Can you feel like a pro and an amateur?* – VCSE’s take on the Velothon

Velothon Wales 2015

Two years of failure to get a lottery place for Ride London obviously left me susceptible to Mrs VCSE’s invitation to join her on the previously unheard of Velothon Wales. I didn’t even bother with an entry to Ride London this year as it seems that anyone who vaguely fits the profile of MAMIL plodder living near London is pretty much guaranteed not to get a place (don’t they realise that they could easily substitute the ‘middle aged’ for ‘old’ with VCSE?)

Mr and Mrs VCSE
Mr and Mrs VCSE

Mrs VCSE is known for going for a swim before getting on her bike and then (inexplicably) deciding that the best way to relax after riding is to go for a run. In a flagrant disregard of rule #42 my wife’s chosen recreational pastime is Triathlon and we would be joining a whole bunch of rule breakers from her club in Cardiff.

I can’t remember when exactly I assented to coming along for the ride but i’m pretty certain it was in the off season when i’m generally less concerned with where i’m riding and for how long than with; “Exactly how many base layers will I need under my rain jacket today?”. I recall mention of 15,000 riders and closed roads but other than the occasional reminder to ‘save the date’ for the 14th June the Velothon didn’t figure that largely in my thoughts. Things started to get serious after a route change was announced increasing the distance to 140km. My recollections of what came first is pretty hazy but it may also have been around this time that I became aware that our route would also take in climbs of the Tumble and Caerphilly Mountain. Both climbs have featured in the Tour of Britain; the Tumble most recently in 2014 where it was categorized as a Cat 1 summit finish. Having seen World Tour riders get dropped and popped on both climbs on the ToB I was in no doubt that getting the decidedly non World Tour VCSE carcass over the top would be quite a challenge.

We warmed up for the main event with ten days with our friends Paul and Jan Simpson in the ancient volcanic landscape between Murcia and Alicante. Paul and Jan are Great Britain Ironman age groupers and we hooked up with them again in May after staying at their rental villa last September. A little less than 500km and no ride with less than 1800′ of climbing was the best possible preparation when the most challenging climb in North West Flanders (Essex) is just over 300′ high. We took in this particular ‘bump’ North Hill a few times the week before the Velothon and I did a couple of shorter rides in the days leading up to weekend (Mrs VCSE would probably describe this as ‘tapering’).

On the run in to the event I wasn’t too sure what to expect. There was quite a lot of ‘noise’ about the road closures from the locals accompanied by suggestions that the organisers had not done a great job of communicating said closures to said locals. The visions I had of angry Welsh folk ignoring closed road signs and hurling abuse at me were soon dispelled when we got in to Cardiff city centre to sign on. The expo had some decent stalls and anyone needing a last minute addition to their kit was being catered for. They say that a fool and his (or her) money is easily parted so needless to say Mrs VCSE and I came away with a new jersey (me) and gilet (her) despite bringing kit with us that would have satisfied every possible climatic condition.

We had figured out that the ride from our hotel to the start pens would add another 10km to our total and perhaps a little ambitiously pledged to keep our pedals turning when we finished to ensure we clocked 100 miles for the day. With an early start time we were on the road at 7.00am which ensured traffic free roads even where they hadn’t officially been closed. Pretty much the only people we saw were other riders; the numbers swelling as the roads converged on Cardiff Castle.

I can claim at least 15 seconds of fame thanks to my Photobomb of former Welsh rugby international Colin Charvis as he set off at the same time as our group. The route quickly left the city centre and we found ourselves riding on the kind of roads that are the general preserve of articulated lorries and white vans through a series of industrial estates. The smoothest lines followed the trucks wide wheel tracks the curb sides providing a home for debris that was already claiming plenty of puncture victims. The back roads that carried us between Cardiff and Newport weren’t all that dissimilar to those along the Thames ‘delta’ near VCSE’s home town, our progress witnessed by a few bored looking ponies (there must be some kind of bylaw that insists on the presence of a collection of some tired out old nags to keep the grass down). At this point our speed was pretty good around 18-20mph and we didn’t have any kind of incline to tackle until we had left Newport and started to head inland.

For all the talk of protests from locals outraged that roads should be closed to ensure the safety of 15,000 cyclists I didn’t see any examples on the ride. I mention this now purely because the only reported incident was some tacks left on the road near the Celtic Manor golf course. Perhaps the irony was lost on the person doing it; didn’t they know that cycling is the new golf? While hundreds of us waited for the road to clear someone commented that we had probably been stopped to ensure we didn’t put the golfers on the nearby green off their putts. This interlude had been preceded by a sharp little climb that was easily in double digit grades and some riders had already been forced to walk; a prediction of what was ahead perhaps?

Continue reading Can you feel like a pro and an amateur?* – VCSE’s take on the Velothon

A tale of two cycling holidays – part one

Chasing the Tour in 2013 – Auvergne, Languedoc and Tours 

In the week that Team Sky controlled the peloton in the Pyrenees and Bradley Wiggins tightened his grip on the 2012 Tour de France GC I was waiting to board a flight at Alicante airport with Mrs VCSE. We were returning from a summer trip to Barcelona and the Costa Blanca, taking advantage of the expansion of our local airport that now offered flights to many European destinations less than five minutes from our front door. We would be back home to see Wiggins claim the yellow jersey in the penultimate stage TT and Mark Cavendish take his fourth win in a row on the Champs Elysee (this time in the world champion’s rainbow stripes), but first we had the small matter of a flight to board.

Quiet roads - riding in the Auvergne
Quiet roads – riding in the Auvergne

We were making the return flight to the UK with the same mix of luggage that we had flown with internally from Barcelona to Alicante a week previously although I was about to find out that this was no guarantee that the next flight would be as straightforward. The gate staff showed less interest in my boarding pass than in the holdall that I was using as hand luggage. We had bought the bag in Barcelona. I had long cherished the idea of purchasing one of the various upcycled items that an enterprising Barcelona retailer made out of the vinyl posters that line the streets in the Catalan capital. Imagine something made out of various off cuts of multicoloured sail cloth and you will get the idea that my choice of cabin bag was hard to miss. It was also apparently to big for me to carry onto the plane and the unsmiling agent at the gate relieved me of 50 euros for my indiscretion. As I caught up with Mrs VCSE on the gangway I announced that it was the “last f**king time I’m flying!”. Adding insult to injury (and these are ‘first world problems’ I appreciate) on boarding the plane the cabin crew didn’t bat an eyelid at the offending, supposed oversized bag and contrary to what I had been  told at the gate it wasn’t unceremoniously removed to the hold!

