Stage 21 – Chantilly to Paris

And so, with the Eiffel Tower as our backdrop, another fantastic Tour de Force comes to an end on the Champs Elysee. With family Champs Elyseewelcoming our riders to the finish line with banners and cheering, it was, as it always is, an emotional place to be. Will any of us ever be the same again? I doubt it. A challenge as big as this rarely leaves one untouched.

And now? Somehow, with the bubble gently burst, it’s time to get back to our lives and work out how to live them. Many of our riders go on to make big changes. They’ve discovered what matters to them most, and just what they’re capable of achieving while out on the roads of France.

For the William Wates Memorial Trust, they are able to award yet more grants as well as continue to provide the support to the charities they are already helping to fund. Their work continues and this year’s ride will raise over £320,000 (and counting) which is a huge achievement. The Trust as well as the entire Tour de Force team would like to thank all the riders and their supporters for their hard work and generosity in making this possible.

And you? Well if you’re reading this and are thinking: “I’d love to do that”, then make sure you have registered your interest to take part in order to sign up on Wednesday this week for the Tour de Force 2017! Next year, don’t just watch it … ride it!

Stage 20 – Megeve to Morzine

If we could design the perfect final day for an epic Tour de Force, it would look like this. No transfers – ride door to door. Clear blue skies andIMG_0997 glorious heat. Massive snow-capped mountains and the most incredible Alpine scenery. A group of road-hardened cyclists all completing the toughest few days, or 3 weeks of cycling they will probably ever do. A hefty dose of associated emotion as they realise they’ve been living the dream … and it’s all about to come to its natural conclusion. Throw in an idyllic French cafe at the first feedstop, 4 of the best Alpine climbs there are and whooping, sweeping descents, a cafe with views where everyone can gather at the top of the final climb with just a descent down to the best hotel of the tour and I think it’s safe to say it doesn’t get any better than this. And then serve tartiflette for dinner.

It was a privilege to ride with our cyclists today and to be at the top of the final climb with many of them was a very special moment. We have cycled 20 stages of what has proven to have been the toughest tour to date. Our riders have come through with dignity, determination and finesse. We couldn’t be more proud of each and every one of you.

IMG_0990With just the glory procession into Paris to come, this is their chance to soak up the reality of what they have achieved. Those continuing to Paris are all our Lifers plus the ‘Half Lifers’ who joined us in Andorra – which seems a lifetime ago now and Mont St Michel, a distant memory.

Paris gets emotional. Family will be joining many riders to help them celebrate. After the short spin into the city from nearby Chantilly, we will group at the Eiffel Tower for photos and do a lap of the Champs Elysee (just the one – the pros get to do several, but then they have closed roads – it’s not a lap most of our riders ever wish to repeat!) and Arc de Triomphe before heading to our nearby hotel. In the evening we’ll all head to the Seine for a river cruise and dinner and a glass of pop! The blog will follow on Monday with a final wrap-up and fundraising tally.

The donations are still coming in. We’re enormously proud of all our riders and grateful to all their supporters. This crazy 3 weeks has been just as much about the kids we are helping, as it has been about the ride. The charities we support never give up on the kids they work with. We’d like to think we never give up on our riders either. Together, we can help change lives. We can help riders and young people achieve things in life that they never thought possible. By bringing those 2 worlds together, the Tour de Force has become a wonderful thing. All our staff who work on this event are enormously proud to be a part of it. So as we draw to the end of this year’s tour, I can only ask one question … who’s for 2017?

Sales open on Wednesday. Don’t just watch it … Ride it!

Stage 19 – Albertville to Megeve

IMG_0957After one of the most glorious days you can imagine on a bike, our photo gallery pretty much tells the story. Fabulous sunshine but not too hot, HUGE climbs that had lungs bursting and legs popping (not least the final climb of the day – a 10km effort after 5 huge climbs already nearly tipped most of us over the edge with the 13% ramps at the start). We’re aching, exhausted and starting to feel elated as the end really is in sight.

