How Ned Boulting Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Tour de France

It’s July, that means it’s the Tour de France. Jack Thurston talks with Ned Boulting, a sports reporter who has been covering the Tour for ITV since 2003. He talks about the rise in popularity of cycle sport and everyday cycling over the past decade and the high jinks he’s got up to while covering the last nine Tours de France Ned’s book, How I Won the Yellow Jumper, is out now, published by Yellow Jersey Press.

Touring tips #6: Maps revisited: computer mapping

In the first of these touring tips I wrote about Ordnance Survey paper maps (specifically the 1:50k Landranger series) and why I thought these are the most useful and satisfying UK maps for the touring cyclist, and how they can be borrowed for free from public libraries. A few people pointed out OS Maps are also available free online, via Microsoft’s Bing mapping website. This can be helpful when planning a route, especially if you don’t have access to the paper versions.

More and more people are using GPS devices instead of maps. The way I see it, a hand held GPS device has a lot in common with the One Ring of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

A person wearing the Ring would enter a shadowy world revealing the physical world from a different aspect, and from which physical objects were harder to see… The Ring slowly but inevitably corrupted its bearer, regardless of the bearer’s initial intent.

GPS devices change the way you see the landscape, they conceal as much as they reveal and they will end up enslaving all but the most strong-willed rider. And like bike computers they tend to trick us into to paying more attention to average speed and distance covered than is healthy when touring. It’s far to easy to become a GPS Gollum: a miserable, unthinking slave to the ‘precious’.

That doesn’t mean dismissing computer mapping entirely. One very obvious benefit of computer-based maps is that instead of covering your paper maps in crayon marks, there’s no shortage of websites that will help you draw your routes. There are desktop applications too and though I’ve experimented with RouteBuddy but quickly found its interface very primitive and it kept crashing. In the end I found the BikeHike (free) to have better tools for map-drawing and provides easy access to Google Maps or the Open Cycle Map (a version of Open Street Map made especially for cyclists) and – in a simultaneous smaller window – the OS Landranger map. You can also take a look at Google’s aerial photography which can be handy at times. BikeHike lets you draw your route freehand or do the routing between points itself using Google or Open Street Map (you select which one by clicking on Options). The click-drag editing tool is very handy for making changes to routes, or adapting routes drawn by other people and imported into BikeHike.

If you don’t fancy drawing your own route you can always get someone else to do it for you. is a great website that will devise three routes to chose from (fastest, balanced and quietest). These websites will calculate distance, show you an elevation profile for the ride and even generate turn by turn instructions.

Google maps are ubiquitous but they’re a very bad idea for planning a bike ride since they are based on a roads database built for motor vehicle satellite navigation. As a result the don’t show useful cut-throughs, canal towpaths and other tracks that are accessible by bicycle but not by car. Using Google maps means disregarding a whole world of motor traffic-free possibilities. Also missing from Google maps are contours showing hills and valleys and all manner of other historical landscape features. A few years ago Mary Spence, the President of the British Cartographic Society, accused the likes of Google maps and Multimap of wiping out history:

Corporate cartographers are demolishing thousands of years of history – not to mention Britain’s remarkable geography – at a stroke by not including them on maps which millions of us now use every day. We’re in real danger of losing what makes maps so unique, giving us a feel for a place even if we’ve never been there.

Once you’ve devised a route that you’re happy with, the best thing to do is save it as a GPX file and save it to your computer. This can be transferred onto a smartphone or the dreaded GPS device mounted onto your bike. Or it can be stored for looking at later or uploaded to the web to share your work with other people. The web has become a huge and really wonderful repository of GPX files out there showing all kinds of routes. Many cycling clubs and CTC local groups publish the routes of their traditional club runs as GPX files, as do organisers of long distance audax rides and sportives. It’s a wonderful resource, and all free. I use GPSies to share routes but there are a many other services like bikeroutetoaster and bikely. It’s always worth keeping a local copy of any GPX files you like the look of just in case these web services shut down and take your data with them.

