Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Charley French, 85, cycles up Mont Ventoux

France’s barren peak a hard climb for anyone

Express Staff Writer

Before his 13-mile ride downhill to the city of Bedoin June 13, Charley French poses at the top of Mont Ventoux. Courtesy photos

Just when you think Ketchum's Charley French has done about everything an athlete can do, he does something else that is amazing.

On Wednesday, June 13, French and his friends Jack Haase and Roger Miller cycled up the 6,273-foot Mont Ventoux. The so-called Bald Mountain of the Provence region of southern France is legendary as one of the most grueling climbs of past Tour de France races.

"Jack Haase, Roger Miller and I rode up Mont Ventoux as a fun ride," said French, who turns 86 on Aug. 3.

The ride was remarkable because the combined age of the three cyclists was 232. Haase is 78 and Miller 69. Both are Sun Valley residents.

French has always been matter-of-fact about his athletic achievements and the recent bike ride was no exception.

He said, "It took us a little over six hours and 40 minutes. That day we rode a total distance of 66 miles with 7,027 feet vertical and pretty strong head winds, clear and sunny. I had ridden up Mont Ventoux four years ago, but it has gotten a lot longer and steeper.

"I was riding a Scott CR-1 bike with a triple chain ring."

According to Miller, French was riding mainly with his customary persistence and positive mental attitude. Jim Gaughran, a friend who started French in triathlons 31 years ago, once called French "a pit bull with a disc wheel," someone who refuses to stop.

Miller said, "I have never known anyone like Charley. He never quits at anything.

"Charley did another side (a very hard side we all hate) of this famous mountain when he was a mere 79, which was wonderful, but far from a record.

"There are spots where the grade hits 13 percent—painful even for 30-year-olds, let alone someone almost 86. Lance Armstrong said that the Mont Ventoux was always the hardest climb because there is no protection on the last 6k—it's a barren moonscape.

"On this ride he was able to first do about 70k (43 miles) of mainly climbing as a warm-up to get to the last 6k, which is sometimes impossible because of wind, snow, rain, or hail.

"The wind was blowing like crazy. He never complained and I knew that he had decided to go the distance. He never put his foot on the ground until the very top."

Reaching the summit wasn't the end of the ride.

Miller said, "We weren't quite done when we got to the top. We had a 21k ride downhill to Bedoin and then another 9k ride with a big climb to get to where we had parked the car.

"In all, Charley did 106 kilometers during this ride. That's just a monumental achievement. Only those who have climbed the Mont Ventoux can appreciate the pain that he must have been in."


Mont Ventoux was a challenge, but French with his adventurous spirit considered it another marvelous experience.

French and Haase were staying at Miller's house in Uzes for 10 days. In fact, Miller said, "Charley comes back to ride with my wife and I every June and has done so for nine years. Jack comes, too." French added, "Over the past five or six years we have managed to ride many of the mountain stages of the Tour de France."

Whatever the sport, French seems to have tried it. Whatever his age, French in his mind thinks he is 20 or 30 years younger.

He has been blessed with a good body—all original parts—and stays one step ahead of the competition with a training regimen characterized first and foremost by consistency.

Born at St. Louis Aug 3, 1926, he moved with his family to southern California where he sampled swimming, motorcycling and surfing before joining the U.S. Navy at 17 in 1944. He served as a machinist aboard the USS Cleveland in the South Pacific during World War II.

French graduated from Long Beach State University with a degree in electrical engineering. In 1971 at the age of 45, he came to Ketchum for a job as an engineer and in product development with a new and growing company called Scott USA.

In those days, French was an avid bump skier. He skied 60 to 100 days a year on Baldy at the age of 50. He expanded his diverse athletic interests by running marathons. In 1981, at age 55, he competed in his first triathlon—the first-year Tri-Elephant-a-Thon in Ketchum.

For the next nine years he won his age group in each triathlon he attempted, covering 40 and more races. In all, he has done more than 200 triathlons.

French completed his first and only Ironman Triathlon in 1986 in Hawaii at age 60. He broke his age class record by 40 minutes. Gaughran, writing in "Triathlon Today" in 1989, titled his article about French, "The Master of the Masters."

Working at Scott USA for many years, French helped design the famed lightweight Scott downhill ski boot. He helped former Hailey resident Boone Lennon design unique Scott bike handlebars that helped improve the aerodynamic tuck of a cyclist's body.

Miller said, "Charley is everyone's idol in Sun Valley. We all aspire to do exactly what he still does—he works at Scott, competes in all sorts of bike and swimming races and competes in numerous Nordic ski races. He always wins his age category, so he tries to see how many age categories below him he would still have been first."

Ketchum's Richard Feldman, 42, a world champion cyclist with over 100,000 kilometers in his legs and plenty of hardware in his trophy case, has lauded French as his athletic idol. Feldman said, "He sets the example of what it means to be an athlete."

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