The Tour - 2009

Words & Images - John Coles

This is a chronological record of the adventures of Richard, Mike, Lew, Derek, Peter, Charlie & Andy, Steve, Wally and John as they all cycled their way down to Paris late in July to catch the Tour de France as it passed by on the last day heading towards the Champs-Élysées.

We planned most of this trip down at Novellos... you know the one, down the A4 around Knowl Hill way.  Mind you, the official route of the Tour de France this year was rather different.  With a start down on the south coast of France and with the route being more concentrated on the southern half of that country, our usual ride to northern France early in July was out of the question.  Shame about that because we all knew whatever we chose to do, this year would be more of a challenge than usual.

So, if we were to see anything live this year, we were forced to catch the end of the famous event as it curved its way into Paris and the finish on the Champs-Élysées.   Of course, when we needed to book hotels earlier in the year in 2008 the detailed route had not been announced.  No one had any idea which side of Paris the riders would return.  Richard pitched a guess based on earlier years' performance.  He was right as it happened.

And so, a 5 day holiday was planned, thought through and carefully dissected.   We would catch the late evening ferry from Newhaven, shuffle over to Dieppe and disembark around 3am in the morning.  Yes, I kid you not, 3am.  Hideous.  But we had cabins, so at least we could get our heads down and perhaps treat ourselves to an early shower in relative comfort.   But this aspect was putting a lot of people off.  After all we were all getting on a bit and a 3am rise was something even a young person would struggle with let alone this group of old timers!  

But, as it happened, in fairness the boat was well fitted and the cabins surprisingly spacious... but let's see exactly how our story unfolds.

We met around late afternoon on Thursday July 23rd.  We all drifted into the car park at Newhaven in dribs and drabs, some as early as 4pm.  Now laugh ye not, because as it happened there was a huge traffic jam on the feed A27 which seriously delayed a few of the travelers by well over an hour.

The early arrivals wandered around the town and the nearby quay with its surprisingly modern luxury apartments overlooking the equally surprisingly glamorous marina.

Steve had cycled down on his own grabbing the chance to get a few extra miles in.  His journey was 65 miles and he'd arrived around 6.30pm.  He'd also had to cope with about one and a half hours of rain, but luckily had dried out by the time he hit the port.

We watched earlier as Derek pulled up in his car, got out his bike and jokingly said he was off for a few training miles.  Oh no, we thought.  Was this the same as last year when he had put in very little preparatory miles and struggled most of the time? And to our amusement he tootled around the car park, did about 300 meters and smugly announced his training was over!  We smiled, thinking... here we go again.  How wrong could we have been, though, as his later amazing performance testified.

Mind you, he sneaked out later for a ride into town just over the nearby bridge, but that lasted no time at all as Charlie spotted him fairly soon after back in the car.  Our spies were out, Derek!  

We ate at the ferry terminal that evening, most having fish and chips, cooked from frozen by a lone woman who, after taking any order, would disappear round the back to cook it.

Subsequent punters, of course, had no idea what was going on and waited ages before she reappeared to serve them and take their orders only to watch her disappear just as quickly.  Blink, and you'd miss her.  But despite this we all seemed to enjoy her slow cooked fast food... even our cordon bleu Steve wolfed it down like it was his last meal.  No alcohol though!  

We delivered first aid to a couple of our group members that evening.  We'd already seen the end of Bobby 'two dinners' attempt to join us on this trip.  His doctors had decided a month or two before he was not yet ready for the trials that France might throw at him.  So he was out.  Charlie had been ill the night before our sail date, Mike was suffering from yet another ailment diagnosed at the last minute, but was cleared for travel, and Lewis was feeling feint.

But never mind, we sorted that lot out and prepared ourselves for the overnight ferry crossing.  Fully relaxed and reasonably full we thought at this stage little more could go wrong.  Er, not so as it happened.

We dealt subsequently quite well, as it happened, with a couple of near disasters.   Charlie had taken his bike from the boot of his car in the car park and to his horror watched as his front wheel fell out.  It landed awkwardly on the tarmac.  He went to retrieve it and discovered the fall had somehow pressed out the hub shaft.  Panic.  We knew this could be curtains.   If not fixed Charlie would not be able to travel.  It had to be sorted at all costs.  Our already fragile party was starting to fall apart, firstly with illness and now technical problems.

We looked at the hub assembly.  Our hearts sank.  As it was a tight interference fit with the machined hub surround, all attempts to reunite the two parts failed.  Charlie was now having visions of being stuck in Blighty with a duff bike.  And, of course, that meant Andrea would be grounded as well.

