Thursday, 4 July 2013

MONT VENTOUX - A LAST SMIDDY ADVENTURE IN THE FRENCH ALPS



Let me introduce to you the birth of the Alps and Pyrenees'
In France there is a chain of mountains called the Pyrenees' that are geographically located at the bottom of France and near the Spanish border. Then you have the Alps, another chain of mountains that basically start on the border of Switzerland and run south for hundreds of kilometres into France. When these mountains were spewed forth in a great rush upwards many millions of years ago, the end product was the work of Mother Nature at her very creative best. It was a turbulent time back then and a place to avoid for a few thousand years until her artistic tapestry had settled from the glacial and volcanic activity.

Now between the Pyrenees' and the Alps is a section of country were 'Mother' got bored with making monuments that rose sky high. She decided instead that some flatland and some nice gentle lumps were more the order of the day. But what happened next suggested that 'Mother' got extremely grumpy one day. For between these two great mountain ranges, the Pyrenees' and the Alps, she created her greatest piece of sadistic work. This creation rode up into the sky to a height of just shy of 2000 metres. Not that high I will admit, but when sighted, with nothing anywhere near her height for a hundred kiolmetres either side, she grabs your attention as a Pyramid does in the flatness of the Egyptian desert.

Mont Ventoux - Getting to know the old lady!
Her name is Mont Ventoux and this is her story: It was not until the year of 1336 that someone attempted to climb her, which was on foot at that time as the humble bicycle was not to make an appearance in the human timeline for another 600 or so years. His name was Jacques Gabriel and he celebrated with not much more than a shake of his head at his silliness before making his way back down again. Fast forward to 1955 and this barbaric climb was introduced to the Tour de France for the very first time. It is a climb that is as famous -if not more infamous- than the great Alp D'Huez, but that is open to conjecture. For now, I can only share the sufferings of four Smiddy riders, that today successfully climbed this mountainess beast that stole our legs but grabbed our hearts.

A conversation with Jimmy at Mont Ventoux
Tackling Mont Ventoux today saw me in the company of Mark Anthony, Adam Young and Jimmy Acomb, ironically the three lads that were my descending buddies for all those amazing descents during the five days of the Smiddy French Alps tour. Now this whole idea of climbing another mountain rests fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the great Scotts Man, Jimmy Acomb. You see it has been a dream -a long held dream- of Jimmy's to climb Ventoux and the three of us, Ad's, Marky and myself, got sucker-punched into accompanying him. Not that we are complaining. I questioned Jimmy as to why it was so important that he climb this iconic monster that has brought more riders to their demise than any other mountain in cycling history.
"Sharky" he said in his thick Scottish accent that requires him to repeat what he just said three times before understanding steeps into the cerebral cortex. "Ventoux is the only climb that has claimed the life of Tom Simpson, the legendary British rider that collapsed a few hundred metres from the top and died of a heart attack a short while later."

Well that is certainly a legitimate reason I thought to myself. But I wanted to know more.

"Okay Jimmy I hear you, so it is a Challenging climb but what else drives you to climb Ventoux as there are so many other climbs in France that are longer and higher than Ventoux?"

Jimmy chuckles and let's loose; "Yeh but Sharky this climb has brought the great Eddy Merckx to his knees through sheer exhaustion. More riders than any other mountain have succumbed to this giant that is not happy unless it crushes your spirit and smashes you into oblivion."
Now I was perfectly agreeable to all of this but probed just a little further.

"So Jimmy are you telling me we have a challenge on our hands?" Jimmy was exasperated with me by this stage and grumpily stated: "Sharky this climb last 22 agonising kilometres, has an average gradient of 7.3% and the last five kilometres of this climb is as barren as the Red Planet and the winds up here can be so strong that they often close off the mountain to any form of vehicular traffic! Mate in 1962 the weather station up there recorded winds in excess of 300 km/h!"

Jimmy was screaming by this stage and clearly excited!

Well that was all I needed to know, I was in! Nothing like one last adventure prior to leaving this great land of baguettes and women nearly as beautiful as my girl Alyssa!

