Friday 24 November 2017

The long and winding road - five INM writers take on cycling's toughest climb

Fergus McDonnell, Paul Kimmage, David Conachy, John Greene and Joe Brolly prepare for the ascent.
Fergus McDonnell, Paul Kimmage, David Conachy, John Greene and Joe Brolly prepare for the ascent.
The foreboding summit of Mount Ventoux.

Five of our Sunday Independent team — Paul Kimmage, Joe Brolly, John Greene, David Conachy and Fergus McDonnell - took on one of cycling’s toughest climbs, Mount Ventoux. It’s a story of strength, stamina and swearing; a journey of drama, pain and friendship

Part 1:

The Cycle of Life


Five years ago, on a whim, I picked up an old bike that was lying around the house and went for a cycle. A friend joined me and we rambled around some roads in our area for a few hours, and I went home happy. I didn’t know it then, but something had been awakened inside me.

Cycling has given me an energy for life — a positive energy I had not experienced before. For somebody whose only real taste of sport as a kid was golf, this was something totally new. I was in thrall to the freedom, the torture of the climb when there’s nowhere to hide, and the buzz when you are whizzing down a mountain hitting high speeds on two wheels less than an inch thick.

There is no problem too big that cannot be parked for five hours once you escape to the open road. It allows you to take a step back and see things differently. Cycling has the power to heal. It takes you places you haven’t been before; it teaches you more about yourself, and others.

It is not about who has the best bike, or the most expensive gear — it is about being comfortable with yourself. Yes, you are part of a group, but ultimately you are on your own and you learn to be OK with that because, you know what, it’s okay to feel good about yourself.

So, the cycling craze which has swept the country might look like a lot of things to the outsider but really, when you strip away ego and machismo, in my experience it nearly always comes down to the same thing: everybody is on their own journey. Everybody is there for a different reason, and for the coping classes

this is one of the great treatments for the trials and tribulations of everyday life. At least being on the bike

allows you to take control.

We all have mountains to climb but, just like being on the bike, we get better at it.

There’s always another mountain to climb. In May, that mountain was Mount Ventoux in the south of France in the company of mother hen Paul Kimmage, Tour de France cyclist, fluent French speaker and driver; Joe Brolly, the wee man from Dungiven; John Greene, who dropped two dress sizes to make the team; and Fergus McDonnell, the new kid scared shitless. Five men with very little in common, all looking for something.

Part 2:

Harden the f**k up


It began, as cycles often do, like the opening scenes in Deliverance. Idyllic weather, sun beaming, and the happy chatter of a bunch of free men rolling through Provence without a care in the world. But to be a cyclist is to be a student of pain.

In any cycle I have ever done, there comes a point where the only thing left is Rule 5. Your body may be a pillar of lactic acid. Your brain may have stopped working. All that remains is a primal instinct to keep pedalling. In The Rules, published by the Velomenati, or Keepers of the Cog, each rule has its own chapter, with detailed explanations and anecdotes.

All except for Rule 5, which simply reads: ‘Harden the fuck up’. The photograph that accompanies the rule is of an Italian cyclist, Fiorenza Magni, the Lion of Flanders, perhaps the toughest motherfucker ever to take to a bike.

It was half-way through the 1956 Giro and he had just broken his collarbone. He carried on, but unbalanced, fell again two days later and smashed his humerus, the long bone running from shoulder to elbow. He could no longer pull up on his bars, so he tied a tube around the stem and pulled up on it with his teeth to control the bike. He finished second after an epic series of mountain attacks.

I don’t like cycling. But I can’t resist it.

Three hours in and I was bored. Me: ‘Come on lads, let’s find a bar’. Kimmage: ‘Shut the fuck up, Joe’. After 70-odd kilometres, we hit the foot of Mount Ventoux, the Beast of Provence. I wasn’t bored anymore. The conversation dried up.

After 14 kilometres of the most notorious ascent in world cycling, the hailstorm came. No one had checked the weather and we were in summer gear. The temperature dropped below zero. The bikes were buffeted by the

freezing gale, threatening to drive us off the cliff edge. We were pedalling to outrun hypothermia. At the summit, where the mountain is like the surface of the moon and you are above the clouds, John Greene collapsed, frozen. He passed out. Frozen myself, I took him in my arms and hugged and rubbed him frantically. There was no shelter and no way to get him back down.

As we contemplated the worst — a miracle. An ancient French couple appeared in their tiny old Renault. They had come up to take in the views from the top of the monster. Kimmage explained the problem in his perfect Dublin-French. We carried John into the back seat. Les anciens drove him down the 21km descent. Me and Dave followed. On the way down, hitting speeds of 70kmph, body in spasms with the cold, I could hear a strange groaning sound and was surprised to realise it was coming from me.

The ambulance took John to hospital. Later that night, he appeared back at the hotel, like a ghost. “Harden the fuck up,” I said. We all laughed. It wasn’t mentioned again.    

