Le Club des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux

Ever stumble across an invention or business model you kick yourself for not thinking of first?

How's about this one? Pick an iconic mountain situated in idyllic surroundings, preferably one with three alternative ascents. Invent a testing, but not unfeasible physical challenge - like cycling up all three of those climbs within a 24-hour period. Give the challenge a name that adds to its allure, by suggesting membership of an exclusive group, something like the 'Club of Madmen'. Only ensure it's in a foreign language so those planning an attempt get to first drop it casually into conversation, then explain its meaning.

OK, here comes the smart bit. Try charging people a nominal fee - say 20 Euros - to participate in your challenge. Invent some rules for people to adhere to (everyone loves rules) and throw up a website with a list of the club's historic members. It's important there's a public record. Finally, if you can be bothered with the faff, maybe produce a little card to be stamped at designated checkpoints for an added sense of officialdom.

Then just sit back and watch the cash roll in. Genius.

An escape plan

Other blogs do a fantastic job of describing Mont Ventoux - not least our own. Google a few then play a game of Ventoux Bingo (Vingo for short). Epic. Imposing. Big. Bald. Windy. Hot. Lifeless. Lunar. Bookmark this page and come back when you've got a full house.

Our holiday house near Avignon was certainly full. Full of in-laws, suncream, damp towels and chilled rosé. I wouldn't be missed for a day. The only challenge was finding the right day. The famed mistral was seriously gusting when we arrived so it was best to wait a while. The Thursday was earmarked for the CDC attempt.

It's possible to rise at 3am, embark at 4am, be at the summit for dawn and wrap up the challenge before the wind has picked up and the heat of the day reaches oppressive levels. I found that impossible. Still, I was up sufficiently early to have to creep out the door in darkness, two Nespressi downed and munching a stale baguette wedged open with a chock of comté cheese.

A forty-five minute drive in the car gave the sun the time it needed to rise behind the volcanic silhouette of Ventoux. Mine was the only vehicle in the car park just outside the small village of Bedoin, the start and finish line for my attempt. The next however many hours would see me rise 4443 metres in just 136 kilometres.

I first circled the village, located a public lav, got my race card officially stamped then set out through the vineyards. The roads were quiet, the sun still low in the sky, the air still and the temperature benign.

A first time for everything

The road out of Bedoin rises until it reaches a gradient easy enough to make you think you should be going faster, but steep enough to ensure you don't. No pressing need to stand in the pedals, but no possibility of tapping out an easy rhythm. And in my case, the effort was just enough to bring an early twinge of hamstring cramp.

It's all dusty road between pine trees until you get a first glimpse of the weather station at the summit. Just as the skyscrapers and yellow cabs of New York make you feel you're in a movie, Ventoux is at once foreign but familiar.

I'm not sure what I was expecting of Chalet Reynard. The restaurant nestles in the corner of a bend where cyclists are washed up like silt deposited by a river. In my mind's eye the eponymous Reynard (picture René from Allo Allo) would be busying himself wiping crumbs from chequered tablecloths with one of those implements resembling a silver razor clamshell. Instead I found a grey-brown building, deserted and lifeless, still mourning the passing of the ski season.

It sits just six steep kilometres from the top, black and yellow candy canes marking either side of the road. It was very tempting to try and slalom around them to ease the gradient.

The mountain affords its conquerors a magnificent vista if they're lucky enough to do their vanquishing on a clear day. The horizon is so distant it displays the full curvature of the planet. Nobody could stand atop Ventoux and claim the earth was flat.

At least I thought I was atop. "Come on mate, nearly there" came a British voice behind me. I recoiled at the horrific realisation someone may have thought I'd stopped for a rest. An even worse thought: it may have blown my chances of getting up in under two hours. And the nadir: pausing the Garmin could have lost me a placing on the Strava segment.

Not to worry. Another 500m and I was posing beneath the summit sign, opposite a small souvenir shop with a dastardly 15 Euro minimum required for cards. There were no souvenirs suitably pocket-sized or sweat-resistant to justify the ice-cold coke I really wanted. Such is cashless life.

Down and out

There's something uniquely dispiriting about dropping down a mountain knowing when you reach its foot you're going to be turning around and cycling straight back up. While it's usually gratifying to see people crawling in the opposite direction as you freewheel past, this time I knew they were likely fellow Club de Cinglists slowly extending their lead.

I've always likened descending to going into debt. It's exhilarating while it lasts, but at some point the fun stops and you have no choice but to start making repayments or declare yourself bankrupt. On the descent to Malaucene, I took out a whopping great big interest-only mortgage on a five-bedroom, three-bathroom climb I could ill-afford, never mind furnish.

Still, there was enough credit on my card and sufficient hours in the day for one last blowout brunch, so I took a seat and savoured a coffee and croissant. But you can't defer a direct debit. Soon enough I was back on the bike, emptying my pockets of energy (and my stamped CDC race card, it turns out).

