Sunday, 25 July 2010

Swiss Roll Day 7 - Basel to Grafstal - 78 miles

It's the last day of our ride and not only has my cold got worse, but James has come down with it too. In fact he feels so bad that he's decided to take the train home - well he has ridden all the way to Switzerland, which was the deal!

His decision is certainly the sensible one, but I'm feeling a mum-like determination to see this through to the end, however bad I'm feeling, foolhardy or not.

It's raining and cool too as I set off at 9.30 to complete the trip on my own. Sadly I follow James's advice and head south through the suburbs of Basel to find the Rhine cycle route.

I say sadly, because after 45 minutes and 8 miles I'm back in the centre of the city having been unable to get onto the route - every time I got near, the roads kept turning into motorways that I wasn't allowed to ride on...

Back in the centre, I head to the Rhine and find the path straight away (which is what I wanted to do in the first place, but James is the Swiss expert!). However it quickly peters out and I'm cycling first through industrial docks and then along a rough path.

So after an hour and a half I've managed about 5 miles towards my destination. I give up and find a road with a perfect cycle route running alongside it...

I try the route again a couple of times, but it's much too indirect and the surface too uneven, so I stick to the road.

That's much better and I'm soon zipping along at 17 mph (not bad with panniers on) with a brisk breeze right behind me, following the river.

Pass through Rhinefelden and I'm back on track, having managed 42 miles by the time I stop for lunch at 1.15. I'm having to force myself to eat and drink, as I've got absolutely no appetite. I seem to be coughing up half a lung too, which can't be healthy.

But I seem to have turned into some sort of cycling machine and carry on at the same rate. Before I know it I'm turning away from the Rhine towards my brother's village.

It's another couple of hours of gentle hills, through very pretty countryside, before I arrive at his door gar ahead of schedule.

So that's our ride from Dunkerque to Switzerland done. Around 563 miles (compared to the planned 550) in 7 days.

I hope mum would be proud...

Mum in Switzerland

Post script: James is feeling much better and rode the Basel to Grafstal leg this weekend!

Here's a video of the day:

Swiss Roll - Day 6, Le Thillot to Basel, 74 miles

Wake up feeling awful, with sore throat and stuffy head, but not so bad that I can't cycle.

Ready to set off at 9.30 and the cycle path is literally outside the gate of the hotel, so no chance of getting lost.

Ride 5 miles to the base of the Ballon d'Alsace and set straight up. The mountain is 3,841 feet high, starting from 2,000 feet, and the climb is at a healthy 7% over 9 km (5 miles).

Swiss Roll Day 6 - Ballon d'Alsace Ascent

It's roughly half the climb of Mont Ventoux, which James and I rode in 2007 - although that was without panniers!

The road winds and doubles back through forest and the traffic is very light, although we are passed by several club cyclists near the top - although they're not carrying panniers and, in my case, more than a few excess pounds...

A kilometre from the col the rain starts in earnest and the visibility drops to less than 100 metres, so not much of a view when we reach the summit.

Matthew - Ballon d'Alsace

And, since you ask, yes James made it too.

After coffee/hot chocolate and a pastry we head down. It's cold and the road surface is wet and slippery, so we take it very gently with the brakes on most of the time.

It gets warmer and drier as we descend and we are back in pretty valleys.

But even though we've completed the biggest challenge of the day, we still have 45 miles to cycle to Basel. We find another cycle route and manage 10 miles before deciding to stop for lunch.

The cycle route continues in the afternoon, for part of the way alongside a railway line. 20 miles from the end we are forced to stop by a violent rain storm, but then we have a strong wind behind us as we zoom along beautiful back roads.

The last 10 miles into Basel are downhill, although we have a tricky time finding the hotel - a converted block of police cells which is much more luxurious than it sounds!

Here's a video of today's ride:

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 5, Nancy to Le Thillot, 88 miles

Weather forecast awful today - rain, followed by more rain...

Get up later than recently and cycle into Nancy to take a look at Stanislas Square, which is absolutely delightful.

Nancy - Stanislas Square

However, leaving the city going south is even worse than entering it last night. The signposting is terrible and we nearly end up on a motorway!

But after wasting half an hour we finally find the route to Epinal and cycling is a real pleasure.

It starts to drizzle, but the road - which slowly traces the Moselle back to it's source, is wonderful - although we rise nearly 2,000 feet during the day it is barely noticeable...

As we get close to lunch the rain gets worse, until at Epinal, after 45 miles, I feel absolutely sodden. Although it is an improvement on the previous daus' scorching heat (the journey is starting to feel a little like a biblical epic!).

