Words & Photos - John Coles
Cycling - John & Steve

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Plan a ride in France, especially one relating to the Tour de France, and you’d be forgiven in thinking immediately of the mountains.  This is, of course, quite understandable.   The sheer height and difficulty of some of the Alps leaves one in awe of their majesty and dominance.  And clearly there is nothing in the UK to compare with these monsters.  To experience these rooftop challenges you just have to head down south to sunnier climes.

John and Steve, though, had something else in mind.  Here’s the plan.  An eight day holiday in the Central Massif area of France, by hire car, two featherweight carbon bikes on board, some choice hotels, the promise of good food and some brilliant rides, culminating in the Puy-de-Dôme.  Yes, that was this year’s challenge for the duo.  The Puy is no slouch either; at 11.35% it would be the steepest yet.Puy-de-Dome viewed from a distance

Mind you, do not think this was an attempt to repeat last year’s achievements in the Alps and Provence.  Riding up these gaunt lumps of geology can induce a curious, disintegrating state of mind.  Those were very tough challenges indeed.  This year something a little kinder was being sought.

The boys had returned from last August’s trip with Richard and Tom so full of that Ventoux / Croix de Fer / Alp D’Huez holiday that plans for 2008 were then quickly sketched out.  They’d both made some discreet enquiries.  No other club members who were approached seemed to want to join them, for a variety of reasons.

Last year’s holiday had been the brainchild of John.  He had made all the arrangements; the travel, the accommodation and the itinerary.  But this time Steve picked up the mantle and was the oberführer.  He’d chosen the area, the routes and the hotels.  John was more than happy with all of this.  It would be an eight-day holiday, taking two days to get down there and two days back.  The idea was that each day there would be enough time left for a short bike ride before supper.  Sadly this did not always work out as the car mileages were high, the starts were not exactly early and it always seemed to take longer than scheduled.Steve checking a real map!

But let’s rewind a little.  It was in March this year when they met to finalise the details.  This route setting/itinerary annual appearance at the De Vere Bellhouse hotel in Beaconsfield has almost become de rigueur (well, for the last two years at least!).

They were clearly starting as they meant to carry on.  This set the scene and backdrop for a well appointed holiday with all the trappings.  Cheap was clearly not going to be the name of the game.  And so in that pleasant four-star atmosphere decisions were made.   Between them they arrived with printouts, brochures and quotes off the internet.  The whole kit.  And with a laptop, and the benefit of a free wi-fi connection, they looked at a selection of Frenchie-type Best Western hotels.  And didn’t they turn out to be good choices! All modern, one with a pool, it made relaxing there appear so enticing! And how easy this selection process was given the benefit of the web.

They looked at the hire cars available.  Avis was chosen as the supplier, mainly because they had an office close to Steve’s home and that, of course, made pick-up and collection pretty easy.  They were after a Mondeo-size ‘estate’ type vehicle; mind you, they discovered that on pick-up day you have to accept what they have available!

And so, with the admin sorted, all that was left was the preparation of the bodies and the bikes!  For strong-boy Steve this was no problem.  With those daily rides to work under his belt he certainly has a reputation of being one of the strongest riders in the club.  Little seems to challenge him.  In fact his greatest problem is his back….some say it is only that which slows him down.

And John?  Well, bearing in mind he’s not the fittest, spurred on by Steve’s known fitness, he had been concentrating on more regular rides, culminating in a strong showing in the club’s Tour de France ride in July (regularly climbing in the big ring).

So, in essence, he was ready.  On hand was his super newish Wilier Izoard Pro SE; poor Steve sadly had to leave his new multi-million pound (but bought at a huge discount) Litespeed Ultimate at home with a dodgy headset and he brought along his trusty Kuota Kharma carbon special instead.

Now this could have been an ordinary holiday but they managed to turn it into a ‘boys own’ adventure with all the trappings one would expect.  Wine, women and song you may be thinking, with ‘lashings of ginger beer’.  Well no, not quite, but you get the thrust of this story.

 Restaurant Exterior Hotels, ferry and hire car were booked barely one week before the off, in true Steve style (“I like to concentrate the effort”).  Amazingly there were no problems, it actually worked.  And so, one sunny day in August this year, they loaded a week’s worth of ‘living’ (and other unmentionable personal items) into the hired super sexy Vauxhall Zafira and headed south.  It took both that day and the next with an overnight stop in Epernay before they arrived at Clermont-Ferrand; perfectly placed for riding the Puy-de-Dôme barely 15km away.  And that, of course, was what this holiday was all about.  Remember? ....yes, of course you do.