Part 3:

A Rough Ride


Coffee was taken at a small café in Mollans-sur-Ouveze, a picturesque village in the rolling hills to the north of the mountain. Brolly was in flying form and regaled us with tattle from The Sunday Game, a sketch from Après Match and a hilarious impression of a supporter he had once observed during a game at Ravenhill: “DRIVE ON, ULSTOR!”

We had three ‘petit-col’ (500/600m) to digest before the main course and adopted this as a rallying call when the gradient started to bite:

Fergie: “Drive on, Ulster!”

Dave: “Drive on, Ulster!”

John: “Drive on, Ulster!”

But the tone wasn’t right.

“This guy is a well-heeled Ulster Protestant,” Brolly explained. “He lives in Bangor. He was educated at Belfast ‘Inst’. He doesn’t walk to Ravenhill with his tail between his legs — he puffs his chest out! He’s there to win! It’s ‘DRIVE ON, ULSTORRRR!’”

We laughed and tried again.

The first sense we had that things were getting serious was when Brolly stopped talking. An hour had passed since we had left the lavender fields at Sault and started climbing through the forest; a glacial wind was gusting across the mountain and we had just passed Chalet Reynard and caught our first glimpse of the summit.

The café owner had warned us about the conditions. “Be careful,” he said. “It will be wild up there this afternoon.” We were flanked by scree and rock and the full force of the Ventoux was suddenly upon us. The cold was the real surprise — my hands were starting to freeze — and I suggested turning around.

Getting to the top is no big deal when you’ve raced in the Tour de France. Or won an All-Ireland. But the challenge was different for the three boys. John and Dave were flying and had pressed on ahead so I offered the carrot to Fergie: “The forecast is much better for the morning. It will be a lot easier if we start the climb fresh.”

But he wasn’t buying, and said: “I’m not going to spend another night wondering about it.”

So we pressed on... five kilometres... four kilometres... three kilometres... two... inching towards the memorial to Tom Simpson and the reward of hot coffee at the summit café:

“That’s the hardest part, Fergie.”

“Keep going, Fergie.”

“Great stuff, Fergie.”

The final kilometre — a ramp with an average gradient of 9.5pc — is an absolute ball-breaker. Dave was waiting at the top with a smile that stretched to Avignon, but as we cheered Fergie to the top and posed for some photos, a terrifying reality suddenly dawned. The café was closed! The wind-chill was -10. We had to get out of here.

“Where’s John?”

He was huddled in the doorway of the café and shaking uncontrollably. I nearly flipped. “Are you out of your fucking mind? Why didn’t you go straight back down?”

But he was pale as a ghost and in no state to argue.

An elderly French couple — the only others on the summit — were sitting in their car with the engine running. I tapped on the window and they agreed to take him to Bedoin, at the foot of the mountain. It was a huge relief to put him in the car but they had only just set off when there was a new problem.  

What were we to do with his bike?

“Just fuck it over the wall there,” Brolly said.

“Are you serious?” I asked.


“A three-grand carbon fibre?”

“Och, sure nobody will touch it.”

“You’re completely insane.”

But the words were only out of my mouth and he was half-way down the mountain with Dave.

“Drive on, Ulstor!”

I jumped onto my bike and descended gingerly around the first hairpin with my right hand on John’s bike and my left on my brake. There was a café at Chalet Reynard, six kilometres below, and the plan was to put it in storage for the night if we could get there before it closed.

Fergie raced ahead to keep it open. There were a couple of hairy moments, but I managed to get it down. We ordered two large coffees and sat for 20 minutes, shaking with the cold, then descended at speed to Bedoin as John was being taken by ambulance to Carpentras.

Not quite what we’d signed up for, but an interesting day.

Part 4:

A Day in Provence


“Just look at that. Would you just look at that, Greene.” It’s almost 24 hours since the drama on top of Mount Ventoux and there has been little talk of the day before. Barred from the bike on doctors’ orders, the plan for a second assault on the Beast of Provence has been scrapped. Joe Brolly is only too happy to stand down in solidarity.

We share a guilty secret.

Earlier the previous day, about 50km into our spin, Joe and I found ourselves talking furtively at the back of the group. Joe had been plying me with stories about the wonders of Provence, tempting me with talk of good food and even better wine. He knew he was close to turning me, he just needed to close the deal. “Wait till you see Menerbes,” he said. “Come on, you’ve got to see this place.” Menerbes is the hilltop town immortalised by Peter Mayle in his book A Year In Provence.

“Fuck it, I’m not cycling tomorrow,” I blurted out.

“Now you’re talking, sir.”

We were bored.

Six hours is a long time on a bike, too long for Joe and I. Had fate not intervened it is likely I still would have found myself in the spectacular town of Menerbes that beautiful May afternoon, lounging on the terrace of the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon, drinking a glass of red wine, peering over the old stone wall at the majestic landscape below and listening to Joe Brolly enthuse: “Just look at that. Would you just look at that, Greene.”

But fate had intervened.

Twelve months earlier, I was in a café on the Col du Glandon in the Dauphine Alps with my three travelling companions, sharing good conversation and awful coffee. It was nearing time to go when one of the group said: “Next year, John, you’ll be with us.” He meant it. “No chance,” I replied, “absolutely no chance.” And I meant it.

