Cycling in and around the World

a tale of two wheels


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Legs Of Man (And Woman)

legs-of-manA tandem is a great way of getting around with the other half if you don’t want your ears burnt from the castigation of leaving the better one behind again on the latest 10% plus climb. With this in mind Sue and myself have locked legs and pedalled almost 1500 tandem miles together since we first became a unit back in 2015.

Looking to broaden our horizons and to extend my experience of cycle touring I purchased a great pannier rack for the tandem from some oriental Ebay seller – eight quid including delivery! It arrived before I could utter Jack Robinson and was fitted to the bike post-haste. The fixture was solid and great quality so I’m convinced that someone must have knocked off a container load to be able to supply at that price.pannier-rack

Buzzing with excitement, I had our first tour planned before the better one had chance to get home from work. The half term holiday was only a day away and we were heading to the Isle of Man (subject to approval).

Day 1 – Doris

When it comes to cycling, Sue and I are stubbornly determined at the best of times and regardless of the imminence of Storm Doris heading in from the Atlantic, we set off from Congleton at 4 am on Thursday 23rd February. Hoping to avoid punctures and/or mechanicals we needed to reach Heysham port, 85 miles away, in time for our sailing at 2 pm.

Cruising the leafy lanes of Cheshire by torch light we felt a few spots of rain and the sound of Doris’s borborygmus escalating by the minute. Thankfully, ignoring gusts, the direction was south of south west allowing for a comfortably progressive journey on our northerly bearing.

Dawn was accompanied by increasing volumes of rain and a heavy rain jacket pit stop was called for under the convenient front canopy of Lidl in Wigan. The timing was perfect – in our 10 minutes of protection from the elements, a deluge of biblical proportions ensued. The precipitation eased to a downpour and we continued along the A49 through the early morning traffic of Standish, Charnock Richard, Leyland and Bamber Bridge to Preston.

The main road so far had been kind – reasonably wide, low volumes of the four-wheeled menace and generally uninterrupted by traffic lights and road works. However, Preston was a bit of a ‘mare on a fully loaded tandem in the spatter of the rush hour congestion. A number of pavement hops and white line traverses kept us well ahead of the lines of parked vehicles going nowhere fast.

Escaping the misery of the Preston jams and tentatively crossing the roadworks at junction 1 of the M55, we joined the A6 through to Garstang heading for Lancaster. It was about 9 am and mobile phones started to ring and ping so we pulled under a welcoming petrol station canopy just before Forton to find that both our Airbnb host in Douglas and my mother had contacted us with the bad news that Doris had ordered the cancellation of our ferry.

It took the stubborn pair a small moment to agree that we must press on regardless with the prospect of spending the weekend in the banal confines of Morecambe-on-Sea if absolutely necessary.

Lancaster was equally gridlocked but unequivocally prettier than Preston. From here we picked up a disused railway line along the Lune Valley to Morecambe. Passing the grimness of this ghastly place we arrived by 10:05 at a deserted Steam Packet terminal to the unwelcoming sign – “FERRY CANCELLED”. The good news was the friendly counter lady booked us on to Friday’s 2 am sailing – we were going to the island after all – only 16 hours to kill!

The ferry terminal was, at best, lukewarmed by ineffective ceiling-mounted infra-red heaters and the backup electric fan blower system had been inconsiderately isolated due to lack of custom. The stoker kindly provided several hot (and expensive) drinks from the vending machine whilst the pilot did his very best to spill the contents with exaggerated shivers due to his semi-hypothermic state.

We donned the few dry clothes we had, read every tourist leaflet in the terminal and played

duke-of-rothesay-beer

Malty aperitif

countless games of Sudoku before realising there was a pub half a mile down the road. It was now 5 pm and The Duke of Rothesay opened his doors to welcome us to a malty aperitif and a steak dinner with a nice bottle of red Iberian grape juice. We ambled back to the terminal about 10 pm, boarding the Ben-my-Chree, at 1:45 am.

Day 2 – Tourist Trophy

heysham-ferry-tired-2

I need sleeeep

Doris had now taken a short nap so the crossing wasn’t the Alton-Towers-like experience we’d expected. The main distraction was the noise created by what seemed to be the whole entourage of Birkenhead cub scouts travelling to Douglas to perform and watch their gang show in the Gaiety theatre. They were accompanied by a gaggle of Arkelas who commandeered the bar and kept two very tired and miserable travellers wide awake with incessant puerile laughter. A pint of Guinness eased the pilot’s insomnia but the stoker battled on until we docked about 5:30 am.

On disembarking we took the opportunity of a quick snap of St. Mary’s Isle at dawn and then rode very wearily northwards on the promenade to avoid the predatory tramlines which were prowling in the twilight.

We arrived at our apartment just under 3 miles away in Oncan at the far end of Douglas Bay. Our host, Victoria had kindly left the key for us and at 8 am, so as not to disturb them, we crashed out still humming for a couple of hours of sleep deprivation therapy.

We needed to get back on track and plan A was to circumnavigate the TT course before the end of the day regardless of the 16 hours lost in Heysham. Victoria had laid on complimentary Weetabix, toast and marmalade so we had a good fill before we headed off to the race pits at Nobles Park above Douglas town.

What an amazing route … wide open roads, a few tight right-handers which would call for serious breaking on a 200 mph Superbike and a great mixture of flat, undulations and serious climbing. We set off downhill from the pit lane – a great place to get the average speed up to 25 mph before the first set of lights.

Encountering the first roundabout we turned right onto the Peel Road and started to tap out a rhythm through Union Mills, Glen Vine and Greeba Bridge to Ballacraine.

We left the A1 here and turned right onto the A3 immediately kicking up onto the pleasant climb to Glen Helen and Lambfell. The wind was in our favour here and the fast descent off the fell to Kirk Michael began to make our average speed look respectable again. Keeping up our not inconsiderable momentum from Kirk Michael it was six miles through Sulby straight before we hit the next skyward incline out of the river valley just past Sulby Bridge.

I’d never been to Ramsey before so we took the opportunity to park up outside the Trafalgar Hotel – the only hotel I’ve ever known to have a lunchtime menu of plain, salt and vinegar or cheese and onion! I think the chalk board outside was a bit of a give away. Never mind, the beer was quaffable and we had a generous supply of emergency energy products tucked away in our rear pockets. As I struggled to release the tandem from the security of a wooden bench outside, one of the locals quipped “You don’t need that lock here mate! This is the Isle of Man you know!” – oh well, I suppose I’m too accustomed to living in the crime-riddled confines of Cheshire.

Onwards and immediately upwards – out of Ramsey on the A18, up May Hill and onto the Mountain Road. As we topped the climb at Mountain Box with Snaefell clearly in view the south by south west gale hit us squarely in the face making the significant ease of gradient barely noticeable. We battled on through the twists and turns of Verandah for an encounter with Joey Dunlop, immortalised in bronze astride his Honda at Bungalow Bend. Sue straddled the pillion and snuggled up to try and get warm not fully appreciating the heat sapping effect of bronze in this brass monkey weather.

20170224-isle-of-man-joey-dunlop

Bronze Joey and brass monkey!

The bitterly icy wind suggested that our life expectancy would not be great if we stayed here for too long so we remounted, made the short climb up Hailwood Rise to the aptly named Windy Corner and began the final descent. The buffeting wind made for a jittery passage through Keppel Gate and our amply sized disc brakes began to glow as we cranked the tandem over to the right at Creg-ny-Baa – not quite getting our knee sliders down.

The Pits

We were soon back in the urban surroundings of Douglas and our pathetic attempts to pull a wheelie as we took the chequered flag at the finish line were in vain …. dream on! Our starvation at lunch time urged us to make a b-line for the town centre takeaways each of us devouring a 12 inch pizza in record time.

The Terminus Tavern

Gagging for a cuppa, in the inimitable style of Guy Martin, we made our way back to the apartment for some pampering then off to The Terminus Tavern for a couple of pints, procuring tomorrow’s ration of bananas and malt loaf from the local Spar shop on the way.

Relive our experience of the TT course here

Day 3 – Memories


Sue has fond memories of her childhood, spending many summer holidays with her grandparents who semi-retired to the Isle of Man in the sixties to run the Post Office in St.John’s. It was the pilot and navigator’s duty to devise the route of our second day on the Isle with this in mind. As we set off he knew full well he’d be in for a barrage of reminiscent ramblings from the back seat so tried to stay as attentive as humanly possible to avoid the pain of a quick jab in the lumbar region.

Travelling on a budget

We like to travel on a budget and today took the biscuit, so to speak – we clipped our quid’s worth of malt loaf onto our eight quid rack from the other side of the globe and headed off, direction Douglas once more. Today’s route was only 55 miles so this along with a couple of bottles of TorQ powder should have been sufficient to keep the legs spinning vigorously for the duration.

St. John’s Post Office

We headed south passing the TT pits and right onto the A1. Within a short distance a left turn took us off the TT course up a pleasant and manageable climb through Braaid. We joined the A3 through Lower Foxdale and continued into St. John’s, the home of Tynwald Hill, the original assembly place for the Isle of Man Parliament.

