A few weeks ago we featured OpenDev rider Will Johnson article detailing his preparation of riding up Ventoux at 99bpm (which can be found here). We are glad to say that Will's adventure was successful, but it certainly was not without mishaps and a huge challenge for the ex-Leicester Tigers professional rugby player.
Read below to find out exactly how it all went down (and up) for Will.
Well, here’s the story of a heartless fat man climbing the Giant of Provence, a fine title for a fairy tale! To recap, a heart arrhythmia and a few operations in 2016 has left me with chronotropic incompetence, which basically means my heart rate barely rises when I exercise. A little annoying to say the least, but in the bigger picture, things could be worse, I’m still on my bike.
In the build up to this little adventure my main concern was whether my very fixed maximum power output would actually get me up the steep sections of Ventoux. The way my heart works at the moment means that to get the most out of it I have to sit continually at my aerobic limit, a limit set in my case directly by how quickly my heart is beating and thus how much blood is being pumped to my muscles. If I push very slightly above this then I get a few more beats per minute out of my heart, and my aerobic limit increases. If I push too much then my legs have to work a bit too anaerobically, I get that all too familiar burn and have to slow down. As I recover from this over exertion my heart rate reduces and so does my aerobic limit, which is not ideal. On the other side, if I don’t push hard enough, or freewheel for a moment then my heart rate drops like a stone and I have to start all over again.
In practical terms we’re talking about a very big bus with a very small engine – an engine that takes an age to get up to speed, stalls when you rev it too hard and cuts out when you take the foot off the accelerator. When I ride up hill I am very literally on my limit, there is only a small difference between a pace I can sustain for an hour or so and one that will exhaust me in 20 seconds, and there’s virtually no buffer to allow for small bursts of power to get me over small ramps. When I do push too far into the red “The Man with the Hammer” moves very quickly, smacking me in the face and reducing me to a crawl as my legs gasp for oxygen.
The upshot of all this, however, is strangely liberating! I’m the kind of sad act who was timing himself up random climbs (and memorising those times) with a stopwatch before I found that Strava could do it for me. So to ride a climb without constantly pushing at the edge of exhaustion and thinking about my time is really nice, as is having the energy & desire to look up and enjoy the views a bit more. Another bonus is in pacing, there’s nothing like feeling the sharp end of “The Man’s” hammer the instant you step over the line to sharpen your sense of where your limits are.
My fear on Ventoux was that my highest sustainable output wouldn’t be enough to get 120+kg of me and bike up 12% for a few kilometers and an average of 9% for the first 9kms without “The Man” paying me a visit or two. So the plan was very simple, get to my operating speed, which I guessed would be around 99bpm with a little help from some caffeine, and then try and time the burning of my energy to coincide with the top.
After all that, the ride itself was largely uneventful, it was a beautiful sunny day in Provence, not too much wind, and despite talk of “getting up early” my riding partners, Richo & my brother, didn’t seem too keen to get out of bed. So, as we ventured out at around 9am the day was starting to heat up, and the Mount Ventoux “theme village” of Bedoin had already seen hundreds of cyclists pass through and onto the flattish early slopes that start from the roundabout at the top of the village.
My riding partners hadn’t ridden with me in my current condition, so there was a little uncertainty on their part as to how quick I could go, so they let me lead out at my pace on a quick warm up loop. It takes a little while to get my heart rate up to its red hot operating speed, and even with some French coffee and the most ridiculous looking energy drink I could find swilling around inside me I
still need 5-10 minutes to get up to full steam. So as we slowly headed out of Bedoin, me edging my heart rate higher, we could take some time to look at the peak of Ventoux to our left looking decidedly less pointy than I’d imagined!
