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

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.