Sunday, 1 July 2018

Hotels du Tour 2018

When the poor are faced with the total domination of global corporate power, do they meekly comply or as James C Scott suggests, turn to the ‘weapons of the weak’ - those subtle yet undermining tactics of ignorance, false compliance and foot dragging?

The organiser of the Tour de France, ASO, is no puny organisation. But faced with the prospect of Chris Froome riding the Tour with a doping investigation hanging over him, and seemingly no choice of barring him from the event, what can they do? Public hand wringing is one thing; a legal battle likely to be a mere performance; but secretly making life difficult comes straight from the playbook of subtle resistance.

How can ASO do this? One option: give Team Sky the shittiest hotels in France and reward his rivals, Ag2r for instance, with the best. As a strategy it might not have the teeth of an angry badger, but it’d be a sign that ASOs public statements were more than a performance.

So what have ASO actually done? Like previous years I’ve crunched the data, using Trip Advisor to score the hotels listed in the Tour de France roadbook. The results are interesting to say the least.

Overall Comparisons

First up, how do this year’s results compare to last year’s? Interestingly, there’s been a decline in the average daily satisfaction rate: does from 76% in 2017 to 74% in 2018. Moveover, the gap between the best and the worst has increased: this year, there’s a 14% gap in the average daily satisfaction scores, with the top team getting an average satisfaction score of 82.4%. Last year, the gap was only 10%. All this means that the team with the best hotels this year has slightly better hotels than in 2017, and the team with the worst hotels this year has slightly worse hotels than last year’s lanterne rouge.

The General Classification

The question you are all asking is what about Team Sky. Well, if ASO truly were fed up with Chris Froome, then might have given him some dodgy hotels. In fact, the winners of this year’s Hotels du Tour GC are, you guessed it: Team Sky. Incroyable! Last year, Team Sky languished in 20th place on the Hotels GC, but in the three years before were in the top 5. BMC and Movistar have also fared well in the past.

Worse still, ASO have done no favours to French favourite Romain Bardet. Whilst Team Sky’s rivals BMC and Movistar are also in the top 5, poor AG2r finish last in the Hotels GC. Sacre bleu! Don't ASO want a French winner of the Tour de France? In fact last year, they finished 10th - their highest ever GC position over the last 3 Tours.


Despite its public desire to exclude Team Sky’s leader from this year’s Tour, ASO have done them every favour when it comes to hotel selection. Maybe secretly they love Chris Froome, or maybe they have a poor grasp of the art of subtle resistance. Or maybe something else is going on? Is there a gap between the leadership of ASO and those on the ground choosing who gets to stay where? Or are  Team Sky slipping ASO some extra Euros to ensure they get the best hotels? 

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Lured from Ventoux

Friday afternoon on Mont Ventoux. The road signs said fermé, but the summit was heaving: cars, coaches, motards, and cyclists of course. The idea for the next day had always been to do the three ascents, but in this traffic I may as well have been riding around any town.

I’d spotted a road near Sisteron that looked like a nice ride, as a stop off on the way to or from Marseille airport. Its constant squiggles meant it could only be a climb. The Montagne de Lure was completely unknown to me, and plenty of others it seemed. On Strava, only 1000 people had ever made the ascent. Compare that to Mont Ventoux…

As Id ended up staying in Sault rather than Bedoin, exploring the Montagne de Lure would make for a good day’s ride: a nice loop through the Vallée du Jabron, over the mountain and back through the lavender fields. Along with the Montagne de Lure, Id have the shorter Col de l’homme Mort to cross, which is how I felt having only dined on a Reblochon pizza the night before (very nice though).

This is how I felt...

Down through the Vallée du Jabron, the slight descent compensated for a rising headwind, but by the start of the Montagne de Lure, I knew I wasn't on a good day. Turning off the D946 and crossing the river, I started the climb: 26km of 5%.

The Vallee du Jabron at the foot of the Montagne de Lure

The climb starts relatively easily, but its exposed so a headwind through fields slowed my progress until I reached the shelter of the forest. For the first 5kms there is no clue where the road is heading: it appears to be heading into a cirque with no escape, but veers off through into a forest. There’s no view, no sign of whats to come: only the km signs give any indication of where you are.

Not far to go!!

At ‘only’ 5% the climb may not appear severe, but factoring in the distance, the road surface, and the unevenness (it has several downhills and false flats) then it becomes a different proposition. The road is single track all the way – a lane. The road surface isnt great (and why should it be?): rough all the way to the last 3km, where it gets rougher still.

The Col sign at the bottom of the climb

Towards the top there are a series of hairpins – nothing fancy, just basic switchbacks – which lead to the Col du Pas de la Graille. Just like Ventoux’s Col des Tempetes, this col is about 3km from the real summit. 

Workman like hairpin. Note the road surface.

I missed the col sign, because its hairpin crested into a headwind and was shrouded in mist. The last stretch to the summit was a cold, windy and foggy drag made worse by the road surface. It may have only been 2-3% but it felt worse. The road surface looked to be a collection of stones from the mountain compacted to make a road. Which it probably was.

