Into the box

I spent some time this afternoon sorting through my “Burkina Box”. I have a Swiss friend who worked on a voluntary basis in Burkina Faso where he made the acquaintance of their cycling team. I met some of them too in at the UCI World Road Race Championships in Salzburg.

Far from home

Each month my friend, who is also a keen and very good cyclist, collects his friends’ cycling cast offs, parcels them up and sends them off to his friends in Burkina Faso.

I thought this was a great idea and have decided to help. After all I get a goodie bag from every cyclosportif, brevet or randonée, the contents of which now go straight into the box. In addition, I have recently changed the set up on my Orbea to more closely resemble that of my BMC. So, into the box went handlebars, saddle, pedals, saddle bag and tyres. In fact, it’s embarrassing how much stuff I have amassed in such a short space of time.

The cycling club has recently changed its sponsors from Bouygues Telecom to Skoda, so that’s two sets of kit for the box. Although, I do appreciate  it’s unlikely there’s any African cyclists the same size as my beloved, or me!

Again and again

Two days in the Hautes-Alpes and my allergies have flared up again with a vengeance. I’m not sure exactly what is causing me to wheeze like an asthmatic grandma but clearly there’s more of it in the hills than on the coast.

Despite the hacking cough, sore throat and watery, pink eyes, I had an enjoyable time tackling some of those legendary cols around Briançon, watching a couple of stages of the Critérium du Dauphiné liberé and catching up with friends. I was staying in the same hotel as the team from Française des Jeux who must have been pleased at Christophe Le Mevel’s 10th place on GC and Sébastien Joly’s 3rd place on the final stage.

While this is not my first trip to Briançon, it was my first opportunity to tackle the Galibier and Izoard. Previous trips had been spent riding shotgun for my husband while he trained for L’Etape du Tour 2006 (Gap to L’Alpe d’Huez): successful completion of which netted Euros 80,000 in goods and cash for charity.

When we first moved to France in search of a different pace of life my beloved had hoped to improve his backhand slice and golf handicap. In reality, running a global business means being available 24/7. So when he did have the odd hour or two, he would hop on his bike and ride. Sensing he needed more of a challenge than a 35km round trip to Antibes and back, I applied, on his behalf, for a place at L’Etape du Tour. This is generally the most difficult stage from that year’s Tour de France, run on closed roads for 7,500 amateur cyclists. I confess at the time I didn’t fully appreciate the enormity of the challenge, and, more fortunately, neither did he.

Bearing in mind his travel and work commitments, I spent hours on the internet looking for the best kit, the most suitable bike and put together a training and nutrition plan, which I heavily policed. I masterminded his fund raising and wrote articles on his endeavours for the trade press. He joined a local bike club doing as many club rides and events as possible. His first trial run was scheduled for early May and we stayed in Briançon, in the same hotel we had booked for the L’Etape.

Another pit stop

Over the long week end Richard covered a significant part of the parcours, climbing both L’Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Lauteret. The Col d’Izoard was still impassable but he did cycle up it as far as possible. This gave him enormous confidence that with a further 10 weeks’ of training he would be able to complete the parcours within the allotted time.

I drove back from Briançon looking like a rabbit with myxomatosis and only after 48 hours at home my symptoms have subsided a little. Regrettably, I had to banish all thoughts of the Cimes du Mercantour and only now am I reflecting on a disappointing month of training. However, I do need to get rid of the congestion to get my training back on track and to that end I have been dosing myself on Vicks Vapour Rub, an old favourite, and some cough medicine from the Pharmacy which tastes no where near as good as Benylin. I could easily have become addicted to that stuff and used to swig it straight from the bottle, no spoon required.

My next goal is the club organised circuit race in early August. I took part last year and was lapped 3 times on the 9km circuit. The ladies, all three of us, raced with the Grand Sportifs (men over 55). Fellow club members advised me to stay in the bunch and in my big bracket. I would have been happy to comply but they raced away from me at the start, up the hill and that was the last I saw of them until they lapped me again and again and again.

Friends together again

The focus of my training this week has been on the forthcoming “Cimes du Mercantour” which is described as “trés exigent” ie very demanding. I have opted for the shorter course over three hills, the last kilometre of two of these has a 15% incline. That’s going to be leg sapping. I rode up one of these hills last year but failed to finish the course. I’m sorry to say that I gratefully climbed off my bike and into the broom wagon. And, having lent my front wheel to a rider from another club, who’d punctured twice already, there was thankfully no way I could resume.

