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What a stupid place to leave a bl**dy mountain!

Day 5: The Trials and Tribulations of climbing Mt Ventoux


View TK Cycle - Day 6 & TK Cycle - Day 5 on Gelli's travel map.

Distance - 74.8miles (120 km)
Max speed - 42.6 mph (68.1kmh)

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"PUT me back on my bike" said Tom Simpson*. 500metres later, and barely a kilometre from the summit, he collapsed - still holding his handlebars - for second and final time. Despite the best efforts of medical personel, he was dead before the air ambulance arrived came to try and help him. Evidence of alcohol and Amphetamines, frequently used by cyclists in the 50's and 60's tohelp them get through long grueling days, were found. It was the 13th stage of the 1967 Tour de France, and Tom was heading for the summit of Mt Ventoux .

Less than 2 years earlier, Tom Simpson had become the first (and so far only) British world cycling road champion, and as well as winning Olympic and Commonwealth medals he had also won a number of one day classics, including 3 of the 5 monuments in our sport. Thats a number which outscores all otehr British cyclists combined, by 3-0. For a cyclist to die in any race is both tragic and rare, but for a big name to die on a major mountain in the Tour de France (only two riders had previously died during the Tour de France, one of whom had drowned on a rest day swim. A fourth, Fabio Casartelli, sadly died in 1995), the worlds most prestigious cycling race, was a huge loss.

Thus, Tom's death raised Mt. Ventoux from already legendary status, to that of mythical. Of other mountains, only L'Alpe d'Huez comes close to Mt. Ventoux for what it means to cyclists, and because of Tom's sad death, it has long been a place of pilgrimage, and a memorial has long existed at the spot where he died. On a daily basis, thousands of cyclists spend hours trying to work out why it seemed a good idea beforehand, whilst struggling to cycle to the top.

Even by standards of mountains used in professional cycling, Mt. Ventoux is evil. An extinct volcano, the "classic" route from Bedoiun is roughly 22km long and rises some 1600m+, with the last 16km rise at an average gradient of over 10%. Even including the relatively easy lower slopes, the total 22km averages an incline of over 7.5%. In addition, the last 7km or so are above the tree-line, and entirely exposed both to the normally fearsome heat and supreme wind. Summit winds of over 250km/h are not uncommon, and over 300 have been recorded more than once. It's a fearsome place.

Mt. Ventoux stands alone. There are no mountain's of a similar size anywhere around, meaning that it is both obvious, and viewable from a long way off. We had first seen it - and seen it properly - on scaling the second 300m pass of the previous day, with the mountain some 60km+ away. Even from such a distance, in the clear sunny sky, it looked an evil and foreboding sight.

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Mt. Ventoux, taken the previous day, from a distance. It's a happy photo becasue i'm not climbing up the damned thing

I should probably note here that this long and rambling. Quit now and go and do something interesting and less painful, such as watching paint dry, or using tweezers to pluck your eyebrows.

I'm sure by now, some of you have realised that i'm not just giving you a history lesson for the fun of it. For reasons unknown, a day ride over M. Ventoux had been added to the trip's schedule early on. We aren't going anywhere. Just to the mountain and back. Our total progress is 0km, yet still we're going. I have been up the mountain in the past, and thus more than anybody else involved, had some idea of what was to come. I was hoping to convince them that it wasn't worth it. I tried bribery.

I even threatened to get Kiki involved. It didn't work.

Thus it was that on a depressingly grey day, we set out from Chateauneuf for the mountain. Actually, thats not even true. It had been designed as a day trip from our Chateauneuf base, and meaning that it was at least vaguely optional. As such, two of our motley 13 had declined to even consider the effort, and pulled out the day beforehand, in order to offer their services as support in the van. A third decided to quit that morning, whilst a fourth cheated slightly by getting a lift to the start in the van. Two more, feeling slightly panicked, switched from their normal bikes to the two bikes from the drop outs, in search of ever lower gears and some kind of salvation.

For the 9 of us that started off by bike, the ride to the start was almost the hardest part. Only 25miles, but 25miles which had me in deep trouble, and with a deep feeling of foreboding. We could see the mountain for virtually our entire trip there. Or, rather, we could see all of the mountain that was visable on our trip over. The top 3rd or so was well covered in a fairly grim and thick looking layer of low misty clouds.

This was going to hurt, and would be unpleasant into the bargain.

The previous evening, over a couple of wonderful, if not exactly Tesco value range, bottles of wine, we had come up with the idea of handicapping. Even on small climbs, as a group we had tended to split up dramatically, and gaps of many minutes were not uncommon. Thus, the idea was to start with the slowest person off first, and quickest last, with the rough idea that we would all arrive at the summit together. That way, as well as suffering like crazed wombats all day, we could suffer like crazed wombats in a kind of race.