The summit shrouded in mist.

Before the descent starts, some false flats.

The summit has some interpretation boards and a track up to the Signal de Lure. After taking some photos I got on with the descent, not stopping at the nearby Abbaye Notre Dame de la Lure. After skirting the top of the mountain for a kilometre or two, the descent begins. It's a complete contrast to the last 26km: hairpinned, but wide and fast, with a much improved road surface.

I made it to the top!

The descent finishes in Saint-Étienne-les-Orgues where I had some food before the final 45km. The ride back to Sault was enjoyable: smooth roads, little traffic, and a slight tailwind. Good views too: a tree lined avenue in Ongles, and then some views of Mont Ventoux across the Lavender fields near Revest du Bion.

Heading back to Sault
Mont Ventoux in the distance

I couldn't help but wonder why the Montagne de Lure had never featured in the Tour de France? Or more precisely the descent: with a stage finish in Sisteron, you can see the Montagne de Lure setting up a crazy descent for Romain Bardet though the forest to become the first Frenchman in decades to win the Tour de France. Maybe.

Full ride details here:

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Highest Roads in South Wales

What’s the highest road in Wales? Easy says Siri (try it): the Bwlch-y-Groes in north Wales. Except its not – it's the Gospel Pass in South Wales.

But what’s a road? Siri isn’t too clear on that. Its just a thoroughfare. There’s no mention of tarmac.

So what is the highest road in Wales? Lets make this easy and stick to south Wales. If we think of a road as an unclassified right of way – those ‘roads’ that look like equals signs on an OS map (=======), there are three that stick out. And make no mistake, as climbs they surpass those old favourites of the Bwlch, the Rhigos, the Black Mountain, or whatever your latest 100 climbs book tells you.

So what and where are they? 

1. The Brecon Gap (599m)

Its supposed to be 599m, but you can break the 600m barrier if you wanted by just scrambling up the banks either side of the col. From Merthyr or Brecon, the Brecon Gap takes you through some spectacular glacial scenery. Perhaps more suited to a mountain bike, the climb is not steep, just a bit rocky in places - the descent was harder for me on my cross bike. 

Be prepared for soldiers and walkers looking for something different to the motorway up to Pen-y-fan. The view down to Brecon, with the rest of the road snaking around the side of valley is spectacular. 

From the southern side, the col – the dramatic gap between the two mountains either side – stands out all the way  up. It never seems to get closer though, until the end. Don't forget to go past Pontsticill reservoir on the way back either.

2. Craig-y-Llyn (600m)

One of the benefits of the new wind farms opened across the top of the south Wales valleys are the access roads built to service them. To be sure, they’ve existed for ages, used by logging trucks. And Craig-y-Llyn is actually just off the the East –West Wales Sustrans cycle path, so its not as if its been hiding for years.
You can get to Craig-y-llyn a number of ways. From the north side of the Rhigos Mountain Road, turn off just off the entrance to Tower Colliery and follow the forest road around the base of the cliff face and the Llyn Fawr pond. Then gradually climb up through the forest before eventually emerging at the wind farm. 

Or take the "secret" Bwlch road from Treorchy and then the long false flat across the top and through the wind farm to reach the trig point. Or from Maerdy, follow the cycle path through the derelict mining landscape, through a wind farm coming out on the Rhigos mountain road. Cross over and ride up the last steep section to reach the summit. The surface is good – whichever way you go.
3. Fan Gyhirych (725m/680m)

The highest peak at 725m, although the road is slightly lower at 680m and perhaps the most isolated. You could park near the Crai reservoir and ride up but that would be cheating. Instead, get to Ystradfellte and then take the lane to Cave. From there prepare for several miles of gravel and farm tracks across the deserted plateau to the base of the climb. Expect sheep for company. The climb is relatively easy, steep in places with some loose stones. The descent is fast, flowing and fun. Enjoy it, but watch out for sheep.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Hotels du Tour 2017

Last year it seemed that the big teams at the Tour de France – the likes of Sky and BMC – were getting a good deal. Perhaps stung by the criticism levelled at them in 2015, not only did ASO provide better quality hotels, they continued to match big budget teams with big budget hotels.

But what are things like this year? Who can remember a tweet or complaint from a rider about their accommodation this year? Has hotel quality improved? Or maybe riders been silenced by their teams keen to stay on the right side of race organisers?

Nevertheless, previous years have shown variations in the quality of hotels between teams. For 2017, the question is have ASO taken the opportunity to shuffle the hotel options around – give more questionable quality hotels to the big teams, and reward those who’ve had a bad deal in previous years?

Well, it looks like they might have – there’s a different feel to the hotel distribution this year.  

Lets look at the data for 2017.

