Day 9 – Living dangerously, and the grand arrival

A little late today; Rob B told me that his parents are reading this blog over breakfast, so I hope I haven’t delayed you Mr & Mrs B!

To start at the end, we are all safe and well in Mestre, the land side suburb of Venice, despite a day of living dangerously.

We departed from the awesome village of San Martino di Castrozzi, with a rapid twisting descent to the valley below. Spirits were high and exuberant, and risks were taken. Two-thirds of the way down, Andy H had a horrible high-speed crash and was lucky to walk away with only a wheel broken.

Dusted off, wheel changed, on with the show. Once we were down to valley level we cruised through a splendid gorge with steep sides of Dolomite limestone, and occasional mirror lakes, reflecting the rock above. It was warm in the sunshine but very chilly in the shadow of the mountains, and then warm again each time we passed through one of many tunnels.

Morning stop was in Feltre, another splendid medieval town.

With the rest of the day mainly flat, and some energy to burn, particularly among the youngsters, it was hare and tortoise time. Fast groups broke away and rode at high speed in line, generally ending in some minor mishap, at which point the wiser heads proceeding steadily would catch up or pass.

Andrew had arranged for a celebration reception at a car dealership 50km from Venice, and the hares approached here with flat speed touching 30mph powered by diesel Flesher at the front.

The table of food at the reception was a work of art, with individual punnets of grapes, a pot plant and salamis and cheese. Our hosts had really pushed the boat out, with fine sparkling Prosecco and a cake decorated with a bicycle iced in the traditional Bianchi celeste blue. How kind of them! Andrew was unfortunately not there, he and son Tom having detoured massively due to navigation problems. They did finally pull in just as we all prepared to leave.

The plan was to cruise steadily to a point just outside Mestre, regroup, and then roll into town together. Things went to plan except for the ‘steady’ bit. Everyone wanted a leg stretch, and the peloton hurtled along, bigger and faster than ever, with some traditional tortoises joining the fun. Everyone has become so strong over the trip, and it was great to see Jamie and Steve riding fast and free, as well as youngsters like Sam, Daniel and Ollie who we have seen develop from novices to really athletic cyclists over the past few months.

It was a bit reckless however, and when Dom took a tumble, bouncing back to his feet unfeasibly quickly, we all calmed down.

Comparing notes in the evening, it seems I missed the real highlight of the day, which was a team of choreographed skaters, dressed in bikinis, practising their moves. Andy B said it was like “beach volleyball on roller-skates”. Honestly guys, after thousands of shouts of “slowing” and “car up” over the past ten days, the least you should have managed was a shout of “bikini-clad roller skaters”.

Which reminds me: the alarm shouts of “gravel” and “tracks” became a bit mundane, but I think I managed one “wheelbarrow” and a “sea”.

So, the ceremonial roll into Venice began, and we filled the road, rolling past ‘no cars’ barriers and into the midst of an Octoberfest street party at one point. Finally, we were at the hotel, where Lyn and other supporters were waiting for us, and the cheers, hugs, tears and joy broke out. Bicycles were held aloft and team photos were taken.

Dinner was a fine blow out, but I think we should draw the curtains as the drinking games begin and leave the rest to your imagination.

Over dinner we calculated that each rider turned in the region of half a million pedal strokes in cycling nearly 1000 miles. There was a mix of “shoot me if you see me on a bike” and “when can we do it again?” from different riders. For me, I loved every one of those pedal strokes. Riding in a group working well together is a superb feeling, and the satisfaction being self-propelled across western Europe is tremendous.

I’m sure there will be epilogues and photos, but for now, “that’s all folks”, I’m off to see Venice.

Day 8 – After today, it’s downhill all the way!

We arrived in Coldrano in darkness, and too late to choose from the full menu, so it was Pizzas all round. Though I understand some took advantage of the Wellness Centre, including sauna and swimming pool.

So I didn’t realise until this morning what an awesome location we were staying in. In the bright morning sun, with the mountains we had traversed to the North West, and the lush valley filled with fruit farms to the South East. Breakfast was tremendous; the best yet. Word must have spread that British cyclists like Muesli and lots of cold milk, because there was plenty of both, and all kinds of dried fruit and seeds to liven it up.

We were surprised to find that German is the first language in this part of Italy. History buffs, please comment if you can explain this!