And the dreadful weather persists as we continue. Eventually we reach Remirement, only 12 miles from our destination for the day, Le Thillot. Of course bicycles aren't allowed on the main route and the only alternative involves taking a 9-mile diversion.

But eventually we find a fantastic cycle route that weaves in between villages and away from the main road, taking us right to our hotel door and we arrive, looking rather disheveled, for a gratefully-received bath and meal.

Swiss Roll - Day 5, Le Thillot

The route has been 88 miles, 11 more than planned.

Tomorrow morning is the Ballon d'Alsace, 3,841 feet high and currently shrouded in cloud. Hopefully the weather will improve and our legs will hold out...

Here's a video of today's exploits:

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 4, Sainte Menehould to Nancy, 88 miles

Even earlier start today - awake at 6.30, set off by 8.00. Expecting more heat, bigger hills and rain, so a good idea to get ahead...

There are already clouds forming as we leave and head up and down a series of hills.

Swiss Roll - Day 4, Sainte Menehould

With less sun and a breeze it feels cooler. We reach a plateau and enjoy the morning, making good progress to arrive in Verdun for early elevenses.

The town is pretty normal, apart from being dotted with tributes to the hundred of thousands of men who died fighting in the First World War in forts that surround it. From the official monument:

Swiss Roll - Day 4, Verdun

To Rodin's impassioned sculpture:

Verdun - Rodin Sculpture

After the town there are a series of long hills, reaching 1,200 feet. But they are followed by a long downhill and a race across flat terrain with a strong wind behind us for the first time.

With 20 miles to go we make relatively easy work of more hills before dropping down to the river Moselle for the last miles to Nancy, where drizzle starts just as we arrive at 5.

The city is the capital of Lorraine and crammed with history, while also seeming rather bohemian.

Nancy Cafes

The weather gods have been very kind today. The route tomorrow should be easier, but it will depend on the sun, rain and heat...

Here's a video of today's ride:

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 3, Soissons to Ste Menehould, 90 miles

Manage to get up earlier for breakfast today and set off by 8.30. It's due to be a longer - 87 mile - and hillier day today.

Leave Soissons and take the route east along the Aisne river. It's a beautiful morning, sunny and not too hot, and the countryside is lovely, despite the Rough Guide rather un-gallantly describing it as 'uninspiring'.

This is a region with one real claim to fame, as might be guessed from it's name: Champagne - it produces the world's favourite (and most expensive) sparkling wine. But we go the whole day without seeing a grape growing, in fact most of the agriculture is wheat and vegetables growing in vast open fields.

There are suddenly fields of sunflowers, though...


Leaving Soissons, we head east towards the historic centre of the region, Reims. The first thing to say is that pronouncing the city's name is, perhaps appropriately, a minefield. Brits would probably say "Reams", but the locals would call the town something more like "Ranse" (pronounced with a rolled 'R', and while holding your nose). Click here for the real thing...

The morning goes well and we arrive in Reims after 40 miles to buy lunch and have a look (though no time, sadly to go round) the cathedral.

Swiss Roll - Day 3, Reims Cathedral

To follow our route we have no choice but to join a huge dual-carriageway for 5 miles. It's really not much fun having lorries shooting past you elbow at 110 kph!

But then we're back out onto a country road and lunch.

However it's got much hotter and the sun is getting really intense. We have another 40 miles to go and the wind is blowing in our face. It's really tiring and dispiriting...

But we manage to buy more water - and ice lollies, which makes a big difference!

The last 20 miles are tough, it's hilly and hot - 33 degrees in the shade and hot enough to start melting the tarmac. Here's the road down to Valmy, with a beautiful old windmill in the background.

Swiss Roll - Windmill

But we arrive at our hotel at 6.30 in time for a welcome shower. And dinner is escargots and pied du cochon (pigs' trotters, a local speciality). Delicious, if a little on the bony side...

Here's a video of today's ride :

Monday, 19 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 2, Arras to Soissons, 80 miles

Wake up not feeling too bad and my sun burn/tan is looking a little less pink. Breakfast at the hotel and start at 9.00.

It's easier today to get out onto the country roads and we make good progress, managing 20 miles in a couple of hours (including drink/map reading breaks).

We leave Pas de Calais and enter Picardie amd the Somme, a name from The First World War which has become shorthand for pointless sacrifice. Revealingly, we pass a monument to an early conflict, the Franco-Prussian War, which shows how history repeats itself again, and again...

Swiss Roll - Day 2, Memorial in Picardie

We stop in Peronne to buy drinks and factor 50 sun cream - it's already hot and there's not a cloud in the sky. This is my 4th long tour (plus several shorter ones) and I've never experienced this much sun before. It's not as nice as it sounds - I would guess it takes 25% more effort to cycle in the sun and heat than when it's cooler and cloudier, and there's a danger of dehydration, salt loss and heat stroke.

