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Curing My Climbing Problem

Well done – big well done actually – to member Andy Poulton on his recent exploits. The photo may have given the game away to some of you but read on, you’ll enjoy his account.

Curing myself of my climbing problem- or how I became un Cingle du Ventoux

My favourite cycling terms have always been “short” and “pan-flat”. Frankly, the end of the Langtons tt course always upsets me and even a road with a significant camber gives me the heebie-jeebies. But given the chance to be in Provence for a couple of days in May a climbing challenge was too tempting. Becoming a Cingle du Ventoux (or “loony”) involves taking all three routes up the Ventoux in one day. 4400 metres of climbing and 137 km, half uphill, half downhill.

I committed to the idea in the winter and came up with a sophisticated training plan. Like Eric Clapton, I have an overambitious sense of my own understanding and grasp without bothering with any of that accompanying evidence or scientific method nonsense so called experts rely on. Surely, I thought, if I spent winter days in long sessions in the shed on the turbo pushing big watts at grindingly low cadences while watching old DVDs, the mountain would ultimately kneel before my superior powers.

Quickly I learned that for me, any cadence below 70rpm is unsustainable beyond exactly 35 minutes and that my estimates of my sustainable grinding power were laughably inflated. (I also learned that Cary Grant’s late 1950s movies are now largely unwatchable.)

The biggest learning came from doing the Maths. Over and over again. Minimum cadence, subsequent gearing choices, my weight, the bike’s weight, my best guesstimate of sustainable power etc. Bike Calculator became my best friend. Less weight,  bigger cogs equals less watts needed.

Anyway, to France in May, to Malaucène and ultimately (spoiler alert,!) a project raggedly but successfully realized despite issues not foreseen in my winter shed sessions, viz a surprise May heatwave (32° and more in Provence) and some scary, scary mountain winds.

On the day itself, I was up at 5 and on the road by 6 and joy of joys, the endless  shedbound hours seemed to bear fruit. My Malaucène ascent was tough but carefully controlled, almost meditative. This is the route with the amazing views and uneven gradients. It was also more exposed to the surprisingly strong winds, but, one issue aside, I felt good. Spookily, I didn’t see a soul on the way up and when I finally reached the weather station at the top just before 8, well, suddenly what happened was exactly nothing at all. I appeared to be the first person up there that day and had the top completely to myself. A pause, a quick triumphant if lonely selfie and then I rode down to Bédoin for a coffee and a moan* to my wife who had heroically driven there at a ridiculous hour to provide me with the tin of rice pudding which was so essential to my nutrition strategy.

*Re moaning: the only fly in the ointment at this stage was my feet. Have I mentioned my feet? Middle age has ruined my feet. Name a foot condition and if you’re unlucky I’ll take my socks and find an example of it to show you. The painfully unignorable problem was that this venture was making my feet spontaneously combust. It was sometimes painful, sometimes agony.

Nevertheless, fiery feet aside, I was confident that my next ascent would be as controlled as the first if I could just shake off the post-pud stiffness in my newly loosened shoes. My strategy for this was attacking the early shallower slopes with arthritic gusto. All too predictably, in the 9km forest section of approximately 10 per cent which followed I all too quickly degenerated into grim survival mode. Trees, trees, nothing but trees and a winding string of road going up, up, up… I desperately tried to hold onto my cadence and gearing choice. Surely things would get easier at Chalet Reynard and the open moonscape? Alas, for me they just got differently bad. The sun was up, the wind was up and my speed and morale were down. The newly appeared roadside photographers wanted me to smile before they pushed their business cards into my jersey pockets as I passed. (Don’t they know how much that card weighs?)

Eventually I ground my way to the top, this time dodging vintage sports cars, bikers, pedestrians and other cyclists. 2 hours but a horribly uneven, costly effort. Oh my feet! By now even my nasal hairs were sore. At the top, a stick-thin French cyclist who had done the Cingle 6 years previously congratulated me on having done the hard parts. Then he said, “The ascent from Sault is easy. Really easy. Apart from the last 6 kilometres of course. You will find this hard. The problem will be in your head”. Lumme. Thanks mate.

Weak-kneed, weak-willed and just, well, weak, with brain fried and feet smouldering I descended as far as Chalet Reynard where the saintly Sandra produced even more rice pud and, wonder of wonders, a bowl full of ice for my feet! And so, literally the day was saved!

I finished my descent with almost extinguished feet and with my French friend’s words ringing in my ears, I cautiously climbed the relatively shallow slopes from Sault uberslowly and then just gritted my teeth and anything else grittable through the blowy top section of unforgiving rocks. Nose on my front wheel through the strong winds, a final shaky turn to the weather station and I’d done it! Relief then euphoria. Pretty much bang average in terms of the overall and the climb times but I’ll settle for that. Over the moon with that, to be honest.

A Belgian couple rushed over for a picture at the weather station – with my bike (an Eddy Merckx) and then the last act was the gusty technical descent back to Malaucène which confirmed my “World’s Worst Descender” title. After a total cycling, moaning, pudding consuming 10 hours, I got my brevet card’s final stamp and headed to our accommodation for warm-down beer followed by warm down wine.

And that’s it. Box ticked. I’m cured with regard to my climbing problem. The answer is no more mountains, no more climbing in fact- of any kind. I’ll sleep downstairs from now on and avoid stepladders.

Bring on the short and pan-flat.

Congratulations Andy!

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