Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Côte à Côte 2014 - A Boy's Trip Across France

Starting on Saturday 17 May, senior members of the club, Alberto, Jan, Heyddie and Fabian set off from Caen on the north coast of France on a mission to reach Nice by 6 June. The adventure takes in three key wine regions - Loire, Burgundy and Rhone - and will take them over a number of Tour de France climbs, including the famed Col de Grand Colombier, L'Alpe d'Huez and, of course, Mont Ventoux. 
The boys will be suitably fortified by buckets of Kronenbourg, ample samples of the local vin, and, in between, some fine French cuisine.
Our route, assuming the Garmin doesn't lose us again, is shown below:

Day 1
A good overnight ferry crossing on calm seas, arriving just as the sun came up. And because we had waited so long to get on to the ship in Portsmouth our reward was being amongst the first off the ferry, after packs of motorcyclists had roared off just before us. Swiftly through French Customs, because we obviously look like honest upright citizens (...yeh, right...) and we took the van just south of the city of Caen to breakfast on strong coffee and fresh croissants before mounting our steeds (Alberto's terminology, not the authors...). Three of us rode at a nice steady pace whilst Alberto drove the first leg, enjoying empty roads with excellent surfaces (God bless EU funding), through the progressively attractive rolling countryside of Normandy. Farmhouses, petit chateau, and pretty villages abound here, very pleasant in the coolness of the early morning sun. 

Jan enjoying the emptiness of Normandy's highways
After about 40km we had the obligatory coffee and patisserie stop after an exhilarating descent into Pont d'Ouilly in the Orne valley, and a picnic lunch of local pâté and cheese just south of the medieaval town of Domfront at 85km. The approach to Domfront had been on about 15km of gravel cycle path which followed the route of a previous single track railway. Not so good for road bikes, and the Garmin froze on this section, causing us our first bout of navigational confusion. It won't be the last...
Alberto then joined us on the ride, Heyddie resting a troublesome calf muscle, injury occurred due to his customary excess of fitness programmes ahead of our trip. He's a younger chap, and we know that he'll get wiser eventually. 

The only picture of Heyddie we managed today, because he was just too fast to capture on camera...
Alberto insisted on a deviation through a new set of towns and villages before reaching our destination for the day, the attractive little town of Mayenne, and we spent a couple of hours climbing more hills south west of Ambriéres-les-Vallees, very welcome after a couple of us had cycled 100km already (!), flying through rolling barley fields, and pear orchards (we're passing through Calvados country here) populated by small herds of Charolais beef cattle, sensibly lying down in the increasing heat of the mid afternoon sun.

Alberto and Jan on our extended afternoon ride
Club President Fabian, hoping that photographer Jan wouldn't cut his legs off (again)
Our little hotel, the Hotel La Tour des Anglais, duly appeared, and, naturally our carefully designed rehydration process started in earnest. We are athletes after all... ;-)

Daily stats: total distance 122.2km, ascent 1245m, calories burnt 4600kcal (don't believe this stat!), average speed 21.6kph. Not a bad first day.

Day 2
Today's mission. Ride 125km to Angers and the Maine valley. Another glorious day, sunny throughout, although at times we had to battle against a blustery wind from the south. We varied from our planned route to take the cycle path alongside the Mayenne river, so Heyddie took charge of navigating from the map, giving the author a rest from Garmin watching. Pleasant, easy riding took us 15km south along the river, although the gravel surface wasn't very kind to our bikes. 
Then back on to country lanes again, across rolling countryside before descending into Laval, again on the towpath. Laval is an elegant town straddling the river, and wonderfully traffic free on a Sunday. A coffee stop just south of Laval after 45km and we continued along 'the route of the locks', roads and cycleways which track the Mayenne river as it lazily flows southwards. 

Heyddie and Alberto, just down from our hotel in Mayenne, looking fresh for the ride to Angers
Gravel cycleway alongside the Mayenne
Fabian and Alberto, resplendent in team colours
Alberto pretending to be a pirate. Lunch stop at La Roche
A picnic lunch again, after we'd cycled 65km, enjoying very hot sunshine next to the locks on the Mayenne river. Heyddie decided to rest his injury once more, so Jan joined us for the second half of the day, navigating more riverside cycleways around Château-Gontier. 
In the village of Grez-Neuville, the traffic was stopped to allow a bike race to come through. The speed and closeness of riders in the peloton has to be seen to be believed. Of course, we joined the tail-enders, at about a third of their speed, but enjoyed some of the benefits. Traffic stopped on the approach to a bridge, perplexing the marshals and waiting motorists as three slightly overweight and greying Brits cruised through. On another occasion the marshals were frantically waving at us to turn left when we rode straight on, creating some good humour on both sides when they realised we were just tourists.
The lanes emptied again as we approached Angers, again going 'off route' to tackle the quieter (but hilly) minor roads in the hot afternoon sunshine which quickly depleted our liquid reserves.
And it was an important day for Alberto, his first time riding over 100km. Needless to say, a suitable quantity of beer and wine was consumed later to mark this important stage in his training. 

Jan, pondering whether rural life in France might be better than Yorkshire...
       Jan and Fabian, near Château-Gontier
This fine example of photography only goes to prove just how fast this professional peloton was going
End of a perfect day. Rehydration and debriefing in Angers
Day 2 stats: 125km, average speed 19.9kph. Calories consumed 4483kCal, 1020m of ascent. 6 hours 17 mins in the saddle. 

Day 3
Angers to Tours, a mere 145km...
It would have helped if any of us could recall last night's dinner. 
To a man, none of us could remember what we ate, and certainly none of us could remember going to bed. The lesson is: 5+ pints of local (strong) lager, a morsel of food (assuming we could even remember what we had eaten) and some local wine = total memory loss. All four of us were afflicted. There ought to be a Government health warning.
Anyway, we struggled through breakfast and realised we had to get on our bikes and do it all over again.
Cycling east towards Saumur, on the north bank of the Loire, was a great hangover cure. The peloton worked until the Garmin sent us off on to leafy lanes we really didn't need to see. Our marker was a bloke in his '70s, riding an ancient steel framed bike, no helmet, definitely no Lycra. We caught him up on at least three occasions. Impressive stuff.

