We did the Première Manche - the first round - of A Travers riding across France from Dieppe to Marseille in the summer of 2009, and it was the original inspiration for this blog. The plan to put the 'band back together again' for another go in 2013 for the second installment fell on stoney ground, with life just getting in the way for too many of us, much to our disappointment. However, our enthusiasm for the bike remains undimmed, and so I'll keep posting my thoughts on the diverse and beautiful facets of the sport regardless. But there's bound to be another big 'adventure ride' coming soon - quite possibly in Italy - so potentially a name change too: Attraverso l'Italia in Bicicletta anyone?

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Day Seven: Caromb to Carry-le-Rouet, via Le Mont Ventoux, 175km

No sooner had I fallen into an exhausted sleep than it was time to get up again. It was going to be a long day for sure, so we'd arranged an early start ... although even a late start would still have felt too early for me. Bleary eyes, coffee, no real breakfast that I remember, so it'd be a putrid diet of energy bars and sickly-sweet, sticky carbo drink until lunch. Oh, for a full English this morning, the accused's last meal: take him down. I'd heard mutterings that the weather was going to be thundery and stormy after the previous day's canicule, and had gone to bed harbouring a secret hope that perhaps we wouldn't have to ride the mountain this morning. Weird, to come all this way, and have this desire not to ride what was the underlying reason for coming. Cycling really can be so hard and unforgiving at times though - you're supposed to welcome the pain like an old friend - making the whole experience a distinctly retrospective pleasure. It's virtually impossible to really enjoy the climb as it happens - certainly if you're not going well - but if you do the ride and get through it, you know you're gonna feel brilliant, flooded with mix of endorphins and pride. 'Better than sex', as Kingy has described it in the past (it does make me wonder if he's doing it - sex - right though). I know what he means because I know that feeling, but clearly sometimes I'm simply not ashamed enough to entertain the idea of not riding, instead to stand in civvies, self-pitying and full of lame excuses, to chat with the others as they clip in and ride off towards two hours of torture, poor lambs. There's also my very personal malaise of sometimes simply not seizing the moment too, especially when I can be centre-stage doing something easy like 'entertaining' and there's alcohol involved. We didn't even leave the bar in Les Deux Alpes in July 1998 when outside - just 200 short metres down the rain-sodden road - Pantani won in the cold and wet, an exploit that will always be remembered. Sure, inside was warm and dry, the atmosphere was excellent and the beers had been flowing since lunchtime, yet deep down there is an obvious regret. Of course I tell people 'I was there', but in reality I missed the opportunity to witness one of the Italian's - and cycling's - greatest moments up close, for real, instead of simply on a TV screen like everyone else.

I've always been afflicted by this strange attitude, almost as if not riding the climb, or not seeing the stage and regretting it makes just as interesting a story as if I'd actually done it.

The sky was red - red sky in the morning, sailor (or shepherd) take warning - and it was making me apprehensive. I knew this was going to be tough, but this time there was logistically no way of getting out of it. Bouyed by the conviction that I'd surely 'ridden myself in', to an extent, over the previous six days, I made an effort to snap out of it. The first time up the mountain in 1989 was purgatory because of my back, 2000 was better for no apparent reason, certainly not anything to do with training, so what would it be like this time out, with 20 years of bodily wear and tear? I'd had niggling neck and shoulder ache throughout the ride so far - until now I'd never really bothered with a helmet which I now thought was the possible cause, but being married brings certain responsibilities - but nothing unbearable like the back pain I'd had in the past. We set off, briskly, my heart and head not really in it yet: tired, finding the pace hard already, where Jamesy seemed to be storming off before we'd even hit Bédoin. I already felt disheartened that his actions implied that he didn't think it would be something special to ride up together on this 20th anniversary, and that he'd put his narrow ambition aside and wait, at least for once. I've always been the emotional, sentimental one in the relationship, the antithesis of his more stoical attitude which would often drive me to vocalise feelings I should really keep to myself. It has been a pillar of our friendship for years, and this trip would be no different. We're a real-life embodiment of 'The Odd Couple', except we aren't often playing for laughs. It'd be funny to watch our behaviour through a hidden, candid camera though, I'm sure. How I'd cringe.

