Taking on Mont Ventoux

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Karen Hancock, coach of the Greenwich hill sessions describes overcoming her fear of cycling up Mont Ventoux, and coming down again.

Well-known as the coach of the Greenwich Hill and the Dome training sessions, Karen Hancock has been a very successful Serpie for ten years. Here she describes overcoming her fears to face down a new challenge: Mont Ventoux. Widely considered the hardest stage of the Tour de France, Mont Ventoux is a formidable challenge to cyclists. There are three routes to the summit, a climb of some 2000m.

Finding a new goal

My final marathon coincided with my 55th birthday in 2010. I achieved my best ever age-graded performance, coming third in my class, but it was painful. Beset by injuries, I imagined it would be my last marathon. As my running declined, other problems arose. At work there was talk of redundancies. In response, I started wearing what I call my ‘old lady head’ and running extremely slowly. Suffering hypochondria, I thought I was dying and terrible things would happen.

My GP sent me to therapy. As I gradually overcame my fear of death, I realised I was in the rudest of rude health. Furthermore, I was missing the focus of marathon training and needed a goal. Through Facebook, I was reunited with an old running companion from my school days. Following similar injuries, he had started cycling and was planning to tackle Mont Ventoux. If he could, I could. My old competitive spirit was coming back.

Serious preparation was necessary. I needed to learn technical skills, such as stopping and starting uphill. The idea of falling off made me terrified of riding clipped into the pedals with cleats. On top of that, I had a fear of cycling downhill. I hadn’t quite vanquished the ‘old lady head’ with its negative thoughts.

In 2015, I joined the annual Serpie training week in Lanzarote. As the slowest cyclist in an uphill time trial, I was put in the beginners’ group. Coach Margaret Sills was fantastic, helping me to face my fears with different techniques to practise. For example, I tried cycling with only one foot clipped in, leaving the other free, and looking for convenient hedges to break any falls.

I continued training independently on Shooters Hill, near my home in South London. One day I rode up and down 20 times consecutively: the equivalent of Mont Ventoux. Despite being in pain with sciatica, I’d proved I had the muscle strength required. I was ready to set a date.

I wanted it to be my 60th birthday, in April, but the mountain is under snow in spring so I opted for June. Using what we economists call a ‘pre-commitment device’, I announced it as a fundraising effort. That meant no backing out. The charities I chose were Pro Bono Economics, where I work as Staff Economist, and Mind, which campaigns on mental health issues.

The attempt

June came and I travelled to France. I hadn’t fully conquered my fear of cycling downhill, but I started my ascent regardless. At first, the gradient was reasonably gentle. I adapted the marathon runners’ technique of running one mile at a time, not 26 at once. As the gradient became steadily steeper, a dotted line appeared by the roadside and soon I was cycling one dot at a time.

The final six kilometre stretch was the hardest. It resembled a lunar landscape shrouded in cloud. I kept pedalling around the hairpin bends and, suddenly, the summit appeared out of the mist. After just over two hours of cycling I had achieved my stated goal, reached the top and raised the funds for my charities. But I still had to get down.

Shivering with cold, I walked the steepest part until I felt able to cycle. At first I was so cautious I could smell burning rubber from over-use of my brakes. Gradually I became warmer and more relaxed, reaching the bottom in one and a half hours. The next day I went for a run but, somehow, I was not quite satisfied.

Doubling up

Two days after my original ascent, I decided to try cycling up another, tougher, route; the one by which I had descended. Using the same mental tactics as before, I kept going to the top. Obviously I still had to come down, but it felt easier this time as I knew what to expect. Finally I was satisfied, for the time being.

Since achieving my goal of cycling up Mont Ventoux, twice, there has been no stopping me. I am planning to return next year and do all three routes in one day. At heart I am still a runner, nothing beats the joy of a run. But cycling is kinder to the musculoskeletal system, and helps to keep the heart and lungs healthy. My GP tells me mine are in great shape. Most importantly, my ‘old lady head’ has been consigned to a box in the attic. I’m not giving in to age.

Michelle Homden joined one of the first Serpie beginners’ courses and laughed in disbelief at the suggestion she might one day be able to run four miles. She is currently training for her third marathon.