Calais to the Pyrenees, Mont Ventoux and back again

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Writing up a report of ‘what I did on my holidays’ over the journey back has become a tradition. Otherwise how would I remember the details of my first trip to the Pyrenees (Aug 2010!), the touring expedition Maurice and I shared in Northern France, or our Tuscan Honeymoon road trip? This time, the 2015 Pyrenees report even served to remind us where we’d been, and where not to repeat.

My husband’s holidaying style was probably one of the major attributes that made me fall in love with him. The first glimpse was the way our second date started in Redhill, took in Ypres, and peaked at Bruges with waffles and ice skating, before finishing in Redhill all in the same day. (That, and his dedication in expertly saving me half a month’s worth of wages by spending an entire weekend taking my car apart and putting it back together, fixed, when I almost wrote it off on the way to a job interview at Evans Cycles). Anyway – the holiday style.

Our holidays are a fairly nomadic affair – pack up the car with clothing, bike kit, bikes and whatever else is likely to be required, set off with a vague route plan, booking accommodation on the fly via Expedia when we begin to approach an area that looks like it’s rich in riding potential, or is otherwise interesting. Unplanned roadtripping. I guess it’s a bit like glamping, but with no exacting pinpoints upon where the glamping should take place, plus booking last minute usually guarantees epic discounts on otherwise pricey rooms.

This year we journeyed from Calais, to the Pyrenees for a week, before heading back via Mont Ventoux and the Parc Naturel Regional du Pilat. With a full two weeks to kill, it was very much a ‘holiday with riding’ as opposed to one of those 100 mile a day ‘riding holidays [cough training camps]‘, and it was pretty much bang on perfect. Here are the highlights…

Sunday to Monday: Caterham -> Calais -> Saint Nexans, Bergerac -> Ibos, Pyrenees

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Many miles begin…

This year was the first time the freedom inspiring holidaying style almost went wrong, before going spectacularly right. On Sunday morning, at around 3am, we set off to Folkstone – to drive the loaded car on to a train that would eject us onto the sunny roads of Calais. The aim was to get to Chateau du Rupert (a long term friend who moved to the Pyrenees in 2014) by Monday night. We chose Bergerac as our first port of call. Surrounded by a selection National Parks, it’s just under 900km from the Eurotunnel exit, and about 300km from Rupert’s house.

The drive was long, and prominently functional. In the afternoon we booked ourselves a hotel in the region that looked to fit the bill. The car (named Percy henceforth)’s Sat Nav carried its two weary, fairly hungry travellers down narrow, bumpy roads towards the hotel. Around 10km to go, my phone announced the simultaneous arrival of a text message and email – “Sorry, your room is no longer available – please call our customer service team in America”. Sigh. Well, it was bound to happen some time.

We called the American number, and requested a call back (that took about 6 attempts). After Ms Expedia Customer Service tried to downgrade us to a hotel we’d already veto-ed for its town centre location, we decided to fight fire with fire, and suggested the only appropriate hotel was one that was about four times the price. After more hoop jumping (I can’t even begin…) we eventually rolled in to La Chartreuse du Bignac (the price difference covered by Expedia – thanx guyz!) – a stunning complex where our room was effectively its own self-contained mini cottage.

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Beautiful hotel for our first night

The restaurant had ceased serving, but the sympathetic manager ensured we had a simple but scrumptious spread laid out on the lawn as the sun began to set. I only giggled slightly when, showing us to the garage where the bikes could live for the night, the manager’s colleague examined Maurice’s £4k Cervelo for the kickstand with which to prop him up. After dinner, bath, and a long sleep, Monday brought with it the first ride of the holiday.

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Pretty country roads and yummy pasta salad lunch

An enjoyable spin along sunny country lanes (fairly relaxed aside from my apparent all-encompassing need to overtake a French man on a climb 5 minutes from the hotel) with a lunch stop that featured one of those awesome salad lunch boxes with the breadsticks and complementary cookie that you find all over France.

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Then, on to Ibos, where we arrived in the evening – greeting Rupert and his lovely girlfriend Nancy over wine and beers.

