A Travellerspoint blog

This may not be pretty

overcast 20 °C
View 2008 Italia - Tk Cycle Day 0, part 2 & 2008 Italia - Tk Cycle Day 0 on Gelli's travel map.

The whole dreaded trip began, at least, in a good way. Probably the best possible way. I headed down to Switzerland on the night train trying to follow/respond to an absolutely fantastically funny if also perhaps slightly drunken conversation between a Dane, Swiss and Romanian - admittedly the latter two are friends of mine anyway, and we were deliberately traveling together - which was taking place in 5 different languages (plus, often a sixth, "international drunk") and which was the most entertainment I have had in years. I would try and explain some of it, but it's just not really worth it. You had to be there.

By the time we parted in Basle the next morning, I was in such good spirits I had almost forgotten what lay ahead. In fact, i would have completely forgotten about it if hadn't already been limping – Monday nights football, in retrospect, was really not a clever idea - and it wasn't pissing it down with rain (yup, i was now freezing in my shorts). This was compounded when I reached the hospital to discover the queue was about 5hours long (my last chance had been to turn up in Basle and join the queue – I have been treated there before so it would have been relatively simple), and i did not have that sort of time to wait.

Back at the railway station, i was cold, wet, miserable and with only one course of action available to me. Unfortunately, i didn't have the German drug squad number to hand, so couldn't phone them up with an anonymous tip off to try and delay the bus' progress for a few days. Thus i'm now on a train to Milan, and reduced to praying that (a) the weather is so bad, no planes can land anywhere near by – eg Europe - at all (b) the van breaks down/is stolen/never arrives or (c) everybody does arrive safely, but magically, my bike/kit do not leaving me unable to ride.

Of course, my bags are going by van and not via Heathrow terminal 5, so the odds are against it.

Posted by Gelli 02:16 Archived in Switzerland Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Oh drat. Not more excercise

Pre-ambly type stuff

sunny 25 °C
View 2008 Italia - Tk Cycle Day 0, part 2 & 2008 Italia - Tk Cycle Day 0 on Gelli's travel map.

Certain unlucky idiots may remember that at some point last year, after limping for about 4months as part of “recovery” from a certain French cycle event that had been at least partially undertaken, that I swore that i would never partake in such an event again.

Thus in April, when i was told i was heading off to Italy cycling, I paid no attention. Until i realised that my boss (read: big, biiiig boss of company) had already booked tickets and accomodation for me. At that point, i started to get slightly unnerved. They had been generous enough not to book me on one of those flying-metal-tube-with-wing thingies (there are certain limits which even the really big bosses accept), but otherwise it was fait accompli.

I discussed things with one of my surgeons (the one who had told me on no account to ever do anything like that again, and who only found out that I went to france because somebody - i've yet to determine who – snitched) and who looked as though he wished he had a handy Siberian alt mine to send me to instead. A couple of old team mates simply laughed. There has long been an underground group of people who have delighted in, or so it seems, my constant pain and misery, many of whom magically came out of the woodwork to enjoy the moment. I've heard there is even a membership to be paid and a waiting list to join of several years.

But how bad could it really be, I asked myself? After all, I survived France, kind of, without it causing me more than 6months or so pain, so a few days in Italy should be a doddle, right? I thus started looking a bit deeper at the plans. The group was to be roughly the same as last year, minus one or two of the faster guys. And it had been planned to be done from a central base with 4 day trips. This was indeed excellent news. It means that unlike the previous years trip, it was easy to opt out of a days ride, or cut one short – you didn't have to continue to the bitter end (or be homeless). And the days had been planned to be a bit shorter, and total cost would be much less. Great, i thought.

And then. Then. Almost imperceptibly, lots of small things starting happening. People began to drop out. First the very same biiiig boss suspiciously had to suddenly be in the US instead, and dropped out. This mean't that i suddenly lost brown nosing opportunities and brownie points. He was replaced by my Project manager, Tony. I like Tony, I really do. But he is my boss, and a non cyclist but still fairly fit, and thus I can't really win. If he does much better than me (which in my current state, will not be hard), I won't hear the end of it – i'm still hearing about Johnny Wilkinson's drop goal – and if i do better than him, it's expected. Plus it means i will get to hear about work on a regular basis, which is something i don't particularly want to. I then got to examine the hotel, location and route plans a bit more to discover that we are actually going to be staying in a very lumpy area, with some of those spiky things /I think they are called the Alps) very nearby and to be climbed.

Then three further people dropped out within a couple of days of each other, the last only 2 days before we left, and including both bus drivers. And though we had gained one, we were down to 8, and I was now going to have to drive home as well, subjecting myself to – at a guess – 18 or so hours stuck in a van with my boss, trying to drive long distances when i'm expecting to be half crippled, and, worse, missing out on catching up with some friends in Munich for a few beers and two Euro 08 games (I had cunningly booked my original trip home so include such a stop off, and to ensure i didn't miss any football). And less people means the price was rapidly going up. Drat. Drat. Drat.

