Christ I’m bored.
I’ve done a fair amount of tedious stuff on a bike in my time, long rides, everlasting climbs, endless trudges, enough pedals that have ventured far into the dull and monotonous and I think this is the most bored I’ve ever been in the saddle. My brain is actually numb, it’s run out of things to think about and songs to hum. Luckily my hands and arse are keeping it numb company, so there is that to pass the time as I uncomfortably shuffle about in the chamois and change hand position slightly. Again.
The road carries straight ahead and I keep pedaling. I can see the road carry on straight ahead for a while, it’s like heading into an exercise in simple perspective, I’ll need to keep pedaling for a while then. At some point the road kinks a little and then heads straight again. I mutter underneath my breath, think about tri-bars and spin on. This dreary continues for over 40 kilometres. Welcome to Day 2 of Tour Taster 5 of the Tour de Force and a long tortuous stint along the D933.
This tedium might be a little unfair as an introduction to the Tour de Force (soon to be renamed “Le Loop”) as Day 1 was unrelentingly pretty and Days 3 and 4 will turn out to be absolutely amazing, but that’s what you get when you’re following the Tour de France route a week ahead of the Pros, no two days are the same. Some of them might be a bit shit.
The four day Tour Taster 5 that I’m on covers Stages 10 to 13, taking riders from the fast rolling roads of the Dordogne to the spectacle that is the Pyrenees. If that’s too much for you there are Tour Taster rides that only last two days, and if that’s not enough then you can tackle the first or last halves of the Tour as a what’s called a Semi Lifer or you can become one of the hallowed few of the Lifers by completing the entire three weeks and 21 stages of the Grande Boucle.
As is the glamour of cycling my tour of duty starts in an Ibis in Perigueux, one of those towns that the French do so well that’s a mix of quite pretty and day-to-day unlovely with a little bit of blimey chucked into the mix, in this case a massive and impressive cathedral that the hotel backs incongruously right onto. In the tight deep gap between the two are wedged several Tour de Force vans unloading bikes into basement garages. To save the hassle and worry of taking my bike on the plane I’ve opted for the Tour de Force’s bike transport option and simply wheeled it to one of the many UK drop-off points available from where my pride and joy has been swaddled in soft blankets and transported in the back of a van to where I start, and it will be carried back in the same way at the at the end of my stay. The inconvenience of in my case taking my bike up to On Your Bike in London is more than compensated for by not having the whole stripping-packing/unpacking-building hassle both ends of the trip, airport wheeling kerfuffle and stress, trying to find a taxi willing to shoe-horn the bike-box in or wrestle it onto a train and all the other little worries that come with traveling with a bike in a box. Just me and a bag on the plane and a bicycle ready to roll at the other end. That’ll do.
Day One and Stage 10 is what the Tour de France route book calls a flat stage, or an active recovery day after the previous rest day. Perigueux to Bergerac is only about 40kms as the crow flies but the route organisers seem to have found a loopy way that takes 178kms. Thanks. And another thanks to Tour de Force logistics that mean we have to ride another few kms to get to our night’s accommodation to make up a day that nudges just over 190kms. Up early, breakfast at 0630, bags in the back of the van by 0730 sharp, ride out at 0800. There is no tolerance for tardy or faff on these timings.
