Every now and then, it’s important to do something that scares you, right?
And the idea of Club Des Cinglés scared me a little bit, I’ll not lie.
Taking on a single ascent of Mont Ventoux is something of a “bucket list challenge” for a good portion of cyclists the world over.
Attempting TWO of the famed roads to the top, in one ride, is something that few would even consider.
Saying that you’re doing ALL THREE, back to back, is, as I’ve learned through experience, enough to make even the hardiest of cyclists raise an eyebrow.
Goodness; it’s enough to earn you membership of the Club Des Cinglés – (basically; the “Club of the crazy people”).
Why I wanted to do it is, doubtlessly, rooted in this love I have of searching for my limits… it’s what drives, on average, at least one “weird A-event” each year, for me.
So when a couple of friends, (Gary and Julian) told me they were doing it – and invited me to join them – it was my “horse’s head on the bed” moment… it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
We flew down to the south of France and a hire car completed our journey to Bédoin at the foot of Ventoux, where we’d found a suitable apartment – and where our hire bikes were to be delivered, ready for our adventure.
The day before we were going to take the three climbs on, we went out for a gentle spin – 40 or so miles – which finished with a 1/3rd ascent of the “Bédoin route” to the top of Ventoux.
It was a confidence boosting ride… at least for me, it was.
We didn’t encounter anything which came as a surprise – so I went to bed the night before, feeling positive and raring to go.
Now I could give you a blow by blow account of the ride itself, which we cheerily started at 8am… and finished later that day (having taken in 84 miles and over 14,000 feet of climbing)… such is my recall of events… but, oh, I don’t know, I reckon that would get repetitive.
So, instead, I’ll deal with “themes”.
In the run up to the event, I’d been likening the task ahead (when trying to explain it to non-cycling friends) to cycling up a local, well known, challenging hill, continuously for 42 miles.
The local hill in question has a similar average gradient so it was a great way of getting the engagement (and gasps of disbelief) from the friends I was telling.
I’m going to level with you, though – I didn’t really think it would be like cycling up that hill for 42 miles.
The local hill in question is quite tough and something in me just couldn’t believe that even Mont Ventoux would be that relentless.
It really was.
It really really was!
The Bédoin and Malaucène climbs were tougher than the Sault climb but, and make no bones about this, all three of them were brutal.
Each climb is, averaged out, around 13 miles or so in length with 5 or 6 mile stretches at a time where the gradient is continuously at over 10% meant that, when you return to single digit percentages, even 9.9%, you bizarrely find yourself feeling like you’re riding on the flat.
It got to the stage where anything less than an 8% gradient felt positively luxurious.
At one point, on the second ascent, I started seeing double and feeling dizzy. I was needing food but the “marker stone” on the side of the road told me that I had 66km still to go before the shop at the top (that’s 6km if you’re not suffering from double vision).
It was so brutal that you had to suspend the norms in terms of calculating how long the remaining distance before the summit would take; 6 kilometres (c4 miles), even at a pootle, back home, would be 15 minutes max. On Ventoux, you knew that, with those same 4 miles to go, you might even be looking at anything up to 45 minutes!
For me, it was far less about looking at distance or time… and far more about looking at elevation; I knew that each climb was c4,500 feet so I had “elevation” displayed prominently on my Wahoo screen in front of me and was thinking wholly in terms of how many more feet I had to climb.
One thing that did strike me, though, was that I was eternally grateful to myself for having practiced seated climbing over the last couple of months.
I may not be any good at it (and still vastly prefer being stood up)… but my practicing got me used to it and, trust me, there’s no other way to do three ascents of Ventoux other than sat firmly on the saddle.
Now one thing, in the lead up to the day, I’d been telling myself was that, whilst the ride was 84 miles long, it was only, really, a 42 mile bike ride – the descents wouldn’t really count, right?
At the top of the first ascent, from Bédoin, the wind was unlike anything I’d experienced before (I swear that I could have used my bike as a kite – I genuinely had to struggle to hold it down as I dismounted) and that had a corresponding effect on the temperature.
