Monday, 29 August 2016

Puy de Dome

The last time the Tour de France used the Puy de Dome for a stage finish was 1986. Sadly since that time, the road up to the top has been closed to normal traffic. It's now used only by service and emergency vehicles.

The train for the Puy de Dome
The only way to the top, other than hiking, is to take the train. It's now a modern, Swiss built, electric, rack railway, that can move 1200 people per hour at peak times. The track uses what seems like one half of the road up to the Puy, halving its width and contributing to its closure for normal traffic. It is worth it, but the removal of bicycle access is regrettable. Since riding is no longer permitted, we drove to the Puy de Dome, and took the train up.

The views from the top, which is at 1464 metres above sea level, are nothing short of spectacular. There is a path around the summit, offering views for all points of the compass.

Other extinct volcanoes dominate the area
The Puy de Dome is the highest of a chain of extinct volcanoes in the area. The others can be seen clearly from the top.

The massive antenna dominates the Puy
A massive antenna dominates the Puy de Dome. It is the sister of the one on the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, above the Col du Tourmalet, and the one on the top of Mont Ventoux. They are broadcast antennae for television and FM radio. There are also other transmitters and observation stations at the top.

Paragliding is very popular on the Puy

The shape of the Puy, and the winds that blow here make it very popular for paragliding. Today, taster sessions were being offered, and there were often a number of paragliders airborne at once. It's possible to take off, fly around, and land back at the same spot, making commercial operations very convenient. There is no need to pack up kit and lug it back up to the take off point.

We spent quite a while photographing and videoing the flying, before heading to the cafeteria for some shelter from the strengthening wind, and some sustenance.

After a visit to the shop, we took the train back down and headed once more for Le Mont-Dore. On the way to the Puy de Dome, we'd noticed a couple of things to look at. We stopped to do so on the way back

The Basilica at Orcival
In Orcival, a village not far from Le Mont-Dore, there is a huge basilica. It utterly dominates the place.
Roche Tuiliere and Roche Sanadoire
A little further down the road are a pair of heavily eroded volcanoes, known as Roche Tuiliere and Roche Sanadoire.
Angela managing to keep warm despite 'English' temperatures
And then it was back to the hotel, and initial preparations for departure tomorrow. It's been an epic holiday.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

La Petite Boucle

Yesterday, we drove from Saint-Savin to Le Mont-Dore, near Clermont Ferrand in the Massif Central. This area is actually one of the coldest in France in the winter. It is a big skiing area in the winter, and people come here for hiking in summer. Le Mont-Dore has an air of slightly faded elegance. The buildings are much older than those in a typical ski resort, and none the worse for that.

The original idea had been for Angela to ride some less challenging climbs here. There are several in the area that have been used on the Tour de France. In the event, we decided that I'd ride, while she did some sightseeing. So with one day of riding left, and four climbs in the locality, a little work with my Garmin led to the birth of La Petite Boucle!

The first part involves riding from Le Mont-Dore a few kilometres to the base of the cable car that leads up the Puy de Sancy. This is the Massif. How hard can that be? Well, it turned out that there was a surprise in store, at the upper end of Le Mont Dore, where the road reared to 11% for a period. Nothing like the Hautacam, but enough for regrets about not riding yesterday, and that pain au chocolat at breakfast!

It soon settled down to 7 and 8% though. The road is wide and well surfaced, and should have been easier than this surely? And then it rained. After a little while it dawned on me that Le Mont-Dore is already at about 1000 metres above sea level. That's almost the height of the summit of Snowdon before you start climbing. That's bound to have some effect.

Cable car to Puy du Sancy
The area around the base of the cable car up to the Puy du Sancy doesn't seem to have any particular name. The best I could find on Google Maps seemed to be Pied du Sancy, so I'll go with that. It probably looks great in winter, but with renovations going on and the weather cloudy with showers, it all seemed a bit grim.

Bike at the Pied du Sancy
The descent back to Le Mont-Dore was fast and flowing. The surface is nearly new. It's not particularly technical, and the sight lines are good, so its easy to let the speed build. The recent rain did reduce my enthusiasm a little though.

