Day 2 – Near Toulouse to Aulus-les Bains – 125 km

It was an early start to the day with a 7 a.m. breakfast. With only 6 h sleep I was not in the best shape but I dragged myself down to a hearty breakfast as I had a long day today. There were two options open to us. The first was to cycle from Toulouse to the end point where we would watch the race, about 110 km, the second was to get dropped off 32 km from the end point. Of course I chose the second option as I’m here to ride my bike, although when we left the hotel to a smattering of rain and very strong wind I was regretting my decision. Jeff, my companion of yesterday, wisely decided for the shorter route to save his legs for the Alps which we hit Monday, but there were 15 other hard case cyclists who decided to do the longer route.

To help us out we were driven to the outskirts of Toulouse, which is a medieval city with a rabbit’s warren of streets to get lost in. We travelled to a roundabout and then Eric our driver parked the bus on an island for unloading. The bikes were unpacked and David kindly let us all use his footpump to get the right pressure in our tyres. I was especially concerned after yesterday’s fiasco to have my tyres at optimum pressure. There is an excellent spirit of sharing, with chain lube, tools and everything the cyclist needs being freely given. They really are a great bunch of people.

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We set off SW and almost immediately I had a close encounter of the worst kind. George from Australia (the older Australian George, not the younger one) was slightly ahead of me and he swerved right across the lane unexpectedly. He had been reaching into his bag for something. I just barely missed hitting him and thought that I am definitely cursed on this tour. All I need is to have another crash before I’m fully recovered from my 4 July one – especially on the day I removed my brace.

The road was a delightful two lane highway going through fields of sunflowers and hay. They were bailing the hay  so the fields were full of large round bales, waiting for their plastic covering. It made me reflect on the role of farming in the French economy; the French are passionate about maintaining a farm industry, even though it is not economic to do so. To that end they are strong supporters of the EU ‘Common Agricultural Policy’ which not only increases farm prices but contributes to the poverty in developing countries through their inability to market their produce. End of diatribe.

We formed into two lines and cycled through the countryside. The wind was very strong but by cycling in a group it makes things much easier. Pierre from South Africa was again in the lead, he is such a strong cyclist. Very impressive. It’s great chatting to your neighbour, whiich changes constantly. We have such an eclectic mix of individuals on this tour.  We had everyone from graduate students to doctors to engineers to tradespeople. The one thing in common is our love of the bicycle. It transcends all nationalities and social classes.

It’s quite enjoyable being with people who love cycling as much as I do. For example, we took a wrong turn and after 2-3 km realised we were on the wrong road. Rather than turn back we did 10+ km on another road to rejoin our original roue. More time on our bikes is something to be appreciated, not dreaded.

We rejoined our original route and motored our way south. I say motored because with several strong riders our speeds were quite high – averaging about 30 km/h for the first hour plus. It is such a pleasure to be in a group. I enjoy the sound of the cassettes as we freewheel, the excitement of moving at a fast pace and the way that everyone works together as a team. For example there are hand signals that warn of upcoming hazards, which are essential when you have someone 0.5 m (or less) off your rear tyre. Heck, I even find the shadow of someone peddling attractive. I’m a hard core cyclist I guess.

The road took us through a number of delightful French towns with old buildings, churches, dams, all well kept. Quite a nice change from Paris with its graffiti laden buildings. The Pyrenees is such a beautiful area with its rolling hills (and mountains in the distance) and small towns.

In Montesquieu the leaders turned into a supermarket to get provisions. I bought a sandwich and some fruit mix to see me through the day. As we entered the town a number of people sitting by the road shouted ‘Allez Allez’, the cry of the tour. We must have been some sight the 15 of us moving along in a long line.

I never like having extended breaks as I find it hard to start again; I’d rather just keep on going. As we left the town we hit some long and moderately steep rolling hills. And about 6 of us got dropped by the group. I almost managed to rejoin the group twice but couldn’t do it so I eased off and waited for those behind to catch up to form a new group. We made good time with the four of us taking turns leading into the wind, and we made even better time when we got to the downhill section! At the bottom one of the riders ahead shouted ‘car’ so I slowed down at the intersection only to have the fellow behind cut through and not stop. That was close. We found the first group waiting for us at St Croix in the shade and so we joined up and continued.

The cycling was easier along here, following a river through a gorge. Of course that just meant that eventually some of us got dropped again, but it was OK. Having regular cycle rides with better cyclists than I am is a fact of life. We formed our own group and continued on at a slightly slower pace. It was a fantastic ride along the river, with overhanging trees and very pretty views. We were quite pleased to catch up with the first group who had stopped to repair Dave’s tyre. After a short stop I continued since I don’t like to stop too long. I then stopped at the main road to have some food and the others joined me. We decided that rather than break for lunch we would continue on since we needed to get there in time to see the stage. We knew we were nearing the race  as many of the racing team buses passed us on the road.

Back into our large group we continued on to St. Girons where we turned towards our destination. Once again it was along a river bank with beautiful views. Quite a few vehicles passed us, but there is definitely safety in numbers, or at least it seems that way. After about 15 km the lead group broke away and I once again found myself ahead of the stragglers, but without the oomph to keep up with the leaders. I eventually caught up with John from L.A., who had stopped for water, and we did the last 10 km together. On the way we passed a cyclist who must be on the other side of 75 years old. Great to see, and quite the inspiration.

