2nd July 2016.
THE GRAND DEPART – TOUR DE FRANCE.
Bouncing out of my Airbnb bunkbed the second my 6am alarm sounded, I was instantly awake and eager to get back on Enzo, on the road and down to the ferry. I waved off Anne-Marie and Mike, picked up my packed lunch and nabbed some bubble wrap that I shoved up the back of my jersey and rolled the eight miles on down into Poole in the early morning sunshine. It was really glorious, and even though it was mainly dual carriageways down to the port, being so early on a Saturday the roads were empty, it seemed the rest of the world were all tucked up in bed still, not setting out on such an eagerly anticipated adventure like Enzo and I.
Nearing the ferry terminal, more cars appeared, loaded to the brim with holiday gear, and cyclists loaded to the brim with panniers and bags. Sturdy tourers, upright and laden, unlike Enzo who in comparison was slick, lightweight and looked somewhat less practical for what we were about to embark upon – but so much more fun! Arriving at the loading bay with about twenty five other cyclists, we waited for the go ahead to put our beloved two-wheeled friends on the boat. This was just the start, everyone sharing routes and plans, where they were heading to stay, how many miles were ahead, which stages of the Tour de France they were hoping to catch. No one could quite believe that I was alone, or that I was planning to tour for ten days with just that bag. I guess I do get some sort of gratification out of people being shocked at the fact that I’m embarking on this adventure solo, like when people say your mileage is crazy, you know it’s just their way of showing they’re impressed.
Loading Enzo onto the boat I was so glad of the bubblewrap and made sure he got special treatment being racked alone so he didn’t get damaged by the other bikes on the crossing. Moving up onto the deck of the boat, I floated from group to group of cyclists, everyone was so chatty and open, and of course you can spot them from a mile off. I couldn’t talk, I was still in my lycra but with flip flops and my trusty Jack Wolfskin windproof down jacket to keep me sheltered from the sea breeze. Firstly I met a group of friends with a lovely Dutch lady from Poole off to Barfleur today and hoping to catch the second stage before Cherbourg on Sunday and hopping back on the boat after. I caught up with Andy and his friend from Beers, Gears and Engineers, an Exeter-based cycling club that I’ve been out with a few times. They’d opted for the motorised option to see the tour for a few days, heading across the Channel suited up in leathers on their motorbikes. Then a group of four chaps of various sizes (and cycling abilities, as I later found out) who were also over for a long weekend. We were up on the deck chatting as we pulled out of Poole Harbour, and having travelled across to France quite a bit on the ferries with work in the past year from Plymouth and Portsmouth, I can definitely say that Poole was spectacular in comparison. Past Brownsea Island, the famous Sandbanks, the white cliffs gleaming in the sun.
After waving England ‘goodbye’ onboard the Barfleur, I headed inside where I got chatting to Billy. After inviting me to join him at his little table in the cafe, we spent hours discussing everything from plans for the next few hours off the boat to life plans and aspirations. Its so refreshing meeting a complete stranger that’s on your wavelength, as you can talk to them about anything and they have no preconception about you, know nothing about your background or what you’ve been through – just you as you are now, in your present moment. Billy had an extra two decades of life experience on me, having started his career in the Army and now a graphic designer. He told me he felt like he was just ‘playing at life’ because he enjoys his job so much it doesn’t feel like work at all – what a wonderful place to be in. We shared stories, dreams and aspirations over a coffee and Billy gave me a good few ideas that I was very glad of, like keeping the daily journal that has allowed me to write this.
This is my friend Billy. The wonderful thing about having deep conversations with strangers is that they take you exactly as you are in that moment, with no preconception of your past or what you've been through. I couldn't think of a better way to spend a five hour crossing, thank you Billy. #katherinesgranddepart #channelcrossing #tourdemanche #feelinginspired #befearlessofwhatsetsyoursoulonfire #lifeiswhatyoumakeit #lifeplans
I knew that it was going to be a race to get to Utah Beach in time for the Tour arriving at the finish, only disembarking the ferry at 2pm and with the peleton expected at around 5pm. I had three hours to ride just over 30 miles, but I had no idea what potential blockages I might face or if I’d even be able to get close to the finish at all. Not having the route loaded, I started the jaunt with the four chaps that I’d previously met who were also heading for Utah Beach, although after just getting out of Cherbourg I decided that I wanted to motor on a bit so I left them to it and headed off under fresh-feeling legs by myself out into the westcountry-esque Normandy lanes. The first part of the route was rolling, gentle hills through little villages, the Norman churches always beautiful and impressive giving the small size of the communes.
The first town that I passed through was Valonges, and here I experienced ‘Tourmania’ for the first time; every shop window was decked out with vintage jerseys, old painted bikes, flags, paintings, regardless of whether it was a pharmacy, patisserie or a hairdressers! Back out onto the lanes again and not far before I came into Montebourg. I first noticed the closed road signs and soon found myself in the thick of it with hundreds of French and international TDF supporters lining the main street – this was it. The caravans were passing through, not the white, camping type no, this is a procession of sponsor’s trucks much like carnival floats, everything to Skoda to Madeleines, UCL to McCain Chips, Vittel Water to Bannette baguettes.