We’d decided by now that a single malt loaf wouldn’t contain sufficient calories to fuel our twin-engined steed over the remaining route so we called in at the Post Office for some acute nostalgia … and a couple of pasties washed down with hot tea.

From here, a quick out-and-back down the A27 allowed us a whistle stop visit of the quaint seaside town and fishing port of Peel, the third largest town on the island after Douglas and Ramsey.

From here the road south took us through Glen Maye before the tandem randomly decided to ship its drive chain during a granny gear shift at the bottom of the climb up to the moors around Kerroodhoo Plantation. A bit of nifty finger work and a couple of dock leaves later we were back on the road.

Port Erin

Following our Strava course left at the Plantation we soon found that the road deteriorated into a rough bridleway suitable for motorised two-wheeled green-laners and horses only. A quick about-face saw us climbing into the fog taking a slightly longer route on to the ultra smooth A36 and eventually plummeting down to the coast and on to Port Erin.

Castletown Castle

For the sake of it, another dog leg ensued. This time to tick the visitor’s box for Port St.Mary. By this time we’d begun to calculate the number of daylight hours left – maybe just enough to complete the route as planned and not miss out on too many of the remaining sights. We cracked on anyway, heading along the coast road to the aptly named Castletown.

Silverdale Glen roundabout

From here the wind assisted blast down the A3 rapidly brought us to the turn for Silverdale Glen where we took some time to gaze in wonder at the Victorian water-powered roundabout.

From Ballasalla we headed along the A25 through Crogga to hang a right down to the ghost town of Port Soderick once famous for its pleasure grounds and beach in Victorian times.

Marine Drive toll gate

Lifting the tandem wearily over a padlocked gate, we entered the traffic-free section of Marine Drive. We made the most of the twilight solitude, looking out to sea and listening to the waves crashing on the cliffs below. We were soon approaching the old Victorian toll gate through which an amazing night time panorama of Douglas came into view.

Douglas by night from Marine Drive

From here, feeling the day’s dampness penetrating our bones, we raced back to our lodgings carefully avoiding the tramlines along Douglas bay. In no time at all we were cleaned up and washing our bar meals down with a couple of pints of Okell’s best in The Terminus Tavern.

Relive our experience of the south of the Isle of Man here

Day 4 – Ferry To The Mersey

The Manannan catamaram

It was Sunday morning and the last day of our adventure. The next destination was Birkenhead and another roller coaster cruise across the Irish Sea on the Ben-my-Chree. Departure time was 8 am so we crept out from our apartment at 6:45 for the short journey along the tram lines to the Douglas harbour. Damp again on arrival, we checked in and boarded immediately taking a few snaps of the Steam Packet catamaran, Manannan. In no time at all we were on board and fuelling up on a full English apiece!

The crossing was rough but by no means the worst I’ve experienced. A number of the other passengers were not at their best as sick bags were handed out left right and centre. Shortly before our approach into the Mersey estuary we braved the blustery conditions to view the spectacular sight of Burbo Bank offshore wind farm.

Below deck for a last minute to store up some body heat we docked at Twelve Quays ferry terminal at 12:15 pm. As we were not wearing the obligatory high-viz and safety boots, a burly docker blocked our descent of the ro-ro ramp insisting that we load our tandem into the back of the Steam Packet courtesy bus for the traverse to the terminal building – I wasn’t going to object!

Being almost an adopted son of the Wirral after 25 years working at Stanlow, I was very familiar with the local roads and our route was a 48 mile b-line back to Congleton. We needed to get back sharpish in order to give Sue time to prepare for work on Monday so we pressed on in cool but relatively dry conditions and were home-sweet-home by 4:30 pm.

Not easy but extremely enjoyable – I think that sums up a hastily planned tandem tour in stormy conditions. We’d ridden 236 miles in four days with 10,115 feet of climbing in some horrendous conditions …. we’d donned damp malodorous clothing each day due to the lack of drying facilities …. we’d endured the discomfort and cold of crinkly trench feet …. the legs of man (and woman) were truly aching …. would we have missed it? …. not a chance! A great holiday, never to be forgotten!

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How Far to Ludlow!!?

Congleton Cycling Club have a programme of reliability rides early each season which starts with a 50 miler, progressing on through 65 and 100 miles. A few years ago, specialist long distance time triallist Karl Austin, who sadly is no longer with us due to a racing accident, decided to take it one step further and devised a 155 mile reliability route from Congleton to Ludlow and back. Understandably, this event has never raised any great enthusiasm within the club membership and I, personally, had been trying my best to avoid it up until this year.

The club’s ladies’ ultra endurance section aka Denise Hurst, Paris-Brest-Paris finisher, and Sue Blake, Land’s End to John o’Groats veteran, were desperately trying to recruit numbers for this ride. So, in the absence of any other takers, and being known for my penchant for distance, I was well and truly roped in – I definitely had my work cut out riding that sort of distance with these two!

Impressive ride with a cannon in your jersey pocket

Impressive ride with a cannon in your jersey pocket

The weather was pretty decent on the day so I decided to ride the extra leg from Mow Cop for the 6:30am rendezvous at the club house in Congleton. We set of promptly with a slight tailwind helping us along the route through Madeley and Eccleshall where the ladies had chance for a quick, and civilised, pee stop. Newport was next then the outskirts of Telford and through Much Wenlock before riding into Ludlow across the middle of the horse racing course.

Lunch stop was at the Castle Lodge Buttery, opposite Ludlow castle, where a beef Sunday roast was dispensed into the fuel tank. A quick photo opportunity outside the castle prompted one particular club member to comment later that I’d done well to ride all that way with a cannon tucked in my jersey pocket!

It was barely noticeable as we set of northwards but the wind was not in our favour and we suspected it may be a long hard slog back to Congleton.

Congleton CC Ladies' Ultra Distance Section

Congleton CC Ladies’ Ultra Distance Section

Due to lack of recent long rides, Denise had started to feel her legs but she soldiered on through Bridgnorth and Albrighton, occasionally stopping to take on food. By the time we’d arrived at Gnossal for a coffee break on the petrol station forecourt, Denise was urging us to plough on without her. Approaching Stone, she switched to PBP mode and insisted that we forge ahead. Time to see what Sue was made of?

We kept the pace relatively high for such a long ride with Sue achieving two Strava QOM trophies on the way: a 4.5 mile climb from Stone to Rough Close with 135 miles in her legs and the next, on the steep Bagnall hospital approach at 146 miles. Phew!! On the final steep descent of the day, from Bagnall to Milton, I tucked in behind whilst Sue proved that, not only did she have the staying power for a 150 mile ride, but she was also “a mean descender for a girl”.

We rode all the way back to the club house to make sure no disqualifications were administered for non-completion of the course, arriving about 7:30pm. By the time I got home to Mow Cop I’d clocked 170.4 miles and 7,579 ft of ascent at 14.6 mph – my second longest ride ever after a 232 mile 12 hour time trial back in 2006. The Strava club leader board was looking pretty healthy too:20150405 CCC LeaderboardAn amazing day out in near perfect weather conditions and in great company. We must rally to keep this event on the calendar for next year. Have I a seconder?

Strava route


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No Rest ’til Bilbao

20150308_154435It was now Monday 2nd March and, after the exertions of my previous week in Asturias, totalling 418 miles and 57,000 feet of ascent, I was now thinking about taking the final week and a half of my break at a more leisurely pace. I needed to tread a little more carefully now particularly because I’d experienced a rather strong bout of the pájara (or Spanish bonk) yesterday afternoon when returning from Nava via the scenic and very, very undulating ridge route to Anayo.

I desperately needed rest but I had a few minor chores to attend to including a patch and paint job in the hallway which has now taken eight years to complete! Monday and Tuesday followed a similar pattern: lie in … eat … paint … eat … rest … eat … clean bike … eat … replace ineffective and lethal rear brake blocks … eat … food shop … eat … empty bins … rest … eat … blog … eat … early bed. It’s a long long time since I’ve taken such care over replenishing and repairing my broken body but I was feeling revitalised by Tuesday evening and el tiempo was forecasting clear blue skies. I eagearly messaged Martin and very shortly afterwards, we had our next route sorted using the Strava vertical planner.

The predicted weather came right on cue. I used Wednesday morning to plot out my El Naranco course on Strava. I was planning to complete this ride on Saturday with Ian, who only gets chance to ride weekends in the winter months. An important point to note for Strava users is; the phone app does not support route builder so do not attempt to use route builder in a browser on a mobile data connection unless you have a large quantity euros to burn! Once that was done and dusted, I raced down to Infiesto to meet Martin who took me south-west on a delightful, but testing loop to Cuerrias skirting each bank of the Rio Cuerrias de Maza. After a quick coffee at Cafe Venecia in Infiesto Martin went to pick his kids up from school and I continued up the Alto de La Llama once more to Bar Asturcon and a lengthy conversation with Jonathon about the historic achievements of Spain and England in the football World Cup. Jonathon loves an opportunity to practice his impressive English vocab and I almost ended up being late getting back to Infiesto and Cafe Ramses to watch Stoke 2-0 Everton and to upload a blog.

