2008 May. Cycling the Pyrenees & French Alps.

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Starting in the Pyrenees then into the French Alps to finish.

Below is Phil’s take on our tour of some famous French cycling climbs. I should also point out that although no drugs were found in any samples taken some of Phil’s writing is rather delusional. I put this down to high altitude and general fatigue and apologise in advance.

THE 2008 DOWNUNDER TOUR de FRANCE

Monday 19 May 2008 – Wednesday 28 May 2008

Tour Route 

A highly challenging itinerary, taking in certain mountain climbs in the Pyrenees and Alps of France.

Competitors – Jeff Barnes / Phil Parton

At Stake 

King of the Mountains (KOTM) polka dot jersey for the best climber.

Green jersey for the best sprinter. 

Yellow jersey for the General Classification for best cumulative time.

Pre Tour Form Guide.

Jeff Barnes   

Known to “go hard” early.

Climbing ability = mountain goat.

Sprinting ability = likes to mix it with the “heavy hitters” but forgets limitations.

Has completed 2 endurance (touring) bike riding events in Nth America including a 20 day, 2,000km marathon on the east coast; 1 endurance event in New Zealand = expert.

Phil Parton

Likes to “trash talk”, especially when buried deep in the pack whilst protected from the elements.

Climbing ability = hippopotamus.

Sprinting ability = likes to mix it with the “heavy hitters” but remains aware of  limitations.

Never competed in an endurance bike riding event = complete novice. 

Stage 1 – Monday 19 May 2008.

We are in Argeles Gazost (AG) in southern France having arrived here yesterday after a flight from Paris to Pau, followed by a train trip to Lourdes and a final short bus ride to AG.

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Phil’s first mistake, thinking its a holiday, secondly taking a liking to the local brew

We have collected our touring bikes from the pre-arranged location in the town and are ready to hit the road. I have business to attend to in the UK after the Tour so logistically it was not feasible for me to consider bringing my own bike out from Australia. And I think this option eventually appealed to Jeff, especially after our last ride in France in September 2006 when all Jeff’s luggage was lost in transit at Heathrow airport. The consequences being he had to buy a complete set of cycling gear in Grenoble to enable him to participate in the 2006 edition of this epic event. 

When we arrived in AG yesterday the weather was mild and overcast, perfect riding conditions. But today it is raining, with heavy overcast skies that give no sign that sunshine, or simply dry conditions, are imminent. But we have not trained for the last few months to come here and just sit around. So the decision is made to head out anyway. We have plenty of wet weather gear with us so of course we should be ok. 

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Our next mistake was not using the Funiculaire and choosing riding instead.

The plan is to head out of AG (altitude approx 450m) and climb up the valley toward Arrens, and then ride up Col d Souler (1,450m) and then on to Col d Aubisque (1,705m), a return journey of about 56km. 

I have already decided that heading on from Col d Aubisque down to Laurens, thereby adding a further 18km to the outbound journey is beyond my riding plans for the day. I am not sure what Jeff has in mind!!!

Shortly before departure, we find out from the hotel owner that the road to Col d Aubisque is closed due to bad weather. The same applies to Col d Tourmalet (2,114m), which is planned for Stage 2 of the Tour. He advises they have experienced a very late winter in the region and there is still a lot of snow in the mountains making driving / riding conditions somewhat hazardous. But we set off anyway as any ride is a good ride. And we can turn around and come back to the hotel, where we are staying again this evening, if conditions do not suit. 

We head in to the centre of town and out the other side, to a sign we had seen yesterday, pointing in the direction of Col d Souler. The sign direction promptly has us retracing our path back to the town centre which we had ridden through not 5 minutes earlier. 

We began to climb immediately we left AG. And of course Barnesy is “out of the blocks” in a flash, heading onwards and upwards. I’m a little more circumspect and after about 15-20 mins it is clear we have a task ahead of us. The rain continues and we are riding relatively heavy bikes with thick tyres that are not built for speed. Despite the fact that I have a number of “layers” of riding gear on, I am soon pretty wet through. Jeff is proud of his brand new white riding slicker which puts him at a distinct advantage – apparently. Kindly ? he has bought along some large garbage bags that I can use to cover my upper body in the event of “deluge” conditions. I don’t resort to using these but I am smug in the knowledge that I have very heavy duty waterproof booties, whereas Jeff prefers a lightweight material cover for his cycling shoes, that seems to me to have the waterproofing capabilities similar to that of mosquito netting! 