Much has been written about this mountain.  Back in the town it looks daunting.   At 1415 metres high it is not the highest climb in the world by a long chalk but it dominates the landscape.  From a distance it looks almost manmade, its conical shape so symmetrical.   It is actually a dome of lava.  The road to the top spirals around the rock for no other reason than to get there.  It is completely man made – a narrow tarmac ledge clinging to the almost vertical sides of the Puy – and it is fearsomely steep (13% maximum and 8.8% average gradient).

Apparently back in pre-Christian Europe the mountain served as an assembly place for spiritual ceremonies.  Temples were built at the summit including a Gallo Roman temple, the ruins of which can be seen in a preserved state today.  It seems these Frenchies also like doing barometric observations and the like at a physics laboratory which also stands proudly at the summit.  Boring or what!

And, of course, in more recent times, the Puy-de-Dôme has served as an occasional stage finish in the Tour de France.  It was here in 1964 that those two household names, Raymond Poulidor and Jacques Anquetil, battled it out in one of the race's most famous moments, racing side by side up almost the entire climb.  Also on this peak in 1975 Eddy Merckx was punched in the stomach by a spectator, the injury from which effectively lost him the Tour.  There, with this information you can even impress your friends, partners and lovers at that next party!

And so, breaking the tradition of the already late morning breakfasts, one Sunday morning they braved the early mists and the cold, and drove to the car park and toll booth at the base of the climb.  The road up the mountain is only open for cyclists during very limited periods (when other vehicles are prohibited).  This window of opportunity is between 7 and 9am on Wednesdays and Sundays between 1 May and 30 September.  They had ridden almost to the car park the day before to recce the route, but there was a local road closure, so to ensure they didn’t miss the time slot the decision to use the car was made.  Outside these times local dedicated buses shuttle up and down carrying the visitors and sightseers.  Yet despite these restrictions the Puy-de-Dôme is one of the most visited sites in the region, attracting nearly 500 000 visitors a year.  It is also a well-known centre for parascending.  The summit offers expansive views of the Chaîne des Puys and Clermont-Ferrand.  There’s also a spotless modern restaurant with shops, as well as a visitor centre giving information on the history and geology of the area.

They could not see the top of their misty challenge as together they started the 4km climb and stayed pretty well locked as a pair all the way to the top.  They started well, chatting here and there, despite the effort.  Initially the road is straight.  But early on over the first kilometre the gut wrenching 13% maximum gradient was challenging our duo.   Beyond, it settled to an average of 11.35%.  They stopped regularly to get their breath back and ease their aching backs.  It was all a bit too much too early in the cold of day without a decent warm up.  Steve was pushing a 34x27, John a 34x29.  The early morning air was fresh and cutting.  Steve taunted John…”Who do you want to be…..Poulidor or Anquetil?” John didn’t reply initially (probably oxygen debt!) but when put under pressure to decide he said “Anquetil”.   Fine said Steve then you will lose this one according to the 1964 result!  Shit!

It was in the lower section, in the forest, that the scale of the task first hit home.  The road is unforgiving.  It can be very cool here in the mornings as the trees offer a degree of shade.  But today there is mist, fog and dullness all around.  There’s a chill in the air.  The sky is a winter grey.  Jackets were worn to offset the adverse weather.  Out of the forest and the road is like glue.  On the sunniest of days one could imagine the heat bouncing off the heavy tacky tarmac.

And there’s nowhere to hide.  It’s as though a British civil engineer had once arrived with a Tarmac lorry and just poured it out, from the top, and it had flowed seamlessly down the hill and set.  It was that smooth.  In the cooler conditions, though, their lightweight wheels whirred round quietly enough.  So far so good, then!

About one third up, the flora and fauna ended and they were presented with a sheer drop on one side.  Yet the constant right-hand bend for 360 degrees provided a panorama that slowly developed around, and with the unquantifiable drop below on the left it was rather like flying an aeroplane, albeit a very slow one.  Granite stones on the open edge of the road count down the metres of torture left to the summit.  A wall of bare rock on the other side bears the washed out names of cycling legends who have suffered or ridden to glory here.  The view is simply stunning.  But with that drop on the left it’s scary stuff all right.

