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.
Can Picafort - Cap de Formentor - Arta -Ermita de Betlam - Can Picafort
"So you are finally going on holiday. About time. Where too?" "Oh, my wife's booked six days in Majorca." A short pause ensued...then mouths snapped open, a crackle of noise and a crash rather than a pop as words were coupled with torrents of enthusiastic tales of past endeavours. I was drowning in an ocean of advice and nostalgia quite breathless from this sudden wave of memories. Unbeknown to me, Majorca was a cycling paradise. But was this for real and how could I possibly convince my lovely wife, Greer, that a day on the bike was a necessary requisite of our first real vacation together since returning from a distant continent half way around the world.
A few days before our departure, I began the first few days of a softening up process that would allow me some time to explore the island on two wheels. "Majorcas quite mountainous in the north. I'm sure there are some roads to the higher peaks. Perhaps we could drive up there. It's quite steep and precipitous though. I hear that it's good for cycling. Shall we hire a tandem. Those descents into dark tunnels might be a bit hairy." Greer considered this and announced that I should explore the island on a bike, alone, for a day.
I had my bike pass. Now to see if Majorca was all it was cracked up to be. I hired a Merckx road bike and left my base in Can Picafort after a rider's breakfast. I headed north to the mountains that led to the Formentor lighthouse. The initial roads were flat and fast. The locals were terribly polite and even when I was safely ensconced in the cycle lane they would move out giving me far more than a metre of passing room. Spaniards respect cyclists. Perhaps this is due to the tourism that is the life blood of this particular island. Perhaps they are just more easy going and respectful than car drivers from the more populated cities I hail from.
I started the climb into the mountains and even though the road snaked up through a number of switchbacks the gradient was fairly gentle never really going above ten percent. I passed people representing the full gamut of generations and several representatives of Spain, Germany and the UK. I was passed at the first high point, seven kilometres from the lighthouse, by a lone rider and watched as he quickly disappeared on a fast descent round several hairpin bends as we were both swallowed whole by the surrounding cliffs, only to re-emerge briefly before being sucked into an long, unlit tunnel and spewed out safely at the other end. The roads here were exhilarating - more suited to a bike than a car which tended to lumber around the cliffs bends. Shortly after, I was to arrive at the majestic Cap de Formentor, with its working lighthouse located on the high cliffs 210 metres above sea level.
The return trip was just as spectacular and a bonus was a visit to the tower at the Mirador del Colomer viewing point, reputedly one of the most photographed places in Majorca, which provided stunning views over cliffs and nearby port of Pollenca.
After returning to my starting point at Can Picafort 80 km later and taking on more water, I set out on phase two of my journey. The roads to Arta, to the south, were as bike friendly as before, their surfaces are smooth and have seemingly been designed with bike riders in mind. Even at the end of October, the climate was warm and provided perfect conditions. I rolled to the top of a long but gentle climb and, as I rounded the corner, the kingdom of Arta swept into view like it had been ushered off the end of a mighty paintbrush. It was quite stunning.
The meandering road to the hilltop monastery of Ermita de Betlam was also a rare treat. Bells sang as goats wandered carefree in the surrounding fields and birds issued forth their indefatigable poetry. I was a million miles from the reality of a world I had left behind if only for one day. I climbed, descended and, after a short sojourn at the church, I made my return to the real world, a journey totalling over 150 km and nearly 2000 m of climbing.
Majorca is an incredible place to cycle. I tasted just a sample of its vast offerings but I will back for more in just six weeks. Amongst the rides to experience is a 137 km ride that encompasses the whole mountain range from Andratx, in the west, to Can Picafort, to the east. If you need to hire a bike then I would strongly recommend Wheels whose staff were incredibly accommodating and helpful. Based in both Can Picafort and Alcudia, Manager Sebastian promises to deliver a bike anywhere in Majorca 365 days a year at an extremely reasonable price.
See you at Christmas Majorca. I'll be back.
Upping the Training
It's not uncommon for a person to avoid activities they are weak at and focus purely on their strengths. As a bike rider, I believe I have fairly decent endurance but I'm not a particularly good hill climber. So when Pete Selkrig invited me to train at Barrington Tops over the June Long Weekend, it was an offer I couldn't refuse.
As we were driving up to Barrington Tops, the heaven's opened and rain pelted the car. It was looking like it would be a wet, cold and tiring three days.
The plan was to set up at the camp site and meet up with Jason English and Jamie Vogele for the initial climb up the mountain.
Now Pete is a strong rider and, with a few weeks of hill training under his belt, he would be hard to stay with. But then there was Jason English, five time World 24 hour Champion...and some guy who just happened to train with the aforementioned enduro champion. The initial part of the climb was fairly painless but the problem was it never levelled out but just kept going up. I dropped off the back and soon the others were out of sight leaving me to fight the discomfort alone. The total vertical climb was 969 metres which was by far the biggest hill I had ever attempted.
