Ventoux: Back Among Giants

I love it here.

Provence. I am hiding from the Sun a little now, it is a touch warm. But the view of Mont Ventoux remains utterly spellbinding. How can something that can be so cruel on long climb have such a calming presence.

Today, though, has been acclimatisation day. One ride, not too long with good proportion of climbing on steep gradients. I have feared these after last year’s (slightly daft) sideways fall on Cote de la Redoute. It feels good to get on some gradients that were just as steep, if not for anywhere near as long, and manage to stay on the bike!

Only a short training ride but one that kept me aware. It nearly went pear-shaped within minutes. A large group of cyclists barrelling through the village where we are staying and taking the width of the whole road on a rapid descent. Apparently an organised event the lack of marshals and signage meant a head on collision was only narrowly avoided. After that I slid behind a car. Not a great advertisement for cycling, can imagine someone just walking up the hill would have been….. unnerved……

Part of the rode was a scouting trip to Bedoin confirmed that weekend was not the right time for a climb. A traffic jam of cars and cyclists through the village, either to the supermarket or to start the climb of the mountain, and a seeming inability to signal by either made this the most dangerous part of the ride.

The open roads in France, though, remain a joy for a cyclist. Space and time are afforded to cyclists, even by trucks. That helps the confidence.

And the landscape is just spellbinding.

The only concern for the climb at the moment is the heat. Heat and exercise are not good combinations, add MS to the challenge and you have a complex situation. Fortunately, cycling helps keep me cool through generating it’s own breeze. I think.

I am fit and well prepared for this, though. My route is ready and all I need to do is enjoy the long, slow climb through the Gorges de la Nesque up to Ventoux via Sault. After the insanity of Bedoin (hot and steep and f*cking claustrophobic) and Malaucene (pretty and steep, f*cking 12% right in the middle!), this will hopefully be an enjoyable day in the saddle.

And when I get to the top, I will decide whether or not to ride down or chicken out and get a lift down. Or maybe the Mistral will decide for me. You can’t lan everything!

Just to make sure I do not get too relaxed about things, I have started reading Ventoux by Jeremy Whittle. A large part of the first ten pages seemed to centre on people dying on Ventoux, from Tom Simpson onwards.

A healthy dose of nerves and respect for the mountain is no bad thing. After all, there is no such thing as an easy route.

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. 

Challenge Number Two – Ventoux…. Just One More Time….

The last three days of work and the holiday begins. Back to Provence, to Mormoiron and back to Ventoux. This time, just for myself and not for any sponsored goal, although the sponsored goal of last year’s ride was bloody important for me. No fixed date for the ride although I do have one in mind. It’s subject to the weather and the conditions and how I feel, nothing set. I have not even packed any gear to cycle in the rain because, if it rains, I won’t go! There was enough rain during Liege-Bastogne-Liege, thank-you very much.

That said, the nature of the challenge has changed a little. The original plan was to climb Ventoux twice (not on the same day, I am not that crazy although respect to those who do!) but now I will only climb once, preferably from Malaucene. This would be a good plan if we had two weeks but with one week it becomes a question of choosing, two climbs of Ventoux or one climb and spend the rest of my time in the saddle looking around, doing something different.

A no-brainer, I choose different. And ideally the one climb of Ventoux will be from Malaucene this time, not easier but different. With plenty of water and food, of course. No chances taken.

As for the descent? Well, the jury is still out on that one. Liege-Bastogne-Liege involved plenty of these, in the rain as well. I did them and finished the course which meant the main target had been accomplished. But I cannot lie, I will never claim to have enjoyed these as much as I enjoyed the climbs, using them as a rest but certainly not pushing for speed. These were relatively short descents so twenty kilometres and downhill all the way? Not sure, will think about it. I know my limits, especially the right hand, but do not want to linger on these or worry about them, a big part of this challenge is selfish enjoyment,

Climbing Ventoux once will therefore be more than enough. A challenge still but one that I am more relaxed about in comparison to last year, partly because there is nothing set in stone and, with Majorca and Belgium, there are a few more metres climbed than last year. I will also let no-one down if I do not complete the climb; so many generous sponsors last year and, although none of them would have required me to finish if I couldn’t, I would have felt that I was letting them down.

This year, no date, no time, no route, no pressure. Just what I want to achieve for myself. Selfish, perhaps. But I just have to enjoy my physical health while I can, to the maximum. The challenges I set myself form an important part of this.

And so, no matter what form it takes, on to Challenge Number Two! Just the one climb though. Provence has so much more to experience…..

