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Operation Mont Ventoux

 

Ever since I arrived here in southern France I’ve had the nearby and iconic Mont Ventoux in my sights as a ride challenge. Winter mountain weather has made this pretty much impossible up until last week (April 16th) when the weather changed completely. Rather than sub zero temperatures and gales Ventoux was now apparently set for 10c+, light winds and sunshine.

For the past several weeks I’ve been heading out on overnight adventures each weekend as part of my preparation for the 2018 Transatlantic Way Race. The physical and mental training benefits of long, solo, multi day rides are many, whilst getting ever more familiar with my gear and provisioning on route is also very helpful. An overnighter to Ventoux just had to happen.

My plan for this Ventoux trip was to ride about 125km on Friday night and camp out. This will then leave me a 25km warm up ride in the morning before riding the classic ascent from Bedoin; breakfast at the summit, descend to Malaucene and ride back to La Ciotat, just like that..

Friday had been a busy day already as I’d driven from Viareggio, Italy, back to La Ciotat, France and moved into new accommodation but though tired I was feeling pretty keen to get out on the open road again and for the first time in many months not be faced with icy temperatures. As a result of the many doings of this day I didn’t manage to get away until 20:40 but this did make for quieter roads.

You see very few other cyclists when you cycle at night, yet it really is a fantastic time to ride. The roads are quieter and the approach of traffic from behind or ahead comes with a reassuring early warning glow from headlights and added to that it’s generally a less windy time of day. Certainly, there may be an increased sense of exposure and vulnerability as you pass by closed shops, through sleeping towns and hear the eery sounds of waking forests but all of this is part of the adventure, the taking of the road less travelled, even if only because of the time of day.

Still it’s a strange business I’ve gotten myself into, this setting off into the night to ride hundreds of kilometres. I immediately begin counting off the distance on my bike computer until I can stop, as if I’m wishing the time away.

There is a fair amount of effort involved in all this cycling so looking forward to the next rest point is an understandable part of this clock watching but I think another aspect is about simply maintaining a sense of place or position along a route. My tiny computer screen just shows an direction arrow along a road and some other ride data. Place names come and go but in unfamiliar places my memory is unable to place them on a route as the ride progresses so it becomes; 20km done, about 5 hours to go at this rate then, 45km, 4 hours maybe,…etc. Then finally I arrive, or get to rest, and it all starts over again.

Once an adventure is finished then almost immediately the planning for the next begins. One day, when I’ve tired of endurance races, I may just get out and start riding and see where I end up… I’m not ready for that yet though.

Wise people will tell you that a happy life is all about enjoying the journey and not the destination. I agree, though defined destinations can add clarity to a journey.

As the night progressed I faced my usual challenge of finding somewhere to refill my water bottles. In the UK virtually every petrol station has an outside tap or water point. This seems to be a rare occurrence in France and after many failed searches of garage forecourts I happened upon La Cave a Francois in Mallemort at around 1:00 am.

A group of people were sat outside next to a tap..aha! However, I was helpfully directed away from the tap and inside to the rather loud bar which I then discovered was largely full of young women in pretty flouncy dresses…staring at me! I suddenly felt very exposed in my lycra…

My water bottles were kindly refilled and with a smile I headed away for the final hour or so of this night’s ride. It was calm and around 10c which felt comfortably warm compared to some of my previous weeks adventures. No need for any additional shelter tonight. At around 02:00am and with 125km ridden I pulled off down a side road and found myself a nice grassy field to bivi down in. 

With no requirement for full race type sleep deprivation I set an alarm for 07:15 and suppered on chicken slices and a cereal bar before getting my head down.

My bivi is an Outdoor Research Aurora and I’d recommend it to anyone. I selected it as being the lightest, fully breathable, bivi with a built in bug net. At 600gm it’s not as light as some but as this is my primary sleeping arrangement rather than an, in case of, kind of shelter I’m happy to lug it about. I’ve slept in here soaking wet and woken up nearly dry.

 

Just a dent in the grass

The only indication left from my presence that night was a flat spot in the grass. Treading lightly; I like that.

I was on the road again by 08:00 and riding towards the beckoning peak but with little real realisation of what really lay ahead.