The point of all of this preamble is that the ‘unfortunate incident of the bag that was too big for the cabin’ was the catalyst for the first of the two cycling holidays described here. When the 2013 Tour de France route was announced in October we looked at where we could base ourselves to take in some stages while doing some riding of our own. The 2013 edition of the Tour would start in Corsica before making its way back to the mainland and across the south of France from west to east and into the Pyrenees. The initial plan was to try to find somewhere in the Alpes with the double ascent of Alp d’Huez stage on Bastille Day as a potential centrepiece of the trip. We wondered if we would be able to afford anywhere but price didn’t even come into it as we struggled to find anywhere to stay where we could take the bikes too. We started to look for some alternatives. Having a base around Bordeaux or Brittany was ruled out as we wanted to try to guarantee some sunshine. With one stage finishing and starting (the following day) in Montpellier we set a 50km radius from the city and scouted the ‘net to see what was available. A villa in a small village outside the town of Pezenas was right on the limit of our search area but fulfilled the criteria of private with pool and somewhere secure to store our bikes.

Pezenas is in the Herault department of Languedoc-Roussillon and is best known for its association with the playwright Moliere; the principal (early 19th century) theatre in the town is dedicated to him. Today Pezenas is a thriving centre for antiques and the arts within the largely pedestrianised old town. The VCSE base in Nizas is around 10km from town surrounded by local vineyards. With the plan to drive to the south from the UK we also looked for a couple of places to break up the journey in each direction. On the outward leg we found a chambre d’hote (or B&B if you prefer) near Clermont Ferrand and on the return journey we could catch another stage finish/start in Tours. Cross channel travel was via Eurostar as we had a car full of luggage and nearly £3000 worth of bikes on the car.

A quick sidebar here. If you’re travelling any kind of distance by car with more than one bike a rack is essential (there are few cars that can take two bikes inside). I prefer to use a towbar rack if more than one bike is concerned. There are benefits to this type of rack from a number of points of view. They are generally a better choice from an economy perspective although that has to balanced against the upfront cost of the rack and towbar and depending on the model chosen tow bar racks are more secure from theft. Budget around £250-300 for a two bike rack (ours is from Thule) and around £400-£500 for a tow bar and fitting. I have also used a (Thule) roof bar set up and while these are cheaper I have had some bad experiences with damage to bikes with these in use. 

We set off on the same day as the first stage of the 2013 Grand Depart in Corsica and so we would miss the Orica team bus getting stuck under the finish gantry and more significantly the first sign that Mark Cavendish was no longer the fastest man in the peloton. A year before the opening stage in Yorkshire Christian Prudhomme had given Cavendish a golden (or perhaps or more obvious colour) opportunity to wear the leaders jersey in all three grand tours by foregoing an opening prologue stage in favour of a likely sprint finish. At the time it was blame it on the bus driver, but in hindsight this was the emergence of Marcel Kittel as Cav’s heir apparent.

We chose a route to the Auvergne that bypassed Paris and struck out west and then south via Rouen, Chartres (where Wiggins had triumphed in the penultimate stage in 2012), Orleans and Bourges. The unexpected aspect of the journey on that Saturday was that the weather got worse the further south we went and as we began to climb towards our overnight stay near Thiers (the cutlery capital of France if you were wondering) we entered the clouds in a heavy rainstorm.

Continue reading A tale of two cycling holidays – part one

Tour de France 2014 – Fans eye view

After spoiling ourselves last year with two weeks in France and four stages the assumption was that this years live and direct interaction with the Grand Boucle  would feel like something of an anti-climax. This year has also been a bit of let down in terms of miles on the bike for various reasons, but a recent window of opportunity meant that VCSE would be joining some regular riding buddies and heading out to catch a glimpse of Monday’s stage from Cambridge to London.

Who knew a flat straight road could be this interesting? - Tour de France 2014
Who knew a flat straight road could be this interesting? – Tour de France 2014

Your correspondent had been minded to pour a fair amount of cold water on the expectations when plans were being laid to go and see the peloton as it rode through Essex. The parcour was (relatively speaking) pan flat, the riders would flash past in a blur and it might feel like something of a let down for those that were used to 360 degree television coverage. Then we bemoaned the health and safety culture of the UK that would mean that roads would be closed at 6.00am, far earlier than in France.

Even after seeing the huge turnout in Yorkshire for the Grand Depart VCSE was sceptical that there would be that many stood at the side of the road save for the very local population and die-hard cyclsts and fans. Of course we didn’t need to leave before 9.00 to get a good spot. VCSE’s biggest fear was would there be any food served at the pub near where we were due to watch the race.

Threading our way through the back lanes from Southend to the outskirts of Chelmsford we encountered other riders, sometimes singularly or in pairs or bigger groups. The only indication that something was happening as we reached the road the stage would pass over was a few cars parked on the raised verge and then (suddenly) there was the Road Closed sign and the inevitable flourescent tabard wearing stewards. Just as suddenly it was clear that the Tour was capturing the imagination in Essex as much as it had in Yorkshire at the weekend. In either direction both sides of the road was sown with spectators. In the time-honoured tradition of stoically waiting for something to happen (otherwise known as queuing) were small groups of fans with picnics and fold up chairs. The occupants of one house had brought the furniture from the conservatory to the roadside to watch proceedings in comfort.

