Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Etape Pennines 2014

Etape Pennines
When we applied for the Etape Caledonia, we were told it was fully booked, but you could enter, if you signed up for the double with the Etape Pennines.  A bit cheeky, but we thought it would be good to explore new cycling territory.  So a month earlier, we drove over to Barnard Castle in County Durham, and reccied the route, which starts there.  Barnard Castle is a very attractive market town with a castle, High Force waterfall and miles and miles of moorland on the doorstep.  We did a slightly shorter route, because it was only a few days after the Etape Caledonia, so got a slightly false sense of just how hilly it was!
On the day of the race, we cycled up to the start at 6.15am!  A closed road event, but they clearly wanted the minimum of disruption to traffic, as we would likely be finished by lunchtime!  The route takes you up past High Force,  into Weardale, up several hills and over to the highest metalled road in Britain, apparently.  Once over that, it was a steep, fast descent into Weardale, going north towards Northumbria.  Up and down to Ireshopeburn, north over the moor to Hunstanworth, up some more roads with arrows on them, south to Stanhope, another nasty climb out and back over the moors to Eggleston, and a super fast descent to Barnard Castle.  Only 62miles but tough, with 7500' ascent.  Really pleased with average of 12mph, which brought me in in 5hrs 10mins.  Ian had an amazing ride, averaging 15.1mph in 4hrs 05 mins.  Think we both felt that our time in the Alps had helped a lot.
The following day we moved on to explore Hawes, on the route of the depart of the Tour de France, Leeds to Harrogate.  In fact, they went right past the campsite, where we were staying, on route for the Cote de Buttertubs!  Great site, within a short walk of Hawes, six pubs and the delicious Black Sheep bitter!
The following day was hot and sunny as we set off up Buttertubs.  Apart from a couple of steep short ramps, it's not a daunting climb and short, at about 4miles.  The views over the surrounding moorland were gorgeous, as we dropped down to Thwaite and Swaledale.  From there on to Keld, where Colin and I called in the Coast to Coast, three years ago.  Up the climb to Tan Hill, and the highest pub in Britain.  Through Arkengarthdale! Very picturesque and on to Reeth, where we also stayed, and an early shared sandwich and a coke.  Over Greets Moss to Redmire village and into Wensleydale.  Climbed up Bishopdale and over to Hubberholme, and a brief stop to visit an old church, which Ian remembered visiting with his dad, when he was about ten.  His dad showed him the carvings of little mice on some of the pews, carved by the famous "Mouseman".  Off again, no time for a restorative pint at The George, which is shut on Tuesdays!  A gentle climb up Langstrathdale, which gets very steep towards the top, at 20%!  A precarious descent of 17%. Down into Gayle and on to Hawes, and a pint of Black Sheep, finally!  Hard cycle!  55miles and 6500' ascent!  The climbs around here average about 16%, but are not too long.  Well, long enough!  But an amazing day.  A bit too hot really but incredible.  Great route!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Tour comes to Cassel

The Tour de France comes through Cassel
After Guignicourt we drove up to Eperleques, near St Omer in Flanders.  Heavy rain most of the way up!  A flattish not particularly scenic area, known mainly for the impact the first and second world wars had on it.  We arrived here at about lunchtime and by 2pm were out on our bikes watching the Tour come through Cassel.  Not the crowds we'd seen in Yorkshire, but still good fun and support, particularly seeing my favourite Tomas Voeckler out front, straining and pulling his usual faces.  Lovely climb up to Cassel, which we'd definitely come back to in the future, maybe giving ourselves an extra day here to explore Belgium, which is only about 20miles away.  32miles at a lovely faster speed.
Catching the Chunnel tomorrow after a fantastic and memorable time in France.  Looking forward to getting home though!

