Friday 9th August 2013
Rest Day 8: Mont Ventoux (53km)
This would clearly be a ‘rest day’ with a difference, but as I would be making no progress whatsoever in my cycling odyssey along the edge of the Mediterranean, it would have been equally nonsensical to refer to it as a ‘cycling day’. Some serious pedal action was, however, about to take place.
The previous evening with Nicolas, his partner Christel, their three-year-old son Raphael and Christel’s fourteen-year-old daughter Nolwen had gone well. We ate, drank, chatted, and laughed. They were in the middle of doing what so many French families do in the summer; they had packed up the car, hooked up the caravan and headed south. When I had visited them in Caen on the school exchange earlier in the year, we had chatted about our respective plans for the summer and a decision was made that we should, if at all possible, meet up. Nicolas had mentioned cycling to the summit of the Mont Ventoux in passing, but it wasn’t until much later that I realised what a golden opportunity had presented itself.
What did I know about the Mont Ventoux prior to Nicolas’ suggestion? Not a great deal. I knew that it was one of the most iconic climbs of the Tour de France and that it was characterised by bare rock affording cyclists no shade whatsoever in the latter stages of the climb. I was also aware of the story of British cyclist Tommy Simpson who, in 1967 while taking part in Le Tour, had collapsed and died en route to the top. But that was about it.
Following a breakfast of black coffee, baguette and Nutella chocolate spread, we set off from the campsite. Nicolas estimated that our ride to the summit would take us around three hours, but we had the whole day in front of us so an early departure time wasn’t essential. It would be the first time since leaving Athens that I would be travelling without the panniers and I felt quite sprightly on the bike, as we cycled the first 10km from the campsite in Villes-sur-Auzon to the official start line of the ascent. The campsite was at 300m and the summit of Mont Ventoux at just over 1,900m, but by the time we arrived at the point in the road that appeared to have been designated by cycling fans as the official starting point of the climb, we had only ascended a couple of hundred metres. Up to that point, the climbing had been continuous but gentle. It was, however, about to become much steeper.
Whether official or not, the road surface of the D974 just outside the village of Sainte-Colombe had been painted in such a way as to give the impression that it was the starting point. Many roads along the route of the Tour de France are painted by cycling fans with images and slogans which, should their favourite team or cyclist manage to see them, would hopefully spur them on to greatness. The roads that guide the cyclists up the most iconic climbs of the Tour de France are particularly popular with paintbrush-wielding fans and, as the paint lingers for much longer on the surface of the road than the professional cyclists themselves, the markings have become an all-year-round feature of the Alpe d’Huez, the Col du Tourmalet, the Col d’Aubisque, the Col du Galibier and of course the Mont Ventoux. And as with all graffiti, the Tour de France road ‘artwork’ comes in many shapes and sizes and of varying quality, ranging from the functionally prosaic ‘Allez, Allez!’ (‘Go, Go!’) to the much more detailed works of art, which can include very accurate representations of the cyclists’ faces. They are obviously best seen from the helicopters carrying the television cameras and it’s difficult not to admire the dedication of the cycling fanatics who spend hours, if not days, prior to the arrival of the race in their little corner of France trying to make their graffiti stand out from the crowd.
The Tour de France had only recently climbed the road upon which Nicolas and I were now cycling and the road surface messages and artwork were almost as vibrant as the day they had been painted. The Team Sky cyclist, Chris Froome, had not only won the 100th Tour de France when it arrived in Paris in 2013, but he had also triumphed on the day that it had climbed the Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day, Sunday 14th July. It had been stage 15 of the race and a very long 243km cycle from Givors to the summit of the mountain. Froome covered the distance in under six hours and averaged nearly 42 km/hr, cruising past the Colombian rider, Quintana, in the final couple of kilometres of the ascent. It gave him an unassailable lead of four minutes in the overall standings and he never really looked back. Perhaps if he had, he wouldn’t have seen the other cyclists anyway.
The meticulously designed markings designating the start of the Mont Ventoux climb consisted of carefully aligned rows of hearts, some yellow, some red, some white, some green and some in the three colours of the French tricolore. At the end of the rows of hearts was a starting line, made up of three lines of red, white and blue. A few moments later was a sign informing us that the Chalet Reynard – the point after which the trees stop and the accompanying shade disappears – was 12km away and that the summit of the mountain was some 18km up the hill.