The morning was bright and clear with cloudless skies but a chill in the air. Guided by yesterday’s freezing conditions, and our route, which was to reach 2000m once again, there were plenty of long tights and wind-proofs in evidence.

The ride to the morning stop was stunning, probably the most scenic and enjoyable riding we’d had all trip. We followed perfect smooth tarmac bike paths alongside the river flanked with orchards.

All was well until the ill-fated Simon had a new problem; his rear derailleur cage sheared off. So far he has lost a front changer, chain and rear mech. He seemed quite comfortable with the idea of riding single-speed, but after collecting parts that were shed down the road, a Mike Spencer Special improvised repair just about held together for the rest of the day. We are taking bets on Simon arriving in Venice on a unicycle!

Morning break was croissants in a most beautiful town square in classic Italian style. It’s quite a shame we pass through each of these beautiful towns so quickly, I’m sure each deserves time to explore.

View back to Coldrano and the AlpsAnd then onward to the first of the great climbs of the day. I led the youngsters: Tom E, Ben and Joel, to the foot of the hill – it wasn’t my company they wanted, just my sat nav – and then off they flew, Tom E setting a ferocious pace. I stopped to admire the view; looking back down the wide valley we’d travelled that morning, past Coldrano to the snowy mountains beyond.

With effort we were soon at 1100m and our lunch stop, and riders arrived steadily spread over half an hour or so, though a group of Baselys, Wadleys, Dymond, Rafferty, Batchelor et al was known to be some way behind, taking the day steadily with plenty of coffee stops.

It was a warm day by now, but still the hint of chill in the air, so paranoid after yesterday, I set off in a warm wind-proof top for our final climb of the trip, to Passo Rolle at 2000m. We were a large group for the initial descent and flat approach, stopping for photos at some amazing views over perfect Italian farming villages. As the climb began, each picked his own pace, with the undisputed mountain kings Tim D and Simon setting the pace (Simon’s bike clearly being the lightest by virtue of there not being much left of it) pursued by the young pretenders Ben, Joel and Dom. Joe, wearing the polka dot Jersey he won in Gibraltar was also cruising, Andy H started a little behind, but then stormed up the hill with the immense power only Andy can generate!

By 1300m I was regretting the wind-proof; I was overheating big time on a hot, hot afternoon. When I spied a shop selling ice creams I dived in, and watched the wise old guard of Mike, Tim F, Neil and Phil cruise past.

There was an absolutely gorgeous flat section at about 1400m, where a view opened of a large lake or reservoir, azure blue, and, although the surface was 50m or so below the road, the fantasy of jumping in was tempting.

Passo RolleThe second half of the climb was steeper and wooded, fantastically scenic and very long. Eventually one reached the open landscape and dramatic scenery at Passo Rolle. The final hairpins were steep, but everyone was spurred on in the knowledge this was the final climb and it would be downhill all the way to Venice. The early arrivals clapped and cheered from the cafe as each rider crossed the summit, Leslie performing a most excellent sprint finish and punching the air in satisfaction! Father and Son, Andrew and Tom Gibson arrived together strongly. Both have suffered physically, but they have got stronger as the days have gone by, and supported one another admirably, each one believing he is taking care of the other.

What a perfect place to rest in satisfaction at completing the hard part of the trip. Overlooked by massive Dolomite spires, attracting their own small cloud on an otherwise cloudless day, we basked in sunshine.

At 6 o’clock, with most riders at the top, we massed for a fast and exhilarating hairpin descent into San Martino di Castrozza.

By chance, we arrived just as preparations were being made for a rally car event, so the streets were filled with Porsche and Lancias, and the petrolheads in the group were in seventh heaven.

Relaxing at Passo RolleWe met for dinner at a Pasta and Pizza restaurant and spirits were high. All had arrived safely at the end of a final very hard day. The waitresses were charming and zany and coped amazingly with 34 people arriving in dribs and drabs and ordering in strange hybrid Euro languages. Simon ordered the Pizza Volcano, which consisted of a full English breakfast, sandwiched between two pizzas. Andy Hore’s eyes lit up in excitement, this will be a Leeds Met staple we think. Richard ordered Pizza Lunatico, in keeping with the way he’s been tearing up and down the hairpins on a motorbike. We’re looking forward to seeing his videos, he has such a lot of material, it’s going to be feature length.

