My Uncle Robin recently cycled the Tour de France course to raise both awareness and money for Prostate Cancer UK, having been personally affected by prostate cancer himself.
Impressive. But when you consider that he’s a sprightly 75, and that this is his third tour, you get an idea of the scale of the challenge and achievement.
I’m reminded of an apt quote by famed American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz (of Peanuts and Snoopy fame), highlighting that age is but a number:
Just remember, when you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed.
A proud nephew, I found his achievement inspiring so am relaying his story, in his own words, below.
If you feel inclined you can still donate to his fundraising campaign, just hit the button below! Thanks!Donate
Cycling the Tour de France for Prostate Cancer UK in 2016
After my prostatectomy in May 2014, I decided that if able, I would attempt to ride a third solo Tour de France in 2016. This would be in gratitude for all the care and attention I had received in my treatment and would focus on raising awareness and funds to fight this disease. The following notes describe my cycling year and how, at the age of 75, it is still possible to ‘have that dream’.
It was clear from the start that the 2016 route had been biased towards the climbers and that mountains would be the order of the day. We are fortunate to live in an area where training for such a ride was ideal as we are surrounded by hills. The early months were spent distance riding to include as much climbing as was possible. Whilst I had completed the previous solo Tour rides in 2006 and 2011 in one session, I opted to ride the 2016 route with intervals. The reasoning being strategic in terms of unknown physical condition, cost and available time. I was almost fully sponsored in 2006, but since that date cycle based fundraising has snowballed and it is increasingly difficult to attract sponsorship. So much so that this year we have been self-funded.
The Grand Depart
We targeted Prostate Cancer UK’s first Grand Depart, an inaugural event designed for a group of riders to attempt the first stage of a Tour route for the Charity. On June 24th some 82 of us assembled in the early morning at Mont Saint Michel to ride the 188kms through much of Brittany to the infamous Utah Beach. The event was a highlight of my cycling life and has resulted in a number of us with varying ages and backgrounds, forming lasting relationships with a common cause thanks to the value of social media. It was a superb day with perfect weather, brilliant organisation and comradeship.
To return home involved covering much of the early stages of the Tour route with stage 4 finishing in Limoges. Therefore, I undertook the route stopping some 72kms into stage 4, with the remainder of that stage completed in September on our return from the Tour Poitou-Charentes. These stages were fairly straightforward with reasonable weather and a variety of terrain.
H46269 was my designated number for the Ride London Sportive 100 on 31 July riding for PCUK. Quite a logistical exercise, which involved travelling to the UK and signing on at the O2 arena, then finding the camp site during a Friday evening London rush hour. Sandra, after taking me to the drop-off point 5 miles from the start at some unearthly hour on the Sunday morning, drove the camping car back from Shoreditch to the Lee Valley campsite, she then travelled to Green Park by bus and underground to meet up with our son Jeremy, his wife Judith and our grandsons Callum and Fraser down from Scotland, together with old friends from Essex. They were all at the finish line to cheer me in! It was really good to see them all.
Ride London proved quite an experience and raised many issues about the safety of mass start events in the restricted confines of country lanes with cyclists of varying abilities. There were many accidents, two of which were serious and one rider tragically died. I did not enjoy the event as much as I would have liked because of the many hold ups and delays. However, the administration and work of officials and marshals was first class and credit and gratitude is due to them. I completed the route in 5hours 31mins 10secs at an average of 26.62kph, missing my target time by 1min 10secs. Without the repeated delays and stops I believe I should have finished nearer the 5 hour mark. Ride London added variety to my training programme and all told I am glad of the experience.
The start of the Tour from stage 5 Limoges was delayed by a further visit to the UK to attend the funeral of a close and lifelong friend in Devon. So some two weeks after our planned start we left home in beautiful sunny, warm weather on 26 September. This stage was in a way the introduction to the mountains with the climb of the Pas de Peyrol (Puy Mary) in the Auvergne, a much used ascent on Tour de France routes. I climbed this in thick fog on the 2011 Tour, but this year the approach was from Salers on a warm afternoon. The last 3kms were some of the most difficult I have ever experienced averaging 11.9% with a 15% maximum. It was not helped by an earlier deviation due to a road closure involving an extra 7kms climbing the slopes of Puy Violent. The prize was the 11kms descent to Mandailles before the next climb of the Col du Perthus. On this climb I had my first tumble from the bike in several years and this was completely my own fault going uphill! Stupidly I tried to cut a corner and went on the grass verge, at the same time leaving the saddle and as I applied pressure on the pedals the bike slipped from under me. Thankfully, only minor abrasions and bruising, but it left me sore for a few days, but wiser to taking more care.
