Le Legende awaits

With Le Tour we picked up our hire car to return to the Alpes for the Alpe d'Huez Triathlon. Driving through Paris proved a challenge to say the least! A full length Triathlete Chronicle is in progress to tell this story...

France Day 8 - the Champs Elysees

Today was celebration day for Carlos Sastre and Team CSC. As much as us Cadel fans were reluctant to admit it, Team CSC truly deserved their win this year. They had truly dominated the peleton, throwing everyone off the scent by setting up Frank Schleck in the yellow jersey early on in the race before letting Sastre loose on Alpe d'Huez.

The tour was over, and we took our positions in the grandstand at the Champs Elysees and waited for the riders to come through.

It turned into a long afternoon in the sun, and with few options for refreshments close by, the natives were restless. We had a big screen on which to watch the action... though 'action' is quite a loose term when applied to the last day of the Tour de France. It is more like a procession than a race, and the yellow jersey holder sips champagne as they cruise through the Paris countryside.

Gert Steegmans took the sprint stage victory for Team Quick Step. The presentations were made to the jersey holders:
  • Carlos Sastre - Yellow Jersey
  • Oscar Freire - Green Sprinters Jersey
  • Bernard Kohl - Polka Dot King of the Mountain Jersey
  • Andy Schleck - White Young Rider Jersey
  • CSC - Team

We waited for all of these presentations to be made to await the parade of teams. We gave all the riders cheers, especially the Aussies. It was awesome to see Stuart O'Grady enjoying his team's success.

Finally, Silence-Lotto entered the Champs Elysees. Few other spectators remained as the Silence team passed the Aussie bay of the grandstand to an enormous cheer.

I didn't care who else was there. It was important to me to wait and give Cadel a huge cheer for his efforts. As a nation we Australians are fickle, and quick to dismiss our countrymen that fail to live up to the lofty expectations we burden them with. Cadel in particular seems to be his own toughest critic, and although I would have loved to be seeing him in yellow at that moment, as far as I am concerned he still did himself and his country proud.

France Day 7 - Part 2 - The Race of Truth

After arriving in St Amand-Montrond for the TT finish, I packed up my bike for its transfer to Paris. I scoped a spot opposite a big screen just a few hundred metres shy of the finish line and soaked up the sun and atmosphere.

In cycling the time trial is known of "The Race of Truth" because, well, there isn't anywhere to hide. Each cyclist is let off individually, and they race against the clock in their race against one another.

Today, like never before, would be truth time for Cadel Evans. He was in 4th place overall; 1:34 down on the yellow jersey of Carlos Sastre. Frank Schleck and Bernard Kohl were only seconds ahead of him on the standings. Sastre was the one he had to reel in.

All of us in the tour group were hopeful, some even confident, that Cadel could do it. Sastre had never been known as a strong time triallist...

One by one, the cyclists started, and came through the finish. Finally, after what seemed like hours, we saw on the big screen that Cadel was being counted down and waved off by the starting official. He put in a solid ride, unfortunately today needed to be more than "solid". It needed to be the time trial of his life.

Even more unfortunately, the man who was having the time trial of his life was Carlos Sastre. Phil Liggett was once again being proven right in his theory that the yellow jersey somehow allows men to ride themselves into some confidence. Or ride like two men. Or like men with three legs.

Yes, Phil Liggett sure has a unique way with words...

Before we knew it, though, Sastre and his yellow jersey had ridden himself to a Tour de France victory. Cadel Evans had ridden himself out of the one thing that had haunted him since this time last year.

It was a sombre group that returned to the bus for transit to our hotel. At least when we got there, we enjoyed one of the best meals of the trip.

France Day 7 - Part 1: the "anti-TT"

...the day we held so much hope for...

As we boarded the bus in Vichy, decked out in all the Aussie gear we had, we shared boundless optimism for the day ahead.

While Cadel and co had 55km "race of truth" our ride for the day was either 50k or 100k to the time trial finish in Cerilly. KKB again joined a rebel ride, as Andy had calculated that they could take in both the TT start and finish, still in around 100ks. If I thought I had a hope of keeping up, I would have joined them on this adventure, as I would have loved to check out the excitement of a TT start.

