BIKETART DOES: LE MONT VENTOUX
At the ripe age of 14 I started road cycling with my Dad. After he was diagnosed with Cancer we started spending a lot more time together and his recovery centred around getting back into shape again. By this point, my Dad had already cycled around Jordan and a trip to India was in the works. I, on the other hand, was a young school boy – long hair flicking over my unkempt eyebrows. Brutal.
The first couple of trips I took out with my Dad and his friends entailed me hanging off the back like an amateur to a road race. Baggy joggers were tucked ungracefully into socks pulled over my old P.E trainers. The herd of MAMIL’s touted an incredible set of luscious bikes, Trek’s and nice Specialized frames. Of course, at this point I had no idea about bikes or how to ride them, often selecting weirdly fitting gear combination for monster hills around Folkestone and Canterbury. Alas, just 3-4 months later I’d (barely) completed my first 50 mile ride and, to be honest, it very nearly killed me.
Skip forward to 2010 and I had gotten my first proper road bike for my birthday. My dad had chosen a Trek 1.2 Triple in white and red for me, resplendent with proper gear shifters and a lot lighter than the hefty Stealth Halford’s bike I’d been using to try and keep up with the guys. This one had thin tyres too. With the new bike came new kit, new interests and new goals – I made it my goal to get more into cycling and really take on a hit with sport. At this point I was an avid skateboarder and had played rugby in the 2nd row (the former causing two broken elbows and one which required surgery – needless to say I stopped skateboarding in early 2014). I remember seeing my Dad come back from a week’s riding in Jordan and welling up with desire at the stories of luscious heat and beautiful scenery. Let’s do this.
That summer, my family and I took our annual outing to France. We’ve been going there for the best part of 20 years now, and we had chosen to explore the beautiful region of Provence. My dad had mentioned to me one Sunday about upping our training to take in Mont Ventoux as our first big mountain. At this point, I was training maybe 2-3 hours a week at a stretch. I was so naive to the fact of extreme cycling that I said “Yes, let’s do it!”. Only until I got home and searched the internet for a mountain did I realise what I’d let myself in for. 1,912 metres of climbing in and out of forests to an eerie finish atop the observatory. This mountain killed one of Britain’s greatest cyclists Tom Simpson after he collapsed from exhaustion due to a combination of alcohol and amphetamines. Ghastly. Truly, I still hadn’t realised what I’d let myself in for.
The day arrived quicker than I thought it would. My Dad and I had taken 3-4 hard training rides around Orange near to where we were staying and kept up the theme of climbing. At this point I didn’t have a Garmin so would rely on my Cateye computer (or something like that). The heat was pressing and close, but a couple of rides had accustomed me to what was to come. Bedoin lies at the bottom of Ventoux with numerous camping sites and bike hire shops littering the streets. We’d set off just from our car, two bottles and food in my Jersey, more scared than I think I’ve ever been in my life. Still, I didn’t say anything to Dad. I thought I’d use this as mental conditioning.
Mont Ventoux from Bedoin is proclaimed as “One of the toughest climbs in Pro Cycling”. For me, the at this point Adolescent and gangly teen, I had no clue about proper training or nutrition. The slope up to the top is an average of 7.5% over 22km. Folklore says that the sector through the forest is the hardest because of the incessant heat and array of insects which live and land on you as you struggle up the incline. Behind one another, we began our ascent. The first 4 kilometres is in the 2-3-4% range. My heart rate was up but I was relaxed. My Dad and I were discussing the scenery, careless things in life – all too unaware of what was to come. We passed the tiny village of Saint-Columbe on the D974 which leads right to the top. Fields where Lavender once grew lay vacant waiting for the next choice of crop. The wind we’d experienced in Carpentras that morning had all but dropped and there was a real sense of tranquillity. The calm before the storm.
By kilometre 6 my dad had said “I’ll see you at Chalet Renard”. Chalet Renard is positioned approximately halfway up to the Observatory and is the ski station base for the end of the forest. My legs were feeling fresh and ready as I turned the famous St Esteve bend into a bone crushing 9.7% incline. My breathing became laboured and heavy, sweat starting to drip from underneath my brow. Words were still painted on the road from previous Tours of France. “LANCE, RIJS, VAUGHTERS, WIGGO” were placed with precision. My tires were churning still and I had enough energy at this point to glance back and see my Dad, waving to me 30 yards back. Onwards.
The next 3km of Ventoux are crushingly difficult. The slope never goes below 9% and, unbeknownst to me, didn’t falter the 9% impression for over 5 km. My legs were tired now as the forest encapsulated me, old French men on deck chairs outside their camper vans. Oh how I envied them, a cold coke in hand and lashings of sun cream on their bald heads. “ALLEZ!” they shouted as mosquitoes landed on my thigh, frequent sips of my sweat satisfying them. By now I’d swallowed 3 flies, such is the animal vibe of the Ventoux. I passed old boys on retro bikes, backs wet with their woollen jerseys clinging to old skin. I was passed later on the mountain by Chris Sutton of Team Sky. My arms grabbed stiff onto the bar as a professional of the sport glided past with the grace of an elk, whereas I’d just choked on a Mars bar. Refuel.
By kilometre 13 I’d reached another crushing 10% section which went on for a whole kilometre. The road in places is so steep, so tranquil. The only interruption from the sound of your faltering lungs is the whiz of deep section carbon coming past you at 70km/h, the early risers of the day already cresting hours before me and my Dad. I spared a thought to him and cursed him for talking me into this. Battling to keep my wheel on the ground and the pace up, I pushed out of the saddle and placed my weight on the front wheel (on the steeper sections it had developed a tendency to lift off). Keep going.
