2015-07-26 Return to Alpe d’Huez

It is rare on a short holiday to go back to the same place again but Alpe d’Huez is one destination that is well worth visiting twice. I left it too late the previous day to climb the Alpe so was determined today to give it a second shot. In 1992, I had tried climb Alpe d’Huez but only made it as far as Turn 2 about 3 km from the finish. Yesterday, I had tried descending to the bottom of the climb before the Tour de France arrived but only made it as far as the village of Huez and instead climbed to the top from there. So, today, would be my third attempt to climb Alpe d’Huez and I was hoping for third time lucky.

Source: Cycling-challenge.com
Source: Cycling-challenge.com

All 21 hairpins on climb up to the summit of Alpe d’Huez. There had been signs on the road up to Alpe d’Huez saying that the road was to be closed between 9 and 12 on Sunday morning for maintenance crews to lift all the barriers. So we were in no hurry this morning as we weren’t sure if cyclists were being stopped as well as vehicles. So it was after 10 when we left the hotel to drive back to Alpe d’Huez. There was a lot fewer cyclists on the road and most of the campervans alongside the D1091 between Rochetaille and Bourg d’Oisans were gone. Noel parked the Peugeot on the approach road to Alpe d’Huez and I was able to assemble the bike ready for an assault on the Alpe. You could see that the D211 up to Alpe d’Huez was only after being re-opened as there was a line of cars trying to get down the hill. I would have liked to have a warm-up before starting the climb but it was now nearly 12 and as we planned to leave the hire-car back about 5, it meant I only had 2 hours to climb Alpe d’Huez and come back down.

Source: Climbbybike.com
Source: Climbbybike.com

Profile of Alpe d’Huez. Once the climb started, I was determined to not stop so did not take any photos on the way up. It was really tough at the bottom and my heart rate shot up right away to close to my max. The gradient just hits you like a blast of hot air from a jet engine. I knew I was in trouble when I needed the lowest gear on my bike (34×28) right from the start off the climb. I had to ease off to let my heart rate calm down so took it gently for about 5 km until I got to Turn 10 or Irish corner.

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Irish corner at Turn 10. After Irish corner, I tried lifting my pace and moving up the gears but it was no good. My legs were fine and I had bags of endurance after cycling 2,000 km the last 3 weeks but I just had no power, no zip. My heart was still recovering from the heat stroke I had suffered a few days before and when my mind said go, my heart and lungs said no.

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Screenshot from Strava showing both the climb and the downhill sections of Alpe d’Huez. When I got to the village of Huez, I was hoping the gradient would ease slightly but it stayed more or less the same though the hairpins were flatter. At Turn 2, there was a photographer taking photos of all the cyclists going past. This is where I climbed off in 1992 so I was determined not to stop again. So, the photographer had to run after me to give me his card with a link to his website. To download the photos costs €19 or you can order a print for €12. I might order a print as Turn 2 is as far as I got in 1992 (no photographer that day) so the place where this photo was taken means a lot more to me than maybe any other cyclist climbing Alpe d’Huez.

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Watermarked photo at Turn 2 about 3 km from the summit. Noel at this time was enjoying a creme brulee in a cafe in Bourg d’Oisans and tweeted that I was going through hell on Alpe d’Huez. But actually, it wasn’t too bad as I felt fresh but just had no zip. Had I the same form I had in the Pyrenees, I would have climbed maybe 10 mins faster but my heart and lungs felt smaller and just didn’t have the same power. It was as if they had shrunk after my heat stroke a few days beforehand and had still not recovered back to their previous size.

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Noel’s tweet from a cafe in Bourg d’Oisans. About an hour and half after leaving Bourg d’Oisans, I made it top the top of Alpe d’Huez. The barriers and all the banners from the Tour de France had been removed so it was impossible to tell where the actual finish-line was as even the Skoda markings had been lifted. So I kept going to the ski lift at the Ski Republic shop and to where the path up to Lac Besson starts. According to Strava, it had taken me 1 hour and 18 mins to climb Alpe d’Huez, which was exactly twice the time taken by Nairo Quintana the day before. Neither Nairo nor Chris Froome is on Strava so Romain Bardet actually has the honour of being fastest so far this year up Alpe d’Huez on Strava with a time of 42.37, 17 seconds faster than yesterday’s winner Thibaut Pinot.

