Tuesday 27 July 2010

Some Pictures Taken Along the Way

A photojourney

I have several hundred photos, far too many for here. Here's a few.

The rural scene at our first night hotel and restaurant.

The view up valley from our campsite at Port de Pailheres.

The view down valley from our campsite at Port de Pailheres after the fog cleared.

The begining of the caravanne.

The surprise rider, Rafael Valls Ferri.

Carlos Sastre cycles past Lorna

Carlos Sastre on TV on Port de Pailheres with Lorna in Turquoise in the middle of the shot.

A few more riders with the Polka Dot, Chartreau.

The view from just behind our tent on Col de Portet d'Aspet.

A butterfly just behind our tent.

The French entertainment. He didn't stop for 5 hours. The loved him.

The view down the valley towards Portet d'Aspet.

Voeckler in the first set of riders over Portet d'Aspet.

Schleck, in yellow, over Portet d'Aspet.

And the sprinters, with Mark Cavendish, bring up the rear.

Tommy Voeckler's win in Luchon on the TV coverage.

And our view of the same.

Andy Schleck trying to limit his losses into Luchon after the chain debacle.

A wine shop in Luchon, with a bike in the window?

Bradley Wiggins cycles past the Shack Attack tour bus at Luchon start.

Mark Cavendish has a mechanical at the start in Luchon.

Thor Hushovd on his way to the start at Luchon.

Eric Zabel, 6 times green jersey winner and Mark Cavendish coach, at Luchon start.

Christian Prudhomme, the organiser of the Tour de France, at Luchon start.

A butterfly in the hills near Port de Bales.

Another butterfly.

Lance Armstrong's escape group going into Pau.

That arrow is mine.

Our shelter when the rain appeared.

The view down the La Vallee d'Ossau above the clouds.

Another butterfly.

Our shelter at the col de Soulor, at 1540m above see level.

The 3 amigos, parked together as they always are.

Contador, in yellow, with Voerckler behind.

Lance Armstrong comes past with George Hincapie.

TV Coverage of Col de Soulor with my car (green Saab with yellow arrow) on left.

TV Coverage of Col de Soulor me (grey lump) and Lorna (white hat back from road) on left.

TV Coverage of Col de Soulor me (grey lump) on right.

Mark Cavendish's bike.

Mark Cavendish's bike detail.

Mark Cavendish.

Mark Cavendish's detail.

Sky management.

The Tour de France 2010 - My View of the Pyrenees

A trip through the Pyrenees following a bike race

And this time in some kind of chronological order...

And just for a final say, Some Pictures Taken Along Way.

Well, the Vuelta d'Espana starts soon....

The Final Curtain

Well the last 48 hours of the trip were not uneventful but just a blur of, mostly motorway. There was a brief flash when an unmarked police car caught me at over 130km/h.

We did see the race at the begining of Salies de Bearn. I did get some up close photos of Cav's bike as well as Cav himself. We did camp by the side of the Loire, but not in the usual place.

It's all over, the final curtain. However, I've brought loads of photos to add to the play.

Thursday 22 July 2010

And Now, the Time is Near

Thusday Afternoon

The drenchitude continued unabated. Timw and again the passing French had many smiles but mostly wishing us well.

My adaptation to this hard weather is to eat and do loads. But there's only so much walking to the Col you can do before the "I've seen that sausage stall" and "I've seen that cheese stall" becomes an irritating nag in your head. And the rain ensured that anything off road was verboten.

As the morning wore on, and Lorna got out of bed, the rain slowed. Then it sped up again as if to say "Oh, what was I thinking, this is fun". The caravanne was due at 2pm but we had plenty of early callers. Mainly as so few hardy souls had braved it onto bear mountain that they had 3 people to sell to instead of 300. Lots of youngsters bounded out of vans to wish us well, ask where we were from and then try to sell us a cape or parapluie. So much time so little people to sell to!

And so it was with the caravanne. Where we'd been screaming for stuff a mere wave got us covered in delights. Bar one or two vehicles, that were clearly shut for bad weather.

After the caravanne wew dropped camp, in about 20 seconds. Yet another Rad & Lorna team production of efficiency. Again, this brought on onlookers. Especially when the car almost drove onto the route. Zut Alors!

Whilst all this had occured a Rabobank team car appeared next to us, rapidly followed by a Omega Pharma Lotto. This were handing out bidons and gillets for the descent. We sidled up, like everyone else to see what was in them. Rabobank were doing warm bidons, something I've not heard of before. One very giggly girl eventually stumped up the courage and asked for one. After a quick count up, she got a bidon and a couple of caps carefully sneaked out the back without the hoards seeing. From there on blank refusals all round.

The race appeared. A few stragglers trying to push on up front, then the yellow jersey bunch full of all the main contenders, except Sastre, who appeared about 20 seconds earlier. Weird huh? I spotted and shouted at a load of favourites. Then the wait and more stragglers, of the usual kind this time.

Finally, the sprinters bunch. Oh, did they look like this was enjoyment personified, not. Looking back at my photos, I see that Cav was staring at me all the way past. Melancholy all over his face. Probably thinking "who is this weirdo shouting my name on yet another climb".

