The Triumph of Desire over Reason
Cetait l'Apocalypse! - The Tour de France: Man against Mountain.
As the plane came into land I stared beneath me at the azure blue of the French Mediterranean coastline. Small white houses hugged the cliffs, each with a tiny square of blue swimming pool. The South of France looked luxurious and idyllic. I had to remind myself that I had not come here to sample the delights of high brow living. I was here to embark on something very different and far removed from lounging around the pool of a villa. I was here to cycle a stage of the Tour de France.
This was not just any old stage or the Tour de France, but the much feared, legendary and intimidating ascent of Mont Ventoux (the Windy Mountain), perhaps the toughest stage of all. Known as the Giant of Provence, it bolts straight up amidst the flat plains surrounding it.
So after struggling to lug my bike box out of Marseilles airport it was an hours transfer inland to the hotel. Before leaving the UK I had to go into Halfords to get my bike boxed up suitable for travel on an aeroplane. After unpacking it out of the box I didnt really know where to start and seemed to spend what seemed like most of the rest of the day attempting to put my bike together again.
I had never cared for the detailed mechanics of how bikes operated or were put together as all I loved to was nothing more than ride them. I was fortunate to have some much needed friendly assistance, but it completely exposed my shocking paucity of knowledge about bikes. I intended to embark on tackling a stage of the worlds most famous bike race in less than two days time and this would be the first of several situations in which I would feel considerably out of my depth
It was daunting how professional and knowledgeable most of the other people here seemed to be, with expensive looking bikes and other gadgets which I lacked. Rather naively, I had a mountain bike, which seemed to generate a mixture of laughter and pity, which stopped well short or outright derision.
The next morning before going out on a practise ride with everyone else I had to buy some proper racing tyres which were flatter and more suitable to road use than the ones I had on. So with road tyres more of your energy is concentrated onto the road and not wasted. It can make a big difference, but I had never thought of it before. I also required some spare inner tubes.
Even on the practise ride I was slightly nervous with apprehension about what I was letting myself into. Would I be quick enough? Would I have enough stamina? Would my bike be up to it? Generally it was surprisingly smooth. The scenery of inland Southern France was impressive, rolling, but steep, hills and expansive views of plains below. I ensured I was not left behind at all and even pushed up to the front for the some of the hill climbs, which for me was encouraging as the main event was all about uphill cycling.
With a heavy workload in the weeks preceding up to doing this I had not trained anywhere near enough as I would have liked, or more importantly probably needed. But I reasoned to myself that it was a similar story when I run my first marathon 3 months earlier in Paris. Then, as now, I headed into the unknown, but came out the other side triumphantly unscathed. I knew I had it in me, but wondered how much I could really rely on limited training and sheer guts to fight my way through. I was going to try.
My hotel roommate Phil was in a comfortingly similar predicament to myself, having never attempted such an undertaking before. We chewed it all over til quite late in the night, wondering, mostly with trepidation, what lay ahead the next day.
At mealtimes the carbohydrates were loaded up before us to pile in pasta, boiled potatoes, French bread there was never too much of it. A couple of beers also could not hurt and would be good for sleep.
It was only natural for me to wonder from time to time why I was really putting myself through this. I could never resolve the issue with 100% compelling conviction, but the challenge lay before me and, more than anything, I just wanted to get on with it.
I think it was barely 4am, a ridiculously early hour of the morning to drag yourself up out of bed. As I woke the daunting realisation set in. Was I really going to attempt an ascent of Mont Ventoux. An incisive edge of reality was already telling me it would be torture and hell for body and mind. I had to get up and get same carbohydrates inside me, as many as I could force down me. It was my fuel for the day ahead.
After an hour or so transfer to the start town of Carpentras, the atmosphere began to build and the anticipation grew. Some of the apprehension was replaced by excitement. Here at the start line, which I couldnt actually see, 7,600 bikes and riders noisily jostled for position.
