David’s Tour du Jour – Individual Time Trial and Tour Wrap-Up

The last day of my Europeds Tour de France adventure was a great one.  The weather was fine, and we were only a few miles from the finish line of Stage 19, the individual time trial that would determine the outcome of the 2010 Tour.  Everyone was excited to see the last day for the yellow jersey contenders (since the final stage into Paris is just for the sprinters), so we were up early to grab our petit dejeuner on the back porch of our hotel, the elegant Chateau Pomys (although calling it a back porch doesn’t quite do it justice, does it):

Before watching the excitement that was sure to come at the time trial finish in Pauillac, most folks broke up into groups to cruise the French countryside for one last ride.  I headed out into the vineyards with TJ, and we were amazed that the roads were so free of any traffic while the pandemonium of a Tour de France stage finish was only a few miles away.

Did I mention that there are a few chateaux in this part of France?

After a nice 30 mile jaunt, we headed to the coast of the Gironde, where it was a straight shot down to Pauillac and the finish line village.  While riding along the water, we got a little taste of the breeze that would devastate the Tour riders during the time trial itself.

When we arrived in Pauillac, the excitement level and crowds were already building.  While not overwhelming at all, the crowd was definitely in full effect near the finish line (along with the press booths that are erected overnight for every stage).  It’s pretty amazing how quickly this infrastructure is put up and taken down every day–just the night before none of these structures or signs were in place on this final stretch.

And soon after I arrived, I saw my first rider of the day (someone from the Cervelo Test Team).  After a while watching the time trial, you kind of found a rhythm for watching the race, as riders came by every 1 minute (and later every 2 minutes).  You could hang out and talk to people, and then, when you saw the lead motorcycles and officials’ cars zoom by, rush to the fence to see the next rider (or 2, if someone got passed on the road).

Here is Tony Martin, from Team HTC-Columbia, powering his way to nearly the fastest time of the day.  The riders who went out early definitely had the advantage of not facing as bad a headwind as started blowing later in the afternoon.

But the man that almost everyone picked to win didn’t disappoint; reigning World Time Trial Champion Fabian Cancellara, of Team Saxo Bank,  blistered the 52km time trial course in a time of  1 hour 56 seconds (that’s an average pace of 32 miles an hour, for those who didn’t do the conversion–insane!)

The setting for the last kilometer of the course was quite pretty, as it ran down a waterfront promenade, with shops and restaurants along one side and a stately line of trees along the other.  Here’s a rider from Team Milram cruising by the marina on his Focus bike:

Some fans found a higher vantage point to watch the race, and the nationalities were pretty mixed judging by the flags on display.

But there’s no missing who this next rider is, with his Captain America attire.  It’s none other than Dave Zabriskie, the American Time Trial Champion of Team Garmin-Transitions, who did the Stars and Stripes proud with a 5th place finish on the day.

As the afternoon wore on, I started to wander down the course a ways just for a change of pace.  Here I am passing the flamme rouge, or the 1km to go banner, as a Team Katusha rider blurs past.

And here’s a rider from Team Astana, Bejamin Noval Gonzalez, barrelling around a corner, not even getting out of his aero tuck:

If you walked far enough along the race route, you reached the vineyards and open fields where the wind was blowing right into the riders’ faces.  The only thing blocking the wind were the hundreds of camper vans parked along the side of the road, like this cluster shielding a BMC Racing Team rider:

I’m not sure what the theory was with the outfit, but this guy said he was a Contador fan (and he did match his dog, which was a nice touch):

Back in town, the fans were getting fired up for the final riders to appear on the home stretch:

One of the best places to get a better look at the riders (since they were moving so fast out on the road) was the stretch of road after the finish line and before the team buses.  Here’s American Road Race Champion George Hincapie rolling along after finishing up the time trial (too bad he wasn’t wearing that cowboy hat, though, as that would have been a great picture).