And tomorrow we descend into Venice, back in team colours, for our grande arrivée.

Day 7 – Three massive climbs

I said that yesterday the team was filled with some foreboding about the day ahead. Ben was apparently talking Chinese in his sleep. He mentioned earlier he sees Simon as being like a goblin, so we asked what is “goblin” in his language, but no-one could recognise what he was saying. Simon is my favourite ‘pilot fish’ when he’s leading a group, his navigation is perfect, his pace setting sensitive. And, with his bandana trailing at the back of his head, and the deep stretches he makes on the bike from time-to-time I think of him as the Tai Chi Ninja.

Time and weather were the crucial factors in having any chance of attempting the Stelvio climb, and our cause wasn’t helped by the hostel only serving breakfast from 7:30. Even with the best preparations, we didn’t set off until 8:10, and, with an alternative route chosen for the first 20km we decided to stick together as few people had the route on GPS. Even after rejoining the planned route, we encountered the same old problem with forbidden roads, and had to divert onto some gravelly cycle tracks. To be fair, there are some fantastic cycle routes with a good surface, but it’s disappointing when a route turns “off road” without warning. Still, the early section was picturesque as we meandered either side of a wide valley floor with views of the mountains ahead.

After the preliminary section, the day presented three huge climbs. Firstly, to Klosters at around 1200m to catch a train tunneling through an impassable Alpine section. Secondly, the huge Offenpass, which, after diving down to 700m, climbed severely to 2149m, a Category 1 climb. And thirdly the Umbrail/Stelvio, climbing from 1400m to 2750m.

In view of the expected difficult and potentially dangerous weather, the team decided that the latest sensible time to start the Stelvio was 2:30 in the afternoon. With most people keen to take on the challenge we were literally racing for a train.

The first group of twelve reached the station and caught a train shortly before noon, the remainder all caught the next, half an hour later, which was impressive considering the intense climb to Klosters. Cycles are carried in a dedicated carriage at the back of the train, and we were surprised to find at the destination, we had to let ourselves out and cycle down the car track to the platform. This led to a rapid descent, followed by the challenging Offenpass ascent. It was exceptionally beautiful, if you could take time to think beyond the aching legs and burning lungs. Snow fell lightly above 1500m and the higher reaches were visibly laden with snow. Everyone reached the top of the pass, which is a colossal achievement. As Tim said this evening, this climb exceeds the typical Etape du Tour, a one-day amateur cyclists event on one of the Tour de France’s most mountainous stages. Andy H and James celebrated with a little naked exhibitionism on a rooftop, pictures to follow on the IL site after judicious cropping!

The descent from Offenpass was very fast and exciting; a little fast for comfort for me at any rate, and I lost time on those around me.

A minority carried on to the Stelvio, while the rest completed their 100 miles for the day via a lower route. For those who carried on, it was an exceptionally quick grabbed bite to eat at the top of the Offenpass, then on with the riding. The first group of Tim D, Max, Neil, Joe and Rob J passed through the little valley town of Santa Maria del Mustair bang on 2:30. It was a steep climb from the very beginning, although the lower reaches were thankfully tolerably warm and sunny. Gradually though the temperature dropped sharply, and by 2100m I was zipped up inside three windproof layers. There was deeper snow on either side on the road and a hint of ice forming on the road. Tim D was miles ahead as expected. I could see Max, Neil and Joe climbing ahead of me most of the way, but then lost them. I confess I had a little walk at around 2300m; comparing notes afterwards, I think we all began to find it tougher at that point, so perhaps the thin air was catching us out. I was surprised and delighted to find Max, Neil and Joe waiting at the Italian border post after I’d been walking only a hundred meters or so. We stopped for very snowy photos and spurred one another on, with the view of the hotel and resort building now clearly in sight. Setting off again, Max and Neil flew ahead, but Joe called out behind me that his cleats weren’t working. I scraped loads of ice out of them, and he was back on track. Painted markers on the road side marked 3km, 2km and 1km to go, then 500m, 400, 300 then down in 50s until finally I heard Tim shout my name from a balcony at the cafe. Stepping off the bike I realised just how tired and disoriented I was, but delighted to be ushered into the warm of the cafe. Neil bought everyone coffee, which was welcome to say the least!  Max bought a very nice souvenir jersey, but – even though  the shop was right across the street – none of us fancied venturing across the road in that cold. Someone said it was -6 degrees, definitely too cold to be in cycling gear!

