Picos Original Riders

Picos Original Riders
Highlights of 2010

Last of the Picos Riders - to Rome Alone!

Our first two charity rides were a huge success - raising over £20,000 for the South East Cancer Help Centre.

The Centre does a fantastic job of supporting patients and carers at the most difficult times of their lives. They make a real difference and you could help them in their work by contributing to our fundraising. Donations can be made via JustGiving.comhttps://www.justgiving.com/Tom-Vaz/ or directly into the Centre. For more details of the Centre and their work see their website at http://www.sechc.org.uk/

After 3 years of rest it seemed time to dust off the old muscles, bones and sinews and do one more spectacular ride in aid of this fabulous charity.

This time I will travel alone for 25 days, mainly following the ancient pilgrimage route to Rome, the Via Francigene, covering a distance of around 1,400 miles.

The route travels through Newhaven - Dieppe - Paris before I eventually reach the Via Francigene in Eastern France. From then on it is pretty simple apart from having to cross the Alps without an elephant!

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Day 13 Col Du Grand Saint Barnard to Ivrea

What a beautiful morning to start an adventure in a new country. I have been to Italy before but never as a cyclist and Italy is an old country that you only imagine in that warm soft focus that European Cinema uses.

Soft focus is not what you want as you roll down the mountains at 30mph. My bike has hydraulic brakes and they have a tendency to boil if over used so I made sure to stop regularly. I did test the temperature of the brake disc once but it burnt my finger so I just took the view that I should assume it was going to be very hot each time.
Apart from the stunning views the journey was incident free. Several cyclists went upwards past me cheerfully calling out "Chao" as they did what was probably some sort of training run. None of them were carrying the dreaded luggage and certainly none of them had a jingling elephant in his backpack. Why jingling? Which genius decided that the elephant needed to have a jingle bell? You realise I have to put up with another two weeks of it?

Having had a day off I decided to be daring and go for a long distance today.
73 miles is ok most of the time but with temperatures in the high 30s it might have all gone wrong.

As I moved further down the Aosta Valley I was hit by a very strong headwind so going downhill required a lot of effort to just keep up to 11mph - slow enough to admire the beautiful town of St Vincent and the astonishing Science Fiction visage of Fort di Bard apparently used in the latest multi billion $ Avengers film.

Then a couple of stunning castles. This area requires a lot more exploring to get a feel for the history. Someone must like all this history, they've left miles of cobblestones here which wreak havoc on parts of the gentleman's anatomy.

Finally a note to myself, don't get ambitious with the mileage here because temperatures are pretty ridiculous. 40C!

Friday, 24 July 2015

Day 12 A Day off from Cycling

After eleven straight days in the saddle I am beginning to think that my legs are still rotating slowly in my sleep. Time for a day off! 

Having decided to stay in this peaceful, remote place I went for a walk up the mountain. As I sat down for a breather and to chat to one of my sons who was still in bed in far away London, I could see the St Bernards in their kennel area surrounded by little kids. Suddenly, they were on the way for their morning walk and coming towards me!

I told my beloved son that something urgent had cropped up and sauntered in among the dog walkers.

The kids were so excited to be walking with these gentle giants and their pleasure was very contagious. Occasionally there was a shout of "Madame, le chien fait un caca" and the young lady in charge would come back with her doggy bag to clear up the mess.

Eventually Madame realised that I was not one of her group and told me to clear off. Pretending a total ignorance of French I maintained my dignity and carried on up the mountain to one of the peaks surrounding the pass.

Near the peak is a small ice field so there's a suitable picture of my crocs walking across the Alpine ice field. Surpringly enough, crocs are good for going up mountains but don't really protect your ankles from sharp rocks. 

As you'd expect, the views from this altitude are just stunning. Glaciers and peaks rise magestically ask around and totally dwarf the minor achievement of cycling or walking up here. This is truly the land of the Gods!

If you look carefully at the following picture you can make out the swirls of the road as it makes its way down into Italy but that's tomorrow's story.

After the morning's excitement I visited the dog kennels and museum. The St Bernard is a beautiful animal but I wouldn't want to keep one. They grow to 60 - 100kg and are notoriously hard to train. At least they are gentle so you are more like to be drowned in their slobber rather than eaten alive.

The highlights of the museum include the stuffed remains of Barry III. He died while guiding someone to safety. The barrel belonged to Barry I after whom the kennels are named. Barry I was a legend and apparently saved over 40 people before dying in retirement in Bern.

Jennifer and the other Trustees please note that I'm expecting the Centre to stuff my remains and place them in the downstairs cabinet. I think a pose showing me working on a laptop would be good. I believe certain colleagues (Nina and Carol) would like my face distorted into a smile. This is what it might look like!

