Mont Ventoux has been on my list of things to do ever since, a couple of years ago after one particularly hilly ride, a friend of mine quipped “Are you training for the Tour de France?”, to which I replied “No I’m training for Mont Ventoux”. It was said almost in jest but I became more and more fascinated with the Giant of Provence. I’m not going to give any history of the place here – there is so much already available on the web.
It was difficult finding out how tough it would be. Figures for the average gradient varied widely. Even the accurate ones were scary – several miles averaging 9-10% through the dreaded forest section. To get that in perspective I compared with the local Yalding Hill which averages 9% over a mere third of a mile! And that is a hill that I always find a complete slog. So it seemed that Mont Ventoux, or just one section of it, would be the same as Yalding Hill but twenty times the length! Hmm, that sounded tough.
Enough with the numbers, I thought; let’s see how people had managed and what they thought of it. On the one hand there were quotes from the likes of Lance Armstrong calling it the toughest climb in the race (TdF); Tom Simpson’s tragic death so near the top; other famous riders nearly passing out at the finish, etc. But all these had been racing up there. On the other hand I read reports of people going up there on tandems, on recumbents, on Raleigh Choppers! An eight-year old had done the climb. Hell, someone even did it on a Boris-bike! “How difficult can it be?” I kept asking myself. But then the devil on my other shoulder kept murmuring “Yalding Hill times twenty”.
The one thing I did know is that I had to do it in one go, without stopping, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to say that I had done it. I realise that everyone has different measurements for success but this is a hard-and-fast rule of mine.
The opportunity to do it finally came as a by-product of taking part in the Cyclotour du Léman. Looking at the map, I saw it was less than 300 miles further South. It was too good an opportunity to miss. I may never again be ‘accidentally’ this close to Mont Ventoux.
I arrived in Bédoin late on a Wednesday and had to leave by Saturday evening at the very latest. So I had three days on which to do the climb. I managed to park my motorhome so I had a clear view of the peak from the windows.
The one thing that definitely had become clear from my research is that the weather on Mont Ventoux plays a significant part in the severity of the challenge. It is both volatile and at times extreme, the wind being the worst factor, reportedly blowing at over 56mph on more than 240 days of the year! That’s why I gave myself a 3-day window. Weather forecasts for the Thursday showed a N or NNW wind, which would effectively be blowing down the slope in the form of a challenging headwind. I didn’t like the sound of that so I decided that Friday would be the day to do it. Later on Thursday I discovered an excellent website that specialises in mountain weather: mountainforecast.com. It forecast that Saturday would be an even better day with a gentle southerly tail wind and a bit warmer at the top. So I decided to defer it another day. To illustrate how quickly it can change, the forecast for the next night (Sunday) was 0°C at the top with a 50 mph northerly wind!
Saturday arrived and the weather was glorious. Not a cloud in the sky. I looked out and saw the tower at the top of the mountain gleaming white in the sunshine. I got my bike ready and put on some decent kit – today was too special for cheap Chinese stuff! I took two bidons and arranged an open bag of jelly babies in my back pocket so that I could reach in and grab one without having to faff about. I set off at just after 11:00.
I won’t go into complete detail about it but here are the main points I remember:
- I took it really steady. Several days beforehand I had completed two climbs that were miles longer and higher than anything I’d done before and I realised that if you keep a steady slow pace you can actually keep going forever.
- From the start of the forest to the top I was mainly in 1st gear, slipping into 2 & 3 a couple of times after Chalet Reynard.
- For several miles, mainly in the forest, I had a guy behind me. I never saw him, just heard his breathing! At one point he said “Sorry” in a European accent. I assume he was apologising for not taking the lead. I’m actually glad he didn’t because then I may not have been able to claim that I’d done it under my own steam.
- At one point in the forest, a group of loud and fast motorbikes came down the hill overtaking a car that was coming down, which was in turn passing cyclists coming down. Consequently the bikers were completely on our side of the road and heading almost straight towards us at speed. Several cyclists ahead of me swerved off the road into the dirt and stopped. Another rider (male, I’m sure) screamed! I just assumed that the bikers actually knew what they were doing and wouldn’t deliberately ride head-first into me, so I just kept my line. I’m sure I must have muttered something under my breath, or even over my breath, no doubt utilising an expletive or three! Probably that little burst of adrenalin helped with the effort!
- There are quite a few miles in the middle where you are out of sight of the top. When that iconic tower comes back into view you get a good feeling and a surge of motivation.
- Throughout the ride I was counting off the miles to go. Just over half-way I remember thinking that, with six miles to go, all I had left was the same distance as it is from my home to Marden where I meet the club for group rides on Sundays. The big difference, though, was a matter of some 2600 ft, which is what I still had left to climb.
- Chalet Reynard is a key landmark because it breaks the monotony with its bustle of activity, and you know that the steep grind of the forest section is over. You now enter the moonscape part of the ride. It is from this point that you have an uninterrupted view to your left and you know for sure (in case your legs hadn’t already told you) that you are climbing a mountain.
- I thought it would be easier after Chalet Reynard. It wasn’t as easy as I had expected and there was still some effort required after that point.
- Photographers at the side of the road take photos and then run to catch you up to pass you their card or slip it into your jersey pocket – not that they have to run that fast as most riders are going barely faster than walking pace!
- On the few times when I got out of the saddle on the last section, my legs felt completely OK. In fact I could hardly believe it! I felt like Contador or something. When I reached the top I made the mistake of going the wrong way up the steep ramp near the tower. But, again, it was easy!
- When I got to the top I felt completely OK. I had pictured myself collapsing in a breathless and emotional state by the side of the road. Someone at the top said I looked like I had just ridden round the block. Later I would feel guilty for taking it so easy.
- The temperature at the summit had been forecast to be 9 or 10°C but I’d say it was nearer to 17. I put a rain jacket on for wind protection on the descent. When I reached Bédoin again it was 29°C. I could feel it getting warmer and warmer as I went down.
- For the first mile or so of the descent there was a strong wind from the exposed right side, enough to make riding in a straight line difficult. This was especially worrying now I was on the side of the road next to the unguarded drop! So I took it easy at first. For the first ten miles of the descent to the bottom of the forest I averaged 31 mph (34 in the steep forest section), reaching a top speed of 42 mph towards the end of the forest section. In fact I was catching the car ahead of me. It might have been faster if I’d not had my noisy rain jacket flapping around like a giant sail. I enjoyed the descent so much that I completely forgot to stop at the Tom Simpson memorial about 1km from the top.
- Zooming down off that mountain was 25 minutes of cycling heaven! There are very few switchbacks on this road (which is why it’s so steep compared to other climbs), so you can really go for it.
- So I have finally conquered Mont Ventoux. I don’t know exactly why I found it so easy but it must have been due to the near perfect conditions and my taking it steady. Next time I’ll try to go a bit faster!