Cycle Touring with Unique Cycling Tours

I’m back.

14 days in France, 10 days with Unique Cycling Tours, and 4 days by my lonesome in Annecy.

6 hours from Geneva to Doha. A 20 hour stopover in Doha. 13 hours to Adelaide. We are a very long way away.

Climbing some epic mountains:

  • Mont Ventoux
  • Alpe d’Huez
  • Glandon/Croix de Fer
  • Telegraphe
  • Galibier

Plus other rides across some superb countryside and through some amazing old villages in stunning Provence and the Rhone-Alpes.

My vocabulary cannot provide justification to my amazement of riding across this stunning country.

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Before i get further into my experiences, I want to put something out there.

I’m thinking of doing a cycling trip next year to Italy.

Dolomites, Bormio, Lake Como??? I haven’t given it too much thought. 

BUT – Is there any interest among my readers to get a Wednesday Legs cycling tour together for winter next year?

Based on my experience with the Unique Cycling Tours team, I would have no hesitation in using them if we can get a Wednesday Legs group together.

I am not fixed on  the specifics, and more than happy to enter into dialogue if there is an interest.

Send me an email and we’ll see where it goes. No immediate rush, I’ll be asking the question for another several months. But if we can get 5 – 7 responses, we can look to lock something in with George at UCT.

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So, my experiences. Please forgive the length of this posting, a lot of photos.  Tgere is probably too much to take in with the one visit, so feel free to jump in and out at your leaisure.

The 3rd part of my trip where i travelled by myself to Annecy will be included in the next Wedneday Legs posting.

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This tour promised to be a spectacular introduction to cycling on the continent, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The Unique Cycling Tours part of my holiday had us staying in Seguret in Provence for the first 5 days, then transitioning down to Allemond at the base of the Glandon in the French Alpes for the next 5 days. Excuse my cartographic skills below, but 1represents the first half of the UCT tour, 2 is the second half, and 3 represents the few days I had by myself before i flew back to Adelaide.

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The tour started with

  • Sporting Director and Tour Leader – George Wilson

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  • Super Domestique and chief wise-arse – Steve Sanders

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  • Team photographer and blogger (Beardys Caravan) Marcus “Beardy McBeardy” – Only for the Provence section

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  • Team chef/Yorkshireman/Hardman on the road- Chris Heeson – Chef on the Provence section, then team rider for the Alpes.

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  • Ferg “Did I mention the time that I ” Frog – using this tour as a boot camp for his attack on the Melbourne race series.

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  • The Director “of video selfies” – Richie

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  • Jedi Yoga master – Ed

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  • Super Lantern Rouge – Ian “did someone mention a picnic” Pibworth.

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A few comments about my trip and observations before I start with the travelogue:

  • My goals were to finish each ride, not in any record pace, but at a pace that would see me comfortably finish that days and all other days riding.
  • I was going to take as many photos as possible on the bike, and whilst I kept this up, I found that every turn had another classic photo opportunity – when do you stop?
  • Eat, Eat, Eat. This was a cycling holiday, and therefore fuelling was of paramount importance to ensure we got to the end.
  • Listen to the body. 9 days of cycling was going to place unknown demands on the body.
  • Chill out when you can – if that means taking a 10 minute stop to have a picnic – so be it.
  • As a general rule, the French do not make good coffee.
  • As a general rule, the Belgiums make excellant beer.
  • Look around you, you never know if/when you will be back.

Part 1 – Provence

Day 1 – Transfer from the airprt to Segulat

We all met early outside the NH Hotel at the Lyon Airport, packed the van and trailer, and jumped out on the autoroute, first stop Bedoin at the base of Mont Ventoux where we were to get rubber down on a warm-up ride on day 1.

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Accommodation was a 30km ride away from Bedouin skirting Mont Ventoux, but the sight of the famous rock on our right shoulder provided a teaser for the next days challenge. The main ascent of the 3 up Mont Ventoux starts in the historic old town of Bedoin, so a perfect start to our tour.

It was good to see the bike arrived safely, and didn’t take too long to build, with a little help from Steve on the rear derailer.

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The short ride had us passing through the town of Mallecene, the start of the Mont Ventoux ascent from the opposite side to Bedoin.

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The accommodation in Provence was a superb villa built into the side of a hill at the top of a short but very steep driveway, overlooking the plains of Provence. An infinity pool provided very welcome relief at the end of each days rides as Europe was experiencing a heat wave.

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Dinner in Provence was provided by Chef Chris whose effort to ride long and hard and then to put a superb dinner on the table became the stuff of legends. Chris is a “retired” chef teaching down at TAFE, and has a small catering business on the side.

