“You see this big man? Would you believe that he can actually ride over big mountains?”
These words were ringing in my ears for a long time. They were spoken by a close friend of mine whilst talking to other beer swilling pot bellied people at the local beer festival. Words that were not uttered as an insult, quite the opposite in fact, they were spoken with admiration and were intended as a compliment.
The truth of the matter is that I am a big man, I weigh a metric tonne but I really like big mountains. I had somehow cycled the major Pyrenean climbs before – Tourmalet, Aubisque, Marie Blanque, Perysourde to name but a few, and we were now off to the Alps to attempt Gallibier, Alpe d’Heuz, Mont du Chat and a few others. But these mountains had other ideas.
The problem with the Alps, even in the summer, is the weather. On our second day of climbing we descended the fearsome Col de la Columbier and it wasn’t quite the fun we had paid up for – it was cold, it was extremely wet and on hard narrow tyres is was also dangerous.
The weather worsened. It was grey, nothing was visible and the rain was getting harder. In the evening we went for a steak and a beer and had a good chat about what we had planned to do the following day. Our original plan was a 5,800 vertical metres climb, stretched out over 180 km and it just didn’t seem fun or even feasible any more.
As the beer went down someone mentioned with a slight sigh “if only we were in the South of France and not the Alps”. All nine of us went silent for a bit and one by one we all started calculating the drive to Ventoux on our smartphones. But this would push our driving this weekend over 2,000 miles and we were already tired. Then we saw the forecast for the South of France the next day, 30 degrees and absolute blue skies, very different to the Alps that day – so we left our beer glasses half full and quickly retired to our accommodation – this was actually going to happen!
At 4.30am the next morning, we abandoned our original plans, left the Alps and drove to Mont Ventoux, “The Giant of Provence”.
Ignorance is sometimes bliss. Ventoux is only 1910m high – way less than half the height we were planning to do and certainly not even a pimple compared to the Alps. The climb is also only 22 km long, far less than our previous plans. So we had driven this far for just 22 km. The problem though is just that, you only have a short distance to climb that far.
The first few kilometers are very gentle and if you climb most of the 1910m over the remaining 16 km it is therefore unthinkably steep. On the flat I generally cycle around 35 km/hr but these mere 22 km were going to take me 3 hours to conquer, drinking 4 litres (7 pints) of water to achieve that in 30 degree heat (we work all these things out beforehand).
We started out from Carpentras to get a 15km warm up into the muscles and expel the pain from our previous days. We got lost and quickly the group split apart. I was left with my friend Adam and we hadn’t downloaded the maps to our Garmins for this area as we weren’t planning to come here – we ended up heading straight for the mountain, crossing a vineyard track being chased by terrifying hungry dogs.
My power output to get away from these dogs exceeded 1000 watts if anyone needs proof of how frightening they were. After stopping for yet more water and coffee in Bedoin we made our way through the blazing hot crowded market to the start of the climb – already our skin was burning in the sun and we were breathless. I let Adam go ahead, he is tiny by comparison to me and I wanted to climb at my own speed. Ventoux loomed above us, looking more daunting now.
Climbing Mont Ventoux
After a gentle 3% gradient there is a hairpin as you enter the forest – from here to the 1400m point it ramps up to an average of 10% with no rest bite. At this point you are sweating out about a litre of water every 30 minutes, in spite of any tree cover. This was clearly the hardest climb I had done, and it is slow – my speed was about 6 kph – about normal walking speed.
Had I got off and walked, I would have been doing about 2 kph and not made it. Fit young men with £10,000 bicycles were overtaking me, but even they were so slow that you got to chat to them and know a bit about them before they disappeared ahead. It was like a big bike race with hundreds of riders, all happening in very slow motion. I saw a man try to climb using a mountain bike – a brave, if not unsuccessful, decision. He collapsed into a heap in the forest and a family in a car came to his rescue – he must have been taken back down.
I saw a couple walking a tandem down – having brought it along they quickly realised that neither the ascent nor descent was possible on a tandem and were cautiously trying to get it back down the mountain.
Lance Armstrong climbed this mountain in 2002 at 22 kph, albeit possibly on a heady mixture of unauthorised and brightly coloured accessories. I swear these guys aren’t human. Even the fastest cyclist today passed me at no more than 10 kph.
The entertainment was provided by those descending. The speed is petrifying – 100 kph is not an unusual reading for this descent. You can smell the brakes on the cars as they come down, and descending cars are overtaken by the bicycles with a bizarre difference in speed. An accident whilst descending is unthinkable, you probably wouldn’t even know it had happened.
