MONT VENTOUX

2021

 
PRE TM (a brief cycling and general background):

I started cycling ‘seriously’ when I was 17 years old and raced for around 13 years between 1980 and ‘93. I wasn’t too bad at it and competed on both road (massed start races and time trials) and track – primarily in the south and south-east of England. I starting riding for the Feltham Road Club then moved through the Fareham Wheelers, Antelope Racing Team and, for the majority, the Portsmouth based V.C St.Raphael.

Back in the 1980s….

I decided to take a year out in ‘93 as my performances were not at the level that should have been (down on training due primarily to work commitments) so I took the opportunity to learn to ride a motorcycle- as that was something I had been considering for sometime. I passed my motorcycle test 3 days after my first ride, but a year later had an accident (non-fault) involving a police car that pulled out in front of me and caused a full rupture of the cruciate ligament in my left knee (this is significant in the context of the overall story). Thinking that my cycle racing career was over (I was planning a serious veteran career) I continued officiating at races (in both car and on the motorcycle) but, as time moved on, I ventured into motorsport and competed reasonably successfully for a number of years – starting with sprint racing and moving on to circuit races. Again, I was reasonably successful and won a number of championships sprinting a TVR (a marque I got into following the compensation payout from the accident in ‘93) and then circuit racing a Ferrari 355 Challenge car (winning the British Club championship in 2004 after runner up the previous year). Cycling took a backseat through all this but I carried on riding and recovered some interest early in the new century, with this expanding following an encounter with a number of former racing colleagues in 2006. I purchased a new
Colnago Dream from Mike Perry at Maestro (carrying a trend that started in the 1980s) and started putting some miles in, which then increased substantially when my late partner, Su, contracted cancer the following year. 

I moved in with Su and rode every day at her home in Eastbourne – alternating between a short flat ride east and a longer ride west through the town and up to Beachy Head. The bike was a distraction from what was an extremely difficult time and, as Su’s condition deteriorated, I purchased another Colnago (a C50) to keep at her house so I could use the Dream on our few excursions back to my home. Su died in July 2008 and, after returning home, I covered the C50 up and it remained that way in my garage for around 7 years. I scaled down the cycling for a couple of years but started more frequent
rides, for fitness, when I started seeing Zoe in 2011. Zoe lives in Norfolk and my interest in cycling started to come back very slowly through a couple of rides every weekend I was there. Things took a turn in 2017 when I purchased a new Colnago C60 with a view to riding it abroad (and possibly trying an occasional time trial again) and a driving on holiday to Tuscany took us over the Stelvio Pass to Milan; visiting both the Colnago museum in Cambiago and the Alfa Romeo museum in Arese – two visits that certainly had a significant impact on my life! The former further rekindled my interest in cycling and more bikes joined the collection (including the C64 launched on Ernesto Colnago’s birthday in 2018 – by unfortunate coincidence the same day that my mother died). I took
the C60 to France in the summer of 2018, only a few weeks before my holiday in Japan…and the sudden onset of transverse myelitis. 

Post TM (and the idea of Challenge-TM):

I couldn’t ride a bike for many months and my first attempt ended in tears as I struggled to cover a few miles on my mountain bike on the road. I persevered briefly and struggled through 2020, riding primarily as a way of therapy and also to maintain some level of fitness (as best I could in the circumstances). Zoe and I took a holiday in late 2020 in a campervan in Scotland and during that trip bumped into a contact from Twitter who was cycling around the Scottish coast with a couple of his friends. He contacted me the next day to advise that he had encountered a chap called Andrew Paddison who was riding a hand-cycle around the North Coast 500 raising money for charity. Andrew is a Thalidomider and his team produced an excellent video detailing his ride. Andrew’s activities sat in my mind and, a few weeks later (when I had a particularly decent ride around my home town of Lee-on-the-Solent) I came up with the idea that maybe I should have a go myself at raising funds and awareness for transverse myelitis. It literally took a few minutes to decide that I should aim to do something I’d always wanted to do – ride up a Grand Tour mountain!

