One year, one week and six days since I was stood near the top of the Ventoux watching the emaciated gods of Le Tour fly past me, their skinny wheels appearing to float above the tarmac, I was here again, this time at the bottom. On my bike. At 50 years old. Overweight and undertrained.
My plan all along had been a simple one, start slow and stay there, loosen off on the road to Bedoin and at the first sign of a climb get on the granny ring and don’t darken another gears door until the descent.
I’d read enough about this climb to know it wasn’t easy, and that the worst was in the forest. I’d also been told that it got easier after the weather station! When you’ve read that Lance Armstrong, at his pomp, with very little blood pumping round his EPO said “that hill doesn’t like me,” you know there are things to worry about.
I also knew that having not trained, I could expect this to be a very painful few hours.
A massive thanks go to this man, without his help and support I would have got off my bike in the forest. Al, cheers mate, hugely appreciated.
As apprehensive as the man who is about to phone Camelot and enquire if the six numbers he’s just seen on television are in fact the same as he has on his ticket, I rode to the bottom of the climb.
The first 600 metres or so are flat, or at best a very gentle rise. This is good. Although its hot, and I’m already sweating, I’m happy with a 4% gradient. On leaving Bedoin the climb starts. The top of the mountain is visible to my left, but i’m ignoring it, concentrating instead on staying out of the lowest gear. Having nowhere else to go after 1km of this climb is not a good place to be. The silence was beautiful, well it would have been if I hadn’t been panting like a rampant bull in a cage with a dozen frisky cows. Alone with my thoughts, I’m trying to find a rhythm that will allow me to make good speed. One thing starts to worry me though. Everyone coming down, at impossible speeds, looks across, with a look of what appears to be pity, and nods. This nod of knowledge, of empathising with your suffering, was prevalent throughout my climb, and I reciprocated on my way down, much much later.
Through St Colombe, with cheers from a few well libated punters and onto the bend out of St Esteve. Its well known, and horrible. Once there, you know you’re at a minimum of 9% until you break through the trees and reach the lunar landscape above Chalet Reynard.
And then it’s there. The forest. The mythical, fabled, legendary forest of Le Ventoux. The gradient shoots up, and I’m finding it a struggle. My feet start to stamp on the pedals, instead of the smooth rolling action I was wanting. Stamp, stamp, stamp, slowing quickly to stamp ……stamp …….stamp ……. If I slowed anymore I was going to fall off. Although the road is long, with many a winding turn, its the mental battle that needs to be won.
Yea though I ride through the valley of death, yet will I feel very ill. Salvation sometimes arrives in the most unusual of forms. I’m now literally all over the road, I’ve not yet ridden a third of the hill and I’m exhausted. My cycling glasses, wetter than Ian Thorpe’s goggles and my cycling helmet, heavier than a lead diving boot, are binned. As I weave my way, almost punch drunk, up another 10 metres I hear a voice on my inside. “Allez allez, courage,” I look and see a saviour in white. Well, it sort of looked like that. A 62 year old Belgian, who was stopping at Chalet Reynard. Its incredible how having someone to talk to makes you forget the demons. He rode with me for at least a km, and if I was timing myself, it would have been the quickest km of the ascent. He left me in his wake after a while, and the voices started screaming at me to stop again, even louder than before.
I’m now again on my own, although I regularly receive the nod of knowledge from the descenders, I’m once again struggling. Its no good, I’m going to have to take a break for a couple of minutes.
Disaster. I’m chinned. Knackered. My thighs are screaming, but my legs are so tired I can’t pull my feet out of their clips. Down I go, with the grace of Billy Bunter attempting a pas de deux. It gets worse. I’m off the road, head facing down the slope, probably the only thing visible to other cyclists are the wheels of my bike. Any movement dislodges some of the thousands of small rocks that make up the sides of the hill, and I slip a little further down. After a few minutes, a French female voice enquires if I’m ok. I eventually right myself and get back onto the tarmac. I’m furious, anger isn’t making me think straight. Onto the bike, right foot into the clip, push off and …. over again. With only one foot in the clip this time I contain the fall a little better. Even angrier, back up, onto the bike, right foot into the clip, push off and ….. over again. Every swear word I’ve ever learned spewed from my mouth in a raging torrent of bile. Back up again, but this time I’m aware of the same French female voice. She says “NOW will you listen to me? Your chain is off.”
Sheepishly I look down, and the lovely lady was right. Quick fiddle and I’m back on the bike and dragging my blubbery body back up the hill. The lady, who was Dutch, stayed with me for at least 500 metres, and we chatted before she headed up faster than I.
In his book “The Worst Journey in the World,” Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote that “he had seen hell” and that haunting photo bears it out.
I strongly suspect that my eyes were exhibiting a similar look as I left the wooded part of the climb, leaving darkness and heading into dazzling, blinding sunlight. Face ridden with pain, still in shock after the ferocity of “that” hairpin. I’d desperately wanted to take it wide, but the day was so busy I just didn’t dare risk colliding with the hundreds of riders and cars that were dropping like stones from the heavens. As the trees peter out and you head towards the chalet, the incline lessens noticeably, so much so that I managed to go up four gears (GO UP????) and pick up a bit of speed in front of the coffee drinkers.
Now I was to find out if the climb out of the forest was easier. The climbs were long, not helped by seeing the summit for long stretches. It just didn’t ever seem to be getting closer.
The afternoon heat was now beating down with no shade anywhere. I could feel it reflecting back off the white rocks, and the sweat was departing from every orifice. The attrition of the climb thus far was wearing heavy on my legs, but at least the gradient was slightly less cruel, and I managed to get a very slow, but constant rhythm, concentrating more on pulling the legs up, than pushing them down. Constantly looking, constantly disappointed.
287, 286 I was counting the yellow and black snow markers, vital in these parts during winter. I reckon they’re about 10m or so apart, and are all numbered. I put the head down, and concentrated on a solid pedal for at least five minutes, working hard on turning the legs over, getting equal pressure on the up and down strokes. I looked up. 284. I’m hanging.
I was now advancing in a two wheeled version of the Foggy Shuffle (If you know, you know), dreading being passed by a Boris bike or worse, a Raleigh Chopper, but I was advancing. Slowly, but relentlessly I was inching my way closer to my goal. And then, I’m there. I’m past the cafe on the left hand side, I’m riding along the retaining wall that runs on the right for the last hundred or so metres of the climb, only the last brutal 11% kick up to go.
It was only then, with my left thigh cramping badly, out of the saddle, pushing to the final hairpin that will see me reach the summit, that I allowed myself to think of the legends that have climbed here before me. Froome, who I saw with my own eyes climbing serenely to victory the year before, Virenque and Pantani, loved but tainted, Merckx, perhaps the greatest ever, the perpetual bridesmaid Poupou but one name stands above them all. The pride of County Durham and England, the man who gave his life on this giant. Tom Simpson. As I passed his memorial about 1.5kms earlier, I silently paid my respects to a sportsman revered in my adopted country, and felt privileged to have traced his pedal strokes up one of the hardest of the Tour climbs.
Was it the most painful thing I’ve ever done? Without a doubt. Would I do it again? Absolutely.