Even the first few kilometres of the D974 before Saint-Estève, where I knew the gradient cranks up to 10% or more, seemed to be ridden on heavy, momentum-sapping tarmac. You'd look around you into the vineyards around Sainte-Colombe and Les Baux and feel that you weren't even on the climb proper yet, that this was just false-flat, and already you were struggling. OK, Jamesy was gone, but the good news was that my back was OK to this point. A positive sign. Dave was not far behind, Iain, Trev and Andy likewise, whilst Paul and Les had decided - sagely - that perhaps riding the climb again, having done it around 30 times between them, was just not worth it this time out. We'd agreed that the original route was also too ambitious. Instead of riding through Jean de Florette villages like Gourdes and Loumarin and the vicious climbs to get to them, we'd head west and take the flatter route back through Carpentras, Cavaillon, Eyguieres and cut down the west side of the Etang de Berre through Istres, bypass central Martigues and along the wonderful winding pine-scented Mediterranean coastal roads to Carry-le-Rouet. And so Paul and Les would set off later for the Med, whilst the rest of us took on Le Géant de Provence.

Jamesy pushing it on the steep lower slopes of the shaded forest section - the first 15km from the official start in Bédoin.

Mike follows Dave, as ever time-trialling his way to the top; Mike searching to finally ditch that bloody helmet.

Jamesy was gone, on his personal mission to get revenge on the mountain for the hours of training and sacrifice he'd put in to the detriment of his family. See - I don't really begrudge him his focus; it's no doubt rooted in envy. Dave and I seemed to be well matched for pace through the forest, whilst behind Trev, Iain and Andy followed at varying distances. Fortunately the bad weather failed to materialise, and the lower temperature was undoubtedly doing us a favour. I'd oscillate between feeling great, moving along quite swiftly, then suddenly paying the price for the enthusiasm and having to ease up. As a result we all came into Chalet Reynard at different times, and left for the summit accordingly. Once again, Jamesy dashed off - we wouldn't be repeating the camaraderie of 1989 - and it was here that Trev decided to get into running kit and do the final 7km on foot with Graham, while Iain, his damaged arm giving him grief, turned back for Caromb to rendez-vous with Paul and Les on their more leisurely - and gastronomic - ride to Carry-le-Rouet.

First food of the day for me at Chalet Reynard, or at least it felt like it. Left to right: Dave, Mike James, me, Andy. Iain and Trev still to arrive.

I found the upper exposed sections of the climb easier than I remembered, and approaching the summit - the Simpson Memorial - got terribly emotional. Life & death. My dad, and mum. Time passing by so quickly, and needing to achieve something worthwhile in your alloted stint here, in the sometimes-fragile carapace that is your body. My wife. Marco Pantani, che poverino, of course. I stumbled across Jamesy, also a bit puffy-eyed, who'd been feeling similar, but for his own reasons. He'd already 'summited', to use an American turn of phrase that I really dislike (so why use it here?), and had come back down ... to meet me perhaps? Dunno, but it would be nice to think so. We all rode to the top, fannied around for a while for photos, souvenirs, ice cream and staring at the vast expanse of cloud-covered Provence way below us.

Jamesy still pushing it, and looking good. He really should get a black Assos jersey to match the shorts and hat though, or maybe a first item of Rapha gear for the wardrobe ... I've heard the banks have started lending again.

We're well above the clouds at this altitude, on the final 7-kilometre limestone section that gives the 'Bald Mountain' its name. Me, focused, the emotion building.

Dave and Andy at the same point nearing the summit, just behind me.

Twenty years on from our first time. Thoughtfully there are steps up to the Simpson Memorial now, obviously to cater for ageing bikies like me and Mike.

Heroes. And just for one day.

1912 metres in the sky, at the summit of La Montagne Chauve, ready to go down in 20 minutes what we've just taken two hours to come up.

The descent was all too swift - worries about the structural integrity of the frame still lingering - and the remainder of the ride consisting of mostly flat and rolling roads at the head of some serious-looking thunder clouds. I have little memory of it, other than taking a wrong turning for the first time on the trip (had Steve and Graham finally got a little complacent?), a welcome lunch in L'Isle-sur-la-Sourge just at the right time, a promised beer-stop in Martigues never materialising - now that really was hard to take - and the final fast run-in to Carry. Predictably these last few kilometres saw Jamesy and me 'clip off the front of the group' and where, of course, he jumped me to take the final chequered flag of the trip, the bastard. It was all his idea after all, so in all fairness I suppose he had to take the honours.