Strava route

Today: 50.8 miles 8,263 ft of ascent

Total this week: 50.8 miles 8,263 ft of ascent

I’d survived my first post-pájara ride and felt surprisingly good on it so, Thursdays blue skies saw my confidence back with an ambitious out and back route to Los Lagos de Covadonga – a regular HC climb on the Vuelta. The surface of the approach road between Soto de Cangas and Covadonga had been transformed since my last visit – from stable but jittery to silky smooth. The final 12 kilometres – the real climb – saw 20 minutes carved off my PR, which now stands at 1 hour 24 minutes! The grind through La Huesera, through and above the snowline, rewarded me with yet more stunning views of this picture postcard wonderland. The descent was quite pleasant in comparison to my last, near-hypothermic, visit to Los Lagos during the 2014 edition of the Vuelta – at this time of year, when the sun is shining, it’s often warmer on the peaks than in the valleys. Alto de La Llama was, once again, the final difficulty of the day and I took the opportunity to nip in for a coffee and to conclude my World Cup conversation with Jonathon.

Strava route

Today: 74.2 miles 13,038 ft of ascent

Total this week: 125 miles 21,301 ft of ascent

Over 120 miles of serious ascent in two days and I was again thinking of restful activities for Friday. I set off at 10:30am on my trusty Honda VFR, direction Mieres. Clear blue skies along with a thumping medley of dance and rock music, channeled into my helmet, soon whisked me away to another parallel existence. An awesome journey of 9 hours and 220 miles, over four major cols and around approximately one million bends – and I thought cycling was tough!!Tarna Motorcycle Route The route took me over the Alto de La Colladiella and the Alto de La Calladona before a lunch of dry jamon bocadillo and Coke on the shores of the reservoir in Tanes. Two huge climbs followed; the snow bound Puertos de Tarna and San Glorio – the latter only just being identifiable due to the majority of it’s altimetry sign being obscured by a snow drift. The locals up there were working flat out to care for the livestock after weeks of horrendous snow falls and, at one point, I had to manouvre around a deer, stranded on the road and unable to escape over the deep snow plough channel. The final section through Potes, Panes and Cangas de Onis saw daylight expire. I arrived home at 8pm and it was now a mad panic to prepare for tomorrow’s human-powered expedition. So much for my rest day!!

Saturday was El Naranco day, and fortunately, Martin’s family had gone skiing in San Isidro, so he was free to join us for a ride. I was up before the crack of dawn as I had a one and a half hour ride to meet Martin and Ian in El Berron at 9:30am. A good tailwind (and a bit of contingency) saw me arrive early so I killed the next twenty minutes drinking coffee with the local alcoholics in the first bar I could find. We set off and before long we were team time trialling through the flat approaches to Oviedo mainly tucked in behind the not so insignificant frame of the master of local navigation – Ian. Even taxi drivers must struggle with the ad-hoc one way systems and traffic lights that adorn most of Asturias’s large cities! We made it to the base of the climb and were soon out of the saddle, churning our way past the World Heritage Site of Santa Maria del Naranco a pre-Romanesque church built in 848AD. A few, much younger, mountain bikers provided the carrot for us to maintain the pace right to the top where we were gifted with yet more amazing views – the bowl of Oviedo, shadowed by the legendary L’Angliru. A few shutter clicks later and we were on the descent for a coffee stop at a bar on the lower slopes. It was here that I had my first experience of the ZipVit bakewell tart flavour gel – a free sample from Cayon Bikes in Infiesto, owned and run by Jonathon’s brother. Bloody disgusting!! A ghastly mixture of rotting marzipan and lighter fuel! Oh well … down the hatch … think of the calories. Ian was heading home to Gijon now so he took the lead and treated us to our first experience of the very gentle Alto de La Miranda. Soon after, Martin “I never attack” Bacon decided he was going to shed that reputation. He tested me on the first short hill but blew, 30 metres from the crest. Tactics then changed when he shouted a right turn to me and duly attacked the next hill as he and Ian kept left. A quick about face saw me bursting a lung and semi-regurgitating the repulsive bakewell tart gel to regain lost ground. However, Martin held on, looking smug, to take his craftily earned points. From here on, Martin demonstrated his inability to recover from intervals and hung well off the back, past the environmentally unfriendly steelworks and into Gijon. We split three ways in Gijon; Martin, over La Madera back to Pola de Siero; me, an undulating ride to Villaviciosa and; Ian, back home, just around the corner, for a few ice-cool cervesas! In true Strava nerd style, I’ll admit to doing an additional three laps of Villaviciosa town centre to ensure that my ride clocked just over 100 miles when I’d completed the testing climb back to Anayo.

Strava route

Today: 100.4 miles 11,771 ft of ascent

Total this week: 225.4 miles 33,072 ft of ascent

Ian had messaged me on Friday night asking if I minded a few lambs joining our planned ride on Sunday. By this, I think he was referring to the intimated slaughter inflicted by our activity program thus far. I descended from Anayo to Villaviciosa to meet Martin and Ian along with Ian’s two Spanish “lambs”, Rufi and Luis. I already knew Rufi’s reasonable cycling abilities from our Los Lobos/Arnicio ride a week ago, however, Luis, a 67 year old, and recovering from gastro-enteritis, would ensure the pace remained modest. Ian was awarded the prize for the first puncture in two weeks of heavy mileage as we left the N632 southward (and upwards) on the VV7. Here, Luis treated us to an unusual demonstration of what must be the ancient art of Spanish knee pumping in order to get maximum pressure back into Ian’s spare tube – don’t ask!! After all that knee pumping, he and Rufi made their own way back to Gijon, just after a very pleasant coffee break in Peon. La Fumerea was the next objective for the three hardy Brits. At the summit, Ian would peeSporting Gijon v Las Palmas Ticketl off towards Gijon via Collada de Altras and La Madera whilst me and Martin would ride back to Villaviciosa via La Campa. We bade farewell to Ian and had a steady ride to the top of La Campa where, knowing that Martin was thinking he’d completed his last strenuous effort of the day, I duly pegged it on the descent. A headwind kept the pace below 30 mph and, credit to Martin (we all know he’s a coughing, spluttering smoker!!), Leader boardwe entered the town together, rewarding ourselves with more coffee and pinchos at one of Villaviciosa’s delightful bars. Martin drove home from here leaving me with the slightly daunting task of riding back to Anayo via La Curciada. Arriving home, I cleaned up and met again with Ian that evening at El Molinon, home to Sporting Gijon who were hosting Las Palmas in a top of the Segunada table clash. Result? 1-1 draw, and a damn good evening out. It was Strava podium night and I could not crash out before a quick peek at the Congleton CC standings – a clean sweep in all three categories on just four rides – very satisfying!

Strava route

Video: Bacon v Bytheway on La FumareaSporting Gijon Penno

Today: 61.9 miles 8,857 ft of ascent

Total this week: 287.3 miles 41,929 ft of ascent

Martin had something ESPecial lined up for our final ride on Monday. Three weeks in Asturias, 975 miles, 134,000 feet of ascent and now this!! The Ermita de Alba – the final climb of the Vuelta 2015 stage 16 and an absolute beast. Martin had been blowing hot and cold all week about driving over to Parque Natural de las Ubinas to attempt a videod ascent for his Bike Asturias blog but, on Sunday afternoon we decided to bite the bullet. He messaged me early on Monday morning to say he was struggling to walk up the stairs let alone tackle the Ermita! He very rarely rides three days in succession but I knew it was all a bluff! This was to be a three stage ride for me, with the rides to, and from, Pola de Siero being a mere formality compared to the main objective of the day. We loaded the van and headed to Pola de Lena where we picked up the intimidating climb of Alto de La Cobertoria – the penultimate climb on this year’s stage 16.IMG-20150309-WA0008 It would have been a travesty not to stop for a photo opportunity at the top of the Cobertoria so we stopped for a breath of fresh air at 1173 metres above sea level to take a few snaps. Back in the van, we continued to Barzana where we unloaded and headed off on the short ride to the foot of the Ermita. A very informative sign at the bottom of the road confirmed that we were, indeed, about to climb the correct cliff face, averaging 11.2% for 6.3 kilometres! This climb must have the same difficulty as the upper half of L’Angliru – it was tortuous apart from a very short section of flat/downhill about two thirds of the way up. Martin insisted that a group of horses had hindered his ascent and, having watched the video, I can confirm that the horses kept uphill attacking each time Martin tried to overtake – very funny viewing!! Action shotWhen he eventually passed, he shared a joke with the farmer about the traffic congestion on this particular section of highway. A no entry sign ended the road climb at a picnic area short of the church itself. You needed a mountain bike or a 4×4 to get beyond this point. I know one thing for certain – my 30/27 came in very useful so, don’t miss this stage on TV in September – the finish will be very very interesting. After a few more photos on the descent and rapidly running out of time, we had to race back in the van to pick Martin’s kids up from school. At the end of another hard day, mostly out of the saddle, I had a steady ride back to Anayo, stopping for Coke and coffee at La Curciada. By the end of the day I’d ended up 88th out of 62,000 on the Strava March climbing challenge – no mean feat but I doubt I’ll still be there in two weeks time.

Strava routes: Anayo to Pola de Siero, Ermita de Alba, Pola de Siero to Anayo.