I was not alone. One of my club mates had a very nasty spill which resulted in him spending the next couple of months on crutches. I was therefore providing him with a welcome distraction from the pain of his injuries.

I understand that I’ll be riding with a current Olympic champion, Julian Absalom: no slouch on a road bike. My friend, with whom I part-rode La Charly Bérard, is also taking part, so we may well find ourselves riding together again. My husband, who has an early afternoon appointment with a flight to the UK, will be leaving me to my own devices.

This afternoon, I watched the stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné liberé which ended at the summit of Mont Ventoux. This bought back memories of my own ride up there last year with the club where I fell short of the last few painful kilometres past Chalet Reynard.

I had a “jour sans”. Wholly my own fault as I had failed to properly refuel after the previous day’s strenuous ride. While I’m fond of saying you never get a bad meal in France, I have found this not to be the case when accompanied by my bike. Maybe restauranters assume cyclists are so hungry that they’ll eat anything. If so, please allow me to disabuse you of that notion right here and now.

I’m off to Briançon tomorrow to watch the stage from, all being well, somewhere up the Izoard. I’m also looking forward to meeting up with my friend Susi, whom I first met when we were both volunteers at the World Road Race Championships in Salzburg, and whose acquaintance I renewed the following year in Stuttgart.

My friend Susi with her friend Alejandro
My friend Susi with her friend Alejandro

She has her own site (www.cyclinginside.com) with some really fantastic pictures and humorous insights into the races she attends while working as a photo journalist: a poorly paid and precarious profession for all but the lucky few. I am quite, quite sure that my friend will succeed in her new profession. After all, she is a former champion in three disciplines: speed skating, road cycling and triathlon. And no, I’m not challenging her to a bike race anytime soon!

No show

According to Sunday’s edition of Nice Matin, 142 hardy souls braved the hail and rain to complete “Les Bosses du Soleil”. I wasn’t one of them. My sister’s flight having been delayed the night before, I got to bed at midnight, well past my preferred deadline. When I awoke at 05:20am, my husband was sleeping soundly (ie dead to the world) and the sky looked grey and stormy. So, I switched off the alarm, rolled over and went back to sleep for a couple of hours. My husband slept until 10:30am. We just went for a long, gentle cycle later that day.

We rose early on Sunday as M Le President had issued a 3-line whip for attendance at the official club photograph held, fittingly, on the steps of the Town Hall with our sponsors (Skoda and Credit Agricole) in attendance.

This is always a bit of a nerve wracking time for me as I try to stand between two people who weigh more than me. Unfortunately, two of the chaps who do were “no shows” but the end result was quite pleasing. You can actually see me this year, standing next to my beloved.

The photo-shoot completed we set off towards the pointage at St Jeannet. The boys had obviously breakfasted on rocket fuel and I was rapidly distanced, not on the climb to Gattieres, but on the small rise out of the industrial estate. I just let them go.

At the pointage in St Jeannet they traditionally serve an anchovy spread on bread. I made the mistake of having some last year and, though it’s delicious, discovered it’s not ideal bike fuel. I love the descent from the old village: no braking required.

I was looking forward to a relaxing afternoon, watching the Critérium du Dauphiné liberé Prologue and reading Vélo magazine’s excellent review of the Tour de France. Le Grand Depart is only 4 weeks away – I can hardly wait.

Bring me sunshine

This week I have been training with one eye on this week end’s “Bosses du Soleil”. I was aiming to do the shorter course as it’s pretty hilly (English understatement). However, I’ve been unable to shake off the congestion in my lungs despite caving in and resorting to some tablets from the pharmacy. By and large, I try to avoid all medicinal remedies. The congestion is clearing, but not quickly enough and I still sound like a granny who smokes 60 Woodbines a day.

My beloved has today returned from a whirlwind transatlantic trip suffering from laryngitis, so we’re both feeling a wee bit sorry for ourselves. The “Bosses du Soleil” might be a couple of bosses too many. In addition, the weather has turned very humid and it is looking as though a storm might be brewing. We’ll just have to see tomorrow morning.

