May 2004

EDITORIAL

A bit of a bumper issue this time to make up for the fairly sparse output of late. Thanks to all those who contributed to making this one in to something better.

For a change we have to bear the sad tale of the run you didn’t miss! Although we believe the same happened last year. Our run from Pentrefoelas was hastily abandoned on the day because of extremely impolite weather, so nothing to report there.

The April run did take place, however, and very well attended it was too. Geof led us through delightful Anglesey lanes in improving weather to very satisfactory caffs. He managed not to get lost or lose anyone even on the rough stuff section through Newborough Forest. However the mechanical failure contest for ’04 seems to be hotting up - three broken chains and a jammed one on one run takes some doing. I have been told a certain Mold based crew deliberately sabotaged their machine the night before in order to be assured some points. As for the spread laid out upon our return to Chez Russell, one word - Sublime.

The Browns seem to have been dragging their tandem through snowdrifts again but they can tell their own tale...

"Not the wall to wall sunshine we expected"

By Pat Brown

We flew to Alicante, but our objective was the Parque Natural de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas, which we’d touched the fringes of on a tour from Malaga in 2000. Armed with provincial maps of Murcia, Almeria, Jaen and, Albacete at a scale of 1:200,000 we planned a circular tour starting off south by west with a view to seeing something of the coast first. We turned inland at Vera a large village with, as everywhere, much new building nearer the sea. Venturing out from the comfortable hostal there we found the police diverting the traffic and the streets filling with people. In due course the carnaval procession arrived, each small group of performers preceded by vans and trailers belting out "music" at deafening volume. The final group were "3rd agers", the ladies in elaborate dresses and fluttering their fans putting a brave face on a distinctly chilly evening.

Our route next day was by way of the attractive-sounding Almanzora valley, but it was to be quite a hard day. Too late we learnt that the road to Cantoria, where we hoped to stay, had been washed away ages ago and traffic followed the (usually) dried up riverbed. We went the pretty way which involved a lot of uphill!

Until now, we’d been fairly certain of finding a bed for the night, but not here. We were fortunate to meet a Brit' who took us to the only accommodation - a British B&B, which was popular with other would-be ex-pats looking to buy a place in the sun! Our new friend had the temporary use of the commodious cave above which the comparatively new house had been built. Here we received four star treatment from the father of the owner, himself visiting for a fortnight, who rustled up eggs, beans, etcetera on toast and tea ad lib that evening, as well as a cooked breakfast. (Until now, our eating had been a bit sporadic!)

We had one other encounter with fellow Brits’. A couple who were having a house built near a reservoir in the neighbouring province of Granada, with a view to operating a B&B for Brits’ on holiday, and who were making occasional visits to check on progress. On arrival this time, they’d been greeted with the news that the ‘topping up’ ceremony was imminent: which involved their hosting (and paying for) an al fresco pig-roast to which all even remotely connected with the project would be invited. We wished them a fine day - the weather was chill and damp at best.

The Parque Natural de Cazorla surrounds and follows the upper reaches of the Rio Guadalquivir. We approached it from Pozo Alcon, and straight away we were gaining height. In better weather, the views would have been fantastic. With rain threatening we couldn’t pass the Hotel in Quesada by, and it was Friday before we reached the village of Cazorla (886m) at the foot of the Puerto de Las Palomas (1382m). The peaks above were already white and the temperature at noon was 8º C.

The 28th February is celebrated as Andalucia Day, and we were not alone as we headed for the pass on a crisp, bright morning. Our handicap today was not the gradient, but the increasingly snowy and icy road surface as we neared the top. "Better safe than sorry" being our motto, we walked the upper reaches and beyond until well down into the valley. Then not long after, while riding quite sedately we had a blow out (back wheel). In no time Ken had fitted our trusty folding tyre and new tube, but I was thoroughly chilled and we made for the next hotel instead of carrying on further. This was fortuitous. The receptionist spoke good English (a rare accomplishment), was herself a mountain-biker, took in our situation, and confirmed that the nearest cycle shop was back in Cazorla. She suggested that her husband would try to get a new tyre for us - but not until Monday. So we had three comfortable nights here with day rides along the valley. In the event no suitable tyre was to be had, and the folding tyre was not replaced until eight days (270 miles plus) later, and then by a Michelin World Tour.