And in case you didn’t think that this time trial was a totally draining experience, just look at the glazed expression on World Road Racing Champion Cadel Evans’ face as he was ushered back to the comfort of the team bus:

Lance Armstrong didn’t waste any time when he finished up  his ride, slicing through the crowd to find the safety of a camper van, setting off a chase by fans and reporters alike:

Finally we were getting close to the big finale, as everything would be settled by the last few riders.  The announcer was calling out updated split times all day long, so we definitely knew where things stood as the time trial was winding down.  The energy in the crowd was building to a fever pitch as the last riders hurtled down the final hundred meters.  Fans would start cheering and slapping the barricade signs as riders approached, like here with Robert Gesink of Team Rabobank:

By far the most impressive ride of the afternoon was thrown down by Denis Menchov, whose time of 1 hour 4 minutes 47 seconds was a good 3-4 minutes faster than the average time for the later finishers, and was easily enough to vault him into 3rd place overall.

But the duel that everyone was waiting for didn’t disappoint, as Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador battled back and forth all day long, just as they had for the rest of the race.  As the split times rolled in, Schleck seemed to be closing in on Contador’s overall lead, at one point cutting the “on the road” gap down to 2 seconds.  Alas, it was not to be (much to the dismay of most of the fans), as Schleck faded just a bit down the final few kilometers, and couldn’t close out those last 8 seconds, even though he turned in a fantastic time trial.

Then there was only one man left on the course, and, in a blaze of yellow (and the roar of the crowd plus a few helicopters), Contador went flying past. He finished in a time of 1 hour 6 minutes 39 seconds–31 seconds better than Schleck’s time, assuring him another Tour de France victory.

I hustled over to the awards’ podium to catch the winners’ presentation, braving the crush of fans who squeezed in with me.  First up was Cancellera, who was awarded the stage winner’s bouquet by the PowerBar girls:

Then, without any preamble, it was time for the yellow jersey presentation.  Contador was hamming it up a bit much, but it was undoubtedly a long 3 weeks of racing as the favorite, so the relief he felt after this stage was evident:

And what Contador victory would be complete without his “pistolero” salute (sorry, I only caught the recoil):

Next up was Alessandro Petacchi in his recently re-acquired Green Sprinters’ Jersey (which he held on to during the final stage in Paris):

Then Anthony Chartreau of French Team Bbox Bouygues Telecom did the host nation proud by donning the final polka-dot Climbers’ Jersey (and you’ve got to love those wacky umbrella dresses worn by the podium girls):

The final jersey awarded was the White Jersey for Best Young Rider, which of course went to Andy Schleck, who was oh-so-close to winning it all for the second year in a row (and quite possibly would have won if not for that untimely mechanical on Stage 15 when he was in the yellow jersey).  But there’s little doubt that we’ll see a lot more of this duel in the next few years, as both Schleck and Contador are just hitting their prime years for racing!

With all the jerseys handed out, there was nothing to do but clean up and clear out.  The Tour is always moving, and as soon as a stage is done, the barricades and temporary structures are disassembled and the thousands of fans start streaming home (luckily for me, this meant only a short ride through the vineyards back to my chateau!)

But the finish of this stage also meant that my adventure in France was at an end.  It was an amzing experience, both watching the spectacle that is the Tour and riding the same roads and mountain passes as the racers, sometime just hours before the race passed by!  It gave me a whole new level of respect for what these pro riders are capable of, plus it was a total blast to test myself on these famous and jaw-dropping roads.  The experience was made even better by the camaraderie of everyone on my Europeds tour group, including my fellow riders and of course our guides David, Chris and Charly.  I would be happy to go riding at any time with any of the people I met on this tour (or at least enjoy another fantastic meal).

It’s a bit of a shock to return back to your home roads after a trip like this (there are far fewer chateaux in North Carolina, for example), but I’ll never forget my week chasing the Tour through the Pyrenees.  If you get the opportunity, this trip is definitely one you won’t regret if you are a true cycling fan (and having great guides doesn’t hurt).  The other fans, the roads, the atmosphere… just being there is a magical experience.  I hope you got a little sense of what it was like through my daily updates, and maybe next year we’ll see you on the roads in France!

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David’s Tour du Jour – Watching Stage 17

Day 5 of my Tour de France adventure with Europeds was all about Stage 17.  I was up early to catch a ride to Pau with one of our guides, Charly, to see what the chaos of the start of a stage is like.  When I arrived, the weather was raw and rainy, and not many of the team buses were there yet.  However the start line was already set up, and freebies were already being handed out:

And it wasn’t too long until the caravan started up their parade of vehicles, full of hats, keychains and food to toss at the many thousands of people they would see along the day’s route:

Finally the team buses and cars started to arrive (later than usual, because of the lousy weather).  It was remarkable to see the amount of controlled chaos that comes with a Tour start.  Gendarmes and Tour officials try in vain to control the crowds and traffic, and then the team vehicles make their way to the area near the starting line and just sort of make room for themselves in a less than rigorously organized fashion.  Yet somehow it all seems to work out in the end, as all the assorted vehicles find a home.

