Scaling Up

I’ve written about mapping out rides before but plotting a route for the Transcontinental is bigger than any previous way finding I’ve needed to do by roughly a factor of ten. Both in terms of distance and the number of countries involved. I’ve been drawing a line across Europe. Superimposing a single simple line across many complicated interconnecting lines. Many lines have been drawn and redrawn across the continent throughout human history. Many kinds of lines have been marked across the landscape, some connecting, others separating, some natural, others man made. Many are weighed down by history, even though gone still visible in various ways. The line Jo and I will ride is invisible to all but us and we will traverse lightly, a tracing that will leave no trace other than in our memories. This isn’t strictly true as there’ll be dotwatchers following us and GPS recordings, but that is all just a digital simulacra that will be forgotten in the noise of the internet. This line will be our life for two weeks – we’ll follow it, eat on it, sleep on it, maybe change our minds about it, deviate from it, but we’ll always be close to it.

Two weeks of lunch hours, evenings, and weekends of looking and thinking. No prior knowledge, except for I rode up the Muur a couple of years ago. There’s no memory map to call upon this time. Information is gleaned from where ever it can be found; Paper maps, online routing tools, Streetview, Google Maps, satellite images, eavesdropping on Twitter conversations, searching for trans-European cyclepaths, checking (and double checking) the race manual. Checking the Foreign Office website for border controls and travel guidance. I think to myself I’m glad we’re doing this pre-Brexit – this could be a whole heap of hassle in a couple of years, but let’s not scratch the surface of that subject just yet (I’m sure there will be something else to write about being European after I’ve ridden across the continent). Lots of conversations about the pretty way versus the easier way have been had. We’re going the pretty way whenever possible. I don’t really see why you wouldn’t. This does mean I’ve routed us over the highest pass in the Eastern Alps, but oh heck it looks stunning. Anyway 20km of uphill will be followed by 20km of downhill…fast downhill. Sixty switchbacks I read. Then there’s the option of the easy valley road or climbing in and out of the Dolomites. Pretty vs. Easy, again.

All of Europe has been unfolded and laid out across the floor to see how places link up and which of the multitude of ways between them are both the most feasible. Trying to make sense of something that isn’t entirely sensible. Figuring out road numbering systems (is that a motorway?) and factoring in border and river crossings, sometimes one and the same – the Rhine between France and Germany, the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria. Using paper maps for an overview, to see the lay of the land. Looking for ways across, between or around mountain ranges, finding the flat(ter) way, if there is one and as long as it doesn’t add too much distance. Tapping these thoughts into routing apps and tweaking almost ad infinitum. Avoiding one hill just to find a mountain. Forgetting to take scale into account when checking profiles – when the big pointy bit is significantly higher than 2000 metres then the chances are those other smaller pointy bits are still going to be over 2000 metres. Everything is scaling up.

Additionally there is the need to know we can find food and water at regular intervals along the way and the task has been almost as time consuming as the ride will be. Deliberately routing us through the middle of towns to ensure we can find the things we need along the way. This isn’t my usual practice, I usually look for the smallest little roads that pass through nowhere, but experience tells me food and water can be hard to find following this pattern. I’ve been marking down Lidls and Tescos, McDonalds and Shell petrol stations. We want to soak in some of the culture and customs we ride through, take ourselves out of our comfort zones, live in the moment, experience the situation, that’s all part of the point of riding a bike, to be a part of what surrounds you, not separated and simply viewing. Yes these known quantities are easy, the recognisable amongst the unfamiliar, and as much as I don’t like the thought that these chains have leached across the world we’ll want, or more importantly need the convenience and ease of familiarity every now and again when exhausted and hungry. They are the nearest to a comfort zone we’re likely to get. My experience of Streetview is that the photos may be old and that little shop may no longer be there, but the big chains will be. As much as I want to support local economies sometimes I’m just going to want a big cup of coke whilst I upload to Instagram on the free wifi. Also big chains often means clean toilets.

