The Circus Comes to Town

On July 10th the Tour de France headed for Bergerac for the third time in four years, and the town went into high-octane municipal welcoming mode – a festive activity it does very well. A brass band and a pop group were deployed down at the town dock (sometimes playing simultaneously), and the processional floats, balloons, bunting, presentations and speeches, not to mention the bars and restaurants, were primed and ready for action.

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The stage 10 route, on which 180 riders took part.  Marcel Kittel was the stage winner while Chris Froome retained the yellow jersey.

At the quieter end of town, upriver at Quinze allée Beau Rivage (aka QBR) a group of amateur Brits had gathered. Our aim was to see the action, cheer on our compatriots, and put in some mileage of our own.

Two old friends who have been tremendously helpful with the QBR project were there. One was Dr. Sarah Field – a research biologist, and now a teacher at a south London boys’ school (the sort of place which takes its sport seriously and would never contemplate short-changing its rowing programme…) where she is also a J14 rowing coach. The fact that she speaks perfect French is a special bonus on occasions like this.

The other was John Hale, a master boat-builder by trade, and a key member of the Carl Douglas Racing Boats team. Carl Douglas make extraordinarily good boats, of which I already have 3, with more (I hope) on the way. When not building boats, John rides for the Pearson Cycle team, and is a tech-data fanatic – he likes to measure and record anything which might be relevant to his rowing or cycling performance. And his cycling metrics are, incidentally, truly awesome.TdF (10) (Custom)Sarah and John are here demonstrating the new bike-rack fencing in front of the house. This neat bit of ironwork is our riposte to the irritating Dutch supplier problem I mentioned in March. Developed with local ironworker Francois Guimbaud, it is a tribute to French ingenuity and flexibility in response to Germanic intransigence. Prototyped, modified, produced and installed in less than 6 weeks, it came in cheaper than the Dutch product we first wanted – and is also (thanks, I tell myself, to the British input to the design process) an improvement on the original idea, in that it works just as well with our road bikes as with the wide-tyred commuter type. M. Guimbaud is happy to supply small quantities of his bike-compatible fencing to anywhere in Holland or beyond, and I have waived my royalties. Vive le free-trade!

After taking this photo, the three of us set off on a 52Km loop recently devised and mapped out by John. Going clockwise, we start in a north-east direction and work our way around to the river crossing at Couze-et-Saint-Front, which is the halfway point. Staying on small roads, we then head SW towards Faux through some fine hilly terrain, and head back to Bergerac via Saint-Nexans.Map52k_SAt around the 40km mark, John’s phone rang: the two visitors we had been expecting around lunchtime were already approaching Bergerac. John said he would go ahead and meet them, and disappeared over the horizon as a pale-blue flash.

We arrived back to find John and the visitors – Sean and his 14 year old son Cal – discussing the ride we had just done, and wondering whether we might all like to turn round and do another lap so that they could join us. Sarah and I (who were in need of nutrition at this point) opted out, but John (who was only just warming up) agreed to take them round. We put Cal on the rather nice locally-acquired bike that Sarah had been riding (a lightweight LOOK frame with Campagnolo group-set, an old “Rolls” leather seat and clip-in Keo pedals), which was an excellent fit, and off they went.

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John sets off for a second lap, with Cal and Sean in pursuit

When they got back, Cal told us about the fundraising he has been doing for a South African charity called Qhubeka, which provides bikes for schoolchildren in poor rural areas. As well as providing bikes, they also fund mechanics based at larger schools to keep the bikes in good working order.

They’ve found that providing bikes in this way increases attendance by over 20% and boosts academic attainment by almost a third. Spectacular results! The bikes give the young people more time to study as less time is spent travelling to and from school. Cal has raised over £5K already, and expects to push this higher in the course of this year.

Qhubeka is sponsored by the data & telecomms firm Dimension Data, which has a Qhubeka-branded team in the Tour. Sean and Cal were along for the ride in the team van – hence their arrival in Bergerac on the eve of the main event.

Sean had heard about the cycling possibilities at QBR while at Henley the previous week, where he and John were rowing together in a Crabtree BC eight in the Masters (which they won) – and that’s how our meeting found its way onto their schedule. Henley has a funny way of throwing things like that up, I’ve found.

The next day John and I set off early to get to Périgueux for the Stage 10 départ. TdF (6) (Custom)He had mapped out a 114Km loop, which we took anti-clockwise on a wonderfully scenic and largely traffic-free route via Vergt which featured a lot of sunflowers (I’ll write this up in detail in a future post). We averaged a respectable (for me at least) 29.9kmh for the 82km first leg to Périgueux.

John’s planning method is meticulous. He starts off by running the whole thing through on Google Street View to make sure the roads really exist as mapped: then he feeds the data into our Garmin devices, which give us advance warning of the turns, while also clocking and displaying data: heart-rate, speed, cadence, etc. He also has a power meter, something I hope to start using soon, once I come to a conclusion about how far it’s sensible to go down this interesting but expensive and still-evolving tech-route.

