By Shutt Velo Rapide team rider, Phil O'Connor.
Ventoux was important long before Bartali, Coppi, Simpson, Pantani, Armstrong, Froome and others tried to conquer her. Not a road to a ski resort, or a pass for goat herders made famous only recently by cycling legends. Ventoux is a mountain summit, central to the rich local culture for thousands of years and you better respect that or you’re in trouble… Even for the most rational of souls, Mont Ventoux is a place of pure magic. It stands aloft in the world of cycling for reasons more than the sweat and tears of those who try to reach (or race) to the summit by bike. The “Giant of Provence” is a place of many myths and legends and dominates the landscape for miles around. Ever present above the tranquility of Provencal vineyards and picturesque villages, its frequent cap of dark storm clouds is a constant reminder of the benevolence of nature to allow us just to be here for a fleeting moment. It has an undeniable power that inspires passion for Provence, cycling and life in general.
I’ve come to learn this about Ventoux only recently thanks to this Highland Laddie falling in love with a Provencal Girl. Four years ago, as Jess and I drove up the mountain for the first time together, I watched in ignorant wonder at the sweating, gasping humanity that threw itself upon it. Of course there were MAMILs aplenty, but just as many retiree couples on tandems, grannies with camping gear on pannier racks, earnest skinny teenagers and 9 year olds with grandparents. All taking on the challenge in their own way. And when I watched them all reach the summit, I could see the same joy in all their faces, the beauty of the moment, the struggle and the achievement they experienced.
Inspiration is a much overused word but 3 days later, back in the UK, I bought my first road bike from my local bike shop and I’ve never looked back. A year later I returned to Ventoux with my best friend George (who had been nagging me to start riding for years) and we rode in the rain and fog, up through the forest from Bedoin, punched through the clouds and onto the bare, unforgiving summit (pictured left). It was a beautiful day. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to do some great things on a bike and cycling has fundamentally changed my life for the better. Mont Ventoux is where it all started for me.
Fast forward four years to June 2016. There’s no good way to write this, but George and Natalie lost Calan, their beautiful 2 year old boy, suddenly to septicaemia. In the wake of such tragedy the parents did something incredible - they decided to help others as way of processing their own grief and started raising thousands for a very special charity that looks after children that really need it. Having completed the “Cingles du Mont Ventoux” ride in 2014 (3 times up and down in a day) the Bi-Cingles challenge (6 times up and down) had been on my mind for a while. Now seemed like the right time to attempt it, to raise funds for the charity and also to raise awareness of the condition that took Calan so abruptly. (you can read more information about sepsis here).
The ride requires a pre-registration with the official site of the Club de Cingles du Mont Ventoux. For a small fee you get a card that you have to get stamped as you complete each of the 3 roads to the summit from Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault. Regular Cingles (which translates as “mad-men”) complete the 3 routes in a day. Bi-Cinglettes need to do each route twice within a day. That's 280km and around 9000m of climbing. When I signed up a month before the ride, only 176 people had completed this ride in 10 years. Even with 4 successful years of road cycling behind me, it's difficult to overstate the sheer idiocy of this challenge for someone of my experience.
But there I was, after just a few weeks of focussed training, waking up at 2.30am and trying to force as much food into myself as possible. Tuna pasta and eggs on a sleepy stomach is no easy task but by 3.15am I was climbing onto my bike in a peaceful Bedoin ready to begin. With the smell of fresh bread from the boulangerie filling the October night, the ever patient Jess gave me that worried yet encouraging look she has so much practise at - “Oh no, here we go again!” As well as her support I also had dozens of people willing me on remotely, a humbling amount of donations to the charity fund and some uplifting messages from my teenage children. So it was no surprise that I set off with a strong sense that no matter what happened I’d find a way to finish.
The first climb from Bedoin was pitch black from bottom to top. My plan was to start early and go as easy as possible for the first two climbs, hoping I'd get them in the bag "for free". Climbing up through the forest as gently as I could despite the constant 10% gradient I kept a steady pace and enjoyed the unique experience of riding through a wild forest at night. I’d heard a few tales of wild boar and rutting stags attacking walkers and riders in the night and this added an unusual sense of tension at times. Luckily that night the forest decided to keep it more dangerous residents hidden away and after 15km I reached Chalet Reynard at the tree line. Jess was waiting with some extra layers and we took in an incredible night sky. Without the protection of the trees the bitingly cold wind could have made the last 6km challenging but for now my legs felt fresh. The blinking red light of the weather station at the summit drew me onward and ever upward.