I don’t want to Streetview the entire route (not that there’s enough time for that) but there’s a trade off, a compromise between having some understanding of where we’re going and what’s in store for us, against the desire to leave things to be found and surprise us. We don’t want to find that that road turns into a dirt track through a forest on a Bulgarian mountain, that way lies difficulties and wolves, but it’s nice to know that there’s a little bar on that corner so we can get a coffee and fill up our water bottles. Also seeing the changes between regions and countries, and how things look more and more unfamiliar the further east and south we travel, only add to the anticipation. Finding place names lodged in my consciousness for reasons I can’t quite pin down – Graz, Bratislava, Sofia – but probably from sixties spy films. Perhaps from geography lessons back in school, but some places aren’t in the same countries as they were when I was a kid. Even in my lifetime the borders of Europe have been re-drawn. Other place names mean nothing now but in a few weeks will have taken on all kinds of significance. I’ve found places to go back to and explore at leisure.

However no matter how much looking at maps and photos I do riding 4000km in two weeks will be an entirely different experience. A line, some photos, a list of countries

Belgium
France
Germany
Austria
Italy
Austria (again)
Slovakia
Hungary
Romania
Bulgaria
Macedonia
Greece

and place names. It’s a flat one-dimensional world I’ve been looking at and it certainly won’t be that when we’re there. There again that corner of Hungary we’ll skedaddle across looks a bit flat.

Five Sevenths

Half way up the hill out of town I spot a bench nestled under some trees. Shade, at last. I pull over, lean my bike against one end of the bench, sit down, and take a swig of water. A few minutes earlier back down in the town a bar owner had kindly filled my bidons with ice and water. The digital display in the street outside had indicated 41 degrees. I check the Garmin, it’s 1pm and I’ve ridden 525km out of a planned 715 but I’m not sure about continuing. The heat wouldn’t be so much of a concern if I could be sure of finding water regularly but it’s Sunday afternoon in France and everything is shut. I might be okay if I was routing myself though, or even near, larger towns but I’m not. I’m using back roads as much as possible to avoid traffic. The last open shop I saw and made use of was 50 kilometres back. Since then I’ve been completely reliant on taps in cemeteries to fill my bottles until I managed to catch that last bar before it closed for the afternoon. However I’ve worked out a strategy to deal with the heat. I can eat now and sleep in the shade for a while. Then I can continue and ride longer into the night than planned when it’s cooler. There’s still a lump of hills to get over but from about 650km the route starts to tip downwards into the Dordogne valley. I should be able to do this.

I’ve got food – cheese, ham, bread, dried fruit, and somewhere in the framebag emergency energy bars – that should get me through the next 160km to Argentat where I may find an open restaurant or bar. That’s the only large town I know that is coming up. Worse case scenario is by the time I get there I will only have 30km of valley road to go to get to Mum and Dad’s house, my final destination. I can ride that far on water if I need to, or even ask my parents to drive out and stash some food under a bush somewhere.

However my rear hub is shagged and getting worse and this forces the decision to bail. If it was just two out of the three issues – heat, water, knackered freehub – then I’d continue, but all three is making hard work of it and the hub is the breaking point. It’s definitely getting worse and may not even make it as far as the end of the ride. I send a message to Mum and Dad requesting broom wagon services. I’m nearing enough to them for it to not be a complete pain in the arse to drive out to meet me. I can ride as far as the next village, about 8km along the road. I’ll find some more shade and collapse and wait.

At some point after dinner yesterday evening, at around 260km a strange noise started to emanate from the rear of the bike. I assumed it was the hub but couldn’t work out what, everything seemed alright, nothing was loose. I even checked the frame for cracks as it was quite an unnerving creaking noise, but overnight the noise ceased and whatever was going on back there faded from my mind. Now it slips when I pedal and catches when I freewheel and threatens to throw the chain into the spokes. I’ve had enough and can’t be bothered to deal with it any longer. It’s making me ride inefficiently and right now I could do with all the efficiencies I can muster. It was probably messing me about last night but I was really struggling with tiredness so wasn’t aware of it. I guess when the noises stopped something internal had finally broken and it’s steadily been getting worse through the hours. I was concentrating too hard on not falling asleep at the bars to notice.