What was really interesting was the way that team cars and bikes were set up for the day.  Average fans can just walk right up to the team cars and bikes, and touch, photograph or otherwise ogle the equipment without any kind of barrier or even much hassle from the team.  There were very few barriers erected to keep people out of the team’s way, but the riders stayed on board their team buses (for the most part) until they were ready to get on their bikes (here are the Astana and Saxo Bank buses parked right next to each other, a foreshadowing of  the day’s action on the Tourmalet):

Of course this afforded me the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the teams’ bikes.  Here is Team Fuji-Footon, with their infamous kits (which really weren’t that bad in person), plus their excellent gold SST bikes, casually leaning against the team bus:

And here are the sweet Focus Team Izalcos of Team Milram:

When it was close to the time of the stage start, the riders just hopped on their bikes, usually alone or with another teammate, and then head out, through the throngs of people, in search of the official sign-in before the stage start (sadly I was stuck on the wrong side of the barriers and missed this excitement):

Finally it was time for the stage start (at about noon).  The riders lined up, with the jersey holders in the front row, and then rolled out at a fairly casual clip (so everyone could get a good picture of the action):

With the mayhem of the Tour start behind me, I made my way back to the little town of Argeles-Gazost, where our hotel was, as the town happened to be smack in the middle of this stage as well!  The riders would descend the Col du Soulor (just like I had done 2 days ago when they were climbing the Aubisque) and would be dumped out right in the town center.  The town was already hopping with people, so I scoped out a couple of spots, and made sure to grab a few more freebies as the caravan cruised by (after seeing the caravan early in the morning, I appreciated what long days these guys must have):

After the Tour caravan passed by, I only had about an hour to wait, so I went ahead and settled on a spot in the square in front of the town church, where there was a little chicane to navigate.  Just like on the Soulor, you knew that the riders were closing in when you heard the choppers overhead.  Then you wait for the roar of the crowd to build, and the lead motos and official’s cars to come flying through town.  And then it was time; the lead riders came flying through the little square, braking hard to funnel through the corner and then accelerating away down the straightaway:

A couple minutes later the peleton came flying through, with all the favorites in the same group, and then the rest of the stragglers followed on in smaller groups (but without massive time gaps between them):

After less than 30 minutes, the last riders had rolled through, and the crowds started to disperse right away.  Many folks headed to the town square (or a bar) to watch the rest of the race on the big screen, but most people just headed back to their cars, the excitement for the day over with:

Most of my group headed back to our hotel to watch the epic battle on the Tourmalet.  I would have to say that everyone was in the Andy Schleck camp instead of Contador’s, but it was amazing to watch those 2 battle it out up the slopes of the Tourmalet, mano-a-mano.  After descending the same slopes they were climbing just the day before, it was practically inconceivable to me to see how fast they were climbing.  It was truly an amazing display of cycling talent from both of them.

So now the Tour basically comes down to the final individual time trial, from Bordeaux to Pauillac.  And our group is perfectly positioned to catch this last gasp for glory, as we made the long drive from the Pyrenees all the way up to a beautiful chateau right outside of Pauillac (nestled in the famous wine country around Bordeaux–Chateau Lafite Rothschild is about 1 km away from our hotel).

On our way to the hotel, we actually drove down the route of tomorrow’s time trial.  The road was already lined with fans in camper vans,  but you can also expect to see some tricky corners and roundabouts to make this race exciting (plus some stunning vineyards and chateaux).  And I can’t forget to mention the wind!  If it is blowing like it was today, then this will be a true test of strength, both physical and mental.  Whatever happens, I will be there to document the action first-hand, and report back to you soon!