The road continued its one circumference circuit to the top.  Yes, that’s right, just one circumference, bottom to the top.  About 200 metres from the summit the road disappeared into a thick mist and had a nasty kick upwards.  This last part has been described as ‘brutal’.   It hurt.  100% effort was needed now as our plucky twosome called on hidden reserves to power their way upwards.  Relying solely on the amphetamines kicking  in, Steve slowly pulled away from John as they both fought their own personal battles with this cunning beast.  John tried to hang on, and with a huge effort pulled alongside his friend.  But Steve had the bit between his teeth.  He was off and John had nothing left as he flicked it down into his lowest gear, pushed harder on the pedals and spun slowly upwards.  At least he had that!   And what a difference from the historic hellish grind up Ventoux last year.  A few moments later though, all was well and they had both made it to the top.  The only compensation for their pain was the growing vista of the Chaine des Puys, and a view down into surrounding ancient craters.

Now do bear in mind the first ascent ever from the toll booth at the bottom was achieved in 28 minutes.  And our lads? Well after 45 minutes of gruelling, back-breaking cycling they had made it.  The stops would probably have added another 20 to 30 minutes.  Sign at top of Puy-de-DomeAs they passed the sign at the top, both shouted a huge YES as a triumphant recognition of their achievement.  After pausing for a breath or two in front of the huge information board they then went up past the Roman fort and laboratory, pushing the bikes up the pedestrian path to the final part of the actual summit and the observation platform.  From here they phoned Mike Crane on the mobile and rubbed in the fact that they were once again on top of a TdF monument.  They also sent Richard a text message in reply to his earlier one which had anticipated exactly their ETA.  Damn him!  Rather like the Fawlty Towers sketch where Basil picks up the phone to Sybil’s uncanny timing and screams “I’m doing it, I’m doing it!”

The mist had cleared.  By now the sun was shining apart from the odd cloud or two passing by.  This mountain, so high, clearly had its own unique weather system.  Later they relaxed in the restaurant for a couple of hours or so, eating, drinking, debriefing and just chatting.Height Marker - 1415 metres

It’s been twenty years since the Tour was last here, perhaps in modern times it’s just too big to lug up the narrow road and with little room to store everything anyway up at the top. So that was another Tour de France mountain under their belts.  They felt good.   But how many more to go?  Well, frankly they had so much laid-back fun interspersed with the odd bit of cycling on most of the other days that they are already planning next year’s jaunt.   The Pyrenees, the Alps again, the Telegraph, the Gaulibier, possibly the other way up Mont Ventoux?  Who knows!  Friendship, memories and thrills all drive this pair on to greater goals.   Just two years….all this, and more to come.

They really thought they’d cracked it this year, though.   Restaurant Exterior
Hiring the car had made such a difference.  It turned out to be a super base in that it stored their bikes and all the equipment and enabled them to be two free birds just following their dreams.  The European Bike Express coach last year also served a purpose in that it transported four of them to southern France.  But there was a heavy price to pay.  Sure it got the group out there quickly enough, but the trade off was the lack of comfort and sleep on the way down and back.  Steve has declared that he would never do it again!

This year they’d experienced pretty fair weather, and only got caught out on one occasion in the rain.  In the Nuits St George area the heavens opened.  They had already ridden about 15 miles of what was intended to be a 60 miler, so they sheltered for half an hour and then gave up when the rain became a relentless downpour.  Soaked through and very disappointed, they abandoned the ride and returned to the hotel in driving rain, time trialling over the final 500 yards.  What fun!

But not to be outdone, by way of compensation, in the hotel bar they ordered a snack lunch and got quietly pissed all afternoon on a consolation £25 bottle of Chablis!  Is there nothing these two won’t get up to!

Despite this isolated inclement weather they had managed some days to get in the odd 40 mile ride, but it was not quite what was planned.

There were also days when they never saw their bikes! But then this holiday was one of spontaneity, and that led to a very relaxing eight days.  In the Zafira things were entirely different, offering relative luxury.

They were able to share the driving, snooze, chat and relax to music.  Mind you with everything on board it all only just fitted.  Anyone wishing to join them in 2009 would be advised to pair up and hire something similar.

There is no doubt that, apart from perhaps flying (which in itself presents many challenges), this really is the way to go.