Tuesday 20 August 2013

The Exciting Sauerland: an RTF Experience

With the summer in Germany rapidly moving towards its end, we knew we had to take advantage of some fine weather and go for a loooong ride somewhere.  The opportunity presented itself on Saturday with the SSV Hagen sports club's annual RTF (Radtourenfahrt).  Tom, Rudiger and I did it last year except that due to horrible painful muscle cramps I only limped through the 111 km course while the others managed to do the 156 km one.  I was feeling pretty good and determined there would not be a repeat performance.

The weather had been forecast to be excellent but on the 40 minute drive to Hagen we ran into some rain and skies remained grey.  After some minor navigational confusion (Tom's car GPS was not working) we managed to find ourselves at the big sports facility and arena where the ride had begun last year.  A quick sign-up, payment of our 8 Euros (2 Euros to be refunded when we turned our numbers back in) and we were heading out of the wet parking lot and into the countryside.  The tour is called "Durch das reizvolle Sauerland," or "Through the exciting Sauerland."  This is the wilder part of the province, the green heart of Westphalia.

After leaving Hagen, a fairly industrial town, we began the long climb of around 25 kms that took us to the first control point in Ilheim.  Now the clouds disappeared and we were enjoying beautiful summery blue skies.  The climb had been along a good road with heavy forest on either side and after only 29 kms we were still fresh.  The next bit of the climb was quite steep and I was careful to keep a steady but not too difficult pace as I had already had experience problems on this hill last year.

But I recalled also that this hill was not nearly as much a test as the next one, when the road took us into the small town of Neuenrade and a brutally steep climb directly out of the place which then turned into a more reasonable gradient but felt like it lasted for 4-5 kms.  Now at Km 46 we reached the next control at Affeln.  This was one of the decision points and last year I had opted to leave the others and take the shorter route.  This time I did not have any cramping and off we all went together.

As an aside, there was a sign posted at the control point, suggesting that "Fastidious Cyclists Do Not Piss Here and For All Others It is Forbidden To Do So."

Heading southeast we soon came to a truly glorious descent, with gentle hairpins and good asphalt until we approached the bottom.  The scenery was bucolic, with clear vistas of the hills surrounding us and the forests everywhere.  Logging is an important industry in the Sauerland, something you would not see in the Rhineland to the west.

Our downhill route speedily brought us into the very active town of Plettenberg, where the usual Saturday shopping and cafe-enjoying was going on.  The Sauerland also has an active tourism sector and is noted for winter sports.  We had passed Km 62 now and the ride was progressing perfectly, with good roads, excellent scenery and fine weather.  The others were ahead of me and I rode right past the turn but thanks to the GPS I saw immediately I was off-course and turned back to tackle the next steep climb.

We passed through many small sleepy villages--Oesterau, Attendorn, Neuenhof, Lichtringhausen, Windhausen--until, at Km 82 at the top of another climb we reached the Rohscheid control.  It struck us here that we were among the last riders to be doing the long course; many people had taken the shorter one after Affeln but we were surprised how few of us there were.  There was food at the control and several riders discussing doping in pro cycling (!) but we did not stop to hear all the discussion but headed onwards.

The route was very well-marked with yellow signs with a red arrow indicating direction.  They were positioned at every intersection and then a hundred meters or so along the correct course afterwards.  This system worked well until we came to around Km 105 and our GPS course told us to turn and there was no sign at the intersection.  We elected to go 1.5 kms up the road to the next intersection to see if there was anything but no luck so we turned around and rode back to the original intersection.  Sure enough, 100 m up the road was our sign, but the primary one was missing.  We were joined by two of the riders from the last control point who had also passed by the intersection.

Now we faced the last really hard climb of the trip, which I somehow managed to do with considerable agony in 2012: the so-called Col de Rosmart, as some way had put on a sign.  It was probably about four kms but quite steep in parts and we were starting to feel the effort.  At the top was our next control point and the chance to have something to eat in preparation for the last 35 kms.  Of course we were put to the test on leaving the Brunsheid control as a wonderful downhill segment of road suddenly turned into a steep potholed hell ride on what must be the Worst Road in Germany.  Luckily this did not go on for too long but it was no fun at all.

We were prepared mentally for the next control, which had been located last year next to a house where a big Canadian flag was flying.  The flag was there but the control point was gone; everyone had packed up and left so no more food or water but since we only had 16 kms left this was not a big deal.  The remainder of the ride was mainly downhill, except for two little but poisonous hills just before we reached the industrial outskirts of Hagen.  With 8 km to go I suddenly had a cramp in my right adductor but quickly stopped. massaged the muscle and drank a lot.  Shifting into an easier gear seemed to solve the problem. Rudiger, unfortunately, was having a bad cramp day himself and had to stop quite a bit but in the end he rolled into the arena parking lot only 10 minutes after we did.