The route through the Parque Natural was delightful - quiet roads, mostly rideable gradients, wonderful mountain scenery, excellent visibility, and comfortable accommodation. Then we left the province of Jaen to enter Albacete and the ‘Sierra de Segura’, not designated as a Parque Natural, but equally scenic, and like the Parque Natural, being promoted as a holiday area. Doubtless a popular one in the summer, but very quiet in March. We found an excellent Turismo in Yeste, providing detailed accommodation lists, and found the area every bit as interesting as the Parque Natural.

Eventually, we had to make towards Alicante, but this time through northern Murcia, less monotonous than the acres of polytunnels near the coast. On arrival back at the hotel where we’d stayed the first night, we were greeted by an ex-pat sipping his cerveza outside the bar. He was quite appreciative of our mode of transport - a most welcome conclusion.

We would commend the area covered in the middle fortnight of our holiday to anyone who enjoys a mountainous terrain. The roads were amazingly traffic free. Partly due to the weather, our daily mileages were modest, as we had plenty of time. If only it weren’t so far from an airport! Maybe Murcia would have been a better starting point. We have lots of useful information if you’re tempted.

A Slight Change of Plan was Called For

By Harrold Catling

Being then a bachelor, it was my wont during the balmy days before world war two to make an annual pilgrimage to the Alps. My two great passions at that time being hard cycling and mountain climbing, these excursions became the high points of my year, and I was certainly not going to be thwarted by the war clouds that were gathering over Europe. Accordingly the last weekend of July 1939 found us heading southwards on my old Stenton "Glider" tandem!

These annual excursions were essentially invitation events and my companion on this occasion had been chosen for his enthusiasm and his capability as a climber. He was by no means a dedicated cyclist, but he did ride to work regularly on a bicycle and was not in the least worried at the prospect of having to ride nearly 800 miles to get to the mountains.

We left Oldham in the evening of Friday 25th July and rode through the night with the object of taking the night ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. We managed this easily enough even though my stoker had never before ridden a tandem - his previous cycling experience having been confined to the making of utilitarian journeys on a sit-up-and-beg hack!

On Sunday morning, after an early morning breakfast of a large bowl of milky coffee, French bread, and a mountain of rich Normandy butter, we began the long haul through central France, Geneva and Annecy to our intended base, the Youth Hostel at Chamonix. We reached that Mecca of mountaineers in time for dinner on Tuesday and immediately began to make arrangements to climb our first Alp the following day.

Although Wednesday turned out to be meteorologically ideal for climbing the news that the Dutch army and the British fleet were both very hurriedly mobilising caused us to stop and think. The threat of war was now a far more serious matter than it had seemed when we set out from home. Thoughts of being stranded in France and possibly interned took our minds away from the mountains. The notion that we might enjoy ourselves on mountains nearer home began to form. By midday we were hammering the old Stenton over the then very rough Col de Forclaz, which we judged to be the most expeditious way home, short of turning in our tracks and retracing our outwards route. France, which we re-entered via the Col de St Cergues, was seething with rumours and tourists of every nationality who were frantically attempting to get home by one means or another. Conditions on both road and rail were chaotic to such a degree that we it would be foolish to waste time stopping to sleep, and we pushed on steadily through the night. We were rewarded by being able to get a passage on the Thursday night ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven. The scenes of confusion on the deck of the boat that night were beyond the capability of my pen to describe. I can only say that it was a nightmare experience, but at least we were on British soil early on Friday morning.

