Ultimate Ventoux Tandem Challenge

Thursday 6 July 2017 Filed in: General

Blind stoker Brian Anthony and his pilot Adam Walker complete an epic challenge by cycling up Mont Ventoux no less than 3 times in 24 hours.

Whoever said tandems can't climb hills!

Just before Christmas, realising I reach 50 years old in Oct 2017, I began to ponder about what I could do, to mark the occasion, and challenge myself, and then I realised it will this year be the 50th anniversary of the death of Tommy Simpson, who collapsed just 1Km from the summit of Mont Ventoux during the Tour de France in 1967, the first Englishman to ever wear the Yellow Jersey, a Sir Bradly Wiggins hero of the day.

I was born in Yorkshire, which besides cycling is another passion I love talking about, and since 2004 when I started tandem cycling, my love of this sport has grown. In particular my love of the Tour de France also grew, especially when in 2006 I moved and lived in France for 6 years. In case you don?t know me, I?m also blind, with RP, so since my teenage years, I?ve never had enough sight to ride a solo bike and only took up tandem cycling later on.

So while 'pondering' I began to dream, and the thought of tandem cycling up to the most iconic summit featured on any Tour de France stage began to develop, Mont Ventoux. In 2015, the Tour de France Grand Depart began in Yorkshire, and on Bastille Day, Chris Froom won the summit finish on the top of Mont Ventoux, going on to then win the overall race in Paris too. The crazy notion of taking my own Yorkshire cycling legs up that epic route, the same as where Chris had so convincingly beaten his rivals on that famous Tour stage was so strong, the dream was now set to become a reality!

So, by Jan 1st, I was committed in my own mind on what I will be doing, at some point during the year, but as yet, I had no pilot, tandem, permission off the wife or means to train or let alone organise a cycling venture to France to attempt a ride to the summit of Mont Ventoux. The first waking moment of each day I was thinking 'Ventoux' and the last thing at night the same, not brave enough as yet to share my plans with anyone, fearing a ridicule response or perhaps a reality check on how my 'notion' at the time seemed far from possible.

As well as heading to the local gym at 6am every day, Mon to Fri, I was using Walthew House support to get tandem rides in whenever possible. I still had no pilot confirmed willing or able or even a tandem to take on this venture, but kept positive, my gym training up and my enthusiasm for developing this dream ride.

Over time, everything fell perfectly in to place. Without the tandems from Walthew House or the support of pilots Brendan K, George M, John B, Ian M and Adam Walker, I couldn't possibly have trained enough, and with each, we had our own adventures on multiple trips across the region.

With George Mumford piloting, we completed the Tour de Yorkshire sportive, followed by the Tour de Manc and then finally the Eroica Britannia 100 mile ride in 28C temps all as training exercises, with rides every weekend and extra mid-week evening rides with the other pilots helping, regularly doing 35 miles, 1000m of climbing in an evening, even after being up from 5:20am for the 6am Tabatha & spin sessions.

One particular memorable training session was the time we cycled up from Macclesfield to the summit of the Cat & Fiddle 4 times back to back in a single evening, doing our final descent after midnight, when the moon had risen and the silence along with the whole mountain felt like it was ours alone. We were pushing our legs further and harder, building up endurance and trying all kinds of routes to challenge ourselves.

By March, I had found out about a small group of cyclists fund raising for the Air Ambulance Service, taking on Mont Ventoux in June, and I selected the Children?s Air Ambulance Service to channel my support for the overall charity. This immediately helped me to firm up arrangements, securing Adam as a pilot, and George agreeing to ride solo, but the extra detail with this elite group was that they were going to attempt to cycle up all 3 routes of Mont Ventoux in 24 hours, cycling over half the height of Everest over 86 miles on what potentially could be one of the hottest days of the year.

