The rest of the Tour

Despite best intentions of blogging a daily update on my trip to watch some of the 2012 Tour de France, wine and the difficulty in typing out long prose on an iPhone means I’ll simply write this single summary now I’m back in Blighty.

Stage 6 – Epernay to Metz

After staying in Epernay overnight we got up to discover a bright, sunny day. After packing up the camping gear we headed out on the bikes into the town centre to the stage depart with the idea of nosing around the team buses and generally seeing what was going on. Unfortunately we arrived rather earlier than the teams so ended up doing a couple of trips up and down the cobbled start on the Avenue de Champagne before having a quick coffee and watching the caravan go past (something we’d already tired of seeing to be honest)

By the time we made our way back to the depart numerous buses had arrived and were setting up. We wandered around and took in a little bit of the signing in stage before concentrating on the Garmin and Sky buses, both of which were handily parked facing the barriers keeping the general public out of the invited guest only area. Others to do so were mainly the French teams. It was notable, and admirable, on the day after the leak of the names of those who testified to the USADA in the US Postal/Armstrong affair that Garmin (Vaughters, Zabriske, Van de Velde) were still opening themselves and their riders up to the public.

After catching long (Dan Martin) or short (David Millar, Brad Wiggins, Cav, etc) glimpses of riders and their bikes (including admiring Tom Danielson’s stealth Cervelo R5 Project California which later ended up broken in two after a crash) we headed back to the Avenue de Champagne to watch them roll out on the netralised start.

It was then a case of getting back to the campsite quickly and heading the 170 miles to our next destination in the Haute-Saone. Unfortunately getting out of Epernay in the direction we wanted proved tricky thanks to road closures and we ended up trailing the tour for a couple of hours until we managed to break free from the route. Nevertheless we made it to Saint Maurice sur Moselle that evening to find a lovely campsite to act as our home for the next three days. We also met a couple of fellow Brits out with much the same idea as us.

Stage 7 – Tomblaine to La Planche des Belle Filles

This day was always going to be the highlight of the trip. To see why, watch this preview from Dan Martin:

On the morning we again headed out early and were climbing the Ballon d’Servance towards Plancher les Mines. We then cycled slowly up the steep slopes of the Belle Filles along with thousands of others on foot or bike. At the 2km to go point we were told we had to walk so opted to descend a couple of hundred meters and choose our spot for the day. Unfortunately by this time it was only about 11am and the race would not be with us for another 5 1/2 hours! The constant stream of people at least meant there was something to look at, but even the caravan seemed like a welcome sight in the end. Eventually though twitter informed us of the approaching riders and soon the sound of helicopters signalled their arrival at the foot of the climb. When they passed us Richie Porte was pulling Brad and Froome along. Being on a section without barriers gave us that unique chance to see the action up close and of course being a mountain finish the action carried on for a while as dropped riders, the grupetto and the injured kept coming for twenty minutes or so.

As soon as the broom wagon passed we hopped on the bikes to descend through the masses, finding pros coming past us down the mountain to their awaiting buses. Cadel made it down pretty quickly and stopped to chat to some Aussie fans along the way. In general though they didn’t mess about and shouted to get crowds out of the way which also made it quicker for us!

The journey back involved heading back over the Ballon d’Servance from the more difficult side.

Stage 8 – Belfort to Porrentruy

We woke up after a night of intermittent and sometimes heavy rain to find overcast skies and a fair wind. This confirmed our idea of taking the opportunity to watch this stage from the campsite bar. The original idea had been to ride in the morning but the weather put us off so we jumped in the car for a ride back to Belle Filles to see what the finish ramp looked like in the flesh. All in all it was probably the right call as those that did go to watch the stage said it was basically a long day of driving into Switzerland and finding a decent point to watch was hard.

We did get on the bikes to tackle the nearby Ballon de Alsace before dinner.

Stage 9 – Time Trial

The plan here was always to head to the finish in Besancon and then it was a case of heading straight back to Calais. However, the timetable was amended to include an earlier start and a stop off to cycle the Planche des Belle Filles on the way. After packing up we drove across the Servance to the foot of the climb, unloaded the bikes and headed up. After a hard ascent, a quick coffee and a fast descent we were off for the 75 mile journey to the TT finish.

