Friday, 22 June 2012

A week in Provence.... part 4 - Mont Ventoux

Like all great journeys, trysts, campaigns and fresh starts, our task on Sunday morning began at dawn. I didn't sleep well. I had woken a couple of times through the night. In the end I got up, dressed and went outside to check over the bike. The weather drifted out of the sky like paint dripped into a glass of water, opaque filigree swathes and fretted blots whitening out the miraculous landscape. The mountain, Mont Ventoux was just there, beside me, staring down, a 6,273ft lump, its peak hidden by a veil of nebulous vapour. I wouldn’t fancy going up in a car - let alone on a bike. - it is shocking, stupendous, formidable. and confrontational - it just stands there, towering upwards, the king of all it surveys. In the early morning dawn there is a ghostly feel, clicking cicadas and a feint sound of traffic. I feel a slight keening apprehension that sends a shiver through me. As the light grows stronger the thick creamy clouds that lie peacefully over the mountain begin to fade. The peak begins to show and sharpen, the radio mast catches the sun and radiates like a bright white beacon.

Gary appears. His bike has a flat tyre - a bad omen maybe? Quickly it is fixed and we check our supplies. Three water bottles each, one on the bike and two each in the car. We will be followed up the mountain by our 'support team' for the ride. Their job is to take photos, shout encouragement, carry spare parts and water bottles, and offer a quick exit should we fail.

About to start
At 9.00am we make our way down the track to the main road, pushing our bikes over the rough, broken ground. Like new recruits going up the line to the Somme we have no idea what really lies ahead - but riding this mountain is obligatory for any serious student of the alchemy of suffering on a bicycle.

We cycle down to Bedoin, already there are cyclists buzzing around, warming up, meeting friends, sitting drinking coffee. We pass a large group all with numbers attached to their bikes, some sort of race perhaps, they look fit. I shout to Gary that they will be passing us soon. The first few kilometres are relatively easy, a 2-3% gradient past vineyards and green fields. Then the road gradually ramps upwards, still reasonably comfortable though, I resist the urge to shout to Gary that this is okay... somewhere within me I can feel something is about to change. We swing left to Les Baux and Sainte Columbe there is a sudden steep section, this feels more like it - we're on the mountain now, there is the distinct clunk of gears shifting, chains scraping to find the teeth of larger cogs, we've slowed down now and the road is distinctively upwards. As far as cycling goes and mountains in particular, this is the great, grey daddy of mountains, the last Alpine mountain ridge before the Rhone plain and one of the toughest climbs in France. It dominates the landscape and constantly draws the eye. The road twists and turns in gradual curves we push up to each corner only to be faced with further, relentless, uphill road. There can be no talking now, every frantic breath falls short of its intended purpose, it's hot, we're sweating, pressing and pushing ever upwards. The gradient is 9 and 10% for the next 9 kilometres or so - there is nothing we could have done in England to prepare for this - it is unforgiving, relentless torture.
Through the tree section

After about 12K we stop - We both have mouths like the Kalahari desert and find it impossible to drink while desperately trying to breath and keep the bikes moving. My ears have popped a couple of times with the altitude and the small wooded glade with a couple of picnic benches on the right seems like a good place to take a breather. Gary is somewhere behind - by the time he reaches me I have regained some composure - he approaches me with glazed fish-like eyes, the bilious green hue of his complexion and the waxed sheen of his brow testament to the effort so far. We take on some water and then something strange happened. I suddenly felt incredibly dizzy. I sat down at one of the picnic benches, I was light-headed, my face felt clammy, I felt cold.... for a moment I thought I would pass out. I checked my pulse, it was fine, low if anything and my breathing was okay. But I was convinced this was the end of the ride for me - I wouldn't risk continuing feeling like this - in my mind I could see the grainy black and white footage of Tom Simpson crawling up the Ventoux in July 1967 - he died on this mountain. Mountains command respect. Take mountains seriously - if you don’t they will take you. That is serious.

Then, within a couple of minutes I felt okay again, the dizziness had passed, I sat for a few minutes longer and sipped at my water bottle. I decided I'd carry on and see how I felt back on the road. The team car was with us now and help was close if I needed it. So onwards and further upwards. Getting the bike moving again on these gradients is tricky - it requires effort and energy, clipping in to pedal cleats adds to the problem and causes frustration and anxiety - but we managed. Now the climbing continued, brutal and unremitting, the heat and thin air combining to make the effort harder still, every pedal turn is a slow struggle by now and we teeter as each revolution threatens to be the last. I see the team car up ahead but don't feel like stopping - I have a rhythm, its slow, but I feel like carrying on. Gary stops and is approached by a rider who turns out to be German, Gary offered a salutory "How are you doing?" to which the German replied "F**king mountain..."

The Dutchman
The silver-bright sun was fierce now, upwards we climbed through conifer groves balmy with resin and sun-roasted pine cones. It was extraordinary just how many cyclists, walkers and runners were out there that day. There were also a fair number of motorcylists and we saw a procession of old 60's Mini's - looking like an outtake from The Italian Job. There was a Dutch guy who seemed to be climbing up at about the same speed as me, except he was riding a contraption that looked like a big scooter combined with a stepping machine - he had a number on his shirt so I suspect he was one of the group we saw way back in Bedoin. It looked hard work on his 'stepper' each of his thigh muscles looked like a baby hippopotamus stuffed into his shorts.