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Entering Bedoiun, the town at the base of the mountain

The Kaizer was to set off first, a minute from Frederik, whilst our former Swedish champ Goran was given an hour and Hasse would be last to start, a full 90minutes after the Kazier. I was plopped in at 45mins alongside Emil - the only two to start together - just ahead of B-G and behind Torbe, in what would probably have been reasonably fair if I hadn't been struggling to stand unaided, let alone walk. The idea being that I would take roughly 2hrs 15 to scale the mountain, Hasse 90minutes and the Kazier about 3hours.

Thus, after cheering off the Kaizer and Frederik, then going for a coffee, then cheering off Christer, Mats and Torbjorn, refilling my bottles, leaving my helmet in the van, uttering an oath at the realisation that i had no bananas, putting in my MP3 player and converting to all known religions at once, in search of divine anything (except Brown), it was time to go.

The first 3 or 4 km are reasonably easy, the next 2 or 3 OK. Actually, that's a lie, but it serves it's purpose. In fact there is even a very slight downhill section at one point. But then, it starts to go uphill with increasing rapidity, then suddenly, brutally. Even on the relatively shallow first parts (5% or so), I was passing cyclists really struggling. Some of them would be taking 4 or 5hours + to reach the top, if, in fact, they ever did.

The MP3 player in question is not the famous one from a previous blog, but a newer smaller one. But it did seem to share the same wicked humour as it's bigger brother. I realised this just as i turned the hairpin corner which more or less launches into the evil 15km or so section, and was instantly treated to a French song called "La Precipice". I didn't even know I owned such a song, let alone where it had come from. I also had the almost inevitable "Misty Mountain Hop", "up where we belong" and "Baby I love your way [sung by Big Mountain]" amongst any others.

There are certain good things about Mt. Ventoux from a cyclists point of view, if you can call anything that you have to suffer for 2hours and 12% inclines on "good". The first of these is that whilst there is a road over the top and down the other side, the climb doesn't actually go anywhere useful. It's not a major mountain pass, thus there is very little vehicular traffic. In addition, what traffic there is, 90% of it is Dutch, Belgian and German cycle fans or families of cyclists along to watch their loved ones suffer and offer support. Thus, there was a constant smattering of people to cheer you along, offer you water, laugh at you, or at the very least, not mow you down in their cars as they pass. And of course, lots of other cyclists both struggling up, or relieved to be coming back down. The other bonus is that because of it's status as both a major cycling pilgramage site and regular feature in races, the French keep the surface more or less perfect. You can (and do) complain and swear about many things on your asscent, but the smooth tarmac surface can't really be amongst them.

From that first hairpin, the climb twists steeply up through the trees. It's windy enough that you never have more than maybe 300m of road heading up in your sight, but that's a small bonus. After about 8km or so, i was forced to stop for a nature break, during which Emil, who had been roughly 200m behind me since about the 500m mark, passed me, not to be seen again until the summit. From then, I was in real trouble. The following 5km or so, at 9-12%, were by far the worst for me. My Knee was not happy, and mean't I was forced to stop roughly every km to rest for a minute or so (when i also tried to eat and drink), just so i had a little less pain. With about 9km to go, and having just caught Christer for 15minutes, i took a rest stop at the van for a few minutes and to spray my knee with evil stuff, which helped greatly (and during which time, a boy of maybe 14 shot past us at maybe 3times the speed I had been struggling up at, and with an entire chain ring of lower gears still to go)

A kilometre or so later, and I was past Chalet Reynard, and rapidly - well, not rapidly, but in a short distance - entered thick layers of fog, with which came both drizzle and a sharp drop in temperature. In some respects, the weather was actually not bad for climbing. I was sweating like a pig and hot enough anyway, and the fog and rain removed two of the normal major problems of the upper sections of Ventoux - namely the fearsome sun and temperatures, plus the fact that because it is entirely barren that high, you can see exactly where you have to go, which can be somewhat soul destroying. With things as it were, at most you had glimpses of road 100m ahead (and, admittedly, 15 or 20m up) but never got to see the scope of the remainder of the climb.

In the closing kilometres, the French have helpfully put up posts along the road with a decreasing number of metres still to climb on them, allowing you to have some useful scale of your progress or lack of. It is actually a very useful pscyhological aid, as realising that you only have 200m to climb can be a godsend. Having said that, whichever b*stard thought it funny to put a 80m advance in them (310, 300, 290, 370, 360, What the ****?!) is not, shall we say, going to be on my Christmas Card list this year.

Mt Ventoux is probably the only hill i have ever climbed on my - or anybody else's, for that matter - bicycle where I have actually been truly happy to see a sign saying "next 1000m, 8.1% gradient". That is still monstrously steep, but after several kilometres of steeper stuff, almost makes it feel like you are going downhill.