The worlds greatest bike race was held in 1903, the result of a challenge issued in a French newspaper. The event immediately captivated the nation. Early riders had to carry their own food and equipment, their bikes had just two gears and they used their feet as brakes. The first mountain stages were introduced in 1910 in the Alps. At the time after completing one climb, an early rider screamed at the race organisers by the roadside, 'You're all murderers!'
But the essential test of the race has remained the same: who can best survive the hardship and keep going?
Suddenly here I was in what for me seemed like the real Tour de France I had only ever watched on TV. There was an expectant sizeable crowd out in force at 7:30 in the morning to cheer everyone on. Kitted out in a special yellow cycling jersey I purchased yesterday, I felt like a professional.
Mentally I was feeling quite psyched up, but kept reminding myself that it was a marathon, not a sprint, as I made the same mistake during the start of my marathon running off too quickly at the start and not pacing myself properly. But it felt good to actually start pedalling as the crowds of cyclist slowly, bit by bit, left the town onto the open road. I had never ridden with so many other people before, let alone in an environment like this.
There were people from all countries, dressed in all colours. Given my non-existent cycling track record, I had obviously been given a placing fairly near the rear. But I soon found myself comfortably passing plenty of other riders on the flat country lanes. Quite a few cyclists were riding in teams or convoys, which accentuated the whole atmosphere and environment of a meaningful event.
The first major climb of the day extended me, but my recovery was sound. Although as I paused at the top, I wondered why the climb might have been a little more challenging than I expected. Then, swigging from my water bottle, I noticed that my front tyre had deflated somewhat. It seemed I had cycled this first climb with virtually a flat tyre. Fortunately, the French mechanics station was not far away and got the repairs done before continuing on.
Having a properly pumped up tyre made a noticeable difference now and I was really settling in the cycling well. The next hour or so of cycling was mostly flat and comfortable. I decided to reach for an energy bar, which, taking no chances on I had stocked up heavily on with 6 crammed into pannier bag. They were highly recommended yesterday. I unwrapped one and bit into it they were absolutely disgusting. Not only this but they were relatively heavy in weight for their size. It was good job I had some bananas to fall back upon, although food and water stations still lay ahead.
Around lunchtime I approached the major feeding station of the day, which as I expected was jammed up with hungry cyclists helping themselves to bread and fruit. I was desperate to do likewise. Even though there were plenty of people ahead of me, I felt that I was making decent progress. Although I was also aware that the most substantial challenges lay ahead of me. Passing through villages and past houses, people waved and cheered supportingly from the roadside.
The second major climb of the day out of three (the third being the might Mont Ventoux itself) was coming into vision. I was keen to test myself, knowing it would be around twice as severe as the first climb, and got out of the saddle for most of it. By this time of the day the sun really was beating down and the going was thirsty to exhausting. But I was pleased with myself for managing to keep going all the way to the top without stopping, albeit very slowly in places.
On the descent from the second climb towards the foot of Mont Ventoux the roads were becoming a little more devoid of cyclists, which made for pleasant cycling. But I was aware that I would need to keep extending myself to avoid being sucked into the real stragglers at the rear of the huge field. Very occasionally I had spotted one or two other cyclists I recognised, but I guessed that most of them must have been ahead of me by now.
So I had reached the landmark of the final feeding station at the foot of Mont Ventoux. Here, as the grey cloud overhead thickened, I sensed for the first time that the day was beginning to close in slightly. I afforded myself the relative luxury of a 10-15 minute breather to pour water inside me and properly prepare myself for the mightiest of all the challenges, which, now confronted me.
The previous day we had all been told by one of the experienced team leaders in rather mocking terms that we would suffer like dogs under the sun on the exposed slopes of Mont Ventoux. This is what I had prepared myself for by drinking so much water. I had one spare waterproof top with me, but had not seriously contemplated using it.
Yet now all of a sudden as the road in front of me started it long upward trend, I was being wetted by rain. The rain got heavier and I joined a couple of fellow cyclists for the cosy refuge under a large tree off the roadside. Fairly tired by this point of the day anyway, I regarded it as a much-needed opportunity to gain some more rest.