The ‘eureka moment’ literally happened when I was sat in the bath with a cup of coffee, having ridden my Dolan winter bike for 4 laps of the town and achieving a better time that I had to that point. The obvious mountain was Mont Ventoux, made famous primarily by the tour de France and the sad demise of Tommy Simpson in 1967. The very form of the mountain and it’s appearance makes it iconic and to me it had to be the target. I contacted Mellow Jersey (the company that accompanied Andrew Paddison on his ride) and we hatched to plan to take on Ventoux.

I established Challenge-TM as a company and set up this website in order to act as the focal point for my activities. My specific objective was simply to target companies with whom my own company did business with (or used to facilitate our own activities). I initially had no intention of hitting random businesses, friends or strangers and trusted that those who knew me at work would appreciate what I’ve been through and would support me in my quest to ride the mountain. This approach worked well but I was continually asked by friends and individuals whether they could support me too and, in the end, I chose to open the door wider. This decision introduced over 60 supporters on top of the 22 business pledges and I ended up with over £30,000 pledged before I departed for France in September (against an initial target of £25,000). My training regime leading up to Ventoux is summarised elsewhere (here) and I was not planning to
try to ride any major mountains in advance…as otherwise why would it be a challenge? Zoe and I took a trip to Wales in July to test whether I could cover the distance on a less severe climb (The Bwlch from Port Talbot – known by some as Britain’s Ventoux…it isn’t!). I needed to assess whether my gearing would be adequate and, most importantly, how my body fared with a continual climb. The former was questionable although I did the climb twice and ascended on a higher gear the second time. I did attempt to secure a lower gearing ratio for Ventoux but the rear mechanism was not big enough to allow for anything larger than a 29 tooth sprocket and, therefore, I bit the bullet and accepted that I ought to be able to get up there on what I had. My body seemed to deal with the
Welsh climb without too much of an issue save for the continual intense burning sensation in my feet, back and, increasingly, my thighs and quads. 

Ventoux:

My business partner, Nick, accompanied me on our drive down to Bedoin (where we met up Martin and Alan from Mellow Jersey). I took two bikes (the 2017 Colnago C60 and 2018 C64) and 10 carbon Campagnolo wheels in total (plus a pair of non carbon wheels with spare brake blocks in case of really bad
weather). Basically, I had wheels to climb on – with spares in case of a puncture – and wheels to descend on (if I chose to do so) also with spares. The descending wheels were on tubular tyres as I used to be a pretty quick descender and I didn’t want to run the risk of a high speed blow out on
carbon clinchers plus consideration had to be given to the effects of the TM on my balance and reaction times. With over £30,000 riding on the challenge I made sure to cover every eventuality in terms of kit, clothing and tools. 

We arrived on a Saturday and everything was focused on my being able to ride to the top within a couple of days of arrival. The ‘perfect world’ scenario was a warm-up ride on Sunday followed by the Ventoux attempt on the Monday which, if successful, would then lead to a short recovery ride day on Tuesday. The plan on Wednesday was to assess how far I could cover in one relatively flat ride and, following another short recovery on Thursday, maybe a second Ventoux ride on Friday. I reckoned that if I could ride it twice in a week than maybe next year I could ride all three ascents as my next challenge. Well, you might as well set your sights high but unfortunately everything went a little bit pear- shaped early on during the week when my first attempt to ride Ventoux failed after 2 hours on the bike and with the summit in sight (albeit over 3 miles away). 

My first ride in France on the Sunday (Martin riding with me and Alan in the van) was reasonably comfortable, with the top of Ventoux visible wherever we went. It was quite a daunting sight and, to be honest, I had grave reservations that I was going to be able to get anywhere near it on the Monday. 

We set off in the van early on Monday morning and drove across to Sault – the starting point for the easiest ascent (joining the steeper Bedoin climb at Chalet Reynard, some 3 miles from the summit). My nerves were on edge on the drive over as the roads we were on had some pretty long and steep ramps and I really did not feel comfortable that I could achieve what I set out to do. I had chosen not to ascend Ventoux by any other means prior to my ride as I did not want my brain to psych me out before we tried it. The guys had put the wind up me a bit by telling me that we had a short 10% section at the start of the climb but that turned out, after a short warm up, not be an issue. 