This brings me, in a very round-about way, back to the subject of digital navigation and GPS devices. The power of the GPS device is beyond doubt. Following a route displayed a little screen on your handlebars is a very efficient way of navigating to a pre-designated route. It’s simply a matter of following a coloured line. But the coloured line can exert too much power over you. If you like the idea of improvising your route as you go along, perhaps because you see something that looks interesting along the way or you find that a road is too busy or a track is muddier than you expected, you’re stuck. Sure, GPS devices can display maps but a two square inch screen makes it very difficult to get a clear overview of what lies all around you. You really need to go back to the paper maps. And of course, if the battery runs out… you’re lost.

If you chose to use a GPS device, another tricky question is which digital basemap to install. It probably came with a basic map installed but this is very unlikely to be much use as, like Google maps, it was designed for car travel. Andy Allan, who devised the Open Cycle Map, sells it as a digital download for £9.99 (other countries besides the UK are also available). There are free OSM-derived base maps at TalkyToaster. An equivalent product from the Ordnance Survey costs well over £100.

If all I ever want to do is stick to a pre-determined, GPS is fine. This can be useful for complex routes involving lots of off road trails and tiny lanes with many twists and turns that can be tricky to follow accurately using a paper map. When I’m touring I prefer to ride more freely, with a basic idea of where I’m going. For this, paper maps are better.

On the few occasions when I’ve attempted to use my Garmin GPS device to plan a route for me (like a car sat nav) I found it sends me down all manner of footpaths and bridleways that are completely impassable on a bicycle. I’m not sure why it insists on doing this but it’s incredibly irritating.

In summary, my experience is that paper maps are best, online mapping is fantastic way of planning routes and sharing them with others. GPS devices are OK if you know you want to stick exactly to a pre-determined route without any exploration and improvisation along the way. But that’s not really touring, is it? Using a GPS device to ‘get you home’ is asking for trouble.

Its clear that I’m quite skeptical about electronic route planning and navigation for touring by bicycle. Maybe it’s still a developing technology. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Please enlighten me in the comments.

Over the col du Tourmalet, 1879 style

This is an extract from an account of a summer touring trip to the Pyrenees, published in the London Bicycle Club Gazette (1879). The group of London cycle tourists rode their machines, or more likely pushed them, up all the major cols including the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin & Peyresourde. They were almost certainly riding high wheelers on solid tyres as the safety bicycle and the pneumatic tyre had yet to be brought to market. According to historian (and cyclist) Graham Robb, cycle touring across the Pyrenees was quite common in the late nineteenth century, and there are accounts of both men and women riding over the highest mountain passes.

More than thirty years would pass before riders competing in the Tour de France would follow in the tyre tracks of these hardy London cycle tourists by pushing their far more technically advanced bicycles up the Tourmalet.

19 September 1879: Luz, over the Col du Tourmalet, to St. Marie de Campan.

Whilst waiting at the smith’s yesterday I was immensely amused watching pigs being washed in the stream which runs close to his house. The method appeared to be to rush the “cochons” in, and, after throwing bowls of water over them, to prevent their exit by summarily assaulting them with a long wooden spoon. My catapult also contributed to their uneasiness, I’m afraid. Before leaving Luz we inspected the curious old fortified church, said to have been built by the Templars in the twelfth century. Soon after eight the party rode out, hut, a kilo or two gone, they were forced to walk for the rest of the way, rising 1674 feet up to Barèges, the road, though a good wide one, being steep and extremely muddy from the heavy rain during the night. We found that town approached by such steep, short zigzags as we have nowhere else seen, quite a labour, in fact, to get the machines up them.

Barèges being 4084 feet above the sea, and the highest of the Pyrenean watering-places, consists of one long, steep street, situate in a narrow desolate valley, which is continually swept by fearful avalanches. The waters being very renowned for healing wounds, etc., the place was consequently full of soldiers, who crowded up the hospital windows on hearing my bugle. Only stopping at this dreary-looking place to purchase provisions, we pushed on up a narrow road which rose gradually at first round the sides of the mountains, and then in steep zigzags right away up to the top of the pass. Near Barèges we tasted some avalanche recently fallen into the Gave, and soon after enjoyed something a little more substantial, icy cold milk. The trudge up for 6 3/4 miles more, rising during that time 2878 feet, proved a great grind, especially towards the top, as the road, a carriage one, being composed of small shale, was naturally very sticky from frequent moisture. It was a dreary walk, mostly bare rock and shale around, and as we were in the clouds nearly all the time we saw very little of surrounding peaks and no views to speak of. Some distance up we lunched on rolls, chocolate and ice cream, the best obtainable to eat.