From leaving the campsite up to this point, I had not stopped cycling and had yet to put my feet on the ground. I was determined that this was going to continue and that I would be able to say that, not only had I climbed the Mont Ventoux, but I had done so without stopping. Was I perhaps being a little over-optimistic? This was, after all, a mountain that had beaten many cyclists in the peak of fitness. I was at least willing to give it a go. It was useful to have Nicolas as my cycling companion, as he was not only able to lead the way and show me where to cycle (although most of the time it was obvious which way to go, as the answer was always ‘up’), but he had also had the good sense and forethought to bring with him some energy snacks. Every few kilometres, he would reach into his pocket and pass me another fruit bar of some description, which, once I had managed to remove the packaging (not that easy while ensuring that the bike was still moving in the direction I wanted it to go), was devoured in a few moments of calorific delight.
There are Tour de France climbs which require the cyclists to climb to a significantly higher altitude than the Mont Ventoux but there is no other mountain which requires the cyclists to do more climbing than when they are attempting ‘the bald one’. There are officially 1,639 metres to climb to the summit at 1,911 metres. For those of you who like using imperial measurements, that’s a vertical distance of a fraction over one mile. One mile into the sky. Think about it. Visualise a horizontal distance of one mile. It might be from your local pub to your front door (although if you are someone who staggers home you may have to pick something else to visualise) or from one side of your town to the other. In your mind, tilt that distance to the vertical and stare up at it. That is what you need to climb to arrive at the summit of Mont Ventoux. It’s a daunting distance and even more daunting when you’ve just told yourself that you are going to do it without stopping and putting your feet on the ground.
The first couple of kilometres after the village of Sainte-Colombe were fine. Nothing too arduous compared with what had come before and when I turned to the left, I could see the television mast at the top of the mountain. Immediately below the summit, there was a wide band of bare rock and then below that was a wider band of trees. This matched the description that Nicolas had given me of what the cycling conditions would be like: initially in the shade and then, as we approached the end of the ride, in the open, exposed to the sun and potentially, the wind. The weather conditions we were experiencing were decidedly changeable. Much of the sky was covered in cloud and I could already detect that the temperature (compared to what it had been like when we set off from Villes-sur-Auzon) was dropping. If we continued to have cloud cover, then this fall in temperature would surely be maintained and even on the lower slopes of the mountain, I was starting to feel chilly. I asked Nicolas to pass me my sweater, which he was carrying in his backpack and, just as I had done while eating the snacks, struggled to maintain my balance as I pulled it on over my head.
The climbing was relentless. Unlike most roads up mountains in France, the road to the summit of Mont Ventoux had clearly been designed by someone who had Albanian blood in their body, as the hairpin bends were nowhere near as frequent as I would have liked. Instead, the gradient was maintained without any break whatsoever. Not at any point between the foot of the mountain and the summit, was it possible to stop pedalling for even just a few moments, relax your leg muscles and freewheel. To have stopped pedalling would have resulted in a very rapid deceleration and would have brought me to an almost immediate halt. Upwards and onwards we continued as the gradient fluctuated between 7% and an occasionally alarming 13%. The average was much nearer the former than the latter but the chronic nature of the climbing made for some very, very tough cycling. However, the longer I succeeded in not stopping, the more determined I was to keep on going. To keep pedalling. To keep moving forward. I didn’t care about my speed. As long as I was travelling with a forward velocity sufficient keep me on the bike, I was happy. Happy? Is that the most appropriate word? Perhaps not. This was all about delayed gratification, the knowledge that perhaps within the next 90 minutes, 60 minutes, 30 minutes… the pain would be over and the smile on my face would be as broad as the mountain was high.
We emerged from the shadow of the trees shortly before arriving at the Chalet Reynard. I was delighted that not only had we made it two-thirds of the way up the mountain but that we were now able to benefit from the heat of the sun’s rays when they were available and not hidden by the large clouds in the sky. The Chalet Reynard was a hotel, restaurant and snack bar, according to the words printed on the edge of the awning that was shading the terrace. In front of the chalet, was a large expanse of concrete filled with cars. It was clear that many people had driven to this point, unloaded the bike from the roof rack, climbed on board and started cycling. That’s not climbing a mountain! It certainly wasn’t climbing Mont Ventoux. Would these people consider it appropriate to run the last ten miles of a marathon and then claim a medal for having done so? I looked at them with disdain as they posed in their bright lycra outfits, next to their pristine carbon bikes, for photographs taken by family and friends. Reggie, Nicolas and I were made of stronger stuff. Well, Reggie was made from steel and that’s probably not as tough as carbon, but in his soul he was a bike of iron!