It would be good if you could also place my bike on display like this barrel.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Day 11 Martigny to Col Du Grand Saint Barnard

Up up and up! Is the the best way to describe the route today. Leaving Martigny I stopped to clean and oil my bike's chain and then began the long, long, long climb to the Col or pass.

I've climbed up mountains before in Spain and the climb has been up to this kind of altitude difference as well but today was VERY hard. Martigny was at an altitude of 450m and the pass at St Bernard is 2473m so I've gone up around 2km in 40km. That's an average 5% climb over the whole day. With the heat and the luggage, the lack of any break over 12 days and all the other really good excuses that I'm still saving up, it is no wonder I am completely knackered.

Anyway, let's start from the beginning.

Around 1050 the archdeacon of Aosta established a hospice at the high point of the pass to help travelers who were being terrorised by bandits and struggling with harsh weather. The archdeacon, Bernard of Menthon, later Saint Bernard, gives his name to the pass now and is patron saint of the Alps.

The pass is historically the most famous route through the Alps to Italy so was much used by pilgrims and other travelers since Roman times.

Presumably these pilgrims had more sensible means of travel than a bike loaded with ridiculous amounts of luggage. Despite a hard look at what I was carrying, all I've dumped were my guide books (unused and useless) and my bottle of massage oil for which my aching knees are cursing me.

The Saint Bernard dogs are known all over the world for their work as rescue dogs and there’s an iconic image of Saint Bernard dog finding the lost traveler and reviving them with a shot of brandy from a cask around their neck.

This is not true unfortunately, however the dogs were used for mountain rescues because of their strength and ability to pull heavy loads. These days Alsations have taken their jobs because they're easier to train. However, the iconic St Bernard is still bred down the mountain in Martigny and brought up to spend the summer at the hospice at the pass - hospice I think means monastery in this context.

The monks however own the Auberge that I'm staying in and in their honour, the bar serves 35 different types of Trappist beers. After a day of dehydration I decided I'd earned one glass of beer and that was enough to become very tipsy before mass with the monks! I confess to almost falling down the stairs on my way to mass but sobered up enough to blame an invisible speck of dust when I saw a lady giving me a hostile look.

So going back to the part of cycling up the mountain, I was a bit appalled when I looked at the altitude map on my Gamin GPS. It showed me a full day of climbing ahead. I knew the damn Alps were out to get me!

I could see the train alongside me but that was of no use as it goes straight through to Aosta in Italy. However, in the spirit of confessions who would mind me using the bus service if I got desperate? Fear not dear sponsor, I stuck to pedalling my way up the Alps and took plenty of photos to prove it.

Idyllic Alpine scenes where nobody would know of my agony. Stops for Coca Cola and a sandwich even. I knew that I was expected to call the Centre to tell the members how I was getting on but:

a) I could hardly string two words together because of the dehydration. 

b) One of those two words would have been "off" as I was really not enjoying the climb!!!

I did literally squeeze the sweat out of my head band at some point. I know some of my female colleagues would approve of the hygiene considerations shown there.

The traffic really thundered in the snow shed and even a small car sounded like a flock of trucks. At one stage I came out of the snow shed to find a heap of rotting bikes. Maybe the owners had given up and gotten on the bus or like in the holy places they may have been cured?

Eventually after much sweat and tears and the odd use of bad language it was time to look back at the spaghetti loop of tarmac that I had traveled up. I even had time to enjoy some flowers growing in a pond in a loop of the road before eventually I reached the pass.

Here's the lake separating Switzerland from Italy and the obligatory picture of me with the Centre flag which is still attached to my pannier. I hope that's a smile on my lips, after all the recent, hurtful comments I was practising all the way up the mountain!

Only 28 miles today but 2km vertically which must count for something!

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Day 10 Lausanne to Martigny

The best way out of Lausanne is to follow the shores of Lakes Geneva. The coastal road goes past the yachts and the cuckoo clock chateaux before you eventually arrive at Vevey and Montreux. All the while you can see the Alps looming over the scene.

Along the coast there is a giant fork stuck into the lake to represent the serenity of Lake Geneva. It does look a bit like someone is having fun with the King Arthur legend.

Montreux hosts an annual film festival and when that is not on there is some entertainment in watching a young woman blowing giant bubbles at children. I'm not sure who was having more fun but at least the kids were getting cleaner.

The River Rhone flows into the Eastern end of the Lake and that is where the path leading the blind and foolhardy into Italy begins.