Arrived soon after two at the top of the Col du Tourmalet, in a small cutting at a height of 6962 feet above sea-level, with a cold drizzle falling, the London Bicycle Club call having been duly sounded, songs sung, and pipes with difficulty lit, the descent was commenced. Soon after we had a fine view of the rugged Pic du Midi de Bigorre, close by, and passed old patches of dirty snow. Although still sticky and pretty steep, Hutchings managed with his strap brake to ride nearly all down to Gripp, and of course arrived long before the rest. The others walked for 9 kilo nearly all down zigzags to the two beautiful little waterfalls, the Chutes d’Artigues, at the top of the little valley of Tremesaïgues. A little higher up we enjoyed a fine way of this narrow valley, which, together with this side of the mountain, far more. green, wooded, and picturesque than the other side of the pass. My brake being hinged all to the top of the fork sent streams of mud down into the bearings when the road was wet, and consequently prevented me from riding this part as I should otherwise have done. The others found their brakes not powerful enough I think.

Beyond the waterfalls we found the road less curly and steep, so rode the rest down to Gripp (3,464 feet) 7 3/4 miles from top of Col, where we had a scratch meal at an auberge called the “Hotel des Voyageurs,” a chicken being at once caught and roasted, and potatoes dug up. Our wants supplied, we ran over a good road farther down the valley to St. Marie de Campan (2 3/4 miles), getting drenched by a sudden shower on the way. At this place the nice hotel we expected to find proved to be a mere auberge, where we had some queer experiences. Our dinner, a poor one, we ate in the best bedroom, tenanted by Jennings and Buckler, and after the small soup tureen was done with it was placed in my bedroom for me to wash in. Jennings and Buckler had a pie dish, between them to wash in. The lot for fifth bed fell on Williams, who at roosting time had to betake himself to a bed in the comer of the kitchen, and draw down the blinds. My bed seemed pretty clean, though rough, but I think someone complained of pouces being about. It rained hard all night.

Distance to-day 21 3/4 miles.

Here’s Octave Lapize, leading the Tour de France over the Tourmalet in 1910:

Stephen Roche, twenty five years later

1987 was an annus mirabilis for Stephen Roche, one of a wave of world class Irish athletes that rose to fame that decade. He won the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the World Championship road race. The only other rider to have accomplished this feat, know as the ‘triple crown’, is Eddy Merckx. Roche has a new book out called ‘Born To Ride’ and talks about his life in cycling, winning the triple crown, as well as his thoughts on today’s peloton, the scourge of doping and his own implication in an EPO doping conspiracy.

His new autobiography, Born to Ride, is out now, published by Yellow Jersey Press.

Get Out Of That Saddle, Stephen by Dermot Morgan.

Touring tip #5: Resist the multitool

Superficially, multitools are very attractive. They’re small, light and there’s definitely a Swiss Army Knife wow factor as you unfold the various blades, revealing one handy function after another. And this… for removing a stone from a horse’s hoof!

But just as you wouldn’t want to sit down to the twelve course tasting menu at a fancy Michelin starred restaurant with just a Swiss Army Knife by way of cutlery, you’d be very unwise to go on a cycle tour with just a multitool to fix any mechanical problems you might encounter. Multitools are designed for weight-conscious sporting cyclists who carry everything in a tiny pack attached to the back of their saddle. All they want is a way of keeping their bike on the road until they get home to fix it properly or, more likely, take it in to a bike shop to be fixed.

Mechanical ineptitude or disinclination should never be a barrier to enjoyable cycle touring. In most parts of Western Europe there’s usually a bike shop not too far away. Eventually though, you will find it’s easier to know how to fix the most common mechanical problems. It’s just part of the self-reliance that is one of the attractions of touring. Have bike, will travel. Don’t fear. The bar is not set very high. If you can mend a puncture and put up a tent then you have the mental acuity and physical dexterity required to replace your brake pads and adjust your rear mech. As Eben Weiss (aka Bike Snob) observed, most bicycle repair tasks do not require any voodoo, just loosening and tightening certain bolts in a certain sequence.

