Ventoux needs little introduction, but in case you’re one of the few non-cyclists who read this blog, you should know that it’s one of the most iconic climbs of European cycling, notorious for claiming the life of British Tour de France rider Tom Simpson in 1967 (though alcohol and amphetamines also played a part); feared for its unrelenting gradient and the fierce winds that roar around its upper slopes (the clue’s in the name: venteux = ‘windy’); famous for being really really hard, no matter who you are. In marked contrast to all the other difficult climbs I’ve ridden over the years, it’s not a pass (the lowest possible route through a mountain range) – it’s a peak. The road winds its way across the barren limestone landscape, all the way to the very top. It’s a folly, in many senses. It won’t get you anywhere. There’s no reason to go up there other than to destroy your legs and admire the view. Otherwise, if you really needed to be on the other side of it, it would take far less effort (and probably not much more time) to take a longer route around its base.
Attempting a climb like this for the first time you’d want to be fresh, and well rested. You’d want to have spent the previous evening carb-loading, followed by a good night’s sleep, you’d want to be wearing clean shorts (or perhaps even brand new ones), you’d want to be in a good mood, energetic, raring to go, excited about what lay ahead. I was none of these things.
Deprived of the catharsis and comfort of seeing Juliana, I found there was nothing left in me but exhaustion, and knew already that this was a deeper tiredness than could be remedied by a square meal and an hour or so of sitting around. But there was nothing else I could do. ‘I’ll rest and eat’ I told myself, ‘then I’ll make a start on the climb.’ Put like that it sounded like a plan. But I knew it would take more than that. What I needed was a day off. Maybe a week off. I was finished. But I couldn’t be – I still had over three-quarters of the race ahead of me. And Ventoux. I hadn’t even got to the hard bit yet.
There didn’t seem to be many restaurants in Aubignan, and the ones I did find weren’t open yet. I did a couple more torturous circuits of the town, looking for something I could eat, but even the supermarket was closed. Eventually I settled for a bar where the waitress had told me they started serving pizza at 6pm – still half an hour off, but what did it matter? There was nothing else I could do with that time. I’d have to climb Ventoux in the dark (despite my optimistic projections of the previous night), but since the climb currently looked impossible anyway, one more element of difficulty didn’t seem to make much difference. I sat myself down on the outside edge of the terrace, remembering that the waitress hadn’t smiled at me as I walked in, worrying that I wasn’t welcome, with my dishevelled appearance and sweaty lycra, trying to calculate how long it had been since I last had a shower (76 hours), since I last washed my hair (130 hours), wondering how bad I really smelt, since I was largely oblivious to it myself.
The pizza I eventually ate wasn’t anywhere near enough. I could have had the same again, but I feared the waitress’s disapproval. I settled for a plate of tiramisu, and as much water as I could drink. I didn’t feel any better for eating. Maybe there was nothing for it but to give in and sleep for a while. I still had about 20km to go before I started the climb, and the heat was beginning to drain out of the day as the shadows lengthened and the sun sank over the luminous Provençale landscape. I got back on my bike, telling myself that I could stop any time I wanted to, that perhaps a couple of hours’ snooze in a field might sort me out. But I knew that it would probably have as little effect as the pizza I’d eaten. I might as well just carry on, and quit delaying the inevitable. I stopped at a fountain in Caromb and threw water over my face and arms and legs. It didn’t help. I stopped in Bédoin and drank an espresso. It didn’t help. The mountain loomed over me, its peak still glowing with the light of day while shadows fell everywhere around me.
It’s difficult to explain what I was feeling as I pedalled slowly towards the start of the climb. I wasn’t afraid – I hadn’t the energy for such grand, decisive emotions. Instead I had a sense of what lay ahead of me being impossible, but also inevitable. There was no way of avoiding this, and at the same time I knew that I hadn’t the strength to see it through. But nor did I have the imagination to find any better solution than just carrying on. So carry on I did, through the outskirts of Bédoin, past its low stone walls and olive groves, under an apricot sky in air that smelt of lavender.