The heat from the sun was only intermittent and the compensating effects of the increased altitude made for an increasingly cold cycle as we started to ascend the final 500 metres from the chalet to the summit. The landscape was now utterly different. This could quite easily have been two different cycles, on two different continents. But not only was it the same continent, it was the same mountain. Gone was almost all of the vegetation and what was left was bare, stony ground. Alongside the road, were tall, yellow and black poles that in times of deep snow would allow anyone brave enough to attempt a journey to the summit (not on a bike I hasten to add, although I’m sure that at some point someone has attempted such a feat of folly) to see exactly where they should be heading. In July, they were, of course, redundant but they did allow the cyclists, motorists and bikers so see clearly where the edge of the road was, as it curved off into the distance and around the contours of the mountain. Humans were not alone. There were plenty of sheep grazing on the small patches of grass that had somehow defied the blanket of rocks surrounding them. They looked relaxed and at ease in their surroundings. Not so for most of the cyclists who were gradually making their way to the top. Some were old, some were young, many were middle-aged and in lycra. There were men and women. There was even an occasional touring cyclist who hadn’t dispensed of his or her panniers and for whom the cycle to the summit was part of a longer trip from A to B. They had my utmost respect.
On the exposed slopes of Mont Ventoux, the wind was now an added challenge. Occasionally the road would approach a ridge in the side of the mountain and at these points it was, more than ever, necessary to pay particular attention to maintaining forward motion on the bike. I still had not stopped and by this point, just a few kilometres from the summit, nothing, not even a sharp gust of wind that had other intentions in mind was going to stop me. On and on we cycled and larger and larger became the iconic television tower on the summit. My eyes were 90% focussed upon the top of the mountain, but I was also on the lookout for the memorial to Tommy Simpson, which I knew was located somewhere near the summit. About one kilometre from the top I spotted it, set slightly back from the road, at the end of a short flight of stone steps.
Tommy Simpson was a British cyclist who was part of the Great Britain team in the 1967 Tour de France. He died on the mountain on 13th July, while attempting to reach the summit. He was just 29 years old. In 1965, he had won the world road race championship and, as a result of this, was a popular figure on the critérium circuit of races. These were events in which professional cyclists were paid to take part and they were a good way of earning money. In 1966, Simpson completed forty of them in just forty days, but in order to maintain his presence in such races, he was in desperate need of a good performance in the 1967 Tour de France. Stage 13 of the race was from Marseille to Carpentras – 212km – but Simpson never made it to the top of Mont Ventoux. The grainy film shows him veering from one side of the road to the other before falling off. He was put back on the bike (although it is widely believed that he never actually said ‘Put me back on my bike’) before stopping again and being given emergency assistance. He was transported by helicopter to hospital in Avignon, where he was pronounced dead.
The saddest thing about Tommy Simpson is that the amphetamines he was taking to help improve his performance undoubtedly had a major role to play in his death. They were found in his body, in his luggage and in his pockets. At the time, it seems that most professional cyclists were also taking such drugs; Simpson was the one who was killed. It would be good to look back upon such an event and see it as a defining moment in the sport of cycling which resulted in an end to such abuses, but, as we know, that didn’t happen. I have no idea whether any of the 2013 Tour de France cyclists were taking illegal, performance-enhancing drugs when they climbed the Mont Ventoux, but if there were, I wonder what they were thinking as they cycled past Tommy Simpson’s monument. Surely the most fitting memorial to the man would be a definitive end to drug abuse in cycling. Or am I just being too naïve?
The following lines are inscribed on Tommy Simpson’s gravestone in the village of Harworth in Nottinghamshire:
“His body ached, his legs grew tired, but still he would not give in.”
The only performance-enhancing substances that I had consumed that day were the coffee and Nutella that I had had for breakfast and the regular supply of energy bars from Nicolas. My body was aching, my legs were growing tired but I, too, would not give in. The last few hundred metres were a perfect storm of pain and determination, but after almost three hours in the saddle without once putting my feet on the ground, I unclipped my cycling sandals, pulled on the brakes and stopped. It was a great feeling.
As with all such places, the summit was crowded with those who had earned the right to be up there celebrating (the cyclists and perhaps some walkers) and those who had cheated (the drivers and motorcyclists). We had done it. A celebratory photo at the top next to the sign and a quick snack from the obligatory sausage stall followed, but it was cold, very cold, and very windy indeed. It made sense to make our stay only a brief one before we descended at speed back to the valley floor and the heat of Provence.
We arrived back in Villes-sur-Auzon in the mid afternoon and while Nicolas headed off with the rest of the family to do some shopping and go to the swimming pool, I took the opportunity to visit a bike shop in the village, to give Reggie a quick service. I explained to the guy who ran the place where we had cycled from and where we still had to go. I asked him if he could change the brake pads and to check the spokes very carefully and left Reggie in his capable hands, while I went off to a local café to research the beers of Provence. A couple of hours later, I returned and was somewhat surprised, yet clearly delighted, to be told that my travelling companion was in excellent shape. Nothing wrong with the spokes or the chain or the plates or the gears or anything. I handed over €20 and looked forward to some hopefully trouble-free cycling between the Mont Ventoux and Cape St. Vincent.