Saturday, 25 July 2009

Mont Ventoux - For Real

Today the remaining riders in the Tour de France cycled the penultimate stage of the 2009 race, which for the first time ever ends at the peak of Mont Ventoux, otherwise known as the Geant de Provence or Mount Baldy!

Mont Ventoux is the most feared mountain in what is generally regarded as the world's toughest endurance race. Over three weeks, and 3,400 kms, 180 riders consume 252,000 calories EACH to fight for the right to wear the yellow jersey in Paris tomorrow.

It's hard to really appreciate quite just what a challenge the Tour de France is. Cycling 100 miles is, for most cyclists, the benchmark of endurance. In terms of effort, 100 miles cycling is about the same as 30 miles of running - and that's not factoring in wind and hills - imagine running a marathon+ every day for 3 weeks.

Describing Ventoux, Lance Armstrong has said: "It's just a weird place, a very weird place - It's the hardest climb in the Tour, bar none."

The best gauge of the effort required is to take a look at the faces of the cyclists on a mountain stage such as Ventoux or the Cols du Tourmalet - these people look close to death, with a 1,000 yard stare. Tommy Simpson had that look, just before he died on Ventoux in 1967 after falling off his bike on the final slopes - allegedly crying "Put me back on my bike!". Take a look here:

To be fair, he was exhausted, hugely dehydrated and had amphetamines and alcohol in his blood - not an ideal racing cocktail.

Ventoux is a singular mountain, it separates the men from the boys and even the most experienced riders fear it. The summit is 1,912 metres high, with the 'hard' route from Bedoin taking 21km to get to the top, starting from 300 metres above sea level. The average gradient is 7.5%, rising to 11% in parts.

To put that into context, Ventoux is nearly twice the height of Snowdon, but the climb is 1,600 metres, compared to 425 metres for Snowdon (where the climb starts at 360 metres above sea level), four times more. Suffice to say that you are unlikely to see children or men in flip flops tackling Ventoux!

The mountain towers over Provence and its bare limestone upper slopes resemble a snowy peak from a distance - its name is said to derive not to derive from its windiness ('venteux'), but the Gallic for snow cap - 'Ven-Top'. The mountain suffers extremes of temperature and it gets very windy at the top, apparently peaking at 50mph+ 240 days per year.

As you may gather from all this, I am a touch obsessed by Ventoux!

Anyway, I tuned into ITV's coverage of the stage to get a fresh appreciation of what lies ahead in the autumn. As mentioned, I've ridden Ventoux twice before, taking around 2 hrs 30 mins to get to the top - far from the hour it takes the pros (going down is much more fun and takes around 30 mins, but it does leave your brakes rather hot!). But that was without a preceding 85 miles of pretty serious hills. It's all becoming frighteningly real.

As a cyclist of any pretension, it's a very humbling experience watching the professionals - these guys are on a different planet. Whippet-thin, the winners average 25mph over the whole race - I can't average 20mph over a fraction of that distance. It's no wonder that people accuse them of taking drugs - I mean, even with physios, nutritionists and great kit how is it possible?

Sadly the coverage was of absolutely no use to me in recceing for the ride; they joined the riders as they started on Ventoux, which I know well. I'm only glad I don't have to ride past miles of drunken idiots threatening to knock me off my bike. The stage had very little effect on the final race, all it did was to remind me how fat and slow I am.

Anyway, on with the preparations for Bournemouth to Dover and pray a miracle occurs.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Mont Ventoux - Etape du Tour 2009

Today is the Etape du Tour, a day where amateur riders get to tackle one of the Tour de France stages, with roads closed, just ahead of the real Tour.

This year it's Montelimar to Ventoux, the most iconic and toughest mountain on the tour - and the route that me and brother James will be tackling in the autumn. The Geant de Provence: 106 miles, 11,500 feet of climbs, Tommy Simpson killer - it's an absolute monster - no wonder it's so feared...

Why not just do the ride now? Well, for one I don't fancy riding with 9,500 other riders, even if the roads are closed. I've never liked riding in groups, despite the advantage of less wind drag, it feels unsafe to me and you can't go at your own pace. Added to which, the ride is in July and that's just too hot to be in the mountains - I know what it feels like in 35+ degree heat having ridden Ventoux itself twice before.