So Stage 1 of the Downunder Tour continues, and it is getting harder and harder, and we have still not got to the “hard bits”. We decide to have a coffee at a café / bar in Arrens. From the décor, it’s clearly a “rugby” bar and as soon as I announce that we are “Wallabies” the host breaks in to a big smile. Coffee is soon done with and we are back out in the rain heading up toward Col d Souler. We soon strike the first of many cycling signs / markers (advising gradients / distances) that we will see in the coming days. The Col is about 6km away with gradients in the range of 6.5 – 8.5%. For the reader’s information, 6.5% is quite manageable for a rider who has a modest level of fitness, whilst 8.5% is starting to become a it of a “stretch” requiring effort and concentration. 

On Stage 1 of the Tour, this really should not be too hard. But I am struggling, whilst Jeff is well ahead and nicely placed to be leading all 3 award categories at the end of the day. It’s all coming undone for me! 

But I plug away and eventually get to the top. As we have climbed it has got colder, but the effort required to pedal the bikes has generated internal body warmth that has protected us somewhat from the cold. There is a café at the Col and we head inside hoping to strip off and dry items such as gloves / riding hats and to get something hearty to eat for lunch. 

The host is another rugby fan and the ice is easily broken. The café is virtually empty due to the bad weather. But there is home made vegetable soup on the menu which is exactly what we need and we consume about 2 litres each!  

I’m tired and soaked through, though my hands and feet are warm. Jeff is in far better shape but advises his feet (with their mosquito net protection) are like blocks of ice!!!! 

The 6km ride further on to Col d Aubisque is now not so appealing, particularly given there is a boom gate lowered across the road preventing vehicles from proceeding. But it does not stop mad bike riders. And I am dumbly talked in to heading on to Col d Aubisque. On walking out of the café both of us are immediately struck by the biting cold. Surely we can’t have been riding in conditions like this before lunch? Our bodies had become accustomed to the relative warmth of the café and stepping outside was akin to walking in to a large commercial refrigerator. 

We walk our bikes around the road barrier and set off, immediately struck by the rawness of the region. There are no cars or other people in the area. The only sounds we can hear are the rain falling, and that of water from melted snow running down the mountainside. 

The first 500m of the journey are downhill. This was not good. Apart from accentuating the magnitude of the climb that lay ahead, it meant that as we sped downhill there was very cold air being applied to our damp clothing. Very soon I was shivering so much I thought my chattering teeth were going to jump out of my mouth. In a bizarre twist of fate, I wanted the uphill climb to start as quickly as possible so I could begin to pedal and try to generate some internal warmth.

I see Jeff up ahead, off his bike and standing by the side of the road looking down the sheer 70 meter precipice below. He happens to be in the location of a memorial plaque for Dutch  rider Wim van Est who suffered a puncture on the descent of this road and plunged off the cliff in this exact spot in the 1951 Tour d France. Miraculously he survived the fall and with the help of spectators using ropes, was pulled back up the cliff and got back on his bike to complete the stage. I decide not to stop, and rode on, mumbling something along the lines that the quicker I get to the top the sooner I can turn around and come back.

The journey to the Col continues. Jeff arrives about 2 minutes before me. I’m not sure what the gradient was, but the last 500 meters was a real battle. The view from the Col is non existent with the entire region completely shrouded in low cloud. We have a hot chocolate in the café at the Col, take a few snaps and begin the journey back.  

After a brief stop at the café at Col d Souler, the long ascent back to the hotel beckons. It takes about 45 minutes in the cold and rain. The mad dash up to our hotel rooms for a scolding hot shower and some sleep follows, with Barnes well and truly the leader in all categories after Stage 1 of the Downunder Tour. 

Stage 1 Distance – 60km

Cumulative Distance – 60km  

Stage 2 – Tuesday 20 May 2008.

We awake to overcast but thankfully dry conditions. It’s time to load up the bikes with all our gear and head off.  The plan was to head up Col d Tourmalet (2,114m) and then down to St Marie d Campon. Tourmalet is known as one of the hardest climbs in the Tour de France. The road up Col d Tourmalet is closed. And we can’t risk starting out and having to turn  back due to bad weather as we have a Stage 2 final destination of Arreau in mind. I am devastated that Tourmalet is off the agenda, as it denies me a perfect opportunity of forging my way back into this riding contest! 