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David’s Tour du Jour – Climbing the Tourmalet

Day 4 of my sojourn in France, and it was time to tackle the Tourmalet.  This was a rest day for the Tour riders, so our group would have the roads all to ourselves (and probably 20,000 of our closest friends).  Yes, the grey and drizzly weather didn’t stop many people from hitting the road for an epic bike adventure.  Our route for the day was a 70 mile loop that was a classic Europeds tour: start from our base in Argeles-Gazost, tackle some rolling French countryside on the way to Bagneres-de-Bigorre, then start climbing at Campan and cruise up the “easier” eastern side of the Tourmalet, then dive down the other side to Luz-Saint-Saveur and back home.  Sounds so easy, right?

The early part of our route was truly beautiful, just what you dream French country roads should look like.  We passed through quaint villages, pastoral fields, and roads carved through forested hillsides. It was the kind of scenery that you see the riders of the Tour de France roll through and wonder if it truly exists, or if it is just a trick of the camera.  Well, it’s out there, and it’s a ton of fun to ride through!

Of course all of this countryside cruising works up quite a hunger, so it was soon time for a pit stop at a cafe in the quaint village of Bagneres-de-Bigorre:

Fueled up and ready to go, it was time to get back on the road.  Just outside of Campan, the road starts heading up, and never lets up until you make it to the summit of the Tourmalet.  But we were definitely on the right path, judging by the elaborate road chalk left by the fans during Stage 16 of the Tour (which passed the Tourmalet just the previous day, in the same direction we were riding today):

These handy roadside signs let you know the suffering that was in store ahead (the totals for the Tourmalet in this direction are about 16km with an average gradient of 8%):

Up and up and up we climbed (although at this point I was basically alone, struggling along in my 34-26 gearing).  I’d show you some pictures of the scenery, but the fog was so dense that I could only see about 30 feet in front of me.  I just kept turning the pedals over, churning out the kilometers at a steady pace of about 6 miles an hour (I’m not kidding).  Oh wait, I did have one picture of scenery to share; well, more specifically, it’s a picture of livestock:

Finally I straggled in to the ski resort of La Mongie, which serves as a last respite before the final ascent to the summit of the Tourmalet.  Whereas on the lower slopes the climb seemed kind of deserted, with only small groups of cyclists passing me in either direction (plus leftover campers on the side of the road), once up to La Mongie it was plein du monde, as they say here in France.

As you can see on this map, after La Mongie the real classic climbing starts, with wide open vistas and switchbacks galore:

And better yet, the skies opened up for us as we neared the top, revealing some fantastic vistas (as well as a clear view of the summit, oh so far away!)

I found myself stopping for photos every kilometer or so, just because the view was too amazing to pass up (that and because my legs were about to fall off):

Only 1 km to go, but it’s a long one!

I made it to the top, eventually, to be greeted by quite the scene of exhausted but happy cyclists and hikers:

The obligatory summit sign photo was definitely in order on the Tourmalet (while rocking my cool Tyler’s team kit):

There’s even a nifty little cafe at the top, to give you that extra sustenance for the way down the other side:

And when I say down, I mean it!  The eastern side of the Tourmalet looks like you are dropping right off the side of a cliff (and incidentally, is the side where Contador and Schleck battled it out, mano a mano, in the final climb of Stage 17).  This may be the highest point of the Tour, but you go down in a hurry from either side.

But speaking of Schleck and Contador, I’ll bet they never climbed the Tourmalet on a tandem… with panniers… while wearing flip-flops and boat shoes.  What can I say, other than I told you that people will ride anything up these climbs over here!

The summit achieved, it was time to get headed home.  As I said, the eastern side of the Tourmalet is generally regarded as the tougher ascent, but it was certainly a slippery and gnarly descent as well.  You can see the twisty-turny madness in this map view:

And it didn’t help that the fog rolled back in as we started our descent.  Combined with the other hikers, bikers and campers filling the roads (going both directions), along with the fact that the outside of the road was generally a sheer cliff face with no guardrail, we definitely kept our speed dialed back to a reasonable rate (unlike many other people, including the brash rider who flew past me only to hit a bump and go straight over his bars at about 40 miles an hour–not a pretty sight).

But as a bonus for descending at a mellow pace, we were able to spot Didi the Devil making his way up the road to the Tourmalet, and he obliged by posing for this sweet picture!  What a perfect finish to the day!

OK, so we still had about 20 miles to go at this point, and it started raining, but it was still a fantastic 5 1/2 hours in the sadlle.  When I watched the riders rocket up the Tourmalet during Stage 17, I could pick out the spots where I had just been, and be even more impressed by their abilities!

