(For the gig review of The (wonderful) Cramps at UEA in 1986, come back another time)
If you should find yourself travelling through Provence any time soon, as you saunter down South, below Avignon, taking in the cherry trees and the lavender, relaxing with a couple of bottles of rosé and dreaming of a sunny retirement, do take a detour to look up at Mont Ventoux. MV sticks out like a sore thumb in the rolling countryside, and, if there was any justice in the world, ought to be removed. In the unlikely event that you’re a creationist and you’re reading this blog, a possible explanation is that He created a beautiful countryside of rolling hills and gorgeous valleys and then had a complete moment of aberration, possibly allowing His wayward office boy to run some calculations while He was off working out marine food chains. Or something.
If you’re not familiar with MV I’ll give you a bit of a duffer’s guide. It stands at 1,912 metres above sea level, and dominates the landscape as the biggest peak in the area. You can pick it out quite easily, as, on the South side in particular, the top third of the mountain is like a Star Wars moonscape, a desolate area of rock and cliff, that seems to light up when it catches the sun. Unfortunately that’s not all that often, as MV also has its own microclimate, which involves a good deal of cloud cover, rain, occasional snow at any time of the year, and winds (hence the name) that can whip up to 180 mph. It is, in the most beautiful part of Europe, an ugly bully of a mountain, often closed down for access due to weather, and regularly the scene of ambulance rescues of innocent walkers and cyclists.
And, naturally enough, a point of pilgrimage for cyclists, who have seen the summit finish on the Tour de France and want to experience it for themselves. It has an iconic status amongst cycling fans, as it regularly features in the Tour, and can be a real turning point, as riders break down part way up, as the stupid gradient, the horrible weather, and some jerk running beside you in a devil’s outfit all take their miserable toll. Famously, the British cyclist Tommy Simpson collapsed and died on the mountain in 1967, and was later found to have had a stomach full of brandy and barbiturates, which I believe were very much the de facto energy gels of the time. There’s a memorial to him about 2km from the summit, where cyclists touchingly still leave water bottles, jerseys, and for all I know, bottles of Purple Hearts as little gestures to the then hero of British cycling.
And over the years, as cycling fans will know, there have been some epic battles getting up to the top of the mountain. Charly Gaul won here in 1959, Eddy Merckx cemented his reputation as the ‘Cannibal’ in 1970, and if you pitch up in late June you can try your hand for the Cannibal competition for multiple ascents (or, for the ladies, the fetchingly titled ‘Cannibalette’). In later years, battles were fought out in the heat and oppressive air between the really big names like Beloki, Virenque, Armstrong and Pantani. In 2000, after an astonishing fight to the top, Armstrong was alleged to have gifted the stage to Pantani, but vehemently denied doing so. So he probably did.
You get to the summit from one of three routes, which go from the villages of Malaucene, Bedoin and Sault. The most common route on the tour is from Bedoin, although it’s not really any easier or harder than the others – each is between 21 and 26km long, and goes between a 8% and a 12% incline. There are no flat bits to speak of, so effectively you have to constantly pedal unless you want to fall off, which towards the top feels like quite an attractive option. On the south side, the ski chalet at Chalet Reynard marks the start of the weird moonscape part, and here the winds throw can throw you about a bit. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s a sheer wall of rock to one side of you, and a vertical drop, sometimes of a hundred metres, on the other. It’s a narrow road, and if you’re headed up, you need to keep hard to the right for fear of the cars, motorbikes and cycles going flat out on the way down. It takes you the best part of two hours to get to the top (unless you’re a pro – the time trial record is a jaw-dropping 55 minutes), and about 30 minutes to descend, and less than that if you don’t use your brakes. When we came here a couple of years ago, one of us clocked 50mph on the way down, particularly impressive in that he’d previously crashed, was on a rented bike, and had a young family at home.
Naturally enough, the challenge amongst cyclists is to do three ascents (and descents) in a day, thereby granting you membership of, and bragging rights for, the ‘Club de Cinglés’. I had to look up ‘Cinglés’ in the dictionary, and it means slash, sting, or whip, which seems about right. A few of us had come perilously close to achieving membership in 2013, citing a number of reasons for missing the target, including crashes, lack of preparation and severe emotional torpor. I had a reasonable excuse – I had to cycle the equivalent of the walk of shame back through Benoit after the second climb, nursing a bout of cramp that was so severe that I was physically unable to detach myself from the bike for several hours afterwards. So this time, the plan was a) to do the three ascents, and b) not get cramp.
