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
A Slice of Honeymoon Heaven Proves Just the Tonic
Santorini, stunningly beautiful, volcanic rock heaved from the bowels of centre earth, its inhabitants settling precariously on its cliffs, which form the rim of a massive dormant volcano - a beast responsible, in 1500 BC, for the second biggest eruption known to man; considerably bigger than Krakatoa's, and the ensuing massive, deadly Tsunami was the precursor to the eventual destruction of Europe's ancient Minoan civilisation on Crete, 110 kilometres to the south.
Oblivious to its devastating legacy, my wife, booked a two week Christmas break in Fira, the capital of Santorini. But on finding out that travelling to the island would involve at least three flights via central Europe and Athens, Greer promptly decided to cancel. However, this would mean losing all the money, so our fate was sealed - we were going to Santorini.
Perhaps we would have quite happily let the money go if we had known how treacherous the flight from Athens to the island was going to be. As we approached the short landing strip, the pilot was fighting to keep the plane steady. The sky was intensely dark, then set alight, as lightning continuously forked wildly from within the heart of the storm clouds. We had been circling the island, waiting for clearance to land for some time, the other passengers shifting awkwardly under seatbelts pulled far tighter than is usual. The captain eventually announced we would have to return to Athens to retrieve a bigger plane. However, back in Athens, we were then instructed to board the 'same' plane and fly back into the eye of the storm. For once, everyone paid close attention to the safety briefing. The pilot had been changed and he sounded much older, so I guessed he was far more experienced; this time we flew safely into Santorini airport. Rain and gale-force winds greeted our arrival on terra firma, but the feel of solid ground, be it on top of a sleeping volcano, was a welcome comfort.
Our expectations for the two weeks were not particularly high, a feeling further reinforced when we arrived at the hotel. The Minoans are known for being an advanced civilisation but the modern bunch have yet to develop a fully flushable toilet capable of handling toilet paper!
Over the following fourteen days, Santorini's attraction began to break forth from its core and we were buried under a blanket of beauty, to be forever etched in our memories. The following day the winds were still strong so initially we explored close to the hotel and the town of Fira. The white-washed houses, hotels and restaurants clung to the cliff edge; from a distance they looked like snow-capped mountains. Charming art and craft stores adorned the narrow streets and a cable car plunged down towards the old port below. The following day, the wind had relented, while the sun burnt through the clouds raising the winter temperatures to 17 degrees. A longer walk to the village of Pyrgos, revealed a viewpoint stretching across much of the island; and quaint narrow streets where local, stray cats roamed, appearing surprisingly healthy.
Christmas Day was one we will never forget. The plan was to hike from Fira to Oia, the islands most northerly point. Greer and I have walked all over the world, but nowhere as stunningly beautiful as this. The trail meanders along the cliff edge, steeply rising and falling, each twist and turn revealing fresh wonders. To our left, the deep blue water glistened as it caressed the small central islands of Nea Kameni and the older Palea Kameni; the centre of Santorini's volcano. As we progressed along the walk, the houses became larger, infinity pools apparently an obligatory element in their grandeur. The trail then became more rugged, revealing a more natural beauty. After negotiating some particularly steep and rocky track, we entered the remarkably picturesque town of Oia. Chinese couples wander along the narrow streets, waiting for the sun to set and romance to blossom. The popular Chinese movie 'Beijing Love Story' was filmed on the island, sparking an explosion of volcanic proportions in tourist numbers. We return to Fira and pass the outcrop of Skaros, where, in 1421, an inviolable castle once stood before almost completely collapsing into the deep waters below after several devastating earthquakes. (A few days later we trekked to a church, precariously perched on its precipitous slopes, Greer only managing to complete the trip after we had happened upon an old lady, probably in her early 90's, returning from the church carrying several bags, a trip her daughter told us she did on a weekly basis). Soon after, we reach the high cliffs of Firostefani and are fortunate enough to witness the sunset completely alone. This clearly does not disappoint - the sky above Nea Kameni turning yellow, orange then blood red - a perfect night cap to the most wonderful of days.
It was always going to be difficult to match that special day, but our trip to the volcanic centre came very close. We descended the 588 steps that led to the old port, passing the donkeys that are still used to take tourists to the cliff's base. An old wooden boat took our party to the volcano centre on Nea Kameni and then a steep walk culminated in witnessing various sections of rock smouldering, as if the dormant volcano was reminding us of its presence. Back on the boat, we docked at Palea Kameni and two hardy American couples dived into the deep, cool waters prompting me to quickly follow - so five of us swam across to the muddy, hot (well, actually lukewarm) springs. The water bubbled around us before we finally mustered the strength to swim through the cold waters that lay between the springs and the warmth of our boat.
Equally as fun, was our day spent exploring the parts of the island, too distant for our daily walks. For this we hired an ATV or 'All Terrain Vehicle' - basically a small buggy with a 200 cc engine. First stop was the 'Monastery Profitis Elias' perched on top of the islands only mountain. The views were stunning and gave a great impression of the islands overall size and scale. Next, we ascended the cliffs south of Kamari, visiting the remains of the ancient town of Thira belonging to Dorian colonists from Sparta. This gave us a great impression of how this advanced race of people had lived in the early 8th century BC. Later, we visited the ancient remains of the prehistoric city of Akrotiri. Life here came to an abrupt halt in the 17th century BC, when the Minoans abandoned the city following powerful earthquakes and the enormous volcanic eruption that followed. Like Pompeii, the volcanic material that covered the island preserved the sophisticated settlement, which nowadays testifies to the Minoans extremely high level of development. Visits to nearby Red Beach and then to Perissa's Black Beach, the Santo Winery and Oia again for the sunset, capped a wonderful day of exploring - mention must be made to the fun I had driving the ATV - for a small vehicle, it had ample power and speed, although Greer (who was my passenger) may not agree as she made constant reference to reducing our speed!
Greek hospitality on the island is exceptional and it is clear they value the tourists who contribute a great deal to the Santorini economy. There were plenty of food and drink choices, while sampling the local fare such as moussaka, souvlaki, fava, yoghurt and the local wines was always rewarding. We were frequently offered extra food and drink at no extra cost and were warmly treated by the locals. This hospitality extended to the local dogs, which appear to wander the island freely. On two separate occasions, while exploring the island around Monolithos, we were accompanied by one of these dogs for several kilometres before they eventually return, we assume, from where they came from. Several days later, and again on separate occasions, both these dogs came bounding up to us, tails wagging, a bounce in their step, clearly recognising us from before. It is this feeling of belonging that is similarly felt between the visitor and the island - one that will surely remain for a very long time to come.
I am a Level 3 Cycle Coach with British Cycling & the Association of British Cyclists.
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