In July 1996, we based ourselves in Die, which is an old town in the Drome valley, just south of the Vercors plateau. The Vercors is a mountainous area that lies between the Rhone valley to the west, and the Alps to the north-east.
Our group was an interesting mix of abilities and ages. The youngest, Mark, was 28, and the oldest, Ian, 62. Rod is one of the clubs most successful racers, and Barry had not ridden his bike for 18 months. Some of us spoke French reasonably well, others thought that the "La Drome a Velo" signposts (marking the area's official cycle route) were signs to the local Velodrome...
We arrived in Die after an overnight drive on the morning of Monday July 8th, to find that there was a storm in progress that had apparently been around for a few days. Our pre-booked campsite was flooded, so we drove around in the van looking at other sites, and eventually found a relatively dry and somewhat sheltered part of the municipal site. There were a lot of very wet and miserable-looking people mooching around. We pitched our tents in high winds and pouring rain, and went into town for lunch to cheer ourselves up. In a bar we turned on the Tour coverage on TV to see the blizzard conditions on the top of the Galibier.
The following morning, conditions were much improved, although there was a strong north-westerly wind blowing which was to remain for most of our stay. All nine of us set off as a group to investigate the Ombleze Gorge, attracted by the "Cascade de la Pissoire" marked on the IGN map. We rode down the Drome valley from Die, turning north up the D70 to Beaufort and Plan de Baix. The Cascade was very impressive after the recent torrential rain, and falling heavily across the road, so it was impossible to avoid getting wet when passing.
This part of the Gorge was in shade, and we didn't stay long, as we had got quite cold from the icy waterfall. We retraced our route back to Beaufort, and then took a side road leading over the Col de la Croix. This was a climb of around 300m only, but there was a nice view at the top. Over the col, we followed the D129 back to the main road, and trundled back to Die. The total distance was 100km.
The wind was biting at the col, so we quickly cycled through the tunnel and found the others waiting in a bar. After hot chocolates, the group divided, with four of us carrying on a circular route down the valley to La Chappelle where we had lunch, and back over the Col de Proncel. Just before Vassieux-en-Vercors there was a wartime Resistance museum and cemetery. In Vassieux itself, there was a memorial to a wartime atrocity, when German paratroopers had massacred the population in reprisal for Resistance activity. The Vercors plateau was a major resistance stronghold, and we saw several other memorials during our trip. I'm always moved by these tributes. It's a sobering thought that people were fighting to death over this land not that long ago.
From Vassieux, we rode over the small Col de St Alexis, and back to the north side of the Rousset.
The descent of the Rousset was enjoyable, as the road was wide and there was little traffic. However, the strong wind meant that it wasn't possible to acheive really high speeds - about 60kph tops for me. Ian punctured on the descent, and then gashed his hand when his mini-pump disintegrated while pumping the new tube up. This was bad enough to require first aid from some friendly German lads who were waiting for the Tour the next day, and then a visit to the casualty department of the hospital when we got back to Die. Total for the day, 80km.
Rod and I rode back to Die together, sharing the work, revelling in the ability to spin our big chainrings for a change. Just 40km in all.
There was a feeding station for the Tour in Die, where we watched the riders picking up their lunches. One of our group managed to "acquire" someone's dropped musette which contained: Half a banana; a little can of Coke; a bidon of some type of carbo drink; a ham and jam sandwich, and some dextrose tablets. The riders don't seem to slow down much for the feeding station, so I'm not surprised that there are often crashes there.
We then retired to our favourite bar in Die (the Cafe de Paris) to watch the rest of the stage on TV. It was a "moyenne montagne" stage finishing in Valence, presumably for the benefit of L. Jalabert, who had unfortunately already retired by that point. More of those "moyenne" mountains tomorrow.
So, we drove off down to Crest on the edge of the Rhone valley, and then rode into Valence to watch the stage start. We were fairly well placed near the start, and saw many riders close up. Neil Stephens of Once came over and gave one of his bidons to a little kid just in front of us. Ahhhhh... When the starting gun went, Claudio Chiappucci was still giving a TV interview, and had to sprint off after the rapidly disappearing peloton.