Trev, changed and back on the bike, whilst Mike and I follow on the way south on the outskirts of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

I knew this would happen, but short of running him off the road still couldn't do anything to stop it.

By engaging in this act of gratuitous, casual racism redolant of 1970s British comedy sitcoms, we were hoping to get arrested and then repatriated courtesy of the French State, and so save on our Easyjet airfare. Mais non. Where are les flics when you need them, eh?

Yes indeed, France, travelled by bike, from Coast to Coast. A Travers La France.

Day Six: Saint-Hostien to Caromb, 185km

We were clearly in Le Midi now. An 8:30 start meant that the temperature was pleasantly cool to begin with, but a cloudless sky had us aware that this far south we were likely to be heading into a furnace. Well, we wanted some sun after all that rain, and by jove we really got it today. In the end we rode nearly 120 miles, most of it in 42 degrees centigrade.

The route map implied that after a few initial climbs in the Ardèche - and past the incredible Gerbier de Jonc, source of the Loire and a Close Encounters-style massif if ever I've seen one - this would be an easier day in the afternoon, neigh, almost a descent into the Rhone valley and across into the Vaucluse. However, with the heat it really became a challenge on a whole new level. Even the long descent into Vals-les-Bains for sun-drenched lunch was tough - another road being resurfaced, and I nearly lost it on one gravel-strewn corner, pushing hard to see if the bike was OK after the Montluçon crash. I felt that despite my reputation of hating the cold and loving the heat, I found myself getting increasingly uncomfortable: sticky hands from leaked energy drink. Sweat in the eyes. Suncream and perspiration forming a greasy slick on my forearms. Jeez - this was supposed to be enjoyable, wasn't it? Am I ever happy? The blazing sun coming from my right, the west, was starting to burn my leg badly, irritating the grazes from the crash on day four, and I started to feel really odd, losing concentration, not feeling part of what was going on, my hands and face tingling. We all decided on a further stop in a cafe for refuelling in Aubenas, where the patron filled our bidons with fresh cold water and ice, and we downed a few Cokes to boost our sugar levels. I hate Coke, never drink it for all its gung-ho American connotations and the appalling amount of sugar in it, but today, and hopefully only today, it was delicious. I went to the loo, feeling an almost other-worldliness, the precursor normally to fainting. Filling up the large sink with cold water and sticking my head in it for five minutes helped snap me out of it, and although still feeling somewhat 'detached', it was an improvement.

For Paul and Les this was simply too much. Since there wasn't enough room in the van for all our kit, their bikes and Steve and Graham, a very grateful taxi driver got to drive them from our lunch stop in Vals all the way to the hotel on the other side of the Rhone: £160 well spent, apparently.

Outside the heat was oppressive, my hair drying instantly and the ice-cold water in my bottles turning the temperature of tea inside 10 minutes. It was truly astounding. We set off towards Bourg-St. Andéol and the Rhone valley, and what we figured was going to be a pimple - the Vallon Pont d'Arc climb around 110km - turned out to be a real pig in the heat. The scenery, smells and sounds were familiar, the clichéd yet wonderful mix of deafening cicadas and lavender growing in military-style rows in sun-baked fields. I rolled on, passed by Paul and Les in their taxi shouting words of encouragement, and then Steve and Graham in the van asking me to slow down and wait for the others. I'd been in my own world, focusing solely on getting to the hotel for a shower and a beer, but having us all scattered over the route was making support - on a day when we all really needed it - impossible. I sat up and waited, Mike and Dave got up to me, and it was only on the final run-in around the Dentelles de Montmirail to Caromb - with the occasional exciting glimpse of the Géant de Provence to the east - that Mike and I predictably raised the pace in our boyish, competitive little way, dropping Dave and riding the final few kilometres into town. I tried to make out that I had something left, finessing on the run in, but the truth was that Jamesy stuffed me easily in the sprint for the sign indicating we'd finally arrived after the hardest day I've ever experienced on a bike. But haven't I said that about every single day so far? And it's the Ventoux tomorrow, on paper the toughest stage. Gulp.

