Stage 18: Bourg-d’Oisans - Saint-Étienne, 196km
196km to Saint Etienne today and it wasn't straightforward by any means. A beautiful early morning leaving Alpe D'Huez in the van after what was a basic poor quality breakfast and a poor night's sleep in a cheap rundown hotel, which shall remain nameless.
Recovery from yesterday's monster stage was therefore compromised just when I needed it to be 100 percent. The van dropped me off close to Bourg D'oisans centre for the official stage start and I began downhill into a cool headwind through the Romanche valley towards the capital of the French alps, Grenoble.
Onwards and upwards into the Chartreuse mountains, things were getting tiring and my legs/system just weren't firing on all cylinders today. Before the 150km point I arrived into the Massif Central region (again) and battled my way through plenty of rogue traffic systems and roundabouts en route to St Etienne. The pre-amble to the city was perhaps the ugliest of all the three weeks of riding, not bad in the grand scheme of things but unlike the majority of the course to date. I was glad to finish this stage, a tough one and another near 200km done.
Understandably, the crew were showing signs of fatigue after three weeks on the road covering huge distances stuck in a van without air conditioning. Stop start, stop start, looking after me, ensuring I go the right way at key points and handing me food/drink at planned and sometimes random checkpoints. My soigneur, Ed, had managed to mislay his mobile on the course somewhere and it took him an hour there and an hour back re-tracing the course to find it. Worth it though, as I suspect we've all been in that nasty situation before.
The van suffered a minor bump too whilst reversing into a layby ahead of a 'feed station'. All in all, a few cracks were appearing today and I suggested that we start a little later tomorrow morning, take things real easy and be safe rather than ride our luck. Agreed by all!
Nearly there now. More stretches, more massage, more food, more handwashing ... bed.
Time in saddle: 6hrs 45 mins
Conditions: Very windy, 30 degrees
Feel good factor: 5/10
iPod tune: Un Jour Comme Un Autre - Brigitte Bardot
Stage 19: Roanne - Montluçon, 165km
A warm start - just like summer in France should be.
The crew and me were more chilled today after agreeing to start a little later and take more time during prep/breakfast etc.
I used some of the extra time to update my alpine stages blog and respond to emails.
Today's stage was another deceptively difficult one. It was hotting up too - 24 degrees in the morning and later 34 degrees. False flats, short descents immediately followed by short ascents. This course was designed perfectly to grind out any energies left over from the mountains, to kid you into thinking you were home and dry and then another hill. Even small ones hurt more at this point.
That said, It was fortunate for me that I felt as strong today, if not stronger than at any stage in this year's Tour. My recovery was complete from Les Alpes and the legs were in good shape. From the first (13km long) climb I was in race mode, keen to get any tough terrain out of the way for good. I blasted over this climb at an average of 24.5km/h and continued a high pace/cadence for the remainder of the day. A tail/cross wind helped me today a I finished in just over 5 hrs very satisfied and beginning to think of Paris.
Incredible countryside again and I can finally say that today marked the last day in the hills/mountains.
Conditions: 34 degrees, dry heat. Windy
Feel good factor: 10/10
Time in the saddle: 5hrs 10 mins
iPod tune: Diesel Power - Prodigy
Stage 20: Cérilly - Saint-Amand-Montrond individual time trial, 53km
My plan all along was to treat the time trials as easy, wind down stages, to spin the legs in a small gear enabling a faster recovery for the latter stages. That is what I did at Cholet during week 1 and that was pretty much what happened today, although I admit to keeping it in the big chainring and doing the odd blast, if only because Paris is so close now and the course was incredible - both picturesque and fast - a few hills though!
Whilst having to stay focused, my thoughts are turning to Paris tomorrow and meeting my parents under the Arc de Triomphe after what seems like an age riding around this country. Myself and the crew constantly chat about where we've been so far and it became genuinely difficult sometime ago to recall each stage. Photos will help when I get home.
Funnily enough, today's time trial took us within skipping distance of a stage town from week 1: Chateroux. That's a 3,500km loop the way we've tackled it!
It's real 'Allo Allo' country for Francophiles here.
I'm still two days ahead of the tour and it's PARIS tomorrow. It will be exciting but very challenging logistically. I can imagine it will take a lot longer than anticipated.
Time in the saddle: 1hr 30 mins
Feel good factor: 9/10
iPod tune: Let It Loose - Rolling Stones
Conditions: Very dry, hot and less wind - 34 degrees