Sunday, 11 May 2014

Emptying The Tank

With the summit in sight, I mash the pedals even harder, throw caution to the wind, ignore all the suffering and attempt to overtake everything I can see.

The Reason

Video of me trying to explain the reason for the attempt while riding up the lower slopes of Ventoux.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Raleigh Chopper vs Mont Ventoux, 9 May 2014. Done.

After a terrible night's sleep I scrambled through a half-hearted breakfast. I was late up and all I wanted to do was start the climb. I'd had a horrible nightmare about having such bad cramp that I couldn't continue and was left lying in spasm on the road side. In order to avoid this becoming real I drank far too much water too quickly and, by the time I'd freewheeled 3km down to Bedoin, I needed a wee. Since I'm in France I wrongly assumed I could do this anywhere. I was informed by the owner of the bike shop that I couldn't wee in his field and that I should go to the centre of town where I found a public toilet that charged 1 Euro for the privilege. I had no money with me and so found a back street and made use of it. 

I could not have had a better support crew. Dan Andrews, John Gelling and David Beadle followed me in one vehicle while Blackett Ditchburn and Adrian Turner followed me in another. The first car was filled with food, drink, repartee, friendly abuse, tweed, 1970s rock and cameras; and the second with more polite support and photographic expertise. John refereed me to the line and, at 9.27am started me, Henley Royal Regatta style: "When I see that you are straight, I shall start you in the following manner: Ready. Go. Ready. Go." I was off.

After the groggy and shambolic start to the day I was pleased to find that I felt quite springy on the lower slopes. I was glad of the morning warmth and sunshine and felt cautiously optimistic of my chances, although I knew it would all depend on what happened in the forest. The previous day’s training ride had filled me with dread. Riding up a mountain is a completely different proposition from riding up a hill. The fatigue comes in more slowly and is far deeper. This is why rhythm is so important. You don’t need rhythm to smash your way up a Chiltern hill half a mile long but if you don’t have it on a 22km mountain, you’re going to suffer far more than if you do. As I could see the trees becoming more dense and the gradient increasing with a couple of kicks and a hair pin bend. I began to feel sick with nerves.

As with most nightmares about things, the reality isn’t as bad. I had wanted this section to start all night and now it was real, my adrenalin was coursing. The Chopper’s squeaking and creaking was getting worse and I was worried for a while that it would fail somehow. It kept on and I decided to use the noise to help my rhythm. I made another decision: to keep up the cadence I had established, no matter what.  This meant that I began overtaking cyclists on proper bikes, a couple who had previously overtaken me. This wasn't a deliberate strategy. My fear of cramp and the Chopper's lack of climbing gears meant that I preferred to ride at a pace that allowed me to turn the pedals at a reasonable rate and, although it meant I was breathing hard for the entire climb, at least I wasn't going to be stationary between pedal strokes. The net effect was that I was moving past some people with more suitable bikes. I had been in Sturmey Archer gear one (the easiest of the three) since the beginning of the forest and would have loved a zero and even a minus one but, since there weren’t, kept on. In order to provide encouragement, I decided to continue to keep a score of the cyclists that overtook me and those I overtook. Those in vehicle one had been absent for a bit and I was out of liquid so I asked Blackett to take my bottle. He did and within minutes Dan returned it. He asked me if I wanted to eat anything. I didn’t. I was still sick with nerves. I continued to stomp on the pedals up through the woods. I had a rhythm and although in the back of my mind I didn’t believe it was sustainable, I dared to believe I could do this. As an advocate of aiming for the stars, I resolved to finish the ride in one hit as long as cramp didn’t throw me off. I also began to feel more confident that I wouldn’t get cramp as long as I kept drinking and so allowed myself to chase down a few more cyclists on carbon racing bikes. I knew I’d pay for it later but I wanted to make hay while the sun shone and see how long it took for my inevitable decline to begin. I’d manage the problem when it happened. No use in worrying about it now. The sun was shining pretty hard and I was starting to enjoy the heat. It gave me something else to bite on.