It was a real treat to back in Caromb at the Mirande, familiar to many of us from our excellent trip here in 2000 to see that Ventoux stage. I couldn't help but think about Marco and how he rode that day, how he took the race to Armstrong, attacked and attacked, like bike racing should be. Second place is first loser, and all the others seemed to be disappointingly content with an overall podium spot. To coin a Ken Hargraves expression, it always seemed to be 'Shit or Bust' with the Italian, and massively entertaining as a result. Scatta Pantani! Would I ride up there like that tomorrow? It certainly motivated me.

Mike receives his award as winner of the previous day's stage. Is that booing I can hear in the background??

Jamesy looking predictably strong on one of the early climbs.

It's getting hotter and hillier as we head south.

Trying to look, and keep, cool in Vals-les-Bains. Can pink ever look good though? Opinions are deeply divided. There's definitely a camel-toe thing going on. For me the only sartorial error is a Campag-equipped Colnago and a Mapei/Shimano top. Pink is the new black: ask Rapha.

The thermometer never lies: that's 50 degrees centigrade in the sun outside the bar in Aubenas; out on the road I'm told it was a positively arctic 42˚ ... wish I'd bought my gloves.

A 12-hour day at the office ... car headlights on, reflective Scotchlite bands, well, reflecting: it really was getting dark by the time Trevor, Iain and Andy hit the mean streets of Caromb (a few bored kids milling about making too much noise had Kingy sucking his teeth, blaming the parents, etc., etc.).

Day Five: Orcines to Saint-Hostien, 176km

The day from Orcines started off damp - snails out in force again - but soon the sun would burn through and at last there would be some real climbs to test ourselves on. It proved to be another hard day, the previous four days' efforts catching up with all of us, and unsurprisingly we were all feeling a little battered and bruised after yesterday's crash.

The Sautarelles climb from Sauxillanges was a tough one, with a couple of surprising 20% sections in it to really test the legs. Made extra challenging - as if it were really needed - by massive steak-eating rabid guard dogs (didn't your mother always warn you about rabies across the Channel?) roaming free by a farm near the summit lake - L'Etang du Fagonnet - to knock you off as you hauled yourself up the last ramps, or worse, bite you. My mouth was already foaming, but thankfully from the effort of trying to hold Mike and Dave's rear wheels rather than any kind of zoonotic viral neuroinvasive disease. The prospect of a gleeful fast descent was quashed by some major public works: the whole of the 10km-plus road down was being resurfaced, so we spent a good half-hour riding cagily over loose gravel that tunefully played in our spokes, and cursing the small gobbits of black tar that were getting flicked up onto tyres, bar tape, frame and shorts.

A route mess-up meant we rode a few more miles than planned, and this seemed to tell on Les as we neared the end of the ride. As the heat built up as we travelled further south, he gave us his best 'Tommy Simpson on the Ventoux' impression, unable to hold his head up to see where he was going, made worse by the fact that it meant he was looking over the top of his glasses and so was effectively riding blind. We all waited to chivvy him along, but nearing the finish I slipped away - just to be able to ride on my own for a moment - but ended up excitedly riding to an imagined victory. Jamesy had been doing it all week, so why not?

Left to right: Andy, Dave, Trevor and Paul prepare to leave. It's still not exactly the weather we were expecting in France in July.

Soon to be a French RTA victim? We all managed to miss him: see the video below:

Decision time: left over the Sautarelles climb with 20%+ sections, or straight on for a (slightly) easier ride? Meanwhile Graham does his best to get us arrested again.

Mike breaks away in the last three kilometres for the 'win' - having berated Mike and Dave for not waiting for Les - to take the chequered flag courtesy of Graham.

Ah - post-ride recovery drink of choice in Saint-Hostien's evening sunshine.

Day Four: Fussy to Orcines, 208 km

What's supposed to be a real day of celebration - 14th July, Bastille Day - turned out to be a disaster for us. It rained virtually all day, with rural France appearing totally deserted, although the damp ensured that there were a fair few snails out having a good time. 125 miles through the wet, 60 flat to start past many dilapidated "I'll get round to fixing that" farm houses and outbuildings, and then 65 on climbs and descents towards Orcines.