** ** **

I leave the ferry port just after 5am and head south, a direction I will follow all day except for the occasional meander east or west to join up the southern bound roads. There is already light in the sky and I’ve ridden out of Dieppe enough times over the last four or five years that I can probably find my way by feel and instinct and without the need for lights. Slowly the world around me comes alive, sunlight gradually saturating my surroundings with colour, blacks become muted and faded tones become bright hues. The only noise is my drivechain and tyre hum mixing in with the dawn chorus.

I roll across Normandy literally and metaphorically, undulating over small hills and dipping in and out of valleys. Skirting the edge of Rouen I follow the Seine towards Evreux. It’s warm already by mid-morning and by midday my jersey is unzipped. After stopping for a picnic lunch outside Evreux I continue across endless fields of gently rippling wheat, a visual reminder if it was needed that I’ve had a headwind all day and due to simply pointing south for 700km will continue to nudge into the wind until tomorrow evening. The landscape reminds me of driving across the American Midwest, all big skies and seas of swaying green. The main difference being the church spires sticking up from small villages on the horizons. I cross main roads and motorways (something about French motorways always make me think of Julian Opie images), and occasionally drop into and climb out of river valleys, some small, some significant – Seine, L’Iton, L’Avre, Eure – and follow and cross Le Loir many times.

Between rivers the landscape isn’t changing a great deal – wheat, flat, more wheat – the passing of time and therefore distance is indicated not by changing vistas but by my shadow that has slowly crept from my right to my left. Somewhere along the way I stop for a quick coffee to perk me up and the next 20km whizz by. The caffeine spike and straight roads mean I tuck down on to the aero bars and tank along. This is the first proper ride with aero bars and they are really making a difference. Not only are they are real help in making myself small in the face of wind, but they transfer weight from my hands to my arms. Having suffered from numbness and tingling in my fingers on long rides this is great. Thankfully for the last few months I’ve been swimming and doing pilates which has made me bendy enough to be comfortable tucked down on the bars.

By mid-afternoon I hit the 200km mark, just a handful of minutes behind my fast schedule. In my pocket I have a sheet of paper with a list of place names and three sets of times; quick, medium, slow. My aim is to tick along at the fast schedule for as long as possible to amass a bit of a buffer so that things can slip to the middle schedule. This will mean I can factor in some sleep overnight. By dinner time I’m a little closer to the middle schedule as I lie on a bench in a town square watching swifts and martins dart back and forth, crisscrossing the air catching their own dinner. The heat of the day started to get to me over the last couple of hours so I’m resting for a bit so I can ride for as long as possible into the night before the inevitable happens and I have to pass out. Hopefully I can tap out a good chunk of distance before that happens. The further I can ride overnight the more chance I have of being able to rest in the afternoon tomorrow to avoid the heat.

Thirty kilometres later I’m napping in the short grass outside a cemetery where I’ve filled up with water (top tip from a French audaxer – most cemeteries will have a fresh water tap for watering flowers). I get up to leave and walk around confused as to where I left my helmet until I realise I’ve already put it on. Oh dear, this is not a good sign. I’m starting to pay for the lack of sleep on the ferry last night. Tiredness is clearly getting to me and it’s not even half past nine and the sun is still (just) above the horizon. Somewhere on this last section my rear hub started to make a weird noise.

I continue into the darkness, slowly clicking the kilometres down. Every one ridden is one closer to my destination and one less to ride tomorrow. I stop again forty minutes later when I’ve had enough of my front light being dipped too low. I can’t really see where the road goes and it’s making me ride slower than I know I could be going. The extra concentration is only adding to my tiredness and because I’m not fully awake I wait until the second time I’ve nearly ridden off the road to actually stop and sort it out. Two minutes is all it takes. Why the hell didn’t I do that half an hour earlier when I knew it was an issue? Exhaustion induced fecklessness. And I already know this won’t be the last stupidity of the night. This needs to be remembered for the Transcon. Light sorted I crack on and much faster pace with the benefit of actually being able to see where I’m going. Idiot.

Not long after this things start to get fuzzy. I cross a wide expanse of thick darkness that is the Loire, somewhere near a castle straight out of Disney, lit up at the end of an avenue to trees along the bank of the river. A sign shows Tours off to the west. All day I’ve been passing signs to large towns and cities I’ve driven through or stayed in before. Along with my shadow this has shown me that I’m working my way down France. I think to myself the last time I drove to Gagnac I stopped and stayed in a hotel in Tours. Why am I riding it non-stop again?