After weaving through the crowds on the pavements as best I could, I soon realised that my only option was to join the route and cycle behind the caravans if I was to get to Utah Beach in time to see them come in. I thought that most of the caravans had passed anyway, and no-one stopped me joining the course. That was without doubt one of the best moments of the whole trip. From Montebourg for about five or six miles I was on the fan-lined road, supporters from the local villages and from all over the world, huge road cycling enthusiasts down to the grandpa from down the road, all cheering me on and shouting “Allez! Allez! Allez!”as I soared past. It was a feeling that I’d encountered before riding the London100 last year on closed roads passing through Leatherhead, Woking and back into the city, the course flanked by supporters cheering on and making you feel like a Pro. Only this time this was what they were here to see – I was riding a part of the Tour De France – a small part – but nevertheless, the support from the crowds was amazing. It’s like a fuel for your legs, just like sunshine is in the summer, but stronger.
I’d had just a couple of disapproving looks and gestures from the caravans who I tried to keep out of the way of as best as possible but I was determined to get to Utah. I managed to get off the route as my Garmin was directing me to turn off which was a bit of a relief but before long closer to the finish I came across the procession of caravans again and the shut roads. Here the Gendarme were a nightmare – despite asking nicely in my best french the policeman refused to tell me which alternative route I could take to get to the coast. Adamant on making the stage finish, I marched through the crowds on the verges as quickly as I could – if I was going to have to walk the last few miles in my cleats I would – I knew it was going to be worth it. Before long I met some local french supporters who took a shine to me – the Monsieur came up to me pretending to be a Eurosport presenter interviewing me about the stage – I guess in my Hannah Barnes UHC jersey I looked like I wanted to be involved! He was a good laugh and before long the whole family were getting involved in trying to help me find a way to Utah.
Back out to the lanes and now heading East for the coast, the tailwind was awesome and I knew I had a chance of making it now. I relaxed a bit and fooled around no-handed again, so excited about getting closer and closer. Before no time I’d hit the coast road and headed South, not far now at all.
The atmosphere upon reaching Utah Beach was immense. The coast road took me past all the tour buses, with rollers lined up outside ready and prepared, several dishy team members milling about – were they physios? Coaches? Nutritionists? Ahead of me I could see the great crowds gathering so I continued to head for the finish line, past the podium stage. I found a good spot 150 metres from the finish line for the sprint finish, but also next to a big screen so I could watch properly, you really couldn’t see much at all from the roadside.
When they came through it was electric, but going so fast all you could see was a white blur between the heads of the other spectators – the best view was ahead on the big screen. A huge gasp as the crash and pile up came just before the sprint finish, and then a roar as Cav took it, to claim for the first time the Maillot Jaune. And you could tell all of the Brits when Cav crossed the line first, letting out a loud cheer – that was unexpected!
Not wanting to leave Utah Beach in a hurry, I joined the crowds heading up towards the dunes overlooking the beach to watch the jet display. Enzo was getting a lot of attention which I reveled in, and one of the beautiful men in the team cars told me how beautiful he was in French! There were so many people there from England in all of their local team jerseys, but I didn’t really find anyone to talk to until I was leaving Utah and picking up a fresh BBQ sausage baguette. I was very confused as one of the two young guys I was speaking to was wearing the Australian national champion jersey yet didn’t have an Aussie accent at all – turns out they’re both from Bristol!
I managed to get myself into a bit of a pickle that evening as I hadn’t booked into anywhere to stay yet and my phone was playing up and wouldn’t let me book on Airbnb. I headed North, knowing that I wanted to be back in Cherbourg the following day for the next stage finish and that it was going to be a wet morning so wouldn’t want to travel too far. Trouble was, it was a very rural area with just little towns, and being so close to Utah Beach all the hotels were booked out. The campsites were full and I didn’t have any camping equipment either. I could feel myself tiring and was very glad to have had the bite before I left Utah Beach and I started to seriously contemplate kipping in a hedge if I couldn’t find anywhere. But I was also desperate to wash my kit so I knew I had to find somewhere. As my route towards Cherbourg led me into an even more rural area, I started looking out for the B&B signs. I called in at one farm and asked in my best French if the rather plump old housewife had any rooms available at all, and she rather abruptly replied that no she did not, nor did anyone else in the area! Despairing, I remembered a place that I’d seen in AirBnB in Le Vast, so I headed there in the hope that a room may be free.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was to arrive at Gite De Etape in Le Vast and to meet Celine who put me up for the night. It was like a posh bunkhouse, sharing with three Aussie girls who where on a grand world tour travelling. I had the best shower and washed kit and enjoyed a leftover bit of baguette with a tin of sardines – a surprisingly delicious meal which would turn out to be a bit of a staple on the trip! It wasn’t long before I was passed out in my bunkbed resting up ready for another action packed day tomorrow. What a day – so full of living.
As my first TDF experience, Utah Beach did not disappoint. The atmosphere was buzzing, especially with Cav's win, and I loved how everyone scrambled over the dunes after the presentation to see the jets fly over the sea. Even bumped into some other Bristolians and practicing my broken French again! A cyclists paradise… #tourdefrance #utahbeach #tourdemanche #katherinesgranddepart #colnago #newbidon #touringonaracingbike #alpkitkoala #colnagasm #iseeyoulooking