In the much calmer atmosphere there prevailing, our immediate reaction was to relax a little and enjoy a leisurely potter homewards with perhaps an overnight stay in the Cotswolds. In the event, we had so much momentum that we found ourselves riding through the night again. By dawn on Saturday we were within a few miles of home. Dusty, dirty and waking to the new day, we refreshed ourselves by bathing in the River Medlock and shaking some of the dust out of our clothes. By the time we reached home, the first plumes of smoke were beginning to rise from domestic chimneys, the hundreds or so mill chimneys were not smoking, as this was the last day of the Oldham Wakes Week holiday. Now feeling relatively clean and tidy we presented ourselves at my parents’ home where we were able to do justice to a gargantuan breakfast.

Breakfast over, and questions about the situation in Europe answered, we began to perceive that something of a vacuum lay ahead of us. The question of what to do with the remaining week of our holiday raised itself quite naturally, and equally naturally, was answered without division. By mid-day we were riding the tandem northwards again, and the actual declaration of war, at 11o’clock on Sunday, found us in lowland Scotland still hammering northwards, and by Monday afternoon we were setting up camp in Glen Brittle, ready for a few days climbing on the Cuillins of Skye.

Those were the days - I couldn’t do it now!

Harold Catling (1986)

Taken from the T.A. Gazette by Les Wyle who attaches the following comments

From a time before bike buses, easy jets, and car roof racks.

All the more remarkable considering heavy pre-war tandems having few if any gears, very poor brakes, carrying camping and climbing equipment, heavy ropes and hob nail boots not to mention poor road surfaces and cobbled town streets.

Well done to Harold and his mate. (Ed’s note - Can’t help wondering if he remained his mate!)

Come on all you new age tandemists!! Join us for a leisurely 100 miles on your lightweight, multigeared steeds on May 16th in Bala.

We don’t know if Les is serious about 100 miles but the best thing to do is contact him (01490 460516). I do know that the Lewis’ (01490 460410) are running a family ride round Vyrnwy, where Les is heading, to meet up with the ‘not so grown ups’.

Centenary Tour De France – By Bike!!

The expression on the bloke’s face told me something was wrong. The baggage handlers had literally thrown thousands of pounds worth bicycles, one on top of the other, in a haphazard, paint scraping, spoke bending puzzle.

For some minutes we all just stood, four deep, staring at the pile of well over 30 bikes. I spotted my Thorn two bikes off the bottom. Apart from a few minor scratches, and two ‘bulges’ in the tyres, which kept rhythm all week, it was OK.

Almost all of you will identify with the feeling of freedom and pleasure experienced when you pedal off from the airport with a full 10 days of unhindered cycling to look forward to. No work, no kids, no worries, just my bike, the Alps and the Centenary Tour de France.

Cycling alone, in fact holidaying alone was new to me, but I had managed to frighten even Mr Whitehouse off with my plans to cycle from North to South through the Alps watching the Tour as ‘it’ criss-crossed the same mountains.

The evening sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the small roads empty and swept clean ready for the TdF. I followed the TdF route backwards stopping at Cruseilles late in the evening to fill up on Pasta & wine and watched the many cyclists buzz around the busy Town Square as it settled.

After passing through villages putting up their TdF tributes I found a bivi spot at 10pm and slept like a baby.

With a whole day to kill and only a short distance to my chosen view point near Seyssel, I went down into town for breakfast, then cracked on up the Col Grand Colombier which, at the time, I thought the TdF was using (thanks Mr Michelin). Totally washed out by the heat, long day and lack of food, I returned to my breakfast bar, then on up to my vantage point for the ‘big day’ – my first TdF up close experience.

The crowd sizzled as in the far distance across the wide valley the ‘caravan’ could be seen. Not individual vehicles, just a slow moving piece of road slightly different from that either side. Eventually they reached us high up on the first climb of the race. Grown men wrestled with each other for the tat thrown by smiling students from the passing vehicles, kids with armfuls of the stuff passed by. The atmosphere was electric, all eyes turned on the distant valley road – and we waited.

