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.
This stage was one of the four I had granted "Ace" status to from my pack of Eiffel Tower playing cards. having ridden all 230kms of the stage, all the riders agreed with this choice. the profile looks a bit strange, with the two Cat 1 climbs so early in the stage, but this is in fact a very exciting 'transition' stage, from the Alps to Ardeche.
Once down from La Toussuire by coach, we trundled off, bike-happy again, downhill to find the Grand Cucheron: a gentle wooded climb that provided the perfect way to explain to our legs that they had to do a little more of the same after yesterday's mega-climbing stage.
With 25 new riders today in our group of 55 on the road (here for 4 stages on our Travelling Circus), there was fresh chatter and a few strong pace-setters. The road surface for the descent was new for this year and allowed us once again to swoop down safely. I had explained the basics of safe descending the night before to our new riders and many of them came to thank me this evening : this stage may be the longest, but to be honest it has to be said that it also has more down than any other!
The Col de Granier, from Chapareillan, is a Queen (Bitch) climb and we all suffered on this 10km pain-fest. steep ramps with little compassion for riders still tired from the day before produced stubborn rides from our group, but hardly fast! In fact amongst the 'Lifers' (those doing it all) no-one was in a hurry. our second feed was at the top, but so too was a very tempting café, and, for the first time on this tour, I succumbed to it's charms & joined the boys for an excellent cuppa. after all, we only had another 142kms to go! it took almost a half-hour for us to find our way back to our saddles : getting up and walking over to them proved harder than expected! but what a great moment, shared with new friends-for-life.
The 27km descent that followed brought fresh energy back (or was it just the caffeine?!) and we formed a tight km-munching train that whistled along most of the day close to 40kph. our first sunflower fields; the cigales de Provence; sunshine and clear light; vines everywhere : we had arrived somewhere else! the journey was taking us full tilt 'somewhere else' - where there would be another hotel waiting for us with a pile of our cases on reception floor, our room keys, a rushed wash (body& kit), a noisy dinner, a briefing...bed. alarm clock, and off we go again.
the penultimate climb (Cat 3) is a beauty, through a gorge with jagged rock and ancient stone bridges taking the sinuous road from one side of the gorge to the other. we are soon effortlessly up on a plateau and begin another fast section that brings us close to the centre of Annonay. But just as we have the old town in our sites, we are headed off by good old ASO up to the nondescript urban 'nothing' of Davezieux. the only reason can be the horrible bit of tilted road that you have to take to get there. Barely 4%, but after 225kms it's enough to have to hurt the legs even more.
Finally our Golf Hotel, complete with azure blue swimming pool, comes into view. iI waited for some of the slower riders to see them up the final drag and rolled into the hotel 12 hours after starting out this morning. It's the kind of hotel you could do with arriving at 3pm with nothing to do but lounge round the pool and admire the views. for us it's a rush to get the daily chores done : barely arrived riders have to organise how they will be able to leave in the coach at 6.10am tomorrow, ready with all their gear to ride another 200kms to the Med. Hardly surprising that we laugh at pretty much anything vaguely funny by now...!! amazing riding again. constant thanks from them for another 'best ride of their lives'. this is working its magic on all & I love to see that!!"
Our morning transfer coincided with the day predicted to have the heaviest annual vehicle migration southwards on the “Autoroute du Soleil”. And guess which way we were heading from Annonay to St Paul? Correct! That is partly why we were all in the coach, breakfasted, at 06.10am. The other reason was because we had another 210km stage to ride, which would require, yet again, nearly one hour for some to complete.
Our search for the summer had finally been rewarded: this stage will be remembered by all for the deafening chorus of the “cigales de Provence”, busily cooling themselves off in the 32°C heat. From the Rhone valley, across the Gard (notably via the wonderful market-town of Uzes) and into the Languedoc region, this stage was a treat to the senses. Fig trees, pines, vines and Mediterranean oak were our backdrop as we rolled along (mainly) quiet roads.
