VecchioJo gets caught between a rock and a hard place
As if it climbing mountains on a bike wasn’t hard enough I’m doing it with a rock in my pocket. Well, I have a small white stone in my middle rear pocket, allow me a bit of poetic license here, and I’m carrying it up a mountain three times today.
A few years ago a friend gave me a piece of rock from the top of Mont Ventoux with the express instruction that I had to return it there. He knows I like mountains, he knows I like climbing, he knows I like a futile reason to do a challenge but it still took a suggestion of a visit to this year’s Tour to watch it battle up Ventoux to finally get round to doing it. I have a little bit of personal history with this mountain, I did that 2000 Étape where the weather suddenly shut down on the top and whilst riders further down the mountain were stopped from continuing I was on the summit being lashed to tears by sideways hail, and a year later in warm sunshine I crashed on the way down denting myself and my bike, so I have peace with Ventoux to make as well, with both the mountain and myself.
I’m carrying this rock three times up this big hill because climbing it just the once to drop it back home would be too easy, to make it a proper stupid challenge I’m aiming to become a member of The Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux. This informal club is made up of cyclists who have been willing to pit themselves against the might of the mountain in a manner of ways. The entry level membership, which doesn’t mean it’s easy, is to become a Cinglé and climb and descend Ventoux via the three main roads up from Bédoin, Malaucène, and Sault all in one day, meaning 136 km of pedaling with 4443 metres of climbing. Crumbs.
If that isn’t enough of a dare then you can try to become a Galérien - up and down the three main roads and then up the Route Forestière, a road that’s paved either end but is a dirt track for the middle 6 kms or so, a section that is either okay on a road bike or might require a cyclo-cross or mountainbike depending on who you talk to. And if that 187 kms with 6052 metres of climbing still seems too undemanding then you can have a pop at the Bicinglette which is the Cinglé, twice. That’s six ascents and six descents, 272 km of riding with 8886 metres of up. It’s a mountain that attracts pointless endeavours, people have completed the Cinglé on a fixed gear, and although it’s not affiliated to the Club you can try and break the record for the number of climbs of Ventoux in 24 hours if you really have nothing better to do with your day, at the moment it stands at eleven ascents.
This isn’t an organized ride with start times and feed stations and arrows and timings, you can apply to become a member of the Club des Cinglés at any time, although it’s suggested that you don’t attempt it before April or after October because there may be “surprises”. It would be ridiculously easy to cheat if you wanted but the people who sign up to it aren’t that kind of person, it’s a ride of personal challenge and honour, and respect to the mountain. Send your details via the Club des Cinglés and in return you will receive a small board to attach to your bike and a Brevet Card to be stamped at each of the three villages at the base of the mountain and at the meteorological station on the summit. Complete the challenge and you’ll earn a medal and a certificate although that doesn’t seem in any way to be the reason to do it. It’s not a sportive.
As this is a game of threes I’m attempting the Cinglé with Oli and George, we’re all of different fitnesses but have decided to ride it together, gentlemanly like with stops for coffee and snacks, we could all go up at our own speed and suffer in solo silence but where would the fun it that be? Misery loves company. Oli is keen to crack off the whole Cinglé but despite George saying he’d be more than happy to manage just the one ascent he’s been cajoled into at least trying all three, with the option of taking one of several bailout options should things go piff.
We leave our campsite in Carpentras at 7am for the 15km leg loosening commute to Bédoin, the village at the bottom of the mountain chosen to be our launch point on the Cinglé, and it’s already warm enough for just shorts and short sleeves, and by the time we reach the village we’re sweating wet already. This is going to be a hot one. The town is setting up for market and the main street is lined with stalls stacked with cheese, meat, breads and all sorts of things that tempt a day sat in the shade sampling everything and washing it down with alternating beers and coffees. We resist and instead look for the Tourist Office to see if we can get our cards stamped so early in the day. Conveniently it’s right on the junction where the road heads east up the mountain and it has a stamping machine outside to put the first mark on our Cinglé cards, and even more handily the just opening bike shop across the road can also verify your card, and sell you a “Ventoux” cycle jersey too, but that sort of thing needs to be earned, if that’s your sort of thing.
The climb from Bédoin starts deceptively pleasant, reaching gently up through broad fields with the Giant of Provence brooding on your shoulder. After about 6km the road turns sharply left at Saint-Estève into the trees and the real climb begins with the tarmac rising to punch you in the face. With a total length of just over 21kms and an average gradient of 7.6% it’s considered the hard side of the Ventoux, and the maximum gradient of 12% might just make your legs agree with that, it’s also the classic ascent of the mountain and the one most chosen in the fifteen times the Tour de France has gone up it.
