travel

Reclaiming Additional Industry Compensation from Thameslink/Great Northern

If you get the train regularly, you may know that 2018 has not been the rail industry’s finest year. In particular, there was the disastrous introduction of new timetables across the whole network, but particularly hitting the Northern Rail and Govia Thameslink services. I know the former has probably been worse, but I was in part affected by the latter. The weeks following the highly theoretical new timetables’ introduction saw delays, cancellations and general miserableness.

The government dictated that passengers should be compensated, and GTR has set aside £15m for claims this year and won’t make a profit.

As to how you go about getting this money back? Well that can be complicated. If you’re a season ticket holder, then it should be simple. But I am not a season ticket holder because I use the line on a variable basis. Most of the time I use the train and my Brompton – but the route can vary. If it’s a nice day, or there are no handy connections, I’ll cycle a longer route. If the weather is worse and there is a good connection, I’ll change trains and cycle a shorter route. Similarly, I might go in one route, and out another. Sometimes I don’t travel at all, and work from home. Finally, I might cycle all the way into work and not bother with the train at all.

Fortunately, I don’t buy paper tickets, but use a Pay-As-You-Go Oyster card. As it turns out, this was a blessing in disguise since if I’d used a contactless bank card (which can sometimes work out better value for regular usage over a week), I’d have been poring over my old bank statements trying to establish my usage patterns over 8 weeks. A lot of work.

But since Oyster records all your journeys, I thought I’d simply log into the Oyster system and do it that way.

Except…

You can only view your last eight weeks! And the compensation system wanted me to note at least three return journeys a week to calculate compensation. Recall that the compensation system only became live for Oyster PAYG users fairly recently, but claims were for the period May to July. The Oyster system is useless for getting this information then!

Now the website did say that my Oyster card number should be enough. With my permission they can query TFL’s Oyster database and get my travel usage directly. But still, I didn’t want to say I was using the train on days I wasn’t. They might reject my claim because I was being fraudulent. (Previously I had to send multiple emails to get a miserly £5 delay-repay compensation when I was stuck in a tunnel for an hour. According to their records, the train had run fine!)

Fortunately, I use Strava for recording my cycling trips – even short commuter journeys. So I sat there with a calendar window open, my Strava account open and the compensation box open. With that information I could work out which rail route I’d taken on a given day.

Of course the system really didn’t like you going in on one route and returning home on another. While most of us probably do exactly the same route, some people have jobs in more than one location, or need to move around for work, or, you know, go out in the evening!

A cynic might say that this was to put you off claiming compensation. 

I was particularly annoyed when after entering a few weeks’ information, it stopped me entering details for further journeys. That was both a blessing and a curse.

But…

I pressed submit and just a few hours later got an email saying I was entitled to £173 compensation! 

I will take that thank you.

So if you were travelling on the Thameslink or Great Northern during the May-July period this year – go to their compensation website and put your claim in. Even if you get as frustrated as I did with multiple dropdowns and repeatedly copying and pasting my Oyster card number into lots of boxes, it’s worth it. You have until the end of January 2019 to make a claim.

Rail v Road During Holidays: Compare and Contrast

The above press release dropped into my inbox the other day.* It’s from Highways England, and is of the sort that is regularly published at holiday times of the year. So as we enter the Easter weekend, roadworks all over the country have been temporarily lifted to enable the flow of traffic.

They even have a quote from the MD of National Express: “It’s great that Highways England have lifted roadworks on key routes, including those serving airports, helping us make sure we can get passengers where they need to be for their Easter plans.”

Compare and contrast with this message from the National Rail website.

While the roads are cleared to ensure easy travel, lots of rail works are scheduled for precisely this period, notably including Bristol, the West Coast main line, Manchester Victoria, London Euston and more.

The reason given is that the period is, “A time when less people travel on the railway and when traditionally a considerable amount of improvement and engineering work needs to be undertaken on Britain’s rail network.”

Let’s parse that a little shall we? The first part of that sentence, grammatically should probably say, “fewer people.” But we’ll come back to that first part of the reasoning in a while.

The second part of the sentence is basically saying, “We’re doing works now because we always do works now.”

I’m not really sure that’s an excuse.  I completely understand the need for maintenance and improvements – these are essential. What I’m not clear about is why these have to be scheduled at a time when large numbers of people are travelling often long distances to be with family and friends.

Network Rail actually has a page on their website explaining, “Why we carry out work at weekends and bank holidays”

Here’s the key text from that page:

We plan works for certain times so they cause the least disruption to passengers, such as on bank holidays, Sundays and overnight, when the network is less busy.

An independent review in 2016 looking at how the rail industry plans and schedules major improvement work concluded that Christmas, Easter and bank holidays are the best times for upgrades that need major lines to be closed. Even though it might seem strange to carry out work at Christmas – when people are travelling to see friends and family – on average, around half the usual five million people travel by train each day during the Christmas period.

I’m not going to dispute the claim that fewer people travel during the Christmas period (although that doesn’t mention Easter), but there a couple of things that I would bring to bear on this.

First, overall rail travel is vastly driven by travel in London and south east, and in particular commuter traffic. That largely stops over the holiday period, and might easily account for most of the overall reduction. According to the Department of Transport’s most recent Rail Factsheet, 69% of all passenger rail journeys are accounted for by London and the south east alone. Much of that is commuter travel.

What would be much more useful would be to understand how much the traffic flow changes for different types of journeys. For example, does long distance or inter-city traffic decrease, stay the same, or even increase?

The second thought I have is that because rail travel at holiday times is so unpredictable, more people take to cars. But this disadvantages those who don’t drive or don’t own a car – notably many of those in inner-London boroughs, or those who are poorer.

The statement above talks about a 2016 independent review, and I confess that I had trouble tracking that down. I did find a 2015 report commissioned by the Rail Delivery Group: Planning and Timing of Engineering Works on the GB Rail Network. This followed the failure to complete works on time over Christmas 2014 when there were overruns and serious problems with people travelling around the country.

Interestingly, it seems that getting accurate and full data for the report was something of a problem:


“Whilst rail travel is popular around Christmas passenger volumes are lower than the rest of the year. We looked at passenger numbers and type of passenger (leisure or commuter) during the year, which were difficult to obtain in any detail. Although we expected the passenger mix to vary with the time of year we did not find significantly lower passenger flows during the summer holiday periods or around the bank holidays on the major London routes. Obtaining more detailed insights into passenger flows during the year as a base for planning is essential and is one of our recommendations.”

Another point of note was this:

The passenger mix at Christmas is different than at other times of the year with a higher proportion of leisure passengers who are unfamiliar with the railway and less capable at coping with modal transfer during disruption.

But they also noted that fewer elderly travel at Christmas – perhaps because people travel to the elderly rather than expecting them to do the travelling.

I found this to be an interesting paragraph:

At present the major blocks at Christmas and Easter contain a range of work. Some of this can be done only at these times: other work can be undertaken at weekends but often is not done because the amount of weekend access is limited and there is pressure to add work to major possessions to improve the overall productivity of work. If the industry were able to make greater use of extended midweek night access (having full due regard for revenues generated by traffic that operates at night, especially freight) it would be possible to move some work undertaken at weekends into midweek nights. This would, in turn, free up weekends to do work that is currently being squeezed into the margins of long blockades. However, this will need to be balanced with the potential revenue benefit from reducing weekend access, which has been a focus of APSCM work.

In other words, if some freight traffic were disadvantaged, then weekend work could move to mid-week overnights, and holiday work move to weekends. That at least would leave the big holiday periods more free of disruption.

There are lots of other issues including adjacent line working (work being carried out alongside a working line), bi-directional signals (lines being capable of running trains in both directions – largely not the case in the UK), and other factors. Not least is the various recharging and pricing elements in terms of the timing of works. It seems Christmas overtime costs might be negated by other pricing determined by government.

It’s interesting to note that in other European countries they do things differently.

  • In the Netherlands: “There is no project work undertaken during the Christmas holidays and the burden of engineering projects is better divided over the year including long blockades during summer holidays.”
  • In France: “While passenger flows into Paris are similar or higher then these into London, enhancements and renewals are being done throughout the year, but not at Christmas. Long possessions are taken during the August summer holiday period, even at the RER for which busses and alternative routes are being offered as alternative; It should be noted however that there is hardly commuter traffic during that month.”

What I didn’t see in the report is any comparison of rail travel over different route types. In other words – shorter distance largely commuter travel v longer distance inter-city travel.