Heyddie and Jan, slowly restoring memory cells
Heyddie and Fabian, still wondering what day it is...
Seriously though, riding through the villages along the north and then the south bank of the Loire was great. Brilliant white stone cottages, chateaux, and numerous caves (snails, mushrooms, and wine) kept us interested throughout, despite the wind in our faces.
We sailed through rosé country (Anjou), whizzing through Saumur (well, at about 10kph due to navigational error), then on to magnificent country on the approach to the chateaux at Ussé, Azay-le-Rideau and Villandry. There are some truly wonderful little villages with smart hotels and fine restaurants along this route, which left us wondering why we had booked an economy hotel in the middle of Tours... 
Lesson learnt, and some hotels will be cancelled and new one's selected as we venture further south. 

Windmills and cave, typical Loire scenery
And wonderful little villages. Just wish we had a chauffeur on call...
But a good day. Just a note for prospective chateaux viewers. You have to pay to get in. Trying to take pictures of these magnificent buildings over a hedge isn't the best way to 'do' the Loire chateaux. 
But we had miles to ride. 

Ussé, the best picture you can get through the iron gate without paying admission charges
Jan, outside Ussé (our lunch stop), pretending to look interested...
Jan and Alberto, celebrating the fact they'd just seen Azay-le-Rideau
A really good picture of Azay-le-Rideau (through more iron gates...)
And Villandry. By this time Jan was bored, so we spent less than two minutes here...

We celebrated in the normal fashion when we eventually found our hotel, negotiating the local rush hour (oh, joy...), and heading into the entertainment district just north of our hotel, passing the impressive cathedral en route. 

The impressive cathedral in Tours
Dinner was a challenge.
The vin was fine. A nice white Saumur followed by local rouge. But the food was interesting. Jan and I selected the local saucisson (actually it was andouillette) in white sauce. 
A mistake. 
Looked like something produced by one of the many local dogs and full of offal, gizzards, and anything else the local wildlife had already rejected. Heyddie thought his sea bass was off until he realised that he was getting a wiff of Jan's local speciality.
We live and we learn...

So, today's stats: distance covered 136.4km, average speed 20.4kph, calories consumed 4966kCal, 6 hours 40 mins, 1097m of ascent. Number of times the Garmin was sworn at, 5.

Day 4
Today the plan was to cycle from Tours to Beaugency, a short hop of 127km. The author took his turn to drive today, so the rest of the slackers decided to cut a corner through Chaumont-sur-Loire rather than visit the chateaux at Chenonceau and Chambord. 

Amboise, viewed from the comfort of a dry van cabin
As a result, they discovered a really good cycleway through the vineyards alongside the Loire east of Tours, missed nothing at Chenonceau as the owners have cleverly concealed any view of it if you don't pay for admission, and the team were able to abort the ride easily when the heavens opened late morning. Absolutely torrential rain and pointless carrying on across the flat country alongside this section of the Loire valley.
So, just 40km despatched today, but collectively we were happy to justify a nice lunch at our hotel in the pretty little town of Beaugency, a little south west of Orleans. An afternoon walk around the town, in between heavy showers accompanied by rolls of thunder, then a much-needed bike clean before some chill time. 

Our hotel in Beaugency, the rustic L'Ecu de Bretagne, complete with beamed ceilings and dodgy waterworks
The boys in Beaugency
   Beaugency street views

...and the Loire again
Tomorrow, we've decided to re-route to skirt around Orleans, as none of us much enjoy navigating our way through busy cities. 

Today's modest stats: 40km, calories burnt - hardly any, they didn't cycle fast enough, and ascent nil. No hills along the banks of the Loire!

Day 5
Sod's Law would have it that there's an enormous weather front sitting over France as we're trying to cycle through it. The morning greeted us with torrential rain, so some lateral thinking by our Team Captain and an early morning phone call to our Director of Meteorology, Johan, resulted in a change of plan. Instead of cycling the scheduled 157km along the Loire valley via Orleans to Sancerre, we drove east to Briare in order to get beyond the easterly edge of the front. 
This proved to be a good move, giving us a chance to cycle almost 80km in dry weather on an enjoyable circuit north east of Sancerre, starting in Bléneau and up into the forest to reach St. Saveur-en-Puisay, albeit into a blustery headwind coming up from the south east. But it gave us quiet lanes, a good work out on some long ascents, and good riding surfaces through beech forest, alongside lakes and through vast fields of barley, wheat, and blue flowering linseed crops. 
About 15km out, as we descended from Saint Amand-en-Puisaye, our destination, Sancerre, atop the hill which once rendered it one of the great fortress towns in France, became visible. But so did the darkening skies ahead of us to the south and west. 
There's a steepish hill up into Sancerre, with a gradient averaging about 6%, and it was on this that the heavens opened, ten minutes before we reached the hotel, Le Panoramic. 
Views from here were great, overlooking the rolling chalklands to the north and west of the town, and we watched the lightning from the bar as we enjoyed a little post-ride refreshment. 
Of course, we had to sample some the excellent local vin during our evening in Sancerre, starting first in a great little wine bar up in the old town, enjoying an excellent wine from Thomas & Fils, accompanied by a little charcuterie of rillette and pâté. And a little more imbibing at a restaurant in the main town square, with excellent steaks to rebuild our leg muscles! Needless to say, we walked back in pouring rain. Ho hum...

Jan and Heyddie in the beech forest above Saint Amand         
Chateau and art museum in Saint Amand
              View from our hotel in Sancerre              
Wine museum in Sancerre, a cooperative venture of all the local wine producers
Home in the rain, Jan and Alberto getting cosy...            
Today's stats: 77.5km, average speed 20.6kph, 2800 calories burnt, ascent 813m

Day 6
Here's the edge of that weather front, the image captured at about 0615...

...and again at 0700. Ominous...

