Monday, 22 July 2013

Twilight in Paris - A beautiful way to finish the Tour

The plan to finish the 100th Edition of the Tour de France with a twilight spectacular from Versailles to the Champs-Élysées was a master stroke by Christian Prudhomme and the Tour organisation. It was a very balmy summer's evening but that didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the animated fans who lined the streets of central Paris to cheer, wave and party the riders in the final circuits as the sun set. To me it was a scene reminiscent of the celebrations that welcomed the new Millennium 13 years was that big. Not only was the crowd pulsing to hours of revelry, the riders put on a fantastic display to encourage their fans.
David Millar's long run off the front, followed by a number of other break away attempts, kept everyone in  suspense. We had one eye on the break away and then a second eye on the sprinter's teams, who were keeping watch on the front of the speeding peloton.
The last lap was an absolute cracker, with OPQ taking an early position at the front of the race, with Cavendish nicely protected and with five of his strong men keeping the pace high and the peloton strung out. Lotto was lurking just behind, with Greipel looking strong. Cannondale were having difficulty dominating with any effect but for them they had achieved their principal goal, the Green Jersey for their enigmatic Peter Sagan. Meanwhile, Argos were sitting in behind the other sprint teams and with the wide open streets they were always in a position to move when they believed the timing was right.
The final charge by Argos was timed to perfection and reinforced this teams domination in the sprints this Tour. With 500 metres to go they charged hard and delivered their sprint king, Marcel Kittel, to the front. With 200 metres to go he lit the afterburners and immediately gapped the other sprinters. Its a difficult finale on the Champs-Elysees, its slightly uphill and its on strength-sapping cobbles, however Kittel reinforced his own confidence in his strength and was able to hold off a fast finishing Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish. Kittel was King of the Sprints this year and took home four victories for his superb team. We were fortunate to be able to share their accommodation in Lyon and catch up with Kittel's leadout man, Koen de Kort, for a beer mid-Tour.
Our group enjoyed a beautiful afternoon riding around Paris before the Tour came to town and some pics below are samples of our enjoyable but in some ways sad, last day together.
People were free to do their own thing for the night and five of us decided that rather than stand in the heat of the finishing circuit, that we would find a nice little restaurant to enjoy a meal, beer and wine in front of a television. We had all seen several finales on the Champs-Elysees in the past few years, so we felt that the air-conditioned comfort and relaxed personal celebration with friends was the preferred option. The night time setting also provided the backdrop for a fabulous light show for the presentations and following celebrations. A wonderful way to close this great Centennial Tour. For me this will be my last post and I hope that you have enjoyed the journey, I certainly have, perhaps we will do it again in 2014?

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Mont Revard and Semnoz Don't Disappoint

Today our tour group took one of our most enjoyable rides of the past two weeks. We rode up from our hotel in Aix les Baines to the penultimate climb at Mont Revard. The weather was brilliant and the roads a little quieter than we've been experiencing, with the exception of the race route sections. The Tour revellers were out early to stake their spot on the road and the wine, beers and picnic hampers were getting a decent work-over by the time we reached Mont Revard.
The selection of pics give you the feel for the scenery and the fans. Have a close look at the elderly couple riding their bikes....he's actually towing his wife up the hill with an inner that's true love :-))
Today's race also provided some real excitement and a shake up of the final podium for the General Classification. It was so god to see Jensie "Shut Up Legs" Voigt tackle the race head on in his own inimitable way, we were all wishing for a fairytale finish for the veteran campaigner but sadly he was  reeled in on Semnoz by the fast finishing podium contenders. As a reward for his efforts, he was awarded the Most Aggressive Rider
What then unfolded was an amazing game of poker and climbing power. Attacks and counter attacks from Quintana, Rodriguez and Froome distanced Contador and Kreuziger, the two big losers on the day. Quintana posted a well-deserved win and second spot on the podium, Rodriguez has continued his strong finish for this year's Tour and has unearthed Contador for the final podium spot.
Tomorrow we jump on the TGV and head to Paris for a twilight finale on the Champs-Élysées. Before the race arrives, we will be taking our tour group for a spin around the cobbles to experience cycling on the Holy Grail.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Sadly - Only two days to Go

The stage today didn't leave us disappointed. Pierre Rolland rode magnificently to put himself in contention for the Polka Dot Jersey and is only 1 point adrift of Froome. It would have been fantastic to see him take the stage today and make it a French 1- 2. It was also just as good to see Rui Costa cement his position  as one of the great strong men of this year's Tour and gain a second stage win....and no doubt increase  his value in the professional rider's market.
Nobody, or no team for that matter,  is able to challenge Froome this year. However, the battle for podium positions is now the most interesting part of this year's tour.  Quintana, Rodriguez and Contador are locked in a battle for the minor placings and tomorrow's stage from Annecy to Semnoz will finalise the Top 3.
The race pics below taken at Marlens at the roundabout before the climb to Col de l'Epin, at this point Rolland was still holding a good lead. You will recognise the key Aussies in these pics.
The other "Social Pics" were taken on our very relaxed ride around Lac D'Annecy before we settled in to watch the race go by at Marlens.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Alpe d'Huez x 2 - The Queen Stage.