Ding ding, round two

Beyond the numerous bike shops and the shade of the plane tree-lined avenues it gets hot, literally and figuratively. Apparently this is the marginally easier of the first two famed ascents, but I couldn't really distinguish them. Identical diabolical twins only their birth mother could separate.

Heat and impending exhaustion made me stop occasionally and I'd long since stopped caring. For a while I yo-yo'd with an older bloke whose wife was driving ahead in the car and waiting a few hundred yards up the road to dispense snacks, drinks and kindly words of encouragement. At least that's what I imagined, she was probably chiding him for being an obstinate fool.

I found myself straining to remember when the steepest sections came, as if that would have made them any easier. But it turns out one sweeping corner looks much like another at speeds over 50kph. It proved a futile exercise, like trying to describe a dream. Even now, all I can recall are disjointed fragments of road. Any attempt to piece them together in a coherent sequence would produce a photofit likeness no rider of the same road would recognise.

It took two and a half hours this time to reach the summit, more than enough time to rue my decision not to swap out a semi-compact chainset for a compact. I wish I could say I was repenting at leisure, but it was punishingly hard work. The weather station felt more like a prison watchtower as I toiled in my solo chain gang.

But then what do you know? That's me right there, stood beneath that stickered signpost for the second time, leaning on the bike for a second celebratory photo, outwardly smiling but inwardly contemplating if I had it in me to return for a third shot.

Thankfully, the long run down to Sault was benevolent enough to convince me it would pose no threat on the return. The theorem: if you need to pedal reasonably hard to achieve respectable velocity going down a hill, there's a good chance you'll be able to pedal back up it without over-exerting yourself.

The mountain deposits you in a shallow valley coated with purple lavender fields picturesque enough to compel you to stop and take pictures, despite knowing they'll never do the scene justice.

Late lunch, oh yes. Savouring the smug satisfaction of the certain finisher, I went to town. Chargrilled gammon, peppercorn sauce, salty chips, a basket of bread and a pint of coke. I possibly, probably, almost certainly, definitely lingered too long. Heaving myself up out of the wicker chair, it took a long time for the blood to return to my limbs.

Three times a crazy

Every five minutes for the next hour, the peace was punctuated by a loud belch. The delicate fragrance of pine and lavender was momentarily overpowered by the pungent whiff of gammony peppercorn. Or hang on, is that actually peppercorny gammon?

The return to Chalet Reynard, still no René, but a bit more bustle and buzz about the place. A brief pause and then press play again. Only I was advancing at half-speed, frame-by-frame, with nothing but the dead weight of my legs, long-since drained of muscular power, turning the pedals. The photographer taking pictures from the side of the road didn't even have to break into a jog to pop his card into my jersey pocket.

I stopped this time at the Tom Simpson memorial, puzzling at the random collection of tokens and trinkets left as a mark of respect - an inner tube? - before making one final gargantuan effort to reach the top. By this time it had the feel of a fairground being packed up at the end of the day. There was the obligatory glory shot, this time holding three fingers up in the extremely vain hope some bystander might notice and politely enquire if the number of digits could happenchance indicate the number of ascents of the mountain I'd made that day. As if.

Nope, nobody noticed. And thus the fourteen thousand and something-tieth member of the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux crept, inconspicuously into the annals. Only, err, the race card, which likely lies rotting in a gutter in Malaucenne, wasn't actually officially stamped at each checkpoint. At the time of writing, an appeal to the organisation's administrators to accept digital evidence is ongoing.

Groucho Marx once said he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. Tell you what, if old Groucho had squeezed himself into some lycra bib shorts and toiled up all three sides of Mont Ventoux in a day, under the sun and into the wind, he'd have worn that club badge with pride.

The other brother

Family holidays aren’t what they used to be. In our pre-cycling, before-Broleur days, vacations were all about the beaches, the restaurants, the local patisseries, seeing the sights, chilling out, maybe reading a book and spending quality time with loved ones. Or at least I think they were, it’s hard to remember life BC (Before Cycling).

Now, pre-holiday planning includes three vital questions: Is there a bike rental shop nearby? Are there any iconic climbs in the vicinity? How much riding can I get away with?

My bro is lucky (or unlucky depending on your viewpoint) in that he has two typical teenagers who are mortified by MAMILs, despair of ‘Dad dancing’ and actively (or inactively in the mornings) seek to minimise time in their parents’ presence.

I, on the other hand, have a five-year-old ‘Daddy’s girl’, who wants to spend every second with me. Lord knows why, I don’t even like my own company, but long may it continue - I figure I’ve got another seven years before I become a cringeworthy embarrassment to her.

So while the bro was thrice scaling Ventoux, I was pootling around Rehoboth Beach in the US with my daughter on a ‘tagalong’. But, you know what? It was ace. And all the better for the running commentary: “Pedal faster, Daddy!” “Pretend I’ve fallen off and you can’t find me.” “Pretend the floor is lava. 3, 2, 1, Go!” “Guess what, Daddy, guess what?!” “Are we going to crash?” A truly happy, special time, especially as my wife came along for the ride too. For once, I was sharing my passion rather than keeping it to myself.