Back in May, I wrote how Mont Ventoux, "which rises out of lavender fields to finish in a barren moonscape of sunbaked limestone, is synonymous with sweat and broken men". I could not know then just how accurate this assessment would be. The final 22 kilometres (14 miles) of last month's L'Etape du Tour was a scene of serious suffering.
The 92 miles from Montelimar to Ventoux's base at Bédoin in southern France had been a joy as 8,500 amateur riders snaked over five craggy mounts and thrilling descents. But an air of nervous anticipation hung over the closed roads and stone villages of Provence as we hunted for slipstreams, took in breathtaking views and, crucially, calculated energy reserves. Those who got it wrong found themselves walking soon after Bédoin. And then it got messy.
The forest that blankets the lower slopes of the Ventoux seemed to suck oxygen out of the air, leaving behind a funereal quiet broken only by the whirr of chains, the rumble of rubber and the gasps of exhausted riders. Where they weren't walking they were standing, slumped over their handlebars in the heat. I spotted one man ramming his fingers down his throat so he could be sick.
I had managed to keep enough in the tank to reach Chalet Reynard without stopping. With four miles to go, I knew I'd make it. The gradient eased and the trees gave way to bare rock. I could see how far I had climbed as France fell away almost 2,000 metres below me. Spurred on by the sight, I upped the pace.
One man lay defeated just beyond the memorial to Tom Simpson, the British rider who died where he fell just two kilometres from the summit during the 1967 Tour de France. Shoes still clipped into his pedals and helmet resting on the asphalt, looking as if it might melt, the man did not move as bystanders came to his aid.
Finally, I crossed the finish line after eight hours and eight minutes in the saddle (five days later the pros would do it in a superhuman four hours and 40 minutes). For the next half an hour I sat on a rock watching riders finish. Pained expressions faded and pulse rates left the danger zone, to be replaced by smiles, tears and shakes of the head. Bloody hell – we'd done it!
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