Tuesday: Ibos -> Foothills Loop

Our first ride from the village of Ibos for 2016 was a  shake-down foothills excursion – a morning trip in order to be back for the arrival of Redhill CC (a club which we were all part of, in what I now suppose was probably a bit of a golden age) chairman Adrian.

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Day 1 ride – friends reunited!

Foothills rides with these two are actually tougher for me than col bagging trips. Maurice always has been, and probably always will be, a true climber. Rupert – SCCU BAR champion in his day, is an absolute machine on any surface that is flat, as well as being a bit of an expert at short-snappy power climbs, and every sort of descent. On the long climbs (these days, certainly not in the days when Rupert raced) I can slot between the two of them. When the climbs are short and sharp, or rolling (even more time to be lost on the descents!) I just have to accept my fate and catch up when I can.

It’s amazing how quickly you slot back into comfortable routine when riding with true friends

It’s amazing how quickly you slot back into comfortable routine when riding with true friends. We all had a great time, and made it back for a BBQ lunch, plenty of sun bathing and reading time as well as a trip to the bustling hall of dreams that is the Le Meridien retail space for general supplies – and Decathlon for new tyres and tubes. One of us brought a bike with a ripped tyre sidewall, and it wasn’t me.

Wednesday: Ibos -> Hourquette d’Ancizan

On Tuesday we headed out in the direction of the mountains. Having ridden Col du Soulor, Hautacam, and the Tourmalet last year, the intention was to hit some new ascents – rather than repeat the roads of the previous year. The plan was actually to ride Hourquette d’Ancizan, looping back over the Col d’Aspin – but having left at about 10am, we hit the first climb at the epicentre of midday sun and (being largely in holiday not training concentration camp mode) chose to cut it down to the first col.

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Adrian joined us for the first half of the ride, and we rode together just as a relaxed club ride should – breaking up at the climbs, meeting at the top, and keeping it sociable on the flat. I surprised myself with some PBs on the ‘Surrey Hill’ style 5 minute climbs en route. It seems despite beating myself up over being heavier than I’d like at the moment, the track time is paying off. Or the wind was just blowing in the right direction.

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Intrepid four (with varying degrees of arm warmer – or, no, just two degrees of arm warmer..

We refuelled at Bagnères-de-Bigorre before heading to the long stretch of uphill gradient to Saint Marie de Campan. From there, you can tackle Col d’Aspin (which gives way to a right turn that takes  you up the Hourquette) or the Tourmalet. The café at the bottom and its adjoining shop, plus well used water fountain, were exactly as last year – occupied by hordes of thirsty cyclists seeking fuel or recovery elixir in espresso form. This time we turned our backs to the Tourmalet and began the ascent of its neighbour.

As the Col d’Aspin began, we each pounded away, counting off the kilometres. Much to our dismay, turning right to exit the Aspin and begin the Houquette – the ‘kilometres to the summit’ markers ramped back up, undoing much of our good work.

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Made it! It’s very hot…

The climb itself is 22km (including the Aspin section) if you go from Campan, as we did. The average is actually only 4%, though the max is 10% – the difference in the two figures mostly being due to the gentle start. Looking back, it really shouldn’t have been so hard, but the toughest part – on the day we did it – really had to be the heat over the very exposed sections towards the top. And the endless caravanners dotted across the fields, sat outside with their mobile homes and crossing the road at inappropriate moments. And the donkeys, and cows that you don’t dare cut too close to. I took to pouring water into the vents on my helmet, not something I’ve ever done before – so it must have been hot. I realised at the top that the reason I’ve never done this before is that you become instantly cold on arrival.

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The route home was fast and fun, and there was plenty of wine, much discussion around music and lyrics, and food on return.

Thursday -> Ibos, swimming and all the reading

Holidays are just as much for relaxing as for riding. So on Thursday, Maurice crept out early to take Percy up the Tourmalet (I assume at some sort of vom inducing speed) and Rupert and I went for a swim at the local 50 metre pool. He’s taken up swimming in part to aid recovery after a back injury (years of cycling – fine, fitting an iron gate – boom), and I knew that 3 weeks away from swimming completely would make my return to Redhill and Reigate Masters sessions pretty painful. At 10am on a week day, the pool was almost empty – which is exactly as a pool should be when I want to swim in it!