God, we'd only been there for a few hours and already we'd had a few challenges.   John suggested the wheel could be put back in the front fork yokes and use the quick release as a kind of 'bearing press'.  Brilliant.  It worked.  Charlie was happy enough although his body might have preferred a 'no show' as he was still feeling a little iffy from the previous disturbed night's sleep.

And much the same could have been said for poor Lewis.  He was still suffering a bit and was still debating whether or not to go.  Difficult decision.

We started nevertheless to gather ourselves outside the terminal building at Newhaven.  There was the inevitable last minute bit of faffing, sorting out this and that and looking for odd bits of documentation.

Lewis was at the back of this group.  Still not feeling that brilliant he went to retrieve his bike to join the queue only to find his freewheel had somehow jammed.  Whatever we did, his chain just got caught up.  Unless fixed this was scheduled to be another 'no show'.   A few worrying minutes were spent debating the problem.  Lew looked on somewhat dismayed and thinking what on earth could go wrong next.  Someone suggested we found a cycle dealer across the channel.  But Lew's heart was not in that suggestion nor frankly the actual holiday at this stage.  He was feeling rough and the worry of whether he could cope with the whole journey was clearly affecting him.

Quite understandably, mind you.  So in a way the jammed freewheel was a bit of a decision maker.  No, he announced he would not come with us.  Mike was already gathering us and calling for passports.  John tried one last attempt, pushing with all his weight, using a rag for protection, against the sharp sprocket teeth and with a clang the freewheel suddenly became free.  Of course, it could go wrong again.  Lewis was still not sure.  He stuck to his earlier decision.  He would not go.  But this is an agonizing decision for anyone in this situation.

All that thinking over the preceding months, all that preparation.  All possibly gone up in smoke in a few seconds.  Mike was again pressing us forward.  Lew was clearly rethinking.  Someone said to him he could make the crossing and reevaluate over in France.  Whether that gave him the confidence he needed we'll never know.  But thankfully he decided to stick with the group and give it a go.  We were all pleased.  The last thing we wanted was to lose any member of our group in such unfortunate circumstances.

We rode eventually through the customs around 10.30pm.  But the 'job's worth' personnel on the quayside kept us waiting on the tarmac.  It was open territory, admittedly warm and dry, but there was a building chilly wind.  After what seemed like an age we cycled slowly onto the ferry, found our cabins and went straight to the bar for a nightcap or two.   We weren't long as we had to get our heads around that very early alarm call.

We docked in Dieppe at an unmentionable time and by 4am we were firmly ensconced in the nearby terminal waiting for daybreak.  Sitting on chairs accompanied only by the delights of offerings from a close by vending machine, we all felt rather jaded and needed some chill out time by way of a couple of hours of reflective sleep in preparation for the 75 mile ride in front of us to our first hotel.

We left the terminal building at pretty well spot on 7am.  It was still a bit chilly as the sun was slowly coming up.  But we were, as a group, reasonably rested.  Without exception this early crossing was hated.  Yet we had all met the challenge despite our ageing bodies making it very clear that we were all far from being 21 years of age!  

We slowly meandered our way through the avenues of Dieppe.  Rather expertly it might be added as Richard had arrived with a fully programmed Garmin GPS, into which he had fed our route.  "It was as simple as following the cursor on the screen" he added later!  Peter was also equipped with a similar device to assist whenever possible.

How times change!    Many of us were going to miss those forced stops as Richard occasionally would reach in his back pocket and reassess our current route.  It was a chance for a breather and for the laggers to catch up.

We reached Bar Tabac Jeux after a fair pace away from the docks.  In fact some were reflecting it was all a little too fast given the early time of day.  Was it really necessary?  But the roads were smooth as our group fairly whisked along.  The bar we reached was 11 miles out from the port and by then we were desperate for some food and even a breakfast.  It was soon clear, however, that this place was not geared up for food.  Our hearts sank... until a rather timely visit from a van delivery driver who arrived with a basket of freshly baked croissants.  We eyed them up longingly.  We were now on a collective mission!  

We persuaded the owner of the bar to allow us to demolish the newly arrived fare.  And that was a bit of a life saver.  A perfect accompaniment to coffees and hot chocolate.   Several miles later on, the desire for alcohol was all too pervading.  And so after 30 miles at 9.45am our thirst was satisfied.

We lunched later at Beauvoir-en-Lyons, initially stopping at 11.30am for a beer.  We decided, however, to wait until 12 when the restaurant was open and then dined on a superb steak and veal lunch with lashings of bread and a vat of red wine.

We were, though, in good form as we headed off after lunch towards the hotel.   Sadly, Mike punctured with 10 kilometers to go.  This occurred in Gisors where Mike alone tried to fix it as he had fallen off the back.  Derek decided to ride back to see what was wrong.   There he found Mike struggling with a very tight tyre.  But no problems as eventually it was fixed, they rejoined the group and we were again on our way.  But looking upwards the clouds were darkening... we had to move on fast.

