Trois Etapes 2014 – Part 2 – Suddenly! France!

Sunday, 3 August
My first night in Lourdes was shared in a room with two other Soldier On riders; a tight yet restful night after trying to get sleep the day before without much luck.  After breakfast Adam, Matt, Justin and I met Andy and Jodie for a coffee in down-town Lourdes.  Although we were still down two riders (they were en-route from San Sebastian) a quick walk around the busy square followed before we decided a lazy spin to get the legs moving after all the travel was needed.

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.:Mucho posing:.

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.:The Berm in France:.

The easy 63.5km ride saw us head out to Luz-St. Sauveur for some sight-seeing and a taste of the Pyrenees’ weather.  This was the ride in which it finally sank in that we had actually made it to France and in a few days time would be representing Soldier On in the Trois Etapes.  The ride out was quite an emotional experience for me as it was the culmination of months of training, many set-backs (physically, emotionally and mentally) and a few late minute changes to the travel that threatened to delay our arrival.  The ride was very enjoyable and we all soon found a nice rhythm riding together after a few weeks apart.  Not wanting to push too hard on the first day in France, we headed back to Lourdes to catch up with the other two riders, Dan and Shane, as well as team driver Bruce.

Dinner was a casual affair at a local restaurant (not called a French restaurant in France) which proved challenging for this vegetarian; luckily salads are quite common in most European countries – albeit with an excess of tomato and cheese.

Monday, 4 August
The next day’s ride was a typical coffee ride that would see the entire team, and driver Bruce, explore some of the local countryside over a relatively easy 47km.  There was of course a couple of ugly ramps leading up to a hill-top church including a nice little 28% stretch that left me trying to bite my front wheel!

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.:Not a bad view:.

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.:More posing:.

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.:Cafe time:.

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.:Cafe time:.

For the first time since the Trois Etapes was confirmed, Team Soldier On had it’s full roster and was gearing up for the race in four days time.

Tuesday, 5 August – My 33rd Birthday
The plan was simple…  Breakfast and then an easy ride to the Col du Tourmalet followed by a quick descent back to Lourdes.  But like all simple plans; this one wasn’t.  Not even 10 minutes into this ride and I was separated from the rest of the group thanks to some red lights and me not knowing the route out of Lourdes.

Suddenly I found myself riding alone and heading out of Lourdes towards the airport; definitely not the way to Tourmalet.  After stopping and some back and forth messaging later, I decided I was too far away from the team and went for a solo ride instead.

I spent my 33rd birthday riding the French countryside; not a bad day at all.

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.:Hayley and sunflowers:.

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.:France!:.

Wednesday, 6 August
A very unexciting day of eating, resting and tapering for the three-day race.
Lourdes put on a fantastic day of sun and warmth; the perfect day for a slow and steady ride to spin the legs.

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.:#Euro:.

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.:Fountain lean:.

Thursday, 7 August
With the entire Soldier On team finally in Lourdes, photographer Matthew and manager Clare arriving the night before, it was time for us to have a look at some of the unknown sections of the race; this time in the cars!

We drove up the Col du Soulor, Col de Spandelles and Col du Tourmalet.  I can honestly say after the day-trip I was dreading each of the climbs, especially the goat track that was Spandelles!

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.:Col du Soulor horses:.

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.:Not a bad view on the way down from Col du Soulor:.

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.:Col de Spandelles was intimidating:.

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.:Géant du Tourmalet:.

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.:Team Soldier On and the Géant du Tourmalet:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

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.:Much beard and much hair:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

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.:Team Soldier On and manager:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

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.:Tough guys:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

In the afternoon we set off for another short ride to keep the legs fresh for the first stage of the race the next morning, this time we were joined by coach Scott Sunderland.

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.:For the first time on their bikes, the entire Team Soldier On together with coach Scott Sunderland:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard

Trois Etapes 2014 – Part 1 – The Long Journey To France

My journey to France wasn’t as simple as three planes, two trains, a cab and countless hours spent on a bicycle.  My journey to France started on January 6, 2012; my last day as a soldier in the Australian Army.  Over the previous decade I had made many friends, shared countless experiences, served on foreign soil, and ultimately returned back home when others did not.
My decision to leave the Army was a culmination of differing opinions on what my career path should have been, the lack of ongoing and adequate support for my mental illness and not wanting to force my future wife to live in the shadow of a Australian Soldier.  Having spent my childhood as the quintessential ‘Army Brat’, I could not ask the woman who I would ultimately marry and have a child with, to follow me around Australia and put her own career aside.  So I left the one thing that had provided, up until my wedding and daughter’s birth, the most defining moments of my life; both good and bad.