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Col de Tourmalet closed due to late winter snow. Another day…

The route we settle on takes us north of AG and then over the mountain range via Germs-sur-Oussouet to the main road which then heads south to Bagneres-de-Bigorre. Quiet back roads and occasional sunshine make for great riding. But there is no serious climbing to do and the intermediate sprints are shared 50/50. So we pull in to Bagneres for lunch with me having made no real impression on Jeff’s lead in the Tour.    

The first puncture of the tour occurs immediately after lunch. But we are soon on our way again, heading for Col d Aspin (1,489m), a 13 km climb at an average gradient of around 5%. The freewheel down the other side of the Col will take us to Arreau (728m), the conclusion of Stage 2. 

It’s a nice afternoon and whilst we seem to be climbing all the time, it’s not steep. That is, not until we get to the base of Col d Aspin. There were are met by signs telling us its 5km to the top at a gradient of 10%! Oops, this is somewhat more serious than what I had in mind. We stop for a drink and guy at the café seems to be intimating that it’s only the first bit of the climb that is hard!!! We set off and Barnsey is soon well out of sight. 

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Phil confirming the gradient is steeper than he’d hoped.

I plugged away but could not find any rythym. It was a nice road through a forest in near perfect late afternoon riding conditions. But this did not help. And by the time I reached the top, I was shattered. Jeff was well and truly refreshed having spent numerous minutes waiting for me and thinking about where at home he was going to hang his KOTM jersey.

Photographic evidence of my physical “condition” upon reaching the Col does exist. I am locked in negotiations with relevant parties to have this material destroyed.  Phil was unable to pay the owner of the photograph sufficient monies to have it destroyed. See below….

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Photographic evidence of Phil’s physical “condition” upon reaching the Col d Aspin. Shot !

 The view from Col d Aspin was spectacular with clear skies and views of surrounding snow capped mountains all round. But a late afternoon breeze could be felt at the Col and it was ripping right over the pass, meaning that we would have quickly frozen had we stayed more than a handful of minutes. So we began to freewheel down to Arreau (728m). And once off the top, we were quickly out of the sun and in the shadows of the mountain with the cold wind whipping against our bodies once again. A hot shower was the only thing on our minds as we rode in to town about 30 minutes later.

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The pretty town of Arreau

Stage 2 Distance – 70km

Cumulative Distance – 130km 

Stage 3 Wednesday 21 May 2008

Clear skies greeted us when we awoke for Stage 3. 

The first 20km of the stage took us South from Arreau towards Borderes – Louren and then Loudenvielle. The 7km climb up Col de Peyresourde (1,596m), which will feature in the 2008 Tour d France, then followed. With fully laden bikes the climb was hard yakka. But Jeff continued his good form and beat me to the top by about 250 meters. Even so, I did feel some riding strength and rythym so I felt all was not lost……yet. 

At the summit we met a Danish television commentary team and camera crew who were riding various summits to gather material for their commentary of the 2008 Tour. (Somehow I don’t think they would have taken up an offer to record footage of the 2008 Downunder Tour d France). After they left us I jealously noted they “adjourned” to their “sag wagon” where no doubt they had nice comfortable seats, warmth if required, a change of clothes and plenty of food and drink.    

We then began the 10km freewheel down to Louchon (639m) where we stopped for lunch which was paella from a vendor at the local market. 

It was now decision time. We could either head directly north up the main autoroute from Louchon, or climb up and over Col d Portillon (1,293m) to the next valley, and then go north from there to St Beat. The latter seemed to be the more “interesting” ride from the point of view that we felt there were likely to be less cars and quieter roads. So Col d Portillon it was. 

We rode to the outskirts of Louchon towards the start of the 10km climb to the summit, only to be greeted by road barriers blocking vehicular access. The weather was fine and sunny and we could see the surrounding mountain side. There was no issue about being caught in bad weather, so once again we walked our bikes around the barriers and set off. 

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With sweat in your eyes its easy to forget how beautiful the countryside around here is.

