Mont Ventoux is a place with iconic status but one about which I knew little about until just a few months ago. Scouting around for interesting cycling-related things to do whilst crossing southern France, I simply noted on the map that Mont Ventoux was actually in the very south of France and then made the connection. To British cycling enthusiasts it is probably best known as the place where Tommy Simpson met his demise in the 1967 Tour de France at the age of 29 just one kilometre from the summit. It was a nice coincidence that earlier this year I had met Nicolas (see previous post) who was planning to be camping in the area of Mont Ventoux during the period of my passage across the south of France. We arranged to attempt the climb together…
Nicolas was on his mountain bike & I was cycling Reggie of course but as I was staying with Nicolas and his family on a campsite in nearby Villes-sur-Auzon the was no need to take all the panniers and equipment with me so it was a very slimline and, more importantly, light bike that I was able to use. We knew the trip to the top would take about three hours from the campsite so there was no urgency to set off at the crack of dawn. We also knew that it was pointless trying to avoid the heat of midday as at 1,909m it wouldn’t be that warm anyway. We left the campsite just after 10am and for the first ten or so kilometres to the foot of the mountain it was a steady uphill cycle. Nothing too taxing. Then, all of a sudden we started climbing more substantially and a sign by the road informed us that we were 18km from the summit. Colourful markings on the road also indicated that we we now following the tyre tracks of the Tour de France that had passed this way only a few weeks previously. On that occasion, Froome had all but sprinted to the top leaving the peloton in his wake and leaving many suspicious as to how he was able to complete such a cycling feat in well under 60 minutes. My own opinion is that he did it clean but trying to convince the sceptical French that he did it without any help is another matter altogether. It has to be said that these sceptical French are the same ones who doubted the natural abilities of Lance Armstrong from the very start.
My only performance enhancing drug had been the instant coffee & Nutella that I had consumed for breakfast and as far as I know neither of these are on a list of banned substances. They were, however, soon burnt up as the climb continued through the beautiful woods that blanket the lower parts of the Mont. Unlike most French roads that go from the bottom of a mountain to the top, the road up Mont Ventoux doesn’t continually switch backwards and forwards as it climbs. There are hairpins but what makes this climb such a challenge is the sheer relentlessness of the steep road. It never stops climbing. There are no points in those 18km where you can relax for a minute or so and catch your breath. But I was determined not to stop as I wanted to be able to say that I had ridden all the way to the summit without once putting my feet on the floor. Upwards and onwards the road went on and on with a gradient fluctuating between around 7% and 13%. Nicolas was my paceman. He was also the man with the energy bars and every so often he would reach into his bag for a bar at which point I would somehow find a little more energy to catch him up and be fed.
About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, the trees started to thin out and then they disappeared altogether. On a hot windless day this is where the torture of the climb starts but we were climbing on what was a cooler day with an increasingly strong wind. The direct heat from the sun was much welcome. The bare mountain also allowed us to see the summit although for us it was shrouded in cloud. It was however good to have something upon which to focus and the climb continued, pedal stroke after pedal stroke.
We were not alone on our quest up the mountain, far from it. Each day hundreds, perhaps even thousands of cyclists attempt the climb. Most make it to the top although not at top speed. We were certainly passed by many cyclists but we also did a little bit of overtaking ourselves. Nearer the top of the climb, some had given up but were determined to make it to the summit and were pushing their bikes. It struck me that this was probably more hard work than actually cycling but I refrained from pointing this out to any of the pushers.
Eventually after 18 km of continuous steep climbing the summit and its large television transmitter that can be seen for miles around we within touching distance. As with all such places, the summit was crowded with those who had earned the right to be up there celebrating (the cyclists and perhaps some walkers) and those who had cheated (the drivers and motorcyclists). With a feeling of great pleasure and satisfaction I unclipped my feet from the SPDs and placed my feet on the floor for the first time since leaving the campsite some three hours earlier. We had done it.
A celebratory photo at the top next to the sign and a quick snack from the obligatory souvenir shop and sausage stall followed but it was cold. Very cold. And very windy so it was only a brief stay upon the summit of Provence before we headed back down the hill and returned to the warmth of the valley for.