After our hugely popular last blog series that celebrated ‘The Tour That (never) Was’ during the 24 days that we should have been on tour this year back in June/July, we decided to do something similar (but a little different) for the next 24 days as the pro Tour defies Covid-19 to keep all those TDF junkies happy! Read on to celebrate Le Tour through the eyes of Le Loop. As before, we’ll post a photo daily too, so if you prefer to follow on social media you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
When it isn’t glorious sunshine, it is nevertheless atmospheric. The tougher it gets, the more this means. By the time we roll into Paris on stage 21, we genuinely feel we have achieved something incredible, against the odds. It’s a feeling that stays for a very very long time … Telling us that anything is possible.
Sometimes … often … our riders say it better than we ever could:
“There are countless things that stick in my mind: the stunning waterfalls and pine forests of the French Alps, the sock drenching rain, the heat of the Dordogne, the pain in my Achilles, the hypnotic beauty of the moonscape that is Galibier, the smoothness of French tarmac, how much I love brioche, my numb big toes, the joy of finding a pair of clean socks, crying with emotion at the top of the last big climb on Izouard…” – Gavin White – completed the entire route of the 2017 Tour de France
Back in 2018 we asked our then lead cyclist (who’d been with us since our launch in 2012) to write a piece about what it’s actually like to ride Le Tour. Phil Deeker isn’t just an insanely good rider, he’s also a philosopher, wordsmith and a gentleman. We can’t think back on previous years of the Tour without doffing our caps to Phil. What a legend.
The highs and lows have been numerous: 42°C on the Tourmalet, hail and 2˚ at the top of the Izoard, elated tears in Paris as fellow riders complete a challenge they perhaps thought impossible. And as lead cyclist on Le Loop, I’ve witnessed some pretty incredible feats of cycling too, including helping an ex-Marine back on his bike when he was crying like a child, crippled by acute leg-cramp…
I’ve guided 70 riders through the busy streets of Antwerp and I’ve been alone with a handful of riders at the top of the day’s final climb in the silence of a remote mountain. I’ve seen riders complete stages when it was only their determination not to give in that kept their weary bodies going.
But when I look back at those Tours it’s not really the individual moments that stand out most. What I recall most is the collective excitement of riding the very same roads that the Tour peloton will be ripping up a mere seven days after us.
Daily we are reminded that we are not riding just any epic bike ride: We have become part of perhaps the most important annual national event in France. Whether we are flying along the newly laid black road surface known as Tour Tarmac, or smiling at the roundabouts, houses, gardens, sometimes even sheep (Yorkshire!) decorated in yellow, green or polka-dot, it is clear we are dipping into a great national event. Bike sculptures made from every conceivable material appear on every road side. Camper vans are already parked up on the Cols with beer cans already flicked open.
Every city, town, village and hamlet the route goes through will have been thinking about this event for a year or more beforehand. It has always been, and still is, a matter of national pride: an occasion to celebrate the beauty of the French landscape, of its rich architectural heritage. This is just one of the many reasons why the Tour is the untouchable pinnacle of achievement in the professional cycling world.
To ride a Grand Tour, whether for 3 or 4 stages, or for 21, is to gain a little understanding of what it must be like for the pros. This route is now a series of stages and the route of, say, stage 19 has a very different feel to it from, say, stage 4 – for both us amateurs and for the professionals. Stage 4 is full of nerves: worries about what is to come, about that little bump on the profile towards the end with its rumoured 22%. Worries caused by gradually tiring legs on a stage that was supposed to be “intermediate”. Stage 19 is where the roads reach for the sky: where the final attacks will be made in the race and where we amateur riders will finally get to ride that legendary mountain they we‘ve always dreamed of climbing. The camper-vanners are there to cheer us on as if WE are the ones in yellow!
It’s all about touching the magic of the Tour. Spectators wait for days at the side of the roads for three minutes of madness; riders train all their lives for these three weeks of racing; some of us have dreamed for just as long of riding the very same roads as them, and we CAN! (how many football fans have played at Wembley?) Yes, we have to deal with traffic at times; yes we have to be careful to respect the code of the road; But ALL of that is also part of reality for a pro too. Instead of loud trucks, or cars speeding by, they have camera-moto’s and team cars all over the road, not to mention the beer-fuelled cheering roadside fans or the DS screaming at you in your earpiece to get to the front. Have you ever stopped too think just how noisy & stressful it must be to ride like that for three weeks? I can put up with the odd bit of traffic. And I can always find other riders to share the ‘front-work’ with when the road goes flat and straight. We’re all in the same team: that helps. A lot.