We were immediately confronted with a climbing gradient of at least 10%, a tough ask under any circumstances. So the going soon became very tough in the early afternoon sunshine. Jeff was soon out of sight and looking to build an insurmountable lead in the KOTM competition. The gradient did ease somewhat, but there was still someway to go. And eventually I came across the reason for the barriers across the road. A section of the road was being re-surfaced. And whilst the road making crew did not mind us being there, it did require a scramble over rough ground to walk our bikes around the freshly laid hot bitumen. 

But once this obstacle was negotiated, I was confident that I had done all the hard work and that the top of the mountain could not be too far away. 

Wrong! I was soon confronted with a sign that said the journey to the top was still 3kms, and at a gradient of 10%. I was low on water, sweating profusely and could not find any rhythym in my riding. At one point I figured there was a distance of about 10 meters between the white lines marking the edge of the sealed road. And if I counted off 100 white lines, I would be 1km closer to the summit. So I did the count, and by the time I reached 100 the summit was still nowhere in sight. 

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So tell me, do you laugh or cry. We dumped our panniers at the base and returned later.

Somehow I managed to reach the top. Only to be greeted by a very fresh looking Jeffrey who had completed the ride many minutes earlier. The Tour was slipping out of my grasp. 

Two other issues occupied my mind during the last and final desperate minutes of the ascent. Firstly, my trash talk on the Tour to date had had no effect on putting Jeff off his game. Indeed, during this particular climb, even if I shouted in to a load hailer he would not have heard a word I said, as he was so far ahead. 

And secondly, I had copped a serious amount of flak for cutting off the ends of my toothbrush handle and razor so as to save on space and weight, given that we had panniers and were carrying all our gear with us on the bikes. On the ride up Col d Portillon I resolved that jettisoning further “nice to have but unnecessary” items was to be considered. That night the dental floss “went”, and from then on after every evening meal, Barnesy would religiously ask me if I had any dental floss he could use.  

I think Jeff used his ipod once on the journey, if only to prove that it was essential for him to have it. (At one stage we did ponder whether using the ipod, thereby running the battery down, made the object, and thus the weight of his bike, lighter!). But it should be noted that I did bring a belt with me, thereby avoiding the embarrassing situation of having to continually hitch my jeans up all the time when we went out for dinner at night. 

Col d Portillon is in fact the French / Spanish border. And the descent to Basost, some 15km from the summit represented an immediate change in culture. Once in Basost, all signage, TV and radio was in Spanish, we may as well have been 15,000km from France, not 15km.

After a quick drink break we were soon heading north toward St Beat. On arrival there at around 5pm it soon became apparent that St Beat was a place to “pass through” rather than “stay”. But it was late in the day and we were tired. There was a general lack of even modest accommodation and restaurants. But we were directed to a hiking / skiing “lodge” where we luckily became the sole occupants of a cabin with a fully appointed kitchen and 6 bunk rooms with enough beds to sleep 18 people.

With Stage 3 complete, it looked like the KOTM jersey was firmly in Jeff’s grasp. 

Stage 3 Distance – 70km

Cumulative Distance – 200km

Stage 4 Thursday 22 May 2008

We are greeted with overcast skies when we rose to prepare for Stage 4 of the Tour. 

The general plan was to spend a final day in the Pyrenees and tomorrow go by train to   Avignon and ride on from there.  

We decided the days ride should be the relatively modest climb up Col des Ares (792m), followed by a “side trip” up Col de Portet d’Aspet (PA), before returning to the main road leading to Aspet and then on to St Gaudins, the conclusion of Stage 4 of the Tour.

It was a nice ride up Col des Ares. The conditions were good for riding, both of us were in good shape and we reached the Col together.

After freewheeling and riding through undulating terrain for about 10km, we came upon the t-junction for the right turn that would send us in the direction of the 13km ride up to PA.

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The Swiss flag on my chest wasn’t going to help me in the mountains.

The gradient for the first 8km of the journey was about 8.0%, enough to get the heartbeat up and create a sweat. As we rode on, the valley became narrower as surrounding mountains closed in around us. We then came across a sign that suggested we were now about to begin the “proper” part of the climb, and that it was  4.4km to the top of summit of the Col at an average gradient of 9.75%. Things were about to get serious. 