I was more relaxed once I was on the bike and the first few miles through the woods were relatively straightforward. Yes, I was probably over-geared compared to some people but I was comfortable that I could do it and, whilst I remained in my lowest gear and pedaling reasonably well, I was very much aware that things would get tougher nearer the top. I set out to keep something in reserve but little did I know that time was against me. Cutting through the woods on the road ridden only a few weeks before by the Tour de France was quite surreal. Martin and I were literally riding on our own with only a couple of other riders
encountered (one of those overtook us on an electric bike, to much abuse and laughter!).

As we closed in on Chalet Reynard things eased for a period and I moved up through the gears and felt very comfortable – it transpires that we had changed direction significantly and the wind was favouring us. Needless to say I was not really aware of the wind direction although I did have one twang of concern at one point that my legs didn’t seem to want to turn very well, this soon eased and once we got to the Chalet we cleared the trees and the next stage of the climb came in to view. I was met with something that looked far too daunting. 

The first ramp out of Reynard looked like hell and whilst probably only around 10% it looked to me more like 50…I can’t deny that I swore loudly! We rounded a left turn at the bottom and I focused on a couple riding a hundred yards ahead of me and got into a rhythm which was very steady with my legs turning well and all seeming okay. As we approached the next right-hand bend I moved to the middle of the road and again was remaining in a very comfortable position until I tried to put in a bit of effort by attempting to lift myself out of the saddle. This did not happen and then my legs started to slow down dramatically. I yelled out, not through pain but frustration, and Alan ran down from his vantage point above us to run alongside me shouting encouragement. Although the gradient was easing it was very apparent to me that my legs were shutting down. Despite screaming at myself as loud as I could and – in full view of a
professional French photographer taking photo’s of riders as they rounded the bend – I had to admit defeat and stop at the side of the road. 

My legs literally would not turn and, when putting down my left foot, my (dodgy) knee buckled and I started to fall to the floor with no support from my legs whatsoever. Alan managed to catch me and Martin dropped his bike and ran over so that I had support from the two of them. I managed to straighten my legs and combined with holding onto the top of the handlebars I felt reasonably stable but was distraught with my ‘failure’ – not helped by watching others cycle by on a slope that should have been easily achievable. Needless to say we had no real idea what had happened as I was not low on energy, my breathing was good and my heart rate was not ridiculous. I tried to climb off the bike but could not lift my feet off the floor and the guys (together with Nick) struggled to sustain my weight as I started to collapse again with the bike still underneath me. It must have looked quite strange and comical from the third-party perspective, particularly as I was riding probably one of the best bikes on the hill that day, dressed in full Assos kit and with a support van. The van wasn’t marked however so there was no evidence to identify what we were doing.

After a few minutes simply standing, it was decided that the only way to get me off the bike would be to remove the seat pin and saddle. Martin went to the van to get the tools and I asked that he also moved it closer as, whilst it was only a few yards away, I suspected I would have a problem reaching it. Removing the seat pin enabled the bike to slide underneath me but, with no handlebars to support my upper body I needed to be held up by two of them – wondering next how best to get me to the van.

In the end all three guys had to escort me physically to the step on the side of the Vivaro and Martin had to lift my feet one at a time on to the step as I had no ability to raise them off the ground. When on the step we then had a problem with getting me in and it led to a pretty un-ceremonial grab of my backside and push – leading me to belly flop onto the bench seat. I just about managed to pull myself into a sitting position but felt pretty pathetic, useless and pretty much a failure – even though I knew what I had achieved was probably impossible to most other people who had suffered with my condition. Alan and Martin proclaimed that it was still a hell of an achievement and I was probably the first full paralysis TM sufferer to get that far (if any others had even tried it). I had been on the bike for 2 hours and 16 seconds (may longest ride since paralysis) and was only 3 miles from the top. We drove back down the mountain which by then was just a mass of activity. I was both pleased that we had set off early and also that we have not tried the ascent from Bedoin (as it looked a complete
bastard!). Upon returning to our house I had to be carried in from the van by Alan and Martin and dumped on the sofa where I basically sat for the next few hours hours with a coffee and staring into space. I could not physically lift myself up and if I was helped up I couldn’t lower myself back down again
without support as my legs had nothing in them. It was probably after a couple of hours that I typed my first report to my sponsors (attached) and put something on Twitter. The immediate feedback was great and the support received extremely humbling and flattering to what I done.

