It’s taken me a few days since actually riding this leg of the journey to actually try and put it down in words what it was like. This was basically the culmination of months of training rides and planning and now the day was finally upon me. We were joined on Saturday night in Lyon by a new wave of arrivals undertaking a week of riding that would start with Mont Ventoux and finish on the Champs Elysees in Paris via the Alps. This meant that our numbers on the road would swell to about 90 strong for the Ventoux stage after which around 20 riders, myself included, would be departing.
The chat on Saturday night was dominated by a number of concerns. Firstly, that today had already been pretty tough with some hard climbing right at the finish presenting a unique ‘sting in the tail’ on a ride of over 190km which also saw us riding in the hottest temperatures so far – probably close to 30 degrees in Lyon by the time we finished. The main concern though was simply one of time. This was a very long stage – the longest of this years Tour – at 242km (plus 20km back down the slopes of Ventoux to the hotel). Climbing Ventoux would require something close to 3 hours and so it wasn’t unreasonable to worry about getting it all done. The organisers, and Phil our guide in particular, went a long way to putting everyones mind at rest on this point. After dinner he broke the stage down into it’s constituent parts punctuated by feed stations with a cut off time attached to each feed station. if you weren’t at Ventoux by 7:00 pm then you’d have to come back the next day (a rest day) for a crack at it. But in order to achieve that cut off time you only needed to average around 20 kmh for the rest of the ride which is actually quite a conservative pace. He also reminded everyone that there was no incentive to race to Ventoux since if you were climbing it before 4pm the temperatures would be severe and unpleasant. Finally, he tried to calm our nerves about the climb itself. Describing Ventoux as a ‘magical and mystical place’ it is his favourite climb anywhere in the world. The fact that it was over 20km of climbing at an average gradient of 8% was somewhat glossed over!
So nerves were calmer by the time we finally turned in for the night although sleep didn’t come all that easily as we ‘slept’ in tiny rooms with tiny beds wedged together, high temperatures and no air-con. Every time I woke up I couldn’t help but think about the day that lay ahead and that was usually enough to keep me awake a bit longer. At 5:45am the alarm formally got proceedings underway and after breakfast and a coach transfer we disembarked at Givors ready for a 7am start.
It’s tempting to ignore the first part of the day and to say that today was all about the climb up Ventoux but it really wasn’t the case. Today was a day of numerous firsts. The longest distance I’ve ever ridden, the largest daily vertical i’ve ever ridden up, the highest temperatures I’ve ever ridden in and so on and so on. But suffice to say that it was a magical day to be riding a bicycle through France. 220km to the base of Ventoux with no less than 5 feed stations to get you there (the 5th at Bedouin by Ventoux). It was hot but mercifully, most of the categorised climbing was taken care of during the earlier part of the ride and after a couple of days riding into fitness they were dispatched with fairly easily. If nothing else, this trip has re-calibrated my views on what constitutes a climb. Box Hill will never seem the same again! Beyond these hills the riding was broadly flat through some very picturesque countryside and the name of the game was really all about conserving energy and keeping cool. As lunchtime rolled around the latter consideration was becoming harder but I had ‘prepared’ by buying a cycling cap which I could wear under my helmet backwards (protecting my neck … a bit) and keep wet whenever we reached a feed stop. This was pretty effective and combined with constant hydration I was able to stay reasonably comfortable despite temperatures in the low 30’s celsius. The only scare came when I managed to drop a water bottle on a main road whilst trying to swap them over (it’s easier to drink from the one in the front cage) and it was run over by a car. One bottle between feed stations wasn’t going to be enough but fortunately the physic staff at the next stop were able to donate a bottle from their van to my cause which was quite possibly the difference between success and failure.
So as the rolling wheat fields gave way to the gorges, cliffs and lavender of Provence, it was early afternoon when we caught our first glimpse of Mont Ventoux through the trees. Still some way off in the distance and towering above us (despite climbing to our vantage point) it was a timely reminder that the work of the last few months was about to reach its climax. By the time I rolled in alone to the final feed station in Bedoin, it was around a quarter to 5 in the afternoon and there were a number of other riders resting in the shade before taking on the last ascent. Personally I was more inclined to just get on with it since a) I didn’t really want to start stiffening up, b) I find climbing quite a solitary pastime with little to be gained on this sort of climb from riding in a group where it’s about finding a pace you can cope with and trying to stick with it and finally c) I was on a bit of a schedule to get to Cabrieres D’Avignon in Luberon for dinner with friends! So after a few drinks and cakes to top up the batteries I crossed my name off the rider list (an action that had to be undertaken at every feed stop and which had been assigned the verb ‘to whack’ … leading to predictable schoolboy humour along the lines of ‘has everyone whacked off before leaving?’, ‘can you whack me off please?’ etc etc) and set off in the early evening sunlight.