We turned in our numbers, used the showers and headed back to Dusseldorf: mission accomplished!  With our little detour we had ridden 161 kms in all, with around 2200 m of climbing at an average speed of 22 km/h and getting to around 70 km/h on the downhill.  It is a really pretty area and the good roads (for the most part) and lack of traffic make it a superb cycling destination. 

(Since I was too darn lazy to bring my camera on the ride this time, I am grateful to Tom Fitzpatrick for letting me use his photos.  They are all his except the arena parking lot one and the control card image.  Thanks, Tom!)

Monday 12 August 2013

Ooh-la-la! Anjou Velo Vintage

Another Retro Event!

Turning off of the boring (and expensive!) Autoroute, I headed my rented Skoda station wagon along a secondary road in rural France, somewhere between Nantes and Angers and saw a sign for a chateau in Oudon. Leisurely proceeding, I soon found myself on the northern bank of the Loire, admiring an impressive medieval fort. The Tower of Oudon dates back to 1392, although most of it was built in the 15th Century and then, after falling into ruin, restored after 1866. It was the subject of a painting by the famous British artist J.W.T. Turner.

Continuing towards Angers I found yet another impressive residence, clearly from a much later period, and it struck me that if I were to continue to look at every fantastic castle in this region—there are so many it is not surprising there was a French Revolution--I would never make it to Angers that day. And the whole point of the trip was not to look at admirable castles but to participate in another retro-ride, the Anjou Velo Vintage.

After enjoying the Retro-Ronde in Belgium and then the much more modest Retro-Pedale in Rüsselsheim, Germany soon after, it was time to go further afield. I flew from Düsseldorf direct to Nantes on the Air France affiliate airline Hop! (yes, "!" included in the name) since there did not seem to be any other reasonable way to get there. The Peugeot PXN-10, my ride of choice from l'Eroica, was making a return trip to its homeland. Rather than the usual unwieldy bike case, I had a soft-sided bag for it, stuffed with foam. This turned out to be much easier to deal with than the case and on arrival in Nantes everything appeared to be in order.

The Anjou Velo Vintage event is spread over several days and this year's edition (the third) had Saumur as its anchor but Angers was a key component. This year the organizers had included a ride from Angers to Saumur on June 22 that would follow 83 kms or so of the original final stage of the 1903 Tour de France. To participate in “le Rétro 1903” it was necessary to get to Angers first and the organizers had set up a bike corral so participants could leave their bikes there and take a shuttle bus from Saumur the next morning for the ride. My plan was to leave my bike in Angers and then drive the Skoda to my hotel, which was east of Saumur.

Angers was much larger than I expected and I was a bit nervous driving in but the GPS took me close to where I wanted to be. I found a big underground parking lot (noticing that there were big signs that it would be closed at 6 pm that day due to various events) and found an excellent spot with a lot of room around it. It was here that I pulled out the bike bag and my tools and put the Peugeot back together. It all went swimmingly until I had a heart-stopping moment when I could not find the seat binder bolt. I had not come all this way to be defeated by the loss of a tiny part but, calming down, I carefully shook out the bag and out the bolt fell. Victory! Tires pumped up and brakes adjusted, the sea-green Peugeot and I headed outside into the street. Straight into a violent rainstorm.

the Old Bicycle Corral in Angers
The rain hammered down and I sheltered at a storefront as everyone in Angers took flight. It was really nasty and cold to boot but eventually it stopped. After asking some policemen where the square was that I needed to reach—they needed to call in, even though it turned out to be less than a block away!--I found myself in the heart of Anjou Velo Vintage. Avec mon vélo.

Some enthusiastic helpers took the Peugeot off my hands and stored it safely in the bike corral. There were a number of stands set up and I met the charming Marie at one promoting a bicycle museum mid-way between Paris and Angers. She gave me some brochures and did not laugh at my French at all. There was also a stand selling English candy and another with a nice selection of cycling books. Raymond Poulidor was there autographing books, as was the widow of Laurent Fignon, Tour winner in 1983 and 1984. 

To entertain the passersby a gentlemen demonstrated a high-wheel bicycle (called “un bi” in French) and then let some children sit on the saddle. The rain was intermittent and I had had enough so I left the garage after I received my registration package in good time and made my way to my hotel.

