At 8.00 a.m. the next day I’m feeling self-conscious about my lowly Cannondale. It doesn’t even have a four-figure price tag, for God’s sake. On a quick tally up, the 30-odd bikes gathered in the car park have a total value of about €75,000.00.
Fortunately one or two of the riders aren’t, without wanting to be unkind, quite as lightweight as their machines. Isn’t it the way? Start to feel relieved – at which point, my overweight safety net saddles up and rolls off on the débutants ride. What’s left behind is me, Claude, and a bunch of wiry old roadies with hair-free, sinewy legs and a kind of lean looseness that spells trouble. “Allez!” And we’re off.
Actually, they’re very gentle. They still screw me, with just short of 100 km in three hours of classic puncheur territory – but at least they’re gentle about it. I even get to top out a couple of climbs ahead of the pack, and take a few good pulls on the front of the chain gang that rolls through the last 25 km in about half an hour.
Next morning, 10 km into the climb from Malaucéne to the summit of Mt Ventoux, those pulls don’t seem like they were such a good idea. My aim of roaring up here like a mountain lion is long forgotten. This lion has mange and a thorn in its paw. Possibly also toothache and a touch of cat flu. Canine dysentery, even. This is a hard climb, almost all of it spent on the triple’s 30-tooth inner ring. A couple of times I have to look around to make sure no one’s watching, then click it on to the 28 at the back. Not a soul here – the road's closed – but I'm embarrassing myself.
The snow that blocks the road and forces a Torvill-and-Dean ice dance in cleated shoes almost comes as a relief. 2 km of tippy-toes later I’m out of the trees and into the lunar landscape of the summit dome. Spooky-lonely, like an old Doctor Who set – the ones that were all filmed in a deserted quarry somewhere in Hertfordshire, and which had the 7-year-old me hiding behind the sofa. Keep looking behind to make sure nothing’s creeping up on me. Must be the altitude.
From the top, rather than skid down across the ice I carry on across the summit and down to Bédoin. Anyone who races down here without shouting Whooooooooo! Woo-hoo! Whaaaaa! at least once just doesn’t have any love in their heart. Think of my friend Tim, the demon descender, who must have loved this. Miss the Simpson memorial, but that’s easily done at 70 kph on a sun-dappled road surface. Concentrate.
Bédoin very pretty; the ride back to Malaucéne over the Col de Madeleine even more so. Back at Vaison there’s just time before we go for President Claude to sandbag me one more time. “We drink a good beer, yes?” It turns out to be a Belgian leg-wobbler that makes steam spout from my nostrils and my feet start tingling, and sets me up nicely for the drive home.
[Bonus photo of the Sky boys shepherding Wiggins, B. through Castellane, on the way to victory in Paris-Nice:]