So 'Chapeau!' and 'Bon courage!' to the people riding today, I'll look forward to tackling it in the autumn. For now, here's the route...

Bike route 220577 - powered by Bikemap 

Thursday, 16 July 2009


Two updates:

First, I've tweaked the route and it's down to 175 miles for 2 days, so Gary can rest easy

Second, I've found some hotels in Bournemouth and Dover which have rooms free, don't cost the earth and aren't too moth-eaten. And we can stay at a friend's in Brighton for free!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Brokeback II - Maybe I was a teensy bit optimistic...

For some reason I always seem to under-estimate distances, it's been the curse of my cycling career. I think I'm just an optimist. A ride that I thought would be 110 miles from Birmingham to London turned out to be 130 miles, every day of the Birmingham to Edinburgh ride last year was about 10 miles longer than expected.

Truth be told, it's very hard to work out the distances. I usually use the RAC routeplanner or guesstimate on largish scale maps, which is useless. Anyway my problems are now over as I've discovered (please see the attached routes on the blog), which will work out your routes for you, following the roads, rather than going as the crow flies.

The problem is that it means I have to be honest to Gary about the distances involved, so the promised 160 mile ride from Bournemouth to Dover has turned into 190 miles, with the first day 100 miles - a psychological distance which he is yet to cross and which could leave him a broken man.

And that's not the only issue to raise its head, it's also proving almost impossible to find hotels on the south coast. I know I shouldn't be surprised, it's the height of the summer season, but for heaven's sake! And what's worse, Brighton hotels seem to have a policy of having a minimum tow-night booking, which is obviously no good for us.

And we don't want to have a repeat of the double-room debacle from Marple last year!

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Bliss Was It That Dawn To Be Alive...

Naxos Dawn Ride Wordsworth wrote apropos the French Revolution. Hmm, that turned out well...

If I'm going to tackle Ventoux in the autumn, it's going to be necessary to cycle up and down a few mountains, being as most of the landscape around Birmingham would be more accurately described as 'bumpy' than 'mountainous'.

And just to show willing, and acknowledge that I'm way behind on training (I blame the weather), I'm even prepared to train on holiday. We're in Naxos for a couple of weeks, staying at a friend's place. Luckily it has two things that I need - hills and a bicycle to use (all I have to do is service it, which I've always taken a perverse pleasure in anyway!).

I've done a few warm-up rides into Naxos Town, but today I'm tackling the hill at the centre of the island.

The hill is more of a mountain really, fully 1,000m high (that's 1 kilometre, or 0.621 miles to those still working in pounds, shillings and pence). That's about half of Ventoux, but it's a start...

The only problem is that it's about 100 degrees in the shade, so long rides during the day are very much mad dogs and Englishmen territory. The only answer is to get up at 6.00am before the sun's even over the hills.

Wordsworth did have a point, though, there's something very uplifting about the freshness of the early morning, especially when you know that most people are still in bed (including, sensibly, my wife).

The old millhouse we're staying in is along a donkey track from a country road, which immediately faces you with a 1 in 10 climb. Thankfully it then settles down as the road meanders across a waterless moonscape on which the only life seems to be goats and their shepherds (goatherds, surely?).

After 45 minutes and ten miles and I'm at the hill town of Filoti. This is where the real climb starts, 5 miles of relentless, winding hill up to the top. But it's still only 7.15am, I have a Mars bar and can of coke in my bag, and someone even waves to encourage me on - rather like the French shouting 'chapeau' (hats off!) as you cycle uphill.

The hill is far easier than I expect - there's very little traffic, the gradient is only about 5% and this side of the mountain is still mostly in stage and quite cool. As I ascend, the view changes and I start to look down on the hill town and towards the sea in the distance. And then I come up to the height of a church, perched high on a neighbouring hilltop.

And then I'm at the top. Always an exhilerating feeling - and it's only 8.30am. I'm less than halfway around my 30 miles loop, but most of the rest should be downhill. Another 4 miles and I'm at the true summit -it's always the way. And I have 15 miles of almost uninterrupted downhill. That's more like it, with the wind rushing past and virtually no pedaling. 2 hours of uphill is over in 45 minutes and I'm back at the house, ready for breakfast at 9.30am, surprisingly fresh and a full day of holiday to enjoy.

Now why can't I force myself to do that in England?