But before long the rain had lessened and I did not have an excuse to not be on my bike cycling. The final climb up to Mont Ventoux represents a rise of almost a mile in height over a distance of 21km. From the dark dense forest on the bottom slopes of the mountain, the road slowly, but surely steepens, as it climbs into the sky.
I could not decide which policy would be more productive stay sitting down and pace myself in a very high gear or get out of the saddle and find some sort of rhythm. I tried the latter, but after managing no more than a couple of kilometres progress, realised there was no way such technique would sustain me anywhere near to the top. Before long I had cranked right down into the easiest gear I could find and was zigzagging from one side of the slop to the other in a strained effort to reduce the severity of the steepness.
I was not alone in making excruciatingly slow progress up the mountain, but most people were travelling marginally quicker than me, which I hated them for. Much nicer were those people who had got off to temporarily push their bikes up the hill.
This appealed to me strongly and it was not long before I jumped off and was doing the same. If nothing else it made for a pleasant change not to be sitting on a saddle. I was not alone. And in a warped kind of way felt uplifted by other people stopping to do the same. It was contagious, especially as the speed difference was minimal and giving in to temptation was never more seductive. On making eye contact with fellow sufferers doing the same, we did not need to say a word. The body language said it all.
Walking became marginally quicker than cycling. The kilometres to go very slowly counted down. Inside 20, then 19, 18, 17, 16 but it was still some considerable distance even to get within the final ten kilometres. Each kilometre was noticeably more painful than the last. The battle was becoming more mental than physical, although by this stage my body was just about in bits. In the Race of Truth, I was now spending more time pushing my bike up the ever steeping, winding road than I was sat on it peddling.
In cycling terms I had now bonked, which sounds the exact opposite of what it really is. Everything was shot to bits and empty of energy. The tank was empty. I was scraping out all the remnants of energy and effort I could muster. My bike was now acting as no more than a moving relief prop to support my body weight. Lactic acid was burning up my muscles. Minutes seemed like months; progress was painfully slow.
Mont Ventoux has a legendary history in the Tour de France race primarily because of what happened in 1967 to the British rider Tommy Simpson. Fighting your way up the mountain slopes strips an athlete bare and pushes a body to the absolute limit. There is no hiding place. Sadly, on a sweltering day on Mont Ventoux in 1967 Tommy Simpson was giving it everything, but suddenly his body could take no more. He collapsed off his bike and died. Studies afterwards showed that he had pumped himself with amphetamines. But the poignant image of him keeled over beside his bike only minutes from the finish is a legacy of the length humans will push their bodies.
Finally the scenery showed signs of altering from forest to windswept openness, which characterised the Windy Mountain and its exposed top section. It became windy years ago when French soldiers chopped down so many trees to make war boats, that the mountain has remained bare ever since. Then just as I was starting to feel vaguely positive about having made some progress with 10 or 11 km to go something very strange happened.
Cyclists were whizzing past me downhill, which I thought nothing of at first. They were probably riders who had completed the ride to the summit and were heading down. But then more and more riders went whizzing passed me in heavier streams. With my mental sharpness severely dented by almost eight hours of strenuous exertion, I couldnt fathom what was going on straightaway. I looked around for enlightenment to my fellow pushers-uphill who, predictably, were in much the same state as myself. It was an excuse to pause once more.
By now so many cyclists were flying downhill, it was getting to the point where it was actually dangerous to be proceeding uphill. With a couple of other guys, who definitely were not English, I propped my bike against a tree. Stringing a coherent sentence together in English was proving a challenge never mind understanding one in French. Fortunately one cyclist coming down stopped to tell us exactly what was going on.
A couple of minutes after he had finished speaking in French, my brain managed to translate and digest what he had said. It seemed that the condition further up the mountain were horrendously bad strong wind, freezing temperatures and snow. Many cyclists, like me, were expecting heat furnace conditions and were ill prepared for such a cold snap. Apparently quite a few riders were getting hypothermia at the top. Word was that one man had collapsed and died!