Then my hospital appointment got cancelled, meaning i couldn't get my lungs and chest emptied. It is a long term problem i've had and I was due anyway, but whilst i can survive another year or so of normal life, it is absolute necessity before any kind of vaguely serious activity. Like climbing mountains. I have one potential chance left, but if not, it means my breathing abilities will be severely hampered.

The final fun bit of news was that constant checks of the forecast shows Sweden to be continuing with it's gloriously sunny, warm, and clear blue sky weather, whilst Bergamo shows 70% chance of rain every day, and a forecast of lots of Thunder storms. Now i like both rain and mountains, and in my prime would have enjoyed nothing more, but as i get increasingly old and crippled, climbing mountains in the pissing rain and thunderstorm, with no knees, only one ankle and barely being able to breathe, whilst my boss is shooting up the road and laughing at me, is not really my idea of fun anymore.

This could be a long few days.

Posted by Gelli 02:14 Archived in Italy Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

How to break a £5.8bn investment on opening day...

Impressions of St. Pancras International and the new Eurostar High Speed 1, leaving on the very first train.

I accept that i might have been slacking in recent months. You have heard nothing about my assorted travels, living in Prague, almost getting engaged, being sold by my big boss, struggling through a rugby world cup in which England were utterly dire by, horrifically, still made it to the final and being found again by Kiki amongst much else many others. If you really really want to know about any of that, let me know and i could be persuaded. If not, as most of you won't, don't worry about it. It's not important to this narrative. And thus it was that my stint in London came to an end. I accept that would have made more sense if anybody had known that I was in London, but hey, these things happen.

Almost entirely by accident, my departure was set up so that I was leaving the UK, as always, by Eurostar, but with a slight twist to normal in that I was leaving on the very first day of St. Pancras International's grand opening. St. Pancras is an impressive old station with a long history (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Pancras_railway_station) and International trains have been transferred from Waterloo to St. Pancras along with the opening of a new section of high speed line in the Uk, meaning that my journey gets 20mins quicker. Actually, no. That's a lie. Because of the stupid b*stards elsewhere, connection times have not changed, and in cases have become allot worse, so whilst passengers to Bruxelles or Paris get a shorter trip, I don't. Moving on.

But because of how things worked out , I actually ended up on the first public train out of the new St. Pancras International.

First a word about Waterloo. At a rough guess, i have made about 200 journeys on Eurostar over the years, and whilst it is not and never has been my favourite place, it has always done it's job reasonably well. And Eurostar do have a sense of humour, however. The very last train to leave the old station was the 1812 from Waterloo...

Initial impressions of St. Pancras are very good. The old train shed has been completely rebuilt and looks stunning. At platform level, all is good. We watched as the band played, the first special Bruxelles and Paris trains left with all their VIPs, admired the scenery. Lots of people, unsurprisingly, were out and about, but it wasn't bad at all. Having said that, almost all the retail outlets and cafes are still some way short of opening, and their much vaunted “longest champagne bar in Europe” is definitely a bit of a swindle, as the bar itself is fairly small and square shaped, it's just the seating which is a long line.

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The champagne bar, marketed as Europe's longest, and (below) the band plays.

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After the ceremonies were finished, the special trains had left, the band had stopped playing and i'd been interviewed for the umpteenth time (wandering around with lots of luggage quickly marked me out as a traveller, not a curious bystander or VIP) it was time for the real business to begin. How the heck do i get on this train??

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Above: Some of the assembled masses await the first train's arrival, and a view from further back showing where the retail units and check in areas dug into the old cellars will be under the tracks

Check in was ok, but not without hassles. All of the automatic ticket barriers had failed, meaning manual check in only. Half the check in desks were also closed, some of the doors from there into security weren't opening, and the check in staff were all having to wear gloves and thick coats as it was flippin freezing! Amazingly for me, X-ray and security caused absolutely no problem and immigration ditto, though they have added a second passport control (UK and France, instead of just France).

Then there was the waiting area, and i must admit to being very disappointed. Whilst free newspapers (no idea if this will last, and, bizarrely, offering a dozen foreign papers and every conceivable English paper with the exception of the Times) and – admittedly fairly foul - bottled yoghurt drinks were a bonus, all 3 retail outlets and cafe's etc were shut, and only one of which looks like it might be ready anytime soon. Call me fussy, but when you have spent 6billion pounds and request passengers to check in at least 40mins before departure, I'm not impressed that it wasn't possible to get hold of simple things like tap/bottled water and a coffee on opening day. There were signs outside the check in, but they weren't that obvious and most people seemed surprised to discover inside that they couldn't get a nice cup of tea. The number of outlets is significantly less than in Waterloo (where there were news agents, Bureau d'exchange, a bar, a cafe – both with their own seating - sandwich shop, and souvenir places), and only one of them looks (by sneaking a look through a hole in the current wooden covering) like it will have any space at all.