Speaking of Stage 17, you can check out my photos from the stage on our Facebook page, starting with this photo.  I’ll have a blog post up soon, but we’re on the move tomorrow so my post may be delayed a bit.  We’re headed north from the Pyrenees, up to the wine country around Bordeaux, where we’ll settle in to eat, drink, and watch the decisive time trial on Saturday afternoon!

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David’s Tour du Jour – Stage 16 of the Tour from the Col du Soulor

Another day, another beautiful morning here in south-central France. I’ve been lucky with the weather so far during my time here—the skies have been clear, the temperature warm but not unbearably hot, and sometimes even a bit of breeze to freshen things up.

Our plan for the day was to rocket straight out of Argeles-Gazost and head right up the Col du Soulor, the precursor to (and a much harder climb than) the more famous Col d’Aubisque. No, it’s seriously one bear of a climb—just check out the elevation profile.  There were definitely sections that were way steeper than what’s on this graphic:

The plan was to camp out at the top somewhere (for about 5 hours) and then watch the shattered remnants of the Tour roll by. This being probably the hardest stage of the 2010 Tour, we were excited to head up the final climb of Stage 16, just hours before the Tour riders would come charging through (of course, they would have already ridden up and over 3 categorized climbs by that point!)

Now if you don’t feel like reading on today, you can just check out the video I made of my day watching Stage 16 from the top of the Soulor:

But for those who want to read on, here’s a GPS plot of our route for the day:

A cool part about the start to our morning was the chance to chat with Ed Hood from Pez Cycling News, a great photographer and cycling journalist who knows everything about pro cycling (and just happened to be staying in our hotel). As an aside, Ed was not worked up over the whole Andy Schleck vs. Alberto Contador dropped chain controversy—to Ed, those were the breaks in sports, and you just have to deal with these things and move on. By the way, if you haven’t checked out Ed’s Tour de Pez write-ups for each stage of the Tour, definitely give them a look.

Ah, but the ride. The rode tilted skyward right outside of town, a rude awakening for slightly tender legs (but things would only get harder). After some relatively flat kilometers and a few twists and turns through tiny little villages, we finally turned onto the Col du Soulor, along with just about every other rider within 100 kilometers. The road was jam-packed with riders of every size, shape and ability, plus those walking up to the summit (since the road was closed to cars, with the exception of the odd VIP tour bus or police car). In addition, every available spot on the side of the road was lined with tents and camper vans, and everyone was out and about, getting ready for the Tour. And I can’t forget to mention that I saw the Nike Chalkbot yet again, and this time I got a picture:

A cool thing about Dave and Europeds is that he lets everyone find their own pace on our rides. You can go as hard or as slow as you want, and he and his crew will support you in whatever you need. In my case, that was a pretty slow ascent of the Soulor! Like I said, this climb is really steep, averaging 8% for the last 8 kilometers (there are handy road signs that remind you of the grade and distance left), but there a sections that felt like you are climbing up a wall. Luckily I had a ready-made cheering section, since the folks that were camped on the side of the road would shout words of encouragement for the struggling rider.

Up and up I climbed, along with the rest of the throngs, heading up the mountainside. You could tell when you were approaching the summit of the Soulor because the density of campers and spectators increased dramatically (along with the odd horse or 2):

Finally I wrestled my bike up to the little plateau that is the Col du Soulor, to be greeted by an amazing mountain vista all around. Here I am posing for a shot with the altitude marker (sadly with my jersey unzipped, a rookie mistake):

And here are some shots of the view, and the people, that you could see on the top of the Soulor:

And then we waited. We had a few hours until the Tour caravan arrived (the flotilla of advertising vehicles that precedes the Tour riders on every stage). Luckily there was plenty of entertaining people-watching to be had, along with an array of shops and cafes to frequent:

By the way, did I mention that the setting was absolutely spectacular?