Video: Ermita de Alba

Today: 55.6 miles 7,851 ft of ascent

Tuesday was going to be a proper rest day – honest! That was the plan, but it failed at the first hurdle. I went the the bike shop in Villaviciosa, on my trusty Honda VFR, to get some brake blocks that worked in an attempt to make negotiation of steep hair-pinned descents a little less unnerving. I also picked up a bottle of the most aggressive bike cleaning spray that money can buy and some Schwalbe Ultremo rubber. The sun was still shining and La Campa, from Villaviciosa,20150310_143353 is a wonderful climb on any form of two wheeled transport. I drifted into that parallel universe once more and, when I regained my earthly senses, I found myself in La Vega Riosa at the foot of the “Big One”. You can’t spend three weeks in Asturias without tackling the L’Angliru. Base camp at Viapara was reached in record time. However, snow ploughs are not geared up for the 23.5% inclines so progress came to an abrupt halt just above Les Picones at 1084 metres – a tad disappointing but another fantastic day out on two wheels. On the way back I called in at Martin’s for a brew and then on to Mercadona in Pola de Siero who, I found, stock Tetley teabags – not that Spanish excuse for tea that most other places sell. Unfortunately, when I eventually got back home, there’d been a leak of agressive bike cleaner in my top box. This had formed a lethal cocktail with the fizzling residue from the crown cap of one of my Steinburg Tostadas and melted my Mercadona plastic shopping bags – not a pretty sight, or smell! After a major clean-up operation I messaged Martin and Ian with a proposed summer assault on L’Angliru – I’ll let you know their response if they ever reply!

Wednesday:

10:45am Loaded up the Honda VFR and left Anayo.

12:15pm Arrived Bilbao portua.

2:15pm Boarded Brittany-Ferries Amorique.

3:00pm Feet up and pint of Stella at the bar – No Rest ’til Bilbao!!


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A Double Everest in Asturias

It was Monday 23rd February and I felt as though I’d settled in now after the first week of my extended holiday in Asturias. The tortuous motorcycle journey through the snowy mountains of Cantabria was becoming a distant memory; my chewed and twisted chain and sprocket set had been promptly replaced at the local motorcycle dealer in Oviedo; I’d got my first 100 miler in with Martin and then; turned up for the Club Nava 2000 Ruta de Marisco Marcha Social to show a few Spaniards (but not all), that there are definite advantages in training right through the harsh winter weather conditions.

One objective that I did have on this holiday, which came with much encouragement and cajoling from my club mate Sue Blake, was to eclipse my Congleton CC Strava club adversaries in the quest for the top step of the weekly mileage podium. There are one or two on there who are renowned for churning out those flat Cheshire miles and employing their skilful cyber-tactics to ensure that they achieve the KOM (King of the Mileage) crown on a regular basis. The Strava club contest is not just limited to total mileage – there is also honour to be gained from achieving the longest single ride of the week and/or the total altitude gained.

After my previous week’s paltry total of 213.4 miles, I set off on Monday morning with great intent, completing a challenging route before most others had even removed their cycling clips on their first commute of the week. I took the most direct route to Martin’s place for a quick slurp of Tetley’s best (tea that is!!) before tackling the relatively easy climbs of La Campa, Alto de Buenos Ares and Alto de La Llama (anyone who is a regular reader will know Alto de La Llama by now – it’s home to my local hostelry, Bar Asturcon – my Iberian parallel to the Mow Cop Killer Mile and the Cheshire View back in the UK).

Strava route

Today: 61 miles 7,670 ft of ascent

Total so far: 61 miles 7,670 ft of ascent

Tuesday called for an interlude of common sense. Three consecutive days of riding now required a rest period, which I duly spent doing DIY in the house! All was not lost as, later, I walked over to Bar AsturconAsturcon and Jonathon hoping to watch Man City play Barcelona in the Champions League. When I arrived, the door appeared to be jammed so I rattled it in desperation! Jonathon the owner, a born-and-bred Asturian, and language graduate of Leeds University (I kid you not) released the bolt to inform me that they normally close at 8pm in the winter months. However, without hesitation, his mother agreed to prepare a tasty meal of seafood soup, hake fillets, chips and salad as we settled in to watch Messi and Co. dismantling the very expensively assembled English champions. It takes a lot to beat hospitality like this!

Strava route

Today: nowt

Total so far: little progress

It’s always a good opportunity for a big ride after a rest day and Wednesday was no exception. I headed over to Martin’s the long way – Nava, the centre of the local Sidra industry, and then up the Alto de La Faya de Los Lobos, a regular on the Vuelta, followed by a steep descent into the mining towns of Pola de Laviana and Langreo. 20150225_120111From here I followed the freshly made, laid and tunneled AS119 (what’s the point of all that expenditure? I had the road to myself!) to La Cruz where I looped back to find out what it was like to travel that route on donkey-back before tunnelling became a technological and economic viability. Martin now joined me and his local knowledge took me for my first taste of La Madera and over into Gijon. Due to a busy schedule with work and the kids, Martin had to head home. We departed company after he’d pointed me up an 18% ramp in the direction of La Fumerea. “That’s only a short ramp followed by a slightly longer 15% section” he reassured. This turned out to be the understatement of the week – I ground my way up Collada de Altras and found out later that this is the only road in Asturias where Martin had fallen off sideways due to his inability to crank a 34-30!! The Altras lead on to La Fumerea and a tricky descent to Villaviciosa in soaking, drizzly rain. On the climb to Anayo, a quiet bleep in my back pocket indicated that my phone battery was in a similar state to myself and due to expire very shortly. I’d recorded 96 miles at the point of failure but I had my trusty Garmin 200 on board which gave the true story of 103 miles for the day.

Strava route

Today: 103 miles 12,804 ft of ascent

Total so far: 164 miles 20,474 ft of ascent

Thursday saw a bit of improvisation. I wanted to conquer the Alto del Torno again after my very enjoyable pre-Vuelta reccy last year with Martin and San Fransiscan grimpeur, Geoff Kaplan. I headed off alone along the Atlantic coast towards Nueva, requesting feedback from my legs as to how much climbing they could cope with after the previous day’s trauma on the Altras. The answer was affirmative. 20150226_122143From El Torno, the views of the snow-capped eastern massif of the Picos were truly amazing – views that would only be surpassed during my very last ride of the week near Infiesto. The eyes, and legs, were happy so I set off on the descent to Cangas de Onis. From here I headed south up the valley towards Puerto del Ponton hanging a right in Sames to one of my favourite watering holes at the hotel in Selleno. I always take the opportunity to stop in this idyllic spot for refreshments, whether it be after the tricky descent of Collado de Moande or, as today, prior to the punishing ride to the top. A pleasant descent off Moande to Sevares and Villamayor took me to the foot of the Killer Mile – sorry …. Alto de la Llama!!

Strava route

Today: 83.1 miles 14,982 ft of ascent

Total so far: 247.1 miles 35,456 ft of ascent

By Friday, I felt comfortable and in control of my Strava club podium objective so I floated casually into another rest day. This involved a shopping trip to Ikea (tricky on a motorbike) and coming to terms with the need to book my return ferry!

No Strava route

Total so far: no progress

Now Saturday was, again, a day of improvisation, and total two-wheeled gratification, largely due to the company of Ian, a naturalised Asturian of Brummy descent (not his fault!). Ian, along with his lovely Spanish wife, have run an English language school in Gijon for the last 30 years to finance their social life and Ian’s fetish for Lycra and carbon fibre. Ian rode out to Villavicoisa to meet me prior to a short ride to the fishing village of Tazones20150228_104326 for coffee and the obligatory photo opportunity. From here I took advantage of Ian’s local knowledge for a guided tour of Gijon including; El Molinon (home of the local football team – Sporting Gijon), the local cycling track, ian’school and Decathlon. 20150228_125708Fond farewells led on to my first southerly ascent of La Madera and a pretty straight forward route back home via La Campa.

Strava route

Today: 86.8 miles 9,935 ft of ascent

Total so far: 333.9 miles 45,391 ft of ascent

It’s not like me to hijack someone else’s Sunday club run but I ended up leading a contingent of Club Nava 2000 over some serious terrain through the Parque Natural de Redes. Five met up at the Museo de la Sidra in Nava with the worrying prospect of a warm-up on the ascent of Alto de La Faya de Los Lobos. Martin, due to a chest injury and operating on a single burbling lung, impressively stayed in contact although, Roberto, who would gladly welcome the demise of Wiggins/Froome and British cycling forever, put up a great performance and saw Spain ahead on points at the crest of the day’s first climb. A descent into Pola de Laviana led us on to an amazing ride along the Rio Nalon valley past the reservoirs of Rioseco, cutting across to Bueres just east of Campo de Caso. Now the next section has the potential to be one of the best climbs in Europe and it’s a travesty that the local authority have not upgraded this road to the same standard as many others in the area. It surely won’t be a long time coming considering the recent investment in the Asturian road infrastructure. The Collado de Arnicio is stunning and, subject to road surface improvements, will certainly be one to watch out for in upcoming editions of the Vuelta. Roberto gave me a tough time on this climb but I dug deep to ensure that England attained the overall victory. Due to the uncharacteristically appalling road surface, the descent to Infiesto was reminiscent of days gone by and I kept having visions of the five of us racing downhill in our merino wool jerseys – spare tubs hanging from our shoulders wrapped in a figure of eight. Having rattled out a few loose fillings on the descent, we had a steady ride back along the N634 to Nava where Ian duly treated us to a well overdue ration of Estrella. Timing was of the essence on this ride – my journey back to Anayo (via the undulating scenic route) gave me my first experience of serious hypoglycaemia for a long long time; the previous occasion being a six day, 550 mile “holiday” in Majorca back in 2004.

