Good Times!

On top of Mont Ventoux - the first climb

Sometimes the good stuff just comes non-stop, like an avalanche. Perhaps overdramatic but, for all the troughs, the peaks are there to be enjoyed, revelled in.

First the slightly superficial. Well not that superficial to me but, anyway, the triple challenge has been completed. What started on a miserable day in April with a slow, nervous departure from Liege ended last Sunday on a bridge not far from home. Over the three rides a total of 355 kilometres was ridden and 4,700 metres climbed. Not much perhaps when just looked at in purely numeric terms but the effort was there.

The last challenge was nice and low key. I rode with a friend, which was nice as I was shaking off a bug and the company was welcome, a nice change from my usual solo efforts. Nicely uneventful, just one brief loss of direction and then a gentle cruise through the Rondje Markermeer. After the insanity in Belgium and seemingly endless climb of Ventoux via Malaucene this was, well, just fun. And a lot of new sights, for me at least. No speed records to be broken, just a slow cruise taking in the sights and sounds.

On the Houtribdijk

Memorable in it’s own way. And the triple will all have memories. True, the first two had moments of difficulty. Pretty long moments! The first 60 kilometres of Liege-Bastogne-Liege were miserable, the rain consistently against me and the first long descent something that I genuinely did not enjoy. The mid-point on Ventoux was sapping this time, with my Garmin Sat Nav occasionally thinking I had stopped when I was bloody well moving!

The nice thing about the Rondje Markermeer was that the worst moment was a little bit of rain at the start and cycling into some wind from Monnickedam to Hoorn but, if you cycle in Holland, the wind is just something you are used to. Instead it is the good memories that remain; watching various seabirds take off over the water from the Houtibdijk and looking across the water from Almere toward Amsterdam and realising that we had just covered that distance. These added to a list of great memories that the triple challenge has left me.

From Ventoux, the views that the climb from Malaucene afford means the horizon slowly became….. bigger. No picture can do it justice and the feast for the eyes helped distract from the pain in the legs.

Nearing the top of Ventoux….

And from Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the amazing feeling that came after realising that the big climbs (and subsequent descents) had been completed, a list of names that probably mean little to most but, to someone who is a bit obsessed cycling, are magical; Haute-Levee, Ancienne Barriere, Col du Rosier….. And, of course, the infamous Cote de la Redoute. I can’t really describe the feeling on completing that one.

(Unfortunately, in the elation, it is easily forgotten that there are two short but brutal climbs and a set of proper Belgian cobbles on the finish for amateurs….. just to break any resistance you may have had left!)

Early climb out of Liege.

And then, after the completion of the Triple, the good news continued to flow in. An MRI that I had been more than a little fearful of actually yielded good results! Well, a strange sort of good. The lesions have grown and there are ominous sounding ‘black holes’ appearing; small, dark gaps on the MRI. So now, instead of looking like someone has sneezed on my scan, someone has spilt some ink on it.

(Disclaimer – my neurologist called them blackholes and with a small chuckle, not an official medical term – I see the humour, after all my mind was always a black hole!)

So the MS is still there and messing with my brain. So what is the good news? Well, the growth is slow, which is good, and the effects are manageable. No need for medication and I can carry on with everything that I do now. Work, play.

Cycle.

Which means next year needs planning. Winter training has started, slightly reduced time in the saddle but much more fun unless it’s icy. Empty roads, none of the summer warriors and just other riders who are friendly because they know another idiot when they see one.

Personally, it’s a real high is that I can start to plan next year’s challenges. Liege-Bastogne-Liege will be repeated, the ultimate hypocrisy from someone who swore never to do it again. Also looking for two more. It’s fun to prepare for and to think about. One will be sponsored, need to give that some thought.

That I can put time in to thought around such ‘trivial’ things is special in itself. The circumstances are not perfect, I admit that. But they could be so much worse. So focus on the good stuff. ‘Reasons to be cheerful’, to paraphrase Ian Dury. And, right now, there are plenty of those.

Challenge Number Three – Rondje Markermeer

So, the year comes slowly to close and, with it, the triple challenges I set myself with the bike. Just one left now After Liege-Bastogne-Liege (agony in the rain!) and Mont Ventoux via Malaucene (agony in the Sun!) comes the easy one (no agony??? Please???). The Rondje Markermeer….

Well, easy…..