As our plan was to go to the top and turn around and come back down, we decided to unload our panniers, and hide them in the scrub and collect then on the way back. With the panniers gone we set off, but the first 200 meters of the climb seemed to be far steeper than 10%. And it was at this point we rode past the monument to Italian rider Fabio Casartelli, the 1992 Olympic road race gold medalist. He died from injuries he received from an accident on the descent of the road we were now ascending, in the 1995 Tour de France. At the time of his accident it has been reported that he was traveling at 88kph before plummeting over the edge.   

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The memorial stone for Fabio Casartelli who died here in 1995

     

I have come across few sealed roads anywhere in the world that were this steep, and I swiftly concluded that I was now on the steepest section of road I have ever ridden.    

All I was focused on was trying to do a steady ride to the summit. And I found the rythym that resulted in me getting to the top without having to get off the bike. I was reasonably pleased with my effort even though Jeff beat me to the top by about 5 minutes. He admitted that he got off his bike more than once along the way – was the “mountain goat” cracking under the pressure???

The café at the summit was closed and it was cold, so after the photo shoot we were soon on our way back down the mountain. The descent was fast, like being on the Big Dipper at Luna Park. We had to stop half way down as there were signs warning descending bike riders and motorists to beware, as the gradient (at one point) was a massive 17% – we needed photographic evidence of this. No wonder the climb up nearly killed me. I would have cried on the way up, had I seen a sign noting a gradient of 17%!    

After stopping to load the panniers back on the bikes we then headed back to the t-junction and the main road heading for Aspet. We would have liked to stop for something to eat in Aspet, but clouds were forming and we still had another 20 odd km to go to St Gaudins. Wanting to avoid rain, I put the foot down, and led the sprint over relatively flat terrain.

We arrived in St Gaudins late in the afternoon. By this time I was well and truly “spent” and we later concluded that perhaps I had not eaten enough during the day. I am eternally grateful to Jeff for organizing the train tickets for the following days trip to Avignon, and a hotel room for the night. My contribution was to mind the bikes. I was so tired I looked like a dehydrated hound with its tongue hanging out of its mouth.

After a shower and a rest, we found a Chinese restaurant near the hotel. And after a big meal I was soon feeling a lot better. 

Stage 4 Distance – 70km

Cumulative Distance – 270km

Friday 23 May 2008

Essentially a rest day with the train trip from St Gaudins to Avignon via Toulouse.

Days Riding Distance – 10km

Cumulative Distance – 280km

Stage 5 Saturday 24 May 2008

Over the next 2 days we had a loose plan to cover approximately 140km from Avignon to Sisteron. The progress we made today would depend on the weather as we knew the route would be generally flat (sprinters terrain!!!!) compared to the territory we had covered on the previous 4 days riding. 

The Stage began under overcast, but dry conditions, with our plan being to cover as much of the 140km as possible during the day. I heard something early in the day about a “sore back” from my competition. 

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The Catholic Church 15th century headquarters in Avignon

The first 10km were fairly ho hum through the outskirts of Avignon which included riding through some industrial and commercial estates. The main challenge at that point was to make sure we were on the right road and heading in the correct direction!  

Shortly thereafter, we were confronted with that other hazard of riding, which we had not yet stuck on the Tour, namely “the headwind”. And it was more than just a gentle puff of air. We were now out on the open road heading due east. The surrounding countryside was open fields and there was no protection from the wind whatsoever. That is, unless your name was Jeffrey Barnes, who neatly parked himself on my rear wheel, meaning I did all the hard work and towed his sorry carcass to Apt where we stopped for lunch. Needless to say I won all the intermediate sprints, thereby enabling me to make some inroads in to Jeff’s lead in the fight for the Yellow Jersey.

The Stage resumed after lunch with us pressing on further east towards Forcalquier. The road was less busy and we were entering the region of France known as the Luberon. It is a very picturesque part of the country, dotted with small hilltop villages built in Roman times. I know this, because whilst I had my head down “bashing” away in to the wind, Jeff gave me a running commentary on the local sights whilst parked neatly on my rear wheel, protected from the wind. I was racking up the sprint points at a furious rate.

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Fields of blood red poppies. Easy to figure why it is the symbol of fallen soldiers. 