But, we had the advice of our UK based meteorologist, Johan, who suggested that we wait until a big rain shower passed over us just after breakfast, after which we could expect a break from the downpours. And he was right, leaving the hotel sometime after 0900, we descended the steep hill from Sancerre on wet roads, but were quickly into the countryside of rolling hills and the peripheral vineyards  of the Sancerre and Poully Fumé appellation, leaving the dark clouds behind us to the west. And, no rain!

 Fabian, leaving the wet behind for a while...                 
Jan found us a good spot to enjoy a mid-morning break in Chateuaneuf-Val-de-Bargis, with the local patisserie providing some fine savouries and some great bread for lunch.
Then progressively into hillier country, on empty roads, although some with poor surfaces and only really used by the local logging companies, passing through isolated hamlets which have been unchanged for centuries. Huge wheat and barley fields, punctuated by dense woodland of pine, beech and oak, as far as the eye could see.

    Alberto and Heyddie, on the open road again
After 87km we were glad for a lunch break next to the Canal du Nivernais, just beyond Bazolles, although there were soon flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder in some angry skies in the direction of our final stage into Chateau-Chinon. Once again, our meteorology expert came to the rescue, advising us to wait for a narrow front to pass northwards. This we did, setting off somewhat apprehensively on a southward track along the western edge of the front, before turning east again, to be greeted by clear blue skies in the aftermath of the front now heading north away from us. Perfect! 

Jan, entering Morvan. Chateau-Chinon in the far distance
We entered the Morvan Regional National Park, a cross between Devon and South Lakeland, enjoying 30km of good roads, with hardly any traffic, into Chateau-Chinon, although there was a sting in the tail with a 4km Cat3 climb into the town.
We managed to get the bikes cleaned, have a couple of quick beers and get to our rooms before the next storm front broke, with torrential rain and much thunder and lightning. Lucky lads!
And, our reward was the best meal of the trip so far. Our unassuming little hotel, the Logis Au Vieux Morvan, presented us with some great regional cuisine accompanied by some excellent wine, Pouilly Fumé from Les Moulin a Vent, a great Mercurey, and to accompany our fromage, a splendidly rich red, the Ladoix En Nagets from Domaine Maratray Dubreuil. Outstanding. 

Today's stats: distance 116.5km, average speed 20.3kph, calories burnt 4228, ascent 1493m

Day 7
A bright sunny day dawned, and an early start got us on to the easterly track from Chateau-Chinon to Beaune in the famous wine region of Bourgogne. Much of today looked to be on main roads, the D978 through the busy little town of Autun, with a few deviations off to alleviate the stress of riding with fast moving traffic roaring past us. But our fears were unnecessary. The route provided a great riding surface, some very long hills and some rapid descents, and some more technical riding on the short deviations. The route took us through the attractive eastern extent of Morvan, through forests and across rolling farmland, mainly given over to cattle rearing.

Morvan landscape

Heyddie leading the charge up the Cat 3 climb out of Chateau-Chinon
Beyond Autun, we took a southeasterly route to Chateau Couches, a great spot for lunch, especially after some hard but enjoyable peloton riding which took our speed up to over 45kph on the flat in places. Great fun.

Jan and Fabian patiently waiting for Alberto to learn some map-reading skills
After Couches we came off the main drag, and headed north east into Bourgogne. Instantly the quality of houses in the tiny hamlets increased, and we were soon into the vineyards fabled for the production of some of the finest Chardonnays in the world - Chassagne Montrachet, Puligny Montrachet and Meursault, and further north the Pinot Noir reds of Volnay and Pommard.

Jan 'I can smell the wine already' Ulrichard, speeding through the vineyards north of Santenay
Views from the excellent cycleway which took us all the way north from Santenay to Beaune
Meursault. Note the gathering storm clouds. Miraculously, they passed us by. 
Alberto found it very hard to contain his enthusiasm for the rather more relaxed pace we set through this stage of the journey, but it has to be said that he acquitted himself very well on the hills earlier in the day, especially for someone who 'doesn't do hills'...
Reaching Beaune we cycled through the cobbled streets of the town, passing the headquarters of some of the most revered winemakers in the world. This really is hallowed ground for wine buffs.
Our hotel, the Henry II, just north of the town walls is perfect for our planned rest day in Beaune, although judging by our first night's wine selections, we'll all be remortgaging sometime soon! 

The boys are back in town...the red noses have nothing to do with sunburn...
We rated tonight's dinner as the second best of the trip (after Chateau-Chinon): our team carnivores recommend Piqu'Boeuf, which, of course, specialises in beef. Pre-prandial wines selection: Santenay 1er Cru Passetemps by Jaffelin, then with dinner, Meursault 'Les Grands Charrons' 2008 (Domaine Michelot) and Volnay Clos des Chênes 2010 (Domaine du Chateau de Meursault).

End of a really good day (Alberto - 'a really, really, really good day')

Today's stats: distance 100.5km, average speed 20.6kph, ascent 1131m, calories 3182

Day 8
It's 24 May. Our cumulative distance is now 718km, an average of 102km per day, so it's time for a rest day. Mundane chores like visiting the local launderette beckon, but the local vignerons are forecasting further depletion of their wine inventory today. 
So, some essential sampling was had at lunchtime after a quick look around the town, visiting the Hôtel-Dieu, a thriving Saturday market and a bar. Our restaurant, La Ciboulette, provided great food, friendly service and a marvellous local red, a 2008 Pommard 1er Cru les Saussiles (Domaine Bernard & Thierry Glantenay). Yum.

Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune, established in 1443 as a 'hospital for the poor'. Financed by the proceeds of the Hospices de Beaune wine auctions each year, this functioned until 1971, after which a modern hospital facility was created in the town
Beds in the Hospices. Beats the NHS any day!
...followed by another self-indulgent dinner...
We returned to La Ciboulette for dinner as the service was great and the maître d' was very helpful on wine selection. The food was wonderful too! The evening started with a Puligny Montrachet, swiftly followed a Ladoix 1er Cru and another superb Pommard to help us wash done the final fromage course, featuring the team's favourite cheese, Epoisses au Marc de Bourgogne.

