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By Derek Flory (Issue 367, September 2009)
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Before July 2009 the only things I knew about Montelimar in the South of France was that it was famous for the manufacture of white nougat and that it had featured on the Beatles "White Album" released in 1968 in the song "Savoy Truffle". That limited knowledge was soon to change as we prepared to make the long drive south for a sporting event of enormous magnitude.

On the 17th of July we set off for Montelimar with one car full of people and our car full of bicycles, a carbon framed top of the range Colnago and a beautiful Cervelo, with spare parts and equipment we were on our way to the L´Etape Du Tour.

L´Etape is essentially the toughest stage of the Tour De France opened up to riders from all over the World. This year the stage, Montelimar to Mont Ventoux, a distance of 170 kms, was to be held on the 20th July with the tour proper tackling it on the 25th.

We arrived in Montelimar on the afternoon of the 19th and signed forms, collected bibs and transponders and mingled with the vast numbers of competitors and supporters. Two of our number were competing, Peter Ward, my daughter Rebecca´s partner and his friend Keith. Keith caused something of a stir among the officials and he proved to be a popular entrant, the reason, his surname is Armstrong!

At 06.00 on the 20th we were in the centre of Montelimar and were amazed to see the entire area taken over by cyclists. Over 9,000 entrants from more than 50 countries were competing including our own Dr Roddy Pattison from Kinross. The only person we recognised was James Cracknell who stood head and shoulders above all the other.

At 07.00 the first group were released with the other groups setting off at short intervals until by just before 08.00 the town centre was totally deserted.

The roll out from the start in Montelimar was the beginning of a wonderful day - the number of people lining the streets was overwhelming and this continued until out of the town. The first roundabout of the day brought a huge smile to my face as the joy of closed roads became apparent and the pack of riders split left and right to either side before reforming on the other side in perfect unison - this is a small element of the real Tour de France and one that always looks fantastic when it is shown on TV, to do it for the first time felt truly satisfying.

The ride out to the first climb was a nervous one -with one group of riders flying past on the left, working together to keep a steady pace, and on the right were riders happy to take it easy, conserve energy and enjoy the day. I initially flirted between the two groups, sometimes following riders who were intent in going as fast as possible and taking a turn on the front to set the pace, and at times dropping off when I noticed my heart rate monitor showing an alarming increase in effort, and the realisation that there were still 104 miles to go! The first climb was fairly simple, the Cote de Citelle at an altitude of 428 metres was a gentle warm up in the company of thousands of fellow competitors. At the top of the col the view was breathtaking with sunflower and lavender fields and row upon row of neatly planted vines stretching as far as the eye could see, then it was time to concentrate as we descended. We had to halt briefly as paramedics helped the riders who had been injured in a crash and one appeared to be quite badly hurt and was twitching on the ground, this was a sobering moment which helped focus my mind on staying out of trouble and making the finish. These accidents and incidents were to become a regular occurrence on many of the descents.

The next major ascent was the Col D´Ey at 718 m and I checked my heart rate, no problems and as before I was thoroughly enjoying the steady nature of the climbs and overtaking a number of riders as I cantered up. For all of the benefits of my climbing, the cautious approach I adopted on descents after seeing what could easily happen, led to many of these riders overtaking me on the way down the other side. It was on this twisty descent that I saw another quirk of the Tour de France - a rider in front of me misjudged the corner, clipped the low stone wall at the side of the road and disappeared over the edge of what was a pretty steep drop. I heard the ambulance sirens and made a note to myself to stay on the tarmac at all costs. About 80km into the ride we had our first stop at Buis Les Baronnies and it was like a battlefield as everyone rushed to the tables. The nature of the stop, the scrambling for water, the desperate lunge for bananas -meant it wasn´t really much of a rest stop at all, but I was still feeling good and probably wouldn´t have stopped if it weren´t to take on more water. It was hot, very hot, someone said it was close to 40C and the water running off my head tasted very salty, it was my salt!