Catching up with Row, Boof and Matty
Okay so this is how it went down; the lads all put in for a hire car, which Ad's and Jimmy collected on Tuesday evening at seven-pm. We had it for a 24 hour period. The lads then collected Mark and I at eight-pm and we made our way to where Rowan was staying with his parents, about a 20 minute drive away in a quaint French town called Cagnes-sur-mer, a name I can't even begin to pronounce. A huge thank you to Rowan and his family for having us over for dinner last night and for being excited at our idea of climbing the Mont. Boof and Matty were there as well and it was excellent to catch up with them and to meet Boof's partner Georgie. She told me that she had been reading the blogs and wanted to know more about this mysterious girl called Alyssa that kept popping up in my stories. I was happy to fill her in on that topic that's for sure!

Ventoux look out the Smiddy lads are coming your way!
Anyway Le Tour started from here today and we made the decision to miss today's stage in exchange for climbing Mont Ventoux. Well as I sit and write this in the back of the hire car, as Jimmy utilises his Scottish right to drive like a maniac to get the car back in time, I can assure you that we made the right decision. We got on the road at 6:20 Wednesday morning after successfully getting four bikes in to the back of the hire car with room to spare. To get to the small town Mazan, ten kilometres out from the base of the Mont Ventoux climb, was a three hour drive heading west north-west from Nice. Jimmy is the designated driver and I assure you I am happy about that, as my attention span while driving is 30 minutes before I am asleep at the wheel. Within an hour on the road the dark clouds we were chasing let loose with a bucket of rain. We could not believe our luck! This entire Smiddy tour has been one of incredibly testing weather conditions. But as Jimmy said; "It is what it is!"

The climb up the beast
We lucked onto an excellent parking spot right next to a bus shelter and a huge tree that helped give us some protection to put the bikes together while staying relatively dry. By 10:30am we were on our way after a quick stop at the local bike shop to top up the psi in our tyres. Not one kilometre out of town another stop to release full bladders. By 11am we have reached the base of the climb and we then knew just 22 kilometres of vertical road lay in our path to reach our goal. We agreed that for the first five kilometres we would ride together as it was a gentle gradient of no more than four percent. The reality of this dream of Jimmy's was that it was not only happening right here and now, but he was doing it with three mates that cared enough not to let him do it by himself. Of course we all had our own reasons for wanting to do this climb that has been included in the the Tour approximately 12 times since 1955 and again this very month on the 15th. A stage we will all watch with abated breath and much interest having now experienced it for ourselves.

As the gradient went from four to eight percent, we naturally broke into our own rhythms and the four man tight knit group separated amicably. Jimmy and Adam went out of sight fairly quickly from Mark and myself. I was feeling great so said goodbye to Mark and went on to experience one of the most enjoyable climbs of the entire trip. I think mainly due to my form being so good from 28,000 metres of climbing and 1500 kilometres travelled over the past two weeks. As for Mark I asked him at the bottom how was his head? He assured me awoke this morning knowing that he was going to make the summit of this climb no matter what. Now a funny thing happened right at the bottom of the climb that forced me to wonder if Mark was going to be okay? You see his gears mysteriously started to play up for no obvious reason. Mark was forced to stop on at least eight different occasions within a two kilometre period to adjust his gearing. At the fourth stop he started swearing at his bike. Jimmy looked back at me and said; "The 'Ventoux Curse' has gotten hold of him!" Thankfully Marky Mark got his gearing sorted, his head back in the game and upwards and onwards my old mate climbed.

A brief description of the climb
The thing that makes this climb unique is that the first five kilometres is such a gentle gradient and open to amazing views of the french countryside. Then you enter the forested section and the trees are so dense they close in on you for the next ten kilometres of nine to ten percent gradient. It is eerie in the sense that you really have no idea of what lies ahead; seemingly just a never-ending upwards section of road. Then the final seven kilometres is the breathtaking scenery of a mountain with nothing but a rocky landscape that resembles, as I said before, something you would see on mars. It is a true climbers mountain.