We thought we might be the the only five, but were surprised to see Tim F, Ben and Simon roll up around half an hour later, with the van following. It was an exceptional ride from Ben, who had made up half an hour on the Offenpass after missing the first train. Simon too, who had broken his chain and had to take out links at the roadside before riding on. And fitting that Tim, our inspiration should reach the top.

They brought news that Guy and Mark were also ascending though I understand they eventually called for assistance from the van with the very last section of the climb, fearing for the weather.

So, gathering together as many extra layers of clothing we could muster we started the descent, very cautiously at first in case we encountered icy roads. I punctured again, and was very grateful to friends who stayed and helped me in bitter conditions. Below the snow line though, it started to become fun, and we flew the last 30km into Coldrano, through lovely bike paths among orchards with the light quickly fading, finally arriving at our hotel at 8pm.

Everyone had arrived safely, having negotiated by far the hardest day of the ride. There was of course a tinge of disappointment for those who hadn’t had chance to reach the Stelvio, but in all rational analysis it was a stunning achievement for every team member to complete such a day.

Day 6 – “There is always an alternative”

When the police stopped us yesterday and told us not to ride on the forbidden roads, they told us “there is always an alternative”.

Today we spent a lot of time looking for alternatives. The official route took us down a forbidden road. The alternative bike route weaved back and forth across the highway, and frequently reached dead ends. Joe, who’s been quietly tending the needs of Andy H till now, totally rocked the situation. “Straight ahead, across the orchard” he yelled, and we all bombed between the neat rows of apple trees. When the path stopped at a river, quick as a flash Joe said: “Right, here’s what we are going to do. We are going to carry our bikes up those steps, walk across the motorway bridge, and go down the steps on the other side”. The plan worked perfectly.

The weather has changed dramatically. Hard to believe two days ago we were dunking in fountains to cool off in stifling heat. Today we donned all our warm cycling gear and were still cold. The roadside thermometers said 13 degrees, two days ago it was 31. It rained most of the day.

The descent down to Lake Constance was fast and fun then we cruised along the north bank looking across to the mountains to the south. It was like a September day on Lake Windermere; beautiful but occasionally a little bit trashy and very wet. We reached morning stop in a very elegant square where Germans looked askance at the van. Richard charmed them and chose a parking spot out of sight of the disturbed locals.

The ride to lunch was a long plod, as the weather deteriorated. The Tim Frank group stopped early and made their own arrangements. Lunch wasn’t the lazy, restful break of earlier days, it was a snatched baguette and then move on before getting cold. Bike riding became a bit like a job today. Even a short day with hardly any climbing left us weary.

We seemed to slip into Switzerland without noticing, and then, just a few hundred metres further on, arrived at the huge customs post of Liechtenstein. Andy B and I paused and looked at the border guards but they didn’t seem interested in us so we rolled on.

The hostel is run seemingly single-handedly by a young woman with a very direct manner! We were given our marching orders in no uncertain terms and we all settled into mostly 6-person dorms. Quick massed showers and then serve-yourself dinner dealt with quickly and efficiently.

As we look out of the hostel windows we are surrounded by mountains shrouded in cloud. Tomorrow’s forecast is for light snow at the pass, and low temperatures. There’s still doubt about whether a Stelvio ascent is feasible. There would be great disappointment if we had to call it off. We have all been looking forward to this for almost a year. There’s a heavy, expectant atmosphere as we anticipate the day ahead. Early night!

Day 5 – “It is forbidden to ride on the highway”

Hotel Notre-Dame de Bonne Fontaine

Hotel Notre-Dame de Bonne Fontaine outside Phalsbourg

The Hotel Notre Dame in Phalsbourg turned out to be extremely nice: good dinner and breakfast, and the patrons were extremely eager to please. I’d certainly recommend it for future stays. And it’s easily accessible from local Motorways!

I hope yesterday’s post didn’t come across as snide; Barbara and Andy’s hotel and route planning have been impeccable, and my comments were meant in humour and kindness. Tonight we are staying in utter luxury in an apartment hotel outside Tuttlingen, which means that Leslie and I have adjoining rooms in a suite! I’m missing our “Goodnight John-Boy”, “Goodnight Jim-Bob” ritual.