Lorna came into her full. The bidon guys were wrapping up so she fluttered her lashes at the Omega Pharma Lotto guy, camped it up big stylee, and begged for a spare bidon. He, quite overawed by the display motioned her in and slipped something out of his pocket. Lorna came gallumphing back with a X bidon, the isotonic drink. So, Nick, labs are open, we need to find out what it is!

Fin de Course, a few more cars and we were off down the mountain. The journey to our designated campsite, chosen because we knew they had a TV in the Accueil and would be watching the race, was uneventful. A few delightful side roads, the odd farmhouse, an unweildy caravan ahead, but nothing really very reportful.

So, we site on the banks of the Ossau in full flood after the past few days. I reckon I saw a kingfisher just a little while back. Good luck in this muddy torrent! Tomorrow night we hope to be half of France away, on the banks of the Loire. Another trip gets closer to the end and it's almost time to bid you adieu. Well, unless any of the other slightly stiff drivel on my blog is of interest! Yes, it's mostly cycling. No, I don't. I will if you think it's legal. I haven't ever.

Geraint Thomas Being Interviewed

View from a Tent

Our view of Sainte Colombe on Tuesday night

Sky Support

On Port de Pailheres on Sunday

Resting Above the Clouds


Officially it's the rest day for the cyclists after their massive trip over 3 of the biggest, most famous, peaks of the Pyrenees. This is slightly ironic as they are doing a good proportion of that stage again tomorrow, in reverse. Wow, a way to celebrate 100 years of cycling in these good mountains.

Our day started a little more damply. The rain of the previous evening had persisted a bit but not too heavy. Our view along the valley to Sainte Columbe had completely disappeared into the fog. Well, technically, cloud. We were in the clouds.

As there was no dash to get anywhere we had a lacsidaisical breakfast. Even a second cup of coffee was allowed in these relaxed times. A shave and a foot wash as well. What pampering!

The car meandered up the Ossau valley, through with no control of our own. Now the rest day for cyclists does not mean lying around in a hotel room catching up on the latest soaps. Or even wandering round town looking for some bargains. No, a "rest" means not competing on the bike. They still go out on the bike and do maybe even 60-70 miles. And actually they need to. Not doing so would hamper their performance the next day. So, as we uncontrollably wandered up the valley we came across the entire Garmin squad out riding, complete with team car holding back the traffic.

Now, in Britain the first sign of a bunch of cyclists like this would result in immediate hooting of horns and angry shouts as these terrible people are adding a whole 10-second delay to someone else's journey. In France the reaction couldn't be more different. A careful reverence ensues, only passing when the riders are completely safe.

Further up the valley we saw Levi Leipheimer coming back down at some pace. Descending on a bike is quite a skill. Knowing where to put your weight as you head into then through each corner is vital. Get it wrong and your putting in some offroad activity, get it right and your down the mountain 10 minutes quicker than anyone else. Clearly, training when going up a mountain doesn't finish when you get to the top.

At the head of this valley is, er, Spain. But also there is a long, sinuous, rocky mountain top valley that is designated a national park. At altitudes varying from 1200m at the bottom damn to 1700m at the Spanish border it did have something to recommend it strongly. It was above the cloud. We emerged from a wet lower valley into glorious sunshine. Tempered with a slight northerly, but not strong enough to dishearten.

The park is also known for it's wildlife. Here be eagles, bears, lynx, horses, cows, sheep, campervans. Unlike last time we were here, in 2003, we didn't see much of the more exotic varieties. I did spot 1 eae but only briefly from the car.

What a place to have lunch and go for a bit of a scramble. We rapidly realised we stopped in exactly the same spot as 2003, just not ventured quite as far as that time, as bones ache more nowadays!

After lunch we needed to get back on course for the bike race. Our idea was to get to the Col de Soulor, the lesser of the Thursday Peaks, and set up camp by 4pm. That way we could bag a good spot near the top and maybe have a chance at riding up to Aubisque in any spare time we had. Oh the joy of happy plans are mocked by fate.

Back down into the cloud and up the next climb up over Aubisque. Bend after bend we wre willing the cloud to depart as it had on the previous venture skywards. But no. Alas, even at the top of Aubisque it was foggy. Very warm fog with sunlight penetrating downwards, but fog nonetheless.

And so onwards on a descent to the second peak of Soulor. The views from this road are spectacular. Fog. The top winding road showing 20 miles of mountains. Fog. The lower section across the Cirque de Litor, a road attached to a thousand foot cliff, just unbelievable unless you see it. Fog. The mountainous landscape above the Col itself, awe-inspiring. Fog.

Setting up camp around 100m from the summit was a joy. All kinds of precautions taken to ensure dampness didn't ruin our evening and night. A shelter out of tarps strung between car and tent using umbrellas as corner poles was most effective. And turned quite a few heads. We sat out under our canopy greeting all who walked past. They cheered back, after they'd dragged their jaws off the ground. And spotting the GB numberplate helped a touch. Ah, les Anglais!

Actually the shelter really did matter. The heavens opened. Thunder and lightning rocked the mountain tops. And it went on all night. Flashes bright enough to light up the inside of the tent like daylight. Thunder that echoed for 30 seconds as it bounced off every rock face in the 5 mile area. What an evening, sat under a bit of tarp, followed by a night wondering if we'll evey make it off the mountain.


