Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Cycling in the Pyrenees: My first ascent of the Col du Tourmalet


This is a long one guys, so go fetch a tea, a packet of biscuits and get comfy...


Growing keener and keener on all this cycling malarkey and being naturally drawn to mountains (read about all of that other stuff here), it wasn't long before I started researching the sport's greatest climbs. Also, being obsessed with France (we holiday there VERY regularly), it was only right that I started with the French Alps and the Pyrenees.

Now, I live in Coventry which is nothing short of flat, meaning I have to venture to the Lake or Peak Districts to encounter anything considered as a mountain pass. So, with no real experience of cycling up 'big hills', I didn't really know what I'd be letting myself in for.  Of course over the years I've watched the Tour and seen a bunch of crazy men race up most of these revered passes, but I wanted to understand more about what it actually takes to cycle up them and I was only going to get that by cycling up one or two of them!

Given the time I'd happily (try to) cycle up all of the French greats, but alas this wasn't going to be possible so I had to limit my search to something I could fit in with our next trip to France in the the Midi-Pyrenees. Looking at YouTube videos and reading trip reports I soon started to form a mental picture of the main group of monster climbs but, as I was going to be doing this alone and over 2 days, I'd be limited.

After much research (Velo Pyrenees is a good resource) I decided I'd mix it up with an ascent of the famous Col Du Tourmalet and the not so well-known road up to the Lac de Cap de Long - for its scenic appeal alone! I'd have very limited time, just one night in fact, so needed somewhere affordable but in easy reach of the hills. I'd left it quite late to book (as always) and struggled to find anywhere that wasn't fully booked and in the right place. Eventually I stumbled across La Caminade via a Google Maps search and a managed to book the night I needed with no trouble whatsoever.

With all this in place I just had to turn up......oh, and buy some new wheels, a cassette for climbing and a gilet.....oh, and maybe some hill training. My Dura Ace 9000 C24 wheels will be a subject of their own review but I also went for an 11-27 cassette as I guessed I'd need all the help I could get!

Our holiday came soon enough and on the third day I packed up the bike and the rest of the gear and headed off down the Peage to the hills - a 2 hour drive from our rental house near Saint Antonin de Noble Val. The plan today was fairly simple: I'd rock up at Campan and get straight on to tackle the Tourmalet, absorb the views for a bit and then put in a blisteringly fast, death-defying descent back to Saint Marie de Campan to collect the car and find the B&B. Simple? No, not so I'm afraid, as the Tourmalet had been closed due to the flooding that had hit the western slopes but the news from Gerald (owner of La Caminade) by email before I left was that the eastern ascent could still be made! It was ‘on’…

The trip down was fairly uneventful, except of course for the toll booth stops (where I had to get out, dash around to the passenger side, fumble with money, take a ticket and dash back to the drivers seat) and of course stopping to cram in some much needed carbs for later that day. I arrived at around 1pm (later than planned) and managed to park in one of the back streets behind the Town Hall. I was a bit nervous at this point and the anticipation was making me faff about, taking an age to do things I can normally do in minutes! 28 minutes later (28!!!!) I was decked out in Lycra, bike re-assembled, tyres pumped and jersey pockets filled with all I'd need for the next few hours. I clipped in, hit start on the Garmin Edge 810 and set off - seemingly in an upward direction from the first pedal stroke!

Unfortunately this first section of the ride is a bit of a blur in that all I remember is wonderfully smooth tarmac and the sound of my incessant panting! In truth I also remember thinking that the gradient was steeper than I was expecting and I'd need to slow down to make sure I didn't go out too hard - as is normally the case. I could describe my style of riding at the start of big route or a long day as "digital" because its either on or off and nothing in between.

I forced myself to settle down and enjoy the ride and suddenly the scenery started to soak in and the tempo levelled out as I warmed up and wondered what the hell I had to expect - I really can't convey enough how little hill work I'd done up to this point and I was anxious to make sure I got everything right.