Stages 6, 7 and 8
Stage 6 to Montauban was gently undulating and included a beautiful section following the River Lot valley. The weather still fine for Stage 7 and introduction to the Pyrennes with a climb of Col d’Aspin at the finish of the stage at the Lac de Payolle. This is a favourite climb, possibly because there are usually cattle grazing at the top. I far prefer the Pyrennes to the Alpes, most of the mountains are marked indicating the gradient at every kilometre, and in general the area is more picturesque.
So into the mountains with the first HC (highest category) climb the Col du Tourmalet which I have ridden twice before. I knew what to expect on the 19kms at an average gradient of 7.4% uphill struggle. Actually, it is quite a straightforward task providing you find an acceptable cadence and keep to this rhythm to the summit. We have never experienced sunny weather on the Tourmalet and this year, true to form, started in drizzle and cloud. It cleared as we approached the higher reaches with cloud still in the valley below, which caused problems resulting in care and slow speed on the descent towards the next ascent Hourquette d’Ancizan again in poor visibility with nothing to view. We spent the night back down the climb and woke next morning to experience the magnificent scenery and sunrise which showed the area at its best. On approaching the summit again we found a different world with views to the Pic du Midi, accessible by cable car which looks very scary. Today we finished stage 8 starting with the Col de Val Louron-Azet which passes through several small villages on very steep sections. The day commenced chilly but gradually the temperature rose to 35˚C and meant discarding clothing to the bare minimum. The descent is quite tricky comprising short straights and extremely tight bends. Arrival at 5.30pm at the foot of the 7.1 kms Col de Peyresourde at a steady average gradient of 7.8% which was now manageable with the cooler temperatures.
Stages 9, 10 and 11
We now faced a drive into Spain for the start of the next stage which finished in Andorre. The weather was sunny with an autumn chill in the air. The route followed a mountain ridge for much of the distance, remarkable for the panorama and the intense red rocks. The road through Andorre-la-Vielle (the capital) was like central London during the rush hour, certainly not viable on a bike. Therefore we proceeded in the camping car to the summit of Andorre Arcalis (HC) a ski resort at 2,240metres where we spent the night. I cycled down the climb the next morning, Sandra remaining at the summit where she enjoyed a while on her own with her Trek. At 7˚C it was really cold descending the mountain and I did not feel warm again until I was well into the climb, not breaking into a sweat the whole way up. The hot chocolate reward at the top being more than welcome.
We chose what appeared to be, from the map, a very attractive route to the next stage taking us back into France. It certainly turned out to be the case, probably the most picturesque views of the whole trip. However, it was just passable in the camping car and we were delayed at one point where they were rebuilding the side of the road which had disappeared down the mountain. The 24kms climb out of Andorre was only at an average of 5.5%, after which it was a very busy main road (a main thoroughfare between France/Spain) which was unsafe to cycle.
The following stages to the infamous Mont Ventoux were considered flat but included a category 3 and several category 4 climbs. Some of this again involved main trunk routes so to save time and for safety I cadged a lift for a spell. Due to thunderstorms, we spent a relaxing afternoon exploring the World Heritage Site of the medieval Carcassonne which we have often passed but never visited. It is a walled and castellated city and from a distance appears outstanding. This is truly the case and the architecture remarkable, but it is spoilt by the cheap touristy gift shops. Stage 11 Carcassonne – Montpellier covered much of a route I have cycled before, through the Minervois and Corbières vineyards and on warm autumn days the aroma of wine remains with you throughout the day. Fortunately, this year the road was not sticky with red grape residue which previously had necessitated a thorough bike clean at the end of the stage.
Stage 12 finished on Mont Ventoux, a mountain climb much revered by road cyclists and of course, the mountain on which Tom Simpson died. The programme was to cycle the stage to the mountain base where we would spend the night, attempting the ascent the following morning. A very attractive course interspersed with pretty villages in particular Gordes, clinging to the hillside with very expensive but magnificent stone properties. The day was cold and extremely windy, gusting to 45kph which made progress very difficult over the narrow roads and gorges. The wind did not bode well for the Ventoux which in July had resulted in the Tour having to finish at Chalet Reynard, some 6kms from the summit.
What good fortune – we awoke the next morning to find the wind had subsided and the sun was shining albeit quite chilly. On checking the forecast we noted a window in the weather, so with trepidation I left Bédoin facing 22kms all uphill. After a few kilometres of farmland the route passes through delightful woodland which gradually becomes sparser as you approach Chalet Reynard, thereafter becoming more and more like a moonscape. From previous experience of tackling an unknown mountain for the first time I commenced slowly and tried to keep an even pace over the whole climb. This worked well, and although it was really tough I much enjoyed the challenge and look forward to another attempt in the future. Well worth the effort for the 360˚panorama truly inspiring – another world.