Km 1-4 – Hannah
As I turned onto the road that would lead me up to the summit of Ventoux I felt something break inside me. It was nothing like you might imagine – nothing like I myself had imagined when speculating on what terrible things might happen to me during this race. Nothing snapped, or cracked, or shattered. Instead it felt more like melting; a gentle, delicate collapse, like a body falling exhaustedly into sleep after a long day’s work, like a final, blessed surrender. I felt myself start to cry, but in a way that was more a merciful release of tension than the expression of pain.
I had been here before, just once in my life, and always wondered when I might go back. The day after I finished my 11-day dash through eastern China in 2012 (riding over 100 miles a day to beat a visa deadline; at that point the hardest ride I’d ever attempted) I stepped off the ferry in Incheon and started to ride the 50km to Will and Julie’s house. Normally this would take me less than three hours. That day it took me 12. I got lost. Impossibly lost. For hours and hours, as the sky darkened around me and the rain came down, I pedalled exhaustedly through the edgelands and industrial areas of Seoul and Incheon, following signposts that led me persistently round in circles, backtracking again and again, frequently despairing that I would ever find a way out of this nightmare. Having slept through most of the ferry crossing, I had more-or-less forgotten that I was significantly depleted by my exertions in China, but this must have had something to do with the fact that, eventually, I just broke down.
I have always been anxious to stop myself from crying in situations like this, imagining that if I give in to the tears then it’s all over, and I’ve failed, and the final remnants of strength and resolve that I was trying to hold onto will be swept away in the ensuing tide of salt water. But sometime late that evening I ran out of the strength I was using to hold them back. Sheltering under a bridge next to the Han River, I sobbed out loud for a few minutes, not caring who saw or heard (though there was no one really about). Then I made a discovery that surprised me: this wasn’t the end after all. I got back on the bike, and I carried on pedalling. And crying. My sobs were gentle, soft, calm, almost like breathing. For half an hour or so I cycled along weeping quietly to myself; then my mood shifted, the rain stopped, and I finally found myself on the right track.
I turned this episode over in my head afterwards. I’d heard that pushing yourself hard on the bike could have strange effects – friends who’d done long Audaxes had reported hallucinations after riding for 24 hours without sleep – but I’d never known there was a crying stage. ‘It’ll be easier next time,’ I told myself. ‘Last night I thought I was going to lose it. Next time I’ll know it’s just the crying stage.’
Three years later, here I was again, at the crying stage. A couple of tears ran down my cheeks, and a few sobs escaped my lips, quickly dying down into whimpers. Any resistance I had left in me melted away. I hadn’t broken, I realised; I had dissolved. And yet somehow I was still here, still cycling. I thought about an email a friend had sent me the previous day, in response to some of my enthusiastic burbling about how much fun I was having cycling through France.
I love that you’re loving it. If you stop loving it (or have a moment where it becomes type 3 fun) I’ll still love that. Basically, it seems you can do no wrong.
This wasn’t the first expression of unconditional love I’ve ever received, but it was one of the few I’ve managed to take to heart.
‘It doesn’t matter!’ I thought to myself, feeling as if I’d discovered some life-changing secret (which perhaps I had). Suddenly I knew what I should have known all along: that all of these pointless challenges I flog myself through are unnecessary and irrelevant. I am already enough. I am already admired. I am already loved. Perversely, rather than removing any incentive to carry on, this realisation boosted me forward. Perhaps it was because I knew that I no longer had to grit my teeth, gird my loins and grind my way up the mountain, muscles bulging and sweat pouring, constantly wrestling with the urge to give up and the weight of everything I had to prove. There was no more conflict here. All I had to do was keep going. It didn’t matter how slow I was. I didn’t have it in me to race up Ventoux like the hero I wished I was (like I imagined all the men had done), so there was no sense in trying. I could choose to stop, or I could choose to keep going, and if I kept going then I wouldn’t be breaking the promises I’d made to myself when I entered this race back in November.
I thought about Hannah Nicklin, a relatively new friend of mine, and someone I already massively admire, who just the day before had completed her first Ironman triathlon. We had met for lunch in Crystal Palace the previous week (how long ago that seemed now!), to discuss our respective challenges, and our fears, and our coping strategies. Hers were far more developed than mine.
