We did the Première Manche - the first round - of A Travers riding across France from Dieppe to Marseille in the summer of 2009, and it was the original inspiration for this blog. The plan to put the 'band back together again' for another go in 2013 for the second installment fell on stoney ground, with life just getting in the way for too many of us, much to our disappointment. However, our enthusiasm for the bike remains undimmed, and so I'll keep posting my thoughts on the diverse and beautiful facets of the sport regardless. But there's bound to be another big 'adventure ride' coming soon - quite possibly in Italy - so potentially a name change too: Attraverso l'Italia in Bicicletta anyone?

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Day Seven: Caromb to Carry-le-Rouet, via Le Mont Ventoux, 175km

No sooner had I fallen into an exhausted sleep than it was time to get up again. It was going to be a long day for sure, so we'd arranged an early start ... although even a late start would still have felt too early for me. Bleary eyes, coffee, no real breakfast that I remember, so it'd be a putrid diet of energy bars and sickly-sweet, sticky carbo drink until lunch. Oh, for a full English this morning, the accused's last meal: take him down. I'd heard mutterings that the weather was going to be thundery and stormy after the previous day's canicule, and had gone to bed harbouring a secret hope that perhaps we wouldn't have to ride the mountain this morning. Weird, to come all this way, and have this desire not to ride what was the underlying reason for coming. Cycling really can be so hard and unforgiving at times though - you're supposed to welcome the pain like an old friend - making the whole experience a distinctly retrospective pleasure. It's virtually impossible to really enjoy the climb as it happens - certainly if you're not going well - but if you do the ride and get through it, you know you're gonna feel brilliant, flooded with mix of endorphins and pride. 'Better than sex', as Kingy has described it in the past (it does make me wonder if he's doing it - sex - right though). I know what he means because I know that feeling, but clearly sometimes I'm simply not ashamed enough to entertain the idea of not riding, instead to stand in civvies, self-pitying and full of lame excuses, to chat with the others as they clip in and ride off towards two hours of torture, poor lambs. There's also my very personal malaise of sometimes simply not seizing the moment too, especially when I can be centre-stage doing something easy like 'entertaining' and there's alcohol involved. We didn't even leave the bar in Les Deux Alpes in July 1998 when outside - just 200 short metres down the rain-sodden road - Pantani won in the cold and wet, an exploit that will always be remembered. Sure, inside was warm and dry, the atmosphere was excellent and the beers had been flowing since lunchtime, yet deep down there is an obvious regret. Of course I tell people 'I was there', but in reality I missed the opportunity to witness one of the Italian's - and cycling's - greatest moments up close, for real, instead of simply on a TV screen like everyone else.

I've always been afflicted by this strange attitude, almost as if not riding the climb, or not seeing the stage and regretting it makes just as interesting a story as if I'd actually done it.

The sky was red - red sky in the morning, sailor (or shepherd) take warning - and it was making me apprehensive. I knew this was going to be tough, but this time there was logistically no way of getting out of it. Bouyed by the conviction that I'd surely 'ridden myself in', to an extent, over the previous six days, I made an effort to snap out of it. The first time up the mountain in 1989 was purgatory because of my back, 2000 was better for no apparent reason, certainly not anything to do with training, so what would it be like this time out, with 20 years of bodily wear and tear? I'd had niggling neck and shoulder ache throughout the ride so far - until now I'd never really bothered with a helmet which I now thought was the possible cause, but being married brings certain responsibilities - but nothing unbearable like the back pain I'd had in the past. We set off, briskly, my heart and head not really in it yet: tired, finding the pace hard already, where Jamesy seemed to be storming off before we'd even hit Bédoin. I already felt disheartened that his actions implied that he didn't think it would be something special to ride up together on this 20th anniversary, and that he'd put his narrow ambition aside and wait, at least for once. I've always been the emotional, sentimental one in the relationship, the antithesis of his more stoical attitude which would often drive me to vocalise feelings I should really keep to myself. It has been a pillar of our friendship for years, and this trip would be no different. We're a real-life embodiment of 'The Odd Couple', except we aren't often playing for laughs. It'd be funny to watch our behaviour through a hidden, candid camera though, I'm sure. How I'd cringe.