It’s evident that this work needs to be done, and I’d never want to underplay the complexity of track access, and the various calls there are on our rail network. But as I’ve argued before, it feels as though those who need to travel during holiday periods are actively disadvantaged. Furthermore, carrying out works in short bursts is less efficient than closing a line down for a longer period – a blockade in the industry parlance – and getting more work done. It’s notable that in cases where some major work is required, shutting down a station for a longer period, despite inconveniencing commuters, leads to fewer overall disruptions.

I would just like to see more innovative thinking from the Department of Transport and Network Rail.

 

* No. I’m not entirely clear why I was sent it either. But I was.

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan

I was recently lucky enough to visit the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan for work, and naturally I brought a camera with me to capture what I was able to in any time I had.

As I was picked up from the airport at about 6.00am in the morning, having flown for five and a half hours from Istanbul via Turkish Airlines, I was asked what I knew about the country. I recalled the excellent Simon Reeves series “Meet the Stans” from 2003 (and I see he’s actually uploaded it to YouTube), which was perhaps my first introduction to a part of the world I honestly couldn’t even properly identify on a map.

A country of around 6m, it is bordered to the north by the much larger Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan to the east, and by Tajikistan and China to the south. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan are too far away to the south either. By far the largest city is its capital in north, Bishkek, which is where I was heading.

Historically, Kyrgyzstan was on the Silk Road, that great trading route from China to Istanbul and beyond. More recently, it had been a part of the Soviet Union, until its breakup in 1991 when it became independent.

Ethnic Kyrgyz make up the majority of the population, although there is a significant minority of Russians remaining from Soviet times. Kyrgyz is the main language, but Russian is also an official language. As a result, media options are fairly split between Kyrgyz language and perhaps better funded Russian language services.

Since independence, there have been growing pains for the country as a democracy. These have included 2005’s “Tulip Revolution” and a further clash in 2010.

From my brief time there, the country appears and proclaims to be much more independent than others in the region. The internet is not blocked, and foreign broadcasters are widely available – including the BBC Kyrgyz service appearing on both national radio and television. British visitors don’t even need a visa to visit.

I was there to attend an International Media Forum as a guest of the Public Broadcasting Corporation of the Kyrgyz Republic (KTRK) who were celebrating their 85th birthday. That meant a formal conference, delivered in Russian. I had help from the excellent Dima, a translator, who was able to keep me abreast of what was being said, and answer my unending series of questions. I was due to give a talk on the future of radio to the forum. Fortunately, I’d had my speech translated in advance, with Dima reading the translation for me.

I wasn’t the only international guest – others included Mahat from Kazakh Radio, and Tatiana from Moscow. There were also guests from Turkey. Beyond that, I was working alongside members of the BBC Kyrgyz team, including Gulnara and Venera, who are both based in London, but were out in Bishkek to give talks themselves. There was even a guest from the United Nations.

The whole conference was actually being broadcast on live television, although quite how interested viewers would have been was unclear to me. I would certainly watch a televised radio conference on a channel like BBC Parliament, but the wider public? Anyway, the cameras had been packed away by the time I spoke.

The liveliest discussion in the conference came after a lady from an advertising agency presented some listening figures from a recent piece of research that had measured radio listening. The large Russian commercial music service, Europa Plus, was shown to be very popular in some parts of the country.

*

As the plane comes into Manas Airport, you can see that the geography of the country is a mix of the flat steppe and then the Tian Shan mountains rising gracefully above Bishkek. It means that wherever you are in the city, the mountains loom down on you. This isn’t something that many of us in the UK really get to experience – Fort William perhaps being an exception.

You can probably imagine what an ex-Soviet city looks like, with many of the building seeming to age from the 50s, 60s and 70s. The city is relatively new, the local people having traditionally been nomadic, and so older buildings are relatively sparse. The city is laid out in grid patterns, and during rush hour, there is enough traffic to necessitate traffic police to marshal vehicles around. The streets are mostly wide, but as the country is not wealthy, the infrastructure is often in state of dilapidation. Road surfaces are often not great, although I believe the larger highways – the modern Silk Road routes taken by trucks – linking the regional cities are better.

Driving is “interesting” with a great deal of overtaking happening, and plentiful use of horns. I noticed some traffic lights had countdowns indicating when they were going to turn green, which rather too imitated a grand prix start on public roads for my liking!

There are plenty of smartphones in evidence – with adverts around the airport for the latest Galaxy S7. 4G seemed plentiful – although clearly roaming for me would have been prohibitive – but WiFi was prevalent with connectivity in the airport, hotel, and other venues.

I was taken to see the massive flagpole that overlook Bishkek. It sits on a hill high above the city and has become quite a landmark of the country, rising 75m above the ground. You can see it from miles around. While we were up there, we tasted the delights of some Kyrgyz cognac, and ate some fresh cherries bought from a roadside stall.

This is a nation of horses, and outside the centre of the city, you could see them everywhere; people riding them for fun or transport. I had heard about Buzkashi, or goat polo, a sport played by two teams on horseback with a dead goat acting as the “ball.” While I never got to witness this event myself, just before I left the country, they had coverage of a game on the sports TV channel and it looked like the toughest game I’ve ever seen. Riders and horses careered all over the place. Players must drop the carcass into a scoring circle, and in the game I saw, as often as not players followed the dead animal off their horses and into the circle themselves!

In general, I think football is actually the most popular sport, although it seems that the Bundesliga is perhaps the most followed league. Bayern Munich’s league-winning final game was being shown on TV, and I saw at least one youth wearing a Bayern shirt.

From the flagpole, we headed out to the Ata Beyit Memorial and Cemetry. This is where statues and memorials have been built to remember some of the suffering the Kyrgyz people had endured in the past, and to recognise some of those who had died. That included those who were placed in gulags by Stalin, and those who died in more recent turbulent times when the government had been overthrown. It was very disturbing to see the graves of soldiers who were born many years after you were buried there.

A small museum detailed some of these people – particularly the victims of Stalin. And there was also a memorial to Chinghiz Aitmatov, the Soviet and Kyrgyz writer who died in 2008 and is considered the greatest figure in Kyrgyz literature.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to make of the local food, having been told that horse meat is very popular. In the event, it was mostly mutton that I was eating – lots and lots of it. Because we were guests, there were vast quantities of food brought out for us.

Most meals seemed to begin with boorsoq, a fried unsweetened doughnut-tasting bread, that you could dip in cream. It’s very more-ish. Beyond that would be cold beef, perhaps spicy with vegetables and chilli. But really meals were about the lamb or mutton – soups that included a large piece of meat on the bone to flavour, along with potatoes and carrots. Then there were the large pieces of mutton, served on the bone in enormous quantities, often cooked for hours beforehand, so the meat was very tender, and served with sliced onions.

We were taken to one restaurant that was largely empty when we got there, but was the only place in Bishkek where the prepared the meat the authentic way. That is they dug a hole in the earth and cooked the meat with hot heated rocks. They’d cover the hole up and leave the meat to cook for many hours. This was particularly useful for a nomadic person who might then go off to hunt while their meal cooked in the ground.

Of course no part of the animal is wasted, and so that did also mean meals made up of dishes made from the intestines and the brains of the animals, all served with a rich variety of salads. And dumplings are also very popular, as well as samsa with minced meat inside a flaky pastry covering and reminiscent of a Cornish Pasty.

The vast quantities of food in these celebratory meals meant that it was quite the done thing for leftovers to be gathered up into plastic bags and taken home with guests. I couldn’t really bring a leg of lamb back into the UK (it’s banned), so the BBC office in Bishkek had quite a feast the following day. I was amused to notice one restaurant using Morrisons carriers to bag up their meat! I would guess that following the changes in chargeable carriers in English supermarkets from the start of this year, pre-printed bags no longer needed have been sold on to middle men and from there ended up in Central Asia!

The weather in Bishkek when I visited in early May was in the low 20s, but I was told that it was cold for the time of year and normally the temperature would be around 30 degrees. In the mid-summer, the city tends to be a very warm 40 degrees, although without the humidity that we’d get in the UK. That said, the locals are able to escape the heat by heading into the cooler air of the mountains.

After our conference, I was keen to visit the KTRK studios which are a large Soviet-built complex containing both radio and TV services. KTRK has a number of services offering different kinds of output from classical music, to dramas, popular music and even a kids radio channel. To celebrate the Epic of Manas, one station was broadcasting non-stop for two days and nights, a continuous Manas reading. A team of about six readers were taking it in turns to do two hour stints on-air. The writing is very much like a poem, and that’s how it was delivered. At the time we visited, they had one more night to go, so even with a relay system, they must have been very tired.