Sitting at a picnic table in a sunny pub garden, with plates of carbohydrate and glasses of tap water between us, she told me about the race strategy she had written; how she had divided the 3.8km swim, 184km cycle and 42km run into 28 half-hour segments; how for the run she had even planned in advance what she was going to think about during each segment, in order to keep herself on track.
I’m going to spend one half hour trying to remember all of the songs that I actually know the words of […], another half hour will be spent counting, turning the world around me into algebra. Then there’s a daydreaming half hour. One small half hour where I get to dream about saving the world and falling madly in love and starting the revolution. Another half hour is the half hour of breathing. Measuring breath to step, and listening carefully to all the sounds around me. [I strongly encourage you to go and read the rest of her blog, here.]
I listened to her, impressed by how thorough and methodical her preparations were. If anyone asked me about my own strategies for when things got difficult (and one or two people already had), all I could offer was some vague mumbling about having done a lot of cycling before, and often found myself at the point where I thought I couldn’t go on, and always somehow muddled through. I had a certain amount of faith in my own resilience, without ever having bothered to think through how this resilience actually worked, and what its limits might be. But I doubted I would ever plan out my race experience as meticulously as Hannah had hers. It just wasn’t my style.
Now I changed my mind. It is 21km to the summit of Ventoux from the start of the climb, and I still knew that that was impossible in my current state. But if I divided the climb into segments of two kilometres… That wouldn’t be so bad. I had already ridden half a kilometre or so just thinking it all over, almost without noticing. So if I could find something to think about for each segment – something to focus my mind on, to distract me from the impossibility of what I was trying to do, to mask my weakness and cushion my fear – all I would have to do is ride for two kilometres, stop, rest, stretch, drink, and then ride for two more. I could do that. I hoped.
Instinctively, I knew what would spur me on. I decided that for each 2km stretch I would think about a woman who inspires me, dedicating that part of the ride to her. Because she had given me the idea, I started with Hannah. I thought about all the many ways in which she has enriched my thinking, as an athlete and as a writer and as an intelligent and inquisitive human being. I tried to remember everything she’d told me about her Ironman preparation, optimistic that I might be able to wring out a few more drops of wisdom to help me with the task at hand. I filled my head with pride for what she had accomplished the previous day, and wondered how she was feeling in the aftermath, and looked forward to the day, sometime in the hazy future, when all of this would be over, and we’d meet up again, perhaps with wine instead of tap water, and compare notes on what we’d been through. I remembered that she, possibly more than anyone else, is one of the people who, in the last year or so, have helped me to realise that ‘sports writing’ need not be the dull, brainless thing it is often reputed to be – that in fact it has the potential to be the most interesting subject in the world, dealing as it does with that intriguing interplay between the human body and the human mind, a relationship still grossly under-examined. I replayed a comment she’d made once, in response to someone else’s remark about ‘keeping on through the pain’ of endurance sports. It’s not about physical pain, she said, not unless you’re pushing through an injury – it’s more of a striving tension. She was right: I knew it then and I knew it even more now, at this moment, on the slopes of Ventoux. It’s not a matter of enduring pain. It’s much more subtle than that. No part of me was actually hurting at this moment, despite the ever-present urge to stop. And why, indeed, did I want to stop when the only way I could conceive of getting myself out of this was to keep going? “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” (Bit of Samuel Beckett for you.) Striving tension. I couldn’t have put it better. Still can’t.
I must have missed a kilometre marker, because the next one I passed told me I was 3km in. Only 18 to go from here. It was now a work in progress.
I thought about Hannah for one more kilometre, thanking her for helping me find a way up the mountain, wondering how she must have felt in the eleventh hour of her Ironman, still with most of a marathon ahead of her, wondering whether her own thought strategy had played out. I visualised her sending me some of the strength she was no longer using, since today, in the aftermath, all she was likely to be doing was sitting, lying, eating and drinking.
At the next kilometre marker I stopped, stretched, peed, caught my breath. I was in no hurry. The sun had now sunk completely behind the low horizon to the west, and the colour was draining from the sky. A couple of cyclists sped down the mountain, doubtless on their way back to their home or hotel, for a shower, clean clothes, dinner, a glass of wine, bed. I wondered what they thought of me, heading foolishly up towards the summit as night fell. They disappeared off towards Bédoin, and the road was quiet once again.