By mid afternoon it was time to take a break and refill water bottles. It was about this time that Jeffrey was starting to fall off the pace a bit. Not only was his back causing some grief, but emerging stomach cramps were starting to affect his riding. So at a bar in the township of Cereste I enjoyed a cool, refreshing drink, whilst Barnsey made the most of the lavatory facilities. The local papers reported the following day that 2 foreigners on bikes were seen fleeing the town at the time the bar tender discovered the damage to his premises.

But to give Jeff his due, he did battle on for the rest of the afternoon and we eventually reached the hilltop town of Forcalquier where the Stage concluded. 

Jeff’s day was not getting any better. Upon asking a lady at the local tourist office whether a particular hotel was worth staying in, she replied “you tell me”. 

I had seen said establishment not far on the ride in to town. So we headed there, and on entering the room Jeff is reported to have noted “I know what a 2 star hotel room looks like, and this is not up to scratch”. Whilst the hotel did appear somewhat foreboding on first appearances, it turned out fine, with hot water and good heating which enabled us to wash and dry our riding gear without any trouble. 

Despite the fact that my opponent had “hitched a ride” for most of the day, I was pretty happy in the knowledge that I had clearly won all intermediate sprints, and the stage and had made up considerable time in the battle for the Yellow Jersey.

Day 5 Distance Covered – 98km

Cumulative Distance Covered – 378km

Stage 6 Sunday 25 May 2008

As we had covered a reasonable distance in Stage 5, we were left with a relatively short ride to Sisteron. From there, the plan was to catch a train to Briancon and spend a couple of nights there before heading further north in to the Alps.

As soon as we wheeled our fully laden bikes out of the hotel at around 8.30am, it started to rain. And it did so for the rest of the day. 

This meant the ride to Sisteron was more of a chore than anything else. A short while after setting out we were soon sopping wet and looking forward to getting to the station and getting out of the rain. We arrived at Sisteron in the early afternoon and were able to change out of our wet riding gear. The next few hours involved waiting for the next train heading north (interspersed with the occasional dash across the road to the local pastry shop). 

The train trip up the valley to Briancon was uneventful except for the fact that we passed through Embrun, a town that will host the start of one of the stages of the 2008 Tour d France.

Days Distance Covered – 45km

Cumulative Distance Covered – 423km   

Stage 7 Tuesday 27 May 2008.

After a rest day in Briancon, where it rained all day, we awoke to very overcast skies. We were not confident of a rain free day, the first part of which was the 28km ride from Briancon (1,193m) to Col du Lautaret (2,058m). This would be followed by a further 27km run down to our booked hotel in Le Frenay D’Oisans. 

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The historic old town of Brandon. Torrential rain started soon after.

We had breakfast and as we were loading our panniers on to the bikes, you guessed it, it began to rain. But we set off regardless. At least the weather tended to be coming from behind us, but by no means did we have a tailwind. 

The early part of the Stage was over undulating ground, but as we got further from Briancon the gradient, whilst not super steep, began to get more challenging. And the further we rode up the valley, the more the traffic thinned out, the weather continued to deteriorate. 

After about 18km Jeff opened up a lead. I soldiered on and managed to close the gap somewhat as we approached the summit. Whilst he beat me by about 2 minutes, I did notice him look nervously over his shoulder on more than one occasion. At the summit it was raining and there was snow on the ground. The adjacent summit of Col d Galibier, with its peak at 2,645m was completely blocked from view by cloud cover.

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 The weather was foul. A strong gust of wind blew me clean across the road.

Both Col d Lautaret and Col d Galibier feature regularly in the Tour d France. We climbed them in the 2006 edition of the Downunder Tour in 30 plus degree heat! 

There is a café at Col d Lautaret and we headed inside for hot chocolate and warmth. We had broken the back of the days riding and the run to Le Frenay D’Oisans was all downhill and would be a doddle.

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Phil holding onto the steel bike for fear of being blown away.

We were in the café for about 30 minutes, and when we emerged to continue the Stage, the conditions had deteriorated significantly. Strong winds were now blowing across the pass, thankfully in the direction we were heading. But there was sleet and the conditions were now quite dangerous. We had to get off the mountain quickly to avoid being stranded and having to ride down later in the day in what could easily have been even worse conditions. 