Ahead of the race VCSE had spoken to people who were booked up for some homespun hospitality experience in pubs that enjoyed a position alongside the route. The pub near our chosen vantage point had a mixture of corporate guests whose VIP experience may have been slightly marred by the fact that they were on the direct route to the gents toilet and had to endure a steady precession of MAMIL’s walking in and out. There was a three deep crush at the bar and a roaring trade in bacon rolls for those of us who were managing with more prosaic catering. By the time we were fed, watered and were done with interrupting the corporate guests the pavements had filled further with more and more walk and ride ups. Overheard conversations revealed that this wasn’t an exclusively Essex crowd, just as last years stage finish in Montpellier had been leavened with a fair few Brits who had made their way inland from the beaches of the south of France. There were a couple of Danish fans and a surprising number from Australia. On the opposite side of the road was a group entirely decked out on orange polo shirts who had obviously been there for a while based on the car that was yielding a steady supply of food and drink. Belkin fans? Apparently no, according to the disappointed Dutchman who had wandered down to engage them in conversation.

Conversation turned to where the race had reached so far, before we realised that it hadn’t even left Cambridge yet. There had been a reasonably steady flow of official cars coming through and in an increase in volume signified the arrival of the promo caravan. After our experience last year VCSE anticipated the possibility of adding to our collection of hats and key rings, although this was leavened with the likelihood that the caravan would be moving a bit quicker on Essex A roads than the 300 metre mark on a stage finish. This was confirmed as the caravan started to come past; the four point safety harnesses that the ‘Tat Chuckers’ wear looked absolutely essential as the cars weaved around at 50 mph. For all the marketing advantages of a float shaped like an oversized Fruit Shoot bottle these things are not designed to corner. As the drivers kept their palms permanently on the horn we were ‘treated’ to the odd trinket thrown to us. French betting chain PMU (sponsors of the points competition) clearly felt that there was zero benefit from promoting their brand in England and the caravan felt a bit threadbare and Anglicised as a result. Oven chip purveyors McCain’s got a big cheer (this was the case in Yorkshire too apparently) as they climbed towards us. What looked like a matchbook turned out to be herb seeds and VCSE supposes there wasn’t much point in tossing us potato seeds if you want us to buy more frozen chips. The scarcity of freebies had everyone that cared scrabbling for the few crumbs that were thrown, but anyone who had expected a typical Tour de France tat fest would have felt a little disappointed.

And so we waited for the main event. Tour Tracker gave up just past Saffron Walden so we were reduced to speculation on the arrival of the peloton that ranged from the well-informed (“..about 2.13pm”) to the ‘haven’t a clue’ (“Wiggins is in the lead and just outside Chelmsford”). The VCSE predictions of stage 3 being the least supported stage had been thoroughly rubbished as fans began to spill off the kerbs and into the road. As the Tour outriders began to come through pint clutching spectators casually leaned back a bit to allow them to pass. Everything was good natured though, the British Police motorcyclists were too busy high fiving anyone that stuck a hand out to have one. The Gendarmes took a somewhat different view, perhaps with a sense that it wasn’t a case of if an accident with a spectator would happen but when.

The arrival overhead of the helicopters heralded the approach of the break. The two riders who had been away from pretty much kilometre one (and weren’t all that far from the end of the stage when the ‘catch’ took place) must have felt a bit nonplussed to be riding through crowds on a stage that (if held in some boggo department in France) would attract the occasional glance from a farmer in his field. Not so much your ’15 minutes of fame’, but your 150km’s perhaps?

That the peloton came through our vantage point in a little more than two minutes if you include the team cars probably isn’t the point. We had got a taste of what it feels like to be part of something that happens rarely, if not once in a lifetime with the Olympics in 2012. There was a sense that all of us would be able to remember when the 2014 Tour de France came through Essex on its way to London and say “I was there”. Some of us will no doubt get our next taste of fan participation somewhere in France next time, but that was planned. Maybe a few more, now that they have had a taste, will be inspired to join us over there. The unscientific vox pop that took place in the immediate aftermath hinted that those who had experienced a bike race up close and personal for the first time wanted to do it again and it does look like the success of this years Grand Depart will lead to a swifter return to these shores than the eight years that preceded this UK visit. This could also see more towns and regions seeking involvement in the Tour of Britain and while we bathe in the afterglow of the Yorkshire Grand Depart it’s possible to imagine the ToB extending to ten days or maybe even two weeks. Those of us that follow the sport week in week out were disappointed that there were less Brit riders starting this Tour than in 1968 and casual fans alike rue the non-appearance of Bradley Wiggins and the early exit of Mark Cavendish. And yet the spectacle hasn’t suffered, because in so many ways the spectacle has been the crowds. Whatever the outcome in the race itself it felt good to be a (very small) part of it yesterday.

Tour de France 2013 – VCSE’s fans eye view

Podium at stage 6 finish in Montpellier
Podium at stage 6 finish in Montpellier

As soon as the route of the 100th Tour de France was announced in October we began thinking about where to locate ourselves to take in some stages. We will cover the ‘bike friendly’ accomodation we used en route and our experiences riding around the Auvergne and Languedoc regions in another post, but hope to give you a flavour of what it’s like to watch the worlds greatest bike race here.

To try and squeeze the maximum amount of spectating in we decided to pick up the race where there was a stage finishing and starting in the same place the following day. In week one this would be Montpellier with stage 6 promising a bunch sprint and the following day’s transitional stage passing within a few kilometres of VCSE’s base for the week. The latter had proved to be a happy coincidence as we didn’t see the detailed route until after we had arranged the trip.

As we have spectated at races before we knew that our ‘view’ of the race would be over all too briefly but this trip would allow us to see first hand the other elements for which the Tour is famous, or in the case of the publicity caravan perhaps infamous.

Stage 6 sprint finish in Montpellier 

Unlike the following days finish that took the peloton through the centre of historic Albi, Thursday’s finish line was on one side of the dual carriageway that forms the ring road in Montpellier. The actual finish line was situated outside the football ground and although the roads the race would pass over would have been closed for several hours beforehand in the areas immediately after the finish it was only a short walk before ‘normality’ resumed and traffic was moving freely, in ignorance of the imminent arrival of nearly 200 professional bike racers.