The winding, undulating road soon reaches Sainte Marie de Campan (where most people start the climb to the Tourmalet) and the information sign for the Tourmalet loomed into view. At this point my heart sank as I read the sign to say: Col du Tourmalet - Ferme (closed for those who don't speak French) but the road to La Mongie (the Ski Resort at the base) to be open.


I trusted Gerald's information (he's a very keen cycling by all accounts) and having little choice I just pressed on in the hope that the sign was meant to indicate that the col cannot be crossed and descended on to the western slopes - as I'd previously understood it.

From here the road begins to kick up a little more, passing various farm buildings, chambre d'hotes and restaurants which eventually thin out to give way to forest on a stunning valley road. From here I could see that the ascent was shrouded in thick, low cloud and I was glad of my decision to cram the gilet in my pocket. There was little traffic today, both in terms of vehicles and cyclists, and I don't recall seeing anyone else until Gripp. Again, the gradient in this first section had averaged 5% and had me worried as I'd been feeling as though I'd been going a bit hard up to this point and with still 12km to go! The kilometre-spaced countdown signs taunted me with as I slowly rolled past!

I knew I had the hairpin section before La Mongie next and I also knew the gradient from hereon in was going to average 9%, top out at 10.2% and even more on the inside line of the tighter, steeper bends. I realised here that the technical details were largely irrelevant  - I was on my way and wouldn't be stopping until I hit the summit!

I must've settled in a little better after this as I found a rhythm which took me through the tree lined hair-pin and up to La Mongie. To me, this looked like a deserted “once-was” town now all the snow had gone and a little out of place compared to the mountains that surrounded it. In the winter season I imagine this is a very different place but I failed to see any appeal as I plodded on up past the various ski and outdoors shops, hotels, apartments and bars. Fortunately this bit didn't last and I was soon out the other side and left with the faceless apartment blocks sinking lower and lower as I continued the climb.


It wasn't long after this that I spotted the faded names painted onto the road and it was hard not to think about the incredible talent that had ascended this legendary hill. I don’t know whether this inspired or intimidated me! Here, the cycling traffic started to pick up as I began passing one cyclist after another, using each bobbing figure ahead of me as the next target to chase down!

By now I was working quite hard and my glasses started slip of my face and annoy me. Trying to take these off, secure them behind my helmet and trying to maintain momentum on a 9% gradient was nothing short of a chore. How the pros do this I'll never know!


Every now and then I'd glance down at my Garmin and spot my heart-rate, which gave me some hope that I still had more in the tank and could push harder if necessary - particularly as the kilometre markers were now displaying much more pleasing numbers! Annoyingly though, this introduced an unexpected dilemma...

Before putting rubber on tarmac at the Campan I just wanted to get up and get down and enjoy the experience but now, as the miles to the summit ticked down, I was suddenly thinking about pushing hard and seeing if I could improve my time! Luckily, realising this was a cocky, silly thing to do on the first ascent, I went back to just riding at my most 'comfortable' pace, watching my average speed plummet the further I ascended. The weather wasn't great and the low cloud added a thick silence to the whole affair with only the sound of rushing water in the clefts and tunnels breaking through the sound of my panting!

The road was in various states of repair, starting mainly at the La Mongie, but at points here it was almost all covered in fresh, loose gravel and not something I was relishing on the cold, fast descent!

Slowly and steadily I began to pass more and more people, all of whom (like me) were fighting through their own personal demons in pursuit of reaching the summit. Each time I’d say “bonjour” or “hello” but I only recall one response in particular – which said it all really: “c’est grave, non?” to which there could be only one response: “Oui”! This chap held my wheel for a time but there were no more words - just our rhythmic breathing until I looked around to find he’d dropped back and I was, once again, left to fight the battle alone. I was hoping we’d nurse each other to the top and have some sort of Anglo-French celebration at the summit but I never saw him again – not even at the top!

Suddenly, the 1km marker just appeared and a wave of relief and excitement took over. I suddenly found a burst of energy and almost involuntarily I was out of the saddle as the gradient kicked up in the final few bends with me dancing away on the pedals like a madman! There was one last wheel ahead of me and I made a decision not to chase it and just soak up the final 500 metres before the top. The clouds were thicker than ever and a cold wind pushed up behind me as I began to see the grey silhouettes of people in the road. Hoping it was a welcome party of my loved-ones, friends and fans I was most disappointed to find it was just two local Gendarmes who were seemingly guarding the summit. They waved me past and gave me a slow clap, which I still can’t decide if it was celebratory or patronising!

As if out of my dreams, I rounded the final bend and gave the final push to the summit plateau which was, unbelievably, bathed in sun with the most the most amazing vista opening out before me. Other cyclists had already made themselves comfortable above the famous “Col du Tourmalet sign and they clapped and cheered as I emerged from the clouds.*


The views to the west were just incredible and an ascent from this side would have been a completely different experience…..except of course it was closed!


Feeling quite proud, I unclipped and set my weight down on my jelly-like legs. Trying to look unaffected to my fellow cyclists, I made a poor attempt at a casual swagger to absorb the view and take some photos. I was tired and glad to be at the top and just stood and took it all in whilst the sun warmed and soothed my aching legs. More and people began to reach the summit and as they emerged it felt only natural and proper that I should join in the clapping and encouragement being dished out with gay abandon. A couple must’ve felt sorry for me as I tried to take my self-portrait with wobbly hands and kindly took my photo – making me look even shorter than normal!



I hung around for a while and looked in the souvenir shop,  the sounds of clapping and cheering could still be heard inside to mark the arrival of more triumphant finishers. I soon realised that I had to be going so, donned my Mavic gilet, checked my brakes and clipped in for the fun part – the descent! Sadly this was hampered somewhat as we were all instructed to await the arrival of a Convoi Exceptionel as it struggled its way up the mountain with heavy-lifting equipment, presumably needed for the major road repairs on the other side at Luz Saint Sauveur since the flooding. This 10 minute wait on the cloudy side just served to let the chill kick in and by the time we were given the all-clear I was shivering!

The descent was fairly fast and quite dangerous. In part this was due to my love of speed but also due to the poor traction caused by the gravel-ridden sections. Wherever possible I tried to keep my speed up but soon got stuck behind an elderly chap in a Fiat Panda, who seemed to love to drive in the middle of the road – as appears customary in France. Soon there was a queue of us itching to get past and I finally decided to take my chance as we hit a straight. Several others followed and it felt incredible to be hammering down the mountain and over-taking cars! Reckless perhaps but it was fun and I was caught in the moment.

As is always the case, the descent was over far too quickly and I was soon having to brake hard as I approached La Mongie once again. By this point my fingers and face were freezing so I decided not to stop for a drink and instead to press on to Campan and keep my momentum. The ride from here is nothing short of amazing as it’s a long, fast and sweeping descent which meant I was back at the car in no time and wanting to go back and do it all again.

Overall I’d enjoyed my first attempt at the Tourmalet and indeed at a proper “categorised climb” in general. I’d have to wait to reflect on the whole experience because I had to find La Caminade and prepare for the Lac de Cap de Long the next day. More on that to follow…

Here’s the Strava page for the ride:


* Its a crying shame that I can only imagine how epic I must have looked!

UCI Road World Championships 2013

I cannot believe my luck I've just read that all this week the BBC are covering the UCI Road World Championships via the red button service and BBC2. I'm not sure how the red button service works in terms of viewing online but I'll be trying to work this out today! Looks like I'll be taking late lunches for the rest of the week!

The official UCI YouTube channel is to show highlights and some live coverage so perhaps that also provides an option?

More info on the iPlayer coverage of the TT here, Red Button service here, and the UCI YouTube page here.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Inspiration: Cycling or commuting in bad weather

After that incredible summer it was only going to take a mere whiff of cold air and the slightest patter of rain to set me off trying to harden myself up, psychologically of course, for the wet, windy and bitingly cold winter days. Make no mistake people – it's coming!

It’s around this time of year (just before my birthday) that I start looking at winter socks, gloves and overshoes to attempt to soften the blow because, as we all know, new shizzle makes you look epic and that counteracts the cold…*

It was 8.5 degrees (Celsius) the other morning and I stupidly headed out in a lightweight summer jersey for my morning commute. On leaving the house I immediately noticed the cold, followed by that first shiver of the new season! Luckily I came in via the 9 mile 'scenic' route otherwise I'd have not got going enough to get the internal fire going at all, but I'd already started to dread the damp, cold starts that will inevitably follow in the coming weeks.

Rule 9 clearly states, and I quote: "If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are badass. Period"; I think this is possibly enough for most people but some may need that little bit more encouragement... So, if buying more gear for the coming season just can't be justified or its a mental battle you have going on in there I bestow upon you the following advice: Fetch your arm/leg warmers, overshoes and other body-armour you feel necessary and whilst you're wrestling them on just sit and watch the short-film below. Everyone knows Rapha makes a great (but massively pretentious) cycling films and this one is no different in that it just made me want to go out and ride my bike! Love or hate em, you can't knock em for that!

Still sat in all your gear and needing more inspiration or motivation? Well, as a last resort I'd suggest watching this next short film, again from Rapha. However, please exercise extreme caution before just diving in and pressing 'play' and observe the recommended limit of a maximum of two Rapha films per sitting. This is for your own sanity and financial security so don't say I didn't warn you!

If you're not out cycling by now, I can only suggest that you acquaint yourself with Rule 5 or sell your bike!

*for about 3 minutes until you realise that cold is cold and no matter how well you match your overshoes to your helmet or how ‘Roubaix’ your arm-warmers claim to be.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Cycling the Coventry Ring Road - Godiva Awakes Homecoming

Some of you may have had the opportunity to see the Godiva Awakes cavalcade as it toured around the UK following the Olympics last year. If not, you can find out more here. The consortium behind this incredible (and weird) art-work organised a Homecoming event on 10 August 2013 to welcome Lady Godiva back to the city and part of this event was the closing of the Coventry Ring Road for the exclusive use of cyclists. I know, pretty damn amazing!

This closure commenced with the opportunity for an advanced group of the city's cyclists to ride the ring-road for 40 mins before the day's main events began to kick off. Now, clearly, this wasn't marketed by the event management as a 'race' as such but there was never any doubt in my mind that there would be a lot of people rocking up to have a shot at owning the Strava KOM on Coventry's ring road - I wasn't wrong!

At 8.30am Joel and I rocked up to sign-in and collect some free goodies from the reception desk as people began to arrive and the mutual bike appreciation/envy began among the forming crowds! There were quite a few people and of all ages and abilities and it was a great thing to see so many people turning up to support cycling in Coventry  - and at such an unfriendly hour.

We stood around outside the Welcome Centre trying to decide whether taking our free 'Cycle Coventry' backpacks was going to put us at an aerodynamic disadvantage but, we soon manned-up, emptied the contents and stuffed them into jersey pockets. No, this really happened! The free water bottle was stowed in my spare bottle cage and everything was set with less excuses for a terrible ‘performance - if indeed that was what we were here to do but who knew?

photo 1

Cycle Coventry, the cities new initiative to promote all things cycling, did a fantastic job of organising us all and before we knew it were were being lined up to be led out for the start. A short (and cringe-worthy) warm-up from some local fitness instructors and we were off to the entry ramp at Junction 5 for the madness to begin. The organisers had chosen to use the re-surfaced, anti-clockwise carriageway and this made for a surprisingly smooth ride. If you've ever driven around the ring-road you'll appreciate this point!