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1 hr and 18 mins to climb Alpe d’Huez. You can see from the screengrab above that Strava estimated that  I averaged 199W up the climb. 2 weeks before I had climbed a hill with the trailer on the way to Lourdes at 153W, according to Strava. Of course, Strava didn’t know I was hauling a heavy trailer up that hill. 153W power for my standard setting of 70kg (10kg bike + 60kg my weight) is roughly the equivalent of 220W for 100kg (30kg trailer + 10kg bike + 60kg my weight). Had I averaged 220W on Alpe d’Huez, I would have climbed to the TDF finish in under 1 hour and 10 mins which was my target. So while I was relieved to make it to the top, I was also a little disappointed to not even get near my target.

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Screenshot from Strava from climb in the Pyrenees. I might never get a chance to climb the Alpe again for real but at least I can tackle it anytime on my Tacx trainer. The trainer I have is called the Tacx Vortex, which comes with a software package called TTS, which allows you to virtually recreate any climb on a computer screen. I have 3 videos of the climb up to Alpe d’Huez filmed by Tacx in 2006, 2007 and 2014. The quality of the ’06 video is terrible, the ’07 video is OK but the detail on the 2014 video is just incredible. Of course, it is much easier to climb the Alpe on the trainer as the Vortex is limited to re-creating slopes of up to 6% whereas in places, the gradient on Alpe d’Huez is over 11%. Above 6%, the software reduces the speed depending on the gradient but it still means you can spin the pedals much easier and quicker than I found possible when I tackled the Alpe for real.

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Tacx Vortex. I think the problem why the Tacx software over-estimates my speed on steep slopes is due to what CyclingTips calls momentum. In short, momentum is why track riders some of whom can produce 600W for an hour on a level track cannot produce the same power on a climb. It is partly down to your leg muscles but also down to your cadence or the speed you spin the pedals. On most hills, I can maintain a cadence of about 80 but on Alpe d’Huez, I found it difficult to achieve a good rhythm. On steep slopes, your normal position on the bike changes and the weight of your legs also becomes a factor due to gravity. It is something that can be ironed out with practice but I simply didn’t have time to train on any other steep climbs in France this year before tackling Alpe d’Huez..

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My record is 57 mins to climb Alpe d’Huez on the trainer. As you can see from the above screenshot, I can climb Alpe d’Huez roughly 20 mins faster on the trainer than in real life. Other people have commented that their time on the trainer is similar to real life and Tacx have spent over 10 years on their TTS software trying to get it as accurate as possible. A minute or 2 difference I could understand but 20 mins is a lot. Part of the discrepancy may be down to the weight of my bike. Tacx allow for a bike weight of 7.5 kg but I had roughly a litre of water and a set of tubes and tools in case I punctured. All together my bike, clothes and shoes probably weighed about 12 kg or 5 kg more than what Tacx allow for. Every kg on the Alpe is an extra minute so the extra weight cost me 5 mins. I believe my lack of practice on steep slopes cost me another 5 mins and my lack of power after the heat stroke cost me 10 mins, so in all, a total of 20 mins. Of course, the only way to see if the trainer time and real-life time matches is to ride the trainer and then do the climb after resting for a day or 2. Maybe the next time I visit Alpe d’Huez, I will bring the trainer with me and try that.

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Screenshot from Alpine Classic 2007 video at summit of Alpe d’Huez. In hindsight, I should have gone to a cafe with Noel for an expresso to calm my heart and then warmed up for half an hour before attempting to climb the Alpe. But because we didn’t have much time, I tackled Alpe d’Huez cold and certainly suffered at the start of the climb. But no matter how good my form and preparation was, I would never have got close to my trainer time, not in a month of Sundays.