La Marmotte

The day of reckoning has arrived for Ian!  Spent all year training hard for this event.  Lots of climbing and distance.  The route goes over Col du Glandon, down to St Marie de Cuines on to St Jean de Maurienne, which we've already done so far, but on to Col du Telegraphe, over to the biggest climb of the day, Col du Galibier, all the way down to Bourg d'Oisan, some 25 miles, and the tough climb up the Alpe d'Huez, at potentially the hottest part of the day, with very tired legs, to the finish!  110 miles and 16600' climbing.  Really tough but very stunning scenery and a classic circuit, much beloved by the Dutch and celebrated as a classic event.  Very difficult to enter, in that it gets booked up almost immediately.
Having told a few people he was going to do it, Ian was beginning to doubt he was up to it.  Hoped he might do it in about 9 hours.
I had always wanted to ascend Galibier from Bourg.  Not a particularly difficult task, but a classic route following the Romanche river up past the barrage, through several badly lit tunnels,  on to La Grave, with spectacular views of the Meige Glacier and then zigzagging up to the Col du Lauteret, where the real climbing starts. Although a long 20 miles so far, the gradient is rarely steeper than 8%.  But from Lauteret, you frequently see 10% on the climb up to Col du Galibier, where I started to see more and more cyclists summitting from the Valloire side.  Must be doing the shorter version of the Marmotte.  The speed some of the faster cyclists descended down to Lauteret and eventually on to Bourg was breath-taking and frightening. I was glad of my flashing lights in the tunnels, as cyclists zipped past me with no lights, at twice the speed.  I was doing about 28mph!
I was glad to see the back of them at the reservoir, as I ascended the climb up to Col de Sarenne to transit over to the finish on Alpe d'Huez. Wouldn't be able to follow the riders up the Alpe, so chose this route so at least I could see Ian at the finish.
Climbing up Col de Sarenne after Galibier was quite tough, but I was ready for it, as I'd descended the same road only a few days ago.  The freshly laid gravel made the steep ascent tougher, because getting out of the saddle was difficult with rear wheel spinning in the loose gravel!  Anyway made it to the top and cycled over to the top of the Alpe, to see Ian come in a few hours later, in an impressive 8hrs 26mins.  Amazing and recognised as gold standard.  So proud of him.  The weather had played a part.  Cloudy and pleasant with little wind.  The sun came out later in the afternoon to really punish the poor beggars who were already suffering and coming in much later.  As we descended a few hours later, there were people walking up at the 4th hairpin with 17 more to go!  They looked exhausted and hot!
Ian was really pleased with his performance and was in good shape.  For me, it had been a tough but enjoyable day. 65miles and 10800' ascent.
The following day we set off on the long journey home, breaking it at Guignicourt, just north of Reims.

Alpe D'Huez

Whilst Ian started reluctantly to wind down,("I'm not doing this again, cos there's a lot I want to do, but have to think about resting!), I went off and had more fun in the mountains.  Aiming to continue this new phase of more distance, summitting a col and dropping down into pastures new and another valley, I cycled a route which took me up Alpe d'Huez, attempting a faster time than last year, over to the Col de Sarenne, which, literally minutes earlier had acquired brand new Tarmac and a shed-load of loose grit.  Not good for the tyres and even worse for the very steep and tricky descent into the Ferrand valley, where I've never been before.  Saw our Belgian neighbour from Allemont, who'd managed the steep ascent from the Ferrand valley! He'd been into Bourg the previous day to get a new cassette for his bike, especially for this ascent!
The narrow road winds down to the dam at the Barrage du Chambon, on the road to Galibier.  Then it climbs again up to Auris and a spectacular high-level balcony road which clings to the side of the hill, hundreds of feet above the valley.  A single track road, twisting and turning, requiring concentration, but amazing.  Comes out at La Garde, number 16 on the 21virages of the Alpe d'Huez, so quite low down!
Managed the ascent of the Alpe in 1hr 25mins and 42secs, wiping nearly 4 whole minutes off my previous time, so well-chuffed!  Overall distance today 32 miles and 5000' ascent. Ian cycled up the Alpe taking if steady to register in the afternoon.
In the evening we'd went to la Romanche restaurant which is best in Bourg. Full of Dutch and equivalent noise!
The following day, Ian went stir crazy and rested at the van, whilst I went off on the beautiful road to La Berarde.  Saw a very large, very dead pine marten at the side of the road.  Another spectacular balcony route, in places, culminating in a dead-end and a mountainous full-stop at the hamlet of La Berarde.  The Barre des Ecrins in front of you, the highest being Mt Pelvoux at 3946m.  Stunning. 41 miles and 3876' ascent.
Marmotte tomorrow and my date with Galibier!