The complete opposite, I dropped off the back of the 50k pack at the first hill. The guide was trying to get me to speed up, even offering to give me a push, to get back on the back. But I was sick of riding at everybody else’s tempo, as I'd been expected to do for the entire tour. I just wanted to ride my bike through the French countryside. That's what I thought I'd signed up for. The tour organisers web site said they catered for cyclists of all abilities. And, I guess they kind of do. They cater for fast cyclists who want to do serious Ks. They cater for slower and less serious cyclists, who just want to ride a bit. In my experience, they don’t really cater for slower cyclists who want to do serious Ks like everybody else.

I've never really minded riding alone, so on this last day, stubbornly, I continued to do so, almost as a bit of a protest.

After not too long, the guide gave in and rode with me at my pace. We got to chatting and I took the opportunity to pick the brains of an ex World Champion, and also to give her a bit of an insight into what it’s like to be a back of the pack athlete.

I asked her what her greatest accomplishment had been as a pro, and also what her favourite memory was – prompting her that quite often, they aren’t the same. She agreed. Her greatest accomplishment was a no-brainer. When you’ve been a world champion, it doesn’t get much better. She said that her best race was one that had a very different result. She hadn’t won, she hadn’t placed. But she’d trained so hard, given so much, and enjoyed the experience in a different way.

We talked about my upcoming attempt at the Alpe d’Huez Triathlon, and she asked me which my favourite leg was. I told her that I preferred training for the bike.

“I know I’m not very good at it, but I just riding my bike. I love the anticipation of a long ride, I love plotting my route and packing up my pockets with goodies. I love the freedom of just being out on the road. And, I’ve learned that life’s too short to not do the things you love to do.”

She didn’t say much at the time, but I hope she took it on board and passed it on to the organisers of our tour, who say on their website they cater for cyclists of all abilities.

I hope if nothing else, the guide at least enjoyed her cruisy ride with me through the French countryside. I did.

Incidentally, KKB loved his "anti" ride as well. He said that the excitement and anticipation at the TT start was great, and they also enjoyed some love from the team cars, who used the same backroad as they did to cut through from the start to the finish. The Silence-Lotto cars all gave them big toots and waves, as they were all decked out in the gear.

France Day 6 - Vichy

Today, instead of chasing the Tour, the race came to us, passing literally straight past our hotel . We took the chance for an easy day on the bike, exploring the streets of Vichy.

By now I had a bit of an idea of how important the TDF is to the French people. Everywhere we had gone the villages of France had been lined with spectators. It’s an awesome sight, and an awesome feeling to get the cheers of the locals as you ride through before the professionals.

I had begun to wonder whether it was like the Melbourne Cup, where everyone gets a day off to celebrate a national spectacle. So, with a lazy day planned we took the opportunity to talk to some locals, in very bad French guided by our rather rudimentary phrasebook.

I have to say we did OK. We managed to ascertain that because the Tour takes place during their summer, kids are on holidays from school, and like Australians at Christmas time, everyone takes the opportunity to take holidays and enjoy the sunshine. The family that we spoke to were on holidays in Vichy, and were also looking forward to watching the Tour come through town.

I haven’t really written much about the Caravane Publicitaire, or promotional caravan. The only way I can describe it is, to imagine a normal Australian street parade, but on speed. The concept is the same – most of the Caravan consists of floats on cars, buses, four wheeler bikes, you name it – however because the Caravan Publicite needs to stay ahead of the cyclists of the Tour, it travels the tour route at an average speeds of up to 50kph. It travels the entire route, so speeds its way along highways and winds its way through roadside villages at what seem like breakneck speed, all the while distributing promotional products to the millions of spectators the Tour attracts.

I’d been told about the Caravane before my trip to France, but the fact that I marvelled at it shows that it really is something that can only believed when seen in person.

