The road ahead of me was black. The only indication of my route ahead was the white line in the centre of the road that the faint beam from my LED lights was picking out.
It was 5am in the Massif Central in France and, unsurprisingly, I hadn’t seen another vehicle on the road for the last hour. That part of France is particularly quiet at the best of times, but at that early hour the dark buildings I passed told the story of everyone still tucked up in their beds.
When I had told the hotelier the previous evening of my plan to reach the summit of the 24km climb up Mont Aigoual before breakfast he laughed and then asked why. One reason was that if I didn’t do it at that time then I would never get a chance to do it; my work for that day started at 7.30am and involved me supporting, in a vehicle, 20 other cyclists over the summit and on towards the Languedoc. However, my main reason was a bit more obscure and involved a fictional novel, The Rider, by Dutch writer Tim Krabbé. It’s a book I’ve read and re-read numerous times. Since its publication in 1978 it has become a cult classic in cycling literature and riders from around the world now flock to the Cevennes to ride the mythical route of the Tour de Mont Aigoual as described in the book.
The story itself is more than an account of a race and it gets inside the head of the main protagonist as he battles against the terrain and the weather. It reads like a thriller as the rider pedals against his opponents, including the mysterious rider in the blue Cycles Goff jersey.
The race unfolds like a game of chess as riders attack and defend their position on the road. I first read the book in my 20s and it gripped me as much then as it still does now. I knew I wanted to ride Mont Aigoual for its literary status as much as I had previously wanted to ride Alpe d’Huez for its legendary sporting status.
The climb itself from Meyreuis is not spectacular. There are no dominating views until you get to the very summit and even if there were my early start, in the total darkness precluded me from any such delight. My desire to reach the top wasn’t an exercise in ticking a box to say I’d bagged the climb, it was more akin to connecting with the pages of a book I’d read on countless occasions.
The darkness meant that ahead of me I couldn’t see the gradient and the only indication that the climb was getting steeper was that I had to push harder on the pedals to keep moving.
It was a strange sensation and actually made climbing upwards easier. The thought process of climbing was disabled and my mind could not impede my ability. All too often I have been climbing and seen the steepness of the gradient ahead of me and my mind has convinced me it would be difficult before my legs have had any say in the matter.
Ahead was darkness, I couldn’t see if the road went up, down or stayed flat, all I had to do was keep pedalling and I would eventually get to the top. And I did. I reached the summit at 6am, just as the sun was rising through mist and cloud. The wind roared across the top and made it difficult to stand up straight, but I paused for a moment as I looked across towards Mont Ventoux in the east and the Mediterranean in the south. I still hadn’t seen another person or vehicle and I felt like I had that part of France to myself in that moment.
I cycled down for breakfast and met the riders I was guiding that day. Some were looking forward to the day, others grumbled about the length of the climb they were about to undertake. I quietly ate my baguette and jam and sipped on my bitter French coffee with a smile on my face and a warm glow from my ride.
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When to Ride? Tour du Mont Aigoual – Cevennes, France
Distance: 87.5 miles/ 141 km
Height Gain 8,500ft/ 2590m
Suitable For: Road Cycling
Description: Starting and finishing in Myerueis this route follows the route taken in the book “The Rider” and follows quiet roads through this beautiful part of France.
See the route at: https://www.bikemap.net/en/route/734681-tour-du-mont-aigoual/