Re: Winter 2013/14 - Page 37

At Avignon came the first mechanical and riding challenge for me. Bikes were reassembled, and most of us then rode the last 25 miles or so to Caromb whilst the minibus we had arranged to hire was driven by Russell and Ken to get the luggage to the house we had rented. Thanks to sage guidance from the other guys my bike held together for the first trip, which involved some stunning local countryside, and a well-earned refreshment stop at a local hostelry – it seemed impolite not to join in with the local culture. On our arrival we found a stunning house that Russell had organised with almost everyone having their own rooms in a vast, virtually medieval property (the front door was well over 200 years old apparently). More importantly the garage had more than enough room for 12 bikes plus a mechanics area. Coincidentally the town had put on a festival virtually outside our front door, so thoughts of bed before 1.00 a.m. were futile, still it was nice of them to lay something on for us and it was actually a very good show. We then got to work with training rides, getting the journey out of our legs and winding ourselves up physically and mentally. A 50 miles plus ride taking in several hundred metres of climbing, a stunning ride down the side of Les Gorges de la Nesque and finishing into a headwind gave us a real taste of what was to come. When the day arrived on 17th September the weather forecast did not look great, but this was the date we had chosen so we decided that we would go for it. Our back up vehicle arrived just after breakfast and Rev Dodd gave us a few tips, being familiar with the mountain (it was rumoured that he had allegedly been up a week or two before when his daughter had taken some photos of “Legs 11” written on the road in true Tour de France style), and we set off. The forecast was for cold weather so we were actually geared up with more clothes than any of us had expected, and Malcolm had more in our bags in his car so that we could put on more clothes for the descent as the cold when coming down at speed can be quite biting. too lightly, it doesn’t seem as bad as you feared, though it is still a noticeable climb. Our group of 12 split into smaller groups as we had anticipated, and which is in fact better from a safety perspective, as there is still traffic on the roads – something that became more of an issue later. The first 15 kilometres (you think in kilometres on the climb as of course the count-down markers are marked in them) take you up through trees. Passing each distance marker is a real positive spur as you know the end is coming nearer, albeit slowly. We all settled into a rate and a pace that suited ourselves, which is crucial – it is not something to do at someone else’s pace. This meant some gaps opened up between us, but we had expected this, and mentally were ready for it. Riding in groups is easier physically and mentally, but we were all ready to do it alone if needs be. Ultimately I settled in to a rythmn with two other guys, Colin and Gary, and we plodded on steadily. Once we had got past the tree-line though the weather changed almost as dramatically as the landscape. For the last 6 kilometres there are no trees, nor other vegetation. This has all long since been stripped, and the landscape is the classic “lunarscape” that you see in the pictures featuring the mountain. All you can see are rocks, a steep road and some incredible views across the countryside (whilst sensibly ignoring the steep drops from the side of the road in the near foreground). As well as this stunning view you also experience the weather. We knew it was called the “windy mountain” but know we really found out why. The wind speeds we experienced were by no means the record for the mountain but they were beyond anything we had experienced trying to cycle in. Colin and I had both led hill-walking expeditions in various parts of the UK and had not come across anything quite like this. Ultimately the wind became impossible to cycle against. Between us we had to stop several times to avoid being blown into vehicles that were still driving past us on the narrow road, and a couple of times guys were either literally stopped in their tracks so that they could not go forward, or actually blown over. Although our speedier group had already made it to the top without a stop, for some of us the conditions continued to worsen and shortly after we had passed the Tommy Simpson memorial (which honours a former British World Cycling Champion who had died on this mountain during the Tour de France) and with less than 500m to go the only way those of us still on the road could get to the top was to push the bikes. So, we made it to the top – job done – and we knew that we could have finished it on the bikes given a less unfair wind, but safety and physical possibility intervened. There was a real feeling of satisfaction and achievement as we gathered round bowls of onion soup in the cafe. Although there was a nagging feeling about the last 500 metres, we only had to think of the fact that as we pushed the bikes off the summit to the cafe they were almost blown out of our grasp and were lifted up like kites to realise we had conquered the “Beast of Provence” despite what it had thrown at us. We did have another disappointment though which was that at a temperature of -2 degrees, and in a heavy mist, we had not really hung around for a good set of photos at the summit. Therefore once were back in the luxury of our accommodation a revised plan The ride to the town of Bedoin at the bottom of the climb we had chosen (the “classic” Tour route was about 6 miles) which was a good warm up, even with a “before” photo-stop which provided amusement for a busload of French schoolchildren on their way to school. Then we were off for real. The guides warn that the start should not be taken 35