I was taken with their kids’ channel, which included small seats for children themselves to present programmes in a nice colourful studio. Elsewhere there were large studios for recording music – ones that easily matched the scale of somewhere like Abbey Road.

We also saw some TV studios including one that had a set built to look like a court scene, and another used for the breakfast show. The most spectacular was a recently rebuilt news studio that looked as good as any news studio in the world. I noticed that the sports channel was showing World Snooker from Sheffield – featuring a match with Ding Junhui that I’d watched back home a few days earlier.

It’s clear that a lot of countries have a political interest in Kyrgyzstan. Russia is the obvious one, with trading strength coming through Kyrgyzstan’s membership of the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as its media interests. But Turkey is also an interested party – building a university that offers free tuition including the teaching Turkish. The American University of Central Asia is a brand new building offering state of the art facilities from students across the region. It’s part funded by the US Government and billionaire George Soros. Meanwhile, the country borders China, who obviously also have interests.

On my final day in Bishkek, after perhaps one too many vodkas the night before (local vodka of course!), I was due to attend a big birthday celebration concert. This began with the story of the KTRK told through dance, video and audio. Then followed some speeches, of which I was possibly the least interesting for the audience. I was the only person not speaking Kyrgyz, and although Gulnara was dutifully translating I suspect most people were there for what was to come.

I also handed over my gift. Now the BBC has a strict policy on gifts – which is to say that a combination of the bribery act and public money means that resources are tight. BBC Worldwide provides a few things like USB chargers and notebooks, but none of those were deemed good enough. In the end, because I was told that something that showed London would be appropriate, I presented one of my own photos with some congratulatory text at the bottom, printed and framed in Snappy Snaps.

Now it must be said, after the speeches, I thought things would wrap up. But from my time on the stage, I could hear young children backstage and was a bit confused. That was because things weren’t close to over. We now had a series of songs, dances, arias and ballets, each tied to one of KTRK’s services. Undoubtedly the most popular performers were the very small children, all dressed up in their finery.

Did I mention that the whole thing was being broadcast on television? A multi-camera crew was again in operation, covering the whole concert for either live or recorded playback on Kyrgyz television. But it was all entertaining stuff, and you never quite knew what would be next up. I would estimate that there were close to 1,000 people backstage, such was the scale of this concert which must have taken many weeks to organise. You certainly could feel the influence of different regions, from near Eastern countries through to K-Pop.

My final afternoon in Bishkek saw me seeing farewell to my host from KTRK, Zarema, and heading off with a party into the Ala Archa National Park. This is about 20km from the centre of Bishkek, and at the end of a road that rises slowly into the Tian Shan mountains. As we followed the valley road upwards, on a slight but noticeable incline, we could see the glaciers high up among the peaks.

Many of the peaks are at 4,500m or above, with the highest rising to over 7,400m. To put this in perspective, Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak is 1,345m and Everest is 8,848m. These are some seriously high mountains. That said, I’m told that there are relatively easy paths up to some of the 4,500m peaks, and you do start at 2,000m.

We were dropped off at the car park, and followed the main path in. An Alpine-style hotel sat near the entrance, as did a pair of yurts, or boz üy as they are known locally. A mixed group is never going to walk at the same pace, I ended up storming ahead with Venera who regularly visited this park with her family each summer. We’d lost the rest of the group when the valley opened up to our right, and we decided to loop around to our right and rejoin the main path.

This turned out to be harder than we’d thought, and there was no obvious path leading back around. We found a dry river bed – the melt not having properly begun yet – and had to fight our way through the undergrowth for perhaps an hour before we finally got back on the path and returned to the boz üy where our party was waiting for us with another meal.

It was lovely to sit inside one of these traditional structures, and while some of the manufacturing techniques have changed over the centuries, I was told that they aren’t just for tourists, and particularly in the rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, farmers used them on the higher plains in the summer to tend their flocks, bringing their animals down for the winter when they lived in more permanent structures. I couldn’t help thinking of The Sherpherd’s Life which I’d recently read – although farmers in the lakes may let their sheep higher into the hills, they don’t also move upwards.

One part of Kyrgyz, and clearly Central Asian culture, is that of toasting properly, and I’d had to learn it pretty quickly. It’s a serious business, standing up and toasting your colleagues at the table. Now, as our visit neared its end, the speeches were even bigger, with others standing up and speaking off the cuff for five minutes or more!

Then I was asked to sing a song.

“Ha ha. You’re joking right?”

No. This was serious. I had to sing a song. My mind went blank. Someone said, “What about The Beatles?” Well, yes, but I can’t honestly say I know the words to any off the top of my head. I had a go at Yesterday, but failed miserably. The panic probably didn’t help. “If I could get the lyrics…” I murmered. But it was too late.

At that point, I fished my phone out, sitting in this boz üy, high in the mountains and… found open WiFi. Seemingly it was coming from the nearby hotel. Then came a vague memory of something I’d read somewhere. A song that everyone could sing if they ever needed to sing a song in foreign climes. It had been mentioned in a column by the late, great Miles Kington in The Independent years earlier.

Jerusalem!

Indeed in the story related by Kington, his friend had printed out the words and had them permanently in the back of his wallet for just such an occasion. While Wikipedia furnished me with the words, and I was ready to go now, I’d missed my moment. What a failure!

(Strangely enough, I’d noticed that The Last Night of the Proms had aired on one of the local TV channels a couple of nights earlier. That is probably what teased that memory out of my brain.)

It seems that tourism, and especially the trekking and outdoors industry, are growth areas in Kyrgyzstan. My translator had mentioned the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan as doing good excursions, and there were certainly a number of Europeans on the plane home who looked like they’d been out hiking for a week or more.

Skiing is also taking off, with some quite high-end heli-skiing options.

I think that when I return to this part of the world, it will be to try some of these outdoor escapes. I saw a few cyclists around – usually on mountain bikes rather than road ones. Horse riding, and rafting are also options.

I also need to visit the Issyk-Kul (icicle) Lake – an enormous lake in the north-east of the country that’s more than 700m deep and is actually saline. It’s supposed to be very beautiful and much like an inland sea.

My only issue with the return was that the flight left at 3.25 in the morning, and in retrospect, only leaving an hour and twenty minutes to change at Istanbul was cutting it far too fine. Fortunately I had hand-luggage only, but I nevertheless had to literally run through the airport boarding my London plane in something of a sweat. Given the time it takes to reach Bishkek, flights are pretty cheap, so it’s certainly an achievable holiday destination.

I really do hope to return and explore more of this fascinating country.

I’ve only managed to include a few of my photos on this page, so see the rest of my photos on Flickr.

The Tour de France in the Pyrenees – 2015

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-14

[A ridiculously large number of photos means this page will be slow to load. Best viewed on a nice big monitor rather than your phone.]

Although I’ve been to see the Tour de France a number of times, I’d never really been to see the race in the mountains before.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I did once come to the mountains before to see the race but it turned out to be in tragic circumstances. As I’ve written before, I arrived on the day that Motorola’s Fabio Casartelli died. I arrived in the town of Lourdes – famous for its grotto, visited by thousands of Christians a year – and found myself watching the Tour in a small village hall. My rusty French meant that it took me quite some time to establish what had happened. There was a quiet mood in the hall. It was all very uncomfortable.

The next day was to be another Pyrenean stage, but it was neutralised. In any case, I didn’t know how on earth I’d get transport up a mountain that was closed to traffic from very early in the day. In the end, I watched the race come into the finish town of Pau, with the Motorola team allowed to cross the line ahead of the rest of the peleton.

That all took place in 1995. So I decided it was high time that I went to visit the mountains properly, and this year the second week of the Tour was going to take place largely in the Pyrenees.

Once again, I decided to base myself in Lourdes – it is centrally located and full of cheap hotels. The 11th stage actually came through the town, but all three Pyrenean stages were close enough that they’re within reach. Nonetheless, I decided that getting a hire car seemed the sensible option. But I’d also bring my bike out with me. My broad aim, without an enormous amount of forethought it must be said, was to get to somewhere near a climb by car, then ride some of the way up a mountain – possibly the last major climb of the day – before riding back to the car.

Rinse and repeat for each of the three stages.

Toulouse is probably the best served airport in the area. There are smaller ones in places like Pau, but Easyjet and BA amongst others fly to Toulouse, so that was the way I went. I was slightly concerned that my plane would be stuffed full of people with similar plans to myself. So I made sure that I turned up at Gatwick with plenty of time. I wanted to make sure my bike made it onto the plane. There are all sorts of smart bike bags you can get these days with hardshells and soft ones. However my bike bag is a bit cheaper – and was bought for a different bike and to simply bypass some train booking issues.

