Ventoux: The Last Climb

The last side of Mount Ventoux has been climbed. The easy one, sort of, and the first of this year’s challenges. Still important to me.

First things first. I completed it in a time that was not a record but with which I am happy. The focus this year was on my heart rate and that stayed under 170 with an average of 152. I am happy with that. The climbs were not insanely fast but a reasonable tempo. The biggest fight was the temperature, especially on the final part of the climb. The climb was completed was a part of a seventy kilometre route via Gorges de la Nesque.

The sort of technical summary. And now my legs hurt.

The route via Sault is the easiest of the three climbs to the top and, for a good part of the ride, it felt that way. There is still plenty that is memorable about it though. The preamble via the Gorges de la Nesque was about as perfect an experience on a bike as can be had. Relatively easy gradients and a light, cooling wind. But stuff that, what a sight to behold. Pictures cannot do it justice and it made the necessary refreshment break something special.

Then to Sault and a long, steady climb through forest that is actually pleasantly cool, not suffocating like the route from Bedoin. Actually, apart from the scent of lavender and one well chosen viewpoint, another good excuse for a rest, it was pretty unmemorable.

Suddenly there is Chalet Reynard and the end is in sight. To get there means dealing with the hard sting of the psychotically steep gradients over the ‘bald’ section of The, hum, Bald Mountain.

This time the wind was not helping. It had the last time but this time it was still, hot and exposed. This meant I needed a stop on the last bend before the top, just to give my right arm a rest and cool down. Only 500 metres to go but 500 metres going up a wall in the Provencal summer heat is….. challenging.

Descent? No, not this time. The heat had combined ‘nicely’ with my MS to make sure my right arm was not feeling strong. I had the legs but not the arm. One of those moments when the right arm says ‘f*ck you, I am also on holiday!’ So we called it a day.

I always maintain that the cooling effect of wind is valuable to me whilst cycling. Standing nearly still with none in the increasing heat simply proved that. For me at least.

Still, 2,000 metres worth of climbing and 70 kilometres of ride was nothing to sniff at. And perhaps a large chunk of the ride was unmemorable but the moments that were memorable made up for it. The Gorges de la Nesque, finally reaching the summit again. Wonderful.

Then there were the faces of those around me. Most cyclists, whether overtaking or being overtaken, managed a ‘bonjour’, even though it was usually quite an effort. A very jolly portly lady on the climb up from Chalet Reynard, taking a breather with a big grin on her face. The not so happy face of another cyclist sat on the steps of the Tom Simpson memorial with a face that said ‘f*ck this’ in no uncertain terms.

Of course, there are not so happy sights. I passed one lady who was weaving uncomfortably and had not reached Chalet Reynard at that point. The worst was to come and she was struggling. She could speak coherently, though. I hope she made it.

There are also always idiots. A maniac in sports car who had watched too many Top Gear episodes was a reckless danger to cyclists and other cars. Another cyclist also caused me to brake (f*cking BRAKE) as he had decided to weave around the middle of the road to pick up his sunglasses. He got an earful in English from me on one side and in French from some guys descending in the other. Hope he is bilingual. He then drafted (Drafting! On a mountain! Without asking!) another rider further up before being told again where he could go. Not sure what the language was this time.

But it’s done. The last side of Mont Ventoux. The last big climb, apart from one mountain bike route which I am not going to go anywhere near!

It’s not like I will never come here again, the region is too beautiful. But this also feels like the closing of a personal chapter. Mont Ventoux has become a personal symbol for me of MS and my personal battle against it. It was the first mountain I ever climbed, something of which I am still so proud, initially to raise funds for MS research.

It’s come to mean more than that. It was the first of my personal challenges with the bike that have meant pushing myself harder, standing up at least in part to my illness. The illness can still bite and no-one can predict how it will proceed. But I will always have Mont Ventoux and what it has given me, a symbol for the fightback against what I have.

Is there anything left? Maybe I will try to go all the way around Ventoux? I certainly won’t try all three sides in one day, that is beyond me. I expect I will climb it again, maybe finally descend. But these three climbs, Bedoin, Malaucene and finally Sault, will never be lost to me. Places I had never heard of before I took up cycling. Now both they and the mountain they lead toare, and will remain, symbols of my personal reaction to MS.