Wow! The world is still wet, flashing, and noisy. We made it through the night, camped out at 1450m in torrential weather. I'm still not entirely sure how. In a Quecha! Whoever poopooed these tents, not seeing them as good quality tentage, needs to look hard at what it did for us in the past 18 hours.

Sleep, is it Dreaming?


Up at 7am & back to the usual schedule. It made so much sense to ensure that I got up early to put the coffee/tea on. I relaxed into the role and put the cool box on to chill.

After a little bit of coffee and some blogging it was 8am and time for breakfast. Then, the car battery was completely dead, I can't think why! I asked our friendly neighbours, the efficient Germans to help us start, but they quickly found out they had the same problem. So we turned to the final UK lot in the other corner. Even with their engine off, when we connected up their battery everything in my car jumped into life!

We headed back into Luchon and concocted a devilishly clever plan to take the back road to get closer to the start. We arrived at the key junction to find the police had come up with the same idea and were sending everyone that way. Our devilishly clever dropped down to just plain ordinary thought. Just like that.

despite queue of cars, we parked pretty easy. Right next to the hotel where all the stars were staying. Not much chance of a view here though, they were already on Team Buses.

As we walked into town we weere aghast at the sheer increase in numbers after yesterdays finish! This is just a start!

We looked at the start line then wondered up the street just as the Team buses started to arrive. Perfect timing. Passed the Astana and Liquigas buses then paused at Radioshack. Suddenly considered the scrum that'd be opposite there so headed one more up and perched on the barriers opposite the HTC Columbia bus.

There were loads of people with event passes and were inside the barriers. We considered jumping over and seeing if anyone noticed. Or threw me back out or sent me to the Bastille for the rest of my natural for disrupting a French event.
More buses arrived and cars appeared festooned with super bikes. It's interesting to note that the bikes on top of the car, in total, where double the cost of the car underneath.

A HTC mechanic started shifting bikes off a car and setting them up on stands just outside the bus. Another mechanic then fitted radio devices under the seat. This allows them to monitor all kionds of mechanical and biometric info and did stream to the web (www.highroadsports.com/velostream) about 15 seconds behiond real time. Pretty spectacular! And a big swoop at the Garmin team that haven't done that so far. If you don't know, the team sponsor, Garmin, make GPS devices.

All bikes set up it a slightly dull wait ensued. This was interrupted by the odd cycling celeb walking passed, like Christian Prudhomme, the Tour de France organiser. OMG it's Christian Prudhomme! Then Eric Zabel popped out of the HTC bus. He won the green sprinters jersey 7 times in the 90s, the most by anyone. He's now coaching our own Mark Cavendish to do the same. Only Mark's already won more stages than Eric just not got near the green jersey. It really is less his "thing" than he'll care to admit.

Cyclists started to drift past our spot on there way to sign on for the race. I'm at the point where I'll recognise around 10percent of the riders. It's not much but it did allow some quick photos at close range and slow speed. David Millar has become unrecognisable now he's taken to wearing goggles. However, when the Sky boys came through it was easy!

Wiggo looked very focussed and didn't react at all. Geraint Thomas politely thanked me for my support, Edvald Bossen Hagen gave a big broad smile when I shouted "Eddie" in his face.

Finally Cav appeared out of the bus in front of us. He was immediately swamped by people and journalists, so I couldn't get a greeting in anywhere. I'll have to leave that on the road.

The off was soon, we meandered down to the start and as soon as we arrived they were off. It's nice to be recognised. Their journey encompassed 3 cols and a strong competition for the race at hand. Our journey involved toilet breaks, getting toilet roll, and some cheese. We ended up in a similar place. You'd have thought they'd had learnt by now.

Actually our journey was harder going from the ridiculous to the sublime. We headed up the Col de Bales for lunch. It was where they were yesterday so why not. After that, and a few butterflies, we circumvented the mountains on the Autoroute. Only we had to get from it to the race.

A main road gave way to a village street that gave way to a single track road into the hills. We had a couple of "return points" because the signs were "wrong" but we kept going. Then everything went out of hand completely.

Our single track road ended in two dirt tracks. The map said go left, so we did. I was expecting to end in a corn field listening out for a banjo and guitar duet (come on! Deliverance!). After a few corners the metalled road came back. But the whole "you're in a field" thang really never left.

And indeed, the road turned into a track again. The feeling of deep, undiscovered France rang so true. Mostly as we felt that was it, no-one was going to discover us. A couple more "return points" occured but we suddenly came upon the Tour route. Again, the sound of banjo was never far us. Thew local Gendarmes told us to park in the nearby supermarket. We then walked, oh, 10 yards to the route itself.

There was no-one there. A few village kids and some parents. This is where you feel obliged to help. We waved our arms around as the caravanne appeared. No-one else seemed to get out their chairs. We scored big and passed on items of little value to small kids. It makes them smile so everyone wins.