This is doubly bad news as my kid sister arrives this evening for a long week end. If there’s so much as a cloud in the sky during her trip I will be held personally responsible. Yes, any time my family come to visit, they hold me totally culpable for any bad weather. Bad weather being defined by them as anything other than brilliant sunshine. This seems a little harsh but you have to understand that a holiday without adequate tanning time is no holiday at all. Indeed, my two sisters would represent Great Britain in the sun tanning Olympics, if there was one, and would, in all probability, win gold medals for their country. I am lighting candles as I type.

My sister is coming with her partner whom I have yet to meet. He works in my old stomping grounds and, as a consequence, we know a number of people in common. My sister has met many of them and, when introduced, they inevitably enquire what I am now doing. She tells them that I spend most of my time cycling. She says that she can tell from their facial expressions  they’re having a very, very hard time picturing me on a bike, let alone in lycra.

Farewell to Gareth Barry

I’m often asked what I miss about the UK, usually in anticipation of me reciting a long list which includes family and friends, baked beans, Branston pickle or other such cherished culinary icons. I’m sure you can understand that my popularity quotient has risen immeasurably since my move from central London to the Cote d’Azur. I have a guest bedroom (just the one mind), so family and friends can come and visit. Because there’s a lot of Brits living here, or who have second homes, most supermarkets have a UK section. Here you’ll be able to find Marmite, Wall’s sausages, baked beans, Branston pickle, Bird’s custard powder, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk etc etc However, I have no need to buy any of these products. Indeed, I never bought them when I lived in the UK.

No, I miss watching live Premiership football. Specifically, I miss watching my team: Aston Villa. I listen to their matches on the internet and watch them on satellite TV. But any sports fan will tell you, there’s no substitute for watching a live match, race, game, whatever. If you were to ask me to describe my perfect day it would most definitely include watching my team win LIVE.

Because this blog is largely about cycling, you might be forgiven for thinking it was my first love. But no, that’s football. My maternal grandfather was a Villa fan. My mother grew up a stone’s throw away from the ground. My father moved from Portsmouth to play for Villa’s youth squad. If you cut my arm off my blood would run “claret and blue”. My first date with my husband was a football match, which Villa won. He often jokes that when he married me he promised to “love, honour, obey and support Aston Villa”.

We were for many years Villa season ticket holders and we travelled all over the country watching them play, home and away. I now have a season ticket for my local team, OGC Nice, but I can’t work up quite the same passion and enthusiasm as I do for the Villains. You might be wondering what has occasioned this outpouring. It’s simple: today, it was confirmed that Gareth Barry has played his last match for Villa. He’s moving to Manchester City; coincidentally, the subject of one of my favourite sporting books “Manchester United Ruined my Life” by Colin Schindler.

After 12 years of faithful service, Gareth is moving on and taking a bit of me with him. He’s not my favourite player ever, that’s Paul McGrath for whom the famous violinist Nigel Kennedy (yes, him of Four Season’s fame), penned “God is Paul McGrath”.  He’s not even a local, he was signed as a youth player from Brighton but he’s played 440 games in a Villa shirt and, as is right and proper, he’s (at long last – well done, Capello) regularly donning an England shirt. I wish him well and every success at Man City, but obviously not at the Villa’s expense.

Unfortunately, when you’re trying to break into the Big Four (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea) and fail, you run the risk that all those players you’ve so cannily bought and/or developed will be cherry picked by those clubs with bigger wallets and/or more (recent) trophies in the cabinet.

Friends along the way

I took up cycling really on a challenge from my husband who said I either had to start playing tennis again, take up golf or cycle. He kind of snorted out the third alternative and I’m quite sure he never expected me to take up cycling. It wasn’t even a case of reverse psychology.

I had just gotten back from working as a volunteer at the World Road Race Championships in Salzburg. One of the few occasions when the guys, the gals and the youngsters all take part and one gets to see six races in a few days. I had originally intended just to go and watch but when I went on the site to buy tickets, I noted that they were looking for volunteers, so I volunteered.

I had said that I was happy to do anything and, given my relative availability the organisers asked me to turn up a week before the racing started. I found myself a small, family-run,  B&B just outside of Salzburg and set off into the unknown on what turned out to be the first of many solo, cycling-related, road trips.