The registration goodies not only included a musette and aluminum water bottle but also radish seeds
Le Rétro 1903

On Saturday morning I left the hotel early, figuring I could find some kind of breakfast before the ride. It was very easy to find the Anjou Velo Vintage Village in Saumur. Signs were everywhere and there was a big parking lot opposite the famous Cavalry School so that took care of one concern. Picking up my minimal stuff (a small saddlebag with tools, tire repair stuff, emergency food and the as-yet unused plastic rain jacket from the Retro-Ronde) I walked passed the not-yet open Village with its many tents and promises of interesting experiences to be had to where I could see several buses 
 and lots of people in cycling gear but without any bicycles.

I caught up to Dave W., an English rider with a lovely 1950s Claude Butler whom we had met at the Retro-Ronde, and a number of his countrymen. I was struck again by the fact there are so many British participants at these Continental retro-rides. They certainly seem to have the right bicycles but apparently there are no events there. In any case, it would be hard to surpass the kind of event we would enjoy in France over the next two days.

While waiting for the bus we also got to know another Dave W., this time from Ireland and equipped with a Raleigh and superb vintage-style sideburns. He had ridden the Anjou ride last year and his sideburns had gotten him noticed enough to become the AVV poster boy for 2013! Soon it was time to board the bus and we had a jolly trip to Angers, arriving just over an hour later. 

It would be several hours before the ride was to begin but a lot of events had been planned. It was bitterly cold so we all piled into a cafe near the square and after Irish Dave battled through the crowds we were able to enjoy some hot coffee. At an adjoining table was a familiar group from Dűsseldorf's Klassikerausfahrt, all of whom had also been at the Retro-Ronde. As we were enjoying warming up, a gentleman came around with a big basket and handed out fresh croissants to everyone. Very civilized indeed!

Leaving the cafe, we saw that groups of cyclists had gotten their bikes out of the corral and were enthusiastically chatting in various languages. There were some truly marvellous bikes, including a wonderful old 1905 Peugeot with truly beautiful brakes. And not just the bikes were old: on the stage there was a presentation taking place with “Legends of the Tour de France” being briefly interviewed. These worthies included Raymond Poulidor, “the Eternal Second,” much loved in France for his determination. Although he came second in the Tour three times and third five times, he never wore the Yellow Jersey once. That was not the case for two others: Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk,wearing a vintage Yellow Jersey on stage, won the Tour in 1980 and Frenchman Bernard Thévenet, who won twice with his first victory in 1975 marking the end of the era of Eddy Merckx at the Tour. In addition there were some other French riders and even Roger Legeay, who had been the final manager of the Peugeot pro team and then manager of the Z pro team when Greg Lemond won the tour in 1990. This was a pretty amazing group to present to fans of vintage cycling.

Legends of the Tour de France

Me and Joop Zoetemelk, Winner of the 1980 Tour de France
While eating yet more croissants, our little group of English Dave, Irish Dave and me were accosted by a very attractive and very pregnant lady who interviewed us with an accompanying camerman. Her French was perfect but she was actually a British actress and presenter named Louise Ekland. The other two both said their piece as she turned to them and when there was a break Irish Dave told me I had to jump in and say something. It appears the plan worked since only my interview was kept in the video! I was so excited that I forgot to speak French after my initial few sentences but it all worked out.  I am in the video below starting at 0:42:

A fleet of antique cars assembled, everyone was marshalled into place and “le Rétro 1903” was launched into the cobbled streets of Angers. There were around 250 riders and, as usual at the start of retro-rides, a lot of squealing from the totally inadequate brakes as we swooped through cobbled corners, but soon we were off at a nice pace, passing the historic buildings and heading downhill to the banks of the Loire. Irish Dave set such a good pace we soon lost him but figured we would join up at the food stop.

We joined the north bank of the Loire at Les-Ponts-de-Cė and headed eastwards, directly along the river and soon along a really excellent bicycle road which had no vehicular traffic except our accompanying antique cars. The big group had already split and English Dave and I rode at a reasonable pace, passing quite a few cyclists, particularly those on particularly ancient machines. At one point we were overtaken by an old flatbed stake truck and standing on the back was a cameraman and a man with a boom mike who proceeded to interview two particularly picturesque riders while moving for about 7 kms! This procession was actually holding us up so when the way was clear I sprinted past, English Dave following soon after.