It’s easy to make comparisons with how an event of a similar stature would be handled in the UK but outside of the areas where accreditation was required everything seemed pretty relaxed. It’s hard to imagine that Tesco would allow their car park to be taken over by spectators looking for somewhere to leave the car gratis, unlike the Carrefour just past the finish line. It was a little surprising that there weren’t more trade stands and merchandising at the event. In comparison to (say) the Tour of Britain, there were no magazines flogging subscriptions or an opportunity to buy that Festina watch you always promised yourself. We had woken that morning to the swirling breezes of the mistral, but Montpellier seemed to have been bypassed and the temperatures at the finish were hitting 30 degrees in the shade. Surely the perfect opportunity for some Tdf related drinks marketing? Perhaps not, anyone seeking ‘official’ refreshment had the wide choice of a hot jambon et fromage baguette washed down with a coffee. Fortunately, the finish passed a small parade of shops on one side and a petrol station on the other; each outlet no doubt experiencing it’s best days trade of the year, if not ever. VCSE was reminded of Sam Abt’s chapter in the Cycling Anthology describing how the previous organisers on the Tour had been somewhat slow on the commercial opportunities surrounding the worlds greatest cycle race. An American (of course) understands this, VCSE’s observation is less about the need to provide a trackside McDonald’s, more so on wishing we had packed our bidons that morning.

The areas around the finish line at the Tour are definitely for the ‘haves’ and in our case the ‘have nots’. With the all important TdF lanyard access to the hospitality areas adjacent to the commentary boxes and podium was granted. On the opposite sides there were a number of small grandstands, but for most of us getting trackside involved a less than graceful negotiation of two sections of waist high armco barriers and a strip of privet hedge that ordinarily comprised the ring roads central reservation. Having found a spot 350m out from the line we settled in to wait for the arrival of the race, but first the procession of the Tour publicity caravan. There are always marketing opportunities to be had before its arrival however and the smart Tour affiliates know that the best way to achieve free advertising through association on a hot day at the Tour is by giving away a free hat. There are three on offer this year; a peaked cap from yellow jersey sponsors LCL and two others from Skoda and deli product producers Cochonou. The latter two sported a floppy brim, but VCSE can report that the Cochonou version in red and white gingham check offered the preferred combination of shade and fit.

The Banette Baguette man
The Banette Baguette man

These freebies were being distributed by enthusiastic teens who careered up and down the last 500 metres in golf buggies, scooping handfuls of their respective temporary employers wares and flinging them outwards in a practiced arc that suggested at least a weeks experience of doing so. As we waited in the heat the other buggy likely to get a reaction from the crowd was the one with Vittel branding that carried a girl wielding a pressure washer that provided a brief respite from the sun. Even the Vittel water girl had to admit that she garnered less of a frenzied response than the pair from Banette who proudly announced that they had 3,000 artisan bakeries on the route of the Tour. One of the Banette’s pedaled up and down handing out gifts to his partner, who was dressed in a full length foam baguette outfit, to distribute to whichever section of the crowd he felt were screaming loud enough. With such wonders on offer as wristbands, t shirts and entire loaves on offer, of course we screamed along with the rest of our companions on the crowded central reservation.

All of this was an aperitif before the arrival of the publicity caravan. This is an event in itself at the Tour with its own outriders and official vehicles, including an official Skoda for the start, middle and finish of the procession. Accompanied by the flashing lights of its Garde Republicanne escort the caravan made its way towards us. The standard format for the brands that choose to apportion part of their annual marketing spend on participating in the Tour publicity caravan looks something like this:

A central float (or floats) with a large model (or models) mounted on board that may or may not have some kind of cycling theme forms the centre piece. The float must be manned by a crew who will either fling freebies in the crowds direction of if the freebies have run out wave at the crowd while gyrating to whatever euro pop track the MC / DJ positioned on the front of the float is playing. The floats are escorted by small cars, a Fiat 500 or perhaps a Golf, either a convertible to allow for another freebie flinger to ride shotgun or a giant model of a flan or a wine bottle. In some cases you got a model and an open top providing the best of both worlds. Each crew member was held in place by a harness that gave them the appearance of a loadmaster on a military helicopter, although spreading Haribo’s and Saucission rather than machine gun rounds. A personal VCSE favourite was the Beetle convertibles with outsize representations of bottles of Fabric softener (sample free gift; a sample of fabric softener!). With the Tour visiting Corsica for the first time, the islands airline Air Corsica joined the caravan complete a pilot saluting from his perched atop a giant cartoon plane (think Thomas the Tank engine with wings). VCSE isn’t sure if he was a real pilot. It’s impossible to erase the image of a swoopy mid engined Renault two seater with a giant BBQ gas bottle bolted to its boot either. Green jersey sponsor PMU, took horsepower to it’s logical visual conclusion by managing to get three lifesize steeplechasers mounted onto the roof of a Peugeot. It was a shame that the Yorkshire Grand Depart 2014 section didn’t involve any giant black puddings or a 3 metre high statue of Geoff Boycott blocking a ball (not sure if most of the crowd would have understood cricket anyway) but at least the MC was representing the best local musical output by playing Pulp and Heaven 17 at full blast.

Free Fabric softener anyone? - The Tour publicity caravan
Free Fabric softener anyone? – The Tour publicity caravan

And then it was time for the race itself. Social media played its part and we were able to follow the race on Twitter thanks to the various feeds from Innrg, Sky and the official Tdf feed (note the publicity caravan has it’s own feed too, but it’s perhaps a bit of a niche follow). Race Radio on Twitter commented that “..for a transitional stage” the race was drawing big crowds and its an important point to make. The Tour doesn’t visit the same places each year and whether or not a particular stage is seen as worth watching on television means little to the fan at the roadside. For every negative story about professional road racing, being there at the event itself, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the atmosphere as the excitement builds.

At 350 metres Andre Griepel was already well placed in the sprint. The course had a slight incline to negotiate on the run in with a gentle curve that took the finish line from our view. Peter Sagan was ahead of Marcel Kittel with Mark Cavendish who had crashed on the route some way further back. Unlike the previous day where the Omega Pharma sprint train had looked so imperious it was clear from the number of his teammates that rolled in some way down on the bunch that things had gone wrong for the team in Montpellier. Later reports on Velonews suggested Cav was unhappy with his bike. He’s riding a matt black Specialized Venge with green pin-striping on this Tour, but from the VCSE vantage point the problem seemed to be a lack of lead out.