We knew today would be tough and so it turned out. 113 miles, the longest stage of the trip, savage weather at times, and a 700m climb.

The first section into Strasbourg was, you guessed it, undulating. We set off as a group of six: James B, Jim, Leslie, Simon, Rob J and Ollie, but picked up fellow-travellers along the way, so when we finally rolled into the city of Strasbourg we were 20-strong and filled the streets with the rolling river sound of spinning chains and coasting freewheels. Looking south from the Rhine road bridge, the suspension foot bridge looked delicately spectacular. The Rhine also marks the country border, so we entered country five: Germany.

Somehow we had missed the morning break stop, so stopped instead at a Turkish cafe for coffee and baclava. Tim sat at the roadside calling in passing riders with his wolf whistle, which someone (I think it was Ollie) said sounds like a Spanish prostitute calling in punters.

Time slipped away and suddenly Andrew reminded us  it was 12 noon, we had 130km to go, including that climb, and only 7 hours before dark. So it was down the highway again, with a 15-bike line moving at speed along a 40km stretch of the E531. It was very busy, and the honking truckers did perhaps seem a little more agitated than friendly, but it was only when we pulled off the highway for the lunch stop that we were approached by a police car with flashing lights and loud announcements that “it is forbidden to ride on the highway”. We were sternly spoken to, and pointed at the sign which means ‘no bikes’ so we all looked contrite, and then Simon asked if they would sponsor us!

The weather promised rain, and though the mountains looked bright enough when we arrived at lunch, dark clouds were soon gathering. Driver Rob wisely put up the gazebo, just as the spots turned into downpour. We later found out that Leslie and Jim were out in it, dealing with a broken spoke. Leslie apparently performed a brief tribute to the Morecambe and Wise version of Singing in the Rain: as they sheltered under the awning of a shop, Leslie’s helmet tumbled down the steps, landing upside down precisely under a drainage downpipe.

Rob J and Ben at the summit of Day 5

Rob J and Ben at the summit of Day 5

The rain easing off slightly, a group set off in force and trepidation towards the foot of the day’s great climb. It started in Reichenbach; apparently not the same one where Sherlock Holmes met his end. Needless to say, the mountain goats Tim D and Simon led the way, with Ben, Dom and Rob J following at a distance. Dom punched the air as he crested what seemed to be the summit at 890m, but after a fast descent losing 100m in altitude, we were climbing again to the true peak at Meereshohe.

It was still a long 50km trudge back to our evening resting stop here at Tuttlingen, and while mostly downhill, it was busy and tiring. After all the weather and incidents of the day, groups were stretched over almost two hours, with the final party arriving drenched and in pitch darkness at 8:15. A hard day!

Day 4 – Andy Brown saves the day

Nothing much funny happened today, so it was really lucky that Brown Bear saved the day at the last moment.

As we rolled the last few km into our destination, Phalsbourg, Andy had planned us a touch of off road. The gravelly path turned into scree, undergrowth and then we finally arrived at a giant motorway construction project, bounded by massive 15 ft high banks of soft clay earth. Driver Rob managed to drive the van up to the top of this ramp, with Amy and Hannah’s screams echoing across the hillside. Twice over, I shouldered my bike, and dragged myself up the banks, slipping and sliding in the earth. Eventually we were directed to haul ourselves up onto a road bridge and rolled down to the hotel location.

Sense of humour wore a bit thin at times, but we’ll laugh about it in times to come!

The rest of the day was quite unremarkable except for more bits falling off bikes and troublesome body parts. Jim was the latest convert to single gear riding as his front shifter paddle snapped off. Max suffered the most outrageous puncture while descending at 40 mph as a screw drove its way right through his tyre and into the rim beneath, while – lucky for him – the tyre stayed inflated until he was able to come to a halt.

The cycling was uppy-doony, as they say in the Hebrides. We crossed ridge after ridge after ridge, gaining and losing height, with some speedy descents into villages. The final stop of the day was in the splendid Place de la Republic in Sarre Union, where riders queued up for a dunk on the ceremonial fountain too cool off in the hottest part of the day.

Tomorrow will be tough. Very tough. We climb 800m in less than 10 miles. Forgive me if I’m too exhausted to blog tomorrow!

