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A pilgrimage to the Mecca of cycling
18 August 2015

The dedicated person that he is, Mike recently travelled to Europe to do some ‘research’ for his role as the Bike Wise national coordinator.  Here is a recap of some of the highlights…

A lifelong goal of mine was to watch some of the Tour de France live and this July, that dream became reality. Of course, France is far away, so the trip and all the necessary planning had been in the pipeline for three years. It was on my 47th birthday that the seeds were planted, as I started thinking about something cool to do for my 50th. A savings plan was initiated, permission for leave secured from my wife, and a French language book borrowed from the library. Maps, cycling itineraries and touring stories were saved on the PC. And a lot of dreaming commenced.

I have to admit to being pretty ignorant about the mega-event that the Tour de France is. I knew little about the riders or the teams; the history of the event and cool scenery were the main drawcards. My intention was to combine a personal journey on the bike with some interaction with the tour. What I got was an incredible trip shared with a good buddy (Marty), lots of wonderful interactions, amazement at the athletic ability of the riders, a proper understanding of the sheer scale of the event and how wonderful riding a bike in Europe is.

Mind you, riding a bike is great anywhere in my books, and New Zealand has some excellent roads and trails which I love exploring. However, cycling in the Netherlands, Belgium and France had me wondering about how to make cycling even better here at home by applying the best practices of Europe.

Our riding experience started in the Netherlands, which has cycling infrastructure that most nations are trying to emulate. Separate cycle paths, traffic lights for cyclists, bike storage - the list goes on. As we ventured south, the infrastructure levels decreased but respect for cyclists seemed to grow. Marty and I biked through several large French cities, including Paris, and were blown away by the courtesy shown by other road users.

Touring the Euro way

I’d like to share two highlights from the trip, though there were many more. After watching the team time trial, which started in Vannes and finished in the middle of Brittany, Marty and I began a week long break from the tour. Our own tour started in Plumelec and finished 700 kilometres later in La Rochelle. We cycled around 100 kilometres a day. The first 30 were on small country roads until we arrived in Malestroit, where we rode along the Brest - Nantes canal.

We started to run into a different kind of cyclist here. Gone were the fanatical Tour de France fans, replaced by a breed of cycle tourists which is hard to describe. Riders of all fitness levels and cycling abilities were on journeys of discovery. Most weighed down with bags, panniers and even trailers. Some towed children or dogs or just all their ‘stuff’.

We had joined a great European summer pilgrimage of people on bikes. To make the journey easy, the routes had names; these routes form a network across Europe. Our journey was part of the Velodyssey,, the Atlantic cycle route from Tavistock in Devon in the UK, to Hendaye in France, on the Spanish border.

I can only describe the route as a cyclist’s heaven: incredibly well marked and mostly for cyclists and walkers only. Every nook and cranny is filled with history, great scenery and superb food. The section we did had very few hills, especially the trails next to the canals. The facilities along the way varied and catered for all styles of riding. For example, two British Ironman athletes riding 200 kilometres a day with little else other than a jacket and a credit card, to the French family towing the family dog and children.

Into the high mountains: the mythical Alpe d’Huez

The other highlight I’d like to share is the ride up Alpe d’Huez. This has been a favourite climb of the Tour de France and is usually included in the itinerary. For me, the pedal up this famous ‘col’ is synonymous with the Tour de France, it’s something I had to do.

It’s tough, but apparently not the toughest of the climbing stages. The ride follows a road from the valley floor of La Romanche river to the little ski town nestled at 1850 metres above sea level. The official climb is 13.8 kilometres long and has an average gradient of 9 to 10% with 21 bends.

We left our pannier bags at the bottom in Bourg d’Oisan at 737 metres above sea level. It took me 1 hour and 24 minutes to reach the official checkpoint at 1850 metres above sea level – leaving me feeling pretty ordinary knowing that the fastest ever time recorded by Tour de France legend Marco Pantani is just 37 minutes and 35 seconds.

I was also humbled by many old codgers (no disrespect here), women and children who seemed to ride past me with ease.

The moment we took on the Alpe d’Huez was three days before the Tour riders came through, and already, the crazy fans were camped along the road, thousands of cyclists from all over the world were doing the same as us, grinding their way to the top on a 35 degree day (although there weren’t many mountain bikes). The atmosphere at the top was party-like, rendering the whole experience unforgettable.

What I can say for certain is this. If you ever need a shot of cycling enthusiasm head over to France – whether you follow le Tour, or ride on any one of the many famous routes, you’ll come back amped to ride more (and in my case, get more people cycling). It’s so more than just a means of transport.

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