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A briefing each evening was facilitated by George. Day 1’s briefing had George walking us through the ascents of Mont Ventoux using his local knowledge and the mapping app ride with gaps. The challenge had been put out there to the team well before the tour started, 3 ascents of Mont Ventoux. Beardy, Ferg and Richie were to tackle the triple ascent. Ed and Chris the two, and the rest of us the one.

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Strava route for day 1 – https://www.strava.com/activities/1037840518

Day 2 – Mont Ventoux

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Waking up to glorious views over the valley, the triple team set off early, with plans for the remainder to meet them in Bedouin for a coffee after their first ascent. The heat was building up quick, and by the time we hit Bedouin it was already climbing up towards 30 degrees.

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Bedouin was awash with Belgiums who had arrived en-mass to celebrate Eddie Merckx birthday. Apparently the Belgiums have claimed Mont Ventoux as their “own”, and each year festivities are held in the towns and villages around Mont Ventoux, with numerous sportive climbs planned for the Saturday. So Bedouin was abuzz with cyclists of all ages and sizes.

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ventoux 1

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Mont Ventoux is one of the the hardest of all the Tour de France climbs. The mountain claimed the life of the great English cyclist Tom Simpson, who died here on July 13th 1967 from a combination of a stomach upset, heat exhaustion, alcohol and amphetamines.

There is a memorial to Tom 1.5 km from the summit which has become a shrine to fans of cycling.

The ascent from Bedoin is the classic way up the mountain. The length of the climb from Bedoin at 300m asl to the summit at 1912m is 21.5km . This gives an elevation of 1612m and an average gradient of 7.5%. This doesn’t sound too bad but when you break the climb down into its 3 obvious sections, with the first 5.5 km being a sedate 4.4% average gradient.

The next section through the forest up to Chalet Reynard is 9.5km long with an average gradient of over 9%, some sections hovering around 11% and 12%. I struggled up this section big time. I was never not going to get there, but coming from the cold Adelaide winter to this heat wave, together with time zone difference adjustment still a few days away had me wondering what I had got myself in for.  I had put in some big training efforts over a few months, but an expected workload increase saw little time on the bike, and I felt it on that climb.

Fortunately Steve was there to help. Riding with me up a good portion of the climb to Chalet Reynard and up to the summit, providing moral support, keeping me focused and making sure I stopped at Chalet Reynard for a break.

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The last 6km from Chalet Reynard has a gradient around 7%, but is more exposed. Apart from the temperature, we were extremely fortunate because the wind was gusting at a relatively sedate 20 – 30kmh. The following day, the day the Belgiums were climbing Ventoux from all sides turned out to be a particularly nasty day, high temperature s and very high winds.

If you cast your mind back to last year, the TdF Mont Ventoux stage was meant to finish on the summit, but impossibly windy conditions had the finish brought back down to Chalet Reynard.

A quick stop at the Simpson Memorial before tacking the last 1.5km at 10% before cresting.  What a ride, what a day, what a view.

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Chappeau to the guys who rode the double and triple climbs of Ventoux. An amazing feat.

Strava route for Day 2 – https://www.strava.com/activities/1039650729

Day 3 – Village loop.

It all started beautifully, a civilised 9am start, the first 10 kms a lovely gentle descent, wandering through numerous old villages on the way to St Didier, where we stopped for a coffee and a quick walk around town.

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The ride back to the Villa in Seguret turned a little shite. The fabled winds of Provence picked up and we ended up slogging our way back uphill and fighting head and cross winds. The group splintered into 3, with me and my best mate Steve Saunders, who stayed behind to help me finish, bringing up the rear.

A brutal end, but an mother unforgettable ride through the villlages and vineyards of Provence.

One observation in the first few days was the absence of bananas. A staple diet for cyclists in Australia, the lack of Bananas seemed strange in a Cycle mad part of the world.

Until we caught a glimpse of bananas in a stall in one of the villages we passed through on the way out. The Saturday morning village market was small, with around 15 stalls, but the quality of produce was superb, it had our resident chef Chris salivating.

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A bunch of Bananas, and a bag of ripe juicy apricots later had us back on our way.

A lovely coffee in the Main Street of St Didier sitting under the tree canopies watching the village life pass us by was very pleasant.

Memories, too many to jot down here, but being served by a young friendly waitress, only to see her a few minutes later jump onto a scooter with a full face motocross helmet and gun it across the road stood out.

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Strava route for Day 3 – https://www.strava.com/activities/1040643210

Day 4 – Gorge de la Nesque

The next day had us waking to yet another glorious morning, the wind had died down presenting us with a promise of a superb days riding conditions.  Today’s ride had us heading through some more character laden villages and typical french countryside over to the spectacular Gorges de la Nesque.

