Way back, on a hot August afternoon in 1985, I found myself in France, at the foot of Mont Ventoux – the “Beast of Provence”. I was on a solo cycle camping holiday, taking in France, the Pyrennees and northern Spain. I knew the reputation of this climb, the demise of Tom Simpson, and the countless stories of Tour de France heroism and tragedy over subsequent years. It was quite late in the afternoon, and I needed to plan the rest of the day, and my night stop. I decided to leave the Beast, and do battle another time.
My next long solo tour, a couple of years later, was of northern and central Spain. It started out as a ride from Santander to Gibraltar and back, but the 40+ degree afternoons of the Meseta got the better of me. So I bravely retreated northwards, to the comparative sanity of La Rioja and Navarra for the remainder of my tour.
Two short tandem tours of Normandy with my daughter were enjoyed in 2010/2012, but in essence, my cycle touring days seemed to be over. I should explain what “touring” means to me; I enjoy the challenge of cycling long distances over difficult terrain. Ten hours a day in the saddle was routine, 150 mile days were not uncommon, rest stops were rare. Rest days almost non-existent. I used touring as training for racing, and vice versa.
When I started cycling again in 2014, I knew that I was not as sharp as I was in my younger days, so I never seriously contemplated racing. But I still needed a challenge to help motivate me. Retiring from work in 2015 meant that I was no longer limited to a two week break, and so for the summer I planned a 30 day, 2000 mile ride around France, this time taking in the Ventoux. The Beast had eluded me for 30 years, it was time for me to return to Provence.
I would not take my running shoes on this tour; I did not expect to be reaching campsites with much energy left to run. And this turned out to be the case.
I took a relatively easy route from Zeebrugge down the eastern side of France, being careful to avoid any large towns – I always get lost, or end up on a hideously busy route nationale. The highlight on the way down was the Ardeche.
Wild, beautiful and deserted, with long, difficult climbs and scarcely any traffic. Villages that clung to impossible slopes, overlooking rivers winding their way through spectacular gorges. I cycled for hours without seeing much in the way of civilisation. That was the northern part. As I rode into the southern part, tourism had taken over. This part of the Ardeche is ruined.
I used a 12 miles:1 inch map for route planning, and a 3 miles: 1 inch to plan my day’s ride in detail. This worked really well. Often riding along single track lanes, I went through unspoilt villages, where wood smoke gently wafted through the trees, and the silence broken only by the cock crowing and the earthy growl of a distant tractor. It was the France that is fast disappearing. The Camping Municipals are thin on the ground now, and edge of town Aldi and Lidl stores are closing the village boulangeries and charcuteries. The heart of the French village, and the French way of life, is being torn out.
You can’t really miss the Ventoux; it sticks out of the Provence landscape like a giant pimple. On the day of my ascent, I left my tent and spare clothes at the campsite, but took the rest of my equipment with me. So a slightly lighter bike, but still a load that I could barely lift off the ground. Proper cycle tourists take what they will need. I carried everything I might need.
The climb was quite long (21km) and a respectable gradient throughout, especially after the first few kilometres. The road meanders through woodland until just before the summit, where the famous “lunar landscape “takes over. I stopped at Tom Simpson’s memorial and placed a stone with all the rest. Barely a kilometre from the top.
The most striking thing about the Ventoux was the number of people on the mountain. In ’85, the roads were empty. But my ride was not ruined by the people and the cars, because I blanked them out. I blanked out the hundreds of Dutch walkers in their red and blue uniforms (I love the Dutch, but half their population was on my mountain on my day!) I blanked out the hundreds of cyclists (of course I didn’t count as a cyclist….) I blanked out the commercial photographers clicking at anyone in lycra. In my own little world, I was achieving my own little ambition. And in my own little world I made the most basic mistake. I had focussed on the climb, without a second thought for the descent. I had no jacket for the long, fast and very cold descent. I froze in the middle of summer, in Provence.
It was now early September. The first couple of weeks or so of the tour had been idyllic. The French can be so kind, so generous. “Bon courage” was a regular call I would hear from people in the street, both men and women, young and old. If I asked anyone for directions in a town, they would often walk with me to the first turning, ensuring I was on the right track. I spent one evening on a small campsite being taught how to play pentanque (boules) by Pomme and Jean Antoinne. A lovely young couple, we met when I fell off my bike near their tent. They invited me to share a delicious pasta meal with them and we got along just fine.
The second half of the tour was dominated by the nights; the bitterly cold nights. I slept in every piece of clothing I had, in my three season sleeping bag. And I was still cold. The days were nice enough, pleasant sunshine dominated and an occasional warm breeze. But four days from Zeebrugge and the ferry home, it began to rain. It didn’t clear up for the rest of my tour. So I spent two nights cold and wet. My waterproofs were not. At least they were not after ten hours of continual rain. I couldn’t face the last night in wet clothes inside a wet tent, so I stopped at The Lighthouse B&B in Nieuwpoort, on the Belgian coast. This was a short ride from Zeebrugge. The hosts, Frank and Anne-Marie were lovely, and I was soon dried out and warm again, ready for the journey home.
When I arrived home I weighed myself; twelve stone. I had lost four stone in about nine months, and I was feeling good. My idea about the transferability of running and cycling fitness was about to be tested. A couple of weeks after my return, I had a half marathon trail run. My first event. I only had time to remind my legs of how to run, it was too late to develop fitness to run. I was relying on my cycling fitness to complete the run successfully.
I learned a lot on this tour; never take anything for granted, expect things to have changed dramatically if you haven’t seen them for a while. The warmth of human kindness can brighten up the most miserable of predicaments. Enjoy the nice things while you can, they may be gone tomorrow. Enjoy everything you can today, you may be gone tomorrow.