Day 9
After the excesses of consumption in Beaune we needed a good ride to detox and burn some calories, and day 9 proved to be a long one, 136km southwards to Mâcon.
Initially helped on our way by a tailwind, we soared through the vineyards of the Grand Cru estates south of Beaune again, reaching Santenay in quick time before turning south west to track the busy road alongside the Canal du Centre Dheune. Then, turning southeast towards Buxy, we headed for our mission for the day, to visit the crash site of a WW2 Halifax bomber near the village of Villeneuve-en-Montagne and pay our respects to the seven crew who died as a result. One of their number was a relative of our Director of Meteorology, Johan, and it was a somber moment for us all as we remembered the fallen, high on this hill overlooking the Dheune valley. 

A steep descent took us down from the hills and we were soon into Buxy to begin our southward track through the Côte Challonaise, home of wines like Mercurey, Givry and Montagny. We made fast progress along a good road through pretty villages and large vineyards, before a lunch stop in Cormatin. 

 Heyddie in Buxy, pretending to know where he is on the map...
Jan and Heyddie in the Côte Challonaise 
Fabian and Heyddie by the chateau in Sercy
After lunch we joined the tarmac-surfaced Voie Verte de Bourgogne du Sud, a cycleway that took us along the route of an old railway track, providing fast passage to Cluny, and some welcome shade from the hot afternoon sun, before turning east in the direction of Mâcon. This proved to be an interesting cycleway, with steep hills and some sharp turns before entering the 1.6km Tunnel du Bois Clair (closed in the winter to protect the habitat of local bats). It was freezing in the tunnel, but thankfully lit all the way, and we emerged into the Mâconnais and shortly after we sighted the vineyards of the Pouilly-Fuisse, Pouilly-Vinzelles and Pouilly-Loche genre. Here we are also just north of the Cru Beaujolais region too.
Route finding into Mâcon was a bit of a trial with the many key roads that converge on the town, but for once the Garmin came into its own and we found our hotel, on the banks of the Saône river, without too much of a problem.
We were all tired after a long, hot ride, so a quick dinner (Pouilly Loche and Morgon), and early to bed!

Today's stats: distance 136.3km, average speed 21.8kph (highest of the trip so far), 1116m climbed and 5156kCal burnt (!)

Day 10

A grey start from Mâcon, and on to a series of very straight roads across vast fields of wheat, barley, oilseed rape and newly sewn maize. Not particulary exciting, but there were many long shallow hills so we got warmed up well. Through the attractive little town of Châtillon-sur-Charalonne we took quiet roads into an area with many lakes on either side of the road, mainly for private fishing and recreation with a little commercial pike and carp fishing too. 

We had a quick coffee stop in Villars-les-Dombes, before proceeding south east to Meximeux across more undulating dairy and cattle country. The weather brightened slightly, as did our mood, seeing signs for Geneva and Champery, the entrance points to the Alps. And we could see we were now heading towards the higher hills ourselves, our first taste a steep little number outside Vaux-en-Bugey, before heading on the D1504 eastwards into the gorge of Cluse des Hôpitaux, a little frightening at times when huge artics thundered past us, but giving us speedy access to the hills and mountains where we'll be enjoying the next few days.

And the sun came out too, although France seems to be 'closed' on Mondays, so we went without lunch and started to run out of liquid too.
Finally, Artemare appeared and we located our characterful little guest house, La Demeure du Fierloz, affording great views of tomorrow's objective, the Grand Col de Colombier. Self catering tonight, considerably cheaper than the excesses of the past few days!

Grand Colombier, our objective for tomorrow...

Preparation for our climb tomorrow...
Today's stats: distance 137.6km, average speed 21kph, ascent 1401m, calories burnt 5098kCal

Day 11
Well, as we enjoyed our previous evening's self catered dinner, the heavens opened, and the Grand Colombier disappeared from view. 
And guess what, as we awoke, it was still bloody well raining. 
But, undeterred, the Golden Rule Adventure Club boys turned out in force to cycle the climb.
As you do. In the rain, with no visibility.

Grand Colombier, looking very inviting this morning...
Culoz, the town at the base of the climb

It was visited by stage 10 of the Tour de France in 2012, and is regarded as a reasonably difficult climb. Starting from Culoz, the Col du Grand Colombier ascent is 18.3 km long and climbs 1255m, an average gradient of 6.9 %. 
Here's the profile: 

Not particularly difficult, although visibility was poor and the water was running downhill past us like a stream in places. It was really a question of plugging away interminably (well, a couple of hours anyway), and we achieved an average speed of around 9-10kph, about half the rate of the record - 20.9kph!

 Heyddie looking fit (and very wet)
 Jan claiming he was enjoying every minute...               
                 Club President Fabian enjoying the outing immensely...
There were only three other cyclists doing the route, three Brits on a long distance ride, and, of course not a Frenchman in sight...they have more sense it appears.
Mention should be made of two refreshment stops along the way, with Heyddie and Fabian particularly enjoying Mrs Ulrichard's home-made flapjack en route. Thanks Anne! Jan was too focused on the climb to eat, drink, think, or anything else other than keep pedalling uphill...
When we got to the pass, it was very cold, the rain and hill fog obliterating any hope of seeing the vast views down into the Rhône valley, the Lac du Bourget and the Val-de-Fier, and more distant views to the high Alps. So, with infinite wisdom, the club committee met to decide tactics, and in a nano-second there was universal approval given to a quick descent (by van), and a celebratory lunch at our next hotel in Champaneux to the south.

Club members summitting Col de Grand Colombier, and enjoying the view...
This was a far better prospect than descending wet roads in the direction of Artemale at gradients of  up to 20%, and freezing already soaked bodies.
And lunch was had. And an afternoon of catching up on the internet, drying clothes and, annoyingly, watching the weather progressively clear up in the Rhône valley below us. Anyway, should make for a better day tomorrow!

