The Col de Fontaube sorts out the sheep from the goats, and some of the others are already looking the worse for wear. I climb up in the company of Julien, a young “elite” cyclist who doesn’t understand my rhythm. I reassure him, telling him that I wonder about it myself. Once up at the top, I shoot off down the slope, and overtake a few more. 100 kilometres on the clock, and I feel as fresh as when I set off. Lots of the competitors encourage me and congratulate me, another hill, then a deceptively rising “flat” stretch. The sun beats down, and I can see some of the guys from Northern Europe having a hard time.
Sault, and the second refuelling point. I decide to stop and eat my first sandwich. I clean my stump quickly, fill up my water bottles and set off again. To my great surprise, I come across Laurent Benezech and we decide to ride together. In front of us is the Col des Abeilles, the first leg on the way up the Mont Ventoux. I’m still euphoric, and worried about what will happen when the downside sets in. I feel so good that I take out my miniature camera to immortalize the moment. It’s a long climb, and you can see the tiredness on some faces. The descent is a wide road, where I get up to almost 90 km/h!!
We arrive at Bedoin, the third refuelling point at the foot of the Ventoux. I stop to stretch my muscles, and dry my stump. Laurent and I both know that the last remaining 21 kilometres are going to be long and hard.
We set off at a leisurely pace. There are hundreds of people all along the road, singing, shouting and cheering, but I block them out of my mind and keep concentrating. I know that only willpower can get me through this climb, which is considered as one of the most difficult in the world. The first 5 kilometres are still “human”, but once we get up to forest level, the 14% gradient is hard going. Laurent is about 75 metres ahead, but I’m in my own world : this is war, and all along the road I can see my mates, burned out…. I get into my stride and think positive thoughts. All of a sudden I’m closing up on Laurent, but overtaking him isn’t my priority, and I concentrate again. Although my thigh muscles are being pushed to their limits, I still feel fine, it isn’t painful. I settle into the best position on my bike, my legs pushing hard; the uphill slope is hellish, but it isn’t my problem : my crusade is now taking on its full meaning, as the one-legged guy starts to overtake the bipeds.
I know there are still 11 kilometres to go before the Reynart Chalet. Francesco, a one-armed guy, six times world champion and several times Olympic gold medal, is sitting at the side of the road, beaten by the Ventoux. I can’t stop : I try to encourage him, but it’s no use.
At the stopping off place for water, where the forest starts, I fill up my bottles for the last 6 kilometres. Laurent joins me: he’s suffering from cramp!
We set off again together, and a violent cramp sears through my thigh. I take deep breaths, breathe out, talk to the damn thing, and after 5 minutes it decides to leave me alone. I stand up on the pedals. The crowd is there. I get into my usual rhythm, with maximum speeds of 12 km/h. An accordion player cheers me on. I overtake a competitor, and he congratulates me, in tears. I can feel that the end is not far away, but I keep concentrating. Some kids recognize me and run alongside me, chanting my name. Laurent is a long way behind, and I decide to go flat out for the last two kilometers. The euphoria comes back : but did it really ever leave me?
The Provence lighthouse is only a push of the pedals away. I let go, and cross the finishing line, with an intense feeling of joy in my heart. Once across, I feel amazed at these 7 hours and 59 minutes of effort. The arrival is its own reward!
Thanks to all the kids from “Bout de Vie” and “Courir Ensemble”. Yesterday, you were a bit like my “dynamite”.