I reached the top around 5:30 and in high spirits. Despite the wind I was really looking forward to the unique experience of descending in the total darkness of this moonless night. It was time to deploy my secret weapons, a set of full winter bib tights, a pair of ski gloves and a fleece neck warmer. I’m a confident descender and there are simply no words to describe how thrilling it was to fly down the mountain at 80/90kmh with only my lamp to guide me in the blackness. Well, I say there are no words, Jess found a few choice ones for me when she finally caught up with me at the bottom. The sight of me disappearing into the dark at high speed clearly not something she enjoyed very much! But the memory of it will give me goosebumps for many years to come.
Although the wildlife had kept a low profile on the way up, I did have the fun of a few high-speed deer encounters on the way down. Deer and rider both equally surprised to come across each other but they scampered into the trees quickly without forcing me to a complete stop. I continued down to Bedoin, always looking for the right balance between safety, getting down from the cold quickly and making sure I enjoyed this very special experience of a night-time run on what is surely one of the best descents anywhere in the world. Before I knew it I was getting my first stamp in the boulangerie and it was time to head back up through the forest.
It was 6am and still dark but the first traces of light in the sky allowed me to pick out the horizon. Earlier the red light of the summit tower had floated in the darkness high above me, now the great hulk of rock on which it sat was apparent and the tower light seemed much further away. Climbing through the forest the light continued to grow and the occasional deer disappeared into the surrounding forest as I approached. It was a lovely climb and, in terms of physical effort, almost identical to the first. However, as a crisp clear dawn broke, the daylight caused a very different perception of the gradient and distance on some sections. It was very interesting how the exact same roads created a different mental challenge when you can see what’s ahead – the blissful ignorance of the night-time climb was now replaced by the first minor mental struggles of the day - a sign of things to come. Once above the trees though, any negative thoughts were banished by the incredible views that opened up across southern Provence.
About 600m from the summit the road reaches the Col Du Tempetes. It’s a fantastic viewpoint and the first time you get to see over the back of Ventoux all the way to The Alps. We were gifted to a truly stunning sight of the valleys and gorges below filled with mist and the high alps a hundred miles to the north. It gave me a physical and mental lift like a jolt of electricity. This is why I love riding in the mountains. There’s nothing quite like it.
Reaching the summit for the second time and still having the place to ourselves felt great but it was too cold to stay and enjoy it and I was soon heading down the empty road to Sault. This descent shares the same fast route to Chalet Reynard but then the road splits and slopes gradually down into the Sault valley. The area is famous for the acres and acres of purple lavender fields that I was now riding through. This year’s crop had already been harvested and the stubbled rows of plants gave the valley a distinctly wintry feel. Even so I still caught some strong whiffs of lavender as I approached the store barns of the farms dotted along the road. Not for the first time I wondered if the people of Sault were even more laid-back than your average provencal given the soporific effect of the plant? It was something I wouldn’t have time to investigate today though. Thanks to a blanket of mist hanging over it, Sault was cold and I was keen to turn around quickly after a bite to eat. By this time a few groups of riders were heading out and up the summit road, moving slowly as they warmed their legs up in the chilly morning. I was tempted to join them and have a chat however I was in my rhythm now and there was a long day ahead. I stuck to a brief ‘Bonjour’ and pushed on. Sault to Chalet Reynard is a welcome change from the 10% grind of the Bedoin forest road. There are some long sections of 3 or 4% and the hardest gradient is around 7%. In fact there are no col markers and you can tick off the miles with a sense of relative ease. Today though I was wary of pushing too hard. With 6km to go the road rejoins the
Bedoin climb for the famously exposed section up to the summit. This was the 3rd time I’d be tackling it today and the wind was getting up. Even on a weekday this late in the season there were quite a few cyclists pitting their wits against the mountain and they acted as useful targets, breaking up the long, winding and windy road to the top. Jess’ father Michel, who had raced up Ventoux as a young man, had joined us on the road from Sault so as I summited for the third time I had twice the moral support. This was soon to prove invaluable.
While posing for my “3 fingers” pic I met a couple from London who were doing the Cingles ride that day. Having just completed their first of three climbs, Bernadette and David initially talked to me thinking I had finished my own Cingles ride nice and early. Their reaction when they realised I was only halfway was priceless. I’m glad to report they both finished their ride that day - welcome to the club!