Today's stats: distance 27.5km, average speed (including warm up from Artemale) 11.8kph, calories 898kCal, ascent 1438m (max altitude today 1498m)

** After ten riding days we are now officially into the second half of our ride through France, and cumulatively we have now ridden 1,019.5km **

And a fine sunset tonight too!

Views from the Hotel des Bergeronnettes, Champagneux, above the Rhône valley
Day 12
A splendid day's cycling, heading south through the Chartreuse region. More alpine like in character, with deserted roads and some readily attainable passes. We had a steep start out of Champaneux, in cloudy and cool weather, but the day brightened as we worked our way through St Genix-sur-Guiers, St-Béron, and St Bueil en route to our first col of the day, the Col de la Croix des Mille Martyrs at 884m. A relatively straightforward ascent, followed by an exhilarating descent through Miribel and onwards to St -Etienne-de-Crossey where we stopped for a very average panini.

After lunch we descended the Gorges de Crossey at speed, and then climbed the easy 587m Col de la Placette before a very fast descent to Voreppe, our entry point into the wide glacial valley that leads south east into Grenoble. Some record speeds achieved today, Heyddie being particulary aggressive, breaking speed limits through villages and passing one automatic speed sign which registered him at 62kph, marginally ahead of Jan and Fabian at 59kph. Good fun for all.
Getting through Grenoble to our hotel in Eybens, south of the city, was a bit of a trial. Cycleways were not well signposted, and, once again, the Garmin, miraculously, got us to our rather nice hotel for the evening, the imposing Chateau de la Commanderie, where good service immediately impressed us (apart from the mad sommelier at dinner...). 

Today's stats: distance 91.3km, ascent 1470m. Calories consumed 3006.

Day 13
A beautiful ride today, south from Grenoble into high mountain country, azure blue lakes and clear blue skies above snow capped mountains. Perfect, except we seemed to be constantly cycling uphill!
Initially we moved southwards, with a climb up through Champagnier once outside Grenoble's suburbs, followed by a long climb high above the Lac de Notre-dame de Commiers to reach the mining town of La Motte d'Aveillans for a quick coffee stop.
From here we passed through a coal mining area to reach the larger town of La Mure with its imposing town hall, after which we enjoyed fast riding on fantastic sweeping roads, crossing two high viaducts (a particulary impressive one over the Riviére La Roizonne), and enjoying expansive views into the Ecrins National Park. Outstanding.
Passing through the pretty alpine villages of Valbonnais and Entraigues we then turned north, up through Le Périer to eventually climb up and over Col d'Ornan, with an exciting descent along the side of a deep valley into Bourg d'Oisans, and our simple but hospitable home for the night, the Le Terminus.
Today's stats: 87km, average speed 18.6kph ('cos we climbed over 2112m), 2967 calories burnt, maximum altitude 1379m. Number of times Garmin sworn at (trying to get out of Grenoble's southern outskirts) - too many to count. Number of times I almost crushed the Garmin under my foot, two.
Hey ho.

View from the hotel before we set off
 And the humble breakfast room
Fantastic views all day                                  
Jan, enjoying the views over Lac de Notre-dame de Commiers
Heyddie and Alberto, on empty roads east of La Mure
Alberto, having a vertigo moment...
 View from the bridge over the Riviére La Roizonne 
Our objective for the day
Slackers...nuff said
Happy days...
Col d'0rnon featured in stage 18 of the Tour de France (Gap to Alpe d'Huez). It's a relatively easy climb, a total of 14.4km from Entraigues to the top, an ascent of 563m, so an average gradient of 3.9%, steepening towards the end of the climb. Rated a Cat 2 climb.

Our hotel in Bourg...basic but hospitable
Tomorrow's initial the road
Day 14
Today dawned bright, and the boys set off to climb the famed l'Alpe d'Huez climb in nice sunshine tempered by the cool mountain air. There are 21 bends on this climb, and it's quite motivational to be able to count them down as you grind away uphill. Most of the slope, on a good road surface is around 10%, occasionally 12%, and when it eased to 7-8%, it almost felt level! We made quite a few photo stops, but even then managed to get to the finish line in one and a half hours, not bad for us old boys! To put this into perspective, the fastest Tour de France ascent is around 39 minutes.

Bourg d'Oisans. A mecca for cycle enthusiasts, rather like Chamonix is for mountaineers
A perfect start for our climb

Jan grinding away

Fabian pushing up another 10% slope

Heyddie and Jan making it look easy

Pro shot....the photographer, definitely not the rider

Triumphant in L'Alpe d'Huez
A quick coffee, the obligatory purchase of a climb jersey, and with large cumulo-nimbus building up all around us, we pressed on to the Col de Sarenne, which at 1999m meant more climbing, this time up a deserted and desolate valley on roads which were still gritty after the winter snow had melted. In fact, the road was closed to traffic which was a bit ominous! It's a Cat 2 climb, with an average gradient of 7.8% over 3km.
As we approached the summit, it hailed on us, somewhat worrying as we knew we had a steep descent on the other side.

Col de Sarenne 1999
And steep it was, on a narrow road, with huge drops to one side, the gradient 12% in places and strewn with the debris of rockfall from the cliffs above. And not made any better by hail now turning into rain, accompanied by a strong cold wind on some stages. Tricky riding which concentrated the mind somewhat!

The descent from the Col de Sarenne

But eventually, chilled to the bone by the time we reached Clavans-Le-Bas, we got on to better surfaces and made quick work of getting down to the main road at Mizoën, adjacent to the dam holding back the Lac du Chambon.
Then a really fast descent down the large gorge containing the Romanche river, passing through tunnels along the way, but occasionally buffeted by a strong headwind in places, causing some instability on the bikes.
Our route today followed part of the route used by the 2013 Tour de France, the 168km stage 18 which started in Gap, eventually passed over Col d'Ornon (our climb yesterday), descended to Bourg d'Oisans, climbed Alpe d'Huez and then Col de Sarenne, descended via Mizoën, and then climbed Alpe d'Huez from Bourg again! We decided that a second ascent was unnecessary, although Heyddie felt he was up for it after rehydrating with two pints of Kronenbourg...