It’s the day after the Tour has raced up the mountain, and also the day after Bastille Day so the painted road is choked with both cyclists going up and the remnants of Tour traffic going down, the smell of burning clutches and crotches. We pass where we sat on the Armco yesterday to watch the Pros glide past at a considerably swifter tempo, and channel the survival pace pain of the gruppetto and the dripping determination of Jonathan Hivert who finished 50 minutes down and had to complete the climb whilst simultaneously fending off the Broom Wagon complaining in second gear bumping up his arse and fighting against the busy flow of spectators walking down the mountain who had thought it was all over.
As climbs go it’s unpleasant, relentless, steep, threads tightly through oppressive rocks and although the trees provide a welcome shade it makes the effort sticky and airless. We keep a steady tempo, or one at least less hard than it could be, we’re not racing that’s for sure, we’re just aiming to get round alive. Previous experience of this road helps and I know that after the steep S-bend that stalls camper-vans the road levels off a bit, the trees open out to let some air in and the altitude ensures that it’s a cooler breeze, it also means that the café two-thirds of the way up at Chalet Reynard isn’t far away, where the forest surrenders to the infamous bleached white moonscape of the crust of Ventoux.
We stop for coffee and donuts to get us up the last bit to the peak, it’s only 6kms from here to the summit but it’s probably the longest 6kms of your life. The mast at the top is always visible across the barren featureless terrain but it never ever gets any closer as the road constantly bends its way around the mountain which makes forward progress psychological treacle until about the last 500 metres when it suddenly looms large and ugly on you.
As its name might suggest the wind is a feature of the Ventoux, which should be some kind of deterrent to cyclists but still they come, and wind speeds over 300 km/h have been recorded at the top, and being a large lump of rock sticking up from a rolling countryside it gleefully encourages weather to its slopes, warm and sunny conditions at the base are no guarantee of fine weather at the summit and many riders have stories to tell of nice rides gone cold wet and horribly wrong towards the top. That unpredictability and the famous memorial to Tom Simpson along the way add a general sense of foreboding to this climb. Luckily today the wind and the weather are being kind and none of us have a mix of whisky and amphetamine in our bidons so we should be okay, we just have to deal with the 35 degree heat as it radiates off the tarmac and bounces off the limestone crown of the mountain and gently crisps us.
We reach the top for the first time and there’s little space for celebration, the place is an ugly mess of sweaty staggering neon cyclists and camera wielding tourists getting in the way of the view of the whole of southern France they’re trying to enjoy. We avoid the melee, the tourist tat gift shop and the massive stall of ikky sweets, stamp our cards and roll into what looks like for ever down towards Malaucène. As a less favoured climb the amount of traffic drops dramatically as we take the fast open corners down the mountain and the town at the bottom is suddenly noisy and hot and claustrophobic after the descent that’s been half an hour of just wind, heat and carbon rim whirrrr. We stamp our cards in the café at the junction and with polite English guilt feel like we should buy some fizzy drinks before freewheeling a few more cafes down to have a ham and cheese baguette, the national cycling food of France it seems, coffees and more Fanta for the fortitude required to head up Ventoux for the second time.
In profile the climb from Malaucène isn’t so different from the graph from Bedoin at 21 kilometres with an average gradient of 7.2% but it has a totally different character. The quality of the road is a little better and it’s less crowded by trees so there’s views to be had which takes your mind of the effort, the downside to this is that it’s more open to the sun and as we’re into the real heat of the day now it makes things less than ideal. About now the formerly impulse and lust driven purchase of some Rotor cranks with 34/52 compact chainrings bolted to them instantly becomes a wise and pragmatic choice as I can sit and twiddle rather than stand and mash my usual 39x25 and mash my knees, but it still doesn’t make it a pootle in the park.
Unfortunately George isn’t fairing so well. At the base of the climb he was feeling chipper, more than happy with his one ascent and apprehensively keen to become at least a 2/3rds Cinglé, but now he’s suffering badly with a combination of climbing straight after lunch and climbing into an oven. He stops astride his bike trying to void the nausea bubbling in his chest, hangs his head and sweats a lot. The Ventoux has bitten. He necks a gel in attempt to make himself sick, which probably isn’t what the manufacturers intended but it does the trick, there’s a few noises that would make a vet worry and he feels ready to continue for a while.
When he’s moving George is going a very respectable pace, he’s an experienced cyclist and has plenty of cols in his legs but he has to stop to surrender to his inner turmoil often and pulling in to a large parking area he pedals towards the shade of the trees and finds a comfortable rock to lie on, he spends some time there but is still holding onto his helmet, which we take as a sign that he wants to continue. We dangle the carrot of the Chalet Léotard a short distance away where there’s water and food to be had so he’s gently enticed on. But between there and here there’s the long straight section that we hit 50mph on the way down, and climbing it really shows how we managed that sort of speed, it’s an unremitting length of road. Wide, featureless and open to the beating sun it’s a long line of tarmac that demands staring at your front wheel and just grinding on. And on.