The lower slopes of the mountain are relatively soft and beguiling. You realise of course that it won’t stay like this but you can’t help but be sucked in by the thought that perhaps it really won’t be so bad after all as you slip into a slow and steady rhythm. After a few kilometres of this you leave the farms and fields behind you and enter the lower slopes of the forest and only here do you really understand what it is that you are taking on. The climb up Ventoux is different to other climbs in that it doesn’t snake up the mountainside like an alpine pass with hairpins and the odd flat section. Instead it seems to just point straight up the hill with very little in the way of hairpins to distract your vision or challenge your mind ‘just make it to the next corner and then we’ll rest’. There is nothing so demoralising to your legs and lungs as seeing the entire magnitude of your challenge stretching away into the distance ahead of you and Ventoux is very much like that. The best you can do is to try and break the whole mountain up into sections. The lower slopes, the forest, Chalet Reynard and the upper slopes. Of these the forest is surely the hardest because it is some of the steepest climbing but also because you are reminded at every passing line in the road or marker stone on the side just how far you still have to go to reach your goal. I’d love to tell you how my superior mental strength had me grinding my way to the top without a break but I’m afraid the reality was quite different. Having hit the bottom of my available gears even before I’d made it into the forest section, my legs were looking for any excuse to stop for a few seconds of respite. With about 6km of the 22km completed I came across a young lady from our group sitting on the side of the road looking dejected. She’d just caught sight of a road marking that informed her she still had 16km to go. “It’s just too hard!” she insisted. I stopped, gave her a gel I had and told her that it was more like 14km. I’m not sure whether she believed me or not but hopefully the gel was enough to get her back on her way. Distraction over I continued on my way past the camper vans that were parking up on the sides of the road to claim their spots one week ahead of the Tour stage. Towards the end of the forest section there was some welcome relief in the shape of ‘feed station 6’ which was basically a Tour de Force van parked up knocking out drinks and cake slices. A couple of minutes there and I was back on my way with enough bravado that I waved off the offer of a push start – yes it really is that steep. The only way to get going is to ride across the road until you have your feet clipped in and then head ‘north’.
When you finally emerge from the forest you are rewarded with about 500 metres of shallow 3-4% incline which is over all too quickly but is the only chance on the entire climb for a ‘moving rest’. This half km of recovery finishes outside Chalet Reynard which marks the start of the climb across the moonscape of the upper slopes but also represents a point (as any account of riding Ventoux will tell you, and why should this one be any different) where you have broken the back of the climb. The worst is behind you. What those other descriptions tend to gloss over though is that although the worst is behind you, what lies ahead is still pretty bloody tough! Outside Chalet Reynard I found another member of the Tour de Force group sitting down next to his bike. His was a tale of frustration where the mind was willing but the body had basically reached the end of its tether. Out of gels I couldn’t offer anything other than advice which was simply to say ‘Don’t hang around too long – you’ll get stiff’ which might have been stating the bleedin’ obvious but at this point I was fresh out of inspiration beyond standing on one leg after another. I tried to take a couple of photos of the slopes but the photos always seem to flatten the actual steepness. However I did come across this photo of Chris Froome winning the stage last weekend which gives a fair impression. This was taken just on the final bend before the summit.
As you ride up the upper slopes you are at least finally at a point where you can count down the kilometres. As I passed 3km to go it dawned on me that, no matter what happened now, I was going to get to the top and this realisation gave me a fresh burst of energy that pushed me on to the observatory that sits atop of the ‘Giant of Provence’. The temperature by now had dipped as the sun disappeared behind afternoon storm clouds and the wind freshened with the approach of a storm.
At the summit I was able to collect a jacket from a waiting van, pose for a couple of summit pictures and then after about 10 minutes rest, start the glorious descent back to the valley floor. 20km without having to turn a peddle was almost (almost) worth the effort of the previous 2 hours.
And that was it …. suddenly the whole effort was over and, thanks to my many sponsors, a great deal of money raised for a very good cause. All that remained was for me to pass my bike to the mechanics for the trip home, shower and change and jump into a taxi to meet up with a very supportive family staying with friends in Provence. The usual Strava stats & map can be found here
. There are two links on this occasion because I wasn’t sure if my battery would last. As it was it died just as I reached the summit and I recorded the climb and descent
as a separate ride on another phone.