Our plan now was to ride back to Die over the second half of the previous day's stage, taking in all those "moyenne" montagnes. To reach the first of these was a 20km haul slightly uphill to Peyrus, where the climb to the Col des Limouches starts. It was getting pretty hot, and we were tired from standing around in Valence for a couple of hours, so progress was slow. The climb itself is again fairly gentle, 700m in 14km, but we all found it hard going. Half way up, there were great views across the Rhone valley, which gave me a good excuse to stop and take a picture. At the top, the bar was shut, but thankfully there was a water fountain. Mark and I wanted to carry on with the planned route, but everyone else was too tired.
So, the two of us set off, having been warned by Rod of the lack of food and watering facilities on the rest of the route (Rod had ridden out this way earlier in the week, and had suffered a major bonk). We descended 300m from the Limouches, and rode towards Leoncel.
Here we found a bar, and supplemented our remaining fruit with a cheese sandwich. From Leoncel, we started the 500m climb up to the Col de la Bataille at 1313m. This climb was mostly through forest, but the view at the col is absolutely tremendous. You emerge from a short tunnel onto the top of a narrow rocky wall with huge drops on either side. The road then continues along the side of a steep valley for several kilometres, with fabulous views down to the lake 500m below.
From here, our route wound its way through the forests, taking in the Col de la Rama, Col de la Portette (1175) and Col de la Chau (1337). I clocked my maximum speed on the way down the steep and straight Chau, about 75kph. This descent took us to the resistance museum near Vassieux. Here I discovered the difficulty of eating a very dry goat's cheese sandwich when you have almost run out of water to wash it down. We returned over the Col de St Alexis and the Rousset. Once again, the wind slowed us down on the Rousset, but it was exhilarating to be able to let go for long stretches after all the climbing we'd done. On the way into the village at the bottom, Mark was nearly knocked off by a football which flew into the road in front of us. Just bad luck, or amusing joke played daily on cyclists by local kids ?
We arrived back at the campsite at almost 8pm, so it had taken six hours to do the 100km from Valence. I felt a real sense of acheivement, and the usual respect for the professionals, who had raced over those roads in less than half the time. The day's total was 137km.
I retraced the route back to Chatillon for lunch, and then took another side trip to see the Cirque d'Archiane, a dead-end valley below the high plateau. This was also a spectacular sight, and the road was alongside a clear fast-flowing stream, which was crossed occasionally by ancient stone bridges. Total for the day, 76km.
Mark, Rod and I carried on, and hooked up with three Dutch guys. They were going to be in the area for three weeks, which made those of us returning home the next day a little envious. One of them commented on how I looked like I was "built for the mountains". Although this in itself is true, appearances can be deceptive, and I was firmly last up the Col de Pennes. Rod was first up, but suffering from from what he termed "bad morale".
Riding down the Roanne valley it was very hot, and we really wanted to put our feet in the river, but it was always a long scramble down from the road, not really compatible with Look cleats. Back on the Drome, we had a quick sandwich and beer in a bar that was trying to close, and rolled back home to the campsite. 65km.
Trevor Warwick: Brian Rourke Reynolds 731 frame, Shimano Ultegra/105 components, 48/38 chainrings, 12-28 7 speed cassette, looks faster than he is.
Mark Pardoe: Hannington 531 "Five Bar Gate", Suntour and various other scrap components, killer sprint.
Rod MacFadyen: Raleigh DynaTech TI 900, Campag Athena, posy minimally-spoked wheels, fast up hills, see "bad morale" above.
Roy Booth: Basso Columbus SL, Campag Chorus 12 speed, always ready 1 hour before everyone else.
Barry Quick: Lurid pink Raleigh 653, Shimano 105, old-codger friction shifting.
Mike Walsh: Hannington 653, Campag Athena, good cooking, stories that start "When I rode the Tour of Ireland...".
Ian Andrew: Immaculate Argos 531 Touring frame, Campag Racing Triple, purchaser of finger stools.
Roy Drinkwater: Dave Russell 531, Campag Chorus, "Can we get chips here ?"
Bob Bennett: Pinarello Stelvio, Campag Chorus, "How far to the top now ?"
Van: Leyland/DAF Convoy 18 seater with roof-rack and 8 rear seats removed. I'd go for the Turbo-diesel next time.