Here are the stats & map for our route:

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Approaching Périgueux, we stop for a quick lunch at a cafe, and arrive in good time for the start: and there they all are – 180 riders merged into a pulsating swarm of flowing, colourful, stored-up energy, forming up behind the blue-flashing gendarmerie outriders. Then they’re off – accelerating away, cheered on by the crowd of rowdy onlookers who line much of the route, and followed by a procession of support-team busses and vans. As with tennis, the TV images we’re accustomed to seeing give no real concept of the sheer speed and power and noise of what is actually happening on the ground when the pros are in action. That’s why so many people travel hundreds of miles to see it for real.

John and I then set off back down to Bergerac to see the finish. While making our way out of town, we take an improvised shortcut through a business park on the edge of town, where we come upon a support vehicle, apparently lost, turning in our path as we nip past at 40kph. We give them a cheery wave, and are surprised to see that it’s Sean and Cal waving back from the Dimension Data team van!

As it happens, this second leg of our circuit is the time-trial stage from the 2014 tour, won by Tony Martin, which I wrote about last October – but we’re doing it in reverse, so we can’t compare our speeds.

Back at QBR, we meet up with Allan Whitwell, who is up for the day from Penne. We leave our bikes attached to the new fence, and walk up to the finish to catch the peleton sprinting towards us down the final km at about 70kmh. TdF (9) (Custom)_PA few hours earlier John and I had thought we were going quite quickly cruising along this same stretch at about 40kmh.

Then it’s time for the speeches and presentations, with the TV cameras and PR crews working overtime. We glimpsed Froome and Kittel in the throng – but being an inexperienced papparazzo I failed to get a shot of either of them – so here instead is the equally-newsworthy Simon Yates in the white jersey collecting his award. Simon, who is from Manchester, went on to take seventh place overall and win the Young Rider classification, as his twin brother Adam did last year. Twins winning the same category in successive years? That surely counts as a First.

(You can click on these pictures to see them bigger)

Back to the house, where we share out what’s left of a locally-grown watermelon (important piece of gastronomic info: the appreciation of a slice of watermelon is much enhanced by a prior 120km bike ride). We are greeted by some beguiling white chickens which have taken to free-ranging into our garden. These birds love the watermelon seeds, and they are welcome to them, and to anything else they can find. One of them left us an egg the other day, which was delicious, so we have no complaints against their owner, who lives about 4 houses down the road.

I intend to tell this neighbour about the egg, and will assure him that we have no intention of eating his chickens. I would like to convey this message by means of heroic verse couplets in the style of my distant relative Nicolas Boileau – but I lack the linguistic skills, and am therefore in need of help from Sarah. Or perhaps a French-Lit scholar is required. Any volunteers?

A Pro Training environment?

A few days later I went for a ride with Craig Drake, a pro cyclist who has just bought a house about 20km south of Bergerac to use as his training base in France. He came over for the day to see what I had been doing, and agreed to take me on a 74km Bergerac-based loop which he knew and recommended. At an average 26.5kph this took us 2hrs 47mins, with 593m of elevation gain. We passed several magnificent chateaux and many fine views which I had not see before. I’ll be returning to this excellent route with my camera and will then be able to describe it in detail.  Here are the stats & map:

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I asked Craig why, as a pro, he had decided on this particular region of France to set up his training base. The area has none of the famous climbs like Mont Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez or the great TdF battlegrounds from the Pyrenees, Alps or Massif Central – why not one of those areas?

His answer was interesting, as it mirrored closely my own thinking about Bergerac. Cycling in the Dordogne area combines rolling countryside with climbs which are satisfying, beautiful and fun rather than frightenigly brutal. If you want to make your ride brutal, said Craig, you can still find places locally where this is possible.

But for the most part, cycling in the Dordogne area is like cycling through a film-set. Thousands of hectares of sunflowers and vinyards, over a thousand chateaux in this one valley alone, plus of course the river itself and the extraordinary wildlife and ecosystem which gained it its special UNESCO protected status. Combine all this with the ancient churches, market towns, fortifications, troglodyte dwellings, the cafes and restaurants – and it all adds up to a pleasant, interesting and comfortable place to visit whether or not you’re a cyclist or a rower.

Craig also mentioned the ease of access – an important practical point for me. Bergerac is unusually well connected to the outside world, particularly to the UK. Within a few hours of leaving home in Kew, or my parent’s house near Derby, I can be on my bike in France heading up a Tour de France cat4 hill less than fifteen minutes from my house. All the bike equipment I need is there, as are my boats, ready for immediate use. In due course, I will also have a set of new bikes, so that I can bring a group of people with me, and have bikes and boats available for everyone.

What sort of bikes should these be? Difficult question. Many of the potential future visitors I’ve talked to have strong views, and much discussion has been going on. I’ll be writing more about this soon. Let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, it being August, I’m off to the Massachusetts seaside to hit some tennis balls, show two young nephews how to keep a boat upright, and eat some lobsters.

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