Today’s stage, being a flat stage, saw the field stay fairly much together, and they raced through Vichy at such a speed that it was almost like a “blink and miss it” experience. We stretched out our experience by soaking up the atmosphere of the Caravane. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching the end of the Tour stage in a bar in the middle of Vichy’s famous Parc de Sources, where the Hall de Sources houses taps that deliver the mineral water the city is famous for, and that night found a restaurant in which to enjoy a beautiful meal, the first of a few four course set menu meals we enjoyed during our time in France.

At the end of today Cadel Evans is in fourth place, 1:34 behind Sastre... what will tomorrow's time trial bring...?

France Day 5 - Feed Zone La Frette

Today the Tour rode from Bourg d’Oisan to St Etienne and our schedule was to ride from Alpe D’Huez to the feed zone just before the town of La Frette.

I snuck out early to get a head start, as I felt this was the only way I was going to get through the 110ks before the roads closed for the tour. KKB also made his break with a small group who were also sick of waiting around for something to happen.

The descent from Alpe d’Huez was, unlike previous rides, quiet and desolate. No crazy cycling fans, no music blaring from campervans. It was different, but not unexpected, for the Alpe d’Huez "hangover".

Further down the road towards Vizille I was tucked in behind Andre and heading along at a nice pace when we encountered some road furniture. That’s what they call all kinds of bits and pieces that Europeans tend to put on their roads – I guess their version of Australian “traffic calming”.

This particular bit of road furniture was a sloped kerb, painted gloss white, so until you were right upon it, it looked like a painted line. In a split second Andre managed to avoid it at the last minute. I hit it, swerved, wobbled, and finally came down like a bag of spuds.

Miraculously, Lance was fine and the damage to me was minimal, just a bit of skin off my knee, elbow and hand, even though my jacket, gloves and knee warmers. But it was a close call, with traffic around. Luckily European traffic is much more mindful of cyclists than their Australian counterparts. I am thankful for my lucky escape due to the diligence (and expert breaking) of a passing motorist.

After a few tears and a hug from the gentle German, we continued on to meet the bus, where I made my decision to continue to ride for the 110ks.

While I still don’t regret this decision, the riding I did between the bus and the end of that day’s riding was some of the hardest I did on the trip. We were on a time limit and the pace was on. Particularly after my crash, I felt like this wasn’t what I’d signed on for.

We were nearly at our destination when the Gendarmarie closed the road literally in front of us, preventing us from entering the Category 3 Col de Parmenie. What now?

Well, my question was answered. The back road our guides chose featured a climb that mentally I just wasn’t up to. Finally, I got off my bike to nurse my wounds. When we got to our destination – revised due to the road closure – all I wanted to do was go and find Phil. Thinking he was closer than the 20ks it turned out to be, I hopped back on my bike to hunt him down. Finally, with one of the girls and a guide we got to the meeting point, La Frette.

I never saw the feed station, as we took back roads. But I did see the riders come through the town – just a small breakaway with the main group in pursuit. Fantastic to finally lay eyes on Cadel, up close, though in fast forward!

A long day finished with an even longer bus ride to our next hotel in Vichy. On the up side - my first flavoured milk of the trip, on a "pitstop" at a servo.

France Day 4 - Race Day Craziness

Our guide book itinerary for today reads "Race Day Craziness - All Day". A pretty accurate description of how the day turned out, actually...

With noone keen to ride the six of us took the opportunity to take the cable car to Pic du Blanc, at Andy's suggestion. The views are quite indescribable from 3330ft, looking down on Alpe d'Huez and further down to Bourg d'Oisans. To the north the view is across to the top of Mont Blanc, and to the East across to L'Aguilles D'Arves and - this was so exciting to me - Italy!!!

I also got my first touch of snow at Pic du Blanc - I was excited to stand in snow and make a snowball!

We returned to Alpe d'Huez for a bite to eat, and to decide on a plan for the afternoon ahead. Andy, Miri and I headed through the centre of town to find a spot on the closing slopes of the climb. I was overwhelmed to catch my first glimpse of Switchback 1 on race day, graced with a massive FREE TIBET sign on the side of the hill - of course for Cadel.