It was about 9c and I was wearing a merino base layer along with a warm short sleeved spring/autumn jersey plus leg and arm warmers. I duly arrived in Bedouin nicely warmed up and decided to remove the arm warmers but nothing else as experience has shown that it it tends to get a lot cooler as you get higher.

Ventoux looms large in the distance

I munched a couple of Snickers bars, had a good drink and set off confidently for the summit. I soon passed a couple of people on mountain bikes and a woman on inline skates but I think from that point on it was everybody else passing me.

I’ve ridden some long climbs already this year but nothing like this and it turned out that I’d made a grave error of judgement regarding my clothing. I just kept getting hotter and hotter… the sweat was pouring off me. I fully unzipped my jersey and pulled my leg warmers down around my ankles but that didn’t help much. My ride data shows that rather than the temperature decreasing or even holding steady it actually rose to 27c!

On the chart here red is heart rate, blue is temperature, pink is power and green is speed. You can clearly see how my HR rises and stays high but my power drops with the increase in temperature.

I stubbornly refused to stop to remove layers. My first Ventoux ascent had to be a non stop event… The road got busier and busier as time passed with people panting past me with a “bonjour”or flying down on the descent.

One guy flew past me on the way down and then flew back past me on the way up again. I saw some highly muscled legs that morning!

I was very slow compared to other riders but I comforted my bruised ego with the thoughts that the others probably hadn’t ridden 125km the night before and slept in a field for 5 hours. They most certainly were not riding on around 18kg of loaded bike and they were generally a lot younger!

Once you get out of the Ventoux forest section and above the tree line the road taunts you with glimpses of the big tower on the summit which seems much closer than it is. By now my body was screaming at me to stop and walk, the sweat was burning in my eyes and I just wanted it all to end. The soles of my feet were also burning from the relentless pedal pressure.

Still it also felt good to be riding a classic cycling climb and to see the writing left on the road from the last Tour De France here in 2016. I could almost feel the excitement and picture the crowds cheering. The idea that Chris Froome and others have ridden up here in under and hour was just mind boggling. My Strava segment shows a woeful 2hrs 32min. I’ll have to return fresh and unladen!

I particularly remember the final few hundred meters when the end was just so close but yet I was also so very, very close to giving up. That’s a memory I shall be calling on for encouragement during challenging times in the future. “Stick at it Chris…it’s not as bad as Ventoux”…

Tired but triumphant and with leg warmers around sweaty ankles!

The more usual celebration going on around me was to hoist your bike aloft. I wasn’t going to risk that with my fully loaded bike.

Time to find more drink and and eat something. I loaded up on Coke and water and foolishly bought a bottle of Powerade….uurgh that was so hideously chemically tasting even compared to the Coke! Still it had much needed fluid and calories.

I found shelter from the wind and sat in my black Gore jacket in the sun in order to stay warm. I tend to chill rapidly after a ride so know I have to wrap up even if I feel hot initially.

My planned route down was via Malaucene but it turned out that this was closed due to snow.  Ho hum, back the way I came then.

The usual form of celebration

Now I had a new problem. I hadn’t managed to stay warm enough and was shivering. As I began the descent I kept getting this wheel wobbling sensation. I stopped and checked everything and then just concluded it was because I was being too cautious and braking too much… ummmm

I rode a bit quicker, relaxed my grip and gained confidence. Awhile later a group of guys passed me and I thought “…mmm I could use them a pacers” so I tagged along behind and it felt like we were really flying. Ride data shows a fast, for me, 69kph.

Then it all got terrifying, I developed a severe front wheel wobble and was seriously thinking that I might have to bail into a bush or something. I’ve heard of this happening but never experienced it before myself. My Genesis Datum has only inspired more and more confidence descending the longer I’ve ridden it.

I had to think quick…”front wheel wobble, relax grip, ease off on the front brake use the back brake a little more relax, relax, relax..” it worked and I wound steadily to a halt. Pah…what a morning! Frankly I just wanted to go home and cry!

Adrenalin and endorphins did their job though and I was soon back on the descent and concentrating on not shivering or white knuckle gripping the handlebars.

The sheer pleasure of resting my weary feet here just cannot be overemphasised!

Back in Bedouin it was a hot 33c and I spotted a couple of guys resting their legs in the town fountain. Oh I had to have some of that! I could have just stopped there, had a nice lunch, maybe even booked a B&B and simply ridden back to La Ciotat the next day.

