The road to Ventoux - Part 1

Mont ventoux 01

Exercise is good for both your physical and mental health. However, it is often important to have a challenge or goal to keep yourself motivated. For example, it might be to run your first 5k Park run, of the Great North Run. It might also be to raise sponsorship for a charity. Some challenges can be achieved quickly, others take time.

This blog is about the challenges I have set myself to raise money for the Out of the Blues charity, and a couple of “complications” that make the challenge a little more ……..”interesting”!

Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux is a stunningly eye-catching mountain. It can be seen from miles away being an isolated peak that is topped by limestone shingle that makes it look like it is permanently covered in snow. It is somewhere between 1909 and 1911m high (the sign at the top say 1909 but most Ventoux cycling jerseys say 1911!). Because it is such an isolated mountain, it can get pretty windy on the top. Wind speeds as high as 320 km/h (200 mph) have been recorded. This is where the mountain’s name comes from – “venteux” meaning “windy” in French!

My first ever sight of Mont Ventoux was from Chateauneuf du Pape a couple of years ago. At the time I was more interested in the local wine!

This summer (2019), my wife and I were on holiday in Provence. We had a fantastic day out driving through the stunning Gorges du Nesque and then up and over Mont Ventoux. All along our route, there were cyclists striving to conquer Ventoux, and a little seed was sown in my head…

The place of Mont Ventoux in cycling history

Mont Ventoux is one of THE icons of the Tour de France and cycling generally, alongside Alpe D’Huez and The Tourmalet. The summit has been the finish of a stage in le Tour on 10 occasions, the last two being in 2013 and 2016. Chris Frome won the stage in 2013 and went onto to be overall winner of the Tour. In 2016, the stage was won by the Belgium Thomas de Gendt but is best known for the 125 kph winds that meant the finish was brought 7km down the mountain to Chalet Reynard. In addition, Chris Froome, who was in the Yellow Jersey, got knocked from his bike near the finish with his bike being badly damaged. He ended up having to run up the road until, with just 500m to go, his support team came alongside with a spare bike. He managed to retain the Yellow Jersey and go onto to win the Tour.

However, what really places Mont Ventoux in British cycling folk law is that in 1967, the leading British rider at the time, Tom Simpson, collapsed and died during the Ventoux stage of the Tour. There is now a memorial to him on the road up the mountain, which is a pilgrimage site for cyclists from around the world.

The “Brotherhood of Madmen of Mont Ventoux”

So, cycling up Ventoux is not for the faint hearted. It is classified as “Hors Categorie” – French for a climb that is “beyond classification”. Therefore, this would seem like a tough enough challenge to give myself? Wrong!

There are three road routes up Mont Ventoux, starting from the villages of Bedoin, Malaucène and Sault. The route from Bedoin is the one that is used as a stage for the Tour. It is 21 km long with an average gradient of 7.5% (maximum 12% in some places) and 1,600 m elevation gain.

In 1988, a group of French cyclists formed the “Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux” – literally “the club of madmen of Mont Ventoux”. The rules to become a member of the club are simple: cycle up Mont Ventoux via all three of the road routes…..oh, by the way, you have to do this in one day! 137 km of cycling and 4400 m of climbing.

I have found my goal!

Just to make things harder…..

Taking on this challenge is not straight forward for me.

Over the last few years, I have developed “paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia”. What happens is that if my heart rate is high as a result of exertion, all of a sudden, my heart starts beating at around 200-220 beats a minute and I have to stop what I am doing to let it settle. I have had two operations to try to solve the problem but without success. I am currently on some medication to slow my heart rate and hopefully prevent it happening. However, will this work when cycling up a long steep mountain????

In addition to this heart issue, earlier this year, I tore the cartilage in my right knee. Walking is painful at times. Running is currently impossible.

Oh, by the way, I don’t have a (road) bike!!

I have a background as a runner. I have completed several marathons. I know that I can train and push myself hard. However, I have no background in cycling at all.

While I say that I don’t have a bike, this is not strictly true. I have an old mountain bike that I have not ridden for around 15 years and never rode to any extent. I also have a static bike in my garage that I used to do a bit of cross training on when I was a runner. However, I have never owned a road bike capable of getting up and down Mont Ventoux three times in one day!

Next steps

So, I have my goal. How am I going to achieve it? Well, I am not entirely sure! However, I have some plans…

First up is getting a proper “bike fit” to identify what bike to get and how it should be set up. Then I need to purchase said bike. There is also a whole new language to learn such as “chain-set” and rear wheel “cassettes” to learn and lycra to buy.

In terms of time scales, there are ideal and less ideal times to attempt the three assaults on Mont Ventoux. Summer is too hot and in winter the mountain is closed by snow and high winds. The optimal times are spring and autumn. I am constrained to school holidays, so May and October half terms are my main options. October can be rather hit and miss with regards to conditions, especially high winds. So, May is my best bet. The problem is that I fear that I can’t turn myself from couch potato with no road bike to being able to join the “madman of Mont-Ventoux” club by next May (especially with a probable knee operation and a possible further heart operation needed!). As a result, my target is to prepare to make the attempt to join the club in May 2021.

In the interim, I will set some other nice little challenges – the 100 mile Northumberland Cyclone? The Coast to Coast cycle route??

Out of the Blues

I am going to post my progress towards my ultimate challenge, describing the various intermediate challenges along the way. I will also describe how you can sponsor me on this trip, with all money going to the Out of the Blues charity fund. So, keep watching this space!!

Hamish McAllister-Williams