Saturday, June 26, 2004

What I do when Banz rides up mountains....

I've been relatively quiet on the blog front since the start of the Big Trip, which those of you who know me, may well find surprising....

Of course I've been sharing the daily adventure and logistical necessities with Banz. From sending him out each morning in search of croissants, to telling him where I exactly want the tent positioned (usually as far as possible from where he has dumped all his panniers on the ground, whilst I leave mine stealthily attached to my bike and just wheel them to the new location), the struggles and rewards are generally shared between us. That is, except for the masochistic world of hill climbing.

As our mate Spence asked, "What does Vic do while you're off doing your Julie Andrews impression??".

Obviously this impression is totally at odds with Banz's, who hopes to run into Tyler Hamilton in a bar one day and be able to say, "That Mt Ventoux eh?"

For his two big mountain rides that have been described here, I've been more than content to either indulge myself in the girly pastimes of either shopping (Mt Ventoux Day) or improving my tan (Corsica nightmare ride day). By the way, the tan on my legs is fantastic and obviously gets better each day I ride.

Don't get me wrong, the satisfaction of reaching the top of a hard climb and surveying all below you and knowing you got here under your own steam (as well as lugging four excess novels knicked from the book exchange at the last campsite) is a fantastic feeling. The downhill section which lasts for approximately one fifth of the length of the uphill is also brilliant as well as seeing the speeds which your computer would have no hope of registering under normal circumstances.

It's just that well, climbing for the sake of climbing seems a bit silly to me.

I don't want to start sounding like a girly girl who doesn't understand the offside rule and so thinks football is stupid, but the whole thing of climbing these hills just strikes me as pointless. Nobody could've been prouder of Banz than I was after his successful Mt Ventoux ride, and, in a weird sort of way I was prouder of him after his unsuccessful day in the mountains in Corsica, and I'm more than happy at shout at him, "GET ON THE PEDALS!!!" as he heads off, its just not for me.

I'll ride up hills - but only if they're in my way.....

Saturday, June 12, 2004

A day in the country

We duly caught our ferry to Corsica after a much less trying trip to the port than the one in Hull. It's a sign of the times that we didn't want the crossing to end so that we could further enjoy the luxury of our cabin.

The port of Ajaccio is touristy but with good reason as the town occupies a beautiful patch of coastline with a backdrop of green rolling hills and their rockier cousins. Our campsite is 10 minutes ride from town, 2 minutes walk from the beach and about 100 metres up the side of a hill.

Given Corsica's many hills and my new found enjoyment of cycling in low gears I decided to go for a ride into the mountainous interior. Buoyed by recent triumphs I decided to have a go at a challenging 140km jaunt from Ajaccio to Corte, the island's capital. The ride would take me over 6 passes from 200 to 1,400 metres and I had the last train to catch at 18:35.

I set off at 5:30 to give myself a chance and to get some miles in before the heat got too much. It took me 45 minutes to get out of town but only another half an hour to crest the Col de Linsticone (200m +). A quick stop to auto-timer a photo, grab a handful of energy-boosting melange exotique and I was off. The road swept gently round the side of the hill with the sun starting to extract the scent from the maquis bushes which are everywhere on the island. Soon enough the second climb started in earnest so I dropped down the gears and spun slowly up the extra 400 vertical metres which were distributed pretty evenly over 6 or 7 kilometers of road. Two down (well, up really) and things were going well.

The descent from Col de St Sebastiano (~500m) is fast and winding, taking you all the way back down the coast. I then had about 10 fast kilometers by the clear blue sea before the inevitable turn towards the mountains. I branched off at Sagone and had about 10 minutes of easy riding before the gradient once again forced me into the low gears. I'd been riding a couple of hours by now and was happy enough to be gaining height and improving my view. It took me over an hour to climb to the 10kms or so to Vico and the Col de St Antoine but it took an awful lot out of me. I stopped for refreshments.

The ride up this 3rd hill had been hard. I'd been in the saddle for well over 3 hours and my legs and head were starting to ask a few questions. While enjoying an orange juice, I got the map out and started to formulate a Plan B. The best I could come up with (that wasn't riding back from Vico) was to push on up the next hill and instead of heading to Corte, turn towards the coast (got to be downhill) and head to Porto and see if they have a bus back to Ajaccio.

The Plan B made me feel a bit better. Climb 4 was up to the Col de Sevi, a leg battering 1,100m above sea level. What happened over the next 2 hours was about as far from fun as I can imagine. The bike and I reached an uneasy truce and we settled into the lowest gear it had. About half the time this was manageable but in a painfully slow way. The rest of the times it was either not low enough ("Get on the pedals" - Vic's favourite phrase of cycling encouragement) or too low. It didn't occur to me to change up when my legs spun wildly, only to sit there and enjoy the ride.