Nonetheless, it offers reasonable protection, and while I mightn’t trust it with a carbon fibre steed worth thousands, I’d decided that it should be fine with my aluminium machine. It was somehow comforting to see the bike loaded into the hold of the aircraft from my seat on the plane.

It made it safely to Toulouse, and once I’d established that I was a “prestige” hire car member (meaning that I could have skipped the queue I’d just waited in), I was soon on my way.

One thing that airlines ask you to do is deflate your tyres. Actually nobody precisely asked me to do this, and I ended up with one tyre marginally deflated while the other was full. Nonetheless, I hate mini-pumps, and I’d ensured that I did take out my compressed CO2 container (which were expressly banned by Easyjet), so on the way to Lourdes from Toulouse, I stopped off at a branch of Decathlon and picked up a cheap stirrup pump. I’d thought about bringing my pump from home, but it’s quite a heavy beast. This was a cheap and cheerful model made of plastic. I decided that it would happily sit at the bottom of my bike bag for the trip back.

Once I’d reached my hotel in Lourdes that evening, it was time to work out what I’d do the next day. I gathered together both a Tour route map, and a map of the Pyrenees purchased from Stanfords, and worked out my plan for the first mountains stage. I would drive as far as the village of Arette which was at the foot of the climb to the ski station at La Pierre Saint-Martin – a climb that the Tour had not previously used.

The best route was via some quite small roads, and I was clearly not the only person with plans a little like this. I saw lots of people on the road, including riding in the other direction. The road I was on would be used in the following day’s stage. One party in particular seemed enormously well equipped with a lead car with flashing lights, and a coach following behind. Could this be the Geoff Thomas “Before the Tour” ride? If so, then this was the group that Lance Armstrong would be joining in a few days.

I headed onwards, and was now passing groups of cyclists who were cycling in my direction to the foot of the climb. I should point out that the road climbed and fell away a lot. This was serious work. Some looked like local club riders heading to watch the stage, others were tourists – having been dropped off by a Sports Tours International coach.

Eventually I came to a village with some decent parking, and decided to stop there. I was still about 7-8km from Arette, but I knew that’d be busy, and wasn’t certain what the parking would be like (it turned out, farmers’ fields were turned over for this, but the traffic out would be awful). I could cycle from here without too much issue.

The first order of business was to replace an inner tube as I had a front wheel puncture. Quite how, I wasn’t sure. The tyre had been fine the night before, but in the morning it had deflated somewhat. I wasn’t going to trust pumping it up again. So I replaced it with one of my two spare tubes.

As it happens, the road onwards remained hilly, and first of all I had a decent ascent to cover before dropping down into the village of Arette. It was en fete. It was Bastille Day which means that France is on holiday, and if the Tour is passing through then you have one choice.

The day was beginning to warm up now. As I rolled through Arette, hundreds of others were heading onto the mountain. Many were walking, but a good number were cycling. I rolled through nice and slowly. The road was already heading upwards, although we’d not even reached the official start of the climb. All motorised traffic that wasn’t on official Tour business was stopped. But the Tour has plenty of “official” traffic, including dozens of buses ferrying guests and whoever up onto the mountain.

This was one of those roads that only had one way in and one way out – the same way.

I reached the sign telling me I was at the start of the climb. There were 15.3km to the top. As well as the Tour’s signs, the ski resort’s own signs were also at the side of the road, and they told a worrying story. They helpfully spelt out the percentage climb for the next kilometre. That was fine when it said 3%. But suddenly the next sign said 9%. I was already in my bottom gear, and I’d bought a bigger cassette for this trip especially. I’d changed from my regular 11-28 to an 11-32 – the biggest rear cog I could get.

The next kilometre’s sign said 10% average gradient. This was killing me. The sweat was dripping off me. It was really heating up. It felt like I had walked into a bathroom where someone has left the hairdryer on for an hour or two.

It was intense, and felt hard to actually get any air.

I had to stop.

I took a few minutes to catch my breath and drink some water. Quite a few minutes. Then I carried on.

I probably only made it another 800m before I was in pieces again.

I’d just been up a severly steep ramp. And it wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t turn my legs so much as the heat that was killing me. I was gulping down water, but it wasn’t enough.

So I found a nice grassy verge. I would have a good view of the riders coming up that really nasty bit of hill.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-1

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-2

In fact, the road seemed to flatten a bit further on from me, and after a while I played around with the idea of continuing upwards. But I liked this spot. It wasn’t too crowded, and I had somewhere nice to sit.

“Somewhere nice to sit,” was a little misleading, as it became clear I still had hours to wait. The timings I’d ripped from my official Tour de France Guide back in the UK, had, I now realised, been adjusted for UK time (despite the fact that only people on the roadside really needed the timings of things like the caravan). I had a while to go, and it was hot and getting hotter.

One of the things I’d given serious thought to was how much liquid I’d need to take. I’d guessed that on a mountainside in the middle of nowhere there’d be limited drinks opportunities. So I’d settled on 2 x 750 ml bottles in the bottle cages on my bike, a 1.75 litre CamelBak in my little Deuter Race rucksack along with some other bits and bobs, and another bottle of water in the side pocket of that – a CamelBak Podium Chill bottle that at least keeps water cooler than most bike bottles.

This turned out not to be overkill.

The order of events on a Tour stage goes something like this.

Random vehicles
Press cars
More random vehicles
The publicity “caravan” – think sponsor led carnival floats
More press cars
Police
More press
Photographers
Officials’ cars
Police outriders
Tour de France cyclists themselves

The bits you’re looking forward to are perhaps the caravan, and of course the cyclists. Everything else is just noise.

Finally the caravan approached.

It’s a bizarre concoction that goes someway towards paying for the Tour. Basically each advertiser gets a number of vehicles, usually bespoke designs, and they fill them with happy smiling young people who dance and wave to the crowds as they pump out pop music. Bearing in mind there are 21 stages covering thousands of kilometres, this must be a tough job, keeping up all that dancing and smiling.

But best of all, from the crowd’s perspective, is the vast amount of free “stuff” they throw at you.

Now last year I saw the Tour in Britain three times, and my haul was meagre. I think this may because only in one instance was it slow when it passed me. And I also think that some very French brands probably didn’t see too much advantage on giving trinkets to people who’d never be their customers. While there are international brands in the carnival, many are specifically French.

This time around I was on a hillside, a steep hillside, and I was very much in France. So let’s just say that my haul was much more impressive. I came away with three hats, a bag for life, Haribo, Fruit Shoots, assorted keyrings, “official” Madeleine cakes, money off Bostik, Disney comics, a Nivea beach ball, masks, some stirrers (?), some coffee and some temporary tattoos.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-5

Many families near me collected their hauls together in the “bags for life” to carry them off the mountain!

As it was, this lot barely fitted in my little rucksack!

Then there was more waiting. Assorted members of the press. Team buses came through. I’d forgotten that the winners’ lion mascots get propped up in the front of the team buses as a proud indication of how well they’ve done. Etixx Quick-Step’s bus had three squashed in. I spotted the very smart Jaguar of The Cycling Podcast being driven by Lionel Birnie. I saw Greg Lemond in a Eurosport car.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-3

At one point I saw a rider in full Tinkoff-Saxo kit, the new camouflage variant they were using for the Tour. I didn’t realise at the time, but this must have been Oleg Tinkoff, the team’s garrulous owner

The one thing I didn’t really have any idea about was the state of the race.

I’d brought my portable TV to France, but I’d had no luck with it in Lourdes. In any event, my spot in a valley would have prevented much in the way of TV pictures getting through.

I’d hoped to pick up a French SIM so that I didn’t run up too much in the way of data costs on my phone, but I’d not had a chance. In any case, to say that mobile reception was patchy really doesn’t do the work justice. I was getting 2G at best, and precisely no data at all. Twitter was a bust.

Annoyingly I’d forgotten to bring some headphones up the mountain, so I couldn’t try my basic French with the radio either.

In the end just ahead of the race, I learnt that the breakaway was four minutes clear. And that was all I knew.

Finally the helicopters indicated that riders were on the way. Because it was Bastille Day, it is basically a given that some French riders will make a go of it. And indeed when the first solo rider reached me, he was from Bretagne Seche. It looked like he’d just dropped a Cofidis rider who was alone a few seconds behind.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-7

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-9

But this was all to be clearly in vain. The peleton was upon them.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-11

Well I say the peleton, but it was clear that on those lower slopes of the mountain that I’d managed to climb, the peleton had basically exploded.

