Mont Ventoux 2014 – Ground Control to Major Tom AKA It Ends

ededwards

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Mont Ventoux 2014 – Ground Control to Major Tom AKA It Ends Here

Since 2007, My Mate Dave and I have had a series of excursions to the high mountains of Europe – the Pyrennes with the Col d’Aubisque, Col du Tormalet and Col de Portet d’Aspet, the French Alps with the Col du Galibier, Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Glandon, the Italian Alps with the Passo del Stelvio, the Gavia and the Mortirolo. The climbs listed above weren’t the only ones covered but there was a glaring omission in the Tour de France canon. Mont Ventoux. This had to be rectified, one way or another (for the sake of honesty, I had been up Mont Ventoux in car in 1989 but I accepted, reluctantly, that this did not count).

So, Mont Ventoux. The Giant of Provence. The Bald Mountain that gained cycling infamy when Tom Simpson came to his sad, far too early demise in 1967 on it’s lunar landscape. But, it’s also where Bradley Wiggins cemented his Grand Tour credentials in 2009 when the elastic repeatedly stretched but he fought his way back on with the world’s elite climbers. And where Chris Froome danced away to gasps in 2013.

But it wasn’t that that made the thoughts of Ventoux so vivid. Nor was it the roll call of Ventoux stage winners, reading like a who’s who– Gaul, Poulidor, Merckx, Thevenet, Bernard, Pantani, Virenque, Garate, Froome. And not even a win on Ventoux. No, it was a win over Ventoux by the giant Eros Poli in 1994. At a shade under 6’6”, Poli wasn’t in any way suited to climbing. But having broken away on his own and reaching the foot of Ventoux alone, could he hold out? It was inspiring to see a man so ill suited, through no fault of his own, inching up a huge mountain climb with the climbers all in hot pursuit – would he reach the summit before he was caught? He did, just, and solo’d on to win a classic stage that has been long fixed in the mind. Could one Big Man inspire another? 2014 was going to be the year when I added to the legend, no question.

All crimes need motive, opportunity and means. The motive has been tediously established. Opportunity was easy – Boffin Dave (for reasons that will become clear later, this is the cyclist formerly known as My Mate Dave) was taking care of logistics and by early summer flights, hire care and accommodation were all sorted. This just left means.

Previous tales have been full of ‘failing to prepare, preparing to fail’ detail with the author displaying great grit in the face of almost impossible adversity and pulling through like a brave Tommy. Although there was some poetic licence (ok, quite a bit), there was an element of truth as there was no specific preparation of body, mind or bike, just a generalized approach that somehow has worked; I’d never even had a puncture. With the onset of the male menopause – or, like love, was it only something you realized when it was gone? – such a slapdash approach would not do. I joined a club. I bought a modern bike. I scheduled a programme of long, hilly rides which had me over Gospel Pass 7 times between January and mid March 2014 and saw a double ascent just before heading off to ride Liege-Bastogne-Liege (the latter was also a dry run for my two travelling companions, Dave and Dave.) Liege-Bastogne-Liege was in the bag without undue distress so just had to keep things ticking over during the warm summer months and I would be, surely, a Giant in Provence.

And then, a week after Belgium, I went up to see Neil. Although we had a lot of breeze to shoot, we planned to ride the Etape Cymru route so on the eve we kept our powder, if not completely dry, then at least only mildly moist. By this point I was well established on my modern bike, negative rise -17 degree stem and all. Neil plotted out accurately but somehow I doubt the Etape Cymru climbs over open moorland with some rocky singletrack thrown in for good measure. Undaunted, I rode it on the super stiff race bike, carbon soled shoes clipped tight into my Look pedals and emerged without a scratch. Then, in trying to avoid hitting a demented, slow moving sheepdog, I toppled over. Embarrassingly unable to unclip, I had to lifted upright to general mirth. We continued the ride, including a few 25% gradients, but I was struggling a bit to brake or change gear. Obviously ribbing ensued so I manned up by self medicating with a few bottles of Belgium’s finest that evening. It didn’t feel too bad.

A sleepless night followed and the three hour drive back to Hereford was enervating although not in a completely positive way. Obviously the Belgian medication hadn’t worked so I tried some Italian red. Ah, that’s better. Except it clearly wasn’t. As I tried to brush my teeth left handed – it was like trying to thread a brake cable drunk. Not that I have ever done that, obviously – I realized that, Bank Holiday or not, I should go to A and E.

Driving home with my broken wrist in a cast, my preparations lay in tatters.

