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!

Raleigh Racers Brochure 1983

Raleigh Royal 1983
I recently came upon this 1983 catalogue of Raleigh’s high-end bikes, built (as I understand it) at their Ilkeston ‘special products’ division. In those days Raleigh was walking a tightrope between high-end aspirations (successful racing team in Europe, and great hand-built racers and tourers) and the pile ’em high shoppers and Choppers. Nevertheless, they did get plaudits from the cycling press for these good-value quality models, which led to me buying a lovely Raleigh Royal that I rode from 1983 until this year (when I bought my gorgeous Paul Villiers Sportif).

Anyhow, I’m posting this PDF of the catalogue, mainly for its archival value, so for Google’s benefit, I’d better mention that it contains the following models:

Raleigh Team Replica, Raleigh Gran Sport, Raleigh Road Ace, Raleigh Competition, Raleigh Record Ace, Raleigh Royale, Raleigh Royal, Raleigh Clubman, Raleigh Rapide, Raleigh Record Sprint, Raleigh ZenithRaleigh Stratos, Raleigh Silhouette, Raleigh Europa, Raleigh Medale, Raleigh Supersport, Raleigh WispRaleigh Winner, Raleigh Ace, Raleigh Micron.

Phew. Finally, a link to a really good history of the Raleigh company.

Robert Millar – Tour de France 1983 Stage 10

I’ve spent the last week with my nose in Richard Moore’s book: In Search of Robert Millar. It’s a sad-making life story of the greatest British racing cyclist. I call him that despite a decade following his performances with increasing frustration and disappointment. Moore points out that daily Tour de France TV highlights, on the newcomer Channel 4, only began in 1985, the year after Millar’s greatest achievement: King of the Mountains and fourth place in the general classication of the 1984 Tour. After that it was mostly defeats outrageously clutched from the jaws of victory. The Vuelta (Tour of Spain) of 1985, which he utterly dominated, only to lose on the penultimate day through a multi-team conspiracy of Spanish riders and his own team manager’s tactical blunders. The 1988 Tour de France stage to Guzet-Neige when, with 500 metres to go, poised on the wheel of the leader and looking certain to sprint for stage victory, both riders misinterpreted a marshall’s signal and took a wrong turning.

In highlighting these disappointments, I overlook some oustanding success over 15 years of professional riding, but the truth is, with his massive talent, we longed for him to achieve more than he did. The Cycling Weekly hall of fame is symptomatic. Having published a their ‘all-time list of Britsh pro winners’, in which Millar was placed only 9th, they devised an alternative ranking scheme with an elaborate points system to place Millar first.

And the reason we feel so passionate about Millar? Cavendish’s four stage wins from massed sprints in the 2008 Tour were amazing, but the mountains are where the heroes come out. There is no more glorious sight than a rider who can crack the will of cycling’s strongest men over four colossal climbs, then dance away to victory like a flea. Just watch this!