South Downs Way and Provence, through injury!

I had two big rides planned in for this year.  Firstly, in July was the British Heart Foundation’s South Downs Way in one day, the second was Mont Ventoux.  The only thing is, and I didn’t know when I signed up for these was an ankle injury. In May this year I tripped over some kid’s stuff lying around. In doing so, I inverted my ankle and despite it hurting like – well you know, I carried on regardless.  A few days after the injury, I went to Berlin, then Bucharest, and walked my legs off around these cities when I should have been resting it to allow it to heal.

The South Downs Way was to be my ‘practice ride’ for Ventoux.  The South Downs way is 160km with 3800 metres of climbing.  Off road.  In July.  An early start, leaving Guildford at 3:00am to get to Winchester, then leaving Winchester at about 4:30 am to ride to Eastbourne! My weapon of choice was my 2011 Genesis Io Id mountain bike. A Steel framed bike (Reynolds 525 tubed) with an 11 speed Shimano Alfine gear hub. This is a great bike for most off road rides. I have used it on some South Downs Way paths, but never for the whole thing west east in one day. The ratios on the Alfine are generally okay, but putting them up 18% gradients repeatedly, and in temperatures up to 32°C, took it’s toll on me and my injured ankle. After just over 50 miles, just east of Worthing I retired.  All in all, the ride is well supported, but you must be match ready! Also the equipment must be chosen to match the terrain! School boy error!

To graduate to the closed club named ‘Club des Cingles du Mont-Ventoux’ (Brotherhood of the Nutters of the Windy Mount), one must: ascend by bicycle Mont-Ventoux all three main asphalted roads (Bédoin, Malaucène and Sault) at least; all climbs must be in the same day (between 0 and 24 hours) , in the sequence and on the date you prefer.  In short you climb all three tarmacked roads up Ventoux in one day. This is no easy feat for the best of us, but those of you who know me: I do like a challenge, and especially on an injured ankle I had set my goal for just one ascent in the day. I decided to take it very easy and slowly. Leaving at 7:15 am I set off from the hotel at the foot of the climb from Malaucène following the road steadily towards the top.  The markings on the road showing the gradient: 11%, 12%, and so on. The higher the number the better in my mind, because the average gradient of this climb is 7.4%. This means: later the gradient would be less, and indeed when you’re on one of these climbs as the gradient eases down from 10%+ toward 7% and it feels like you’re on the flat. The cadence slowly increases and the burden of hauling yourself upwards eases.  All the time trying to ensure that your heart rate doesn’t go too high. It’s a tricky balance and such a different experience to climbing the typical short and steep hill in the UK. After a few hours I had completed the 21km to the top. The familiar weather station that we see on the Tour looming large. The temperature climbing the north face had been quite reasonable in the shade, but as I took the final few hairpins to the top it was clear that the rest of the day was going to be very hot. Luckily, despite its name of the Windy Mountain a relatively gentle breeze blew at the top and it was a beautiful descent into Bédoin to get a stamp on my card and to return to the top. At this point the temperature was 34°C and up through the forest the humidity was high too. Balancing my heartrate, cadence and temperature I continued to ascend to Café Reynaurd, where the routes from Bédoin and Sault join.  At this point there is 6km to the top.  It is the point at which Ventoux’s familiar Lunar landscape starts. It is the point at which the heat from the sun reflects back on you, and the warm air increases its temperature. By this time it was 4:30pm I sat down for lunch.  I had reached my goal of one climb and had only 6 (hard) km to the top.  I felt surprisingly good, my legs had the third climb in them, but I figured that a third ascent would mean that I would reach the top of my third ascent at about 10:30pm. This third ascent would have been completely unsupported. Normally a 20km ride unsupported wouldn’t be a problem but as you can imagine from the days efforts and the temperatures it was quite out of the question.  After my stop at Café Reynaurd I continued to the top.  At 1km from the top is the memorial to Tom Simpson, and I, along with other riders stop to pay their respects. A timely reminder to know your limits, listen to your body and don’t ride when you’re not 100% (amongst other things). By 5:30pm I was at the top (again) achieving my second ascent. This was by far the hardest single climb I have ever done. I have ridden 4000 metres climbing in a day before, but not in these temperatures. The conditions I climbed Ventoux were favourable.  It was kind to me, but this climb is brutal.  The lessons learned from this climb would be to start it earlier, probably before sunrise and be prepared to ride past sunset.

The day following Ventoux was a ride around the great mountain. This part of France is absolutely stunning. It was worth the trip to France just for this and even without climbing the mountain itself. Cycling through the vineyards with bulging ripe grapes, olive groves and the scent from the recently harvested lavender fields of Provence. The real highlight of this final day in Provence was the descent through Gorges de la Nesque, a spectacular route hugging the cliff face on a narrow (quiet) road. The descent goes on for some 20km through the gorge amongst stunning scenery, occasionally revealing the weather station of Ventoux and its desolate landscape in the distance.

As always the tour company used for this cycling excursion was Marmot Tours. These guys really do look after you providing support and local knowledge. This particular ‘holiday’ can be found here: but they offer many non-challenge holidays too. This was my fifth ride with Marmot the others being “Raid Pyrenean” (X2); “Classic Cols of Corsica” and “Classic Cols of Picos” (Spain). Marmot clientele are generally fall into the 30 – 60 years age bracket, but there have been much older folk there too. One of my fellow ‘Marmoteers’ was 79. On a classic Cols holiday you pick and choose what you’d like to do, and its about enjoying the ride rather than completing a particular challenge.

Ken Izzard – October 2019
(This article was first published in the October 2019 Redmon Quarterly Newletter, in an abbreviated form.)