Whilst I accept St. Pancras has space constraints, i think they could (and should have manged what they had a bit better). The total number of seats seems to be less, if slightly better spaced out, though the fact that the whole of the bottom is open makes it look bigger than Waterloo was. And half of the seats which have been installed are backless things which look pretty, but aren't good to sit on, and are also in one long chain, meaning that you can't cross it half way down as would have made sense.
And because of where the travelators up to the platforms are now located, both entrances are opposite each other in the central area which means that when trains start to board, there is a huge mass of people right in the centre of the concourse getting in their own and everybody else's way. I had also watched the first passengers arrive before checking in, and though I haven't arrived there myself yet, there were queues as people tried to get out into a fairly small area

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Once checked in, seating is in shorter supply than at Waterloo, and was fast filling up even with check in barely open. The black curtained off at the back is presumably where the bar will end up.

There are only one set of toilets instead of two, which though having roughly the same total number of of toilets, cover the same size as one of waterloo's two. This basically means it is much more squashed, and cubicles etc have got smaller and with inwards opening doors, meaning if you have much luggage, it is now a right pain to take them to the toilet with you (which if you are travelling alone and don't want your luggage blown up as a security risk, you have to take with you). And i managed to break a toilet.

Business Premier passengers seem to have come off worse of all, with the old Business lounge replaced by a couple of sofa type seats shoved in the same area as everyone else and lacking a bar, though it is possible that there is one that is still to be opened. Yes, they may expect you to do you waiting and refreshing etc outside, but with check in times, you can't exactly come through 5mins before departure as per the old lounges. And there was no Wi-Fi anywhere.

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Paying the vast extra free for Business Premier tickets currently gets you to pick a newspaper and bag with a few small goodies off this conference table. A far cry from the old Business Premier lounge

One nice new feature was a bank of stools and desks with power points, both UK and European, for laptop users, but that seemed to be the only new addition, which compared to the losses is not a huge gain....

And, typically, the French were on strike anyway, meaning no connections in Lille or Paris!

Honestly, whilst it looks pretty, practically I'm dissapointed as it is a huge step backwards in terms of facilities, and passengers connecting to services in Europe don't even get the benefit of faster door to door times. Yes, it was first day. I entered 20mins after the first check in opened, so i accept that there will be teething troubles and some things won't be ready. The problem is that more seemed unready than ready, and some of the major problems – lack of store, cafe and seating space seem unlikely to be fixable due to the layout of the building.

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The famous old clock has been restored, and this new sculpture has been installed as a new focal point

Onboard, I quickly joined the queue at the bar car for a coffee I'd been gagging for for ages, to discover large quantities of free champagne being dispersed in the bar car. No announcements were made about this at all, and I also doubt that this will last, but it was a nice touch and for those of us that found out about it, well appreciated. We shot through the new tunnel, passed through the opening of Stratford Int'l station (not to open until Olympic work completed in a couple of years), and then the second tunnel coming out into the open through Dagenham Dock, and at an impressive speed. The line has been impressively threaded between roads on a dipping bridge to get past the M25 at the Dartford Crossing, and then we shoot into another tunnel under the Thames, past Ebbsfleet (a new station due to open a week later, and which is basically a huuuuuuuge car park) and then onto the previously opened section of fast line, all at near full speed and a marked contrast to the old crawl through South East London. That, at least, has been very well done.

Talking to people both whilst waiting and in the bar car, and overhearing conversations, it was obvious whilst there were a handful of randoms who just happened to have booked a ticket without having any idea of what was going on (some of whom didn't realise until they arrived at the station), most people fell more or less entirely into two groups. A good 60-70% were people out simply because it was the first day. Many had come from the Midlands or Northern England taking advantage of new faster connections. They were generally older travellers, most of whom had never used Eurostar before – thus had nothing to measure it against – and all of whom were hugely impressed at the whole experience. The rest of us were more regular travellers, for whom the new station was a nice diversion, and who were more interested in the practicalities of the station than the “wow” factor. And whilst we were happy at the journey times being cut, it was noticeable that we were almost entirely dissapointed by St. Pancras, much to the interest of other passengers.