Nope this was a training ride, not a tour. I still had 150km to go and another 1000m of climbing to be done.

Fortunately the next couple of hours were on pretty flat roads so I just treated it as a steady recovery ride and kept eating snickers bars, drinking my Coke and water mix and munching chicken slices. Temperatures were in the low to mid 30’s and I was still a bit over dressed in just my spring/autumn jersey but the airflow helped keep me from overheating too much.

As I made it back to the hills the temp fell to the mid 20’s and then into the teens and by then my body had regrouped enough for me to make quite decent progress again.

I was home in time to have a shower and pop out for a well earned Negroni cocktail and a bite to eat with the satisfying sense of a day very well lived!

1st Mini Adventure of 2018

I haven’t ridden an overnighter since August 2017. It’s now February 2018 and my life circumstances have shifted so that I’m mostly based and training in the south of France rather than my home in Cornwall England.

There’s certainly worse places to be! The cycling here, near Toulon, is excellent so long as you like hills, mountains and wild landscapes. Luckily I do and I figure that riding in such arduous terrain can only benefit my training for this years TAWR.

Riding off into the night and camping wild in just a bivouac bag is hardly common, comfortable behaviour for most of us but my intention is to become increasingly comfortable doing just that. I have a no B&B policy for the race itself because I desire and enjoy the adventure of that level of self-support.

Finally, as we’re heading into the later half of February, the inland overnight temperatures here are not regularly well below zero and the nights very long. You can camp out in such conditions of course but it necessitates carrying more gear and I can’t say that it inspires me very much.

Day 1 – Saturday night

As it turned out this trip still had temperatures down to -3c and the cold was quite an issue for me. In the Relive video below you can see that the end of this night ride was basically one long freezing descent. I should have put another layer on but as I was pretty warm from the previous climb and could not really recall the topography of my route and how long the descent would last, I didn’t bother. Big mistake!

I must say I had a feeling of trepidation before I set off on this one. It was further out of my comfort zone than usual. Riding into the unknown, in a foreign country, where I don’t speak the language and with no close contacts nearby.

I have a Spot tracker and my wife had a copy of my route so she could check on me remotely from the UK  but in the event of an emergency it will be just me and my mobile phone. I wrote out an “In Case of Emergency Card” and put it in my top bar pack. That was a sobering experience…

This night ride had me questioning my motives when I was on busier and less enjoyable roads. “What am I doing this for?” “Am I mad?” “Why bother?” “You could just turn around” I don’t have a clear answer for any of this. I know it’s a form of escape from the mundanity and compromises of daily life and I know I feel, in some way, more alive when I do these trips. Other than that the simple answer is I truly enjoy it, even including the moments when “I’m not enjoying it”, if that makes any sense.

Within 2 or 3 hours such thoughts had passed and I was into that calm night riding zone when the roads become almost empty and there’s more or less only the sound of the wind in your ears, your breathing and the purr of the bike’s drivetrain for company. I find it almost meditative.

Due to the high wind chill factor winter riding is typically an experience of too hot on the climbs too cold on the descents, and I’d had plenty of this in the 5 hours or so before I finally arrived in a chilly state at my target of the Elan 24/24 service station at Salles Sur Verdon  I’d hoped to at least to find a vending machine here but I had no such luck.

The night was cold, clear, calm and starlit. Beautiful – time to find a bivi spot.

I always seek covered shelter when using my bivi bag as being exposed to any wind makes it very noisy inside and any rain is also noisy and then adds a lot of unnecessary water weight and general unpleasantness when packing away in the morning.

Shivering, I pedalled around the area looking for somewhere vaguely appropriate to camp. The best I could find was a covered patio area in front of a closed campsite.  The cold tile floor was less than ideal for warmth but it did make for easy, clean, setting up and packing away.  By this point my fingers were so cold that I couldn’t unclip my bags or helmet..doh!

I finally managed using my teeth. Next, roll out bivi, inflate Thermarest mat, off with shoes, on with merino buff and into the bag goes I. Supper time… 2 cooked chicken breast fillets and a cereal bar. (I find protein before sleep helps with my recovery)

I’d not found anywhere to buy more food or drink on this ride either so my rations were low. Due to the cold I hadn’t needed to drink that much and a service station tap had at least allowed me to top up the juice mix in my bottles ready for the morning. Running low on fluids is to be avoided at all costs.