The cast would stay on for at least 6 weeks – the RetroRonde was in, yep, 6 weeks – and there was no way I could do any riding in the meantime (I obviously rode to work as that somehow seemed a good idea. Fortunately there can’t have been many cars around as I was wobbly to say the least and couldn’t effectively brake). Bum.

When the cast finally came off – I’d had to ditch the RetroRonde as cobbles and a cast didn’t seem an ideal combination – I was straight out on the bike as I had to make up for so much lost time. The wrist was super stiff, and very immobile, so the first ride was barely 15 flattish miles (I’ve left out that 6 week sitting on the sofa with beer, crisps and chocolate had done little for my power to weight ratio. I’d also had three weeks to work out how to tell Vinia that I’d broken my wrist during the month she was away and come up with a plausible story that it was due to cycling). This wasn’t good as France was now weeks away. It looked like I’d have to fall back on the tried and true methods i.e. be disastrously underprepared and hope for the best.

So, motive, opportunity and means clarified, the crime had to be committed. As I alighted from the train in Moreton-in-Marsh, a fellow traveler asked me, apropros of nothing, whether I was a ninja (ok, so the actual words were “do you do martial arts?”). With my feline grace, this was a natural assumption to make but, not wanting to be ungallant by laughing, I simply smilingly demurred. Was this a portent of things to come?

Arriving with Dave and Dave at Heathrow, breakfast was required. But before that, the issue of referring to two people with the same name has to be tackled. My Mate Dave works at the National Physics Laboratory and, turning up to a cycling weekend in Belgium, bought not a copy of Rouleur with him as reading but New Scientist, and a back issue at that. Obviously he’d be Boffin Dave, easy. The other Dave? Little Dave.

Anyway, breakfast. Being a huge fan of Beavis and Butthead, the choice of what to eat was obvious. Sadly the burrito was neither piquant nor filling and an air of melancholia descended although it was lifted by Little Dave’s comedic fear of flying act (I did feel a bit guilty when I found out that it wasn’t an act, but only a bit).

On the drive to the apartment in Ales, we discussed about when we should tackle Ventoux. We agreed that it should be as soon as possible but not on a weekend when it would surely be far too busy. We also thought that we should set off early to avoid the fierce midday heat radiating off that bare, white landscape. The next day was Sunday so we could reassemble the bikes, have a little shakedown ride and get ourselves ready.

The bike reassembly passed without undue incident although Little Dave’s suggestion that we should drink a ‘Belgian cycling beer’ at midday before the shakedown ride was perhaps unwise, especially when I belatedly realized that it was a fullbodied 8.6% rather than the 4.2% Little Dave claimed. Anyway, worse approaches had yielded positive results in the past so we headed off to Col d’Urglas in blazing heat.

This was more like it. Except when the road tilted gently upwards, the Dave’s rode effortlessly away. No problem, it was all about the long game and I’d reel them in. Except I didn’t. I pushed harder on the pedals, sweating pouring down my forehead. Nothing. This did not bode well so I decided that on the refuge of the scoundrel and dismounted, intending to blame my bike and darkly mutter about never experiencing such mechanical woes on my old steel steeds. I spun the back wheel. Or rather didn’t – in my excited reassembly I’d neglected to note that the rear brake was effectively full on. A quick twiddle with an allen key and I was back on. And, as swiftly, back on the wheel of the Dave’s – this was more like it. But hang on, did I just mention ‘old steel steeds’, implying I was on something more modern?

Ok, full disclosure, although the eagle eyed reader will have picked up mention earlier. Previous adventures had seen me on steel, a Surly Crosscheck in the Pyrennes then getting it right on a 7-11 Eddy Merckx Corsa Extra in the French Alps and an ADR Corsa Extra in the Italian Alps. This time I was on a modern Merlin Works, all butted ti, carbon forks and Rival groupset. I would have been thoroughly shamefaced if I hadn’t been using 20 year old Look pedals.

Anyway, the bike had seen me through L-B-L and the broken wrist crash so it would be an interesting experiment to see how it fared in the high mountains. Or at least I’d convinced myself on one level that this was an interesting scientific comparison, even if I knew deep down that I was trying to stave off physical decline by embracing modern technology.

Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, Mont Ventoux. Ventoux isn’t part of a mountain range and can be seen from miles around, rising from the Provencal plains with the weather station on top clearly visible. There are three ways to the 1,912m summit but the classic, and toughest, climbs 1,617 m over 21.8 km from Bedoin. With an average gradient of 7.5%, the numbers don’t sound too bad. But, as Iain Duncan Smith should know, statistics can be curiously difficult to pin down and the average hides a very shallow first 6km with the final 16km averaging 8.9% (as a comparison, Alpe d'Huez is 13.8 km at an average gradient of 7.9%. I am glad, so, so glad, that I didn’t know this before I went). Ventoux is also known for it’s savage winds, with photos from the Etape a few years ago showing riders lying flat on the road with their bikes as the wind howled and sand swirled around. The last kilometres may have strong, violent winds. So, by all accounts one of the toughest climbs in professional cycling. I wondered whether Ghandi would have considered the one last Kronenberg the previous evening a wise move.

We’d pledged to drive over early so that we could avoid the fierce heat of the middle of the day but somehow that hadn’t worked and the town clock struck midday as we rolled away from the car to start the ascent. Thankfully we weren’t the only fools to be leaving at the hottest time of the day although I had no doubt that we’d suffer like the honest Tommies that we were.

The opening kilometers were gentle and wooded and, to be honest, the summit didn’t look too far away nor too high – was Ventoux’s reputation unwarranted? It certainly seemed so. Rhythm was quickly established with Boffin Dave adopting his traditional Goldilocks position 100m behind, never less, never more. The gradient gradually increased and, deep in the trees, we could no longer see the prize. The road was straight and there were none of the switchbacks so familiar from Alpine climbs – this looked like it could be a slog.

After 20 minutes or so, I glanced back and Little Dave was no longer on my wheel. This was less down to a Froome like acceleration on my part, more water finding it’s own level as we rode at a pace that was sustainable in the long haul. With it’s straightness and woodiness the climb was getting a bit boring so I stopped to fit my iPod – perhaps some musical accompaniment would relieve the tedium? It did, but soon it was back to ride up a 9% road, round a gradual corner and repeat. I thought about Tom Simpson, winner of the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, the Giro d’Lombardia, World champion, and how he must have suffered on these slopes. I thought about Kate Moss, to whom I am now tenuously related via my mum’s gentleman caller. And, just like that, after well over an hour, I emerged from the trees onto the surface of the moon with the summit in sight.

The heat was stifling, but thankfully there was no wind. On I climbed, glistening thighs, pumping away like fleshy fire hydrants. Donna Summer started to feel love and I was just thankful that it wasn’t the version by Vanessa ‘jailbait violinist/Olympic skier’ Mae. On it went – was this really the way to rail against the onset of the male menopause? I was passed by an older, quite overweight woman on a flat barred bike that did wonders for my self-regard until I realised belatedly that it was an electric bike. Hauling my over large frame inelegantly from the saddle, I gave pathetic chase, looking to take victory from any angle and no matter how small.

And then, just like that, I was at the famous weather station, surrounded by German motor cyclists who were congratulating themselves at having ridden to the top aided by nothing more than 1,300cc between their legs. I’d done it and pan y agua no less. Although, somehow, I’d manage to miss the Simpson memorial on the way up. The views were clear but all that gave me was the opportunity to get the fear about the ride back down that awaited. To try to distract myself, I reflected on the climb – was it the Tour’s toughest, as per legend? Without doubt it was harder than Chinese algebra, but it was also quite dull with none of the majesty or spectacle the ascents in the Pyrennes or Alps – quite simply, without it’s history, you simply wouldn’t bother. But I had, and the last of the Tour climbs had been ticked off.


The descent was as dull as the climb, straight and fast, although we did pause, briefly, at the Simpson memorial which was pretty close to the top. It was a really sobering moment and a stark reminder of the shadow that has always hung over professional cycling. I can only glimpse at the anguish and suffering that Tom must have gone through, especially with the summit so close. Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, you know the rest.

We triumphantly arrived back in Ales having achieved the goal of the trip on only day two. To celebrate I prepared an inedibly bland pasta meal although at least it was washed down with some Ventoux themed wine. We were Forcats of the Road, cycling gods among men, we ruled. Then, popping to the loo, I spied myself in the mirror and the bubble was well and truly burst, a MAMIL without the lycra but sporting a sunburnt nose is a poor sight at the best of times, even when wine infused. On my return, my smile was brittle, the artifice of achievement fatally compromised. Sleep, when it came, was fitful and not only because the WC was an integral feature of my room.

My portentious self-regard having been shattered by the reality of my reflection, I decided the following morning, despite a muggy head, to ignore mirrors for the rest of the trip (half an hour later I introduced a caveat as I didn’t want to end up like a wannabe hipster so shaving was going to be essential) and throw myself into some ping pong marathons (our accommodation had an outdoor table tennis table that we claimed as our own although I remain slightly embarrassed about the grease stain near one corner caused by placing a particularly garlicky sausage down while I was serving).