It didn't faze me, I was one way or the other going to get up that mountain, and it just steered all my training more to ride the hardest and steepest ascents with Adam, building up our endurance and confidence, taking on far steeper routes than are found on Mont Ventoux, but nothing in our region could ever compare to the overall height and continuous ascending gradient of what they call the Beast of the Provence. 4 times to the top of the Cat & Fiddle is only 33 feet higher in altitude than a single ascent of Ventoux, and we were now scheduled to do it 3 times, taking it on to raise money for the Children's Air Ambulance Service on 24th June, and what in reality did indeed turn out to be potentially one of the hottest days of the year.

In the end, George Mumford, my longest standing training buddy took a solo road bike, and Adam/myself used a JD Tandems Orbit Velocity tandem, all 3 of us flying out to France on Friday to ride on the Saturday and return on Sunday 25th June, and then, somehow work as normal in the office on Monday.

So, exactly as planned, we reached the hotel at Malaucene, just at the base of this iconic mountainMont Ventoux, the climb that regularly is featured on the Tour de France and stands on its own, rising impressively to over 1920 meters above sea level, dwarfing everything across the region nearby.

It was 33C on the Friday, when we acclimatised to some extent, testing the bike after putting it together from its shipping, and doing a 10 mile stunning scenic ride around the foot hills. The notion was now a definite dream, we were living it for sure, pinching ourselves on how amazingly awesome the environment was and how our journey in getting there had finally actually happened!

Then, 6:10am Sat 24th June, we set off on ascent number 1 from Malaucene, taking on the northern route to the top. Over the 22Km ascent, every 1Km there was a countdown marking, showing he average gradient for the next Km, so it helped us to pace ourselves, building up confidence as nothing on this ascent went over 11%. We reached the top fresh, confident and amazed, to conquer this mountain once is an achievement on its own, but we had taken it easy, not racing, deliberate to ensure our success overall, keeping back plenty of energy still left in our legs. We then descended fast, handling the hair pin turns across the famous limestone scree to Chalet Reynard, and then onwards down to Bedoin, stopping twice to allow the disks to cool, stretching, shaking our arms from being white from gripping the bars so tight, and taking on more calories at any opportunity, along with water of course.

It was now only 10am, but getting warmer every minute and we only stopped for a chilled cola at the base to turn around and begin another 22Km ascent, but what we also knew was the toughest of all 3. This was the southern ascent now, full sun, heading towards the hottest part of the day, but thankfully it included some cover from the section of forest.

After the initial 4Km, at 4/5% ascent, the road ramped up, heading to 8/9% and then in to a stretch through the forest, where the one and only hair pin turn is found, and the road once more continued to rise and gently curve around the mountain, but now reaching 10/11 and 12/13% sections. From there up until 17Km, the gradient never reduced below 9%, testing how effective our training and determination was now going to prove. This part was truly brutal!

We kept going, ticking off the kilometres, chatting occasionally but noticeably less to each other, conserving energy and passing many bikes, while some also raced past us. This was relentless, hot, sweat sizzling on my arms and the heat in the air made my gasping felt like I was chewing the heat.The roads were still quiet, but more traffic, lots of times when you could smell the burning breaks and hear the struggling clutches of cars coming down, but the surface was made for bikes, now glassy smooth but a century old.

The massive tower structure on the summit finally appeared, but was hardly getting closer, no matter how many kilometres we ticked off, keeping our cadence going, constantly fighting the gradient and desire to pull over to rest. From Chalet Reynard, the gradient reduced to 8%, now we were in to the moonscape zone, taking the hair pin turns the final 6Km to the summit through the limestone scree, still not stopping quite yet to pay respects to the famous Tom Simpson memorial. So, pushing on, after over 2 hours of uphill cycling, we finally made it again to the summit, elated at knowing the third & final ascent from Sault is known to be the least steep, but the longest at 26Km. We were buzzing with confidence now, with no cramp, fatigue or aches, all very doable surely now! Eating and drinking consistently had definitely helped, along with the mass of endurance and hill climbing we'd trained for.

