We were clearly in Le Midi now. An 8:30 start meant that the temperature was pleasantly cool to begin with, but a cloudless sky had us aware that this far south we were likely to be heading into a furnace. Well, we wanted some sun after all that rain, and by jove we really got it today. In the end we rode nearly 120 miles, most of it in 42 degrees centigrade.
The route map implied that after a few initial climbs in the Ardèche - and past the incredible Gerbier de Jonc, source of the Loire and a Close Encounters-style massif if ever I've seen one - this would be an easier day in the afternoon, neigh, almost a descent into the Rhone valley and across into the Vaucluse. However, with the heat it really became a challenge on a whole new level. Even the long descent into Vals-les-Bains for sun-drenched lunch was tough - another road being resurfaced, and I nearly lost it on one gravel-strewn corner, pushing hard to see if the bike was OK after the Montluçon crash. I felt that despite my reputation of hating the cold and loving the heat, I found myself getting increasingly uncomfortable: sticky hands from leaked energy drink. Sweat in the eyes. Suncream and perspiration forming a greasy slick on my forearms. Jeez - this was supposed to be enjoyable, wasn't it? Am I ever happy? The blazing sun coming from my right, the west, was starting to burn my leg badly, irritating the grazes from the crash on day four, and I started to feel really odd, losing concentration, not feeling part of what was going on, my hands and face tingling. We all decided on a further stop in a cafe for refuelling in Aubenas, where the patron filled our bidons with fresh cold water and ice, and we downed a few Cokes to boost our sugar levels. I hate Coke, never drink it for all its gung-ho American connotations and the appalling amount of sugar in it, but today, and hopefully only today, it was delicious. I went to the loo, feeling an almost other-worldliness, the precursor normally to fainting. Filling up the large sink with cold water and sticking my head in it for five minutes helped snap me out of it, and although still feeling somewhat 'detached', it was an improvement.
For Paul and Les this was simply too much. Since there wasn't enough room in the van for all our kit, their bikes and Steve and Graham, a very grateful taxi driver got to drive them from our lunch stop in Vals all the way to the hotel on the other side of the Rhone: £160 well spent, apparently.
Outside the heat was oppressive, my hair drying instantly and the ice-cold water in my bottles turning the temperature of tea inside 10 minutes. It was truly astounding. We set off towards Bourg-St. Andéol and the Rhone valley, and what we figured was going to be a pimple - the Vallon Pont d'Arc climb around 110km - turned out to be a real pig in the heat. The scenery, smells and sounds were familiar, the clichéd yet wonderful mix of deafening cicadas and lavender growing in military-style rows in sun-baked fields. I rolled on, passed by Paul and Les in their taxi shouting words of encouragement, and then Steve and Graham in the van asking me to slow down and wait for the others. I'd been in my own world, focusing solely on getting to the hotel for a shower and a beer, but having us all scattered over the route was making support - on a day when we all really needed it - impossible. I sat up and waited, Mike and Dave got up to me, and it was only on the final run-in around the Dentelles de Montmirail to Caromb - with the occasional exciting glimpse of the Géant de Provence to the east - that Mike and I predictably raised the pace in our boyish, competitive little way, dropping Dave and riding the final few kilometres into town. I tried to make out that I had something left, finessing on the run in, but the truth was that Jamesy stuffed me easily in the sprint for the sign indicating we'd finally arrived after the hardest day I've ever experienced on a bike. But haven't I said that about every single day so far? And it's the Ventoux tomorrow, on paper the toughest stage. Gulp.
It was a real treat to back in Caromb at the Mirande, familiar to many of us from our excellent trip here in 2000 to see that Ventoux stage. I couldn't help but think about Marco and how he rode that day, how he took the race to Armstrong, attacked and attacked, like bike racing should be. Second place is first loser, and all the others seemed to be disappointingly content with an overall podium spot. To coin a Ken Hargraves expression, it always seemed to be 'Shit or Bust' with the Italian, and massively entertaining as a result. Scatta Pantani! Would I ride up there like that tomorrow? It certainly motivated me.
Mike receives his award as winner of the previous day's stage. Is that booing I can hear in the background??
Jamesy looking predictably strong on one of the early climbs.
It's getting hotter and hillier as we head south.
Trying to look, and keep, cool in Vals-les-Bains. Can pink ever look good though? Opinions are deeply divided. There's definitely a camel-toe thing going on. For me the only sartorial error is a Campag-equipped Colnago and a Mapei/Shimano top. Pink is the new black: ask Rapha.
The thermometer never lies: that's 50 degrees centigrade in the sun outside the bar in Aubenas; out on the road I'm told it was a positively arctic 42˚ ... wish I'd bought my gloves.
A 12-hour day at the office ... car headlights on, reflective Scotchlite bands, well, reflecting: it really was getting dark by the time Trevor, Iain and Andy hit the mean streets of Caromb (a few bored kids milling about making too much noise had Kingy sucking his teeth, blaming the parents, etc., etc.).