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.

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.

Getting to Rochester

Well, I’m here safe and sound. A few random thoughts about the journey:

  • American economy/coach was as per usual. No frills but good legroom.
  • The airline version of Casino Royale has been hacked to death with big chunks missing. I think this is more to do with time than content. Though the staircase fight and torture scene are heavily edited. The poisoned drink bit had gone completely
  • Deja Vu – quite good.
  • Perfect Parents – TV movie with Christopher Eccleston pretending his family is Catholic to get daughter into a good school. Turns out very dark in the end. Lots of swearing so confirms that Casino Royale must have been cut for length
  • I really need to get a new battery for my Thinkpad. Less than an hour on full charge. Not good, but it is 3 years old.
  • Bits of Lake Michigan are frozen on the descent into ORD
  • Might have been optimistic about leaving 90 minutes to transfer at O’Hare seeing as last time immigration took 75 minutes alone. However all is fine and no queue to re-check bag for once.
  • Was handled at immigration by an officer called Buttman, who was playing AC-DC from his iPod on a pair of speakers. Bizarre, and totally unlike the usual experience
  • Flight to Minneapolis St-Paul uneventful. The whole ground is white.
  • Hertz gave me a Subaru Legacy. Nice. However decide to get the Neverlost sat-nav so end up swapping for a Ford Escape SUV. Has the worst auto-box I’ve ever driven.
  • Coming out of the airport, Neverlost takes an age to get satellite lock. This ends up with lots of u-turns and route recalcs which also take about a minute. Not good , but get on the right route in the end.

Driving down Highway 52

  • Easy 75 mile drive to Rochester. Highway 52 generally clear with a few bits of drifting snow from nearby fields. One rolled car holding up the other carriageway.
  • Pass IBM coming into Rochester.

Don't Walk

  • Arrive downtown with some light still in the sky. Obviously had a lot of snow this week.
  • Park up at the Hilton Garden Inn and feel the temperature for the first time. Very, very cold.
  • Into room. Free internet and room service. 76 channels of nothing on. Crash at 8:30pm.

So, this morning it is off to the Rochester lab for the next few days. Should be fun.

Off to Rochester, MN

I’m off for a week of work in Rochester, Minnesota tomorrow. I’ve been keeping a close watch on the weather over there as they have been experiencing quite a bit of snow in the last few days. I’m flying into O’Hare and then onto the twin cities where I pick up a car for the 80 mile drive down to Rochester. Thankfully the weather appears to be picking up from tomorrow, with a high of 0 degrees centigrade. Monday looks to be the coldest day at -7! The webcam on this site is currently showing bright sunshine in downtown, but there is still snow on the ground.

This is my first visit to the Rochester lab, and I’m looking forward to physically meeting a lot of people from the WebSphere Process Server development organization who I’ve been virtually working with for the past two years.

American Airlines are also showing a couple of films I actually haven’t seen which is a bonus. Normally I seem to travel when they are showing films I’ve either seen or hate. Saying this, on my last trip into Chicago they showed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off which was inspired, and provided a timely reminder that I really had to go to the Art Institute to see Seraut’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Unfortunately at the time American Gothic was on tour, but Nighthawks and numerous other fantastic works were on display. As Ferris would say, it is so choice, if you get the chance I highly recommend you visit. Unfortunately I won’t get to spend any time in Chicago this time around, which is a shame as it is easily one of my favourite cities. However, I’m looking forward to seeing a new bit of America.