Even the first few kilometres of the D974 before Saint-Estève, where I knew the gradient cranks up to 10% or more, seemed to be ridden on heavy, momentum-sapping tarmac. You'd look around you into the vineyards around Sainte-Colombe and Les Baux and feel that you weren't even on the climb proper yet, that this was just false-flat, and already you were struggling. OK, Jamesy was gone, but the good news was that my back was OK to this point. A positive sign. Dave was not far behind, Iain, Trev and Andy likewise, whilst Paul and Les had decided - sagely - that perhaps riding the climb again, having done it around 30 times between them, was just not worth it this time out. We'd agreed that the original route was also too ambitious. Instead of riding through Jean de Florette villages like Gourdes and Loumarin and the vicious climbs to get to them, we'd head west and take the flatter route back through Carpentras, Cavaillon, Eyguieres and cut down the west side of the Etang de Berre through Istres, bypass central Martigues and along the wonderful winding pine-scented Mediterranean coastal roads to Carry-le-Rouet. And so Paul and Les would set off later for the Med, whilst the rest of us took on Le Géant de Provence.

Jamesy pushing it on the steep lower slopes of the shaded forest section - the first 15km from the official start in Bédoin.

Mike follows Dave, as ever time-trialling his way to the top; Mike searching to finally ditch that bloody helmet.

Jamesy was gone, on his personal mission to get revenge on the mountain for the hours of training and sacrifice he'd put in to the detriment of his family. See - I don't really begrudge him his focus; it's no doubt rooted in envy. Dave and I seemed to be well matched for pace through the forest, whilst behind Trev, Iain and Andy followed at varying distances. Fortunately the bad weather failed to materialise, and the lower temperature was undoubtedly doing us a favour. I'd oscillate between feeling great, moving along quite swiftly, then suddenly paying the price for the enthusiasm and having to ease up. As a result we all came into Chalet Reynard at different times, and left for the summit accordingly. Once again, Jamesy dashed off - we wouldn't be repeating the camaraderie of 1989 - and it was here that Trev decided to get into running kit and do the final 7km on foot with Graham, while Iain, his damaged arm giving him grief, turned back for Caromb to rendez-vous with Paul and Les on their more leisurely - and gastronomic - ride to Carry-le-Rouet.

First food of the day for me at Chalet Reynard, or at least it felt like it. Left to right: Dave, Mike James, me, Andy. Iain and Trev still to arrive.

I found the upper exposed sections of the climb easier than I remembered, and approaching the summit - the Simpson Memorial - got terribly emotional. Life & death. My dad, and mum. Time passing by so quickly, and needing to achieve something worthwhile in your alloted stint here, in the sometimes-fragile carapace that is your body. My wife. Marco Pantani, che poverino, of course. I stumbled across Jamesy, also a bit puffy-eyed, who'd been feeling similar, but for his own reasons. He'd already 'summited', to use an American turn of phrase that I really dislike (so why use it here?), and had come back down ... to meet me perhaps? Dunno, but it would be nice to think so. We all rode to the top, fannied around for a while for photos, souvenirs, ice cream and staring at the vast expanse of cloud-covered Provence way below us.

Jamesy still pushing it, and looking good. He really should get a black Assos jersey to match the shorts and hat though, or maybe a first item of Rapha gear for the wardrobe ... I've heard the banks have started lending again.

We're well above the clouds at this altitude, on the final 7-kilometre limestone section that gives the 'Bald Mountain' its name. Me, focused, the emotion building.

Dave and Andy at the same point nearing the summit, just behind me.

Twenty years on from our first time. Thoughtfully there are steps up to the Simpson Memorial now, obviously to cater for ageing bikies like me and Mike.

Heroes. And just for one day.

1912 metres in the sky, at the summit of La Montagne Chauve, ready to go down in 20 minutes what we've just taken two hours to come up.

The descent was all too swift - worries about the structural integrity of the frame still lingering - and the remainder of the ride consisting of mostly flat and rolling roads at the head of some serious-looking thunder clouds. I have little memory of it, other than taking a wrong turning for the first time on the trip (had Steve and Graham finally got a little complacent?), a welcome lunch in L'Isle-sur-la-Sourge just at the right time, a promised beer-stop in Martigues never materialising - now that really was hard to take - and the final fast run-in to Carry. Predictably these last few kilometres saw Jamesy and me 'clip off the front of the group' and where, of course, he jumped me to take the final chequered flag of the trip, the bastard. It was all his idea after all, so in all fairness I suppose he had to take the honours.

Trev, changed and back on the bike, whilst Mike and I follow on the way south on the outskirts of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

I knew this would happen, but short of running him off the road still couldn't do anything to stop it.

By engaging in this act of gratuitous, casual racism redolant of 1970s British comedy sitcoms, we were hoping to get arrested and then repatriated courtesy of the French State, and so save on our Easyjet airfare. Mais non. Where are les flics when you need them, eh?

Yes indeed, France, travelled by bike, from Coast to Coast. A Travers La France.