It was cold!
We thought we’d prepared for that, though, and all of us donned our collections of arm-warmers, long fingered gloves and gilets in preparation for the c13 mile descent into Malaucène.
Not having to pedal when you’re lovely and warm is great.
Not having to pedal when you’re shivering so badly that even your bike is shaking and darting from left to right (and back again)… that’s not great… putting in no effort means generating no warmth.
Trying to create resistance to push against, by braking and pedaling at the same time, wasn’t helping me to get any warmth in my legs, either.
Add to that the fact that, for the first handful of miles, you’re trying to fight the huge winds which are hell-bent on throwing you over the side of the mountain and you have a very unpleasant experience indeed!
All three of the descents were much the same (with the possible exception of the last one which, for some reason, seemed marginally more pleasant).
Gary, at the bottom of the first descent, took 30 minutes to stop shivering even though, by that time, we were basking in 24° sunshine and he was drinking hot coffee… that’s the kind of thing we’re talking about.
It’s a very odd place to be when you beg for the return of the brutal climbing, just to get some warmth in your body.
Odd… and wholly unexpected.
The summit of Mont Ventoux is anywhere between 1,909 and 1,912 metres up in the air (depending on whether you look at the sign outside the shop at the top… or the merchandise on sale inside).
It’s not surrounded by any other 1,912 metre tall mountains, either… which means that, when you are standing there, bracing yourself against the wind and cold, you feel like you are on top of the world.
I can’t seem to find any figures on this but numerous sources helpfully suggest that we could see for “many many miles”… and we’d chosen a particularly clear day to take on our challenge, too.
The views were SPECTACULAR!
They were more than “spectacular”… we use that word for sporting performances or great TV programmes, after all… so it doesn’t seem right to use the same word to describe the views from the top of Ventoux.
We need another, more powerful, superlative; “Uber-spectacular”!
To the one side, you could see the sprawling Alps in the distance… a slight turn to the right and you were surveying what appeared to be the whole of Provence.
For a moment, you could easily forget that you were being battered by the elements.
And, of course, the views from the bike were equally stunning as you wound your way up/back down… each time you rounded a bend, you were rewarded with a wholly new perspective.
Descending, notwithstanding its own challenges, was, from a “visual” perspective, a particular delight… even the road itself… like a ribbon out in front of you… yet to be attacked… was a “view” to behold.
The Club Des Cinglés, three ascents, challenge is, without doubt, one of the hardest days I’ve endured.
I don’t want to say “the hardest” because Ironman Sweden brought me very close to tears so that, I guess, claims the crown… but Mont Ventoux certainly pushed me closer to my limit than anything outside of Sweden.
I have rarely experienced the kind of “pain” that I had on the inclines of Ventoux.
Some of you will know what I mean when I say this; it was “good pain” but pain nonetheless.
Mont Ventoux is staggeringly beautiful and the day will live with me forever.
It dragged swear words out of me that I’ve not used for a while and I even found myself saying “God bless” to the Tommy Simpson memorial even though I’m not in the least bit religious… and, being a piece of rock, it has no way of hearing me even if I was!
But it also dragged “determination” out of me in buckets-loads.
That’s what this hill does for you.
Ticking the “Club Des Cinglés” box on my “cycling CV” has given me one mahoosive sense of achievement!
I can’t finish a blog without thanking the two chaps who invited me along and who pedaled up there with me; Gary and Julian.
Both of them are clearly as mad as a box of frogs… which is great… cos you need to be to do what we did. Even other cyclists, on the day, looked at us with bewilderment when we told them what we were up to.
I also can’t end this blog without thanking Lisa, my wife (for those that don’t know – where have you been??!?!!) and Angus & Evert, my boys. Without their approval, I could never have got on the flight in the first place.
To finish off; if you ever fancied doing one, two or even three ascents of Ventoux… do it… you won’t regret a single moment (or should that be a “cingle” moment?)!