The bikes enjoyed the rest, too

The bikes enjoyed the rest, too

We met Maurice at the Meridien, where the delicate coffee shop served a fluffy frappachino (me), sweet strawberry smoothie (Maurice) and a short efficient espresso (Rupert). The afternoon was spent diving in to Joanne Harris’ ‘Different Class’ – a book I devoured over the course of about three days in literary gluttony. Nancy made an absolutely gorgeous chicken dish, which went down merrily with rice and assorted hope grown vegetables from the garden.

Friday: Ibos -> Walkeyhikey from Lac de Gaube to(wards) Spain

Rupert’s parents recently moved to Ibos, where they’re currently renting a property whilst renovating one of the oldest houses in the village. His two week holiday, and his girlfriend’s summer holiday (a joy most teachers will attest is necessary after a year of hard slog) called for a family day out, and we were welcomed to join the procession to the Lac de Gaube.

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Chairlift to heaven (or just the lake)

The day began very sedately – a drive up a mountain, cable car to chair lift, chair lift to the plateau for a short meander to our picnic spot where the azure blue water exuded a calming influence from its home between the peaks. A plentiful spread was laid out by Nancy and Rupert’s mum, and we filled up before what was about to be quite a hike.

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Perfect picnic spot

I’ve never really thought about how quickly or slowly three hours of clamoring over rocks would pass by. It turned out, quite quickly, until the final section where most of us (meaning, myself and Maurice, who are less accustomed to walking places…) were crawling. Views of the waterfalls feeding the lake, the snow capped mountains as 30 degree sun beat down and stacks of soft grey rocks where enough to make the hours pass by quickly.

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Hikey McHikey Faces

The way out was all uphill, as we ascended in the direction of the border between France and Spain. You’d have thought the way back might be easier, but as I slipped on a cruelly placed rock, landing on my coccyx bone a mile or so from our turn around point, I think I felt every bump a little more keenly. Thankfully, my bruised bum and I managed to cope with the chair lift and cable car, before falling into blissful nap on the way home.

Saturday: Ibos -> Col du Soulor / Col du Aubisque

The aim was largely to avoid col-repetition. However, last year’s ascent of the Col du Soulor had been our ‘warm up’ and we’d made the error of riding back down, without carrying on over to the more famous (but infinitely easier once you reach the top of Soulor) Col du Aubisque.

So, pockets loaded, we made our way over. More PB’s on the climbs leading to the base for me – even by a minute-and-a-half up the climb to Ossun and again on various flat sections on the way home.

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We approached the Col du Soulor from Argeles – slightly different to last year, so no Strava times to compare. In total, it’s 20km, but after the first uphill section, the terrain begins to roll for miles of delicious undulating roads. Then there’s a sharp change in gradient at 12km, and it’s all ‘properly’ uphill from there (7-10%). At some point in the opening stretch, Rupert was sitting behind me, making friendly conversation about my jazzy Chapeau cycling kit (it was pretty jazzy). Eyes glued to my Garmin screen, and I rather breathlessly replied “I’m not a very sociable climber” – by which I meant my heart rate was way too high and I really should slow down, but somehow couldn’t with someone just behind me. He dropped off soon after, and I spend the next hour or so feeling rather guilty. Still, perhaps the friends I’m rudest to are my best (though they might not feel the same way!).

The climb passed, as they do – again the heat playing a major role. Last year, due to injury and lack of training elsewhere in our three person peloton, I somehow got to the top first. No chance this year, but I crested the final stretch second and set the bike down to admire the panoramic experienced of sitting (almost) at the top of one of the earth’s great peaks.

Rupert, not eating a Mars bar

Rupert, not eating a Mars bar

We stopped for scary looking green drinks, before heading on the tackle the Aubisque. The road heads downwards, first – but you know ever metre will have to be climbed back imminently. When the time came, my legs didn’t seem to want to join the party – and I watched the game of cat and mouse as Rupert powered away with Maurice reeling him in from afar, reaching the top myself a couple of minutes later.