I had my eye on the yellow Tour arrow opposite me. The only problem was it was it was in the middle of a very warm sunspot and surrounded by kids. The kids left after the caravanne finished. Who teaches these people nowadays? When it came to it I wandered over, ripped it off the lampost with the local Gendarmes staring quizically. "ah, a souvenier" was the only comment. Darn it. Should have got the one up the road as well.

I should say that this was a bit of a swansong. Lance Armstrong, who is the winniest rider ever, was racing in the very front group saying he's not to race again. We saw him pass and wished him well. We didn't work it well enough for him.

Racing over we headed back to the mountains for a campsite. A Camp a la Ferme sign threw us off route and into some more banjo hills. After many strange roads a farm appeared that a bit more than the basic. We camped with a view 20 miles long including the peaks on the Spanish border. Thats when the fiog allowed! Yes. It happened. We plunged from horrific heat to ridiculous rain in a few short hours. A hastily constructed shelter held most of, but didn't survive a hard downpour. Suddenly 9pm seemed like the perfect bedtime!

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Some Pictures While You Wait

Sunflowers & windfarm on the road near Revel. Isn't that majestic!

Well, I Wasn't Sure About the Fish.

Sunday 18th lunchtime

Our lunch was over. So was the pleasantries of the Tour. The caravanne was waiting. Possibily not! I just don't have as mush interest in this big rolling publicity stunt as I used to.

However, I was all a glamour when the Sky team car appeared at the side of the road just at our bit. Ooo, hello! This means Sky were handing out bottle here and empties woud be appearing! Lawks a-Lordy! The chance at getting a Sky bottle!

The build up to any part of a race coming through is just indescribable. Everyone is on edge of their seats after fight for candy just a few moments before. Helicopters arrive, giving that Apocalypse Now feel to the proceedings. They're nothing to do with the filming of the race, just the guests of the day. And then the final helicoptor that is filming the race. Jump up and down right now! Let fly with expletives your father doesn't know, let alone your mother! The riders are upon you. Shout their names, promise them untold wealth in the life to come. It's all to get it done.

I saw loads of familiar faces this time. Sometimes a bit late for a photo, sometimes okay! I saw Wiggo, big George Hincapie, Sastre, Lance Armstrong, Dave Millar, Mark Cavendish, then Sean Yates and Chris Sutton in Team Sky cars.

After the race, we'd planned on following them over the summit to get us into and good place for our next night. We've done this before to good effect.

We were held by our local gendarme. Crowds ensued. We got bored. He eventually let us go and we careered off into the distance. We made it round a good many bends before another cop stopped us dead. From him "none going passed the top until 8pm" which was hours away! Nothing to do but turn around and fight our way back down against people still coming up. Gerndarmes are great but I wish they'd talk to each other like normal cops are meant to do!

So, caught in queueing traffic, we searched for a way out. Our saviour came in the guise of a hard mountain track. Instead of looking up to the wonderful gorge cliffs, we were riding along them. Ooooo-errrrr, cliff face driving on a single track road with tunnels. Wibble! Then, after 15 minutes of climbing we were out onto the plain at the top. What!?

I still don't understand how terriflying drops can suddenly turn into flat plains when you drive out of the top of them. You feel like someone is trying to cheat you out of your understanding of the way things should be.

After some serious back road stuff, we got onto the main road to Foix and St Girons. There, I confess to knowing the road number (D618) and the junction to Col Portet d'Aspet via Audressein.

We finally got to campsite at the Col at about 8pm, totally shattered. We cooked, drank some wine, and went to bed. Well, and watched this Spanish extended family put up a Quecha about twice the height of any Quecha I've ever seen. FSC people, we have some new kit coming, oh yes.

Monday 18th

The morning brought warm sunshine at 8am. Not just a slight rise in the chilled air, a kind of get-out-of-bed-before-fry-you rise.

I got back to our usual thing of me boiling water for tea and coffee and Lorna wondering what had been brought to her. It was good, of course, but I say so!

We'd already heard about the morning crowds, there was a degree of "French ambulance" around us. For those who don't know this music style please search for it with the words "Bill Bailey". It explains all.

Breakfast has already been explained, so if you don't know what happens, you've only yourselves to be blamed.

Finding a nice spot at the exit of the camping field, I moved the car there and ran away from it before anyone could tell us off. We'd blocked everyone else in but so had the col barriers. I find if you want to do things like this in France, actually being plain rude (to us English) actually just works.

We ran away to the other side of the road to wait for the signs. Not like a rather awful Mel Gibson film, our UFOs were ASO helicopters.

We had little interest in the caravanne this time. We were mistaken but ran with our aloof personalities as it really worked for us on a vapid level.

We found a great spot a little away from the road but under some trees, a godsend at this time. We were just up from the road but would have a great view of the riders going past. Unfortunately, we'd sat in front of some Germans who, for some reason, thought vuvuzelas were a good thing. Mind you, amongst everyone there, no one else liked them and said so, regularly.

the other lovely thing was this little old French guy with a harmonica. He was great! He walked back and forth banging out tunes old and new all the time. Constantly on his clog festooned feet, moving and occasionally dancing he enlivened the crowd. One song would led to in-time clapping and another the cheering, he had all of us in the palms of his hands! He was going for hours. And the second biggest cheer was when an Aussie donated her water to his cause!