It soon struck me that failing to get to the top was probably a greater achievement than had I ridden all the way in one go as questions may well have been asked about how easy it really was. The very fact that I collapsed and was unable to walk – as well as having to contend with intense nerve pain to get there
– was pretty much applauded by all concerned and I was amazed at the amount of re-tweeting and referencing of my ride on Twitter.

I felt pretty flat all through the Monday evening and when I went to bed, but I woke on the Tuesday morning with my brain buzzing over the reality of the situation and whether I could feasibly start again from where we left off and get to the summit later in the week. It set me a target and I told the guys that we were going to go back. They set off to check out a longer ride for me at some point as there was still the task of trying to establish how far I could go on a relatively less strenuous ride. I still couldn’t stand or sit without some means of support and there was certainly no guarantee that I could ride a bike again during the week.

I rested through the Tuesday and we dropped any plan for a long Wednesday ride in favour of a couple of steady hours to establish whether I could cycle for any period of time without issue. In the end Alan and I had a fantastic ride to the north of Ventoux (with Martin in the van this time) on a road that was quite simply stunning to ride. As a test to me it proved that I could cover a short distance, could climb (both on and off the saddle) and my legs, albeit feeling strange, were capable of turning. The most critical thing was actually getting out of the saddle as that is never easy with TM and could have been critical to the overall objective. It’s seems crazy to say that Wednesday’s ride was probably one of the best cycle rides of my life as the scenery was fantastic, the company great
and the roads virtually empty. A bit of climbing, a bit of descending and some confidence building bends – which also bought praise from Alan following behind (on both my lines through the bends and the efficiency of my rim brakes!). We stopped in Malaucene and grabbed a coffee, beer and lunch (the steak tartare was great) and it turned out to be a confidence building day. Thursday was a bit of a bummer for the guys as they went off to get their Covid testing done before their return home at the weekend, only to have a problem with the van. That could potentially have compromised our plans
for the Friday but it was soon resolved (and we gained a second van) and we set off again early on Friday morning with a view to my finishing the climb.

Martin and I took the new van up to Chalet Reynard and I rode back on the Sault road for around a mile just to loosen up – as there was no other place where I could have done it. The road had a fair bit of debris on it from a storm two nights previous and that make me decide that I would not be descending the mountain that day because the surface was questionable and the road debris quite prolific. As we drove up to Chalet Reynard we passed a considerable number of similarly clad Dutch cyclists and walkers climbing Ventoux for charity. I didn’t really want to ride with too many other riders around me but fortunately our starting point was still ahead of where many has got to. Once I had warmed up we put the bike back in the van and drove up the first climb out of Reynard to the very same spot where everything has gone wrong on Monday. I had a pee in the back of the van (unfortunately my condition means I have to self catheterise and I simply cannot do it in open air) and Alan joined us on his bike, having parked the second van at the top with Nick. The guys had to help me climb onto my bike (which was already set in the lowest gear) and it was very evident, looking at the road ahead, that I was going to change up gears fairly quickly. Once on the bike I told them I was off and just rolled on up the road – immediately changing up a couple of sprockets and gaining on the first Dutch guy we encountered. 

Alan caught up very quickly and we rode along together on what was quite frankly a stunning day with a strong wind from one particular direction.

The wind was evident in a couple of places but generally manageable…until the penultimate right-hand bend! As we neared the summit, with no discomfort on my part whatsoever, everything went wrong the minute we turned into the headwind directly. My legs immediately started to slow and upon Alan asking if I was ok, I had to answer “no”. Alan dropped his bike on the verge and ran alongside me, but I was determined to not take my eyes off the focus of the next left hand bend, where I knew the wind would die away and it should then be a relatively easy climb to the summit.