Now we rode along the Levée Jeanne de Laval, the main road along the river, and a rather rickety tandem overtook us. As there was now a noticeable headwind it was time to take advantage of the situation and I quickly pulled in behind the creaky tandem, having explained to Dave the principles of drafting. It was new to him and at first he had some trouble keeping the pace but after a while we had a good rhythm going. We kept up until Km 27, when we came to the small town of Saint-Mathurin-sur-Loire and crossed the old bridge southwards.

Now the countryside changed a bit as we rode away from the river into some small hills as we wheeled through the mixed forest and farmlands. We caught up with one of the old Tour de France domestiques who was maintaining an excellent pace in spite of his post-TdF beer belly but the group split up as we reached the steep pitches on the road at Blaison-Gohier and outside Saint-Sulpice. We took a break there and while I had drinking from my water bottle I missed the chance to photograph Joop Zoetemelk, who rode by being paced by a motorcycle.

English Dave and his Claud Butler bicycle
Near Km 44 we had a real break as it was time for lunch, a hot meal served up at the magnificent Chateau Brissac, the tallest chateau in the Loire region. It dates backs to the 11th Century but has been rebuilt numerous times. The Duke of Brissac acquired it from the King of France in 1611 and his heirs still own it although it was ransacked during the French Revolution and had to be restored yet again in the years following.

In addition to our couscous and other tasty victuals, we enjoyed a performance of local folk dancers in the regional costume. One or two cyclists joined in with much more enthusiasm than skill but we all had a good laugh. Irish Dave was there and soon departed and English Dave and I soon followed, joined by Stephen, another British rider. We continued along the empty country roads, with one or two climbs, but after Km 49 it was pretty much downhill back to the Loire.

We rejoined it at Saint-Rémy-la-Varenne and followed the south bank now, passing through small villages named Saint-Maur, Le Thoureil and Gennes. Other settlements were just crossroads with a few houses. There was no traffic at all on this Saturday morning and we made excellent time as our little paceline picked up speed in spite of the fact that the road took us very gently uphill. Sooner than expected we found ourselves at Km 84, the beautiful old city of Saumur and the end of the ride. There had been a lot of fast riders and I had the feeling that of the weekend events this was the one that would attract the more serious cyclists, even on their old bikes. There was a rather surprising 480 m of climbing on the route and we managed the route at an acceptable 24 km/h average, not getting lost once due to the excellent signage and the numerous marshals on the course who stopped traffic for us. 

A large part of the English-speaking delegation: English Steven, English Dave and me
Of course, our heroic arrival in Saumur did not mean the end of the day's activities. Leaving our bikes in the convenient bicycle corral with volunteers, we took the opportunity to walk through the very extensive Retro Village, which featured a bicycle jumble sale, retro fashions, a retro barbershop, two museum displays and all kinds of fun products, including a special umbrella to fit onto your handlebars for rainy days, a concept not really meant for anything except Dutch roadsters, I fear.

It was also time for the “Concours d'Elegance” and we enjoyed watching the participants as they paraded in their period clothing with their vintage bicycles before the appreciative judges and a capacity crowd that cheered them on. We recognized several of the contestants as clearly people love retro-riding so much they attend all the events, whether in Belgium, Italy or here in France.

 The highlight for me had to be the pleasant chat I had with French cycling icon Raymond Poulidor, the beloved “Eternal Second” whom we had seen earlier in the day in Angers. He was happily autographing books for all and when I asked which of his books I should get he shrewdly suggested: “All of them!” Poulidor at 77 is in great shape and between his own races and then covering them in PR work subsequently has seen no fewer than 50 Tours.

Different nationalities, different languages but united by cycling: the author meets Raymond P.


For “Convicts of the Road:” The Ride

Breakfast in Saumur
Day 2 of the Anjou Velo Vintage had on offer a choice of three rides from Saumur: “the Discovery” at 37 kms; “the Stroll” at 46 kms and “made to order for cycling aficionados” was “the Ride” offering 86 kms. Our start time was 10:30, giving us plenty of time to wander around the Retro Village and look at many interesting things on offer, including getting a haircut in an old-style barber shop with a period-attired proprietor. The bicycle fashion show had been rescheduled and we enjoyed watching the participants, judging for their clothing and bicycles, parade before the appreciative judges. The weather was not as cold as it had been on Saturday but it was still grey and overcast but the enthusiasm of the crowds of people in the Retro Village gave us all courage for the start.

the Retro Village

There was a lot of jostling about as the announcers called us all up to the start line. The 46 and 86 km route riders were all to start at the same time, with the 37 km riders beginning half an hour later. Things eventually got sorted out, the antique car, with Raymond Poulidor as the honoured passenger, at the start line rolled forwards and we were off!