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Herd of sheep underneath the ski-lifts at top of Alpe d’Huez. I didn’t expect to come across a herd of sheep at the summit of Alpe d’Huez but there they were munching away on the hillside. After 10 minutes taking photos, I headed back down to Bourg d’Oisans. It was so much easier going back downhill than coming up but also more dangerous. I nearly crashed into another cyclist in the tunnel near the tourist office. He was on the wrong side of the road cutting the bend and ‘cos it is very dark in the tunnel, I didn’t see him until the last second. Somehow, I managed to miss him but it would have been a bad smash as I was doing about 50 km/hr at the time. When I got to Bourg d’Oisans, I was a bit like poor Tom Domoulin at the Vuelta and found myself locked out of the car. Noel was still busy shopping trying to get some presents for the folks back home so I had to text him to let him know I was at the car. He soon arrived back to let me into the car and shortly afterwards, we set off for Grenoble. As we drove past it on the main road, I was able to take one last photo of Alpe d’Huez in the distance.

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Last photo of Alpe d’Huez and the village of La Garde at Turn 16. We had hired the car with a full tank of petrol and were expected to return it full or we could be fined. So we had to stop at a garage to fill up. Most of the pumps in France won’t let you use them without swiping a credit card first. You have to wait until the card transaction is authorized before the pump will release any petrol. We were lucky there were instructions in English on a screen on the pump  ‘cos otherwise we wouldn’t have had a clue what to do as there was no staff or shop at the garage.

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After 3 days hire, we had to return the Peugeot 305 to Avis. We first went to the hotel to drop off the bike and all our stuff before then going to the underground car-park at the train station where we had got the car. We were lucky to get the last Avis spot in the car-park. I took lots of photos of the bodywork in case there was an claim later before we dropped off the keys. The reason we had picked Avis for the car hire was because they are the only hire company in Grenoble that open on Sunday so we saved a day’s hire by using them. But I would definitely use them again as the staff are very  laid back and  don’t make you sign any paperwork.

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Front page of L’Equipe featuring Thibaut Pinot on Alpe d’Huez. There was a newsagents in the train station beside the Avis office so we stopped off to see if any papers were reporting on the Tour de France. In 1992, I remember on Sunday morning being unable to get any newspapers as papers don’t print on Sundays in France. Incredibly, it is still the case today for most papers but L’Equipe had a Sunday edition and Thibaut Pinot was on the front page. So Noel bought 2 copies, one for himself and one for me.

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Andy Hampsten about 1 km from the finish on Alpe d’Huez in 1992. In 1992, we had to wait until Monday to get L’Equipe to read about Saturday’s stage to Sestriere and Sunday’s stage to Alpe d’Huez. At that time, there was no internet or smartphones so we had no idea of any time gaps or if Indurain was still in yellow until we got a copy of L’Equipe. That year, Claudio Chiapucci won the stage to Sestriere after an epic solo attack of over 100 km but he wasn’t able to repeat the feat the next day and it was Andy Hampsten who triumphed on Alpe d’Huez.

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Front and back pages of L’Equipe on July 20th 1992. Incredibly, Hampsten was the only non-Italian winner during the Nineties on Alpe d’Huez. The Tour de France visited the Alpe 7 times between 1990 and 1999 and there were Italian winners on 6 occasions, including twice by Gianni Bugno and Marco Pantani. Anyway, here is the front and back pages of L’Equipe from Monday 20th July 1992.

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Pages 2 and 3 from L’Equipe in 1992. Only the front and back pages were in colour. All the photos inside the paper were in black and white.

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Pages 2 and 3 from L’Equipe in 2015. In 1992, L’Equipe cost 6 Francs or roughly €0.90 (1 euro = 6.56 Francs) whereas today L’Equipe costs €1.40. Allowing for inflation, L’Equipe costs less now than it did in 1992. Obviously, in the last 20 years, printing costs have dropped and the internet has also forced papers to be more competitive. What is also interesting is how little coverage of football there was in 1992: 40% of the pages were about the Tour de France, 20% were about the build-up to the Olympics in Barcelona, 15% were about motorsport, especially Formula 1 and only 10% about football. In contrast, in 2015, 40% of L’Equipe pages were about the Tour, 40% about football, mostly the draw for World Cup 2018 and Ligue 1 pre-season, 10% about motorsport and 10% about other sports.

