks for carbon fibre steeds. When I say conquering, I really mean surviving, although each mountain pass summited feels like a victory and a step closer to Paris. 

Nearly all of us are hanging on by our fingernails now and whilst the realisation that the Tour is soon to finish is dawning, we are still willing the end to arrive. 

Going into the Alps for the final week is as close to cycling cruelty as you'll get. This is typical programming from the TdF organisers who are passionate about seeing the strongest rider wear yellow in Paris. These last gruelling stages are designed to weed out maillot jaune pretenders and put the winning candidate under vast amounts of physical and mental pressure. 

For us, it is a test of hanging on in there. Our bodies are riddled with fatigue. Eyes are sunken and nobody is walking as tall as they did in Corsica. Despite the exhaustion, broken nights' sleep is common as legs twitch and constantly ache, we continue to saddle up by 7.30am each day, knowing full well the next 7 to 10 hours will hurt. The masseuses are fighting losing battles with limbs as the only cure now is rest and recuperation. We are at our limits. 

In terms of riding my bike and to coin cycling parlance, I am pedalling in squares. Smooth and supple revolutions have been replaced with staccato stabs. As I ascend now, I rock and roll over my saddle and grind. It's not really cycling anymore, just digging in. Today, and after two HC climbs back to back, my grip became so weak that it was difficult grasping the handlebars. My appetite constantly craves caffeine and sugar to help fight the fatigue. My throat and stomach are not so keen. 

Despite where we find ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally, we are so close to Paris now. Just the final push on Stage 20 covering off some beautiful peaks near Annecy. As a group we will continue to support each other and I am sure that the unique camaraderie that has been created here will see us over the line. It's astounding that just under three weeks ago we didn't know each other and now we work as a well oiled machine, knees excluded. The Tour de Force... a giant bike ride, an amazing fundraiser and an accelerated friendship programme. Essentially a triumph of the human spirit and a legacy I am sure William Wates would have been proud of. 

Another Alps col in the bag

Stage 19 finishing photo - a superb bunch of Tour de Forcers

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The hammer and the nail

Jens Voigt, cult hero and professional cyclist currently riding for world pro tour team Leopard Trek, once said that when racing your bike "some days you are the hammer and other days you are the nail".

Having felt like a little hammer for so long on tour, it was only going to be a matter of time until I was royally nailed. That time arrived yesterday unceremoniously whilst tackling the relatively straightforward Stage 16, consisting of 110 miles and some rolling hills - a typical transition into the Alps. 

Despite the rest day on Monday, the legs and mind just were not at the races. A wave of fatigued had rolled over me, generated from a series of poor nights' sleep, sickness, and not to mention the previous 1600 pedalled miles round France. Whilst you can usually push through a day when the legs feel sore, losing the mind and motivation spells bad news. There were a couple of times yesterday when I could quite happily have chucked the bike in a ditch and hailed a taxi home. All you can do is try and accept your day's role as the nail and grit your teeth. 

The nail usually pays the heaviest price. Whilst the majority of the peleton were finished for the day, I was caught near the top of the day's last climb in what appeared to be the warm-up act for the apocalypse. The temperature plummeted, whilst thunder and lightning exploded around the valley, and the road became a river as torrential hail thrashed everything below it. Being so close to the finish I pushed on up the climb taking my beating, my arms stinging from the hail but suddenly riding faster and faster in a vain attempt to outrun the storm. The descent to the finish line was sketchy and by the time I arrived at the hotel I was verging on hyperthermic. In typical Tour de Force fashion my room mate Simon (Judas Morten is back on his single supplements!) helped me up to the room with my luggage. Whilst warming up in the bath I vowed not to be a nail again on tour. I had to get my mindset back to where it was. It is typical to have at least one awful day (just ask Sky's Richie Porte after last Sunday's stage), particularly after a punishing stage like the Ventoux massacre. In a way I'm glad it came yesterday rather than on one of the big alpine days. Ashamedly I took comfort in that I drove on through the hail whilst others stopped to take shelter. You've got to take your small victories at this stage of proceedings, however pathetic and self-serving they are. 

The good news is that following this morning's Stage 17 mountain time trial it seems I'm back to being the mini-mallet. A good night's sleep, inspirational alpine scenery and a thumping playlist did the trick. With just three big mountain stages left, including the unprecedented double ascent of Alpe D'Huez tomorrow, and then the ceremonial ride into Paris, long may this new lease of life continue. 

A couple of nails playing at being hammers on top of Ventoux...

Monday, 8 July 2013

Introducing the roomie... Danish Morten

Morten Hansen has become my go-to roomie on tour. We have struck up an unexpected bromance and something always feels a little wrong if I don't find myself rooming with Morten. 

Nicknamed Van Dam by the peleton for his propensity to wander around in his string vest base layer and his no nonsense approach to bike riding, Morten is a mid forties Dane living in Frankfurt, working as a Euro banker and married to an English woman. Morten's wife found out she was expecting their first child a week after he had committed to the Tour and she has been particularly supportive of his grand tour ambitions despite their imminent August arrival. 

