Thursday 16 July 2009

Tour de France 2009 - Day 4 - Le Tour en Espana

As previously said, we were on our way to Catalan country. This is not quite true, we were coming from Catalan and going to Catalunya. One's in France the other is Spain. Now, a fair amount of French Catalans don't like speaking French, but an awful lot more Spanish Catalunyans passionately hate Spanish. So, my communication ability resorted to the old point and shout paucity.

After a couple of hours of Autoroute/Autopista we found our little turn up into the low mountains where a category 3 climb would proof an interesting watching point. A parking spot appeared 50m from the summit and we duely found our roadside place about 20m from the top.

Now came the defending. Standing or sitting on the exact roadside about 4 foot apart with bags between to discourage anyone from getting in front, behind, or above. It vaguely worked. We got to work writing "FSC" and "CAV" in big yellow letters in the Livestrong chalk we'd got given in Perpignan. Duely proud of our work, consideration made for where the cyclists would go to give us best coverage, we sat back to defend yet further.

The publicity caravan was as exciting as always, bar the amount of really pushy kids and even adults around. Ed used his height to beat the local Catalunyans and I was just a little more guileful than others, standing a bit further back were a lot more of the tat ended up. I should be able to cover a number of children's heads this summer camp. As always it's "pour les enfants", another guileful way.

Then, the wierdest thing of the day, getting interviewed. Yes, a TV crew came along, and suddenly started asking questions. I think the overhead our English and, being
American, thought that this would save on the translators afterwards. It was for an American documentary and as soon as Ed said he was now in Pittsburgh the camera shot to him. I was out of it. After a couple of attempts to jump in I left it. Back to me musings on my own. They kept on about drugs in cycling, so I was slightly relieved to not be really pushed. Ed was giving a very balanced response, which probably wasn't what they wanted.

Suddenly they turned back to me and started asking about Tommy Simpson. It was quite overbearing but I found a voice and gave over the "cycling is the hardest sport", "drugs were rife in the early days", and "it's getting better with every cheat they catch".

Interview over, they got us to sign "Talent waivers". Yes, we are officially "Talent". Of course, the chances of me ever seeing the documentary made is very unlikely, giving the joy of obscurity straight away. I feel slightly hollow, that moment of fame disappearing steadily with each passing moment. Of course, if any of you plebs ever want to talk to me again you'll have to go through my agent.

We got the news that David Millar was in a breakaway with a couple of other riders. So, with each passing helicopter and police bike we jacked our heartbeat and enthusiasm into the stratosphere. Next us sprung up a Scot with the cross of St Andrew who lived a matter of minutes away. Funny, never saw him or the flag before.

At last the front three came past. Shouting and screaming abounded and photos of legs and blurred frames. Of course everyone was all over the road, including over our lovely yellow chalk signs. Sigh. Artistic work is never appreciated when there's a Pro cyclist in spitting distance.

the joy of the first three was quickly followed by the joy of the peleton with Astana to the fore. That breakaway wasn't going to make it. Clearly yesterday was a reminder to everyone that they can't leave things to late when it comes to the final chase down.

It was the usual scrum trying to get out again. Cars were blocking everyone in, and the hunt for the flourescent Tour de France arrows crept into our thoughts. First ones were missing, but furher down the hill a "Stop! Arrow!" got Ed's attention. Arrow duely collected, we calmed down and settled back into our return journey. Until "Stop! Arrow!" came up again. We had one for Ed. And finally "Stop! Roundabout arrow!" and we had the full set.

Tomorrow is my last day in France. I may report about Cathar castles or not depending on the whim of the moment. Either way "bon chance"!

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Tour de France 2009 - Day 3 - Le Tour, Cyclism!

So, I missed your vital update last night or this morning depending on how you take your nights. Here's the cycle-dominated run down of the day.

We got into Perpignan fine mainly as we were so early. We got into a car park that was round the corner from the finish. Not all were welcomed. There was a nice taped up home written sign suggesting that "Armstong go home, you're place is not in the peleton".