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.

Training End – Part One

Easy Cross Country - Part of My Training

The bike is back from maintenance. Last long training ride took place last weekend. Resting now, just spinning on the indoor trainer, getting my legs ready for some heavy gradient. All my cycling gear is packed. Enough energy drinks and snacks to feed the peloton of Grand Tour. Ready to go. Mont Ventoux is the destination.

This will be the first of this year’s challenges and I suspect the easiest. Easy being relative, the route I have chosen to climb Ventoux will be long and it is going up but the gradients are kind.

I said that before, though.

The motivation is also to enjoy this climb. Of course it will hurt at some point but I intend to take more on on this climb. Taking pictures, this time! Not just of the barren top of Ventoux but the green slopes, probably too early to see any lavender blossom but one can always hope.

Still, no matter how leisurely, its good to be prepared. A lot of long distance rides, more recently using the indoor trainer to get my legs a little used to tougher gradients. A lot of other exercise this time, get my back in good shape and also strengthen the shoulders. Alongside this, I have been making use of my cross-country bike to improve agility. Well, that’s the theory. Fact is I am still wretchedly slow at cross-country cycling (hipper to call it gravel-grinding, I hear) but that doesn’t matter. Just different disciplines, working to be a little more agile. Enjoying it as well, isn’t that the point? I will never be a racer!

Even had some massage this time to help me be a little looser. Worked for Liege-Bastogne-Liege last year! Makes me feel like a real athlete, that does!

Italy later in June there will be the tougher test. This side of Ventoux is still mentally important to me and physically it will be a good warm-up for the insanity that is coming in at the end of June. Stelvio and Mortirolo. Weather allowing, stiff tests. More on those another time.

France first.

Time to enjoy it. This is challenge but it is also the start Phase one of my training schedule. A good start. Loosening up, ready for the real work later in June.

Italy will be on the horizon.

Ventoux – More than a Mountain

Mont Ventoux - The Bald Giant

Before writing this post, I searched the blog for posts that mentioned Mont Ventoux, the first of the three cycling challenges I have set for myself this year. The next two are Paso del Stelvio and As-Yet-Undecided-Long-Distance-Ride….. but there were loads of posts about Ventoux.

So what more can I say about this mountain?

That it means a lot to me is clear from the amount of words I have written about it. From the first time I saw it, over ten years ago on holiday in Provence, it’s brooding presence on the horizon transfixed me. I loved the sight of it. Especially on an evening walk when the colours of the setting sun reflected off the pale, bald summit so stunningly. Cannot find the photos I took and there were many.

Fast forward a few years and the diagnosis was in and so was the start of my cycling addiction. The crazy idea of climbing it to raise money for MS support took hold. A newer, more stable bike and continuing good condition meant this was feasible. I had never climbed on the bike before so why not start with one of my favourite places? OK, it’s ‘The Beast of Provence’, a ‘hors categorie‘ climb that breaks the best professionals but…… well, why not?

It was climbed, perhaps one of the best days I have had on a bike. Not the nicest, the road up through the wooded lower reaches of the mountain is…… unforgiving. But I have already written better posts about that day, fresh with the emotion of having achieved something personally.

That sense of achievement says it all. Mont Ventoux is more to me than just metres climbed. It’s a personal monument and signal that, despite the ‘bad’ days and the difficulties, life is about more than just functioning. Every moment on the mountain has been…. special. Feeling the pain from climbing and the relief of achievement, all are remembered.

That main thing? Ventoux marks the the point when I realised that, despite there being something ‘wrong’, there was still so much to do, that I can do and can still do. Plenty that is ‘right’. Getting to the top of the mountain and looking down on the clouds was more than a (really rather slow) sporting achievement. It was saying that, after all of the fear, there was plenty of future.

Punishing, painful and unforgiving. ‘Geant de Provence’. The Bald Giant. Looking forward to seeing a brutal old friend.

Disclaimer: This year’s climb is the easy one – least two thirds of it – but not going to underestimate the beast!