Centenaire du Tourmalet

The very first Tour de France started from the Hotel Reveil Matin in 1903 http://www.hotelreveilmatin.fr/ and the Centenaire du Tourmalet 1000 UAF brevet started there in July 2010. A quick chat with a lady behind the bar and we found out that our prebooked hotel room wasn’t. No matter, a room was hired and we settled in for dinner, admiring the decor. There were photos of just about every Tour de France winner up to Armstrong on the wall; even the bar was decorated with historical bike parts.

Saturday morning, we assembled our bikes, greeted other riders and looked around the area. We found the plaque on the wall commemorating the first Tour de France and eventually worked out where we signed on and loaded our bags into ‘the Luggage’, the large van that followed us across France. It was something like the Luggage in Discworld, unfortunately not made of sapient pear wood but certainly bearing auspicious FFCT runes!

After lunch we were off, 49 riders, the Luggage, the organiser’s car and three traffic controller motorcycles. At first, we thought the motos were just to get the peloton out of Paris but no, they were to guide us the whole way. We had to put a foot down at stop signs, roundabouts and traffic lights perhaps eight times in 1100 kilometres. Otherwise the motos with their melodious horns gave us the full Tour de France treatment.

A UAF ride is quite different to the normal randonnees ridden in Australia and the UK. The average speed between rest stops is generally 22.5 km/h, controlled by a couple of experienced ‘ride captains’ that ensure relaxed climbing speeds and covering ground a bit quicker where the topography allows. Rest stops (15 minutes long) are about every 50 km and when it is time to leave, the road captains just get on their bikes and ride off. No faffing allowed. Till I got the hang of things (a few stops down the road), this strict timing meant I had to hurriedly fling on gloves and helmet and sprint after the bunch. A couple of times, Judith and I were asked to lead the bunch between rest stops, considered a bit of an honour. Unfortunately, I blotted my copybook on the last day, riding a bit too fast and tending to split the bunch.

Lunches and dinners were taken very seriously. An hour and a half long, usually four courses plus carafes of vin blanc, rouge and rose on the table. Perfect cycling food in our opinion!

On the last morning, we stopped at a special place. Many cyclists have read of the Madonna de Ghisallo, a church in Italy dedicated to the racing cyclist with an adjacent museum. The Notre-Dame des Cyclists is an amazing chapel that we’d never heard of. Hidden in the French countryside, the inside was filled with old bicycles, memorabilia and signed jerseys from just about every noteworthy racing cyclist from the last 60 years. This was the only place we extended our scheduled stop but I would have been happy to stay all day.

Each night, we’d stop for six to seven hours at cheap hotels or university apartments, a long way from the ‘huddling in bus shelters’ approach beloved of UK Audaxers. Sleep stops were at Le Mans, La Rochelle and Marmande before we finished the brevet at the Lourdes youth hostel on Tuesday afternoon, high above the religious tourist trap of the town itself, nestled in the Pyrenees. Think of a downmarket Surfers Paradise (for the Aussies) or Skegness (for the Brits) with plastic St Bernadette statuettes and glow-in-the-dark religious pictures.

At the post ride celebration get together, where we spent quite a bit of time telling each other how good we were (and we were correct, of course) and had a bite to eat, most of us retired to bed, resting for the last day’s ride. Several wandered down the hill to drink beer (the foreigners) or wine (the locals) and to chat some more. Good times!

Though we’d completed the 1000+ km of the Centenaire du Tourmalet brevet in 75 hours, we hadn’t actually ridden up the mountain the ride celebrated. This was a good thing as I wasn’t sure I could maintain 22.5 km/h up grades approaching 1:10. That statement is a little inaccurate actually; I’m quite sure I can’t get close to holding that speed on those slopes. The next morning, the group, wearing UAF yellow jerseys tackled the Tourmalet (again following the motos), a roundtrip of over 100 km and gaining more than a mile of altitude by the top.

The temperature had dropped and there was low-hanging cloud in the valley, so some people stayed in town to avoid a possible soaking. The rest of us had a lovely relaxed ride to Luz St Sauveur, checking out the hordes of folk preparing to watch the Tour de France professionals racing up the same road later that day. Motorhomes were parked in all sorts of unlikely places. There were plenty of riders emulating the pros on the climb, though rarely their speed. We rolled up the hill at a steady pace that seemed very easy early on, though by the last few kilometres, I was very happy the group hadn’t gone any faster. Another kilometre or two and I would have needed a breather. Along the way, we’d picked up the families of the riders, clad in the same commemorative jerseys.

We’d climbed well above the clouds and the view from the top was stunning with the hairpins laid out below. The summit was packed with spectators and riders, along with coaches and other vehicles carrying folk working on the Tour de France to the day’s locations (Mr Liggett didn’t wave when he drove by).

Sean Kelly (Irish green jersey winner from the 1980s) had ridden with a group on 1910 racing bikes (and appropriate clothing) up the other side of the Tourmalet, we saw them at the top too. I like that an outstanding ex-pro understands the sport’s history.

A picnic lunch partway down before the group rolled back to Lourdes in a somewhat relaxed fashion. The riders who’d missed the Tourmalet definitely missed a great ride. The impeccable organisation included a coach to take the bikes and us back to Paris overnight. A lift to the train station by fellow rider Marinus, then RER, Eurostar and Metropolitan Underground home, no dramas. A great ride and a remarkably enjoyable way to cover 1000 km in 75 hours. 

For more photographs see http://www.flickr.com/photos/swift_swallow/sets/72157624498841523/

One response to “Centenaire du Tourmalet

  1. Pingback: Le Cycle-Tour de France | cika

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