We continued after the puncture stop (and with rain now appearing) towards the first hotel at Chaumont en Vixen and arrived at 4.15pm, soaked through.  There we watched the last 20k of the Tour race on the bedroom TVs.

We agreed to meet down at the bar at around 7.30pm but Messrs Crane and Coles had dropped off in the bedroom in a state of overwhelming tiredness and appeared at the evening meal late, unshaven and generally disheveled.  What an embarrassment.  Mind you, now we were all seated, and at last Derek (Dirk) had a chance to practice his charms and his French on the unsuspecting waitress.  As was usual, she smiled patiently at him and brought him his wine.

Most of us ate from the 3 course 13 euro menu which as usual in France provided superb value for money.  Just how on earth do they do it? Or perhaps we should ask why is it always so expensive over in Blighty.

We wandered around the town of Chaumont afterwards for a beer or two but again like most French towns it was as dead as a dodo!  

So, up early in the morning on Saturday we made our way to our first stop at Chambly some 31k away on super smooth roads.  The group purred along, all keeping tightly together.  Grey clouds threatened but came to nothing.  At this interim café stop Mike decided to change his inner tube, which was starting not to hold a consistent volume of air.  Never mind, easily fixed.  The rest of the group basked in the open air enjoying the warm sun.

It was here that Charlie and Andy had a photo-call with an early beer so they could send a picture by MMS to Charlie's godparents who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on that very day.  When Charlie nervously made his apologies to his godfather, a keen cyclist in earlier years, he was told, "Don't you worry, I wish I was coming with you".

We left the café and headed off to Charles de Gaulle airport after a lunch stop at 25 miles further on.  Well, not the actual airport, but its perimeter roads where we got a little lost.  GPS is all well and good when used for navigation purposes but one has to be sensible.  Unfortunately it led the group towards a slip road which clearly perhaps would take them towards a motorway.  Was there another road later on? Who knows?...either way, it was not worth the risk.  It was getting late.  We dithered here for quite a while not exactly too sure what to do.  One option was to retrack, not a popular thought.  But they recalculated and eventually agreed to embark on a huge diversion which added some extra and unwelcome miles to the already tiring group.

We arrived eventually at our hotel in the middle of a pretty modern industrial estate around 5pm.  But to be fair the hotel was fine, reasonably modern and we settled in very well.  A few of us got involved in late afternoon drinks in the midst of a lively wedding party.  A very drunken French chappie full of bonhomie and little else joined us and started to annoy us with his dreadful attempts at the English language.  Eventually he left.  We later all met for dinner in the hotel itself and dined admirably on some amazingly well cooked food.   We were looked after superbly by the staff.

We biked out the next day after an 8.30 breakfast and a 9.30 start and within 15 miles arrived at our chosen venue to watch the Tour pass by.  Yes, at last we were there.   This was what the holiday was all about.  We desperately needed some lunch, but there was nothing obvious nearby.  So we cycled on to another village where we discovered a grocery store promising enough provisions for a slap up picnic on the village green.  But life is always full of regrets, is it not.  The red wine bought by Steve sadly turned out to be rather like vinegar!  And how often that has happened before.

Andy unfortunately caught her leg at this lunch stop on an exposed mudguard stay and this resulted in a rather nasty deep gash.  The blood flow was eventually staunched but it was a harsh reminder of how vulnerable a group in a foreign country can be.  And so, after the drama, we all finally enjoyed a rather pleasant picnic, chatting with locals (turning out to be from Yorkshire!) under the trees on the green.

With everything sorted and the group well fed and watered we all biked slowly towards our chosen spot on the actual Tour route.  It was only a quarter of a mile or so... we pushed our way through the barriers and joined the local frenchies, settling in for the afternoon.   We found a grassy bank that was perfect and laid out bathing in the already increasing intensity of the sun overhead.

After the usual carnival had passed through there was the usual wait before the riders came by.  Mike settled down again in the heat, leant against a fence in a sleepy manner, put a cap on his head to ward off the sun and leant forward to open the can of coke he had bought earlier.  He went at it with a careful, rather calculated, action... like he almost had a second sense of what was about to follow.

There was a large fizzing noise, a minor explosion and the contents of the can shot out of its aluminum home like Vesuvius erupting after years of dormancy.  It went everywhere.  Absolutely everywhere.  But mainly all over Mike's shorts, his crutch and short sleeved shirt.  A sort of 'premature evacuation of the contents', so to speak!  Well, that's what Pete said.  We all laughed.  Mike was not happy.  It was soooohhh very hot.  He was angry with himself and suffered with the sticky gooey mess all afternoon.

