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Ventoux. The bastard. Perhaps the most difficult climb in the world. Words from the architect of an unexampled seven Tour de France victories, yet its slopes ultimately eluded his authoritative stamp. In fourteen years, Armstrong never won on the Ventoux.
It draws cyclists like moths.
Most of Europe had been cycled to reach its foot. Close to four months and four thousand miles, forty-five cols in various countries and the idea of it still there in the back of my mind, refusing to be sated by layering mile upon mile of climbing. It hadn’t even been on the agenda, but in the cyclist’s lifelong journey all roads lead to the Ventoux.
It drew first blood. Climbing the Col de Montfuron, some two days ride from the fabled observatory, engrossed in the task at hand, steaming in the morning chill like the mist which shrouded the shrinking lavender fields below me. The summit rewarded me with a view of Provence in Autumnal decline. Only when turning to remount did something catch my eye, curdling the sweetness of the moment. Heart quickening, an incredulous scrabble for the map became a redundant gesture as my arms sank limply to my sides: there was no mistaking that bald, lifeless, rocky summit. Across the immeasurable distance it stood proud and silent, its ability to dwarf all around it extending to my very core. A first sighting of the task to come. Humbled and bewildered, the remains of the day were spent equally in excitement and fear of another unexpected glimpse.
Bedoin. The face in the mirror holds an almost quizzical expression, belying the tension that itches beneath. Thirty-five kilometres of rolling terrain have warmed the legs, but they'd needed it. The previous day’s summer has been bullied somewhere else by weighty cloud and an insistent breeze. As those first, deceptively benign kilometres roll by, the steeply wooded slopes on my left get so high before slipping into a dirty-grey, suspended netherworld. What vision of hell lies in wait there?
But I am flying. Free from the trappings of my cycling nomadism for only the third time in as many months the tourer beneath me is a plaything which requires effort to rein its enthusiasm. This is it! Ventoux! Nothing and no-one can stop me… Perspective is returned with the ‘bonne chance’ heard from my shoulder, the local’s features set as he edges past me over the names scrawled tall even at this early stage. Taken already, and it's not even steep yet. I knuckle down, assuming there will be more.
The forest. Jesus, the forest. Nothing can prepare you for that relentless ten kilometres through the forest. There is simply nothing else like it. Double chevrons crawl like spiders on the map all the way along the D974. Looking straight up the road gives me vertigo, makes me queasy. I concentrate on the tarmac before my wheel instead.
In a short space instead I’ve appraised the gear situation (ye gods just one remains!), blocked out the presence of mass above me as best as possible and commenced spinning smoothly from one name to the next. It is a shock, yes, a terrible, unremitting shock but I'm by no means dying on the mountainside. I’ve done my homework. Seasoned commentators would nod sagely and say "he's cycling within himself".
Finding a rhythm the kilometre stones fall and I begin to overtake people. What are these idiots doing up here in October? Some are taking a breather (why not just accept it's beaten you and go back down? I feel like saying), others are getting on with it, dealing with their pain. To my eyes every detail tells a tale of suffering in excess of mine. Sinews straining without pause. Achingly slow cadences. Beads of sweat chasing across helmet rims in time to rocking heads. All out of the saddle, few acknowledgements. And in each exhibition of weakness I find strength. I want to offer encouragement, but can't - platitudes don't help on the Ventoux. As I pass I only hope they feel angered by my scorn. Sheer bloody mindedness is the only route to success in this inhuman place.
Before I reach Le Chalet Reynard I enter the clouds. For the remaining 8km of the ascent - and all the way back down to Sault - I can see no further than spitting distance in front of my wheel, giving the climb an otherworldly feel and taking the psychological desolation of that barren summit out of the equation. The names painted on the road, an encouraging distraction to this point, become a lifeline which prevent my cycling headlong off the mountainside in the thick fog. And it is cold. Really cold. Once out of the trees the wind whips through thin layers of sweat-soaked lycra like a blade. In no time hands and feet and head have lost all feeling entirely and I imagine synovial fluid crystallising like treacle inside my joints. It's hard to quantify the envy I feel for those on their way back down to warmth and a view beyond the white.
The last three kilometres. Beyond description, the memory frozen clean from my mind.
A sign in the gloom. Col des Tempêtes. Indeed. A maelstrom of terrifying fury unleashes itself as I take the corner. Wind screams, seemingly coming from all sides and even from above all at once. It takes every reserve left just to remain upright as I am wrenched from one side of the road to the other. Praying it will be over soon, beyond fear now. If I die here, it seems fair. I shouldn't be here. It's not natural – there is too much… nature. My voice cracks as I roar desperate expletives, inaudible in the surrounding din.
The final right hander. The mountain's last attempt at unseating me – thirty metres of seemingly vertical road, accompanied by an inconceivable increase in the wind's ferocity, tyres skating across the surface. Then the level. Sensing the bulk of the observatory to my left more than seeing it. The scene of my rooftop prize, so long dreamt of – the oven-like desolation, the unbearable thirst, the clearest view to the Cote d'Azur – could not have been further from my musings. You have scored a hollow victory my friend, and I will punish you for it.
For the scene which greets me is indeed like a dream sequence, but an unreal and freakish one. Not the quietly muffling fog of an English winter morning but weather itself, translated from Meteo into terrifying reality. The soundtrack is pure end-of-the-world, a deafening roar and whistle which tears through the cloud, making it whip past me visibly along the road. As if my poor body needs confirmation as to just how fast the wind is moving.
Within this white storm ghoulish shapes twist and cavort and it is only after laying the bike flat on the ground, fumbling my shaking arms into a jacket and leaning unsteadily towards them that they reveal themselves in human form. A coach party, hastily taking pictures of the summit marker they have not earned the right to. But a blessing in disguise as my alien fingers simply buckle helplessly when I try to force them into gloves or work the simple mechanism of a zip. Like a child they dress me for the descent.
It has been said that in such conditions the hardest part of ascending the Ventoux is coming back down it.
I have never, before or since, experienced such extreme discomfort on a bicycle. Teeth chatter uncontrollably. Arms ache in protest of every movement demanded to round a corner. The tenuous frozen link between my decreasingly alert brain and my senseless hands is in danger of being severed altogether and my claw like grip on the brakes is just too painful to release. I inch downwards. Distal to my knees I am without sensation entirely, except for lightning sharp pain when I commence pedalling after the turn to Sault, shooting up from phantom limbs somewhere below. I am caked in filth and the tiny piece of imagination which remains active casts fleeting glimpses of roaring open fires, heavy oak panelling and vegetables steaming under velvet slabs of bloodied roast beef…
Broaching 1000m I am suddenly cast back into the real world, shocked into wakefulness to find it still exists. I have never been so overcome with happiness to see a sky which looks like rain.
And there in the back of my mind, already burning like a match in the darkness is a stubborn, treacherous thought: when will I return to complete the trio of ascents?
Giles P Croft is a writer and photographer who draws his inspiration from many years of cycling throughout Europe. He is an avid collector of cols.