The early slopes done, we turned left into the forest and the 9km up to Chalet Reynard which is supposedly at an average of 9%. I say supposedly, because every time I looked at my Garmin it said 12 or 13%. The liberating effect of not being able to push any harder kicked in beautifully, I serenely pedaled up the twisty forest roads, locked into my Ventoux Turbo 34-30 gear, and wasn’t even concerned when my riding partners drifted off into the distance. I had a lovely long chat with former pro rider Jon Kettell who was working as a guide with Green Jersey Cycling. He’d seen my Hunt kit as he drifted up behind me and wanted to know if I worked for them, as he loved his Hunt wheels, especially the sound of the freehub!
All this pleasantness meant that I was nearly at Chalet Raynard without even noticing, my heart rate for the steep 9km had been 108bpm. A little higher than I expected but with the steep ramps and low cadence I guess my body had reacted to me using my strength to shove my way up the mountain. Even more pleasantness was to follow as I unbelievably caught up to Richo as the road flattened by the Chalet Reynard café. I was pretty chuffed with that as it was completely unexpected, my objective had been to get up, nothing more. Then round the next corner I saw an unmistakable red blob 400 meters in the distance, surely I wasn’t going to catch my brother as well.
Now, hopefully you’ve read the opening paragraphs of this story, I wrote them, and have been living with this condition for a while now. Yet the instant that I saw my brother in the distance I forgot all about it, or at least decided to kid myself for a bit. Maybe I could push a little harder, maybe there was a little extra I could find from somewhere…absolute idiot. I pushed a bit harder for 5 minutes, nothing crazy you understand, but harder. My heart rate got to 112 and I could feel the energy start to bleed out of my legs “OK, that’s enough” my head was moaning at me, and it was right, I had to slow down and get back to reality. I paid a bit of a price for this folly, but within 10 minutes I was back on an even keel, so much so that my biggest worry was whether I’d missed the Tommy Simpson memorial which is surprisingly near the top.
Then, as if by magic, the famous last bend appeared, and the sight of a hundred or so other cyclists of all shapes and sizes milling about between the sign and the gift shop. I had made it without any drama, and in fact had probably enjoyed the ride twenty times more than if I’d not had a heart problem and had butchered myself from the off as normal. As we had the obligatory photos taken it was amusing to see that Ventoux had recently been re-measured at 1909 meters tall, so all the t-shirts, mugs and other tat in the gift shop that said “Ventoux 1912m” was now basically worthless, or at least slightly more worthless than it was before! As we pottered around I saw three pairs of Hunt socks circulating on the feet of the Ventouxists, an impressive showing for the day. Finally, the only thing left to do was enjoy the descent down the other side and use my weight in the best possibly way.
Looking at my stats for climb I did the 20km Strava segment from Bedoin in 2:08:59 and it guessed my average watts as 238, with some of the steeper early sections getting up to nearly 300 watts. My average heart rate was 107, which kind of ruins the title of this whole piece – Ventoux @99bpm – but maybe another meaning can be found. As I’m sure you are aware fellow Huntsman Chris Hall achieved the remarkable feat of riding 107kms every day for 107 days while still working normal hours in his job, and all to raise awareness of the Pace Centre. I don’t think my little trundle up a hill gets into the same galaxy as that achievement, but maybe this is my body’s homage to Chris, very much from the heart! Next time I’ll see if I can do it in 1 hour 47 with the same heart rate for the ultimate 107 for 107 tribute.
Speaking of numbers, the fastest on the Strava segment is Laurens Ten Dam, who did it in a respectable 58:26, but with a rather greedy average heart rate of 166bpm. Maybe we need to find a new measure of cycling efficiency that takes into account how effectively the cyclist uses each heartbeat. Multiplying time by average heart rate gives us the total number of beats required to climb Ventoux, this unfortunately still has Ten Dam beating me with his 9794 better than my 13803. So maybe if we factor in weight we can get a more complete picture of cycling prowess, and get us the (soon to be internationally recognised) measurement of beats per kg. In this field my 126.63 b/kg knocks the spots off Ten Dam’s 146.18 b/kg, making me champion of Ventoux. You see, I told you I was a sad act.