Rider of the day went to Tyrese who put in an incredible performance, well supported by lead cyclist Phil, ticking off some of the biggestTyrese and Phil climbs of the day and only calling it quits near home when a puncture caused him to stop. He surpassed all expectations and has a huge smile to show for his efforts. Chapeau Tyrese! Thandi also excelled by giving us a great after-dinner about Westminster House Youth Club, their work, the kids they support and the difference that is made by the support for their Duke of Edinburgh award that is funded by a WWMT grant. He told us ‘we never give up on any of our kids at Westminster House, and Tyrese is an example of just what can happen when they have the support’. We’re incredibly proud of all their efforts today and proud to be supporting the club, making a real difference to the lives of kids like Tyrese.

Tomorrow (stage 20) is our final ‘real’ stage – stage 21 into Paris is the glory ride (watch the pros sipping champagne as they ride!). But we’re not getting let off easily – it’ll be just as huge as today (which was well over 4,252m of ascent over 161km) but the sun will be hotter and the climbs less blissfully shaded as they were all through today. It’s going to be just as tough as today.

But we’re all smiles, because tough as it was, today was an Alpine day on the bike to be treasured – it really doesn’t come much better than this! Check out our gallery of photos, the twitter feed and the riders’ blogs for plentiful views of stunning scenery.

And for tomorrow …

Stage 20 Profile

 

Stage 18 – Sallanches to Megeve

Having arrived around 10:30 last night, those with the energy managed to grab a quick massage and get kits washed and hung on radiators ready for today’s short time trial stage. Most were just too knackered and fell into their beds in a lovely old Swiss hotel. Given the amount of sopping wet kit hanging about, it was a shame to have to start today again in the rain. But after the wet descent to Sallanches, the weather cleared and we were greeted there by a brass band and parade special for us! … ok – it might have been for Bastille Day.

At least half the riders dived into the cafe at the start for a quick caffeine injection while others just headed on up the 17km climb to get theIMG_0930 job done. Others preferred to stop for a quick coke half way. It didn’t matter what folk chose – today was just a wee spin out on the bikes. But it WAS all up hill (apart from the last 2km) and there were some killer steep sections between 11 and 13% and a nasty short pitch at the end that was surely much more!?

But the route was pretty and quiet and mostly on beautiful new tour tarmac, past idyllic luxury chalets. After yesterday’s final climbs, the knees were definitely feeling it today, but we all completed comfortably and some positively flew up there!

The final 2km is a descent on which, Phil tells us, the pros are expected to hit speeds of up to 100km per hour. 55km per hour felt more than fast enough to us!

IMG_0929The rest of the day has been spent washing clothes, eating, watching the tour battle it out on Ventoux and relaxing. But the best news is that after 2 soggy cold days, we are to be treated to 2 more absolutely glorious days in the Alps, with sunshine forecast and temperatures at a very comfortable mid 20s. Perfect!

This evening we were joined by the lovely Thandi and Tyrese from the Westminster House Youth Club. Tyrese told us about his involvement IMG_0931with the Duke of Edinburgh award that is funded by WWMT – his ambitions to gain his gold D of E award were applauded by us all – I have no doubt he’ll achieve it! He and Thandi will ride some of the stage with us tomorrow and there are plenty of our cyclists eager to lend them support. Should be a great experience!

Tomorrow is set to be another hard day of riding with 2 x Cat 1 climbs, a Cat 2 and a monster HC. But the distance is mercifully shorter so hopefully folk will arrive back at the hotel in good time for dinner. If we get the sunshine we’ve been told to expect, we should have some absolutely gorgeous views and lots of photos to share – which will make a pleasant change after the last few days!

Stage 19 profile

Stage 17 – Berne to Finhaut-Emosson

Today looked pretty tough on paper with almost 4,000 metres of ascent over 183km (which was nearer 193km after we’d made it from our hotel to the stage 17 route start). Add to that heavy rain, freezing temperatures and even hail and you know it’s going to be a really tough, long day in the saddle.

Feed stop 1. Peter and DarraghAfter an easy start in the dry and a lovely, very Swiss first feed stop, we headed in to the first Cat 3 climb and the rain started. A long, slow drag, we hauled up it to the 2nd feedstop where we shivvered over our cups of tea and coffee (what a god send) and piled on every single item of clothing we had in our day bags. Then a descent followed by a long hard slog up the 2nd Cat 3 climb to a ski area before a 22km descent in terrible weather and bitterly cold temperatures (we’d been told it was a mere 1 degree on the top!). A descent like this in these conditions is a dodgy business – the risk of sliding and crashing is always there, so good concentration was needed, even when the shivvering started to effect the handling of the bike.