Andy was getting SMS updates so we knew what was going on in the race. Our heart sank when the news of Sastre's breakaway came through. Although, he was in a group with the Schlecks - after all with Frank in Yellow they were his main rivals right...? Right?

(Those damn Schlecks! We had seen them everywhere that morning - on flags, jerseys, banners... even random toddlers... and joked that they must be eying off a career in real estate after cycling.)

Our view perched on the side of the hill at Alpe d'Huez was such that we could see the groups winding their way up the hill. First, the lone figure of Carlos Sastre, pedalling like a man possessed, determined to claim the stage win, and perhaps the yellow jersey, at the top of this legendary climb.

We were excited to witness Cadel leading his group around the last switchback of the climb, although what would happen between here and the finish line, well, this group wasn't going to catch Carlos Sastre. He was to finish Stage 17 as not only the stage winner, but as the wearer of the leader's yellow jersey.

While disappointed, we like Cadel were not beaten yet. There were more opportunities ahead, especially the time trial, and we would be there to see him fight another day.

France tour Day 3 - Galibier

Another bad night's sleep saw me opt out of the "Queen" stage ride I'd optimistically signed up for. It was going to be a hard ride and with only six hours sleep over the last two nights, I'm sure I would have regretted it.

I was devastated to make the call. I wondered whether I would regret it. But with Alpe d'Huez triathlon looming large after yesterday's climb, I thought I was doing the right thing.

The shorter ride was up col du Galibier - another of the Tour's notorious climbs - but without Telegraph and Croix de Fur. Alpe d'Huez ends both rides.

We took the bus to col du Lautaret to start. The forecast was for a 6 degree maximum on Galibier so I rugged up appropriately. The climb was gentle but relentless and the scenery quite stunning (although personally I find the lack of vegetation in Alpine regions a little bleak). I stopped several times to take photos.

Closer to the top and the wind really picked up. I was quite worried about being blown off the mountain! I heard a voice behind me saying something I didn't understand. A lovely Belgian man thankfully spoke English as well. He accompanied me for a while, positioning himself to shelter me from the wind as much as he could, talking to me the entire way to the monument to the founder of the Tour de France. Another photo opportunity - so he rode off, warning me to save something for the last k of the climb.

Rightly, too, as it turned out. It was the worst of the climb (opposite to Alpe d'Huez). At the top were two of our guides, who chatted to me while I piled on all the extra clothes I'd brought for the descent, and Dean also took a snap of me and Lance at the summit!

Back down to Lautaret, from where we wound back down the valley to Bourg d'Oisans, with some stunning scenery for company. The tunnels through the hills also a highlight.

My regret of the day happened now. A bus was leaving imminently back up the mountain to our accommodation and I was too weak to resist. The moment the bus reached the 21st switchback I had his sinking feeling in my heart. I knew I should be out there, riding. I'd planned to use the opportunity to take photos and soak up the atmosphere that was building on the slope.

Not to give in to this, when we got to the hotel I didn't go inside. I got on Lance and rode down to switchback 11 and rode back up from there. Past the Luxembourgians, through Dutch corner, chatting to the Aussies and getting a push form one of them. The photographers didn't freak me out this time, in fact I took a snap of them (they're part of the festivities too!).

I got to the top feeling well satisfied that I'd not given in, that I'd had another go.

By now the shopping area at the top of the climb was a hive of activity. Everyone was in party mode and as I was wearing some Aussie gear many of the pilgrims gave me a thumbs up, shouting "Cadel Evans!!!".

More encounters with Belgian men - when I wasn't on my bike they didn't hesitate to hug and kiss the Aussie girl - as Cadel was in actual fact Belgiums big chance at yellow as well, riding for their team Silence Lotto!

Soaking up the atmosphere of what is without a doubt the Holy Grail of the TDF was a wonderful finish to a day that had started in tears of disappointment.

France tour Day 2 - Alpe D'Huez

I chose my swear bubble Tshirt for today's travel to the south of France, and my first ascent up Alpe D'Huez. I really didn't know how I would cope! I opted for the shorter ride with Suze, up Alpe d'Huez from Bourg d'Oisans. Most of the other riders (including KKB) started 30ks earlier at Vizelle.