We had a celebratory lunch in the centre of le Bourg d'Oisans and then transferred to our hotel for the night, the comfortable Novotel at Voreppe, north west of Grenoble. A good day, but we're all now ready for a day or two off...bring it on Valence tomorrow!

Stats for the day: distance 54.2km, ascent 1959m, average speed 14.5kph, calories 1448 kCal. 
The Alpe d'Huez climb is 13.2km, average gradient 8.1%, rising 1071m to a max. of 1815m.
The descent from Col de Sarenne is over 11km to Mizoën, dropping 786m with an average gradient of 7.1%. That was enough!

Day 15 
So, today, repositioned to Valence, this time in the van, given the general consensus that we needed a day off the bikes. But we followed most of our intended cycle route to check it out for future reference. 
Leaving Voreppe there was already a keen headwind from the east, so decision vindicated (1). Then we started up the long Cat 1 climb out of Rovon and St Gervais (the Route des Ecouges) rising relentlessly through shaded damp forest on a very narrow road, single track with passing places along much of its length, before reaching a long unlit tunnel which was bad enough going through in a van. No light. Single track with passing places. Roughly hewn walls. Bends so that the other end didn't appear until about 200m before end. 
And then, an amazing view down into the gorge our road had just climbed, the road ahead burrowing under rock overhangs precipitously clinging to the side of the gorge. Impressive stuff but would have been incredibly hard work on a bike!
Decision vindicated (2).

Spot the road below...
The tunnel at the far end. The van shown was having to reverse to let another vehicle through
                The road beyond the tunnel, under rock overhangs                
A long descent through woods and then increasingly open countryside showed us the dramatic splendour of the Vercors national park, which became even more magnificent as we entered the Gorges de la Bourne, a very deep limestone gorge which our road traversed at a high level. Awesome.

Gorges de la Bourne
Eventually we reached Pont-en-Royans, now deviating from our originally planned route in order to check out another couple of cols for future cycling adventures. We turned south via St-Jean-en-Royans to reach the impressive Combe Laval and eventually cross the Col de la Machine at 1011m and into high, more open alpine pastures around Lente. From here we entered large tracts of forest, although by now we were completely immersed in cloud as we climbed towards the 1313m Col de la Bataille. No views to be had from here with the fog, and this also made the driving for Heyddie somewhat hard work. 
One more col crossed, the Col des Limouches at 1086m, and with big views opening up as we were now below the cloud base. And a lot more cyclists on the road now, hauling themselves up towards the high country around La Vacherie. As we descended from the col the views changed from the Isére valley to the broad north-south valley of the Rhône, and, in the distance our home for the next two nights, the attractive town of Valence. Chill time!

Combe Laval, looking north
At the headwall of Combe Laval
Valence is a treat, large enough to have the facilities we need after several days on the road, with a multitude of bars and restaurants, many set in attractive little squares and some distinctive architecture,  but small enough to get around the town centre and really get a feel for the French way of life. The weekend market, weddings in the Cathedral and in the Town Hall, students from the university chatting away in pavement cafés, and families playing in the parks alongside the river Rhône, now as wide as the Thames at the point it flows through London. 
We also like our town centre hotel, wholeheartedly recommending the Hôtel de France. And we found an Indian restaurant to give us a break from fine dining! Happy days.

The Rhône 

Valence, a great town for a stop-over
Day 16
It's Sunday, and our official rest day. But because we didn't cycle yesterday, we're trying out a new cycle-way along the Isére valley towards Romans-sur-Isére. The sun is shining, and yesterday's strong north to south wind has abated. Should be a good day.

And it was. An easy 64km return route along a newly tarmaced Voie Verde which tracks the huge Isère river from its confluence with the Rhône. We passed through pleasant agricultural country, with distant views west to the Ardeche across the Rhône and views east to the Vercors, today clear of any cloud cover. We whizzed through fields of wheat, oats and maize, startling a pine marten along the way in one wooded section, and passed through numerous fruit farms, with trees laden with plums, cherries and the like. Local raptors hovered over us constantly, and frogs greeted us as we entered Châteauneuf-sur-Isère.

Alberto in nav mode
A truffle farm en route
Poppies galore alongside the Isére river...a Monet moment
Romans-sur-Isère, our lunch spot
Alberto, normally an Orangina man during the day, looking a bit wobbly after a beer and a couple of glasses of local Ardeche vin...
The lads, on the south bank of the Isère, just before it joins the Rhône 
The Isère joining the Rhône. Spot the two tone river at the confluence
Jan and Alberto tootling alongside the Rhône, a few km north of Valence, having turned down the challenge to see who could hit 50kph on the flat sections. Needless to say, Heyddie claimed victory, even though the author, following closely on his tail, actually clocked him at only 48.4kph...
This was Alberto's choice of route, so it was flat, had a nice lunch at the turnaround point, and took the benefit of the north to south wind on the return route. Impeccable planning!
Of course, the reward was a couple of pints when we returned to Valence on this quiet Sunday afternoon, looked after by Sebastien at the Hôtel de France, who has provided outstanding service since our arrival. 

Today's stats: distance 44km, ascent 363m, calories 2212kCal

Day 17
Once out of Valence the team were cycling with the benefit of a strong but chilly tailwind and quickly found themselves on the Drôme Velo route, with quiet, nicely surfaced lanes through rolling countryside through Ambonil, Allex and Grane, before a straightforward climb to reach the top of the Col du Devès, 395m, followed by a pleasant descent into Roynac and the coffee stop in Cléon-d'Andran. On the way down from the col were great views west towards Marsanne and the Rhône valley just to the north of Montélimar. 

A regional quirk to driving regulations long abandoned in most of France years ago. But not in Drôme and bloody dangerous for cyclists!
First col of the day
View to Marsanne on the descent from Col du Devès
Classic Drôme landscape
Pleasant countryside, empty roads, what more could we want?
Then south again over the 480m Col d'Aleyrac with a fast descent before a lunch stop south of Grignan. On the descent we had our first view of Mont Ventoux, hazily looming in the distance. 
We're in a very different landscape now. Olive groves, lavender fields and vast vineyards. 

