Wisdom//

Unexpected Lessons From the Giant of Provence

"The Ventoux is a god of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering." -Roland Barthes, French philosopher and bicycle racing fan.

“The Ventoux is a god of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering.” – Roland Barthes, French philosopher and bicycle racing fan.

I had not read this quote about Mont Ventoux when on a dark, wet January evening, I glibly signed up for a bike ride in Provence in June.

Don’t get me wrong, I did train. East London is not known for its mountains, so most of my training was on a bike in a gym. All very dull. But it wasn’t until I was on the plane to Marseilles that I actually read about the mountain and the climb itself. Google it. It’s frightening. A famous cyclist died 1.5 km from the top during the Tour de France in 1967.

So there we were: nine women; average age 45; some mothers, some not; some experienced riders, some not; some in perfect health, others less so; Brits, Austrian, Swiss; French; all of us terrified of what we were about to put ourselves through.

Our ascent of Ventoux was via the classic route which begins at Bedoin, a small agricultural village 12 km from where we were staying. We set off in a peloton. Quite fast.

Well, we definitely seemed to be going pretty fast when, 10 minutes after setting off, the front of the peloton seemed to slow unexpectedly and we concertinaed. I felt the rider behind me clip my back wheel. Lots of screeching of brakes, yelling, then sudden quiet.

I stopped and turned, to see Hen lying on the ground in the middle of the road in front of a very large, very scary looking lorry. Not good. Terrifying, in fact. Hen is a mum of 7 year old twins. She’s about to take a break from a very successful career as an investment banker to spend more time with them. This ride marks the end of one period of her life and the start of another. What on earth is she doing lying under a bike in front of a 10 tonne truck in the south of France?

As we all climbed off our bikes and moved her to the grass verge, it became apparent that she’d fallen after clipping my bike, had hit her head on the ground (thank heavens for helmets) and had cut her arm. The lorry had managed to come to a halt without touching her and had actually helped matters by bringing all other traffic to a halt.

We paused for a couple of minutes, had a quick chat, and decided to get back on our bikes. As you do.

After an uneventful 7km we reached the infamous “forest”. 9km of unremitting, unbending, seemingly endless, tree lined roads. No switchbacks to get your breath, no flat bits, no downhill. On and on.

The ride is 22km in total. All uphill. It took us between 2 and 3 hours. 8 of us made it to the top, the 9th had to stop after around 15km. She suffers rheumatoid arthritis so making it that far was a pretty impressive achievement.

Jari, our Swiss team member made it up first. She had only begun cycling in February after losing her husband the year before and having been in hospital herself after a serious injury climbing a mountain on foot. Shelley, 60, also made it up the very same mountain, having failed to make the climb the year before. She took an hour longer than Jari but her sense of achievement was probably even greater.

Daniella, from Austria, was the youngest of the group but had been feeling burnt out with work and was struggling mentally. Physically, she looked amazing; mentally, she felt fragile. Along the way, she pulled up alongside a German guy who was struggling, having failed to make the climb at his last attempt. They got talking (goodness knows how – I personally struggled to breath let alone chat) and together they pulled each other along.

My own plan had been to tuck in behind Alex, my French friend. Al had only agreed to join us the week before when someone else had to drop out. She’s a keen cyclist so the opportunity seemed unmissable, even though she’d had little time to train. However, as I reached the Forest, I found myself behind Sarah, a detective chief constable from Manchester. I’m 5’ 3”. She’s much taller and looked pretty strong. Perfect.

“My plan is to ride behind you and let you pull me up this thing” I announced, somewhat hesitantly. At which point Sarah decided she needed a comfort break, which left me on my own. No-one immediately ahead or behind. Just the forest.

I can’t tell you how anyone else felt on that ride, but for me, despite all the training and despite being pretty fit, I can confidently say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life. Physically, yes, but also mentally.

What on earth was I doing here? I didn’t have a personal battle to celebrate or overcome. I’d simply responded to an email from Hen, back in January, asking if I’d like to join her on a bike ride in Provence. I had in my head three days of sunshine, nice riding, no kids, no husband. Not 3 hours of torture on the scariest mountain in Europe.

To top it all, just as I reached the end of the forest and was faced then with the bleakest landscape you can imagine – almost like a lunar landscape – a coach pulled ahead of me, dragging a very large trailer. Imagine my disgust when, out of the coach, trooped twenty or so tourists, all of whom took a bike out of the trailer and proceeded to climb the last 6km ahead of me!

The road was now much busier, including people on electric powered bikes. I almost missed the solitude of the forest where all I could concentrate on was breathing and turning the pedals. The last 6 km felt like 60. Alison, One of the professionals supporting our trip, recognised I needed help. She cycled just ahead of me, shouting out words of encouragement.

“You’re doing so well.” “Keep breathing.” “One more push.”

Seriously, giving birth was easier, I tell you.

I dug in, turned the pedals and made it in 2 hours 10.

Doing this climb was supposed to be fun. I honestly wasn’t looking for anything other than a jolly three days on my own with some other great women. But as I reflect on that experience, I’ve learned a whole heap of things about life that will stay with me for a long time to come.

1. Having a goal – a vision of success – is vital

What kept me going through the endless forest? The picture I had in my mind of the lighthouse-like structure at the top of the climb. Stopping at Chalet Renard, the cafe at the end of the forest section, was never an option.