At 635m the Col de Fontaube was the next obstacle. At the top of the col it was possible to see Mont Ventoux in the distance and it looked awesome - it was quite a stirring sight and to see it jutting out between the tree line in the road before me was a wonderful feeling. Wonderful in that here was the "Giant of Provence" in all its glory and the sheer scale of it took my breath away. Having no real experience of alpine climbing, this just looked epic. The next major test was the Col de Notre Dames Des Abeilles at 996m. This is where my legs wavered for the first time. The climbs before had been steady gradients and not huge distances (around 4-5km long). This climb was around 7.9km long and had a higher average gradient than the others. Immediately it just seemed to be steeper than those covered so far and it ramped up from the start. I settled into a rhythm and began passing riders again. As I reached what I thought was the summit approaching, I gave a little dig to get over and descend with some space and freedom from the riders behind, but the descent was short lived and the road rose up again - I consoled myself with this being the last piece of ascending before Ventoux and I would have a 25km descent on the other side to rest my legs. Over I went and the penultimate climb was completed - I knew now I would make the foot of Ventoux. I told myself that if I made it to Ventoux, there was nothing that would stop me getting up that mountain. How naive that attitude was in hindsight! I checked my total climbing to this point and it read 1800m - taking all climbs of the day thus far, the total climbing was less than one ascent of Ventoux!

The descent to Bedoin was on smooth roads and this time I threw caution to the winds and loved every minute of it. I stopped at Bedoin to take on more water and telephoned Rebecca to tell her where I was. She was waiting on Mont Ventoux with the rest of the family and I said I would see her soon. The climb started off gently through the vineyards and villages with a gradient of about 4-6% and I was feeling good at this point. I was settled into a rhythm and taking it easy, but already there was a noticeable drop in pace from previous climbs. Shortly out of Bedoin I was aware that although climbing, this wasn´t yet Ventoux and the hairpin bend at Saint-Esteve would mark the start. I did not see the sign for Saint-Esteve but met the hairpin bend head on. I rode the inside line through the bend and accelerated out, and it was there I noticed Rebecca and her family cheering on all of the cyclists who passed - the cheering for me was even louder which was nice. I was buoyed by their support and that there wasn´t long to go, the summit was still visible through the trees but it still seemed so far away and I realised that the next 11 miles were going to be relentlessly tough. They turned out to be tougher than I could ever have imagined.

After a brief rest and chat I set off with everyone shouting and cheering once again. The road immediately became steeper - I was now in the trees and knew that this is where Ventoux really began. The white markers at the side of the road indicated gradients of 9-12% and for short stretches the gradient was much worse. The temperature in the full glare of the sun was now over 40C and many cyclists had dismounted and were either walking up the road or being violently ill at the edge of the forest. Ambulance sirens heralded the arrival of the medics as they came to the aid of more and more stricken cyclists - seeing riders collapsed at the side of the road, dazed, confused and just staring blankly at you as you passed was a horrible sight. Others needed oxygen from the attentive medical staff. One cyclist stood at the side of the road with blood pouring from a deep gash in his thigh. His gears had failed under the tension and strain of the climb and he had taken a tumble as the metal sheared. The sound of cleats clicking on the tarmac became louder as more cyclists took to walking; others sat at the side of the road, many with tears pouring down their cheeks, knowing that the great mountain had defeated them. Onwards I climbed my heart rate now up to 185 and close to my 90% limit - from Tour de France commentary over the years, I often heard it remarked that once on the "red zone" (i.e. 90+%) it is very hard to get back out and I had to keep telling myself this. My legs felt like jelly and my lungs were bursting but still I peddled on. My composure on the bike was gone - my steady high cadence, upright position, light grip of the bars, had descended into a grind in the lowest gear, hunched shoulders and death-grip on the hoods. Despite constantly settling myself and telling myself how to ride, I found an almost autopilot like hold on me which returned me to the grind. My thoughts at this point were with the people walking - I am proud to say I have never had to walk a climb, and I would not let Ventoux defeat me. I was determined to complete it without walking, and at times I had to blank out those at the side of the road, as they just lay there stricken and motionless. I could not understand what was driving me on, but I knew that I had to just keep going. I was aware now that the mental aspect of it all was as tough as the physical one - having to tell yourself that you have another 5 miles and almost 50mins of sheer pain and torture, in 40 degree heat and you will have no respite until it´s over is something I had never thought I would face.