We paid for our overpriced coffee and left. Dave Conachy, Paul Kimmage and Joe Brolly put their helmets back on, clipped in and set off on their bikes on the next leg of an epic journey which would eventually bring them all the way back to the notorious Col de la Croix de Fer, the Pass of the Iron Cross. I climbed back into our rental car and headed down to our next rendezvous point. The descent is famously fast and I hadn’t driven far before I had to pull in and let them pass. I marvelled at their courage, fitness and mental strength but did not have any urge to join in. After years of putting on weight this was the world as I understood it. I was the bag man.

A month after we returned home, the penny dropped. I started walking, a little at first, then more. Then I started jogging, a little at first, then more. Finally, in February, I relented and agreed to take part in this year's big adventure.

And it was all going so well too.

As we cruised out of town having broke bread in Sault, there was a nervous excitement in the air. Paul, of course, had been down this road before. So had Joe. The mountain held no fear for Dave, who last year overcame La Marmotte — a gruelling 175km slog with total climbs of over 5,000 metres. Fergie was nervous, but confident. I knew that the group would look after me, but I had never climbed before.

By the time we reached Chalet Reynard, six kilometres from the summit, Dave and I felt good and were clear of the others. We still had another 500 metres to climb. The lunar landscape is beyond intimidating. There is no shelter from the ice-cold wind, and the road stretches steeply in front of you to the weather station on the mountain-top, towering above you with a giant one-fingered salute. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Dave powered on, and I followed several minutes behind. We took some photographs while we waited for the others and I went to see if the café was open. It wasn’t. The difference in temperature from when we left Bedoin that morning was around 17 degrees. The rest is a blur... icicles on the building, shivering cold, Brolly trying to warm me up. Kimmage taking charge. A blanket, the back of a car, awake, asleep. A gentle old French couple, shivering cold. Cat hairs on the blanket, this couple must like cats. Dave flying by the car on a high-speed descent. “Ca va?” “Ca va bien.” And the cigar — oh, the smell of the driver’s cigar. Awake, asleep, shivering cold.

As the ambulance pulled away from Bedoin the summit of Mount Ventoux loomed large. My body cried for sleep but the paramedics prodded me each time my eyes closed. ‘Non, non, non.’ I stared out the back window, transfixed by the mountain top. It stayed in view for most of the 20-minute journey. It was like I had been assaulted, and my attacker was now travelling in the ambulance with me, smiling.

The next morning, Dave, Paul and Fergie set off to conquer the Beast again. Joe and I enjoyed a day in Provence.

Part 5:

Journey’s End


Journeys take many forms. The ones we embark on in our personal lives can last years and never reach a destination. And some can take less than a week and teach you more about yourself and your fellow travellers that you could ever imagine.

We had landed among the lavender fields of Provence and wondered at the monster of Mount Ventoux that towered above us. Our journey from Lyon’s Saint-Exupéry Airport, in a big enough car which, at times, seemed far too small for the egos inside, had been one of wise-cracking and story-telling.

When Paul Kimmage first told me that Joe Brolly was on board for the trip I was delighted. “Bring ear plugs,” he warned. Not for the first time in those few days, I would have reason to take heed of what Kimmage had to say.

But the chattering in the car fell strangely silent at that first sight of the mountain. Soaring impossibly high into its shroud of grey cloud, it represented an enormous challenge and one in which the journey would matter as much as the destination.

As it turned out, it mattered more.

My trip was double-edged. As well as the self-inflicted two-wheeled torture, I was staying on after the others came home to visit my eldest brother, Gerry, who has lived in the village of Monieux for 16 years, and in France and other parts of Europe for close to 40 years. Gerry is a child of the 1950s. Shaped in the image of the music and the carefree lifestyle of his youth, he busked his way around the continent before settling down in this wonderfully remote and tiny village in a house he shares with his 13-year-old daughter, Gina.

I had expected that reaching the summit would be the highlight of the trip, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t even second. The highlight turned out to be spending time with Gerry, who, having made what convention insists are the wrong decisions throughout his life, is content and healthy(ish) despite a recent heart scare, and living in a wonderful part of the world. The temptation was to ask ‘where did it all go wrong?’

The second was the extraordinary generosity of Paul Kimmage. On both days, he cajoled, encouraged and almost carried me up that mountain. It must have been painful for him to ride at such a slow pace, but he never even suggested that he might push on.

On the second day, the pair of us began the ascent with the intention (or so I thought) of only going part of the way up, to meet Dave on his way back down after an early start. After a while he asked me how I felt, and proclaimed that the fact I could answer him meant I was alright.

After another few energy-sapping kilometres he announced that he had made an executive decision — we were going all the way to Chalet Reynard. It’s an experience I’ll never forget and one which, without his significant help, would have been much poorer.

The descent the three of us shared along the Gorges de la Nesque, from Monieux to Villes-sur-Auzon, is the most magical time I have spent on a bike.

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