So the day has finally arrived when I have to deliver my side of this bargain. Today is the first of my three days of riding and was scheduled to travel from the picturesque surroundings of Tours across the French gain belt to St-Amand-Montrond. A journey of ‘just’ 177km and described by our Tour guides as ‘pancake flat’. To put it in perspective though, 177km is further than I have ever ridden a bike before and pancake flat turned out to be just over 1,000 metres of vertical which is pretty much what I would clock up on a training ride around the Surrey Hills. London to Brighton (including Ditchling Beacon) was a mere 873 metres. So ‘pancake flat’ is probably verging on mis-selling but I suppose out here it’s all relative.
We set off at 7:30am because that’s when the Tour always sets off. Perhaps not surprisingly when you consider the logistics involved in getting nearly 100 cyclists in and out of a hotel on a daily basis, they are quite big on routines. But it works well so time hanging around is minimal and everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and when.
The ride to the first feed station (there are 4 in total on each day to save you from having to reach for energy bars) is always undertaken as a group ride at a relaxed pace. This gives everyone a chance to warm up tired limbs and to ride and chat with people that they might not see for the rest of the day as the peloton splits. There is a fairly broad range of riding speeds in the group as a whole and when you consider how far the 40 ‘lifers’ have already ridden, the pace of some of them is frankly astonishing. But fortunately for me people seemed to be taking it easy today (again I think it’s a relative term, we still averaged nearly 30 kmh for the 100 miles). This was partly because they’d ridden 220km the day before and partly because everyone is trying to save some energy for the exertion of the coming weekend.
There are 2 things you can always be confident of getting when riding a Tour de France route – an event which is basically a vehicle for the French Ministry of Tourism. The first of these is smooth roads and good tarmac as every Mayor looks to show off their town/ village at its best. Tarmac is freshly laid, lines newly painted (we passed several line painting gangs finishing the job) and all the verges along every road have been cut. It’s an impressive sight and a welcome relief when you come from pot-holed Britain. The second part of the deal is the scenery. To have even a whiff of being included in the Tour de France the stage route has to take in classic French scenes and today didn’t disappoint. Unfortunately my photographic skills at 30 kmh with an iPhone are not all that great and often you’ve past the photo opportunity before you’ve had a chance to think about taking a picture. Riding in a group is no place for putting on the brakes or sudden moves of any sort. But suffice to say we pretty much had it all – there were Chateaux a go-go, rolling fields of wheat populated with poppies stretching to the horizon and even the obligatory sunflowers (although sadly not in bloom yet).
After the lunch stop I set off in advance of most of the group and found myself riding solo. I figured I’d take it easy at my own pace and wait to be scooped up by one of the peloton’s that would catch up. This did afford me the opportunity to actually take a picture or 2 (see below) and was also quite a welcome relief from the concentration needed for riding in a peloton. Notwithstanding the endless etiquette and hand signals, you are constantly having to ride a few inches off the wheel in front and moderating your speed accordingly. Riding solo was much more familiar and quite enjoyable for a while. What was less enjoyable was the lack of protection from the breeze and it was a reminder of just how much more effort you expend riding solo versus riding in a group. Typically the nearest peloton was just 100 yards behind me by the time I reached feed station number 3!
Thereafter it was a few more hills (seriously… ‘pancake flat’??!) before we rolled into our next hotel here in St-Armand-Montrond which has the distinction of being the geographic centre of France. This ‘short/ recovery’ stage was done and dusted by 2:30 in the afternoon which gave us all time to relax a little in the afternoon which took the form of a quick swim (chilly but just what was needed) a leg massage (yes, they hurt already) and a snooze. All the usual stats (time, route, profile, speeds etc) can be found on Strava. Just click here.
Tomorrow it’s off to Lyon where, I’ve already been warned, the worst hotel of the entire Tour awaits …