The trees thinned out, the sun beat down, the energy seeped slowly out of my legs and dripped onto the road below. The yellow kilometer markers crept past at a rate of one every 8 or 9 minutes. It was hard. Eventually, I saw the road heading straight to the top and a couple of corners later I was on it. This section was maybe 600 metres long but it took 2 rest stops to get there. I just couldn't get my brain to tell my legs to keep pushing. As it had to, the top arrived.

I got the photo and was happily sharing my egg sarnies with a couple of wild boar until they started getting a bit uncontrollable. Onwards and downwards I went. I rolled to a campsite outside Evisa with 70km on the clock and over 5 hours in the saddle. I asked for bus options and was delighted to hear from the campsite lady that one was due in 45 minutes and would happily take me and my bike back to Ajaccio. I used the only muscles so far not ground into oblivion and smiled. All I had to do was wait for the bus and flag it down.

I set about waiting in the shade. Cars passed. Vans passed. Motorbikes passed. No buses though. A camper van pulled in and the owners went for a coffee. Still no buses. As I waited another white van approached and as it went past I saw the names of towns like 'Vico' and 'Saglone' painted on it. I waved but it was gone. My bus was a minibus and it was heading over the hills without me.

The campsite lady came to ask how it was going, wondering where the bus was as it normally passes every days. I couldn't bring myself to explain so just looked puzzled while trying not to cry. Time passed and it became obvious the driver wasn't going to nip back to Evisa for his sarnies. The campsite lady was very puzzled but we agreed that the only explanation was that the bus had been early and we'd missed it while I was having a glass of juice.

We hit upon another plan. Accost the coffee drinking camper van owners and ask them to take me, not to Havana, to Ajaccio. If they were going that way. They were Austrians and in a tri-lingual negotiation, we got them to take me to Vico where they had accommodation booked. Not ideal but it got me back over the Col de Sevi which I'd spent the last 20 minutes descending.

From Vico to the campsite was 40 kilometers with the 500 metre climb of earlier in the way. Three more hours in the saddle and I was back at the tent I'd left 13 hours earlier with a slightly haunted look on my face. My day trip to Corte had been a failure but I have learned a valuable lesson about cycling in the mountains.

The final stats were :-
Distance : 110km
Ride Time : 8:17.37
Altitude Gained : 2437m

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Stats Updated!

The stats pages have now been updated. Check out the introduction page for records and overall figures as well as "Vic's Altitude Sickness" and "Banz Vs The Cheetah" for a more specific breakdown.

Those who don't want to know the results, look away now. Our top speed has edged us past the mighty elk and within touching distance of the quarter horse. Shockingly our average speed is languishing below the chicken and just above the mouse. I can categorically state that we are carrying more stuff than either of these creatures. On the climbing front, we are on our second ascent of Everest and have nearly escaped the watery clutches of the Marianas Trench.
I can see the sea

Here are a few miscellaneous updates...

We are now in Marseille with our tickets to Corsica in the bag. We sail not at dawn but at 6pm tomorrow. The voyage to Ajaccio is 11 hours and we're hoping to be on the beach by lunchtime on Wednesday. "Have you got sand in your gears?" "No, I'm getting some change to buy an ice cream."

We have spent the last couple of days trying to get the website up to date and should hopefully be able to upload the last mainland France pictures to the galleries tomorrow if we can find an internet cafe owner who'll let us.

We've clocked up over 1,000 km on the bikes since wobbling down Stockton highstreet (a first for Vic if not for me) and the bikes are keen to have a bit of TLC.

Our tanlines are still a bit odd. My 2 pairs of cycle shorts and swimming trunks are all different lengths giving my legs rather attractive brown, pink and white stripes. For some reason, everytime I put my shorts on I get the urge for Neopolitan ice cream...

Friday, June 04, 2004

I've got hills...they're multiplying

Research at Lyon showed us that the Rhone doesn't readily share its valley with stinking cyclists. The cyclable route which we thought we could imagine into being never materialised so we got the train from Lyon an hour down the track to Valence. It was on this journey, as the hills got a bit more impressive looking, that I decided to test myself in the mountains. Obviously without the luggage.

