I went back to Ventoux over Easter for some cycling adventures with Steve and Graham. We took the train all the way there; it felt civilised – apart from the return journey; ‘tous en greve! pour avancer arretons nous!’ it’s quite difficult to articulate the experience of cycling for 4 days around Mont Ventoux, the senses and ideas that infiltrate the imagination at any given moment are almost impossible to capture.
on the first day the weather was pretty cold and grey. we tackled a few minor cols, only up to around 900 metres, the Fantuabe and Col Des Aires. I felt strong, and excited to be cycling in France. Cars gave us inconceivable amounts of space. there were glimpses of road painting…
at all times the mountain loomed over us, and with fresh snow the night we arrived, it looked particularly daunting and other-worldly.
the second day was absolutely beautiful, sunny and clear, but quite blowy, to the extent that you could see the snow being blown off the summit of Ventoux in blindingly white curlicues, we left the planned ascent for the next day.
instead we opted for a 3up time-trial up the gorge de la nesque with our genial host Craig. it was his idea, although i’d talked myself into it by mentioning my early season time trial exploits, and he pointed out that there is an annual ‘chrono de la nesque’. it’s a steady, fairly light gradient, with a fast middle section and some steeper bits that go on, and on, and on, for around 10 miles. steve, craig and I put the collective hammer down for a ridiculously fast 35.54; only a few minutes off the course record, and a full minute and a half quicker than Craig’s personal best. i suffered for this later in the holiday, and later that day.
the return loop showed the staggering height and beauty of Ventoux, and gave us something to gaze at, awestruck, with more snow being torn from the crest by the wakening mistral.
the third day was the ascent. the weather was perfect with azure skies and a stillness. a mechanical nearly scuppered things before we got started, but i learnt the difference between french bike shops and f.w evans. Monsieur Gustave LeVelo can repair a bladed spoke with an internal nipple with no bother whatsoever, in about 30 minutes, for about £17.
the forest was hot, not stifling, but enough to be thankful that it was early april. as we climbed, the treeline gave way to snow; and lots of it.
up to five foot on either side of the road, which meant that the very top, or last km or so, was closed. and it was cold. but it was characteristically mind-blowing, we reached Chalet Reynard within the hour, which was good going. Whilst riding up the later stages i remembered a curious statistic – during last year’s penultimate Tour stage, Andy Schleck attacked 18 times on ventoux. it sounds trite, or straightforward; and yet whilst cyling, and clinging onto Steve’s wheel, it was inconceivable, so terrifyingly distant from reality.
people were tobogganing at the top, and i overtook a snowboarder. i can’t really think of what else to say, it feels like you are on the roof of the world, there is no comparable peak for miles around, the view is staggering. it felt sublime, in the truest sense of the word, a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation, the wanderer above the sea of fog. the descent was incredible, on the wire, i was really enjoying it until a fly flew inside my ear at a combined impact speed of around 60mph. it was strange and disconcerting, a bit too cronenberg for my liking. at lunch afterwards our thoughts turned to how France seems to have been created for the sole purpose of cycling, it’s fantastic, an edenic, two-wheeled paradise.
the last day was the most demanding, cumulatively, a further 75 miles with a huge amount of climbing, including the category 2 Tour climb, col de perty, a 32km ascent culminating in a narrow pass and a glimpse of the alpine peaks some 60 miles distant. it was very cold, graham took the sensible option and went back, steve and I pressed on, and it rained – a lot. we got soaked. it felt edifying afterwards, at the time it felt bleak and miserable. by this point i was even tempted by graham’s electrolyte drink, but not steven’s embrocation rub. it’s a slippery slope.
four of the cols tackled that day were above 1000 metres. it was a brave, slightly foolhardy end to four days of riding, total distance around 250 miles, i shudder to think how much climbing we did. at one point, having ridden along a valley for about 45 minutes at race pace, before being confronted with a final, will-shattering climb, i felt as though i was a participant in some sort of visionary herzog film. i later found out that steve has only seen grizzly man so he was a bit confused by my comment at the time. i guess i was referring to aguirre, the sort of conradian idea of sanity being slowly eroded by the surroundings, the journey deep into the subconscious, where willpower takes you somewhere you’re not quite sure you should be going.