Reaching Le Mont-Dore again, it was time to turn right and head up the Col de la Croix St Robert. First, I pulled over to remove my jacket, and then had all sorts of grief trying to clip in again on the short steep lower section of this climb. Once I'd managed that, the rest of the climb was a delight. My legs seemed to be working again, and although not effortless, the typical 7% gradient meant I was spinning, not grinding. The lower reaches are through woodland, with plenty of shade. Above the trees, the route flattens and crosses farmland before reentering woodland again.

Climbing the Col de la Croix St Robert
Climbing the Col de la Croix St Robert
Above this section of trees, the route is in the open until the summit. I say summit, but it's pretty flat at this point, crossing the open moorland below rounded peaks. There is a rather unimpressive metal cross in a field near the summit. I caught a glimpse of it on the way down. I'm guessing that is the cross after which the col is named. But I could be wrong...

The Col de la Croix St Robert
The descent from the Col de la Croix St Robert is also fast and flowing, but more technical than that from the Pied du Sancy. The surface is nearly new. There are a couple of places to stop and admire the view. From here, the first views of Lac Chambon are visible.

First view of Lac Chambon
Just above the town of Chambon sur Lac, which is anything but sur any lac, the road joins the route from the Col de la Croix Morand, of which more later. The descent continues in a gorge, passing through Chambon sur Lac, and on to the town of Lac Chambon, which is definitely by a lake.

Bike at Lac Chambon
I met up with Angela at Lac Chambon, which was fortunate. I'd forgotten the insect repellent before I set off. With the weather improving, and more forest to cross, it seemed like a good idea to use some. It was!
Angela getting arty at Lac Chambon
I retraced my steps through Lac Chambon to Chambon sur Lac, where the climb really starts. Up through the gorge and past the road down from the Col de la Croix St Robert the gradients remain a manageable 7% or so. The road soon emerges from the gorge and onto open farmland around the village of Bressouleille.
Climbing the Col de la Croix Morand
Its possible to see a lot of the route to the top from here. It starts to resemble a real mountain pass in places. The higher up I climbed, the more I was reminded of Snowdonia.

Reminiscent of Snowdonia
Any illusion of a real mountain pass is shattered on arrival at the top. It's a broad flat plane again, with a cafe.
Bike at the Col de la Croix Morand
Once again, the descent from the top was fast and flowing with some technical sections. The surface is not quite as good as on the Col de la Croix St Robert, but still good enough. The lower section gets steeper as the road arrives back in Le Mont-Dore.

After a bit of navigation, I found the road for La Bourboule, and headed down.

Bike in La Bourboule
La Bourboule is the next resort town along the railway line down the valley. It's similar to Le Mont-Dore but without the obvious skiing connection. I soon found the route for the Col de Vendeix, and headed up.

Near the top of the Col de Vendeix
As with all today's climbs, the Vendeix quickly settles to around 7% after an initial steeper section leaving the town. It's wooded all the way up, passing through the village of Vendeix Haut, before joining the D645 to Le Mont-Dore. The junction is supposed to be the summit, but there didn't seem to be any signs. The road to Mont-Dore also continues up for a distance, before finally descending to the town to complete the boucle.

So there we have it. Around 60 kilometres of riding with about 1500 metres of climbing, none of it particularly strenuous. A nice ride around nice roads in a nice part of France.

The route for La Petite Boucle is available on Garmin Connect.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Hat Trick

Today was our final day in the Pyrenees. Tomorrow we head for the Massif Central. As befits a final ride, this was to be a big one. It involved climbing and descending both the Col d'Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet.

We loaded the bike onto the car and set out for Arreau, the town at the far side of the Col d'Aspin. We had to drive over the Tourmalet, and then over the Aspin to get there. Doing that gives a great opportunity to see climbs and descents before actually riding them. Oddly, for me, driving down a descent gives me a sense of the climb to come being more difficult than it actually is. As a result, by the time we got to Arreau, I had major misgivings about whether I'd be able to do this. And, more importantly, whether I'd be able to get back to Saint-Savin in time for dinner!