Materials and Methods

As before, Ive used the Roadbook for the Tour de France to identify the hotels each team gets to stay in, and then looked them up on TripAdvisor to get levels of satisfaction. TripAdvisor uses a 5 point scale to assess customer satisfaction (from Excellent to Terrible): Ive combined the top 2 categories to calculate satisfaction. Sometimes hotels have lots of reviews, others not so many. Reviewers in expensive hotels may be more critical – who knows? Either way, the analysis is not adjusting for anything like that.


2017 Hotel Quality

The first thing to notice is that this year, the overall level of satisfaction for Hotels in the Tour has risen. Maybe ASO have been consulting TripAdvisor for their hotel selection? Maybe reviewers on TripAdvisor are getting more generous in their assessments? Or maybe hotels in France are just getting better?

In 2016 the total satisfaction score was 38583.65 – this year it had risen to 38787.39. So a small rise which translates into a daily satisfaction increase of around 0.4%.  In fact, this is the second year that satisfaction levels have risen – although last year’s increase was more substantial.

The 2017 GC

Back in 2016, Trek Segafredo ran out winners of the Hotels du Tour GC, followed by Bora, Orica, BMC and Sky.

This year, it's a completely different GC – the teams with the big favourites, the likes of Sky, BMC and Trek are nowhere. Winning the GC is Bahrain-Merida – surely sending Nibali into one of his strops given his decision to miss this years race. Lotto-Soudal finish 2nd, with Katusha rounding off the podium. FDJ are 4th, with Cannondale continuing to bounce back from their lack of World Tour results in 5th.

But what a race too! Bahrain-Merida took the yellow jersey (hotel?) on stage 3 only to suffer a stage 6 fringale of catastrophic proportions, falling to 18th on GC. Down, but not out, it takes an eyebrow-raising revival to catapault them back into contention by just stage 9. Hotel doping? Maybe I need to start looking at and Expedia too.

The Favourites

Given that last year’s GC was packed with teams containing the top GC riders, it was tempting to think that maybe there’s a correlation between performance and hotel quality.

Whilst correlation does not equal causation, at this stage Chris Froome may be looking around for a motorhome. Just as his form has been inconsistent, so are his hotels. In fact, Sky’s Tour never gets going – never getting above 15th on the GC and eventually finishing a lowly 20th.

Quintana (or Valverde) has little to smile about – Movistar finish 13th – with Contador’s Trek a little worse off in 15th.

If this was to be the year for Romain Bardet, then ASO haven’t exactly done AG2R any favours. Not suited to the early flat stages, they spend their time bouncing around the bottom of the GC with Sky, only to pull themselves away from the lanterne rouge once they get to the mountains and finish 11th . A prophecy perhaps?

Which leaves BMC and Richie Porte. Demonstrating he’s escaped from Froome’s shadow, BMC never really threaten the GC but still finish the Tour in 6th place – and are the only big team that get close to their position from 2016.

The Key Changes: 2017 - 2016

So if there has been a changing of the guard, who has fared best and worst?

No doubt the biggest decline is in Team Sky, falling 16 places on GC in 2017. Quick Step / Etixx fell 12 places and Trek 14.

Shooting up (the charts) are last  year’s lanterne rouge chasers Lampre. Changing their name to Bahrain-Merida has seen their GC position rise 19 places. Getting Alpecin on as co-sponsors as also helped Katusha: its not just their hair that’s benefitted, but their GC position has risen 11 places.

But pity poor old Giant Alpecin/Team Sunweb. Last on the GC in 2016, they are last again in 2017 (not forgetting 17th in 2015). They are nothing if not consistent. But no wonder Tom Dumoulin chose to ride the Giro.

The Best and the Worst Hotels

If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in France, then you could do a lot worse than the Inter Hotel Vamcel – this year’s highest scoring hotel (97.2% satisfaction). Orica get to stay here on stage 11. But pity Team Astana who get to ‘enjoy’ the luxury of the 33.6% rated Campanile, Bergerac. Not just for 1 night, though – but three! As they say for every Chateau there’s a Campanile – and for stages 9-10 (including the rest day) its Wanty Groupe Gobert that get to stay in the Chateau des Vigiers at Monestier (87.7% satisfaction). Perhaps a little surprising was to see the Novotel in Dijon amongst the lowest scoring hotels (stage 7 for Orica and Direct Energie). I last stayed there in the early 80’s and it was alright, but perhaps it’s changed a bit since...

The Best and the Worst Stages

The best hotels seem to be found at the start, middle and end of the race - some psychology there from ASO perhaps? However, the gap between the best and the worst hotels also happens at the end of the first week of racing, although the second week is not too bad.


They say in cycling that the Tour is the Tour, but also that what goes around comes around. Looking at these results you might agree. There’s definitely been a reshuffling of the pack. Last year’s winners have fallen from grace, whilst others have risen from the depths. Maybe Sky’s experience will revive talk of motorhomes? And if ASO have some kind of hotel rotation policy, then maybe it’s only visible over a longer time period. Or maybe ASO’s hotel algorithm is just chance: some teams like Team Sunweb will be wondering what they’ve got to do to get decent hotels.