Col de Glandon and Croix de Fer Circuit

Lovely day for the Col de La Croix de Fer circuit
After the efforts of the Vaujany, we just pottered up to Villard Reculas on the Monday and continued on a little of the balcony road, but didn't go far, as we have a longer expedition organised for the following day.  It's a cracking circuit but again a long one.  If you want to drop down into a different valley a take in more than one col, it's always going to be a long day.  But we're in no rush!
I set off half an hour ahead of Ian, climbing the long straight section up to La Rivier, going North of Allemont.  Five miles of steady climbing!  Ian's going to have to do this all again, in a few days time when he cycles the Marmotte challenge, so it's more practice for him.  After the massive hydro-electric dam and lake of the Grand Maison, there's the last ascent up to the Col du Glandon.  The mouse had just been caught by the cat!  First break of the day, and a coffee at the cafe.  Not following the lovely final climb which sweeps around up to my favourite col, the Croix de Fer. But we will come to that later in the day.  Over the Col du Glandon, and down the other side into the Vallee des Villards.  Beautiful descent through alpine meadows and following the river all the way down to the little town of St Marie de Cuines, on to St Etienne de Cuines and eventually St Jean de Maurienne in the valley of the same name.  Time to grab a sandwich and two cokes each, before beginning the long gradual climb up to St Jean d'Arves, getting steeper as you cycle through St Sorlin d'Arves.  Told Ian to get off at his own pace and I'd see him back at the van!
  A little pause for a swig of water at the curious church of St Sorlin, with its funereal crafted iron and silver wreaths, fixed all over the outside walls.  Last slow pull out of the ski village, which the local cafe owner at the summit later told me was 65% owned by the Dutch in the form of second homes.  No wonder the place is full of them!  Fun-loving and friendly, but you wouldn't chose to sit next to them on a restaurant!  A bit loud!
A celebratory hot chocolate at the friendly cafe and a chat, a bit one-sided, with family members of the owner.  Off on the final descent home, sweeping past the turn-off for Glandon from earlier in the day.  Fast but careful descent into Articol, and eventually past Vaujany and into Allemont.  Tough day but fantastic.  72miles and 11000' ascent.
Weather was rubbish the following day so made it a rest day!  Moved the van down the road a few miles to Bourg d'Oisan, in preparation for the start of the Marmotte.  Site now in Peak season and costing 45euros per night, as opposed to 16 at Allemont, and the cheeky beggars want all you payment up front, which we've never known anywhere else in France.  We'll stay at Allemont next time.  They may have a lovely swimming pool, but so what!
More about the Marmotte later, but Ian's spent all year doing lots of miles and climbing in preparation for this race.  Extremely tough and not for the faint-hearted (that covers me then!).