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Final stage of the 2015 Tour de France. After buying the papers, we went back to the hotel for a bite to eat. Noel wanted to go for a stroll around the historic town centre of Grenoble but I had too much to do to get my bike and gear ready for going touring again on Monday. So I stayed in the hotel while Noel went off sightseeing and we agreed to meet up later for dinner. While Noel was away, I put on the TV to see who would win the final stage of the Tour de France on the Champs Elysses. I was watching the screen out of the corner of my eye when French TV showed a recording of an interview with Vincent Lavenu, the manager of the top French cycling team AG2R.

Vincent Lavenu
Vincent Lavenu
Magalie Dumoulin

I immediately recognized him from the previous evening as he had been at Le Farmer restaurant in Alpe d’Huez at the same time as us. He was there with an assistant, a tall, very slim lady with jet black hair and wearing glasses. The woman looked very like Vincent’s daughter Magalie but I can’t be 100% sure it was her as there are only a few photos of Magalie online and she is not wearing glasses in any of the photos. They were in the restaurant with 2 men, who were also dressed casually. At the time, I noticed that Vincent and Magalie were both wearing AG2R polo shirts but thought that they were just fans. It was only at the end of the meal when Magalie presented the businessmen with a AG2R cycling jersey with the signatures of all their cyclists that I realized what was happening. A lot of deals between teams and sponsors are agreed during the Tour de France and myself and Noel had stumbled across one such meeting, totally by chance..

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AG2R official sponsors. Magalie is in charge of sponsorship at AG2R so you would expect her to be at a meeting with her father with potential sponsors. She is married to Samuel Dumoulin , the French cyclist and according to her Linked In page, is fluent in French, Spanish and English. Most of the conversation was in English and Magalie was doing most of the talking. Vincent said very little but perhaps, his English is not very good.

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Le Farmer restaurant beside the Bergers car-park in Alpe d’Huez. Why Vincent and Magalie chose to have a meeting in a small restaurant on the outskirts of Alpe d’Huez, i have no idea. Perhaps, they were staying in a nearby hotel perhaps they were getting a flight the next day to Paris from the airport which was only 500m from the restaurant. Perhaps they didn’t want anyone to see them having a meeting with a new sponsor and picked an out of town venue to have dinner. Le Farmer actually have a bigger restaurant in the centre of Alpe d’Huez but maybe their smaller restaurant was more convenient. They had arrived at the restaurant about 7 when we were outside. Just before 8, we went inside as it got very cold outside when the sun went down, so we were only sat at a table beside them for about 10 mins before they left. With the noise in the restaurant, you couldn’t hear what they were discussing and it was only at the end of the meeting, I heard one of the businessmen say that they would “forward the contracts” to the AG2R office the following week. “Forward the contracts” is an American expression but the businessmen didn’t sound American. They didn’t sound as if they were from England or Europe either; perhaps they were from Canada. While myself and Noel, at the time, hadn’t a clue who was sat at the table beside us, I am sure there would have been other people in the restaurant, who recognized Monsieur Lavenu but there was little or no reaction from the other diners when Vincent and his guests got up to leave the restaurant at about 8.10 pm.

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Tweet from Vincent Lavenu of last 3 winners on Alpe d’Huez. Vincent is on Twitter and later that evening, he re-tweeted this picture of the last 3 winners on Alpe d’Huez; Pierre Rolland (2011), Christophe Riblon (2013) and Thibaut Pinot (2015). The time-stamp on the tweet is Dublin time so in France it was 9.29 pm.
Lavenu_7

Tweet from Magalie about 6 hours after meeting in the Le Farmer restaurant.  Magalie also tweeted that evening though much later at 3.26 on Sunday morning. My French is not great but I think her tweet translates as “Arrived back at hotel at 2 but had to change rooms at 3 in the morning due to bed bugs. Alarm set for 7. It is tough, really tough but I will survive. Can’t wait to arrive in Paris.”