And then, after what seemed like an inordinate wait, the helicopters were heard in the distance.  The riders were nearly with us.  Although we were based at a corner in the road which in theory would slow the riders down they all still passed in a flash.  Cameras whirred and snapped.  History was made for selected onlookers.  And as quickly as it had started, it had all gone.  The gendarmerie and local council workers were then collecting the barriers in an effort to restore normality as soon as possible.  Within minutes no one would have known anything had been there, such was their efficiency.

We made our way back to the hotel afterwards.  Everyone was looking forward to the supper on this our third night.  It had been a long hot day.  We walked confidently in to our hotel to book our time slot for the evening meal, only to find the restaurant was closed for the evening.  Great! And remember we were in the middle of an industrial estate.  Not exactly the best place to go looking for gourmet food! But a quick chat to the receptionist revealed that barely 200 meters away there was a sort of leisure shopping park with a selection of food venues.  Thank goodness for that!

We wandered off in that direction all wondering exactly what we would find.   But luckily it was better than we had expected and found a suitable restaurant serving steaks, burgers and chicken... you know the sort of thing... a bit like Pizza Express on steroids!  We dined well though and all got rather sozzled with the free flowing wine.

We reminded ourselves that we still had the last two legs left of the return journey to Dieppe, so a reasonably early end to the day was agreed.  The next day, Monday, would see a tough 54 miles in front of us.  We would simply be returning on exactly the same route, the wind had changed into a headwind and we had in store a couple of punctures from Lew and Derek to slow us down rather badly.

But we were up at a reasonable time and set off all knowing the day was not going to be that easy.  Hopefully today, though, the weather would be kind.

The group eventually came across a rather busy town and what with roundabouts, bridges and traffic lights, they had all been split up.  Slowly it dawned that there were problems and they ground to an abrupt halt.  Lew and Derek had punctured.

And whilst sorting out the repairs, the usual method of staying in touch never let them down.  Remember, by now we were spread out all over the town.  So initially there was much confusion.  But automatically, at junctions, riders had dropped off to wait for the slower members of the team.  All waited patiently at their posts while phone calls were made and 'soldiers' passed up and down the line relaying messages.  All so simple but very effective in keeping our group locked together, albeit rather spread out.

We regrouped eventually and headed off to our overnight hotel (the same as the way out).  But there was a massive headwind and it was a struggle with many members now feeling very tired and weary.  We had been fairly lucky with the remaining weather... it had rained lunchtime and we were now experiencing its return.  Arriving at long last at the hotel we were allocated different rooms than before and met again later back at the hotel restaurant for another splendid meal.

It was Andy's birthday so she and Charlie had added a bottle of pink champagne to their supermarket shopping for the next day's lunch and quaffed it down accompanied by bacon crisps before joining the group for dinner.  This was the traditional French "confit de canard" and was truly scrummy.  And it was at that dinner where we all celebrated Andrea's birthday.  It all got rather noisy as we upped the booze intake and plans were set out by Charlie as to exactly how he saw the next day developing.

We set off the next day at the crack of dawn.  Before breakfast most had visited the local supermarket, buying provisions for lunch.  We had 75 miles to achieve in a short time and a ferry to catch at 6pm.  Miss that and the next was scheduled for around 4am the next day!  It was going to be tight.  Richard had calculated speeds, contingencies etc. and had come up with an average speed we should seek to achieve.  There would be staged rest periods at specific times.

This was nothing short of a military operation of which Napoleon would have been proud.  Now this all went like clockwork until Steve and Pete blasted off the front and missed a turning, so they had to do a bit more blasting to catch up the group a few miles later using a different route.

Overall it worked.  We kept together, we stopped when we said we would, we ate our packed lunches around 1.30pm in a delightful spot in a small town square and arrived a couple of hours earlier than necessary in Dieppe.  But at least we had made it.

We concluded that perhaps 75 miles was too long and tough and that in future years we would try to keep to a maximum daily limit of no more than 50 miles.  Backsides were very sore, legs ached and aged bodies hurt.  Whilst waiting for the boat, we all chilled out in Dieppe drinking in a bar we had visited on our previous visit to this wonderful old town, many years ago.  The early evening sailing went without incident and we headed home to Blighty near as damn it dead on time, most of us getting home well before midnight.

We all decided, yet again, the tour this year was absolutely great fun.  We were a close group, undergoing on occasions some tough miles.

Derek summed it up well at the end, "For me the tour in 2009 has been very good.  It's been one of the best, I think; we had a very good trip down and saw the Tour in a small village outside Paris which was excellent, had a good position and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing".