The most painful holiday ever? Conquering Mont Ventoux

Tackling Ventoux In Search Of Tom Simpson...

Tom "Tommy" Simpson was a British road cyclist, still regarded as one the most successful British cyclists of all-time. In 1962 he became the first British rider to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, wearing the maillot jaune on stage 13. In 1965 he became Britain's first world road race champion and BBC Sport Personality of the year – nearly 50 years before Sir Brad. In 1967 he died, aged just 29 years. He died on stage 13 of the race, on the ascent of Beast of Provence – Mt Ventoux. A measure of the man was that his final words are said to be “Put me back on my bike”.

So when a group of MAMILS (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) gathered in a Balham pub with a Michelin map of France to decide on a route for an Easter cycling recce, the mystical word Ventoux came up time and again. “There’s no way we can get up there”, “Tommy died on that hill”, “The road is snowed over, we’ll never get over the pass”, “They call it the Beast of Provence”.  The phrase ‘A red rag to a bull’ springs to mind.

The road up Ventoux in sunnier conditions! The road up Ventoux in sunnier conditions!

Andy Ross, Exodus’ Cycling guru and etape du tour veteran made it clear that to successfully cycle Mont Ventoux, the occasional commute across Clapham Common was not going to cut the mustard and get us up a mountain that is considered so tough it is Hors catégorie – beyond categorisation. Back in the day, legend has it that Tour de France climbs were categorised in a typically French fashion – by driving a Citreon 2CV up them. A Cat 1 (toughest) required the car's first gear and Cat 4 (easiest) can be done in fourth gear. You get the idea. Presumably, the 2 CV conked out on Ventoux. We were also going to conk out if we didn’t put some miles in our legs before we headed out.

Team Exodus all have bikes to commute to work and head out on Sunday morning rides, but most of us hadn’t tackled anything like this before. We scheduled in some longer weekend rides in the Surrey Hills, culminating in the Spring Onion, one of the first cycle sportive events of the season - a 105km jaunt around a hilly Surrey road route. However, the team of four soon became three after a ‘mechanical issue' at Clapham Junction. Long Story. Three later became two after one team member had 'kit issues' at the half-way point and had to be swept up by the broom wagon. On a positive note, two of the team came in at a reasonably respectable 5 hrs. 12 minutes – powered by a heady cocktail of energy bars, gels, Lucozade and cake.

Lessons were learnt at The Spring Onion event. Kit was bought. We got more miles in our legs. Local weather reports, however, confirmed that the winter sports season was still in full swing and on Mt Ventoux the only people making ascents of the mountain were descending on two skies rather than two wheels. Essential items packed in the kitbag were therefore Lycra tights (obviously), winter gloves, merino wool caps, overshoes and windproof jackets. One of our number had a windproof jacket in lime green, bought in the 1990s and was suitably ridiculed throughout the trip. Now sold on eBay!

Sunshine and snow on Ventoux Sunshine and snow on Ventoux

What we weren't prepared for was sunshine. From the moment our Easyjet plane touched down at Marseille Provence Airport we were basked in bright spring sunshine of the South of France. The mountain air was still fresh but the sky blue. After a couple of days of training rides from the village of Sault, the cycling mecca at the foot of Mt Ventoux, we were ready to tackle The Beast. Then after all of the hype and winter training we were pleasantly surprised by our progress. What helped psychologically was that we heard the final section of road to the summit was closed. There is no way were would get to the top as from the famous Le Chalet Reynard the road was snowed in, we would stop for lunch and a coffee and head back down.

“I have some good news and bad news” was what I heard on arrival at Le Reynard. “The good news is that the snow has cleared, the bad news is that we now have another half-hour riding to get to the top”. Of course this is what we were there for, the red rag and all that. It also meant the Tommy Simpson Memorial was in our sights, as was the famous Mt Ventoux Radio Tower. The final few turns of the wheel brought a mixture of relief, euphoria and then a sudden urge to lie down on the finish line. The very line that was crossed by Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador in 2009 and will also be crossed by Chris Froome and Team Sky in Le Tour this year.

The Ventoux team The Ventoux team

The route we took on Ventoux from Bedoin was just over 21km, with 1614m of ascent with average climb of 7.5%. Yes it is a hard work but if a team of MAMILs from Balham can make it then anyone can! Sadly, Tommy Simpson didn't make it in 1967, but he is still a hero in France (much more so than over on this side of the Channel) and his memorial perched precariously on the side of this Provençal hillside reminds you that both Tommy and Ventoux are giants of the Tour de France history.

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Inspired? Take on Mount Ventoux yourself. You can tackle this beast in a weekend like our cycling squad, or take a week-long Self-Guided escape in France, with Ventoux as an option climb.

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