Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mont Ventoux, the 'easy' way ...

You may well recall my dear and valued reader that I was conned into signing up for an arduous charity event spending three days cycling in lovely Provence.

As I mentioned before in my “That’s only me and Jens Voigt” missive  the way it was sold to me was like this:
" do you fancy a ride in Provence?" 
Well why not, 
" it's for charity" 
even better! 
"and finishes climbing Mont Ventoux" 
hold on, what was that last bit?

For those sensible folk, those who avoid cycling, Mont Ventoux is a legend, the monster, the destroyer, the toughest climb on the Tour de France, an iconic breaker of souls and legs. 

In the end four members of #TeamBreakfastBike signed up, and in early July we rocked up at Heathrow, in various stages of trepidation to flit to Nice and from there to the first of our host hotels. Although the event organisers delivered amazingly good selection and signage of the routes over the three days they failed to meet my unreasonably high standards on some of the logistical and accommodation factors. 

As an example, on arriving at the first fairly rustic auberge a number of us were informed that actually we were to be housed in a different hotel, within walking distance but would still be joining the core group for supper and breakfast. OK, but our suite for the night turned out to be a room just about big enough for three beds, containing, I guess inevitably, three beds. 

This lovely building, rejected by 'Le Probation Service de France' as too spartan for young offenders did have a lovely communal shower area dispensing 5 second bursts of bracing chill and each of the cells had the ability to simultaneously manage the level of both heating and mosquito activity through the simple opening and closing of a window. And that's pretty much it. Oh, to be fair, we were each issued a threadbare towel and a piece of soap when we arrived, It's a long time since I was so forcefully reminded of my time in prison. 

Dinner in the more upmarket (relatively) hotel was a classic holiday hotel buffet, can't really fault it and the highlight of the evening for me was spending twenty minutes practicing my execrable French with one of the waitresses before we mutually discovered that we shared Cardiff as a birthplace. 

So back to our barracks for lights-out and the less said about that night the better, three middle-aged to elderly, mildly intoxicated blokes each of whom swore blind as the sun came up that they'd all been awake all night listening to the snoring of their roommates. Which begs the question, if none of us slept, who the heck was doing the snoring?

Day 1 - Verdon to Apt

Forget the insomniac trombonists, a nice breakfast, setting up the bikes, Provençal sunshine and the prospect of a fine day in the saddle and the world looked immeasurably better. We set off in raggle-taggle groups on our first day full of joie-de-vivre and boundless optimism. Which, for me at least, lasted for nearly 20km until the first horrible hill, I'm not a natural uphill cyclist, my bulk makes me pretty effective going down but makes any incline a challenge, and this thing got to 20% in places. I arrived at the top, giddy and breathless, spreading concern, sweat, part-digested insects, phlegm, swearing, wheezing and gasping amongst my assembled colleagues and then sat on the ground until the world stopped moving.

Recovered, we set off once more, I was now getting warmed up and the countryside was stupendous, field after field of beautiful lavender in full bloom, a perfect purple patchwork interspersed with occasional vineyards, sunflowers and fruit trees. Having got my breath I started to enjoy the ride, to enjoy my fellows in the peloton, old chums and new,  and a delightful sense of fellow-feeling and well-being descended which, for me at least, never really went away over the next three days.  

We rode some 500km over the three days, long days in the saddle but thankfully, with an adequacy of water stops, really important in 40-42 degree heat. Lunch on the first day was in a large hotel, on the second and third in much more attractive and atmospheric smaller inns.

Our arrival at the new accommodation at the end of day one revealed that we were still three to a room but in a much better class of barrack, spoilt rotten by the discovery of an ensuite toilet (not as much fun as you'd think with three men sharing) and a large rotating-still-air-movement-device attached to the roof.

We took refuge in beer.

Day 2 and Mont Ventoux.
We set off for this most momentous of days in mundane fashion, boarding a bus to take us to a lavender field some 30km from the mountain where our bikes had been laid amongst the crops. We had a choice of two routes, one (my choice) longer but with a slightly gentler gradient for the first 20km or so. The second route went through the town of Bedoin, the classic Tour de France approach but after my giddy spell on day one I opted for (relative) caution over machismo. 
Absolutely loved the ride to the town of Sault where the climb begins, starting among the houses, wending, continually rising through farmland and pasture, still, at this point with the energy to raise a smile at the occasional roadside spectator. 

The incline increased and I found myself entering the trees, after an hour or so of relentless slog through the forest, beset by flies, heat and younger, fitter folk passing me I eventually emerged from the trees and bimbled along to the next water stop. Here both routes merged at Chalet Reynard for the final slog through the moonscape of chalk, flint, gravel and the broken dreams of many, many cyclists. I knew there was a steepness to the final stretch but didn't realise it was actually about a kilometre or so from the Tommy Simpson memorial (where I stopped to pay respects, and breathe and refuel). 

After what seemed like a lifetime, but was actually two and a bit hours I turned the last corner and in a gesture of bravado, (and to circumnavigate two big fat tourists who chose that moment to lumber into the road) I triumphantly stood up on the pedals and danced like a cycling God to the summit. 1911 metres high and I'd cycled up it, (with only a stop for water and a tip of the hat to Tommy) and frankly my dears, I felt awesome!

After the obligatory self congratulation, congratulating others and 'grinning like an idiot' classic photos, it was off for the amazing downhill, now this is where my ability to turn food and alcohol into bodily mass starts to show benefit, like a giggling tummy tsunami I barrelled down the mountain touching 77kph at one point, a delightful ride to a lovely restaurant for a well-earned lunch. 
Following another round of "didn't we do well" with those of the team who'd made it that far and a light lunch of green salad,(and everything else I could lay my sweaty hands on) it was off for the second stage of day Deux. 

A controversial bit of route planning meant that there was a second serious hill to be conquered before the relatively flat section back to our hotel. As the temperature was again in the forties, quite a few folk called it a day at the lunch stop but as Eddy Mercx probably said "you don't get a tan in the van" and I must say I, unusually, quite enjoyed the long and arduous uphill. Probably down to the very evident suffering of others on the hill, there's no motivator like schadenfreude. 

Day Three - Apt to Aix

This 'enjoying the last third of a long ride' is a characteristic of your humble correspondent and his cycling style that has long been evident to my co-riders on a number of longer rides, a sluggish first third, starting to enjoy the second third and a positively energetic finish and I'd always put it down to having the sort of musculature that takes an hour or two to get warmed up.  I'm now working to a revised theory that suggests that the first couple of hours are simply sweating out the hangover and I'm not actually achieving anything but detox until 40km into the day. 

The third day demonstrated this very well with a horrible, horrible, horrible steep climb out of town in the first thirty minutes but once that was accomplished (easier said than done) we moved into a long hot day of attrition, some lovely cycling through some delightful countryside as we meandered toward Aix en Provence accompanied by the cacophonous soundtrack of heat-struck cyclists tumbling off their machines and into the verge and being bundled by the medics into the broom wagon for re-hydration and transport home. 

 Take me to steves fundraising pageAgain, weirdly, I was fine, pacing carefully, not fast but sensible and finishing the day at yet another unremarkable chain hotel with a sense of real achievement, a whole load of new cycling chums, a sharply defined cycling tan, a new appreciation of post-ride recovery drinks (mostly beer) and a couple of grand raised for a very deserving cause.

What a great trip… Thank you St James's Place for inviting me, and if you’ve not made a small gesture in the direction of the very deserving Laureus, 'Sport for good’ foundation, hie thee to my sponsorship page (click on the shirt)  and do the right thing.

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