I started to hang out with the hotties. I mean the blokes stood out of the shade a good thirty yards to the left of us. The race was due. A dull whirl of helicopters could be heard from the low valley. More time spent watching roads hundred of metres below to pick up signs of cyclists.

They emerged from the trees. Not one-by-one but all in a few masses. A few on abreakaway and the rest passing their way up behind. Little Tommy Voerckler was doing his best to stay right out in front. The French were apoplectic. It was suddenly their race again.

I shouted on Cavendish, who was at the back, and he looked a tad startled. He's more used to it on the flat stages than these weird mountainy thingies!

Everyone cheered the remnants of the race. A few hundred cars and vans and one or two slighty dazzled cyclists. Then it was back to the car to charge on. But we couldn't!

the barriers set for the mountain top still needed to be taken down by the official TdF maintenance guys. It looked bad as cars crammed the summit trying to get passed each other. Most peole started shouting at the guy doing all the work. I got my penknife out and asked if he wanted help. He was grateful and quickly spotted I knew what to do. We finished the bit I wanted in double quick time and moved barriers aside so we were off! I did hit the barriers on the other side on my way out, but non too hard, and it's only a car, n'est pas!

The descent of the Portet d'Aspet is famous for a rather terrible crash where Fabio Cassertelli lost his life whilst cycling in the Tour de France. It is honoured with a rather spectacular memorial. All cyclists slow and pay homage. We were no exception and waved to his stone remebering things done for sport. Lance Armstrong was his teammate in the year it happened. The next day, the whole team were allowed to cross the finish line first.

Well, after that we headed up Col de Mente. I've never been up here as it is always on the route before Luchon, but Christian Prudhomme (new Tour de France director) is making all kinds of changes. It's loverly! We went up a steady series of hairpins and wiggly roads through some strongly wooded valleys. Then back down to St Beat in the valley before Luchon.

This afternoon is a date in Luchon, the hippest place in the mid Pyrenees!

To be continued....

A Luchon

Monday 19th

Luchon is a town nestling in the middle of the Pyrenees. Large mountains surround the end of a long straight valley from the plains up north. From here you can go up (east), up (west), or up (south east to Spain).

For cyclists it is a Mecca. There are many cyclng shops here, all dedicated to what we Brits do very little, cycling up.

After our little jaunt over Col de Mente and a brief skedaddle down the last bit of valley, we arrived at the outskirts to find the usual roadblock with two very disinterested gendarmes. We couldn't work out if the ennui was based on having got the arse-end job stuck out on a remote roundabout with no chance of seeing any cycling or, heaven forefend, boredom with cycling generally.

Car parked in the melee of abandonments that littered the verges, we headed into town on foot. I thought today's finish would be along the main boulevard in town. A long, straight road lined with trees and cafes and chairs and tables and bon viveur all day. We eaten out here before to fantastic evenings.

We found the "kilometre to go" kite on ths straight. Ah. It was further. However, we didn't miss an inch of the race as every single shop or bar in town had the TV out front showing the race itself whilst patrons gathered round each one earnestly discussing every pedalstroke.

The big news of today was Contador's unsportsmanlike conduct of attacking Schleck when his chain slipped off. For those who don't know this is a big no-no in cycling. If anyone in serious contention has an accident or a "mechanical" you do not use this as a chance to win the race. You attempt to win the race by proving you are the strongest rider when everyone is fit and active. This is one of the few sports left where this strong sense of fair play exists.

Examples of this fair play define races gone by. Armstrong was pulled off his bike by a fans flapping musette on the last climb of the day a few years back. The main contenders slowed to make sure he was alright, then when he got back to them, the fight was back on. Of course, he was pumped with adrenalin by then and shot off to victory.

It may have its roots in that all cyclists are vunerable people on the road, and looking out for each other is more important than being first. Or that the simple act of cycling in these races is so hard that deciding it on a chance simply doesn't sit right.

Anyway, we wondered along the boulevard and round the corner to find the finish. Neatly curtailed off for special guests! Hmm. Back to a slot where we could just about see them come through. Actually is was more hear them come through as each cyclist arriving brought a wave of hand-battered boards and cheers down the road.

Tommy Voerckler, the French champion and darling, came in first. We'd seen him attacking over Portet d'Aspet earlier and this was his final dash for victory. This was a French dream, possibly not of a dry variety. The French would lopve to have a cyclist who could get near contention for the yellow jersey but haven't had that for over 20 years. They now make do with the occasional stage win. Top have one in Luchon is just, well, I think I covered that before.

Others came through in bunches with Schleck cheered a lot more than the earlier Contador group. Wiggo was at the back of a early group. His contention is gone, but he still looks top 20, which is an incredible feat. We were completely overdone by last years 4th place.

After the main contenders, we took a shortcut back through the team vehicle's carpark hoping to catch a glimpse of a manager or finished star. Nothing doing. We made it back top the 1km kite just in time to see the mountain stragglers appear. This is all the sprinters and sprint supporters who are just to big to go up mountains quickly. Cavendish was at the front of this, pedalling laboriously to ensure getting within the cutoff time. People were still cheering, supporting everyone who'd done the mountains today, whatever place they were in.