At 2pm we saw the helicopters. The crowd had been growing all day and now thousands of people shared my previously empty spot. Multi lingual chatter burst out as the support cars for the invisible breakaway group came into site. Stopwatches started to time the ‘gap’ to the peleton. The noise of the helicopters zig zagging up the hillside filled the air, but even that was lost in the roar of the crowd that climbed the switchbacks like an audible Mexican wave.

Then we saw them, the breakaway group, Richard Virenque in the lead smiling, loving the attention, swaggering on his pedals, sweat soaked, but looking strong. On his wheel were riders who looked less happy, less strong, but just as determined. These cartoon characters seemed to be double the size of any of us. The roar swept over us all and climbed along side our heroes up the switchbacks far above.

The second wave was not far behind, but this time the road was filled with riders, almost pushing into the crowd, my heart was pounding, I could see my heroes Armstrong, Hamilton, and Ulrich on the road below me. Before I could take breath to scream unconsciously along with everyone else they passed me and were off into the sun melted tar of the upper mountain.

It was like lying in bed after making love – I felt drained, happy, spent of energy and emotion. I stoked my belly for the ride to Bourg d-Oisans, 150-km south, and set off at 3.30pm. There were fewer cyclists than I had expected, most wore their bikes like trophies on their camper vans, but I soon caught a small group of racers cycling along side a huge lake.

With my Welsh flag proudly flying from my saddlebag I took my turns on the front as we sped along the glass like road. They took me along some lovely roads and wished me well when they finally turned for home. I found the wheel of another, less amused, Frenchman on the flat straight roads 20km outside of Grenoble. I caught him while he was playing with his radio, but with many miles left to go, I tucked in behind him to ease my way into the head wind. It was this head wind and my big gear that allowed me to hold his wheel, until he finally stopped to wave his arms at me in a classic Gallic tantrum.

Everywhere was closed, and I was running on empty. Like a waterhole in a desert a pizza van came into view. One large ‘margarita, chips and garlic bread’ later, I loaded up with fizzy drinks and chocolate, turned on my lights and cut over the eastern suburbs of Grenoble and began the long gradual climb to Bourg d-Oisans.

The traffic was heavy, an endless stream of campervans churning slowly past me, shouting and tooting encouragement – I saw no other cyclists, just vans with bike carriers. A TV crew were sitting out on the veranda of the ‘Central Hotel in Bourg d-Oisans, where I promised myself a grand beer on arrival. I sat smiling inwardly at the spectacle I was to see on Alpe d’Huez the next day.

I woke with the smell of a thousand Frenchman’s urine in my nostrils. I had found a corner of a dusty car park to lie down in around 1 am, and was awakened at 5:50 am by an endless stream of Police sirens heading up Alpe d’Huez. The café was busy and I spent the morning watching the crowd grow to a heaving mass filling every space in the town – time to leave.

At times cycling up Alpe d’Huez was just not possible. Never before have so many people and all in such good humour surrounded me. To be let through the barriers at the bottom while all cars were stopped was fantastic. Mayhem ruled on the lower slopes, but farther up the crowd thinned, and drunken Dutchmen on every corner cheered us all on.

I stopped on a hairpin bend that offered some shade; exhausted I lay back on something sharp. It was a small glass vile; the type EPO comes in, still full of yellow liquid – an unused insurance for some struggling ride perhaps?

I staked my claim early, 2km from the top, with a commanding view of two switchbacks and a long run up. I was pleased with my spot. The day passed, the sun rose and the crowd swelled to unimaginable size. My bike formed a little pen around me, with my Welsh flag flying from a distance marker I felt set for the excitement of the day.

The Caravan, the scramble for tat, and the helicopters preceded ‘Mayo’ on a lone break ahead of the others. He was strong; he looked removed from the pain he must have been feeling, focused on winning the most prestigious alpine climb in cycling.