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Our train awaits to depart, with the new shed extension in the background and the rebuilt old domed roof, the largest such structure in the world clearly visable

I'll finish on a random aside – I had cunningly managed to travel on a day when SNCF were on strike, and with DB (German Railways) striking the following day. Thus, being on a night train going from France to Germany was possibly the worst place i could be. After a lovely evening and meal with some CSers, I left Bruxelles over an hour late, amid chaos, got kicked off (Hamburg portion only) in Dortmund in the freezing cold at 4am, had to wait 45mins before continuing on a train with only normal seats. I thus arrived in Hamburg about 2hr 30 late, and with no connection anyway, somehow managed to hitch my way with a friendly Danish lorry driver as far as the ferry at Puttgarden, went over as a foot passenger, and then hitched again to Nykobing F, and finally rolled home a good 6hours later than expected. Why do they have to make everything so bl**dy difficult?!

In summary, It was first day, so we'll give them the benefit of the doubt at this point. There was a definite wow factor at St. Pancras, and the journey time savings and new line are very good, but they rapidly need to sort out teething problems at St. Pancras and get it fully up and running if it is to truly help and enhance the service.

Oh yes, and I am now back living in Sweden. For how long is anybody's guess.

Posted by Gelli 13:34 Archived in England Tagged train_travel Comments (2)

The end is in sight. What can possibly go wrong?

Please dear god. Never again. Day way too many: Chateauneuf de Pape - Cassis and somehow back to Sweden

-17 °C
View TK Cycle - Day 6 & TK Cycle - End on Gelli's travel map.

Distance - 14.51miles (23.3 km).
Distance cycled by the people who didn't wimp out after said 14.51miles - 90.23miles (144.36 km)
Max Speed - On the bike, not very much. In the van, more than was legal

I really shouldn't have. I know. So did everybody else. But even though I said so, nobody believed it. By now, I had form. For reasons that have nothing to do with logic or common sense, and lots to do with me being a suborn moron, I decided to cycle. It was the final day and I just couldn't not ride. I knew that I wouldn't last the whole day, so said beforehand that i would cycle the first half and then drive into the finish. But by now, everybody was used to me saying that i would just go a bit and see how far it made it, and subsequently cycling a whole day.

I knew that I shouldn't have started, but I just had to. Besides. We were heading to Cassis, on the coast. And were at several hundred metres. Surely, therefore, it was just a case of a nice leisurely roll down to the coast? In addition to that, Göran and Torbe had left early that morning to catch their flight back, so we were down 2 of the fast guys. Easy!

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But none of that made any difference. Within 5km, I knew that it was going to be a hard day. I spent the the sitting at the back, struggling to keep up with a not particularly fast pace and in pain. For the first real time, I was in significantly more pain on a bike than off it. Another few km and I barely made over up a road bridge without collapsing in pain, and I knew that I wasn't in for a good day.
Lunch was looking like a significant stretch of suffering and any vague lingering plans I had to cycle the whole way were eztinguished. Shortly afterwards we hit a section of roadworks. The road surface had been stripped and for maybe 1500metres we went over a bouncy, pot-holed unsurfaced painfest and I finally admitted to myself that I was being a stuborn arsehole, and with a brief comment, let the others disappear for good.

Each day we had been given a small route list of towns/villages and distance. When they had been put together, spelling hadn't been highest on the list of priorities, and so some of them had come out slightly strange. Showing itself to be roughly 10km ahead was somewhere written as "La Tour". It seemed a fitting end, and i thus phoned the support van for collection, and slowly and one leggedly rolled into La Thor.

My cycling efforts were over.

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La Thor is actually quite a nice little town if you aren't a half dead crippled ex-cyclist. I never want to see this bike (below) again

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Though I didn't realise it, the easy part of the day was over. The real fun was just beginning.

A coffee later and Emil picked me up, and off we then headed off to try and catch the peloton. It wasn't long afterwards that we managed to drive straight into a speed trap and get stopped by the police. Have you ever been stopped by the police when in a rental van full of lots of peoples stuff and without having any idea where the heck the papers are?

If not, I can highly recommend it. Especially when your French is less than fluent and their English is nil.
On the plus point, we managed to escape without any financial settlement, due in part to the French police's bizarre insistence on being paid with a cheque. They would not accept cash or credit card, only a cheque. Even in the UK where cheques are still reasonably common, few people actually carry a cheque book around with them, yet in Sweden they have been obsolete for donkeys years. Somehow we managed to convey that. And headed on our way.

I sat glumly watching as we headed along almost entirely perfectly paved and gentle downhill (with, naturally, the wind behind us) roads for the next hour or so, cursing my knee's inability to manage a simple road bridge, when i could have spent the next couple of hours one legged and still surviving due to the wonders of this gravity thing that I've started to hear about.

Inventions these days never cease to amaze me.