Movistar were driving things, with Valverde and Quintana. But Sky were right on their tail, with Peter Kennaugh, Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas and the yellow jersey himself, Chris Froome, as well as at least two other riders. BMC and Astana were also in evidence. And it was good to see Adam Yates up there. But the peleton was actually pretty small, because riders were already all over the place in drips and drabs.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-13

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-15

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-16

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-17

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-18

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-19

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-22

The sprinters were beginning to struggle, and Cav was in pieces when he came by. I didn’t get a good photo of him because I felt it was more useful to shout some support for him. Daniel Teklehaimanot didn’t look likely to retain his polkadot jersey, and Michael Kwiatkowski was struggling too.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-26

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-28

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-29

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-32

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-33

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-39

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-40

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-41

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-42

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-43

And then it was over.

The riders still had another 11-12km to ride upwards. But once the race traffic had cleared, I headed downwards.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 10-45

Back in Arette, I stopped at a house that had a massive screen in their garden showing the end of the stage. Froome had blown it all apart and was alone up front with Quintana chasing. Van Garderen was in another group, but Richie Porte managed to overhaul Quintana and get himself a second on the day. It was still too early to say that Froome had won – you have to get to Paris. But he was mighty impressive. And it’s good to learn that Geraint Thomas had moved well up the order too.

While I was watching the stage finish, standing astride my bike alongside a number of other cyclists, we all heard a sssssssssss sound. There was a bit of concerned looking around at tyres. Who was it?

It was me.

My front tyre had somehow blown while I was stationary.

So before I cycled the last leg back to my car, I had to repair my second puncture of the day. The rip looked like it may have been a pinch puncture probably a consequence of my fix earlier in the day. In any case, I could find nothing in the tyre. But this now had me worried. I go months without any punctures, then suffer two in a single day. And that accounted for both my spare tubes. Later I patched one tube, and tightened the valve on the second as it looked like that was the cause of the slow leak. I made a mental note to buy more inner tubes.

I cycled out of the village and back to my parked up car. The village had a fountain with a tap. There was no sign saying that it wasn’t fit for drinking. As I filled my bottle with much needed fresh water, another cyclist came around the corner and asked me, in French, if the water was drinkable. “J’espère,” I replied.

Finally it was a drive back into Lourdes and time to find a decent restaurant. Last night the choice had been limited with seemingly everywhere closed on Mondays.

France TV seems to do its Tour wrap up programmes quite early in the evening so I didn’t manage to see much in the way of additional footage. Instead I saw their Bastille Day Concert from near the Eiffel Tower. Think “Last Night of the Proms” mixed with “New Year’s Fireworks” and that’ll give you a good idea.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-1

The following day and this time the stage would come straight through Lourdes on the way to two massive mountains, the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmelet.

I’d thought long and hard about where to go. Either of those mountains was cycle-able from Lourdes. Well, I say “cycle-able”, but I mean cycle-able by some people. The easier way up the Tourmalet from Lourdes was the side that they came down. A longer route was needed to go up the side that the riders go up.

For me, after yesterday’s difficulties with the “Haute Categorie” (i.e. “outside category”) mountain at the finish, I would instead ride to the foot of the final climb of the day up to Cauterets. It was a very reachable distance away, and the climb seemed more attainable. 6.4km at an average gradient of 5%.

That’s still some climb from my perspective, easily beating anything I’d done before in a single go. But the 5% part of that made it seem like a realistic goal.

I programmed Cauterets into my Garmin and set off. The first thing I knew was that the Garmin was determined not to route me via the Voie Verte des Gaves, a cycle path that I knew ran at least part of the way.

Sod the Garmin. I’ll still to the pan flat old railway line that has been tarmaced into a lovely cycle path that runs along the valley floor.

I thought I knew that I had to veer off at Argeles-Gazost, about halfway along. So at that point I let the Garmin take over, and quickly I found myself climbing out of the valley floor. While I knew that my ultimate destination involved a climb, I was surprised that it was happening so soon, especially since I seemed to running parallel with the flat valley, just higher up on the hillside. But I was rewarded with some stunning views from the village of Saint-Savin.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-2

And I wasn’t the only rider up here. A club looked like they were enjoying a coffee break in the bar before heading on to either Cauterets or the Tourmalet.

From Saint-Savin it was downhill all the way to Pierrefitte-Nestalas, the town at the foot of the climb. Once I reached the town centre, the Tour’s route became clear. As ever, it was already close to be closed to traffic, and anyone driving up to Cauterets must have set off early in the morning.

I dropped down through my gears and started the climb out. It was still relatively early, and most of the signs had not been erected yet. So I didn’t see a sign noting the precise start of the climb, but from my perspective it began with the town itself.

As was the case yesterday, it was clear that most of the road had been resurfaced in advance of the Tour. This was a beautiful tarmac that looked like it had only been finished days earlier. I suspect that a major plus in your region getting a stage of the Tour is that the council will come out and resurface a road that would otherwise be way down the list of things the municipality would be spending money on.

The gradient wasn’t too bad, and I carried on climbing. I was pleased to overtake some families and kids, but keener club cyclists were leaving me behind. At one point a guy came sprinting past me with a boxed satellite dish and decoder strapped to his back! Chapeau!

The climb slogged on. It would flatten out a little, and then climb some more. At the start there had been switchbacks, but now we were heading up the valley. At one point we entered a covered section, and I basked in the shade that it offered. I thought about resting up there, but I still felt good. Unlike yesterday, the heat wasn’t getting to me. I didn’t feel the need to stop.

I received in good grace the “Allezs” I got from passing riders, including a couple of Brits. They stopped at the next corner though, and I took pride in carrying on upwards. I found it better not to stop. Plus the CamelBak was useful for getting cool drinks of water when I needed them without having to break my rhythm in any way.

Looking back at the climb from my Garmin’s stats, I know that I took about half an hour to get up the climb in total. I knew it was slow, but I was pleased that I didn’t need to be in the lowest gear all the way.

Finally a straight section revealed more switchbacks ahead of me. And because there was already a good crowd up there, it somehow made it look all the more daunting. The switchbacks formed an amphitheatre of sorts.

But then I passed a “Sommet 1km” sign. That was very doable. Most of that last kilometre was that series of switchbacks. A good humoured crowd egged me on. I was smiling. This was doable. I passed ex-sprinter Robbie McEwen, working for Australian broadcaster SBS, doing some vox pops with the crowd. I headed on.

Finally I came around the last bend and stopped under the finish point of the climb.

Category 3 done!

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-3

The actual stage finish was another couple of kilometres up the road in the resort of Cauterets itself. Indeed, there was a small descent before that finish.

I decided that I’d seek out a good vantage point overlooking one of the switchbacks. But first thing first. I headed to a pop-up bar and bought three cans of overpriced Coke, one of which I drank immediately. Cool and full of sugar. Just what I needed.

I eventually found a spot to view the race. Not right by the roadside, but a little higher up looking down on proceedings.

One thing that I totally forget about and is very much worthwhile for future reference, is bringing some alternative footwear with you if you’re riding with clipless cycling shoes. I’d already battered my cleats, and ended up spending much of the day in socks (there was a lot of gravel where I was standing, so going barefoot wasn’t really an option). Chucking a light pair of flipflops is not a bad idea at all. I now needed new cleats again (set number three or four this year?). Invariably I ruin my cleats not through too much cycling, but wearing shoes in inhospitable environments – the Dunwich beach for example.

A proper cap might have been a decent idea too. There is only so much sun that a cycling cascette can block. I had the sun largely to my back for the rest of the day, and despite having brought some factor 50, I still ended up with a red neck.

Finally, something to sit on is a good idea – perhaps a small towel. I found that a copy of L’Equipe worked OK once I’d had an attempt at reading it. They had pages and pages on Le Tour – at least half the paper. I had a bash at trying to understand what they were saying. And I wasn’t clear whether the cover – “Frappant” or “Striking” as Google Translate said to me – was in some way a barbed criticism of Chris Froome. I don’t think it was. Certainly from catching up from my cycling podcasts the previous evening, there seemed to be a general disappointment in the press room that this Tour already seems “over” such is Froome’s ability this year, and Sky’s overall domination.

By now I was in place and faced another long wait.

There’s an awful lot of waiting with Le Tour, and in the hot Pyrenean sun, that begins to take its toll.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-5

Yesterday, the torn pages from my Official Guide had been converted to UK times, but today they seemed to be in French times. In any case, I deferred to L’Equipe on the basis that things change at the last minute, and L’Equipe was probably in a better position to know what’s what.