With less than half the 7,000 starters having crossed the finish line, the Tour de France stage for amateurs had been cancelled. For their own safety all riders were being urged to turn around and go down. My immediate response to this was one of YES! Thank God!, but the more I thought about it, the more my feelings were mixed. My body was a wreck and the odds on me actually reaching the finish line were slim. Calling it a day would mean no more suffering. My head said it was very sensible; my heart conformed more reluctantly.
Mentally I felt unfulfilled and was aware that regret might stalk me for a while over what might have been. After such an investment of time, money and effort it was an unsatisfactory way to conclude something so compelling. Secretly I had an inkling that an opportunity to embark on a similar thing again might not arise for a very long time, if ever again. I had learnt the hard way that in sport, very little can be taken for granted.
In the short term I had to concentrate intensely on controlling my bike travelling down a very steep descent at well over 50mph with several other cyclists for company. Room for manoeuvre was virtually non-existent. The challenge was to keep a safe distance from the backwheel of the guy in front, while trying not to brake too sharply for the guy behind. Out of the corner of my eyes I spotted the messy aftermath of a couple of nasty crashes, where the riders were going too fast.
I safely negotiated the road down and wanted nothing more than to throw my bike to one side and drown myself in a cold drink. But to my disbelief there was more to come. Everybody had to cycle around the bottom of Mont Ventoux to where the finish town was on the other side of the mountain. The road seemed unbelievably undulating and seemed to go on and on forever.
Once more I suffered from a few moments of disillusionment. But I was encouraged by passing riders who stopped to egg me on all part of the spirit of the race. After the best part of another hours cycling I saw the very welcome relief of a congested small town. After nine hours in the saddle comfortably the longest in my life - no more cycling would be required today. I didnt feel like going near my bike again for months!
The winner had sickeningly accomplished what I had failed to do in just 4 hours 22 minutes! I cannot imagine what it must be like to this sort of thing day after day. The total length of the Tour de France that year was around 2,300 miles.
They even handed me a medal as I caught up with a few familiar faces to swap stories. On reflection after listening to those who made it describe the conditions on the summit I became more and more glad that I had not progressed further than I did.
Both in terms of cold weather equipment and bodily energy supplies, I would have been severely handicapped. Yet in the back of my head a thought nagged away at me who knows how far I could have pushed myself? I shall never know, but at least I am alive to never know. I was only here to ride my bike up a mountain after all.
The next day at Marseilles airport I picked up a copy of the French sports newspaper, LEquipe.
The headline appropriately read, 'CEtait L'Apocalypse'
I translated the following excerpt from the newspaper:
'Yesterday for the eighth edition of the Velo Magazine Stage of the Tour de France, between Carpentras and Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence the tour proved to be a dirty affair for the 7,600 cyclists seeking to conquer it. Everyone had been prepared for a scorcher weather, which gives the mountain its legendary status. However, this year, Mont Ventoux had other ideas. In place of the forecasted heat it was two degrees and dense fog at the summit. In a word, Apocalypse! More than 7,000 volunteers braved the appalling conditions which neutralised the challenge. Weather for dogs - perishingly cold, heavy rain and London fog.' (- L'Equipe, July 2000)
One of the team leaders, Kevin Tye, who was a former national champion, was astounded by how close to the finish I had actually managed to get to on a mountain bike. He said to me encouragingly, Youve got strong potential. It was some consolation. I did not have a strong urge to go back and have another bash at finishing it off. But somehow I know it will eat away at me, and one day in the future, I shall return to tidy up some unfinished business.
All I can recommend is to read Lance Armstrongs inspirational book, Its not about the Bike My journey back to life. Survival is everything sometimes. Armstrong summed it up thus;
'There is no reason to attempt such a feat of idiocy, other than the fact that some people, which is to say some people like me, have a need to search the depths of their stamina for self-definition. Its a contest of purposeless sufferingits about living.'