After fighting our way out of the crash barriers and hedge obstacles of the central reservation we wandered down to the finish line and caught the jersey presentations. We hadn’t been sure where the team buses were going to be parked and hoping to get a few autographs and photos we headed towards the section of ring road after the finish line that had been blocked off. It was pretty clear from the outset that none of the teams had warm downs planned for their riders. By the time we had fought our way past the media scrums around some of the teams, some buses were already leaving. There were plenty of English accents at the stage and unsurprisingly there was a pretty big crowd around the Team Sky Death Star. More surprising perhaps was that Edvald Boasson Hagen was stood outside quite happily posing for pictures while dealing with questions from the media. He’s had a return to form of late, after a dismal classics season and had freelanced some decent results in the bunch sprints*

Edvald Boasson Hagen after stage 6
Edvald Boasson Hagen after stage 6

With Mark Cavendish failing to win the sprint the media were camped outside the Omega Pharma bus, no doubt hoping to ask him what had gone wrong. VCSE spotted Cav’s major domo Rob Hayles, working as colour man for the BBC at the door of the bus, but of his friend / employer there was no sign. The management of Orica Green Edge were outside their bus and all smiles following Simon Gerrans day in yellow and the handover of the leadership to teammate Daryl Impey. The only other rider who was prepared to face the crowds was Astana’s Freddie Kessiakoff who had abandoned the Tour earlier on the stage. It was a shame that there weren’t that many photo ops as we meandered our way around buses and between team cars. It was easy enough to get up close and personal to the riders equipment and equipped with the knowledge of the number a rider was using we were able to snap some shots of some of the bikes used on the stage. It was interesting to see the amount of aero bikes used and not just by the sprinters.

Stage 7 catching the early part of the stage from the roadside in Roujan

Looking at the detailed route for the stage 7 we worked out that we wouldn’t need to journey back into Montpellier to catch the following days stage. The first categorised climb wasn’t until 80 kilometres into the stage, but there was a smaller climb around 60 km into the route at Faugeres that looked like it might make a good spot to watch the race from. Riding out to this point on Tuesday it quickly became clear that it was a bit of a non starter. Faugeres was a sleeply village in a small valley with the road climbing out of it. The approach involved an 8 mile uphill slog through scrubland alongside a railway and in the absence of anywhere obvious to grab some food or drink Faugeres felt like eight miles too far. The stage followed the course of the D13 from Pezanas and through Roujan and Gabian. Signs at the roadside indicated that the road would be closed from 10.00am and with the peloton not due to pass through Faugeres until 1.50pm at the earliest we decided to look for another spot.

We could get to the village of Roujan from our base without needing to use any of the stage and having decided that one exposure to the publicity caravan was enough headed out to find a decent viewpoint before the peloton rolled in. The atmosphere in Roujan was very relaxed with the Gendarmes happy to let everyone onto the road as we searched for the best spot to get a long view of the riders as they climbed up the gentle incline. There were quite a few English voices around here as well as a large Australian contingent who had taken over the roadside bar.

The peloton going through Roujan on stage 7
The peloton going through Roujan on stage 7

You know the Tour is coming as the helicopters begin to circle Apocalypse Now style over you, getting lower and lower, closer and closer. First through was the breakaway; the legendary Jens Voight of Radioshack and AG2R’s Blel Kadri who would take the King of the Mountains jersey at the end of the stage. The break had a five minute gap on the peloton who arrived pretty much in team groups. Anyone catching the stage on TV would have seen Cannondale on the front for most of the race and even at 60 km they were positioned on the front. From the head of the peloton to the last team car could be counted in minutes, but even though this part of the stage wasn’t seen as worthy of televising it has an appeal of it’s own. Being close to the worlds greatest bike race if only for a second is exciting and while we missed the freebies getting doled out on stage 7 we came away with something even better. As the Cannodale squad rolled through Roujan one of their riders (sadly not Sagan) tossed away a water bottle and delivered us the quintessential Tour souvenir.

VCSE will be picking up the Tour again for stages 12 & 13 with a finish and start the day after in the city of Tours in the Loire valley. These are transitional stages again and certainly stage 12 should end up with a bunch sprint. We will bring the fans eye view of the race with comment, pictures and video. There are more photos and video from Montpellier and Roujan on our Facebook page.

*Boasson Hagen was 3rd on GC going into Stage 8

Classic climbs of the grand tours #2 – Puy de Dome

The Puy de Dome
The Puy de Dome – The view from the foot of the climb

It’s ironic that the a climb as storied as the Puy de Dome has such a short history of inclusion in the Tour de France. Included originally in 1952 at the suggestion of a rider it has not featured since 1988 and despite the wishes of Tour Director Christian Prudhomme is unlikely to do so again.

The climb is one of several extinct volcanoes (Puy’s) that characterise the Auvergne region and dominates the skyline to the west of the city of Clermont Ferrand. The volcanoes are long since extinct, none have erupted for more than 10,000 years.

That the Tour first visited in 1952 was thanks to Clermont native and professional Raphael Geminani. Born in Clermont to Italian immigrant parents, his father owned a bike shop in the city and Geminani was grew up in the shadow of his supposedly more talented brother Angelo. It was the younger brother who had the impact on the Tour however winning seven stages between 1949 and 1955, although it’s arguable that his strongest results came in the Giro.

Unlike the Col’s of the Tour the Puy de Dome couldn’t be included as anything other than a summit finish. The road leading to the radio mast at 1,415m (4,710′) has nowhere to go. Whichever direction was chosen to approach the Puy the final 11 kilometres spiraled around its sides like the markings on a snail’s shell. This road with no more than two cars width would be thronged with spectators up to the summit which had been home to a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury thousands of years earlier. Controversially, outside of the Tour, cyclists could be described as less than welcome at the Puy de Dome. Although cars were able to make the climb without too many restrictions, riders were limited to two days per week and two hours per day as recently as 2006. Since 2011 the default mode of transport up the Puy de Dome has been via a funicular tramway that was built with funding from local government and the EU. The Panorama de Dome began carrying passengers in 2012 after some initial mechanical teething problems and follows the original roads route to a redeveloped summit area with restaurant and bar. The road has been resurfaced but is suitable for one way traffic only, now that the railway has taken up half of the available space on the climb. The punishing ramps remain with nothing below 10% in the final 5k and an average of nearly 9%. Certainly approaching the Puy de Dome from the direction of Clermont it’s hard not to feel intimidated at the prospect of the climb. As a summit finish it perhaps ranks with Mont Ventoux as there is nothing remotely like it within the Region. Riders gazing up at the Puy following 200km in the saddle already would have been forgiven for questioning just how they could be expected to race up the mighty Dome.