The Day After

Today is all about a rest. And cleaning the bike. A lot of dirt on the cassette and chain, not to mention the sticky residue of energy drink spillage. After Ventoux yesterday perhaps an anti-climax but necessary. A small piece of domestic work after a ride that will stick in my mind. Mont Ventoux via Bedoin. In the footsteps (or tread marks) of greats. Not at their speed, of course, but the same route that the Tour de France often takes toward the top of the ‘Geant de Provence’.

The ride that I have spent eight months preparing for was completed in two hours and three minutes. Not amazingly fast but apparently above the average which someone said was two and a quarter hours. One short stop for a banana and a lot water on the road preceded by an ample breakfast saw me to the top. A lot of luck with the weather as well with a wind that was benign, perhaps a little cooling, and a pleasant dryness.

Of course it was hot but the research I had done meant there were few surprises. Not too fast at the start although I did occasionally find myself accelerating a small amount to get around some other cyclists. Nothing against anyone but, strangely, I find it tiring to cycle behind someone sometimes. Come to think of it I also find it tiring when someone is too close behind me; perhaps I am just antisocial when in the saddle? In any case, I started the slow climb from Bedoin at a pace that was controlled and relaxed.

After Saint Esteve came the forest and it’s true, this is the worst part of the climb. Until you get a tantalising glimpse of the summit when approaching Chalet Reynard you have absolutely no idea where you are and how much further there is to climb, just the odd sign saying it is so many kilometres to the summit and usually these are more than you thought!

Usually I like forests but in this context I soon found myself going mad of the green of trees and the grey of the road, silence apart from my own breathing and the odd voices of others. You are working too hard to be sleepy but your mind occasionally switches off or, rather, goes in to a form of automation as it just processes the road, the path ahead, the bend approaching, the cyclists ahead, whether the path ahead is clear for overtaking and what is going on behind, speed, pulse-rate, breathing.

Automation.

Occasional shouts of encouragement from those who were with me, others along the path and cyclists taking part in the same event descending were a welcome break to the silence. Less welcome were those descending who were shouting unnecessary warnings. One was shouting aggressively even though there was plenty of room and, through his aggression, seemed to confirm his own lack of control and security. Another descended blowing a whistle constantly. Stupid distraction and would someone in a car hear him? No. If you are so insecure, don’t descend. Simple.

Incidentally, I did not descend. Despite my plan to leave a bottle with Tom Simpson my right hand decided to be very weak at the end of the climb and no way would I take the risk to myself or other people. Travel down with a car and with no shame at aIMG_3798ll.

When Chalet Reynard appeared it was a complete, uplifting, joyous surprise. An ugly little building but something I was elated to see. A short stop for the boost of the banana and to empty my larger bottle of sticky energy drink and then onward.

The luck with the wind meant what could have been the worst part of the climb was actually, for me, the best. Ahead was the red and white tower at the summit and I could see it which meant I know how far I had to go. Only six kilometers. I found myself smiling. Inanely and insanely perhaps but, smiling. Taking in a wonderful view in relative peace and maintaining the automation – breath, pulse, drink – that had carried me that far whilst allowing me the room to start taking in what was around me.

Still, the arrival is sudden. The tower is there, you are figuring out which path you need to take. And you are there. Last automation – turn Garmin off, save the ride and turn GoPro off. Then hugs and the remoteness of disbelief that something that has been eight months in preparation is done. Something that you have been training for over eight months is done. A better time than expected and the only negative is that the right arm has had enough. Pose for some pictures and quench an insane desire for a cup of strong coffee because I did not have one for breakfast. Coffee and cake at the top of the mountain.

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Job done – two hours and three minutes! Perhaps the indoor training was worth the boredom…..

I am not competitive but, for once, I was pretty proud. The reason why? Let’s be honest, blunt. I was only overtaken twice myself and overtook a lot of others. Maybe they were doing two or three climbs, I don’t know. But, give me a moment of pride. A guy with Multiple Sclerosis who was riding without cleats was not the slowest of the day! Someone who has never done much climbing and was certainly not racing did get a little kick from that.

Such thoughts, though, are unbecoming of the spirit behind the event and melted in the Provencal Sun as the kind messages of congratulation came in. These acted as a reminder that this was not about speed or competition unless that competition was with myself and what I have been diagnosed; for one day at least I was it’s master, at least until the summit. Yesterday was about raising funds and perhaps awareness and it was the generous support and openness of so many around me that meant I got up the mountain.

I am not perfect, tough, and please forgive me, the human in got a little bored cleaning up after yesterday and the human in me is just reflecting on overtaking and the human in me is smiling about that, just a little….

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