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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Bring on the Tour

Have you been watching the Tour?  We sure have here at the office, and it’s certainly lived up to it’s billing as cycling’s highest drama this year.  We’ve seen highs, lows, and everything in between.  From the sublime mountain battles between Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, to the (sometimes too feisty) sprint battles between Mark Cavendish, Alessandro Petacchi, Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar (although he’ll be sitting out the rest of the Tour), to the just plain bad luck of Lance Armstrong and Cadel Evans, there’s been a lot on offer for the cycling fan!

But the cool part is, there’s still a week to go before a new champion is crowned.  And the extra cool part–we’re going to have a man on the scene to report back on a first-hand experience watching the Tour! Yes, our own David is headed to France this weekend, courtesy of Europeds.  He’ll be reporting back from road daily to give you a you-are-there account of what it’s like to experience the Tour in all its glory, all part of our efforts to Celebrate the Tour.

OK, so what can you expect from our man in France?  First up on the agenda, nothing less than the Tourmalet, the highest point on the Tour this year at nearly 7,000 feet high (a mountain that caused Octave Lapize to famously call Tour officials “assasins” for making the racers climb it for the first time 100 years ago)!  David will be hopping on his trusty Fuji SL-1 to battle the beautiful but imposing slopes of the Tourmalet as the real riders of the Tour work their way down to the Pyrenees (but he will be bringing a few more gears than Lapize had at his disposal).  Of course he’ll bring his camera to document the whole experience for this blog.

Lapize didn't have a compact crank

Next up, David will tackle another famous pass in the Pyrenees, the Col d’Aubisque, but this time it will be to watch the madness that is sure to erupt on Stage 16 of the Tour.  David will be in amongst the throngs that line the mountain roads of the Tour, to watch riders up close and personal, but also to take in the whole atmosphere that comes along with this great traveling spectacle (including the massive publicity caravan both before and after the racers fly by).

The Tour riders have a rest day after Stage 16, so David will take this opportunity to explore the countryside with Europeds to take in the scenic beauty on offer in this southernmost part of France.  But the next day the Tour is back in action, so David will be there to check out what should be quite the battle on Stage 17 (as the route heads back to the Tourmalet for a summit finish).  This could be the spot where the Tour is decided this year, but as a special bonus David will get you some behind-the-scenes access this day, to get a little taste of what it takes to make a Tour team tick.

After the battles of the Pyrenees, the Tour winds it way to the wine country of Bordeaux.  The individual time trial of Stage 19 will mark the last real chance that anyone will have to sway the balance of the Tour, if there is any doubt after the epic mountain battles in the Pyrenees.  Of course David will be there at the finish, to watch the riders rocket to the finish in a last grasp for glory.

So are you excited yet?  David sure is, and he’s ready to share this whole experience with you.  Check the Performance Bicycle Blog daily for updates from France, and let David know in the comments if you’ve got any tips or questions while he’s on the road.  Like we said, it’s time to bring on the Tour!

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