AGAINST ALL ODDS: Ventoux @99BPM
For many cyclists, climbing Ventoux is a dream. The mythical status it holds in cycling and its moon like landscape means that it is more than just any old climb. It has been the scene of huge triumphs in cycling like Froomie managing to extend his tour lead over Quintana despite having to run post moto crash, as well as many tragedies like the death of Tom Simpson during the 1967 edition of the same race.
Out of the thousands, if not tens of thousands of people who ride the peak every year, it is almost unbelievable that Will Johnson is taking on this monumental climb which, previous to this year it would have been thought of as impossible for Will due to his heart condition.
Read about Will's story here.
A punchy title for a post I think you’ll agree, unfortunately the reason behind it is maybe not so sexy! In my last post I’d found out that I had a heart arrhythmia, it wasn’t going to kill me, so I did the 2016 Paris-Roubaix sportive with my heart fluttering for the first 2 hours. Since then I have been operated on three times and have had two very rare complications, one of which is called chronotropic incompetence, which basically means my heart is insensitive to exercise (no jokes please about what else it is insensitive to!). So, I have a perfectly healthy heart muscle, but the bit that tells it how quick to beat is virtually un-reactive to what I do.
This means that in normal everyday life my heart rate will be around 50 and I am perfectly normal (again, no jokes please). If I were to run up a flight of stairs then, unlike a ‘normal’ person whose heart rate would jump 20-40 beats very quickly, mine rises about 2 beats. Obviously if I then try and run up the next flight of stairs I start to hit problems, my legs aren’t receiving enough oxygen to power them aerobically, so I have to use my very limited anaerobic system. So after legging it up 2 flights of stairs I’ve got nothing in my legs, it’s a very familiar feeling, but one usually only felt after a long flat out sprint up a steep incline. Because my heart rate is still so slow my muscles can't get enough blood to them, my foot is on the accelerator but the fuel is only dripping into the engine.
We’re very much in ‘knackered old man’ territory here, sudden exertions such as a couple of flights of stairs leaves left having to walk along in a world of lactic trying to look like nothing is wrong. Not the most fun I've ever had, I'll be honest, and led to me applying for the position of "Worst Hunt Open Development Team Member - Ever" due to my lack of actual cycling activity. My application is still pending…
Ok, onto the good stuff, when I’m on my bike I can slowly push my heart up to around 90 without pushing into the anaerobic red zone, this means I can cycle (slowly). From there if I push on & dip my toe into the red I can get a few more beats, which means my aerobic capacity increases and thus so does the threshold of my red zone, so I can push a bit more. By carefully riding this wave I can push up and over 100 beats per minute. The only problem with this is that as soon as I dip into the red I start burning the energy stores in my muscles; the deeper I push the quicker it disappears, and when it’s all gone – boom.
Here's the amazing bit, when I started cycling under these limiting conditions I was frustratingly slow, but week by week I got a little quicker. My heart was still doing the same thing, but my body was adapting to its new set up. In my follow up blood test 2 months after the final op my haematocrit (red blood cell percentage) had gone from 42 to 46, I was 4% away from being banned from the World Tour! My muscles have adapted by giving me a bigger anaerobic buffer, I can operate normally doing physical tasks and even weight train, and my efficiency cycling is incredible, rolling on the flat at 30+km/h with my heart rate in the 90's.
To put some numbers on it, 3 months post-op I did a ramp test with my surgeon, I got to 300 watts. I was pretty pleased with that, & could probably have gone a bit longer but cardiologists aren't interested in that kind of stuff. 2 weeks ago I did another ramp test and got to 390 watts before a different cardiologist said that I had to stop because I'd cycled to long and he'd run out of time! To be fair I was on my last legs and was only holding out for 45 seconds more before the magic 420 ticked over. Those are reasonable numbers for a normal cyclist, not so great when you take into account my weight, which is slowly edging back up to 110kg, but still reasonable. The ramp test, however, is a perfect way for me to ride the wave and keep pushing my heart rate up until my legs are emptied, in real world cycling I can sustain around 220 watts for prolonged periods, and then build it up for set efforts.
Which brings us to where we are now. As normal it started with a phone call from my brother, he was going to nip over to France to "do" Ventoux with a family friend. He asked if it was alright to use our house as a staging point and leave the bike boxes in the garage and borrow my tools etc. Then it came, an afterthought, "you can come to...". He clearly didn't think I could do it, which is fair enough I suppose, climbing the 1912m iconic mountain with basically a resting heart rate would be ridiculous.... Et Voila as they say in France.
A quick bit of research to see if a sustained 220 watts with a total rider+bike weight of 120+kgs would get me up the mountain, gave me an answer of probably, that was good enough. I rebuilt my "Ventoux Turbo" 30-11 10 speed cassette to complete my "fat man in the mountains" set up, and I was ready. Ironically, in contrast to my physical condition my bike has never felt better, Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tyres on my Hunt Four Season Aeros are so smooth, you really need to try it. That, added to my existing 52-34 (yes, 52-34 works fine with standard derailleurs) chainrings with an AbsoluteBLACK oval inner ring, makes for a great slow-going-up, quick-coming-down rig.
This is my pre-ride post, and one of the reasons for writing it is to remove any option I have to not make it to the top, imagine how embarrassing that would be! So wish me luck, I shall be sure to pay my respects to Mr Simpson on the way up.