Thursday, 3 September 2015

Rocky Mountain High

Considering I was sleeping in such a relatively exposed position, I slept pretty well for about 4 hours, or maybe slightly less. Anyway, I was once again back on the bike as dawn broke and very shortly after that heading into my first climb of the day.

The route out of Lyon was brutal, with two long and winding ascents. The heat increased from mid morning, so that by 11 it was already punishingly hot.

I was pretty happy though having summited my second set of twisting hills, that I was nearing the end of the ridge line that separated Lyon from the easterly route I was now following. I was incredibly surprised therefore, when I bumped into another rider who had happened upon my path from due north, to find that, so frustrated was he with the hills, that he was thinking of heading to Lyon and then south again to pick up the river that he surmised would bring him round toward Mont Ventoux from the south. It seemed like one hell of a detour.

As it turned out, I was right about my own route and soon found myself in beautiful lanes bordered by fields of sunflowers and sweet corn.

As the day wore on, the heat and tiredness mixed with the increasing saddle discomfort caused me to stop more frequently. Never for more than a few minutes, to allow my legs to relax briefly, but it added up and the miles were becoming hard won.

After an eternity Mont Ventoux appeared to my left, a faint outline in the haze, towering above the surrounding landscape. Even from 40 miles away, there was no denying it's supremacy. I recall a colleague from work, himself a cyclist and someone who had cycled to the summit, saying how Ventoux just rises out of the low lying scenery surrounding it, completely out of place given its size.

The problem of course with a big mountain, is that being there from miles away, you have to look at it as it appears to remain on the horizon for hours, never seemingly getting any closer. Eventually though the pictures show otherwise and I at last crawled into Duchamp, dirty, smelly and exhausted, desperately in need of some food.

It's odd sometimes how you forget the restorative power of food. I started by asking for a Coke, thinking that I was just thirsty and then consumed an amazing risotto with duck along with another pint of coke. I suddenly felt like a new man, aided by the almost total body wash that I achieved in the tiny lavatory sink.

Competitors were appearing from out of the slowly dying day, the strain of their efforts etched on their faces and evident in their stiff-legged gait. There was no suppressing the smiles of self-satisfied achievement though. Over 600 miles in 3 days is something to smile about.

Bedoin, the start of the official climb of Ventoux was lively with early evening revellers. There were bikes seemingly at every restaurant as riders either rested prior to heading for the mountain, or settling for a few hours sleep in anticipation of an early start the next morning.

I had already determined that I was going for the summit that night. I was on course to make 180 miles by the time I reached the top and at 21:30 started my ascent. Another rider left at about the same time, catching me up in the first mile. It was nice to chat for a while before then settling into our own rhythms as the gradient increased.

By now it was dark. There was a good moon, but it was hidden behind the trees and gave little light. In some ways I was glad not to be able to see beyond the beam of my light and before long was breathing my newly determined mantra. 'If he can, I can, if he can, I can...' and then he stopped!!

We had been climbing for a couple of hours. In the lowest gear, I doubt we were doing more than a few miles an hour. At times his light disappeared around the next bend and I was rarely closer than 3-400 m.

The climb enters it's final sections above the Chalet Reynard, a beautiful 17th century barn that for others is available to stay at. For us it was a point on a map and the sting in the tail. Why is it that mountains like these save their worst for the top half. It didn't seem that it could have become any tougher.

Though moon drenched and beautiful, the upper reaches of Mont Ventoux expose you to everything that the mountain is famous for and so named. Gusts of wind blew up the gullies, so fierce at times that it seemed impossible that I would reach the summit without getting blown off the mountain. Wind speeds of up to 200mph have been recorded and the wind blows at an average of 56mph for 240 days a year. (

One such gust threw me left toward the edge of the hillside, sending me into a complete 360 deg turn to avoid the drop or a crash, but the next one gave me fewer options, so violent and sudden was it. Chucking me to the right, it was the rocky mountain high, or the high road. I chose the high road and crashed in a heap.

The bike battered and bent would not work properly. I couldn't get the chain to stay on and I had visions of trying to work out how I was going to get down to a bike shop in the morning from up here. It would certainly have been a long walk. For now though, I still had a mile to go and set off, leaning into the tearing wind, for the top.

At half and hour past midnight, I made the summit of Mont Ventoux, 180 miles for the day and 645 miles in three days. Marion and her crew were waiting in the van to stamp my card. Their concern and kindness, so, so welcome. Thank you all.

With the light of the van, I could see that the deraillier problems were not as bad as I had thought. It was bent for sure, but not unserviceable. For now, it was enough to know that I would be on the road again in the morning and I set to arranging my bivi in the lee of the weather station, under a set of iron steps. I was going to sleep like a rock.

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