One last continental fling before the clocks change, a ride half done before daylight. Guiding the girl on her way to Paris from Oxford to the Avenue Verte by the lakes. As our routes part company we wish her luck and disappear into the valley, into the silence of the darkness. Stopping, we search for constellations. Orion hunts in the early morning as a plane passes the full moon, a contrail lit silver against the blackness of space. Sirius sits low in the sky shining brighter than the blinking lights of the aeroplane. The handle of the Plough dips over the hillside behind us. The moonlight, bright and clean, exposes the soft curves of the hills ahead. We trace a line though the lanes in a bubble of light, not with the familiarity of home roads but the gentle comfort of vague recognition and remembrance. Out of the valley and into the forest, beech nut cases crackle under wheels, a sound not unlike that of distant fireworks. The glow of light from the baker’s day starting whilst the village sleeps attracts four hungry cyclists. We sit on a wall and eat warm pastries from paper bags. Setting off again the topology subtly shifts as the darkness slowly dissolves into day. The twists and dips of the valley and forest roads soften into the gentle curves and undulations of the farmed plateau. Things straighten and flatten further and we enter a land of lines; neatly drilled fields, pylons and wind turbines, straight narrow lanes and wide horizons. Wave hello to the farmer in the tractor etching more lines into the landscape with a plough. Corn rows and the steady rhythm of the beets. We return to the sea and lose ourselves looking for coffee in a maze of quiet streets of the coastal resort out of season. A pretty box of pastries is bought from next door and unwrapped at the table outside the bar. We climb over the cliff and follow the coast road, dipping in and out of closed down seaside villages, hibernating, lying dormant until spring. The last switchback before Dieppe, a rainbow over the sea. A few minutes later the rain catches up with us and drenches us within minutes. We sit dripping in a restaurant and order steak and frites times four. Comfortable seats are then found in a warm bar and we while away the time until we can fall asleep on the ferry back home.
A while back my friend Ollie from work said he wanted to ride up Mont Ventoux for his fortieth birthday. I mentioned that my friends Jo, George and Oli had, a couple of years before, ridden all three road ascents and joined something called Le Club Des Cingles Du Mont Ventoux. I pointed him in the direction of Jo’s account of that day. The next day Ollie said he was up for it and thus a plan was hatched. We invited along our mutual friend Norm and Ollie’s mate Elliot. A few days before we left Jo handed me a piece of Ventoux rock to take back to the top with strict instructions to only put it back after the third ascent, and collect another one for the next time.Halfway up the first ascent in the dark it dawns on me that I don’t have the rock. F*ck. It was with all my stuff when I laid it out last night. I then realise that it must be lying on top on my mitts which I’ve also forgotten. These things are easily forgotten when you get up at 4.15 in the morning. Annoyingly I noticed I had no mitts on about two kilometres after leaving Bedoin so could have easily spun round and grabbed them which would have made me realise I also didn’t have the rock, but I didn’t as the weather forecast is good enough to think I won’t need them. However I am now half way up a mountain and have a dilemma. I could turn round but that will hold everyone else up. I also consider that after the ascent from Malaucene I could drop back to Bedoin and collect it, ride around to Sault and then start the final ascent. Again that means holding the others up or forcing them to ride extra kilometres or I end up riding half the day on my own. Also that would mean I’d have to then ride back down to Sault and around to Bedoin in order to collect all the descents as well as ascents. Plus I will have only carried it for one ascent. Nothing for it, I have to continue without it. After all it’s just a bit of stone. It’s not though is it. It’s a story, part of a narrative, and I’ve just inadvertently added a blank page. Blank pages are OK though, just means there’s more story to write. That’s how I’ll explain it to Jo when I ‘fess up. Which may be when (if) he reads this.
By the time I’ve worked through this dilemma in my head the darkness is receding and we arrive at Chalet Reynard. Somehow the climb through the forest didn’t seem as bad as I was expecting. I won’t say it was easy but I’ve been in my lowest two gears since the bottom and haven’t overdone things, and the black silence of night hid the gradient from our view. The darkness may be fading as we spin towards day but the silence remains. We have the mountain to ourselves and as we hit the barren moon like section that any cyclist would recognise the sun breaks the horizon and lights the tip of the mountain in subtle tones of pink and orange. I glance over my shoulder and the sky is on fire. Two corners from the observatory at the top the view to the east looks as though Provence is errupting from a gigantic volcano. We stop for a moment just to look. The summit beckons.