Kingy was sick at quarter distance having felt bad at breakfast, blaming the lamb couscous from the night before (not the 5 demis, two caraffes of vin rouge and the eau de vie then Paul?), and opted for a stint in the van. Jamesy too was still a touch volatile in the pants department, so he said, but still appeared to be the strongest one amongst the group.

The fun began at half distance just before our planned refuelling stop at Montluçon, birthplace of Roger Walkowiak, unlikely winner of the 1956 Tour. Coming into the town I noted a warning sign for a 'goods in' level crossing into the run-down Dunlop factory here, but my shouted alert came too late and we all hit the rails too fast and at just the wrong angle for the wet conditions. Ironically outside a factory producing tyres famed for making a major contribution to road safety (that might be another brand, but it fits nicely here), we all lost our front wheels and hit the deck. As first in the line Iain came off worst, landing heavily on his right side, but more frightening no doubt was my inadvertent spooning of him as I slid off and ended up cuddling him in the middle of the road. The rain had helped to lubricate the road surface to some extent - perhaps not the right word to use in such close proximity to 'spooning' - but even only minor scuffs to Assos lycra, Campagnolo carbon and Sidi buckles were enough to have me almost release my inner child. Breathe. Count to 10. The Colnago looks shit even though it appeared to be mechanically OK, my kit looks shit, we're bleeding and there's still over 60 miles to go in the pissing rain. Even before the crash I'd been regretting the choice of buying those wonderful Vittoria Open CX tyres given the weather we'd been having: the amber-cotton sidewalls were now just sullied with that ubiquitous grey crud, a mix of dirty water from the road and brake block compound thrown off the rim. How will I be able to ride up the Ventoux looking such a mess?

We picked ourselves up, invaded a cafe in the town where we cleaned ourselves up a bit, stuffed our faces with quiche and coffee, and set off again, in my case really feeling down about it all to the point of just wanting to go home. Whilst skin heals itself and pain eventually passes and can to an extent be ignored, I really find it hard to put it into perspective when beautifully-designed kit that you've made a real effort to choose, saved hard for and wear with pride is ruined like this. Bike riding is unquestionably hard physically, but psychological toughness is what's required to push yourself beyond your perceived physical limits, and also in cases like this when things go wrong. Sometimes I think I really don't have that as a character trait, always unrealistically expecting things to be 'perfect' - the bike, the weather, the kit, always stylish, always riding as if 'there's no chain', to use an Armstrong expression. It's naively unrealistic. As much as anything I dwell on how much it's all gonna cost to replace.

While Paul decided to get out and ride the last quarter of the route, and Mike seemed to be going better and better - arriving at the hotel 10 minutes before the rest of us - Les was losing too much time so decided to get into the van. Even though it looked fine superficially, I had a massive speed wobble on the normally rock-solid Colnago on a descent out of St. Gervais, to the point of having to stop at the roadside. Even at 5km/h, the bike was virtually uncontrollable. Perhaps it was the cold - I had no undervest on because it didn't dry out overnight after washing, but even with a gilet on I was shivering, possibly at the bike's natural frequency - or a combination of shock and adrenaline after the crash, or perhaps the particularly uneven road surface, but all I could think was that the bike was damaged somehow. This has to be the hardest day I've ever spent on a bike, and the last few miles were unbearably tough. I noted that we're close to La Bourboule, where Stephen Roche had his last stage victory in the Tour in 1992, but even a fact like this that I'd normally find encouraging failed to raise my spirits.

We're in Volvic now - with Le-Puy-de-Dome shrouded in mist and cloud - so let's hope we get some bleedin' vulcanicity for tomorrow.

Iain's banged-up arm later turned out to be broken.

A damp coffee stop further on after the crash. A chance to change into some drier clothing and lick our wounds.

Limping to the finish - it can't come soon enough for me. And why are those tourists in capes on a f*cking tandem still able to stay with us? Are Dave and I going that badly?

Trying to put a brave face on it at the evening meal in Orcines. I'm failing in that repsect, so that's why I've thoughtfully covered mine up (bottom left).