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The way home was largely downhill (except for THAT uphill section from the bottom of Aubisque to the top of Soulor), and the long flat cycle path to Lourdes before the country lanes (and the three town sign sprints – conveniently we won one each) home. Thanks to Nancy, there was an excellent prawn curry waiting for us as a belated lunch, too.

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Did consider attempting to ride the giant bikes.. decided against it

That evening was the Ibos village fete – and we had a space at one of three long party-style tables laid on for the locals and tickets for the 10 euro three course meal. The music was loud, the wine was cheap but flowing, and the meal was – as always – lavish and filling. I amused myself looking for signs of quintessential Frenchness among the guests, eventually landing on the conclusion that this bunch was as varied as the congregation at any street party at home. There was a dance floor (for dancing), but though I’ll always be up for some shape throwing to the music, none of my accomplices could be convinced, so we ambled our way home.

Sunday: Ibos -> Smashy Smashy café ride

Rupert is the King of Smashy Smashy café rides, and this was a good ‘un. The way out to the coffee stop in Nay was hillier than your average café ride, and the way back was certainly more pain-train-esque – but it was worth every drop of sweat for the exhilaration of riding with two buddies who epitomise club ride harmony.

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Happy bike by the river in Nay

And all the queenies.

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That evening, the women’s road race was taking place in Rio – so dinner was a hugely satisfying omelette in front of the TV as I live tweeted my way through the race, before getting my listicle on in the morning to write up ‘10 Things You Didn’t Know About Mara Abbott’ (obviously).

On Monday morning, we said our Goodbye’s, and many Thank You’s – the second of which we’d like to extend once again to both Rupert and Nancy for putting us up for the week.

Monday to Tuesday: St Barroux, Mont Ventoux

I’ve been jokingly insisting that we had to make the journey to Mont Ventoux since the idea first appeared in my head. It meant an extra day of driving, in the wrong direction. The other options were heading completely the ‘wrong’ way to Girona (kind of expensive, and really hot) or perhaps heading to Gap, near the pleasantly named Die. We turned down both options in favour of the pilgrimage to Ventoux (not that either of us actually remembered to stop at Tommy Simpson’s memorial, as we should have). After all – a few days of riding nameless roads could be forgotten, Ventoux would be a new event stitched into the tapestry of memories.

We stayed at the Hotel Geraniums in St Barroux – where the owner asked us how many times we planned to climb the mountain (once) and told us sub 2 hours was an achievement (challenge accepted). A heavy dinner down the hatch, plus more wine than was probably helpful and it was time for bed.

I can’t say I slept too well, actually. A week of strong eating form with the additional Hotel Geraniums feast meant I felt a bit like I was about to haul on overly fat ass up a pretty steep mountain – which I suppose I was. Most of that negativity was probably a bit hormone induced, if I’m honest. But then if you knew you were going to magically gain 1kg once a month after finishing a little pack of blue oestrogen laced pills, you might get moody about it too.

Morning broke with a slightly improved mood and so off we set. The climb – in our case from Bédoin- was around 10 miles away. I’d assumed 10 flat miles – but that wasn’t to be. Though the signposted Col du Madeleine appears as a tiny blip on the overall elevation, it felt like a slow uphill march and a sign of what was to come.

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Mount Ventoux’s ascent from Bedoin is 21.6km long, with an average gradient of around 8%. Not bad, I hear you say? Thing is, the bottom is relatively easy, then at about 6km you enter the forest and it gives way to 9km of 9%, with one km at average 10%. Exiting the forest, the gradient sinks back to 7-8%, but the wind is strong (hence the name), and there’s an 11% kick close to the end.

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I stuck to Maurice’s wheel for the first few km’s, my heart rate was fairly steady and I felt comfortable. Thing is, he does tend to take climbs very steadily at the bottom, I can always hold on until it gets steeper, and then I blow up. So I dropped back and told him I’d see him at the top.

There were A LOT of other riders on Ventoux. Its fame brings crowds. Swarms, even. There’s the odd hornet in there, but actually most of them are buzzy bees, some with flat pedals and a few mountain bikes (perhaps planning on the off-road descent, but enduring a long old knobbly tyred ascent to get there). The cycle-traffic made the ascent quite pleasant – playing leapfrog with other riders meant the km’s ticked by.

