What's supposed to be a real day of celebration - 14th July, Bastille Day - turned out to be a disaster for us. It rained virtually all day, with rural France appearing totally deserted, although the damp ensured that there were a fair few snails out having a good time. 125 miles through the wet, 60 flat to start past many dilapidated "I'll get round to fixing that" farm houses and outbuildings, and then 65 on climbs and descents towards Orcines.
Kingy was sick at quarter distance having felt bad at breakfast, blaming the lamb couscous from the night before (not the 5 demis, two caraffes of vin rouge and the eau de vie then Paul?), and opted for a stint in the van. Jamesy too was still a touch volatile in the pants department, so he said, but still appeared to be the strongest one amongst the group.
The fun began at half distance just before our planned refuelling stop at Montluçon, birthplace of Roger Walkowiak, unlikely winner of the 1956 Tour. Coming into the town I noted a warning sign for a 'goods in' level crossing into the run-down Dunlop factory here, but my shouted alert came too late and we all hit the rails too fast and at just the wrong angle for the wet conditions. Ironically outside a factory producing tyres famed for making a major contribution to road safety (that might be another brand, but it fits nicely here), we all lost our front wheels and hit the deck. As first in the line Iain came off worst, landing heavily on his right side, but more frightening no doubt was my inadvertent spooning of him as I slid off and ended up cuddling him in the middle of the road. The rain had helped to lubricate the road surface to some extent - perhaps not the right word to use in such close proximity to 'spooning' - but even only minor scuffs to Assos lycra, Campagnolo carbon and Sidi buckles were enough to have me almost release my inner child. Breathe. Count to 10. The Colnago looks shit even though it appeared to be mechanically OK, my kit looks shit, we're bleeding and there's still over 60 miles to go in the pissing rain. Even before the crash I'd been regretting the choice of buying those wonderful Vittoria Open CX tyres given the weather we'd been having: the amber-cotton sidewalls were now just sullied with that ubiquitous grey crud, a mix of dirty water from the road and brake block compound thrown off the rim. How will I be able to ride up the Ventoux looking such a mess?
We picked ourselves up, invaded a cafe in the town where we cleaned ourselves up a bit, stuffed our faces with quiche and coffee, and set off again, in my case really feeling down about it all to the point of just wanting to go home. Whilst skin heals itself and pain eventually passes and can to an extent be ignored, I really find it hard to put it into perspective when beautifully-designed kit that you've made a real effort to choose, saved hard for and wear with pride is ruined like this. Bike riding is unquestionably hard physically, but psychological toughness is what's required to push yourself beyond your perceived physical limits, and also in cases like this when things go wrong. Sometimes I think I really don't have that as a character trait, always unrealistically expecting things to be 'perfect' - the bike, the weather, the kit, always stylish, always riding as if 'there's no chain', to use an Armstrong expression. It's naively unrealistic. As much as anything I dwell on how much it's all gonna cost to replace.
While Paul decided to get out and ride the last quarter of the route, and Mike seemed to be going better and better - arriving at the hotel 10 minutes before the rest of us - Les was losing too much time so decided to get into the van. Even though it looked fine superficially, I had a massive speed wobble on the normally rock-solid Colnago on a descent out of St. Gervais, to the point of having to stop at the roadside. Even at 5km/h, the bike was virtually uncontrollable. Perhaps it was the cold - I had no undervest on because it didn't dry out overnight after washing, but even with a gilet on I was shivering, possibly at the bike's natural frequency - or a combination of shock and adrenaline after the crash, or perhaps the particularly uneven road surface, but all I could think was that the bike was damaged somehow. This has to be the hardest day I've ever spent on a bike, and the last few miles were unbearably tough. I noted that we're close to La Bourboule, where Stephen Roche had his last stage victory in the Tour in 1992, but even a fact like this that I'd normally find encouraging failed to raise my spirits.
We're in Volvic now - with Le-Puy-de-Dome shrouded in mist and cloud - so let's hope we get some bleedin' vulcanicity for tomorrow.
Iain's banged-up arm later turned out to be broken.
A damp coffee stop further on after the crash. A chance to change into some drier clothing and lick our wounds.
Limping to the finish - it can't come soon enough for me. And why are those tourists in capes on a f*cking tandem still able to stay with us? Are Dave and I going that badly?
Trying to put a brave face on it at the evening meal in Orcines. I'm failing in that repsect, so that's why I've thoughtfully covered mine up (bottom left).