On a very hot Wednesday last June I rode the notorious Mont Ventoux in ninety minutes. The following day Lance Armstrong rode it in almost exactly the same time. The only difference was that I rode it downhill on dirt, while Lance and the professionals climbed it on tarmac as part of Le Dauphine, one of the last stage races before the start of Le Tour.
For the past five years I have been making an annual pilgrimage to the Vaucluse region of France, and taking in some serious (by my standards) mountain biking. Over the years I’ve come up with my own definition of a serious ride – the pee test. If nerves don’t send me behind the nearest bush several times just before I start the ride the test is failed. This year two rides pass the pee test.
The first is one of those uniquely French events, La Nougatlopett, a randonée starting in Montelimar and organised by the admirable Saint James Velo Club (which provides an extraordinary link to the various Santiago de Compostela mentions on this site, Santiago of course being the Spanish for Saint James). La Nougatlopett is a non-competitive event, although there are some very serious mountain bikers taking part among the four hundred riders. I choose the 28 mile option with 1200 foot of serious climbing up from the Rhone valley into the foothills of the Ardeche mountains, and back down again.
The climbing is tough, but staying calm when impatient French teenage riders on department store bikes buzz my back tyre on the highly technical, rocky single track is even tougher. The prize for finishing the course puts all those tacky T-shirts and cheap medals in the shade - every finisher gets a bag of nougat, because of course Montelimar is the nougat capital of the world.
The second candidate that passes the pee test in bucket loads is a descent of Mont Ventoux. In past years I’ve done part of the climb on road on a mountain bike complete with nobblies (definitiely not recommended), and have ridden extensively in the foothills. But the big one this year is a full-on descent from the ski station at Chalet Reynard off-road all the way to Bedoin, a descent of 3500 feet in fifteen miles. Chalet Reynard is actually 1000 feet below the summit, but the descent from the very top involves a lot of very loose scree above the tree line, and that means a serious downhill rig and descending skills which I don’t have.
My ride for the trip is a Bianchi hardtail set up for cross country (see header photo) with an 80mm travel Marzocchi fork up front, and Avid V-brakes all round. I’m not really a retrogrouche, I just like tried and tested kit. I may ride three bikes with XT thumbshifters (not the Bianchi which has LX Rapidfire plastic numbers), but I bought my first full suspension bike 1993 – that was a Moulton APB which I am still happily racking up miles on (every time I ride it I wonder why leading link front forks aren’t more common - Whyte bikes excepted).
My better half has wisely chosen to stay by the pool, so I ride in 30 degree C heat to the bike shop Bedoin Location who run a shuttle service up Ventoux. It is Wednesday afternoon, which French school children have off for sports activities. My companions in the shuttle van are French teenagers who will be attending mountain bike school on Ventoux for the afternoon. Is it any surprise that France produces so many great riders, and the whole attitude towards cycling is so much more positive than in the UK? Discretion being the better part of valour I have chosen the ‘easy’ option for the descent. The shuttle drops me at the Chalet Reynard ski area, then it is 200 yards on road towards the summit, and the jeep track descent starts on the left.
At this point the nerves are still there, particularly as this is a solo ride. This is seriously exposed mountain country (wind speeds of more than 150 mph have been recorded at the summit), and it is a very long walk out in the event of a serious mechanical. In the whole fifteen mile descent I only see one other person, the driver of a French Forestry Service jeep on the lower slopes. The first three miles of the ride are almost level as the track traverses the upper slopes just below the tree line. This is the old road to the top, and there are patches of broken tarmac in a few places. On the left hand side is the most amazing view (and drop), it is a novel and slightly worrying experience to peer over the edge and see my ultimate destination more than 3000 feet below me, together with in the far distance the Benedictine Abbey of St Madeleine at Le Barroux where I am to spend a a week on retreat later in the year.
As well as worries about mechanicals I am also concerned about taking a wrong track, as getting lost on the higher slopes would have some pretty serious consequences. Fortunately I have marked the route up on a 1 to 25,000 IGN map, and no mistakes are made. Three miles into the ride at les Grands Pins the track really starts to go down, and for the next twelve miles I hardly pedal. Surely this is one of the longest uninterrupted descents in Europe? The riding is all on a jeep track, but the surface keeps varying from rocky but ridable to very rocky, loose, and for me very challenging. As I get into the rhythm my nerves disappear, and confidence increases. This brings risks, on the lower slopes I start to speed up between hairpins only to find that after an hours constant use (aka being scared and keeping the brakes on too much) there is noticeable brake fade as I hurtle into hairpins with 1000 foot drops on the outside.
After ninety minutes white knuckle riding, and with hands and feet literally numb from vibration I finish the descent safely by dropping right down to our poolside where medicinal beers are on hand. Good preparation (or good luck) prevailed, no mechanicals and no wrong turnings. But a few days later though I blow the back tyre out when I hook it on a particularly jagged rock in the forest below Chalet Reynard, a gentle reminder that the terrain around Ventoux is a lot more demanding than my native Norfolk.
It is kick back time the next day as the professionals come to town for Le Dauphine time trial up Ventoux. All the top riders including Lance Armstrong are competing as it is just two weeks to the start of the Le Tour. There is a carnival atmosphere in town, and the riders mix with the spectators in a way fans of other sports can only dream of. Riding down Ventoux downhill is difficult enough, but riding up it in 32 degrees C against the clock is a superhuman achievement.
The use of performance enhancing drugs in sport is absolutely wrong. But spending a day on Ventoux brought home to me how truly remarkable are the achievements of David Millar and others, with or without chemical assistance. Does David Millar's admission of taking three courses of EPO in 2001 and 2003, and the consequent effective ending of his cycling career really make him any more guilty than the millions who are hopelessly addicted to the daily use of socially acceptable drugs such as fast cars, mobile phones or reality TV?