Loaded and ready to go
‘Plastic on the wires’ meant that the last Eurostar on the Thursday night was an hour and a half late, getting Uta and I to Brussels shortly after midnight. We checked in to the Ibis hotel opposite the station, expecting an uneventful night before heading to Geraardsbergen for registration in the morning. However, the Ibis computer system had other ideas. Uta opened the door of our room to be greeted with the startled grunts of someone already there, roused from a deep sleep. Rather startled ourselves, we headed back down to reception to specify that we would prefer an unoccupied room.
The town square in Geerardsbergen, a few hours before the start
The train journey to Geraardsbergen was less eventful. We started to spot other riders: at the station, on the train and then, in our hotel, where I spotted Paul Buckley’s pretty blue Bowman bike and, later, Paul himself. In the town, I met Chris Herbert, who had had his shoulder smashed by a pedestrian walking out in front of him just a week ago, but was still keen to start, even though he couldn’t use aerobars. At the hall where registration was, I filled in a few forms and got some goodies, including my event cap, No 155, and my transponder, to let the rest of the world know where I was for the next couple of weeks. I caught up with Stuart Birnie before Mike gave the pre-race briefing, which basically told us we needed to be ready in the town square at 9:30pm, and no drafting thereafter.
I did my final packing, with 5 byreks, a stash of energy bars and 1.5kg of drink powder to see me through the first night and into the weekend. To make a bit more space, I decided to follow a piece of advice from Mike and not take everything I could possibly need but, instead, take a few risks: so I lightened my tools and spares load by ditching the second inner tube, spare Garmin, chain tool, spoke key and Kevlar emergency spoke.
9:30 came, and I headed to the square, now full of cyclists. I reasoned that it would take 220 riders quite a while to start moving so, spotting Josh Ibbet (last year’s winner) pushing through the crowd, I tucked in behind him, to get near to the front, to grab an extra 10 minutes head start vs the back of the ride. A speech from the Mayor welcomed us, then the Town Crier rang his bell to count us down, and we were off, on a lap around the town with a police escort. Uta had joined the other spectators, with a flaming torch in hand, to salute us as we climbed the Muur. Following my plan to save my legs and avoid power spikes, I let dozens of people overtake me on the steep, cobbled lane. Then we left the town, each rider finding his or her own route as night fell.
Torches on the Muur (photo: Bruno Paternoster)
I was free of other riders fairly quickly as my plan for the first stage to Clermont Ferrand was not the direct route, which I expected most to take, but to head slightly west, skirting Paris, to pick up a long dual carriageway south from Fontainbleau and then the Loire and Allier valleys. Uta and I had followed much of this route on our honeymoon ride to Marseille a couple of years ago so I knew it to be flat and potentially quick: for an extra 20km of distance, I could save over 1000m of climbing.
Just an hour after the start I had a rear puncture. My tubeless tyre re-sealed, but it was clearly a bad one as I lost a lot of pressure. I decided not to spend time pumping it back up, but to press on and investigate later.
Before crossing into France around midnight, I entered a mini Las Vegas. Clearly the gambling laws in Belgium are less restrictive, and French gamblers were flocking to the casinos of Quievrain, the last town before the border. It made for a busy night and some erratic driving and I was almost doored by an enthusiastic gambler.
I rode steadily through the night, eating my food supplies and, by about 2am, was out of water. Water is not easy to come by in France at night. Getting thirsty, and not expecting to find anywhere open before 8 or 9am, I looked round a few petrol stations and churches, seeking in vain for a tap. Wheelmarks in the grass showed me I was not the first. As I was starting to get concerned, I lucked out and, at 4:50am, found a boulangerie, open and ready to sell me water, and the first of the day’s breakfasts.
I mostly progressed on smooth roads but, by mid-morning, I encountered my first routing glitch when, after having diverted off the main road, my country lane turned into a bridleway. The first thing I noticed on the stony surface was the lack of air in my back tyre. It was only sealing at around 30psi. I saw that the cut was long, almost a centimetre, and approached the sidewall of the tyre. I decided to try to fix it properly and had a go at inserting an anchovy into the tyre. I’d never done this before (never had the need to) and found that, while I could stab the insertion tool into the tyre, I couldn’t get the anchovy to stay in. So I pumped it up to about 60psi and hoped it would hold. I also consulted my map and decided it was best to backtrack and find the main road, rather than going further on my bridleway. I decided that this would be my default approach in future whenever my routing failed me in this way.
Highlights of my first day included: lots of fast dual carriageway, an afternoon nap on a bench in a quiet village, finding a Lidl open just before 7pm to stock up with food for the night and for Sunday morning (I filled my bags and had 5 bananas and a 10-pack of pains-aux-chocolat down my jersey), crossing the Loire just before sunset and, finally, finding the campsite near Nevers that I knew from my honeymoon where, with about 500km done, I grabbed a few hours’ sleep.
The low point was discovering that my back tyre was back down to 30psi. I was reluctant to put a tube in it as I hoped I could fix it properly and I knew that a fast tyre with a tube would be vulnerable to many more punctures, so I pumped it up again and tried to get it to seal with a bit more air.
I set out from the campsite as dawn was breaking, with about 150km to go to Clermont, which I was hoping to reach around lunchtime. As the day wore on, I started to see other riders again as our routes converged. I also saw a couple of riders coming the other way. One of the first I recognised as Stuart, looking very fast and strong, and we exchanged a shouted greeting. I reckoned he must be 100km ahead of me at this point, and wondered if I had rested too long at the campsite.
About 1pm I approached Clermont and found the checkpoint at the Campanile Hotel. Getting my stamp, I learned that I was in 41st place, which, out of 220 riders, I felt was pretty good. I didn’t know where I would finish but was hoping to be at least in the top half. I reckoned that my flat, fast route would have gained me a good few places so it would be a challenge to hold on to that place as the hills arrived.
I set off immediately for the first, the Col de Ceyssat, but before going far, I realised I’d forgotten to re-fill my bottles at the control, and popped in to a Subway fast food joint. I spotted James Hayden, one of the favourites, sitting there, looking a bit down. I said hello and mentioned my surprise that he was not a long way down the road and he explained that he had picked up a chest infection and was having to rest up. I commiserated with him, and got on my way. The climb started almost immediately, and was already steep before leaving the town. I took it pretty gently and half a dozen riders passed me, including one I recognised as Emily Chappell, with a cheerful ‘hello’. At the top I took a selfie to prove I had been there (I felt better than I looked!), stocked up on water, and put on some warm clothes for the descent.
Me at the top of the Col de Ceyssat – looking a bit tired