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Gorges Village

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The Gorges de la Nesque is a 17.6 km ride, but averaging at around 2.2%, it was a relatively “relaxing” ride to allow us to spin the legs out, although that didn’t seem to stop the other guys, who quickly disappeared on the horizon. Steve held himself back to ride with me – superb views over the right shoulder as we slowly ascended to the lookout.

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Gorges 4

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After regrouping back at the village at the start of the Gorges, we headed across to Bedoin for lunch, and then back to the Villa.

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Strava route for Day 4 – https://www.strava.com/activities/1042691649

Day 5 – Riders Choice.

The body was starting to feel a little sore. My arse. Ouch.  Beardy, Ferg, Richie and Ed split into two groups and did different ascents of Mont Ventoux. Chris, George, Steve decided to clean up and head down to the Roman Village for a coffee before our transition phase tomorrow.

Me, I headed out to do some sightseeing – on the bike of course. A discussion with George last night had a few alternatives that I could tackle depending on how the body held up.

The local town Seguret is built into the side of a step hill/cliff, old, cobbled roads, amazing.

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A quick look around Sablet before cruising over to Vaison La Romaine. A local tribe established a small village on top of a rocky promontory, which grew into a village across the other side of the river, connected by an arched cobbled bridge. A meander around a surprisingly large town before a coffee in the square.

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Next stop was Crestet, another historic town built a few hundred metres above the plains. I initially wanted to look at this town, but the road continued through and up into natural bushland, so what’s a man to do but to carry on riding up following the road to its natural paved ending.

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Next stop, Malsuscene for a lunch of Quiche and Sausage roll from the patisserie before I looped back around towards the Villa, via a stunning climb up to Suzette.

 

IMG_0325IMG_0331IMG_0336IMG_0339IMG_0345IMG_0351IMG_0354IMG_0357All up, what was meant to be a cruisy day ended up a 73km ride with 1400m of climbing.

A few of us popped up to the old village for a walkaround.

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Strava route for Day 5 – https://www.strava.com/activities/1044057197

My heat map for the Provence stage of the trip

Heat Map 1

Part 2 – Rhone Alps

 

Day 6 – Transition to the Alpes

We transitioned over to the French Alps after dropping Beardy McBeardy off in Carpentras for his next gig before his TdF duties.

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The hotel we were staying at is about a few hunj metres from the dam wall, the start of the Glandon/Croix der Fer (Iron Cross) climb.

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A quick settling in before we popped out for a ride up to Villard Reculas, with its 7 hairpins before passing over through the Col de la Confessions before dropping down to Huez, the old town halfway up the famous Alpe d Huez climb. The views from the Confession down onto the valley some 700m above the valley floor below were outstanding. (The next day we got to look up at Huez and the road from Reculas, the road at Col de la Confessions was carved into the side of the sheer exposed rock face of the mountain, unbelievable).

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Looking down onto Huez from Col de la Confessions

A quick drink at a cafe in Huez before backtracking back to our hotel in Allemond.

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The hotel is staffed by Dutch, who in a similar manner to the Belgiums with Mont Ventoux, have effectively laid claim to Alp de Huez as their own. No air conditioning to provide comfort in this heat wave had some unsettled nights, but on a positive note, the beer was good. A surprise at this hotel was the 7 Euro lunch (pasta) and laundry deal each day, Kit washed each evening, returned by 8, and pasta lunch thrown in, bargain. Pasta was quite simple, but the pasta bar was open till around 4:30 in the afternoon so we were able to get back in good time most days.

Strava route for Day 6 – https://www.strava.com/activities/1045816503

Day 7 – Glandon/Croix de Fer

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As for all days, George opened up the ride options to the group for discussion. The double Glandon was targeted by Richie, Ed, Ferg and George. These guys are animals. Me, I was going to be happy with the Col de la Croix de Fer (Pass of the Iron Cross).

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The Col de la Croix de Fer is a spectacular. At 27.5 km long at an average gradient of 4.7% doesn’t sound much, but there are some downhill sections, made up with some particularly steep 11% sections. The bottom takes you through forested land with waterfalls and beautiful snatches of views up through the valley as you slowly ascend up towards the dam 2/3 of the way up. Once you hit the dam, it the valley opens right up allowing you to see almost all the way up to the summit.

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Just past the dam I stopped for a quiet relaxing “picnic” of a Nutella and apricot jam baguette I’d prepared in the morning. Shoes off, socks off, jersey off, bib straps down, sitting in the middle of nature looking up at the snow capped granite mountain peaks, listening to the waterfalls and smelling the grease mountain air – this is the life.

