MAD FOR THE BALD MOUNTAIN
“Sommet du Mont Ventoux 1912m”
I'm one of those cyclists fortunate enough to have a photo of myself with a large metal pole 'growing' directly out of the top of my head. I say this is lucky because the signpost in question is the summit marker for Mont Ventoux in Provence. It means I have had the privilege of climbing this - I hesitate to use the phrase - 'iconic' mountain, but I will.
The arguably over-used adjective actually fits the bill in this case. The Giant of Provence is one of those legendary Tour de France locations worthy of mention in the same trembling breath as, 'Alpe d'Huez, the Tourmalet, the Galibier, the Aubisque and the Izoard' - to name just some of the most celebrated and feared.
It's a brute to climb, "a God of evil" according to cycling fan and French philosopher, Roland Barthes. And it’s making its sixteenth appearance in the 2016 Grand Boucle.
Armstrong and Pantani famously battled it out on the 'bald mountain' in 2000. Sir Bradley Wiggins revelled in his new-found climbing form on the Ventoux's bleached slopes in 2009 - with the yet-to-be disgraced Texan again in attendance.
Another British great, Tom Simpson, met with a tragic end on the road to the summit. In 1967 he finally tumbled off his bike while fighting to stay in contention in that year's Tour. Simpson died on the hot dusty mountainside of extreme exhaustion and dehydration. He also had amphetamines and alcohol in his system.
Anyone who's been to Ventoux, or has merely taken a passing interest in it, will know about the Tom Simpson memorial, perched by the roadside with the summit tantalisingly close. Many stop to walk up the steps to the granite stone and leave all sorts of cycling momentos in tribute to the fallen rider. These range from cycling caps to water bottles, to photographs and inner tubes.
My brush with Mont Ventoux, whose treeless, upper reaches, look perpetually covered in snow by virtue of the stark white rocks scattered around, was quite literally inspired by a moment of madness. I had long held the ambition to pedal up the mountain via all three possible routes in a single day. Achieving this feat grants riders entry into the select Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux (Club of the Madmen/women of Ventoux).
The day we arrived in Provence, the dreaded mistral wind was threatening to uproot trees, vines and even the very farm buildings surrounding our rented gite on the edge of Mazan. The severe weather did not bode well for my attempt to join the Ventoux's very own 'crazy gang' the next day.
But rescheduling was not an option because I'd pre-booked a rental bike for the specific day of my ride. Many people think the 'vent' in Ventoux is a reference to the wind. However, some also believe the name is actually an ancient term which means snowy peak. And according to a Rapha cc blog the Gauls named it Vintur after a god thought to reside on the summit. Whatever the true definition the ferocious wind which can disdainfully toss a rider off his or her bike and hurl them down the slope is very real. The weather on the mountain can swing from searing heat to freezing cold in just a few moments. It is not for the faint hearted.
To prove you have completed the punishing Cinglés task you must get a brevet card stamped at each of the three starting points, Bédoin, Sault and Malaucène - and at the summit. Most shops in the three towns have stamps with which they will oblige. Even the pizza joint I had lunch in in Bédoin after my first ascent of the day was able to mark my card.
If you’re going to conquer the mythical beast three times, an early start is essential. And, as dragon-slaying is such hungry work, I fortified myself, lingeringly, with a croissant-heavy breakfast in Malaucène. That was mistake number one.
When I could put off the inevitable no longer I wheeled my rented Cervello S2 out of Ventoux Bikes and started heading up the daunting D974. Immediately conscious of how much lighter the S2 was compared to my aluminium-framed 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 hundred metres.
The regular, road-side markers 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 overheating.
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 over-priced Mont Ventoux souvenir 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. He got it spot on with the pole shooting upwards out of the middle of my cranium." Are you doing more?" I asked him. "No way," he grunted with a wan smile. "I died three times on the way up."
With the number three also on my mind, I descended to Bédoin swiftly, noting the steep sections I'd have to tackle after lunch on my way back up.
My wife, Jackie, was poised with camera in hand at ‘Kilometre Zero’ on the outskirts of the small town. Phil's Pizza provided sustenance in abundance and again I lingered over my repast. This was mistake number two.
After obtaining that second imprint on my Cinglés card I set off on my return ascent through the forest from Bédoin. I at once recalibrated my long-held opinion that the Malaucène climb was the harshest. Bédoin was steep and unrelentingly so - and therefore definitely the harder climb after all.
The Bédoin 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 of Tom Simpson.
There's no doubt it looks impressive, especially the last 6 kilometres after Chalet Reynard, 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 Soviet rocket on the launch pad, always visible ahead of you. The last section of the Malaucène route however, with it's breathtaking hairpins, is equally stunning to look at.
My coffee stop at Chalet Reynard was surreal. It is a tiny ski station in the winter and with the temperature cooling outside it was easy to believe I was in skiing mode inside the café with its distinctly alpine feel. The punters however were decked out in Lycra shorts and cleated shoes rather than ski boots.
The road from Chalet Reynard to the top is the part of the ride which gives Ventoux its much-vaunted 'iconic' status - the unforgiving, treeless, section of the mountain where the mistral takes no prisoners. People started stripping the mountain of timber in the 12th century, rendering it permanently ‘bald’on top.
On the long haul up from Bédoin through the forest, some wag had painted a massive snail on the road on a particularly steep bend. 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 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 a number of 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 made a stop at the Simpson memorial. The words on the plaques there, from his widow and daughters, and the simple tokens left by fellow cyclists speak eloquently. It's a bleak, tragic and truly evocative spot
The final turn up to the weather station 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 for ascent number three - 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 Malaucène, tugging 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 riders who’d metaphorically cut their cables.
Cyclists talk in doom-laden terms about their fear of tackling the steep climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees. 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.
The bike computer informed me that I'd hit a top speed of 66.5 kilometres per hour on the descent. That may be crawling along by Tour standards but it’s quite fast enough for me.
I hadn't done all three routes as planned but two out of three ain’t bad. The full monty really requires an earlier start than 10am (and definitely a shorter lunch break without the - ahem - accompanying glasses of beer). But we vowed to return for that piece of unfinished business on the bald mountain. We’d be mad not too.
Published in Cycling World magazine, summer 2016