Today's Queen Stage from Gap to Alpe d'Huez was always going to be a special day and we weren't let down by the spectacle of the racing and the almost unbelievable antics from the hundreds of thousands of spectators who lined every one of the 21 switchbacks on the mystical mountain of d'Huez.
BMC tried to salvage something from this year's race and put TJ van Garderen on the attack, only to fail in the closing kilometre by a gutsy performance from Christophe Riblon. It was a wonderful day for the French to finally get their first victory in this Centennial Edition of the Tour, particularly on the mythical Alpe d'Huez.
Froome has extended his lead in the overall GC, with a significant amount of support from Aussie Richie Porte. Contador lost a little more time, as did Kreuziger who rode in support of Contador today. Quintana and Rodriguez have, as predicted, staked their claims on podium spots with some strong climbing today.
There's a lot of talk around the web and the various cycling networks over here about BMC trying to salvage a stage in this last week. TJ only just failed today and word is that Cadel Evans has been taking it easy since the last rest day to try for a win tomorrow on the stage to Le Grand-Bornard, fingers crossed!!
Today was predicted to be wet on Alpe d'Huez, so most of our group opted to take the bus directly from our hotel in Grenoble and then take a nice, but lumpy, scenic 60 km ride around Lac du Bourget from our new hotel in Aix les Bains. The weather was perfect for the ride and we managed to get back to watch the last 70 km of the race on the hotel television and enjoy a late lunch. The pics below  were taken during the ride.
Tomorrow we head up to Annecy, often referred to as the "Venice of Savoie", to take an 80 km ride around the shores and hills of Lac D'Annecy. We will then watch the race go by at the second last climb of the day, the Cat 1 Col de l'Epine.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A Wet Day in Paradise

We've been very lucky to be blessed with fine weather right throughout the Centennial Tour, however today that all started to change. As we drove up from Provence to Bourg d'Oisans this morning to tackle the 21 switchbacks of Alpe d'Huez, we were driving in and out of rain all the way to just out of Grenoble. Fortunately, as we pulled into Bourg d'Oisens to park the bus and unload our bikes, the weather turned and we  were presented with fine sunny weather to ascend this beautiful mountain.
The roads were jam-packed with cyclists, walkers and vehicles, making their way up the mountain on the eve of what will be an epic stage tomorrow. I stopped to take a few pics along the way and wanted to make sure I captured the annual revellers at the church at Turn 7, known as "Dutch Corner". You will see from the pics below that the Dutch really take seriously their responsibilities to entertain themselves and the annual cycling pilgrims on Alpe d'Huez. The music is loud and the barbecues and beer flow freely all day.
We were to continue our ride over to Col de Sarenne, making it a 60 km loop back to Bourg d'Oisans, however the rain started falling not long after we summited Alpe d'Huez. The road on the planned loop via Col de Sarenne is narrow and dangerous in the wet, so discretion being the better part of valour, we descended back via the traditional route, taking it very cautiously in the wet and with all the traffic. The biggest danger, apart from the congestion, was the road graffiti, its very slippery in the wet!
Today, the Stage 17 Time Trial was held over a beautiful 32 km course east of Gap, near Lake Serre-Poncon. It was a tough course which included two Cat 2 climbs, very unusual for a TT course, and was always going to shake up the Top 10 a little. To add to the difficulty of the course, rain was falling from time to time to keep the riders a little on edge.
The Time Trial is often the penultimate stage of the Tour, however by bringing it forward in the race schedule, it has now created a very interesting few days in the Alps. Froome continues to prove his strength on the bike, no matter what the conditions of course. He consolidated his lead in the Yellow Jersey and as we continue to read and see, only a major catastrophe will beat him.
The "Race of Truth" sorted out the strongest in the Top 10 and Mollema was the big loser, dropping out of the podium group to 4th. His Belkin team mates will surely be trying to recover his podium position in the next few days, however Movistar and Katusha will be working equally as hard to get their climbers, Quintana and Rodriguez, into contention.
Contador did well today and is now sitting in 2nd spot and as predicted is starting to get stronger as the battle heats up in the last week. The Czech rider for Saxo-Tinkoff, Roman Kreuziger, has a lot of fans on the course and he has a solid hold on 3rd at the moment. My room mate, Eric, has worked with Saxo during the Spring and rates Kreuziger highly and expects he will hold on to his podium position  through the mountains to Paris.
Tomorrow is going to one of the most epic days in Tour de France history, with a double ascent of the infamous Alpe d'Huez. Today our group was comparing the relative difficulty of Mont Ventoux and Alpe d'Huez and there was no debate that Ventoux is the toughest climb. However, Alpe d'Huez holds this mystical appeal among cyclists and the Tour. When asked why, our Belgian professional tour leader,Eric, suggested that although it is only 13.5 km of climbing, the riders take it on full bore and they take no prisoners in the quest for victory on this mountain, to be part of it's history. 
The weather is predicted to be wet all day, so this will make the day doubling difficult for the riders and even more interesting for the spectators. The lounge room in front of the TV is probably the best place to be tomorrow to watch the great stage!
On a closing note, its great to see Aussie Michael Rogers sitting in 11th position and it would be great to see him sneak into the Top 10.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Stage 16 - Vaison la Romaine to Gap