Day Three: Barjouville to Fussy 163 km

This was the stage that always going to be hard psychologically. 163 kilometres of flat, straight, big-sky roads across northern France with long stretches between villages, exposed to the elements - rain, mist, sun, rain and then sun again, but fortunately not too much wind. Most of the guys had their iPods on, just concentrating on eating up the distance, at times a really tough call: a numbing slog from just outside Chartres, through Voves and on the D10 to Artenay, then crossing a flat wilderness, bypassing Orleans, over the Loire river at Jargeau and then finally over some more undulating, rolling roads and into the village of Fussy just outside Bourges.

The earlier straight sections did, fortunately, afford us some fast, fun riding, with Jamesy and I taking the initiative to ride tight-up behind the van with Steve filming, trying our best to do a Madiot (him, elbows out, tongue out) and Mottet (me, shortarse with bad pudding-bowl haircut), drafting Guimard's Renault, at half-speed obviously. It's amazing how a camera can make you ride harder, dig deeper and still have the wherewithall to concentrate on looking 'pro'. Rapha top? Check. Flat back? Check. Poker face? Check. Ah - we could've made it, right Jamesy? Ken and Doreen told us so. Sprinting for town signs also helped to break up the monotony, as well as the group - naughty. Knowing Jamesy was much better prepared than me, and much fitter, I decided to try and gain a certain psychological advantage by winning all the town sign sprints. Or indeed any sign - normally without alerting the others to the fact that it counted towards the day's award for best sprinter. All a bit of fun, but I do remember one where Mike and I were matched for straight line speed, but a final coup de reins saw me steal a late advantage, like Hinault in Roubaix. Jamesy's comment, "You've still got it, Curtis", was one of the nicest things he's ever said to me.

Best food yet at L'Echalier tonight. Home-made pâté or prosciutto (shouldn't that be jambon cru?) to start, then steak (as usual) or lamb couscous. Can't remember what we had for dessert, but I do remember going up to bed feeling damned tired, the first time I'd ridden three days in a row since the RAID in 2005. And the mountains start tomorrow.

Les and Jamesy - the latter no doubt hanging back because there's a town sign coming up - and the wide-open sky above.

Andy and Jamesy skillfully photographed by Iain on the move. Look out for the oncoming car!

Paul and Mike imagining they've still 'got it'.

I hope the farmer wasn't too angry with our juvenile humour.

Drafting the van on the interminably long straight roads. Good fun. Shame I can't get this to centre align like the pics though, eh?

Day Two: Menesqueville to Barjouville, 141km

Tougher today in comaparison to the easy warm-up ride on Day One: hillier, but nothing major, rather some picturesque and familiar-feeling Kent/Surrey-type climbs, mostly short and steep, with the pretty hairpinned Côte de Cléry just outside les Andelys early on. A bit like Box Hill, and they run an annual hill climb for cars here. The weather a mixed bag of overcast, drizzle then sun as we headed south along small country roads through Vernon, Blaru, Guanville, Rouvres, Coulombes and Maintenon, then over the river Eure and on towards Chartres. Steve and Graham in the Support Team - shouting encouragement through a loudhailer over the top of music belting out of the roof-mounted speakers - certainly made things easier. The fact they had been spraying the roads with fluo chalk-based line marker paint at each significant junction meant that none of us had to ever look at our route cards, so we could really concentrate on our riding and making good time. The only downside to this is the fact that I have no real recollection of any of the towns and villages we went through. I suppose this is what it must be like to be a racer, rather than a tourist. Do the pros ever appreciate the places they travel to? Or is it just one hotel after another, focus on getting the job done, and then leave? Thank God I didn't decide - for it was purely that that stopped me - becoming a pro then. Again - a bit of organisation and we were riding through-and-off quite well to eat up the kilometres. Les would have problems eating anything at all from now on though, since his bridge fell out, but luckily was quickly found. Many phone calls back to Hannah in the UK followed that evening to get hold of the dentist to see if super-glueing it back in was acceptable.