While in theory I could have delayed my ride, the fact is that the police don’t like you riding the roads to close to the Tour coming through. I’d noticed that the steady stream of riders up the mountain had stopped. Any new riders now were walking their bikes up the footpath/mountain bike route. So you have to get up early if you want to ride the whole way, even though that means a long wait at the top.

And I was also in another information blackspot. Despite getting texts, emails and even the odd “love” for my Instagram pictures, which seemed to get posted, the Twitter app refused to work one jot. Obviously there were a lot of people on the mountain, and I suspect the small cell tower doesn’t usually have to cope this much traffic.

Fortunately, I’d remembered my headphones and had a radio.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any race commentary at all. There was nothing on FM except music stations. And AM was basically completely dead. I did find something that mentioned “Nibali” at one point, but it was so faint as to be unlistenable. I gave up. Maybe I should have brought my own satellite dish up with me? (And some kind of powers supply… and a television… Perhaps not then.)

The day wore on. Even the caravan was slow in getting up here. From my vantage point, it was clear that I was going to be getting no tat myself today. But I did delight in the verve and efforts made my the crowd to collect as much as possible. You’ve never seen someone get up faster than the possibility that a van coming up the mountain might have free stuff to hand out.

Then there’s the disappointment when you realise that it’s an official merchandise van selling “kits” of Tour tat for €10 or €20. In all the Tours I’ve watched in recent years, these vans seem to offer the same packages. A one-size fits all sun-hat, or an umbrella (genuinely useful today it must be said, for keeping the sun off). A magnetic wristband? A pen? A t-shirt in an indeterminate size. And not a nice t-shirt either. Why they don’t try and flog the Le Coq Sportif stuff they’ve licenced I’m not sure. And you can’t break up the “kit” – it’s all or nothing. Yesterday I saw an American woman attempt to negotiate with the girl hanging off the back of the van for about five minutes until she eventually came away with her polkadot “Grimpeur kit.”

The caravan finally appeared and I took great delight in seeing a couple of middle-aged Brits come running out into the front of the road, going on opposites to maximise their chance of getting “swag.”

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-7

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-8

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-9

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-10

At one point I did see a child nearly put their hand under the back wheel of a van that had inadvertantly dropped a t-shirt too close to the vehicle. Nobody was hurt fortunately.

We had no team buses today, and there was also a lack of press cars. It was later obvious that the area to gather was down in Pierrefitte-Nestalas.

Finally a bit of information. A “Velo” car told us that there was a Saxo-Tinkoff rider who was five minutes up the road from the main contenders. This was the Polish rieder Rafal Majka, and he was well ahead of most of the field. Majka later said that his win was for the morale of his team. They probably needed it with Ivan Basso having abandoned after discovering he had testicular cancer (and was getting operated on), and Daniele Bennati pulled out with a suspected broken leg!

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-13

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-14

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-16

Dan Martin was a minute or so behind him, and once a few other riders had come through, we waited for the main GC contenders including Froome and Contador. As they rounded the bend I was on, I couldn’t help noticing that Nibali was off the back again. He would go on to lose another 50 seconds to his rivals. In other words, he’s no longer going to retain his title.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-22

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-23

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-24

Although this was only a category three mountain, the riders had come over a category one and haute category climb to get here. So the riders were spread out all over the road.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-25

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-27

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-28

They came by in dribs and drabs, often forming groups. Finally the big “gruppetto” arrived, but even that wasn’t the end of things.

Chapeau to the riders who were really struggling today. Sadly Alex Dowsett has to be included in that number. He did not look like he was enjoying coming in slowly up the mountain, third from last rider on the course riding alone.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 11-32

The final rider came in a full 45 minutes after the winner. You had to feel sorry for Bora rider Zak Dempster who was obviously ill or injured in some way. I saw more than one member of the crowd run along pushing him up some of the steeper gradients by my corner. As far as I can tell, he wasn’t excluded by the time cut-off.

As I mentioned, I stopped at the summit of the climb, but there were still a couple more kilometres to the stage finish itself. Clearly there wasn’t a great deal of space up there once you’ve got the full caravan parked up. So the team buses didn’t make it up the mountain today, and instead were parked at the foot of the climb. That meant that once riders had completed the stage and taken on a recovery drink or two, they turned around and headed back down the mountain. So strung out were the riders, that they often met others on the way back up.

Once the final riders had finished, I started to head down the mountain on my bike. This was a joyous experience. No work (well I’d done that earlier), and a lovely surface with no traffic – just spectators. Oh, and some professional riders for company. Well I say for company, they sped past on the left, chatting to one another, while we spectators stuck to the right. Andre Greipal in his green jersey was just one of many riders who passed me. Pretty cool. The police were keeping cars off the course too, so we got a really good ride down.

You know that cycle track I mentioned earlier? Well closer examination of the map showed that if I’d have continued on it, I needn’t have climbed up to the village I did get to earlier in the day. Still, it was a nice ride, and gorgeous view. But at the bottom of the drop from Cauterets, I found the cycle track and headed back to Lourdes without diverting up to any picturesque villages. I reckon that the ride was very slightly downhill, because I found myself absolutely flying and was averaging in excess of 30 kph the whole way. Mind you, three cans of Coke had probably helped somewhat.

Back in Lourdes I showered and thought I’d try to catch some Tour coverage before I went out for some food.

I’m a little perplexed by the coverage of the Tour on French TV. They produce some incredible coverage with expensive helicopters performing practically stunt work to get the angles they use. Then there’s the miracle of sending HD signals up from about 5 “Motos” to helicopters and a plane above (those are on top of the camera choppers). But this is almost all for the live coverage. Come home from work and want to watch the equivalent of Gary Imlach et al on ITV4? Well you’ll be doing well.

The local news did have a number of “features” on the Tour in the Midi-Pyrenees region, but it was the kind of stuff that local news does – vox pops with people on the course, and interviews with people from Tours past. Indeed the local sport coverage of the stage seemed to be some bloke reminiscing about Thomas Voeckleur winning stages in years gone by. There was no actual footage of the race itself, or anything in the way of reporting what had taken place in the mountains today.

France 3 does run “Le film du Tour” which runs for a grand total of TWO minutes at 20:10! But that was all I could find in my EPG.

Now I know that if I’d had Eurosport, they’d probably be running a solid 90 minutes of highlights in primetime, and perhaps that’s the deal the ASO has struck with France 2/3 and Eurosport. But it still seems strange. A bit like not running highlights of Wimbledon in the evening for those who’ve missed the matches during Wimbledon!

The next day the Tour would continue for its third and final day in the Pyrenees, but I decided that I’d do something a little different.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-1

I decided that I wouldn’t do what I’d done for the previous two Pyrenean stages. That is, head out on my bike somewhere hilly and wait many many hours in the sun for the Tour to arrive.

There were a couple of reasons for this.

– Firstly, I can only take so much standing/sitting at the roadside uncomfortably waiting for something that goes by in less than half an hour (at its best)

– Secondly, the Tour was heading much further east than I was. To get to one of the big mountains, and bearing in mind that I’d need to take a roundabout route to get there, would involve many hours of driving, and therefore an especially early start.

So instead, I thought I’d do what I’ve never done before for the Tour, and go to the start town. Lannemezan was about a 50 minute drive from Lourdes, and I thought I’d go and have a look at the start of a stage. To be honest, I knew that there wasn’t a great deal that I’d be able to do. The “Village Depart” would be fun, but that’s only open to guests, journalists and riders. And given the way the ASO lock down things, it wouldn’t be easy to just wander up to team buses and see what’s happening (I can compare and contrast the free and easy access at somewhere like Het Nieuwsblad, and the locked down tightness of Paris-Roubaix).

I headed out onto the Autoroute, and very quickly came across a sight that you don’t normally see at the Tour – the team trucks. These are dull things that don’t show themselves at the start or finish of stages. I assume that they’re mostly parked up at hotels dispensing “stuff” that the teams don’t carry on their buses – lots of spares and the like.

I expect Team Sky has at least one more truck than any other team.

I passed the trucks for Europcar and IAM, before I came across an Etixx Quickstep convey. This wasn’t their truck, but their full team bus and team cars. Because they were going in convey, I was actually travelling faster than them. Perhaps more worryingly, I thought that I was cutting things a bit fine myself, given that I’d not got the vaguest idea where to park in the start town or how easy that might be. We were about 90 minutes away from the start time, and they were still on the Autoroute.

As we came off the Autoroute to pay our tolls, I found myself in something of a queue of traffic trying to get in Lannemezan. The Etixx Quickstep convoy was now right behind me, while in front of me was an NBC Sports vehicle. Ahead at the toll booth, the IAM team bus seemed to be held up for some reason and wasn’t being let through the toll barrier.

