January 20, 2012

Gerry Patterson Interview, part 2

This is the second part of my interview with Gerry Patterson, who rides, races and writes Mr. Patterson Goes to Languedoc and Cycling Languedoc from his home in southern France. If you missed the first part, you might want to read it first, here.

L'Etape du Tour
What motivated you to take up racing?
Good question. I’m not sure how I heard about this, but in November of 2010 I came across information on the Etape du Tour, a yearly sportive race in the Alps or Pyrenees that duplicates an actual mountain stage of the Tour de France. This was the beginning of it all and it has just snowballed from there.

Let me offer up a few statistics to give any reader who isn't familiar with the Etape du Tour some perspective: this first race you signed up for (sort of like your first tour ... across Australia) involved "only" 110km (68 miles) ... hmm, one thinks, that's perhaps manageable. But those 110 km included 4000 vertical meters (that is 13,500 feet) of climbing and is limited to 10,000 riders. The crowd alone would undo me, we don't even need to think about the climbing! And you are going to do two of these this year, separated I think by one week! 

Has that been a hard switch from touring?
Yes, it was, but just because I was suddenly working a lot harder on the bike. I learned I had a big ring on the front, for example! I encountered new words like ‘intervals’, ‘sprints’ and the ever-popular ‘fartleks’. I still enjoyed my rides, I suppose, but I was not going out for enjoyment anymore. My goals had changed. Now I was clipping in to suffer, so I would suffer less (theoretically) in the Etape, when it came in July. It’s a big change, but it’s still the bicycle.

I want to get some understanding of this suffering thing on a cycle. It seems central to the racing ethic, I see the word used all over the bike blog world. Years ago a dear friend told me that I was "the only person he knew who likes to walk up incredibly steep hills for days in a row, carrying heavy objects, in the rain." (I used to do a lot of backpacking.) Somehow, that seems related, though I have never thought of it, or bike touring, as suffering.
I’m no expert on racing, so I can only speak for myself, but I have never ‘suffered’ like I do when training for races (or even worse, races themselves) when doing touring or hiking (also an old favorite of mine.) There were definitely hard treks, like a few I did in the Himalaya, and surely hard climbs when touring, but you always have the luxury of stopping and resting with these activities, no matter how hard they are. With bike racing you can’t … or you shouldn’t. Imagine your hardest hike, now increase your heart rate by 20 to 40 beats per minute and sustain that effort for an hour and 45 minutes. That’s what climbing Mont Ventoux is like. Now, do that 3 times in one day and you get a big stage like the Etape du Tour. It’s probably similar to a triathlon like the Ironman, but I can’t say since I’ve never done one. And being in better shape doesn’t help either because, as Greg Lemond said, ‘It never gets easier, you just go faster’.

Though I couldn't have told you who said it, that is one of my favorite quotes about cycling also and I'm absolutely no racer.  Do you think suffering is an integral, even a defining part, of the community of racing ... a part of the camaraderie, the ethos, among peers?
Good question, and probably one that I am not well suited to answer, since I'm really new to the whole racing scene. … Maybe it changes in different countries, too. My experience with French riders, for example, is that they don't flaunt their suffering, but take it as just another part of their sport. Again, that's just my view today - it could very well change tomorrow. …There’s no denying that the ability to endure sustained pain is an integral part of the sport. It is what it is, you might say. 
Racing and touring seem like pretty different things, different skills, different mindsets. Could you talk a bit comparing your experiences?
Scenery Unseen in the Race
 Touring for me was always about travel and exploration. I still think that it’s by far the best way to see the world. The riding is relatively slow, with little or no thought of cadence, heart rate or speed (other than making sure you are fast enough to get to your campsite by dinnertime.) Racing is the opposite. You aren’t really going anywhere (literally, if you are on an indoor trainer,) or at least that’s not your purpose. You are riding to train and you train to get stronger and you get stronger to do better in races. The lovely scenery and freedom you feel on the open road (you can’t take that away) are bi-products. It’s an interesting transformation and I still shake my head sometimes that I am actually doing it…and even enjoying it!

Part of what I enjoy about touring is the kick, adrenaline rush I guess, that comes from long, sweeping or switchbacking descents. Is there some of that in racing, or is it so concentrated on technique that it is wholly about the race?
If you choose the right race you’ll have awesome descents, no question. However, from my perspective at least, there’s no time to enjoy them, other than the adrenaline rush part. Training is a bit different because it’s not as concentrated perhaps (at least you don’t have someone else’s wheel a foot in front of you when you are descending at 60 kph!)

Has racing ruled out touring?
 Not at all. I’ve got a trip that I’m planning for this summer (after my racing is done, mind you), possibly in the UK or Scandinavia. 