It was now time for my first descent into Malaucene that day. It’s hard to choose a favourite between this and the road to Bedoin. They are both fantastic stretches of tarmac with fast sweeping corners that often open up and encourage you to stay off the brakes. The sun was warm now and there was much less wind on this side of mountain so the whole 24km felt like a real reward after such a cold early start. Once I had my first Malaucene stamp from one of the many bike shops I rendezvoused with Jess and Michel for a slightly longer break during which I tried to eat as much as possible. With over 9 hours gone I’d started to struggle with eating whilst riding. With a good lunch in my stomach I set off on my 4th climb of the day with what were to be short-lived high spirits – things were about to get really tough.
The Malaucene climb is more variable than Bedoin side but there are some sections where the gradient picks up to 12+% for a few kms. In my buoyant mood I made the error of allowing my effort to creep up and without thinking about it too much I kept pushing on the steeper parts. Despite weeks of preparation I hadn’t reminded myself of the detailed profile of this climb and my complacency came back to haunt me as the efforts on these sections quickly accumulated. Before I knew it I was having my first major wobble of the day. Suddenly everything started to feel harder and the back pain which had been on and off during the 3rd climb now became constant and much more intense. My climbing speed dropped to what seemed like walking pace and my state of mind deteriorated surprisingly quickly as I got frustrated with the slow progress.
All sorts of things go through your mind when you’re in a situation like this. I started to imagine conversations I might have with others about stopping and played out different scenarios and consequences in my mind. The little voice in my head even tried to tell me that I’d raised the money now – people would understand, the charity would still benefit. Job done, no shame in stopping if you’re in this much pain….
Then I remembered why I’m here and how lucky I am to be able to even try such a ridiculous challenge. “Shut up Phil! No more talking yourself off the bike. This is getting done!”. After a horrible but ultimately really important couple of hours I finally reached the summit. I was grateful for all that internal dialogue though. Through my introspection I’d realised that I had to completely reset my expectations for the next 2 climbs. A lot of self-discipline was going to be required to pace myself to the end. I also had to accept that I’d be finishing well into the night rather than at sunset as hoped.
Not wanting to hang around up top in the cold, it was time for another thrilling descent into Malaucene, the adrenalin doing a great job of suppressing what was now very intense and consistent back pain. During another longish rest I steeled myself for a repeat of the climb that had just wrecked me and tried to eat what I could. Nausea and tiredness were preventing me from getting much down my neck while riding but I knew it was vital if I was to finish this ride.
The second time up from Malaucene felt totally different. The mental reset had a huge effect, I was more conservative with my effort and while it felt much slower there was in fact very little time difference between both climbs (big lesson there). I focussed on
thinking positive thoughts, and soaking up the breathtaking views across to the
vineyards around the Dentelles du Montmirail. The incessant back pain was still there but no longer overwhelming and Jess and Michel were looking a lot less worried than they had a couple of hours ago. With around 5 km to go the road from Malaucene suddenly rises up in front of you on a steep wall, and the summit tower, while tantalisingly close, can still seem like a huge effort away. Looking up at this imposing sight I felt a quiet determination settle on me and pushed on to reach the top just as the sun set.
Achieving this fifth summit felt great. I was elated to have only one more to go and even more pleased to have got through the earlier mental wobbles. I could feel a growing conviction that I would complete this but tried to stay cautious and focussed. The temperature was dropping sharply and the wind really picking up so I pulled on my warm gear and began the descent into Sault. I must have been getting used to the road by now as I managed my fastest time yet down to Chalet Reynard in the twilight. But after that short spike of adrenalin things started to get serious again. The long shallow drop into Sault requires effort to go at a reasonable speed, especially with the headwind that was coming up the valley. That hadn’t been a problem earlier in the day but now, exhausted and with a back that felt like burning knives were being stuck into it, the 20km to the village became an interminable slog rather than the 30 minutes recovery it should have been. I was in a pretty bad state when I arrived in Sault and clambered like an old(er) man into the support car.
My legs, while tired, seemed to be working reasonably well, but I was sore and stiff as a board from my hips up to my shoulders. To alleviate the back pain I’d been working out of the saddle more than usual and this had taken its toll on my arms which were feeling fatigued now. Eating the remains of my pasta and rice was tricky not just because of my cramping stomach, I could barely raise the spoon to my mouth! I was fighting the negative thoughts in my head constantly now. Chastising myself for not training my core and upper body enough for this challenge, and for making some bad decisions about eating and drinking throughout the day. I took a few deep breaths and a moment to compose myself and reminded myself that I just had one more climb. Not 26km, not two and a half hours of effort, not 1600m. Just. One. More. Climb.