So next we flew down the longest descent in to Sault, which passed stunning lavender fields, which although I couldn't see, I could certainly smell, rows and rows of beautiful purple flowers. We didn't need to stop on this 26Km descent, disk pad cooling not necessary with it being less steep but longer and it rewarded us with fantastic views for Adam. It was the only descent where my ears didn?t pop either, amazing to ride at such speeds and drop in altitude in such a location. Sault is a beautiful ancient village, ample shade, outlets selling their lavender honey, but we didn?t hang about, knowing to stop would just risk us running out of water on the ascent, so we pretty much just turned the bike 180 degrees and set off again! Another place we?d like to return to one day for sure!

For this last ascent, we absolutely made sure we were going to enjoy every minute of it, taking it easier still, especially as by now, the temperatures had risen to 41C at one point. On this leg, we passed once more but this time stopped at the famous Tommy Simpson memorial. Taking a few minutes to read the inscriptions on the polished granite memorial, and look at the items left by other cyclists; caps, bottles etc., and we admired the impressive structure as a tribute to such a remarkable cyclist in history. Leaving my own memento, my Yorkshire flag for him, we respectfully set off, literally cycling just another 1Km to reach the summit for our last and final time. Poor Tommy had been so alarmingly close to the top, and I'll be certainly thinking of him this July 13th on the 50th anniversary when he collapsed after his last words were famously reported as asking to be put back on his bike.

Our 3rd summit arrival of the day, awesome, and as much as I tried to film and photo our setting, the crowds were cheering, clapping and pointing cameras at us, so rare has a tandem been seen to reach this amazing summit!! It felt like we were on top of the world, views to the south of the flat countryside towards Avignon, and to the north and east the Pre Alps, and the Alps beyond that.

It was still 34C, we drank more water, eat as many salty snacks as possible to replenish what we'd lost, and then we flew, charging with the most immense satisfaction on our achievements down the final descent back to Malaucene! Each descent taking almost 30 minutes, with Adam over the bars pulling hard on the breaks, while I sat up tall on the back, holding my arms out alternately to catch the wind and add breaking resistance to the bike. For sure, it was another achievement to have done the whole ride on a single pair of disk pads, no cooked breaks, blown tyres or mechanical problems at all! Fantastic piloting by Adam!

At the base, we took a new route, bypassing the hotel entrance, heading direct, without passing go or stopping to smell the lavender, but direct to the nearest Malaucene bar! We each enjoyed a full cold grand Bi?re Pressio/draft beer and I was so satisfied in knowing for sure that the last 6 months of training, eating well, being careful what I drank, and losing a stone in weight was all now at an end!

Still counting, but we've fund raised over £3000, promoted the activities of both the Air Ambulance Service and Walthew House, and inspired many others hopefully to do whatever they can to make a small difference, to challenge what might initially feel impossible and to not fear trying to conquer a dream, no matter what their abilities or disabilities.

In my own way, I took a part of me with my Yorkshire flag along the same route as the late Tommy Simpson, leaving it there as a gift to the memorial, and then just as Chris Froom did in 2015, I too made it to the summit! Only later did I share with Adam how I'd also taken a couple of bits of rock from the limestone moonscape summit to take home to my geology enthusiast daughter, laughing as I showed him the particularly large sample we'd been carrying for the last bit of the ascent and final descent. So as a trophy from the mountain marking my 50th year, I gave my daughter one of the rocks, and then showed her the second, the bigger clump, challenging her one day to visit herself and to return it for me.

If you enjoyed reading to here, then do please take a look at the story updates posted here and consider a donation too may be!! JustGivingUltimateVentouxTandemChallenge

Epilog: I am indebted and want to give a massive thanks for my family for tolerating my physical & mental absence over the last 6 months, with this dream dominating every waking moment, and then of course thanks to my great friends and pilots Ian, George, Brendan, John, and especially Adam Walker, who after only 20 minutes of tandem cycling experience with me, was crazy enough to agree to pilot me and join in with this epic venture. We nailed it mate!

You can watch a short video hereUltimateTandemChallenge


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