In comparison to the the first two challenges it’s certainly less logistics. Effectively on the backdoor and I can do it when I want, subject to work, weather, other commitments……  Plenty of places to stop on the route and I can always just postpone; something that was not the case for Liege-Bastogne-Liege, for example. If there is a hurricane, I can postpone. If I get out of bed the wrong side, I can postpone. If the coffee isn’t nice in the morning, I can postpone.

You get the drift.

But the psychotic cyclist in me (cyclepath?) will do it. That’s the point of the challenges. The winter is coming and, before that, the Autumn Storms. The opportunities will be less.

So I need to get on with it.

What is it, though?

As per the above link, the good folk at Strava have the Rondje Markermeer mapped out, which saves me describing it. A long ride around a lake would probably suffice. Effectively, just a long ride from my home. In terms of overall achievement, it will be the longest ride I have undertaken but not by much. There have been rides with more climbing involved and in bad in weather. The wind will be the main hardship but anyone who has cycled in Holland knows that the wind will always be a factor. It’s there, nothing to stop it.

So why call it a challenge?

Because it will be a long ride and, following the extremities of the first two challenges, something of a wind down. After this, the bike rides will slow down a little. The winter is, bizarrely, my favourite time to ride. Shorter but still demanding, the occasional fun in the snow with my gravel bike, nothing to really aim for apart from pure enjoyment. But it is still a route that is long, windy and potentially wet. Around halfway, probably at some point on the Houtribdijk when I am just surrounded by water, I will think….

‘Why the f*ck am I doing this?’

And, as the 50 km mark for Liege-Bastogne-Liege or just about anywhere on Mont Ventoux that wasn’t the top, I will try to push that thought to one side and carry on. Finish the ride.

That night, when I am having a celebratory beer or 48 and a bad pizza, I will probably promise myself that I will never do it again. Not that I listen to myself very often.

And that will be 2017 challenges done.

Ventoux – Second Time Lucky

And then it was done.

Ventoux climbed for a second time, marking the completion of the second challenge for this year and also a big personal landmark,, showing that last year was not a one-off, that I can take on the physical challenges and meet them, albeit not very quickly.

So, the climb. May 30th, 2017. An early start from our lodgings in Mormoiron and then to Malaucene via Bedoin and the Col de la Madelaine (not that one!). A slow ride over these, taking it easy and saving my energy for something bigger. Far bigger.

I read a lot about the climb from Malaucene ready for this ride and knew that the worst points were about 10km in to the climb when the gradients average around 12%. It doesn’t sound too bad and I had encountered much higher gradients during Liege-Bastogne-Liege; La Redoute, for example, has a short blast of 20% gradient.

A short blast. Only 50 metres, you can see the end of it and you just stand on the peddles and push harder knowing that there is a rest coming up, albeit a descent; I normally hate descents but after such a short, intense climb any relaxation is welcome….

But this not 50 metres, this is 3 kilometres. A completely insane 3 f*cking kilometres! And there is no restful descent, afterwards. Just more mountain, up and up. An easier gradient but still, mountain. Up and up…..

I will say that it was stunning to see. No pictures because, despite this romantic idea of stopping for the odd snap, I find it difficult to stop when climbing because it is a lot of work to get going again. That’s my excuse anyway. But, believe me, this time I could look to my left and see toward an expanding horizon, at least giving you the benefit of knowing that you are going up. Not like Bedoin where the tress seem to suffocate you.

I did take one picture but…. well…. it’s a bit naff.

In the end its climbing… up and up…. ow…. the legs hurt…. Just keep going, peel the kilometres away.

And then you reach the top. Strange because it feels sudden, even though you have been pushing for so long to get there, even if it is only two hours. The beaten weather stations or-whatever-it-is-the-French-Air-Force-use-it-for is just there and you are weaving around tourists, sight-seers, other cyclists…… The usual mix of people, some nice, some not. The former stick in the mind.

A quick queue for a picture in front of that sign (recently renewed) and then front wheel off the bike and in to the car. No descent in the end, not this time. No secret as I keep saying it but I don’t like descending and, in the end, my right arm did not feel good. Now I think maybe I should have descended via Sault but…. that’s wisdom of hindsight. It would still have been twenty kilometres down, something not sensible with a weak right arm.

But this time we did stop and leave a Bidon with Tom Simpson. Thanks for the hospitality! A stop at Chalet Reynard for lunch was an anti-climax as it was apparently fully booked by a coach party and so no truffle omelette, just the nicest beer I have ever had.

