Can your average Joe handle some of the toughest stages of the Tour de France? Halfords found a 29-year-old amateur cyclist, Dan Francis from south-west London, put him on a £999.99 Carrera Virago, sent him off to conquer some serious cols and made a documentary about it. BikeRadar spoke to Dan about going from commuter to king of the mountains in a matter of weeks.
How did you end up being selected for the job?
I tend to bounce around on different bike forums, and someone posted something about an audition he couldn’t make, asking if anyone else was up for it. He posted a phone number and I called it, sort of thinking it was a wind-up. The woman invited me in for an audition, and I thought I had no chance of actually getting the part so I went out drinking the night before! This was only about eight weeks ago and it just kind of snowballed from there.
How much cycling had you been doing before?
Not as much as I usually do in preparation for an event. Last September I did the Ironman Wales so I was doing 80 to 120 miles a week on the bike, and running and swimming. Before this I was doing about 60 miles a week in commutes through Richmond Park. If I’d known about this [the Halfords project] earlier, I would have upped the training.
So this was a big step up for you?
This was a huge step up. My biggest hilly rides before were Wales or Dartmoor, with friends. That was relaxed, stopping and starting, having tea and lunch on the way. I was massively unprepared for this.
What route did you ride?
We started in Liege, Belgium, where the prologue for this year’s Tour de France is, before sneakily getting in a car and going to Épernay [northern France]. Then we had 24 hours in the nice Champagne regions. Unfortunately, it’s not acceptable to drink champers on the bike. The team got cross when I tried that.
Then we started the mountains. The Col de la Madeleine and Col de la Croix de Fer. When I found out about it I was told it would be rolling terrain and short hills. I was lied to. The mountains were huge. I was trying to keep up with the camera car, which made it harder. I kept on asking him to slow down and he kept on telling me to speed up!
When we did the prologue we did four or five hours going round the TT route. The next day was about 210km of climbing. I needed a bit of a sit down after that! The total mileage was in excess of 500km. We rode the final stage in Paris too, and spent a week out there afterwards.
Did you encounter any problems?
While climbing the Col de la Madeleine, half the road was covered with snow, and there was a real risk of an avalanche. I genuinely thought the guys had set me up for that. I thought it was part of the budget to dump a lot of snow in front of me. We came up around a corner and saw a guy walking his dog telling us we are all going to die if we went any further. In my head I thought, ‘There’s snow everywhere and my legs burn but we won’t stop.’
And then I got overruled and bundled into the back of the car. We started the day at the bottom of the Col de la Madeleine and I was climbing for an hour and a half. I was about 3km from the top when we had to stop. It was heartbreaking. I’ve got it in me now that I have to go back and complete it. The wife isn’t too happy about that at the moment.
Was it hard to ride in those conditions?
It was clean snow on that day, swept to the side of the road, so it was chilly but okay. The day before we rode the Col de la Croix de Fer and visibility was nearly zero. The car was going slow and little old me was trying to smash it up there.
Naively, I didn’t research the climbs beforehand, so when I couldn’t see the team would say to me, ‘Yeah, yeah – we’re nearly there, not far to go!’ And I was thinking, ‘Are they just saying that, are they lying again?’ A couple of times they were! But getting to the top was magic, even though I didn’t see a thing. They magically got my wife on the mobile and it moved me to tears.
On your blog it says you got the ‘waterworks’ award for crying all the time…
When I had what I thought was a quiet moment crying in the van, it was clocked. Everything was clocked, so it’s probably on the film! My wife is pregnant with our second child so I was missing them a lot. When I was on the bike and moving and trying not to fall off I didn’t think about it as much though.
Did you take any tumbles?
I had a real issue descending. Not on winding roads, but on the straight downhills. I cannot manage them. I get a bout of speed wobble. The Garmin clocked 75kmph and it was too much for me to handle. I tensed up and the front wheel started to wobble. Everything I’ve read says to relax, but it’s easier said than done. Thankfully the bike stayed upright though.
How did the bike hold up?
The bike handled everything fine. I bullied it quite a lot, seeing what pace I could get on the flat. When I told my friends I was riding those cols on a sub-£1000 bike they were knocking the bike straight away, but it handled everything. It was just my skills that were questionable.
There were two or three ex-pro riders on the team in the crew, so the days often turned into coaching sessions for me. It was great, but sometimes they’d make me ride up a section of a hill several times to get the skills right. But the bike was really responsive, even on the cobbles in Paris.
Dan with his trusty Carrero Vigaro, proving you can conquer France for less than £1,000
On your website, creative director Jonny Watson said they really feared for you in the Parisian traffic. Why was it so bad?
We’d spent five hours coming up from the Alps, after the Croix de Fer, and then we arrived into Paris at rush hour. Riding up the Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe was amazing, but then I saw the 10-plus lanes of traffic, with no lane markings. No one sticking to the rules of the road. Gill, one of the producers, came up to me and said we weren’t going to do it; it was too risky. And then we ended up doing it anyway.
The good thing was that the crew was nervous too, and with a team car and camera car in tow I had my own personal bubble barrier. Now, when I cycle to work, I’m like, ‘Where is my bubble barrier?’ I got a puncture the other day and I had no mechanic on hand to fix it! I miss that!
Did your mechanic have to do much on the trip?
He didn’t have to do anything. I got one puncture that he fixed, that was it. He had an easy ride of it really! He felt quite cultured by the end of it, sightseeing and the like.
What were the highlights for you?
The highlights were the mountain stages. I’ve been up some pretty big hills but never any mountains, with so many hairpins and switchbacks. It was brilliant. To get my head around that was a personal highlight.
And the low points?
The mountains again. The snow at the top of the Madeleine, and not being able to complete her. We were there in the mountains for 36 hours or so, and I was ruined by the end of it. I’ve got unfinished business with Madeliene. I need to go back there before the baby is due in October.
How did you eat enough to keep up with the mileage?
I wanted to eat more. I always do. Dinner was a sizeable affair, and as much bread as you can handle. Lunch was on the go. On day one there was loads of healthy stuff – fruit and veg – and most of it got eaten. Day two was sausage rolls, cakes and junk food, which got demolished. Breakfast was my most sensible time. I would have yoghurt, oats, lots of toast and juice, trying to load up for the day. I had reserve gels in the pocket, but I don’t really enjoy chewing on those.
How was it having a documentary made about you?
It felt so weird. My first thought was, ‘Is that how I sound on camera?’ Apparently everyone says that! It was magic though. Seeing the teaser trailer yesterday, I love the way it looks. The way they’ve put it together it makes me look like a pro. I watched with my wife and friends and it moved my mum to tears.
Any plans to do another big challenge after this one?
In terms of challenges, I don’t know yet. I’ll have to do something before the baby, so maybe end of August or the beginning of September. A friend wants to do the London to Paris in four days – I’m trying to talk him into doing it in two. You got to think big! Either that or something in Scotland or north Wales. It’s in my head that I need some more mountains under my belt.
The full documentary launches today on the Halfords YouTube channel, coinciding with the start of the Tour de France. Clips will feature in ad breaks of ITV2’s Tour de France coverage.
Love cycling in France? Or feeling inspired to try some cols of your own? Then head over to our new fitness site BikeRadar Training. It's a free online resource for you to record and analyse all aspects of your training, log your training routes, get yourself tailored training plans, see how you're doing on our leaderboards, set goals and plan your season with a comprehensive events guide.