Many touring cyclists choose to make their lives easier still by selecting bicycle components that are durable and easily repairable. This is why they shy away from mysterious components like STI shifters and hydraulic disc brakes that require all manner of exotic, proprietary tools and fiddly spare parts.

We’re all after an easy life and fixing your bike is a lot harder if you’re using a multitool. The screwdrivers and allen keys (hex wrenches, for stateside readers) aren’t long enough to reach the bolt head and can only make a quarter turn before the bulky body of the multitool obstructs any further rotation. You can’t use two tools at once as is necessary when tightening a nut and bolt from both sides. The tyre levers are too fat and lack leverage.

The person who invented multitool could just as well have been looking for a way to turn a moderately proficient bicycle mechanic into a ham fisted klutz. After a frustrating session of fettling what you’ll need more than anything is a stiff drink. Which may be why every multitool has a bottle opener, though never a corkscrew.

Leave the multitool at home and instead fill a little canvas tool roll with the following:

– A set of Allen keys of the sizes required for the bolts on your bike.

– A pair of small screwdrivers (one flat, one cross headed) or a screwdriver with interchangeable heads like this one which costs just £1.

– A pair of metal tyre levers (plastic can snap). Why do tyre levers come in threes? I’ve never used more than two to remove a tyre.

– A small pair of good quality pliers with a cable cutting blade.

– A chain tool. I recommend one made by Park Tool that’s designed to prevent you from pushing the rivet out of the chain entirely.

– A small, lightweight adjustable spanner or ‘monkey wrench’.

– A spoke tightening key. You may not know how to use it but you might meet someone who does. Ask her to teach you.

This is enough for 99% of people. Rugged folk embarking on ‘epic’ tours into the wilderness might want to take spanners for adjusting wheel bearings and headsets, or crank extractors and bottom bracket tools. But for everyone else, those are tasks for the bike shop.

This post is part of an ongoing series in which I share what I’ve learned in half a lifetime’s cycle touring adventure and misadventure.

Touring tip #4: Star water carriers

Not long ago, someone discovered that cycling water bottles (or bidons) contained a toxic chemical called BPA that was potentially seriously harmful to human health. Some, though not all, bidons are BPA-free, but even if they are, it doesn’t stop them making your drink taste all nasty and plasticky nor providing an excellent long term breeding ground for all manner of unpalatable, and possibly unhealthful, fungi and bacteria. This latter problem is particularly bad if you fill a bidon with anything other than water, particularly sugary drinks. I don’t expect milk is much good either.

Cyclists who return home after a ride can wash out, or even boil their bidons to keep them tasting fresh. For touring cyclists this is more difficult. And that’s one of the reasons I really like the Topeak Modula XL water bottle cage. It is designed not for cycling bidons but for your standard-issue mineral water bottle. This is the kind that doesn’t taste of plastic and that can be easily recycled & inexpensively replaced if it starts to get a bit whiffy.

More than that, mineral water bottles are bigger than normal cycling bidons, which makes them ideal when you’re wild camping as it’s always nice to have a plentiful supply of water for cooking, making tea, brushing your teeth and all that kind of thing.

The bottle cage is vertically adjustable so it will take a variety of different types of water bottle. I’d recommend using sparking water bottles as they tend to be more durable than most still water bottles which are a bit flimsy.I’ve used one for years, though there are reports of the cages breaking when ridden over rough ground. Being aluminium, they’re lightweight but difficult to repair. Maybe someone will come out with a steel version.

Another approach is only to use bottles up to a litre in capacity, so as to reduce the strain on the cage, or not to put more than a litre of water into the bottle unless you absolutely need it. For cycle tourists heading to really dry, rough or remote places, it’s worth considering taking a water bag to supplement a frame-mounted  bottle for drinking while riding.

I really like stainless steel waterbottles. They’re super durable and don’t have any nasty plastic coatings. They’re easier to find than ever, and cheaper too. But I’ve never found a way of keeping a metal water bottle securely fastened in a frame-mounted bottle cage. Maybe a leather or neoprene wrapper would help. Any suggestions?