There is a feeling that every amateur cyclist will have experienced in their career at some point or another that I can best describe as a sense of morbid futility. It is the moment at which one realises that, for all intents and purposes, the end has come, the race is over, and that stopping altogether would be indistinguishable from continuing. It is the moment at which one accepts one’s failure and allows the forlorn thought of one’s position in the Great Pecking Order of Things to be acceptable. You are not giving up in this moment. Rather, you are at the moment of realising your mortality and the gap that has – until that very moment – existed between your own sense of yourself and the reality of yourself.
For me this moment came some ten kilometres up the climb of Mont Ventoux, during a race held each year for amateur cyclists known as Grandfondo Mont Ventoux Baumes de Venise.
Mont Ventoux is an enormous mountain that rises up out of the Provencal landscape inscrutably and without logic. It has no ‘range’. There are no other peaks around it, and it is not part of any chain. It is alone, silent and domineering. It’s ‘baldness’ can be seen from a hundred kilometres away. Some five hundred years before, the mountain was raped from the top, its trees cut for ship-building timber. It is a strange mountain – it is emasculated by Man – as if the last ever of the unicorns had been captured and had its horn removed.
The idea of the race is basically a dual ascent of the Bald Giant. One starts in Baumes de Venise, about thirty rolling kilometres west of Bedoin, then heads up the twenty-two kilometre climb to the summit. There is a great circumnavigation of the north side of the mountain and then an ascent from the east, and then back down to Baumes de Venise. It was advertised at 180 kilometres with 4000 odd metres of climbing and seemed a formidable challenge for an amateur cyclist.
At the start I discovered that the colour of my bib number indicated that I should be in the first group. This seemed odd. I was not used to being seeded in the first group of a race – but then, I reasoned, I had done pretty well in the Morzine race the year before. Maybe they had me on their ‘system’. The French, I scoffed inwardly – so impressively organised.
The gun went, and I was sucked into the front peloton and it was fast. Very fast.
At Bedoin, I was still in the peloton, at its tail-end, gasping. My power-meter made my stomach turn – I had ridden at a 105 percent of functional threshold power for about forty-five minutes, just to stay in touch. And we had 150 kilometres to go. It will be alright, I told myself. Anyone can ride fast on the flats – wait until the climb starts, then I’ll be fine.
As the narrow road began to rise out of Bedoin I was already on the rivet. If I were to tell the story in person, I would make the Italian gesture: the thumb and fore-finger of my right hand gripping the end of my chin, as if to say it was so hard that my chin was on the handlebar.
It was on the handlebar.
Then the gradient went from eight percent to fourteen percent. I had assumed that the riders around me were going through the same torture, but they seemed suddenly to wake out of a slumber, as if they had just found their legs. We were on the steep six kilometre stretch in the forest up to Chalet Reynard. It is a wood that strangely dissolves away the higher you go, leaving only sand and loose rock, the moon-like features that define Mont Ventoux.
Finally, at the point at which the forest disappears and leaves nothing, at the interstice between the living mountain and the dead mountain, at that very point, my system blew and I shut down. It was my big “Oh” moment. Not that different, I would think, from the sense of acceptance that would be experienced by a juvenile impala, having being chased down and caught, some seconds or so before having its throat ripped out.
The source of this futility, I remember thinking, is not the fault of my own efforts. Nor even is it the fault of the other competitors, whom I loathed at that moment. Nor even was it my lack of training. Rather, the fault lay in my capacity for immense theoretical optimism that is always and necessarily a distortion of reality. My pedalling cadence went from sixty-five to thirty and I was doing a track-stand in the middle of the race.
This thud of intense self-insight was preceded by desperation, heavy-breathing, anxiety, a red-lining of the soul. After the thud, everything was calm. I think I even smiled.
Sometime later I passed the Simpson memorial – built for the British cyclist Tom Simpson who perished on the mountain in 1967 during the Tour de France after suffering a heart attack on the climb – and carried on cycling the race, but not racing. I barrelled down the switchbacks westwards to Malaucene, a sixteen hundred metre altitude drop. From there I suffered into the Drome, a beautiful wooded and craggy region, and finally arrived at Sault for the final ascent. It is an area the French would call sauvage, vaguely comparable to the word in English meaning ‘wild’, but eliciting a far more primitive sense of nature. I managed to get back to Baumes de Venise just before they were taking down the race banners.
I was awarded a medal for finishing, and collapsed on the grass outside the town hall. It was only that evening whilst slumped over the dinner table that the infernal optimism crept back into my mind from from some cowering corner. Next year, I thought. Next year I will come back stronger.
by David Buckham – 14 July 2103
(This article is dedicated to my parents who stood at the finish waiting for me in Baumes de Venise, and who gave me bottles in Sault.)