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croix de Fer 1

Alas, I had to get back on the bike to finish off the ride to the top, back down to the turnoff to the Glandon summit, all of a couple of hundred metres before gliding back down to the cafe at the turnoff to catch up with Steve who had for the first time  driven the van up to support the riders.  The previous night George had highly recommended the tart of the day at this cafe, and ask for Chantil cream. For some reason, we saw a lot of canned cream in cafes over in France, particularly on top of the cappuccinos, but you need to ask for Chantil cream – real dairy cream.  Blueberry tart was the tart of the day, a generous serving with blueberry flavoured cream, an excellent suggestion George.

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croix de fer

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croix de fer 3

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The descent back down to Allemond was brilliant, but over way too fast. We did hit a lot of road works today as they prepared the road for Stage 17 of the TdF – La Mure to Serre-Chevalier – 183km, 5,421m total climbing as they take on the Croix de Fer, Telegraph and Galibier.  The route will take them past the front door of our hotel in Allemont – S on the below map.

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Strava route for Day 7 – https://www.strava.com/activities/1047249292

Day 8 – Alpe d’Huez.

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This was the stage everyone was waiting for.

21 hairpins

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In case you wonder, the numbering starts at the top, so the first No you see on your ascent is 21

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Strava route for Day 8 – https://www.strava.com/activities/1048771839

Day 9 – Telegraphe / Galibier.

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Only to follow it up with another classic of the TdF, the Telegraphe/Galibier. We were riding on the mountains where cycling history was made. As George said, if your cycling juices don’t flow up the Galibier, then nothing will.

 

The Telegraphe was a pretty bog standard warm up climb.

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Telegraphe

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But the Galibier, that was just out of this world.  The highest road passage in France at 2600m, riding up though the jagged peaks, With snow dotted around here and there is an experience I will never forget.

Riding along the Valley, looking up towards the bleak dark snow capped peaks was pretty awe inspiring. Being overtaken by countless high performance sports cars was pretty special. Stopping at the bottom of the start of the steep climb with 8.5km to reach the Col was just mind blowing.

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Galibier 2

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Galibier

The view from the top of the Galibier looking down the other side was stunning.

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The Omlette and chips lunch 8 km down the other side was well received.

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And the 60km descent on the other side wasn’t bad either.

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Strava route for Day 9 – https://www.strava.com/activities/1050357544

Day 10 – Balconies

Last day, and a fairly cruisy ride with a “bit of climbing”.  Part way of Huez before taking a right at the fifth turn and riding across the “Balkans”, a road “dug” into the side of the cliff. Once again, the views back down onto the valley onto Le Borg d’ Oisans were astounding.

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We then popped back to Le Borg d’ Oisans for a coffee and a chat about where to next. The options were a long 12% climb up to Villard-Notre-Dame Lafond through a tunnel, or a slightly easier ride to Le Plan du Col. Being the last ride, we chose the latter.

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We finished off with lunch back in Le Borg d’ Oisans, and alas, the official tour for this group was over.

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After lunch, I went for a little ride around the top of Allemond.

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Unfortunately i forgot to charge my bike computer the night before, so my strava map is a tad short.

Strava Ride for Day 10 – https://www.strava.com/activities/1051875853

 

Wrap up.

This was for me a challenging but very rewarding cycling trip. Seeing and riing on the roads and up the mythical climbs of Ventoux, Gaibier and Alpe d’ Huez seemed dreamlike. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face on completing these climbs.

Riding through the old villages of France, stopping at the markets, dropping into cafes and just chilling and experiencing life abroad with a great bunch of guys was relaxing and mesmerizing.

I realize that this was only scratching the surface of cycling on the continent, but the joy and wonderment of this tour with Unique Cycling Tours, I’ve come to the realisation that this itch cannot be soothed with just this one scratch.

To that end, I’d like to thank the guys who formed the small team. Ferg, Ed, Ritchie, Chris and Marcus. It was an absolute pleasure sharing the road with you.

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And finally to the Unique Cycling Tours team, George Wilson (right in the below picture) and Steve Sanders (left), thanks for your support and guidance throughout.  Two wonderful staging points in Seguret and Allemond.  A well organised and enjoyable tour. Your local experience, including an intimate uderstanding of the weather conditions lessened our concerns and let us focus on enjoying the rides.

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Steve and George on top of Huez

 

One bit of warning about George though – when George says there is a wee bit of climbing, be prepared for some more hard slogging.

If anyone wants to speak to me about my experiences, or are looking for some tips about travelling overseas with your bike, all it will take is a good cup of coffee and a chocolate doughnut or a zepolli.

Cheers

 

till next time

tight spokes

iPib

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