The streets of Avignon in mid-September are spotless - thanks, not to the zealous attentions of municipal road sweepers, but to the unbelievably violent winds which had been scouring the roads and fields clean since we'd arrived. The fabled mistral had taken hold of Provence and was shaking it heartily by the scruff of the neck.

Not the best conditions in which to be preparing to cycle up and down Mont Ventoux by three different routes in the same day. But that's exactly what I was doing.

My goal was to become a member of the Club des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux (Club of the Madmen of Mont Ventoux), the same challenge I'd produced a short film about in 2009. This time I was going to be suffering in the saddle rather than observing from the roadside.

Our gite in the village of Mazan was almost in the shadow of the 'bald mountain'.  I could see Ventoux, looming ominously in the near distance, every morning as soon as I stepped out of the front door.

 It was a daunting sight with the wind howling like a banshee and whipping the branches of the trees outside our kitchen into a demented frenzy.

My total lack of training - and in particular, training going up hills - was a niggling worry at the forefront of my mind as Jackie and I headed for Malaucene to pick up my hire bike. It's true I'd got considerably more miles in my legs cycling to and from the Olympic Park in east London for work. I'd even done some spinning classes - but, would pretend hills in a gym session and a series of 40 mile commutes on flat city roads really help me tackle the Giant of Provence?

As I wheeled my rented Cervélo S2 onto the street outside Ventoux Bikes in Malaucene, I was about to put those theories to the test. Immediately conscious of how much lighter the S2 was compared to my two aluminium bicycles at home, I made decent progress at first - trying to stay in the big ring for as long as possible. 

This didn't last. But once in the small ring, I vowed to avoid hitting the 'granny gear' until absolutely necessary. This resolve too petered out after about two kilometres. It was a revelation to ride without my heavy work bag, carrying clothes, tools, packed lunch etc... on my back. And there was no mistral to tussle with. The weather was grey and cool - ideal conditions.

Having driven up and down this route in 2009 as we tried to keep our riders stocked up with water bidons, I felt very familiar with it. And with a fevered office-based reccie using Google maps firmly at the forefront of my mind, I pedalled upwards as if chasing a giant cursor, mouse-clicking its way to the summit. 

The road markers each kilometre were useful not least because they gave the gradient you were fighting at that particular point. I soon realised that 7% wasn't so bad but anything above that and my thighs started heating up painfully. Where I habitually turn my pedals, the earth is still stubbornly flat. 

The Bedoin ascent is the public face of Ventoux. Famous for the dramatic backdrop it has so often given the Tour de France. And famous too, for the tragic death just below the summit of Britain's Tom Simpson. 

There's no doubt that it does look impressive, especially the last 6 kilometres where you're out of the trees, pedalling for the most part, in a straight line with the summit and its weather station prodding upwards like a cold-war-era Russian rocket on the launch pad, always visible ahead of you. The last section of the Malaucene route however, with it's breathtaking hairpins, is equally stunning to look at. 

With some surprise I found myself on top of Ventoux for the first time - relatively unscathed. I got my brevet card stamped in the gift shop after buying an expensive €6  Mont Ventoux pen. I persuaded a perspiring, thickset Dutch cyclist who'd just ridden up from Sault to take my picture in front of the 1912 metres sign. "Are you doing more?" I asked him. "No way," he grunted with a wan smile. "I died three times on the way up." I'm sure he was speaking metaphorically.

The Cinglés club requires riders to climb Ventoux's 1912 metres three times staring from the three base villages of Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault. Conventional cycling wisdom has it that the Bedoin climb of 22 kilometres through a forest is the hardest of the lot. But having visited in 2009 and following an RSI-inducing computer session, mouse-clicking my way over the route using Google Street, I'd decided Malaucene looked much harder with a couple of steep ramps, particularly after the Chalet Liotard restaurant, just after the barrier which closes the road to the summit when the snow gets too treacherous in winter.

Unfinished business

I descended to Bedoin in a trice, noting the steep sections I'd have to tackle after lunch on my way back up. 

Jackie was poised with her camera on the outskirts of the small town which was coming to the end of its market day. Phil's Pizza provided sustenance and a second stamp for my Cinglés card. On the return ascent up through the forest - I recalibrated my opinion. This was steep and unrelentingly so - and therefore definitely harder than the Malaucene climb after all.