Once again Sarah pulled a rabbit out of the hat and persuaded a winery to open up and let us have our feedstop inside in the dry and relative warmth. We could even purchase a bottle of said wine! Wrapped in our removals blankets, the uncontrollable shivvering made it difficult to perform the simplest of tasks, such as crossing your name off the register and trying to hold a plate of food – which led to much hilarity which, it was noted, doesn’t half warm you up!

Rejuvenated, we headed back out into a much warmer, sunnier day for the run along the valley bottom towards the serious climbs of the day – View from Forclas climb down to Martignya Cat 1 climb up the Col de la Forclas, followed by the HC climb to our finish at Finhaut-Emosson dam. The first was a straining 13km climb leaving us utterly sapped of energy and daunted by the prospect of an even tougher (though shorted by 1 whole 3km) climb to the finish. For some it was 3 hours or more of climbing in ever-worsening conditions of cold rain and eventually hail and snow.

It was a bunch of very relieved riders who pulled into the mountain-top cafe for showers followed by an excellent feed of chicken and chips before the transfer to Megève. This transfer at the end of a very long and incredibly tough day has been worth everything, because it means we are now in one lovely Alpine hotel for THREE NIGHTS! This is unheard of on the Tour – we’ve never had more than 2 nights in any one place. It does mean a short transfer to the stage start on Friday but the luxury of not having to pack bags every day is too good to miss.

Tomorrow, mercifully, we have a late start at 10am to freewheel down the hill in order to complete the 17km uphill time trial. Sarah assures us there are cafes at the start, at at least 3 locations on the climb and the whole of Megève to go at on the finish line … we’re not anticipating any speed records to be broken tomorrow. And at least we’ll have some time to wash and try to dry the sopping clothes that are currently decorating every bedroom in the hotel!

Bon nuit

Stage 18 profile: Lifers, TT7 & TT8

Stage 16 – Moirans en Montagne to Berne

Poppies in a corn field. Start of stage 16 before the stormAfter all that heat, the shock news of today was the rain. We got a thorough soaking after a nice dry start which caught some folk out without any wet weather gear to hand. Some sought sanctuary in a hotel over a coffee but the rain wasn’t going to ease off. Back on the road and Sarah pulled one of her rabbits out of the hat by finding a school gym to provide us with shelter to eat lunch. We dried off, warmed up and headed out again and enjoyed a much warmer, sunnier afternoon. So lovely in fact that Sarah pulled her 2nd rabbit out of the hat with a scheduled ice cream stop. She must have been getting giddy about the prospect of the 2nd day off – spoiling us already!

And so we swooped into Berne along an agricultural valley bottom, admiring the folk floating down the river Aare in rubber dinghies (an KM's bikeactivity amusingly called Aarefahrt – extra points for any riders who have a go on their rest day – the most creative ice bath ever?). Everyone’s feeling a bit demob-happy. There to meet us (surprise!!) were a couple of TDF Alumni – Mark and Katrine-Mari. Katrine-Mari – a Lifer from 2014 and 2015 (yep – our only female to have been a Lifer more than once) who left Norway on her touring bike a few weeks ago and is heading towards Montenegro where she will be a marshall for the Trans-Continental race before climbing back on her bike and heading back home to Norway. Seeing her fully-laden bike made us all look at our super-light racing bikes in a new light. Go Katrine-Mari!

It’s all smiles now as we settle into the glorious thing that is a rest day in Berne. So – you know the drill – laundry, bike tinkering, sleeping and eating. We won’t be blogging tomorrow – enjoy the break (there’s only so many photos of drying shorts on balconies that we can take)! We’ll be back on Wednesday evening after what promises to be a good chunky 114 miler in the Alps. Mountains? Yep – a few of them, including a couple of Cat 3s, a Cat 1 and a super finish on a HC climb (the final sting in the tail). Sun? Maybe not! But hopefully not rain. It looks like this (hey, we’ve seen much worse, right?):

Stage 17 profile

 