I had stupidly gambled on being warm enough on my toasty warm Thermarest mat,  with just my cycling clothes and a down jacket to double as a sleeping bag. This has been fine before at +3 or 4c but with me being very cold already and with the freezing conditions it wasn’t so good at all and I literally shivered the night away, waking frequently and miserably, dreaming of being warmed by the first shafts of dawn sunshine.

No chance! The sun was way over on the other side of the mountains but still it was a warming thought and every little helps. On the next trip my down quilt is coming with me regardless of the added weight and packing squeeze!

I did not see a single cyclist on the road that night, I wonder why…

Day 2 – Sunday

I had a long warming climb to look forward to this Sunday morning and was expecting to soon be shedding layers but it was not to be. I was wearing, bib shorts, a short sleeve merino base layer, thermal leg warmers with merino knee warmers on top, a winter jersey, 2 pairs of socks, a TAW gilet, a Gore shake dry jacket , a primaloft quilted gilet and a full Rab down jacket over that plus a merino buff and cap. This entire lot stayed on for several hours without me overheating, hill climbs and all. I must have been properly chilled through from my cold night.

Still, this was a fabulous ride apart from the early cold and hunger due to the lack of open food shops on a Sunday in rural France.

The first col, Source de Vaumale of this ride is probably the longest climb I’ve ever ridden.  At 12km and with an average gradient of 5.9% and a maximum of 9% it’s hardly Irish or Cornwall style steep by any stretch but still the added distance helps make up for that. The views are glorious the whole way.

Having completed the climb it was time to ride on and find a sunny spot for my well earned breakfast of another couple of chicken breasts and cereal bars. The ride data for the previous night ride suggests that I’d burnt around 4000kcal, add on the energy burnt trying to stay warm over night plus the climb just completed and it is clear I was very well into an energy deficit even after breakfast. Good training!

I certainly felt short on power but not like I’d “bonked” or hit any kind of a fatigue wall. I just felt generally depleted but I was in good spirits nonetheless. It was a glorious day in the mountains with barely a soul on the roads, life was good.

I eventually arrived at a village with a very small open Tabac bar but with no food or snacks in sight I ordered 2 Cokes and a coffee. The Cokes that arrived were sugar free..! Part way through the first Coke I spotted some full sugar Orangina and swapped out one of the cokes. I had three cereal bars left so ate another of those and pressed on.

Maybe an hour later I arrived at another tiny bar full of French gents enjoying small lunchtime drinks. Full power Coke this time and another cereal bar. It helped.

Finally at just after 2pm and nearly seven hours into my ride I found an artisan bakery open in Draguignan and had a truly, truly, wonderful tuna and egg salad baguette accompanied by a large slice of pizza whilst sat in the now warm sunshine. Oh my this made a difference and it wasn’t too long before I felt my energy levels increase. Bouyed but my increased energy I considered trying to make it back to my start within 24hrs but concluded that enough was enough and I didn’t need any more self induced challenges.

An open Spar shop just 30km or so from my finish lured me in for a final junk food top up before the last hill climb. A large Coke and entire pack of fig rolls later and that was me sorted for the final push; the darkness and cold was closing in again.

All in all a great adventure and good mental and physical training. I learnt a lot about what not to do and burnt off some unneeded weight, at least half a kilo.

Final stats:
Total duration: 1 day 1 hour and 21 minutes –
Active duration: 15 hours and 49 minutes
Total distance : 312.5km – 194mi
Total ascent: 4353m – 14,281ft
Gear changes : 2076 – 1972 rear – 104 front

 

WGC Day 2 – The silly one

Day #2
Distance 160.1 Mi, Moving Time 15:03:55, Climbing 8,061 ft, Ave Temp 6c 43F

Day 2 dawned and I awoke happily warm and, remarkably, somewhat drier than when I’d wriggled into my little bivi cocoon 5 hours or so earlier.

My weather check the day before had suggested that sunshine and unfavourable northeasterly winds were to be the order of the day. Right now though it was bitterly cold and anything but sunny.

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