Strava route

Today: 84.8 miles 11,904 ft of ascent

Total for the week: 418.7 miles 57,297 ft of ascent

Epilogue

I touched base with Sue back in the UK to try and determine if any of our Congleton CC adversaries were still out there clocking up the miles by torchlight. Quite a number of them had been out on the annual 100 mile reliability ride so we were expecting some impressive figures on this week’s podium. Due to the reliability ride, I knew my 103 mile ride (96 officially on Strava) wouldn’t be enough to secure a podium spot for the longest ride of the week. However, I’d imposed a double eclipse in the categories of total mileage and total altitude gain. More importantly, with the help of Sue, who’d been pipped by a couple of miles in the longest ride category, we’d managed to leave the club’s master cyber-tacticians scratching their heads.

29,029 ft x 2 = 58,058 – 57,297 = 761

EVER WISHED YOU’D RIDDEN AROUND THE BLOCK ONCE MORE!!

Strava Podium


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Snow Joke in Cantabria – An Intrepid Motorised Journey on Two Wheels

In December 2014, my long time employers had selfishly decided to close down the plant that had been my bread and butter for the last 18 years. So, being one never to turn down an opportunity I decided to take an extended holiday before resuming my search for someone else to finance my seemingly ever distant retirement.

I’d always wanted to take my motorcycle to Europe again after only two previous trips as a much younger man; to Brittany in 1982 and Nuremburg in 1992. Having my own place in Asturias and the covenience of the UK to Spain ferry links the destination was a no brainer. It was February and the downside was that we were just on the back end of the worst snowfalls that Asturias had experienced in many many years. Oh well, this weather beaten two wheeled traveller wasn’t going to be detered by a few feet of snow and temperatures approaching zero on ungritted roads.

20150215_091526

My top box and panniers were clipped onto my trusty Honda VFR800 and I set off at 5am on 15th February for a chilly but uneventful journey to Portsmouth, arriving at 8:45 for the11am ferry to Santander.

There were only two other motorcyclists on this crossing; one, a full on Paris-Dakar adventure boy, hell bent on blasting through north Africa to get as close to the equator and back in his alloted two weeks off work – and good luck to him! The other was a mountain of an Irishman, Darren, who had only passed his test 3 months previously and had probably taken out a mortgage to buy a suitable touring machine and all the paraphenalia required for his ambitious expedition. His plan was to ride to Athens (via Portugal of all places!!) and then book a return flight to London, enabling him to service his obligations of six days at work before returning to Athens to continue his two wheeled journey home via eastern Europe.

Walking around a ferry in motorcycling gear certainly attracts attention from incomprehensible numbers of has-been, wanna-be and born-again bikers who are more than willing to exchange motorcycling anecdotes to kill some of the 24 hours of sailing time. The journey was certianly more pleasant than tearing southwards on endless French motorways at this time of year. The bay of Biscay was remarkably kind to us and all the sick bag dispensers remained unused as we sailed into Santander harbour.

20150216_114745Idle chat developed into the first day’s riding plan as myself and Darren surveyed the thin grey blanket of cloud above. “How do you fancy a guided tour of the Western Picos Darren?”. “Sure, that would be great so long as I can get to Oviedo before dark”. “That’s great, we have four or five hours before dusk.”

I messaged my friend Martin and arranged for Darren to stay overnight at his Bike Barn in Pola de Siero, twenty minutes from Oviedo. As we skirted Santander harbour looking for the exit I had this fantastic motorcycling route spinning around in my head; west to Unquera on the A8 motorway then a loop upwards into the mountains through Puentenansa to Puerto de Piedrasluengas and back down to Panes via Potes. From here we would wind our way up to Arenas de Cabrales following the Rio Cares on the AS114 and on to Cangas de Onis, the main tourist town in this area.

We fuelled up and were in Unquera in no time at all. The route from here is unbelivably picturesque and must certainly be in the top ten of European motorcycling routes – afterall, I had devised a cycle ride over these roads during last years Vuelta and used motorcycle touring websites to aid my research.

It was a comfortable 10 oC in the lower reaches of the ascent and we decided to stop for a photo opportunity at the spectacular dam which restrains the Embalse (reservoir) de La Cohilla. This point in the ride saw the end to all pleasantries …..

As we passed the dam, the temperature immediately plummeted to 4 oC and a snow plough channel presented us with four feet of glistening icy wall either side of the road, which would often narrow down to a precarious single track. Thankfully the air temperature remained positive up to the Mirador de La Cruz de Cabezuela where we stopped for another photo opportunity.

At the junction with the CA184 there was a sign indicating that the Puerto de Piedradluengas was closed to traffic. Thank god for that! I was starting to get slightly concerned for our survival as the heavens had now opened and that horrendous core-soaking type of drizzle had begun to sheet from the sky. We descended at a very cautious pace, not only due to the rivers of water blanketing the slippery road but also, the lack of windscreen wipers on our visors meant that it was almost impossible to see the road ahead!

No more photo opportunities for me thanks! – I’d seen enough rain to last me a lifetime and visibility was extremely poor. We took a right in Ojedo, near Potes, and then a left in Panes onto the AS114. The rain was still teaming down and I was desperately requiring the servicios so, I pulled in at the petrol sation in Arenas and peeled off my water-logged gloves. Darren pulled in behined and crawled off his steed, shivering. Little did I know he was only wearing his shower-proof gear and was now carrying about a gallon and a half of chilly water about his prescence. “I should have put my full waterproofs on” he chattered. “I think I need to book into a hotel here and dry out”. Luckily for him, there is a great choice of hotels in the town due to the big local tourist attractions of the Cares Gorge and the Funicular de Bulnes.

I messaged Martin with the cancellation and exchanged farewells with Darren. I then spent the next ten minutes trying to get my multilayered “waterproof” gloves – which were now full of water! – back onto my frozen hands. No amount of straining provided the desired result so I completed the remainder of the journey in my “waterproof” cycling gloves which were handily stowed in my top box.

I was within an hour of my house now and looking forward to a night huddled around a convector heater with the dehumidifier buzzing in my ears. However, the difficulties had not yet ceased. It was already dark by the time I reached Arriondas and the main N634 was closed west of the town – a 50 foot retaining wall had collapsed due to the weather conditions. The diversion involved a mountainous journey on what could only be described as dangerous, twisty farm tracks from times gone by – all this on a motorcycle, in the dark with a raging torrent flowing across one’s visage! (Darren messaged me the following day to say that he had got lost on the same diversion and it had been two hours before he’d found his way back to the N634).

Soto de Duenas ….Villamayor …. Alto de La Llama ….. Anayo …. the welcoming shelter of my house in Robledo. It’s nice to remind yourself from time to time that the hardest days of your life are often up there with the most memorable – and in a strange way the most enjoyable. Thanks for the company Darren, and it’s nice to know that you eventually dried out on your next leg to Portugal.


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Froome Fails to Sink The Spanish Armada

Asturian StagesThis was my fifth attendance at the Vuelta since my first trip over there in 2006. Meticulous planning for a long weekend along with convenience of Easyjet’s Manchester to Bilbao flight schedules meant that I could fly out on Friday, ride to, and watch, three stages on Saturday, Sunday and Monday and fly back on Tuesday – what’s the chance of a recurrence of that convenient itinerary? For this particular trip, I took into consideration that, not only are the shops closed in Spain on Sundays, but it was also a regional public holiday in Asturias on the Monday. It was therefore essential on my arrival to acquire enough hi-carb fodder to fuel me through the whole weekend and to take my industrial grade ear plugs to help me sleep through the festivities.

 

Stage 14: Santander / La Camperona. Valle de Sábero 

Asturias FlagThis stage never actually entered Asturias but was easily accessible as it skirted the Cantabrian border before a mountain top finish in Castilla y Leon. I’d already ridden the section between La Hermida and Riano (90-160km) back in August, including the main difficulty of the day – the category 1 Puerto de San Glorio. To avoid an excessively long car journey, I focussed my attention on the category 2 Collada de la Hoz  just under mid way between Santander and the finish line. I had two options:

  1. A ride from the coast and a 2 hour wait at the Hoz to see the riders fly past.
  2. A longer ride up the CA-184, a popular road for motorcyclists from Potes to Puerto de Piedrasluengas, taking a risk that I might not loop around in time to catch the riders going up the Hoz.

 

I went for option 2, missing the race but never regretting the decision for one minute. Motorcyclists certainly know their roads – the surface up to Puerto de Piedrasluengas exuded asphaltic perfection. At my modest speed however, there were no requirements for knee-sliders when negotiating the switchbacks in the upper reaches of the climb.