The little bit I've been there, it looks to me like most French cyclists ride with clubs. Is that true in your experience? Do you ride with French cyclists?
I’m not really sure either. There are a lot of club riders, but probably many more that ride with friends or alone. That said, in the races I’ve been in the vast majority of competitors ride in clubs. Probably 80% or more. I ride with French cyclists from time to time, but not as much as I should.

Why the word should? I spent part of last spring saying I should ride with a group ... because I thought it would make me a stronger rider, and it probably would, but I never did. But what is the  should in riding with French cyclists?
Simply because it replicates racing like no other type of training, which helps with things like learning how to ride close to others, riding in a paceline, closing a gap, etc. Someone else usually controls the pace, too, so you inevitably have surges, sustained hard efforts, relaxed spinning, all started by someone other than yourself, but which you need to ready for and, more importantly, able to follow. If you’re not doing races, I don’t see the need for riding with a club, other than the social aspect and improved fitness (but this might be debatable).

A bike in France is a happy bike, n'est-ce pas?
What do you like best about cycling in France?
It just feels right here. Where else can you climb a small hill close to home and have someone encourage you by saying ‘Allez!’ or ‘Ah…le grimpeur, bravo!’?

Absolutely, and I wondered for quite a while what was going on with my helmet when other cyclists told me “chapeau!”. You have 3 blogs, I'm mostly familiar with Mr. Patterson and Cycling Languedoc. Why did you separate them into two distinct sites?
Mr. Patterson Goes to Languedoc is simply a blog of my days on the bike and the one I enjoy working on the most. Cycling Languedoc is an information site for people interested in riding in sunny southern France. It’s also the springboard I hope to use if I ever decide to move more into the business end of Cycling. I do link back and forth, but I wanted to keep them separated in terms of content, since they are really built for different purposes, and maybe audiences as well.

And the third site?
The Bicycle: Riding to a Saner Future was an idea that hasn’t found its time yet, I think. It is supposed to be a place for longer, more in-depth articles that would be (or should be) more objective and wide ranging. I’m still trying to find my feet with that one.

Want a guide for Ventoux?
Explain your guiding service to us... how do you arrange trips, where do you go, what do you provide....
In a word – no frills. OK, that was two words, but it’ll have to do. Right now I’d just like to offer the opportunity for anyone visiting the area (Montpellier or Nîmes) to get out for a few ho hours and ride the beautiful countryside we have here. I wasn’t sure if there’d be a market for this sort of thing, since it doesn’t fit into the ‘tour’ category, but it seems that there are a few people out there who are interested.

This year I’ll also be branching out a little and am hooking up with at least one B&B to do guided rides from their place. This should be fun and will have some of the components of a tour without the logistics.

Also, I’ve done one proper ‘tour’, I suppose, since it involved a big van, food and support, but it was really only one (long) day. I had a group of riders from the US and UK who wanted to climb Mont Ventoux together and the day was a great success, I thought. I’d be really interested in doing this sort of thing again because I find myself with a good amount of knowledge on that particular mountain all of a sudden and there is a massive market, I’m sure of that. It’s really the climb of a lifetime for many cyclists. Here’s the page on my guided rides, if any of your readers are heading this way.

It is France, after all
OK, thanks! At any point I could pepper you with another handful of questions, but let's let it go for now. Happy cycling in sunny southern France, and do break training enough for a bit of wine (or I guess that's beer,) unpasteurized cheese and good bread for those of us in unforgiving winter lands!


  1. Now I feel old, boring and lazy! I'm a cycling addict and I do a lot of recreational rides with my husband, and usually at least one of the kids, but I don't ride up mountains for fun like Gerry!
    Glad to have discovered your blog via Gerry. Will keep an eye on your adventures. Amitiés

  2. Hi Steph,

    Oh no!! Do not feel old, boring and lazy! One of the very best things about bikes is that they are such excellent, elegant devices they can be used in a million ways ... seems to me if you're riding and enjoying your riding that is what counts!

    Thanks for your note and welcome to my little blog. The interviews are very fun to do. I look forward to spending some time investigating yours this afternoon.

    Amitiés à vous!

  3. I schlepped over here from Gerry's site. Nicely done and congratulations on a great blog!

    1. Hi Steve, Thanks....The interviews are very fun to do, glad you enjoyed Gerry's!

      And also thanks for the schlep over ... a quick trip across a large, very cold, bit of Atlantic.

      Took a quick look at your site, and will get back soon. I grew up not very far north of you ... long ago. Not only was DC not so sprawled, we used to bike and roller skate on the beltway after it was paved, before opened. Hard to imagine nowadays. Hope you still have some rural roads left near Quantico. Have you ever ridden Skyline Trail? I've heard good reports from here.


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