281 – Egg and Spoon Races on the Tour de France

Every Sunday I cycle with the Caussade Cyclo Club. A smattering of hardened veterans, Lycra clad family guys,  grizzled tradesmen, and me. The fresh faced Englishman from Auty who looks after a chateau there in winter. Who appears around November and then disappears again in May, and who only seems to cycle with the club in the ice, freezing fog and howling wind.

This Sunday was no exception as we headed out in storm force winds up to Caylus north of Caussade, then across to Espinas and down into St Antonin in the Aveyron gorge (where Charlotte Gray was filmed). Then we headed up the other side of the gorge on a well known local climb called Côte de Saint Antonin, which as it happens, formed part of Stage 6 in last year’s Tour de France.

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Granted, it’s hardly Alpe D’huez, more a pinprick in comparison, but it’s quite a nice climb all the same: the wide road winding up the side of the gorge giving great views of the valley and town. (You can see the road in the photo below.)

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I’ve done it a few times since I’ve been here and have always found it pretty tough, clocking up times of 15.24 and 14.23 respectively. Both of which are pretty poor.

However, this Sunday after I got back and downloaded my data from my GPS watch (whatever happened to old fashioned speedometers, eh?) I saw I’d done the climb in 11.50 and had risen up to 235th on the Strava leaderboard for the Cote de St. Antonin climb.

If you’re not familiar with how Strava works, think of it like this.

It’s school sportsday, the last day of term, your family are here and you’re approaching the finish line in the egg and spoon race. You’re in the lead. Everybody is cheering, even your grandfather who’s nearly dead, and then calamity! You trip and fall over, break your egg and watch Fatso McGeekan, your longtime nemesis, glide past you and take first place. Leaving you scrabbling around on the yolk splattered grass picking up broken eggshell along with your shattered dreams.

But now let’s imagine that wasn’t the end of it. That you had the chance to rerun the race again and again as many times as you liked in a sort of parallel universe to ensure you came first instead of Fatso McGeeken.

This is what Strava does (more or less).

Let’s take the Cote de Saint Antonin climb, for example. On Strava, this is a Segment. This means that every time a cyclist does this climb, their time is logged and their position ranked on a leaderboard alongside all the other riders who have done it in the past.

An individual can move up the leaderboard by improving their time. Therefore, if my imaginary egg and spoon race was a segment on Strava, which it could be in theory because anyone can set one up, I could rerun the race over and over again and beat my nemesis. (This is hypothetical of course: I’m actually 43 and not still at school.)

I understand that the whole point of races is that the winner is the winner on the day. However, what’s interesting is that after my cycle on Sunday while enjoying a homemade croissant courtesy of Elizabeth (they take three days to make she tells me) I saw on Strava that even though I’d done the Cote de St. Antonin in 11.50 minutes, the quickest time was actually a mind boggling 7.04. Wow! I thought. That’s quick. Very quick! Furthermore, scrolling down the page, I saw there were loads of good times. 7.10, 7.13, 7.15 and so on.

‘Holy Christ!’ I cried out, nearly choking on French pastry. ‘What the hell did these guys think they were doing, the Tour De France, or something?’

Turns out that’s exactly what they were doing, Stage Six to be precise, a Who’s Who of modern day cycling on the same Strava leaderboard as me.  Even one of my favourites, Vincenzo Nibali, the 2014 Tour de France winner and double Giro D’italia winner, was there. Look!

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And here’s me on the same leaderboard back in 235th place.

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I then started thinking about my sportsday analogy. If I could beat Fatso McGeekan in an egg and spoon race, then by applying the same schoolboy logic I could beat 2014 Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali. All I had to do was get a time better than his on the Cote de St. Antonin and I’d leapfrog him on the leaderboard. 

Not waiting to see if my logic made any sense, I stuffed a few more croissants down my neck and headed back out on my bike to St. Antonin. You better watch your back Nibali, I’m right behind you…

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Vincenzo Nibali

For more anecdotes and undeniable logic read my book A Man in France. Available here

277 – Death of a Vintage Bicycle

Last Sunday I completed my 10th cycle with the crazy guys from the Caussade Cyclo-Club. My best so far, mainly because I was riding a new bike. Dispensing, rather regretfully I have to add, with my vintage Peugeot PK10 (below).

PK 10

For those of you who know nothing about cycling or bikes. The Peugeot P10 series (PK, PX, PU, PN, PL) was one of the standard racing bike models of the mid-to-late 20th century. Their heyday being in the 60/70s with cycling legends such as Eddie Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Thevenet riding them.

Brought out in the 1930s the design remained almost unchanged up until the mid 1990s when the surge in cycling gave way to new ideas, materials and accessories. Cycling had become cool and the bikes (and of course their riders) had to look the part. The old classic racers became unfashionable, unused, and disliked. The grinding gears of the vintage models gave way to slick urban road bikes mounted by lycra clad, hi-vis wearing commuters who could be seen in every UK city sharing the miniscule piece of road left for them by a million angry motorists. The upside to this was that the old PK10s ended up on eBay or on Gumtree for enthusiasts to pick up for the price of a pint.