A bit of wondering around found all the usual people, kiosks, and vans. We found the main concession stand and just had to buy green the jersey. That way I can shout at our boy in green "I've bought it so you can win it".

We had lunch in a nice cafe then straight back to the race. We'd eyed up a place earlier that was in the shade and only 175m from the finish line. It's the place where the sprinters finally get going on their own. People were now there, but we muscled in easily enough. Small children and old ladies are quite easy to move.

We waited for hours, constantly being shifted and shifting the crowd that started gathering around. Numb feet, legs, and arms are all part of the scene. The news kept being broadcast on French radio, which actually wasn't to follow. Eventually it seemed that little Tommy Voerkler was going to make good an escape, something he usually messes up. The French love him. He's pretty much the only French guy that does anything, so good luck to him.

He cheekily appeared round the corner with 300m to go. The look of disbelieve on his face was palpable. He was going to make it. Then 2 others appeared, pedalling for all there life. And why became very apparent. A swarm of bikes filling the whole road, more like a giant wave about to break over the beach. The two out front looked very frightened and one got swallowed up as Cavendish won the sprint for the line after Voerkler and Ignatiev fell over the line from their breakaway.

I cannot emphasis the sheer scale and speed of the peleton during the final sprint. It was awesome. If anyone has seen any crashes of this bit you'll know the utter chaos that ensues.

After walking round the finish area in slight bewilderment and seemingly walking miles round to avoid blockages we found ourselves walking through the team buses.
Said "Hello" & "Well done" to David Millar who gave a slightly bemused look then found Eric Zabel chatting away outside the Colombia bus. No sign of the Manx Rocket of course (Mark Cavendish for the unintiated).

It was really late when the evening was done, hence the lack of update. Also, I was slightly overrun with all the fun of the day, and the sheer effort of standing around fighting the crowd to maintain one's spot.

Today's stage is in the heart of Catalan country. So, as I was trying to say yesterday night and in my best local dialect I'll say "bom nit".

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Tour de France 2009 - Day 2 - Le Tour, Without the Waiting

After a night in a bed, yes, a bed, the joy of getting up and wandering to the kitchen to get eggs, bacon, coffee, and orange juice, so so French, hmmm. Bacon was from a farm near Peterborough and bought at the farm outlet in Cambridge. Orange was bought in Barcelona, and so was everything else.

Ed and I got the bikes out from their downstairs storage and fiddled with them knowledgeably, yeah right. Mostly dealing flat tyres wouldn't seem bad until you find out that Ed's grandfather had a bike shop and the inner tubes were from it. The valves where unknown to modern science, possibly Victorian.

Ed rigged up something that seemed to work, but it require both of us involved in a series of body positions I last did whilst playing Twister. After that it was just a question of fiddling with gears, brakes, saddle heights, and the sheer level of dust on them. So, a couple of hours after starting we were tired, sweaty and about to start the ride.

We headed up valley along the back roads from our sleepy village. My legs were so excited about being got out for a little exercise they were jumping around like suitably wound-up puppies. This was hard for all to take as I seemed to disappear into the distance all the time. Judicious photo opportunities allowed me to save face.

We soon transferred to an old railway track that snaked along the valley with stupendous bridges. these were mostly metal based full of little holes where you could just make out a raging torrent 30 to 50 metres below. After a while we were off the old track, with the same level fo signage as we got to begin with, that is none.

A rather unedifying main road took us on to Amelie-les-Bains and across the river Tech again and back to Palalda.

Palalda was very pretty and full of single lane streets with 3 storey houses and 1 in 3 gradients. We found the "Sports" cafe down this dark street and ventured in for some refreshment. As soon as we passed the bar the panoramic view of the whole valley opened up through large windows at the other end. The 1 in 3 slop guarenteeing a lack fo any houses the other side of any road.

The cafe boasted a rather noncholant cat that just said "quoi?" with a look to all entreaties and advances we lovingly made. I swear that if it had struck up a Gauloise I really would not have been surprised.