Even off-the-bike time is part of the experience – gaining insight into the daily life and routine of a pro cyclist : We make as big a bubble for ourselves as the pro’s. There is no caravan for us; there are no team cars; there are no race stewards. But nevertheless, the logistics are almost as complex: a team of medics, mechanics, physios and organisers deal with all the stuff that, by the end of riding a stage of Le Tour, we are no longer capable of doing for ourselves.
I love the fun, the camaraderie, the excitement and the ‘isolation’ of being on the roads of the Tour each summer. But what I love most is that unique privilege of catching the Tour on TV and being reminded of that same tarmac which sped by under my own wheel a week before. For three weeks we get as close to being a Grand Tour rider as is possible without sacrificing our whole lives beforehand to get that opportunity and without having to have a massive pile of exceptional talent. We are almost one of them. Almost.
Time to meet another of our riders. We genuinely welcome riders of all backgrounds and levels of experience. Yes – you need to train hard to be able to tackle 100+ mile days, back to back – but we get plenty of riders each year who commit themselves to the challenge months in advance and arrive on tour with hundreds of training miles under their belts and always several kilos lighter!
At the other end, we have extremely experienced riders for whom riding the route of the Tour de France is nevertheless an epic undertaking. Yes, they might finish the day sooner than some, and yes, possibly with a little more finesse, but this is still a serious undertaking for any rider, of any ability.
Meet Jenn – she rode the full Tour with us in 2016, then returned for the Alps Loop in 2018. 2020 wasn’t to be, but she’s signed up for 2021 and we can’t wait to see her again. We’d definitely class her as one of our more experienced riders. Read more …
Name: Jenn Brittain
Location: Canadian living in Australia since 2013
Jenn started cycling in 2007 and loves it, but she loves it even more since finishing completing the full TDF in 2016! Somehow she fits all this riding in around a job and 3 young kids too and is proof that where there’s a will, there’s a way. She finished the 2016 tour in style having got stronger and stronger through the tour until she was steaming up the Alpine climbs like a pro and returned to ride the Alps in 2018.
Le Loop will change you forever. Whether you choose to ride a Loop or the Grand Loop, each day and stage of the Tour offers the opportunity to learn about yourself.
I often compare the TDF experience to summer camp – the experiences and relationships are short-lived but intense. No one but your fellow riders will ever understand exactly what you’ve been through – the terrain, the weather, the mechanicals – and it very quickly becomes clear that teamwork is necessary for survival. I am fortunate enough to play the role of daughter, wife, mother and health care practitioner in my real life. During the TDF, I had the chance to be a cyclist, to test myself, to focus purely toward a personal goal, and at the same time contribute to the greater goals of the William Wates Memorial Trust. I learned so much about myself and from the staff and fellow cyclists. I can hardly believe that it was only a three week window of my life.
Of course, the TDF is basically about the cycling, and there is no getting around the fact that the more physically prepared you are, the better. However, the TDF atmosphere was perpetually positive. I remember making it to Feed Stop 4 one day, feeling ready to give in (it was late). Despite the fact that he MUST have been cold and tired himself, Ian (Loop staffer – ‘Coffee Ian’) smiled at me and said “Of course you’ll make it!” It is these small moments that mean so much. To those who are setting off this year I would like to say, be prepared to both help others, and to accept help in any form. Talk to people at home about what you are doing, use social media and email even when you’re too tired. Their good wishes might just be the thing to carry you through the next day.
Where are you now?
I have always defined myself as academic rather than sporty, so to have someone refer to me as an athlete still gives me goosebumps. I have entered a few Gran Fondo races here in Australia upon the suggestion of a few fellow Loopers and loved them. Whilst I have yet to place, I wouldn’t even have considered an entry before Le Loop.
The aftermath has held plenty of pleasant surprises for me (in addition to the athlete reference!). Several friends and strangers have told me that they have learned either from my experience, either in conversation or from my blog. I still receive emails from people who have been inspired by my TDF to challenge themselves physically or otherwise. I feel truly blessed to have had the chance to participate in Le Loop, and the gift continues!
I am still riding, albeit in a far less organized way. I went into the TDF secretly saying to myself that I could safely never ride again if I could just complete the Tour de France, and now that I have permission to retire, I am enjoying it more than ever!
We’re lucky enough to have the superb Emily Chappell as our lead cyclist on Le Loop. Author, long distance cyclist extraordinaire, Transcontinental winner and so much more – Emily knows exactly what it takes to complete a gruelling multi-stage ride. She shares her vast experience with our riders and wins their hearts and minds by riding alongside them, encouraging them, advising them and staying out there to see the last riders in. Chapeau Emily.