And that was it. Challenge Number Two done. Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Ventoux completed and so only one more to do, the relatively easy one of the trio. Relatively. A long and easy cruise. That’s the plan anyway.

Of course it was hard work but climbing Ventoux again was, personally, so enjoyable and so rewarding. I will never be one of these folks who makes all three climbs in one day, one is quite enough and that would involve descending, that’s my excuse in any case. That one climb felt so great, a fantastic feeling when the summit is in front of you!

But the best thing for me? The right leg did feel like it was doing something, even if the left did the bulk of the work (and had the cramp at the end). For all of the issues that came with this climb, and there were some, that’s what I will remember most, what keeps me going with these small pieces of private insanity. Keeping the Progressive part of my MS as Unprogressive as possible is what it is personally all about and I am convinced that challenges like Ventoux help this. I don’t claim to know why, it just feels that way.

So, for the second year running, here’s to the mountain.

  • This climb was originally targeted for May 31st – World MS Day, but was moved to May 30th due to possible weather issues. Turned out the weather was fine but no matter, target still completed and thoughts are  turning to targets for next year. This time, it may well be sponsored with the target of keeping my MS and those of others as unprogressive as possible. Just in the back of my mind for now. 

Ventoux – Why Again?

So, back to the mountain. Last year it was the achievement for me. This year? It’s second in a list of three. After Liege-Bastogne-Liege….. But a poor second? Absolutely not. It’s cycling up a mountain. Just a case of going up….. and up….. and up…..

So why do it again? One year on I am better cyclist and Ventoux is still scary but, after blundering up and (worse) down in Belgium it is not quite so intimidating. My condition is better as well. Last year’s warm-up ride was twenty kilometres with just under four-hundred metres climbed and I was shattered. Cut to this year and was forty kilometres, seven-hundred metres and even some descending and I felt fine. I’ll do another warm-up tomorrow. Looking forward to it, apart from the descending bit…… There is no comparison between the guy who climbed last year and the guy who will climb this year.

So let’s start by taking away the comparison to last year. It’s the same mountain but, after that, the similarities end. Besides the fact that I will climb from a different start point, in Malaucene, there is also the fact that this year’s ride has zero pressure. Last year was a sponsored ride and had to happen on a certain date. Even if I made plans for being unable to ride due to MS related issues I still felt I owed it to all who sponsored me to complete the climb on the specified date if possible. That meant whatever the weather which, on Ventoux, can be very tough indeed. Witness the 2016 Tour de France where a climb to the summit of Ventoux was called off due to high wind.

In the end, though, none of those who so generously sponsored and supported me would have minded if I would have been unable to complete the climb. I, on the other hand, would have minded immensely. It meant a huge amount, a stupid amount, a completely f*cking insane amount.

One year later and things have changed. No pressure, most of which came from myself. The climb from Malaucene is as tough as that from Bedoin but, apparently, the views are nicer. I may stop and take some pictures. There was also an early decision made not to ask for any form of sponsorship. I still feel very heartened (the overused word ‘inspired’ actually applies for once) by the support I received. Not just financially, all of the words of support that came in as well. So generous. Maybe I will do something next year but this year? Even for the best causes, you can ask too much. I will ask next year.

There is also the crucial element, for me, that I can go when I want. We are watching the weather, making sure that the wind is kind and that there is no rain. It will still be difficult but I would like to enjoy what is around me this time. Have a look, take a bit longer, also on the ride from Mormoiron to Malaucene.

At the same time it is important not to be cavalier. The freedom to go when I want and take my time still means I will respect the mountain. And it is a personal target because….. well…. I have been diagnosed with MS. If you had told me, around four years ago when I was initially diagnosed, that I would even be considering this I would not have believed you.

But you grow up and learn. My MS is Primary Progressive but it is not Progressing that quickly and each day with another target like this is another day to revel in. I won’t blog about the bad days, why should I? No, it’s better to think about that great feeling of climbing when I feel my right leg doing something. And looking forward again to seeing that tower at the top of the mountain. A special feeling. One that cannot rival last year but also one that will make the achievement of challenge number two so worthwhile.

That’s why I will do this again.

But let’s also be honest, the right hand means the jury is still out on any long (20km!) descent, though. So let’s keep this in perspective. It’s just climbing a mountain after all!