We traversed the top of the mountain and suffered crossing a barely rideable trail known as the 'Link Track'. It was supposed to be used by four-wheel drives but driving this trail was a myth lost in the midst of time. The rain continued to fall and the temperature fell to 5 degrees. We clambered over and under fallen trees and down slippery descents until we eventually found a series of trails that headed across the escarpment in a multitude of directions. Jason and Jamie left and descended the mountain to continue their marathon training ride elsewhere leaving Pete and I alone in the rain. As we rode away a large stick jammed into Pete's rear derailleur and bent his hangar. Poor chain guidance would plague his next two days.
As we explored the top of the mountain we came across Careys Hut, which we believed 'The Big Hurt' boys would use to stay that night as they passed through the area. It was no more than a bus shelter and provided little protection from the elements particularly as the sign outside said it had been built facing the fierce wind coming off the cliff opposite.
The Link Track was our route out and we suffered it's indignity on our return back to the caravan site.
The second day was mainly hill training and we climbed the mountain several times; interestingly, my times improved as I settled into the task of climbing and started to build a comfortable rhythm. We did explore a few tracks off the side of the mountain and our curiosity was rewarded with insanely steep climbs to return to the main fire road.
We started to descend but mud flew up off the fire trail, making it almost impossible to see ahead. This continued for what seemed like an age but eventually we reached lower ground. It was warmer now and quite dry and it was almost like we had been transported to a different climate altogether. Jason turned off to continue to Gloucester and Pete and I cycled across the rolling hills past hungry cows and temperamental bulls and several water crossings until we reached the solace of the caravan park barely before the sun had set.
We were tired and dirty but happy. It had been a great weekend and one we would love to repeat in the near future.
An unusual training ride
After the late cancellation of the STM Series race at Coondoo Road, Nowra, I was given the option to join an exploration ride for a future 'Big Hurt' mountain bike race. Basically, this is a race that covers 750 km of predominantly singletrail of which vast tracks are barely rideable. Allegedly, elite competitors are able to complete the route in around 54 hours with little or no sleep. The 'victim' is required to navigate using GPS and the ride is totally self-supported. This,therefore, means carrying everything and anything on the bike from tools, spare spokes, tent, clothes, food and drink and, much to our uninitiated amusement - needles - for sewing up torn tyres. All this extra equipment means a hell of a lot of extra weight.
Ross Cairns, the organizer of the race, had advertised for suitable nutters to come on a ride from Bulahdelah to Taree and he had 3 volunteers. Peter Selkrig and myself, both battle hardened from 24 hour racing and a young cross country mountain biker, Landon from the Gateshead Cycling Club. It was clear from the outset that Ross was prepared for every eventuality. He was carrying a hefty backpack and had an ingenious storage bag set between the triangle of his suspension-less frame; somewhere within all this equipment lay his needles and thread. In contrast, Pete and I were on 29er Anthem X Advanced 0 Racing Machines and we were carrying a camelbak and feeling unusually weighty compared to how we would be with our usual streamline racing gear.
And this is where I realised how 'The Big Hurt' really starts to live up to its name. There is no denying that riding 24 hour mountain bike races is tough. But every 10-20 km we come into a transition zone and can take on more food and water. We have teams of mechanics and helpers who provide assistance whenever it is required. A problem with a wheel means a replacement or we simply swap to a second bike. In the night, lights are exchanged, batteries recharged, hot food and coffee is only a request away. Not so when you ride 'The Big Hurt'. Nobody assists you, you cannot simply replace, you have to fix any problem all by yourself. A split tyre is not a inconvenience but a potentially hazardous situation which could leave the rider stranded in remote, isolated bushland. Indeed, it's not trite to say the needle and thread could save your life!
The 130 km trip took in a mixture of fireroad, singletrack and bitumen through varied terrain and, despite all the previous rain, the ground was mostly dry and the sun smiled from a clear blue sky. Most of the trails were rideable but at times we needed to walk through thick bush and once we were required to traverse a river that bit into my soft bare feet from the hidden depths below, making this quite the ordeal. My sophisticated nutrition consisted of 2 bacon and egg McMuffins and a third greasy cafe version which were all consumed before the start at Bulahdelah. As if this wasn't enough 'pig', I then happily shared a bacon and egg pizza with Pete while waiting 20 minutes for a ferry.
With light fading, we decided to take the last 30 km along the Pacific Highway, which is where Ross finally decided enough was enough and he happily withdrew to a cafe to wait for the 'sag' wagon on its return to Bulahdelah. The three of us pushed on and worked together as a group to rapidly finish the final part of our adventure.
Just before we bid farewell to one another, Ross passed me his backpack and my knees buckled under its weight. What's more, Pete went to put his bike on the roof rack and, he too, felt the extreme mass of the bike Ross had been riding. Ross and his fellow 'Hurt' competitors certainly deserve a great deal of respect for participating in this crazy race; one which I'm sure is a life-changing experience - even if ultimately that is just learning how to backstitch and embroider.
For further information on 'The Big Hurt' and for a stimulating read check out Ross's blog: www.theunknownrider.com
7 hour Enduro Series
12 hour Enduros
6+6 hour Enduros