Suddenly from behind there was a police siren.

“Aha!” I thought, “They’ll be rushing the team buses through and past all the rest of the traffic!”

But no. Even the Etixx bus had to pull over. A couple of police motorcycles sped past leading three unmarked but undoubtedly very smart cars through. They had unusual flashing lights I noticed. Clearly some “V”-VIP.

I got through the toll barrier, and pulled aside to let the IAM team vehicles proceed in convoy. At a roundabout they were sent one way while I was instructed to head another. Everywhere I went cars were parked in that especially “French” manner. That is, on pavements; on bits of grass; anywhere really. I foolishly actually looked in a small car park I found. Then I just decided I’d drive a couple of streets further out of town, and there was easy parking.

It was then a short walk back to the centre of town, which was of course, en fete. There were stalls, and crowds, with lots of hats from the caravan that had been through at least ninety minutes before. I was able to peer into a cordened off area where some riders were already signing on and being interviewed for the crowd. Dan Martin was speaking in French when I arrived. Most of the rest of the riders the host interviewed were, of course, French.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-2

I headed back to the first corner, where I quickly found myself surrounded by Brits. Then there was a massive pulaver. Someone very famous was at the front of the race. Who was it. I peered, but didn’t recognise him. I was pretty sure it wasn’t President Hollande. He’d be sitting in a room discussing Greece somewhere. And it wasn’t some Hollywood actor trying to score some cheap publicity for their summer blockbuster.

Then someone identified the man in the crowd. It was the French Prime Minister.

No. Me neither.

He was going to be riding in the back of the lead car alongside Christian Prudhomme, the Tour Director.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-5

Before we knew it, the race was underway. The regular photographers on motorbikes were up front. I recognised the American photographer I’d seen on the mountain the day before. At least I assume that’s what his Stars’n’Stripes helmet implies. I’d noted that he pasted a route map on the back of his pilot’s helmet!

The first few kilometres of a stage are neutralised, so tend to be very relaxed. The “jerseys” are up front, and riders chat to their mates. I saw Richie Porte smiling in his polkadot jersey (worn because he’s second to teammate Froome). Cav was having a chat with Luke Rowe, and then they were gone.

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-7

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-8

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-9

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-10

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-11

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-12

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-13

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-14

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-15

Tour de France 2015 - Stage 12-16

And that was the 2015 Tour finished as far as I was concerned.

I headed back to where I’d parked the car, stopping by way of a Lidl for supplies. My plan was now to head back to where I’d been on my bike yesterday – Cauterets. I’d head on up from there to Pont d’Espagne – high into the mountains. From there, there was a good walk I’d heard.

As I drove back up the road I’d cycled up the previous day, I was quite impressed with myself. It took a good few minutes to get up the road, and those switchbacks at the end involved me dropping down into first gear in my car.

Cauterets was actually much larger than I’d realised, considering this road was the only way in and out. There are a couple of minor roads, but they’re for the really adventurous.

I carried on climbing up to Pont d’Espagne. Here there was a massive car park – and it was quite busy too. All the “good” spots under the shade of trees were gone. My car would be like a furnace when I returned later, I feared.

Then I had a choice. I could walk up from the car park, or get a bit of a head start and ride the relatively short cable car. I chose the latter.

Pont d'Espagne-2

Pont d'Espagne-4

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At the other end, a short walk took me to a chairlift. This was a longer ride – perhaps 15 minutes. I was now a fifteen minute walk from the beautiful Lac du Gaube. A bar and restaurant were by the water’s side, but now my walk began in earnest. I walked around the lake following a rocky route. And then I was climbing higher up the valley. This was still the same valley I’d been following since the foot of yesterday’s climb!

Beyond the lake, things got tougher. The route got rockier, and the hot sun made me thankful I was still carrying a full CamelBak along with an additional bottle and a can of Coke. That was all on top of food.

But water wouldn’t be a problem since there was a river thundering through falls alongside me most of the way. This was water coming down from the glacier way above me.

Pont d'Espagne-9

Pont d'Espagne-16

Up and up I climbed. This was hard going. I was mightily impressed by returning families with young kids who’d clearly been where I was going.

Finally, after something like an hour and forty-five minutes, I was in what I can only describe as a meadow. This was somewhere around 2000 metres up, and there were actually cows up here.

Pont d'Espagne-26

I carried onwards, but wasn’t sure where I was actually heading. The groups I’d been walking amongst had now really thinned out, and I was conscious that the chair lift and cable car would shut sometime after 6.00pm. I didn’t really want to get stuck up here.

Some hardy climbers were obviously in it for the long haul and would be camping.

I think I must have stopped just short of the Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube, somewhere that hikers can stay in overnight.

Pont d'Espagne-20

Still, I made a good decision to turn around. It was beginning to cloud over. While on the one hand, that would mean an easier journey down, that also threatened rain. Although I came to France with a rain jacket, it was safely in my room back in Lourdes. The best I’d be able to do would be to keep my stuff dry since the slender rucksack I was using had a built in rain jacket.

As I quickened my pace downwards – at one point trying to match a French “fell runner” before realising I was likely to turn my ankle if I did so – I felt drops of rain on me. Oh good.

It didn’t rain heavily, but it felt like I could be in for drenching at any moment. I hurried on, wary that the rocks I was walking over were now wet and becoming more treachourous.

Above me I could hear rolling thunder. The tops of the mountains were less visible and photogenic. I headed on down.

Back at the lake, I’d initially promised myself a drink at the bar, but now I was fearful that I was either facing a chair lift in a rainstorm or a much longer walk because they’d taken the chair lift out of commission.

I stayed ahead of the rain, and got the chair down. As I did so, more thunder rolled around the tops of the mountains.

The chair lift did lead to a problem. When I got back to earth again, my feet having been hanging in the air for fifteen minutes, they now killed me. My shoes were very general ones – not in any way hiking boots. Good enough, but you’d ideally be wearing proper boots for a walk like this. I hobbled on to the cablecar and back to the car.

As I set off down the valley, it’s fair to say that the heavens truly opened. By the time I reached Cauterets, the roads were awash with water. I felt sorry for the cyclists I’d just past slogging their way up to Pont d’Espagne – at least the same again as the route from the valley floor that I’d taken yesterday, but quite possibly steeper.

As I came out of Cauterets and passed the now familar roads of yesterday’s stage, the water was doing its best to wash away all the chalked riders’ names that had been written on the road. There was a chalky scum in places where Tony Gallopin’s name was being washed away in front of me.

The rain continued unabated all the way back to Lourdes accompanied by flashes and lightning and more thunder.

That evening, for a change, I actually managed to catch France 3’s “Le Film du Tour.” It was actually longer than the promised two minutes – more like five. And it showed how the GC contenders were unchanged but that Joaquim Rodriguez had won his second stage of the Tour. But he’d done it horrible weather – basically the same storm that hit me some hours later. It was probably as well that I didn’t try and ride up a mountain in that weather!

The next day, the only cycling going on anywhere close to me would be strictly the amateur kind. Not least my own.

Having checked first that last night’s storm wasn’t still going to be lingering first thing, I did a bit of Googling to find a reasonable ride for the day. When I say “reasonable” I mean one that didn’t go up any mountains.

I stumbled on what looked like a decent route surrounding Lourdes, and for the first time in days, I set off without a backpack, reliant solely on the water and drinks I could carry myself. As it turned out, that presented something of a problem.

Even a relatively “flat” ride still saw me dropping into my smallest gear and crunching my way up into the hills. While the gradients were reasonable, the high heat and humidity were not. I was dripping wet. Added to that and my Garmin was annoying me, wanting me to turn around and head into the middle of a farmer’s field where I’d inadvertently placed a way-point. Leaving that place behind it was constantly attempting to reroute me back to where I came from.

In the end, I had to cut short my ride a little. Lack of water (and places to get water), and the humidity were doing me in once again. I rolled back in Lourdes.

Showered and refreshed, I decided that I’d head out for the funicular railway. I’m a sucker for these things, and always wonder about the incredible amount of work that must have gone into building something that goes straight up the side of a mountain.

The Pic du Jer funicular takes travellers up to the top of the mountain where you can hike on up to an observation point at the peak of the mountain. They’ve also tastefully installed an illuminated cross. And there’s a mobile phone tower up there. In spite of all this, the views are spectacular. You can look out over Lourdes and beyond, seeing how the flatlands suddenly rear up as the Pyrenees burst into the landscape. Lourdes is very much at the foot of the mountain range, and you can see clearly this point.