Nearing what I thought must be the last section of forest the shouts from the cars became more excited, as though the support crew was growing in confidence too. I was constantly asked if I needed anything and felt very looked after indeed. This was a good thing as I certainly wasn’t looking after myself, showboating across a hairpin bend on the wrong side of the road (I had sufficient visibility to mean that this wasn’t dangerous) in order to overtake a cyclist who had just ridden past me. After these daft bursts I was light headed for a few minutes. I put it down to altitude and carried on. The forest continued. I had been so absorbed in trying to get a rhythm and listening to the Chopper complaining that I hadn’t taken any notice of the distance markers and I had no idea of my progress. I thought I might be about half way up. In order to break the monotony of the road weaving up through the trees I concentrated on overtaking more bikes, the reactions of the riders providing me with constant amusement. I counted four “Mon dieu!”s and two “"Ce n'est pas possible!"s.

Dan and John had told me that on their ride to the summit on the previous day, after the forest they had found the riding less challenging. I began to long for the tree line. My hamstrings and lower back were screaming and I knew that the beginnings of cramp were imminent. I knew also that eating would help but my stomach was still complaining and so I stuck to liquids. I don’t really remember emerging from the forest as, by then, I was in a fury trying to keep my cadence and pace high enough. Suddenly I could see the summit and, because of the lack of any vegetation, I understood immediately how the road led to it. It looked much further away than I had expected. The wind now became a significant factor. If I looked up, which I did only rarely, the view of the Alps in the distance was incredible. As the road snaked about, I found that I would gain on the rider in front in a tail wind but struggle horribly in a head wind because the Chopper’s gears were so harsh. I was constantly shifting up and down the banana seat trying to relax my excruciating back, hamstrings and, bizarrely, my elbows, but lost all power upon moving forward. This meant I had to accelerate having shifted back in the saddle which was a devastating blow to my precious rhythm. Also, on the steeper sections, if I sat back too far in order to allow my legs to extend more fully, I could feel the skin blistering inside my shorts and the Chopper’s front wheel would begin to skip about. I began to feel desperate and, my mind wandered. I was zigzagging up the road in an attempt to reduce the gradient. It didn’t work. I hadn’t been drinking enough because steering the Chopper with one hand was too dangerous on the steeper bits of the climb. If I wanted a drink I had to reach into the pocket on the back of my jersey and because I was so sweaty it kept getting stuck. I ripped the bottle out and took a few desperate gulps. This left me gasping desperately and wondered whether on balance I should bother.

I began to think of the other stupid things I’ve done: 20 years of rowing training, hundreds of hours on the Concept 2 rowing machine, an Ironman, an Etape du Tour, the Raid Pyrenees, Paris Roubaix sportive, L’Eroica, etc. I convinced myself that all these were only a warm up for this, an ascent of Mont Ventoux on a Raleigh Chopper. Yeah, not bad, but I was still swimming through a haze of discomfort. I thought about my father who died an incredibly painful death from cancer in 1999. I imagined what he would be saying to me from a support car. A bit better but more likely to make me cry than help with this. I thought about my children, Felix and Didi (my 6 year old son and 4 year old daughter) and what they would say to me from a support car: probably “Daddy, when can I have an apple?” and this brought me back to the moment. I realised I was in serious danger of losing my rhythm completely, cramping and having to stop. Finally, despite having no appetite, I asked for some food. I had chosen Madeleine cakes on the basis that they had some sugar and are easy to digest. They worked. Swallowing mouthfuls of water and then sucking in huge amounts of air to try to address the deficit I decided I was going to finish this ride with no stops, no messing, no matter what. Not only that, I was also going to catch up and overtake the group of cyclists in matching kit I could see ahead. I started to dig in very deep and ignore all the warning signs: breathlessness, back pain, leg pain, elbow pain, wrist pain, light headedness, the lot. I knew this was risky but the whole thing was a risk and if I’d wanted to do this sensibly I wouldn’t be doing it on a Raleigh Chopper, for heaven’s sake.