The light refreshment consisted of Croc Monsieur and a glass of a new local beer called Cap d'Ona. It was rich, malty, and full of flavour, much like a good Broadside, but with a texture that was unmistakeably lager. This is where British lager gets it so wrong. It has no flavour, just fizzy pop with alcohol added. Alcopops are a least honest about their origins. Only later we discovered that the beer was fortified with a local wine called Banyuls, ahem.

Thus fortified, we were encouraged us to venture back along this side of the valley headed back out this time up to a good height of 340m. Then back down to 200m along a fast twisting, technical descent. I was in 7th heaven, going 25-40mph for 2miles. Sliding from one side of the bike to the other, judiciously applying brakes and pedalling madly to make the bottom. Nearly came off once but that just got the heart pumping. It always happens just after you've make the corner and trying to speed up without concentrating on the road. Suddenly you've drifted into the grass and gravel on the road edge and have to gently push yourself back onto the tarmac. A few hairaising moments where you visualize the trip down off the roadside into the tree branches around. It wouldn't be severe but would be very embarrassing.

At the bottom I waited. And waited. In that short distance I'd gained 4 minutes out of others. This is cycling parlance for being described as a demon descender. I'm sure there are plenty of good amateurs and all the pros that would completely wipe the floor with me, but I yet to find any that'll do it on a bike they don't know.

Erica had had enough of cycling by now but was happy for Ed and I to extend our rise with a short excursion further up the mountains. We said goodbye leaving her on a familiar road not too far from home, and scanned the hillside for the obvious track. Well, it was very obvious on the map but consisted of a overgrown field in reality. Oh, the reminders of west Wales. After going round, we found the other end of the overgrown field and concluded the road route really wasn't that bad even if it was 3 times as long.

our loop was only meant to take us to 250m up again, but by some bad mapreading and fairly unpenetreable "interdit" signs we ended up on a 410m loop. Just as I was about to break, Ed stopped and said "I'm pooped but you go on". I was able to drop pace but still push on. Ed caught back up after a while, only to "poop" again leaving me on my own to the summit as King of the Mountains.

The hamlet at the top wasn't stunning but could at least fit the French "jolie". We enjoyed being up in the middle of nowhere as much as it was a ride in itself, then plummeted back down to home. I took 2 minutes out of Ed on the descent. This time hairy road edge experiences, but some hilarious "Caaaar!" moments and showing I could get to the road edge if I wanted to.

At home the pool was very inviting, for about 2 minutes. Followed by a second lunch of gazpacho, bread, and cheese.

Now, some of you will have started to spot a small item lacking from the itenary so far. Wasn't I in this country to see something or other? Wasn't there a purpose to my travels and travails? Well, yes. So after lunch we all sat down in front of the TV and watched the Team Time Trial of the Tour de France. Now, again, I hear those quizical looks. Yep, I've travelled 1000 miles to do something I can do at home, and even there hear the darn thing in English! Well, at least I got to sit in a French bar for a little while, cycle on the right, see mountains covered in cork trees, and still see the race conclusion. This time a bit astounding, the yellow jersey separated by less than a second. For all of you who'll read about Lance not being to quite do it on his comeback in the British press, please understand that no-one really wants the yellow jersey just now. It's too long to defend it. Also, I really doubt he has the ability to get it. Unmistakeably he wants it, but there are at least 2 others with bigger talent right now. And that's just in his team.

Anyway, after the TV, we wandered into town to pick up supplies. We seemed to keep missing shops until we got into Perpignan. It was fairly uneventful apart from spotting so really good shed deals.

Our route home took us to the village of Vives where there is a great place for good Catalan food. This was very reminiscent of a place in Paris where you get meat on a board that was cooked on an open fire and a side order of fried diced potato. As before it tasted wonderful.

And that's where the day ends. I'm the last up, sat on the patio with Soulwax pumping out some georgeous dirty techno as I find a place to hide some beer. That is dirty in the sense that the techno beat is nicely grunged up and distorted to make Kylie sound acceptable.