Most of our group decided to stay here at the Soulor instead of pushing on the Col d’Aubisque proper, but a few folks carried on to that more famous Col. We definitely weren’t alone in making the call to stay at the Soulor, however, as you could see from the fleets of bikes stacked haphazardly against anything and everything on the summit:

But finally our long wait was over, and the publicity caravan arrived. Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the caravan is a parade of funny advertising vehicles that blare music and fling little trinkets into the crowd as a warmup act for the Tour riders. It’s a pretty remarkable sight to see grown men and women fighting over keychains or really ugly hats, but you learn quickly to stay out of people’s way if they really want that freebie! The caravan vehicles came in all shapes and sizes:

But all I could manage to snag, of the flung freebies, was this goofy foam hand:

Once the caravan finishes passing by, the tension in the crowd mounts, as there is only another 45 minutes or so until the first riders will pass by. The sure sign that lead group is approaching is the sound of helicopters overhead. When you hear the impressive din of 4 or 5 choppers close by, you know that the Tour is finally here! First we saw the relay choppers high in the sky, and then the camera chopper came into view around the shoulder of the mountain! You could feel the excitement ratchet up as the camera chopper finally came level to where we were standing. Up the road roared the lead official’s car, the camera and gendarme motorcycles, and finally, the first riders! And wouldn’t you know it, Lance was in the first group, much to the delight of the crowd, who let out a roar as he passed by (only a few feet from where I stood):

Next up were the requisite support vehicles:

And then a gap, with a few riders strung out in between, before the main peleton rolled in a few minutes later, led by Schleck and Contador side-by-side:

The rest of the peleton was strung out over about an hour, as the day’s hard summits had shattered the main bunch, and left many riders just struggling to make the time cutoff for the day. The final grupetto was mostly made up of sprinters, including Cavendish and Petachhi, who wanted nothing more than for this stage to finally be over:

Once the last riders were finally through, it was time to clear out and head home, but not before getting a snapshot with my buddie James, a young rider from Guernsey who I hung out with as we waited for the riders to finally arrive:

Finally the gendarmes gave the all clear and it was time to hit the roads for the harrowing descent back into town (made infinitely more so because you had to pick your way through tens of thousands of cars, riders and people, all of whom were going at a different speed)!

But I made it home safe and sound, and even had time to watch Lance lose out in his bid for a final stage victory. Tomorrow is a rest day for the Tour, but for me it will be the hardest day of riding during my week in France (assuming the weather cooperates), for we are off to tackle the Tourmalet!

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David’s Tour du Jour – On the road to Gavarnie

Day 2 of my official bike tour started early, as our guide, David from Europeds, wanted us to get on the road to beat the heat and the traffic.  Our goal today was Gavarnie, a UNESCO World Heritage site since it is so spectacularly beautiful.  Our ride plan for today was about 25 miles of steadily climbing road to reach the town of Gavarnie, and then 25 miles of descending on the same road to get back home.

Once on the road, there was no doubt that you were in the French countryside.  Picturesque fields, country cottages, and the odd manor or 2 dotted our route:

But then the road started to pitch up just that much more, since the lower part of the road to Gavarnie was also the lower part of the Col du Tourmalet!  On our way up, we passed about a mile of Nike Chalkbot emblazoned road, and actually saw the crew setting up the actual Chalkbot to write even more in preparation for Tour Stage 16 (sorry, I couldn’t get a picture since cars were whizzing by, but it kind of looks like a paving machine).  My tires had a definite yellow tinge after rolling up this section of the climb:

A little further up the road, in Luz St. Saveur, the road to Gavarnie diverged from the road to the Tourmalet, but we made a quick stop to re-gather our spread out group.  As you can see in this photo, the road was jam-packed with cars and cyclists all day; when the Tour is in town it seems like the whole world descends on these sleepy little towns, but everyone seems to coexist peaceably (for the most part).

But onward and upward we climbed, until we finally started to see our destination (back where the snow-covered peaks are in this photo).  I tried not to stop for photo ops every mile or so, since I wanted to keep my momentum going, but I couldn’t pass up this shot of a classic Citroen parked in front of this awesome vista:

Finally we arrived at Gavarnie, tired but not totally wiped out (which was the plan for the day after all, as we have more mountains to climb later in the week).  Gavarnie is a spectacular little mountain town set in an equally spectacular setting.  Here is the gateway to the town itself, where we chilled for a while, drinking from the icy cold spring water fountain, and listened to the tales of a 77 year old French man who had also ridden up that day and really enjoyed talking to our group.