The descent on the CA-281 past the Mirador de el Jabalí and  over the dam at Embalse de la Cohilla was just stunning. A left turn at the bottom, in Puentenansa, took me over the Collado de Ozalba to rejoin the Vuelta route at Sobrelapena and over Collada de la Hoz back to my starting point in La Hermida.

Today, I wanted to ride the Hoz in the same direction as the Vuelta riders but, in hindsight, it would have been much better to do this route clockwise rather than anti-clockwise. This would have given an opportunity to spend more time on the dramatic climbs of the Hoz from La Hermida and past the dam at Embalse de la Cohilla. One could also have taken advantage of the pristine road surface for a fast decent from Puerto de Piedrasluengas – oh well, maybe next time.

Stats of the day:

  • Stage winner: Ryder Hesjedal – he of the motor doping fame
  • Total distance: 69.7 miles
  • Total ascent: 9596 feet (Strava phone app recorded 16,239 feet)

Links:

Puerto de Piedrasluengas, Collado de Ozalba and Collada de la Hoz from La Hermida

Puerto de San Glorio on the Ruta Maratoniana (reccy)

 

Stage 15: Oviedo / Lagos de Covadonga 

Asturias Flag My friend Martin dashed back from his holiday in Navia to join me for this ride as he could not resist the temptation of another attempt on his Los Lagos PR. We’d already done a reccy of the last two climbs on this stage back in June this year. Geoff Kaplan from San Fransico accompanied us on that occasion over the category 2 Puerto del Torno and up to Los Lagos. I persuaded Martin that an out-and-back route from Alto de la Llama, a stone’s throw from my place, would be the best option so we met for coffee at Bar Asturcon and subsequently set off down La Llama for an easy ride to Covadonga where all the fun would commence.

LosLagosFinishLine

We’ve Done It (Again)

Due to a breakdown in communication, Martin ended up on the main climb ahead of me which meant busting a gut to try and catch up. After the first 2 kilometres, averaging 10-11%, I found Martin casually chatting to a couple of cycling fanatics camped up in front of a huge flag of St. George. He kept us talking there for the next five minutes and I only later realised that this was his cunning plan to prevent me taking King of the Mountains on our mini Los Lagos leader board.

Onwards and upwards, past La Huesera, a 1 kilometre ramp of 12.5% where the stage attacks were likely to kick off, we eventually arrived at the stage finish for the obligatory “we’ve done it” (again in our case) photo-shoot. Within minutes of our arrival the pitter-patter of precipitation turned into a freezing torrential downpour, soaking us to the skin and setting us up nicely for a very uncomfortable descent to our selected viewing position 5 kilometres from the finish at Mirador de la Reina.

We opted to stand next to a deafening diesel generator which was churning away to power the adjacent snack bar, the canopy of which had been besieged by a heard of dripping, dithering spectators trying to avoid the prospect of hypothermia. Regardless of likely damage to our delicate auditory mechanisms, bodily survival was paramount and, as soon as the heavens cleared, we de-robed  and used the generator’s warming exhaust as a makeshift tumble drier.

Soon afterwards, the helicopters, motorcycles and lead car buzzed past and the lens of my phone camera recorded eventual stage winner, Polish rider Przemysław Niemiec, leading the race with Australian rider Cameron Meyer in hot pursuit. Meyer eventually succumbed and finished 16th at 2’01”.

For our descent, the weather held out and the generous selection of wannabe road race breakaway groups meant that we got back to Arriondas in record time. After a little TT practice along the flat to Villamayor we switched to autobus mode and ground our way back up La Llama to Bar Asturcon where the Mahous were on me.

Daylight had expired and on return to my house I settled in to watch the day’s highlights on TDP. A TV camera shot from the rear perfectly framed the beauty of Asturias in the finish line banner.

The Beauty of Asturias on TV

Stats of the day:

  • Stage winner: Przemysław Niemiec
  • Total distance: 72.3 miles
  • Total ascent: 7783 feet (Strava phone app recorded 10,449 feet)

Links:

Summit of Los Lagos and back to Mirador de la Reina / Back to Alto de la Llama / Whole ride ©Martin

Puerto del Torno and Los Lagos de Covadonga (reccy)

 

Stage 16: San Martin de Rey Aurelio / La Farrapona. Lagos de Somiedo 

Asturias Flag Again, Martin and I had already done a reccy of the last two climbs on this stage back in April this year, La Farrapona and Puerto de San Lorenzo. Today was an Asturian bank holiday and Martin had family duties to attend to, albeit a picnic on the upper reaches of the category 2 Alto del Cordal.  I suspect he had realised the difficulty of the ride I had planned and felt that a picnic would be by far the most sensible option after our exertions of the previous day on Los Lagos.

CobertoriaInCar

Easiest “Bag” of the Day

In an attempt to avoid the possibility of congestion on a road ascent of La Farrapona, I decided to drive over the Alto de la Cobertoria, park at Barzana and unload my hefty Rockrider 5.2 mountain bike. A very testing route would then take me up Puerto de Trobaniello and over Puerto de Ventana followed by a short descent and a climb up the back entrance of La Farrapona on the track from Torrestio, hopefully in time to see the stage finish.

The climb of the Trobaniello started, in earnest, at the bridge in Ricabo where I met up with three friendly (and much younger) Spanish riders who would handily pace me up and over the forthcoming torturous terrain. Within a short distance, at Bueida, the tarmac transitioned to dirt track and the ramps increased in severity, up to 20% towards the top of the climb. The first 11 miles, from Barzana to the top of the Trobaniello saw my Garmin clock up 4000 feet of ascent – an average gradient of 6.9%!!

After a quick pit stop at Puerto de Ventana to share the contents of a fountain with some wild horses I continued on to Torrestio and up the dirt track to the summit of La Farrapona.

I parked my cumbersome steed 200 metres from the finish line, hoping that soon I would see Chris Froome powering his way to a stage win with Contador in his wake. However, my phone camera recorded the reality as Contador went on to win the stage with Froome trailing by 15 seconds.

Clouds loomed at the top of La Farrapona and the warm summer day took a turn for the worst. The rain began to fall but it was mercifully warm rain unlike the previous day’s storm on Los Lagos. I retraced my tracks, enjoying the effort free 11 mile descent from the Trobaniello and arriving back at the car in Barzana just before dark.

Light Fading on the Flat Between Ventana and Trobaniello

I called in at Martin’s place on the journey back for a debrief on the family picnic and a surplus brie sandwich that just happened to be on offer. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t convince him that he had made the wrong decision regarding his day’s activities.

Stats of the day:

  • Stage winner: Alberto Contador
  • Total distance: 43.7 miles
  • Total ascent: 6689 feet (Strava phone app recorded 10,239 feet)

Links:

La Farrapona by the back entrance on MTB 

La Farrapona and Puerto de San Lorenzo (reccy)

 


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Who Turned on L’Etape?

Stage 18 of the 2014 Tour de France – Pau to Hautacam, was to be my 15th consecutive Etape du Tour and the little voice of experience in my head was reminding me to always expect the worst possible weather conditions even though we would be in the south of France in the middle of summer. My elder sibling, Phil, was to accompany me once more, himself being a veteran of eleven previous editions.

I had been determined to go for a good performance this time following several previous years of decline and disappointment. Unfortunately, a debilitating back injury had interrupted my training schedule throughout April and early May but, with some heavy training in the Peak District, Clwydian Hills and Snowdonia throughout the four weeks of June, I was back on track and feeling fitter than I had done for a long time. The sadistic tendencies of my masseuse, Kate, also worked wonders in helping me along the way.

The schedule of events for this year meant that we could ride the Etape and watch all three Pyreneen stages of The Tour without blowing the annual holiday allowance in one go. I devised an ambitious plan, which meant ditching the car and riding the best part of 300 miles in 5 days, climbing 46,000 feet on the way. Phil responded in his usual nonchalant can-do manner – he’s got to blow on one of my rides sooner or later!

Day 1 – Travel

We set off Thursday evening in our Hyundai I40 Tourer from Afford Rent-a-Boat and headed towards le tunnel sous la manche for a midnight crossing. We surfaced in Calais where the superior intellect of the satellite-guided boat promptly took us off the A16 and on to the minor roads. The previous hirer must have set the Sat Nav to avoid the M6 toll road so, we spent a good proportion of the early hours driving around in the dark lanes of Pas-de-Calais many of which had been closed down for resurfacing work – it was extremely handy that the gendarme night patrols were all asleep!

Doing my bit for the sponsors

A bit of guesswork using the touch screen eventually got us back on track at Abbevillle and by mid-afternoon we were looking for a mooring in the car park adjacent to the Etape village in Pau. We signed on, collected yet another Etape rucksack and wandered around the stalls assessing the best ways to waste our euros.

The only helmet that fits my misshapen head is kept at my house in Asturias so, to avoid even more nagging from my family and friends, I wasted a wedge of euros on a nice pearly white Giro Ionos to keep at home on my return. We spared just enough time to do our bit for the sponsors.

Next stop – Hotel de Luxembourg in Lourdes, very convenient for another obligatory whistle stop visit to La Grotte to seek forgiveness, pray for good weather on Etape day and check to see if Fabio Casartelli’s gigantic candle had eventually burned out – no chance, no chance and yes. We devoured our first protein rations of the week and a couple of Leffe Blonde’s for good measure at Restaurant Le Cabanon, a very nice eatery just up the rue from La Grotte.