photo 3

I, somewhat naively, thought we'd just ‘pootle’ around for the first lap or two and then the pace would inevitably crank up as people started to get a feel for how it was going to go. Instead, a few at the front (Joel included) shot down the ramp and got things started pretty abruptly. Whilst all  of this happened ahead of me, I was blissfully unaware and got chatting with another lad who seemed pretty excited about the chance to have a blast around Coventry's notorious Ring Road. The moment I noticed the gap had formed it was nothing short of a frickin effort to get on the last wheel in the line of about 20 riders. It took me just over a lap (2.2 miles) to work my way up to Joel and do my turn at the front. Now, Joel nor I have done any serious group riding and it was an amazing feeling to be cycling at some pace in a decent group. Around 5 of us seemed pretty happy to keep pushing forward and take turns in the wind. By the the 4th lap things were settling down a little but this meant that gaps started forming with some unable to stay on the wheel or to bring it back. “Is it a race” I thought?" “What’s the worst that can happen if this gap widens?”. These thoughts didn’t last long before my competitive side kicked in when I realised that Joel was in that front group and we had to finish together for my own self-preservation! Not even sure if I had the legs to stay there if I could close the gap of about 20 metres, I got into my best Fabian Cancellara position:


….sorry, no I mean:


  and managed to get back onto the wheel behind Joel. A quick glance to my left and could see someone had taken a tow up behind me and was annoyed to soon notice it was the chap who’d let the gap form in the first place – wasn’t happy and decided that the first chance I got I would try and drop him…..which then didn’t happen. Best laid plans and all that!


Screenshot from Youtube footage taken by user shawry1970 – can be viewed here.

This happened again at almost the same point in the next lap and once again I completely buried myself to close the gap. This was supposed to a leisurely pootle around the ring with a blast at the Strava segment, not the flippin Word Hour Record! Nevertheless I was having fun, heck it looked like we all were, and this carried until we got the final lap warning from the marshals as we entered the ramp off junction 5 for the penultimate time. Then all hell broke loose and people were just sprinting at all points throughout the lap, including Joel who fancied chasing down a solo break from a Coventry Road Club Jersey! Just managing to hang on, a group of 5 of us climbed the ramp for the final time, Joel the first to cross the imaginary finish line for a ‘victory’!

Re-grouping at the Welcome Centre, we chatted among ourselves and by all accounts everyone had had good blast around. Clearly a few of us had taken this more seriously than others but everyone had taken something from the event, with quite a few going straight back out for the second wave or ‘leisure’ ride which followed before the main cavalcade event.

Joel and I opted for coffee and cake, as should always follow a ride when its too early (or inappropriate) for beer. This time was then used, predominantly by Joel, to check the Strava situation, who was elated to find that he had the KOM for the segment…..for at least 2 minutes….. until everyone else uploaded their rides and we both watched as we were both pushed down the rankings – Bad times!

photo 2 Nom nom!

All of this unofficial scoring and competition business aside, this had been a truly well-organised and fun event and we talked with one of the marshals about the possibility of an organised race event on the ring-road. We managed to determine that the event was an unofficial pilot for a larger event in the future – but nobody would say any more than that. Personally I think this could be an amazing way of promoting cycling in the city and could draw a decent crowd. The beauty of the ring-road, love or hate it, is that there are two carriageways allowing the closure of one whilst the other remains open.

All in, this was a surprisingly good event and made so by all of the volunteers, the City Council and the cyclists who turned up on the day. Whilst the rest of the day’s  events continued within the City, I cycled home to type an email to the Council about next year’s event…..

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Thursday, 12 September 2013

Cycle to Work Day 2013

So, it turns out today is (officially) Cycle to Work Day. I can be forgiven for not noticing this since, like many others, every day is my own personal cycle to work day.

Now, I literally annoy the hell out of everyone I know with how enthusiastic I can be about everything cycling. I've found a hidden ability to steer most conversations with non-cycling humans (the "Chumps") to suddenly be about cycling. I'm now so good at it that I'm sure they don't even realise I've done it. The point of all this is that I can't help but try to encourage the Chumps to think more about cycling and so naturally love the fact that lots is being done to promote cycling in the UK following the Olympics and double Tour de France wins. However, I'm really struggling to understand why the organisers decided that the national Cycle to Work Day should be mid-September?

Looking at the pledges on the event website lots of people haven't minded this so much (at the time of writing there are almost 250k miles pledged) but I can't help thinking this might have been even more successful as a mid-summer initiative. I think its fair to say that generally people don't like getting wet, cold and wind-blown and especially not if they are new to cycling to work or are trying it for the first time!