Km 4-6 – Sarah
My next segment was dedicated to Sarah Outen – a former hero of mine who is now a good friend, and who is currently rowing the Atlantic Ocean, the final stretch of a four-year journey, by bike and boat, that has taken her most of the way round the planet entirely under her own power.
It’s not hard to think of things about Sarah that are inspiring. She’s one of the strongest people I know, not only in sheer physical terms (the woman probably has more muscle on a single one of her arms than I have on my entire body), but in the way she has stood up to the numerous challenges and set-backs of her many journeys – physical, psychological, medical, cultural, logistical – with almost unfailing humour and optimism. She looks for the best in situations, and in people – something I myself regularly fail to do.
She might well be rowing at this very moment, I thought, somewhere out there in the great blue wilderness between Cape Cod and Cornwall. The gradient had picked up and I was now out of the saddle, my breathing deep and heavy, settling into the rhythm of my pedalling. I tried to match my exertions to what I imagined might be the rhythm of her oars, wanting to help her home across the ocean as much as I currently wanted her to lend me some of her strength to get me up the mountain. I thought back to the short time I’d spent rowing at university, trying to remember what I knew about technique, to focus on legs-back-arms, to feel the blades locking into the water. For a minute or two I forgot I was cycling, forgot that I wanted to stop, forgot that I couldn’t let myself stop.
When that faltered I thought back to Sarah: thought about all the incredible things she’s achieved (rowing the Indian Ocean at 23; rowing the Pacific; kayaking the Aleutians; cycling across North America in winter), told myself that if she could manage all of that then I could manage to cycle two kilometres up a 9% gradient. I reminded myself that she’d been rowing when I started this race, she’d be rowing all the way through it, and she’d still be rowing for well over a month after I’d finished. And then I remembered one of the tricks she’d told me she used to keep herself going, having first discovered it the night she had to ride 270km through freezing rain in Sakhalin in Russia. She had, she told me, imagined a peloton of everyone she knew riding alongside her, pushing and pulling her along, helping her to keep going. That was effectively what I was doing right now, I thought, as I pulled up next to my sixth kilometre marker, for another sip of water and session of stretching. I was in amongst the trees now, and between their branches I could see the sky rapidly fading to grey. I switched my lights on.
Km 6-10 – Juliana
The next person I invoked was Juliana. It seemed obvious really – and I could already imagine teasing her that she wasn’t using her energy, so I might as well take advantage of it. First I thought, with some curiosity, about what she must have been through over the last three days – the relentless, almost sleepless push down to Aubignan, and then the agony and frustration of watching part of her body fail when her mind and spirit were still ready to go on. I remembered sitting beside her in a darkened theatre in Edinburgh, both of us watching Mike Dion’s film about the 2014 TransAm Bike Race, which Mike Hall won and she finished in 4th place, despite cracked ribs, trapped nerves, and the beginning of the knee problems that had finally defeated her today. I had marvelled then at her persistence, her refusal to stop, her ability to push on through physical pain – knowing already that this was what would ultimately differentiate us when we lined up together for the Transcontinental.
I remembered one scene of the film, towards the end of the race, where she admits to having ridden straight through the night, without a wink of sleep. ‘Ah, I’ll sleep tonight,’ she says, in the dismissive way you might put off cleaning the bathroom or paying your council tax. I watched in awe, having never yet found a way of forcing myself through those moments in the dead of night where my eyes insistently close themselves, even though my legs and lungs are ready to go on, and I have no option but to stop the bike and let myself fall into unconsciousness.
I remembered her telling me, during our ride up to Edinburgh, of how she had struggled towards the finish line in a haze of pain, and still managed to put on a final sprint to retain her place, before collapsing to the ground, and then having to be wheelchaired onto the plane the following day. One day I knew I’d have that sort of endurance. But I didn’t yet. Luckily, there was no pain at the moment – all I had to do was keep going.