I caught the group of cyclists with a series of stamping bursts and then, with the summit in close sight I heard another chorus of approval from a support car. I won’t type out verbatim what I was thinking but I know that any half decent athlete will know exactly the sentiment. I wanted to empty the tank now, ie to throw everything I had left into the pedals so that on arrival I had nothing left. I left the group of cyclists behind and pushed harder and harder. I wondered how long at this pace it would take before tunnel vision set in. It wasn’t long. I held my rhythm and pressed harder. Then, just as I neared the final bend I was overtaken by a cyclist I hadn’t previously seen. This threw me into a rage. I overtook him on the outside of the bend and shovelled as much pace into the final hundred or so metres as there was left. It was 11.37am. Tank. Empty. Overtaken by 11 cyclists. Overtook 41.

It took a while for me to be able to stand again but when I did, I held the Chopper aloft under the Mont Ventoux sign. The support crew were fantastic. Blackett brought me some Minute Made apple juice, apologising for it not being Tizer.

For those wondering, I didn’t descend.

In addition to my exceptional support crew, I want to thank everyone who has expressed interest and support in what was ultimately a rather silly endeavour. I hope that it inspires at least one person in some way to do something they’ve thought about doing but haven’t yet taken it on. Most importantly, I want to thank all those who have donated to Leuka. Your contributions will certainly make a real difference to people’s lives: cancer sufferers and their families.

The Fireflies: “For those who suffer, we ride”

D M Richardson, proud to be a Firefly.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Night Before

I'm having trouble sleeping as I'm worried about cramp. The Chopper's easiest gear is not easy enough to allow much cadence in the forested section of the mountain where the steeper gradient is relentless. This means that more demands are made on the muscles and they are more likely to succumb to seizure, particularly after a long period of stress. I don't want to let everyone down. If I fail it'll be because either the bike or me is broken. I feel that if I can get on to the open ground above the tree line where the gradient settles a bit, I've a good chance of success. According to the latest forecast I'll have 30 kph winds to deal with but I think I should be able to do that. On a positive note, I can scarcely believe how generous everyone is being. The fundraising page shows over £1,500 including gift aid has been raised thus far and more is promised. I've also received so many thoughtful messages of support. I want to thank everyone. My father died of cancer 15 years ago. He was 55. I'm still angry he was taken so young. I'll be using that tomorrow. I hope the money I'm raising can play at least a small part in reducing the number of people that have to go through what my family is still enduring.

"For those who suffer, we ride."

This is where tomorrow's attempt will start, in Bedoin. Today I rode from here for about 7km, ie about a third of the distance but only a fraction of the climb. My conclusion is that tomorrow's ride is going to be horribly difficult. For a start, my inner thighs are already raw from the 70s Sergio shorts. I'm going to revert to my denim cut-offs, which haven't caused me that particular problem in training. I know from experience how a mountain can grind a person down, particularly an Englishman used to punching his way up little Oxfordshire hills. I have decided that I'm ready for any amount of suffering. I'm going to need to be. 20 ascents of Watlington Hill is pathetic in comparison. No matter: the only things that are going to prevent me doing this are: the Chopper breaking; some sort of accident; or the wind blowing me off the bike. I'm going to put on that Fireflies jersey and get on with it. For those who suffer, we ride. Please donate here if you would like to fight leukaemia:

Training Ride Deux

Chopper Assembly

And the pedals are on properly. Thank you Dan Andrews and John Gelling for driving 750 miles yesterday to get us all here. I'm just off for a training ride in 70s Sergio Tacchini tennis shorts, a Levi's corduroy jacket, Ray Ban Aviators and Adidas Rekord trainers.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Alan Oakley and the Wind

When Alan Oakley, Raleigh's chief designer devised the Raleigh Chopper, I'm willing to bet he wasn't wondering how long it would be before somebody rode one up Mont Ventoux. As he died of cancer in 2012, he will never know. If I am able to do it, I hope he would have approved, both of the feat itself but also the cause, ie raising money for Leuka. Meanwhile, the mountain gods continue to toy with the attempt. The wind is now forecast to be up to 45 kph. An increase of 30 kph in approximately 2 days. It seems I should steel myself for winds in excess of 50 kph unless Alan can have a word with the Almighty.