View from the summit - the car park where the first picture was taken is at the centre
View from the summit – the car park where the first picture was taken is at the centre

Having persuaded the Tour to visit his home town climb in 1952, Geminani of course wanted to win that years third summit finish. He got into a break with 100km to go with Gino Bartali but they had been joined by the great Fausto Coppi at the base of the climb. Coppi looked at Geminani, decided that he probably didn’t have the legs and il campionissimo won the first race to the top of the Puy de Dome.

Arguably the most dramatic finish came in 1964. Jacques Anquetil, already a four-time winner of the Tour, was leading the race by less than a minute to Raymond Poulidor. Anquetil had put time into Poulidor on the previous stage’s time trial, long seen as his strongest discipline and recognised by his nickname as ‘Monsieur Chrono’. He and Poulidor where among a group of five as they approached the Puy de Dome, the penultimate stage. What happened next could only have been more dramatic if the two riders had been racing for the lead, but Anquetil ironically riding for Raphael Geminani and Poulidor were disputing third place.

For 9 of the 11 kilometres of the climb Anquetil kept a wheels length ahead of Poulidor as they rode side by side up the spiral. Then, with less than 2km left to ride Poulidor got ahead. Anquetil countered, but Poulidor nosed ahead again. Suddenly the gap was more than  one bike length. Then it was two; Anquetil had cracked! At the finish Anquetil had dropped another place to 5th, but although Poulidor was the victor on the road, Anquetil maintained enough of a gap to win his fifth and final Tour.

Poulidor continued to race well into the 1970’s his career overlapping that of the greatest cyclist Eddy Merckx. Like Poulidor before him, Merckx would be left with bittersweet memories of climbing the extinct volcano above Clermont Ferrand. Merckx had won the Tour in 1974 in less than perfect health and came into the ’75 Tour in the rainbow stripes of the world champion and wins in the classics under his belt. Merckx was in the yellow jersey when the race reached the Puy de Dome, in fact he didn’t lose it until later in the race, but debate still rages over whether what happened on the Dome caused Merckx to lose the race and with it his chance of a sixth Tour victory. The exact circumstances of the ‘punch’ that a spectator threw at Merckx as he rode up the climb have never been properly established. Merckx didn’t stop, although the contact between him and the spectator wearing a pale coloured raincoat is clear on archive footage of the incident. Merckx identified his assailant after the stage, but although the man was arrested he received the most minor of sanctions at the later trial.

As organisers considered where to route the 2013 centenary Tour it was inevitable that the most famous climbs like Alpe d’Huez and the Ventoux would find their was into the schedule. The fact that the Puy de Dome was considered for inclusion despite its absence from the race for many years is testament to its status as one of the most iconic in Tour, if not grand tour history.

VCSE’s Tour de France 2013 Preview

2010 Tour De France
Tour De France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Saturday the world’s greatest stage race begins its 100th edition in Corsica. The Tour de France visits Napoleon’s birthplace for the first time and in edition to the grand depart features two mores stages before returning to the mainland. The Pro Tour has already visited the island once this season in March for the Criterium International. While this years race starts without last years winner Bradley Wiggins there are some strong contenders returning in the shape of Alberto Contador, who was still serving a doping ban last July. VCSE will be in France for the first two weeks of the Tour and will be bringing some of the sights and sounds of the Grand Boucle from a fans perspective on four stages.

The parcours 

Following the Corsican stages (1 through 3) stage 4 is a 25km Team Time Trial in Nice, the first since 2011. It’s a flat course that will favour the teams with strong testers. Stages 5 and 6 will offer chances for a breakaway and the sprinters respectively, although there’s still a possibility for a Sagan or similar to ride strongly over stage five’s final climbs to snatch the win. Stage 6 is a genuine sprint stage with the Mistral likely to play a cameo role in further splitting the peloton once the initial bumps have been crossed.

Stage 7 will stretch the GC and climbers legs with four categorised climbs into the world heritage city of Albi before the race enters the Pyrenees. Stage 8 offers the first Hors Category climb of this years race, coming towards the end of the stage over the Col de Palihere’s before finishing with a Cat 1 ascent to Aix 3 Domaines. The following day the peloton will tackle four 1st and one 2nd category climbs including the Col de Peyresourde, finishing in Bagneres de Bigorre. With the first rest day and a long transfer to follow the stage could see whoever is in yellow trying to consolidate their lead or a rival team look to snatch the jersey away for their GC hope.

The peloton takes its rest day in Brittany and will complete stage 10 in the port of St Malo on a stage that suggests a sprint finish. In fact, the stage could see the points competition sewn up as the best opportunities for the sprinters will be behind them at this point. Stage 11 is the first of the races two Time Trials finishing at the spectacular Mont Saint Michel and one for the specialist testers within the peloton like Omega Pharma’s Tony Martin. If there is any life left in the Green Jersey points contest stage 12 guarantees a sprint finish following a route that passes many of the Loire valley’s most famous chateau’s. Stage 13 is the last of the truly flat stages before the final gallop down the Champs Elysees. As the race moves back into the hills and mountains after this it’s possible that some of the sprinters may abandon after this stage finishes.

Now the race continues its south western trajectory with a rolling stage (14) to Lyon followed by the test of a summit finish on the ‘Giant of Provence’ Mont Ventoux on Sunday’s stage 15. This stage falls on Bastille Day and promises huge crowds on the climb as well as the likely shoot out between the GC rivals.

The final rest day follows before the climbs continue into the foothills of the Alps. Stage 16 finishes in Gap with three 2nd cat climbs on the way and a downhill finish that could see a break away managing to stay away for victory. The final TT follows; 32km including two cat 2 climbs around a lake between the towns of Embrun and Chorges. Will riders opt to stay with the normal bikes equipped with tri bars or go for the full TT machine?

Probably the stage of this years race is Thursday’s stage 18 from Gap to Alpe d’Heuz. The route climbs the iconic mountain not once but twice. It’s a shorter stage and two climbs of the famous 21 hairpins aren’t as tricky as they sound (ordinarily the peloton could have climbed the Croix de Fer, Glandon or Galibier beforehand) but it should make for fantastic viewing. The Hors Category climbs continue on stage 19 with the Col du Glandon and Col de la Madeleine featuring in addition to the cat 1 Col de la Croix Fry. If the GC hasn’t been decided by that point there is Saturdays stage (20) that provides a cat 2, three 3rd category and the cat 1 Mont Revard before another summit finish at Annecy. Despite its location Annecy has little in the way of Tour history and the climb to Semnoz has none at all. Perhaps an odd choice for the last possible stage for a GC shake up.

Stage 21 from Versailles to Paris finishing on the Champs Elysees provides the finale to the Tour. The race has finished here since 1975 but this year the organisers have changed the route to allow the peloton to ride around the Arc de Triomphe rather than turning at this point and the stage moves to a nighttime floodlit finish.

VCSE’s “unmissable” stages

Stage 1 Porto Vecchio to Bastia – Cavendish in yellow?

Stage 9 Saint Girons to Bagneres de Bigorre – This years big Pyrenean climbs

Stage 15 Givors to Mont Ventoux – Summit finish on the Giant of Provence

Stage 18 Gap to Alpe d’Huez – Climbing the Alpe not once, but twice

Stage 20 Annecy to Annecy Semnoz – Last chance for a GC shake up

Stage 21 Versailles to Paris – Under the lights down the Champs Elysees

The contenders 

For the maillot jaune it’s been hard to see much further than Chris Froome and a second successive win for Team Sky. Like Bradley Wiggins in 2012 Froome has won pretty much everything he has entered including, crucially, emphatic victories against his main rivals. The exception? Tirreno Adriatico, where he was undone on the steepest climbs by eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali. Nibali is missing the Tour having focused on the Giro which leaves Froome facing challenges from three riders who out pointed him at last years Vuelta for starters.

Alberto Contador, winner of 2009 Tour de Franc...
Alberto Contador in the 2009 Tour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First and foremost is that races winner Alberto Contador. While his form this year to date hasn’t been spectacular Contador is talking a good game ahead of the Tour. Saxo Bank have chosen a strong team to support with ex Sky road captain Mick Rogers alongside top ten finisher Nico Roche and Amstel Gold winner Roman Kreuiziger.

Contador missed last years Tour as he was still serving his doping ban for Clenbuterol. Another rider missing from last years race and indeed the one before that is Jaoquim Rodriguez of Katusha. He chose to miss the Giro, after finishing second the previous year and should be in better form than his last appearance where he finished 7th.

The divisive figure of Alejandro Valverde rounds out the trio. Valverde has already suggested that he doesn’t have the firepower for the win, but Movistar have strength in depth with Tour de Suisse winner Rui Costa and another stage race winner from 2013 Nairo Quintana in support. Neither rider is in the first rank of GC contenders but assuming Valverde is struggling Movistar have leadership options and could switch to either of the younger riders. After their stage wins in the Giro another possibility is that the team approach the Tour with a similar strategy.

Another team with potential dual leadership is BMC with Cadel Evans and Tejay Van Garderen. Ahead of the Giro many commentators had written Evans off but a strong performance in Italy has seen some revisions of opinion about his form. Whether he has enough left in the tank after three weeks of snow and rain in the Dolomites remains to be seen. Waiting impatiently in the wings is Van Garderen. Still eligible for the young riders competition he looked fairly impressive taking the Tour of California. While he may end up taking the BMC leadership crown in July it’s hard to see him winning this year. It’s interesting that with Evans approaching the end of his career that BMC were rumoured to have approached Froome with a contract for 2014. Does the Swiss backed but US registered team have the confidence that Van Garderen can beat Froome or not? For the other teams it’s more likely that they will need to rely on the odd cameo performance via a breakaway win or victory in a specialism like the TT to snatch the headlines. There is a potential wild card in the peloton with Andy Schleck who has suffered a very public examination of his struggle to return to the form that saw him finish second to Contador in 2010 (elevated to 1st later). Schleck needs to ride for a contract as much as anything else as the team that was once built around him has been sold to bike supplier Trek for 2014.

Sky have selected a strong team to support Froome with Richie Porte likely to take the Froome role from last year to shepherd his team leader over the cols. The rest of the squad is made up of ‘engines’ like Vasil Kireyenka and David Lopez who will ride on the front all day following Sky’s now famous (or should that be infamous) tactic of controlling the race pace. Last year it was rumoured that Sky felt they had gone into the lead too early, but having survived in yellow for the majority of last years race this shouldn’t hold any fears for Froome and co this year. The route shouldn’t hold too many fears for Froome either, lacking many of the truly steep climbs that feature at the Giro or Vuelta. His rivals will probably be banking on more on Sky struggling to maintain their control of the peloton rather than Froome breaking down. There are plenty of contenders for attacks and break away wins and the all French wild card teams will see those as their best chance of showing the sponsors logos. Katusha, Movistar and Saxo all have riders that can cause an upset and if a Contador or Rodriguez can get away then Froome and Sky will be tested.

VCSE’s GC Top 5 prediction – Froome, Contador, Porte, Rodriguez, Evans

With the focus on Chris Froome it’s easy to forget the other British rider in search of a milestone win at this years Tour. Mark Cavendish comes into the race after an impressive points victory at the Giro, where the competition favours sprinters significantly less than the Tour. Cavendish was expected to thrive at Omega Pharma after leaving Sky last year and while the focus has been on the initially spluttering lead out train that came good in Italy, a notable improvement has taken place in his climbing. Unlike most of his rivals at the Giro, Cavendish didn’t abandon the race and rode over some of the most challenging climbs of the world tour in the worst kinds of weather. Clearly he has finished 3 week tours before, but as his win in last weekends British national championships showed, his all round racing has moved on. Cavendish will start the Tour in his national champs jersey and with the first stage likely to finish in a bunch sprint he could end the day in yellow. If he pulls this off, along with a fifth consecutive win on the Champs Elysees and the Green Jersey then Britain could have another cycling knighthood to look forward to.