There is one point where the road is quite narrow and winding in the forest, it is totally silent, you are trying not to zig-zag and suddenly another rider screams the other way at less than 2 ft distance, probably over 80 kph with no warning or approach noise whatsoever.
I got to a hairpin at 1000m. I knew the tree line was about 1400m and that the wind would then offer a cooler atmosphere, but for now it was still about 30 degrees. I sat under a tree for 10 minutes and watched other people. Those ascending you got to recognise every feature on their pained faces, those descending were so fast you couldn’t even tell the gender as they flashed past in a streak of colour.
After a long overdue Facebook update I continued, feeling better for the rest, but still unable to crack about 6 kph. A car pulled over and kindly refilled my water bidons – this was very welcome as I now had enough water to get me to the tree line, where Chalet Reynard would be. I actually got there fairly quickly, parked my bike and grabbed an ice cold coke. After a long rest I decided to plod on, but with 3 days of mountain climbs already in my legs and a headwind this was now hard work – I had just 5 km to go (3 miles) – a distance I usually cover in 8 minutes of flat cycling and only 4 minutes on the descents, but for now I had to put most of the next part of the afternoon aside for.
On this last, exposed stretch you are rewarded with an amazing view. I took a photo and it looked as though an aeroplane wing should be in it somewhere – you could see the Mediterranean, the Cevennes, and most of Provence. The temperature cooled to about 14 degrees and the wind started blowing erratically. I checked my smartphone app and my friends were just leaving the summit, now 3 km ahead.
Within only 3 minutes Adam, shot past me the other way perched on his crossbar. Then the others came past but Jon spotted me in time and managed to brake to a halt (somehow) and ride back up the last bit with me. We stopped at the Tom Simpson memorial to have a quick photograph – Tom Simpson died here, clipped into his pedals, on the 1967 Tour de France. I now know why.
When you can see your heart beating through your cycle jacket you know it is working rather hard. We reached the top and I just sat there, shaking my head from side to side, wondering, Why? Why, I had done this. It felt special. I thanked Jon and bought a small bag of strawberry tarts to munch as I watched other riders arrive, some actually crying, some with faces like zombies, some in agonising cramp – this was a strange place to be.
Descending Mont Ventoux
It got cold and it was time to descend. Jon phoned the others who were at a bar down in Bedoin, they were very hot and amazingly we would be sitting there with them in 25 minutes time, so they ordered our beers – 25 minutes to undo a whole day’s work of hard climbing! That’s cycling for you. I took one last look at the view, and nervously set off. A rider needs to concentrate for this bit, it gets kinda fast.
Immediately I hit a ridiculously high speed and got blown sideways – I braked and corrected my line, allowing Jon to vanish ahead of me. I was braking very hard into each corner – you really have to trust your own bike maintenance at this point. My hands started hurting from the braking and my face was freezing.
We passed Chalet Reynard (where I stopped hours earlier) in just 4 minutes. Plunging down into the forest section is quite something – you see people struggling up but all you can think about is steering and braking – it pays to be early on the brakes and graceful in your lines through the corners. On the straight sections you are touching bizarre speeds and it is very difficult to keep the speed down without the risk of losing control under braking.
On each bend you have to assume the worst on the exit – the braking is savage – anyone who has done one of these descents will tell you the braking is what they will remember most.
After this rollercoaster ride I reached the bottom and returned to Bedoin – shaken, stirred and dishevelled. I was standing on a mid summers day in sweltering Bedoin wearing a tight winter cycling jacket! Whilst removing this jacket I could smell burning rubber – my brake rims had heated so much with my soft compound brakes that the tyres were starting to soften onto the rims. This doesn’t happen back in Oxfordshire.
After the small beer we raced back to Carpentras on one of France’s smoothest and straightest roads, very soothing from what had just been. It was to be our last bit of cycling in France this year and so using full power wasn’t a problem and a race naturally broke out between us all – I am quite strong in these circumstances. In fact I broke my bottom bracket here but I just didn’t care any more – I just kept racing the others back to the cars in Carpentras.
We were about to drive back up into the Alps, staying near Mont Blanc – a mountain three times the height of the one we were leaving behind – but just today, Ventoux looked far more impressive than any other peak I have seen and I have a lot of respect for that mountain.
I may be nearly three times slower than a professional Tour rider getting up there, but I have had a taste of the hardest thing they ever have to conquer in their sport, and I even have the Ventoux keyring to prove it.
Written by Hedley Thorne, July 2014.