It seemed such a simple thing to say “yes” to.
Last autumn, at the Six Days of Ghent, an off-hand remark by Bart: “Why don’t you come with us when we cycle the Ventoux next Summer?” Why not indeed? I really must learn not to commit to anything while under the influence.
Bart’s infectious enthusiasm and another beer fuelled evening has also ensnared a second unwitting Brit. So, I have two bikes in the back of my car. One is for Jon who is making his way down to the South of France by motorbike. The other is the Giant, which I am promised will get the most out of my legs, short though they are. Two bikes don’t easily fit, even in a fair sized estate; maybe I should invest in a cycle rack…
Thirteen and a half hours of driving and I arrive at the hotel at 2.30 in the morning. Though I have a day to recover, I’ll keep my late arrival as a reserve excuse for any half-way bailout. Jon, Bart, Louis, Guy and myself go for an easy spin in the morning.
Guy’s not going to do the climb as he recently suffered a mild heart attack, but he looks the fittest of all of us. I feel pretty ropey which might be due to the lack of sleep, still I haven’t cycled for four days, so I would have expected a bit more zing in the old beans.
2500 Flemings (Dutch speaking Belgians) are due to cycle tomorrow (including us two fake Belgians). There are five routes to choose from: three straight climbs, starting from Sault, Malaucène and Bédoin respectively, and two routes known as the lesser and greater Cannibal. These are horrendous affairs which look very much like real Tour stages taking in several other climbs as well as the Bald Mountain itself. The Cannibal was of course Merckx’ nickname, whilst my nom de vélo is “The Pebble” and Jon is simply “Nasty” (don’t ask). For the thousand plus Cannibals leaving from Malaucène, Eddy Merckx will be firing the starting gun. A firing squad would be more humane!
A full pasta buffet is laid on, to carb load the night before, and when we get up at 6am (to beat the heat) more pasta is offered. Basta la pasta, I cram myself with bowl after bowl of oaty muesli. I have the stomach and appetite of a much larger man.
Our bikes have been given the once over by the two mechanics based at our hotel. It must be said these two both look far more like cyclists than we do. As Rob and Cedric at Giant Bromley gave my bike the once over before I left, there’s nothing to do for me except fill water bottles with “power” drink or something.
We don’t see Bart and his pals at breakfast: they have decided to go from Sault this year, but they have ridden both the Malaucène and Bédoin routes on previous years.
The hotel is near Sault and it’s most of an hour’s drive to Bédoin. We get to start around 8am. I turn on my heart rate monitor and tracking app, ride over the timing sensor plate and off we go.
After about 100m I feel like shit. It’s not supposed to be like this, I was told the first few kilometres were easy. What have I let myself in for? Jon asks if I’m OK. My legs ache.
Jon cycles off up the road and the lonely ascent begins in earnest. I’m passed by a steady stream of cyclists, including ones who seem to pass me several times without my ever passing them. Some briefly slow up for a chat, but when I tell them that my Dutch is somewhat strange and hairy, they make their excuses and tootle off. Others just zip passed, wheels singing.
The whole thing is organised by Sporta Mijn Ventoux, and there are scores of different organisations and groups from all over Flanders assaulting the Ventoux today. Jon and I are here through the good offices of Filip from Mercator Insurance. At the time of writing he seems to have picked up the entire bill for the two of us, splendid man. The whole event makes all the Flemish press and has become a big weekend in Belgian participation sports. A bit like a fun run, but not.
Jon stops at the first watering station. I pass him. If I get off I don’t think I’ll get going again. No sign of a second wind. Talking of which, there were frightening stories of the Mistral blowing today, but the weather is perfect. Hot yes, but nothing crazy.
I keep cranking the peddles round. I find that if I stand up, the pain in my legs goes away at least briefly. I wonder if this is something you get on long climbs? I drink some power drink but it’s hard to swallow much and I’m bursting with muesli as it is.
Jon comes past me again and suggests that if I feel ill I should stop. But I’ve come all this way for just one thing, and it’s right in front of me. And the next time he stops I pass him again and who’d have thought, but that’s the last I see of him.
It’s been said before, but the top is deceptive. Check it out on the map, as you get to within about six kilometres of the summit you can see it off to the left in front of you, but with no trees to give an idea of the distance, it seems to just gradually slope up to the peak. But that’s no gradual slope westward, it’s the same relentless climb North West, and you’ve still got about 30% of the mountain left.
At the top I feel just as bad as I did at the start, which in a way is a good thing, I kick the last 100m or so and pass half a dozen other riders. Let’s go again! No, that would be stupid, not that it isn’t done of course. According to Wikipedia the record is 11 climbs from Bédoin in 24 hours (!) I took 2 hours 29 minutes 57 seconds. Jon arrives a few minutes later. Before we descend we sup an exquisite beer, at least as good as John Mills’ lager in Ice Cold in Alex. “What starts with beer, must end with beer”. (I put that in quotes to make it look like something profound, which it certainly feels like right now).
The summit is swarming with Flemish “Ventourists”, and a few others who are not part of their jamboree. I briefly chat to some Scots who cycled from Sault and were somewhat bemused by this Dutch speaking slice of France.
I call the Team Director (Bart’s Mrs, Sophia), who says they will all meet at Chalet Reynard, a few clicks back down the road. I am a very cautious descender, but Jon’s cornering is far better, perhaps from riding a motorbike. As I arrive, Bart and Louis are leaving for the final ascent. Guy has ridden from Sault but was ordered not to go any further by his concerned mates. He says he’s fine, and he certainly looks well.
I’ve lost about 10 kilos since I fell for this mad challenge, but the metamorphosis to full ‘mami’l has still some way to go. The Team Director takes dozens of pictures, many of which tell the sad but true story of a chubby little Brit covered in sun block. And Jon’s got so much Titanium White and lip salve on him that he looks like a pantomime dame. I wonder, might cannibalism complete my mamil transformation? Fee-fi-fo-fum…