It was gone midday by the time I rolled into the lunchtime traffic in Arreau. It's a very pretty town, but a couple of cars and a truck can easily cause mayhem. Leaving town, I took the road to the Aspin and started up. The first few kilometers were very gentle, with gradients of only a couple of percent. Reaching a hairpin bend over a bridge, the climb finally starts properly.

Arreau is chocolate-box pretty
If there is such a thing as an easy Pyreneean climb, then this is it. The gradient rarely gets above 7% and its easy to get into a rythm for decent stretches. There is shade, and on the day I rode it, the temperature was in the mid 20s celsius. There are some great views back down the valley, and no villages or towns to get in the way. It's a very pleasant prelude to the Tourmalet.

Looking back towards Arreau from high on the Aspin
I'd grossly overestimated how long it would take me to get to the top, so I made it ahead of Angela, who'd found a spot by the river in Arreau to relax and rest before driving up. There are superb views across to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, the main peak above the Tourmalet, from the Aspin. It's just a lovely spot.

Pic du Midi de Bigorre from the top of the Aspin

At the top of the Aspin
The route up the Aspin from Arreau is available on Garmin Connect.

The descent to Sainte-Marie-de Campan was no less delightful. Modest gradients and a good road surface made for a fast ride as far as Payolle. Further down, the headwind demanded some work to get over the flatter sections before the final descent to the town.

The route down from the Aspin to Sainte Marie de Campan is available on Garmin Connect.

After removing my jacket, and eating some more mint cake, I set off for the climb to the Tourmalet. The first part was in the full glare of the afternoon sun. There was little shade working up the first part of the Vallee de Gripp. Further up there is more shade, especially when the route makes a big loop to the south east before resuming its mainly south westerly course. While much more testing than the Aspin, this part of the climb is fine.

Looking back down the Vallee de Gripp
It's only as la Mongie, the ski resort, is approached that the gradients kick up towards double digits. This section was the most unpleasant for me. Angela caught me at the ideal spot for topping up a bottle, the perfect soigneuse again!

I don't like climbing through resorts at the best of times. The roads always seem to be at 10%. And with the time moving on and still several kilometres to go, I was glad to leave the town.

La Mongie - Blot on the Landscape!
At this point, the top was in sight, and a lot of the route was visible. As on the other side of the summit, the landscape resembles the higher reaches of the Galibier, but there is far more skiing hardware up here. The cable car to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre is also very much in evidence

Completing the final push to the top, Angela was on hand to provide a cold can of drink, and to take the final picture of me at the top.

The route up the Tourmalet from Sainte Marie de Campan is available on Garmin Connect.

Then it was just a question of the descent to Luz Saint-Sauver, and the trek down the gorge to Pierrefitte. The final climb to Saint-Savin seemed interminable, and I arrived back as the church clock was striking 6. That was a long day.

The route down from the Tourmalet is available on Garmin Connect.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Not Quite Spain

Siant-Savin is really not very far from the Spanish border. There are ways across nearby. In the west, there is the Col du Pourtalet, and in the east, the tunnel near Aragnouet. Directly south of Argeles-Gazost, the roads get close to the border, but don't cross it. We rode one of these, the Cambasque, a couple of days ago. It has a partner, known as the Pont d'Espagne. This stone bridge spans the Gave de Marcadau, a torrent that falls from the Pyrenees in a series of waterfalls.

Pont d'Espagne
The entire area is very popular with tourists. There is a large car park at the end of the climb, and a cable car that takes visitors further up the mountain. It's about as close to Spain as you can get in this area.

Greg, Bianca, Denis and I decided to ride up, with Angela bringing the team car. The route involves traversing Pierrefitte, and then taking the road to Cauterets. When we last rode up this way, temperatures were already in the 30s celsius and rising. This time we were ahead of the sun, and we had shade for virtually the entire climb. The more moderate temperatures meant that we could appreciate the route, rather than hating every moment. It starts in a narrow gorge, with the road hugging the side. later it opens out, and just before Cauterets, it rises in a series of tight hairpin bends, which are reminiscent of Lombard Street in San Francisco.

The hairpin bends just below Cauterets
Soon afterwards, the outskirts of Cauterets are reached. It is quite a big town, with  a number of  'Quartiers', suburbs of houses. The centre of the town is the furthest up the mountain. A cable car leaves from here and takes visitors to the Cambasque.