Behind him were the empty faces of those who had given everything, but could not keep his wheel, they looked desperate. The peleton followed with the overall leaders bunched just off the front looking cool and confident. Then came the spent army of domestiqes who had been working all day over the biggest climbs in the Alps. Empty shells of men, with drawn faces, legs hardly able to turn a pedal. The noise of the ‘broom wagon’ like an all-consuming angel of death inches behind their wheel. The day was ended, I looked around the ski resort, but it was closed to those without passes, so I headed down.

Far from the easy cycle I had expected the road was blocked all the way down, 14km, with cars and people. That night while I ate my two dinners outside the heaving restaurant I could see the snake of lights down the mountain above. The constant sounding of horns from the frustrated drivers filled my ears when I fell asleep shortly after midnight, it took some people 10hrs to get off the mountain – next time go by bike.

Bourg d-Oisans was alive early, at 8am I staked my claim on the barrier, and soaked up the atmosphere of the stage start. Stars of yesteryear wandered about the start, with the stars of today warming up and signing on. Four hours later I followed the peleton up Col du Lautaret. They went south to Gap, and I headed still upwards and over the Col du Galibier on my way back to Geneva my TdF watching over.

I wanted to do the climb without stopping, but lunch and lack of water forced me to stop twice and sore legs once on a steep bit 5km from the summit. As I climbed I began to look down on glaciers over the valley, and feel chill winds blowing out of the sunny sky. The memorial to Henry Desgrange stood huge close to the entrance of the summit tunnel, and the old ‘true’ Col swung off to the right steepening considerably. Every cyclist on this last km was in trouble, straining at the pedals, neck veins bulging.

People looked down and cheered from the Col above, clapping every cyclist that made it up. It felt like I had really done something getting to the top, it had been a long 4 1/4 hrs.

As I pulled all of my spare cloths on against the now freezing wind, I ate as much and as quickly as I could. A few minutes later I was racing the motorised traffic down Col du Galibier towards Col de Telegraph. Blocking my wife’s disapproving face out of my head, I let rip on this once in a life time decent. When would I be able to do this without worrying about someone else?

I pushed hard past vans and busses, busting out of the switchbacks when they had slowed to a crawl. As cars and motorbikes braked for the sweeping bends I tucked in low on the handlebars and sped past. Twenty six minutes later I was buying my dinner in the Spar in Valloire, the town between Col du Galibier and Col de Telegraph.

As the shadows grew longer I left to climb my third big Col of the day. Psyched up, I picked a mid gear and settled into a steady rhythm, but no sooner than I had found my pace I was at a sign that said ‘Telegraph’. Confused I descended expecting the climb to continue soon, but ever down I went, reaching the industrial valley below well before dark, with plenty of time to find a place to sleep.

For a number of reasons I could not find a place to set up camp. The towns were industrial, and the countryside dotted with houses all with high fences right down to the road. So on I pressed on mile after mile, until I eventually saw a distant pool of light.

I walked into the isolated little bar, and had the same effect as if I had a gun. It was well after closing time, and the seven people in the bar took a long time to resume their conversation. No one spoke to me, not even the barmaid. I drank two large beers and left. As I cycled past, the windows were full of ruddy French faces all with the same bemused look. It is a memory that I will keep forever.

The beer on an empty stomach was a bad idea. I soon found myself with hollow legs, cycling into a thunderstorm. At the first bus shelter I set up camp just in time as the rain began. Once again the smell of urine swirled around me, then at about 2am I scared the living daylights out of one of the contributors to the smell as he drunkenly entered the shelter only to trip over me and fall in a swearing heap. This had been my longest day at around 170-km with three cols, and I slept well despite the thunderstorm and the drunk.

Two pleasant but uneventful days cycling found me back in Geneva ready for the flight home. I was surprised at how few touring cyclists I saw, and of the cyclist I did see most were more into posing than cycling judging by the lack of sweat. It was a fantastic trip and something I will always remember, but being without Deb' and the kids became a burden once the racing had finished. If I had planned it better I could have followed the race south to Marseilles and flown back from there. Bon Route.

 

The author has requested that we preserve his anonymity though you’d have to be a total stranger not to suss it out.

 

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