Day 3 – If it’s Sunday, it must be France, Belgium and Luxembourg

The team is bonding nicely and learning to love one another’s foibles. We love Andy H for saying the things we all think but wouldn’t necessarily let pass our lips: “I kind of need a poo”. We love Jamie for his self-sufficiency: “I wondered why this bar bag is heavy; Lyn’s packed enough munchy bars to feed Ethiopia”. We love Mike for making us do the things we know we ought to: “Let’s completely unpack and repack the van!”

The run to the first stop was broad, green and rolling. Tucked under a bridge, the stop was easy to miss so Amy and then Andrew stood sentry calling people in, but it wasn’t enough to stop Steve from rolling right past and up the next hill. Nothing stops Steve. Someone suggested calling his mobile, but I think it was Andy again who said: “Steve doesn’t really answer when you’re standing next to him, why would he answer his phone”. We love Steve for his taciturn independence. Guy rolled in the stop with a Happy Meal clutched between his teeth like a dog with a bone, so I think he’s feeling better. Tim F arrived to find a message on his his mobile phone. “Dear Mr Frank. Your mobile data allowance is 25MB per day, yesterday you used 30MB. Please stop posting photos of pretty receptionists.” I made the last bit up.

En route to lunch there was an unscheduled coffee stop, staffed by the only two people we saw awake in France yesterday. The lunch stop village was definitely aslumber. Mark’s clunky bottom bracket was pored over by (inevitably) Mike and Andy B. I think it works OK but he says he feels like Metal Mickey.

Post lunch, just when our energy levels are lowest, the hills started to get serious. There was a tough climb over a ridge. The route didn’t reach the fort at the top, but the energetic Tom E, Tim D, Neil and Max detoured to see it and said it was impressive (and had a good coffee shop). Ben, Simon, Ollie and I plunged on into the valley beyond just as a sparkling plum-coloured vintage 2CV pulling a matching trailer miraculously reached the summit.

We didn’t realise that Dom, just behind had lost his rear derailleur in a replica of Daniel’s mishap of a few weeks ago. Dom rode on with the spare bike, but the big bike shop in Esch-sur-Alzette will have a few folk knocking on the door at opening time this morning.

Belgium soon arrived as the quartet worked together effectively, and we posed for Richard’s camera at the border sign. We passed a lumber mill with piles of saw dust and wood shavings the size of a Welsh slag heap. With only a short 10 minute afternoon break for water, we were soon approaching Luxembourg, though the border slipped by unnoticed. Suddenly we were surrounded by a huge complex of industrial plant; I think this is what Caroline described as the smelliest most sulphur-fumed place she’d ever been. The smell didn’t live up to billing, but as we arrived at the supposed location of the hotel under a mesh of high-voltage power lines like a crazed spider’s web there was no hotel to be found. Tim D said his satnav froze, and the possibility of free WiFi was a forlorn hope. Jim enquired with the man next door to where the hotel should be, and he narrowed his eyes (all three of them) and reached for a printout of directions to the real hotel. An extra 4km at the end of a hard afternoon wasn’t what the doctor ordered, but we soon arrived. Yet another mystified bar tender looked curiously at us as we ordered milk with ice.

Reputation of the crazy English spread further through the town as a group ordered XXL pizzas, at least 2 feet, in diameter at an excellent Italian restaurant. “Il faut mange toute” said the waitress to me, rather threateningly I thought, so I did as told and devoured the lot.

Day 2 – Bananas, Nutella and Ice Cream on Toast

We are just outside Reims, the Champagne capital of France, and what a pity, us all being tee-total we can’t enjoy it…

A little sickness in the camp today: Last night’s Buffalo was a little too rare and Guy, Tim S & Tim F looked fairly green this morning and made a late start. On the mend now though I gather!

Breakfast in Beauvais was quite a feast; someone must have told them that 30 cyclists have quite an appetite, so it was lashings of muesli and pain au chocolat all round.

The early kms were a touch chilly, but the peloton rolled easily into our first stop, another pretty village called Arsy. There was a small stir when it turned out the van had not stopped at the exact spot that Andy had so carefully planned, so the first arrivals (usual front runners, Neil, Max, Mike, Tim D, Dom) sat bathing their feet in the pond, waiting for the van to arrive, not knowing it was just around the corner.