Each day the Tour de Force is effectively neutralised until the first food stop at about 40km, neutralised in the way that no-one can leave that stop until everyone else has arrived, so if you smash it off the front you’ll be kicking your carbon heels for a while. This ensures that there’s a controlled roll-out each morning and it encourages everyone to cruise along and chat to each other. It’s a detail that reflects the whole social aspect of the event for whilst those at the front might actually be racing everyone else is just trying to make it through, be they two-day riders or Lifers, and get to the end of the stage each day. I was expecting a hardcore finely-honed mahogany-legged hollow-eyed concave-cheekboned peloton of cyclists on the Tour de Force but the collection is far far broader than that, and that’s a good thing. Everyone is dong the hardest thing they’ve probably ever done, and everyone knows that, be that just a two day stint or the whole shebang and there is a corresponding amount of respect, and a refreshing lack of ego. I’ve seen more posturing on 100km sportive start lines, one day rides that are half the distance of today, or the day after, or the day after, or the day after…
As an easy example of this my just-met room-mate Tom only started cycling ‘properly’ at the end of last summer and the longest ride he’s done so far is 100 miles. The ride he’ll do today will surpass that by a margin, and then he’ll top that tomorrow, and then on Thursday he’ll tackle his first col, or his first 4 cols to be exact. There are few comfort zones here, every day is a potential Étape du Tour ride.
Today we’re pedaling through the Dordogne seemingly at the bequest of the French Tourist Board, hopscotching across the river, skipping through foix gras country, shimmying through pretty villages and past countless chateaux. A transitional stage in the race coming after a rest day where the script usually unfolds that everyone barrels along with the big domestiques punching the wind on the front or there’s a breakaway from some plucky little Frenchman and nothing happens until the last 10kms while the commentators have to resort heavily to the guide book in describing what the camera helicopter gently sidles over, be that a big house or a cycling related tableau made out of tractors and schoolchildren in a field somewhere. And while it’s ‘flat’ in comparative Tour terms it’s continually rolling and somehow the organisers squeeze a couple of Cat 4 climbs in there although they are of little consequence. It’s a day for forming groups and working together, which is exactly what happens and throughout the day I tag along with various small pelotons and politely take my turn. The hardest thing to deal with all day is the heat, as the thermometer climbs to around the 35 degree mark as we roll into the afternoon. The sunbleached sunflower fields of France that look so beguiling on the TV are hard work if you’re not used to baking and the hot throat-drying headwind, the bits of road that drift alongside the Dordogne bring with them a welcome waft of cooling air.
The entire Tour de Force route is signed by hi-viz yellow arrows, kept as minimal as possible with signs discreetly on junctions and the exits of roundabouts with re-assurance arrows afterwards and once every so often along the way just for peace of mind. Quite often the arrows are redundant because you can tell the Tour’s coming through in a few days time; there’s bunting across the villages, decorated bikes tied to lampposts, fences and most anything else, the odd random Tour related sculpture appears here and there and most obviously there’s the state of the tarmac. The roads here are as a general rule a joy, fast and smooth and a good couple of kph faster over the tarmacne we have at home, but every so often we’ll ride along a piece of tarmac specially put down for the Tour. It’s even faster and even darker than the usual stuff, a luxurious ribbon of black silk.
The last effort of the day is negotiating the Bergerac by-pass, which while it might be fun during the Tour de France when the road is shut and the peloton will be powering along it using the full width of the road in the last dash to the finish lining up their sprinter, on a normal day in a strung-out group of ten with cars and trucks booming past it is less so. This is the downside to riding the Tour route without Tour privileges, we don’t get the luxury of closed roads and while that’s not a problem the vast majority of the time there are moments where you just have to grit your teeth, clench your left shoulder and get on with it. It is a relief to finally turn off onto the smaller roads that slink through vineyards to end up at our rather swanky golf-course accommodation for the night; leave bike, let the mechanics know if it needs a tweak, retrieve bag, shower, clean salty sweaty stinky kit in shower, maybe book a massage, eat, hydrate (just the one beer), get kit ready for the next day, collapse.
There’s a short coach transfer in the morning to the start of the Eymet to Pau stage; 203.5 kilometres, flat again, flatter even, and heading in pretty much a straight line south west towards the Pyrenees. It’s going to be a hot day once again, hotter even, and we head out into bright light and long shadows through the endless warehouse infrastructure that surrounds French towns and finally onto country roads and sunflowers, which is where we came in to this story.
