5 am on a Monday morning, whilst on holiday, is not an acceptable time to have an alarm clock sounding. Why then was I sat in the chilly early morning light with a coffee at 4.50 am with a feeling akin to both childlike Christmas impatience and the last breakfast of a condemned man?
At around 5 my two friends who were going to share the day with me started to move and slowly, we had breakfast, got dressed, several last minute nervous trips to the toilet before getting onto our bikes and riding from our gite sat in the shadow of Le Mont Ventoux to the small, picturesque town of Bedoin ready for the start of a very long day. Lightly dressed in preparation for the ferocious heat we knew we were going to be getting, we rode very slowly as it was bloody cold that early in the day.
Friends for many years, me, an old fat bloke who has only recently started cycling, Smudge, two years older, weighing about as much my bike and incredibly fit and finally Al, a stocky lad, 3 months younger than me and stubborn as a mule. I had no doubts at all that the two of them would finish what we’d set out to do, me on the other hand …
Very little moves in Bedoin before 5.45, just a couple of market traders stretching and yawning before setting up their stalls, so without our first stamp in our card, we took a photo of ourselves outside one of the bike shops, headed for the “0 km” line painted across the road in front of the other bike shop, started our watches and pushed off up the first climb of the day, the small matter of 21.5kms with a climb of 1610 metres or so.
Cold from the early start, the first few km’s out of Bedoin up to the weather station that glowers over Provence are fairly gentle. It doesn’t get steep until the hairpin out of St Esteve, when the benign rise turns into a beast. I’d done the Bedoin side of Le Ventoux twice before, first time destroyed me, second time was an honourable draw. This time though was going to be a gentle climb, no pace pushing. The object of todays lunacy was to climb the thing three times, once each up all three tarmac routes of the mountain. Pacing, fuel and gearing were the order of the day.
I imagined myself as a Ritchie Porte figure, sat at the front of the peleton grinding out the hard yards. Think Ritchie Porte, but three times as old, much much fatter and with none of his talent, but, I sat on the front of our little group tapping out the km’s just the same.
The promised sun was nowhere near in evidence as yet, but already we were all sweating, it was going to be a long day. I knew this climb pretty well and was looking out for some of the painted signs that had made me smile before. I don’t know who Nono is, but he was getting plenty of abuse from whoever had painted their messages all over the road.
All alone on the road, not having seen another human being since we set off, I was about five yards in front of the other two when I saw two deer and a tiny fawn, could only have been a couple of weeks old. They were in the middle of the road in the forest. Except my thunderously heavy breathing we were making precious little noise as we headed up and the deer were oblivious to our arrival. I raised my arm and pointed, in case the others hadn’t seen them, a murmur told me they had. The keen ears picked up the noise of human voices and without a pause they were gone, gliding into the trees, totally invisible to us within a second.
Riding with others makes such a difference and in pretty good time we all arrived without too much pain at Chalet Reynard. It was well before 8am, it wasn’t open, but we stopped for a couple of minutes and had a drink and a cereal bar. Today’s goal wasn’t to break any records, it was to finish, so we were happy to take rests whenever we felt like it. The sun was by now starting to show itself, but we were feeling fine and pushed on up the last, hard, 6km’s to the summit for our first climb of the day. The climb from the chalet to the summit is hard and usually windy. The forest is tough and steeper but I always find the last 6kms more difficult. The open landscape and howling winds make it bad, but constantly seeing the top without it ever seeming to get closer makes it a real mental challenge. Slowly though we advanced, arriving at the top in good time and in good order. One down, two more to come.
The plan had been to meet our support team here for a couple of pics and some solace, but she was still asleep!!
We waited a few minutes before heading over the top and down the northern face of the mountain towards Malaucene. The support team drove past us here and said she’d wait at the chalet a few km’s further down. This one was also closed, ruining our plans for a hot meal here, so a quick chat with The Boss in the carpark and then down to the town and into a cafe for a nice hot croque monsieur and some coffee. Myself and Al both have an ounce or two to spare, so although fuel is important it wouldn’t have been terminal if we’d not eaten. Smudge, though, I’ve seen fatter pencils. He weighs less than my other half so he was insistent on eating. And eating. And eating.
Suitably refreshed we mounted again aboard our trusty steeds, girded our loins and started to pedal upwards once again. It was around this time that Al began to see (or perhaps feel) the lack of foresight in not bringing his own saddle to put on his hired bike. Regular cries of “Owww, my arse” brought plenty of giggles from the remaining two.
We were now starting to see other riders in both directions, although still very little car traffic. Chatting with a few others on the way up there was everyone from the first timer to one French bloke who climbs it around 15 times a year. I rode for a while with a Frenchman who was also doing all three, before leaving him to his own devices. I felt happy that we weren’t the only band of lunatics on the road.
I was now in uncharted territory. There is much debate over which is the hardest climb, Bedoin or Malaucene, our second one of the day being 21kms long and a climb of 1570m.
After now having done them both, I’m still undecided, Bedoin is relentless whereas Malaucene has stretches far harder although with a few areas you can take it easier. The climb continued until we stopped at the chalet just after the roundabout for the small ski station.
I said then to the other two (and still remain convinced) that the 5km’s before we stopped were going to be the hardest thing I’d do that day. It was brutally hard. Long stretches over 11%, legs forcing down onto the pedals, advancing but oh so slowly.