By now it was almost completely dark, and all around me were the shadows of the trees, black branches against a grey sky; trunks lining the steep road like a crowd of spectators who’d been waiting for me so long that they’d lost interest and turned to stone. I stopped once or twice to catch my breath, and immediately my bright dynamo light faded to a mere glow and I felt the darkness all around me, hiding and enveloping me, nobody there to see how slowly I was riding, how hard I was breathing, how often I was stopping, how much I was struggling. I remembered a stretch of road Juliana and I had covered in Northumberland, sometime in the early hours of the morning, which had gone up and down, and up, and down – and down – and up – and down …seemingly forever, each descent shooting us straight into the next climb. It was hard, and we were tired. But it was the height of summer, and we were far enough north by then that the sky never quite got dark: dead ahead of us, on the horizon, was a smudge of light that slowly faded from silver-grey to blood-red as sunset joined hands with dawn, and as I crested the top of every hill, I had the sense that I was soaring onwards into a new day. A couple of miles along that road I found I was doing well – that nothing hurt, that my legs felt strong and powerful, and that my lungs were opening up as if they wanted to suck in the whole sky, gallons of air flooding in and out of me with every breath. Part of me still wanted to stop, because it was hard, but carrying on felt wonderful. I didn’t feel like that now, but it was comforting to remember that I had once; that I probably would again, someday. That I still had that fitness in me, even if I couldn’t feel it.
Juliana was a fertile source of distraction – I thought about the lives she lived before I met her, before she even started cycling. I marvelled at how she had one day, while I was already on my round-the-world journey, decided to set a new record for circumnavigation, taken up cycling, trained for eight months, cycled for 152 days, and done it. Three years on, no woman has succeeded in challenging her record.
I thought about how grateful I was for her friendship – how when we’d first met we’d each considered the other something of a hero (me because of her cycling feats; her because of my blog), but then after a couple of beers realized that we also had it in us to be great friends, and how enjoyable – and valuable – it was to spend time with one of the few other people in the world who understands the crazy things I get up to, because she gets up to them herself.
When I got to the eighth kilometre marker I decided to give Juliana another two kilometres, since there was still plenty to think about her, and she had distracted me admirably over the last two. ‘You’re going to have to ride hard for both of us’ she’d said, when she dropped out, and I reminded myself of this – I had to keep going, for her as well as for me.
At about this moment, something quite unexpected happened. Up ahead of me I made out a figure standing by the side of the road. A second later the beam of my front light picked out the reflective bands on his tyres and I could tell that he had a bicycle with him. I wondered whether he might be another racer – and then I realised that the wheels were far smaller than mine, and that he was riding a Brompton. Maybe he was some holidaying eccentric (almost certainly British) who had decided it would be a clever idea to ride up Ventoux on a folding bike and ended up taking longer than he planned and having to come down in the dark.
‘Ça va?’ I called as I approached him.
‘Hallo!’ he called back, as if he’d been waiting for me, which it turns out he had. ‘I am a journalist from German radio. Is it OK to ask you some questions?’ And as I passed him he parked his Brompton by the side of the road and began to jog alongside me, dictaphone in hand.
‘Uhm, yes, OK…’ was I could think to say in response.
There followed probably the most surreal interview I will ever give. I carried on cycling up the darkened road, mostly out of the saddle, since this was one of the sections whose gradient approached 10%, and he carried on jogging alongside me, firing questions at me just as he might if we were chatting over a coffee in London or Berlin. It was too dark for us to see each other’s faces, and I didn’t have enough spare brain power to worry about being polite. (Perhaps I should have pulled over to talk to him, but that didn’t even occur to me until afterwards.)
He asked how I’d found the race so far, and I told him I’d been enjoying it, though of course I’d had a few low points, and I was quite tired now.
He asked if I’d heard that Juliana had pulled out, and I told him I had, and that I was desperately sad about it, that I’d raced for four hours to try and see her before she left Aubignan, and that I was now riding for both of us.
He asked me if I was scared, being out here on my own in the dark, and I replied that, on the contrary, I felt safer – there were fewer cars (and those that did pass me I could see a long way off), it was cooler than it would have been in the heat of the day, and (apart from German radio journalists on Bromptons) few people had any reason to be out on the mountain at this time of night. It was, I realised as I said it, the best time to climb Ventoux, as I had the whole place to myself.