While Vic explored the town and prepared herself for the inevitable lower body rebuilding process, I girded my loins and hit the road. The route I planned took me from Valence up two 1,000m plus climbs; Col des Limouches and Col de Tourniol. The road to the bottom of the hill was flat but sadly not level and I had slightly over-warm legs as the road tilted skyward. The climb up 'Limouches' (I feel I can call the mountain that now) was 12 kilometers of hairpins and raised me a further 700 metres above the valley floor. The views of the town below and Valence in the distance were stunning and the constant gradient allowed me to sit on my second lowest gear (having saved one for emergencies) and spin to the top of 1086m.

The plan was to do the Tourniol as well, figuring I'd have done most of its 1145m already. The swooping ascent took off a few more metres than I'd have liked allowing me to whizz through the high meadows of La Vacherie. The road up the Tourniol was smaller and more gritty than the previous one but it didn't really affect me as I crept up on badly protesting legs. Eventually, as I was overtaken by ladybirds and even the cows had grown bored of watching me, I reached the top. The descent on the gravelly road was a bit more sedate than could have been expected but the valley seemed a nicer thing to look at than plunge headlong into.

The conquering hero struggled the 10 or so kilometers back to town after notching over 4 hours in the saddle to ride nearly 80km up over 1300 vertical metres. The hot shower and energy drinks did a little to revive but I was early to bed that night.

The riding from Valence was largely with the help of the Mistral which gave us a little shove but not enough to let us freewheel up the hills. And there were hills a plenty... We stayed at the pretty town of Crest with its Donjon (sadly nothing to do with Don Johnson) and La Begude de Mazenc, a town with about 14 more letters in its name than open shops. It was around this time that Vic's back started to really play up. We think it's due to the bending and lifting involved with camping which causes an old boating injury to flare up. Whatever it stems from it makes cycling up hills a very painful business for Vic. After one 8km climb to many we had no choice but to rest up in the town of Taulignan before pushing on here, to Vaison La Romaine.

The stay here has allowed me to go climbing again, this time up the big one: Mont Ventoux. The Giant of Provence sits in the Rhone Valley attracting cyclists from the likes of Lance Armstrong down. Its 1912m summit is considered one of the hardest climbs around and the Tour de France regularly sends the riders through Bedoin and up the 21km to the top. Yesterday I desided to join them...

It's about 20km from Vaison to Bedoin with the 448m Col De La Madelein thrown in to get the pulse rate up. The climb from Bedoin had me thinking "is this it" as I tried not to go too fast. A couple of kilometers of this took me to St Esteve where the road steepens and turns towards the treeline. The change in gradient had me hopping up through the gears to find something comfortable but without giving up the lowest of the low. With the summit visible and the climb starting in earnest I had been reduced to my second lowest gear. Ventoux is famous for getting you up to Chalet Reynard without resorting to hairpins. The gradient was unrelenting and I soon had to claim my last gear. I spent the next 1 hour 45 minutes slogging up through the trees with nothing to look at but the tarmac in front, climbing away endlessly. I had planned to stop if the view was good but there was no view at all so I drank my water and juice and ate my energy bars as I rode. When the trees thinned out and the Mistral started to gust I knew I was almost through the first stage...the 15kms to Chalet Reynard.

I'd been riding 3 hours 15 minutes by this stage with about 2 on the Ventoux. A quick coffee stop with 2 veteran climbers filled me with a bit of worry. It was getting pretty windy and I was warned that the last 6km to the top may not be possible...

"C'est difficile?"

"Non, c'est dangereuse..."

I hadn't come this far to turn around but didn't fancy getting blown off the side of a mountain. Then I saw other people going up and figured it must be safe so climbed back on the bike. The last part of the climb winds up the barren upper slopes where nothing as sensible as a pine tree stands in the way of the Mistral. The procession of cyclists was pretty constant by now and I joined them for the buffeting. The road would creep sideways on to the wind (2nd lowest gear, spinning nicely) before turning straight into it (lowest gear, on the pedals, gusts bringing me to a standstill). The climb is on the inside of the road which is safer as those descinding did so with feet unclipped and at little over walking pace.

The 5kms from the chalet to the memorial for Tom Simpson (a British rider and World Champion who died of exhaustion on the Ventoux) took me over 45 minutes. I paused to read the messages, left a memento and headed back up the hill. Less than 5 minutes later I was at the top. The wind was howling, the gift shop tacky and the carpark swarming with Germans in 4x4s who weren't prepared to lose a parking space to some wobbly cyclist. Saying that, it felt pretty good to be up there.

The climb took me nearly 3 hours and had me bathed in sweat, the descent of 35 minutes had me shivering despite having the map stuffed up my jumper. Well, Boro shirt. Luckily the ride back to the campsite warmed me up.

There's a club for people who have ridden over 100 cols (five of which have to be over 2000 metres). I guess I'm now 1/25th of the way there...