Fingers crossed for a dry return journey folks and, if you are unfortunate enough to get rained on on the return journey - or even this morning on the way in - at least you know what to expect the next 6 months!

Joking aside, its great to see initiatives like this popping up to encourage people to consider cycling as a means of getting about and using that once-loved-but-now-forgotten bike at the back of the garage or, even better, getting a new one on the Cycle to Work Scheme. After all, as any self- respecting cyclist knows, the Rules state that the correct number of bikes to own is n+1 - where 'n' is the current number of bikes owned!

Now, Lycra yourselves up people and enjoy the trip home!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

A good cycling blog is hard to find and this one won’t stop the search!


Me ruining a perfectly good photo of my steed!Hello, it’s me ‘int it.

So, I’m Marcus and, no prizes for guessing, I’m a thirty-something cyclist. I’ve not always been thirty-something (thank the Gods) and, I’m sad to say, I’ve not always been a cyclist! Like most of us, I had bikes as a kid and loved them but I can’t say I’ve been as keen on cycling as I have been in recent years.

My ‘cycling life’ started when my employer started the Cycle to Work scheme and I bought a GT mountain bike and clung to this whilst throwing myself down forest trails for a season with a friend. I used this bike to commute the 2.5 miles to work for a bit and one day I got talking to another Cycle to Work victim colleague who had just bought a Bianchi road bike to commute 16 miles to work. At the time I remember thinking this was complete madness and he was a bit tapped (sorry Paul)! This conversation led to me giving him a lift to the bike shop to collect this ‘Bianchi’ I’d never heard of and things took a turn for the worse from thereon in!

I started by replacing the tyres on my GT with hybrid tyres and added a few miles to my commute each day - feeling the new found efficiency of these strange new tyres. I did this for a few months until I’d paid off the bike on the scheme and then I cracked.

I promptly bought myself a stunning Bianchi Via Nirone 7 in celest, black and white through the Cycle to Work Scheme, once again, and my road cycling life/obsession had, unbeknown to me at the time, began to grow in earnest!

Bianchi_via_nirone galleryMy Biachi doing it’s best catalogue pose for eBay…not sure I’m obeying Rule 44

I used this to do, what I considered at the time, as my first serious miles over the end of that summer and the feeling of speed - and looking frickin awesome - well and truly had me hooked. I remember the freedom of being self-powered and feeling able to go anywhere just making me want to ride and, just as I was getting fitter and used to that “stupidly-hard seat” I went and seriously damaged some nerves in my right arm from a shoulder dislocation whilst learning to ski! I was completely devastated and it then took me 5 weeks to get the feeling back in my arm and hand and then a further 3 months of pretty intense physio before I could think about getting on the bike again. I think the God’s felt sorry for me after this because I was barely back on the bike for 3 months when they presented me with an offer I just could not refuse….

….I’d been looking at carbon frames (as any self-respecting road cyclist should and let’s not forget Rule 4) and happened to come across a guy selling an unused 2012 Kuota Kebel with SRAM groupo. I’d not heard of Kuota but the price had already got me interested so Googling it was only going to fuel this costly interest and before I could say Muck-off, I was driving down to Northamptonshire and had parted with £1500 for a brand-new, full carbon beauty. Now, weeks of discussions then ensued with my FiancĂ©e as to exactly why I needed this bike when I’d barely ridden the Bianchi…but all of this is now moot point since I was then ‘encouraged’ to sell the Bianchi and that conversation promptly went away when we parted company. That was a sad, sad day – we won’t talk about that any more on here – fact!

So, that’s a not-so-brief intro to me and my cycling puberty. I’ve come a long way since then and had so many, simply incredible experiences on my bike since the start and I feel like I’m only just getting started – which I am!

The next question is likely going to be “why write a blog about it” and the answer is simply because I can and because I like to keep a diary of my experiences to account for the beer-induced memory-loss I seem to be experiencing in increasing intensity! I also have another blog over at www.alittlebitaboutnotalot.co.uk and I think its only fair that I blog about my other obsession with as much gusto!

With all of that out of the way, on to blogging about some actual stuff.

That is all.

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