Inspired by Channel Four’s coverage*, I used to fantasise about riding in the Tour de France. Of course, riding the Tour was just a dream. Being an extremely average physical specimen and a smoker, I was never going to get the call from Cyrille Guimard or Peter Post.
However, I took the Tour into my work. After all, because of the way that the work of a bicycle courier is organised (the more parcels you deliver, the more money you get), the daily life of a messenger (courier) is pretty much a race. You are competing against the other riders to get your hands on the parcels before they do, get them in your bag, and get them delivered.
I modelled myself on the pros. I ditched the cut-down, upturned bars, started using ‘proper’ drop handle-bars and wearing cycling caps, and began to draft the wheels of other cyclists and tail-gate motor-vehicles, just like I had seen the pros do on the tv.
Theobald’s Road, a very slight incline, would be the lower slopes of the col du Galibier (I always preferred to imagine myself on Alpine climbs, never Pyrenean). Percy Circus became one of the lacets of l’Alpe d’Huez. I went on Sunday rides with mates, and started to ride harder and harder. Occasionally, I was able to sample the delicious sensation of dropping a fellow cyclist who was trying hard to keep up with me, enjoying watching them drop away from my back wheel, thrashing like a drowning swimmer might.
I started doing actual bike races, on an actual racing bike. (Ok, it was only the Tuesday 10s at Eastway). I had become a proper amateur cyclist. I was ready to test myself against the Giants of the Road, on the roads of the Tour de France.
In 1993, I rode up Mont Ventoux, literally up it. Nearly all ‘mountain’ roads pass between mountain peaks. This is one of the very few mountain roads that takes you to the very top of a mountain. And, for all that Mont Ventoux appears much older and far more eroded than the nearby Alps, it really is a mountain, which, as I write this in February, has snow on it.
This was my first ride on roads used by the Tour. I rode to the summit via Sault, having started that morning from my great aunt’s house on the Crau plain, about 100 kilometres distant from, and 1900 metres lower than the summit. The climb from the Sault side is the easiest of the 3 road climbs, with a total elevation gain of around 1200 metres over 24 km, at relatively gentle gradients.
The weather was benign, being hot and not very windy. I generally go alright in the heat, and I had plenty of water, so the dehydration so dreaded by cyclists wasn’t a problem. Pretty much by chance, I wasn’t on an over-geared bike, being on a triple chainset, with a lowest gear of something like 28 X 24.
I had taken it relatively easy on the ride in, so my legs were reasonably ok by the time I got to Chalet Reynard, which marks the start of the hardest part of the ride, if you are coming from the Sault side. Again, I was lucky with the wind, so was able to ride to the top without serious difficulty. My first ‘major’ climb, and one of the most famous, and significant for a British cyclist. I left a cap on the Simpson memorial.
5 years later, I would reach the foot of Mont Ventoux having danced my way over the Col de Murs, which had been designated a Cat 2 climb for that year’s Tour. Arriving at Saint-Estève, which is where the real climbing starts, if approaching from the much harder south side, I had felt really strong, and attacked the first kilometre into the forest, thinking how easy it was. Within another kilometre or so, I was sat under a tree, trying to inhale my lungs back into my chest.
The ride up through the forest on the south side is steep, and, as it is not possible to see very far through the trees, somewhat disconcerting, as it isn’t possible either to look back and see how high you have climbed, nor to look up and see how far you have to go.
By the time I hauled myself up to the Chalet, I was suffering, and the Mistral, which had been blowing all week, absolutely destroyed me mentally and physically once I was above the tree-line, and into the arena of the white stones, which make Mont Ventoux appear snow-capped when viewed from a distance.
If you don’t know what the Mistral is, you have never been to eastern Provence. The Mistral is a wind that blows from North to South down the Rhone valley. The wind is a regular feature of the climate of that part of the Midi, and is generally caused by an atmospheric depression in the Bay of Naples. When it blows, it generally blows for 10 days or so, and is very, very strong.
The inhabitants have adapted to the wind by growing lines of poplars and pines to protect gardens and houses from the wind, and none of the older buildings in that part of Provence have any large windows facing north. It is a wind that can whistle up insanity and disorder, not to mention ruin any number of days on the beach, or, indeed, any otherwise pleasurable outdoor pursuit.
The road from the Chalet to the summit zig-zags along the flank of the mountain, turning north and west. Every turn to the north forces the cyclist into the jaws of the roaring monster that is the Mistral, if it is blowing. On that day it wasn’t blowing hard enough to rip me off the mountain, but it was more than strong enough to bring my speed down to a crawl, and to force me and my legs to crab desperately along the road in over-geared (39 X 26) discomfort. Robert Millar describes this sensation as ‘blowing your brains out’. Millar once said that it doesn’t matter how strong you are, the sensation of climbing on the limit of your endurance and beyond is the same. You go faster if you are fitter, but the pain of grovelling in the gutter is the same, no matter how strong or weak you are.