We ended up on a 90 degree corner at the 3km to go mark. Numerous riders had already gone, but we got their just in time to see Dan Zabriske in full Captain America national TT champs uniform, and soon after him Tony Martin in the rainbow bands. Whilst the lower order riders had a two minute time gap things were fairly active. At one stage a gaggle of three riders came past. However once the higher order starters were on course the time gaps went up to three minutes and all of a sudden the realisation of the sheer amount of waiting around in quite strong sunshine was at the forefront of our minds. Nevertheless we stuck it out, with regular checks of Twitter to follow the action. Once it came down to the top ten, with all riders on the course things hotted up and of course the rest is well known with both Froome and Wiggins blowing the field away. It was definitely a good decision to choose a tight corner and the techniques and speed of riders varied quite dramatically.

After Wiggo passed we immediately jumped on the bikes and cycled about 5km back to where we’d left the car, just by the motorway. This again proved wise as we had to negotiate an already large amount of standstill traffic. Less than 30 minutes from leaving we were on the motorway and heading back to Calais, a mere 398 miles away.

So, what are my feelings about watching the tour in real life? Well firstly, it was something very special to be there when Wiggins took Yellow and hopefully I’ll be able to say that I watched the tour the year of the first British winner. However, there’s no getting away from the immense amount of waiting around involved in tour watching, and if you intend to follow it for a number of days, the large amount of transition involved. Mountain stages are definitely the way to go, especially mountain top finishes. Also, I’d probably do more to incorporate catching a stage or two as part of a cycling holiday rather than hoping to fit in some cycling as part of a trip to follow the tour, if that makes sense.

All in all though, an awesome experience.

Tour – day one

It is currently 10pm French time and I’m sat in a campsite in Epernay sipping a beer and, prior to writing this blog post, reading Laurent Fignon’s autobiography. Life doesn’t get better.

We started out this morning as I picked Paul up from Brookmans Park station at 0650. A swift and uneventful journey to Dover was only broken by the realization that our journey to this campsite would take us right past the finish of today’s stage 5. This unexpected bonus was impossible to ignore and so we parked up on the outskirts of Saint Quentin and unloaded the bikes to ride into town.

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Spectating at a sprint finish is always a strange affair as things pass you by so fast. After a nice lunch we found ourselves positioned about 900m from the finish on a slight uphill drag. The wait for the peloton was punctuated by the publicity caravan and then regular checkins with Twitter and the BBC for updates as the riders approached. Only the appearance of helicopters indicated the imminent arrival of the tour as a lone Cofidis rider appeared into view, closely pursued by a small gaggle of fellow breakaways. Then the peloton appeared, thinned by an unknown crash 3km out from the end. At the front Boasson Hagen appeared confused and looking round for Cav. From my viewpoint it appeared the bunch had conceded the stage. We watched as team cars and trailing riders went past, trying to decipher the French commentary and desperately checking Twitter.

GREIPEL WINS!

Nothing made sense on hearing that news but later reports filled in the gaps. Needless we decided to retire quickly to the car for the transition to Epernay, our home for the night and the start of Fridays stage. And here I write this with belly full and anticipation risen. We’ve got the tour bug…

The grand plan for tomorrow is to catch the stage start the head directly to our next camp at Saint Maurice sur Moselle in the Vosges mountains, hopefully in time to see a sprint finish and to climb the Ballon d’Alsace to tip things off.

Trip to the tour

As I write, the 2012 Tour de France is just 14 or so hours away from starting. I’m not going to discuss the fact that this is probably the most important tour for British cycling ever with Bradley Wiggins having a real chance of winning the Yellow Jersey. Nor am I going to discuss what Mark Cavendish may or may not do in France in view of the impending Olympic Road Race. All that has been done to death elsewhere.

The reason for writing this blog post is that this year will be the first time I’ve actually gone out to France to watch the race. Well, not quite as I went over to Paris on the Eurostar in 1996 to see the final stage on the Champs-Élysées, but I’m not counting that as the final stage is something of a procession and quite sterile as an experience.

