Friends, family, blog buddies, welcome to my 2011!
The last time we spoke, at the end of 2010, I was lamenting on how it had been a pretty good year, but things hadn’t really gone my way, like I am accustomed. Well, I’m happy to report that the universe has returned to normal, the stars have realigned, and I had a fantastic 2011. And here’s how it happened:
Occupying My Bike
Readership on the blog was getting a little stale by the end of 2010 and I needed some new material, bad. What better sport to take up for a middle-aged guy with a bum knee who was more than a few pounds north of ‘athlete’, than bicycle racing!
So, along with old friend Karsten, I signed up to race in the Etape du Tour, a giant amateur race held every year that ‘allows’ riders like yours truly to experience an actual stage of the Tour de France. The organizers always choose a big stage in the Alps, Pyrenees or other mountains and 10,000 riders from all over the world descend on wherever it is to suffer like they’ve probably never suffered before. Am I making this sound attractive?
I have 100 or so blog articles that follow my progress throughout my season, which saw me happily go from finishing in the bottom 20% of my category in my first race in February to the top 30% in the Etape in July, with many wild variations in between. If you have tons of time and heaps of motivation you are welcome to check out my blog, but for those who have lives of their own to live, here are a few highlights of my racing season.
The Ritual Shave
It is the sure sign that you are taking this cycling business serious. Who else would go through this procedure for the benefit of having smooth, shiny legs? OK, I’m sure there are a few out there, but for me it was a turning point in my mental transformation from pretender to…pretender with shaved legs!
But not because we were the slowest. Actually, I think Karsten and I were doing pretty good before 1) we got lost and 2) Karsten ended up doing a high-speed gravel skid on a particularly nasty turn. The result was an ugly and painful road rash, a pick-up from the dreaded broom wagon and a very slow ride to the end of my 2nd race of the season.
I’m not sure how this happened, but both Karsten and I end up getting a certificate in our race in May over Mont Ventoux, stating that we had earned a ‘golden time’, i.e. the top category for the race. I think the organizers are overly generous, considering I had an awful meeting with the Man with the Hammer and lost many valuable minutes. Still, it put smiles on our faces.
The Race We’ve All Been Waiting For – Etape du Tour
Karsten and I at an ungodly hour of the morning, just outside Modene, the start town.
It’s the anticipation…
On mythic Galibier in the Alps, just before it gets painful.
Be impressed. This photo was taken at nearly 60 kph.
The only photo I could muster on the 21 hairpin turns of Alpe d’Huez, which was essentially a very long parade of pain and suffering, at least for mortals like me.
But it ended, and ended well, with a few glasses of champagne among friends.
July in France means more than just the beginning of your minimum 5 weeks of paid holidays; it also means that the Tour de France will be rolling close to your house. This year, like all others, Shoko and I chose a stage or two to travel to and soak up the carnival atmosphere that is the TDF. For our first we chose the Plateau de Beille stage, a mountain-top finish near the Spanish border in the Pyrenees.
You might think these rabid fans are cheering for their favorite rider. Sadly, you’d be wrong. They are trying to get the attention of the junk-throwing people who ride on the floats of the publicity caravan. The family in the foreground went berserk when the saussison guys rolled up.
After an hour or so of having crappy hats, fridge magnets and chewing gum thrown at us, the peloton finally arrived. Here is Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, just before one of them put in an ill-fated attack, I think.
Unconcerned about time, über-rouleur Tony Martin and the best cyclist of 2011, Philippe Gilbert roll up the mountain at a casual pace.
Fabian Cancellara is just behind them, lugging his massive thighs up the hill.
The following day we went to a small village to meet up with one of my blog readers, ‘Aussie Steve’ (because there is an ‘American Steve’, too), his wife, Julia, and The Mums.
For my last TDF sighting I took the train up to Paris to watch the last stage with Karsten and Sarah. This is the flamme rouge (marking the final km) next to the Louvre.
Here we have the Norwegian Corner, where fans make Nordic noise for Thor Hushovd (among others) every year.
The route this year passed right in front of Karsten and Sarah’s apartment, so we brought down some chairs to get an elevated view.
BMC leads the peloton into Paris, with overall winner Cadel Evans (in yellow) hiding at the end.
Various big shots bunched together. Cadel Evans, Fabian Cancellara, Andy Scheck and eventual stage winner, Mark Cavendish (in green).
Some of you may know that I started a website a couple years ago, which started out life as a site of cycling routes in Languedoc, France, where Shoko and I live. This site – cleverly named ‘Cycling Languedoc‘ – has morphed into a bit more than what it began as, and 2011 saw me getting into guided rides a little, as well as promoting cycling-friendly B&Bs and hotels in the region, and also ‘meating up’ the site with more practical info for the potential two-wheeled visitor to our region.
Here are a few folks that I had the pleasure of showing around the neighborhood this year.
This year, thanks to the generosity of the Lyn from Freewheeling France, I had two actual press trips that allowed me to ride my bike then write about what I found. Who knew such things existed! My first trip was up to the far north of France and southern Belgium to ride with a new tour company who specialize in the cobbled roads that make the cold, wet spring up there so bearable (because Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and several others big races take place then).
This was an experience of a lifetime and I would definitely recommend Alex and William for your cobbled needs. You really haven’t lived till you’ve ridden over pavé at 30 kph.
Me looking smug just before our first section of pavé, the dastardly Arenburg Trench.
One of the all-time hardest men of cycling – Sean Kelly.
The velodrome that makes legends – Roubaix. For Canadians reading this, Steve Bauer finished a close 2nd here in 1990, nearly chucking him up to join the pantheon of cycling gods.