At Chalet Reynard there is a brief respite as the road almost levels out and here scores of cyclists were taking on their last fill of water and psyching themselves up for the final 6kms to the top. I ate a few jelly babies and took a slug of water and consoled myself with the thought that at home in Scotland I could ride 6kms in my sleep. I had no idea just how tough the next 6kms would be. Some 200 yards up from Chalet Reynard I cleared the tree line and the view was indescribably beautiful and I stopped to take a few pictures. Mont Ventoux now takes on the appearance of a moonscape, as there is nothing to see but white stone desert all the way to the summit. The gradient for the next 4 kms reduces to around 6% and is steady as the road winds its way to the top, the gentle breeze felt so good, the view was truly wonderful. This goes some way to taking your mind away from what is going on with your legs and gives you an alternative focus for a few minutes. For me this played a significant part in my making the summit. Large numbers of cyclists still trudged their weary way to the top and my speed dropped to little more than a fast walking pace. I cycled past the Tommy Simpson memorial and continued to climb. Just when you think you are nearly there, the gradient increases to around 10% for around 1.5kms and this for many proves the final straw. At 500m I could see the white observatory clearly and what little strength I had propelled me up that last climb and over the finish line. There was no victory salute, no sprint on the last bend, just the same grind that took me the 11 miles from the point where I met Rebecca to the summit where at last came welcome relief. I gasped for air, my legs could barely support me and I sat with many other riders at the summit of arguably the most difficult cycle climb in France.

I completed the ride in 8 hours and 15 minutes although total cycling time was just a shade over 7 hours and 30 minutes. The delays were due to stops and accidents. I burnt 8,600 calories, drank so much liquid I lost count of the amount and my heart rate reached 186, 90% of my maximum on the climb to the summit.

Mont Ventoux took me 2 hours and 25 minutes (including water stops, photos and welcome support), a distance of 22kms and my Colnago had taken everything the stage could throw at it. The record time for the ascent is 55 minutes and the winner on the day, Dimitri Champion, took only 65 minutes. The appropriately named Champion was seeded number 1 as he is the current French Road Race Champion. He completed the 170 kms in 5 hours and 11 minutes. The first lady home was Magdalena De Saint Jean who finished 74th overall in a time of 5 hours and 47 minutes and a time to climb Mont Ventoux of 1 hour and 34 minutes. James Cracknell finished 125th in a time of 5 hours and 56 minutes. He climbed Mont Ventoux in 1 hour and 37 minutes. Dr Roddy Pattison completed the event in a fantastic time of 7 hours and 51 minutes and climbed Mont Ventoux in 2 hours and 40 minutes.

We made our way to Malaucene to pick up Peter and Keith. Peter arrived in the town shortly before us but there was no word of Keith and he was not answering his phone. His fiancÚ Heather was beginning to get very concerned as were we all. We met up with Peter, and made our way to the centre of town. It was on the main street that we spotted Keith cycling down the hill. It was a very emotional moment and Heather burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably. I was amazed by how moving the whole event had been. Sitting at the side of the road on Mont Ventoux we had cheered on thousands of riders and seen the pain etched on their faces, we saw a rider with only one arm and another rider with a false leg below the knee, we saw determined people giving everything they had and more and it was inspirational and humbling. When we saw Peter and Keith, there was a feeling of joy, relief and enormous pride.

It was Keith´s experience that brought home to us just what a demanding event this is. He had taken 9 hours and 51 minutes to complete the course and 3 hours and 3 minutes to climb Ventoux. For much of the climb he had doubted his ability to get to the summit and was unable to stop at the Tommy Simpson monument although he had carried a Peugeot cycling cap that he had made a promise to himself he would leave with all the other tributes. At 500m he thought he could not cycle any further but he dug into what reserves he had. When he crossed the line he collapsed just in front of a team of medics who were trying to revive another competitor and was given oxygen, water and taken to a shaded area to recover. He was unable to walk and his entire body was shaking. After lying still for 30 minutes he was able to get to his feet and cycle the 14kms down to meet us.

Both Peter and Keith said it was the worst experience of their cycling life and they never wanted to see the mountain again. Keith said it had put him off road biking completely.

On the 21st, Peter went for a 20km ride to loosen up and on the morning of Wednesday the 22nd we were back at the foot of Mont Ventoux. This time Peter completed the ascent in half the time he had taken on Monday and when we met him at Chalet Reynard he was grinning like a Cheshire cat. On that day Peter took Keith´s Peugeot team cap and placed it at the foot of the Tommy Simpson memorial and the promise was kept.

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