I am reliably informed that according to Grazia magazine there are ten questions you need to ask someone to find out who they really are. Thanks for all that filtration work you must have carried out Grazia - the mind really boggles when I think of how many questions you must have trawled through. So, let's ask Morten the Grazia 10 to see if we can peel back the layers of this Danish hard man.

1. Who are you closest to? My wife Emma - we have been married 4.5 years and expecting a baby boy in August. 

2. What is your first memory? I was 4 years old and remember travelling in a VW camper van with my parents for holidays in Holland. 

3. What is your greatest fear? Developing locked-in syndrome so that I would be trapped in a useless body but have my mind in tack

4. What is the most important thing to you? Being a good husband and soon to being a good father

5. Which qualities in a person are most important to you? Honesty and openness

6. What is the strangest experience you have had? I use to sport a punked Mohawk hairdo when I was younger. I was clearly a rebel without much of a cause looking back. 

7. When is the most exhausted you have felt? After the TdF's first mountain stage in the Pyrenees (Morten may want to adjust that answer after Ventoux yesterday!)

8. What is your biggest regret? Despite travelling around the world for two years, I did this on such a shoe string budget that I didn't actually see that much of the world. In retrospect I would have gone for a year and enjoyed a bigger budget. 

9. What do you drive? A 20 year old VW Golf - still runs like clockwork (so German!)

10. What is your most prized possession? My Pronghorn carbon fibre road bike. 

So there you have it - Morten in a nutshell. Long may our rooming union continue. 

A day in the life

It's all very well posting stories and progress reports but some of you may want to know what the nitty gritty day-to-day life is like on the Tour. Below is a brief snapshot to give you an insight. 

We typically share rooms on Tour so the day usually starts around 5.30am by fumbling around to turn off the alarm clock and removing the anti-snore ear plugs. It's then a time trial to get lycra on and chamois cream applied, main luggage packed and day bags prepared before breakfast at 6.30am. This process usually starts earlier if we have to coach transfer from our hotel to the day's stage's starting point. The aim is always to be riding by 7.30am. 

The unsung heroes of the Tour are our mechanics and soigneurs. They are up at 4.30am each day driving our bikes ahead to start points or getting bikes lined up in hotel car parks ready to ride. It is a wonderful feeling each morning to have your bike primed and ready to roll with the minimum of effort. A special mention must also go to the signing team who are out on the road before sunrise signing the route so we never have to consult the map. In high viz arrows we trust. 

Our first 40km each day is ridden as a warm up and the group is encouraged to ride with different people and socialise. This approach not only helps the legs spin out the previous day's soreness but has also fostered an inclusive non-clique Tour group. This is particularly important when we have new people joining the Tour for different stages and it is our responsibility as "lifers" to make them welcome and integrated ASAP. 

After 40km we have the first feedstop or second breakfast. On average, I'm burning 7000-10000 calories a day so you can imagine that we all want to eat whenever we get the chance. For the rest of the day we break down into our riding groups, making your selection based on pace, with food/water stops and sign ins every 40km. The Tour support team do a great job at these stops with providing decent nutrition and plenty of motivational chat and music. 

Towards the front of the peleton and the end of the stage, there is a palpable upping of the tempo as we run into the finish. The excitement of finishing another day and reaching the hotel fuels the pedalling. Usually, we start attacking off the front within the last 5km and everything goes crazy. The most memorable example of this was following a flat and tedious stage to St Malo. About 40 riders were amassing at the front with the pace being wound up and up. About 10km from the finish we hit a quaint French fishing town which had a horrible hill to get up and out. The peleton went ballistic up this ramp, everyone fighting to get to the front and into the break with riders being spat out the back one by one. The locals were in shock as these locusts in lycra swarmed their town. A lot of fun and on these occasions our peleton mimics the professional ranks. 

Once at the day's hotel, the mechanics and soigneurs are set up already and waiting. Bikes are taken instantly and worked on if required before being safely stored and I am usually straight onto the massage table. This is then followed by recovery drinks and a careful process of disinfecting the days water bottles, helmet, shoes and gloves, showering, laundry and then elevating the legs wrapped in compression tights to aid recovery. The recovery process is almost as important as the ride itself. Dinner is always at 8pm, with the next day's briefing and the awards for the day presented. Lights out are usually 10pm. 

Then we do it all again. 

Some snaps as usual: life on tour - another day and another hotel to settle into, knackered riders on a 6am transit bus somewhere in France and to show it is not all Ibis stopovers - a night at the chateau for rest day 1. Vive le tour!

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Ventoux virtuosos

Since the Pyrenees the Tour has enjoyed Rest Day 1, ridden to the English Channel arriving in St Malo (France's answer to Bournemouth), time trialled to Mont St Michel in the wind and rain and then headed south again with a number of long rolling (supposedly flat) stages to Lyon. Plenty of miles have been covered this week at some quick paces but everything has felt like a build up to today's stage 15 - the monster 242km, being this year's Tour's longest stage, a ride from Givors, south of Lyon, and finishing on the 1900m summit of Mont Ventoux, aka the Giant of Provence. 