I then went on a guided tour of the cave system at the top. The tour guide was very insistent that everyone wrap a blanket around themselves to keep warm. Despite it being well north of 30C outside, it was less than half that inside. It was incredibly how quickly the temparture dropped. Nonetheless I didn’t bother with the blanket reasoning that this was both the temperature back home, and the temperature I keep my room in Lourdes at when I max out the air conditioning (It won’t go cooler than 16C!).

While I was out visiting the funicular, I noticed more posters for what must surely be the event of the season in Lourdes.

Patrick Sebastien is coming to town!

I’m not sure why I find this such an exciting prospect. But it’s really down to the show he presents on France 2. Le Grand Cabaret du Monde is a uniquely French show, and it’s oddly become part of my New Year’s Eve regime.

Let me explain. The show is a variety show, as its name suggests. You get magicians, acrobats, dancing troupes and so on. The acts come from far and wide, but since they have basically no dialogue, the show is as watchable regardless of your understanding of French.

Between the acts, Sebastien interviews various French celebrities who usually have something to plug. The studio audience is arranged around tables as though they’re in a caberet venue. And that’s really the show.

On New Year’s Eve, Sebastien presents a live (well sort of live – it might be “live” like Jools Holland is “live” for the early December recording of his Hootenanny) version of the show which runs a solid three hours. Invariably it ends with Sebastien – who is something of a crooner and has released approaching a dozen albums – sings the same song set to the music of the Can-Can. Alongside him, dancers from the Follies Bergere high kick. Much fun is had in a France 2 TV studio.

And the good news is that this all happens at 11pm UK time. You can watch on TV5 on Sky, and then put a film on or go to bed avoiding all the forced entertainment of New Year’s Eve. (Have I mentioned how much I dislike it before?)

Sadly I won’t be here to see Sebastien in the flesh, as I’ll have left before he arrives. I would have been sorely tempted, although the poster shows a 61 year old man with at least two too many of his shirt buttons undone. But if the poster is anything to go by, it’ll involve a live band and lots of confetti.

The clouds were rolling in Lourdes by now, and I retreated to my apartment for a spot of late lunch and a chance to see how France 2 covers the Tour. The day’s stage was something of a “transfer” stage – across the hot and humid centre of France. It was a bit too hilly to be a proper sprint, and classics specialist Greg Van Arvermaet just beat out Peter Sagan.

French TV was mostly concerned with the fate of Jean-Christoph Peraud who crashed badly at a seemingly innocuous point. They treated his arrival in heroic terms having had both arms taped up, as well as suffering significant “road rash” on his thigh.

One thing I’d forgotten, because it was never really available on the global feed, was that French TV does a few interviews with team managers during the stage. Last season they introduced a little microphone icon to show that they were talking live to a manager. Except that only French TV was getting it. The rest of us just saw an icon that meant nothing to us. It would be nice to hear a bit more from team managers in the race. Eurosport has done bits on occasion, although it always felt as though the presenter sorted that out themselves.

The stage over and I headed out into a now quite stormy Lourdes. So far this visit, I’d avoided the part of the town that it’s most famous for – the area leading to the “Grotto”. Grotto isn’t the right word for what is in fact a large church and garden, but that has all come subsequently. A peasant girl was said to have seen apparitions of Mary, and now there’s a massive industry in pilgrims coming to pay their respects.

Well if I thought it was just paying their respects, then that’d be one thing. But the industry has grown and there is a decidedly tacky element to it. Shops full of tawdry “Marys” and all sorts of other tourist tat – but with a religious overtone. In particular you see far too many people wandering around with large containers of what I assume is holy water.

Now without getting into religious rights and wrongs, I do know that any water can be made “holy” by a priest. So carting 10 litres of water back across Europe is just a waste of time and baggage allowance. Your local priest can provide you with as much water as you like.

More concerning is perhaps the hope being sold to some of these people. Again, faith is your own business. But this feels like an industrial process, and perhaps more is being promised than can possibly be delivered.

I suppose that if you “get” something out of visiting a religious site, then that’s great. But it’s the idea that somebody is doing this for personal gain rather than any higher purpose that sticks in my craw.

Anyway, this was to be my final day in Lourdes. I would be heading back to Toulouse an onwards home the following day.

I took a roundabout route back into Toulouse, avoiding the dull Autoroute and taking a back country route, passing through dozens of small and very French towns. Eventually I arrived in Toulouse and navigated my way to what turned out to be a pretty expensive city centre car park. Mooching around Toulouse, it was clear that the heat was still very high. As the day wore on it was getting hotter.

As I strolled around the city, taking in some of the sites, I found myself drinking ever more fluids. I thought it might be nice to sit in a bar somewhere to watch the end of the day’s Tour stage. This was to prove quite difficult. Searching Google for “sports bar” didn’t really help, and gave me a few false leads. A lot of places were shut in mid-afternoon on a Saturday. I’d almost given up hope when I passed a bar with a TV on. They catered to a tourist crowd who wanted to sit outdoors. But I headed for the air conditioned sanctuary of the back, and even though we had no sound from the TV (they were playing music), I was able to watch Roman Bardait and Thibot Pinot foolishly play cat and mouse at the stage’s finish, only to have Steve Cummings road past them in the last few metres to stage an epic stage win for his wildcard team, MTN Qhubeka.

Out at the airport, I began to realise that it probably wasn’t the smartest idea taking the last Easyjet flight out of Toulouse. While it was only 20 minutes late getting in, a storm was forming over Toulouse. By the time we boarded the plane, it was in full swing, and the plane was actually shaking on the ground. We sat there waiting out the weather for an hour and a half.

In the end it meant that I didn’t get back to Gatwick until midnight. I retrieved my bag and bike, and raced to a Gatwick Express train, getting me into London at an ungodly 1.20am. That meant a cab home (Uber isn’t good for bike bags), but it was actually a reasonable price, and the cabbie had done the Tour d’Etape in the Pyrenees the previous year. So it was cycle chat all the way home.

In summary, it’s well worth doing what I did. A bit more preparation wouldn’t go amiss, but overall a successful trip.

Photographic note: I only took my small Sony RX100 III with me for this trip. While it’d have been great to have a big telephoto lens, the practicalities meant that this wasn’t really possible. Many more photos can be found on Flickr – Stage 10, Stage 11, Stage 12 and Pont d’Espagne.

Rail Priorities

Over Christmas Network Rail managed to inconvenience thousands of travellers – particularly around King’s Cross and Paddington stations in London. The reason was that the scheduled works that they’d planned for Christmas Day and Boxing Day massively overran and therefore people travelling on the 27th found that either they couldn’t, or it would be particularly hard to do so.

As ever, Network Rail schedules big pieces of work over holiday periods. Those are often either Bank Holidays or around Christmas.

Certainly there’s work regularly carried out at weekends – but never weekdays.

I’ve no doubt that the intention is to minimise the disruption to as small a number of people as possible. But of course, what that really means is: “Don’t disrupt commuters.” And it’s all very well for the Chief Executive not to take his bonus (shouldn’t a “bonus” be awarded for meeting a “target” of some kind?).

It seems to me that a certain kind of traveller is more likely to be affected by works at these times – the leisure traveller.

Because when you travel by rail you’re probably doing so for one of two reasons: for work, or for a leisure related reason such as visiting friends and family.

The former group is bigger, but they rarely get planned disruption – assuming that they mostly work Mondays to Fridays. Woe betide you if you happen to work on Sundays. The latter group, however, routinely get disrupted. Engineering works and our friend, the “bus replacement service” will always be at the weekend.

The problem is that for those who travel by rail at holiday periods, but don’t use rail for work, the rail service looks – and is – bad. That’s because those users are getting a second class service (perhaps Third would be more appropriate). If I was to only ever travel by rail at Christmas, I think I’d pretty much give up on trains very quickly believing the service to be unreliable and overcrowded.

We’re told that 4.5m commute but “only” 2.5m use the rail during holiday periods. But I suspect that there is only a limited overlap between these gaps. Living in a car-less household, I’m in that overlap, but I think I’m in the minority.

“If you’re not a commuter, you don’t matter,” seems to be the message.

Then there’s the overall planning. If you’re going to close Euston and King’s Cross, you’d better make sure that you get your work done on time. Because you’ve just shut off access between London and most of the midlands, the north and Scotland – Marylebone notwithstanding.

And suggesting that large numbers of passengers travel to commuter station Finsbury Park is just stupid. But of course there are no other ways to ferry passengers up to Stevenage or Peterborough to continue mainline routes north.

So how about carrying work out a bit more fairly? Don’t put all the pain on occasional leisure travellers, but share the load a bit.