The lads make it to the top of Mont Ventoux - Jimmy
First to the top and realising a dream of a lifetime was Jimmy, who, not happy with just completing the climb but wanting to do it without any other cyclist catching and passing him. Which was all good and dandy until this gun pro looing cyclist was closing in on Jimmy with a couple of kilometres to go. Jimmy told me that he turned himself inside out and that he could feel the lactic acid even in his eyeballs. He reached the top and collapsed over the handlebars until his shortness of breath returned to a more normal state. A small crowd apparently hovered over Jimmy, thinking he was a past or present Tour rider, asking for autographs and photographs. They loved his thick Scottish accent and I believe he even secured two phone numbers from adoring young female fans.

Adam
Next up was Ad's, who had stopped three times up the climb as he felt the presence of the 'Dark Shark.' He admitted later that he had cracked as he could not believe a Shark out of water could climb so well and the pressure was too intense inside his slowly swelling brain from the high altitude cllimbing! Totally true story... Ad's was extremely pleased, as in the end he did beat Shark by about five minutes and this was enough so that he could sleep at night for the rest of his life.

Sharky
Next up was yours truly and as I stated before I could not have been happier with the way I climbed today. I felt so good that I even did a couple of video dairies on my iPhone to keep as permanent memories of this special place. As for the conditions on the climb, they were in one word - Perfect! Sure, light rain fell on us early but eased by the time we were half way up the climb. The highlight for all of us was climbing up threw the clouds. A dense bank of white fluffy clouds had settled on the mountain from the 14 to 18 kilometre height of the mountain. Visibility in this stretch was just 50 metres and I was sad thinking we would not get to see any views from the top. Then just like that we actually climbed out of it and the remaining four kilometres was clear and all was revealed - A landscape so rocky and barren that not a single solitary organism of life proliferated. I could hear Phil Liggett's voice saying;

Phil Liggett's words ringing in my ears
"The remaining four uphill kilometres is into the teeth of a wind so vicious that riders often get blown off their bikes. Yes Paul Sherwin it is here that the true test of one's fitness will be revealed... Will Lance win this one or will he gift it to the Pirate?"

The mystique and legend that this mountain is steeped in is what brings casual riders from all over the world to climb this beast and then boast for the rest of their lives. A boast they have surely deserved.

Marky Mark
Last up was our good old mate Marky Mark Anthony and a prouder man could not be found. He battled the entire way up, professed to stopping on many occasions to catch his breath. But Mark is a unique individual, in that once he has made his mind up, will do what he sets out to do regardless of the consequences. In this case the only consequence was his legs and lungs hurt but his mind was strong enough to over-ride the pain. The lads could not have been prouder of the big fella for again reaching a goal so lofty he would not have even attempted it if not for the encouragement of Jimmy, AD's and myself.

At the top we were surprised there was a shop. We, of course brought souvenirs of our achievement and before we knew it, it was time for the ultimate part of this whole journey - The kick-arse descent! One last look at the stunning view of the clouds below us and the stark volcanic hillsides of rocky surfaces that dared anything to plant its roots.

The descent of all descents!
We had two quick stops in the first kilometre of descending, one at another Col called Col des Tempetes at 1841 metres. Then at the shrine dedicated to the great Tom Simpson to pay our respects at 1750 metres. From that point on it was four great mates enjoying one of the greatest descents of our entire time in the French Alps. We were never separated by more than a few metres for the entire onward journey down. The lead changing always and whooping and delightful yelling by four mates who knew each other's descending skills finely tuned by a week in the high mountains, also Ad's and Jimmy and I from our Pyrenees' tour last year. The roads had magically dried for our descent and the further down we travelled the faster we safely travelled. Mark captured the entire descent on his Go Pro and if I can work out how to get it up on uTube I will send you the link so that you can experience it for yourself through Marky's eyes.

Anyway the entire day was one of a great adventure shared between four Smiddy mates. I got this finished in time to read out to the boys, as once Jimmy and Ad's drop Mark and I off at our hotel we will all be going our separate ways.

Hope you enjoyed the ride and I look forward to sending you another blog about a little adventure I have this Sunday back home in Australia with yet another Smiddy friend setting out to break a world record. But more on that later...

Until then, take care.

Sharky

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