There was just so much pleasure in this ride. It isn't just about being able to say you've done it!

Andy described Alpe d'Huez as a feat in engineering - building a road up not a hill, but a sheer cliff face. It climbs over 1000m in less than 15ks so it isn't for the fainthearted! Our group proved that, with several hopping into the bus at different points up the climb.

The scenery is spectacular and if you have the time you can marvel at the feats of the riders who have won stages of the Tour here, as each switchback is numbered and the signage honours one or two the riders who have done so. As I passed these signs I wondered whether after Wednesday, Cadel Evans would be honoured here alongside some of the tour greats - Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani to name just a couple. Ironically, one of Cadel's biggest rivals in this year's race, Frank Schleck, has his name immortalised here after his win in 2006.

Alpe d'Huez is a tough climb but even as I climb it two days before the tour comes through the route is alive with spectators of all nationalities. Dutch corner is a highlight - set alongside the church in the village of Huez, there is even a monk who blesses all the cyclists who pass with water fresh from the glacier above. Not to mention the cyclists. They estimate that 1,000 cyclists a day climb the Alpe in summer. I've never seen so many cyclists in one day! It's like heaven!

Closer to the top of the climb got harder again, as the wind kicked in, the spectators thinned out and the altitude made it cooler. The photographers took a snapshot after frightening me - I wasn't expecting to see men in fluoro safety vests in the middle of the road. When they started calling to me, "madamoiselle, madamoiselle..." I wondered what kind of emergency lay ahead of me. They followed with "You have a beautiful smile" and pointed a camera at me, I soon realised what was going on!

I reached the summit, I think in around 1:40 or so and befriended the Robbie McEwan fan I'd met a few hours before on the tour bus, after commenting on his Silence kit and Ridley bike. Richard was consulting a map to find our hotel - very handy!

The summit of Alpe d'Huez is notthe same as the TDF stage end, so Richard and I continued through the township as I recalled Phil Liggett's commentary... "This might be the recognised end of the climb to Alpe d'Huez but the riders still have almost 2kms to ride to the end of today's race, and it's all uphill!"

As we rode through the town we came across one of the other tour groups, and Dave McKenzie (ex Aussie pro rider and SBS commentator). He took the time to chat about the tour, SBS coverage, and what the next few days might hold for the riders, which was a bit of a buzz. Richard and I continued on to our hotel, where KKB had already checked in.

France tour Day 1

Our first day in France sees just a short ride from our hotel near the Airport through the village of Mitry Mory. A total of 30ks.

I am initially a little concerned about the pace set... will I be able to keep up on the rides that are to follow?

Back to the hotel to watch the tour from the bar. It's bittersweet with Aussie Simon Gerrans getting the stage win, but Cadel losing yellow.

Alpe D'Huez awaits...

Well, the Athletic Powerhouse is off this morning to France for a week following the TDF and the Alpe D'Huez Triathlon. I'll post when I can but please think of me on Wednesday 30, when I battle the Alpes and altitude for the triathlon. It won't be much of a taper, riding every day and eating rich French food... but it's all part of the experience. Au revoir!

Cadel 08 on TV!!

Yes! Some of my mates are already over in France cycling the Pyrenees. How exciting it was to see them on TV, in the scrum of fans fighting for an autograph...

Andy was there for the start of the stage in Carcassonne and was wearing his Cadel 08 shirt while eagerly awaiting the disembarkment of Cadel, the Yellow Jersey holder, from his Silence Lotto team bus.

I was so excited for him when he emailed through that when Cadel finally emerged, he saw them in their shirts and waved! So they are working! Just a few days till KKB and I get over there too. Go Cadel!

How many sleeps to go?

9 till my last day at work...
11 till I jump on a plane...
13 till my first ascent of Alpe d'Huez...
14 till the big one...
19 till the Yellow Jersey is awarded on the Champs Elysees...
21 till I attempt to become the first non professional Aussie girl to finish the Alpe d'Huez Long Course Triathlon...