One of the most disconcerting aspects of the climb from the Chalet is the optical illusion. As you ride towards the summit, the Observatory appears not be getting any closer for a considerable amount of time. The kilo stones count off the distance remaining accurately, but in the hundreds of metres in between, with the mind in free-fall from the effort, the disorientation of this receding mirage can be very demoralising to an exhausted rider.
On that second time up, the temptation to get off and throw my bike off the side of the mountain was great. It’s possible that the only reason I didn’t was that I wearing racing shoes, fitted with Look cleats, upon which it is virtually impossible to walk very far. I made it to the top, but the climb of the mountain hadn’t been a pleasant experience. I seem to recall that David Millar said he couldn’t understand why anyone would ride up Mont Ventoux for pleasure, and on this occasion it really hadn’t been a pleasure. On the ride down, I was virtually torn off the road by the cross-winds, which made it even less pleasant.
My 3rd encounter with the mountain was in 2004. I had signed up for a week with Veloventoux, a cycle-holiday company run by Craig Entwistle, who has probably ridden over Mont Ventoux more often than any other Englishman, alive or dead. The programme was a few light rides, with La Ventoux – Beaumes de Venise cyclo-sportive on the Saturday.
A few light rides, I say, but we rode up the north side of Ventoux on the Tuesday, completing my set. It had taken me more than 10 years to ride all 3 of the roads up Ventoux, but some people do it in the same day, the so-called Cinglés du Ventoux (cinglé is colloquial French for ‘mad’). With 160 hilly kilometres on the Saturday, we probably should have done nothing of consequence, and, almost certainly, we should have stayed away from the local produce. Mont Ventoux is flanked by some of the most celebrated vineyards in France, Côtes du Rhône.
I am happy to tell you, dear reader, that we did neither, even managing to combine a very pleasant afternoon’s ride with the local touring club with an evening in the club h.q., a café-bar in Nyons, making an extensive inquiry into the nature of the local rosé, whilst hearing of the club members’ exploits on their various long-distance epics on Les Diagonales de France.
On Saturday, the big race. Let’s make no bones about it, a big cyclo-sportive like La Ventoux is a big race. There are motorcycle out-riders for the leaders, and proper prizes for the winners. The roads are more or less closed by default in the bigger events, as there are thousands of riders, making the road pretty much impassable for anyone not participating. Spectators line the route. A cyclo-sportive is the closest that the mere mortal can get to riding the Tour de France, especially when the sportive uses a road like the road up Mont Ventoux. It is hard not to get carried away at the start, and blow your legs off in the excitement of being in a huge group, riding on the roads that the stars use.
The other really great thing about cyclo-sportives for the extremely mediocre rider such as myself, is that, no matter how often you get dropped from the various groups that form and re-form, there’s always another one behind. You might spend most of the day watching a lot of back wheels disappearing into the distance, but there’ll alway be a least one, not far away, that is coming back towards you. So no matter how slow you are, relative to the fastest guys, there will always be someone that you can leave behind on the road, grasping futilely at your dead air. The amateur can enact his (or her) fantasy of launching a race-winning attack on the run-in to the finish that will turn the general classification upside down, in the manner of Merckx, Coppi or whichever rider you prefer.
The course of the event is one and a half times over Ventoux, with a loop round to the north of the mountain, if you do the full route, thus making every finisher demi-cinglé, or half-mad. The route also takes in two tremendous descents, first from the top of the mountain to Malaucène, and then from Chalet Reynard back down to Saint-Estève.
As on my first time, the weather was extraordinarily benign, being nice & warm without being too hot. I can’t remember too much detail about the day, apart from one moment when I was foolishly sitting on the front of a smallish group with another guy, and, getting annoyed with our companions, who weren’t coming through to take their share of the wind, said in french, ‘look, 15 Frenchmen led by an Englishman and a Belgian’. I do remember that at the feed station at Chalet Reynard, on my second time around, there were cups of wine available. I also remember being a little disappointed by the meal supplied at the finish, the disenchantment being somewhat off-set by more free wine, and the Gold certificate that I ‘won’ for getting the requisite time in my age group.
The lack of detailed memories, however, does not erase the glow of having ridden in the tracks of Giants.
* I watched an episode from the late 80s again, looking for Stephen Roche’s attack on the descent of the Col de Joux-Plane, and was totally stunned to see that Richard Keys was the presenter in 1987!