Negotiating a traffic jam in Cauterets. A truck was unloading.
While we were working our way across Cauterets, we encountered a traffic jam. It turned out that a truck was blocking the road while it unloaded. Undaunted, we took to the pavement, avoiding pedestrians and shoppers as we performed the traffic jam slalom.

 Above Cauterets, the road kicks up and is quite steep all the way to the top. The only major settlement on the route is Cauterets La Raillère, which I quickly nicknamed 'Stink Town'. The foul smell of sulphur compounds is overwhelming on the way through. I hope this  is from the hot springs that have provided spas in the past, rather than the present day drains. Whatever the cause, it's not at all pleasant.

The road continues up with varying gradients, but always close to double figures. The shade and the ever present waterfalls made the whole experience bearable. Angela passed us within a few kilometres of the top, and we regrouped by the team car in the large car park. The bridge itself is only 150 metres or so beyond the parking area. Normally, this is not a problem. When you have a bike and are wearing cleats, drastic action is called for. Bianca and Denis went into cyclocross mode, albeit in their socks, while I remembered that my hiking boots were in the car. Looking rather unusual, we made our way up the trail to the bridge and the nearby cafe.

How cyclists visit a tourist attraction!
 It was worth it. The waterfalls of the Gave de Marcadau are superb.

The Gave de Marcadau near the Pont d'Espagne
They form a great backdrop for photos. Angela, now known as 'One shot wonder' for her ability to get a picture in one take, got this shot of Bianca and Denis.

Bianca and Denis at the Gave de Marcada
And Bianca got this one of us.

The two of us in the same spot

The moon is a daytime feature at the moment

Crepes Service

We decided that crepes would be in order after the ride. We managed to get some chocolate crepes and some bilbury crepes, which were excellent, accompanied with some of the worst customer service we've experienced. The waitress hurled them at us, explaining that it was her lunch break and that there wouldn't be anything else until she'd finished. Later, Angela interrupted her lunch to pay!

The ride up to Pont d'Espagne is available on Garmin Connect.

Back Home

We headed back to Saint-Savin, intending to get back before the heat of the day set in. We pretty much achieved that. The descent from Pont d'Espagne to Cauterets is actually pretty nice. The road surface is poor near the top, but improves lower down. The one way system around Stink Town is a little odd, but all in all, the ride down is pretty good. We had to negotiate lunch time shoppers in Cauterets, but then could return to fast descending. The switchbacks of 'Lombard Street' are a good challenge, and there are some sweeping sections too. And, wonder of wonders, I remembered to change the video battery, so we have footage of the descent.

The descent from Pont d'Espagne is available on Garmin Connect.

A Spot of Lunch and Some Shopping

After showering, we drove into Argeles-Gazost for a spot of lunch, and a little light shopping for things we need to take home. We can report that the duck, the salads and the Sangria were good, but that the Desperados beer (lager with a hint of Tequila) is best avoided. Oh, and some confusion during ordering meant that Bianca had a pizza delivered instead of the sandwich she had ordered. And that since sandwiches were only take away, she wasn't allowed to have the replacement panini until we were paying the bill. Is French Service an oxymoron?

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Double Double. And Lunch

Stage 14 of this year's Vuelta a España finishes at the top of the Col d'Aubisque. The race approaches it from Laruns, which is on the the other side of the mountain from Argeles-Gazost. Bianca had suggested that it would be fun to ride up from that side to experience what the competitors will face.

Of course, to ride up the far side of the Aubisque, first we had to ride up it from this side. Bianca, Denis and I decided to give that a try, and Steve and Diane, recently arrived here, joined us to ride to the Aubisque. Gary and Michael, two more from Melbourne, also joined us at the start, but eventually headed off, as they had another climb planned after the Aubisque. We set off early. The forecast was for very high temperatures again in the afternoon.

