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TdF + Bastille Day = Mont Ventoux

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Today is stage 12 of the Tour de France and it marks a special day for the French – Bastille Day, a national holiday and the hopes of a French winner on the famous mountain in a week where their footballers failed to deliver.

But it’s a special day for me too – it’s the first time the Tour has visited the Giant of Provence since my efforts in September 2013.  Whilst it’s not a national holiday where I live, I can assure you that I’ll be watching the stage somehow. More

Two Days In September – Part 2

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There still remains words to be written on my visit to Provence, only a few paragraphs so stick with me if you please.
The man who introduced me to cycling, my father, was there during my challenge and it was his eyes I studied whenever I passed by my supporters as they shouted words of encouragement. You see, I spent many Sunday mornings in my youth doing the same to him, whether it was a basic 25 miles time trial or a gruelling 100 miler. It’s the eyes that give you away. They don’t lie. They tell you when you’re spent before any other emotion or physical twitch. He knew when I had had enough probably before I did.
So what better way to return the favour than persuade him to have a bash at the Ventoux the day after my efforts.
He started at Sault and told us that he would just climb to Chalet Reynard – but I know him better than that. We stopped every kilometre or so to shout him on his way and every time he passed me I looked into the eyes and they told me that he was enjoying himself, sure he was puffing and pecking, but the eyes were alive.
We stopped at Chalet Reynard for a coffee and there was really no point in asking the question but we did and the response was “I’ll give it a try”. And so he did. He climbed the last 6km, the horrible section, the moonscape, at a steady pace. Again, I looked at the eyes and they told me he was OK.
He passed the Simpson Memorial without so much of a glance but like me, when I passed it, I am sure his thoughts were with the great man.
We drove on to park the car at the summit, which was full of Dutch cyclists, and looking over the edge of the road awaited his arrival. He took the final right hand hairpin and crossed the line. The “auld dun racer” had made it. He had reached the summit of Mont Ventoux at 72 years of age.
So whilst we didn’t climb it together, we stood at the top of the mountain together having achieved something good and when later we sat at the Simpson Memorial and I looked into his eyes they told me something very very profound – “Neither of us should have any desire to see this bloody mountain again”.

The Giant

Two Days In September – Part 1

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I don’t know when I awoke on Thursday 5th September 2013. My alarm was set for 4am but I was conscious way before this. I showered, put on my gear and forced some toast into my mouth before the bikes were loaded and we commenced the short drive from our apartment to Bedoin. My father realised he had forgotten his jersey (the plan was for him to join me on the last ascent from Sault) but I told him that I wanted to get going first rather than turnaround.
Some photos were taken and a good luck kiss from my wife was received at “kilometre 0” and soon I was on the bike pedalling into the pitch blackness with only my lights as company.
It was 5am, it was relatively calm, it was cool and it was clear as I could see the red light on the telecoms station at the summit some 20 odd kilometres in the distance.
I knew there would be a period of 45/60 minutes of riding alone before my support team returned from picking up the forgotten jersey. It was pitch dark riding towards the forest. My front light managed to keep me on the tarmac but all around me I heard various noises from the fields and undergrowth. My imagination was running wild until suddenly I heard the galloping of four legs very close to me on my left hand side which continued with me for what seemed like ages. All I could think of was a wild boar being startled and ramming me from the side.
Anyway, I buried myself and continued to climb realising I was getting more and more breathless and the gear I had been turning was too big. I had climbed gently through the villages of St Colombe and St Estave before hitting the first hairpin. I dropped into my small chainring and realised I wouldn’t be out of it until beyond the first summit.
My support crew appeared next to me and asked how I felt to which I just grunted. I climbed for almost 2 hours before daylight broke and when I reached Chalet Reynard I just wanted to finish the final 6km of the climb. The most iconic and arguably difficult 6km of the climb. The barren, limestone moonscape that I had, up until now, only seen in photographs and on television.
It was grim.
Around every corner you could see the telecoms tower and it wasn’t getting closer. I had heard about this section and knew that it was just my mind playing tricks on me as physically the summit was getting closer but mentally I was struggling to acknowledge this trickery.
It was in my final 2km of the first ascent that I genuinely felt the need of Kathryn and my Dad. Whilst I could have done without the enthusiastic shouts of encouragement, I was happier that they were there, almost my only constant in this ever changing situation that I found myself in.
I was on the greatest cycling climb in the world and with the exception of two other riders I had it to myself. It is an experience that I struggle to put into words but I guess it is the closest I’ll get to surrealism. I had wanted to climb Mont Ventoux for as long as I can remember and dof my cap to Tommy Simpson as I passed his memorial and take that final right hand hairpin and have enough in my legs to get over that line.
As I forced myself up there towards the shouts of encouragement I can honestly say that I felt privileged, proud and a massive sense of accomplishment. I remember a kiss from Kathryn and a handshake from my Dad.
I had done it and I looked at the view and couldn’t really believe how high I had climbed but having got the “money shot” of me at the summit sign I knew I would be back so I jumped on the bike and made the 21km descent to Maulecene.
We stopped at a cafe for a break and after about half an hour I was back on the road immediately retracing my journey albeit at a fraction of the speed.
In my mind and I have had almost a week to think this over, there were warning signs within the first couple of kilometres of the second ascent. I wasn’t enjoying the climb. From Bedoin, at the start of the day, I was buzzing, I was following in the footsteps of the greatest cyclists the world has ever seen, I was reading the messages written on the Tarmac from the Bastille Day stage of the 2013 Tour de France – Contador, Go Andy, Va Va Froome, Cadel to name but a few. I was looking forward to Chalet Reynard, to the moonscape, to the Simpson Memorial and to that final push. I had no such motivational anchors for the second ascent. The climb in its initial stages constituted long, straight drags with nothing to tell me that I was actually climbing Mont Ventoux.
And then I started to struggle.
I was about 7km into the climb when I felt bad. Unbeknown to everyone, I had spent the last few kilometres of the first ascent trying to prevent my left calf cramping but now I was feeling the muscles at the back of my thighs tense up too which meant I was delivering less and less power. It was brutal, relentless and I was quickly losing all sense of romance for this beast.
I then got what I had been dreading – footburn – that horrible painful sensation at the balls of both feet. I stopped and told the guys I needed a break and as Kathryn rubbed my feet I knew I was in trouble.
I continued on and off until I passed the 9km to go marker which showed a fourth consecutive double digit gradient and the legs went. I pulled over and more or less broke down. Despite a final push from Kathryn, I was spent and whilst my Dad put the bike in the car, I sat in the back with a towel over my head in a state of what can only be described as despair.
We drove back via the summit which I could hardly acknowledge and pulled over at the Simpson Memorial where I paid my tributes and sat with with my Dad for a moment.
And that was it.
Over a year of effort for what?
I’ll be honest, I still don’t really know.
OK we have raised over £2,000 for charity – that’s a positive.
I climbed Mont Ventoux from Bedoin – there’s another tick.
I am back on the bike after too long and even after hitting breaking point, I haven’t fallen out of love with the sport, in fact my passion for the sport supersedes anything I have ever known.
I also feel a desire to challenge myself more, to have real goals, not superficial career or status-related bollocks, but personal challenges, taking you to places your mind and body are uncomfortable with.
And finally yes, my cycling demons have been exorcised, despite previous posts, only to be replaced with something far far more troubling. This past week, I have been looking at the photos my support team were taking on my challenge and whilst I knew I didn’t look good in cycling gear, I didn’t quite appreciate how bad I look – particularly from behind.
So goodbye cycling demons – hello Lycra demons.
The Giant