The town of Aulus-les Bains is a spa town nestled in a valley. It was a delightful small town with some lovely buildings. My wife Lis, who loves old buildings (especially with towers) would have been in heaven. Its claim to fame are thermal baths and there are a number of small businesses associated with tourism, a few cafes, and not much else. However, for one day this year it was packed out with hundreds of people here to watch the race. The cyclists were to descend Col de Latrape, where the photo below was taken from, and then ascend Col de Agnes. The latter was a 10 km climb at a grade of about 8+ percent, on a day with 6 very hard climbs.

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At the bottom of the 5 km run downhill from the top of Col de Latrape the route crossed a stream and then took a very sharp 90 degree turn to head up Col d’Agnes. I found a number of others from our group and took shelter from the sun in an alcove at the tourism office. It was stinking hot and I could feel myself frying. I was joined by Jon and his sister Carol from Edmonton Alberta who are the only Canadians on the bus. Jon is a competitive athlete who has competed for Canada and as can be expected is very fit. It was interesting chatting with him about training as he is a post-graduate student in exercise physiology. The most disconcerting thing he told me was about the theory that the heart has a finite number of heart beats and then it gives out. This is a good argument against over-exercise and he commented that extreme athletes seem to have shorter lives. Fortunately, for people moderately active the benefits of a lower resting rate more than offsets the dis-benefit of higher heart rates during exercise. And that is before they factor in the other benefits in terms of improved health.

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The best metaphor I can think of for watching the Tour de France is sex. Let me explain. There is a period of anticipation and build up (waiting for the riders to arrive), then the event itself, which is over all too quickly, and finally the warm afterglow. We had arrived about 30 minutes before the riders and the crowds began to line the route two or three deep. I chose a position just around the corner which also let me watch the hill  they would be descending.

We knew they were arriving soon when we heard the  helicopters. There were four flying up high and then one that hovered slowly and followed the edge of the mountain. That was the one with the lead group. The leading vehicles and motorcycles swept by and then there was a glimpse of three cyclists flying down the hill at what must have been 80 km/h. They swept around the corner and accelerated out as if they were on fire and were gone. Three minutes later the lead peleton arrived and it was very exciting to see. Once again they came around the corner, missing the kerb by about 10 cm, and zoomed off. This time there was about 6 US Postal Service riders in the first 10 riders, a solid line of blue, with Lance Armstrong among them. It was over too quickly to recognise Lance, but it was great to see that they were in contention – while three minutes is a lot of time, there were still several mountains and about 100 km to ride.

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After the peleton a few lone riders came through and they received huge cheers. It is great how non-partisan the crowds are. Yes, the lead rider in the yellow jersey who is French gets the most accolades, but three is no booing for the other riders. I think that everyone is impressed by the mere fact that these super athletes are competing.

There was a second peleton which followed later and then the stragglers with no hope of ever catching  the others. I would be tempted to quit but these guys just push on. At the end of the cyclists there is a blue police van with markings indicating that it is the end of the tour. After it passes one can cycle on the route again.

Jon and I decided that we needed to climb one of the Cols. Doug agreed to join us, even though we were all tired after our 100 km ride. We started up Col d’Agnes which was a 10 km climb at grades of 8 – 10%. We were led by one of the hot shots from our earlier ride and after about one km I decided that if I continued I would do myself some serious damage so I turned around to climb Col de Latrape which was only 5 km at 8 – 10%. On the way down I passed some kiwis who, upon seeing my jersey, told me that NZ had beaten Australia in the rugby test. Good news to relay to my Australian bus-mates ha-ha.

The climb to the summit of Col de Latrape was not overly difficult. I just put my bike in its lowest gear and went up at a steady pace of 10 km/h. After about 2 km I was passed by Martin (who didn’t recognise me) motoring up the hill full of vim and vigour. There was also a team of four South African triathletes from Durban who passed me, but I didn’t care. I was happy to be on the mountain with beautiful scenery around me, and shade from the sun! I met a group of walkers from our bus on the way down who told me with relish that I still had 3 km to climb, ho hum. The correct psychology is to say that the top is just a few corners away. I told them to say as much next time.

Eventually I reached the summit where I caught up with the South Africans. They kindly took the requisite photo of me to show that I had made it. I was surprised to see a number of tour buses at the top loading bicycles. I thought of what a drag it would be to cycle to the top of the Col for pickup and to be deprived of the fun downhill run. Not me. I thoroughly enjoyed the 50 km/h+ run downhill, although I was put to shame by the South Africans who were even faster. Like all good things it was over too quickly and I found myself back in town. I went to the bus, changed my clothes, and then chatted with others while working on my journal.

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I was tempted to cycle back towards Toulouse as it was downhill most of the way. I figured that the bus could easily collect me 30 km down the road but sense prevailed and we waited for the others to arrive before leaving. They had either wandered around town or parked themselves in a café to watch the end of the race. Somehow Lance reeled in the leaders and won the stage, although he is still 10 seconds behind the leader. However, having made up 10 minutes in two days (including a puncture after he left us today) it is looking good for number 7. Tyler Hamilton, one of his challengers, withdrew today which further increases the odds.

I dozed on the bus ride to the hotel and then had a quick bath before dinner. I sat with Doug, Jon and Carol and managed to communicate to the restaurant that I wanted something better than last time. They made us a pasta dish but forgot to make mine. Ho hum. It arrived after everyone else had finished but I devoured it pretty quickly. One of the best things about cycle touring is the ability to eat without guilt. It was then to bed to recover from a great day.

On to the next day or Home

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