The last European adventure on bicycles took us into Holland and Germany, where we were eager to explore all that Northern Europe’s cycling trails could offer. Unfortunately, the main adventure was around what clothing could prevent us from getting completely drenched within 5 minutes of setting off. Answer: none.
Chuckle Brother 2 announced that he was never going back there again (you have to take this with a bit of a pinch of salt, as there are many things that he’s sworn never to do again), but he was joined in his refusal this time by Bean, who claimed have never to have got completely dry until several days after we got back to Blighty. However, this being CB1’s 50th birthday, we decided to stretch ourselves a little bit and to travel South, and also to extend the adventure from myself, CB’s 1 & 2, and Bean, to two more guests. It was important in choosing the two members of the team to have emergency help on hand for the trip, so they were selected for their specific skills, and consequently, we were joined by The Paramedic and The Hairdresser.
France, being all very enthusiastic about cycling, gave lots of opportunities to us, and few more so than Provence, where Mont Ventoux seems to hop out of the ground, pretty well unannounced, as something that needs to be got over. You might have seen Mont Ventoux on the Tour de France, it’s a absolute beast of a hill, about 21 km directly up, no matter which of the three routes you take, and it’s on lots of people’s bucket lists as something to cycle up, ideally without stopping.
Is called Mont Ventoux for good reason. Mont means mountain. Vent means wind. And toux means, well, all the bloody time. So it’s pretty well named, but the name doesn’t really do it justice – a better title would be something like “That bloody great hill that’s possible to get to the top of without completely breaking down in tears, and where the wind threatens to send you into the rocks on the way up. And down into the canyons on the way down”. That would be a bit more accurate, although I fear that it might be a bit of a struggle fitting that onto a tea towel, so Mont Ventoux it is.
So, we roll into Malaucene on day one, hire bikes, and ready ourselves for the big assault on Sunday. The Paramedic, who is something of A Serious Cyclist, is of the view that all three of the climbs need to be undertaken in a day, and who are we to argue. After all, it’s just a question of pedalling in a low gear to the top, no? Well, no, as it happens. You start climbing on a fairly steep incline, then you start going more uphill, and after about an hour you start getting really tired, just as the slope starts to maintain about 10% gradient. By this point, you’ve pretty much run out of gears. Then after about 15km, you come out above the tree line, the slope gets tougher, there’s no vegetation, and you suddenly realise what the Vent bit was all about. Mont Ventoux has its own microclimate, and the Mistral knocks you about like there’s no tomorrow. One minute it’s behind you, which feels great, the next minute it’s in your face,and you really struggle to stay upright,and then it swirls around and threatens to knock you off the side of the mountain. CB2 and I were literally blown a couple of metres across the road, and could quite easily have landed on a gorge a few hundred feet below when we were climbing one of the ascents.
Which brings me to the prickly subject of Health and Safety, or as we like to call it in France, “Laissez Faire”. There are signs as you go up to the top of the mountain, saying that it’s open, and apparently it’s shut in Winter or when the winds get up to more than 65km/hour. As it happens, the wind was only about half that when we went up, and we could easily have gone over the edge, not least as, more often than not, there’s no guard rail and pretty much a vertical drop. Which I suppose does make you focus a bit, even when you’re knackered.
So you get to the top of the climb, and on two of the ascents, you go round the final hairpin at the end, hit a wind that stops you still and you fight to get the bike up the last slope. It’s a bit like finishing a marathon, as you’re completely frazzled at the point at which you cross the line, at which point…well, there’s a sweet stall. You see, there are so many people climbing Mont Ventoux these days that you really need to be on a shopping bike, over 70 years old or possibly riding a unicycle to get any sort of attention. Years ago, I rode from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and when I’d finished, went to the pub next to the famous signpost. Ordered a celebratory pint, and told the batman that I’d just finished my epic trip, perhaps not realising that every other customer had a similar story.
“Oh yes, he said? We had someone in yesterday who’d just done it on roller skates”
So it’s relatively easy to feel a bit flat at the end, and you also get incredibly cold, and my fellow cyclists were kind enough to point out that I was displaying the signs of an early onset of Parkinson’s disease. So, for fear of ending up being a tedious self important professional Yorkshireman with a penchant for Billy Connolly, I tried to warm up, which was easier said than done.