It was after lunch that I started to regret, well, only having one leg. With everybody else happily on their bikes on the way to the bar (or coats, same thing), within 2km of heading off, I made the interesting discovery that flashing red lights on the fuel gauge aren't always conducive to forward motion. In the most amazing and unlikely piece of luck I've had in years, i half spluttered around a corner, and rolled down the slope into a wonderfully obliging petrol station. 200Metres further or less of a slope, and I'd have been pushing.

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Some of you may recall that on Day 3, somebody had decided to liberate the GPS from our van, leaving us one window down. Thus, an hour or so later, after a pit stop with the guys, I then headed off to try and find a specific glass shop. After a couple of strange slingshots, I managed to get onto the motorway, and made it to the Airport, which was my sole point of reference. I picked a hotel at random, and found a lovely and amazingly helpful English speaking old lady who old me that it was easy but really difficult to find, and gave me instructions. It was perfect until the last 300m. It then took me a good 45mins of wandering in dispair around Marignane getting helplessly lost. I was finally put on track, to discover that I had been within 100m of the damned place on probably 6 different occassions. Yay.

The first issues to be confronted were that (a) they apparently weren’t expecting a Swedish van to appear and (b) Nobody spoke anything other than French. Oddly enough, It wasn’t just me that was having a problem with that – every other customer in the place was foreign, and thus using an entirely not understandable mixture of English, Spanish, German, Swedish, Italian and French we somehow all managed to help each other out and get our problems understood. Or, at least, we hoped so.

I then had 45mins or so to kill, so did what everey normal person would do in the same situation and went and sat in a bit of scrubland, eating a baguette and watching old people play boulles whilst Air France jets and assorted helicopters (Eurocopter are made here) passed overhead on route to Marseille airport. Magically, when I returned, the window had been fixed, and I received the keys back for the correct vehicle. More curiously, despite fully expecting and having been told to beforehand, they refused payment from me, saying it had been paid pre by a “Swedish card”. To this day, I have no idea who paid for the window.

I finally I had a window. Surely it had to be easy from here?

Whilst waiting, I had also done a little pre-planning, having suddenly realised that it I would be leaving in late afternoon on a Friday (with a long weekend coming) in rush hour traffic and that my shortest route involved ploughing right through the centre of Marseille, something that didn’t necessarily appeal to me greatly. And in trying to be clever, I plotted a different route and inadvertently dumped myself into a whole lot of new problems. And this tim, there wasn't a pschotic Japanes girl anywhere to be seen.

I won’t bore you with details [though I will note that there were a large number of stunning Mediterranean beauties wandering around in Mini’s], but suffice to say that as well as the discovery that nobody in France on a Friday afternoon cares in the slightest about speed limits (at times i was going 20 or 30kmh over the limit of 110 or 130 [it varied] on motorways and barely keeping up with articulated lorries, let alone the rest of the traffic) i got caught up in delays due to several accidents, 2 motorway closures, numerous traffic jams a second police stop of the day (they seemed to be stopping only foreign vehicles, and whilst were perfectly pleasant about it all and spoke good English, they empted the van entirely -over the motorway – and went through things thoroughly. And then said, “ok, you can go” without helping me put anything back) and finished by a wildly unhelpful diversion over a mountain half way to Toulon.

Finally, several hours later than anybody expected, and a good 4hours or so after everybody else had arrived, I crawled into Cassis, and with unexpected luck and a strange symmetry (I had started the trip driving as well), I finally rolled up to the hotel. Happy to have somehow survived the whole way, and also to have ridden as much as I did, although it would have been great to have been able to do a bit more. Of the 13cyclists, only B-G had cycled every km.

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Cassis. End of the line, kind of. The castle and bits of the harbour, what would have been a more relaxing way to arrive and (bottom) the whole reason we had done this.

After all that, it might have been time for a well earned celebration dinner and the odd glass of local wine (and maybe a dozen or so beers). The following day, after a bit of touristy stuff, and, inevitably, watching the cycling in a bar in Marseille, it was just time to go home. For everybody else, it was an early flight on Sunday. For me, it was a multi-purpose week long journey via Nice, Milano, Zurich (for the same reasons as why I went that way to Paris), Belgrade, Bucuresti, the staggeringly inevitable Sopron, Wien, Nurnberg, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford and London due to a mixture of stupid Americans, problem solving, work, catching up with friends and people getting married, before the finally the normal trek back to Sweden.

Plans are already being formulated for next year’s trip. Thus, I fear that you may be hearing more of my complaints soon.

For now, I’m going to go and lie through my teeth to my surgeon and try in the hope of convincing him that I have not been on a bike (I did promise, after all), but that I have a current slight pain, and maybe he can help me out?

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

Posted by Gelli 03:59 Archived in France Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

What a stupid place to leave a bl**dy mountain!

Day 5: The Trials and Tribulations of climbing Mt Ventoux


View TK Cycle - Day 6 & TK Cycle - Day 5 on Gelli's travel map.