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Peugeot 1936 catalogue

So I slightly stunned myself last week when I bought a brand new slick urban road bike, the likes of which I used to hate. It was my first new bike since my father bought me a PUCH “Sprint” Racer for Christmas in 1986 and cost me ten times what my PK10 did.

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Triban 520

It’s not bad, is it? True, it looks like it was designed by a kid on his iPhone, and would have the greats of the past who used to cycle up the Col Du Tourmalet on their 10 speed PK10s, turn in their amphetamine soaked graves. But at least I can now keep up with my riding buddies on their 39 speed Shimano Ultegra, £3000 carbon frame Pinarello bikes.

On my previous rides out with the club – the other 9 – I could keep up for about 60 kms, then my legs would buckle, like my wheels, and I’d watch them disappear off into the distance leaving me searching for another gear on my ancient Simplex shifters.

Saying that however, the great advantage of this year long battle on my unreliable and (relativity) heavy PK10, is that it’s hardened my legs and expanded my lungs to almost professional level. Or so it felt like on Sunday. Breezing over the finish line wondering where everybody else was. True a few had got lost somewhere near Cahors due to a vintage French road intersection (ten roads meeting in the same place with no signs in sight). But the transformation from the week before when I’d limped home feeling like my legs had been shattered with a pickaxe was astonishing.

Technology wins. If not for style then efficiency.

Further proof of this was on Monday when me and Elizabeth went for a quick ride. Me on my PK10 for old time’s sake, Elizabeth on her even older ‘Tour De France’ vintage racer (below).

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1970s custom made racer. Origin unknown. https://www.instagram.com/wildbeebeauty/

After the mandatory chain-falling-off episode, which always plagues old bikes, she seemed to get on fine. Gliding up and down the steep pie-shaped hills of the Tarn-et-Garonne like a female reincarnation of Jacques Anquetil. I, on the other hand – the so-called new Chris Froome as they called me on Sunday – felt like I was riding a tractor. Clugging away up the hill to the village as though I had mounted a pedalo by accident.

When I got back home I threw the PK10 in the garage, cleaned my new bike (again) and hugged it like the cat. I feel bad about letting the it go, but sometimes things no longer serve their purpose. They have to be retired. Put out to seed. Or simply left in the garage to rust.

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Me after Caussade Cyclo-Club Ride No. 1

*For more cycle stories plus other exciting anecdotes of my five years in France, take a look at A Man in France: a series of offbeat journal entries, short anecdotes, observational pieces and travel articles from the dark side of the wheel of camembert. Available in ebook or paperback format. Click photo to order.

brand-new-cover                                                    Paperback

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255 – The Caussade Cyclo Club’s Road To Hell

I’ve done a lot of feats of endurance over the years – cycling from Birmingham to Bristol half drunk in the dark was one –  but my third outing with the Madcap Caussade Cyclo Club last Sunday, was possibly the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done.

I asked the guys halfway round when we were stopping. ‘You know for a biscuit, or a chocolate bar, or even a piss?’

They looked at me as though I’d just asked them for oral sex. ‘Nous sommes le Groupe à Grande Vitesse,’ Michel (the leader) reminded me. ‘We’re like the TGV! We don’t stop. If you want to stop, go with the girls.’

I wished I had. 55km to go and I was already totally knackered. True, we’d just climbed 500 metres in less than 30 minutes, but I was definitely feeling it today. More so than the other two outings with them.

I’d seen a nice roadside restaurant in the village of Milhars just before the climb and wondered why we couldn’t stop and take five. Or even an hour, accompanied by a couple of pichets de vin rouge and a few plates of steak frites. Cycle back to Caussade in style, tanked up on the local Malbec. I mean, why not? It’s not as though there’s any traffic and as for the police. What police? And it’d certainly take away the pain in my legs.

I remembered French cyclist Jacques Anquetil’s famous quote from the sixties, ‘Only a fool would imagine it was possible to ride from Bordeaux to Paris in a day on just water.’

He had a point. Unfortunately, I only had water and a couple of cereal bars, which I had to eat en route as we sailed down the other side of the hill we’d just climbed and on through the vineyards of Gaillac. It was very nice and by the time we got back down to the river valley I felt that my legs had reattached themselves to my torso.

We did a nice 30km along the D964 towards the famous hilltop village of Bruniquel, until the real pain kicked in, about 20km from Caussade. The guys were on the final push now, salivating at the mouth as they thought about their Sunday meal. Either that or they were terrified of getting a whipping from their wives if they were late back. It was probably a bit of both by the speed they were going. Laying down a fierce 35kph pace through the scenic Aveyron Gorge as though approaching the Champs-Élysées on the last day of the Tour.

I was keeping up. Just. I’ve watched the Tour de France on telly since I was a kid and until now never realised how important the group (or peloton) is. The difference is incredible. Cut adrift even for a few seconds, especially in strong wind, and you’re pedalling backwards. Like cycling uphill in a wind tunnel on a road covered in grit. Bloody hard. But when you’re tucked away in the middle of the group, it’s like cycling on a tandem on a still summer’s day along a pancake flat road.

