I’ve never thought of myself as much of a giant-slayer, but thanks to the PEZ, I got the chance to see what I could do against the beast that is Mont Ventoux while following the Dauphine Libere with Vйlo Sport Vacations.
This is a mountain that has inspired and terrorized bike racers for years. It sent men crazy and finished careers – Ferdi Kubler lost the plot in a fearsomely hot Tour de France stage and never raced again. It finished lives – Tommy Simpson passed away near the top in 1967.
I’d been based in the village of Malaucenи, just a few short kilometres from Bedoin which marks the ‘official’ start of the Mont Ventoux climb – 22 kms of agony, constant climbing gradients and the best or worst the weather can throw at you.
I asked anyone I met for advice and tips, but the only answer that stuck with me was when I made the mistake of asking the author James Startt how to handle Ventoux. James had been up plenty times, and he just started laughing. Oh shit.
My ideal preparation consisted of crashing out in the flat of Mike and Jean-Luc from Vйlo Sport Vacations the night before as I’d locked myself out of my room. Ever the professional journo, I barely pulled myself together in time to roll out the next morning. A couple of croissants and some juice – more than enough for the Ventoux I thought!
It was bright, sunny and warm by 8 am, so I reckoned I’d just go at my own mellow pace – more than likely, it would be hotter than hell later on. Mike guided us all to the base of the climb for a photo op, then we set off to make our own way up.
Here’s Gord – the poor sod – he’s no idea what he’s in for…
The first 4 or 5 kms are just about the worst as you know there’s a long way to go, but they’re deceptively easy. You can see the famous summit station miles above in the distance. Just how hard do you push it? I kept it steady until we rolled up into the famous Ventoux tree line.
Things start to get mega-tough here. Especially on Dauphinи Libиrи TT day. Hundreds of cars and motorbikes grumbling past in first gear, belching out lovely clouds of exhaust fumes to smother every last drop of oxygen in the lungs. Then you’ve got the depression of knowing what’s ahead, and the misery of watching some middle-aged fat French guy in jeans and a sweater shoot past on a mountainbike.
It feels kind of claustrophobic in the trees, and was worse with so many people around that day. For me, it was just about getting up, so I settled into a groove and blocked out who was overtaking or falling back.
There’s a couple of really steep pitches in the trees, and a couple of nasty little hairpins. Just when you think you must be reaching somewhere significant, all you get is …. more f**kin’ trees!
The tree-lined section lasts about 12 kms, and it’s steadily uphill all the way – 4% or 5%. No false-flats or downhills to rest the legs. No easy way to get started if you stop and unclip from the pedals.
There’s Dylan. Apparently Alabama has some great training for climbs like this.
I found myself in a little group with vacation buddies Brian and Dylan Farris from Alabama, and DJ Dennison from Austin, TX. Dylan’s only 14 but he was cruising up Ventoux like it was a regular day out. We were still buried beneath the tree canopy when he calmly said: “About halfway now.”
I checked out the bike computer. He was right. “Dylan, that’s just about the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”
You can’t see where you’re aiming for the trees. Everything is hidden by a thick green blanket of leaves, so the key landmark to look for is the famous Chalet Reynard. Lying just 6 kms from the top, you know you’re going to make it when it swings into view.
If they sell beer and a plвt du jour in there, this must be heaven…
I reckon I was in the trees for about an hour, but I didn’t care about the time as long as the pedals kept turning. A bit more effort, a bit more sweat, round yet another right-hander, then the trees suddenly thinned out. The angels sing, and a shaft of sunlight picked out the Chalet Reynard sign.
My legs felt about 100 pounds lighter. I stopped to fuel up on water, snap a few pics, then off to the summit. There’s nothing but rocks and suffering from here on up. Luckily, it was still early when we headed up, so the heat wasn’t too murderous.
The world and his wife was climbing Ventoux on TT day
The problem was the wind – heading up close to 2000 metres, it really started to pick up. Round one hairpin and you got a tailwind; twist back in the other direction, and it’s straight in your face. This made me appreciate how fast Mayo went later on, as it had really started to gust when he blasted the 22 kms in a snip under 56 minutes!!
I rolled past the Vйlo Sport Vacations crew who’d set up a picnic with 800 metres to go, and I felt like a star. Steady to the top, I reckoned I had enough energy for a victory salute. Unfortunately the gendarmes had closed the line up, so I had to make do with falling onto the barrier on the finish line.
Look Ma’ – made it!
If you want to feel what real European riding is like the Ventoux is an essential ride. Even the pros reckon it’s one of the hardest climbs around. Now you just have to get over here and try it out!
Wanna ride Ventoux – of course you do!… Check out Vйlo Sport Vacations website:
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