Distance - 74.8miles (120 km)
Max speed - 42.6 mph (68.1kmh)

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"PUT me back on my bike" said Tom Simpson*. 500metres later, and barely a kilometre from the summit, he collapsed - still holding his handlebars - for second and final time. Despite the best efforts of medical personel, he was dead before the air ambulance arrived came to try and help him. Evidence of alcohol and Amphetamines, frequently used by cyclists in the 50's and 60's tohelp them get through long grueling days, were found. It was the 13th stage of the 1967 Tour de France, and Tom was heading for the summit of Mt Ventoux .

Less than 2 years earlier, Tom Simpson had become the first (and so far only) British world cycling road champion, and as well as winning Olympic and Commonwealth medals he had also won a number of one day classics, including 3 of the 5 monuments in our sport. Thats a number which outscores all otehr British cyclists combined, by 3-0. For a cyclist to die in any race is both tragic and rare, but for a big name to die on a major mountain in the Tour de France (only two riders had previously died during the Tour de France, one of whom had drowned on a rest day swim. A fourth, Fabio Casartelli, sadly died in 1995), the worlds most prestigious cycling race, was a huge loss.

Thus, Tom's death raised Mt. Ventoux from already legendary status, to that of mythical. Of other mountains, only L'Alpe d'Huez comes close to Mt. Ventoux for what it means to cyclists, and because of Tom's sad death, it has long been a place of pilgrimage, and a memorial has long existed at the spot where he died. On a daily basis, thousands of cyclists spend hours trying to work out why it seemed a good idea beforehand, whilst struggling to cycle to the top.

Even by standards of mountains used in professional cycling, Mt. Ventoux is evil. An extinct volcano, the "classic" route from Bedoiun is roughly 22km long and rises some 1600m+, with the last 16km rise at an average gradient of over 10%. Even including the relatively easy lower slopes, the total 22km averages an incline of over 7.5%. In addition, the last 7km or so are above the tree-line, and entirely exposed both to the normally fearsome heat and supreme wind. Summit winds of over 250km/h are not uncommon, and over 300 have been recorded more than once. It's a fearsome place.

Mt. Ventoux stands alone. There are no mountain's of a similar size anywhere around, meaning that it is both obvious, and viewable from a long way off. We had first seen it - and seen it properly - on scaling the second 300m pass of the previous day, with the mountain some 60km+ away. Even from such a distance, in the clear sunny sky, it looked an evil and foreboding sight.

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Mt. Ventoux, taken the previous day, from a distance. It's a happy photo becasue i'm not climbing up the damned thing

I should probably note here that this long and rambling. Quit now and go and do something interesting and less painful, such as watching paint dry, or using tweezers to pluck your eyebrows.

I'm sure by now, some of you have realised that i'm not just giving you a history lesson for the fun of it. For reasons unknown, a day ride over M. Ventoux had been added to the trip's schedule early on. We aren't going anywhere. Just to the mountain and back. Our total progress is 0km, yet still we're going. I have been up the mountain in the past, and thus more than anybody else involved, had some idea of what was to come. I was hoping to convince them that it wasn't worth it. I tried bribery.

I even threatened to get Kiki involved. It didn't work.

Thus it was that on a depressingly grey day, we set out from Chateauneuf for the mountain. Actually, thats not even true. It had been designed as a day trip from our Chateauneuf base, and meaning that it was at least vaguely optional. As such, two of our motley 13 had declined to even consider the effort, and pulled out the day beforehand, in order to offer their services as support in the van. A third decided to quit that morning, whilst a fourth cheated slightly by getting a lift to the start in the van. Two more, feeling slightly panicked, switched from their normal bikes to the two bikes from the drop outs, in search of ever lower gears and some kind of salvation.

For the 9 of us that started off by bike, the ride to the start was almost the hardest part. Only 25miles, but 25miles which had me in deep trouble, and with a deep feeling of foreboding. We could see the mountain for virtually our entire trip there. Or, rather, we could see all of the mountain that was visable on our trip over. The top 3rd or so was well covered in a fairly grim and thick looking layer of low misty clouds.

This was going to hurt, and would be unpleasant into the bargain.

The previous evening, over a couple of wonderful, if not exactly Tesco value range, bottles of wine, we had come up with the idea of handicapping. Even on small climbs, as a group we had tended to split up dramatically, and gaps of many minutes were not uncommon. Thus, the idea was to start with the slowest person off first, and quickest last, with the rough idea that we would all arrive at the summit together. That way, as well as suffering like crazed wombats all day, we could suffer like crazed wombats in a kind of race.

