The draw of Ventoux
Mont Ventoux looms large on any horizon, especially mine: in eight months’ time I’ll be riding across France to make my own pilgrimage to the giant, and ride its three ascents in a single day. I’m imagining seven glorious days of cycling, warm autumn evenings, sunshine on the air, then the long road through Provence, the lavender fields, and a first glimpse of the mountain, visible as it is for miles around in its isolation from any range. There will appear the lower slopes, cloaked in thick forest, glowing green, with its bald head shining as if with snow, and the observation tower perching regally at the top. Late in the day an evening haze might shroud the peak, or clouds might cling to the tower, snagged on its point as they scud across the landscape.
Ventoux. The name itself puts fear in the heart, not scared fear, but a kind of reverence and respect, the kind of fear you might have for God. Because this is what the Ventoux is: a god. A god of evil, some say, to whom sacrifices must be made. Its slopes have humbled many a cyclist, amateur and pro; the great Belgian Eddy Merckx needed oxygen after his 1970 ascent, and in 1967 it claimed the life of Tom Simpson, the British cyclist who collapsed a kilometre or so from the summit. He was one of those rare Brits who had made a name for himself on the continent: the first to wear the yellow jersey, and world champion in 1965. But the arid mountain slopes on that overwhelmingly hot day proved too much for him. ‘Put me back on my bike!’ he famously cried, before he lost consciousness, a cocktail of alcohol and amphetamines in his stomach.
The mountain has been on my radar for a number of years, ever since the research for my book Pedal Power led me to read again and again thrilling stories of great Tour de France ascents. More foolhardy was Rob Holden who completed the climb on a Boris Bike, the challenge having added jeopardy given that it had to be completed in the 24 hour time limit for hire of the bike. Then came Peaky Climbers, the book I penned on behalf of the team of the same name, who took on 20 peaks of the Tour de France in seven days, which, if that weren’t brutal enough, included the famous Cinglés challenge: to ride each of Ventoux’s three ascents in a single day. Cinglé. French for crazy. Off one’s head.
Why would one take on such a challenge? It sounds exhausting just thinking about it. But each time I read about others who have made the climb, even (especially) the ones who struggle the most, I feel a compulsion, a desire to have a go myself, to experience the brutal reality of Ventoux. It’s the draw of taking on a challenge where you don’t know if you’ll succeed or fail. I know I can ride, I know I can climb, but can I do this? Whether I can or not, I want to try. I want to feel the uphill burn, to laugh wryly at myself at Chalet Reynard on climb number one when the forest gives way to the unforgiving sun, knowing that I thought it would be easy, and it’s turned out to be anything but. I know I will question my sanity. Yet I want to stand at the top of that mountain and look out at the view that so many others have enjoyed, and know that I earned it by riding every inch of the way from my home in London. I want to stand at the top at the end of a long, hard day, having completed the third ascent, having climbed nearly 4,500 metres and ridden almost 100 miles, being utterly broken, exhausted, sore, overwhelmed and above all, satisfied.
And I don’t want to do it alone. I’m inviting women cyclists of all kinds to join me and take on this mountain. It’s going to be tough, really tough. But it promises to be an unforgettable experience and potentially one of the best things ever to be done on a bike. Are you in?