My friend Paul and myself head out on Thursday 5th July in my car with our bikes strapped on the back and the boot full of cycling and camping gear.

Our first destination is Épernay where, on the Friday, we plan to catch the Stage 6 start before dashing along the A4 to Metz in an attempt to find somewhere near the finish for what will be a bunch sprint. Whether this plan works or not is unknown, so there’s a possibility that we may need to find somewhere else earlier on the route. Luckily it runs pretty parallel to the autoroute.

After the stage finish we drive futher to our base for the following three nights in Saint Maurice Sur Moselle in the Vosges mountains. The campsite is located about 30km away from the mountain-top finish of Stage 7 at Planche des Belle Filles. The theory is to head out early and cycle over to the final climb and claim our spot for the day. The ride out itself involves about 1400m of climbing so whilst it is not the Alps it will be a great first experience of long French climbs.

Hopefully the steep final climb and the mountain top finish (only one of two this year) will see some fireworks on the road as a GC contender makes an early move.

The next day will involve heading out of our base to find a suitable place to watch Stage 8, most likely on the Col de la Croix over the border in Switzerland. This is most likely to see a decent breakaway try and stay off the front of the peloton for victory.

Finally we pack up camp and head to Besançon to see the first Individual Time Trial of the tour. If everything goes to plan this may be where Wiggo takes Yellow for the first time. Straight after the stage it is time to hot-foot it back to Calais in order to get a very early morning ferry home.

The next few days until we go are going to drag, but at least the race starts tomorrow to whet the appetite even further! Data access allowing, I’ll post a daily blog update with how we are getting on.

A tale of two commutes

I’ve been commuting into London daily now for a month. Enough time to get a good feel for it. We were in the lucky position of being able to locate ourselves somewhere where the commute is about as good as it can get without being in London itself, so here’s my typical day:

0725 – Leave home and cycle the two miles to St Albans City station

0744 – Get the semi-fast Thameslink train to London Blackfriars. There is a fast train (straight to St. Pancras then onwards) at the same time which is always standing room only. The one I get takes a whole eight minutes longer to get to Blackfriars than the fast one and I get a seat every morning. The only time I didn’t was when the fast one was canceled one morning.

0824 – Arrive at Blackfriars and walk along Queen Victoria Street, over the Millennium Bridge and along Bankside to the FT at One Southwark Bridge

0835 – Arrive at my desk.

1715 – Leave work and walk back to Blackfriars

1736 – Get the fast train back. Always get a seat

1806 – Arrive at St Albans, cycle back home

1815 – Get back home.

This will improve even more in December when the Bankside entrance to Blackfriars opens, which will at least halve the amount of time I walk to/from work.

So far I’ve hardly been affected by delays or cancellations. I have come close though when I narrowly avoided the chaos caused by a power failure at Kentish Town the other week. All in all I’m very happy with how things have gone so far and have no regrets about the commute (or anything else about the job!)

This was driven home today when I went to a one-day event at the Hilton Park Lane. This meant adding an underground journey into the commute. I purposely looked to avoid any tube journeys in my daily commute and today proved why. The trip into town in the morning was fine. I got the same train I’d normally get, got off at St. Pancras and then took the Piccadilly Line to Hyde Park Corner. Coming back however I left at 5, stood on a packed and hot tube for 15 minutes, then boarded the same train I normally get home, but from St. Pancras, not Blackfriars. By St. Pancras however the train is packed and I stood the twenty minutes back to St. Albans. So, the time was about the same, but the hassle increased and comfort decreased.

I’ve probably jinxed it all now.

I said I’d never buy a GPS unit…

But I was wrong.

I’ve just purchased a Garmin Nuvi 270. It is part of the entry level range of Garmin devices. No bluetooth, fm transmitter, traffic data, teasmaid or any other superfluous features. It just does a good job of directing me from point a to point b. It is also very small and unobtrusive.

What’s more it works in most of Europe and the US/Canada as well thanks to the built in maps of both continents, something you don’t get on TomTom save for the top of the range 930. US coverage is very useful given the fact we are currently on holiday in New England, in Washington DC in December and I also have the odd work trip out here. Garmin’s Irish mapping is also meant to be much more up to date than TomTom’s and they have loads of Mac friendly software for playing around with.