Just along here is the World Centre for Cycling presided over by UCI. This little organisation has been in charge of cycling since 1900 and has been accused by many of ignoring the performance enhancing exploits of cyclists such as Lance Armstrong. I should point out that my performance on this journey has been enhanced by many a bottle of Coca Cola as well as a knee and an ankle support. The only drugs involved are for asthma and to reduce the effects of old age. 

There were many kids outside the Centre practising on BMX bikes but I guess they have to train hard to reach the supreme level of fitness that allow one to take on a long distance pilgrimage.

As the cycle lane moved deep into the Rhone Valley I spied a sign that blew my mind. Goa Masala and other world food. Having two parents born in Goa, I had no choice but to investigate. I asked if food was possible because I'm from Goa and therefore their serving times were not relevant! 

A large, white man sitting at the bar spoke to me in Konkani, the language of my parents and was disgusted to find that I spoke very little of it. He was Swiss, his wife English but she was the cook having learned her skills loving in Goa for 20+ years. They even have a daughter still living in Saligao, my father's home village. To be quite honest I felt ashamed that this "white" man and his wife were more Goan than I am and so I left with my tail between my legs.

Anyway I find myself in a 4* hotel in Martigny - my last stop before the big one tomorrow. I've been fed and watered and have had a good look at the stuff in my luggage which feels way too heavy. I have my suspicions but I think it might be this guy... His name is Hannibal and he tells me that some guy from North Africa carried one of his ancestors over the Alps. Anyone got a history book I could chuck at him?

Another 50 miles today. 

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Day 9 Pontarlier to Lausanne

I marked my last night in France with a traditional Chinese buffet. I'm following the dietary advice of an expert who said, "Have plenty of protein and carbohydrates and don't forget to add salt to replace the loss through sweat". Well the buffet had plenty of protein, carbs and possibly sweat as well because the owner worked tirelessly to top up the food bowls that a certain long distance cyclist was rapidly emptying. No profit for her tonight I don't think!

I left the discomforts of the Formule 1 heading towards Lausanne hoping for a less tiring day than the one before. After a brief climb I was cycling along the scenic shores of Lac Saint-Point. I must be a cycling God now because I actually overtook other cyclists even though they were on nice road bikes without the cumbersome luggage that I seem to have accumulated.

The divine serenity must have touched my normal instincts because I sat for 30 minutes looking over the clear, mirror lake without calling and annoying the hardworking people in Purley - you know who you are!

I must have been a very good boy indeed because after another brief climb I was in cyclists' heaven. Two hours of beautiful downhill gliding into Switzerland. I was so lost in the moment that I barely registered the skiing resorts I passed by.

Eventually I just had to stop to take in the view and a few calories. Another 26km to Lausanne proclaimed the stone and that seemed simple enough. What was beginning to frighten me though was the sight of dark shapes in the distance behind where Lausanne must be. The Alps are going to pay me back with interest for all the casual pleasure I've been enjoying.

Finally arrived in Lausanne and checked into my hostel. Situated very close to the train station and a view from the toilet seat that train spotters would die for.

The washing machine has kidnapped a set of my cycling clothes and I have a long night in a dormitory, sharing with three complete strangers, ahead of me.

God knows I miss those gruffalo nights...

Distance today was 50 miles. 

Monday, 20 July 2015

Day 8 Besançon to Pontarlier

Once again my exit from a French city was a hair raising experience. I followed the N57 out of Besançon and steadily climbed up into the Jura mountains. Suddenly the N57 merged with the high speed E23 and I was in the middle of two lanes of traffic merging at 60mph!

Fortunately, I managed to get off the E23 and followed the sedate D67 through the village of Tarcenay and into the town of Ornans. The climb through Tarcenay was steady at 6% and after 300m climbing the reward was that the road swooped down and around beautiful, fast curves into the Loue Valley. I slammed my brakes on when I saw a cyclepath. Out of curiosity I decided to follow it and I'm glad that I did, a couple of miles of the most stunning cycleway I've ever used led into Ornans.

Obviously, this must have once been a railway line to boast a viaduct like this one! I really loved the views across the valley to the bluffs on the other side not realising that the road would lead me up there at a later point.

Ornans had the most perfect picnic spot I've seen in years so I just lay there watching the trout and called the people I was missing. A peaceful hour went by and I'm glad that I did that because from that point it was onwards and upwards. Endlessly, relentlessly up to 900m. I know I have worse yet to come but overall I managed 1400m of climbing today on a 42 mile ride. Some of it was around 12-15% so good preparation I think.

I eyed up the evenly spaced trees in the forests - perfect for a man with no fixed abode and a hammock. However I had a date in the Formule 1, Pontarlier with a couple of tarts.

Unfortunately they ended up a bit squashed...