VIDEOING VEN, TOUX, THREE


HELP US BEAT BLOOD CANCER

Waiting at Southampton Airport very early on a July morning, my biggest stress was trying to remember whether or not I'd packed a copy of the Radio Times. Why I needed a TV listings magazine to film a group of cyclists ascending the 'giant of Provence' would become apparent later, once we'd reached the summit at just over 1900 metres.

As soon as my colleague Nigel had arrived with his camera and (not so) portable editing kit, we realised that we would be hit with a hefty excess baggage charge if we were to load all of his broadcast gear onto Flybe's flimsy-looking, twin prop, De Havilland.


Sure enough, after dancing between the check-in and excess baggage desks (at opppsite sides of the departure hall), it transpired that we'd have to pay an extra thousand pounds. After a quick call to Tara - our still-slumbering planning editor - the kit was soon stowed back in the boot of Nigel's car in the airport car park, where it would stay for the duration. In the event, we would never have had time to do any editing in France anyway.

Provence was hot, dry and loud! Cicadas made the air vibrate with sound. We were literally hearing the heat. As arranged, we met up with Peta - one of the cycling group we were to be filming - at Avignon Airport. She threw her empty bike bag into the hire car and we allowed the satnav to take us to Grignan where we were staying.

The villa we were sharing with the La Fuga and Rapha Condor CC group was a sprawling complex of mini-apartments arranged around a central courtyard, pleasingly strewn with bikes and cycling paraphernalia. Our riders had already tackled the Ventoux that week as part of the Étape du Tour cyclosportive. There was a smaller enclosure at the back containing a swimming pool. Along with reporter Mike Bushell, we broke the ice, as it were, with our new acquaintances splashing around in the small pool and watching that day's stage of the Tour de France on TV. Mike was aiming to join these cyclists on their multiple rides up the big hill.

The reason for trying to conquer the formidable climb three times was to gain entry to the exclusive Club des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux. The idea is to cycle to the summit using each of the three surfaced roads - from Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault - within the space of a single day. Riders need to get their brevet card stamped at each waypoint during the ride, something which can be done in bike shops, tourist offices and even some cafés. Local people are used to ardent amateur cyclists swarming over the Ventoux and in the last few days before the Tour came through the region, the place was even more jammed with bike riders than usual.

Gearing up to tackle that climb three times, under the gaze of Nigel's lens were; Charlie Pearch, Peta McSharry, Fiona Strout, Tracey Corbett, Billy McCord, Rebecca Curley, Cameron Fraser, Douglas Johnson-Poensgen, Jo Allen, Mark Phillips, Ameilia Ashton-Jones and La Fuga organiser Ian Holt.

All had ridden the Étape two days previously from nougat capital, Montelimar, to the summit of the Ventoux, exactly the same route Tour de France riders would follow on the penultimate stage of the Tour - just two days after our triple assault on the mountain.

There was some debate over dinner in the Grignan village square as to the best time to set off in the morning and the best order in which to tackle the three ascents. In the event we left later than planned next day, for the hour's drive to Bedoin at the foot of the mountain. We'd had a latish night the previous evening, Mike had forgotten to change his alarm clock to French time and the others were still probably feeling some post-Étape fatigue.
We assembled in the car park in Bedoin, near a large painted sign on the road which declared itself to be the start of the climb with the whitewashed legend, 'Mont Ventoux, O km' - Kilometre Zero!

The riders got off to a decent start and Mike was keeping up well. Pro that he is, he was doing impromptu pieces to camera as he was riding up the slope.
We fixed a camcorder to his handlebars for much of the ride but the footage we got from it was too juddery on the whole. Only one shot, looking up at Mike's face as he pedalled (bobbing "like a chicken" as he himself described it), made it into the final edit. Our day lasted from 0400 to 2200 and 80% of what we'd filmed would end up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

The La Fuga and Rapha Condor CC group were very attentive towards Mike, the non cyclist amongst them. They stayed at his pace, offering endless advice and encouragement all the way to the summit. Mike seemed to breeze up the hill which on the first ascent had spared us the ferocity of its own infamous Provencal wind, the mistral. But that was to change.


On the summit of the Ventoux for the first time, Mike donned a BBC Breakfast cycling jersey and we filmed him stuffing the Radio Times inside it, in the style of pro riders who, to this day, use sheets of newspaper rammed inside their tops, as a means of keeping the chill out on their breakneck descents of the Ventoux.



So much for high-tech, scientifically designed, cycling garments. Sadly the carefully choreographed Radio Times shot didn't make the cut and I needn't have worried about taking the magazine all the way to Provence.

Mont Ventoux has featured in the Tour de France 14 times counting this year (2009). It is one of the most feared cllimbs in the race because of the heat on the top section which is devoid of all vegetaion (hence one nickname, the 'bald mountain') and the mistral which, as we were to find out, can stop cyclists in their tracks. On a hot day the sun bounces off the lime stone rocks broiling riders who are already in danger of over-heating as they strain to pedal towards the bleak summit.
The tragic story of British cycling star Tom Simpson who collapsed and died whilst ascending the Ventoux in the 1967 Tour de France is well-known to fans of the sport and indeed, the current crop of pros.