Stage 15 – Bourg en Bresse to Culoz

As predicted, things got a little messy out there today – the first vaguely flat bit of pedaling didn’t arrive until 133kms in, only 30km from the View from Grand Colombierend! An early 7.30am start meant it was at least cool when we headed out, but the temperature built quickly and we were soon battling it out in the heat of the sun. Several riders made use of the village spring to cool down their legs. Mountain after crippling mountain until we reached ‘the big one’ – the Grand Colombier. It’s a 7 mile climb and there was no avoiding hitting it in fullest heat of the day. Incredible to think the pros are just one week behind us and are battling horrific rain and hail in the Pyrenees while we roast out bits off. Which would you prefer? Rain storms or heat? Both present their own potentially dangerous problems.

The final climb today was in fact a repeat of the Colombier – heading back up, though by a different route and to a lower point. Mentally, this proved too cruel for some and not everyone managed the 2nd ascent. No one should feel disappointed by their performance today. Stage 15 was always going to be murder. Add to that the unbearable heat and we have a recipe for torture. Anyone who thought they had this tour in the bag will have realised today that everything is still to play for. It was a battle weary bunch of cyclists that limped (limply) the final kms to the finish hotel in Culoz this evening. They’re exhausted – utterly spent. And they still have another mountain stage to complete before they get that precious 2nd day off in Bern on Tuesday. They can barely bring themselves to look at what lies in store for their broken bodies tomorrow:

Stage 16 profile: Lifers & TT7

Now – compared to today, that doesn’t look anything like as bad on the surface. But it’s still tipping over 200km so it’s a hell of a long way, and it’s definitely not flat. So given the condition that most of us are in tonight, that’s still not a straight forward day. Bern cannot come soon enough …

Stage 14 – Montelimar to Villars-les-Dombes

The heat can make you do funny things

The heat can make you do funny things

So it’s like this – today was pretty (think ‘sunflowers’) but blummin’ hot and blummin’ windy = blummin’ hard work. Dealing with hydration and general fatigue is now becoming the main order of the day. Sunbathing is for fools – we have to keep cool and hydrated and this is true back at the hotel as much as on the road – it’s crucial to good recovery. Yesterday’s ‘rest’ Time Trial helped, but today was another one of those days that is really all about tomorrow! Explain? Tomorrow is huge. I mean, it’s really huge. It’s possibly the toughest day of the tour. Having ridden today as the final transition towards the Alps, tomorrow we hit the big boys and it’s going to get messy.

We will start the day with a Cat 1 climb which isn’t all that high, but is an absolute killer of a climb to justify that high a Cat rating. Be afraid – be very afraid. This is then followed by a few other lumps and bumps (oh how we laugh in the face of 1 x Cat 2 and 2 x Cat 3 climbs) before the biggest baddest boy on the block – the Grand Colombier – an HC colossus: so monstrous it is without category (hors categorie). Yes, there is an absolutely glorious descent as a reward, but what goes down … must then go back up the final killing Cat 1 climb of the day. So while 160km doesn’t sound that far anymore, you can guarantee that there is going to be nothing left in the tank after tomorrow.

We will have some riders arriving pretty late at the hotel we suspect. But it’s days like this that make the Tour de France/Force the enormous challenge that it is. Some riders have got the nerve to be counting the days to Paris. Too early my friends! Have patience and bide your time. Enjoy living in the moment because while all-too-soon this adventure will be over, you’ve got some serious cycling to do first. So even with another rest day ahead on Tuesday and a time trial on Thursday, only a fool would underestimate how much work is still to be done out there.

While we tackle this tomorrow, the infamous Etape du Tour is taking place on the route of Stage 20 tomorrow (it’s a closed road event run by ASO for over 15,000 amateurs to complete one stage of Le Tour – considered an absolute right of passage for most roadies). We won’t hit that until next Saturday, but we wish all those riding it enormous bon chance, while also hinting that it’s ‘only’ one stage of the tour – so come and ride a few more with us next year and show us what you’re really made of!