Early on, I overtook a Scott rider in a Mt Ventoux jersey. I should mention now – my bottom bracket had started creaking the day before, so I probably wasn’t the most welcome companion. About a minute after I overtook him, he sailed past. No problem, I carried on at my pace, keeping my heart rate (fancy wheels on test, so no powertap) at around 180 (in the end I averaged bang in 18o, a tinge proud of the control). I figure I can sustain 180 for a 50mile TT and 190 for a 25 mile TT… and though the climb should be quicker than a 50 mile TT, it’s sensible to leave a little left in the tank *in case* on a climb. Carrying on at that pace put me directly on the wheel of Ventoux-Jersey-Scott man, and I guiltily clicked-clunked my way up the mountain behind him. Every so often he’d get out the saddle and ride away, and I just kept on plodding at my 180 happy place, catching him each time – honestly not on purpose.

He smiled and it was clear we were friends, even if I was playing a nursery rhyme of bottom bracket butchery on my travels.

Finally the KM markers that had been absent began – at 11km, 9%. I knew there was 10% coming, and I had no idea where. Scott-Ventoux-Jersey man suddenly slowed down, I passed him – muttering in my best French accent ‘not on purpose’ and motioning that my heart was beating fast, and that I was trying to keep it down. He smiled and it was clear we were friends, even if I was playing a nursery rhyme of bottom bracket butchery on my travels. I assumed he was nudging along just behind my wheel, but I never saw him again.

There were many interactions along the way. I won’t repeat stories of every one, just my favourite – because it utterly screwed with my head. On the road ahead was a guy in a Molteni jersey and matching black shorts, pedalling in trainers on flat pedals. He had two small bottles that looked like a cross between gels and drinks in his left pocket. I passed him, pondering the odd dichotomy of fancy kit with flat pedals. About five minutes later I looked up, and saw ahead of me: the same Molteni jersey, same shorts, same flat pedals, same trainers. WTF. Did I just go backwards? Did I pass out and forget? Did I take a wrong turn on this road to hell?

It was only as I got closer that I noticed his bottles were arranged very slightly differently, and one had a gold top. Also, his legs were bent at an angle which implied his saddle was far too low, and he would reach the top with permanently damaged knees – if at all. I passed the second of the twins, thankful that I wasn’t losing my mind and trying not to implore the faster of the two to sort his saddle the hell out.

Relentless 9%s came and went, as did 10% – it wasn’t nearly as bad as expected. The forest cleared, and the road opened up. Ah, the windy bit! This, also, wasn’t so bad – as I ticked away at 180 bpm. A few km to go, and a few broken riders appeared in view – one walking, whilst 4 skinny young guys charged past me.

Pretty desolate up here, then...

Pretty desolate up here, then…

It was here the stream of photographers began. I hate these guys. They stand on top of big mountains, taking unsolicited pictures in your moments of mingled suffering and elation and / or wonderment, then try to jam a business card into your pocket – where you can pay a bomb for a picture you didn’t ask for. I’m sure there are some people who appreciate it – who smile goofy grins at the camera or lift their arms in victory. But honestly – me looking directly in the OPPOSITE DIRECTION as you snap the picture probably implies I don’t want you to grab on to my jersey pocket and shove your sweaty little paw in alongside my stash of dried apricots. These pockets are ORGANISED, dude.

Me looking directly in the OPPOSITE DIRECTION as you snap the picture probably implies I don’t want you to grab on to my jersey pocket and shove your sweaty little paw in alongside my stash of dried apricots.

Anyway, aside from the photo-geeks, the final section as I trundled towards the infamous glowing white weather station was a weird mixture of pain and pleasure. I realised I’d been so focused on my steady heart rate, that I’d not got out the saddle nearly enough – so when I did so, my back felt a bit like that of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. A combination of coccyx injury (damn slippery rock), saddle sore and maintaining a constant pressure at a constant pace for far too long. I did get out the saddle though, rounding that final corner, allowing my heart rate to shoot way over the limit – to 190. Then I sat on the wall and put my head on my saddle and smiled.

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We made it!