After the second switchback came an the haunting glimpse of the lunar landscape. From a distance, Ventoux looks as if it’s snow capped, even in the summer. Ventoux is covered with white rock, giving a rubble and moon-esque landscape. My skin was still wet but getting colder. The ascent up to this point was close to 1,200 metres. So much of me was tempted to stop. I had no way near the fitness I should of had to be comfortable on this climb but I continued, remembered what my Dad had been through and battled to Chalet Renard. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, a line of riders taking up the slopes to the top. I swung over and filled my bottle and collapsed on a nearby chair. All but 1 of my bars had been eaten and I recall gasping for air for a good 5 minutes after I stopped. The raspy of tongues of Spanish and German riders echoed around me as the Symphony of heart beat continued in my head. “Blimey, you’re keen!” shouted an Australian rider, who later informed me had come over on a tour to do all of the big mountains. “We’re doing the ascent from Sault later too” he said, calmly. It made me feel slightly nauseous that someone would subject themselves to this kind of pain and suffering just to be able to say “I’ve done it”. 5 years on, I know that all too well.
I was re-united with my Dad after 15 or 20 minutes where we hugged and talked about the climb so far. From Chalet Renard it’s about 6.5km to the top. It was cold and a slight wind had taken it’s toll on some of the climbers from the Sault side, white and yellow jackets becoming ever more apparent in the stream of riders cresting over that last rise to the Cafe. We stepped inside the Cafe to the sight of Ventoux mugs, T shirts and Hoodies – Dad suggested we get a can of coke. Of course, this being the only shop on Ventoux, we were charged 4 euros for one 33ml coke. Dad wasn’t too unhappy because, to be honest, we needed them.
Setting off from Chalet Renard gives an impression of “we’re almost there”. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as ski poles line your ascent and the first corner gives an eerie glimpse of what’s to come. You see a vast universe of cyclists riding up and struggling, landscapes and rocks jutting out into the air and fields looking so tiny from this dizzying height. My lungs were burning, my legs were fatigued and tight. Cramp. A stretch out and a drink released my calf. I panicked a little bit as I realised we were only just leaving Chalet Renard and the cramp would only be a sign of things to come.
At Kilometre 17 and 18 you have a curve and bend into the mountain. I rode round and them and tucked my glasses into my Jersey, the lenses useless with sweat. A Dutch woman was pedalling squares up the ramps to a natural spring as her companion muttered words of encouragement and pushed her on. Each time you corner Ventoux, you get a glimpse of the Observatory – it looks so close. The soul-crushing truth is that each corner doesn’t seem to bring you closer. I looked down at my computer to make sure I was still rolling, my legs battered and torn from the efforts. I was breathing heavy, air not taking consequence in my lungs- this truly was not an effort of training. This, by all means, was an effort of survival. Anyone can train for the first 10km of a climb. It’s the final ramps which hurt the most, ironically. Everyone says the cliché of “the last kilometres are the hardest”. I tried my best to not collapse on the side of the road, my heart pumping out of my chest. It was all I could do to pull my bars away and straight to stop me from falling. I’d just rode up to the Tom Simpson memorial, a sombre stone with thousands of Bidons and Jerseys surrounding it. It kind of hits home what you’re doing at this point – it’s a challenge, but it should never end in death.
The final Kilometre came, and with my adrenaline rush came double the pain in my legs. My breathing now was truly the most laboured it had ever been. Blue skies pierced the surface of my eyes, sweat dripping off my nose and onto the bars. The lunar landscape was never giving up, the Kilometre to go marker was behind me now. What was my time going to be? How long will it take to crest now? Can I?
The final corner to the observatory kills you. I’ve never done a harder Kilometre in my life. Even the last ramp must be up to 14%. I pushed on and drained the final ounce of Glycogen out of myself to get up. I did, I rolled and ended at the Ventoux summit sign. A couple of the other riders clapped and I thanked them, collapsing on my saddle with arms on my head. I’d done it. The Geant de Provence. Surprisingly, vendors were selling fruit and a couple of people were in normal clothes visiting the church memorial on the summit. Stickers were lined on the floor and notice boards, thousands of brands represented. I looked at my computer. 2 hours and 2 minutes.
When my Dad did turn up, we hugged and spoke about the climb. The now beautiful clouds weren’t cursing me, they were beneath us. We posed for photos and eventually refuelled to get back down the mountain. Melons, sweets and other fancies were sold by the Businessman on Ventoux, definitely aiming for a niche market. We just took on gels and went on our way.
The Ventoux, although incredibly difficult, is one of my favourite climbs. The atmosphere, the history, the scenery – I actually went on to do it twice, the next year in 2011 from Sault. The climb is never as hard as you expect it – it’s 5 times harder. In the last couple of months I’ve been building up to a week in the Pyrenees to do the Tourmalet (again), the Hautacam, Peyresourde and Gavarnie. My training has increased to 13-14 hours a week and I managed a solo 100 last Tuesday. Chris Froome went on to win here, beating Nairo Quintana and averaging over 21km/h on the climb. It was a turning point in British cycling, and for me, my ascent of Ventoux was the turning point in my cycling career. Whenever I’m out and riding, doing the longer climbs and the mountains, I always think – Yeah, I’m tired, but I’m not Ventoux tired.