There’s lots of people all gathered at the top, in front of the famous sign saying Mont Ventoux – 1912m, which, interestingly, is just above the road marker that says 1911m. You might want to point that out to any of your friends who’ve been fleeced for the official 1912m Tshirt. After our group photo, there were a group of French motorcyclists, who’d been buzzing cyclists all the way up, and gradually making themselves fairly unpopular. I don’t know much about motorcycling, so it may have been a phenomenal achievement for them, but it struck me as a bit weird that they were celebrating how strong their right wrists had been for half an hour. Actually, it also struck me that they’d be exercising the same wrists when they got back to their hotels, but that may have just been because they’d irritated me a tad.
So, after all that, you get to the similarly important bit of getting down the hill again. I’m not a massive fan of going completely out of control on a stupidly fast descent with no idea where the next hairpin, oncoming car or slippery bit of road is coming from, but I seemed to be in the minority in my group. One minute I was bombing down, trying hard not to use the brakes, going at about 30 mph, the next minute The Paramedic was bombing past pedalling for his life (his fastest speed for the three days was about 50 mph, which doesn’t bear thinking about). Anyway,it takes absolutely ages to get to the bottom, which is not in itself surprising, but it does make you appreciate how hard you’ve worked to get up in the first place. And of course, as you’re bombing down, you’re seeing flashes of these poor buggers still going up, and quite a fair bit of you wants to tell them to save it, that they’re going to have a bloody awful time, and that it’s really windy, and that they’ll be really disappointed with the sweet stall, but of course you don’t.
The Tour de France goes up Ventoux on 14th July this year, and they’ll be going round the hairpin at the end, although probably at a slightly faster lick than we managed, and hopefully they’ll be a slightly more exciting reception for them, possibly not involving overpriced liquorice. They’ll also have raced about 220 km before they get to Bedoin, which is the hardest of the three climbs, then they’ll race up the mountain. With about 3 km to go, they’ll pass the monument to Tom Simpson, who famously died in the Tour at that spot in 1967, after pushing himself not only to the limit of his body, but also from whatever amphetamines and brandy were knocking about in his system to get him to the top, a prescription that even Lance’s Dr Ferrari might have baulked at. There’s a bit of an irony, that we’ll be looking out for slower times this year to prove that the riders are clean, but, assuming they are relatively so in this years tour, good luck to them – this year they have a rest day after Mont Ventoux but they’ll be flat out for the following week.
As to our challenge, a few of us tried to do the three ascents in a day and only The Paramedic managed it. CB1 had his second puncture of the day on the second descent, I stopped to help, by which I mean I stopped and watched while complaining of being cold and getting cramps, at which point The Hairdresser gave me a massage straight out of the deleted scenes in Brokeback Mountain, and we limped down to the Ski Station, which is about half way down, to meet the Paramedic. At this point, I’d been thinking about throwing in the towel, and as I stopped the bike, my left leg kindly made my decision for me. I’ve had cramp many times before, but not quite as dramatically as this. I was not only completely unable to get off the bike through the pain, but when I looked down at my leg, there was a gap, about the size of half a tennis ball, where my lower quad had previously been. And a matching half tennis ball lump, further up my leg, where the muscle had not only spasmed but had refused to move.
“You’ve got to put your leg up”, said CB1, whose own cramp had eased off, and he helpfully lifted my foot off the floor. This not only miraculously eased the cramping in the quad, but within seconds, completely cramped up the hamstring. At which point, according to my fellow riders, I became quite abusive, and almost unappreciative. Quite what the diners, enjoying a quiet Sunday lunch in the ski station, made of the entertainment in the car park is anyone’s guess, as the collection of middle aged Lycra lads desperately tried to hang onto bikes, legs and other body parts without falling over. The Paramedic, meanwhile, was observing this with a mixture of puzzlement and quiet reflection. My suspicion is that he’s let his medical skills slip a little over the years, although he may have just been mentally tuning up for the next climb. Anyway, the rest of us limped back to Malaucene, although we did manage the third ascent on the third day.
And so, what was all that about then? We could have trooped off for a light bit of exercise and a few beers around the pool, and that might have been a bit more relaxing as a birthday celebration. But while you can still do these things, you should. After all, when you break your collar bone on one of those descents, or dropping off the edge, then that might be a good time to head for the pool. In the mean time, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Just make sure you take your own sweets for when you get to the top.