Jess and Michel had been simply amazing all day and now their support was critical. I could tell from their expressions that I looked as bad as I felt but they helped do all the little things that would have taken me ages and probably cause minor melt-downs given my condition: fetching me food; preparing my bottles; fixing lights back on the bike and even having to help me into my jacket for the climb such was the state of my arms and shoulders. Night was upon us now and I set off from Sault repeating my new mantra so it would get through to my emotional core and raise my mood. One more climb. One more climb….
9 hours earlier the climb to Chalet Reynard from Sault had been the easiest climbing so far. This time around it felt utterly horrendous. The pain had reached a whole new level now but some small part of me knew that this was all part of the challenge and, most importantly, it was temporary. I was having to pull all sorts of mind tricks on myself to get through this effort but slowly and surely the kilometres ticked down. After a couple of hours and without any long breaks I finally arrived at Chalet Reynard. I’d kept myself going with the promise of a decent stop here to add more layers and prepare myself for the final push to the summit. As I climbed off the bike the wind howled through the dark and empty car park. I crawled into the car seat, barely able to respond to well meaning questions. A strange combination of positive and negative feelings battled for supremacy. I knew nothing was going to stop me getting to the top of this mountain but I couldn't help wondering just how tough the next 40 minutes would be. It was pitch black, well below freezing and the wind was the strongest it had been all day. I was exhausted to a point I had never experienced and in more pain than ever before on the bike. Time to dig in and get moving.
Given the conditions on the mountain Jess and Michel were getting worried and stayed close the whole time, using their car lights to shepherd me up at a snails pace. As before, the darkness helped by removing the sense of distance to the ever-blinking tower light and there was no demoralising sight of the road stretched out in front of me carving its way up the mountain. Instead, all I could see was the road right in front of me and the occasional col-marker appearing to herald another kilometre complete. Ventoux was living up to its fearsome reputation and the wind was brutal at points. I don't know exactly what kept me going at this point but I was almost in a trance when I passed the Tom Simpson memorial 1km from the top. Any sense of elation was shut down immediately by another sharp gust of wind. This didn’t feel like approaching the end of other big rides I’ve done. Perhaps it was the knowledge I still had to descend to Bedoin or perhaps it was the new depths of exhaustion but I certainly wasn’t feeling as triumphant as I’d imagined. Turning the corner toward the Col de Tempetes the wind hit me again and slowed me to walking pace. I kept going, head down, breathing through the pain and focussing on the fact that I was so so close. The next 3 or 4 minutes felt like an age but I finally reached the left turn at Col De Tempetes. The wind eased and I knew that the mountain would give me some protection for the last 500 metres. I started to allow myself to realise that the worst was over. Waving Jess and Michel through to the summit I rode alone in the dark, a giant grin slowly growing across my face. Here it comes, finally, what I can only describe it as a sort of hyper-reality that adrenalin, relief and an extraordinary situation creates. I think this is why I keep subjecting myself to rides like these, they are truly life affirming and I soaked up every second of it as I took in the incredible views over night time Provence. One last icy blast of wind brought me back to earth as I turned the famous hairpin below the tower and stood out of the saddle to climb the last 100m to the top. My fantastic support team were waiting and it was an emotional moment as it dawned on us that I’d completed my sixth summit of the day.
After pulling on my winter clothing and ski gloves, there was just one more descent to negotiate safely before I could call myself a Bi-Cinglette and it was a carbon copy of my first 16 hours earlier that day. In the pitch black, dropping past Chalet Reynard and then
through the forest toward Bedoin. This stretch of road is just about as much fun as you can have on a bike and, for the final 25 minutes of this challenge, I was able to ignore my screaming body and really enjoy the end of this incredible ride. I got some odd looks as I clip-clopped into a small restaurant in full winter cycling gear at 10pm to proudly ask for the last stamp on my card, but the friendly owner obliged and I hobbled out, grinning like an idiot and clutching my prize.
Having taken me so deep into my own personal reserves of strength and determination, any sense that I had unfinished business with Mont Ventoux is now well and truly vanquished. I also understand very well why less than 200 people have completed this ride in the last decade, it’s a monster. I owe a huge thank you to all those supporting me on the day. Whilst it was a definitely a team effort on Ventoux, the fantastic encouragement from afar also helped in ways it’s difficult to overstate.
It may be a long time before I take on such a beast of a challenge again but it was a real privilege to be able to do it in memory of Calan and for such a great cause. Please take a moment to look at the following page to find out more https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/phil-mont-ventoux-6-times