Our group made a point of stopping at the Simpson memorial on the hillside and Mike recorded a short piece to camera whilst his fellow riders paid their respects at the shrine. Even Bradley Wiggins, a couple of days later in the Tour was carrying a photograph of "Mr Tom" in his cycling jersey. Our Rapha Condor CC contact, Charlie Pearch commented that he always doffs his 'cap' as he passes the memorial and he hoped that the Brits in the pro peleton would do the same. Mike's Tom Simpson segment was included in our finished piece. No amateur bike ride up the Ventoux is complete without paying a visit to the monument.
From the top, the group scooted down the other side of the moutain to Malaucene where we had lunch.

Mike was keen to push on to become a cinglés himself but while we thought he was physically able to do the rides, we didn't think we'd have enough time (and therefore daylight). So Mike reluctantly 'climbed off' to use cycling parlance, giving his bike back to Hamish Pearch who'd kindly donated it in the first place. The teenager then proceeded to ride the remaining two climbs with the rest of the cyclists.

Our filming activities were suspended temporarily as we drove up the mountain for the second time with Charlie Pearch's wife Janet and son Archie. Janet was acting as support car - Archie as team soigneur - and I don't think the ride nor the film would have been successful without their help (we also benefited from Janet's French language skills). We spent the whole time rushing between groups of cyclists (who all had walkie talkies) handing out energy drinks and water. The sun was at its height and the heat was punishing everyone who was in the saddle.

Typically for the Ventoux, once we'd reached the top again, I found myself handing out jackets and long-sleeved jerseys instead of cold drinks, as our group togged up for their last descent before the easiest of the three climbs from Sault.


The bunch had fragmented quite a lot by now. As Janet went down to Chalet Reynard to catch up with one contingent, we waited, carless, on the summit.

July in Provence can be freezing if you're at 1900 metres above sea level. What's more the wind was picking up and there was very little shelter up there. When Tracey, Rebecca and Peta came past I doled out various garments for them to wear on the way down, as all of their jackets had already descended in the back of the car.
Deserted on the top, we managed to grab a coffee in the one restaurant which sits on the very last bend of the climb. Janet finally returned full of aplogies. She'd had to wait while the groups at Chalet Reynard decided whether to push on or call it a day. A sizeable number had opted to keep going.

And as we waited for them to climb back up one last time, we drove down to one of the bigger encampments of Tour followers (who'd been waiting all week, perched on the windswept moutnainside in their camper vans, for the Tour to whizz past them) to see if we could find a willing helper who had some paint.

It didn't take long to come across a French cycling fan who was gleefully painting the names of his favoured riders onto the Tarmac in time-honoured TdF fashion.

He may or may not have been the worse for wear. He had been having a heated argument with some onlookers about a point of spelling. He also seemed to be having trouble forming the number four on the ground. But once Janet had put our request to him in French he happily obliged, painting "Allez Bushell" across the road with a flourish, using what - Mike was later at pains to reassure BBC Breakfast viewers - was washable, water-based paint.

Watching the Tour proper tackle the Ventoux, from a bar stool in Dublin, I strained to catch a glimpse of our Bushell graffiti on the TV and swear that there was a flash of, "...BU..." on the road, as Wiggins, Armstrong and Contador et al were just 4.4 km from the summit.

Back at the top, the wind was stopping just about every rider on the last bend as they came round it. Doug from our group, was blown up against the side of the road and his helmet was lost to the mistral. Some unknown cyclists came off, as the unrelenting gusts hit them. Only La Fuga's Cameron Fraser and Rapha Condor Cycling Club's Mark Phillips got the better of the Ventoux, punching their way round the last hairpin despite the gales and - in Cameron's case - a rear puncture too.

Reaching the summit that evening demonstaarted how an ultra-light carbon-framed bike can sometimes put you at a distinct disdavantage.

Our group of 7 finishers were tired but happy. They were now all members of the exclusive band who'd climbed the hill threee times in one day, using different routes - a club which is often translated as the Madmen of the Ventoux. We'd filmed more than we would ever need.
We had no time to linger. By the next morning we were en route to Avignon Airport and London. We had one day to edit the piece before it was to be aired on BBC Breakfast on the morning of the 20th Stage of the Tour de France which would end on the peak of Mont Ventoux, after dragging the riders 167 km through the lavender fields and vineyards of Provence.
Before leaving Grignan Mike had interviewed Charlie Pearch in the villa. By this point Charlie had pedalled up the Ventoux four times in less than a week. And he gave us a revealing grimpeur's-eye view of the Bedoin ascent which occupied a prime spot on the front page of the BBC's cycling website for at least a month after the Tour was over.

As for the main feature, it duly ran on BBC Breakfast news, exactly as billed in the Radio Times.



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