Alberto, topping out on the 480m Col de Aleyrac
Lavender crops north east of Orange
Fabian enjoying a good tailwind into Vaucluse, Mont Ventoux in the distance
Alberto, having misjudged the verge height when dismounting his bike...says it all really!
Vineyards south of Cairanne, Mont Ventoux on the horizon
Approaching Vacqueryas, with the Dentelles de Montmirail rising above the vineyards
The strong tailwind had us quickly in Vacqueryas, close to Gigondas, home of one of the author's favourite red wines. And we enjoyed suitable athletic preparation that evening, working our way through a white Vacqueyras, a red Vacqueyras (bothe from Mas Des Restanques) and a nice bottle of Beaumes de Venice with our dessert. We might live to regret that indulgence...

Jan doing some serious carbo-loading                            
Today's stats: 108.7km, ascent 1102m, average speed 21.8kph, calories 4631 kCal

Day 18
A lovely day dawned, cool to start but in bright sunshine and not a cloud in the sky, and importantly no wind. We drove through Beaumes de Venice to Bédoin, the start point of our attempt on Mont Ventoux and set off by 0900. The plan was to have a rest break at Chalet Reynard, about 7km from the finish, but get up the hill as quickly as possible to ensure we got a view and to avoid the strong winds that tend to blow up in the afternoon.

It's a climb over 21.4km, with an average gradient of 7.6% which takes you up from 283m to a lofty 1912m, so a vertical gain of 1639m or one mile in old money! The climb starts across vineyards and it was already warming up by then, but the main section of the climb is up through forest which provided plenty of shade on the most challenging stage, in parts up to 14% and hardly ever less than 9%. But despite the excesses of the previous night, everyone plodded uphill nicely, enjoying some banter with the many other cyclists doing the same thing.

         Boys at the start, Bédoin                           
Fabian and Jan going well in the early forest stages
Heyddie steaming ahead                              
Typical gradient through the long middle section, around 10-11%
Heyddie and Fabian working a bit harder now...                                  
...but time for a bit of sprint fun. The author has chosen not to show the photo at the finishing line...
We chose to keep going at Chalet Reynard, the altitude already showing itself in a big temperature drop since Bédoin, and we were all in good form, to the point where a short sprint competition was enjoyed just as we approached the chalet. 
But, onwards!
The summit of Ventoux becomes visible after this point and the gradient is a little less for a few km, and you find yourself in a barren landscape of white rock which looks like snow from a distance, with huge views south into Vaucluse-Provence opening up before you. But it's here that legs start to tire, but using the pro's mantra 'shut up legs' we soldiered on to top out in under two hours. Not bad, given the pros typically do it in one hour.

Another pro shot!
Summit of Mont Ventoux from the memorial to pro rider Tom Simpson

The final grind to the top
The team topping out Ventoux
View from the summit

       Back down in one piece...                                                      
The obligatory handshakes and photos at the top, before Jan came out with the trip's best personal planning statement yet: in answer to the question 'which route shall we take down?' he answered in his usual droll Yorkshire style, 'back the same way. Which I'm going to descend at a thousand miles an hour. I'm then going straight to a bar and drown in a bucket of beer.' 
In the event, he did fly down the hill (much quicker than the ever sensible author), attaining a max speed of 64.8kph, having held back due to traffic coming up the hill and overtaking cyclists on their ascent. And instead of excessive beer consumption he seemed very content to drink a somewhat rancid local wine offered with the café's Plat du Jour. Must be getting old...
A rewarding day, and another adventure for the boys safely completed.

And thanks to Alberto for the diligent van support and photography all day
Today's stats: distance 44km, average speed, c. 15kph, height gain 1619m, calories 1015kCal

Day 19
South east to Manosque. Not sure everyone's heart was in riding today, and it was starting to rain as we left Bédoin which also dampened spirits a little. East out of Bédoin to Flassan took us on to a long climb, some 19-20km, up along the southern flanks of Mont Ventoux, through scrub, pine and dwarf oak struggling to survive on rocky soil. Big views south over Vaucluse and into Provence helped to take our mind off the climb, not especially steep but sustained throughout and with heavier rain as we entered denser pine forest in the upper elevations.

Views on the climb away from Bédoin 
We eventually reached the day's high point, the Col ND des Abeilles at 996m, although as we were to discover, this was certainly not the end of the climbing to be done today.
We had a fast descent to Sault on the well surfaced D1, and this is about the only time we experienced any real traffic. The whole ride was characterised by empty roads, and hardly any habitation at all, particularly as we left Vaucluse and entered Haute Provence and later the region of Luberon.

Descent to Sault
This made planning our refreshment stops somewhat difficult, and we managed a couple of slices of pizza in the town of Saint Christobel, adjacent to an enormous military facility, before heading further south east, now across a high plateau with wild flower grasslands and hardy wheat crops as far as the eye could see. And we also had our last glimpse of Mont Ventoux, now 30-40km west of us.

Views back to Mont Ventoux                             
Passing through the little town of Simiane-la-Ronde, with its prominent circular tower overlooking the valley below, we headed into Luberon, with more ups and downs through a series of limestone valleys, rather like you'd find in the White Peak of Derbyshire in the UK.
Knackered, hungry, and with rain spitting again, we finally called it a day in Revest-des-Brousse, and packed the bikes into the van for the final 25km into Manosque, a bustling little town overlooking the Durance valley to the east.

Fabian, pretending to still be up for another 25km...
We're now not far north of Aix-en-Provence, and tomorrow is our penultimate day, with the WAGs set to join us in Saint Raphaël on the Meditteranean coast.

Today's stats: distance 68.8km, average 18kph, 1370m of ascent, 2281 kCal

Day 20
A logistical day, getting the van to Saint Raphaël and ensuring all four of us got a ride in somehow.  
As a result of seeing roads west of Saint Raphaël, we re-routed the end of the ride to descend through the medieval town of Les Arc, and in the end the lads enjoyed a total of 65km of sunny riding from Gréoux-les-Bains through the rolling wooded countryside of southern Provence. More woodland, fields of lavender and olive groves interspersed with the many vineyards of the Cotes de Provence.