So, why did I get one after previously saying I wouldn’t? Well mainly because I have come to find them useful outside of the UK or Ireland. We’ve had Hertz Neverlost a few times in the US and mainland Europe and it is very useful for finding your way around somewhere strange. The ability to find points of interest is also useful.

I really can’t see me using it much at home as I can always pull out the iPhone with Google Maps there to so some quick route planning. However given that the iPhone doesn’t do turn by turn and data access whilst roaming is an expensive no-go, having a full fledged GPS unit for travel is worthwhile.

Forthcoming trips and talks

I’ll be out and about over the next month and a bit doing a few talks on Lotus Connections:

First up I’ll be at the IBM Lotus Premium Support Seminar in Boston, MA on Wednesday 27th August where I’ll be presenting with Heidi Votaw, Program Director for Social Software. We will be talking about “Leveraging Social Software to Boost Innovation and Productivity Today” with an obvious focus on Lotus Connections 2.0. Unfortunately this is an invite only event.

Next, I’ll be at the IBM Lotus TechJam event being held at IBM in Staines, UK on Wednesday 2nd September where I’ll be doing a dive on Connections 2.0 with a definite technical slant. I’m not entirely sure how people can sign up for this event, but you can try contacting Dave Hay via the blog link above.

Finally (for now I guess) myself and my colleague Karim Heredia will be at the UK WebSphere User Group meeting in Edinburgh on Wednesday (why are they all on Wednesday?) 17th September. This talk will be titled “Lotus Connections – the WebSphere perspective” and will focus on deployment and administration considerations as well as how you can extend the social computing power of Connections out into other applications. You can join the WUG and sign up for the meeting on their web site.

Wedding payback

After getting a humbling number of people over to Ireland for our wedding last year, 2008 is proving to be the payback year for us. So far we’ve notched up three weddings in three countries.

The first was the evening do for the brother of Lana’s bridesmaid Rachel. This one was fairly local, being just up the road in Trim, County Meath.

May saw two weddings, the first of which was of our friends Dan and Alison, held in Salisbury. It proved to be a great day and it was lovely to catch up with a number of old friends, and their respective babies!

Then just a week after we were off to Switzerland for the wedding of Lana’s cousin Jeremy to Maria. We flew direct from Dublin to Zurich and then hired a car to take us to the village of Weggis on the shores of Lake Luzerne. Weggis is a hugely picturesque place with typical mountain scenery and Swiss architecture. The wedding itself was relaxed and perfectly formed, with the service conducted in both English and German. After that we were taken on a two hour boat trip along the lake to view even more of the scenery, as well as drink and chat of course.

Unfortunately we had to head back to Zurich and back home on the Sunday and missed out on a trip up the mountain by cable car and train.

The weekend just gone has actually been my first in Dublin for over a month. I have one more weekend off next week, then back to the UK for the wedding of our friends Mark and Becky in Southampton. Then one in Northern Ireland in July, possibly one in Estonia in August, currently taking bookings for September, one in Reading in October, November is free, then we wrap up the year with the wedding of Lana’s brother Graham to the lovely Tiffany in Washington DC in December.

The 2009 count is already at one. Hopefully there won’t be many more, we can’t afford to have a holiday with all this wedding related travel! Not that we’d ever complain though, it’s great to see friends and family get hitched, and always a good excuse for a party!

Living it up

Ritz Carlton Powerscourt 1

Given that both Lana and I were effectively working over the Christmas and New Year period, we had always planned to treat ourselves to a mini-break in the early part of 2008. After ages debating if we should push the boat out and go on an exotic holiday or maybe have a European city break we came to a rather strange decision. We’ve been in Ireland for over six months now and have hardly had any chance to explore. Therefore we decided to have a weekend break somewhere local. The beauty of this idea was that it meant we had no wasted time on planes bookending our break.