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Re-tweet from Magalie on the Monday morning after the meeting. But what is more interesting about her Twitter is a re-tweet she sent on Monday 27th July from SRAM congratulating Romain Bardet on winning the Super Combativity prize at the Tour. I didn’t even know there was a Super Combativity prize at the Tour but what is important is that this was her only sponsor related re-tweet that week. Were they meeting with representatives from SRAM at Le Farmer restaurant to discuss using SRAM components again next year?.

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AG2R used Campagnolo in 2014 but switched to SRAM for 2015. 3 WorldTour teams used SRAM in 2014 but AG2R were the only WorldTour team to use them in 2015. AG2R were mostly using the mechanical SRAM Red groupset but they were also secretly testing a wireless gear system throughout the year. Full details of the eTap Red wireles system were not officially announced until a month later on August 26 at Eurobike in Friedrichshafen in Germany. SRAM have been working on eTap for 5 years and AG2R was just one of a number of teams who had been testing the new gear system during actual races. But AG2R were by far the most high profile of the test teams and on the stage in the Tour de France that Alexis Vuillermoz won on the Mur de Bretagne for AG2R, his bike was equipped with a prototype eTap system which, by all accounts, performed perfectly

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Re-tweet from SRAM after Alexis Vuillermoz won using their prototype wireless groupset. It is hard not to understate just how important eTap Red is for SRAM. Neither Shimano or Campagnolo have a wireless groupset available so eTap gives SRAM a chance to leapfrog the 2 biggest component companies in cycling. The eTap is potentially as important for SRAM as the iPod was for Apple back in 2001. Back then, Apple was near bankruptcy but the success of the iPod propelled them on their way to now being the biggest electronic company in the world. SRAM have been trying to IPO or launch on the stock market for the last 5 years. They are hoping to raise $300m by doing so but for one reason or another have had to keep postponing the launch. eTap is due to become available next year and its success may be the catalyst for SRAM to become a public company. Unlike Apple in 2001, SRAM are nowhere near bankruptcy but the future of the company is inextricably linked to eTap. It is arguably their most important product launch ever.

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Source : Road Bike Action

SRAM Red eTap wireless gears. The eTap will be the sixth generation of gears in cycling. The first deraillers were introduced in the 40’s by Simplex and Campagnolo, the 2nd generation by Suntour in the 60’s before 3rd generation index gears were launched by Shimano in 1986. Shimano also developed the 4th generation STI (Shimano Total Integration) gears in the late 90’s and the 5th generation electronic Di2 system in 2009.

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Award after award for SRAM eTap. Reaction to the eTap system so far has been overwhelmingly positive and it has won award after award at both Eurobike and Interbike. The success of any cycling product though depends on how quickly it is adopted by the pro teams and if AG2R announce that they will be using eTap Red in 2016, it will give the new groupset a huge boost. The SRAM wireless system is expensive but over time will get cheaper and in 5 years could be standard on all road bikes just like STI gears are nowadays. In cycling tech, the 80’s are remembered for clipless pedals, the 90’s for STI gears, the 2000’s for carbon frames and power meters. Well in the future, the 2010’s may well be remembered for wireless gearing.

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Source ; Road Cycling UK

Close-up of the SRAM eTap rear derailleur. AG2R signed a multi-year deal with SRAM in January so will definitely be using SRAM next year. SRAM supply not just their Red groupset but also Zipp wheels and Quarg power meters. SRAM almost certainly supply all the equipment to AG2R for free or at most a small fee in return for the publicity. According to INRG, AG2R’s budget was €13.6m last year but the company accounts do not say how much suppliers contribute towards the team budget. AG2R had used SRAM between 2010 and 2012 but switched to Campagnolo for 2013 and 2014. So AG2R would have been in a good position to negotiate a sweet deal especially in return for agreeing to test eTap. However, the extent to which AG2R use eTap next year might make or break the product. So far, the omens are good and in the Vuelta that has just finished up, most of the AG2R bikes were fitted with eTap and Alexis Gougeard became the first rider to officially win a Grand Tour stage with a wireless groupset.