A coffee stop at Chalet Reynard was surreal. It is a small ski station in the winter and with the temperature cooling outside - there had even been a spot of rain - it was easy to believe I was in skiing mode inside the café with its distinctly alpine feel. The only difference was that the punters were decked out in Lycra shorts and cleated shoes rather than ski boots and salopettes.

The road from Chalet Reynard to the top is the part of the ride which gives it its much-vaunted 'iconic' status. This is the bald, treeless, section of the mountain where the mistral takes no prisoners. You also pass the monument to Tom Simpson just over a kilometre from the summit. Before that though I was on the lookout for the 'Allez Bushell' slogan we'd had painted on the Tarmac for our filming three years previously. 

I knew exactly where to look, just after the first bend beyond Chalet Reynard - but the words had been washed off without trace. That's not to say there was no writing on the road. There were the usual names of amateurs written in encouragement no doubt. The odd famous cyclist's name was visible and I spotted a couple of 'Wiggos' to boot. 

On the long haul up from Bedoin through the forest, some wag had drawn a massive snail on the road on a particularly steep bend. Another representation of the ultra-slow creature was visible a bit further on just to hammer home the point and taunt those of us finding it hard to turn the pedals. 

Another wit had daubed the word 'fixie', writ large, across the carriageway. I take my hat off to anyone with the guts and muscle power to tackle Ventoux on a single speed bike - just like the early Tour de France competitors used to ride. But it's not something I'll be trying in a hurry.

The weather was closing in with cloud covering the road ahead and sweeping off down the slopes to my left. At times my visibility was reduced to just a few metres. I became aware of bells clanging off the road and saw a couple of shepherds up on the hill.

They were directing multiple sheep dogs to push their flocks along. One group of these not so dumb animals congregated around a drinking fountain at the roadside and noisily slurped the eau potable on offer. I opted not to refill my bidons at that stage.

I made a stop at the Simpson memorial - and felt genuinely moved. It's so tantalisingly close to the summit. 

The words on the plaques there from his widow and daughters, and the simple tokens left by fellow cyclists - including water bottles, caps, even inner tubes - speak eloquently. It's a bleak, tragic and truly evocative spot.

The final turn up to the weather station at 1910 metres kicks up cruelly but briefly and once you've put a spurt on to get round it, you're at the top.

I'd felt really good on the section of the climb after Chalet Reynard. It was not as steep as the forested part of the ride and I was spared the ravages of Ventoux's worst weather. But I calculated that to get back down to Sault and up again - would push me into late evening. With no desire to make my final descent in the dark, I decided to abandon plans to do all three routes. 

I flew down to Malaucene, pulling on the brake levers most of the time - worrying that the brake blocks would work loose or spontaneously burst into flames - it felt I was going so fast! That's not to say I wasn't overtaken by several cyclists who had literally thrown caution to the wind. Cyclists talk in doom-laden terms about their fear of tackling the steep climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees. But what really fills me with dread is the prospect of descending these mountains, with feet like blocks of ice and unresponsive fingers trying to get a meaningful grip on the brake levers. Give me an uphill slog any time.  

As before, Jackie was waiting for me at the bottom - with a beer! The best part of the experience was the feeling of being able to do the climbs without too much agony - this was not Alpe d'Huez in 2006 at the height of a summer heatwave. The worst aspect was the steady stream of speeding motorcyclists going up and down the mountain at ridiculous velocities. 

My own velocity wasn't too bad coming down. The bike computer supplied with the Cervélo informed me that I'd hit a top speed of 66.5 kilometres per hour on the descent - crawling along by Tour de France standards - but quite fast enough for me thanks very much.

I hadn't done all three routes as planned. That really requires an earlier start than 10am (and possibly a shorter lunch break too). But we vowed to return for that piece of unfinished business - and until then, I'll remain just two thirds of a madman.


I've just found your blog via twitter...I have linked in as a follower and look forward to future posts.-Trevor
Anonymous said…
Cheers - I post when I canm which is infrewuently!

Popular posts from this blog