The view from my Backroads 'Leader Training' accommodation in Provence is one, not just cyclists, but everyone will appreciate. Mt Ventoux casts its mighty shadow over the whole region, a mountain that stands alone, although geographically part of the Alps, at 1900 metres. Even its name 'Mt Ventoux' fuels the iconic status; 'Ventoux' meaning 'windy' in French, while the 'mistral' blows winds as high as 320 km/h at the summit. The limestone at this peak accommodates no trees or vegetation of any kind, creating a moonscape that can be seen for miles around.
It should come as no surprise that cyclists flock in droves to this mystical mountain. The world's most watched annual sport, the Tour De France, has crossed Ventoux six times and has been used as a summit finish on ten occasions. The most famous of the three climbs, from the small township of Bedoin, takes pros over an hour and top amateurs 1.5 - 2 hours to ascend.
Scene of so many Tour dramas, Ventoux is carved into so many people's minds. In 1967, British cyclist, Tom Simpson, approached the summit weaving wildly across the road before crashing to the tarmac. Delirious, he asked spectators to put him back on his bike but just half a mile from the finish he collapsed and died still clipped into his pedals. Claimed by heat exhaustion from a combination of dehydration, amphetamines and alcohol, Tom Simpson was just 29 years old.. A memorial can be found near the summit.
In 2016, due to high winds at the summit the day before the race, organisers shortened the climb by 6 km. Yet, even with the finish line further down the mountain, mayhem was to ensue. At the finale, a motorcycle induced a crash involving Bauke Mollema, Richie Porte and the Yellow Jersey Race Leader and current Champion Chris Froome. While Mollima and Porte were able to remount, Froome's bike was broken and he was forced to jog 100 metres up the mountain before grabbing a neutral service bike. However, being so gangly and tall, the bike didn't fit him and so the scene was set for the best rider of his era to cross the Ventoux finish line looking like an oversized clown.
Such stories seem to emanate from the bald mountain and I felt compelled to ride Ventoux's fabled slopes. I was keen to make three ascents from Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault and to become a member of the Cingles Club. I started from Bedoin, the most famous ascent of 21.5 km and 1610 metres at an average of 7.5%. The first 6 km are a good warm up and open but once in the forest the next 10 km are around 9-10% and very hard, yet very beautiful. The trees start to break and there is a transition to the famous lunar landscape where winds can really start to take a toll. I passed Chalet Reynard and enjoyed the last 6 km, stopping for photos and to pay my respects to Tom Simpson.
I was informed by others that the Malaucene road was covered in ice and too dangerous and so I decided to descend the 26 km to Sault. It had been cold at the summit but for the end of March it was surprisingly mild. In fact, the road to the summit is officially closed until mid May and it is necessary to duck under a barrier close to the top. When I started the climb from Sault, I was soon sweating under the sun. But this climb starts higher on a ridge and involves just 1220 metres of climbing at an average of 5%. My legs were more fatigued than I bargained for and I was now quite content with just finishing the two climbs. Once past Chalet Reynard, the Sault route joins the Bedoin ascent. Unlike the first climb, when the final 6 km seemed a bit of a relief, this time the road up had become steeper and I was far more aware of the gradient. I reached the summit the second time happy but relieved, and looking forward to a breath-taking descent.
Mt Ventoux is everything I hoped it would be and being so close to my Backroads work base, a mountain I am sure to return to several times. Maulacene, a fourth ascent by mountain bike and a tandem attempt with my wife still await. I would recommend this climb to everyone - If the Bedoin ascent is too daunting then Sault is far more manageable. Days after, snow fell on Ventoux and its beauty and majesty was etched into my memory as I bid Ventoux and the stunning countryside of Provence a bientot.
Lands End to Accident & Emergency
The Riders & the Support Team
Six riders were to complete the whole of the long, arduous journey of 861 miles (1400 km) journey from Lands End to John O'Groats, several with little or virtually no cycling experience at all. The Irish tandem of ex-Lion Rob 'Hendo' Henderson and David 'Patsy' Clein and the English machine of Peter 'Wints' Winterbottom and Paul 'The Big Bash' Bashir ground their way the full length of the British mainland. The Scots mainstay of Michael 'Goldie' was accompanied by Chris Gore, Rus Kesley, Craig 'Chick' Chalmers, Declan Goldie and myself, Phil '5 bellies' Welch, and the Welsh started with Rhodrie Mcatee and '5 bellies', were assisted by Declan Goldie and later piloted by Alan 'Walshy' Walsh. The Scots were to claim the most stage victories but considering the fact that it took 6 riders to do it (4 more than the permitted 2) and the Welsh tandem, which mopped up the most King of the Mountain points, was barely Welsh other than in name (and was off the road on stage 5), then overall victory should surely go to the Irish and English tandems. Never was there a more modern tale of the tortoise overcoming the hare, the Irish and English grinding slowly and purposefully to ultimate victory. Moreover, none of us would have made it at all without the tireless work of Ant and Dec who ensured we navigated the right roads, supplied us with regular nourishment and regularly fixed the broken spokes of the 250kg Irish tandem.