Stage 15 profile

 

Stage 13 – Bourg St Andeol to Pont d’Arc

In the aftermath of the might challenge of Mont Ventoux – the ‘Bald Mountain’ – there have been some very moving blogs posted that describeVentoux sunset the blood, sweat and tears produced by our riders and so rather than try and tell you each story, please do check out the riders’ blogs pages of our website and read for yourself (we’ve also posted loads more photos to our gallery for Stage 12). Top blog of the day has to go to Andrew Steel who reduced us to tears. This has happened before on Ventoux in 2013 when a similarly moving piece was written by Neill Kemp who surely retains the yellow jersey for the most tear-inducing blog entry in the history of the Tour de Force. Just remembering it makes me well-up!

I’ve been waiting all tour for a rider to blog on the food he/she has consumed in one day. At last, Piers Wates has obliged:

Breakfast: 2 pan au chocolat, 2 croissant, 2 bowls of musli
Feed 1: 1 banana, handful of peanuts, handful of raisins, 1 slice of fruit tart
Feed 2: 2 peanut butter-jelly sandwiches, 1 ham and cheese sandwich, 1 plum
Lunch: plate of spicy noodles and tuna pasta, prawn crackers, 2 slices of watermelon, 1 custard rice pudding.
Feed 4: 3 brownies, 1 banana, 1 ham and cheese brioche
On Mont Ventoux: 1 banana, 1 ham and cheese brioche
Dinner: 2 chicken thighs, Cous-cous, salad, 2 slices of baguette and cheese, 1 ham and cheese brioche, 1 slice of apple tart.

You can’t go wrong with a ham and cheese brioche eh Piers? Again, I’m reminded of Neil Kemp’s immortal blog back in 2013 listing the food he consumed on stage 5. I hope he never deletes that blog – I never tire of re-reading it.

And so after the late night transfer to Montelimar that saw us dodging drunken and deliriously happy French football supporters, we all enjoyed a lie in before heading off to ride the time trial. Beautiful scenery combined with plenty of rest time has made today a perfect recovery day after the trials of Stage 12.

Rejuvenated, we look now to stage 14 as we start to head towards the Alps for the next meaty chunk of the tour. Those hills aren’t too big, but they’re leg-sappingly tiring in their constantly rolling fashion. If the wind is against us and the heat is still on, we’ll suffer tomorrow. Lessons were learned on Mont Ventoux and so we should all be better hydrated from now on.

Stage 14 profile: Lifers & TT7

We’ve been abandoned by the huge group of riders who joined us for the Pyrenees and for the next few days we will be just the Lifers and half-Lifers for the 2nd half of the tour. Our next batch of riders doesn’t arrive until Stage 17, arriving on the evening of our next rest day on Tuesday. We’ve loved being part of a bigger group, but we’ll also enjoy being a tight-knit group for the coming stages. Our riders are well and truly ‘in the bubble’ and for those daring (prematurely!) to think about Paris, they will already be realising how hard it will be to come out of this bubble and re-enter normal life. But like I said – such ideas are premature – we’ve got a hell of a long way to go yet and just a few mountains in our way. One step at a time my friends … one step at a time.

 

Stage 12 – Montpellier to Mont Ventoux

Stage 12It’s been a long and very hot day through the sizzling flat lands of Southern France, taking in gorgeous historic towns and villages along the way, dousing ourselves with cooling water at every opportunity to keep the heat at bay. All this in preparation for the mighty Mont Ventoux that loomed on the horizon for most of the day, beckoning us tauntingly. For any keen rider, Mont Ventoux is a mecca and a big cycling box to tick. For some it’s been a long-awaited ambition to climb it and today was their day.

There have been no blogs from any of our riders today – they came off Ventoux, straight into a delicious dinner before boarding a bus to Montelimar. Why transfer now? Well tomorrow is our first time trial day and a mere 37 km of easy riding – which by now, is hardly worth climbing on the bike for! Most will consider it a rest day that includes a little spin to keep the legs moving. We won’t be able to race it like the pros because we don’t have the luxury of closed roads. Some will no doubt stop for ice creams en route! But by transferring tonight, it means we can all get a lie in tomorrow and have a late start. Luxury! It then also means a full day with no transfers – it really is a rest day by another name.

However, it does mean that after a long day in the saddle our riders are sitting on a coach tonight without wifi (and mostly sleeping), soDinner tomorrow’s daily blog will include more tales from today’s stage when we catch up with the riders properly and find out how they fared on Mont Ventoux.

Bon nuit!

Stage 13 Profile