The really bizarre part is that we chose a venue only about half an hour’s drive from our front door. Powerscourt is a country estate in the Wicklow mountains, just South of Dublin. Last October a new Ritz-Carlton hotel was opened on the site and that’s where we booked ourselves into for an overnight spa package. I’d been fortunate enough to stay in a Ritz-Carlton once before for work, so knew we would be in for a treat.

On arrival at Saturday lunchtime we were informed that we’d been upgraded to the club floor and a larger suite, which was a nice surprise. After arranging our spa treatments for the following morning we went to check out our room. Lana was in heaven with the New England style decor (I’m going to be in trouble when we get our own place…) whilst I marvelled at the various technology including LCD touch sensitive control panels for everything from room temperature to the curtains and three LCD TVs including one in the bathroom mirror! Then we checked out the breakfast options:

€350 breakfast!

Needless to say we wouldn’t be ordering that 😉

Included as part of our upgrade was access to the club lounge with free food and drinks provided throughout the day. Think of an airport lounge within the hotel and you are about there, except with much nicer furniture. The rest of the hotel is simply sumptuous from the lobby area with solo harpist down to the spa and pool and the pub down in the basement. As you would expect there is an overall air of opulence and money which probably doesn’t go down to well with Irish values, but there was enough evidence of people taking lunch and coffee in the lobby to suggest that you don’t have to be staying there to soak a bit of it up. The helipad being built out at the back is probably taking things a bit far though.

One of the main attractions is the restuarant: Gordan Ramsay’s first foray into Ireland. Unfortunately we booked our stay rather late and had no chance of getting into dinner on a Saturday night. Reading Traveladvisor reviews about the hotel this seems to be a bone of contention that the hotel does not have a restaurant that guests can be guaranteed to eat at. However there is a portion of the expansive lobby that turns into a bistro at night, and then there’s always the pub. We chose to supplement our free food and drink with some room service whilst chilling out and relaxing in our room after returning from browsing the Avoca shops within Powerscourt.

On Sunday we rose early to get breakfast in the restaurant (no caviar choice there!) and then headed down to relax by the pool before our spa treatments. I went for a “deep cleansing back treatment” whilst Lana had an advanced facial. Needless to say we both came out feeling thoroughly refreshed and relaxed.

On leaving on Sunday afternoon we were home within 30 minutes. No airports, taxis or baggage to lug around and no delays! Whilst it is great to travel, sometimes taking advantage of the delights on your doorstep is just as much fun and much more relaxing.

My air travel in 2007

Following the lead of Andy and Roo, I’ve been totting up the number of airmiles I travelled in 2007, plotted on this map:

Adrian's flights in 2007

That’s a grand total of 23,137 miles, much more than I thought. I dread to think how many miles I used to clock up back when I was in a job which took me all over Europe for two years, with frequent US trips and a jaunt to South Africa added in. This time around there were only four segments of work-related flights: Heathrow to Chicago return and Chicago to Minneapolis. The rest were all for pleasure including flights from Heathrow to Rome, Stockholm and Boston.

Unsurprisingly after our move to Dublin we’ve been fairly regular customers of Ryanair, flying to three different UK destinations: Luton, Bournemouth and Leeds-Bradford.

A quick tot-up shows that I’ve flown with the following airlines in 2007:

Aer Lingus x1
American Airlines x3
Fly BMI x1
British Airways x2
Ryanair x5
Air France Cityjet x1

My award for best airline goes to British Airways for ease of check-in and in-flight service. They gained big bonus points for giving us champagne when flying back from Rome on Lana’s birthday. Top BA tip: if you ever find yourself checking in online for one of their 757s then row 26 is the one to go for.

Worst goes to American. I’ve only ever flown to the US on American, US Airways and Virgin. Up until this year I always rated AA above the others. However I’ve subsequently changed my mind. This has nothing to do with the fact that my best man phoned them up to inform them we were travelling on our honeymoon with them to no avail 😉 Seriously though, their in-flight service is surly and sometimes downright rude.

Best airport? Well I would say Detroit Metro Wayne County purely because it has a 1 mile long terminal with a monorail inside it, however I was there in 2006, not 2007. Therefore I’ll have to say Rome Fiumicino – clean, efficient and with a good range of shops.

