I have always been fascinated by mountains. Almost a full row of my bookshelf is dedicated to books on Everest and other alpine peaks. Summiting a high mountain was the stuff of my dreams, but one experience of snow camping was enough to make me aware that my physiology was not compatible with all that white stuff. When my fingers & toes thawed out about five days later I decided that there was no chance I would survive on any high altitude climbs.
So what about riding up hills?
Cycle touring fostered my love of climbing. I discovered that, with the right gearing, any incline was possible, even on a bike loaded with camping gear, clothes, food and water.
Jump a few years. Heavy steel frame replaced with paper-thin carbon, the panniers stowed in the loft – a whole new world of climbing beckons. 2013 gave me a taste of big hill racing at the UWCT final in Trento and the 3 Peaks Challenge in April this year saw me ride up Hotham, Australia’s only HC peak. What next??
In the cycling world, only a few mountains have attained the iconic status of Mont Ventoux. More words have been written about this climb than just about any other bicycle route in the world. Scribes far more eloquent than me have described Mercx’s triumphant struggle, the awful last ride of Tom Simpson and the 2000 Pantani / Armstrong duel. It is a mountain that is both majestic and brutal. Howling winds near the summit can destroy even the bravest of souls. Its moon-like upper landscape adds a certain mystique to its character. Standing at the base on a beautiful clear day, I knew I was about to embark on one of the world’s classic climbs.
We commenced our day at Bouson de Romaine. 25 km, including one small pass, took us to the small village of Bèdoin, the start of the most famous of the three routes up the mountain – a 22 km ascent with a gain of 1,560m at an average gradient of 7%. The ride to Bèdoin included one small pass so there was no complaints about not being warmed up prior to the climb.
The ascent can be divided into three stages, split by the trees. The first few kilometres through farming land came at a gentle 5% but this was still enough to spread our group out. This was a ride where it was really important to climb at one’s own pace, no prizes for chasing a stronger rider then blowing up ½ way up the mountain.
The border between the farmland and the forest became closer and closer. It wasn’t too long before, with a sense of trepidation, I followed the road around a left hand bend and saw a path through the trees that seemed to go straight up. This humbling stretch delivers an aching, unrelenting 10 km @ 10%. ½ way through it realised I had overestimated my ability to climb this gradient for this length – I thought that a 34:27 would do me, but looked longingly at the bikes with triple chain rings or dinner plates on their rear wheel. No choice left but to grind and sweat.
It was, I was told, a relatively quiet day but there were still hundreds of riders on the road. Many nationalities were represented. There was the occasional hello but for the most part people rode silently, concentrating on nothing but channelling energy through to the pedals. The trees hid the summit for most of the forested portion but an occasional corner offered the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the famous tower, a scarily long distance away.
Eventually the trees thinned and the gradient eased.
Vegetation originally covered the mountain right up to the summit until Napoleon decided that the particular species growing on the highest slopes was just right for his warships. The removal of the trees left the soil exposed to the gale force winds that the mistral offers the mountain. The soil was stripped away, leaving the rocks exposed. Nothing has grown since. It is an eerie, forbidding, mystical place..
Heat bouncing off the rocks at the height of summer can make the ride even more challenging but, fortunately for us, the weather was exceptionally kind when we climbed, high 20’s at the base, low teens at the summit, with a cool breeze. Despite the favourable conditions I struggled through the last 6 km. At one stage I felt a bit light headed and my peripheral vision got a little hazy. The later symptom I have had a few times when I am really pushing myself so I eased off a fraction and it went away. My heart rate monitor malfunctioned near the start of the climb so don’t know what my true suffer score was. To give you an indication of the difficulty, though, Strava gave Jerry a 259, trumped by another member of our party who scored 348 (with 100 equalling 1 hour at maximum effort).
I stopped briefly one kilometre from the summit to pay my respects to Simpson. It was not even lunchtime but there was already a large assortment of rocks, bidons and energy bars at the foot of his memorial, which is, apparently, cleared daily by the officials. I added my offering, a small stone carried up from the low slopes, and paused briefly to reflect on how a combination of drugs and passion tragically destroyed a young man who was pursuing the sport he loved. My legs felt like jelly when I hopped back on the bike but I do not regret the decision to stop.
The thin air at altitude made the summit look deceptively close but it was still a long slow struggle to the top. Finally, however, the last turn appeared and I pretended to kick as I ‘powered’ across the line. Ed from the tour group was a welcome sight as he shouted encouragement to me as I rode the last few metres.
The summit was, not surprisingly, packed with cyclists. I happily climbed off the bike and stood and savoured the views, luxuriating in the knowledge that the big challenge for the day was over – I had made it to the summit of Ventoux.
J. Ghosshein’s name is now enshrined in the history books as the winner of the Ventoux stage of the 2014 Tour de Procyclingtour. I was 5 minutes behind him with a time of 1:39, an average speed of just under 13 km/hr. I downloaded the file onto Strava and spent a few hours trying to filter out other riders so I could get on a leaderboard, but gave up – not even ranking based on age, sex, nationality, shoe size, bike colour and favourite football team was enough to get me on a front page. Very humbling indeed.
Mark Schneider arrived looking strong not long after me. All the members of our group achieved their goal of cycling to the summit. It was a great day.
We were all lead, aided and encouraged by the fantastic team from Adelaide based procyclingtours. I have carefully avoided organised tours up till now but have nothing but praise for Steve, Michelle & their indefatigable assistants Ed & Diego. They were efficient but not officious, friendly, highly organised and supportive – highly recommended.
Bouncing around blogs before I left I found a site about a group of people who ride the mountain twice, even three times in the same day. Foolishly, I sent the link to Jerard. We knew that three climbs would be impossible because we wanted to stick with Steve’s favourite route, which included a longish loop from Sault around the south that descended through the spectacular Gorges de la Nesque.
Back at Bèdoin, however, we had to decide if we would tackle a 2nd ascent from Malaucène. Steve had spent all day quietly and patiently listening, offering very sage advice on the pros (there were a couple) & cons (there were many) of back to back attempts. I think he was pleased to witness the gradual fading of our enthusiasm & bravado. The decision not to do the climb again was the right one but it still really hurt me to turn left at Malaucene and head back to our hotel. In order to get rid of the frustration caused by actually deciding to do something sensible, I got out of the saddle and tried to ‘hammer’ the last small pass of the day. Looking now at my power on that climb I realise how tired I really was. I am confident that I still could have made it to the summit a second time but am equally sure that I would have been completely wiped out the next day – another epic ride that incorporated a 45km ascent to the Col Agnel, one of the highest passes in the Alps. As it was I really struggled up that incline – I am sure I would have ended up as a miserable passenger in the bus if I had climbed Ventoux twice. Maybe next time.
I didn’t conquer Mont Ventoux. To me, conquering something implies superiority, power, greatness, and these are qualities that I do not possess. Nor did I tame her – that suggests that I was in control, but I know I was only able to reach the summit due to her kind disposition on the day. What I can say, however, is that I have had the privilege of paying due homage to the Giant of Provence. And, in return, she was graceful enough to give me one of the greatest days cycling in my life.