Still, table tennis is not the reason why you head off on a cycling holiday so we committed to saddling up each day and heading to the hills. Being fans of The Rider, the existentialist cycling novel by Tim Krabbe, we obviously were going to have a crack at Mont Aigoual, only a short car journey away from Ales. The Rider features the fictional semi-pro race, the Tour of Mont Aigoual and, although not nearly as iconic as Mont Ventoux, the climb does feature in the Midi Libre and at 1,567m it certainly promised to be a worthy adversary. Sticking to our tried and tested method, we lolled around after getting up while I tried to persuade The Dave’s that a tasteless pasta breakfast was what was required and Little Dave muttered about needing to refuel under the golden arches. Finally, with at least a whiff of reluctance, we loaded the bikes up, drove to Vigan and saddled.

It was midday, the still heat hanging menacingly in the air like a damp blanket of doom. There was a gentle 20km or so roll out to the base of the climb although it was very hot and I was worried by the signposts that seemed to suggest that once we started the climb it was 28km to the summit. This sounded like quite a long way. Little Dave was already chirruping away – he’s never happier than when he has something to complain about – and as the road tilted I opted to fix my earphones firmly to help in establishing a rhythm/block out the steady whine.

Thankfully the gradient was a shallowish 5% or so and with pine trees lining the road it felt relatively cool although the sweat dripping off my bar tape (thinking I was some sort of Boonen/Sagan clone, I was riding sans mitts) gave the lie to the effortless nature of my ascent. We climbed steadily, committing to stay together, my legs spinning frantically like a corpulent Froome, The Dave’s opting to churn a heavy gear like English Ullrich’s after a heavy winter of Bavarian pastries. Belatedly I also realised the folly of riding in Belgian national kit, although at least my effort was so pitiful I couldn’t be accused of being a has been, more a never was.


As the watch clicked over into a third hour, we continued to climb – I had neither changed gear nor freewheeled for almost as long as it takes to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End although I must admit the cycling was more mentally stimulating and far less exhausting. Finally, finally, we’d made it. A quick look at the view, the obligatory photographs and it was time to descend the 32km into Vigan. And it really was a 32km descent, good road surface, not too steep, few cars, sinuous supermodel bends that you could take flat out, glorious views dropping away to the right, descending perfection. Within minutes I was bored stupid. It went on and on. With The Dave’s having long disappeared into the distance, I tried to enjoy myself, I really did, but it was no good – I was going too slowly to get any of the thrill of speed, but too fast to be able to look up from the tarmac and enjoy the view. Finally, after what seemed an age but was clearly only a fraction of the time it took to climb, Vigan and the car hoved into view.

It is surprising how hungry you can get riding down a hill but none of us could face my cooking yet again but nor did we want to risk arriving in Ales and finding everywhere shut. We weren’t dressed for it but we thought we’d look for somewhere in Ales. It gives me no pleasure to recount what happened next, indeed my cheeks are rosy as I type.

Picture the sight – I was in slightly too small Belgian cycling kit accessorized with with a prominently sunburnt nose and little white anti-tan lines around my eyes from squinting in the warm sun for the best part of a week, Little Dave was wearing a pink cap with the pronounced sweat rings rendering it so stiff that it could proudly stand on it’s own and Boffin Dave was wearing the killer combo of cycling shorts, white M&S sports socks and a smart black pair of work shoes. We looked, frankly, awesome and I swear there were gasps of admiration as we swaggered through the streets.


We settled on the first restaurant we found not least because we were a touch weary but also because the teenage waitress we glanced in the dimly lit interior looked absolutely exquisite, like a young Melissa Theuriau. Settling ourselves on the outdoor terrace, clearly with the air of men who in their minds eye were lean and chiseled with their cycling portraits of Dorian Gray safely tucked away in their mental attic, the waitress approached. She turned out to speak the most charmingly accented English imaginable and, to a man, we simultaneously developed pathetic middle aged crushes. I was quite unable to look at the menu and ended up being unable to do more than order the same as Little Dave (dear god, kebab meat and chips. In France). The Boffin was on finer form and like a silky Valmont ordered steak (rare, obvs) and a glass of red wine, all in the most fluent Franglais. I remember little about the meal although I’m quite sure that my burning cheeks weren’t all down to the sun, especially when Little Dave ‘accidentally’ dropped his credit card when he was trying to pay. We slunk away, the night offering a comforting cloak of anonymity. Sometimes it’s rubbish being a middle aged man.