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Entering Bedoiun, the town at the base of the mountain

The Kaizer was to set off first, a minute from Frederik, whilst our former Swedish champ Goran was given an hour and Hasse would be last to start, a full 90minutes after the Kazier. I was plopped in at 45mins alongside Emil - the only two to start together - just ahead of B-G and behind Torbe, in what would probably have been reasonably fair if I hadn't been struggling to stand unaided, let alone walk. The idea being that I would take roughly 2hrs 15 to scale the mountain, Hasse 90minutes and the Kazier about 3hours.

Thus, after cheering off the Kaizer and Frederik, then going for a coffee, then cheering off Christer, Mats and Torbjorn, refilling my bottles, leaving my helmet in the van, uttering an oath at the realisation that i had no bananas, putting in my MP3 player and converting to all known religions at once, in search of divine anything (except Brown), it was time to go.

The first 3 or 4 km are reasonably easy, the next 2 or 3 OK. Actually, that's a lie, but it serves it's purpose. In fact there is even a very slight downhill section at one point. But then, it starts to go uphill with increasing rapidity, then suddenly, brutally. Even on the relatively shallow first parts (5% or so), I was passing cyclists really struggling. Some of them would be taking 4 or 5hours + to reach the top, if, in fact, they ever did.

The MP3 player in question is not the famous one from a previous blog, but a newer smaller one. But it did seem to share the same wicked humour as it's bigger brother. I realised this just as i turned the hairpin corner which more or less launches into the evil 15km or so section, and was instantly treated to a French song called "La Precipice". I didn't even know I owned such a song, let alone where it had come from. I also had the almost inevitable "Misty Mountain Hop", "up where we belong" and "Baby I love your way [sung by Big Mountain]" amongst any others.

There are certain good things about Mt. Ventoux from a cyclists point of view, if you can call anything that you have to suffer for 2hours and 12% inclines on "good". The first of these is that whilst there is a road over the top and down the other side, the climb doesn't actually go anywhere useful. It's not a major mountain pass, thus there is very little vehicular traffic. In addition, what traffic there is, 90% of it is Dutch, Belgian and German cycle fans or families of cyclists along to watch their loved ones suffer and offer support. Thus, there was a constant smattering of people to cheer you along, offer you water, laugh at you, or at the very least, not mow you down in their cars as they pass. And of course, lots of other cyclists both struggling up, or relieved to be coming back down. The other bonus is that because of it's status as both a major cycling pilgramage site and regular feature in races, the French keep the surface more or less perfect. You can (and do) complain and swear about many things on your asscent, but the smooth tarmac surface can't really be amongst them.

From that first hairpin, the climb twists steeply up through the trees. It's windy enough that you never have more than maybe 300m of road heading up in your sight, but that's a small bonus. After about 8km or so, i was forced to stop for a nature break, during which Emil, who had been roughly 200m behind me since about the 500m mark, passed me, not to be seen again until the summit. From then, I was in real trouble. The following 5km or so, at 9-12%, were by far the worst for me. My Knee was not happy, and mean't I was forced to stop roughly every km to rest for a minute or so (when i also tried to eat and drink), just so i had a little less pain. With about 9km to go, and having just caught Christer for 15minutes, i took a rest stop at the van for a few minutes and to spray my knee with evil stuff, which helped greatly (and during which time, a boy of maybe 14 shot past us at maybe 3times the speed I had been struggling up at, and with an entire chain ring of lower gears still to go)

A kilometre or so later, and I was past Chalet Reynard, and rapidly - well, not rapidly, but in a short distance - entered thick layers of fog, with which came both drizzle and a sharp drop in temperature. In some respects, the weather was actually not bad for climbing. I was sweating like a pig and hot enough anyway, and the fog and rain removed two of the normal major problems of the upper sections of Ventoux - namely the fearsome sun and temperatures, plus the fact that because it is entirely barren that high, you can see exactly where you have to go, which can be somewhat soul destroying. With things as it were, at most you had glimpses of road 100m ahead (and, admittedly, 15 or 20m up) but never got to see the scope of the remainder of the climb.

In the closing kilometres, the French have helpfully put up posts along the road with a decreasing number of metres still to climb on them, allowing you to have some useful scale of your progress or lack of. It is actually a very useful pscyhological aid, as realising that you only have 200m to climb can be a godsend. Having said that, whichever b*stard thought it funny to put a 80m advance in them (310, 300, 290, 370, 360, What the ****?!) is not, shall we say, going to be on my Christmas Card list this year.

Mt Ventoux is probably the only hill i have ever climbed on my - or anybody else's, for that matter - bicycle where I have actually been truly happy to see a sign saying "next 1000m, 8.1% gradient". That is still monstrously steep, but after several kilometres of steeper stuff, almost makes it feel like you are going downhill.