After a quick celebratory “that’s one done” it’s jackets on for the descent to Malaucene…and wowsers! What a descent. I had a feeling it would be from talking to Jo and George about it previously. I also knew this is the climb where George blew up spectacularly on their Cingles attempt so guessing it was pretty steep in places. It’s not overly steep (well, not when you’re going down at least) but it has long straight(ish) sections where you can see all the road and pick your line and absolutely fly. Head down, arse up, WHIZZ. I stop on a couple of corners to take photos but generally just make WOO!! noises and have fun. I do clock other riders climbing with helmets hanging on stems and jerseys undone. This, along with the speed I career past them, indicates that the climb may be a little bit of effort, and that it must be getting warm. We spot a patisserie on the junction in Malaucene at the bottom of the descent so decide to stop here for a second breakfast. I order an apple pastry and a hot chocolate as well as collecting the first stamp on my brevet card. Breakfast is supplemented with an energy gel. I hate the things and rarely use them but I fully expect the next 20 odd kilometres to be tough. I’m not surprised when it turns out to be exactly that. The long fast sections coming down are as expected on the return back up the mountain, interminable grinds with frequent out of the saddle efforts to push the gear over a bit more easily. The views are beautiful and we are still able to keep a conversation going so the going can’t be too difficult. Conversation may be overstating the case somewhat. Look round, “You alright?”, deep breath, “Yeah”, stare at ground a bit more. The flies have come out to play but (un)fortunately Norm forgot to apply any insect repellent before we left so they swarm around him until he looks like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. It makes us laugh. Well, maybe not Norm. The sun is climbing in the sky and the temperature is following suit. Jersey zips are undone and water bottles go tepid. However we make steady progress without anyone suffering too badly. Half way up we stop near George’s rock to regroup and squirt more gels down our necks. After another long straight section, that could be far harder if the sun was high enough to shine over the trees shading our side of the road, we stop at Chalet Liotard, six kilometres from the top, for cold Orangina and bidon refills. The last section is in the full glare of the sun and the temperature is starting to bite more than the gradient. Or I thought it was until I get to the last twisting section, and I remember how fast this bit was coming down, all squealing brakes and overcooked corners. I stop a couple of times to take photos…ok, for a moment of relief before carrying on to the summit. Two down.
This time we don’t have the top to ourselves. It’s absolutely rammed with cyclists and is noisy so we don’t hang about once we’ve discussed whether to eat lunch here or at Chalet Reynard or maybe in Sault. We decide on Chalet Reynard so after getting our brevet cards stamped we don jackets for the swift descent to lunch. Well it would be swift except the road is full of cars and bikes and motorbikes. And sheep. I mutter under my breath about cars getting in my way on the corners. I also realise that lunch is definitely needed, I feel slightly lightheaded. I’ve done the two hardest climbs on a handful of pastries and a couple of gels. Table found, menu open, omelette, chips, salad, cup of tea, close menu, thanks. We watch as a convoy of Porsches head up into the moonscape. There are motorbikes destroying the quiet everywhere. Lunch done we head for Sault.From pre-ride chats and internet searching I’m aware that the Sault climb is the ‘easiest’ as Sault is higher above sea level than either Bedoin or Malaucene and the climb is spread out over a longer distance, hence the overall gradient is shallower. This is obvious from the need to pedal downhill to maintain a swift pace. A couple of corners tighten more than I expect and the speed with which I enter them forces me to drift across the road, fortunately each time there isn’t anything coming the other way. Which is good as most of the motorbikes (still destroying the quiet) are taking the racing line everywhere and are often found on our side of the road. Exiting the woodland we find ourselves on a plateau with Sault visible above and ahead of us on a small hill. The scent of lavender hangs in the air. The short switchbacked inclination into Sault seems a bit unnecessary given what we’re attempting.In Sault we regroup outside a bakery for a stamp and cold drinks. I sit on a stone step and reflect internally that I feel far better than anticipated and that this final climb could be quite enjoyable. My main concern is the heat. It’s now early afternoon and the temperature is in the mid-thirties. Anything poured into our bidons becomes warm within minutes. Dropping from the village back onto the plateau I see the observatory glowing in the distance, bright white in the blue sky. One more time. Here goes.I don’t know if it’s the heat or the annoying constant roar of motorcycle engines or the accumulating tiredness in my legs but the climb quickly becomes my least favourite of the day. Drinking warm water isn’t helping. I thought this was supposed to be the easy one. We yo-yo off and back onto each others wheels all climb. We split into two pairs, Ollie and Elliot and me and Norm. Again we all keep chatting so we’re not going too deep, it’s just a bit relentless and hot. Very hot. The convoy of Porsches zoom past us. We stop under some trees and eat snacks and laugh at Norm and his collection of flies. A shadow drifts across us and rain drops start to fall. Big fat globules of cooling water that leave splash marks on the road that look like squashed berries. The air smells of warm tarmac and warm foliage. I like it when it rains like this. Not too long after