I didn’t really have a lot of time to even look at the Tom Simpson memorial as we went past it as my absolute focus was on just trying to keep my legs turning, despite the gradient and the the strong headwind. It was great having Alan running alongside as a comfort, that if it went wrong he could catch me, but I managed to sustain the rhythm until the next left hand bend where everything suddenly became so much easier. From that point on it really was simple and my legs were turning well.

We caught Nick out (who wasn’t even thinking I’d get that far) as we approached the one aspect of the climb that I had feared all along – the last right-hand hairpin! I need not have worried as I rode around it on the outside and it was very straightforward. Getting to the split road at the top was, to me, the final achievement and I stopped on the new tarmac looking out at what was an incredible sight above the clouds. Got to admit that I was close to tears and overjoyed and the other guys soon joined us to take photo’s and offer their congratulations.

After a few minutes I ascended the final ramp to the control station (as there was a van parked on it and the Dutch were using it for their activities when I first arrived). After a few more photos, an aerobatic fly-past (with smoke) and two French Air Force jets screaming over, I chatted to the Dutch and took in some of the other views – as well as the obligatory pose with the Ventoux sign.

I can honestly say I did feel a bit of a fraud, as I hadn’t climbed the mountain non-stop, but I know that’s a crazy notion given my condition. We were soon joined by a group of British lads who had ridden up from Sault and were just about to descend to Bedoin for a second climb. We encountered them again in the afternoon as, once we had lunched in Malaucene, we drove that road to the top (which itself was quite an amazing sight). We caught the guys on route and it transpired afterwards that they had managed to ascend all three climbs in the day, albeit finishing very late. The three ascents in one day is certainly something I aspire to, but I honestly think it probably will never happen.

I think the my first attempt four days earlier proved that there are issues with TM that neither I nor any of the experts can really fathom. My collapse happened at a few seconds past two hours on the bike, which was my longest ride since paralysis. I was convinced it had nothing to do with my gearing, my feeding or my breathing and I think the second ride proved that to be the case. The TM attack cost me around 22 lb (10 kg) of muscle and a significant amount of this was from my quadriceps. Despite my efforts to rebuild that strength I’m struggling to get there and I’m wondering whether or not I have reached the best of my ability and the issues with my brain/nerves and the overall effects of the condition are simply too much to recover from fully. Hopefully I can meet up with a neurologist who wants to share these experiences and study what’s going on further (and moves are afoot to try and establish a way of looking into what’s happened to me).

It would be wrong for me to discount the fact that many people who cycle Ventoux stop on route for a coffee, photograph, comfort breaks etc and that, maybe, it was a tall order for me to try to achieve it in one go. But, as I said earlier, there is no point having a challenge if it’s not literally a challenge – and a challenge has as much right to fail as succeed. We know that my attempt to ride it again in 2022 will confront me with exactly the same issues and all I can do in advance is try to regain some additional strength and lose some weight, as both combined should make a difference. Maybe trying a bit harder on the lower slopes to reduce the time on the bike may make a difference as I do not know (yet) whether the two-hour window is basically the limit to my activity.

It was great to be able to confirm to people that I had gone back and again I was flattered and humbled by some of the comments I received. I’d like to think I have raised awareness of the condition but it’s disappointing that, as I write this, I have yet to commit any of the funds raised to find other TM sufferers needing assistance. My view is if I do not spend the money raised in 2021 then I have no chance of raising much in 2022…watch this space!

There might be a couple of other changes for 2022, insofar as the fact that I will be riding in my own “Challenge-TM” jersey (designed in association with Assos of Switzerland) and possibly on a different bike (I was disappointed that my approaches to Colnago in 2021 did not bring forth any words of
encouragement – despite my owning 14 of their bikes!).

Thanks for reading this far and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you want to chat through my experiences.

The two summaries below (in Word format) were produced for my corporate sponsors following the first ride on the mountain and a summary of the second day written a few days later. These may give an insight on how I felt on the days concerned.

Ventoux Day 1

Ventoux 2