It is even before the first feed stop that the first of the straight roads of the D933 begin but it is afterwards that their real tedium starts to chew. This would be one of those days that you look up at the Tour coverage on the television every five minutes to see if anything’s happening and then get back to what you’re doing and the adverts are the most exciting part of the coverage. Out on the road it would be nice to have an advert break. While it is soul-destroying, dull and tiresome I see it as a necessary evil and despite offers to take a turn I sit on the front for this entire 40km+ section of drudgery for in a scant few weeks time I will be competing in the Transcontinental and this will be good training for somewhere else equally flat, straight and boring in Europe. Probably several places. Once upon a time these four days would have been the biggest thing I’d done and the standout highlight of the year, now it is just the final training block for something bigger. I do not know how this happened, it does not make this easier.
Not going fast, just going steady, trying not to go mad. Sitting in the one position for such a long time is hard, with no climbs, rises or descents to force a change in position on the bike everything hurts from being in the same static place for longer than usual and with nothing to concentrate on other than not veering into the gutter it’s mentally tiring. Today at least I have the benefit of pulling a grateful bunch along. Agitate bars to turn a kink in the road, see more straight road ahead, fussake, quietly hate Romans.
There’s a small cheer as we see a feed stop in a large gravel car-park on the left and pull over to refresh, restock and rest our weary arses. There are four food stops each day on the Tour de Force, each roughly 40kms apart, and they’re a great psychological and social benefit. The first regrouping one has water and a selection of snacks; nuts and cake, the second one is the coffee stop and has sandwiches as well, the third is always lunch, even if you get there at 3pm. That’s where there’s proper food with rice and pasta salads and fruit and pocketable stuff, and cake. The final stop is the party one with crisps and fizzy drinks and further cake, and serves as a great little boost for the final push home. The Tour de Force organisers know how to keep cyclists happy; let them know how far they have to pedal, make sure it’s well signed, and give them plenty enough food. Alongside this you can throw a day-bag in with the food vans each morning so you can have your spare energy food and powders, clothing, sun-cream, chamois cream, whatever, waiting for you along the way, which saves you from having to carry all sorts of crap in bulging pockets all day.
After a suitable amount of procrastination we’re back in the saddle and more straight lines again, hopes are raised and then immediately dashed as the left-hand turn off the main road promises a return to twists and turns but we’re treated to yet another vanishing point of tarmac with only the scenery either side differing slightly. Yay. It’s only after some more indistinguishable kilometres of this that the road starts to snake and undulate as we approach the toes of the foothills of the Pyrenees. Stop to help a rider with a puncture and a torn sidewall repaired with a gel wrapper and then play catch-up with the group I was in. Whether it’s the heat of the day, the state of the freshly lain but rough tarmac or the undulations playing with the legs after a morning of kneading flat but the roads seem to be really heavy and it’s an unnecessary effort. I start to feel the effects of being on point, am recognizing the signs of a little heat exhaustion and am getting a little peaky, luckily I know there’s another feed station in a short while, although some riders have decided that’s too far and are having an impromptu off-piste refreshment stop in a cafe. Drop into the feed zone that’s in a lakeside aire to fill up on food and drink my body-weight in fluid whilst sitting in the shade to cool down a bit. Chat with fellow riders and swap stories of the day before regrouping again and out onto the tarmac that’s so black and reflective it hurts your eyes.
It’s just ticking off the miles now, no ceremony, more straight roads, more headwind, more heat, constantly checking for dropped riders, slowing up, cracking on. Monotony. Last feed stop, hip-hop tunes and ice-pops. Fanta and crisps. Sitting in the shade of the van. Peanut-butter on crispbread which is dry, crumbly, cloying and the wrong choice. Onwards in a fluid group as the road starts to get interesting again swooping through fields and shade and one last sit under the trees before a final push. Endure our way round an eternally swooping ring road before eventually turning right to the hotel and the cool of air-conditioning. This is Pau, the traditional launch-pad to the Pyrenees, tomorrow we leave the flatlands behind and tackle the mountains. Double pudding, early night.
Read Part Two here