Below the Soulor
Most of the ride was identical to the one I did last Friday. Traffic was fairly light. However, roadworks had moved into the area around Saint-Savin. First, there had been a lot of patching of the road surface around Arcizans-Avant. There were quite a few areas of 'gravillons', what we in the UK call loose chippings. For cyclists, the emphasis is on the word loose! Caution required, especially on the way down. Second, there was a gang cutting back verges and hedges. Not only do they sometimes block the road, they leave debris that also needs to be avoided. Sigh.

We made pretty good progress, slowing occasionally at junctions to make sure Diane and Steve didn't get lost. In the end, Diane succumbed to the building heat, having made it to within a few kilometres of the top.

I had one fright on the way up. With about 4 kilometres to go, there is a short, steep section of tarmac that hits about 17% at the top. I was standing on the pedals nearing the top of this when a car passed so close that I felt the need to sit down, to ensure control. I immediately did a wheely, which rather spoiled the whole control thing. Peter Sagan I ain't!

We regrouped at top of the Soulor, where Steve caught up, and we made our way across to the Aubisque together. There were the usual sheep and cattle on the mountainside, sometimes wandering into the road. Today's added attraction were two huge pigs, one covered in mud. They do this to cool down and as a kind of natural sun screen. I had the video camera running, and managed to capture one of them grunting heartily. GruntCam is born!

Also on the way across, there was a car, parked by the longer of the tunnels. One of its rear wheels was at least a foot off the ground, and it looked as though it was trying to make its escape off the side of the mountain.

Not the best place to park

It wasn't there when we rode back, but we had seen a rescue truck going up, so presumably it was successfully recovered. If not, and you need some car spares, I can tell you where to look....

The first time at the Aubisque today
The ride up the Aubisque is available on Garmin Connect.

While Steve eventually headed back, the rest of us continued west down the other side of the Aubisque. The first town on the way down is Gourette. It's about 5 kilometres from the top, and was just too inviting to ignore.

Gourette from the Aubisque

The descent from the Aubisque to Gourette is available on Garmin Connect.

Angela arrived, with the team car, while we were filling bottles, and avoiding what seemed to be acres of broken glass in front of the tourist information building. Figuring that the climb back to the Aubisque from here would be quite enough for a hot afternoon, we did the sensible thing, and had lunch! By the way, Angela has gone native. When she arrived, she left the car in a convenient space clearly outside any marked bays, reasoning that the lack of any instruction not to park there made it fair game. Good girl!

Gourette, with added moon
Gourette is clearly a tourist town, but quite pretty all the same.

After lunch, which for Angela and me meant fruit ice cream with lots of cream, we set out to climb back to the Aubisque. On the way down, we'd seen a number of riders coming up, including two girls on heavily laden bikes, obviously touring. It had looked like hard work. The gradients leaving Gourette are steep, but soon settle down to 9% or less. I don't know if it was the ice cream, or the piece of mint cake I had before setting out, but I really enjoyed the climb. There is some shade for a while, there was a pleasant light breeze blowing and the views are spectacular all the way up. This will be a very scenic end to Vuelta stage 14. Just hope the spectators are sensible about where they stand. It's a long drop!

There is a large cafe a couple of kilometers from the top, and we stopped there to get some photos. Just as I was about to head up, lantern rouge style, a Spanish lady started to ask me something. We quickly concluded that we didn't share any common language, so in a halting combination of English and French, with the occasional 'si' thrown in, I tried to assure her that the road was indeed tarmac all the way to the top. At least, I think that's what she was asking...

Once again, Bianca managed to make me look like a cyclist!
The return to the Aubisque from Gourette is available on Garmin Connect.

At the top, we took a few minutes to be pictured in front of the massive bike sculptures. Thank you Angela. The horses at the top were fairly active today, causing us concern lest a bike get trampled. A couple of them were lying down, not normally a good sign, especially given the heat.

Back at the Aubisque from Gourette
Then it was back across to the Soulor, and the long descent home. The section back to the Soulor was fast and flowing, though Bianca did scare herself on one corner and sensibly backed off. I wondered why I was catching her! From the Soulor down, we were held up a bit by a large camper van. And then it was the turn off to Bun, and the road back to Saint-Savin.

Thanks again to everyone for a superb day.

The descent from the Aubisque is available on Garmin Connect.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Hot hot hot!