He asked me what my strategy was for the next 24 hours, and I told him I was currently only able to think about the next two kilometres, and was going to have to let the rest of the race take care of itself for now.
After a couple of minutes my surprise at this unexpected ambush became amazement that I was managing to hold an entirely coherent conversation whilst simultaneously riding up Mont Ventoux out of the saddle. I hadn’t realised I had that much breath in me, or that much energy to spare. And yet here I was, bobbing along, breathing deeply, and yet at the same time able to listen to my interlocutor’s questions, and formulate considered responses to them. It was almost as if I were a strong cyclist, who had everything under control, who hadn’t spent the last couple of hours on the verge of collapse.
He ran out of breath before I did, and fell back, wishing me good luck as I pushed on up the hill.
I carried on out of the saddle. It was still hard, but now I was puzzled by this – I clearly had some hidden reserves of energy somewhere, if I’d been able to climb like this and hold a conversation, whilst appearing to be only moderately out of breath. I must have more in me than I realised, even if I wasn’t always quite sure how to access it. As I pushed on, climbing didn’t seem to get any easier, but I held more hope of being able to continue as long as I needed to. Perhaps my body was rationing the energy; holding it back until I really needed it, not wanting me to squander it all on a sprint when I still had so much further to go.
Above me, through the interlaced branches, I could see the stars beginning to twinkle, and a silver moon shone down through the trees, mingling with the beam of my dynamo light. Now and again a breeze stirred the forest around me, and I could hear, at a distance, the big sister of that breeze roaring and echoing around the mountain slopes above me. I had heard and read enough about Ventoux to know that this was only going to get harder once I left behind the shelter of the trees and struck out into the vast barren scree slopes that lead to the summit, putting myself at the mercy of the deadly Provençale wind.
From time to time I would see the approaching lights of a car, long before it reached me. Every time I wondered whether this would be the race car, on its way down the mountain towards Checkpoint 2, and cursed myself mildly for not finding out when this checkpoint actually closed. Perhaps they were already long gone; perhaps they were still there, and I’d make it after all. None of the cars stopped though, or even slowed down. I wondered what their occupants had been doing up Ventoux at this time of night. Perhaps they’d been up there watching the sunset. I wondered what they thought of me, a lonely light, with a lone cyclist behind, plodding slowly up the mountain.
Km 12-14 – Jill
I had passed a couple more kilometre markers before I felt the need for distraction again. This time I thought about Jill Homer – one of the most original (and prolific) writers on endurance sports, and a veteran of the Tour Divide, Iditarod, and numerous snowbike races and ultramarathons. Her athletic achievements are impressive (in fact, to call her ‘impressive’ almost seems inadequate after you really consider what she’s done), but what makes her stand out is her eloquence and her unflinching honesty in recounting what goes through her head, minute after minute, mile after mile, day after day, during the ordeals she puts herself through. I have learned more about the mentality of the long-distance racer from her than I have from anyone else, and it is thanks to her books (and her excellent blog) that part of me already felt at home on this race; that I had some idea of what lay ahead.
Some of the things she has done I still consider impossible (how could a human being keep on running for 100 miles), but I knew that the thing I was currently doing is considered impossible by many. Maybe none of it is impossible. Maybe not knowing how you are going to survive doesn’t mean that you won’t. I kept going.
The trees began to thin out as I approached the junction with the road that led down to Sault. When I was ready to descend the mountain I would retrace my steps to this point, and then turn back north, descending on easier gradients and gentler curves towards Embrun, Briançon, and eventually the Italian border and Checkpoint 2. Next to the junction, sheltered in a fold of the mountain, was Chalet Reynard, during the day clearly a busy tourist trap, with a restaurant, a car park, souvenir kiosks and a large terrace; now shuttered and locked up for the night, and apparently completely deserted.