We carry on, passing numerous military cemetaries - some large, others small - for French, British, Australian and German soldiers. It's pleasing that they are so well cared for and each nationality has it's own distinctive style - the British the familiar white tablets, the French white crosses and the Germans slightly sinister grey crosses which apparently each mark the grave of four men. Here's one of the British cemeteries.

British Cemetery in the Somme

It's a pleasant morning and we make good progress, stopping for lunch in Ham after 40 miles.

Lunch is baguette, water, sugary drinks and donuts. The more calories the better when you are burning through 6,000 a day - in fact it's almost impossible to eat enough, especially as the exercise seems to suppress your appetite...

The boulangerie is the only place open on a Monday lunchtime. I'm torn between admiration for the way the French don't let the modern world (serving customers, opening at sensible times) get in the way of doing what they like when they like, and bemusement...

The afternoon is tougher. It's still hot and sunny, road signs add 5 unnecessary miles to our journey skirting around Noyonne, and it starts to get hilly.

In fact we climb steeply up and drop down a 500-foot plateau several before we eventually arrive in Soissons, after 80 miles and 6 hours of pedalling, at 6.00 pm.

But it gives us more time than yesterday to clean up and go out for a meal - pasta - and a couple of well-earned drinks.

Here's today's video, don't forget to select 720p HD on the bottom right of the video:

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Dunkerque to Arras, 80 miles

It's sunny as we start at 9.30am and there's already a breeze - sadly it's racing along the coast, so off to one side, and not much help.

We head south east out of Dunkerque, initially aiming for Ieper (Ypres) over the Belgian border. It's a very pleasant route, mixing main roads with cycle paths and back routes.

After a few miles we come to Bergues, which is an amazing little arsenal town, surrounded by ramparts and a moat, and with streets arranged concentrically. James tells me it was made famous as the setting for a French film comedy called Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis (roughly 'Welcome to the Sticks').

Then we're cycling across open countryside, with the harvest (a mix of wheat, potatoes, reeds, etc) being collected.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Nord Pas de Calais countryside
The Nord Pas-de-Calais countryside

We cross into Belgium toward Ieper, but the border is only guarded by a statue...

It's a perfect morning (aside from not having a tail wind) and we make good progress to arrive in Ieper just before 1.00pm. The town is very beautiful, with a stunning cathedral and cloth hall - particularly striking as it was reduced to rubble during the First World War - here's a similar view from 1919.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Ypres Cloth Hall
Ieper Cloth Hall

With an expected total distance of 75 miles today, and having only managed 35 so far - we decide to press on. Just before we stop, after a further 10 miles, I have my traditional first day puncture. It's a big shard of glass that would have gone through a tractor tyre, so can't blame my Marathon Supremes.

But James finds a lovely place to have an omelette and frites, while I fix the puncture.

It's getting hot and the sun is unrelenting as we continue, plus the air is thick with thunder flies, attracted by the ripe wheat, which crawl all over us.

The countryside is also full of war cemeteries, they come thick and fast, mostly British and French, but also German, and we spot Indian, Portugese and Moroccan sites too.

We lose our way a little, thanks to following road signs rather than our map. It all makes for a frustrating couple of hours. But we get back on track and make good progress through La Bassee and Lens.

Our final goal before the end of the day is to visit the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. It marks the site of a much fought over hilltop, which was eventually captured by Canadians in 1917 at great cost. It's up a very steep hill, which is hard going in the heat, but makes us feel we have earned the stunning view.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Vimy Ridge

The memorial itself is very powerful, a split pylon with grieving figures. The area around it has been left as it was at the end of the war, pocked with thousands of shell holes and still unsafe to walk over.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Canadian Memorial Vimy Ridge

Then it's mostly downhill to Arras. A few miles from our destination we spot a huge, if understated, German cemetery - all the more poignant with quite a number of graves for Jewish soldiers who were prepared to lose their lives for their country...

Arrive in Arras at 8.00pm, shower and head out to eat quickly before bed. Another 80 miles in the saddle tomorrow...

Here's a video of today's ride:

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 0 - On my way...

Waved off by Clare and Oscar at 10.30 this morning on my way to Dunkerque to start the ride tomorrow morning. Of course, the rain started on cue, but it's only a shower.

Rode the few miles into Birmingham to catch the train to London along my least favourite stretch of road - the French roads will be far more enjoyable.

The train is delayed, so I arrive in London Euston 15 mims late, but luckily I've left enough time to get to St Pancras to catch the fast train to Dover. And it is fast, racing along the Eurostar track in just over an hour.