Day2 – Preparation

The Etape routes vary from year to year and can resemble anything from a one-way straight line to a semi-circle. You don’t have to be a master of geometry to work out that with courses between 90 and 150 miles in length, the logistics of getting to/from the start/end points can be a nightmare. The organisers lay on shuttle buses so that you can leave your car at the finish village and return to your accommodation near the start on the day before the race. This arrangement means that you lose a whole day of your valuable holiday, driving and then sitting on a bus with another fifty or so, sweaty and apprehensive beings.Route

The beauty of this year’s route is that there is a plan B if you stay in Lourdes – drive 25 miles to the start in Pau, ride 20 miles downhill from the finish at Hautacam to Lourdes and then ride 25 miles the next day to pick up the car. This is probably one of the reasons that virtually the same course featured in the 2008 edition.

Anyway, we were planning a relaxing bus-free day – assembly of bicycles followed by a flat ride to Argeles-Gazost for lunch. On the outward leg my front Dura-ace STI lever mechanism locked up and, without serious use of force, refused to flip the chain between the two compact chain wheels. After a few unsuccessful attempts to adjust the movement I contemplated riding the whole week on the small chain ring – not an inviting proposition when navigating the serious terrain of the Pyrenees. Strangely enough I had the exact same problem with a 9-speed Dura-ace lever when I got off the plane in Palma, Majorca back in 2003.

Anthony

The fastest bike mechanic in France

We loaded the bike into the boat once more and headed off back to the village in Pau where we queued up at the Shimano maintenance stand, which was due to close in 20 minutes time at 6 o’clock. Even though I’d informed the chief mechanic that I had a problem with the STI lever, he insisted that the cable be replaced then, after a second opinion and much shaking of heads, handed the machine back to me saying that they had no spares for such an antiquated 9-speed system. Thanks boys! They did however hand me a flyer for a shop where they may have replacement levers – Sport 2000 in Lons, a suburb of Pau.

Back in the boat, we arrived at Sport 2000 at twenty to seven. They had only one set of Ultegra 10-speed levers left in their display cabinet. After some short debate about 9/10 speed issues, Anthony, the fastest bike mechanic in France, who also was due to do the Etape the following day, had the front STI lever and new cables fitted by five past seven. Thank you Anthony – my visit to La Grotte has not gone unrewarded!

I tucked the rear lever into my bag for the upcoming conversion project back in the UK and proceeded to waste more euros at the checkout.

Having eaten well earlier in Argeles-Gazost, on our way back to Lourdes we had a pit stop at the snack bar in the pet animal market in Soumoulou. Did our panini contain rabbit, hamster or guinea pig? ….. We’ll never know.

Stats of the day

  • Total distance: 18.3 miles
  • Total ascent: 693 feet

Links:

Pre-race leg loosener

Day 3 – Race day

The hotel proprietor was very accommodating and made sure that race day breakfast, comprising yesterday’s dry bread, was ready for us at 5am. On our way down a very nice Brazilian lady wrestling her bike out of the undersized lift carriage confronted us. “I have no shorts”, she uttered in her far from perfect English “can I have your shorts?” This took me back to a dream I had in my early teenage years, which I won’t go into now. Apparently, she was also here to participate in the Etape but had travelled all the way from Brazil, leaving her cycling shorts behind. She had approximately 15 minutes to find another pair and was prepared to do anything to avoid the prospect of riding up the Tourmalet in her Copacabana thong – sorry, I’m back to my dream again! Phil took one look and, as though he was the world’s authority on Amazonian STDs, volunteered my services to fetch my spare shorts for this damsel-in-distress. She appeared in the foyer 10 minutes later, walking awkwardly, her curves straightened by man attire.

Start line selfie

Start Line Selfie

After all that early excitement we drove over to Pau, found an excellent mooring for the boat and had a pee in the fantastic wet room facilities of the main railway station where timing was of the essence in avoiding a sterilising shower of disinfectant. We coordinated our approach perfectly to witness the seeded riders speeding off from the start in Place de Verdun, down the steep descent of Rue Marca to the bridge over the river below. It would be another hour and twenty minutes before our numbers 9559 and 9589 would be allowed to venture over the start line.

Eight-twenty and our race chips beeped over the starting mat. We always ride our own races so I soon went off ahead. Phil’s a couple of years older than me so I have to give him a little leeway – I love to get that one in at every opportunity due to his annoying cycling superiority in our teenage years.

Some good groups formed and, due to tactical mistakes made in previous races, rather than through-and-off, I was practising my off-and-off technique, courteously inviting the last lead rider to fill the gap I’d open up whilst hanging off the back. Mischievous, I know, but still within the rules of engagement, especially when giving away so many years to the other riders in the group.

The grey gloom that had been hanging from the skies since dawn was confirmation that the weather was going to go from bad to worse as soon as we hit the foothills of the Tourmalet. A couple of dry category three bumps at Benejacq and Loucroup did nothing to preview the suffering to come.

Tourmalet ascent

Ascent of the Tourmalet

Right on cue, the roads dampened as we started to rise towards St Marie de Campan. A couple of miles further on and it was, how you say? … piscine it down. Warmish drizzle rapidly turned to cold rain as we passed through the bunker-like architecture of La Mongie 2½ miles from the summit. I was now regretting the delay in donning my featherweight rain jacket, which now only served to allow the cold dampness to suck the life from my weary body.

Tourmalet summit

Tourmalet Summit

An energetic spurt over the last few hairpins of the ascent generated enough heat to keep me adequately warmed for at least the first fifty yards of the ensuing 20-mile descent to Argeles-Gazost.

The road at the top of the descent had been resurfaced with stunningly smooth tarmac and the organisers had warned that this section might be a little slippery. This proved to be the understatement of the week.  Those attempting to negotiate the hairpins at more than 20 miles per hour were unceremoniously dumped on their rear quarters as rubber aquaplaned over the black velvet. What is normally an enjoyable 45 miles per hour descent in the dry became a battle to stay upright whilst fending off hypothermia and shivery speed wobbles.

Hautacam start

Ayros-Arbouix – Start of the Hautacam

Halfway down, I was still shivering and wobbling through the town of Bareges, amazed at the recent investment there (€700m I believe) after a 6km stretch of the road was washed away last year. The normal thermal bands that you pass through on a mountainous descent just weren’t materialising and, by the time I was on the approaches to Luz-Saint-Saveur, I was definitely thinking of calling it a day. However, after this point, the gradient eased and once again, it became possible to generate a modicum of heat by putting some effort through the cranks. The short climb to Ayros-Arbouix and encouragement from the fantastic crowd at the foot of the Hautacam convinced me that I had made the correct decision to continue and I was soon into my stride again up the early 8% gradients of the final climb.

The rain began to fall once more but the finish line was in reach and the perceived temperature was about 20 degrees warmer than that experienced on the descent of the Tourmalet – I can handle extreme climbing but I detest being cold.

Finish line

The Finish Line at Hautacam

The finish line was a bit of a non-event as all the crowds were waiting for their loved, and wet, ones down in the arrival village of Ayros-Arbouix. As I crossed the finish line timing mat, I was smug in the knowledge that my increased hill training had paid off and I had achieved my best result, in terms of finish field percentage, for 10 years. All that remained was another uninviting descent for which I managed to acquire a heavy chunk of protective cardboard to stuff down my dripping shirt. After the descent I didn’t hang around long. A warm bath and some proper food were waiting for me back in Lourdes, a mere 10-mile ride down the valley. In hindsight, my Asturian expedition up the snowbound Farrapona and San Lorenzo in April had stood me in good stead for this wet and miserable day but every pedal stoke had been well and truly worth it.

By the time Phil arrived back in Lourdes, I’d already devoured three courses followed by coffee, at the local Pizzeria. We exchanged anecdotes at the table whilst he ordered his sustenance and I downed another couple of totally refreshing beers.

Stats of the day:

  • Entries: 12955, Starters: 9876, Finishers: 8453
  • Winning time: 04:47:39
  • Me: 3767th in 07:37:04
  • Phil: 7064th in 09:06:38
  • Anthony the fast mechanic and obviously a fast rider too: 432nd in 05:59:51
  • Total distance: 113.4 miles
  • Total ascent: 16,063 feet

Links:

Ride from car to start, Etape – Pau to Hautacam, Post race warm down

Farrapona and San Lorenzo

Day 4 – Rest Day (relatively speaking)

At breakfast, the Brazilian lady smiled and wandered over to return my shorts – freshly laundered albeit a little strained along the hip seams. We found that she had not ventured past St Marie de Campan onto the Tourmalet as the Pyrenees were “too hilly and too cold”. We weren’t so rude as to suggest this but we concurred that a little more research and preparation wouldn’t go amiss prior to her next trans-global holiday!

The skies were ominously grey again and the boat was still abandoned 25 flattish miles away in Pau. As soon as we stepped foot outside the confines of the hotel foyer with our bikes, the first spot of rain fell on to my brow building up to another torrential downpour as we dodged the soaking spray from passing HGVs on the D937.