Having a positive, vivid image of what you want in life is so powerful when the going gets tough and you need to dig deep.

2. There are alternative routes

We took the traditional route up Ventoux from Bedoin. There are at least two others: one is more sheltered, one is flatter. We did the ascent in one go. Some people have a good rest at various points before continuing to the top.

In my work, I’ve met many people who take the traditional route to a senior role, sometimes to the top of their profession. And I also meet many others for whom the traditional route doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t work. Women who’ve had to take a long break to look after children; men who’ve taken a detour when their parents or family are very sick; people who never got a formal education and who took a different route in life. Each route has something different to offer. There are options.

3. You have to put the miles in. There is no substitute for training.

In life, you rarely have the option of jumping on a coach and simply doing the last 6km. If you want to do a long, hard ride, you have to put in the miles. There is no other option.

Time and again we see and hear of people trying to find a fast route to success; to find ways of reaching a senior role without having to slog it out for too long doing the grunge work. But sometimes, in those senior roles, what you need is the years of experience working alongside people at the bottom, delivering to clients, tackling day to day issues and problems. Wisdom is borne out of those experiences.

4. Mental strength is just as important as physical strength

During my climb I counted to 100, over and over again. I pictured the summit. As the hill became tough I slowed my counting down. I listened to my breath. At all costs I tried to shut out that inner voice saying “You can’t do it.” “Why not have a rest now.” “Who cares if you don’t make it to the top.”

Building resilience is so important in helping anyone deal with adversities in life. And we all face them at some point or another. Mental strength helps you deal with setbacks, tragedies, problems. Whether its learning from failures, dealing with unexpected obstacles, setting yourself limits or even drawing on humour, being resilient is an often overlooked life skill.

5. Other people’s successes and failures are just that. Theirs.

I was sad for the people who didn’t reach the summit but it didn’t make me any happier about my own success. I was proud of my own time, irrespective of how it compared to others.

What makes each of a success is down to us – and other people’s achievements or failures should not be what defines our view of success.

6. Sometimes you need support. And you can get that support from different places

I really needed Alison at the end. I needed the support car offering fresh water along the way. Daniela needed her German.

It’s rare for anyone to make it through life purely on their own efforts. It might be a formal coach, it might be a mentor, it might simply be having a brilliant network of friends away from the workplace, we all need support from time to time. Knowing when you need support and where to find it is critical.

7. You need to take on food and water along the way

It’s one thing making it to the top, it’s quite another making it to the top in good shape. And able to enjoy the descent. I’ve read somewhere that Tour de France winners will deliberately starve themselves to remain lean and light. For the rest of us, that’s not an option. We need sustenance.

As I look around the world of work, it’s obvious that there is an equal need for sustenance. Yes, successful people work tremendously hard, but the most successful – and the happiest – also take time to rest; they have other interests; their career does not define them in totality. They work hard, yes. And they also know when to rest and play.

8. There will be some things you just can’t control. Focus on what you can.

The weather. Tour buses. Other riders. There are things you just can’t do anything about; you need to focus on your goal.

Relatively early in my career I had made partner at Arthur Andersen. This was my goal, my summit. 9 months later the firm collapsed as a result of the Enron accounting scandal. It seemed as if many flourishing careers were over as the firm was broken up and taken over. What I saw, looking back, was great people focusing on doing great work for their clients, building fantastic teams and looking after the more junior people who were scared of losing their jobs. Most of them now are in fantastic roles.

9. When adversity hits, it’s your choice to get back on your bike

Hen could so easily have said “Ok, not for me.” She had a terrible headache and some tremendous bruises. It was her choice to get back on the bike.

Who sails through life without facing any adversity? One member of our team, who actually didn’t make it to the top, lost three close family members within two years. Her attitude now is that she has one life and it’s important to choose how to use her time wisely. The trip to Mont Ventoux was a triumph for her whether she made it to the top or not.

We all have choices. No-one needs to work so hard to reach their goal and promptly burn-out. Women who have chosen to take time out of their careers to raise children have a choice as to what to do when those children grow up. The choices might appear limited, but with some creativity and support (see 1 to 8 above) many things are possible.

10. You are the only one who can pedal your bike

I think for me this was the biggest. You can have a coach, you can find a professional to advise you on the right nutrition and training. You can have the best support team in the world. But there is only one person who can turn those pedals. And that’s you. Period.

Now, what mountain should we tackle next …..

Lisa is the founder of She’s Back. Prior to taking a career break, Lisa had a 20 year career in professional services. She joined Arthur Andersen where she became a partner in 2001, specialising in leadership, communication and change management.

When Andersen was acquired by Deloitte in 2002, Lisa led a programme to address the challenges of merging two very different cultures. She later became Director of Brand and Communication, delivering a major advertising campaign and working for the team leading the firm’s bid to become tier two sponsors of the 2012 Olympics in London.

Lisa founded She’s Back in 2014, in response to the lack of clear opportunities for women to return to professional life after taking a career break. Research undertaken in 2015 by She’s Back, the University of Edinburgh Business School and sponsors from five different sectors, highlighted the scale of untapped potential in this particular talent pool.

She’s Back works with organisations to help them understand how to retain more women at all levels and how to re-engage with those who take a break.

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