Worst goes to Heathrow. This pains me to say as I have a love affair with LHR that went sour this year. My first ever flight was from there in 1986 when my dad took me on a surprise trip in a British Airways BAC 1-11 with Patrick Moore to watch Halley’s Comet. It is probably the airport I’ve travelled out of most, but this year I had to do something I’ve never done before: transfer through it. The flight connections centre is a complete, unorganized mess. Additionally, every single flight I’ve been on into or out of LHR this year has been late. I’ve given up counting the number of times I’ve heard the captain of a flight say that delays are due to air traffic hold ups at Heathrow. It is running too near to capacity, and I’m not sure a new terminal and runway are going to help that.

Finally, 2008 is getting off to a flier already (excuse the pun!) This weekend coming we are travelling from Dublin to Luton for the weekend. On the 19th I fly off to Orlando for work, we are planning a holiday in February and already have a large number of weddings lined up for later in the year including ones in Switzerland and Washington DC! Even the UK weddings we have will invariably mean two flights: one for the stag do and one for the day itself.

Edited to add a Dublin-London City flight I forgot!

Losing faith with Heathrow

I love Heathrow airport. My first ever flight was from there in a British Airways special flight to see Halley’s Comet in 1986 (with Patrick Moore no less.) I’ve flown out of there too many times to remember, for business and pleasure. I like to think that I’m pretty good at being able to navigate my way around and know the best routes, as well as tricks and tips to speed up my journey through the airport.

However lately I’ve been ultimately frustrated whenever I’ve had to go through LHR. The first frustration is with how simply overloaded the airport is with regards to air traffic. It feels like every time I’ve been on a flight to LHR we get delayed taking off due to air traffic control restrictions i.e. there are just too many planes to land. The most recent example of this being on Thursday morning whilst taking a BMI flight from Dublin. We boarded on time for the 0905 departure and were then told by the captain on the plane that Heathrow had put a stop on our departure until 1010. Of course, BAA themselves are campaigning for a third runway which presumably will alleviate these problems. I’m not going to argue the rights or wrongs of that (it has been an emotive subject and recently sparked demonstrations.) especially as I have relatives who live in one of the villages which would be obliterated by the plans. However it surely makes more sense to improve capacity at LHR than some of the other plans. The last thing London needs is more people being pushed out to Stanstead which is just too far away to really be considered a London airport, or worse yet a fourth one (sorry Luton doesn’t count as far as I am concerned!) Incidentally, our flight back to Dublin on friday suffered a two hour delay due to knock-on effects of the plane being delayed earlier, probably for the same reason. I struggle to remember the last on-time flight I took into or out of LHR.

The knock on effect of increased flight traffic is increased people traffic in the terminals. Whilst I’ve not found this too bad when travelling through one terminal into or out of London, we recently had to navigate the flight connection centre when coming back from New York on our honeymoon. We arrived on American into Terminal 3 and had to transfer onto Aer Lingus out of Terminal 1. We left a healthy 2 hour connection time. The flight in was late (can you guess why? Yes, LHR air traffic control restrictions) what’s more we didn’t have a stand! I don’t believe that has ever happened to me at LHR before, let alone on a transatlantic flight. The net result being that a bus ride from a remote part of the apron subtracted more time from our connection. Another bus ride took us from T3 to the flight connections centre in T1. We still had enough time however. That was until we saw the queues to get through security. We arrived at the Aer Lingus desk to collect boarding passes 15 minutes after the flight closed and they had already given our seats away to standby passengers (this wouldn’t have been a problem had we been checked straight through on checking in at JFK, but that’s a rant for another time!) All in all it took about 1 1/2 hours to transfer from one flight to another between two terminals, on a Sunday morning. It used to be that leaving yourself two hours to connection at LHR was plenty enough, but the sheer number of people there nowadays makes it something of a lottery.

So, I’ll be trying to avoid LHR from now on. There’s more than enough choice in how I get back to the UK from Dublin every now and then. Unfortunately options for long haul travel are less flexible. Direct flights from Dublin to the US tend to be 50% or so more expensive than flying to LHR first, and whist Schipol might be an alternative (and a much, much nicer airport to boot) it adds even more time onto the transatlantic leg.