First started in 2010, Tour de Force is a unique event for those people that have ever wanted to ride the entire route of the Tour de France (without needing a pro contract!).
Riding the 3497km route one week ahead of the race, the riders will roll up the Champs Elysees on 15 July. Lead cyclist Phil Deeker (who also organises the Rapha Cent Cols Challenge), is sending us daily blogs from each stage, which will service as a interesting preview of the stages before the pros ride them a week later.
We found the sun at last, and perhaps because the search has been so long, the heat was a harsh shock for many. 30°C meant hard times as we hit the first steep climbs of the Tour. The early part of the stage gave us time to flex legs with a long, steady climb up to and past Gerardmer. We are in the Vosges and the pine woods provide real inspiration. The climbs may only be Cat 3 at best, but they need to be taken seriously even so. In particular the climb (not even categorised) that comes just before the final Planche epic.
It is one of those climbs that just goes on too long when you know what is coming up shortly and you are trying to conserve energy. This is typical 'subtelty' of Tour stages that always make them that little bit harder than they look on paper! So, with 190km in our legs, and body liquids needing regular topping up, we hit the infamous "Belle Filles" climb, beautifully clad in new TdF tarmac. The shiny new black stuff is a regular treat for us and a great advantage of riding the Tour route just before the event. Not only extremely comfortable on the flat, the smooth stuff can easily knock off a percent or two of gradient from a climb. Even so, the first couple of clicks of this climb HURT!
It may only be a 7km climb, with the middle three settling down to an average 6-7%, but, after a brief respite at the car park at the top, the last ramp is a very harsh Moment of Truth! Finished just a few weeks ago (according to some local walkers, who had never seen so many cyclists around!) this is most definitely a "Mur" : ASO claim 24% and they are probably quite close - it is no more than 200 metres in all, but in the words of one Tour de Force rider, as the "Wall" came into view : "Holy F*** !!!" Head down, focus on trying to pull your handlebars right off the bike, and eventually you come out on top!
This could provide a sensational Tour finish, almost Giro-style. Bravo ASO, they are learning at last!!! You may even perceive the gradient on TV for once!
Our first 'True Grit' stage! A procession of Cat 3 and Cat 2 climbs with a brutal finale provided by the Cat 1 Col de la Croix. This jaunt cross the Swiss Jura should have provided glorious views to compensate and distract our valiant riders. Wishful thinking! instead we got rain that just got harder and cold that just got colder.
Mountain mist would only give us fleeting glimpses of the scenery around us: "The most beautiful views I never saw," in one riders' words. Everyone nevertheless proved to be 'ard as nails, with many moments of mutual support along the way. It is truly impressive to see how much riders are helpung each other and how those who join us for just a few stages have been made to feel part of the group so easily. Not an easy acheivement when everyone is tired. A stomach bug is doing its rounds amongst us too, just like real pro's us; except that we don't quit!! we just Mutter The Mantra ( "HTFU" - if you don't know, ask someone!)
The climbs are steady but persistent and perfect for just grinding us down. Sarah, our Archangel, who organises our lives OFF the bike, found a perfect café for our lunch stop - dry, warm and located so that we could call back there after the infamous Cote de Saulcy loop and its stunning gorges. We always try find shelter for riders when the weather is against us, but Lady Luck needs to be with us too for that to work! It may be a shorter stage than we have been used to, but by the time riders got to teh Col de la Croix, the cold and wet conditions had really taken their toll : this is a hard climb on a good day, and the fact that all the riders got over it says much about the willpower amongst us all, driving on near-broken bodies. Spirits are soon revived though, once at the hotel : the harder the stage the noisier the dinner in the evening! Chapeau once again.
A 41km TT that is NOT flat, but our riders' winning time of 1 hour 23mins, including red lights & a quick drink stop says much about the fighting spirit here! Charming villages, quiet roads, great bike decorations hanging off houses : the real magic of the Tour. This has to be the perfect course for Brad to mark a few seconds?