With just a few km remaining, i suddenly started catching people at regular intervals - Torbe, Frederik, the Kaizer. And then we came to Tom's memorial. Most people don't stop, simply because they can't face then having to get back on the bike and continue climbing, but despite the cold wet fog and patches of snow on the ground, I had to pay my respects. Leaving the bike, and limping up the 5m or so to Tom's memorial, just to look, remember and pay my respects. The effort almost crippled me. From a physical point of view it wasn't a clever idea [though it certainly wasn't as stupid as deciding to climb the damned mountain in the first place], but I just had to do it.

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Torbe at Tom Simpson's memorial. Rest in peace, Tom

I remounted, spurred on by the knowledge that it wasn't far to go now, and that I might actually somehow make it. By the top, visability was 3 or 4 metres at most, and the last 100m (which only Hasse and I had known about beforehand) are not fun. You think you have reached the summit, and then suddenly you round an evil hairpin, straight into a roughly 20% section, from which the wind is blasting straight down into your face, and slowing you down below walking pace [and in many cases, off bikes and actually walking].

But, somehow, I had made it, and I more or less fell into the side of the van at the top in celebration/exhaustion.

Surprisingly, our handicapping had worked out reasonably well, and we all arrived inside about a 15minute window of each other. I came in about 2minutes under my predicted handicap time, good enough for both 4th to the summit and 4th fastest. Emil had come up first, ahead of B-G and Mats P. The Kazier made it in 3hr 2, and Hasse, although not seeing any of us on the way up at all, in 1h 35. Göran had pulled out and been collected by the van after about 15km, struggling too much with the conditions.

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The Kaizer drying off, and with Hasse on top of Mt. Ventoux. Feck me, i made it!

From there, it was but an easy ride home. In theory. Though I had been clever enough to chuck all my extra clothing into the van, which I enthusiastically chucked on as fast as my frostbitten and shaking hands would allow, i still had to get down again. And there were still no bananas.

My clear glasses, planned as a cunning aid to help me decend were useless - There was just too much mist and rain and they fooged up. We were then swiftly treated to freezing hail stones, meaning my visability changed from about 4metres to maybe 1. Thus, at as slow a speed as possible when you are in a really hurry to get somewhere - anywhere - else, reduced to using one squinting eye and only one leg, and with gravity enthusiastially doing what it does best, the few idiots of us stupid enough to try and ride off the mountain (some decided that a van ride made much more sense) we made our way slowly off the mountain. Frederik, someway behind, punctured on the way down.

But in the end, 6 of us ended up back in Bedoiun, shivering like hell and trying to hold whiskey and hot coffee cups enough to enable them to be drunk from, whilst awaiting the van. In typical events, a slight misunderstanding meant that the remaining riders then left without us, leaving B-G and myself to cycle the 25miles back to base alone, an event which got increasingly miserable (due to the increased need for more food and less clothing to be worn, amongst other insignificant things like pain) and involved us getting slightly lost twice into the bargain, before my knee finally gave out for good about 3km from home. For the third consecutive day, i trailed in last, alone and one legged and in slight pain...

I plan to ride half of tomorrow, but at the moment, that seems unlikely.

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Waiting for a pizza, reward for a hard days cycle and a way of avoiding the flippin' huge thunderstorm going on outside

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Iban Mayo, a Spanish professional and mountain goat, holds the record with an ascent a shade under 56minutes. I was more than double that, at 2hrs 11 (though i'd guess my actual climbing time, as opposed to resting time, was probably about 1.55-2hrs), but I had conquered the mountain, without any illegal drugs [we'd tried hard to find the before we started, but had failed...] and that was more than good enough for me.

  • Actually, he never said that. The words were made up by a journalist who wasn't actually there, but they certainly encompased his feelings at the time and have gone down in legend, if not truth, as his final words.

START IDEAL 14,8KM TOP TIME PLACE
KAIZER 12:00 3:00 1:52 15:02 3:02 (-2) 8
FREDRIK 12:01 2:59 1:56 (1:55) 15:00 2:59 (+1) 6
CHRISTER 12:30 2:30 2:08 (1:38) 15:01 2:31 (+1) 7
MATS P 12:35 2:25 2:02 (1:27) 14:49 2:14 (-11) 2
TORBE 12:40 2:20 2:06 (1:26) 14:58 2:18 (-2) 5
RICH 12:45 2:15 2:07 (1:23) 14:56 2:11 (-4) 4
EMIL 12:45 2:15 2:04 (1:19) 14:43 1:58 (-17) 1
BG 12:50 2:10 2:07 (1:13) 14:49 1:59 (-11) 2
GÖRAN 13:00 2:00 2:31 (1:31) - - - DNF
HANS J 13:30 1:30 2:32 (1:02) 15:05 1:35 (+5) 9

Posted by Gelli 03:53 Archived in France Tagged bicycle

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