Monday 13 July 2009

Tour de France 2009 - Day 1 - Le Tour, Oh So Different

For those who don't know, Le Tour comes 2 me very different this year. For starters, it's a lot shorter (yes, breathe sigh of relief, after sharp intake of breathe on receiving said email). For seconds, it doesn't involve all that tedious camping around and dashing from place to place without any purpose than seeing that race. And third, it happens unlike last year's miserable failure (I know you were scanning your email during July thinking "it must start soon, surely, where's my out of the office option in Outlook").

Last year was without Lorna & too little planning to make it happen. I enjoyed watching it all in detail from the comfort of my flat. I cried a lot. I saw more than I would. My bones ached for the passible pleasure of no sleep whilst hanging to the rock face of some mountain waiting for the race, for the baking hot sun whilst sat in a car on an Autoroute going from market town A to market town B, for just the pure pleasure of using a campsites "facilities" after a couple of days finding a small bush with a trowel.

So, I am here. Well, where exactly? In a lounge with the gentle rush of a river down the hill, and the sound of a swimming pool being filtered just outside the door. This time no mad dash down the autoroutes, no 5am alarm for the ferry, no strange hotel in the middle. No, this time a plane from Stansted all the way to Perpignan. So no custom specified bike either. It's all quite sad, but also good. As said, oh so different.

Landing at Perpignan was fun. In a "above the town at 500 feet" kind of fun. In the "I can read the newspapers on the stands of the sprint finish in the middle of town section in 2 days time" kind of fun. Town, plane, plane, town ... I think you get it. Then landing at a deserted field with tumbleweed bouncing along to the empty petrol tanker sheds, walking to the terminal and having luggage pass through the same door we did. Can I get a "Deliverance" from anyone? Or possibly a "good, bad, and ugly".

Ed was on a conference call in the carpark. The cicadas were going full swing so he was completely stuck in the car. I wondered torn between a vague life from the one 1950s style terminal building and the tree and rock covered mountains to the south west.

Once we were off, the surrounds displayed that typical scenario at 5pm on a Monday, as in totally blocked. We opted for the "get out of town onto mountain roads even if it takes longer" strategy. It was beautiful but mad as cars drove at us a twisting turning roads and Ed wasn't used to gears after a few years without so sounded like Lewis (Hamilton not Bear). This is also where I suddenly had sympathy for Lorna in her task as map reader. Why oh why do the French seem to think it's perfectly acceptable to draw the roads in a pattern that I can only describe as "Laura Ashley" flowery rather then how they actually happen. Also just scribbling a doodle for towns is not clever or funny, yes, Monsieur Sarkozy, I am telling you!

Unfortunately, there was the awkward confusion of being in Catalan. The language is different. If you watch QI you will know that just over 100 years ago there was no language called French. This is only to clear when you end up in places a long way
from Paris. People don't have the same words for things or even use the letters the same. I'm dreading my visit to the local Catalan-speaking vegetable grocer. I mean, French is hard enough, who said they could vary it and still call it the same? It does give a whole new meaning to Euro-centric issues.

Anyway, arrival was nice and we're on the ranch. No kidding, it feels like it could be a ranch. We could fit the main camping field of Haddenham here. It is lovely.

the place is on the edge of a village and on the edge of the river Tech. And edge would be the right word given how much garden slipped into the Tech a few years ago.
There a mountains all around a valley with views all over. The house is full of life, paintings, books, bikes, rooms, where the garden has all kinds of local plants, lavender, peaches, olives, roses, and a swimming pool and a shaded boules area. Books include Michelin guide shelf for pretty much every year since 1900. The garden includes a rather shifty salamander. As soon as I switched an outside light on, it was off up to the top of the house. And I just wanted to say "hello".

I seemed to have ended up at the lower part of the house with a bedroom, bathroom,
sitting room, patio, and bar to myself. I'm sure it won't end up like that, but I'm living like a king right now.

I repeat, oh so different.