One packed lunch or two?

I spent my time in Salzburg largely looking after the volunteers. Firstly, I sorted and handed out the uniforms. These had been made in China and the sizing was all over the place. For example, I wore an XL t-shirt, a small jacket and medium trousers. Caps and bum-bags were thankfully all one-size. Thereafter, my new-found friend Valeria and I were in charge of distributing the packed lunches each day to the 2,000 volunteers. Yes, an army of volunteers does march on its stomach.

Home sweet home

Fortunately, our billet was round the back of the podium, next to all the TV wagons and their chow truck. Needless to say we were sitting pretty with refreshments on tap all day long.

We ensured that the packed lunches were distributed well before any racing started and then settled down in our ringside seats to enjoy the action.

During the podium ceremonies we were entrusted with the handbag of the Lady Governor of the province of Salzburg. This was our equivalent of a backstage pass and, as a consequence, got to meet and have our photos taken with some of the winners.

On the last day, after presenting the medals in the men’s road race, the presentation party left the podium via the back stairs. We were standing at the foot of the stairs, undertaking our bag guarding duties, and we duly shook hands and were thanked in turn by the afore-mentioned Governor, the Mayor of Salzburg and the President of Austria.

The best thing about this event wasn’t meeting the riders, or even seeing all the cycling up close and personal, it’s all the people that you meet along the way that make it such fun. Like this gentleman in the photo, Super Mario Cipolini.

Super Mario

He’d retired before my interest in cycling was borne and was therefore fairly ambivalent until I met him – what a charmer!

I’m looking forward to meeting up with some of the people I met at Salzburg at this year’s Le Grand Depart in Monaco, where I’ll be a volunteer and they’ll be spectators.

Last one back buys the drinks

High, strong winds woke me at 04:00 and I found it difficult to go back to sleep. Thanks to my tree pollen allergy my lungs and head felt very congested, not an auspicious sign. Our plan had been to set off ahead of the scheduled 07:30 start but my beloved was feeling tired, jet lag. I let him sleep a bit longer.

We have these early starts now down to a fine art. We get absolutely everything ready the night before so that we can be up and out of the flat in less than 20 minutes.

We set off with everyone else at 07:30. I sat on Vino’s wheel, he was riding at what for him must have been a very leisurely pace. The main bunch stayed pretty much together until the climb to Gattieres where I dropped back through the peloton like a stone. Yes, my congested lungs were giving me problems and I knew straight away that I’d have to settle for the 100km parcours. Not even my Stars’n’Bars were going to get me out of this one. Despite that my husband kindly rode with me all the way.

As we climbed up to Bouyon, the wind appeared to have died down. The weather was pretty idyllic, as was the scenery. It’s a lovely route and there’s very little traffic. After a fast descent into Roquesteron, we topped ourselves up at feed zone manned by my clubmates who were duly supportive of my efforts and, as usual, had put on an excellent spread.

In fact, if there were a cup for “Best Refreshments” I’m sure my club would win it hands down. Considering that there’s a trophy for everything else, I don’t see why not. In addition, it just might encourage those clubs, whose refreshments generally leave a great deal to be desired, to make more of an effort.

Catch me if you can

Having crested the leg sapping rise to Gillette, we descended and made our way to the finish along the Var valley into a strong headwind. You may be thinking that at this point I was sheltering behind my husband or at least we were taking it in turns to pull on the front. But no, he took my wheel and stayed there until the finish. I was quicker than last year, but not by much.

We finished just ahead of Vino, who had ridden the longer route. Apparently, he’d rung M Le President part-way into the course when one of the lead riders had suffered a mechanical. M Le President had to break the bad news to him that the nearest support car was the broom wagon. Undeterred, Vino chased down the car at the front of the peloton for assistance. Not quite what you might expect from a soon-to-be-again pro-tour rider. But suffice to say he’s a very kind and generous individual.

Everyone had finished by 15:45. If I had done the longer course, the latter stages of which were very windy, I might have just gotten back in time for the eagerly awaited tombola. Then again……………………..