And what ride in France would be complete without a stop at a little cafe, and today we found one with an unbelievable view.  What you see in the background is the real tourist draw in Gavarnie, the Cirque du Gavarnie.  The Cirque is a massive u-shaped array of peaks (some still snow-covered), that are covered with icy cold waterfalls, including the massive waterfall in the center of this picture:

Here’s a little closer view of the Cirque (well, and me and my Fuji, of course), which shows the remarkably blue river that flows from the waterfalls:

To get this closer view, we had to ride cyclocross-style on a gravel road (plus avoid donkey droppings).  This place was packed with families making a day of it on the many hiking trails and picnic spots–if you ever find yourself down in this area of France, I can’t recommend enough stopping by Gavarnie.

Then it was time to head back to the hotel, down the same roads that we had ridden up.  But a few of us decided to take a litle diversion to the top of the peaks, up 12km of paved and gravel swithbacks at about 10% average grade.  I bailed out after about 6km (saving my legs for later in the week), but apparently the view into Spain from the top was amazing, at least according to the couple in our group riding the 40 pound tandem (and yes, I do feel like a big wimp now).  Oh well, I did get this picture from where we stopped, looking back down into the valley:

After the long and winding descent (sadly into a headwind, which made it a lot less fun), I got cleaned up and headed into town to watch the finale of Stage 15.  Needless to say, the town was overrun with cyclists, as were the bars.  I squeezed into a local watering hole to watch a tiny TV, but it was still great fun to watch with a big crowd.  The funniest part, for me, was watching the reaction of the people at the end of the stage.  No, I’m not talking about people getting riled up about whether or not Contador should have attacked Andy Schleck when his chain jammed–nope, I’m talking about the fact that the french guys standing in front of me waited for French champion Thomas Voeckler to win the stage, and then unceremoniously left right afterwards, not caring one lick what happened to the yellow jersey!

Now the amazing part about staying in Argeles-Gazost is that Tour is going to roll right through town on the next 2 stages!  Below you can see the route arrows already up in the town square–watch out for this nasty little zigzag when the Tour comes rocketing through on Tuesday!

Oh, but I’m won’t be watching the Tour in town tomorrow!  Nope, it’s up early for our crew, and off to the Col d’Aubisque, which literally starts right from the edge of Argeles-Gazost (I told you this town was right in the thick of things):

I’ll be up on the side of the road, camped out with my group, and all the other lunatics that make watching the Tour so much fun.  I’ll be wearing this jersey, if you can pick me out from the throngs.  So wish me luck, and keep an eye out for me during the race coverage.  But don’t worry, I’ll take lots of pictures and video and document the whole experience, from the caravan, to the attacking leaders, to the last straggler making his way up the mountain.  It’s going to be a long day, but totally exciting.  See you at the Tour!

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David’s Tour du Jour – Bonjours from France

If you didn’t catch on from my title, I have indeed arrived in France!  After 2 stops on my flight and about 10 hours in the air, I finally made it to France.  More specifically, I made it to the lovely town of Toulouse, in south central France (the spot where my Europeds trip would meet up before heading to our home base in the Pyrenees).  I was a bit unnnerved when my bike didn’t make my last plane change, but the baggage agent in the airport assured me that it was on the next plane and would be delivered to my hotel later that night (quel service!)  And as luck would have it, she was absolutely correct, and my bike box was waiting for me the next morning.

But since I had arrived a day before my tour trip departed, I had some free time to enjoy the sights of Toulouse.  And it turns out that Toulouse is totally a bike-friendly town, in addition to having loads of cool and historic buildings.  I first found this out when I saw this stand right outside my hotel:

This was (one of many) rental locations for Velo Toulouse, the bike share program in the city.  Bikes like these were arrayed at tons of different locations throughout the town, and were yours for the riding at a very reasonable rate (or you could subscribe to the program if you lived in the city and wanted to ride them every day):

The Velo Toulouse bikes were basic but eminently practical, with front and rear generator lights, low stepover height, sturdy wheels, full fenders, kickstand, and of course a front basket (how else would you get your baguette home?)  And the cool part was that people used these bikes… a lot!  I saw them all over town, in addition to an array of cool city bikes (I’ll upload pics of some of the bikes I saw to our Facebook page).  I saw young and old, tourists and locals, all taking advantage of this friendly bike-share program.  It seemed that wherever you were in town there was a rental stand nearby, so it was truly a user-friendly experience (I would have tested one these bikes out, but sadly you needed a European style “smart” credit card to use the rental stand):