this the gradient eases enough to big ring the final section back to Chalet Reynard. We stop here again but just long enough to regroup. A load of Ferraris drive past. And more motorbikes. I miss the quiet of this morning but six more kilometres of climbing and we’re done. And we’ve done this bit once so know it’s not too difficult. I forget to factor in that that was with fresh legs and half the ambient temperature. We set off and within minutes Elliot punctures. Not bad, the first one of the day and I don’t mind a sit down. It starts raining again. I don’t mind this either. Soon we back on the bikes and heading up hill. I’m struggling now, proper struggling. I stop a lot. To take photographs I tell myself. I’m lying to myself, I know exactly why I’m stopping, but there are only a few kilometres left and I know I can ride them, after all I’ve done it once today. I remember the 600km audax I did two weeks ago and think that maybe there’s a trace of deep down tired in my muscles. Doesn’t matter, I can do this. I can. I’m aware that I’m staring at my stem a lot but it’s only when I notice the kilometre to go marker I realise I’ve not seen any markers since five kilometres to go. I must have been looking down a lot. The others have stopped at the Tom Simpson memorial so I stop too. I pick up a stone and put it in my pocket. As I don’t have Jo’s rock to swap for it this feels dishonest as I drop it into my pocket. There’s that dilemma again. Back at the summit it is quieter again, just a few cyclists milling about and chatting, not the crush it was last time here. We see a couple that we last spotted on the road into Sault who are also doing the ‘Cingle’. We chat and discover they are from Avignon and joke if they are now riding home (they’re not, very sensible). Photos are taken under the summit sign and jackets pulled on for the last time today. It’s decided that we’ll all head back int Bedoin at our own pace, no stopping or waiting, we’ll meet up outside a bar in town. Ollie and I disappear off the front shimmying through the curves and bends in the forest. Oh, this is what it looks like. Blimey, it is quite steep. I’m glad we did this in the dark. I make WOO!! noises on the fast straight bits and giggle internally through the wiggly bits. It gets warmer and warmer as we descend and I really could do without my jacket but I’m having too much fun to stop. Zips are undone, jacket and jersey flap behind me. We pull up outside the bar opposite our B&B, right on the roundabout at the start of the Bedoin climb, and wait for Elliot, who arrives a few minutes later, and Norm, who doesn’t. We order cold beers and wait a bit longer. Half way down a beer and still no sign of Norm. We try calling and texting but no response. Has he crashed, or had a mechanical, or got lost? The last is almost impossible, it’s just one road. The other two are possible. He still doesn’t arrive, this is worrying now, a puncture shouldn’t take this long. We may have to pick straws to decide who will ride back up to find him. Another gulp of beer first. Then he arrives. He had a flat within metres of leaving the summit and then pulled out the valve fixing it. We order him a beer and get our cards stamped. We’ve done it.Later that evening I realise I’ve lost the rock I picked up at the top. I think I may have left it on the table outside the bar when I was sorting through my pockets slightly dizzy with effort and alcohol and contentment. This must be Mont Ventoux’s way of telling me I must return another day.
GPS record: https://www.strava.com/activities/707273340
Thanks to Norm and Ollie for the photos of me nearing the summit on the first and final ascents.
Jo has written his account of the Hailsham 600 audax for road.cc, click on the photo above to read it.
I can feel tears welling up. My sunglasses are in my jersey pocket so there’s no way I’m going to hide this. I drift backwards from Jo’s side. I look at the trees, and my stem, and my feet turning the pedals, and back at the trees. I wipe away a tear with a filthy, snotty mitt. I am utterly exhausted. It’s suddenly hit me that I’ve decided to pack. The shear scale of what is left of this endeavour has overwhelmed me like a wave and I’m too tired to keep my head above the water. Doing the sums I know it’s possible to complete the audax in the time allowed but chances are when we get back to Hailsham it will be too late to get a train home. The thought of having to turn around in order to ride the extra 35 kilometres home is more than I want to think about. I really don’t want to pack though. It’s my first 600 and it would complete a Super Randonneur series for the season. More than that though I don’t want to let Jo down. He didn’t enter the audax, he’s just come along for fun, well, maybe not fun, we did a pinky swear about trying something really stupid next year so this is a test, and it’s a test I sense I may be about to fail. I’m the one that is supposed to be able to do this. Jo has never ridden more than 200km and it was my idea to ride 600 and I said it would be OK. I can reconcile myself to bailing on the audax but to not ride 600 kilometres? I can’t stop, not now, not this far in, giving up is out of the question. I reckon we’ve ridden about 540 kilometres so far and it must be about another sixty to home from here. We’re near Petersfield and if I can get there then I can get to Midhurst and if I can get there then I can get to Petworth and if I can get there then I can get to Storrington and if I can get there I can get to Steyning and if I can get there I can get to Shoreham and if we can get there we can have a pint by the river and we can say we did it. We can say we rode to Wales and back and we will have ridden 600 kilometres, further and for longer than either of us have ever ridden. It’s been ridiculous and it’s been brilliant and it’s not quite over. I ride back up to Jo and tell him the new plan hoping he doesn’t notice the emotion cracking my voice.