The whole tradition of Le Tour is that it is a way to showcase the beauty of France. It means we get to see not only the staggering mountains, beautiful coastline and countryside, but we also pass through one idyllic little village or town after another. Gorgeous!
Time to meet more of the Le Loop team – Bike Mechanic Andy Thirlwell:
On a typical day we start by getting the bikes positioned so they’re available for the riders around 6am. If there is a transfer it means setting off an hour before the coach to the start point and unloading the wagons. Once the peloton leaves the race is on to get to the first feedstop and set up. ‘Second breakfast’ normally consists of French pastries, cakes, nuts and the cyclists favourite…..bananas….lots of them! Up to 15kg a day! I try to address any mechanical issues that arise with the bikes during the day; gear tweaks, creaks, saddle adjustments etc. We try to keep cyclists going on their own bikes as long as possible but if needs be we make use of the fleet of FBR spare bikes … giving us time to repair the bikes overnight.
We split the mechanics between day and nightshifts. The nightshift is more of a background role, shuttling the 80 or more suitcases from hotel to hotel, buying the huge amounts of bananas and fizzy drinks that are required every day and getting the hotel set up to accept the riders. As the group rolls in the Athlete’s Angels (physios and massage therapists) fix the riders and I get to work fixing the bikes. Mechanicals are wide ranging from broken springs in pedals, clicking gears to dead batteries. The amount of ‘sad’ bikes varies from day to day so sometimes work rolls on until the early hours.
All the mechanics are of course cyclists themselves so it’s incredible being on the tour and being so deeply immersed in such an epic event. The achievements witnessed by the participants day to day are fantastic to watch and it’s great to know that with every pedal stroke money is being raised for an amazing charity. Since I started working on Le Loop the William Wates Memorial Trust has raised over 3 million pounds – an achievement the riders should be proud of as well as their amazing cycling triumphs.
One of the most fun aspects of riding Le Tour one week ahead of the pros, is that the streets and fields are already decorated with fantastic themed displays. Every rider comes home with loads of photos of their favourites. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous – but they always make us smile.
First rest dayFor the pros, it means going out for a nice spin in matching kit … for us, it means heading to the launderette to wash kit and then festooning it around the hotel grounds to dry while we show our bikes some tlc.
By this stage bodies are starting to show signs of wear and tear. Our team of physios and massage therapists are working hard to keep everyone climbing back on their bikes each day. We work with the wonderful Athletes’ Angels who provide us with cheerful, tireless and expert therapists who understand long distance cycling and the strain it puts on the body. It’s no exaggeration to say that they are the difference between a rider completeing a stage, or not.
Stage 8… and those pros, like us, will be starting to fantastize about a rest day … but not yet!
Stage 6Riding Le Loop isn’t just about the bike … it isn’t even just about you realising your cycling dreams. It’s also about the young people we support through the charites we award grants to through the William Wates Memorial Trust (WWMT).
Name: Russ Middleton
Location: Bovey Tracey, South Devon
I hadn’t done very much cycling at all really. Certainly not ridden any mountains, nor had I ever cycled outside of the south west.
A couple years ago I was reading a book that inspired me to do something crazy. It was “French Revolutions” by Tim Moore. I said to my wife “ I’m going to do that when I retire” ……, she said “don’t be daft” , and the rest is history !
I researched different ways to do the route, and to be honest was initially thinking of doing 50 or so miles a day, and to take 6 weeks to get around. But I found “Tour de Force” as it was called before Le Loop, met up with Sarah in 2016 and somehow booked myself a place to do the Grand Loop in 2018. Pretty daunting but it was a real focus for me whilst approaching a new chapter in my life after policing for 30 years.
I retired from Devon and Cornwall Police in January 2018. I was 52 yrs old, 18 stone 8lbs (118kg), and at 6ft 4 not really built for climbing or racing around the hardest bike race in the World ……
I trained for the full 6 months before the start of the tour (not counting the 4 weeks off the bike after rupturing my medial ligament whilst skiing – idiot!) managed to get pretty fit, and lost 23 kg in the process.
I treated myself to a new bike, which got named “Eric” and I was ready for France ……
I used a coach to help me with my training and at the start he said to me “I will do my best to try and get you to a level where you enjoy at least some of the stages”. He was an x-pro and had ridden some big Tours, but never the Tour de France. He couldn’t imagine 21 days in the saddle, particularly not at my level which would mean twice the time in the saddle that the pros take each day.
Well I can honestly say that I enjoyed every single stage, in fact more than that, I had the best of times and was amazed to find that despite the pain on some days, I particularly loved it in the mountains. The scenery, the comradeship, the challenge, the time to think, the pride of the mountain top finishes … all made for what was one of the best experiences of my life. I cannot praise the Le Loop team enough. This is without doubt the absolute best bike ride you can ever do, and I don’t think you will find a better organised trip anywhere.