Jeff had problems with his brakes, meaning his descent was painfully slow. It was death by a thousand cuts as I waited for him in the freezing cold to ensure he got down without any mishaps. We managed to get down to about 1,800m before deciding we had to find shelter once more. We dashed in the front door of what appeared to be a hotel, where we spent 5 minutes jumping up and down on the spot and shadow boxing to try and warm up. 

I knew the township town of Le Grave was not far on, where I knew there would be a restaurant or café / bar where we could find more shelter. So we hopped on the bikes once again and rode another 10 minutes further down the mountain. I found a restaurant in La Grave and decided we had to go inside and get out of the cold once more.

The proprietor met me at the door and in English offered me a seat. This was an encouraging start given the fact we were soaking wet. The only other patron in the establishment was the local priest. And despite the fact that all we wanted was something warm and hearty (eg soup and bread), the owners intention was to sell us the whole 9 yards – the full 4 course meal complete with carafe of wine and coffee to finish. Given the state we were in and the fact we still had more riding to do, there was no chance this was going to happen. 

I ordered something just to placate the host, given he had allowed us to sit down inside. But from thereon we were treated likes piles of human excrement, whilst “religious royalty” in the back corner was fawned upon in a completely nauseous manner (Basil Fawlty style), and no doubt enjoying the fare for free. Three other people entered the restaurant after we arrived. They had to eat their meals wearing their overcoats, due to the lack of any decent level of heating in the restaurant, despite the fact it was close to zero degrees outside. 

I was not exactly sure of how much further we had to go, but we decided to make a break for it and see if we could get to our hotel with one last effort. As we lost altitude, the temperature began to rise and the rain began to ease. And we soon felt some warmth from the sun. A short time later we were at our hotel with the familiar scramble to the showers on once again. The Stage was over by about 2.30pm.

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Phil contemplating throwing himself in the nearby river but it was too cold.

Days Distance Covered – 55km

Cumulative Distance Covered – 478km

Stage 8 Wednesday 28 May 2008

Its our final day of riding and we are deep in the heart of the French Alps and Tour d France territory. There are many routes for us to take, but the decision is made to ride the legendary Alpe D’Huez.

It is a 13.5km climb from Le Bourg D’Oisans (735m) up to the summit of Alpe D’Huez (1,850m) at an average gradient of 8.25%. After an easy first kilometer, the gradient quickly exceeds 10% plus before easing (just a fraction!!!) for the rest of the journey.  There are 21 hairpin bends in the road of varying distances apart. Each is numbered with the countdown in descending order from 21. 

The climb has featured in the Tour d France on 26 occasions and will be part of the 2008 tour. The record time for the climb is 37 minutes 41 seconds by Italian Marco “The Pirate” Pantani who achieved this feat in the 1997 tour, and at the end of a 200km plus stage! After effectively being forced out of professional riding in the late 1990’s, Pantani died in mysterious “drug related” circumstances in 2004.

Jeff and I climbed Alpe D’Huez in September 2006. Back then I suffered from that dangerous combination of over-ambition and lack of fitness to record an embarrassing time,   well in excess of 2 hours. Jeff recorded a very solid 1 hour 30 minutes. 

So after the 15 km “warm up” ride from Le Frenay D’Oisans to Le Bourg D’Oisans, we were ready for another crack at it, and my last chance to make any serious inroads in to Jeff’s significant lead in the KOTM competition. 

We were able to leave our panniers back at the hotel and were carrying with us only the bare essentials. My aim was to ride steadily and efficiently and try to get to the summit without stopping. And I would just have to see what time I recorded. I deliberately maneuvered the face of the odometer on my bike to an angle which meant I could not see the speed I was traveling, or work out how long I had been riding. The task at hand was to concentrate on my riding style and to manage my breathing and heart rate. 

The only flat sections of the climb are the hairpin bends themselves, and only then for about 30-40m each time. I deliberately “coasted” on the bends taking the chance to grab a few less pressured breaths of air and to relieve the strain on my thighs, even if only for about 10-15 revolutions of the cranks. 

After setting off, Barnesy was soon out of sight! And I didn’t bother chasing! We were soon in to the toughest part of the climb. But I found some rythym and was able to control my breathing to ensure my heart did not begin to beat too rapidly too soon in to the ride. And although I was finding the going tough, I felt that I was making steady progress. 