Provençal petit chateau
Jan and Alberto working up to the next hill...
Les Arc, Provence                                                  
We met up with the WAGs early afternoon, with views on to the azure blue of the Med, albeit with a strong onshore breeze. R&R just about to begin, although we've got to finish the job tomorrow and ride 77km into Nice.
Dinner at Elly's in Saint Raphaël, which was a superb gastronomic start to our weekend.

Today's stats: 65.5km, average speed 23.4kph (could be a daily record for the trip, but the author has disallowed this as (1) there was a strong tailwind, and (2) both Jan and Alberto ate so many cakes at their coffee break that they are deemed to have unfairly boosted their body mass to improve their descent times). Ascent 667m, calories spent 2247kCal, calories consumed 5000kcal (at least).

Day 21
Our last day on the bikes in France, following the coast from Saint Raphaël to Nice, the WAGs repositioning to meet us there.
Overall our route took us on a busy stretch of road, and there were a few ups and downs around the many headlands, but we particularly enjoyed the stretch adjacent to the mountains of the Forêt Domaniale de l'Estérel. Fantastic coastline, with many little rocky coves, towering red rock buttresses above us, and relatively quiet on the road except for a gaggle of other club cyclists. 

However, as we approached Cannes, the roads got very busy and although there were limited sections of cycleway, we spent a lot of time waiting for traffic lights, dodging dozy pedestrians and trying not to be mown down by tourist traffic and impatient locals. Cannes was very busy, and the reality of the wealth that resides in this part of the world reflected in the number of private jets we saw taking off from the small Cannes-Mandelieu airport and the huge number of upscale boats moored in the many ports and marinas along the whole coast.

We had lunch in Antibes, having hugged the coast all the way so far, then took the cycleway up to Cagnes-sur-Mer, alongside a busy coastal road, before our final entry into Nice on the Promenade des Anglais, to be greeted by the WAGs mid afternoon.
A strange final day, having been so used to the empty roads we'd enjoyed across much of France, but a mixture of elation and relief reaching Nice!
Our final team dinner was enjoyed at La Terrasse on the roof of Le Meridien in Nice, with fine views, good table service and enjoyable food and company. A fitting end to our little adventure.

The final stretch of cycleway adjacent to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice
Time to put the bike away for a few days! The Golden Rule Adventure Club reach Nice
Today's stats: distance 82.7km, ascent 708m, calories consumed 2820kCal.

So, here's a little summary of the whole trip...

Distance cycled by the team - 1,686 km, so an average of 88.7km per day over 19 cycling days
Total amount of ascent - 22,169 vertical metres, an average of 1,167m per day
Calories burnt - 58,000 kCal, approx 3,000 per day
Punctures - none
Fall offs on route - none
Pints of beer consumed - too many to count
Most expensive drink - €72 for a bottle of 4% abv pear cider served with dessert at Elly's in Saint Raphaël (the one we though was complementary...)

Subject to further team discussion, here are nominations for 
Best day's riding - Chateau-Chinon to Beaune, Eybens to Bourg d'Oisans, Alpe d'Huez climb, Mont Ventoux climb
Worst day's riding - Tours to Beaugency (heavy rain) or Saint Raphaël to Nice (because of busy roads)
Funniest moment (s) - many! Group nominations required...
Best hotel (s) - Chateau de la Commanderie in Eybens or Hôtel de France in Valence
Worst hotel (s) - Hotel 21 in Saint Raphaël 
Best food - breakfast at La Demeure du Fieroz in Artemare, dinner at Logis Au Vieux Morvan in Chateau-Chinon, dinner at La Ciboulette in Beaune, dinner at Elly's in Saint Raphaël 
Best service - Sebastian at Hôtel de France in Valance, the maître d at La Ciboulette in Beaune, waitress at La Terrasse, Nice
Worst service - Goldstar Resort, Nice: internet hopeless and room allocation a farce, also reception at L'Ecu de Bretagne in Beaugency (arrived soaking wet but enforced the 'can't get into your rooms until 1500' rule with vigour), the mad sommelier at Chateau de la Commanderie in Eybens
Best wine - Sancerre (Thomas & Fils), Pommard 1er Cru, les Sausilles, Vacqueryas (red and white)
Best cheese - Epoisses au Marc de Bourgogne 

More nominations to follow!

Day 22
R&R day in Nice, Beaulieu and Villefranche-sur-Mer. Full of people enjoying their weekend sun! 
Views around Nice...

View from Royal Riviera in Beaulieu. Nice lunch with this view and a small bottle of beer just €9!!

Day 23
Another day of R&R, under the guidance of Heyddie you once raced cars around the Monaco circuit.
First to Villefranche-sur-Mer en route to Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, where we pretended to be boat owners as we supped some of the most expensive coffee in the world. 

Saint Jean Cap Ferrat
Saint Jean Cap Ferrat
Saint Jean Cap Ferrat
Club runabout, Monaco
Conspicuous affluence! Monaco harbour

Then on to Monte Carlo, did a couple of laps of the race circuit, somewhat slowly in our van (!), before heading further east and uphill to the fine viewpoint in the medieaval village of Roquebrune Cap Martin and its 13th century castle, the Chateau des Grimaldi. A good lunch was enjoyed in the Restaurant La Grotte directly under the castle and now in the ownership of Phil Edwards who was a cyclist representing the UK in the 1972 Munich Olympics and a pro rider thereafter between 1976 and 1980. Had an interesting chat with him.

Views from Roquebrune Cap Martin

Lunch with the WAGs in Roquebrune Cap Martin
And views from the castle above...

Wonderful views along the Côte d Azur in both directions, including Monaco below us in the near distance. A fine day's touring in very hot weather, and some fine driving by Heyddie, even though he's now been downgraded to van driving...

Day 24
The long drive home...via Champagne country and the city of Reims.

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