Will she, won’t she

Roche, Iglinskiy and Mizurov in front of poster of Andrei Kivilev

This week I’m preparing for Saturday’s Brevet Kivilev, an event held in memory of the late Andrei Kivilev, an honorary member of our club, who tragically died of head injuries on 12 March 2003 following a collision and fall in the 2nd stage of 2003 Paris-Nice.

Kivilev’s untimely death was the trigger for the UCI to implement compulsory wearing of helmets by riders in all endorsed races.

Commitments permitting, the Kazakhs turn out in support, which means that this week end I’ll get to ride with yet another Grand Tour winner. Though no doubt he too will be showing me a pair of clean heels!

I was, and still am, tempted to try to complete the 170km parcours. However, while I’m familiar with parts of the course, I haven’t cycled all of it. Nor have I cycled quite that far in one day. There’s also the vague concern that I’ll get back to the finish to discover that everyone’s packed up and gone home because I took far too long.

My training this week has been impaired by lungs congested by the very high levels of tree pollen, for which I have been slathering on the Vick’s Vapour rub, as permitted under WADA/UCI/FFC/UFOLEP regulations. Though, obviously, I have been monitoring my ingested level of eucalyptus, so as not to breach the limits.

Thursday Postscript: Just popped into my LBS to collect my secret weapon: “Stars’n’Bars” energy bars, made to a top secret recipe. They are totally delicious. Now I’ll have no excuse for not lasting the distance.

La Sisteronne

I drove over to Sisteron early on Friday afternoon, deciding to forego watching what I was sure would be yet another Mark Cavendish sprint fest in the Giro. More importantly, I wanted to pick up my number that afternoon and check out the start of the course.

The temperature rose steadily as I drove inland and the air was hot, heavy and humid. Indeed, there were several small downpours which I hoped were not indicative of the forecast for the following day, but indeed they were.  Having checked into my hotel on the outskirts of town, I drove into Sisteron to collect my number and check out the course in more detail.

I was undecided which course to ride but given that the route was common to both up until the first feed zone, felt there was no need to make a decision just yet. On the longer orange route, the climb up the Mont de Lure looked worryingly steep and, although I had checked it out on the map, could discern neither its length nor its gradient.

A local told me it was around 7% average. In itself not a problem, the issue was that it came after about 100km. This is generally the point in any ride where I am looking forward to descending rather than further ascending.

The following morning, the hotel was full of riders enjoying a hearty breakfast. Everyone else was in groups of twos, three or fours. I was the only “Billy-no-clubmates”. I rode to the start, arriving in plenty of time to greet fellow riders from a number of clubs local to me and see Lucien Aimar and Stephen Roche who, having instigated the event and designed the routes, were also taking part. That was of course the last I saw them. Still, I can legitimately claim to have ridden with two ex-Tour de France winners.

The cyclosportif riders were due to set off ten minutes ahead of the randonneurs: an excellent arrangement. I was in no hurry, I already knew that the course quickly wound up from the Town Hall, went round the back of the town and up a narrow, steep hill before bursting into the surrounding countryside. Consequently, most of the randonneurs had to walk up the hill, in a scene reminiscent of some of the cobbled Classics, much to the bemusement of a number of horses who were eyeing the ungainly procession from an adjoining field.

I was soon dodging support vehicles, no drafting necessary, and making my way up the back of the field. The roads were quiet, the marshalling impressive, the crowds appreciative and the countryside was lush and verdant, bejewelled with wild flowers, after all the recent rainfall.

I took stock, and a decision, at the first feed zone electing to ride the shorter course: with hindsight, a wise decision. Freed from the necessity to hold something back for the monster climb, I could now throw caution to the wind and give it my all.

I finished in a respectable time, behind Messrs Aimar and Roche, 10th in my class and far from last. Eschewing the post-race feed zone, I dropped off my timing device, rode back to the hotel, sunk a couple of cokes and drove home.

Postscript Tuesday: I went onto the La Sisteronne web site today to print off my certificate (very hi-tech) and discovered that there were no fewer than 18 photographs of me! Given that the camera adds 10lbs (5kgs), looking at the photos, I have to ask just how many cameras did they have trained on my person? Answer, far too many. The photographs were taken by a German company called Sportograf for whom I have a heartfelt message: Wenn Sie mich eine Fotographie kaufen wünschen, benutzen Sie bitte das Kamera das mir dünner, nicht fetter zu sein macht!