By about bend 16 the gradient eased to around 8.5% and I was forced to stop at some traffic light controlled roadworks for about 20 seconds. But I was soon on my way again. 

Jeff was nowhere to be seen, but I didn’t care about that. At around bend 11, there is a series of switchbacks and the bend number quickly drops to about 8. I am more than 2/3rds of the way through the bends. I can just see the village of D’Huez above me, which is the location of the finish line. 

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Look close, Phil is in this photo trying to climb into the graveyard… he’s spent !

With about 7 bends to go, whilst the terrain is still steep, there are few trees and it is possible to look up ahead and above and see vehicles and cyclists ascending and descending the upper sections of the mountain. For a fleeting moment I am sure I see Jeff’s red and black riding jersey in the distance. I reckon he is about 1.5 – 2.0 bends in front of me.

After we completed the ride Jeff tells me it was about this time that a Dutch rider who had passed me, and wearing similar colored clothing to mine, had breezed passed him. At first glance Jeff panicked as he thought it was me! Unfortunately this was not the case. Even though I felt some riding strength late in the climb I was not able to bridge the gap between us.

At the village of D’Huez we did some quick maths and worked out that Jeff had done a very creditable 1 hour 33 minutes, whilst I came in about 7 minutes later at around 1 hour 40 minutes.

Whilst it was clear that Jeff was a decisive winner of the KOTM, I was pretty pleased with my time. And it was obvious to both of us that had we been riding proper road bikes with racing tyres, rather than the iron Clydesdales with “all terrain shoes”, weighing an extra 10kg, our times would have been even better. 

On the upper sections of the climb there are professional photographers who take shots of riders from close up. They hand you a business card and later you can go to their websites and view, and purchase if you wish, the images they have captured. I did not bother to do this in 2006. But this time around I will do it.

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Looking back down the valley from near the top of Alp d’Huez towards Le Bourg-d’Oisans

After a break, we rode the descent back down to Le Bourg d’Oisans where we had lunch, prior to commencing the 15km ride back to Le Frenay d’Oisans. The terrain for the first 5km or so is quite flat. But then it gets quite steep, and Jeff seemed intent on “making a point” on what is our last climb in the Downunder Tour d France. The pace is “on”. Whilst he opens up a gap I do notice once again a bit of “peering over the shoulder”, a sure sign that he is wary of being overtaken. The gradient began to ease and over the last 2km to Le Frenay D’Oisans, the finish of the final Stage of the Downunder Tour d France, I managed to close the gap and we rode over the finish line together. 

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Hotel L’Oberland in Bourg d’Oisans where we had stayed a few years earlier.

Tour officials did not hesitate to award Jeffrey the polka dot jersey for King of the Mountains. (The form guide predicted this all along). I took out the green jersey for the best sprinter.

Over the course of the Tour, numerous other awards were on offer, with either time bonuses or time penalties applied, as appropriate, to the rider’s cumulative time for the entire tour, to determine the winner of the prestigious Yellow Jersey. 

A full and detailed list of all these awards appears as a footnote to this report. But after taking in to account all factors, the Tour judging panel determined that Jeffrey Barnes was the winner of the Yellow Jersey. Well done Barnesy!!!!!

Footnote – Official Downunder Tour d France Results

Yellow Jersey – J. Barnes

King of the Moutains – J. Barnes

Sprint King – P. Parton

Award Dedicated in Honor of Recipient Time Penalty Applied Time Bonus Applied
White Line Fever Award. Piss weak climbing. P. Parton #
Flat Track Bully Award. Draughting and failing to lead the pack.  J. Barnes #
Jenny Craig Fairy Floss Award  Weight paranoia. P. Parton #
White Slicker Award The rider with the coldest feet. J. Barnes #
Rex Hunt Loud Hailer Award Ineffective trash talk. P. Parton #
French Hoteliers Association  Award Monitoring  standards in 2 * hotels.  J. Barnes #
The Hague International War Crimes Tribunal  White Porcelain Bowl Award For crimes against humanity. J.Barnes #
Tour Finances Award Bucks. J. Barnes #
Mr Fixit Mechanics Award  Bits. J. Barnes #
Pre Tour Route Planning Award Books. P. Parton #
Tour Navigation Award Maps  P. Parton #
Tour Technology Award Footy scores. J. Barnes #