Barjouville is basically an industrial estate outside Chartres, and the Hotel Mercure was exactly what you'd expect: modern, clean, tidy, formulaic and a touch boring, with beers (as we'd find out the next morning) at 4 euro for a demi. Nowhere to eat that night other than the adjacent Buffalo Grill, which was packed. I thought that France was a nation of food lovers, and yet here we are, Sunday night, and they're queueing up around the block to stuff themselves with spicy chicken wings and enchilladas at a Tex-Mex-themed eatery on the French equivalent of the Purley Way. No nutritional value whatsoever - if we'd been racing this trip for seven days, I think we'd all be abandonning the next day with La Fringale. Jamesy was already complaining before the meal about the onset of a runny arse, so it wasn't looking good in the toilet department for me, the man sharing a room with him.

Riding well together as a group. It would never last.

Looking for Les' teeth.

A quiet, sleepy village for Sunday lunch - crêpes - and with that jersey we could very well be back in the 60s.

Côte de Cléry - the first real climb of the trip.

Did we bump into an Italian pro training in Northern France? A unique fair-skinned one whose staple diet is Bourbon biscuits perhaps? I know that looking back in a few years' time, the wearing of sponsored 'pro' kit is going to look really naff - even if it did come courtesy of Lampre themselves.

Day One: Dieppe to Menesqueville, 78km

An early start to get to Dave's and the journey to the coast for the Newhaven-Dieppe Ferry, which I was glad to see was a bigger ship than the flat-bottomed Transmanche crock o' shite that I've been on countless times for our Dieppe spring training camps. We walked the bikes on, and instantly an oily bosun (I dunno - look here) grabbed the Colnago off me, placed it against a bulwark, and proceeded to nonchalently layer every other bike on top of mine - with total disregard for the relative fragility of a top-class machine. Bad enough? No: next the lazy, aggressive lashing of webbing straps all over and pulling them tightly together. Pedals in spokes, carbon rear-mech faceplates scuffed against chainstays.... So, it started well, but once into France we had a further unexpected brush with authority, although this time with guns.

I genuinely thought the French were relaxed about time-keeping and urinating in (sufficiently-private) public areas, but a 15-minute delay to the Customs Police 'schedule' and a sneaky slash against a tree-shaded perimiter fence resulted in a Nazi-style line up, bikes down, van unpacked and bags emptied - good job the joke Frenchman's outfit (really) in Graham's bag went unnoticed. We really should have got through customs completely before bike-tweaking and bladder-emptying. Passports confiscated for an hour-and-a-half by these gun-toting bored French douaniers, if that's a legit word. Wankers is one I do know: can I use that? One in particular - unfortunately the only female, a 'larger' woman with a particulary hard face and ginger-haired top lip (think a hirsute Vicky Pollard in a uniform) - was unnecessarily aggressive, refusing to talk to me, the only French speaker, but instead just existentially playing the role her fascist garb dictated.

When we were finally released (we had been toying with the idea of digging three tunnels - Tom, Dick and Harry), we made the mad dash through the centre of Dieppe and on to Menesqueville 78km away. A good bit of organised through-and-off over many of the same rolling roads we'd used on those spring trips I mentioned earlier saw us arrive just before dark. And so we started the ritual that we'd repeat every night for a week: bikes in the garage, beers and laughs, rooms and showers, evening meal and too much wine.

Really good food at the Relais de la Lieure, starting with a crevette terrine, then either skate wing in cream or the ubiquitous steak-frites, a selection of regional cheeses, crème brûlée, coffee and Calvados. The first day was over, and to paraphrase Morrissey, we could laugh about it now, but at the time it was terrible.

The Colnago is under there somewhere ...

Andy, bladder emptied, about to face the music. Accordian music, probably, courtesy of the French Customs Police.

With a bit of disciplined riding and despite the best efforts of France's
finest, we made it to the hotel before nightfall. Good job: none of us thought we'd be needing lights at this stage.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Terry's Lunch on the Boat

The ferry trip from Newhaven to Dieppe was 4 hours long, during which time Paul's tortoise Terry needed feeding. We'd all stuffed ourselves with high-carb lunches ready for the ride ahead, and even though Terry's day riding in the support van would be far less strenuous than ours, he still needed to eat something. It obviously fell to Paul to make sure his pet got the nourishment he needed.