Michel had told me at the beginning of the day to keep in the peloton, save energy. ‘Even if you have to work hard to get back, it’s worth it, otherwise you’ll get cut loose and today is going to be hard.’

I’d said I would try. And now I was trying, but every time I caught up with them, they seemed to speed up as though playing a trick on me. They weren’t, I suspect they were just hungry.

By the time we reached Montricoux, 10km out from Caussade, I’d found some energy from somewhere – probably the massive pork belly I’d eaten the night before – and finally took up the front position in the peloton. ‘Actually doing some work now, Anglais,’ Michel joked as I passed him.

‘Je me sens bien,’ I said. I feel better. I even thought of offering him out for a sprint finish at the end. I decided not to. The guy was 61 and had been cycling all his life. Funnily enough, he looked like the roofer I used to know in Nottingham years ago, drink hammered face, overweight, smokers neck, sunken eyes. I forget his name now. Roy? Ray, maybe? The comparison stopped there though. Michel would mince me in a sprint, plus I didn’t want to overdo it. I’d done well. I’d done over 100km in four hours over hilly terrain. I didn’t want to ruin it all by trying to be some dumbass English superhero and give myself a heart attack.

After Montricoux, we gently ambled back into Caussade, and as always, everybody quickly disappeared back home for their gigantic Sunday nosh-up. Maybe one day, I thought, they’ll all stay behind and we’d go for a couple of jars and a bite to eat. Discuss the ride, talk about this hill and that hill, taste the salt in our mouths and wonder why we all race around on 9kg cycling machines every Sunday in freezing cold wind and rain, grouping together like geese on a voyage to the North Pole.

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After The Cycle

253 – The Caussade Cyclo Club

 

It couldn’t have been a worse day yesterday for my first group tour with the local cycle club. Hammering rain, droplets the size of marbles, the moment I stepped outside my house. Swirling dirty grey clouds overhead making the sky look like the palette of an artist who hates colour. A real shitfest of a day that would make death by firing squad more preferable to cycling 85 km in freezing cold rain.

I love cycling. I could cycle anywhere, any distance, at any time. So long as it’s sunny. Or at least vaguely warm. Even cold is bearable. Just not rain or wind. Yesterday morning, I had both.

But I couldn’t let the team down or myself. Especially as I’d gone all the way to Caussade on Friday evening to attend their monthly meeting so I could get the go-ahead from the club secretary to join them on Sunday.

That was a fag in itself, especially as I’d got the wrong Salle de Reunion and ended up gatecrashing a Mixed Martial Arts demonstration instead. When I asked a tough looking teenager where the cycle club met, he looked at me as though I’d asked him out on a date. Eventually telling me after releasing me from a Korean headlock, that he didn’t know and didn’t care. He was a fighter not a poofy cyclist.

I thanked him for his time and wandered out onto the street looking for clues. I saw a woman carrying a tray of crepes wrapped in cellophane, so I followed her. Not because I have a weak spot for crepes (although I do – dripping in creme fraiche, lemon juice and brandy), but because I remembered the cycle secretary telling me on the phone something about there being crepes at the meeting.

The woman I could tell was terrified about being followed by a guy dressed in a grey hoody, black gloves and blue trainers, but after 15 minutes we arrived at the correct Salle de Reunion, where I explained to her who I was. It turned out she was the secretary I’d come to see.

After a brief discussion about crepes and the weather she told me I could come on Sunday. ‘Nous partons à huit heures,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry,’ I replied. ‘I misheard you.’

‘We leave at eight o’clock,’ she repeated in English.

‘Yes, I understand,’ I continued in French. ‘But you said, eight o’clock. On a Sunday. Are you serious?’

Her eyes narrowed. ‘You don’t have children, do you?’ she asked.

‘Not the last time I looked, no,’ I replied. ‘I like my sleep.’

She smiled, ‘In summer, we leave at seven…’

So there I was outside my house yesterday morning straddling my bike saddle that felt like a lump of wet clay, getting ready to cycle the six kilometres to Caussade for Le Grand Depart.

When I arrived in the town to meet up with the team, they laughed as I approached. ‘Il est en short!’ I heard (He’s wearing shorts!). I replied by telling them that I didn’t feel the cold. Two hours later, I was absolutely freezing and they suggested I should buy some longjohns. I said, ‘I was fine. Next week will be sunny and warm.’ They all laughed again.

Doing leisurely cycle tours as I’m used to, with a carafe of red wine wedged in the bottle holder, is a million miles away from road cycling at speed with fifteen others on a slippery wet road. One lapse in concentration and you’re cycling into somebody’s back wheel, waking up in hospital four days later after a surgeon has pinned your mangled body back together. (Read Blog 65 on Frederic Moreau’s accident for more details on that).

The day was hard for sure, but exhilarating. And I didn’t disgrace myself one bit. I even impressed them by taking the climb up to Mirabel by the scruff of the neck and proving you don’t need a two grand bike to perform well. My vintage 1985 Peugeot PK10 serving me well throughout the day, and when we got back to Caussade after 85 kms of rain soddened cycling, we said goodbye and disappeared as quickly as we’d arrived. Until next week.

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