Stages 13, 14 and 15
There now followed stages 13 (37.5kms time trial) and 14 intermediate stage to the Alpes. This area was quite new to us and we were pleased to find a pleasant mix of scenery, undulating farmland, attractive villages and woodland. Mt Ventoux was never far away and it was quite some while before it was completely lost to view. The wind had returned and cycling all day into a northerly was cold and tiring especially up the many hills, including three category climbs.
The weather was turning much colder and rain forecast as we started Stage 15, with six category mountain ascents. Starting with Col du Berthiand (cat 1) followed by Col du Sappel (cat 2), Col de Pisseloup (cat 3), Col de la Rochette (cat 3), the Grand Colombier (cat HC) and Lacets du Grand Colombier 9(cat 1). The weather was dull and cold but the rain held off all day finishing 87kms into the 160kms stage in Hottones. Sappel, Pisseloup and Rochette were particularly enjoyable being straightforward through intermediate valleys climbing average gradients of 5.6% over thickly wooded pine forests for which the area is well-known. We passed through the largest timber processing yard I have ever encountered stretching for nearly a kilometre both sides of the road, but so well organised, seemingly very busy but with hardly a shaving on the road!
Meteo France promised the next two days of heavy rain and colder, they were not wrong. From our lay-by at the lower reaches of the Colombier complex we were awoken during the night by a violent storm with torrential rain. After a sleepless night we proceeded to the ski centre to replenish water and emptying. It was only 3˚C and still raining, windy and not a soul to be seen. The radio reported several mountain passes blocked by snow, schools closed and Colombier had a covering of snow. A least we had a warm sanctuary and we read and listened to music. Next morning still raining and the camping car failed to start with what appeared to be an electrical problem. We have breakdown cover with our insurance which is the norm in France. After only a short delay the lorry arrived to deliver us to the owners garage in Artemare. We cannot stress how helpful and considerate he and his mechanic were and by mid afternoon we were mobile. With only a day and a half window in the weather and the need to return home in a couple of days we thought carefully about whether we should continue. After hearing that the roads were in a bad state with the debris from the rains we regrettably decided it prudent to stop.
I have ridden most of the remaining route and mountains before, but hope to return during 2017 to ride Colombier and, if able, return to Ventoux for a second ascent. It’s a strange feeling that once ridden, the major climbs present an almost fascination and need to ride again.
Presently, I am riding two/three times a week and now that I have almost returned to pre-operation fitness will try to at least maintain the level. Our plans for next year will depend on health and finance (much relying on the value of sterling and the outcome of Brexit). I would not be able to engage in any of this charity work without Sandra, who in fact spends so much of her time supporting me.
We are both indebted to all those who have so kindly donated to our fundraising this year for Prostate Cancer UK, and for the thought and effort both Andrea and Jeremy, our children, have put into helping to fundraise on our behalf. We are still some way off our £2,500 target but are spending much of our time to try to meet this figure before the year end.
Robin & Sandra
Some Random Memories from the Road
- On a journey such as this you meet many interesting and absorbing folk. In Andorre we came across a French chap with a mountain bike spending the night in a stone shepherds’ refuge. He cycles over the border on multi day rides completely self supporting. Quite an extraordinary feat when considering the terrain. Near the same spot we heard an enormous, frightening explosion which resounded around the mountains. It turned out to be a burst lorry tyre from a truck we had seen earlier carrying an excavator up a mountain track.
- During the climb of Mont Ventoux an eleven-year old French boy cycling with his dad – Sandra kept telling him how well he was doing each time she passed them, he acknowledged with a ‘thank you’. A future star in the making especially as he resided in the Lande department which is completely flat. They passed Robin on their way down and congratulated him on his great efforts.
- At the summit of Tourmalet we met two Canadians with identical Cervelo bikes who showed me the intricacies of electronic gear change – I’m now hooked, and it would certainly be an advantage for Sandra who suffers from bad arthritis in her hands.
- A couple of a similar age to us from Devon who we saw more than once in the Pyrennes on a their classic BMW motor bike. Rather them than us, but equally they were not keen to pedal.
- A camping car of the future constructed by a young German couple from an ex-military vehicle, very refined with the camping unit run completely on solar panels. Also, a retired couple from the UK with a small camping car fitted out by themselves with several flexible solar panels on the roof providing their electricity.
- On the way out of Andorre there was a continual stream of French coaches and cars, no wonder after we had topped up with diesel and food all for 38 euros. (Fuel 0.86 cents/litre).
I rode my 2005 Cannondale System Six with Dura Ace/Ultegra gearing/brakes. It is beginning to show its age now having covered 45,380.33 kms to date.
I have used my Easton Assent II wheel set on the Cannondale since 2006. These wheels have never been retensioned/balanced and are as free running as when purchased. They use Velomax hubs and are presently shod with Schwalbe One tyres.
Total weight 8.23kg which compares favourably to current road bikes.