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First official Grand Tour victory for SRAM Red eTap. In January 2015, Tinkoff-Saxo, Etixx-Quickstep and MTN Quebeka all switched from SRAM to Shimano because at that time Shimano had an electronic groupset and SRAM didn’t. But now that SRAM will be offering a wireless groupset next year, it will be interesting if any other teams switch from either Shimano or Campagnolo to SRAM next year.

Source : Slowtwitch.com
Source : Slowtwitch.com

SRAM Red eTap wireless groupset. Anyway to summarize, I believe the most significant development in cycle racing in the next 10 years will be wireless gear systems much more so than disc brakes. At the moment, SRAM are at the forefront of wireless technology and almost certainly were meeting with Vincent Lavenu at Alpe d’Huez to discuss future adoption of eTap Red by AG2R for rest of 2015 and in 2016. The partnership between SRAM and AG2R could turn out to be the most significant development in cycling technology this decade and it is incredible to think that myself and Noel may have been in the same restaurant when an historic agreement was reached for a professional cycling team to officially use a wireless groupset for the first time ever on their bikes.

Source: SRAM
Source: SRAM

SRAM website for eTap features a photo of JC Peraud of AG2R. Of course, this is all speculation on my part as I cannot be sure Vincent Lavenu was meeting with SRAM and I am not even sure Magolie was with him, But one thing I am sure off is that the AG2R boss and his guests were partly to blame for why we had to wait so long for our pizza that evening in the Le Farmer restaurant. Vincent Lavenu along with Bernard Hinault is Mr. Cycling in France and has been in charge of a professional team since 1992 (that year again) and AG2R since 2000. Having Vincent Lavenu come to your restaurant is a bit like having Martin O’Neill or Jim McGuinness show up at a restaurant in Ireland.  France is renowned for the expression “Liberte, egalite, fraternite” but when someone as famous as Vincent Lavenu walks in the door, equality goes out the window in France just like anywhere else.

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Source: Theredlist.com

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.  It didn’t matter that we had ordered one hour before Vincent and his entourage showed up, they got No.1  priority status. For the best part of an hour, they had the full attention of the restaurant staff while everybody else was made to wait their turn. Indeed, it was only after Vincent left that we got an apology from the restaurant owner ( who looked a bit like Google founder, Sergey Brin) and a promise that we would eventually be served. Before that, Noel was told that our order had gone missing and he kept getting the “Gallic shrug”. That is why I tweeted that waiting for the pizza was a bit like Waiting for Godot as we weren’t sure we were ever going to be served. The staff obviously didn’t want a scene while Vincent Lavenu was present so that is why we kept getting shrugged off. Had the staff explained that guests who reserved get priority, we would have had no problem waiting especially as in hindsight, it was obvious the poor chef was snowed under with the amount of orders he was getting in a short space of time. But because for almost 2 hours we could get no explanation, we felt a bit like Vladimir and Estrogen in Waiting for Godot and you could only laugh at the absurdity of the situation we found ourselves in.

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Le Touquet restaurant on Rue Alsace Lorraine in Grenoble. Anyway, we had no trouble getting a pizza for dinner on Sunday evening. We only had to wait about 15 mins at Le Touquet restaurant on Rue Alsace Lorraine. Both pizzas were huge with lots of toppings and came with loads of salad. There was a lovely ambiance sitting outside beside the tram tracks and the service was excellent. The reviews on Yelp and Tripadvisor are not great but if I get the time, I will leave a review and award it 5 stars as there was nothing I could fault about either the food or the venue. I only went to a few restaurants in the whole of France but Le Touquet was by far the best. We couldn’t have picked a better restaurant to spend our last evening in Grenoble.

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Reading L’Equipe in Donegal. Anyway, back at the hotel Noel had time to read his copy of L’Equipe but I had so much stuff to sort out that I hadn’t time to even open the paper. Anything I didn’t need on the rest of my tour I gave to Noel to take back to Ireland and that included my copy of L’Equipe. Indeed, it was only when I got back to Donegal about a month later that I actually got a chance to read all about Pinot’s victory on Alpe d’Huez..

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