We shopped and gassed in the Intermarche just north of town and headed for somewhere to camp. The first two we'd already got refusals earlier on. The Tour being in town made it unlikely to get any nearby camp spot.

About 15km north of Luchon we spied a Camping sign and qucikly headed into a small village. At the centre was a small field divided up into spots with low hedges. No Accueil to see as it was the most basic variety of site. Someone would wander round at 7-8pm and pick up the fees if you're there then. If you turn up later then who knows!

A couple of good steak and chips later, bed was calling again. I did pop out of the campsite for a second, to find the town hall being lit up in purple, then yellow, then green, then red, then purple. I was going to have some weird dreams.

Monday 19 July 2010

Le Tour Arriveeeee

Sorry, Arek, not quite there yet.

Saturday 17th

After last night debacle it only seemed fit that I got up early. Actually why? What maltemperance did I perform that was so inequitable? Who knows. And by that I mean of course, what the blavering hell am I going on about!

After an early-ish start repacking the car we dropped into breakfast. Perhaps those both needs explaining. Every year we through the car contents in with gay abandon. The first night is always okay as we are in a hotel. However, when you need to get lunch out quick or plan a evening stop, the order everything goes in is so important. Otherwise, it's easy to get knickers with your pate, a slightly ruffled tent acting as a nice table, or a baguette as a rather study tentpeg. That only usually works after 2 days of waiting, it's no good on the day of purchase.

As far as droppong into breakfast, well we felt like the entertainment. The birds from the night before were ready to be fed again. This time it was with damn cheek. We found our table was no safe haven asthey landed where they wanted even onto our plates for a nibble of croissant. Bread less so, but still large bits wer lifted off for the trees and bushes around.

we did manage to keep some for ourselves and they weren't threatening in any way, just damn bold!

The drive south was dull and reasonably empty until we got near Toulouse were it became very obvious this was a Saturday in France in the summer an dloads were heading south for holiday fun.

We finally gave up the autoroute a bit early as it was beginning to compress and expand in that way that leads to accidents. In the very first town we got sent the wrong way. C'est la vie! We got sent through a tiny little town of St Felix de Lauragais. It was an ordinary pretty little town which was nice to drive through. Only later did we find out that the place was where they crowned all the Cathar archbishops. I never expected that! If you don't know, the Cathars were a Christian sect up in the 12th century. They practised a more open religious way with less of the organised hierarchy of the Catholic church. Needless to say they were crushed and mostly burnt alive in horrific ways.

I confess to thinking that I thought it was further south and est of here, bt realised we were far away anyway!

Arriving in Revel we immediately went on a tour of the last climb up to the nearby Lac de St Ferreol. It was a bit of a stinker. cav was going to have a bit of fun trying to stay in the race here.

We headed back out of town on the route and stopped to contact a twitter mate who lived nearby. He tweeted back and arrived on a motorbike with his 13 year old son, Max.

It's always a bit worrying meeting people in the flesh for the very first time. Even if over the net you've shared fun jokes and secrets for many months before. Chris was exactly like his net personailty and was a joy to meet!

He immediately invited us to his home for pastis and the TV coverage of the Tour. We meet his wife, Nadine, and younger son, Etienne, who also made us feel very welcome.

We also meet Sir Jack Russell, one of Chris' dogs who has his own twitter account. He greeted me with the traditional twitterati greeting, a bark and a wet nose between my legs. Then he was off for one of his favourite pastimes, chasing exotic birds round the garden.

The caravanne was due. We gathered everyone and jumped on bikes to cycle to the nearby route. We still had a small wait but nothing like our normal 2-hour slog.

We've never been on a flat, straight bit of road between large towns before. It was great as you see everything coming for a minute beforehand. However, when the caravanne arrived it was lethal bigs of sausage doing 40mph hit the road all around. Most dentists will tell you that sweets head straight for your teeth like a sugary missile. Bags of Haribo did just this, but not quite how it is meant. Sweet relief at head height.

After the caravanne, the usual hour wait for the race itself. sunflowers were dancing in the wind opposite witha windfarm in the distance. It is amajestic site. I really don't get the nimbys in the UK wh fight tooth and nail against these things. They are a fantastic site, oh so quiet and offer a real possibilty of change. Sometimes, I think the question is wrong. Don't ask "Shall we put a windfarm here", instead "Do we want a windfarm or gas power station here". Windfarms would get a lot more support.

Talking of wind, the peleton in full "set up the sprinter" flight shot past. 160 riders doing not to far short of 40mph cuts a massive hole through the air. Pushing back to begin with, the sucking in. Wow! What a buzz! Cavendish was on our side a few back from the front, with a train of 3 in front of him.

Then they were gone. A mass of cars hurtled past in their wake witha few straggling cyclists. Well, straggling at 35mph! Wasn't to sure but I think Lance Armstrong was off the back at this stage.

After a few support vehicles it was done. so back on the bikes to watch the finish on TV at chez Chris. Vinokourov took off up the hill and won in front of a sprint won by a rather dissapointed looking Cav.

Now for the excitement for the day. We bade fond farewells to Nadine as the rest of us in two cars, headed off to the mountains of the east Pyrenees.