But bike-share wasn’t all that made Toulouse bike-friendly (well, in addition to a populace that rode their bikes everywhere).  Though there weren’t many bike lanes throughout the city, the city was made bike accessible through other smart bits of planning.  For example, most of the streets were lined with a type of railing that also doubled as the perfect spot to lock up your bike.  There’s no need to hunt for a bit of fence or a signpost when most streets are lined with these slickly designed railings/racks:

And as if that wasn’t enough, the town was also full of just plain-old dedicated bike racks, so there was always somewhere to securely lock up your bike:

OK, now I know what you’re saying.  I didn’t sign up for this blog to read about bike racks! You’re here for tales from the Tour de France and riding the epics passes of the Pyrenees.  But the truth is, I haven’t started riding yet.  I just met up with my Europeds group on Sunday afternoon, when we loaded up the vans and headed for the mountains (you can sort of see the Pyrenees through the windshield in this photo–trust me, it looks much more impressive in person):

But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had any Tour sightings yet.  Indeed, just while wandering about Toulouse I saw a Lotto team car cruising about (even though the stage wasn’t really all that nearby):

But don’t worry, there will be plenty more Tour-related coverage to come very soon!  My tour group is now safely ensconced in prime location for the upcoming Pyrenean stages, as we are staying in the little town of Argeles-Gazost, set in a valley at the foot of both the Tourmalet and d’Aubisque climbs (and hence smack in the middle of 2 stages in this year’s Tour).  It’s a beautiful setting, and I can’t wait to go out and tackle some of these epic climbs.  Here’s the view from the patio of our hotel, the Hotel Printania, where we enjoyed a sumptuous 4 course dinner:

And here’s the view from a bike path near the town, where we went for a quick ride to test our legs, and our bikes, after our days of travel:

I’ll have much more on-the-bike action for you tomorrow, as we are heading to the UNESCO World Heritage sight of Gavarnie (in a slight change from our original ride plan–our group leader David thought it was best if we started with an easier ride than tackling the Tourmalet on our first day riding, and I heartily agree with him).  The ride to Gavarnie is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the whole region, so I’ll take plenty of pictures along the way to share with you.  So until demain, I bid you au revoir.

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On the road to Pisgah with GT Sensor 9rs

David and Chris are packing up today to head out to the Land of the White Squirrel (that’s Brevard, NC) for the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race (which starts Tuesday, Sept. 14).  But before they left they wanted to share a few thoughts on their ride for the week of racing, the exclusive GT Sensor 9r mountain bike.  Just in case you’ve forgotten, David works in our Marketing department (although you may remember him from his on-the-scene posts from this year’s Tour de France), while Chris works in our Bikes department, making sure that all of our stores have the right mountain bikes in stock.  Here’s David talking about his experiences on the GT Sensor 9r:

We’ve only been riding the GT Sensor 9rs for a few weeks, but it really has been a eye-opening experience for me.  Stepping up from a 26″ full-suspension bike to this 29″ design has been fantastic, especially since the GT Sensor 9r has 120mm of rock-solid Fox suspension front and rear.  Just taking the bike out of the box, I really liked the whole look, from the dark green paint job to the aggressive-looking top tube shape.

Of course we couldn’t resist throwing on a few upgrades while we had the chance.  Both Chris and I installed a Crank Brothers Joplin 4 seatpost, with remote, as it’s the perfect weapon to battle the variety of gnarly terrain ahead in Pisgah.  Chris then swapped out his components for a full Shimano XTR build, while I opted for an FSA crankset and cockpit with Avid Elixir CR disc brakes, plus a SRAM X.O rear derailleur/X.9 shifters combination (and of course Ergon GP1 grips).

So how does it ride?  Well, I’m a big fan!  I love how the 29″ wheels roll over technical sections of the trail, and GT’s Independent Drivetrain suspension design does a great job of isolating pedaling-induced suspension feedback.  Plus, I really like having 120mm of suspension to bail me out when the trail gets nasty.  In short, it should be a great ride for the long days in the saddle on the super-technical trails of the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race.

The only thing I don’t know if it will help me with is in trying to catch a glimpse of one of the elusive white squirrels of Brevard! I swear I saw one last year, but Chris still doesn’t believe me!

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