I pulled in next to Chalet Reynard, glad of an excuse to stop, however spurious. Just at that moment a single light appeared on the hillside, and another racer soared down towards me (instantly recognisable from the Apidura bags on his bike and a strength of his lights), shouting ‘hello!’ as he sped past and onwards up the ramp that led towards the Sault descent. Behind him came a couple more, and we called out ‘chapeau!’ and ‘allez!’ to each other as they passed, their speed and energy and jaunty good humour a contrast to my soft, plodding exhaustion – but also perhaps a foretaste of how things might change if I ever reached the top of this mountain.
I would reach the top, of course, I thought to myself. There simply was no conceivable alternative, unless somehow my life ended during the next 6km (“…or they will find my body in the road“, I thought). And yet, my imagination still failed me when I tried to think about how I would get myself through what remained. There was no comfort in knowing I’d make it, because I still had to endure so much more of this, and my body still felt empty, my limbs soft, my mind limp.
Km 16-18 – Jenny
There was no escape from the wind now, and as I pressed on upwards it roared and surged around me like a wild animal, one moment rushing into my face, so that my weak arms wavered as I tried to keep the bike going in a straight line; one moment bounding down the scree slope that towered above me to my right, threatening to push me right off the road and down the mountainside. I had slowed to walking pace; any slower and the bike would swerve and I’d topple over sideways. A couple of times this nearly happened, and I had to put a foot down for a moment, then wait for a break in the wind in order to push off again, zig-zagging across the road to find the easiest gradient in order to get the bike rolling again. Once or twice I actually got off and pushed, using all of my fading strength to hold the bike upright, cowering as it and I were battered by the wind, straining towards the next bend in the road, where I’d be momentarily sheltered in a fold of the mountain, and could catch my breath, and then get back on.
This was impossible, I thought; it was too hard; my progress was too slow. I had effectively failed anyway, since I was now reduced to walking.
I thought about Jenny Graham, riding, pushing and carrying her bike over mountains and through rivers, in this year’s Highland Trail 550, barely stopping; barely sleeping. When I met her during the Capital Trail ride in June she didn’t seem to think of herself as any sort of hero, even though that’s what everyone was saying about her throughout the race. I thought about how unheroic it must have felt, pushing and pushing and pushing, through terrible weather, sometimes covering as little as 34 miles in 12 hours. Perhaps she had thought herself as pathetic as I thought myself now. But if she had, she was the only one – everyone else, myself included, was in awe of her strength, her resilience, her unswerving determination.
I was still doing it, I reminded myself. As long as I kept moving forward, even if I was walking, even if I had to stop every five minutes, I was still in the race, and I would make it to the top of the mountain, no matter how long it took.
I was well over halfway now and, looking down to my left, over the night-time lightscape of southern France far far below me, I told myself that I must already have climbed over 1,000 metres (that’s a whole kilometre, straight up!), and just for a moment, allowed myself to look proudly back on what I had accomplished so far, rather than fearfully forward at what was yet to come. I no longer felt the urge to stop, I discovered; no longer had any sense of beginning, or end, or of anywhere else I might be. I had become a creature who climbed; there was no room in me for any other impulse; no reason or logic to it; no sense of destination or reward. My awareness was narrowed to the dark road curling up the mountainside ahead of me, the cold moonlight as it fell on the silvery scree slopes all around me, and fierce racket of the wind above my head.
Dimly, distantly, I knew that my arms and legs were light, and weakened, and trembling with exhaustion; that I was slightly too cold in my thin cycling jersey, but stopping to put on another layer was beyond me. I remembered what Reinhold Messner had written about his solo ascent of Everest, 35 years previously.
I can scarcely go on. No despair, no happiness, no anxiety. I have not lost the mastery of my feelings, there are actually no more feelings. I consist only of will.
Maybe that was the stage I had reached – no energy left for any thought or feeling apart from the will to go on. Rudyard Kipling’s lines floated into my head.
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
I’m not usually as moved by this poem as most people seem to be, especially since the final couplet, with its imperialist and patriarchal overtones seems rather to undermine all that’s gone before. (It ends with the words “you’ll be a Man, my son!” so I have always felt that it was not meant for me.) But these lines, at this moment, seemed to capture and explain exactly what was going on in my own mind and body.
