It must have been 1998, as far as I can tell. There we were, on a campsite, poring over the trusty Michelin Atlas Routier, trying to find a good spot. A “good spot” in this case was marked on the map by an actual spot, which needed to have a number lower than 300 next to it. This number was important, because it was the altitude that marked a vertical mile below the summit of the mountain next to us. We’d ticked off the vertical kilometre earlier in the week, so we figured this was next on the list.
And so it was, armed with knobby-tyred mountain bikes and thus disinclined to actually ride to the good spot, that we found ourselves unloading the bikes from the car in a layby just south of Malaucène, and staring at the infamous, notorious Mont Ventoux.
Now, sixteen years later, I find myself staring at le Géant once more. Not quite so closely yet: it’s a few hundred miles and seven months away, but nonetheless it looms somewhat larger. Several times larger.
The thing is, a couple of years ago I found out about the Club des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux. To cut a long story short: pay an entry fee, ride up Ol’ Windy three times in a single day, once by each of its road ascents, and you get to become a Cinglé, a madman, complete with a little trophy and—more importantly—a sense of self-achievement (which, let’s be honest, is simply a euphemism for an ego boost and some bragging rights).
But, wait. There’s a fourth route, the Route Forestière, which is partly off-road. Bag that as well, and you can be awarded Galérien status. Or, if you’re totally crackers you can do all the road routes twice (ascending the height of Everest in the process) and go home with Bicinglette.
And seeing as every year I organise a little 24-hour (ish) venture called Le Jour de France, well…
So the time has come to return to le Géant and its unique charms. The plan is to basically keep climbing until the legs or the clock give out, and pick up an official gong along the way. I’d quite like the Galérien, if I’m honest.
The problem is, I’m no climber.
Distance I can do. I quite like distance. Preparing for distance is, to a point, easy: you just do a bunch of big rides.
Climbing is different. Climbing—this much of it, at least—seems like it needs some sort of actual training; it needs something outside of what I’d normally do voluntarily.
Now, when I’m trying to score distance, I often catch a train to somewhere sufficiently far away from home and ride back. Leaving your house on a bicycle to simply ride round in a circle back to your house is affable enough, but it’s unsatisfyingly arbitrary and, equally troublesome for motivation, has a constant nagging capacity to be shortened. A direct ride home, however, has a clear purpose and commits you to a certain distance. You’re riding home whether you like it or not. When it’s cold and dark and wet and you’re sixty miles down with sixty more to go, every bit of you thinks that this is all stupid and miserable and—hell’s teeth, man!—why aren’t you in bed? But every bit of you has no choice: the only way to get to bed is to keep riding. Every bit will be taught a lesson, that It Can Be Done. Because, quite simply, It Must Be Done.
It’s kind of hard to do that with climbing, though. You can’t just move your house to the top of a mountain and then catch a train down it.
So some psychology is required. I need to stitch myself up. I need to create some slogs of altitude which, whilst not physically unavoidable, are psychologically abhorrent to dodge. Quite how that’s possible when there are no easily-reached climbs of more than about 200m, I’m not sure, but I’m sure I’ll think of something. (And no, everesting is not my idea of fun.)
Meantime, it’s time to reconfigure the screens on the Garmin. Time to stop focusing on distance and average speed, and start focusing on height gain and—dear god no—heart rate.
Bricks in the panniers, meat in the legs. It’s time to climb.