It started off as a slightly twisting route around the foothills before we spied rising slopes of trees above the farmland. The outcropping tips soon showing signs of snow.

Steep sided valleys with small towns suddenly switched to deep gorges with space for the odd house. Cliffs either side disappearing above us with the hint fo a railway jumping in and out of rock faces. At every turn we saw above us a wall of rock and we expecting to have the road run out when we reached it. Somehow, a wiggle would appear to let the road, river, and railway through. But how were we going to get up the side of this?

After 30 minutes the answer came in a series of hairpins up the side of a slightly less vertical section. At the top of the gorge a more open hillside spread before us, followed by a small mountain village perched amongst the slopes.

Then the fog descended. Or rather we ascended into the cloud at getting on 750m. Still we went up. Another village, also precariously balanced on the edge of drops down to to gorges below. Still we went up. Then the trees started to thin and a mountainous landscape appeared. Well, within 5 foot of thr road at least as that's as far as we could see. Still we went up.

we completely missed the carpark at Station de Mejanes, as we couldn't see the side road. But we did find a little field with a small spattering of cars either side of a small brook. Because we'd cleared the cloud! Meandering through some camper vans and through the brook we found a nice flat spot. Tents pitched quickly and food on smartish. It was freezing! This was mostly a wind howling down from the summit blowing the cloud back into the valley below us.

After food, straight to be for all. Out of the wind everyone warmed up.

Sunday 18th

We woke in warm fog. No, not the inside the tent, although that was a little bit, er, I leave it to your imagination!

there was no wind (ahem, I refer you to the past sentence). The sun boiled it off witnin the hour to reveal us perched in a beautifull little high valley overlooking a vast arena of snowy peaks. Behind us we were similarly overlooked by a high arena and the ride up to Port de Pailheres. We were camping at around 1560m, the highest we've ever been in the Pyrenees. Sorry, but adverts are made of this. Whether it's cars (which just isn't true) or creamy cheese, it's what we all have been told to aspire to.

Breakfast was a mixture of english sparse (what we'd brought) and french exhuberance (what Chris has brought).

After that we faffed with me trying to find tv signal to use against my recently installed Media Centre. Yep, trying to find a terrestrial signal in the high mountains with a simple straight aerial. Who am I kidding!

Getting fed up the bike came off roof and I girded my loins for a trip to the summit at 2001m. I set of at a measured pace and found it pleasantly easy until turned the first hairpin onto the 11 percent stuff. Arrgghh. Calves screamed & thighs retched. Buit I kept going. I was getting plenty of looks. Mountain bike, green sprinters jersey, body of a rugby prop. But with a few returned smiles came shouts of "courage" (the French) and enthusiatic applause. This is genuinely the only place where this will work. Sufficiently motivated and supported I carried on, silently screaming.

I got to the van on the corner that was a speck above us at the campsite. I looked up to see the same view above. I carried on. A couple of welsh guys caught up with me and we chatted for a few bends but I soon let them on their way.

When I started the steep slopes where discouraging and less steep a mere challenge. Now anything less than complete flat involved mounting pain. I carried on.

Finally I crested a slope to see a horrific drop in the road. No, surely it was not going to makle me go up the same height twice? I charged down trying to negate the loss of height with a speed that would take me up again. I ground to a snails pace too quickly but suddenly found the top itself.

What views all around. Down to the finish of the race and across to the plains. What wind ripped through my soul and chilled the bones. A brief stop to check email, and time to dash down the mountain back to the campsite for lunch.

Now the hairpins I'd laboured over took a whole new dimension. Going down showed exactly how way into open, unadulterated space they went. Each turn showing a fantastic view of the valley several hundred metres below and nothing but a 20cm parapet between us. I hurtled into them at speed approaching 40mph, giving my legs the jitters. Totally fantastic!

And that's lunch and a break!

i'm sorry pictures are taking a backseat until I can get 3G coverage. I have loads, even some to do with the Tour!

Sunday 18 July 2010

So Little Time to Write

Fantastic couple of days. So tired. Been camping higher in Pyrenees than ever before. Cycled up to higher than ever before. Had fantastic mountain views. Had fantastic views of race. Did some very mad driving around single track roads on cliff faces. Will tell you about it soon. Must sleep now.

Friday 16 July 2010

A la France!

Well, where does one start with a journey like this? I've done it so many times and yet sometimes don't know it at all. There's a level of boring mediocre stuff, as you shall find, but wonderful little pleasures that light the way of life all along the way.

I'd better start at the beginning, the big bang. Oops, sorry, Stephen Hawking did that so much better than I could ever hope. My version is to do with 430am. Just let those numbers sink in for a moment. Savour the aromatic flavour of those digits in all their meaning. I know them well. I know them as a time after a good summer party, wandering back through a brightening dawn chorus with happy thoughts of a time well spent in happy company. Today, we watched "them".

Those were the people that starved us of our rightful place as the party spirit as they passed us by. They'd stayed up where we'd gone to bed. They'd engaged in bright discourse while we snored. They .... had no concept of the joy that is travelling at the very brightest best time of the day! I wish I knew what it feels like, but mostly, I guess, like "I wanna sleep"!

