This will be the third (and last, I promise!) of my Mont Ventoux blogs.
Facts: Mont Ventoux (also known as the Giant of Provence) is in southern France and is famous for its climbs in the Tour de France. It’s 1912m high and there are three ways for road bikes to tackle it. We had chosen to start at Bédoin, the Tour de France route and the most popular. There is also an easier route up from Sault which begins higher up the mountain and joins the main route at Chalet Reynard – a restaurant just above the tree line, about 6km from the finish.
Story: My alarm went off at 6.45 but I was already awake, woken by the sun that streamed in through the pathetic curtains and a bubbly knot of nerves in my stomach. Out of bed and I quickly dressed in my cycling kit – padded Altura shorts and a Rapha jersey with great pockets for all the food I intended to stuff in them.
Breakfast was 2 weetabix with milk as the nerve gremlin inside me wouldn’t stomach anything more. 7.15am and we were in the car, my grandad driving. We were staying with my grandparents who live about an hour and 15 drive away from Bédoin so enjoyed a lovely car journey through the early morning Provençal scenery. My grandad has cycled up the mouton more times than he can remember, most recently just last year and he intends to do it again later this year… aged 84. Anyone who claims their age is a barrier needs to find a new excuse!
A final banana in the car despite my nerve sickness and all too soon Ventoux loomed large over the horizon. A volcanic mountain, it’s not part of any range and sits out on its own, the surrounding land overwhelmingly flat. This makes it all the more majestic and we had to tell grandad off for repeatedly talking about just how high Ventoux is. (At 1912m it’s higher than many ski resorts).
All too soon Grandad pulled off the road into a small, empty car park on the outskirts of Bédoin. We suncreamed up under a clear blue sky, with barely a breath of wind to disturb us. Then we were off! Only for a minute as we stopped to use the public toilets in the centre of Bédoin. Then we were really off…..
Not much more than a minute of cycling and we were out the other side of Bedoin. Here the hill begins, a slow gentle incline at first through open Provençal fields and we gradually clicked down the gears, both of us mindful not to go too fast and not to be pushing on the pedals – the first 5-6k have an average gradient of only around 3.9% so felt relatively relaxed, especially in low gears! We knew this wouldn’t last… We cycled through two tiny, very pretty villages on the foothills of Ventoux, all the while aware that soon there would be a sharp hairpin bend to the left and the gradient would increase suddenly. Jilli had supported her boyfriend from a car last year so knew the route quite well. She thought every bend might be the steep one to the left but it was not to be! We were both slightly worried that we were already in our lowest gear before this point.
Well there was no mistaking it when it happened. We were quickly climbing away from the villages and into the forest, and by quickly I mean in terms of gradient not of speed! Jilli was still in front of me and beginning to pull away so I let her go. We knew we both just had to do our own thing.
The gradient was pretty relentless – 10k up to Chalet Reynard and many of those kilometres had an average gradient of 10%. Nothing to do but keep going, but oh my legs have never felt so heavy! Some wonderful moments of happiness, emerging from the shade of the trees to feel the sun on my arms momentarily, glancing down to the left to see already beautiful views. Reading the writing on the road left for Tour de France cyclists. The smiles as cyclists passed me with friendly calls of “allez! Allez!” Or “bravo!” Or in one case, “Hello, darling!” As that’s also my surname and he was a French man speaking in English I was slightly confused as to whether he knew me!
My mantra for this part of the climb was “your pedals go in circles”. This might sound obvious but sometimes in the stress of climbing I forget that and resort to just pushing down on the pedals and occasionally pulling up. Repeating this mantra to myself kept reminding me to pedal in circles, pushing my foot forward at the top, and this really helped ‘speed’ my cadence up. (Speed is in quotation marks as, with a speed of less than 7k an hour, it’s all relative!)
I got in the hang of cruising round the outside of the switchbacks and was really starting to enjoy myself. Less so was I enjoying the cars that came tearing up the mountain and two coaches that decided to overtake Jilli whilst she was on the inside of a particularly nasty switchback! Jilli was ahead but still in sight and I found the sight of her slowly moving back up ahead of me very comforting. All I had to do was keep moving those legs and it would be fine!
I was aiming for a moving time of two hours to Chalet Reynard and so had told myself from the beginning that I could stop for a rest after an hour of climbing. Well it got to 55 minutes and I felt fine so I told myself I could keep going until 1hr 15, squeezing a gel into my mouth and visualising the energy going straight into my legs. That seemed to work as I felt as if I sped up a little and 1 hr 15 came and went without a break.
After about an hour 20, Jilli got off her bike for a rest so once I’d caught up to her I too stopped…. A bit tricky unclipping at such a gradient and then even more difficult to lift one tired leg over the bike! We were stopped at a distance marker that kindly told us the next km would be another 10% average gradient. Wonderful.
We did some stretches, drank a lot of water (drinking on the bike at 10% is hard!) and then attempted to get going, with several false starts due to the gradient! I was now in front and gradually pulled away. Another km with a 10% gradient and I realised we were nearing Chalet Reynard. I decided to start seeing how long it was taking me to do each km, with targets of 10 minutes, 9 minutes, 8 minutes. Never say I set my targets too strictly 🙂 this certainly helped the kms to pass although I was constantly shocked when I looked at my watch to see that only 3 minutes had passed since the last time! I was mainly sat on the saddle grinding away but every so often to give my bum a moment of respite I tried to stand up a little bit – usually could only manage 2 rotations or so but it made the next few a little bit easier!