Banana and Nutella

Tim D’s Banana / Nutella innovation


Reunited, we all enjoyed bananas before setting off back onto the RN and this time I joined the front-runners for a fast run via Compiegne into lunch stop at Soissons. The peloton soon arrived, as did the van, and soon we were tucking into lunch, with Tim D setting the pace once again with a banana/nutella combo that caught on like wildfire. Which reminded me of my dessert last night: billed as French brioche but as Jim pointed out it was basically ice cream on toast, which we all agreed would make a great addition to the student cook book.

A bit more sight-seeing in Soissons: Just across the park from our lunch spot was what I think would be politely called a ‘courting couple’, who lay motionless in missionary position for the full hour we were there. We tried to wrench the binoculars off Jamie but he clung on for dear life.

The afternoon was a hot slog into Reims, which my group whizzed through, but I think the Tim/Neil/Max/Ben group stopped off for some tourism. Hopefully they have the team photos, because it looked like a stunning town!

Day 1 – Weather’s lovely, wish you were here!

First things first. Everyone is safe and well.

The crazy antics of 30-odd Anglais spread bafflement through France however. I, for example, have just stepped out of the front door of the hotel, at 5:30am, and let it close behind me, only seconds after reading a sign that says “reception est fermée jusqu’á 0700″. It’s a good job the weather’s nice.

The morning start from the ferry was a bit surreal, with thick fog hanging over the river, and early miles passed through an industrial landscape of chimneys and oil terminals. A motorway flyover disappeared into the fog, as Leslie said, like the road to nowhere.

I had the team’s first puncture after around 20km, fixed quickly and I was glad to have the company of Tom G and Simon to help me back to the group at around 20 mph in stiff winds. Morning break arrived as the fog lifted and the landscape improved and we were truly in la belle France.

The van still being shopping we moved quickly on to a long and lovely wooded section, but tiring. A short but steep 12% climb had us all wondering if the Stelvio was really such a good idea! Steve, Tom E and I pressed on at steady pace and were surprised to see the breakaway group of Andy, Tim D and Simon reappear behind us. Wrong turning, and as Andy said at dinner, they “knew they’d gone wrong but just carried on to see what happened”. Yes, the same Andy who has spent the last 6 months poring over Google street view planning this magnificent route!

LD ferries continental breakfast was definitely running low as we arrived at the 103km lunch stop to find a hearty and very welcome feast. I was a bit breath-taken when I saw Hannah and Amy lighting candles in an apple tart. Waking up in a strange place I’d completely forgotten it was my birthday! Everyone sang Happy Birthday and I was completely gobsmacked. Thanks guys!

Refreshed by lunch, the young bucks set a fearsome pace led by the palmares pair of Tim D (fresh from two climbs of Mont Ventoux and a tour of the Pyrennees) and three-Etape Simon. Neil and Max were inevitably up front, with Mark, Joel and Ben for company. I was in no man’s land, the pace was too hot for me, but when I saw one figure in the distance I pressed on to try and catch. It was Mark, and we shared the burden for a while, though I think Mark did the lion’s share. Eventually Ben and then Joel fell back from the lead bunch as Tim F joined us from behind. We were on a wide Route National which went straight ahead regardless of terrain, and so the climbs were not steep but very long. It was a tough but exhilarating afternoon.

After a long lie down and Hannah’s fantastic flapjacks, we resumed for the last 34km of the day, at a pace everyone could maintain. Passing through a small town, we reached a no entry sign but decided to press on with the route with a mixture of pavement and cautious road cycling. As it turned out, it was one way “sauf velos” (except bicycles) but you could imagine the locals slapping heads and shouting “crazy English” as they encountered cyclists riding down the left hand side of a one way street.

Then back on the main road to our resting stop at Beauvais. Riding the RN is very different from the equivalent English A road. Lorries cross to the other carriageway to over-take, preferring to risk themselves or approaching drivers rather than drive too close to the cyclists.

Beauvais welcomed us with classic French tree-lined Avenues, and Jamie, propelled by a new chain after he broke the last one through sheer power, kept muttering “Buffalo Grill” like a man in the desert dreaming of water. Eventually the Buffalo Grill appeared, and next to it our hotel for the night. Welcome arrival!