We'd planned the journey to the Eurotunnel in minute detail. Which is why we got there 1 hour early. There was nothing minute about it. Ah, the jams that didn't exist. We got a train 30mins early & got a breakfast break. Or is that a fast break fast?

Who can say much about the tunnel? It's a tunnel. It's black on the inside. The only bizarre experience was the shenanighans that was made as people tried to use the toilets. First, there was the queueing etiquette. How to stand next to our car whilst not jumping from foot to foot in a gap 10 inches across. Then, there was the weird way people had to work out how to get to the place. One can't get between the cars, so if you end up stuck opposite the loo you had too make a journey up and down the carriage just top get a mere 6 foot. I tell you, it's not a proud sight when relief seems so close!

Out the other end with no hint of farewell, the autoroutes of north France beckoned. It's always a bit disheartening when you drive for ages and finaly get to see the first 20 km tick by and realise you have to do that another 40 times. Boredom!

I don't know how, but 2 hours later we found ourselves on the edge of Paris, driving under Charles de Gaulle airport. This, as some may know, is where all can go to pot for the day. We didn't go the wrong way, as has happened. We didn't suddenly find ourselves in a strange rough suburb, as has happened. We did find the beginning of a large traffic jam, as has happened.

The A86 is a bit like the M25 only about 20 miles further into town and hopelessly twisted. It's effectively the only direct autoroute from north France to south west France and it goes through Paris. It's the reason why they spend so much on their TGV, because you cant travel down the road. This country is seriously lacking in a coherent motorway structure because of this inherently rubbish connection.

After a good 20 minutes moving at 10mph the route towards the periferique opened up. This is like the north circular only 10 miles further into town and crowded with junctions. We gaily abandoned the slow moving A86 and jalopied down the 2 km to the jam to get onto the periferique.

Signs above warned us. We checked their warnings on the map and calculated we could do the 85 percent round counter clockwise faster than our plan clockwise. We shook our heads, laughed, and followed our foolish plan. When we'd done half that distance in 40mins we, redfaced, found an exit back to the A86. It was moving. And stopping. And moving.

We left the south Paris suburbs about 2 hours after we arrived in the north, a good 90 mins longer than it should have taken. We were not amused.

I was so not amused I didn't stop until Orleans for lunch. That's like driving to Cambridge from London just for lunch. Grrrr! It was 3pm.

Luckily enough, after that it was plain sailing. Or maybe hammer wafting. I dunno! Cher & Indre are lovely, probably. Just nothing apart from flat plains of wheat. They did have a fantastic amount of windfarms. A majestic sight on this open country. I wish more people in the UK could see their inherent beauty.

After that it becomes more hilly. Lots of 5percent slope warnings and some wonderfully placed villages, water all around 100m directly below!

We got to our hotel in a sleepy little village called St Viance at just gone 6pm. Too late for a short jaunt on the bikes up the nearest ridge but a beer later, a walk into the village was fine.

Rural France is so unlike rural Britian. The commuter belt cannot extend far enough to cover it all. Vast tracts of France still work with the village as a serious commercial and social hub in a way long forgotten in the UK. We have our amateur societies and our church fetes. So many people work outside of that hub to make the vibrant local scene true to France all but disappear in the UK.

We lapped up the scene. Moved in it's waves. Filed it's returns, and enjoyed choking on it's unconstructed rustic. There was nothing constructed that needed destructing, it was already unmade. It was so filled with images that the original Impressionists sought 130 years ago.

Dinner at our perfect place happened. Perfectly. Outside under trees in a warm evening with cicadas singing. When it came to the pre dinner nuts, however, we found we had local competition, as the picture shows.

And after some nice wine I rather ruined the evening by making a terrible joke about examining trends and how that ends up with an old partner, a bit of leather and some fun.*

Bon chance!

*ex strap elation
PS No one do the "bird in the hand" joke. It's mine!

Thursday 15 July 2010

Tour De France 2010

Travelling the Pyrenees watching the great cycle race and enjoying French outdoor life

Well, it's the prelude. The day before the off. We've got to get up at 4:30am to get to our slot for the Eurotunnel. A few things left to do, like pack an' stuff, but no urgent issues with anything left behind!

We're driving down to a little hotel and restaurant we've been to twice before. It's in a village just outside Brive which makes it an easy stop off point on way to see the 12th stage the next day. It's run by a French-Welsh couple which gives us an agreeable first level going into the French language. A chance to practise without losing all communication channels! A nice little bike ride will follow the drive, up to the top and along a ridge in the valley.

We go to see the 12th stage at it's finish in Revel, near Castelnaudary. Now, there's a town with a famous product. Ah, cassoulet! If anyone doesn't know, it's like baked beans with sausages, but for adult tastes. No, not blue ones, just good food.

So follow this blog for the next week, if you want. I can't promise you a stunning read, but maybe, just maybe you'll get off on my rising excitement of wild camping in mountains just under the snow line, bizarre restaurant experiences, occasional cyclist activity, including me up hill! For those who don't know, I did promise on Eurosport TV that I would be cycling up Ax-Bonascre, all 700 metres of it!

For previous Tour blogs see either my short visit in 2009 to the Pyrenees or a driven trip to 2006 in the Alpes.