This was a ‘flat’ stage, but naturally the road in fact very rarely kept us looking long for the next ‘undulation’. We worked in mini-pelotons, some averaging 30kph, others closer to 25. Everyone by now seems to have found a group they can cycle comfortably in, which is really important for getting round stage after stage on this infernal Travelling Circus! We were lucky that what wind there was , for once was rarely a headwind but mostly a cross-wind, and that although the sun was strong, the air still had a certain freshness to it. As I write, in our children's holiday camp centre, voices and laughter echo around me from the dormitories; the physios are still treating the daily battering and some are finally taking their hot shower.
It is 22.20 and breakfast is again at 5.45 tomorrow morning. Finding a place to stay in Cap d’Agde, on a Saturday, in July, was quite a challenge. In 2 nights’ time we are in a 5* hotel in Pau; tonight we are reminded of our school holiday-camps! But laughter is predominant; the food was simple & great, and we have loads of room to spread out our clothes, bikes and generally make a mess everywhere! Perfect.
Many of us interrupted our ride to stop in a café to catch the end of the “Belles Filles” stage on TV. We were of course astounded to see the way Team Sky wrapped that one up and delighted to see Wiggo step so confidently into yellow! We remember that ramp still so vividly and just cannot mreally fathom how they could have sprinted up that 24% incline at the end of a stage like that!!
Another great aspect to riding this event is of course being able to then watch the Real Riders deal with exactly the same pieces of tarmac as us. 30 of us were packed into a little café in Montbazin, cheering for Wiggo and Froome, sipping cool cokes and coffees. Priceless!
One more stop under the plane trees in a village square, with a fountain for soothing hot, swollen feet, for another mix of cokes, rice-cakes & peanut butter or honey, fruit and cake and a special treat of a lollipop from the shop on the square! Then we were soon rolling into Agde, along the estuary and into our Holiday Camp!
I could not bring myself to go into too much detail about the first stage in the Pyrenees, facing us tomorrow, because I felt that everyone needed to simply enjoy the feel-good moment of having knocked yet one more 200km stage well on the head! But I did warn them that it would be another horticultural stage with a bit of ‘deep digging’!
Up once again before dawn, watching the bats flying round mopping up the last of the night insects and enjoying breakfast outside. Heads falling all over shoulders on the transfer coach as it takes us mto Limoux from where we headed to the Pyrenees. A gentle climb over the Portel opens up the day, followed by more comfortable riding for another 80kms until we arrived in Tarascon. Mechanicals seemed to be happening all over the place for us on this stage : bikes getting as tired as the legs.
In fact, maybe that is not fair, because many riders are telling me that they are definitely feeling fitter and stronger after two weeks now on the bike. But once the briefing over at night, riders flee to their beds as if they were afraid of someone else nicking it! Appetites are also now uncontrollable, and they indeed need to be. To begin with, riders were too tired to eat as much as they needed: now eating three times as much as usual comes naturally!
Once through Tarascon a long faux-plat begins up to Vicdessos and to the foot of the Port de Lers climb. A few 10% or more ramps kick in sharply in the first part of the climb before a flat mid- climb section helps everyone prepare for the drag up to the top. Today no views reward riders for their efforts : damp mountain cloud shrouds this wonderful place, and we all warm up in the café up there, which we have virtually taken over with our own food & day-bags, trading this off with an order for a hot drink for all riders.
The first of two great descents follows, down to Massat, which just leaves the “Mur” de Peguerre and its’ crazy-steep passages. Thanks to the lunch stop on Port de Lers, riders are rested & refueled and most manage to get up there AND enjoy it. I was worried that this would prove harder than it actually did for them – a good sign! All the guys, ‘n gals, are riding so well and have got
through niggling injuries after the first few days. The 25kms descent down to Foix brings everyone to dinner still beaming, despite the 10km loop that took them first away from, then back to, Foix. Dinner was noisy, again, and spirits are flying high!
This is a stage for someone like Nibali to win, with his descending skills topped onto his climbing flair : well, I would love to see him pull this one off, as long as he gets nowhere near Wiggo on the GC!
One more stage to go before our second rest day. The road across the Gers is anything but flat, but the relatively cool weather forecast will help them conquer this one without too much pain, judging by today’s’ riding. (Average riding speeds vary from 30kph down to 20kph, in case you are wondering. No one is racing this thing : most now are enjoying it, with the occasional “head-down” moment for the fun of having a blast together. Perfect days on the bike!