Then follows a dull road. Even in the dark I can tell it would be boring in daylight. It’s more kilometres passing under the wheels, keep pedalling. I cross another river, Le Cher, climb again, bloody hell I’m tired now. I pass a village square and spy a bench. Bed. Garmin says 01:11 and 365km. That’ll do, that’s 100km since dinner five or so hours ago. I lie down on the bench and drift off looking at stars pinpricking the blackness overhead. An hour of fitful sleep later I am awake and cold. It is only now I decide to put on my arm and knee warmers. Idiot. Again.

I ride on and within minutes I’m too warm and wish I hadn’t bothered with the arm warmers, or rather wish I’d bothered with them before I slept. I get comfortable on the aero bars and promptly fall asleep and nearly crash. Fucking hell. I stop in the next village and sleep on a stone step behind a car. Thirty minutes later I set off again. It’s gone four so I know there will be light in the sky in an hour and once the light returns I’ll be fine. Turns out I’m wrong and ten minutes down the road I’m falling asleep again. I decide to sack this off as a lost cause until daylight and find a comfortable looking bit of grass verge to kip down.

I wake up to light in the sky. Brilliant, this will sort me out, but I realise I’m down to half a bottle of water and have no clue as to where I am. I check the distance against my list of towns. Crap, I’m in the middle of one of the bigger gaps on the list, it could be a while before I hit anywhere large enough to have a shop. Hang on, it’s 5am, nothing is going to be open for at least two hours anyway. I might as well ride, keep moving, eventually I’ll find water. Overnight I could tell I was riding through forest and the terrain wasn’t flat but I seem to have woken up to flat fields again. This is OK, I don’t mind flat, I need to get on. I feel like I’ve lost time in the last four hours faffing about neither sleeping or riding properly, and now I’m rationing limited water which also feels like it’s slowing me up. I spot what looks like a cemetery down the road…please be a cemetery. It is! Bottles filled. One is half drunk and topped up. Six am, 410km. Forty five kilometres in 5 hours and barely any sleep. I should have just bedded down for two or three hours and ridden refreshed, rather than dicking about trying not to crash and getting cold.

Ride on, I just need to keep riding. The terrain is starting to change, I pass through a land of lakes and long straight roads. Long straight undulating roads. My drivetrain doesn’t feel right. Keep riding. Stop for a coffee. Wake up. Keep riding. I see hills in the distance. I must be getting near to hills north of Limoges. This is good, Limoges is the last city I pass before Gagnac, once past there it’s the home straight.

The large fields end and the roads wiggle and climb and drop and wiggle some more. This is definitely the start of the hills north of Limoges. I seem to only be climbing. I remember the profile of the route showed a steady inclination from about 450km. Two hundred kilometres and it’ll be predominantly downhill. Two hundred, that’s just a short audax. Crack on. It’s hot. Silly hot and the road keeps going up. I’m definitely slowing. I do some sums. No, it’s all good. I’m well ahead of the slowest possible schedule I can ride and still finish the 700 within the audax allowed time limit. Well it would be all good but my drive train really doesn’t feel right. There is definitely something very wrong with the rear hub and it is starting to piss me off.

Freewheeling into a town I spot an open bar. It makes sense to stop, sit in the shade for a while, eat properly, and rest before continuing. I stop and scan the menu. Pasta dishes for 6 euros. Perfect. The bar owner comes outside to say only food in the evening. Ah crap. He realises I’m English and starts to talk in English and I realise he’s also English. I order a drink, plug my phone into a wall socket, and ask him whether I might find food in the next 50km. Probably not. I start to consider my options…

The bar owner closes up as I’m leaving, but an English friend of the owner arrives, and unlocking my bike I can hear the owner telling him what I’m doing. Through the glass door I hear a muffled “Fuck off, that’s bullshit, you can’t fucking do that on a bike! There’s no way he’s done that.”