All too soon, the last day was upon us and the objective of riding every day about to be realized. Little Dave had had enough and flatly refused to come out (it had taken 7 days but I had broken him physically, mentally, spiritually). The Boffin said that he was also going to give it a miss and then changed his mind. And again. And again. At last, after a bit more uncertainty, we headed out. And had the best 4 hour ride of the whole trip.

It was a warm Sunday afternoon (ok, so we’d left at midday as it seemed appropriate not to break our streak). We planned on a little loop around the hills near Ales, exploring some of the quieter singletrack roads, pine tree lined with sunlight dappling the ground. There were no cars about and it was one of those perfect days in the saddle when you are weary but powerful, warm sun on your back, swooping across smooth tarmacadam, free. After a couple of hours of rolling hills, we came across a bar/restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The view was spectacular and we sat silently sipping our well earned beer, taking in the vista (although my mind wasn’t quite as Zen-like empty of thought – this seemed a strange place for a business establishment and the waiter had a strange glimpse in his eye. The sound of ‘Hotel California’ drifting from inside did little to quieten these thoughts).


We did manage to get out alive and completed the smooth roll in to Ales, a truly magical ride. As it was our last night, we’d pledged to go out for a meal to celebrate and The Boffin had scoped out a suitable place that had been recommended to us. Crunching across broken glass as we approached, the establishment looked resolutely shut in a way that only seems to happen in rural France or south Wales. It was shut and we couldn’t work out why until Little Dave, who speaks no French, pointed us to the sign that explained unambiguously in French that it was shut on Sunday evening. Slightly deflated, we headed into Ales to find out that everywhere was pretty much shut on a Sunday evening although we managed to take refuge under the golden arches, much to Little Dave’s joy. A splendidly farcical scene ensued when The Boffin decided to ask for an apple pie; they even fetched the resident English speaker but, despite some insistence that apple pie is a McDonald’s staple, Dave was left empty handed (well, empty handed apart from an M and M McFlurry and a small tub of sweet bbq sauce. There was nothing for it – we headed back to the apartment where I inconsiderately drunk the bottle of rose that The Boffin had bought for his partner (in my defence, I only found out that it had been purchased as a gift when I was half way through).

I always hate the travel back from a cycling holiday and this was no different. The drizzling greyness of Heathrow did little to lift the day after the Lord Mayor’s show atmosphere and the hour delay at Moreton-in-Marsh station and 50 minutes on the platform at Worcester Foregate hardly helped. Anyway, home we were.

So, key reflections/abiding memories:
- Ventoux is a tough climb but lacks the majesty of the other iconic climbs
- riding a modern bike makes absolutely no difference in the mountains, it’s bloody hard work no matter how you look at it
- some of the best rides are those without any sense of history, just smooth roads, warm weather and good company. But I already knew that really.

Having completed the main Tour de France climbs, I have felt a little melancholy in the past few weeks – what is there left to do? And will I never again experience the youthful(ish) sense of wonder when I read and see explaoits; sure, they are tough but they are just roads and if I can ride them then anyone can. Obviously I’d need to come up with another challenge and it appears that I’ll be riding Paris-Roubaix again in 2015 (clearly a sign of madness), may even go on the Gios in full wool and adidas Merckx shoes. I really must get out more often…..
 

theredchili

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Was Planning on heading to Mont Ventoux a couple of weeks back, but settled for Alpe d'Huez and the Belgium Single speed champs instead! Great read as ever.
 

ededwards

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A few more photos to weave into the story somewhere, not sure they require more explanation except for the one of a bottle of rose and an article about French cars by Gus that somehow, inexplicably, has found it's way into a cycling periodical.......
 

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jon w

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Great write up Ed.

Looked like immense fun... and Dave managed to stay out of the ditch....
 

Augustus

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Re:

don't know about you, but i'd like to see a calendar with each month accompanied by an image of Edwards sticking eierth one or two fingers up at the camera with that disparate look on his visog.

Oh, and i'll read the article in a bit too. Presume you left mine there for the foreigners to use as a table leg prop. ?


G x
 

mrkawasaki

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A tale with a very familiar ring about it. Good work as ever chaps.
 

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daj

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Really was an amazing trip so many great memories to look back on :D

Cannot believe you missed out on removing Dave`s front wheel at the airport and hiding in your bag while he was getting the hire car!! :LOL: :LOL:
 
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