With just a few km remaining, i suddenly started catching people at regular intervals - Torbe, Frederik, the Kaizer. And then we came to Tom's memorial. Most people don't stop, simply because they can't face then having to get back on the bike and continue climbing, but despite the cold wet fog and patches of snow on the ground, I had to pay my respects. Leaving the bike, and limping up the 5m or so to Tom's memorial, just to look, remember and pay my respects. The effort almost crippled me. From a physical point of view it wasn't a clever idea [though it certainly wasn't as stupid as deciding to climb the damned mountain in the first place], but I just had to do it.

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Torbe at Tom Simpson's memorial. Rest in peace, Tom

I remounted, spurred on by the knowledge that it wasn't far to go now, and that I might actually somehow make it. By the top, visability was 3 or 4 metres at most, and the last 100m (which only Hasse and I had known about beforehand) are not fun. You think you have reached the summit, and then suddenly you round an evil hairpin, straight into a roughly 20% section, from which the wind is blasting straight down into your face, and slowing you down below walking pace [and in many cases, off bikes and actually walking].

But, somehow, I had made it, and I more or less fell into the side of the van at the top in celebration/exhaustion.

Surprisingly, our handicapping had worked out reasonably well, and we all arrived inside about a 15minute window of each other. I came in about 2minutes under my predicted handicap time, good enough for both 4th to the summit and 4th fastest. Emil had come up first, ahead of B-G and Mats P. The Kazier made it in 3hr 2, and Hasse, although not seeing any of us on the way up at all, in 1h 35. Göran had pulled out and been collected by the van after about 15km, struggling too much with the conditions.

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The Kaizer drying off, and with Hasse on top of Mt. Ventoux. Feck me, i made it!

From there, it was but an easy ride home. In theory. Though I had been clever enough to chuck all my extra clothing into the van, which I enthusiastically chucked on as fast as my frostbitten and shaking hands would allow, i still had to get down again. And there were still no bananas.

My clear glasses, planned as a cunning aid to help me decend were useless - There was just too much mist and rain and they fooged up. We were then swiftly treated to freezing hail stones, meaning my visability changed from about 4metres to maybe 1. Thus, at as slow a speed as possible when you are in a really hurry to get somewhere - anywhere - else, reduced to using one squinting eye and only one leg, and with gravity enthusiastially doing what it does best, the few idiots of us stupid enough to try and ride off the mountain (some decided that a van ride made much more sense) we made our way slowly off the mountain. Frederik, someway behind, punctured on the way down.

But in the end, 6 of us ended up back in Bedoiun, shivering like hell and trying to hold whiskey and hot coffee cups enough to enable them to be drunk from, whilst awaiting the van. In typical events, a slight misunderstanding meant that the remaining riders then left without us, leaving B-G and myself to cycle the 25miles back to base alone, an event which got increasingly miserable (due to the increased need for more food and less clothing to be worn, amongst other insignificant things like pain) and involved us getting slightly lost twice into the bargain, before my knee finally gave out for good about 3km from home. For the third consecutive day, i trailed in last, alone and one legged and in slight pain...

I plan to ride half of tomorrow, but at the moment, that seems unlikely.

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Waiting for a pizza, reward for a hard days cycle and a way of avoiding the flippin' huge thunderstorm going on outside

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Iban Mayo, a Spanish professional and mountain goat, holds the record with an ascent a shade under 56minutes. I was more than double that, at 2hrs 11 (though i'd guess my actual climbing time, as opposed to resting time, was probably about 1.55-2hrs), but I had conquered the mountain, without any illegal drugs [we'd tried hard to find the before we started, but had failed...] and that was more than good enough for me.

  • Actually, he never said that. The words were made up by a journalist who wasn't actually there, but they certainly encompased his feelings at the time and have gone down in legend, if not truth, as his final words.

START IDEAL 14,8KM TOP TIME PLACE
KAIZER 12:00 3:00 1:52 15:02 3:02 (-2) 8
FREDRIK 12:01 2:59 1:56 (1:55) 15:00 2:59 (+1) 6
CHRISTER 12:30 2:30 2:08 (1:38) 15:01 2:31 (+1) 7
MATS P 12:35 2:25 2:02 (1:27) 14:49 2:14 (-11) 2
TORBE 12:40 2:20 2:06 (1:26) 14:58 2:18 (-2) 5
RICH 12:45 2:15 2:07 (1:23) 14:56 2:11 (-4) 4
EMIL 12:45 2:15 2:04 (1:19) 14:43 1:58 (-17) 1
BG 12:50 2:10 2:07 (1:13) 14:49 1:59 (-11) 2
GÖRAN 13:00 2:00 2:31 (1:31) - - - DNF
HANS J 13:30 1:30 2:32 (1:02) 15:05 1:35 (+5) 9

Posted by Gelli 03:53 Archived in France Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

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