The Chopper Has Landed

On arrival here at 1.40am at Les Gite du Mont Ventoux, the Chopper looks completely out of place and as British as fish and chips or queueing.

Driving and Thank You

We have been driving for over 12 hours and I've just looked at the fundraising page to see that, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of you, the sponsors, the total raised is over £900. A couple more donations and it will reach four figures, which is beyond all my expectations. On behalf of Leuka I would like to thank everyone who has already been so kind. The weather forecast isn't looking quite as good as it was a couple of days ago. Friday's wind speeds have increased from 15 to 30 kph. I hope the current trend doesn't continue. In any case, tomorrow we'll assemble bikes and I'll take the Chopper for a test ride. As it's France I'll be drinking Orangina rather than Tizer. Honestly, the French have no idea about fizzy drinks. What's the point of having one with a recognisable foodstuff in it, ie actually fit for human consumption?

Fireflies Shirt

As we drive to the Eurotunnel I must say thank you to Laine and Lady Penelope at Fireflies HQ and Kim Gelling whose military grade operation resulted in the delivery to me of a spangly Fireflies shirt and cap. I will try to do them credit on Friday.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

5am, Wednesday 7 May

Of course it's perfectly normal to wake up at 5am when you don't have to get up until 7am, particularly when you're about to drive from Henley on Thames to Mont Ventoux and ride up it on a Raleigh Chopper. I was woken just as I, Chris Froome and Felix (six years' old) were negotiating the final hair pin bend to see Didi (four years' old) at the summit. There she was, in the car park sitting on her pink bike with stabilisers and eating a lolly under the observant watch of Eddy Merckx who was loading a bike into the boot of a beautiful Volvo P1800ES. I've never been to Ventoux and so before their bed time last night, I showed Felix and Didi a youtube clip of an accelerated ascent of the mountain in around 8 minutes. As Felix remarked on the steepness of certain sections I realised that I had not seen this before and that I had no idea what it would be like. As with all mountains, the early part seemed ordinary and even the wooded slopes appeared to be typical. The trees dwindled, however, and the bare white summit came into view. It was then I began to understand fully how critical the wind will be on Friday. The forecast wind speed has gone from 20kph up to 35kph in the past 24 hours. I hope this trend doesn't continue. In any event, if I make it to the top, as I turn the final bend I will be looking forward to racing Felix and Chris Froome to the car park and chatting with Eddy Merckx about his duel to the summit with Didi.

Fundraising Page

The hour of the Chopper vs Ventoux is nigh. All those who kindly said they'd sponsor me, your opportunity to do so is here. I'm not going to pretend that I wouldn't be trying this anyway but if I'm going to do something daft it would be great if some good comes of it. Any donation you feel able to give to Leuka will be very gratefully received, particularly by those currently suffering from leukaemia and other cancers. The Fireflies: for those who suffer, we ride:

Monday, 5 May 2014

Ventoux Looms

With less than a week to go until Friday the 9th, the Ventoux weather forecast looks, well, all right: that's if you like riding up and down mountains in 35 kph wind in 5-8 degrees Centigrade. At least it’s not set to rain. Training, such as it is, has gone reasonably well, ie I've tackled some little Oxfordshire hills in a Tizer fuelled rage without any suffering friction burns of the type endured on Streatley Hill. This improvement was facilitated in part by the servicing of the Chopper by Rikki at AW Cycles. For those who don’t know, there is pretty much no bicycle on earth that Rikki doesn’t know about. This is not least because he has probably owned one. Rikki explained to me that there were so many pieces missing from or broken inside the Sturmey Archer hub, it was amazing the thing had been able to change gear. In any case, he assured me that my legs would be met with considerably less resistance when pedalling.

With departure on Wednesday morning in the diary, my mind is therefore on the long drive south with Messrs. Andrews, Gelling and Beadle, the first two of which will attempt to join the Club des Cingl├ęs du Mont-Ventoux with me on the following day. That's three ascents of Ventoux in one day, ie 4,500m of climbing over about 85 miles. It's good to have something to take my mind off the Friday...