Blessed by the Gods of Rugby, the 10 day journey from Lands End to John O'Groats could not have been completed in much better weather. Leaving Cornwall on the 15th September, with an average temperature of 15 degrees, the peloton of four tandems missed the storm that would sweep across the south of England the following day. Admittedly, at the Severn Bridge, the high winds forced us into a one mile trudge into Wales. Beautiful scenery then rolled by until we travelled through the invidious towns of Warrington, Wigan and finally Preston. The wind was now blowing hard and further north the M6 motorway was closed and the trains to Lockerbie, Scotland had stopped running, leaving Wednesday night commuters stranded in the north west. A day earlier and our stage from Preston to Carlisle would have been aborted. The next day we rolled through the beautiful Lake District Hills where we got our first real soaking in the final 50 km of the day. However, the sun was to embrace us as we rolled across the border into Scotland, onward to Edinburgh, traversing the idyllic Cairngorm hills, past the ski runs of Aviemore and into Inverness. Crossing the Forth Bridge, the cool but amicable weather continued as we finally made our way to our final destination of John O'Groats.
Without doubt, this is one experience that will be forever etched on the memory. Nevertheless, meeting the guys in a 1st class carriage on a train from Paddington to Penzance was a slightly disconcerting experience. After all, some of these guys were my heroes in the 80's. I was handed a mojito from a bag containing a mountain of alcoholic beverages as the others drank copious amounts of beer and other cocktails. These were players from an era before rugby became professional after the 1995 World Cup and rugby and drinking were inexplicably linked. Later, in a pub in Penzance, I was introduced to the three basic drinking game rules and I was soon downing my first pint. Frivolities continued into the small hours of the morning but I was able to slip away at around midnight. I feared it would not be the cycling but the drinking that would be my downfall.
Fortunately, the drinking abated once the cycling began, but returned with vengeance on the final day. Some of the boys had really suffered throughout the trip. My original partner, Rhodri finally succumbed on Day 5 to the injured shoulder he had damaged playing rugby the day before we started. Others such as Hendo, Patsy, Bash, Goldie and, I suspect Wints, although this guy is a rock and never ever complains, had severe aching posteriors, so much so that Hendo would often burst into the words of Johnny Cash 'cycling is a burning thing, and it makes a fiery ring'.
With the cycling finished, we returned to the bus and the beer and whisky flowed freely, as DJ Bash pumped out the music from the 70's. We stopped at another whisky distillery and ample amounts of aged whisky was drunk. The bus was pumping and I was reminded of my days travelling to and from rugby games across the north of England with East Leeds Rugby League (RL) and the whole of the country with Loughborough University RL. We picked up an Australian hitch-hiker and, despite their initial reservations, they joined the drunken party. Walshy was dancing Gangnam Style on the road when the bus stopped at the lights and Hendo was in particularly good voice. At the hotel, Hendo presided over court proceedings and drinking fines were dished out. The American tourists in the bar joined in with the fun and we all stood for a powerful rendition of the star-spangled banner. I arm wrestled big Walshy and lost, he arm-wrestled Bash and lost and then repeated the defeat on the other arm, the hotel cut our access to more drink, Walshy later jumped down a flight of stairs aiming to rugby tackle Dec but missed, putting out his back in the process. I was comatosed by 6pm, later to wake up to the predictable smell of vomit!
Overall, this was an experience that I would never have missed. While I didn't suffer from aching legs and the discomfort of saddle sores from the long days in the saddle, I did have to take pain killers for the first 5 days for an infected root canal from where I lost my tooth a few weeks previously, eventually seeing an emergency dentist in Carlisle for antibiotics; I also tore my bicep off my shoulder from the arm-wrestling, resulting in a trip to A & E when I returned to London, and forcing me to carefully nurse my arm for at least 6 weeks. Regardless, cycling the length of the British Isles on tandems with a fantastic bunch of guys was an absolute pleasure both on and off the bike. Despite their heady status as top rugby players, they are a great bunch of intelligent, fun-loving guys with massive hearts, doing their utmost to help their good friend Doddie Weir, raise money for MND. Please feel free to help me raise money for this wonderful cause, to assist those suffering with this terrible disease and hopefully to find a potential cure.