A steady stream of cyclists at the foot of the Koppenberg in Flanders, 22% of cobbled hell, but I have to admit it looks quite nice in the photo.
The last day of our tour, where we went out to watch the Paris-Roubaix race live. This is Johan Van-Sommeren on his way to a dusty victory. If you haven’t read enough today, here’s the article I wrote for Freewheeling France.
My next freebee was in the French Ardennes, a region that until recently was hiding itself from the world pretty effectively. It is breaking out of its shell now and doing its best to attract tourism. I was up there to ride the Trans-Ardennes Bike Path, an 85 km sealed cycling road that follows the gentle Meuse River from Charleville (below) to the border of Belgium.
Like most of its type, the path is built on top of the old tow path along the river/canal.
Like the rest of France, the Ardennes has plenty of nice villages to stop and admire.
France has an immense system of navigable rivers and canals. A guy I talked with that weekend told me he could take his boat all the way to Languedoc if he wanted, probably 1000 km away. Here’s the article I wrote for those in search of an easy ride.
We did manage a few little trips between fartleks, sprints and intervals this year, but nothing like in the past. Still, I live in Europe, so I justify my lack of wanderlust recently to the fact that I’m actually living where I’d like to be travelling anyway.
This is the cafe at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, where Shoko dragged me to (not kicking and screaming…we did have our bicycles with us!) for an exhibition that she wanted to see.
My mom turned 80 in February, but wisely postposed her party till the summer, vastly improving her chances of a full house for the bash.
I flew for the first time since 2008, inflating my carbon footprint, but for a good cause at least. My old friend Scott picked me up in Montreal and we puttered in his VW 1000 km along the St. Lawrence River to my hometown of Gaspé, Quebec.
A calendar from my dad’s store (now converted into a summer home) from the year before he died – 1975.
Molasses and bologna – the breakfast of champions.
Niece Maureen and new nephew John, leading us through a singalong.
Our luck really returned when we moved from Montpellier to Nîmes in 2009 and it’s largely due to our lovely landlady (who insists that I don’t use this word…she prefers ‘dear neighbor’), Marie-Hélène. She has really taken us under her wing and our world has opened up quite nicely since the move.
In addition to being a great party organizer, hostess and chef, she also happens to have a condo in the south of Spain that, again, she insisted we visit sometime. As you can imagine, not much arm twisting was necessary to get us down there.
While we were so far south I decided that we had to see Gibraltar, a tiny speck of what I thought would be just like the UK at the extreme south of Spain. What it turned out being (for me anyway) was one of the more bizarre places I’ve ever visited – and that’s saying something. I can’t put my finger on the reason, but maybe it had to do with my expectations. Anyway, it’s well worth a visit if you’re in the area…once.
Shoko started her year off right by riding a bike in Paris.
For most of the year though, she was locked in her atelier (our spare room) brewing up contemporary creations for her course at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Nîmes, where she is now a 2nd year student. Here are a few of her projects.
Contemporary art is difficult to grasp for the majority of us (except for the French, who insist they understand everything…) and this is what the school Shoko attends focuses on. There’s no reproducing the masters, color-mixing classes, or essays on the history of perspective. It’s entirely different from what she imagined it would be, I think, and she’s very pleased.
Apart from her artistic pursuits, she found time to make her yearly visit to Japan to visit her mom, plus a bunch of museums.
And, since it’s my blog, I’ll end her chapter with another bike, this time in Provence, near our place.
We’re new to France and still building up our base of friends. It’s a slow, steady process, but I’m very happy with the results so far.
I’ve already mentioned Karsten, a guy I briefly worked with in Vancouver 15 years ago. We were reunited in 2011 because of our common love of the bicycle. Attached to Herr Kaa in the photo below is his lovely wife Sarah, who also likes the bike. To make it even better, they live in France and speak our language! Could you ask for anything more…?
Suzuki-kun, an old friend from Japan, visited us in Nîmes on his annual pilgrimage to Europe.
I mentioned our amazing voisine, Marie-Hélène already. Here we are at our birthday party in Provence in March.
The guy with the eccentric hat is another new friend – Clément. He and I frequent the Irish pub and local pizzeria from time to time, talking books, politics and the Latin roots of words (OK, he does the talking on that one). Clément speaks great English, so when my brain starts to grind down after speaking French for a while, it’s a pleasure to be able to switch to something easier.
John, a guy I famously met on the internet a couple years back, has become a good friend in the past year, partially because we share a common interest (yes, tight shorts), but mostly because he is an all-round nice guy and great conversationalist (and a badass on the bike…and he likes beer. He’s got a lot going for him.).
This year I found a brother. I always knew he existed, I suppose, but weirdly I had never met my step-father’s son, Rob, in all the years my mom and him had been together – until 2011, that is.
Tom, my step-father, found out I was trying to get more serious about cycling and advised me to email Rob, a former Ironman and still an elite athlete at 55 yrs. old. That fateful email led to a steady stream of excellent advice on training, then him becoming my (virtual) coach for much of the season last year. It’s not an big exaggeration to say that the improvements I made in my results were largely thanks to Coach Rob.
He came over to France in the summer to ride some of the famous climbs of the Alps and Provence and, although I was in Canada for most of his trip, I managed to get myself over to Nice to finally meet him face to face on the final day of his vacation. I’m very glad I did.
Well, there’s more I could say, but it’s January 1st and 17 degrees in Le Sud. Me and my lycra need to hit the road and start this year out right. Happy New Year to you all and I hope your 2012 satisfies the ‘three As’ I learned last night from our chère voisine: amitié, amour et argent!