I began to love cyling as a teenager when I borrowed my Cousin’s bike and cycle all around the Village where I lived. But the real change for me was when I went into ‘The Bike Shop’ in Falkirk in 1986 and looked up at all the bright colours and chrome that glinted in the sun. In those days there was no aluminium and carbon fibre, it was steel and soldered lugs that defined the quality of a bike.
Words & Pictures by Bobby Bateman
Then of course the equipment was either budget UK brands or the exotic Campagnolo groupsets that were reserved for the true enthusiast who could afford it. That was the point that I became obsessed with cycling. At this point Gordon McKechnie, who in 2017 climbed Mont Ventoux with me, would have been seven years old. Although I did drift away from competitive cycling for a number of years I always felt passionate about the sport and always enjoyed the freedom of just me and my bike pounding in the miles. So, the Ventoux trip, well it was a trip that was nine months in the planning, nine months of anticipation, nine months of trepidation for we have never attempted anything like it. My companion in this journey would be one of my best friends Gordon McKechnie, a relatively newby to the sport but someone who instantly loved cycling and felt the same passion as me and had some good success as a Time Trialist in the Aberdeen area.
The trip to the Alps was always going to be a short one due to family and work commitments so choosing the route and particularly the climbs was paramount. The Ventoux was actually an add-on as we had already chosen the Alpe d’huez with it’s 21 hair pins and Tour de France history. I remember watching Hinault and Lemond in 1986 battling it out in the Tour de France and Alp d’huez played a big part in that. We flew into Lyon, picked up the hired car and travelled to Grenoble where we would be based for the four nights. We quickly unpacked our bikes, made a few mechanical repairs to Gordon’s bike as he’s not known for his mechanical expertise, then set off on a short reconisence tour around the area. The accommodation was basic but meeted our needs. Only issue was that there was no air conditioning so we had to sleep with the windows open and were awoken every morning by the local bin men emtying the garbage every morning at 5am. The next day was a bit tougher, almost 80 miles in spectacular scenery capturing Alpe d’huez and a good warm-up for the days to come.
it was a ride of a lifetime and we loved every minute of it.
The next day was, without a doubt, one of the most memorable days I have ever had on a bike. We only cycled 12 miles, straight up the Col du Galibier from the south side to watch the Tour. Three hours of standing around for a few minutes watching the toughest athletes in the world pass by with incredible ease….worth every minute. While standing there looking down the imense valley with the road winding left to right with each hair-pin I had a cold realisation that the following day was going to be tough….very tough….tougher than I had thought.
On a high from the day we tried to get a good sleep for we knew it was going to be the toughest day on a bike we had ever done…..and we were right. Climbing the Col du Glandon, Col du la Croix de Fer, Col du Telegraphe and the Col du Galibier in one day is a tough day for the Pro’s never mind two club cyclists like us, but it was incredible. Filled with highs and lows, times of elation and times of desperation, it was a ride of a lifetime and we loved every minute of it.
But there was more, how could we top that? As a passionate cyclist and loving the history of bikes and bike racing, I remember watching the old black and white footage of Tommy Simpson and his final days on the lunar landscape of Ventoux and here we were heading there one week after the 50th anniversary of his death.. Filled with admiration that someone would push themselves so hard for something that they love, a love and passion that I shared. Gordon was the one who had suggested that we were close enough that we could drive there and tackle this beast, take her on and see if we can give it justice. We had no choice, we couldn’t head home knowing that it was so close and not ridden it.
As we approached the area there was no doubt that the mountain in the distance was Ventoux, with it’s distinctive silhouette on the skyline, very unlike the other climbs that we had tackled the previous days that were nestled in amongst the jagged line of Alp after Alp. Arriving at Bedoin we quickly found a car park and headed for some lunch. We had nearly three hours of climbing in-front of us and needed some sustenance. The Cafe was right at the side of the road and it was sunny and warm. We had a quick bite to eat then headed back to the car. I remember local people stopping to admire Gordon’s Cervelo S5 as we put on our gear in the back of the hired car.
There was a silence as we got ready…was it nerves or simply enjoying the moment? As we headed out of Bedoin and not really sure where we were going, we just kept heading up-hill until we seen a sign that simply said LE Mt VENTOUX 22, there was no doubt where we were going. It was a slow gradual climb at first and quite pleasant but the turn into the tree line see’s a marked increase that defines the climb. Now with ten miles of over 8% enclosed by trees waiting for that glimpse of the summit that we know so well.
The sky’s were now overcast and this only added to the drama with the shadows rolling over the white moonscape
Our legs sore and tired from the previous days only overshadowed by the surrealness of finally meeting this Giant head on. There is a eerie silence heading through the tree’s with only the occasional gear and road noise of a cyclist descending past at break neck speed. We did have a few stops on the way up to take photo’s, a great excuse to give your legs a break from the continual grind. Finally a break in the tree’s and the first glimpse of the summit. It was exactly as I had imagined. The sky’s were now overcast and this only added to the drama with the shadows rolling over the white moonscape. The silence was broken by a distant roar, not what you would expect on such a cycling mecca but two Nissan GTR’s racing down the mountain as if they were in the world rally championship. Now with less than four miles to the summit and with it in sight we continued on, looking for the Tommy Simpson memorial, not actually sure where it is.
As we kept going I started to wonder if we had actually passed it and kept thinking that at least we will see it on the way back. It’s not a big monument but a worthy one for such a worthy legend of days gone by and seeing it for the first time in the distance as we approached did fill me with a certain amount of emotion. Not for the loss of a friend or someone that I watched live but for the loss of a an icon who had given his life for what he had loved. We had been high spirited for the entire trip, joking around, but now was a time for quiet introspection. Realising how close we were to the top made me think that if he had not collapsed on the last kilometer and had made it to the top, would he have went on to win many more races and even be alive today.
As we reached the summit and felt a sense of achievement we only had time for a couple of pictures when the rain started. The sky’s were black, the wind picking up and we could see the thunderstorm rolling in. Gordon favoured taking shelter in the gift shop, but I convinced him we should make our way back down. We were only a few hundred yard down from the top when the heavens opened and not just rain but hail, the big bouncy hail that stings. Cold and cramping up, as we were always on the brakes, we made our way down, avoiding the debris that has washed over the road. Yet again a distant roar, this time a motorbike with the rider scraping his knee on the road at the corners, clearly a well accomplished rider.
One thing I remember clearly was the change in temperature and my ears popping as we cut through the tree’s. By the time we had got out the tree line the roads were dry and the sun was shining, maybe we should have waited at the top until it had passed.
Now with almost a year gone by I look back on the Ventoux, not as a bucket list or a tick in the box but more as a mark of respect for those thousands of people who cycle to the top every year and pay respect to a fallen hero.