Land's End to John O'Groats: 10 days, 1386 km, 13,209 m
The Doddie’5 Ride LeJog* was conceived by Rob Henderson, ex Irish and British and Irish Lion, in the early hours of the morning in a pub in London. It seemed like a good idea at the time as an event to support Doddie Weir in his fight against Motor Neurone Disease but with the 10 day, 900 mile cycle looming ever closer Hendo wishes that he hadn’t been quite so ambitious. The challenge will be attempted by 4 tandems each representing the four home union rugby teams. Hendo leading the Irish challenge, Craig Chalmers the Scottish, Peter Rogers the Welsh and Peter Winterbottom the English. It is not a race but I’m sure there will be plenty of competition over the 10 days, especially in the bar area trying to keep up with Hendo.
*The LEJOG cycle ride is the grand daddy of all cycling challenges in the UK, starting at Land's End in Cornwall (the extreme southwest point in mainland Britain) and ending at John o'Groats in northern Scotland - very close to the most northerly point of mainland Britain.
My Name'5 Doddie Foundation
Motor neurone disease (MND) is a rare condition that progressively damages the brain and nervous system. It's caused by a problem with cells in the brain and nerves called motor neurones, which gradually stop working over time. This leads to muscle weakness, often with visible wasting. It's always fatal and can significantly shorten life expectancy, but some people live with it for many years. There’s no cure, but there are treatments to help reduce the impact it has on your daily life. It mainly affects people in their 60s and 70s, but it can affect adults of all ages.
George "Doddie" Weir, one of rugby’s most recognisable personalities, is a Scottish former rugby union player who played as a lock, making 61 international appearances for the Scotland national team. An excellent lineout specialist he was selected as part of the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa in 1997. Weir was famously described by legendary commentator Bill McLaren as being "On the charge like a mad giraffe".
In June 2017, the Scot revealed he was suffering from Motor Neurone Disease. From the outset, Doddie has been driven to help fellow sufferers and seek ways to further research into this, as yet, incurable disease. In November 2017, Doddie and his Trustees launched the registered charity My Name’5 Doddie Foundation:
With your support, you will help Doddie and the Trustees make a difference to the lives of those coping and battling with Motor Neurone Disease.
Craig now lives in Esher which must mean he is a stockbroker so will have ridden the Surrey Hills andtamed Box Hill in training for this Doddie’5 Ride LeJog event. Craig has 166 points for Scotland but is perhaps most famous for his 3 penalties against England in Scotland’s 1990 Grand Slam success. We expect Craig in his lycra kilt, to be leading from the front of his peloton and to be refuelling on McEwan’s super strength lager whilst munching on a deep fried Mars Bar at the designated feed stations. That’s enough stereotypes hit there me thinks.
Sunday 16th Sep: First Day – Land’s End to Okehampton (103.95 miles, elevation: 6785ft)
Monday 17th Sep: Okehampton to Bristol (107.90 miles, elevation: 4643ft)
Tuesday 18th Sep: Bristol to Shrewsbury (101.50 miles, elevation: 6722ft)
Wednesday 19th Sep: Shrewsbury to Preston (88.30 miles, elevation: 3219ft)
Thursday 20th Sep: Preston to Carlisle (93.14 miles, elevation: 4305ft)
Friday 21st Sep: Carlisle to Edinburgh (89.60 miles, elevation: 4000ft)
Saturday 22nd Sep: Edinburgh to Blair Atholl (78.49 miles, elevation: 3586ft)
Sunday 23rd Sep: Blair Atholl to Inverness (79.94 miles, elevation: 3487ft)
Monday 24th Sep: Inverness to Lybster (88.50 miles, elevation: 5475ft)
Tuesday 25th Sep: Final Day – Lybster to John o’Groats (30.02 miles, elevation: 1117ft)
Come and join the Peloton for a day and give your support to the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation.
Pledge £150 to the charity and spend the day in the Peloton.
Just email Wints@rideofthelegends.co.uk for further details.
Please kindly donate to the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, raising funds to aid research into Motor Neurone Disease
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I have an honours degree in PE & Sports Science & a Postgraduate Teaching degree from Loughborough University.
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