This weekend, the Tour de France will once again climb Mount Ventoux, one of its more famous climbs. Once upon a time, I climbed the mountain as well and I wrote the following about my experience. This is the first of three installments.
A few years ago, I was leading a tour in Provence and five of the clients (all from Boulder, CO) wanted to climb Mount Ventoux. For those of you not familiar, Mount Ventoux is not just any mountain. Although technically a part of the Alps mountain chain, it stands alone, towering over the region. The lower part of the mountain is densely wooded, but the top third is devoid of any vegetation and is comprised of broken up limestone rock, which many call a “lunar surface”. There is also the wind: winds of up to 200 miles an hour have been recorded near the top. It is a crazy climb so of course I wanted to do it.
The mountain is not directly on the Provence route that the company runs, so we had rented a car and a van to transport us with our bikes to the base of the mountain. After some minor details, we arrived in Bédoin, the town that marks the start of the southern climb; there are three ways to get to the summit, but the southern route is generally accepted to be the most difficult and is the route almost always taken in the Tour de France and le Dauphiné (a shorter race that precedes the Tour by several weeks and often covers some of the same climbs as the Tour).
We got unloaded and ready to go, starting off a few miles from the base of the climb around 11:30. My internal clock is rather firmly synchronized with the three daily meals so at just 30 minutes prior to noon, my stomach was preparing itself for its regular infusion. It was last sated around 8:30 with the French breakfast standard of croissants, bread, and coffee (although I have never had a cup of coffee in my life, this morning I actually contemplated breaking the lifelong ban on java, but figured I had no way of knowing what craziness would ensue and declined once more). I guess deep down, I assumed this was a “typical” ride on one of my trips where eating was far more emphasized than riding, and we would be stopping at a cute little restaurant for some fortification before ascending the beast.
I remember rolling through town picking out the cafés and restaurants, trying to determine which might be the best combination of nourishment and house rosé (we were in Provence after all). I quickly realized that there was no collective intention to stop, since we breezed through town as our own miniature peloton and the only head that was turning looking for food was my own. The others were singularly focused on one thing.
I should have realized this much sooner back in the parking lot when they were all gearing up with boatloads of Powerbars, Wonder Gels, Red Bull, EPO, blood transfusions, etc. For some reason, perhaps my fatal flaw of being reasonable, I assumed we would stop and get something to eat. Instead, we kept plugging along. I had plenty of water, but nothing else. I could have, should have stopped, but my other fatal flaw (can one have two fatal flaws?) of being an arrogant, competitive jack rabbit took over and I just kept riding.
Ultimately, I figured I would be OK since I was planning on an 80-90 minute assent. Iban Mayo (a former professional doper rider) had done it in 55 minutes and change (which I think was the record), so I added on a half an hour more. I had made all kinds of serious calculations to arrive at the 80 minute figure — I weighed my bike (which weighed slightly less than my 80 lb. dog) and figured it was heavy as crap and this would slow me down a bit. I also had not really ridden in about a month and a half, so I figured I was a little out of shape. Why these two points made me think I could finish within 30 minutes of a climbing freak, I will never know, but I seriously thought I would be OK.
Three people in our group left a little early so the three of us remaining started off after them a little behind. I went to the front for about the first 4k, pushing the pace a little (brilliant, simply brilliant). I started to think it was not all that bad, and the 80 minute mark was firmly my goal.
The first four kilometers are about 4-5%. The last 18k are not.
Starting about 2k out of town, the climb gets instantly serious. 10-12%. There is a climb I do back home that is about 10% for a little over 300 yards and it is tough. So tough that it is one of my least favorite climbs
The Ventoux has 18k or 11-12 miles worth of 10%.
Yeah, I’ll be fine.
We briefly caught up to the three who had left earlier until Mike (one of the five) and I broke from the other four once it got steeper. I was actually feeling all right, but it became abundantly clear that I had no stinking’ prayer of staying with Mike, mountain man from Boulder. Sure, he is slightly taller than me, but he is also a little bit lighter and he clearly knows how to climb. After a k or two of being nice to me, he looked back and simply said “I’ll see you at the top.”
Continue on to Mont Ventoux–Le Géant de Provence, Part Two