To hit target a), I spent a ridiculous amount of time in the preceding months on static bikes. If you’re not familiar with these, imagine the boredom of running in a gym on a treadmill for an hour, then multiply the boredom factor by around 3. Anyway, the point was to get my body used to pedalling for long periods of time without any interruption. You have to keep your concentration going as well, otherwise your pulse drops and you just spin the pedals. Consequently a single 30 minute podcast can last you well over a week. To simulate multiple ascents, I used Mrs E’s big shopping trip to London one Saturday to do three one hour sessions back to back, emailing her attractive pictures during the course of the day of post-workout t-shirts. To her credit, she only used the word ‘twat’ on two of her replies.
Target b) was slightly more challenging, as I seem to manage to get cramp these days by almost any exercise, or sometimes from just going to bed, but, especially by long endurance stuff, so I put my faith in some serious intensive efforts, a disgusting looking pink electrolyte drink and by necking a load of magnesium tablets in the week before the ride.
Another blog, ‘Why grown men choose to cycle up mountains purely so that they can cycle down them again’ will be published in due course, but only after I find a way to write the conclusion. At the moment I’m afraid I just don’t have the mental capacity to answer the exam question. Anyway, that will describe the blow by blow up/down/up/down/up/down elements to the ride, and will culminate in the description of the final ascent, around the iconic hairpin to the summit, and into cloud cover so bad that I couldn’t even see where the altitude marker was. (It also made for the weirdest descent, whizzing down the hills to Malaucene at 25mph, with about 10m of visibility and the brakes just about keeping the rain off the rims. My teeth were clenched so hard together that my jaw still ached the next day.)
And, due to the intensive training regime, or a good slice of luck, the whole exercise from mile zero to mile 85 was conducted in a cramp free zone. Unfortunately, the entire route was 90 miles, and it was 5 miles from the end of the journey that I decided it was time to stop for a wee. I decided this a bit late on, halfway round a corner, and tried to stop in a hurry on the wet road. As a result, the back wheel locked and I skidded to a halt, just about getting my cleated shoe out of the pedal in the time it took to say ‘f*ck me I’ve got cramp in both calves’.
Just about managed to remove the bike from underneath me without any further damage, and stretched out a bit, then had to get over the road to a nearby tree.
You’ve probably observed, that, no matter how inelegant the average middle aged male cyclist looks when they’re on the bike, they look ten times more ridiculous off it, and I don’t think I’d have won any catwalk points for the mince across the tarmac in cleats (a sort of backward high heel), Lycra shorts, fingerless gloves, headscarf and ridiculous helmet, all done while trying to keep my calves from going into spasm. Having reached the side of the road without further damage, the challenge really began.
When I started cycling, years ago, a pair of shorts, ideally with a bit of padding in them, was all you really needed to keep, well, everything in order. These days, along with carbon frames, precision shifters and fully cleated shoes, comes the ‘bib-short’, previously only ever worn by professional teams. Oh, and John Curry. Nowadays, no middle aged cyclist would ever consider themselves fully dressed without first slipping into a pair of bib shorts, ideally in one size smaller than you’d have for, say, ballet tights. And, once in, they say, you never go back.
Which is all very well, until you need to go for a wee, although there is a technique, which I will now try to describe, sparing the blushes of our more sensitive readers. First, place your feet approximately shoulder length apart. Loosen your upper clothing as far as is possible. Check over both shoulders that there are no onlookers. With your left hand, and with your thumb pressed against your stomach, pull down the front of the bib, while bending forward slightly from the waist. While holding this position, use your right hand to do what your right hand would normally do in this situation.
On no account during this exercise, and particularly mid-flow, should you allow your legs to cramp up. Because, if this happens, it’s quite likely that you’ll catapult forward quite dramatically, and, the only thing you’ll be able to think of is the police evidence scene in ‘Withnail and I’.
And you’d better hope that there’s a tree in your way to break your fall as you catapult forwards with both hands, um, occupied. And you’d also better hope that you’re still wearing a helmet as you hit the tree. And you’d really hope that there’s a washing machine at the place you’re staying at. Because, if those things don’t happen, it would be quite embarrassing, wouldn’t it? Luckily, my luck was in.
I’d texted my friend G at the summit, and he kindly waited for me as I finally got back to the apartment we’d rented, near Malaucene. Managed to get off the bike without any further injury, and he offered to carry it up the steps for me.
“You go first”, I said.
I’d been out for about ten hours and was pretty familiar with the weather by now. Consequently I was anxious to remain downwind.