The descent was totally awesome. Not very technical, so you can just chill out and enjoy it – my sort of descent. Especially since pedalling now hurt my Tin Man back. And no, the journey home wasn’t flat, taking us back over the Col du Madeleine – which now seemed even less dismissable, and into what seemed to be a relentless headwind.

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There are other things to do except climb mountains (like drive up them)

However, a (vom inducing track day style) drive up and down the now fog covered mountain, an evening feast, and a walk to watch the sun sink behind the chateau at the centre of the town did plenty to restore lost energy. We even had time to drop my poorly velo off at one of the many ‘base of Ventoux’ bike shops for new bottom bracket bearings.

Wednesday to Friday: Parc Naturel Regional du Pilat

Onwards to somewhere green, plentiful – the antithesis of Ventoux and its rocky barren landscape, we believed. Until we drove the 6km of the 22km climb on which our hotel, in Pélussin, was situated. No matter, it stood opposite an excellent Creperie and had a very friendly owner who was clearly quite a cycling fan and regaled us with tales from the Tour de France.

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Arriving on Wednesday afternoon, we took some time to read in the park (I was by this time onto Emily Chappell’s ‘What Goes Around’ – also excellent!) and meander around the quiet village. On Thursday (once I’d tapped up a little post about how awesome Kristin Armstrong is) the bikes were wheeled from the garage and we set off for a little leg stretching loop.

We rode out into a headwind, and the road just kept on going up. The coccyx/lower back in general of course still hurt – but only really when accelerating or standing out the saddle. So it was ok, as long as I didn’t do either too much! We weren’t planning on specific climbs, just following a vague route long the squiggly lines. Yet, somehow, my legs were growing heavier, and heavier. Then began the kilometre markers,  that suggest you’re really in for a long old slog – in this case up the little known Col de l’Oeillion. For the first time that day, I managed to get a heart beat over 170, but clearly I wasn’t going anywhere fast.

That we’d climbed high should have been evident from the vista view of the area, but circling the mini citadel of white orbs and towers of a weather station en route to the hotel was probably an additional clue.

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We seemed to have climbed quite high for an easy, flat ride…

The view from the top was, of course, stunning, and it looked like just 15 miles back to Pelussin. It was only 15 miles – but they weren’t flat. That we’d climbed high should have been evident from the vista view of the area, but circling the mini citadel of white orbs and towers of a weather station en route to the hotel was probably an additional clue. When we finally did get back, it turned out our gentle spin had covered 7,400ft over 45 miles. Perhaps that explains my epic fatigue over what should have been a fairly short, easy ride.

From Maurice's Garmin, since mine did a software update - and lost my ride... *sad face*

From Maurice’s Garmin, since mine did a software update – and lost my ride… *sad face*

Showered and non-lycra-ed – the afternoon was pretty much given over to consuming the calories I probably failed to get down in the first half of the ride. The best came from the ‘cappachino’ (or espresso with ALL THE CREAM) at the café that looked so inviting after the first climb, that we drove back to enjoy it in a more rested state of mind.

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Perfect spot for an espresso with a lot of whipped cream

Friday really was a recovery ride (with a little bit of work – because some stories are just low hanging fruit) – complete with riverside cycle path, repeated cries of ‘bollards’, ‘rider up’, ‘runner down’, ‘gravel!’ – and a miniature riverside picnic.

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There was the small manner of the 6km climb back to the hotel from the road below, but we did get to enjoy the descent on the way out. The evening brought steak, and a crepe filled with banana, chocolate sauce and cream. Doesn’t get much better.

Saturday: to Calais  

Did I overdo the frugality?!” I mutter as we roll into our 50 euro room not far from Calais. Well, perhaps – but then nothing could compete with the men in Armour that decorated last year’s ‘final hotel’ (don’t ask – we got lucky, a bit like day one on this holiday!). The outer city hotel had been described of as ‘rural’ – inviting ideas of a morning ride, but that’d mean starting with the birds anyway, so instead we chose a fantastic meal at a local pub and a lie in.

It was here where I saw a chocolate brownie finally defeat my husband – as he dizzily placed his fork onto an unfinished plate. Well, there’s a first time for everything – and there’s plenty more chocolate brownie in life where that one came from… (and MY – was there plenty of news to write up in the car on the way back! #Rio2016 goes on)

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