I cheer myself up for half a pedal stroke by noticing that the drips of water that obediently line up on the peak of my cap before dripping off onto my left hand are sweat and not the traditional rain. The swoosh of riders flying down, windproofs flacking in the wind as we’re labouring our way up the climb is a torture. Oli and I continue in our domestique duties and shepherd George towards relief at the café where we have further coffees, ham and cheese baguettes and Fantas. As is the theme.
The final lunge to the summit is made easier by being more in shade so the temperature nudges towards almost bearable and the rest has helped everyone so we make good time on the last six kilometres. Emerging from the trees and turning a right handed bend the rocky summit is suddenly right upon you, it’s both a blow and an incentive. It looks at once insurmountable and manageable at the same time. The road steepens up a bit and gets all hairpiny to make up the distance to the top and the Malaucène climb has kicked hard, taken a long time, an awful amount of effort, and vast reserves of soul but we’ve broken the back of the beast. Just one more hill.
We fall down to Chalet Reynard and carve off left down the third road towards Sault. It may just be the fatigue speaking but it’s almost magical, the brand new tarmac helps but the descent to the penultimate village is shallow, easy and wonderfully pleasant, gently meandering down the contours through a verdant landscape. Are we still on the same mountain? We swoop out of the trees and it gets even nicer, it’s as if we’ve pedaled through a portal, the harsh trial of the last few hours have been replaced with perfect roads in an idyllic countryside patched with fields of lavender, it’s car advert perfect. It feels like it’s a reward for the days supreme efforts, a benevolent payback from the Cycling Gods. For the first time in ages we allow ourselves a smile.
We cruise down into the valley, over the River Nesque and up the cheeky little climb towards Sault to get our cards stamped in the Tourist Office and cross the road into the shade for a final round of coffees, Fantas and ham and cheese baguettes in a café that overlooks the postcard Provence we’ve ridden into. It suddenly hits me that Sault was a feed station in that Étape over a decade ago, I remember the mamil scrum and stuffing half a dozen energy bars and chunks of banana up the hem of my shorts to see me to the base of Ventoux. On that day I didn’t notice it but today we can see the hazy silhouette of the Giant peeking over the lower slopes and it looks a long long way away. Deep breath, fill bottles from the bar, one more time.
After the previous two climbs the ascent back up the mountain from Sault is pretty much a well earned rest, with an easy and steady gradient of a relatively flat 4.5 % for an albeit lengthy 25.7 km on fresh blacksmooth tarmac, it’s even doable in the big-ring for some sections and it’s nice to get into double figures on a climb for a bit, even if it does weave and drag on. George digs deep into reserves of belligerence and has a couple of wobbles and sit-downs but eventually we reach Chalet Reynard, last time we were here they were just opening, now they’re just shutting. We are all in far better spirits though, the climb has been good for the legs and we know that all the hard stuff is all over bar the next 6 kilometres, the finish is well within touching distance. We refuel with a final bottle of fresh water and one last rummage in the left rear pocket for the finishing push.
The sun is lowering in the sky now and the mountain is nicely empty of cars and cyclists which makes for a picturesque finale although George’s asthmatic lungs don’t quite agree, they’re disputing the day’s effort and lack of air up here and he has to pause in the gutter a few times, stopping with respect at the Tom Simpson memorial is a good excuse. We’re not letting George give up now though and with much pep-talking and domestiqueing we drag him up the final bends and he fights himself up the last little ramp onto the summit. We’ve done it, there are manly hugs and handshakes, and more importantly George has done it. For someone who was going to be happy with just the one ascent he’s turned himself inside out more times than is necessary for such futility to achieve a victorious three summits. It’s been a feat of courage and determination that I know fitter and better cyclists would fail at.
And that’s just about it, all the sweat and struggle is done, merely the joyous descent to the final card stamp to complete the task. Just as every cyclist needs to climb Ventoux every cyclist must also descend this mountain. The fall into Bédoin is fast and exciting, lacing between those formerly oppressive trees and rocks, any release on the brake levers leads to a free-fall, cars pull into the side because they know you are faster than them, but any mistake could put a big downer on the day, I pass the place I crashed off the road last time without incident. I’m filled with that mix of silly happiness and sheer tiredness that always floods over me at times like these, the freedom that comes from effort, the endless torture and simple joy of being on a bike, and laugh and cry at the same time as I plummet through the forest.
We stamp our cards for the final time in Bédoin after over 12 hours on the road and use what’s left of our legs to get back to Carpentras into the dying sun. It’s been a bit of a day. Thanks to getting home late, poor planning and George needing to collapse in the tent to die a little the much desired and much anticipated meal of steak and chips is instead beer and crisps, disappointing, a culinary error that will take at least a week to recover from.
Glugging from a warm stubby bottle of French supermarket own-brand biere I empty my jersey pockets; spare tube, camera, bag of monies, variety of unused energy bars and empty wrappers, Club des Cinglés stamp card, windproof jacket, and from the middle rear pocket a new stone from the final summit that I’d picked up immediately after I’d dropped off the other one, this one to take back to the top after completing the Galérien.