The sun was well up now, the forest road on the northern side was fairly well covered but with many gaps out to the stunning scenery to our left. There was almost no wind to speak of, the heat was already starting to bounce back up off the tarmac and we resembled lycra clad swimming pools. From the chalet the road suddenly rockets up, really steep. I was certainly noticing it in the legs, although was surprised at quite how good I still felt. Al was having a bit of a slow section, so myself and Smudge pedalled on a bit, I still remember coming round a corner and feeling almost physically sick at the view that appeared in front of me.
A really strong wind accompanied it and I’m sure that if I’d looked down to my feet at that point, I would have seen a bit of ambition leaking from them onto the road. The following 3kms were hard. Already nearly two full climbs in the legs and percentages up in the realms of ridiculous, but then, just when I thought I was actually going to see my heart leap out of my mouth and land on the handlebars I saw the big golf ball and the slope levelled out to almost flat. A kilometre pushed pretty hard and I’d arrived, I’d worked hard up the climb and was feeling it.
Smudge was just a couple of yards behind and Al a few yards back again.
Two climbs done. Only the one to go, the “easiest” one of the day apparently, although how anyone could call the 6kms from Chalet Reynard to the summit “easy” baffles me somewhat.
A can of coke, yet more water and a cereal bar and we dropped down back towards Chalet Reynard, often at speeds over 50mph. I’d already found out I’m no climber, I was learning I was no descender either. Actually, I’m pretty crap on the flat too, but I was enjoying myself, which surely is what cycling at my level is all about? About a millisecond (seemed like it anyway, maybe I slept for a bit of it) after leaving the summit we stopped at an open Chalet Reynard and devoured a big fat baguette jambon fromage and more coffee, then mounted back up (“ooooowwwwww my arse”) and began the long drag down into Sault for the final climb of our challenge.
Although the actual climb from Sault starts outside of the village itself, we needed to go into the centre to get the stamp required for our club membership. At this point, 60 miles into the day, that climb was pretty cheeky.
I didn’t anticipate it being quite so tough but I really felt it.
A ten minute stop here, filled the water bottles from the fountain in front of the tourist office before getting back on the backs to attack the final climb of the day.
Sault is one of the three sides but its often used as a Ventoux ascension by those who would struggle going up one of the other two. Because of this we saw almost nobody on the climb up until we once again reached Chalet Reynard, no cyclists and very few cars either. Its longer, around 26kms but with “only” around 1220 metres of climb.
Once again into the forest, this time at a much gentler gradient. Plenty of the climb is at 3 or 4%, still tiring when you’ve got so much climbing in the legs but certainly a lot easier than what had already passed. I was still feeling pretty strong and a chat with the other two assured me we were all feeling good. Riding past a smallholding and hearing the bells clanging on the goats was something we don’t hear too often, it made me smile for a bit, but nothing like as much as the smile that arrived at a section of the climb that actually went downhill. Oh the joys.
We were climbing slower, Smudge was complaining about being hungry, Al was complaining about his arse and I was complaining about everything but we were advancing. After a good couple of hours we arrived for the second to last time at Chalet Reynard. No stop this time, just a final trudge on up the hill. We all wanted to get to the top and get it over with. The heat was now incredible. In the car the following day I heard that the day we climbed had been the hottest day in some places in France since the liberation in 1944. A fairly impressive statistic. Bathed in sweat, eyes stinging as the salt entered I was pedalling almost like a robot.
Then, for the first time of the day, I felt tired. My legs didn’t seem to want to cooperate with me at all. I rode over the line in the road telling me I had only 2kms to go, but with that line comes an increase in the gradient. Steeper than a steep hill in Steepsville Gulch. I was churning the legs, trying to turn them over to get to the prize I could see slowly getting larger, but I’ll confess here and now that I was feeling rough. With less than a km to go I stopped at Tom Simpsons memorial, sat on the steps for a few minutes and contemplated just how fit and mentally tough pro cyclists must be.
I gave a silent prayer to Tom, got back on the bike and rode up the last 900m to the finish.
Past the little road sign telling me I had 507 metres to the top, a small round circle drawn on with the number 300 next to it, round a slight bend, the sign for the restaurant comes into view, 200m, the small wall on the right hand side, a final kick up to a percentage truly vomit inducing, round the hairpin and a push up through the throng to the finish.
We spent a good half an hour on the top, taking pics,
stretching the legs, Smudge eating, Al moaning about his posterior before jumping back on the bikes and heading back down to the bike shop in Bedoin where the journey had all began some 12 hours earlier. The descent was terrifying, my arms were tired but I managed to negotiate the drop without crashing or pedalling.
We’d all finished what we’d set out to do, become members of a small club, Le Club des Cinglés. I was tired, heavy legged, euphoric and incredibly proud of myself. I’m no climber thus the day had been a long hard one, but the cold beer(s) that awaited me were going to taste all the sweeter.
A massive thanks to both Al and Smudge for sharing a fantastic day and thanks also to the support team, my OH who climbed it herself for the first (and absolutely the only, she’s assured me) time two days later.
It was a long day, but after a few days reflection I don’t think its the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a bike, so much so in fact that I’m now looking at going back next year to do the “Bicinglette,” which is twice what we’ve just done, six climbs in all.
To be continued (maybe).