Text James and he is making good progress too, so far, on his cross-Europe train marathon - he's on the TGV from Strasbourg to Paris. It's already his third train journey of the day. He just needs to catch the Paris-Arras and Arras-Dunkerque trains now and he'll be home and dry...

On the train, I get talking to a retired American guy who is about to accompany a friend who is swimming the Channel - although he will be in a boat...

Arriving at Dover

Very easy to get the bike onto the ferry, there's a specially-marked route and I'm one of the first on - and there are bike stands too.

Crossing fine, sunny and only a gentle roll. Arrive on time at Dunkerque ferry terminal, but realise after miles of cycling that it is nowhere near Dunkerque itself. In fact it takes me a good hour to cycle to the hotel on the other side of the town at Malo-les-Bains, a 19th Century resort, which makes it at least 10 miles.

But the hotel is fine and we have a room with a balcony overlooking the sea - although the 2nd bed is definitely James-sized.

The restaurant is lovely too - specialite de la maison is moules. How can I not have that so close to the sea?!

The view from the restaurant

James arrives at 10.30, 20 minutes late thanks to a delayed train, and just as the restaurant is locking up. We dump his stuff and head out for a quick nightcap.

Here's a video of the day:

Friday, 16 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 7 Route

Rather late in the day, here's the route for the last day, 70 miles from Basel to my brother James's flat in a village near to Zurich.

Bike route 385881 - powered by Bikemap 

This is only an approximation as we're actually following one of the Swiss National Cycle Routes (No. 2, in fact) along the Rhine.

It could turn out to be the best day of the tour, depending on the weather - the Swiss really know how to do cycle routes. This kind of thing...

The Rhine Cycle Route

That's it. All we have to do is cycle it.

The weather forecast is sunny and warm for the first half, with storms later in the week...

Final Preparations

Everything ready to set off on our cycle tour from Dunkerque on the French coast to Zurich in Switzerland tomorrow morning.

I'm getting a train to London from Birmingham, on to Dover and then catching the ferry to Dunkerque, arriving at 7.00pm.  My brother James has a hellish 12-hour journey from Zurich, on about 5 trains.  He won't arrive until 10.30pm, by which time I will probably be 'over-refreshed'...

Bike ready and gear all packed, here's a little video about what I take on these trips.  I'm hoping to do updates and more short videos whilst we are away if wi-fi permits...

Friday, 9 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 6 Route

It's just a week until I set off with my brother to cycle from Dunkerque on the French Channel coast to Zurich in Switzerland. As well as the sense of achievement, we'll be raising money for Leukaemia Research.

I've been posting the day-by-day routes, and here's the penultimate day, 61 miles from Le Thillot to Basel:

Bike route 385878 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 6 takes us over the Col du Ballon d'Alsace, which was the first official mountain climb of the Tour de France in 1905.

montée du ballon d'alsace
Cycling up the Ballon d'Alsace

The mountain pass is 1,171m (3,841ft) high. But we will be staring from Le Thillot, which is already at 497m (1,633ft), almost halfway up. It's 4 miles in the valley and then 5 miles up to the top, at an average gradient of 7%, which is steep enough.

Col du Ballon d'Alsace - Gradient...

We've both cycled up Mont Ventoux (I've done it twice), which is steeper and nearly twice as high - and from a lower starting point - although not with panniers.  We'll just have to take it steady...

Then it's downhill for most of the rest of the day, with a short climb near the end, until we get to Basel in Switzerland for our last night before the final day.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 5 Route

It's less than a fortnight until we head off cycling to Switzerland. I've booked the plane, train and ferry, plus the hotels (in French, quite pleased with that).

Training has pretty much ground to a halt (although I've done plenty of miles), it's more about keeping my legs fresh now.

So, Day 5 - it's 77 miles from Nancy to Le Thillot in the Vosges mountains. Here's the map:

Bike route 385903 - powered by Bikemap 

Despite the fact it's going into the mountains, and takes us nearly halfway up the Ballon d'Alsace, the route follows a river valley and the climb is very gentle.

How gentle?

Well, it's 1,935 feet - which sounds quite a lot - but bear in mind that's over 77.2 miles (407,616 feet), which by my reckoning is a 1-in-210 hill - ie less than 0.5%.

Snooker tables are probably allowed greater gradients than that. And, as Geoffrey Boycott might say: "My grandmother could do that on a penny farthing".

Well, if she can do it...

In terms of the actual route, that's another unknown quantity - it could be pretty, it could be a day of industrial estates and switching banks of the river, but I doubt it.

Nancy itself is full of history and we travel through Épinal, the capital of the Vosges departement, which looks pretty.

Épinal - Click here for a panorama...

Either way, it should be a good day before we hit the proper Col du Ballon d'Alsace on Day 6...!