This stage unnerved everyone in the peleton, evidenced last night by the unusual number of bikes awaiting mechanical attention as everyone fretted over their steeds being just right. To tackle Ventoux alone on any given day is a challenge but to wear the legs down with 135 miles beforehand, including four Cat 3 and 4 climbs, and temperatures reaching 35c did not seem doable. This year's Tour organisers have set the route to come up the Bedoin side of the climb meaning you have to circle round the mountain for 13 miles before starting the ascent. This only adds to the mind games as you see her summit's iconic observatory looming up ahead. 

I was determined to ride today with passion, prudence but above all guts. I was buoyed by the fact that Christian, my CEO, and his old friend Jean-Francois, were riding the stage today. Christian has been particularly supportive of my Tour bid and I was delighted that he got a taste of what it was all about. Both men should be whole heartedly congratulated for their exploits today - chapeau. 

By this point on tour we are all feeling desensitised to the long distances on each stage. 100 miles just feels like a warm up and we seem to be hitting this distance at around the five hour point most days now. I rode at the front today which was an organised and efficient group. Arriving at the base of Ventoux, the legs felt in good order. Getting onto the 15 mile climb it quickly became apparent why the pros fear it. The lower slopes were an oven and the gradient rarely fell below 10%. I continued to douse myself in water to cool down. As you got higher the air cooled but the all too familiar pain cave beckoned. Once entry had been granted, I pulled up a chair next to the hearth as the torture continued with each pedal stroke. At the top I was completely empty and emotionally drained, but ecstatic to have finished. It had been a strong ride and I was pleased to be the fourth man of the day to roll over the finish line. Probably the single most epic day for me riding my bike. What's more, I now feel like a proper cyclist having summited this legendary HC beast. Despite the sufferfest, I made sure I removed my hat as I went past Tommy Simpson's memorial in the moonscape part of the climb. Simpson, a maverick British mountain rider, died on Ventoux during the 1967 Tour, his last infamous words supposedly being "put me back on my bike".

With this gruesome stage behind us, we only have the Alps left to conquer before Paris beckons. There is still much to do but reaching Rest Day 2 tomorrow is another significant milestone. Most importantly we are into the final week. In general, the group looks tired and the rest is much needed. I am dealing with a typical bit of Tour sickness but will hopefully shake it off tomorrow. Nothing unusual there after thrashing my body for 15 days now. 

As usual to finish, the snaps: Christian and I looking fresh at the start of today, not so fresh with J-F after the ride and me at the top of Ventoux. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Pyrenean Pain Cave

I have made it to Rest Day 1 and safely through the first nine stages of 21 of Le Tour. Whilst the legs are sore and we are all fatigued, everything seems to be in working order thankfully. Rest Day 1 is a decent milestone and we can now look forward to some flatter days in Brittany following the raid into the Pyrenees over the last two days. 

For Stage 8 we rode 90 miles before facing 30 miles consisting of the HC Col de Pailhères (2001m) followed by a summit finish on the Cat 1 climb to the ski station at Ax 3 Domaines (1350m). The Tour categorises its climbs based on the length of the climb and the average gradient, Cat 4 being the easiest through to Cat 1 and then to HC (hors catergorie, directly translated as "outside category" or English slang, "huge climb") being the hardest. To give you some idea of the criteria for HC climbs the Col de Pailhères was a nine mile climb into the snow line above 2000m with an average gradient of 8%. I found it a difficult stage with wooden legs and a fragile stomach on the Pailhères but managed a strong final push up to Ax 3 Domaines. The next day, stage 9 saw us ride over four Cat 1 and one Cat 2 climbs. It was an incredible day of dramatic riding with beautiful weather and scenery in the mountains. Like a Wiggle express delivery, my climbing legs arrived and going uphill started proving fairly straightforward. However, the fifth and final climb of the day saw me take a visit to the pain cave. This is a dark and unpleasant place where the mind must overcome the voices from your legs begging you to stop driving upwards. I suspect my next visit to this foreboding spot will be on Mt Ventoux at the end of Stage 15 - Christian, I hope you are ready to make the visit with me!

Coming to the summit of La Hourquette d'Ancizan, with its breathtaking views and knowing that the Pyrenean stages were complete was an incredible feeling. It also inspired belief that making it to Paris was possible. As I sit here on the eight hour coach transfer up to Brittany (some rest day!), that self belief grows even stronger. Thank you to all that have been following this blog and sending messages of support for helping fuel that fire.

Looking forward and having learnt so much about managing my efforts in the past nine days, the plan is to ride the coming flat stages mid pack and look to conserve as much energy as possible as we build towards Ventoux and the Alps. A strong showing in the final week would be a great result. 

As usual here are a few snaps to reflect events since the last blog...

View coming down the descent of Col de Val Louron-Azet

The beautiful and moving memorial to Fabio Casttelli on the descent of the Col de Portet-d'Aspet, an Italian professional rider who crashed and died at this spot when racing Le Tour in 1995...

Your correspondent looking louche and moody prior to Stage 8...

And of course the promised pro tan shot from Rest Day 1... coming on nicely