As I soldiered on I spotted a curve to the left up ahead, the apex looked like it flattened out for about 6 feet - I decided to stop for a drink, figuring that I would at least be able to get started again. Of course it wasn't flat at all, just less steep, I snorted and cursed as my feet slipped off the cleats and I struggled to regain momentum. Just around the corner though was a welcome sight - We pass out of the tree-lined wooded area and approach The Chalet Reynard, at about 1400 metres high. This is a ski resort and the ski lift is open at this time of year taking mountain bikers up the mountain and enabling them to hurtle down again. It was tempting to think of hitching a lift. We stopped at the cafe for a well earned break, Coffee, then another - Gary had 6 spoons of sugar in his "For energy". They were selling some good quality cycling clothing in the shop and we decided we'd perhaps drive back on another day to buy something to remind us of what this climb had been like.
The Chalet Reynard - a welcome rest!

There were a group of walkers making there way up to the summit, one of them shouted over "No doping" - Gary replied "Have you got anything?" We all laughed. It's understandable why cycle racing has for so long been a sport that has relied on stimulants. When I think that a Tour de France rider would ride up this mountain in just over an hour, having already climbed one or two equally tough mountains, and then do the same again tomorrow and the next day.... 21 days in total for The Tour, how else could they do it?

I felt gruesome, dogged by a chilling sense that i’m not going to make it - I remembered reading that many great climbers ride the mountains quickly - because the sooner they reach the summit, the sooner the agony stops. But the thing about riding a mountain like this, the main thing, is that it seems to take forever. We set off again with about 6 or 7 kilometres to go to the summit - the road is immediately steep. We're soon puffing and panting again, this is by far the longest continually rising road I have ever seen. I just have to keep pressing on the pedals, romancing about what the rider in a long, lone break must feel like.  By now we are reaching into physical and mental reserves that we didn't know existed. We're riding on the edge, on the limit of what we are capable of - there's a great feeling of eventual euphoria and impending collapse. The road just seems to go on and on - marked with yellow and black snow poles. It is stark up here now, the landscape is littered with a moonscape of bright, white limestone. It is an unremitting, gut-wrenching, demoralising slog.

The Simpson memorial
And then, perched up on the slope to our right, just off the road, is something I knew we'd see. A granite monument on which is cut, in relief, a polished image of a cyclist hunched over his bike riding at speed. This is the permanent memorial to Tom Simpson who famously lost his life at this spot on 13th July 1967. I stop and climb the steps for a closer look - there are two or three cyclists there and I take photo's using their phones and camera's, there is no need for conversation, I have no idea what nationality they were. Scattered in front and around the memorial is a wrack of dried flowers, various club badges, bits of tyre - like exotic flotsam washed up on a rising tide.

Gary joins me and we toil on exhaustedly, entering the existential phenomenon know to most cyclists: The 'what possessed me to do this' syndrome. The sun is burning and yet it feels cool up high, my wheels won't move... are my brakes binding? The air is thin, not enough oxygen, every particle of my body is being stretched, pounded, pushed and shoved along these last kilometres. I feel like I could be overtaken by snails, it nearly finishes me, it is cruel to a power beyond rational grasp, I desperately cling on, literally clinging on.....

Gary on the final push
At last I see the radio mast and station ahead - just a few more bends to go, I hope my tortured lungs and feeble legs will hold out - surely they will... slowly I edged upwards by now slightly exhilerated by the sheer adventure of it culminating in a fantastic salvo of strength and buoyant energy. And then at last I'm at the summit - and with it a most palpable feeling of relief. I feel grateful that the end has come it is incredible that so many kilometres took so long to disappear under our wheels - but now we’re at the line where up turns to down. Gary is behind me - I am sure I could hear him before I saw him, the clacking wheezing sound of a broken accordion heralding his arrival. But here we were - we'd done it! - and when at last we reached the top all time slips away into an airy vastness as we survey the valley below. It is a transcendent experience, a link between physical and mental triumph and a wonderous exaltation of the spirits.

There are people out there, aliens, sadists, inhuman who will ride this terrain none stop for maybe 100 hours - I am in no haste to join them - if I am to suffer a serious bodily and mental abuse on the bike then I also insist on ample social recovery time. In this case that will involve wine and cheese. Talking about a route is a bit like talking about sex. Fanciful, prone to exaggeration and a long way from the real thing. This was a vicious, nasty ride. The mountain eats away at you like a rash, the gradients worm their way relentlessly up between your lungs and your sense of humour. This knocked the stuffing out of us. We needed wine to quell the latent agony.

Now it was all over, in a foaming lather of sweat, tears and schmaltz we hugged each other and surveyed the view. Gary summed it up "That was the hardest thing I've ever done"

a view from the top

Made it!!

Well done!!!

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