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Vaujany Sportive

We had to be in Allemont, in the Isere area of the Parc des Ecrins, for the Vaujany cycle race, we were both entered for. For Ian, it's just a preparation for the Marmotte, and he has done the Vaujany before. For me it was my first French cycle epreuve or sportive. Just had a bit of a warm-up cycle down into nearby Bourg d'Oisan and then reccy the last 10kms culminating in the steep climb into Vaujany, for the "mountain top" finish.  Not quite but still steep averaging over 9% for 6kms into the finish.  Registered and then rested ready for the race.  Ian warned me that the forecast didn't look good.  Rain all day and lots of it!
It poured with rain all night and we sprang a leak again in the van!  Got up at 6am to the sound of heavy rain!  The thought of not turning up never crossed my mind, even as we set off, downhill, at 20mph down the Sechilliennes valley.  Dark and gloomy.  Street lights on.  Couldn't look up because hard rain was belting my face.  Was wearing all the clothes I carried, free arm warmers(I was given on entry), vest, leg warmers and cagoule.  Energy bars and gels and carb drinks.  Some cyclists already cycling back, after 10miles.  Never considered doing the same.  At the foot of the Alpe du Grand Serre, it struck me that I was soaked to the skin and cold, and unless the rain eased off, it wasn't going to get any better!  A good 15km climb up Grand Serre with a gradient of 7%.  Ideal for keeping moving at a good pace and warming up a bit.  Climbed through surreal forest landscape with swirling mists and poor visibility.  Really atmospheric.  Just getting warmer when we hit the top and started the very long and very cold descent into the Valbonnais valley.  Normally fantastic views but not today!  Really cold.  Food stop in Valbonnais and then the climb up to Col d'Ornon, which is not too bad from this side.  Still raining but not as heavily.  Not too steep but it goes on a bit!  Starting to warm up again nicely, ready for the cold descent to the main road to Bourg.  A steady climb back and then the stinky finish up to Vaujany.  Sun decided to poke out for a few minutes as I crossed the line.  Glad to have finished.  69miles, 8000' climbing in 6hrs24, including stops.  Silver time, and only 7mins outside Gold time!  They allow you more time for being a female and then for 50-59yrs.  Maybe they realise you need more "wee" stops over a certain age!  First in that category, out of three!!  Not bad, bearing in mind time lost on slower descents in the foul weather.  Maybe next time.  Ian did really well having improved on his previous time, in spite of the weather, 4hrs 59.  Amazing. Third in old gits category!


Weather still unsettled so headed slightly SW for 30 odd miles to Veynes for slightly easier climbs, slightly better weather and to explore another new area, although not far from Serres, where we were a few days ago.  Site is Camping Solaire about a mile from Veynes.  Beautiful facilities but not really open!  Still cleaning and repairing ready for a very short season to come.  Beautiful swimming pools not open till 1st July!  Consequently off-peak price.
Picked up another great little map from the local tourist office showing several itinineraires partages from  11 routes with varying degrees of distance and ascent.  Picked the moderately difficult Boucle de Haut Buech, which sets off from Veynes and goes right past the campsite.  78 kms with 1093m of ascent.  It's a delightfully fast and gentle cycle touring through farmland and quiet, little hamlets like Oze, Chabestan, Savournon at the base of Mt d'Aujour, on to Serres and Sigottier, Aspremont, la Baume, Montbrand and then along the Buech river to Veynes.  Saw no other cyclists and only one car on most of the route.  So quiet that I turned the bend at one time to catch a massive bird of prey, picking up and carrying away a 3' snake in its talons!
The following day, Ian planned to do a tougher climbing route into the Drome area, so I went my own way and set off on the Tour de Montagne d'Aujour, again reliably signposted every kilometre, 64kms from the campsite and 1127m ascent.  From Chabestan to Le Saix on to the tiny hamlet of Chateauneuf d'Oze, over the impressive Col d'Espereaux along the side of a gorge, through Barcillonnette and then Monetier-Allemont.  A spinach quiche warmed up by the Boulanger and a can of coke from the bar opposite for lunch. Just me and two elderly men chatting and drinking pastis in this quiet little town, and yet the bar-man was friendly and smiling.  I've always found the French very pleasant and more than happy to chat, if you show any inkling of ability to speak French.
After lunch, along the quiet roads over the climb up the Col de Faye, covering some of the route we'd done before in a terrible thunderstorm, so it was nice to relax this time and enjoy the views!  Down the beautiful valley of Savournon, Chabestan and then back to the campsite.  A bit barren on the first half.  The terrain is drier and rockier around here.
The following day we left for Allemont and drove through the Devoluy region.  Looked very interesting with its forests, topped with impressive rocky peaks, gorges and rivers.  Another area very close by worth coming back to.  That's the difference this time, we've tried not to do too much driving, but still explore new areas closer by.  The more we look, the more we realise how much there is to see.