This was the day that we were due to transfer to the municipal campsite in Arreau, our base for the next three days of punishing rides to spectate at the Pyreneen Tour stages.

We didn’t relish the prospect of pitching the tent in the day’s adverse weather conditions and, when making the initial booking, Phil had found, to a great level of frustration, that the manager of the camp site spoke no English.

Cafe Leffe

Basil Fawlty meets Ronald McDonald

We therefore decided to venture over to Arreau and explain to him that we would be a day late and would spend one extra night at the hotel. A quick boat trip over the Col d’Aspin saw the weather improve immeasurably so we pitched the tent before heading back to Lourdes, over the Aspin and the Tourmalet, for our final night of relative luxury.

Our rations in Lourdes were ingested at Café Leffe in the centre of town – a real poseurs bar where burger and chips, the quality of which Ronald McDonald would be proud, was traded at vastly inflated prices by a proprietor whose mannerisms made Basil Fawlty look like a diplomacy graduate from the local school of charm.

Stats of the day:

  • Total distance: 26.2 miles
  • Total ascent: 563 feet

Links:

Recovery ride

Day 5 – Stage 16 – Carcassone to Bagneres de Luchon

Col de Peyresourde

“Double-bagger”

We breakfasted then steered the boat over the Aspin once more to the Arreau Municipal, happy in the knowledge that the tent was already pitched and ready for habitation. An opportunity for name-dropping definitely arises here as, the parents of Laurens ten Dam, the eventual 9th placed Tour finisher, were roughing it in the adjacent tent. Anyway, a quick bike clean-and-prep would now see us off towards the Col de Peyresourde and our next little challenge.

The Tour was en route from Carcassone to Bagneres de Luchon today, the penultimate difficulty being the Hors Category Port de Bales at 1755 metres. The plan was to ride the west side of the Peyresourde and then up the Bales in an opposing northerly direction hopefully arriving at the summit well before the publicity caravan was due at 3:00pm.

Paella and Coke in Bagneres

Paella and Coke in Bagneres de Luchon

Halfway up the Bales, the good old gendarmes started to enforce their sublime power, making cyclist dismount and walk even though the caravan was at least two hours away. At each bend, out of site of Les Bleus, we would remount and venture on to the next checkpoint. This cycle of events (no pun) continued until we reached the village of Cabous at 1240 metres where we decided to turn back, descend and watch the stage finish in Bagneres.

Hotel de France and Pizzas a Emporter

Hotel de France and Pizzeria in Arreau

After downing a whole kilogram of paella and a couple of cans of full-fat coke, we waited in the baking roadside heat to watch the riders flash by at a remarkable rate of knots. This left one great opportunity for our return journey to Arreau – a “double-bagger” of the Peyresourde – a conquest from each side in a single day! This was an incredible challenge for us two days after completing the Etape but we made it back to Arreau well before dark to enjoy our ration of protein and wet hops on the pavement outside the originally named Hotel de France.

Stats of the day:

  • Stage winner: Michael Rodgers
  • Total distance: 50.3 miles
  • Total ascent: 10,094 feet

Links:

Tour de France Stage 16

Peyresourde double-bagger

Profile Peyresourde

Peyresourde / Bales to 1240m / Peyresourde

Day 6- Stage 17 – Saint Gaudens to Pla d’Adet

Having had the opportunity to wash our kit for the first time, we set off smelling relatively sweet to bag the final two climbs of today’s stage ahead of the arrival of the pros. The Tour was on it’s way from Saint Gaudens taking in the Col du Portillion and the Peyresourde before chasing down two old blokes from Stoke-on-Trent over the Col de Val Louren Azet and up the final Hors Category wall to the ski resort of Pla d’Adet.

Col de VL Azet

My Second Favourite Col in the Pyrenees

The eastern ascent of the Val Louren Azet is a challenging category 1 climb which comes a close second to my favourite Pyreneen climb of the Aspin from Arreau. Behold the breathtaking views towards the Peyresourde and down to the clear blue Lac de Genos-Loudenvielle. Superlatives abound as we continue over to the western descent with the brutal climb to Pla d’Adet clearly in view as a backdrop to the tourist town of Saint Lary Soulan – cue head-hunting from the French Tourist Board.

Despite all my experience in the Pyrenees, this was to be my first ever ascent of Pla d’Adet. I’d watched the drug-fuelled stage victories of Armstong and Hincapie in 2001 and 2005 and imagined myself gliding up the early 10% gradients with the same consummate ease – then I woke up! We had nothing like the previous day’s intervention from Les Bleus, leaving me free to struggle to within 300 metres of the finish line in the lowest available gear, stopping only once at the village of Soulan to replenish my bottles from a huge IBC containing cool fresh mountain water.

Pla dAdet 300m to go

Pla d’Adet 300m to go

Phil’s arrival, sometime later, was never in doubt. We took a few photos and then descended to a makeshift bar for a simple but tasty barbecued saucisson-dog and, of course, the obligatory ice-cold beer in a plastic cup. Another short descent brought us to a comfortable spot where we could collect even more tat ejected from the windows of the publicity caravan. Phil was in his element as he has always prided himself in owning Europe’s largest collection of white Skoda bush hats.

Caravan victims on Pla dAdet

Caravan Victims on Pla d’Adet

The race passed us by through the eye of a video camera and we were left with the comforting prospect of a downhill amble through the valley to Arreau.

Nibali on Pla dAdet

Vincenzo Nibali and J.C Peraud on Pla d’Adet © Phil Tilstone

We took our place on the pavement outside the Hotel de France for our daily allowance of wet hops. What is it about the continentals? No food ’til eight? Thankfully, the Pizzeria across the square opened it’s doors at seven so we took the opportunity to refuel Italian style. Free entertainment was laid on in the square in the form of a proliferation of camper van pilots, with a great sense of humour, trying to work out why the cyclists were relaxing in the local bars whilst they were grid locked and unlikely to get back to base until the early hours. By this time the wireless kudos was flowing in freely courtesy of Strava and our efforts were summed up by a single gaudy comment from my Californian friend, Geoff – “u r on a ripper mr tilstone”.

Stats of the day:

  • Stage winner: Rafal Majka – eventual polka dot jersey winner
  • Total distance: 43.2 miles
  • Total ascent: 9,119 feet

Links:

Tour de France Stage 17

Col de Val Louron Azet and Pla d’Adet

Profile Pla dAdet

Col de Val Louron Azet / Pla d’Adet

Day 7 – Stage 18 – Pau to Hautacam (the pros show us the way)

OK, day three was never going to be easy but we were not, I repeat not, going to divert from the plan. Phil was tired but I know from experience, he’s virtually indestructible. When he stops moving, it’s time to call the undertaker!

Col dAspin

Col d’Aspin Double-bagger

We were now going to witness how the pros would tackle the Etape du Tour – Pau to Hautacam in much more favourable conditions than five days previous. The plan? A “double- bagger” of my favourite Col d’Aspin interspersed with another easterly ascent of the Tourmalet from St Marie de Campan. Our target was the ski resort of La Mongie, 2½ miles from the summit where we would refuel and watch the suffering of others.

Les Bleus started exerting their authority again about two miles from La Mongie but we managed to avoid their unwelcome interference until the 5k-to-go banner. At an altitude of 1655 metres, we had an hour’s rest on a precipitous grass verge before the publicity caravan arrived. Phil then met his match – a young Dutch fanatic, hell bent on expanding his own collection of white Skoda bush hats! Unperturbed, Phil played his trump card – donning a polka dot IQ-reducer from his extensive collection.

tourmalet2 tourmalet3 tourmalet1

Again, the race passed us by through the eye of a video camera with Vincenzo Nibali biding his time in the chasing  GC group, patiently waiting for his time to attack and neutralise his opponents on the slopes of the Hautacam.

Auberge de L’Arbizon in Arreau

We “doubled-bagged” the Aspin as though it didn’t exist – it’s amazing what you can do on a bike when you know that you are on your final exertion of an extended set. I was sad to see the last of my favourite Pyreneen col (until at least next year) but we enjoyed our descent to Arreau, got cleaned up and went for our final protein ration of the week in the Auberge de L’Arbizon.

Stats of the day:

  • Stage winner: Vincenzo Nibali – eventual yellow jersey winner
  • Total distance: 47.9 miles
  • Total ascent: 10,097 feet

Links:

Tour de France Stage 18

Aspin double-bagger

Profile Aspin

Aspin / Toumalet to 1655m / Aspin

Day 8 – A damp return

Mole camp

Uninvited Guests

What is it about camping and bad weather? Three glorious days of sunshine then packing up in yet another torrential downpour!! We did, however, discover why we had been constantly tripping up on the ground sheet over the last few days – the pesky rodent population had also set up camp on pitch number 80!!

LEtape still running

L’Etape Was Still Running On The Return Journey

We threw the sodden tent into the back of the boat and commenced our 17-hour return journey. The boat was in it’s element as we splashed our way through Bordeaux,  Poitiers, Tours and Le Mans, reaching the harbour of a balmy Stoke-on-Trent by 4am BST.

Stats of the day:

  • Rainfall: 5.324 inches
  • Total distance: 935 miles
  • Total ascent: who cares?