Cavendish will face a strong set of sprint rivals however. Lotto Belisol’s Andre Greipel heads the list that includes a two pronged assault from Argos Shimano with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. There’s also pure sprint capability at FDJ with Nacer Bouhanni, Lampre’s Roberto Ferrari, Orica Green Edge have Matty Goss and Sojasun Julien Simon. However the most likely battle for green will be had with Cannondale’s Peter Sagan. Sagan took green last year as Cavendish laboured in a Sky team focused on GC. Sagan is confident he has the edge over Cavendish on the intermediate stages if not in out right pace for a bunch sprint. Nevertheless with a team dedicated to him Cavendish should be adding another points jersey to his collection this year. 

King of the Mountains in recent years has been won by the rider who can race tactically, sweeping up the points on the smaller climbs to take a firm grip on the competition before the race reaches the highest peaks. Last years winner Thomas Voeckler has delivered some solid GC performances to go with breakaway stage wins and like Richard Virenque before him would be a popular native winner. This year might see a repeat of a wild card taking the Polkadot Jersey, but VCSE thinks the winner could come from one of the second rank of GC riders also, with Nairo Quintana a possibility of he isn’t in contention for the podium.

VCSE’s Points & KOM picks – Green Jersey Mark Cavendish, KOM Nairo Quintana 

VCSE at the Tour

In addition to our regular race coverage via our Racing Digest VCSE will be in France for the first two weeks of the Tour. We will be taking stages 6 and 7 around Montpellier before shifting our base to Tours for stages 12 and 13. Hopefully we will be able to provide a flavour of the world’s greatest stage race and a fans eye view. Follow our Twitter feed (@randompan) or Facebook pages for more details.

That’s the thoughts of VCSE. What do you think? Can anyone beat Froome? Will it be Contador’s year? Can Cav beat Sagan to the points jersey? Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

See what everyone else is saying. You can check out the Global Cycling Network TdF preview below or follow the links to these related articles at the foot of the page.

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The Hell of the South – Isle of Wight cycling reflections


Paris Roubaix? – one of the regular roads used by VCSE in West Wight

VCSE spent last week on the Isle of Wight and put the claim from Lonely Planet to the test that the island is the number one location in the world (note not just the UK) for cycling.

IOW council were at the London Bike Show in January and we were able to grab a copy of the (free) cycling map which proved to be a bit more wieldy in the VCSE jersey pocket than taking the OS map on our rides. It’s pretty clear that the council have recognised the enormous potential to market the island for cycle holidays with the added attractions of a thriving music festival and local food scene likely to prove complimentary for two wheeled visitors. There’s a good choice of ferries across the Solent with Portsmouth the nearest terminal to Southend.

There is a well signposted route around the island that can be ridden in either direction (clockwise or anti clockwise) but with other (quieter) roads shown on the map it’s pretty straightforward to work out a route.


There are a number of dedicated cycle routes with more under development although these are mostly on the eastern side of the island and VCSE’s base in Freshwater Bay meant that we were exploring the roads around West Wight. For the same reason we can’t say too much about the suitability of theses routes for road bikes. The one route we recce’d looked less suitable (between Freshwater and Yarmouth).

The roads themselves while not exactly smooth are generally not too bad although there were a few sections that had broken up from frost. At this time of year even the main roads are pretty quiet and keeping to the round island routes and minor roads meant that we could ride two abreast 90% of the time. There’s some great scenery with Hobbit like ferns and moss covered banks enclosing some of the narrow lanes opening out to chalk downs near the south coast.

Used to the wide open spaces of estuarial Essex the up and down nature of the IOW’s routes was a pleasant surprise and describing a course across the down land between Alum Bay and Ventnor you can find yourself on ramps of 12-14%. The downs peak around the 200′ mark but seem higher particulary when looking from north to south. There are plenty of short, punchy climbs around the 5 to 6% mark around the villages and farms VCSE visited. For an up and down ride with great views out to sea ride the Military Road from Freshwater towards Ventnor before it disappears; the road has been cut to one lane in places due to erosion.

The downside of the rural riding is a fair amount of mud and farm ‘deposits’ on the road and the VCSE bikes looked more like cyclo crossers after our final ride. VCSE had some ‘moments’ on some of the descents on wet days. Less likely to be an issue as the weather warms up.

It was unusual not to pass another rider of two when we were out despite the less than perfect weather. Winds were pretty light for our visit, a refreshing change from the Esplanade!

VCSE booked accomodation through Island Cottage Holidays (link below). They can also provide discounted ferry travel when you book your accomodation. Our base for the week was a reconstituted one bed cottage, part of a victorian coastal fort complete with moat and gun emplacements.


Sea views – VCSE stayed here

Out of season its fair to say that sleepy does not really describe West Wight. We arrived on a Saturday and were a bit taken aback by the lack of people around. Outside of the convenience stores we didn’t see much else open. The handwritten sign in the antique clock store in Freshwater said that they would be closing for good on 6th April so perhaps the secret for commercial success is to try not to be too niche. If you do feel the need to shop then Ryde and the island capital Newport offer the most choice.

For anyone needing cycling related retail therapy VCSE recommends a visit to The Bike Shed (link below). They have recently opened a new store in Ryde on Union Street and as well as stocking Trek have a well appointed service area. For those of a more off road persuasion The Bike Shed’s original store at Arreton (well sign posted) is a good starting point. Simon and the team are very friendly and are a good source of local info.

VCSE is pleased to report that there is good eating on the island. IOW council produce some guides that are a good starting point to decide where to eat. Our pick from the week are The New Inn at Shalfleet and The Garlic Farm (links below).

We managed to get a table at The New Inn on a Tuesday night in February but would probably advise booking a table otherwise. The food celebrates its local providence and there’s a good choice of meat and fish with vegetarians catered for also.

The Garlic Farm is a great lunch stop (open daily until 5pm) and is a good spot to pick up foodie related gifts. VCSE enjoyed refuelling with thick cut ham, eggs and proper chips.

27 miles from one side to the other and approximately 70 miles around the ‘edge’ its possible to ride most of the best routes on the IOW in a week, if not more than once. VCSE intends to head back to the island later in the year but would recommend an out of season visit also.