I hadn’t the energy to remember them all for more than an instant, but my mind rapidly shaved away line after line, until all that remained, ticking through my head like a metronome, was
except the will that says to you – go on!
except the will that says to you – go on!
except the will that says to you – go on!
I went on. It was all there was to do.
The wind shrieked and bellowed, now dying down for a moment; now pouncing on me as I rounded a spur of the mountain. Sometimes it tossed me from side to side like a dog breaking a rat’s neck. Sometimes I was thumped this way and that like a boxer losing a fight, backed into the corner of the ring, the second before the referee calls off his opponent. Just occasionally it would gather behind me, and lift me gently up to the next corner as if a stronger cyclist were riding alongside me, her hand on the small of my back, helping me along.
except the will that says to you – go on!
The lights of a car appeared round the next bend, and I quickly put my hands back on the drops, and tried to look like I was still a serious cyclist, in case it was the race car. This time it actually was, and I pulled over for a brief chat with Mike and Camille as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world, to run into them on the slopes of Mont Ventoux in the dark.
“You’re nearly there,” Mike told me. “And Kevin and Marion are up there in the red camper, doing the night shift. See you in Sestriere!”
So the checkpoint wasn’t closed after all. And what was more, Kevin and Marion were people I actually knew. Momentarily, I remembered that there was a world beyond the mountain – a world in which everything was not dark, and cold, and windy; a world in which there was comfort, and people. But then the thought was whipped away by the wind, and the darkness closed in again.
I went on. I could no longer hold onto a thought for long enough to keep to my one-person-every-two-kilometres rule, but I snatched at whatever ideas I could as they flew about my head, tossed like bats in the howling wind. I thought about Maria Leijerstam, pushing grimly through the pain as she pedalled up the 25% gradients of the Trans-Arctic mountain range on her way to the South Pole, sacrificing her left knee forever in the process. I thought about Anna McNuff, who just a couple of weeks previously had finished running the length of New Zealand, battling on through injury and exhaustion long after her body had had enough. I thought about Diana Nyad, who swam 102 miles from Cuba to Florida, succeeding on her fifth attempt, at the age of 64, long after most other people would have concluded that this was indeed impossible, and given up.
except the will that says to you – go on!
A flight of steps cut into the mountainside on my right, and I realised I was passing the memorial to Tom Simpson, who had died on this mountain in 1967, four years younger than me, having pushed himself so hard (with the help of drugs) that his heart gave out. It’s traditional for riders to stop and pay their respects at this point, but I feared that if I lost my flow now I’d never get going again, so I gave Simpson a nod as I passed, and wondered if I’d ever be back here, perhaps on a sunny September afternoon, to stop there for a moment or two, and leave my bottle or my cycling cap as a tribute.
I had just over a kilometre to go, and I knew it would be hard won. I could see the summit by now, with its distinctive meteorological tower, but it still seemed far off, and to get there I had to fight my way through gusts of wind that were trying to push me off the mountain as surely as riptides might try to drown me. I edged across the mountainside, clinging on like a fly as it grew steeper and steeper, and the drop to my left became ever deeper, almost a mile of sky between me and the ground. Just after the marker that told me it was 500 metres to the summit, I gave up cycling, got off the bike, and started to push it towards the top, bent double with the effort, braced against the battering wind.
except the will that says to you – go on!
As the mountain narrowed towards its peak I had the sense of scaling a pinnacle, with air around me and beneath me, and the tower still vertically above me, even as I rounded the final bends.
And finally I was there, staggering up onto the flat summit, nothing more above me but the tower, standing resolutely there like a lighthouse on a dark night. And there in its lee was a small red camper van, its windows glowing, a telltale Transcontinental banner pinned to its side.
And now I had all the time in the world. I parked my bike against the side of the building; I rummaged in my seat pack for a malt loaf and my waterproof jacket and gloves, knowing that I’d be freezing cold once the glow of exertion and achievement wore off. And then I strolled over to the door of the camper van, which slid open as I approached, amazed that Kevin and Marion were going to encounter me as the person they’d always known me to be, rather than as an exhausted creature flayed and drained by the climb.
‘Emily!’ said Marion’s delighted voice, and I stepped up into warmth and brightness and closed the door behind me.