As the race heads out of Provence towards the Alps, today's stage to Gap created an opportunity for the non-GC contenders to race for a stage win.
Today's 26 man break was allowed to establish an early break by the key GC teams, with all teams represented by riders who didn't threaten the Top 5. With Cam Meyer and Michael Albasini in the breakaway group we were all hoping for a fairytale result for Orica Greenedge, however Movistar's Rui Costa waved the Portuguese flag high with another Tour de France stellar performance. He demonstrated his strength over the final Cat 2 Col de Manse to ride away from his breakaway mates with only 12 km to race.
Contador is set on continuing a strong challenge to consolidate his podium result and is like a burr under the saddle blanket of Froome, to the extent that he and Froome had a close call on the descent of Col de Manse into Gap. Contador was pushing the limits and forcing Froome to follow closely on a tricky descent, only to end up on the deck with Froome almost following suit.
It is shaping up to be a great competition between these two in the next few days in the Alps, although Contador's 4:25 deficit will be almost impossible to bridge, unless Froome comes completely unstuck by some form of misadventure.
It was a very hot day in Provence today, reaching 37 deg C, and our group road the 40 km to the Stage Start in the small town of Vaison la Romaine. There were limited access roads into the town and although we arrived 3 hours before the race start, the security put in place by the Gendarmerie created difficulty for us locating our bus to secure our bikes and allow our clients to retrieve walking shoes, caps etc. We found a spot near the race start area to place all the bikes and allow our clients to get up close to the riders while they signed on and got ready to start the race. I looked after the bikes while our tour leader went on the hunt for our bus, finally finding 1.5 km from the start!
This is all part of the Tour when you go to a start or finish but today was made more difficult by the hot weather, small number of local shops and huge crowds and large numbers of vehicles.
Half of our clients opted to take the bus back to the hotel, saving their legs for our ride up Alpe d'Huez tomorrow. I rode with the balance of our group back to the hotel along very hot country roads, enjoying a light lunch along the way.
The weather on Alpe d'Huez for our ascent tomorrow and the race day on Thursday is looking pretty miserable, with rain and possible storms, so we're preparing for a pretty tricky couple of days. We'll be up early for breakfast before taking our bus to the base of Alpe d'Huez tomorrow. One group will ride up and descend the 21 switchbacks, covering a total of 27 km. A larger group that I will ride with is going to complete a 60 km ride up d'Huez and then along the race route to Col de Sarenne and back to Le Bourg d'Oisans, at the base of d'Huez. Even in wet weather this will be a great ride.
The pics below were taken during our ride today, apologies for the lack of race start pics, I didn't quiet make it due to the bike baby-sitting duties. :-)

Monday, 15 July 2013

Race Rest Day - Mont Ventoux for us.

Today is the race second rest day and all the teams have been quietly bedded down in their hotels in northern  Provence. Yesterday's mammoth stage would have taken a lot out of the riders and they would have been glad of an easy day with a sleep in and then an easy roll around the local roads this morning.
The pace that was set yesterday was extraordinary and was well ahead of the predicted fastest time, Froome ended up 45 minutes ahead of the predicted time and had one of the fastest ever ascents of Mont Ventoux.
We're staying in a great little country hotel, a converted farm manor house, which is only 55 km from the base of Mont Ventoux and 40 km from tomorrow's race start at Vaison La Romaine. Tomorrow we will ride to the race start and then ride back to the hotel again, an easy day for us after today's epic day on Mont Ventoux.
We headed out on the bus at 9 am this morning, being able to enjoy our first full night's sleep for some time. The bus dropped us and our bikes at Malaucene, in the foothills of Mont Ventoux. We then rode the 12 km up to Bedoin to start the 22 km ascent of Ventoux.
It was a hot day again and keeping the water and electrolyte intake level up was critical for a good day on the bike. The first stop on the climb was at Chalet Reynard, 6 km from the summit. Riders have the opportunity to buy food, coffee and drinks here and buy their souvenir cycling kit. While I was there I had a random tap on the shoulder from an ex-Army mate and local Brisbane IT consultant, Paul Burgess, see pic below. Paul has done a couple of trips to the France for the Tour and we've ridden together from time to time as part of his preparation for the trip.
The next stop is at the memorial of Tom Simpson, an English professional cyclist who tragically died  1 km from the top during the 1967 Tour. After my first time on Ventoux in 2011, I decided that I should souvenir a small rock from near the memorial for mounting a keepsake with a photo at the memorial, the photo is below.
Following the ride to the summit it was then a quick decent back to Malaucene. We then had the option of taking the bus back to the hotel or adding another 55 km to our day by riding home. I joined the ride back to the hotel, along some very rough country roads and headwinds for 45 km of the 55 km return journey!! With more than 100 km in the legs today, we're looking forward to another later start tomorrow and steady ride to and from the race start. Random pics below are from today's ride.