The last km to Chalet Reynard saw the tree line thin out and we were in the sun, with a bit of a southerly breeze to push us up and cool us down. This km had an average gradient of 9% and I never thought I’d be happy to see that! It felt almost easy compared to the earlier sections. The road flattened out as I approached and I sped* in (*upped my speed to all of 8km/hr) to the cheering of Gran and Grandad.
Getting off the bike was difficult, but not as difficult as walking up the stairs to the cafe or sitting down! Incredible pain in my upper inner thighs when I tried to move. A few minutes after I’d hobbled off the bike Jilli appeared and we decided to have a drink and rest our legs slightly. The diet coke went down well but what was better was the Twix and flapjack that I polished off in a few seconds!
Re-fueled we hobbled back to our bikes and inched our bums gingerly onto the saddles. There were 6km remaining and we’d been told these were hard – I was well aware this could take us an hour. The final stretch is out of the tree line, snaking along the side of the mountain to the top with lots of winding switch-backs. The whole road is laid out in front of you and the finish is always visible, getting closer but still worryingly above. Again we both went at our own pace with me slightly in front of Jilli. The first five k felt surprisingly easy! A bit of a rest as you approached the outside of the switchback and then a bit of climbing but nothing too bad compared with what we’d done. Average gradients didn’t get above 8.5%. It was also nice as we were really able to count down the kilometres – the first three flew by! And once I knew we had less than 3km to go I had the motivation to keep pushing my legs, motivated by all those zooming past me and the spectators on the roadside. There were also several photographers who snapped away and then tucked a card in my jersey pocket.
I bowed my head to the memorial of Tom Simpson, a British cyclist who died on the mountain in the Tour of 1967 and was cheered onwards by a group of cyclists who had stopped to show their respects.
One of the things I loved best about Mont Ventoux wasn’t the fantastic scenery, it was the other cyclists on route. The fact there were so many of them brought a real sense of camaderie and everyone was extremely friendly. And such a range of people doing it! A young boy with a waist the size of my wrist dancing on his pedals up the mountain, quickly out of sight, a group in matching team kit also steadily powering out of sight, the old man on a hybrid bike with thick tyres moving out of sight… Do you sense a theme?! The lady by herself in team kit that we saw several times on the way up, the group on a tour with ‘Luxury Cycling Holidays’, the young, the old, the kitted out, the topless(!), the smart expensive bikes, the old well-used ones. And everyone was there doing something that all thought of as challenging in their own way and for their own reasons. It was wonderful.
One kilometre to go! I was later sure this marker was a lie. It looked and felt like the longest kilometre that had ever existed, winding it’s way towards the top of the mountain. This was the hardest km of the whole cycle and the only one that I categorically did not enjoy. At times I was going so slowly uphill I was worried I was just going to topple over but my legs were pushing with all their might. It was just SO steep. A marker at (randomly) 577m showed that this last stretch had an average gradient of 11% – which personally I think is just cruel! Plus I came round the final corner to have the wind in my face almost pushing me back down. But I had made it!!
I stood looking out – the bare top of the mountain stretched out before me with cyclists like little beetles slowly making their way up, and then the green flatness of Provence with hills in the far distance. A few minutes later Jilli came up to join me and we both collapsed to the floor for a bit before taking the obligatory summit photos and putting on our jackets. It was a beautiful, hot day but right on the top and on the descent it felt chilly so I’d really recommend taking something up with you – you’ll need it on the way down!
I had been VERY nervous about the descent – it is not my strong point and the road was very steep and winding. But it turned out it was great fun, the road was dry and it wasn’t too windy so we allowed ourselves to go quite fast (although still constantly braking!), shouting out encouragement to everyone coming up the mountain in outr limited French – “tres bien! bravo! Allez! Fantastique! Bonjour!”
We met up with Gran and Grandad back at Chalet Reynard for lunch. We were quite euphoric and couldn’t stop smiling! The atmosphere was incredible, the place was filled with cyclists who had just reached the summit. On top of that, the food was fantastic – I had a massive plate of truffle ravioli and a few small glasses of rosé (I’d really recommend a post-summit lunch at Chalet Reynard) and then Jilli and I set off for the rest of the descent, 30 minutes of soaring down between the trees and the open fields of the foothills of Mont Ventoux.
There is a lovely little cycle shop in Bedoin so we stopped there to look for some souvenirs and were thoroughly treated by Gran…. Jilli got a white and blue Ventoux jersey and I got the most fantastic pair of bib shorts. Long in the leg and extremely padded – I can’t wait to go cycling again so I can wear them!
It was a fantastic day from start to finish, I’m so glad I did it and that I went up with my sister. I’m also really glad that we stopped at Chalet Reynard as it broke it up a bit and meant that my legs were fresher for the approach to the summit. Stopping and taking a while also meant that we were able to make a whole day of it, an experience, and it meant I really enjoyed it. I’d love to do it again, it’s a brilliant experience.
I’ll finish with a little quote I found on the Vicious Cycle Blog which in turn was taken from a book called Need for the Bike by Paul Fournel:
Ventoux is … the greatest revelation of yourself. It simply feeds back your fatigue and fear. It has total knowledge of the shape you’re in, your capacity for cycling happiness, and for happiness in general. It’s yourself you’re climbing. If you don’t want to know, stay at the bottom.
This was so true! Ventoux knew I was in good but not incredible shape, but it showed me that I had great capacity for both cycling happiness and general happiness 😀
(p.s. Juneathon Day 7 – open water swimming in a beautiful lake near Senas, Provence)