In mid 2012 I started mountain biking, something that would ultimately serve to fill the huge void that had been left in my life when I hung up my uniform.  A tight-knit community of caring, encouraging and like-minded people enabled me to feel part of a team once again.  And in late 2012 I approached a the contemporary veterans group ‘Soldier On‘ and asked if I would be able to fund-raise in a mountain biking event called The Battle of the Beasts.  When the dust had settled and my aching body had calmed I had raised a substantial amount of money that would directly assist younger veterans like myself that were struggling with the visible and hidden scars incurred during our service in the Australian Defence Force.

.:Battle Of The Beasts 2012:.

2013 would see me design and commission a set of Soldier On cycling jerseys and participate in a full calendar of mountain bike events at which I would wear the Soldier On strip.  I would assist Soldier On at various veterans events and fundraisers and ultimately become a very vocal advocate and critic of contemporary veterans issues especially veteran suicide; an issue that has directly impacted my life and ongoing recovery living with depression and PTSD.

.:Racing with the mk1 Soldier On cycling jersey:.

Throughout earlier 2014 I continued to race and commute wearing the Soldier On colours.  For me wearing the Soldier On jersey was a way for the public to see Soldier On was active in the general community and to let other veterans know that they weren’t alone.  It was because of my somewhat visible presence across social, print and visual media that I was asked by Soldier On to participate in the 2014 Trois Etapes Pro-Am in France.  At first I was apprehensive as it would mean a change from my mountain bike to a road bike and many, many hours training.
First there was the Sydney to Canberra Remembrance Ride commemorating both ANZAC Day and the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Remembrance Driveway along the Hume and Federal highways.  This was soon followed by two training camps, one at Thredbo and then followed by the second at Tweed Heads; and a long-term training program to follow.  Of course life, work and injuries interfered with what could have been a relatively smooth timeline; but where would the fun be in that?!
Finally on Friday, 1 August 2014, after many months of training, preparation, stressing, emails and waiting… The time came for me to leave Canberra, Australia and travel to Lourdes, France.
I’ll spare you the intricate details of my trip, but rest assured 39 hours of travel is not an enjoyable experience.  Why 39 hours?  Well, as I mentioned before, there were the flights, the trains and the cab; and of course there was the the 30kg bag containing a bicycle and a very large amount of cycling related equipment and paraphernalia.  It is a fact an EVOC cycle bag is just not train, train station or train passenger friendly. Combine this with French people, a language barrier, jet lag and a person with an anxiety disorder and you have recipe for disaster.  Luckily nothing bad happened and we arrived at our hotel in the middle of the night.
After much stressing, a bad case of cankles and a long-awaited shower I finally went to bed knowing the next day I would be riding my bicycle in France!

Our Asian Holiday – Day 13 to Day 14

Day 13: We checked out of our hotel and were picked up by our driver and guide Quyen, for a two and a half hour drive to the Bac Ha Sunday markets. The first sign that this day was going to be interesting was the distinct lack of functioning seat belts in the back of the Toyota Camry in which we were traveling. About 10 minutes into the drive down the mountain I couldn’t help but foresee my own death caused by rapid ejection through the windscreen.

In the end the drive to the markets was uneventful except for the dozens of close calls with buffalos and completely clueless idiots wandering onto the road.

The markets themselves were huge and full of the ‘upland’ people who still dress in traditional clothing. The markets were full of the usual meat, fruit, vegetables and tourist trinkets; as well as buffalo, horse, dog and singing birds. Quyen was ever helpful in explaining some of the customs of these mountain villagers. After wandering the markets for an hour or so we stopped for lunch.

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After lunch we headed out for a tour of two of nearby villages. Quyen explained the daily life of the villagers to us and took us away from the usual tracks to see some of the crops and homes up close. The weather had changed and it was now extremely hot and humid; while it was uncomfortable to us the more overweight and heavily dressed tourists in the central village were much worse off.

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At the end of the walk through the second village we boarded a river boat for a quick cruise on the Chay River. This was quite enjoyable in the cool breeze and Carly even dipped her feet into the water to cool down.

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After a short break from the 40’C and 100% humidity we drove back to Lao Cai to wait for the overnight train back to Ha Noi. As we had a few hours to kill, we visited the Vietnam / China border and heard some stories about Vietnamese women being stolen for forced prostitution and people fleeing from both countries.

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Finally we boarded the train to Ha Noi and soon we were off into the Vietnamese night.

Day 14: Our train pulled into Ha Noi at 04:30. Unlike last time’s shuddering stop to wake us up; soft music played over the speakers before we came to our sudden halt.

Once again it was a mad rush to get off the train and after a few minutes palming off the not so reputable ‘taxi’ drivers (possibly organ harvesters) we found our driver and headed off to the hotel.

We were able to arrange an early check-in at the hotel and get some sleep before wandering the nearby markets and food vendors in the afternoon after the temperature dropped a little.

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