We quickly passed the chateau of Saumur and rode along the broad road along the Loire, heading southeast. We had nicely gotten sorted out and we starting to pick up speed when all of sudden after 10 kms we raced up a steep little hill and then found ourselves riding underground through a tufa cave! 

This was the village of Souzay-Champigny (population 743) which offered fine houses alongside the river and a series of underground passages where people lived and stored their wine. Tufa is a soft, workable stone that is easily quarried and was used in building all those chateaux. The caves where it was quarried are dry and consistent in temperature and humidity, so people just moved in. It was my first time cycling in a cave, manmade or not, and we were delighted to be offered wine along with the usual cycling standards of bananas and energy bars.

Always time to sample the local vintage...
Unlike the previous day's route, the Ride featured a lot of little climbs and descents. Leaving Souzay-Champigny we climbed away from the river to the south at Turquant and just outside Saint-Cyr-en-Bourg we came up to an impressive gatehouse and a high stone wall, which we followed in a loop through the little town of Brézé and discovered the remarkable Chateau Brézé, site of some of the largest underground fortifications in Europe and site also of our lunch. We had only put in 26 kms on the road so it seemed to be pretty early to stop but as the lunch stop was being shared with the 46 km route riders it appears to have been done for logistics reasons. We were already ahead of the others and it was clear that the longer route group was smaller than the one for “le Rétro” had been the day before. Even Joop Zoetemelk was doing a shorter stretch today.

Irish Dave samples the local vintage...
Chateau Brézé dates back originally to 1060 but the current building was modified in the 16th and 19th Centuries and is in the Renaissance style. However, we made out entry through the cellars, which are 12th Century, and provided another strange cycling experience as we rode around the interior, going from the dark cellars to a bright courtyard. We climbed back out of the historical darkness and lunch was served with a fine view of the impressive building.

The charming village of Le Coudray-Macouard was only 10 kms away but it also offered another refreshment stop but we did not tarry as the skies to the northwest were looking dark and threatening. We put on some speed but when we came to Le Puy-Notre-Dame I called a halt when I saw a bus shelter with two Dutch riders already standing there. We dashed in just as the rain began. And it poured and poured for 20 minutes. Other participants passed by, soaking wet, but we were comfortable and dry. Soon enough the clouds parted and we were on our way again.

Another food stop and we were into the home stretch. We reached the larger town of Doué-la-Fontaine (“the Rose Capital of France”) at Km 68 and our route took us into another totally unexpected discovery: the amazing underground cathedral at Le Perrières, carved out when the stone was quarried in the 19th Century (for sarcophagi!) and featuring ceilings a good 12 m high. Again, a strange experience to ride through the passages, which were lit and airy.

Returning above ground, we continued northwards towards the Loire, passing Chateau Marson and another chance to try some wine (actually, I really enjoyed the sparkling grape juice) before joining up with the cyclists on the 46 km route, whom we effortlessly overtook as we approached Saumur. But one more surprise was in store...

8 kms before the end of the ride we were directed off the road and through a set of shipping doors. Yet once again we found ourselves underground and to our delight discovered we were now in the wine caves of Bouvet-Ladubay. Slowly riding through the candelit cellars we saw stacks of bottles behind iron gates and then we reemerged onto the winery's main floor where everyone was enjoying unlimited glasses of excellent sparkling white wine, the vin mousseaux for which the Loire is celebrated, made using the same technique as that for Champagne.

After making a serious dent in the cellars, we shakily remounted our trusty steel bikes and headed outside for the final stretch. While we had been riding around indoors the rain had returned and the streets were wet but now the sun was shining and we quickly passed the final intersections (all with marshals, including two policemen on horses!) and found ourselves back at the Retro Village at the Place du Chardonnet. We celebrated our arrival after 89 kms and 670 m of climbing with a justly-earned beer. Another circuit of the RetroVillage was made and that was for us the end of Anjou Velo Vintage 2013.

A highly-entertaining and exceptional event with wide community support, Anjou Velo Vintage takes you through pretty countryside with some memorable detours you will not experience on any other ride. It is not like l'Eroica, which is much more racing-focused, but rather is an exercise in general nostalgia. While we were tearing up the roads on our Golden Age lightweights, many other people were riding the shorter routes on classic roadsters or rusty tandems while in period clothing. The event boasts first-class organization and is reasonably priced serving as an excellent introduction to the Loire region which offers many choices of historic routes to cyclists.

Mark it in your calendar for June 2014!