After the exertions of yesterday, the original plan for today was to help Angela ride to Lac d'Estaing. This was the ride she'd hoped to complete while we were here. We had a leisurely breakfast, leaving plenty of time for her to get going. We got the bikes prepared, during which time we said goodbye to Terrie and Ron who were leaving to head back to Vancouver.

We finally rolled out at around 10:30. It was already very hot, and as we climbed out of Saint-Savin, Angela was having some dificulty. The road kicks up quite steeply all the way to Arcizans-Avant, before leveling off. Just before we'd reached the village, it became apparent that Angela was under sufficient stress that we should abandon the attempt. We rolled back into Saint-Savin so that she could cool off and recover.

When we got back, I decided to make my second visit to the Hautacam. Last week it had been in cloud at the top. Today it was completely clear. When I left, Angela was not entirely sure that she would come up in the car. In the event, she did, and was able to take in the spectacular views.

I dropped back into Argeles-Gazost, and took the now familiar road past the garage, and the Carrefour supermarket to the bottom of the climb. This climb is hard, with unrelenting sections at 10% and above. Some of the steepest sections are in the villages along the route. Even though the temperature was heading for 40 celsius today, the ride didn't seem as hard as last week. Unlike the ride to Cambasque yesterday, there is shade on the Hautacam, at least until the tree line is reached. I did stop a couple of times to admire the views and to take photos.

Bike under an arch formed by a tree
One spot that several of us had noticed was while descending, is where a tree seems to form a natural arch through which the valley is visible. I managed to stop by it today, and take several shots, including this one of the bike.
Across the valley. Saint-Savin is on the left a third of the way up.
Further up, once the road emerges above the tree line, there are clear views across the valley. In this one, it's possible to make out Saint-Savin. It's the village amongst the trees about a third up from the bottom of the picture and about a quarter in from the left edge.

Thankfully, once above the tree line, there was a cool breeze to help mitigate the heat. My Garmin registered 40 celsius on the way up. Angela did decide to drive up. This time, we found the official sign for the top of the climb, which is at the entrance to the car park

Here we are again!

As last week, I carried on up the extra 1.2 kilometres to the Col de Tramassel, where we drank lemonade and tried to hide from the blazing sun under umbrellas outside the cafe there. Once again, the Ribble attracted an admirer, this time a young French rider who liked aero frames. He was on holiday with his wife and child, and had sensibly driven up today. He was riding, however, and had brought an old Peugot, belonging to his father. He was finding descending tricky! His English was excellent, so a discussion about groupsets, brakes, gear ratios and long cage rear derailleurs ensued!

The ascent of the Hautacam is available on Garmin Connect, as is the ascent of the Tramassel. Up the Hautacam, I was nearly 18 minutes faster than last week, despite the heat. The altitude training here is clearly paying off!

The view from the top to the south west
Have I mentioned that it was hot? Well, in case I haven't, it was hot. Really hot. For those of us from more northern latitudes, I'd go so far as to say it was seriously hot! As I started down, the breeze I generated by descending, coupled with the wind was very pleasant indeed. The riders I passed who were coming up definitely seemed to be suffering. There was a group who were all wearing the same jersey, but who were all over the mountain. One was walking, and another was sitting at the side of the road, stretching to try and overcome cramp. Further down, I rounded one corner to be greeted by a hot headwind, blasting up the road. The lower I got, the more frequent this became.

There wasn't a lot of traffic during the descent. I did have to take emergency action at one point when a huge tractor and trailer appeared at a point where the road was particularly narrow. I also stopped once on the way down to see how hot my rims were. Amazingly, given the ambient temperature, and the steep gradients and consequent heavy braking into corners, they were ok. I continued down without a hint of brake fade. Chapeau Shimano.

The descent from the Hautacam is avaialable on Garmin Connect

Once down, I headed for the local Carrefour which, as well as being a supermarket, has a filling station. We needed fuel for the car, and I wanted to be on hand to help Angela figure out the system for getting it. With that done, it was just a question of negotiating the Argeles-Gazost traffic, which was mercifully light, and climbing back up to Saint-Savin for a shower and a beer. On account of the heat...