Where are you now?
I am feeling fitter, stronger and healthier than I ever have.
I have made many new friends for life. I have fallen in love with cycling and am so proud to have completed the full Tour 7 days ahead of the pros. I still find myself watching the highlights of this year’s actual tour, and thinking quietly to myself “I did that ….”
I’m also immensely proud to be part of a small group of fantastic people that raised nearly £400k between us this year. The William Wates Memorial Trust is doing amazing things for young people and if my small part helps someone like Will or Sky to reach their potential then I’m happy.
As for the future, I don’t really know yet as I’m having a “gap year “with my wife. One thing is for sure though, it will involve cycling, a lot and I’m already booking some events for next year to give me a focus with my training.
If anyone reading this is thinking about doing any part of Le Loop, be that a single Loop or the whole darn thing, my advice is DO IT … Life is too short and you never know what’s around the corner, so take your chances when you can, get out on your bike, embrace the training, seek out some hills, look up and enjoy the ride.
Ed: Russ rode the full tour in 2018 and was signed up for 2020 – not to be put off, he’s now signed up for 2021 to ride the full route again!
We’ve got an incredible team looking after everything for you on tour, so that all you need to focus on is riding your bike. Eat, sleep, ride, repeat.
So we thought it would be fun to start to introduce you to some of our staff who make all this possible. First up – Tour Manager Sarah Perry. Sarah works throughout the year on all the operational logistics of the Tour and much more. Sarah eats logistics for breakfast. She’s a fluent French speaker, can charm the pants of the gendarmerie if needed, and if only she were in charge of Brexit it would all have been sorted out last Christmas in a timely and cost-efficient manner and non of the melodrama! Once on the tour itself, she runs the show. She is, quite frankly, a Tour de Force.
What does an average day on tour involve for you?
I’m up at 5.30 most mornings: there are often already texts from the signing car (who left even earlier) with notes about the route so I check that before heading out to see the other staff, checking the vans have everything they need for the day, that the cyclists have enough calories at the hotel breakfast, that the doctors and physios are managing to keep everyone happy and (relatively) pain free…
Once the cycling starts, I’m towards the front of the group, doing 2 or 3 supermarket sweeps each day (each one can easily be two overflowing trolleys) and delivering supplies to the feedstops. If I’m lucky, I catch feedstop 2 just as Ian has brewed the first pot of coffee. Ian’s coffee isn’t just a cyclist highlight; the staff rely on it too!
I try to get to the evening’s hotel at around 4pm, just ahead of the first cyclists, to make sure that everything is organised and well set up for action once the cyclists arrive: bike storage, massage, room keys, dinner… there’s lots to organise and lots of hotel staff to make friends with!
On tour, time absolutely flies and with arriving cyclists, plans for the next day and staff to check in with, it’s normally dinner time, briefing time and bedtime before I know it.
What’s your favourite bit of the job?
Seeing cyclists (fast, slow, experienced or not) arrive at a hotel buzzing, telling everyone that it’s been their best day ever on a bike. As I drive between supermarkets, hotels and feedstops, I see groups of cyclists riding along, chatting and laughing – and that makes me smile to myself too – just knowing that everyone’s having such a good time.
What are you most proud of about Le Loop?
That it’s a good idea, that people come back year after year, that we’re running a great event that contributes to something bigger and more important than just a fun holiday.
What’s the toughest thing about Le Loop for you?
It would have to be the sleep deprivation. I’m pretty wired all day long with so much going on and although I’m asleep the moment my head hits the pillow, my head isn’t on that pillow for quite as long as I’d like each night! I do a lot of sleeping in the week or 2 after the tour though.
What are you particularly looking forward to on the 2021 tour?
I always look forward to being on the road but it’s not one place or one stage – it’s the general fast-paced-fun and buzz of the event which I love. That and Ian’s coffee at feedstop 2!
You’ll hear more about Coffee Ian (a day on tour with …) in one of our next staff profiles. Watch this space …
Wondering what it takes to ride several stages of the Tour de France route? We’re going to take this chance to introduce you to just some of the riders who’ve joined us over the past 8 years. First up – Ella Green. As a keen club rider Ella came to Le Loop first in 2018 and just couldn’t get enough of it: “Before Le Loop I thought there were rides I could never do. Now I just think how am I ever going to do them all!” Check out our full interview with Ella HERE. Ella returned in 2019 bringing a big bunch of her fellow Bella Velo clubmates along with her too.