** ** **

A few minutes after this as I climb out of town I decide enough is enough. With less than 200km left to ride it’s a frustrating decision to make, even though I know it’s a wise one. It’s a disappointment but I’m not considering it failure, just that sometimes you have to choose your battles. This has been a massive game changer. I’ve learned a lot, proved to myself I can do more than I thought. I’ve ridden further than this before, but that was with friend and Transcon team mate Jo. I’ve ridden many long audaxes, but with manned controls and other riders around. Safety nets. This has been different, trying to ride across a country solely on my wits. Things have changed, again. Horizons have expanded yet further. I realise I’m lucky that I’ve been able to ask my parents to pick me up. However if that wasn’t an option then I would limp as far as Limoges, find a cheap hotel and wait for a bike shop to be open. Turns out that the limit of my comfort zone extends far beyond where I thought it was. I’m more than happy to ride alone into the unknown.

I think the Transcontinental is going to be the start of something rather than the culmination of what has gone before.

 

https://www.strava.com/activities/1010244528

Thanks Mum and Dad for the broom wagon, water and food.

North Country

Heading south to pay a visit to the north country. Drifting off the ferry in a sleep-deprived daze and heading up the hill on autopilot. Riding in a puddle of light and easy familiarity in the silent blackness, red lights blinking atop the wind turbines I can’t see, beacons out across the coastal plateau. Knowing when to change down and when that corner tightens more than expected. Almost riding into a ditch whilst distracted by the sound of turbine blades cutting the dark air above. Birdsong and the smell of rape colours in the black. Light eases into the sky as the lanes become unfamiliar on the way to somewhere familiar. A bakery open early, one pastry eaten on the corner, the other tucked in a pocket for later.

Riding a fault line between clay and chalk. Recognisable features and spiraling skylark song, the same as home but different. The pays de Bray and the pays de Caux. Mud and lime. Twisting sharp climbs and flowing waves of downland. A hare gallops through a field, following a cropped line. An owl launches itself across my path and glides low and disguised against the brown earth, it sweeps into the trees on the field’s edge, dislodging a couple of startled pigeons.

Riding between church spires and dog bark tag. Scrap yards and derelict barns. Hot chocolate at half distance. It turns a bit Belgian spring classic as I ride between fields into a wall of drizzle and headwind. I even find a bridge of cobbles. An impromptu coffee stop in a sad looking town, a closed fun fair on the main street. Primary colours vibrate against damp grey. A man smokes a cigarette under the café canopy whilst the kid from the dodgems orders a morning beer. A solitary carousel spins its tune into an air of melancholy and rain.

The route corkscrews around the hills, in and out of valleys and through the forest. The same place names appear on signposts, the direction and distances changing: The ebb and flow of a convoluted and twisting route. In and out of the wind. Wattle and dawb houses indicate what lies below my wheels on this side of the river. Legs tire over the final climbs as sun breaks through the cloud. I swoop through farmland to the valley floor to spin the last few kilometres back to the port.

Route

Bunking Off (Reprise)

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.

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Three is the Magic Number

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.20160910_051827Halfway 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.
20160910_065355 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.
20160910_072134 20160910_074016After 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.20160910_080218 20160910_085749We 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. 20160910_093528The 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. 20160910_11195620160910_11311020160910_114052The 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.20160910_130400From 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.20160910_141512In 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.20160910_135543I 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.20160910_160548 20160910_161559We 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.20160910_162219 20160910_163313wp-1473754548358.jpgBack 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. 20160910_164805It’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.img_20160911_082307Later 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.

Bunking Off

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all that bivvying has paid off as George displays a mastery of being able to sleep anywhere
all that bivvying has paid off as George displays a mastery of being able to sleep anywhere

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Jo gets a little over-excited by the Draw Cats magazine with free pencils
Jo gets a little over-excited by the Draw Cats magazine with free pencils
Vic gets a little over-excited borrowing the Diverge after breakfast
Vic gets a little over-excited borrowing the Diverge after breakfast

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"What time is it?"
“What time is it?”

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Orangine and Nutella crepes at the seaside
Orangine and Nutella crepes at the seaside
salad, steaks, Leffe, pink plonk, apple tart, creme caramel, more Leffe
salad, steaks, frites, Leffe, pink plonk, apple tart, creme caramel, more Leffe

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one last beer before home
one last beer before home