- 25 Sep 07, 01:33 PM
Bedoin, at the foot of Mont Ventoux, Wednesday morning - Some people are born foolish; some have foolishness thrust upon them. Very few combine both those traits, and then also happily embrace additional foolishness with arms outstretched.
It would appear that I am one of them.
My companion Degustation Dirs is fulfilling his cultural remit on this Francophile extravaganza by sampling every cheese, wine and brandy he can lay his eager hands on. By idiotic contrast, I decided to break our journey from Montpellier to St Etienne by cycling up the hardest climb in the entire Tour de France.
Mont Ventoux is the most infamous ascent in cycling. Longer than a Rick Wakeman keyboard solo, as brutally punishing as a James Blunt acoustic set, it looks and feels like no other peak - as bare and bleached at the top as the surface of the moon, and so relentlessly steep that its Alpine and Pyrenean rivals look like cartoon Cotswolds by comparison.
Alpe d’Huez? Nine kilometres shorter, with 1141m of vertical climbing rather than 1609m. The Col du Tourmalet? A mere 17km, and almost 400m shorter.
You might think that it would be an error for me to take on the hardest of the three routes up, the one the pros ride, seeing as the last decent rise I cycled up was the flyover at Hammersmith. And you would be absolutely spot-on.
Imagine a hill so steep that you can only just keep pedalling, a slope so vertiginous that you aim for the next bend you see and hang on for dear life.
Now imagine that going on for 22km, without the slightest rest or relief in the gradient, while the sun hammers down on your back and your face drips with so much sweat that you struggle to see through your stinging eyes.
Six kilometres in, locked in my lowest gear and ascending at the rate of Mama Cass pulling a fridge, my parting words to Dirsy - “How hard can it be?” - were rattling round my empty cranium like coins in a collecting tin.
So relentless was the climb that I felt like a man on some sort of vertical treadmill, the same patch of road passing at snail’s pace below my front wheel again and again. So precipitous was it that it seemed impossible to continue without ascending directly into the sun.
Where were the easy bits? Where were the breathers? Where were the sections that didn’t feel as if they required the aid of crampons and ropes?
Gradually, the landscape began to change. Thick pine forest gave way to smaller, scrubbier trees, and then just stunted bushes.
Soon the vegetation died away completely, leaving me alone on the blasted slopes with nothing but slabs of broken rock and burning thighs for company.
All I could hear was my rasping breath and the faint tinkle of the turning chain. All I could think about was Dirsy tucking into his third 1664 of the afternoon outside a sun-dappled café back in Bedoin.
With 6km to go, I cycled over a painted message on the tarmac, surrounded by Union flags: “Allez Bradley!” With 2km left, I passed the monument to Tommy Simpson, the legendary British cyclist who collapsed and died on Ventoux during the 1967 Tour. I tipped my lid to both and piled on.
The views from the top were incredible. (Check out these photos I put on Flickr). So was the cold. I tried to phone Dirs, but my hands were shaking so badly I dropped the mobile midway through his description of the charcuterie platter he had enjoyed for lunch.
I noticed a text from a mate. “Iban Mayo did the climb in 55 minutes a few years back.”
My watch was showing one hour 35 minutes. I sighed and got back on my bike.
Dirsy was waiting for me at the Restaurant le Relais du Ventoux.
“Thank God for that,” he quipped. “If you’d have stacked it, I’d have had no-one to chauffeur me round France for the next four weeks.”
I put my feet up on a chair and let his chat fade into the background.
So what if Mayo had slain the Giant of Provence in the time it had taken me to reach the halfway point?
Had he prepared by spending the previous three weeks marinading himself in Calvados and soft cheese?
In the words of the recently-deceased French mime legend Marcel Marceau: " ".
Tom Fordyce is a BBC Sport journalist travelling around France in a camper van with Ben Dirs. Click here to search for all of Tom and Ben's blog videos.